Quick Travel Guide •  California, USA

Death Valley California: How To Prepare For Your First Trip

Last Updated On: August 27, 2020


Death Valley National Park in California is the hottest and driest park in the country. Spreading out over 3.4 million acres of diverse terrain, it has something to offer for everyone. From shadeless Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and otherworldly rock formations to seemingly never-ending roads, the alien landscape is a treat for the eyes. However, don't let the name "Death Valley" fool you, there is much more wildlife in the park than you think. Desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, and even mountain lions all call this remote place their home. During our visit at the end of March, we spotted the cutest bunch of wild donkeys casually crossing the road. Before every adventure, you should make sure you are prepared. There is nothing worse than being stranded on the side of a desolated road, without enough water, snack, supplies, and gas in your tank. Gas is available inside the park at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek. It is recommended to carry extra if you plan on venturing out beyond the pavement. The Inn at Death Valley is the perfect base for your stay if you are not big on camping or don’t have your house on wheels like us. The accommodation is centrally located and offers easy access to the most popular sights in Death Valley. Now get comfy cause we have a lot of great content to share!

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Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

Where is Death Valley National Park located

Death Valley is still located in California but borders Nevada. The park is restricted by the Amargosa Range to the east and the Panamint Range on the west which is easily recognized by its snow-covered Telescope Peak. Be aware that cell phone reception in Death Valley can be quite spotty at best. Most areas within the park have no signal at all. We, therefore, recommend downloading the TravelNevada App which provides customized road trip itineraries and most importantly easy-to-use offline maps & navigation.

How far is Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas

Death Valley National Park as well as the Grand Canyon National Park are the two most popular National Parks to visit especially when traveling from Las Vegas. The drive from Las Vegas to either park only takes around 2 hours.

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Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

Death Valley National Park hours and fees

Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum is open daily from 9.00 am – 5.00 pm Fees for 2020:

  • Vehicle Entrance Fee: $20 for 7 days
  • Individual Entrance Fee: $10 for 7 days
  • Death Valley Annual Pass: $40 for one year

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

Best time to visit Death Valley National Park

It is really important to consider when you travel to Death Valley National Park to have the best possible experience. The best time to visit Death Valley National Park is either in fall or spring, between September and October or March to May. November - March is the park's peak season. Our favorite times to visit:

  • Late October is a great time to visit. This when the camping season begins, but the crowds have yet to arrive. The temperatures are comfortable and range anywhere from 50ºF – 70ºF.
  • March to early May offers the most ideal weather. This is also the time when the vibrant wildflower super bloom occurs, which usually peaks around late March.

Winter can get quite cold and the flash floods should not be ignored. The heat during the summer months, May – September, temperatures can soar up to 120 degrees and are almost unbearable outside of your air-conditioned car.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Super bloom
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

Top 7 Best Things to do in Death Valley National Park

During our last visit, we only had 2-days in Death Valley. We had to be strategic and really think about where we wanted to be during what time of the day.  There is nothing quite comparable to the pink and purple hues of a sunset or sunrise. While Death Valley offers a multitude of worth visiting spots to be during sunrise, we chose Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. While we missed the sunrise at the sand dunes, the morning sun made for great daytime shots. It highlighted the light color of the sands and still created some dramatic shadows on the dunes.

The best light to shoot most natural sights in our opinion is either in the morning or in the evening.

Even if you are not big on photography, hiking during the golden hour enhances every experience. Believe me when I say it will be worth getting up before the sun peeks above the horizon and staying out until the sun disappears again. The light during the day can be pretty harsh and hiking during noon can get uncomfortably hot if not even dangerous especially in a place like Death Valley.

1. Zabriskie Point This breathtaking viewpoint is the gateway to the otherworldly Badlands. The terrain is the result of water and earthquakes. This area is a fun place to explore any time of the day, however, for the best experience and some spectacular photos, come during sunrise.

Photo Tip: Make sure to get here before the sun rises. It only takes 5 minutes to walk from the parking lot to Zabriskie Point but the sunlight colors the peaks of the distant mountains only for a short period of time. The most dramatic images are shot here either during sunrise or sunset.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

2. Mesquite Flat Sand DunesThe dunes can be admired right from the parking lot but are the most fun to explore on foot. This popular sea of dunes includes three types of dunes: star-shaped, linear, and crescent. Every time of the day has its beauty, but the colors during the sunset are particularly nice as the surrounding mountains turn pink from the remaining sun rays. If you manage to get out of bed and here before sunrise you will most likely be the first one in the parking lot. For the best photography, we recommend walking out a little. It is fairly easy to find an area that is not trampled by a million footprints especially if you come here early enough.

