9 Incredible Things to Do in Death Valley National Park (for first time visitors)

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We didn’t know there was so many incredible things to do in Death Valley National Park until after our two day visit. 

Now we know this is not just a place you drive through on your way to other destinations in California, and down below are our top tips on what to see in Death Valley, plus information on how to get there, where to stay, tips for visiting, and our best Death Valley pictures!

Badwater Basin – Death Valley

After five months of desert travel and daily hikes, I was dragging my feet about visiting Death Valley National Park California.

The pool around our Las Vegas RV Park was way more enticing.

I had just spent two days cleaning our travel trailer and removing all the red mud and dust Utah covered her in. I was not excited about adding a fresh new layer of dust, this time white and yellow.

We attempted to visit Death Valley NP a couple of months earlier in the winter, but the RV parks were full and we had no boondocking capabilities (solar power) then so we skipped it.

Now that we can dry camp, we have more options!

We were looking for a few days to fill in before visiting Yosemite National Park and when we checked the weather report we saw the perfect opportunity to explore all the top things to do in Death Valley National Park.

Driving through Death Valley towards Badwater Basin

It was pretty much on the way to Yosemite from Las Vegas, AND for the two days we were looking at going, the weather dropped from low 100’s to low 80’s.

There wouldn’t be another more perfect opportunity. So we took it, still with feet dragging.

Boy did they perk up once I kicked by shoes off and walked onto the salt flats of Badwater Basin in Death Valley.

What is Special About Death Valley National Park? And what is Death Valley National Park known for?

Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park in the USA.

High on the cliff face (282 ft. high) at Badwater Basin was a white plaque with huge capitals denoting SEA LEVEL. We were standing at the lowest part of North America.

That’s right the Death Valley elevation at Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level – just one of the cool Death Valley facts!

It was a thrill level I was not anticipating. How could we have almost passed up that opportunity?

And Death Valley California has the highest temperature ever recorded of 134 degree Fahrenheit (57 degree Celsius) on July 10, 1913.

I’m surprised we haven’t seen higher recorded since then, but, 2016 and 2017 has claimed the hottest average temperatures in Death Valley Park history.

We certainly know the earth is heating up.

Sign just before entering Furnace Creek area

The death of this valley is sandwiched – by two mountain ranges – and you are heading deep into a bowl here.

Any upcoming earthquake has the potential to make this valley a little lower and a little hotter.

I don’t know why we think nature has finished her creation. It’s always moving and changing, so subtly as it has for millions of years. We barely notice the progress to more exquisite beauty but it’s there.

It was not that hot when we visited, but possibly the windiest. It did a good job of nearly knocking us off our feet, but at least it cooled things down a little.

The hottest, driest, and lowest part of the continent didn’t stop wowing and surprising us from the reminder of our stay.

It was definitely the perfect way to finish five months in the desert and transition us into the green forest world of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Gorgeous scenery along Artists Drive

If you don’t know what to do in Death Valley, it is a place where you don’t need to do too much for it to quickly become one of your favorite USA national parks.

There are no crazy hiking adventures like Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Really all that is required of you is to open your eyes and admire the views.

It’s beauty is startling.

I love how it’s an easy national park to explore, doesn’t have hordes of people, and doesn’t require much other than a few footsteps from your car to the viewpoint.

You can even wear flip flops for most of the journey. Given that we’ve just spent weeks of hiking, it was a welcome experience for us.

Death Valley trails are there if you want them, but you want to be extra cautious if you are visiting in the hot summer months. It is not wise to hike after 10am and many signs around the park will remind you of this.

Zabriskie Point

If you only stop to see Zabriskie Point on your visit, then driving through Death Valley is worthwhile. It is one of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen.

Ripples of white, yellow, mauve, pink, and chocolate sand dunes frozen in time stretch out in front of you with a purple sandy river running through it and the snow capped Panamint Mountain ranges in the background.

You can even see the salt flats down in the valley below.

