Road Trips

Death Valley Road Trip Tips

The driest location in North America, famous for the highest temperature ever recorded— welcome to Death Valley. Breathtaking canyons, picturesque landscape and pixel perfect colors mark what is the lowest point in North America. The valley beckons, waiting for visitors to visit, explore, and look on in awe.

Death Valley National Park is an often sought out destination for locals and tourists alike, with a number of activities from ATV riding to hiking and sightseeing ranking among favored items on the “to do” list of visitors.

In this guide, we’ll help you make the most of your trip by discussing the essentials: when to go, what to wear, what to see, where to sleep, and other important information.

When to Visit Death Valley

Death Valley is open every season, but when is the best time to go? It’s up to you. Many people advise against summer travel as the desert gets incredibly hot. Because of this, not only are crowds down during the scorching summer months, but so are available tours and activities. January can lead to overcast, spitting skies. But the season that reallymatters is the tourist season.

It’s best to go when crowds are down so that you can truly enjoy the experience without having to listen to Helicopter Hannah chewing out her boys for walking five steps too close to someone.

Spring leads to beautiful flowers dotting the landscape, but you’ll also find more campers hoping to enjoy the view. You would need to plan your trip pretty far in advance to guarantee a spot, but the wash of gorgeous plant life is worth it.

Fall and Winter tend to be slower seasons; the temperature and the crowds will be lower. If you plan to camp in the park, remember that while it may be warm to hot in the day, evening and nighttime can get pretty chilly. Be prepared: pack extra layers and blankets, and have something to protect your campsite from the wind.

What to Wear

As with any trip, layers, layers, layers. Death Valley has hot to sweltering days and chilly to frigid nights. If you plan to stay overnight, have some extra layers packed away that you won’t need to lug all over the park when hiking. Desert weather can vary wildly no matter the season, and you want to ensure everyone is prepared. It’s best to back sun protection such as hats, sunglasses, and sunscreens for protection. You’ll also want a sturdy pair of shoes that can hold up to hiking in rugged terrain; there are a few drivable areas, but the best experience is on the ground, right in the thick of it. An important note: don’t wear sandals or other open-toed shoes. Open shoes and sandals are a bad idea for hiking in general, but even more so in certain terrains and temperatures.

Once you know what type of activities you wish to participate in the next advisable step is to consult online weather sites in order to get a better idea of the type of weather you can expect. Mother Nature is a powerful force in Death Valley, often dictating what activities can or should be partaken of that day.

What to See

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is always a good jumping-off point for any trip; exhibits through the center discuss the geology and indigenous history of the area, while rangers can give expert advice on what to check out any given day. Whether you go for one day or many or take several trips, the following landmarks are the most famous hot spots in the park.

  • Zabriskie Point – the perfect sunrise view, you can watch as the Panamint Range is painted in pinks and purples while the Badlands glow gold.
  • Badwater Basin – salt flats and pools at North America’s lowest elevation; a three-mile roundtrip hike also passes around the Golden Canyon, Red Cathedral, Natural Bridge, and Devil’s Golf Course.
  • Artist’s Drive – This one-way road passes through some of Death Valley’s most colorful displays from sedimentary and volcanic formations. The best is last at Artist’s Pallete, with rocks from a dream— greens, pinks, yellows.
  • Dante’s View – an overlook 5,475 feel in the Black Mountains; several hiking trails.
  • Mesquite Flat Dunes – A sea of shifting sands, the best place to see the life within Death Valley; coyotes, desert kit foxes, kangaroo rats, and more dart about the sands.
  • Ubehebe Crater – a 600 ft deep abyss; this volcanic crater has a 1.5-mile trail around the rim.

Where to Sleep

A trip to Death Valley offers a choice: you can camp in one of the 12 campgrounds or stay in one of the four inns. The park service operates nine of the 12, with the last three being privately owned. Aside from the Furnace Creek Campground, which takes reservation through recreation.gov, all campgrounds are first-come, first-served.

Most of the campgrounds are open areas, exposed to the elements and the desert sun. Only two campgrounds have ample shade— Thorndike and Mahogany Flat in the Panamint Mountains –but they can only be accessed with high clearance, and sometimes you need four-wheel drive.

Heart of the Park

  • Furnace Creek — water, flush toilets; near general store and service.
  • Texas Spring — water, flush toilets; near Furnace Creek Services, but feels removed.
  • Sunset — water and flush toilets; open Oct 15-May 1; near Furnace Creek services
  • Furnace Creek RV Resort (private) — water, flush toilets, showers, full hook-ups; free Wi-Fi; adjacent to the general store.
  • Fiddler’s Campground (private) — no water, toilets; Free Wi-Fi; adjacent to the visitors center.

Western Death Valley

  • Stovepipe Wells— water and flush toilets; near gas station; general store and restaurant within walking distance.
  • Emigrant— tents only; water and flush toilets.
  • Panamint Springs (private)– water, flush toilets, showers; 12 hookups for RVs; near a gas station; general store and restaurant within walking distance.
  • Wildrose— water, pit toilets; cooler than the valley.
  • Thorndike— no water, pit toilets; Open Mar-Nov; far cooler than valley floor locations.
  • Mahogany Flat— no water, pit toilets; Open Mar-Nov; far cooler than valley floor.

Northern Death Valley

  • Mesquite Valley— water, flush toilets; quiet ambiance; close to Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater.

If you don’t feel u to camping, Death Valley also has four hotels: Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, and Panamint Springs Resort.

Driving in Death Valley

If hiking isn’t really your jam but you still want to see the sites, don’t worry! Death Valley offers several driving routes between certain viewpoints. However, not every road in the park is suitable for all vehicles; some roads are not suitable for RVs and other large vehicles due to the dips and turns, while other roads have terrain only suitable for 4WD. You also want to have some emergency supplies on hand should anything happen with your car so that your family can stay comfortable in the often extreme temperatures while you wait for assistance.

The National Park Service keeps a full list of all available roads, what vehicles they accommodate, and what standard conditions you can expect. They will also list any closures.

Remember these important tips:

  • Drive Carefully— long stretches can start to lull any driver.
  • Pack plenty of water— and we mean Sip through the day. Dehydration is a big risk in arid climates. Most veteran travelers recommend at least a gallon per person per day.
  • Have a tarp on hand— if your car does break down, it will be too hot to sit in. A tarp can provide adequate coverage while you wait for assistance and protect you from the elements.
  • Do not leave the vicinity of your car— cars are highly visible and the first thing to spot in the event of an emergency. Rangers patrol the park, so they’ll find you.

Lack of Coverage — Phone and Internet

Death Valley stays true to its name; it is mostly a dead zone in regards to phone service and the internet. Furnace Creek is the best place to try for a signal, and the Inn offers Wi-Fi. If you find yourself in a pinch, Furnace Creek does offer conventional payphones.

Death Valley forces you to unplug and live in the moment. You still have your battery for pictures, but packing a map and back up navigation information would be wise. You never know if your GPS signal will cut out halfway to Badwater Basin.

Sparse Services— groceries, gas, and more

One of the big expenses on your trip will be gas. Gas, essential groceries, ice, and sit-down meals can be found at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs— that’s it. Make sure you don’t leave without a full tank of gas. You may want to balk at the price, but paying up now is better than finding yourself stranded in the park.

Consider topping off whenever you see a gas station, as well.

Escape Into Wonder

Death Valley National Park is a must-see destination for every bucket list. Larger even than Yellowstone, Death Valley beckons the adventuring heart, the tired heart, and everyone in between for a look at the wonder of the world around us— free of distraction.

About the author

Richard Jackson