I had no idea what to expect from Death Valley, and never in my wildest dreams could I think of a place as unique as this National Park. This road trip guide to Death Valley highlights all of the logistics and places you can’t miss! Nestled within the Mojave and Great Basin deserts is the lowest point in the North America and it is indeed beautiful. During my four day trip to Death Valley I learned a thing or two about what to do and what not to do! And of course, what to see and experience. Here is your complete road trip guide to Death Valley National Park!
Why is it named Death Valley?
The name Death Valley was coined after a group of pioneers got lost in the basin in the winter of 1849 and into 1850. The goal was to cross from Salt Lake City to California by way of the Old Spanish Trail. For a shortcut and to shave 500 miles off of the journey, the group of pioneers and their wagons journeyed through the Utah/Nevada state line and into present day Death Valley- over the course of two months. The group split into two separate groups and chose varying courses of action and routes out of the valley.
It is said, as they finally managed to begin making their way out of the valley, one of them men looked back and declared ‘Goodbye, Death Valley.’
Where is Death Valley and how do I get there?
Our hottest, driest and lowest National Park is located in Eastern California in the Northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. That said, it is a 4.5 hour drive from Los Angeles and 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas, with the closest commercial airport being McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
I had the opportunity to take the long way, via Los Angeles! I rented an SUV in Los Angeles and made the drive. Albeit, a long one, I would do it all over again.
As for the drive from Lone Pine, which if you’re heading by way of Los Angeles you will likely pass through, once you leave the town there are no facilities for one hour. Panamint Springs is the only gas station along the way so it is essential to fuel up before heading for Death Valley.
Once you’re in the park there are only TWO gas stations. From Panamint Springs to Stovepipe Wells (the first gas station upon entering the Park) it is a 30 minute drive. And, Stovepipe Wells to the second gas station is another 30 minute drive; averaging about 25 miles apart. Driving distances within the park and to/from accommodation can be long.
Why am I harping on fuel? Because in order to get around the Park, fuel is essential and with the park being 5,270 square miles and 3.2 million acres, the last thing you want is to be stranded in the middle of a desert without a way out, like the Lost 49ers. Obviously, the Parks have search and rescue but why take the team away from a real emergency when we have the resources to prevent running out of fuel.
The service in Death Valley is spotty and comes and goes. When I visited, and stayed at The Oasis at Death Valley, the wind was so strong it knocked out the WiFi. I recommend saving all your Google Maps offline so that you can access them without service. But to save them, you must have WiFi so be sure to save them before you start your road trip. OR, use a real live paper map.
For hiking trails, I use the app AllTrails. I have the premium version which means I am able to save the maps offline. This ensures I navigate safely on any hiking trail.
Park Entry Fee
You’ve made the drive and you’re in the park! The vehicle entrance fee is $30 and lasts 7 days. Don’t worry, if you arrive after park hours you can pick up your entry ticket the following morning before exploring.
It’s important to note there are three main facilities (sort of like towns) within the park: Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Panamint Springs is at the Western edge of the park and this is the first town you pass through when driving in from Lone Pine. Stovepipe Wells is the second and Furnace Creek is the third, just down the road from the Visitor’s Center. Furnace Creek acted as the jumping off point for me because it was centrally and conveniently located for much of what I wanted to see.
Many of the roads are well paved and well maintained. There are some maintained dirt roads, like if you take a wrong turn trying to get to Ubehebe 😉 But, all of the roads I navigated were perfectly maintained, albeit winding and hilly! Some roads are only accessible by 4×4 so please pay attention to signage through the park and through your research while planning.
Accommodation + Food
We’ve covered the drive from Lone Pine, you’re fueled up and you are now in the park! The next order of business is deciding accommodation. Like any National Park, there are a lot of options when it comes to rest. We will cover campgrounds and hotels/inns. Choosing your accommodation is important! With how big and remote Death Valley is, choosing a place of rest that is conveniently located near the places you want to visit in order to minimize drive time, is key.
Campgrounds in Death Valley
There are 9 campgrounds in the Park and each has varying amounts of availability. If you’re visiting in the summer months there is limited availability because fewer campgrounds are open due to less demand. Some summer nights in Death Valley can remain a steamy 100 degrees which many find unfavorable! From May- September, all open campgrounds are first-come, first-serve.
October-April are historically the cooler months (Fall, Winter, and Spring) and there is a rise in demand for campsites. Furnace Creek Campground is the only campground that takes reservations in the Park during this time. All others are first-come, first-serve (just like low season).
