Planning a Trip to Death Valley National Park

 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

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?

Matt made a visual of the state of Connecticut over Death Valley.

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.)

Somewhere off of CA-190. That’s Matt there in the distance.

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.

According to the NPS website, the hottest temperature recorded in Death Valley was 134°F on July 10, 1913. Earlier that year, on January 8, 1913, the coldest temperature was recorded at 15°F, both at Furnace Creek.
The Desert Five Spot – Spring is the most popular time to visit Death Valley. The weather is usually very pleasant and the wildflowers add a pop of color to the desert landscape.

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 (Yay!).

Artist’s Drive – This is a 9-mile scenic drive. The colors in the rock are most saturated in the late afternoon light.

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.)

Badwater Basin – This big salt flat is 282 feet below sea level.
Badwater Basin – A 1/4 mile hike will take you to the salt polygons (see below).
Badwater Basin
Devils Golf Course – Salt formations eroded by wind and rain.
Badwater Road – Desert Gold with the Artist’s Drive in the background.
Harmony Borax Works – After the nearby discovery of borax, a plant was built and processing began in 1884. To get the borax out of Death Valley, a “Twenty Mule Team” was used. The large team of mules and wagons transported borax 165 miles (It took 10 days!) to a train depot in Mojave.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the largest dunes in the park.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in the wind.
Mosaic Canyon – The Mosaic Canyon hike is 4 miles out and back. (I don’t recommend flip flops for the hike.)
Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon – Don’t want to hike 4 miles? You can just play in the canyon narrows which are less than 1/2 mile into the canyon.
Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon
Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point

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.

Mesquite Spring Campground
Sunrise above the Mesquite Spring campground.

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 Racetrack – A dry lakebed with those mysterious moving rocks!
The Racetrack
The Racetrack – You can wander all over The Racetrack, it’s fun to look for the moving rocks, and to walk over to The Grandstand (the large rock formation on the top right of this photo), but don’t ever drive on the playa. If the playa is wet or muddy, don’t walk in those areas, the damage can last for years.
Teakettle Junction – The road to The Racetrack is about 26 miles from the main road. The park service recommends only high clearance vehicles with off-road tires drive this road. 4WD may be necessary too because the road is not maintained regularly.
Teakettle Junction – The shrine devoted to tea kettles about 20 miles down Racetrack Road is ever changing. People take tea kettles and replace them with different ones. Park rangers take some down when the sign is too overloaded.
Racetrack Road – The drive to The Racetrack is almost as fun as The Racetrack itself.
Racetrack Road
Racetrack Road – We really love Joshua trees.
Racetrack Road
Scotty’s Castle – Tours were given of this lavishly decorated Spanish style “castle” until a flash flood in October 2015 caused major damage. The recovery efforts have been underway but the castle will likely not reopen until 2021. Here is an article about the flood.
Scotty’s Castle – A man named Walter Scott, or Death Valley Scotty told people he built this castle from money he made from area mines. This was not true. His buddy, Albert Mussey Johnson built it as a vacation home for himself and his wife in the 1920’s. Death Valley Scotty lived here when he wasn’t traveling.
Scotty’s Castle

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.

Rhyolite – After prospecting success in 1904, Rhyolite quickly became a town. Electricity came in the spring of 1907, but by 1910, production slowed and the population had dropped significantly. The mine and mill were closed in 1911, and finally the power was turned off in 1916.
Rhyolite – During it’s heyday, this was the biggest town in the area with the population somewhere between 5,000-10,000 people. There were 2 churches and 50 saloons. (Priorities!) In addition, there were also some shops, doctors, a couple of dentists, a couple of undertakers, hotels, a stock exchange, a big school, and an opera house. There were other necessities too, including countless social activities. (And some not so wholesome social activities. Apparently, some of the women that worked in the red light district came from as far as San Francisco.) In others words, this place was happening. You know, for a few years anyway.
Rhyolite – This 3 story bank building cost $90,000 to build.
Rhyolite
Rhyolite – In 1906 a miner named Tom T. Kelly built this house out of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles.
Rhyolite
Goldwell Open Air Museum – Right near Rhyolite, you’ll find this outdoor sculpture museum. It is free to visit and it’s open 24/7.
Goldwell Open Air Museum – Started by a group of Belgian artists, this space was chosen to make art openly and freely. It has become a well known place among artists and a nearby art center offers artist residencies and workspace programs to allow artists to make their art in the open space of the Mojave Desert. How cool is that?
Goldwell Open Air Museum
Goldwell Open Air Museum

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.

Furnace Creek Wash
Purple Notchleaf Phacelia

Nearby sites here include: Darwin Falls, Father Crowley Vista Point, the Eureka Mine, and the Charcoal Kilns.

Darwin Falls – It’s a two mile hike out and back to this waterfall.
Velvert Turtleback
Furnace Creek Wash
Lesser Mojavea
Caltha-leaf Phacelia
Desert Gold along the Beatty Cutoff Road

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.

Eureka Dunes
Camping at Eureka Dunes
Eureka Dunes

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!

6 thoughts

  1. For travelers with a larger budget, The Inn at Death Valley is a beautiful (and pricey) place to stay with lush gardens and a gourmet restaurant. Farabee Jeep Rental is right across the street; you can take a guided jeep tour or drive yourself through amazing slot canyons, ghost towns, and mining sites.

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  2. Wow if I were younger I would definitely visit here it looks spectacular, unfortunately I would never make it now so I thank you for sharing your experience I loved it. Looking forward to your next adventure ✌🙏 stay safe 💙

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