A Personal Death Valley Visitors Guide
By Nick Nolan, guest writer.
Death Valley is a National Park in Eastern California, right next to the California-Nevada border. Death Valley is around 3,000 square miles of desert, dunes, and salt pans. The National Park is one of the hottest places in the world and has the lowest elevation in the United States.
Despite the harsh weather, over a million people visit Death Valley each year, and visitorship has doubled in the past 15 years. The majority of visitors make a quick stop through Death Valley on their way to Las Vegas and other national parks like Yosemite and Sequoia.
Background and history
Death Valley has been inhabited for the past 500 years, and some people still live there. Initially, the area was named tümpisa, which means “rock paint” and the Valley got its English name in 1849 during the California Gold Rush.
As travelers made their way to the West Coast in search of gold, 13 pioneers lost their lives in Death Valley, and after that, most people assumed they wouldn’t make it out of the valley alive (NPS).
One hundred years ago, you would’ve found busy mining cities and people searching for silver and gold. Today you can discover abandoned mines and ghost towns. Death Valley was recognized as a national monument in 1933 and then recognized as a National Park in 1994.
When to visit Death Valley
Death Valley has visitors stopping by all year round, but there are some months you might want to avoid if you plan on staying in the park. From May to September, the average high temperatures are over 100℉ (38℃). The other months of the year range from the mid-60s to 90s, with temperatures dropping into the 40s at night. And there is an average rainfall of only 2 inches per year.
If you plan on going in the middle of the summer, be prepared for extreme heat and minimal shade. I would recommend avoiding June, July, and August unless you’re driving through on your way somewhere else.
If you want to stay in the park for hiking and exploring, December, January, and February will be much more tolerable and enjoyable. Chances are you won’t need to worry about bringing an umbrella, but small amounts of rainfall can cause flash flooding.
No matter when you decide to go, bring plenty of water because it’s going to be warm and dry.
Want to see flowers blooming?
Despite the dry weather and desert-like conditions, you can catch impressive views of yellow wildflowers blooming across Death Valley. The best time to catch the wildflowers blooming is from February to early May. The amount of wildflowers that bloom largely depends on the weather conditions, but you can see them in different areas of the park.
What to do in Death Valley
There are plenty of things to do in the National Park that can make for a perfect getaway. I’ll highlight a few of my favorite activities, there’s something for everyone to enjoy!
You can easily spend a few days exploring Death Valley. I recommend planning ahead and giving yourself enough time to see each sight. If you’re just driving through the park, map out a few spots on your journey to stop and take pictures.
- Salt Creek: Hiking to Salt Creek is an easy 30-minute hike to a creek. The best time to hike is between February and April.
- Badwater Salt Flat: The Badwater Salt Flat is the lowest point in North America. It offers some spectacular views of the Badwater Basin. You can hike 1 to 5 miles, and it’s not recommended in the heat because there’s no shade.
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: These are the most accessible sand dunes in Death Valley. There aren’t established trails, but the dunes’ summit is about one mile each way to and from the parking lot, so be prepared for the heat and bring water.
- Ubehebe Crater: This is one of my favorite hikes. It’s a 1.5-mile loop or about a half-mile to a popular viewpoint of the crater. It’s not recommended for people afraid of heights.
- Darwin Falls: This is another one of the best hikes. It’s a moderate 1.5 to 2-hour hike. Darwin Falls is surrounded by greenery and offers some great views, but you cannot go swimming here.
Things to see
- Sunrise and Sunsets: Some of the best sunsets can be seen from the Mesquite Dunes, Rainbow Canyon, and Badwater Basin. You can wake up early to catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point and Dantes View.
- Star Wars Tour: Star Wars filmed in the park for Episode IV — A New Hope and Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. You can go to Golden Canyon, Artist’s Drive, Desolation Canyon, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Dantes View, and the sand dunes to see scenes that might look familiar.
- Devils Golf Course: This is a vast area of jagged rocks that have been carved out by wind and water, which would make a difficult golf course.
- Rainbow Canyon: Also called Star Wars Canyon, you can see rock walls of different shades of green, pink, and red.
- Zabriskie Point: This viewpoint is the most popular viewpoint in Death Valley. This is also a great place to watch the sunrise and sunset. If you love this viewpoint, be sure to check out the puzzle of Zabriskie Point and take the views home with you.
- The Night Sky: If you have the time, you need to stay in the park to see the night sky. Death Valley offers one of the darkest skies in the US, which means you can see the most stars. If you go during a new moon you can see even more.
Staying in Death Valley
Staying a few days in Death Valley can be a great getaway from the busyness of life, and you can enjoy the peacefulness and the spectacular scenery around you. As I mentioned before, you will want to stay here during the cooler winter and early spring months, because it’s too hot in the summer.
That also means that the park will be busier during the cooler months, so you’ll want to plan your trip a few weeks in advance. There are many must-see spots, so you can easily spend 3-4 days driving and hiking through the park.
Where to stay
If you decide to make Death Valley a weekend getaway, or a short vacation, you have a few options and different places to spend the night. There are also a few restaurants and shops located in the park, so you don’t need to bring all of your own food and drinks.
Furnace Creek has the most popular camping sites in Death Valley and the site with the most amenities around it. You will likely need to make a reservation if you’re not visiting during the summer months.
All the other campsites are first-come, first-serve basis. And every campsite except for Emigrant has space for RV parking.
If you want a more luxurious stay, there are four resorts in the national park. The hotel options vary in price, but they all offer nice amenities and can make your visit feel more like a vacation. You can check out the hotels and booking options here.
What’s close by?
If you’re on a road trip, it’s always a good idea to check out what’s close by, or on the way to your destination. There isn’t much on the borders of Death Valley other than the desert, but there are some other great national parks and cities within a few short hours.
Las Vegas is a two-hour drive east of Death Valley, and Red Rock Canyon is on the way, which I recommend driving through.
On a map, Sequoia National Park is right next to Death Valley, but you aren’t able to enter Sequoia from the eastern side. That means to get into Sequoia, you’ll need to drive around to the western entrance, which is about 5 hours from Death Valley.
Yosemite National Park is a four-hour drive northwest of Death Valley. Many travelers choose to drive through Death Valley on their way to Yosemite because you can go through the east entrance and out the west entrance. This is about a two-hour drive if you stop to take a few pictures in the park.
Five fun facts about Death Valley
- The vertical drop from Telescope Peak to Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon
- In 1929 not a single drop of rain was recorded in Death Valley
- Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US
- 320 people live in Death Valley
- In 1913 Death Valley recorded its coldest (15℉) and hottest temperatures (134℉)
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I bring my pets?
Pets are allowed in the park. Remember that you’ll need to clean up after them, and they must remain on a leash…. And it can be VERY hot.
Do I need a 4×4 vehicle?
Nope! There are over 300 miles of paved roads throughout the park. There are hundreds of miles of dirt road and unmaintained roads where 4×4 is recommended.
How much does it cost to enter?
You can buy an entrance pass for $30 that’s valid for seven days. Or I recommend getting the $80 Annual Pass, which covers entrance fees to all national parks for a year.
What should I bring?
It depends on how long you plan on staying. Water, sunscreen, snacks, hiking clothes, and a camera are all a must!
Nick Nolan is a content creator based in San Diego, California. Living in San Diego has provided the opportunity to explore the outdoors and weekend getaways to the numerous National Parks a few hours away. Nick has had opportunities to travel and write on-the-go to provide tips, firsthand insights, and travel guides to readers.