The colors, shapes and textures is simply breathtaking and mind-blowing. Perhaps we’ll invent a new word to express that. Let’s call it The Zabriskie.

The ranger told us it was best at sunrise. Lonely Planet had a photo that showed a Death Valley sunset from here so we followed the travel bible – it was extraordinary at sunset.

I do think sunrise at Zabriskie Point would be worth doing as well. We visited about two hours after sunrise the next day and it gave us another beautiful perspective. This time we could see the mountains and salt flats as the sun was shining on them.

Sunrise was just a little too early for us to get there with the kids (5:30am).

Either way, put this on your list of best things to do in Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Basin

As mentioned, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, and a Death Valley must see on your first visit!

This is where you can walk out on the salt flats and see the hexagonal honeycomb shapes. I don’t think we visited at the right time, or walked out far enough to see those, but it was still an incredible place to explore and walk bare feet on – although by far the windiest place we visited in Death Valley!

But we did witness devils golf course – an immense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires!

Badwater Death Valley consists of a small natural pool of undrinkable water next to the road in a sink, and the accumulated salt crystals of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name.

Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes.

As this area gets less than two inches of rain annually and no water can flow out of the basin, the water evaporates leaving behind mineral deposits that cover the basin like a salty dusting of snow.

Badwater Basin is centrally located in the National Park and very popular, and the parking lot fills quickly.

Be sure to follow the warnings about hiking during the extreme temperatures of summer, so go early morning and bring lots of water!

But definitely add this to your list of top things to see in Death Valley National Park!

Dante’s View

Dante’s View is a little off the path, but totally worth it.

It’s a paved road the entire way although the last section contains steep switchbacks and not fit for long RV’s. There are parking bays to unhook and leave your trailers if needed.

As the road climbed the mountain, the stark desert landscape turned a little lush.

Dante’s View will give you the BEST bird’s eye view of Death Valley. You really don’t want to miss it. You’ll get the swirling whites and muted browns of the salt basin deep in the valley that stretches for miles.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and is a Death Valley must see!

It is way cooler up at Dante’s Viewpoint too – we had to burst out the jacket from under the car seat. It was a welcome relief from the desert heat.

If you visit Death Valley National Park in the winter, be sure to pack your scarves and beanies.

Artists Drive

Artists Drive Death Valley is one of the most unique scenic drives I’ve ever experienced.

I felt like it’s where they got the inspiration for the Cars Ride at Disneyland.

At one point we were on a narrow section of the Death Valley road driving around the foothills of the mountains. The mountains rose steeply up on other side of us, dwarfing even our F250.

This one way paved road is called the Artist Drive for a reason, the mountain faces look liked someone had thrown splashes of paint all over them, prompting the naming of one section to be the artist’s palette.

Now we’d seen enough color in Southern Utah to question the validity of the name of this drive before we went on it, but we can definitely verify that it has earned that title.

We saw most colors in Utah, but rarely so many shades of blue on the rocks.

There are two sections on this 9-mile Death Valley National Park scenic drive you can jump out at to look more closely at the palettes of color.

We were SO lucky to have arrived the day after they opened this drive. Apparently it had been closed for years!! As it was all new, the road was pristine dark black which just made the landscape pop even more.

I was so grateful that our trip to Death Valley had been delayed for a couple of months, otherwise we would have missed this.

What is the saying, God’s delays are not God’s denials. Trust in what the delays will bring you.

Golden Canyon Hike

We had a stuff up when it came to hiking the Golden Canyon.

We’ve been great at training the girls since they were born to be responsible travelers – that is pack their own bags, dress themselves, pack snacks etc. If they forget then they manage boredom or hunger and won’t forget the next time.

Usually we’re good at checking them though.

We didn’t when we jumped in the car for our afternoon of exploring Death Valley NP.

Savannah somehow thought it was good to explore the hottest place in the world with no shoes!!! It worked fine at the salt flats – even better to walk barefoot – and we weren’t expecting to hike anywhere.