All campgrounds are not staffed. Once you enter the campground and find a spot you can pay your campground fee at one of the automated self-help kiosks, unless you’ve booked FCG.
Hotels/Inns in Death Valley
There are four lodging options within Death Valley National Park and all are open year round.
Stovepipe Wells Village has resort accommodations and RV camping sites with full hookups.
Within The Oasis at Death Valley, there are two accommodation options. The Ranch at Death Valley and The Inn at Death Valley, with the Inn being the more luxurious of the two. Having stayed at both of them, I would stay at each of them again. The Ranch at Death Valley is a standard motel style accommodation with a country/general store and restaurant. It’s geared towards families and the more adventurous folk that don’t need the bells and whistles of a fancy hotel. The Inn, on the other hand, is rated Four Diamond and has been an elegant escape since 1927. It is the larger of the two and has the most divine pool to cool off from that hot summer, mid-day sun!
The Panamint Springs Resort offers lodging, RV hookups, a restaurant, bar, gas station and general store. This is the first gas station you will pass through when driving in from Lone Pine, 10 miles inside the Western edge of the Park. It’s quaint, rustic and western style gives you those Lost 49ers feels whilst overlooking the Panamint range.
Within the Park there are seven restaurants and four general stores where you can purchase anything you might need. However, at the general stores, the prices are far higher than they would be say at your local grocery store. So, I recommend opting to bring a cooler in with the bulk of your items. And use the general stores to replenish or stock up on the items you forgot.
Menu items at the restaurants are pricey as well, I’d say the median price for an entree is $20. To cut costs, we brought in our breakfast and snacked throughout the day. Using dinner as our splurge meal.
I recommend packing plenty of water, especially if you are camping. There are water refill stations at Stovepipe and Furnace Creek but what good is that if you aren’t going to be nearby? At least, if you run out of water it is just a drive away.
As always, to minimize waste removal within the Park, bring all utensils, towels, reusable plates, mugs and water bottles when bringing in food or camping.
Let’s talk bathrooms. Sometimes, nature calls and you aren’t near a toilet. If this happens it is important to CARRY OUT YOUR POOP. Yes, as if you were carrying out your dogs poop- do the same for your own waste. Human waste contains different bacteria than animal waste, should an animal approach or should it get into the ground system it could have adverse effects.
Here is more information about the Parks accessibility and bathrooms.
What to Pack
A road trip guide to Death Valley would not be complete without some packing recommendations! There is lots to see and do in Death Valley National Park and chances are it is going to be hot (or windy) while doing/seeing/experiencing it all. Here is a brief list of items I recommend packing:
- Hiking boots + walking shoes
- Trekking poles + pack for hiking
- Loose pants + shorts
- A hat to protect your face and scalp from the sun
- Environmentally friendly sunscreen like Badger or Biossance
- Reusable water bottle and camp cooking essentials
- A map
- Portable phone charger
- Poop bags for yourself and your dog 😉
- On that note, unbleached toilet paper
Places to visit
Drumroll please, the fun part of this road trip guide to Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is vast, dry and hot. Beyond that, there is so much life that exists within the Park boundaries. From wildlife to flora and fauna to scenic vistas to towering dunes to craters- adventure awaits. Here are the six places I visited during my four day trip to Death Valley.
A gorgeous lookout and small hike overlooking the valley below. The sweeping vista stretches for as far as the eye can see whilst standing on the spine of the Black Mountains. There is a small dirt path that you can walk along to the tip of the ridge. For the most part you are walking in the center of the ridge so the cliffs are not directly below you, I found this humorously comforting!
Dante’s View is a great spot to catch both the sunrise and sunset as you’ll be standing high above the valley floor. From Furnace Creek (the area I stayed in) to Dante’s View its about a 30 minute drive! I spent a little over an hour photographing and sitting with its beauty. So at least, allot an hour or more.
From Dante’s View, I made the 30-minute drive to Zabriskie Point. I will say, mid-morning and mid-day sun makes for a very hot experience here because there is no shelter from the sun- at all. My recommendation, after experiencing this beautiful view both mid-morning and during sunset- save this spot for sunset! It is EPIC and the colors of the canyon are golden.
It is also a good hiking spot. You can start from the point and hike the Badlands Loop or hop on one of the connector trails that lead to Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Red Cathedral.
Following Zabriskie, I drove 24 minutes to Badwater Basin. Famously known as the lowest point in North America as it sits at 282 feet below sea level. Rather than a rivers erosion, like many valleys in North America, Badwater was formed out of movements in Earth’s crust forcing the area of land far below sea level. You’ll find signs all around the Park telling you where you are in relation to sea level, it’s quite interesting to see!
