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Best Things to Do at Death Valley National Park

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Badlands from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Don't let the name deter you; Death Valley National Park is one of California's most amazing attractions, offering over 3 million acres of diverse landscapes. Located in the Mojave Desert, it features some of the lowest, driest, and hottest places in the world! To some this might not seem like the most ideal vacation spot - but because of its unique environment Death Valley National Park has unparalleled scenery.

Being such a huge park, Death Valley presents an abundance of trails, campgrounds, and activities to keep the whole family engaged. With so much to offer, it can be a bit overwhelming when planning a trip there. So we've put together some different itineraries to help make sure you don't miss anything!

When to Go

Timing is crucial when planning a trip to Death Valley National Park. Although the park is open year round, temperatures rise well in to the 100's during late spring, summer, and early fall. For that reason it is usually considered a winter park. The winter provides cool days and chilly nights. The snowy mountains and winter lights make this season especially beautiful for exploring the valley. Springtime is also one of the more popular times to visit Death Valley. In addition to warm and sunny days, the spring wildflowers are a major attraction. If the winter provides enough rainfall the desert can put on an amazing floral display, usually peaking in late March to early April. Consider going between November and April.

How to Get There

By Airport

Located near the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is not too far from major cities and can be accessed from a number of different locations. It is 290 miles from Los Angeles, 350 miles from San Diego, and 140 miles from Las Vegas. The nearest airport is Inyokern Airport (IYK), which is located about 77 miles from the center of Death Valley, near Ridgecrest CA.

By Car

Death Valley is 2.25 hour drive from Las Vegas, a 5 hour drive from Los Angeles and a 6 hour drive from San Diego.

From the east in Nevada, U.S. Route 95 parallels the park from north to south with connecting highways at Scotty's Junction (State Route 267), Beatty (State Route 374), and Lathrop Wells (State Route 373)

From the west, State Route 14 and U.S. Route 395 lead to Ridgecrest, CA where State Route 178 heads east into the park. Further north on Hwy 395 at Olancha, CA you can join Hwy 190 to the park, or north of that at Lone Pine, CA, Hwy 136 will also join Hwy 190 heading east into the park.

South of the park, Interstate 15 passes through Baker, California on its way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. State Route 127 travels north from Baker to Shoshone and Death Valley Junction with connections to the park on State Route 178 from Shoshone and connection with California Highway 190 at Death Valley Junction.

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center (open year round) is located at N 36° 27.70, W 116° 52.00.

What to See and Do

There are many recreational activities for visitors at Death Valley National Park to enjoy. Below are some of the suggested itineraries to follow, depending on your length of stay here. We recommend that if you have a motorhome bring your family vehicle as it will allow you to access virtually all the recommended attractions in the park.

Visiting the park for one day is not really doable if you want to start your day at Las Vegas or Los Angeles so we recommend that you arrive at Furnace Creek Visitor Center the afternoon before and check into one of the three campgrounds near the center.

One-Day Visit

If you brought a car with your motorhome or pulled a trailer we recommend that you leave your trailer or motorhome at the visitor center so you can access all the stop points we recommend. If you're on a multiple day visit you can leave your trailer or motorhome at your camp site.