Photo Tip: If you are looking for dark shadows and red-colored dunes with purple-colored mountains in the backdrop, then come for sunset. Just make sure to get here early enough so you have time to walk further out to find the pristine ripples in the sand.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

3. The Artist's Drive & Artist’s PaletteThis is another must-see. Located just off Badwater Road, you can follow the 9.7-mile scenic Artist’s Drive and enjoy a colorful ride through the canyons and mountains. This scenic one-way road will take around 45 minutes depending on how often you decide to pull over. There are a few major pullouts to explore along the way, but our favorite was the Artist’s Palette. This is the third pullout about 5 miles from the start. Park your car and follow the footpath out into the palette. Here you will find a gorgeous array of colors, from mint greens and pastel pinks to rich purples and subtle yellows. This prismatic terrain was formed by mineral-rich volcano deposits and a dream for every photographer.

Photo Tip: Get here either early in the morning for the least amount of people or try to catch the last remaining light, but risk battling for an empty, picturesque scene. During these times, the sun will no longer shine on the rolling hills meaning your images won’t have such harsh shadows and the colors will appear much more vibrant, even more than when the sun stands high in the sky.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

4. Badwater Basin Salt Flats:The flats are 282 feet below sea level and are the lowest point in North America. The basin offers a 200 square mile area of salt flats right on the valley floor, which can easily be reached from the parking lot. 5. Ubehebe Crater:Enjoy incredible views over the 600-foot-deep crater from the overlook. You can also follow the 1.5 mile-long trail for extended views over the surrounding volcanic fields. 6. Stargazing:Death Valley is one of the best stargazing locations in America. Ubehebe Crater is great for night photography with the least amount of light pollution in the park

7. Dante’s View (1-mile roundtrip): Enjoy one of the park’s most breathtaking panoramas: the classic Star Wars view. The overlook is 5000ft above Death Valley and offers spectacular views over Badwater Basin. It can be reached by walking a half a mile south of the parking lot, with two different viewpoints from where spectacular vistas await. There is an option for another moderate to hard hike to Mt. Perry but could get quite cold and windy. Check your list before every day’s adventures:

  • Extra Water
  • Extra Layers
  • Full tank of gas and possibly an extra gas canister
  • A map of the park to avoid getting lost (you can pick one up at the visitor center)

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape

Where to Camp In Death Valley National Park

The park boasts a total of nine campgrounds, four of which are free of charge:

  • Emigrant — Tents only, 10 Campsites, open all year
  • Wildrose — 23 Campsites, open all year
  • Thorndike — 6 Campsites, open spring-fall
  • Mahogany Flat — 10 Campsites, open spring-fall, 4WD Required

All campgrounds are first-come, first-served, except for the Furnace Creek Campground. Furnace Creek Campground ($22) is open all year round. Because this is one of the most popular campgrounds in the park, you can make reservations from the 15th of October – 15th of April. It has a total of 136 sites and is especially popular for RVs and group camping. To make reservations call 1-877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.

During the most popular months from October - April all camping spots are accessible and open. But don't worry, with 500 camping spots in total, it is highly unlikely that the park will ever fill up completely. For example, Sunset Campground ($14) with 270 camping sites as well as Stovepipe Wells ($14) with 190 sites hardly ever fills up. You can arrive at any time of the day since you will be paying directly at the campground after you find your spot for the night. Be aware that the automated machines at the campgrounds only take credit or debit cards. No cash. If you plan to go during the hot summer months of May – September, be aware that all campgrounds are open. This means that they can get quite busy, especially during holiday weekends. So if you don’t plan ahead, chances are you might not get a campground. Reservations during the summer months are definitely recommended!

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
The super bloom at our toes

Best Hikes In Death Valley

The best time to hike in Death Valley is between November and March. It is not recommended to hike during the hot summer months. But if you insist, make sure to stay hydrated, carry extra water, protect yourself from the elements, and don’t forget to wear layers. Although Death Valley is known to be hot during the day it can get quite cold if not freezing once the sun falls behind the horizon.

