Visiting Death Valley is like landing on another planet. A planet that is filled with extremes. Death Valley is the driest, hottest and lowest of the National Parks in the United States. However, despite its name, if you are well prepared, not only will you survive, but you will witness amazing scenery.
Located just 2 hours west of Las Vegas, Death Valley makes for a fantastic day trip. And if planned right you can see 10 incredible sites all in one day and live to tell the tale. So follow my itinerary below to discover ghost towns, sand dunes, canyons, natural arches, salt flats, badlands and more.
What to Know Before You Go
My day at Valley of Fire taught me some important lessons I was able to apply to my visit to Death Valley. Other lessons I learned as I visited the park itself. Hoping you can learn from my experience and that these tips will make your trip more enjoyable.
Tips for Your Trip:
- Best time to visit is between November and March. Avoid summer if you can. But if you go during Summer just make sure to follow all the tips below.
- Start out as early as you can to take advantage of the cooler morning hours.
- Dress appropriately. Pick clothing that will protect you from the sun. Long sleeves with SPF and a hoodie or hat. Pick materials that will wick the sweat off your body, dry quickly and cool your core temperature.
- Cell phone reception is terrible. Have a map and/or GPS instead to help you navigate.
- Radio reception is also horrible so have an alternative to keep some music going during the long drives.
- Check online or at the visitor center for any road closures. Roads to Scotty’s Castle were closed while we were there.
- There is no public transportation so you will need to join a tour or bring your own car. If you have a rental make sure to check the insurance policy. Many of the roads are unpaved and really rough. While 4WD is not necessary it will be quite bumpy at times.
- Get one of those cheap styrofoam coolers and fill it with ice. Pack lots of water, some gatorade and snacks and keep them cool in the cooler. Always carry water with you while out on hikes. And make sure you are eating. Don’t let yourself become dehydrated.
- Don’t go barefoot. You may be tempted to take your shoes off in the dunes but venomous animals live there and you don’t want to risk being bit by a scorpion or snake.
- Make sure you to top off your gas tank. Gas is not available everywhere and you do not want to be stuck in the desert without gas. And don’t be shocked by the high prices. While not as expensive as Europe, gas in Death Valley does not come cheap.
- Remember to pay your entrance fee. You can do so at the self service machines or at the Visitor Center.
The Early Bird Gets to See the Ghost Town
We left Vegas by 4:30 am and made sure to get ice for our cooler and some additional snacks and drinks. Our first stop was for a hearty breakfast in a small town right outside Death Valley. Mel’s Diner had good food and very reasonable prices. The friendly staff was efficient and the portions large. Just make sure to bring cash.
Since it was still early we decided we could make a pit stop at a small ghost town right outside Death Valley. It is called Rhyolite and back during the gold rush it was a vibrant little town. Even had 3 train lines going through it as well as newspapers, hospitals, saloons, and more. But by 1919 it was deserted. Today a few ruined buildings stand and there is a nice open air museum. It was a fun stop on the way in to Death Valley.
Spending a Day in Death Valley: Top 10 Sites to See
Death Valley is one of the Largest National Parks in the USA. With more than 3 million acres you certainly won’t be able to see it all in one day. But don’t let this discourage you from visiting as there is still much you can see if one day is all you have.
If you want to maximize your time in Death Valley then you need to plan your route carefully. Look at a map and check distances between the places you want to visit. Also remember some of the roads are dirt and gravel and extremely rough. Which will require you to drive very slow on them in order not to ruin your vehicles.
But I have taken the guess work out of it for you and come up with a route that allows you to see many of the best sites in an efficient manner and get you to Death Valley and back to Vegas all in one day.
1- Mesquite Sand Dunes
The best time to visit the Mesquite sand dunes is at sunrise as you can enjoy them mostly alone and without all the other footprints in the sand. But as this is a one day itinerary, and I am assuming you are not staying overnight in Death Valley, then you probably won’t be here for sunrise either. Thats OK, just plan to arrive as early as you can.
The dunes go out for miles and are surrounded by mountains in the distance. You can certainly see the dunes right from the parking lot but what is a trip to the desert without getting your shoes filled with sand. And please do keep your shoes on as scorpions, snakes and other critters do inhabit this place.
Then pick a direction and hike for a while. Any direction will do as there is no trail and you can’t get lost. There are no trees to obstruct your view so the parking lot will always be in sight. The only thing to keep in mind is there is no shade at all and that distances are much farther than they appear.
