Death Valley in a Day – Top 10 Sites to Visit

Badwater basin in Death Valley

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

Death Valley welcome sign

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

Death Valley 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.

Death Valley Ghost sculptures

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.

 Top 10 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

Death Valley - 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.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley

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.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley

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

Mosaic Trail Death Valley

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

Death Valley Furnace Creek

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

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

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”.

Salt Flats in Badwater Basin Death Valley

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

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

Artists Drive

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

Zabriskie's Point Death Valley

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

Dantes View in Death Valley

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.

Dantes View in Death Valley

Dantes View

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

 

Pin Now to Read Again Later

Death Valley top 10 sites to visit

 

Will you dare a visit to Death Valley? Would love to hear your thoughts.  Leave me a comment below or lets get social on Instagram or Facebook.

 

 

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29 Comments

  1. I’m a little sad I didn’t go visit this place when I lived in the state. I suppose a road trip should be in the plans now 🙂 Well written and thanks for the informative post.

  2. I’ve been wanting to visit Death Vally for the past 2 years and this post had all the info I have been looking for. Glad to hear you can’t get lost in the Mesquite Sand Dunes despite having no trails. I got a little lost at Alabama Hills in Northern Cali since there were no trails or signs and I started panicking. I made it out, but wish I didn’t have to go through those emotions 🙂 Bookmarking this post!

  3. Wow, Death Valley has so much to offer! I’m working as a travel consultant in the Netherlands and I have to say that we book a lot of trip to the West coast of the USA, so also a lot trips to Death Valley. However, you’ve informed me about much more the national park has to offer! Nice to read about it.

  4. This is the PERFECT bucketlist item for an outdoorsy person like me 🙂 Love the ghost town and dante’s view.. soooo much to see (And click)!

    1. Dante’s View is a bit out of the way but so worth it. Good luck planing a trip here and if you need anything let me know

  5. You have some great tips there for visiting – I hadn’t thought about not taking my shoes off, when you mentioned it I assumed it was to avoid burning your feet on the sand, but scorpions is an even better reason to keep shoes on! Badwater Basin looks like the salt flats in Bolivia, it was a lot colder there though! 🙂

  6. Looks like an amazing landscape is awaiting at every site. Great tips for first-time visitors its always important to stay hydrated in the sun especially when it reaches these temperatures. The mosaic canyon walk sounds like a great experience

    1. Summer was not ideal because of heat but crowds were less and if properly prepared it is doable. Glad you enjoyed the post

  7. Wow – I’ve never heard of this place until now, but it looks like the type of place I’d visit. I can see why it’s called ‘Death Valley’, it looks so vast and barren, but yet kinda beautiful. Thanks for the in-depth itinerary, I’m going to look into going here.

  8. I am so sad I missed visiting Death Valley when I was in America last year. This is totally in my books. You tips are awesome – had I gone in July, I would have been in the peak of summer. Good to know that Nov to Mar are the best months to go. Dantes View looks incredible – how I would love to stand here and take in the panoramic views. And being at the Mesquite sand dunes during sunrise sounds incredible – what a cool experience that would be.

  9. For some reason, I was thinking that Death Valley was a little further away from Vegas, and hadn’t thought about visiting because of it. I drive through Vegas almost every month when I go visit family. I definitely need to check this place out. Totally pinned this for the future. Although I’m not a huge hiker, I’d love to trek out to a few of these points, especially the Artist’s Palate and Dante’s View. And cool tip with the cooler and ice!

  10. Death Valley was so cool! I agree with all of your tips, especially avoiding in the summer. It gets HOT! I love your photos and advice, makes me want to visit again! Looks like you guys had so much fun.

  11. Absolutely brilliant, the topography and the surroundings are simply “out of this world”. I have always been fascinated by the “barren land” as it makes everything all the more dramatic. Thanks for the tips about places to visit and being a film enthusiast Zabriskie Point is of quite a interest.

  12. For someone like me who has never been to USA, this is an excellent virtual tour. The Ghost Town installation looks interesting. I wouldn’t miss Mosaic Canyon & Badwater Basin.

  13. I have not visited much of the USA but when I do I must visit Death Valley. It must feel strange in Badwater Basin being the lowest point in the US. You’ve took some amazing photos around the National Park.

  14. Beautiful pictures! I’m not certain I can cope out here. The sun seems like its constantly drilling it’s way on Death Valley. But you made the place seem so much fun.

  15. Absolutely loved your photos! There are so many incredibly beautiful national parks in the States. This one definitely look like another planet…

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