What is Death Valley National Park?
Death Valley National Park is known for its many superlatives:
The hottest, the driest, the lowest, the largest.
Death Valley in California is the largest national park in the lower 48 states with over 3 million acres of protected wilderness (only behind Denali in Alaska). It also holds the record for the highest temperature in the world, 134 Fahrenheit which was set in 1913.
Recently, the hottest temperature recorded in Death Valley was 130 degrees in August 2020.
In summer, this national park is popular with European travelers who stop here as part of their West Coast trip, spending at least one day in Death Valley before heading to Yosemite and San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Death Valley in winter sees a lot of North American travelers who come here to escape cold weather in their home states.
Best Time to Visit Death Valley
Death Valley weather in summer is no joke.
It’s hot and dry and temperatures can reach 130 degrees!
Even in late March and April, Death Valley temperatures can soar to 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ironically, this national park sees the most visitors during summer thanks to an influx of overseas tourists who want to experience the famous triple-digit heat!
If you are looking for more mild weather, best time to visit Death Valley is from December through February when temperatures stay around mid-60’s and low 70’s. It’s also the best time for hiking and camping in Death Valley.
Renting a car
Why is it called Death Valley?
Death Valley history is a fascinating one!
For thousands of years, Native American tribes roamed the harsh desert that is today known as the Death Valley National Park.
In mid-1800, when the California Gold Rush fueled mass migration of prospectors to the state, the first group of American-Europeans arrived in the area, as it was trying to make its way toward the coveted gold fields.
Lost in the uncharted territory, they were stuck in the valley for weeks, and eventually forced to abandon their wagons and eat some of their oxen to survive.
After the group eventually was able to find its way out, one of the women turned said, “Goodbye Death Valley!”
The moniker has stuck around ever since.
Death Valley directions
Death Valley National Park straddles the Nevada-California border, however, most of the park is in California.
If you drive to Death Valley from California, you will enter the park either from Lone Pine, Baker or Shoshone.
If you drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley, you will pass either through Pahrump, Beatty or Amargosa Valley.
Amargosa Opera House
When you get to the Death Valley Junction, you will see Amargosa Opera House.
Although you might think that it’s just a crumbling old building, Amargosa Opera houses a hotel and a cultural center where ballet performances are hosted during a specific season.
I recommend booking a stay at Amargosa Opera House and Hotel because it’s such a cool experience that you won’t get anywhere else!
PRO TIP: If you are driving to Death Valley from Nevada, fill up your car in Pahrump or Amargosa Valley because gas prices are high in Death Valley like in many other national parks in California.
Death Valley entrance fee
The Death Valley entrance fee is $35 per vehicle.
While you might be tempted to drive past the meter, you shouldn’t do it because the fees collected at the station help the park to pay for its infrastructure. You can also pay your fees at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center where you can get a paper map of Death Valley.
PRO TIP: Many of Death Valley popular spots are located far from one another. Just to give you an idea, it takes more than 40 minutes to get from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to Bad Water Basin. This is why you should spend more than just a day at Death Valley.
1. Dante's View
Driving to the highest point, Dante’s View is one of the most incredible things to do in Death Valley.
To get there, make a left turn on Furnace Creek Wash Road and continue for the next 13 miles on the road that gradually goes up a steep hill.
Dante’s View is one of the best photo spots in Death Valley that opens a panoramic view of the salt flats framed by the dark Panamint Mountains. Don’t forget to bring a jacket or sweater because windchill can be really strong here.
2. Zabriskie Point
One of the most popular stops in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point is a platform where you can see the badlands formed by erosion of the lake that was here millions of years ago.
The best times to visit this spot are the sunrise and sunset when the dramatic cliffs of the Golden Canyon glow in soft colors. A hiking trail below Zabriskie Point leads into Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon.
The history of Zabriskie Point dates back to the time when prospectors were mining borax (which was called white gold of the desert) in the area following its discovery during the California Gold Rush era.
3. Golden Canyon
Continue driving on California State Route 190 and make a left turn on Badwater Road. Your first stop will be Golden Canyon, a popular hike that takes you to Zabriskie Point through the golden-colored hills.
If you don’t want to bake in the heat, take a moderate hike from Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral that is about 3 miles.The Golden Canyon will take you up the narrow trail surrounded by the towering walls. You will have to scramble up the rocks a few times and duck under the ledges.
4. Artist's Drive and Artist's Palette
This 9-mile scenic drive is one of my favorite parts of Death Valley.
The hues of purple, green, pink and red colors throughout Artist’s Drive are caused by oxidation of metals such as iron and copper. It’s a fairly popular spot among photographers and one of the most amazing things to do in Death Valley if you want to snap a cool shot!
5. Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge Canyon is a short hike through the narrow canyon that features one of the park’s natural stone arches. Another prominent feature of the hike is a dry waterfall that was formed by rain waters flowing down the rock.