Then we stumbled upon Golden Canyon, and with time on our side decided to check it out. A 3-mile return rocky path was no match for bare feet.

We found a pair of Kalyra’s muddy boots in the car and put them on her feet. They kept falling off, until we thought of rolling down the tops of the boots. It helped them stay on her feet but it wasn’t so comfortable for her.

We plowed through the walk, but only a short way in before turning around and ending her torture.

The Golden Canyon is BEAUTIFUL and one of the best hikes in Death Valley!

I loved the silence and stillness here and the changing colors and shapes of the rock. It was so quiet you could hear the swooshing of the raven’s wings as it flew down the canyon quite high above our heads.

The 1.5 miles in leads to the red cathedral, which is where we were hoping to go.

You can go further and hike 2.5 miles all the way to Zabriskie’s Point, which is on my bucket list of top things to do in Death Valley National Park for when we come back!

I couldn’t imagine how beautiful that walk would be and if you could time it at sunset it would be incredible.

You’d need someone to meet you there or be wiling to hike it back. But definitely put this on your Death Valley National Park hiking list!

Salt Creek Trailhead

I read that the Salt Creek Trailhead is one of the good places to go in Death Valley National Park for families, so decided to check it out but wasn’t expecting too much.

We are quite adventurous and go on many challenging hikes, boardwalks usually feel quite sedate to me, but once again Death Valley wowed me.

The Salt Creek Trailhead is a special part of Death Valley NP not to miss. It is only a mile off the main road and offers proof that the desert is full of life.

A creek runs through this valley and either side of it is filed with green brush.

In the background are white and pastel yellow cliffs making it so striking.

As far as Death Valley National Park hikes go, the boardwalk is only 1/2 mile in total and is flat and wheelchair accessible.

The kids will love looking at the rare pupfish darting around in the water. They look like tadpoles. Their fanatic rush is their need to feed and breed before their one year lifespan is up.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

This is one of the most popular things to do in Death Valley National Park.

We arrived at the wrong time to experience the Mesquite Sand dunes – we couldn’t time everything perfectly.

We visited on the way out of the western entrance to the national park and arrived at the same time as hundreds of French tourists on buses. No offence to them as we’re tourists as well wanting the same things they are, but it did mean a lot of people making tracks in the sand. At least you had a nice language to listen to I the background!

It was also the middle of the day so pretty hot and sunlight harsh for photos and the dunes well trampled.

You can walk out to the highest sand dune which is a mile away in the distance. A mile is an easy walk on the flat but up and over sand dunes makes it a different kind of trail, especially in the HEAT.

Considering the Death Valley National Park sand dunes was the very last thing we were going to do after 5 months in the desert, we were happy to just stand and watch.

Your kids will love playing in the sand dunes here. The girls were even more desert tired than me and were in no mood for sand dune play.

Come early in the morning or evening. Sunset is meant to be wonderful here. I’d time it for then if you can.

It’s a fair way from the other Death Valley attractions near the Furnace Creek area so that may impact your timing.

Wildlife Spotting in Death Valley
Coyote, Death ValleyCoyote

Just because the word DEATH is in the title, doesn’t mean their ain’t no life in this valley.

Look closely and you’ll find Death Valley animals.

We had a coyote running across the main road (and causing a few traffic delays) just outside our campsite in Furnace Creek.

And we also saw a cute and unique chuckwalla lizard at Mesquite sand dunes.

We especially loved seeing this one after learning about it from the ranger when the girls did their Junior Ranger pledge. It gets in between two rocks and puffs up so its predators can’t snatch it away.

I LOVE nature! We loved watching it do little push ups. So cute and you can see that on our upcoming video.

One of my favorite things to see in Death Valley National Park was when a raven came flying above us down the canyon. You will see and hear a lot of ravens swooshing their wings. That is a silence to appreciate.

We also enjoyed seeing the pupfish in Salt Creek. You have to admire something that can survive in all that salty water.