  1. Start your day nice and early to catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. It provides amazing views of the valley. Zabriskie Point is one of Death Valley's most popular sites, surrounded by a labyrinth of eroded badlands. To reach Zabriskie Point take a short drive South East from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, along the 190.
  2. Explore the mudstone badlands by continuing on for a mile to Twenty Mule Team Canyon. This is only accessible in a standard vehicle and not recommended for RVs or trailers. Follow the 3 mile gravel loop road offering views of multicolored badlands where you can see the incredible effects of wind, rain and erosion. Make sure you stop at some of the few small turnouts along the way and hike to the top of the tall mudstone hills. These provide wonderful views north across Zabriskie Point to Death Valley.
  3. Retrace your steps back on the 190 to get yourself oriented with the park at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center if you didn't arrive in time to go there the night before. Check out the Ranger programs and guided tours and note down times and locations of any you want to do. Also check out the new exhibits and park film at the center.
  4. Head South down the 190 to the junction with the 178. Then turn right and drive South 12 miles to Devil's Golf Course, accessible from a half mile spur road, for an incredible unique looking salt pan on the floor of Death Valley. Its name was supposedly derived from a line in the 1934 National Park Service guide book to Death Valley National Monument, which stated that "Only the devil could play golf" on its surface due to the harsh grain of the halite salt crystal formations. The spur road is not recommended for an RV.
  5. Continue South for 15 miles to Badwater Basin to witness North America's lowest point. Take a photo next to the sign that reads -282 feet below sea level. Badwater offers a 360 degree view of vast salt flats that stretch all the way into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
  6. Next drive North 4 miles back up the 178 to a turnoff onto a rough road for 1.5 miles to a parking area. This road is not recommended for an RV. Hike the 0.5 mile Natural Bridge Canyon trail through a narrow canyon, pass striking formations that lead to a Natural Bridge arch spanning the canyon.
  7. Return to the highway and head 5 miles North until you reach the one-way Artist's Drive. Follow the 9-mile paved loop road through the Artist's Palette, past multi-colored volcanic rock of yellows, red-oranges, greens and muted purples. The drive is accessible to vehicles less than 25 feet in length.
  8. Back on the highway head North again until you reach the 190 junction and turn right past Zabriskie Point to reach Dante's View at the end of 13 mile spur road, accessible to any vehicles less than 25 feet in length. By this time the day should be winding down - perfect to catch the sunset at the most breathtaking viewpoint in the park. This viewpoint terrace towers 5,475 feet over Devil's Golf course and Badwater Basin. Now you can get a completely different perspective of your previously visited destinations.

Two Day Visit

Day One:

  1. Complete the "One Day Visit" itinerary listed above for your first day.
  2. Spend the night at one of the three campgrounds near the Furnace Visitor Center.

Day Two:

  1. Head north on the 190. One mile North of the visitor center walk the quarter mile paved Harmony Borax Works Interpretative Trail to the ruins of the Death Valley's first successful borax mine. Adobe ruins and an original wagon hint at the industrial activity that once was. Interpretive signs along the short, paved trail tell the story.
  2. Continue north on the 190 and follow the spur road to Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Spring fed marshy pools support the unusual desert pupfish descended from creatures that lived in the basin's ancient lake, 12,000 years ago. This is a great place to bird watch. Look out for Canada geese, peregrine falcons, hawks and eagles.
  3. Continue north on the 190 until you reach Stovepipe Wells Village. Nearby there are 14 square miles of sand dunes at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The dunes have no established trails so have fun exploring and climbing them.
  4. Head 1/4 of a mile west of Stovepipe Wells Village and follow the graded gravel spur road to Mosaic Canyon. Here you will find a showcase of geological features as well as a stunning example of one of Death Valley's many canyons. Take a 2-mile (4-mile round trip) moderate hike towards the foothills of Tucki Mountain through narrow passageways and multi-colored, layered rock. The canyons in Death Valley are caused by running water over millions of years.
  5. Head east back through the village, turn left onto Scotty's Road and continue North for 33 miles to Scotty's Castle. Scotty's Castle is tucked away in the Grapevine Canyon in northern Death Valley. It is a two story Spanish Colonial Revival style villa constructed in 1922. Walter Scott convinced people that he had built the castle from the secret mines in the area. In reality, Albert Mussey Johnson built the house as a vacation getaway for him and his wife. Take the Scotty's Castle House Tour. Here Park rangers dressed in 1930's living history costumes will answer any questions you may have about Scotty and the Johnsons as they lead you through the Castle. The tour visits ornately furnished rooms with amazing woodcarvings, colorful tiles and costume-designed furniture. The tours are conducted daily 365 days a year, 7 days a week and last approximately 50 minutes.

Three Day Visit

Day One:

  1. Complete the "One Day Visit" itinerary listed above for your first day.
  2. Spend the night at one of the three campgrounds near the Furnace Visitor Center.