I recommend visiting any time of day other than mid-day! It was hot and I just so happened to visit during a wind storm- if this is the case when you visit try to find another time when the wind has calmed down to visit. Some gusts measured up to 50 mph! It is a great spot for night photography too, as it is isolated from the inns and resorts and the sky is unobstructed.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Many people, including myself, are surprised to find that Death Valley isn’t a barren wasteland filled with sand, and less than 1% of the desert is covered with dunes! The sand collects in the specific spots because when the wind carries it, it becomes trapped due to the surrounding mountains acting as barriers!
The best sunrise spot in Death Valley National Park, in my opinion. And, lucky for us early risers its only a 30 minute drive from Furnace Creek so if you’re catching the sunrise then you get a few extra minutes of sleep!
Sand dunes are so fascinating to me – a bunch of sand randomly collected in towering dunes perfectly positioned in a valley surrounded by mountains. Though these are not the tallest sand dunes in the park (those are Eureka) they are worth visiting. But after some research, I would recommend visiting Eureka too if you have time, they are less touristed.
There is a proper car park for Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes but no proper trail because the dunes shift every single day due to wind. If you get there early in the morning, you will have the luxury of walking untouched sand creating pathways for those who visit after you.
Be vigilant of rattlesnakes in the warm months and respect no sandboarding rules!
About an hour from the dunes you’ll find this behemoth of a crater. Ubehebe is 600 feet deep and stretches ½ a mile across! It was created by a steam and gas explosion when hot magma touched groundwater. The heat turned the water into pressurized steam beneath the Earth’s surface until it exploded. Scientists believe the maar volcanoes in the area formed as recently as 300 years ago!
Once in Ubehebe you can hike around the crater and make your way over to Lil’ Hebe. Some of the ridgelines are narrow with steep drop-offs so they aren’t for the faint of heart. But the views are worth it! Some of the paths are loose gravel while others are rocky or solid sand- if I were to hike it again I would wear hiking boots instead of sneakers. While hiking, bring your water bottle and a snack to enjoy with the view 😉 And always follow Leave No Trace principles.
Artist’s Drive + Palette
The Google estimates the drive from Ubehebe to Artists Palette to be an hour and 36 minutes but I recommend freshening up and resting before heading to Artist’s Drive. The hour before golden hour, and golden hour itself, are the perfect times to visit. Perhaps, for the sake of timing, do sunset at Zabriskie the first night and golden hour the second night at Artist’s Palette- trying to make both happen in the same night is a time crunch.
Artist’s Drive is the scenic, 9 mile, paved road that leads you to the main event: Artist’s Palette. Why is it called Artist’s Drive? Well the colors displayed on the Amargosa Range’s sedimentary hills are reminiscent of the colors of an artist’s palette. You will see hues of pink, mauve, gold, green, lavender and in the late afternoon, nearing golden hour, the colors are the most vivid.
You’ll have the opportunity to hike down into the canyon to get a closer look at the layers, trails and rocks that make up this otherworldly location.
Two full days of exploring the otherworldly lands of Death Valley National Park is simply not enough. I saw as much as I could but there were still some spots I missed. Guess that means another visit needs to happen! Here are the places I didn’t make it to but wish I did.
- The Racetrack
- Devils Golf Course
- Hiking Mosaic Canyon
- Darwin Falls
- Wildrose Peak
- Telescope Peak
- Natural Bridge
Road Trip Guide to Death Valley Tips!
- Save your route (to/from/within) offline AND carry a map of the park with you.
- Always know the mileage of your adventure to ensure you have enough fuel.
- Make sure to note the closest bathrooms to your destinations; depending on the season they might not be open. The visitors center will give you the low down as well as this link for accessibility.
- Have patience with your drives, they will most likely take longer than the estimate Google gives; especially if there are dirt roads or high winds. Allow for drive time to vary from place to place.
- Always have food, fuel and water.
- Best sunrise spots: Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Best sunset spots: Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Aguereberry Point and golden hour at Artists Palette.
- Death Valley’s FAQ page is super helpful
- Brush up on your night photography skills, Death Valley is one of the best places to see the Milky Way as it is ranked as a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park- the highest rating of darkness given by the international Dark Sky Association!
I hope you found this road trip guide to Death Valley helpful and inclusive. If you’re driving from Los Angeles, check out this post! Happy planning!