2- Mosaic Canyon
Not far from the Mesquite Sand Dunes is Mosaic Canyon. It is a beautiful hiking trail through narrow canyon slots that change colors. The narrowest point in the canyon is within the first half mile of the trail. The canyon walls also provide some shade during the morning hours which was an added plus. If you complete the full trail it is about 4 miles round trip and ends at a dry waterfall.
3- Furnace Creek Visitor Center
If you did not pay your entrance fee at one of the kiosks then you should pay your fee here. Also spend some time in the museum and watch the 20 minute park film. Park rangers are also available to answer questions and give directions and will let you know if any roads are closed off. This is also a great place to use the restrooms and top off on water or pick up a snack or map.
4- Devils Golf Course
The devils golf course was once a lake which covered the Valley. As climate changed and the area stoped flooding the lake dried up leaving behind mineral and salt deposits. The unusual shapes that you see today are the left over minerals that have been shaped over the years by nature and continue to grow slowly perhaps an inch every 35 years.
The rock formations are so bumpy and the shapes so unusual that back in 1934 the National Park Service stated in its guide book that “only the devil could play golf on its surface”. And this statement became the name of the place.
5- Badwater Basin
One of the most popular stops in Death Valley, Badwater Basin is a marvel to visit. It is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level.
The area floods periodically which dissolve some of the salt crystals which then reform once the water evaporates. A small pool of water can sometimes be seen close to the parking area. Because of the high concentration of salt it is undrinkable “bad water”.
The further out you walk the more untouched it looks and some areas can become hazardous. As there is but a thin layer of salt covering this mud underneath.
Arrive as early as possible to avoid the heat and the crowds. Restrooms are available.
6- Natural Bridge
The first thing to note is that the road that takes you to the parking area is horrible. Our poor SUV rental car took quite the beating here and I was happy I did not have a small sedan.
But once parked, the hike itself is easy, but there is no shade along the way. By the time we began the hike temperatures were around 117 degrees. This made what would have been an easy hike quite hard just because of the heat.
Not many people were out hiking this trail in the heat and we actually saw many signs discouraging it. We did encounter one more set of hikers who encouraged us to keep going. Once we arrived at the arch I took shelter in the little bit of shade provided by the arch itself. Rested for a few minutes, and decided to turn back. However, if you are so inclined the trail continues a bit further and dead ends at a dry waterfall.
7- Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette
One of the most unique drives in Death Valley. Artist’s Drive is a one-way, 9 mile, south to north drive. This scenic route has dips and turns weaving you through canyons and past mountains which are filled with a kaleidoscope of color.
The main Stop is Artist’s Palette which is about 5 miles in. This is where the most stunning and colorful views are. The rainbow swatches of color, created by the oxidation of metals in the ground, are quite an impressive site to see. And I highly recommend the drive and stop.
8- Zabriskie Point
Offering one of the most splendid and imposing views of the badlands, Zabriskie Point is a must on any visit to Death Valley. It is a short hike up a paved hill with impressive views in every direction.
Artist’s Palette has a multicolored view but Zabriskie’s Point is no less magical. Its multiple layers of intricately carved landscape shine in every shade of yellow, rust and gold you can imagine, especially during sunrise and sunset. It is a dessert landscape like no other and a must visit when in Death Valley.
9- Twenty Mule Team Road
Not far from Zabriskie Point and on your way to Dantes View is a 2.8 mile long winding dirt road called Twenty Mule Team Road. You will drive through a dessert landscape of badlands and canyons. It is a fun short drive and if you wish to see more up close there are several pull out where you can park your car and go for hikes.
While suitable for most vehicles keep in mind that the road is not paved and there are many sharp turns that may not be conducive to larger vehicles like campers.
10- Dantes View
Probably one of the best photographic opportunities in Death Valley. And while the morning hours provide the best light, late afternoon is also a treat.
High on top of the Black Mountains, Dantes View offers panoramic 360 degree views of Death Valley. And if you visited Badwater Basin and then make it to Dantes View you will have experienced both the lowest and highest points in Death Valley.
The road to the top is paved and steep. A total distance of about 24 miles. At over 5,500 feet the climate changes a bit. The cooler wind is a respite from the oppressing heat of the valley below. But it is the striking views of the vast lands below that are the star of the show. Views that have a way of making you feel small while still providing a sense of utter peace.
For more amazing outdoor adventures near Vegas check out this Black Canyon Kayaking Adventure and this fun Mine Town and Four Wheel Drive Adventure
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