You can see many of the popular sites in Death Valley National Park in one day, but what about the rest of it? How do you decide where to go in a park that is 3.4 million acres with over 1,000 miles of roads, dirt and paved? (It’s roughly the same size as the state of Connecticut!) Things to consider: How much time do you have? Where are you sleeping? Does your vehicle have high clearance and 4WD? What time of year is your visit?
Where is Death Valley? It is located in eastern California, northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. To drive from Vegas to Furnace Creek, the most developed part of Death Valley, would take about 2 1/2 hours. (Los Angeles to Furnace Creek – 4 1/2 hours and Reno to Furnace Creek – 6 1/2 hours.)
While you’re planning your Death Valley adventure, make sure you know what you’re getting into. It is known for being the hottest and driest place on earth (That means you’ll need to drink a lot of water during your visit.). Death Valley is a land of extremes. For example, summer temperatures can exceed 120°F and the average rainfall is less than 2 inches, however, a summer thunderstorm could potentially cause a flash flood.
If you plan to travel off the beaten path and away from the basic services like gas stations and convenience stores, your vehicle needs to be equipped to handle whatever it is you plan to do. The roads can be extremely rough, cell service is very limited, and you could be hours from civilization. I recommend you take a good look at the visitors guide when you pay your park entrance fee, or download it in advance. It is full of important information and park rules, mainly for your safety. It also has the park map, a list of hikes, and a bunch of things to do based on the season.
Let’s start with the most popular part of the park, the area surrounding Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. The first time Matt and I visited Death Valley, we were driving from Carson City to Las Vegas to meet friends. (If you’re not familiar with Nevada, this is a 7+ hour drive.)
We decided to break up the drive and tack on a couple of days in Death Valley. It was mid-April and we camped in the Furnace Creek area. This was back in 2009, but I remember the campground was packed. That is not my ideal camping situation, quite the opposite, actually. The benefit of camping here is you’re close to a lot of the park highlights. I remember it was already very hot in mid-April. One thing you can do if you’re visiting when it’s hot is wake up really early to see the most popular spots. It will be cooler, you’ll have better light for photos, and there won’t be crowds of people.
The places to visit in the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells area are: Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Drive, Harmony Borax Works, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon, Dante’s View, and Zabriskie Point. There are plenty of places clustered between these hubs to camp, this is where most of the services are, including hotels, gas stations, and food. This is also where most of the crowds are. (I prefer solitude in nature, when we’re hiking and adventuring.)
On another visit, we camped at Mesquite Spring campground, northwest of Furnace Creek/Stovepipe Wells. This was much less crowded, but still not much privacy.
The spots to visit in this area are the Ubehebe Crater, The Racetrack, Hell’s Gate, Goldwell Open Air Museum, Rhyolite, and Scotty’s Castle (Scotty’s Castle has been closed due to flood damage since 2015, it will hopefully reopen in 2021.)
The next two places are not in Death Valley National Park, but just outside in Beatty, Nevada. (We’ve stayed in Beatty at the Atomic Inn.) Rhyolite is a ghost town on BLM land and you can easily access it by car.
In 2016, Matt and I drove to Death Valley in the midst of a wildflower super bloom. We missed the peak of the bloom, but enjoyed searching for clusters of flowers. We camped at Panamint Springs in the western part of the park. Because of the popularity of the bloom, there were very few remaining campsites anywhere in the park available to reserve in advance. After returning from a day of exploring, it became so windy that it was impossible for us to cook dinner or even comfortably hang out at our campsite. We were camping in the right place, because in addition to campsites, Panamint Springs Resort has a motel, a bar/restaurant, and a gas station. We had a drink at the bar and ate at the restaurant both nights.
Nearby sites here include: Darwin Falls, Father Crowley Vista Point, the Eureka Mine, and the Charcoal Kilns.
And finally on our most recent visit to Death Valley, we camped at Eureka Dunes in the northwest corner of the park. We also attempted to drive over to Warm Springs campground where there are hot springs, but the road at high elevation was deep with slush, so we turned around. You can read more about Eureka Dunes and the surrounding area here.
There is so much more to Death Valley. So many hikes, so many backcountry roads, so many dispersed campsites. There are luxury hotels and more modest accommodations. There are more ghost towns and old mining sites.
The Death Valley NP website is a wealth of information for planning your trip. Also, this book The Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley (affiliate link) is helpful for planning your itinerary based on when the light is best for photographs. Or if you prefer a map (with more detail than the park map) for your backroad adventures, check this Nat Geo one.
Have you been to Death Valley? What are your favorite things about the park? If you haven’t been, what do you want to see? Let me know in the comments!