Zabriskie Point

Badlands Loop (2.5-miles roundtrip): You will find the trailhead just north of the Zabriskie Point parking lot. Badlands offers a multitude of fun hikes weaving through and above the otherworldly terrain. Wander through the rolling hills of the badlands, past several abandoned borax mine tunnels, and along a section of the Gower Gulch Loop. About half a mile in you will find signs indicating the beginning of the loop. For more detailed information about this hike click here.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Badlands, Death Valley

Golden Canyon & Gower Gulch via Zabriskie Point (5.8-miles roundtrip):This big loop wraps together the Golden Canyon, the Gower Gulch, the Red Cathedral, and Badlands all into one breathtaking hike. We would highly recommend to time your hike to finish the trail at sunset, that way you can watch the glow of the setting sun, light up the red cathedral and badlands. The hike can take anywhere from 3 to 4 hours depending on your fitness level, so make sure to plan accordingly. Just like Badlands Loop, you will at the Zabriskie Point. For more detailed information about this hike click here.

Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail (1.8-miles roundtrip):This is an easy and simple walk into the salt flats, where you will find salt crystals as far as the eye can see. The highlight of the Badwater Basin is that it is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. You are literally under the ocean yet in the desert. What a paradox!

If you rather prefer an aerial view, the best place to overlook the Badwater Basin is from Dante's Viewpoint. This is about an hour drive from Badwater Basin and quite a contrast at 5,700 feet above sea level.

Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Badwater Basin Salt Flats

Desolation Canyon Trail (3.6-miles roundtrip): This hike will guide you through a colorful canyon, but the highlight of the hike is the stunning view once you reach the top. Be aware that there are two dry waterfalls to overcome which will require climbing. The first one is about 8 feet tall and the second one is 6 feet tall. On your return, you will have to either slide or climb down. For more detailed information about this hike click here. Natural Bridge Canyon Trail (2-miles roundtrip):This trail leads right into the mouth of the canyon. Within half a mile you can already reach the 50-foot tall natural bridge, which was caused by erosion. You can reach the trailhead from Furnace Creek. To get there drive 13 miles south on Badwater Road and turn left on to a dirt road toward Natural Bridge Canyon. It is about 1.5 miles from Badwater Road to the trailhead. Artist’s Palette (1-mile roundtrip): This is an easy trail with great views of the palette. It is hardly considered a hike but well worth getting out of the car for. Like we mentioned above, you can find this hike on the 9 mile Artist's Drive. From the parking lot, you will continue on foot the last 0.4 miles until you reach the multi-colored mountains. They are even more impressive up close.

Where to stay in Death Valley

Choose between backcountry camping (permits required), Hotels, or one of the 9 campgrounds within the park.


Luxury Inn

The Inn At Death Valley

Built in 1927, this old fashioned yet elegant lodging experience is located right in the heart of Death Valley National Park. The Inn is one of two hotels collectively known as the Oasis at Death Valley. This is one of the only upscale hotels within the park and is the perfect base for exploring all the sights the park has to offer.


Ranch

The Ranch At Death Valley

The Ranch is Death Valley’s economy lodging. This is the second hotel of the Oasis at Death Valley. It offers a total of 224 rooms and is part of a small desert community. Enjoy the big outdoor pool, a tour of the borax museum, or play a round of golf at the world's lowest (in elevation) golf course.


Boutique Hotel

Panamint Springs Resort

A rustic, western-style resort located in Panamint Valley of Death Valley National Park. Choose between cabins or small tent cabins starting as cheap as $55 per night. The Resort has a restaurant, a bar, and a gas station with a small general store. Enjoy stunning views of the Panamint Mountains, rising a lofty 11,000+ feet above sea level, as well as the distant sand dunes on the horizon.


More hotels in Death Valley

Is Death Valley Open During Covid-19

Death Valley National Park currently offers limited services. Due Highway 190 that runs through Death Valley, the National Park is difficult to shut down completely. However, all campgrounds, lodging, restrooms, some hikes and the visitor center are closed. Most parking lots leading to popular trailheads and secondary roads are closed as well. The gas stations at the Panamint Springs and Stovepipe are still open and the folks working there are being highly appreciated by everyone passing through. Although the parking lots are closed, the occasional visitor simply parks on the side of the street and walks the rest to the trailhead. The COVID- 19 virus has slowed down the numbers of daily visitors tremendously but it hasn’t stopped people from enjoying the outdoors. Death Valley National Park will remain closed until California has officially reached phase 3. For more information and updates check here.

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Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
Death Valley National Park | Bare Escape
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