If you don't have a high-clearance vehicle:

Day Two:

  1. Complete Day Two of the Two-Day Visit itinerary.
  2. Spend the night at Mesquite Spring Campground.

Day Three:

  1. Wake up early and head over to the Ubehebe Crater 8 miles west of Scott's Castle. It's a volcanic crater 660 feet deep and over half a mile wide. It is estimated to be anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 years old. It is easily viewed from the parking area on the rim, but further exploration is encouraged as it unveils smaller craters and interesting erosions. Hike the moderate 1 mile round trip Little Hebe Crater Trail and also walk the easy 1.5 mile loop around Ubehebe's rim.
  2. Take the Lower Vine Ranch Tour for a more private side of the famous Death Valley Scotty. These tours are more limited, so you'll need to make a reservation before going. The Lower Vine Ranch Tour shows Scotty's real home he lived in for over 20 years. The site includes, a blacksmith shed, garage, grain shed, mule corral, spring, and the outdoor bathtub. The tour lasts approximately 2.5 hours and involves a 2 mile walk round-trip over a dirt road.

If you have a high clearance vehicle:

Day Two:

  1. Complete points 1 to 4 on Day Two of the Two-Day Visit itinerary.
  2. From Mosaic Canyon, head east back through Stovepipe Wells Village, turn left onto Scotty's Road and then turn right onto US 374. Continue about 23 miles and turn left onto Titus Canyon Road. It's a 27 mile scenic dirt road through Titus Canyon that offers stunning views of rugged mountains, colorful rock formations, spectacular canyon narrows, a ghost town and petroglyphs. Allow 2 to 3 hours minimum.
  3. Spend the night at Mesquite Spring Campground near Scotty's Castle.

Day Three:

  1. Wake up early and head over to the Ubehebe Crater 8 miles west of Scott's Castle. It's a volcanic crater 660 feet deep and over half a mile wide. It is estimated to be anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 years old. It is easily viewed from the parking area on the rim, but further exploration is encouraged as it unveils smaller craters and interesting erosions. Hike the moderate 1 mile round trip Little Hebe Crater Trail and also walk the easy 1.5 mile loop around Ubehebe's rim.
  2. Either take the Lower Vine Ranch Tour as described above or Scotty's Castle House Tour also described above.

Main Activities

Camping, hiking, house, ranch and paleontology tours, photography, scenic drive, stargazing, wildlife watching.

Ranger Progams

There are numerous Ranger Programs available. They vary depending on the time of year.

Park Map

Park Map Park Map

Visitor and Information Center

Furnace Creek Visitor Center

Hours of Operation: Open daily 8:00 AM-5:00 PM
Telephone: (760) 786-3200
Location: The visitor center is located in the Furnace Creek resort area on California Highway 190. Furnace Creek is 30 miles from Death Valley Junction and 24 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village.
Special Programs: A 20-minute-long park film is shown throughout the day. During the winter season, November to April, rangers present a wide variety of walks, talks, and slide presentations about Death Valley's cultural and natural history. Additional programs may be presented at other times. Inquire at the visitor center for current programs.
Exhibits: Exhibits provide park orientation.
Available Facilities: The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the main visitor information source for the park. There is a fully staffed information desk with information on all aspects of the park and its operation. The Death Valley Natural History Association maintains a well stocked book sales outlet specifically geared towards the natural and cultural history of the park.