6. Badwater Basin
The lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin lies 282 feet below sea level and is located on the southern tip of the Death Valley National Park.
Take a look at the water pool and the sign at the entrance before you proceed toward the huge salt flat that stretches for 5 miles. When you walk a bit further, take a close look at the salt formations, and you will be able to see individual salt crystals in the crust on the ground.
What’s interesting is that Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states which peaks at 14,505 feet is less than 80 miles away.
7. Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Along with the visitor center, Furnace Creek also has campgrounds, a gas station, a restaurant and Furnace Creek Ranch, one of the few hotels in Death Valley.
PRO TIP: Cell phone service is VERY scarce throughout this national park. Furnace Creek is one of the few places in Death Valley where you can get a signal.
8. Harmony Borax Works
After stopping at Furnace Creek, head north on Highway 190 to Harmony Borax Works for a little lesson in history. This spot is an outdoor exhibit that shows how borax was mined here in the late 19th century through the colorful display of equipment and The Harmony Borax plant.
9. Ubehebe Crater
The drive to Ubehebe Crater is about 30 miles from the main state route that traverses through Death Valley. At 600 feet deep and half-mile wide, Ubehebe Crater is a pure wonder to gaze at! Thanks to its remote location, it’s definitely one of the least visited places in Death Valley.
You can hike around the rim of the crater or down to its bottom. But keep in mind that while the walk down might feel like a breeze, a hike back will require some effort.
10. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the most scenic spots in Death Valley, and it offers plenty of incredible patterns, curves and lines for photography. Make sure to wear your shoes, especially during summer because the sand can get really hot.
PRO TIP: If you want to visit cleaner, less-crowded sand dunes, head to the remote Eureka Dunes in the upper corner of Death Valley. To get there, you will need a 4X4 vehicle because the road that leads to this spot is very rugged.
What to pack for Death Valley trip
Since this national park has hot temperatures for at least half of the year, it’s important to pack certain items for your trip, especially if you plan to hike at Death Valley.
Here are some of the things that you should bring on your Death Valley trip:
1. A water bottle that keeps your water COLD. This is a must along with at least 2-3 gallons of water in your car.
2. A pair of good hiking shoes. That will come in handy in Death Valley’s rugged terrain.
3. Some good sunscreen. Because the sun here in no joke.
4. A hiking hat. It will protect you from the sun stroke
Stovepipe Wells is a small unincorporated community west of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. It’s also the second place besides Furnace Creek where you can buy food at Death Valley. It has a gas station, a Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel and a campground.
PRO TIP:If you are headed to Lone Pine, a town near the western entrance to Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells is your last place to get gas before you begin driving along the Death Valley Scenic Byway.
Death Valley hotels
Death Valley hotels can be expensive during summer. If you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a basic room, make your reservation at least a few months ahead of your visit.
– Death Valley Inn and RV Park – located in Beatty, Nevada, the gateway to Death Valley, this hotel offers hotel rooms and RV spots.
–The Inn at Death Valley – one of the lodging options, the Inn at Death Valley has good facilities and spacious accommodations.
– The Ranch at Death Valley – another popular hotel in Death Valley that quickly gets booked up in spring and summer.
Death Valley camping
Designated as a dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association, Death Valley is a great place for camping.
Since most the park is in the wilderness, it doesn’t have any artificial light. It is also far enough from the nearest major cities, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and has pristine dark skies which are perfect for stargazing!
However, you should always check the weather ahead of your trip.
During summer, temperatures stay well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit even at night, which makes sleeping in a tent very uncomfortable.
In addition, most Death Valley campgrounds are closed in summer because of the harsh weather conditions, and some remote campgrounds are also closed in winter because even a hot place like Death Valley can get ice and snow at high altitudes.
Death Valley campgrounds
- Furnace Creek – The most popular campground at Death Valley National Park, Furnace Creek is located near the visitor center. While it takes reservations, spots tend to fill up quickly due to its popularity.
- Texas Springs/Sunset – Also located at Furnace Creek, Texas Springs and Sunset campgrounds are first-come, first-serve and don’t take reservations.
- Stovepipe Wells – A first-come, first-serve campground, Stovepipe Wells doesn’t require a reservation. It’s open from late fall through spring and is about 30 minutes from Furnace Creek.
If you are looking for more remote campgrounds with cooler temperatures, check out Mesquite Spring, Wildrose and Mahogany Flat that are open from late spring through fall.
PRO TIP: Most national parks in the United States tend to have a higher visitation around major holidays such as the Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and Death Valley is no exception. If you have a choice, plan your trip for less busy days.
Death Valley safety precautions
Death Valley is a beautiful and enigmatic place, but it also can be harsh and unforgiving. High temperatures and burning sun combined with long distances and lack of cell phone coverage in many places require extra caution.
Spend some time studying the area and getting your supplies ready. My survival guide to Death Valley National Park will help you to stay safe on your adventure of a lifetime!
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