Enjoy these little reminders that the desert – even the hottest ones in the world – hold life.

In addition to those desert animals we saw, Death Valley NP also has scorpions, road runners, kit foxes, rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats and bats.

Become a Junior Ranger
Our kids doing the Junior Ranger pledge

You probably already know that we love the Junior Ranger program created by the National Park service.

It does make a difference to your child’s appreciation of the environment they are interacting in. Not to mention how much they’ll learn.

Head to the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center at Furnace Creek to pick up your booklets and return when finished to say your pledge and get your badges.

As my girl’s learned more about the desert with the ranger and said their pledge, I felt so grateful a program like this exists to teach our kids to protect Mother Nature.

I have hope with the generation we are raising. They are privy to so much more information, experiences, and people working hard to make changes happen.

They grow up knowing that taking care of the planet is just something we do.

Important Tips for Death Valley

  1. Fill up your gas tank before you get here. This is NOT one of the things to do in Death Valley as the gas prices are RIDICULOUSLY expensive. It’s verging on price gouging. At Furnace Creek it was $6.20 per gallon of diesel fuel. Note that gas in California is way more expensive than anywhere else but really $6.20?? Apparently the gas at Stovepipe Wells Village is cheaper but they don’t have diesel. We found cheaper diesel at Trona ($3.79 a gallon) when we made it there with 30 miles left in the tank and filled her up. We only put $30 in at the rip off gas station just to get us out of the park!,
  2. Death Valley NP gets very HOT. Be sure to drink plenty of water, carry salty snacks, and explore in the cooler morning and evening hours.
  3. Plan your Death Valley itinerary carefully to avoid excess mileage – see point 1.
  4. Many of the Death Valley National Park campgrounds close during the summer months!
  5. Many of the roads to attractions will often be closed due to weather damage. Almost all roads off the main one were closed when we visited, which reduced our off-the-beaten-path adventures, but also see point 1.
  6. In the summer, you can head to the surrounding mountains for a cooler experience. Always check with the rangers to see what is opened and closed.
  7. Death Valley is a Gold Rated International Dark Sky Park. It was full moon when we visited so not ideal for star gazing. The best places for stargazing are said to be: Badwater Basin, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and Harmony Borax Works.
  8. We didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but we met someone in Sedona who said the had never seen so many rattlesnakes as in Death Valley. Watch where you put your hands and feet.
  9. Cell phone service is unreliable. We had limited Wi-Fi throughout the park with Verizon.
  10. Entrance fees are $30 for 7 days per vehicle. If you plan to visit several national parks in the USA, an annual National Parks Pass is a MUST. It will cost you $80 for the year save you hundreds of dollars with unlimited access to federal lands without having to pay individual park entrance fees.

Planning a Trip to Death Valley
Where is Death Valley National Park?

What state is Death Valley in? It is mostly in southwestern California, east of the Sierra Nevada, although a small portion extends into Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills.

Directions to Death Valley

Death Valley is easily accessible from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The main road transecting Death Valley National Park from east to west is California Highway 190.

  • Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park: 123 miles (approx 2 hrs)
  • Los Angeles to Death Valley: 215 miles (approx 3.45 hrs)
  • San Diego to Death Valley National Park: 283 miles (approx 4.45 hrs)
  • Yosemite to Death Valley National Park: 245 miles (approx 4 hrs)
  • Sequoia National Park to Death Valley: 268 miles (approx 4.45 hrs)
  • Bakersfield to Death Valley National Park: 174 miles (approx 3 hrs)

How Long Do You Need at Death Valley?
On the road out towards Bakersfield

If you’re coming in for the day, then we recommend an early start and late finish and stay overnight. That way you’ll have ample time to do everything and at the right times.

To see all the Death Valley attractions, I think we planned almost the perfect itinerary. So I’ll share that with you.

Your timing will change depending on sunset time when you visit, and the direction you enter and leave the park from.

We arrived from Las Vegas via Hwy 95 in the afternoon, and then exited towards Bakersfield via Hwy 190 the next day after lunch.