Scotty's Castle Visitor Center

Hours of Operation: Open daily, Winter 8:45 am to 4:45 pm Pacific Time, Summer 9:30 am to 4:15 pm Pacific Time.
Telephone: (760) 786-2392 ext.231
Location: In the north part of Death Valley National Park, 53 miles from Furnace Creek and approximately 45 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village. From U.S. Route 95, 154 miles north of Las Vegas, it is 26 miles to Scotty's Castle on Nevada State Route 267.
Special Programs: The highlight of a visit to Scotty's Castle is the 50-55 minute long guided living history tour of the interior of the main house. Tour reservations can be made 24 hours in advance by visiting www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. Same-day tour tickets may be purchased on a first-come, first-served basis at the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. A self-guiding tour of the Castle grounds is also available. Check at the visitor center for more information and guide booklet.
Available Facilities: Scotty's Castle is a day-use area only. The Castle grounds are open daily 7:00 am to 5:30 pm. No overnight accommodations are available on site. Restrooms are located on the property. Gasoline is not available at Scotty's Castle. The nearest gas stations are at Stovepipe Wells (45 miles south), Furnace Creek (53 miles South), and Beatty, Nevada (60 miles southeast). The Death Valley Natural History Association operates a book/gift store inside the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. The association provides books, gifts, drinks, pre-packaged food items and general information on the story of Scotty's Castle and Death Valley.

Entrance Fees

$20 per private vehicle and $10 per person if the individual is entering by foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. Permit is valid for 7 days.

Death Valley National Park Annual Pass is $40, is valid for twelve months from the date of purchase and provides unlimited number of visits.

Entry is free if you own a valid National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

Fuel

It is always a good idea to keep a full tank in your vehicle as distances are great and fuel is available in the park only at Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village, and Panamint Springs Resort. Diesel and propane may purchased at Furnace Creek Ranch.

Pets

While visiting the park, please observe the following:

  • Pets must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet or in a crate.
  • Pets are allowed on roads, established parking areas, developed campgrounds, and designated picnic areas.
  • Pets are not allowed in the backcountry, or on any trail within the park (including hiking trails and designated ski trails and routes).
  • Pets are not allowed in any federal building.
  • Pets can not be left unattended even in a vehicle or tied to an object.
  • All solid pet excrement must be picked up immediately by the owner or person in control of the pet and disposed of in trash receptacles.

These regulations do not apply to guide dogs accompanying visually impaired persons or hearing ear dogs accompanying hearing-impaired persons.

Health Tips

Bring plenty of drinking water, sunscreen and a hat. You can get sunburnt and dehydrated easily.

Campgrounds

There are nine campgrounds in Death Valley National Park:

The Furnace Creek Campground is the only National Park Service (NPS) campground in Death Valley that takes advance reservations on the Internet or by telephone. Reservations can be made for the camping season of October 15 through April 15. Furnace Creek Campground reservations can be made six months in advance. Group campsite reservations can be made 11 months in advance. All other NPS campgrounds are first-come-first-served.

RV Hookups are available only at the concession-run Stovepipe Wells RV Park and the privately-owned Furnace Creek Ranch Resort and Panamint Springs Resort. However, the National Park service has installed 20 full hookup sites in the Furnace Creek Campground this past year. They are hoping to have them fully operational and available to the public by January 2014.

Generator hours are from 7 am to 7 pm, unless otherwise posted. Generators are not allowed at Texas Springs Campground.

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Photos

Mudstone badlands Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Mudstone badlands Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley National Park
Devil's Golf Course
Salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
* Salt flats of Badwater Basin, America's lowest point
Natural Bridge Canyon, Death Valley National Park
Natural Bridge Canyon
Multi-colored volcanic and sedimentary hills seen from Artist's Drive, Death Valley National Park
* Artist's palette seen from Artist's Drive
Birds eye view of the salt pans of Death Valley National Park from Dante's View
* Looking down at the salt pans from Dante's View
Mule Wagons at Harmony Borax Works, Death Valley National Park
Mule Wagons at Harmony Borax Works
Pup fish found in pools at Salt Creek, Death Valley National Park
* Pup fish descended from creatures that lived in the basin's ancient lake, 12,000 years ago
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park
* Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Hikers exploring the narrows of Mosiac Canyon, Death Valley National Park
* Hikers exploring the narrows of Mosaic Canyon
Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park
Scotty's Castle
Vehicle driving through Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park
* Spectacular Titus Canyon
Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley National Park
Ubehebe Crater
* Photo courtesy of NPS.gov


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