Death Valley Itinerary

Day 1:

  • 3pm: Badwater Basin
  • 4pm: Artists Drive
  • 5pm Golden Canyon
  • Sunset: Zabriskie’s point
  • Pm: Campsites

Day 2:

  • Sunrise: Zabriskie’s Point
  • Dante’s View
  • Sand Trail Interpretive Walk
  • Mesquite Sand Dunes

Can You Visit Death Valley as a Day Trip from Las Vegas?

You could, but it would be a very long day and quite rushed. I’d recommend doing it like we did. Arrive in the afternoon, stay the might and leave the next day after lunch.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest rental car booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.

For RV Rentals, check Outdoorsy, or RVShare if you want to rent a unique campervan or RV and explore further afield.

You can easily combine Death Valley with other incredible places to visit in California, or on a Southwest road trip.

Where to Stay in Death Valley

We recommend staying in Furnace Creek, especially if you are short on time.

It’s closer to the main attractions in Death Valley as I’ve listed above. And it’s situated in a somewhat shady and pretty oasis area. You will get more relief from the heat here.

Stovepipe Wells Village will offer you a more secluded experience and is right near the sand dunes, however it is pretty much out in the open heat of the desert. In winter it won’t matter too much.

Camping in Death Valley
We stayed at Fiddler’s Campground

From my research, you’ll typically be able to find Death Valley National Park camping spots available.

However, if you require RV hookups you’ll want to reserve in advance as they are few and far between.

The National Park has a few campgrounds. Prices are $14-$16 and $36 for hookups. And all except Furnace Creek are first come first served.

Furnace Creek Campground – open year round, but was closed when we visited for some reason. First come first served during summer (mid-April to mid-Oct) Reservations strongly recommended over winter months. Has a few hookup sites.

  • Sunset: Closed in summer. Back in sites.
  • Texas Springs: Closed summer. First come.
  • There is one in Stovepipe Wells: Closed summer.
  • Mesquite Spring: open year round.
  • Emigrant: tent camping only. Open year round
  • Wildrose: open year round. 25gft limit
  • Thorndike: Open March – Nov. 25 ft limit
  • Mahogany Flat: open March- Nov. 25 ft length

Get more details about camping in Death Valley here. 

Private Campgrounds

  • Fiddler’s Campground ($24). Open year round. Fiddlers gives you access to the Oasis at Death Valley swimming pool and showers. You can also use their restaurant facilities. It’s adjacent to the Oasis and the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
  • Stovepipe Wells RV Park – Open all year round. Hookups available ($34)
  • Panamint Springs – Open all year. Hookups available ($35) $20 dry camping. It’s at higher elevation so will be cooler. We had friends stay here and recommended it.

There are boondocking spots outside of Death Valley plus a few other RV parks if you get stuck.

There is also a cool spot we found on Harvest Host just outside the park. You have to be a Harvest Host member to get access to that though (perfect for long term RVers and boondockers).

Hotels in Death Valley
Inn at Death Valley

The Oasis at Death Valley is one resort with two distinct Death Valley National Park hotels.

The historic, serene, and peaceful Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley. And the family-friendly, adventure-focused Ranch at Death Valley

If I was to stay at hotels in Death Valley, it would be here. I loved its setting on the hill surrounded by desert palms and overlooking the salt flats and furnace creek.

For a full list of hotels near Death Valley National Park, Booking.com has over 20 properties to choose from.

Tours of Death Valley

If you cant get yourself to Death Valley, consider doing a Death Valley tour from Las Vegas. Below are tour options:

Places to Visit near Death Valley

Looking for more places to visit? Start with these posts:

  • Las Vegas on a budget
  • 18 amazing things to do in Yosemite National Park
  • Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
  • 8 awesome things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

I hope this guide of things to do in Death Valley National Park helps you plan your trip? If you still have any questions about what to see in Death Valley, leave a comment below.
 

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