kara at badwater basin in death valley
California,  Destinations,  National Parks,  RV Travel,  West US

Complete Guide to Visit Death Valley National Park including Itinerary

Travel date April 2021

Death Valley National Park loves to brag about their parks superlatives.  It’s the hottest, driest and lowest.   Hottest place on earth, lowest and driest place in North America.   This isn’t a welcoming environment for most wildlife.  However, the beauty is unworldly and shouldn’t be missed.   Our complete guide covers everything you need to know and the things you can’t miss at Death Valley on a short visit.

This combination makes for a very unique place.   Death Valley is one of California’s numerous national parks.  The park is so large it covers many ecosystems including lush green high elevation mountains to barren salt flats sitting hundreds of feet below sea level.  Park visitors can find a day or week’s worth of things to do using our park activity guide, 24 Amazing Things To Do at Death Valley

red cathedral at death valley

Fun Facts about Death Valley National Park

  • Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States (lower 48).
  • The park’s name was given by a group of pioneers who got lost here from 1849-1850.  Despite fearing the inhospitable valley would be their grave, only one person died.
  • Superblooms are unpredictable and that’s part of what makes them magical. When wildflower seeds get enough rain at the right time, their blooms carpet the floor of the valley in a phenomenon known as a superbloom.   It attracts visitors from around the world.  A superbloom is a rare occurrence but the NPS updates the park’s wildflower status here.
  • There are 1,000 miles of roads throughout the park both paved and unpaved.
  • Devil’s Hole Pupfish is a species of tiny resilient fish that survive in the warm and high salinity waters of the park. Other fish would perish in similar conditions but pupfish have adapted to this environment.  You can watch them frolic in the stream along the boardwalks of Devils Hole.
  • Racetrak Playa (The Racetrack) is a large dry lakebed.  Boulders slide across flat ground and it wasn’t until 2014 that scientists finally solved the mystery.
  • Roadrunners are one of the most commonly spotted wildlife in the park.  Their high body temperature allows them to survive in the valley’s extreme heat.
  • Artist Palette is an area of colorful eroded hills.  It was the filming location for Tatooine in the Star Wars: A New Hope. I’d describe the colorful mineral deposits as unworldly beauty.  Seriously, it’s literally the location of a land far, far away.
artist palette in death valley

Death Valley National Park Basic Facts

Location: Southeastern California along the Nevada border

Park Size: 3.4m acres (5,270 square miles)

Elevation: -282 feet at Badwater Basin to 11k feet in the mountains

Number of visitors annually: 1.7M in 2019

Established: National Monument (1933) designated National Park (1994)

Admission: $30 for a 7-day entrance permit for private vehicles or an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass

Visitor Centers: Furnace Creek

How long do I need at Death Valley?

I would allow at least 2 days at Death Valley.  We stayed 3 days and 2 nights.  Overall we were able to see the main attractions at the park within that time period.  We were tourists and didn’t do much else other than sightseeing during this time. 

Honestly, it was already too hot in early April to stay much longer without air conditioning. We didn’t realize it until a few days later but the heat was exhausting.   We were tired and emotionally drained after 3 days in the park. 

Which entrance is best at Death Valley National Park? 

There are two entrances to Death Valley.  California visitors enter from the east at Death Valley Junction and Nevada visitors enter from the west at Panamint Springs. 

The main reason visitors choose the entrance is their driving route.   The park is huge and it would be non-sensical to drive to the east entrance if you are arriving from the west. 

The best entrance to Death Valley is the one that’s closest to you.   Many travelers arrive at the east entrance which borders Nevada after flying into Las Vegas.   However, we arrived from the west entrance since we were driving from Joshua Tree National Park in California.  Check out Joshua Tree in a Day: Everything You Need to Know Before You Visit to learn more about a less extreme National Park in the California desert.

Where is Death Valley?

Death Valley is located 2 hours drive from Las Vegas and 4 hours drive from Los Angeles.

Las Vegas is the closest airport to Death Valley.

devils golf course at death valley

Know before you visit Death Valley National Park

  • It’s hot most of the year.  Plan to wake up early to beat the mid-day heat. If possible, plan to visit between November and February.
  • Prepare to spend a lot of time driving. The park is huge with over 1,000 miles of roads. You’ll be driving a lot.  
  • Fill up your fuel tanks before you get to the Death Valley.  There are only two fuel stations in the park.  High fuel prices reflect the lack of supply options.
  • Cell signal is extremely limited in the park.  Therefore, you should download the NPS app and offline maps before arriving.  There is wi-fi available in Furnace Creek and at a few of the parks lodging locations if needed.
  • Pack an extra change of clothes or two. Daytime temps are hot and if you are like me you’ll be sweaty.  Changing into a dry outfit can improve morale on a hot day.
  • Bring a jacket because cool evenings are possible.
  • Drink lots of water.   Water fill stations are available at Furnace Creek and many of the park campgrounds.  You’ll need your own vessels. The bigger your container is, the better for the dry conditions.   

Death Valley Weather

Death Valley is hot.  Daytime highs generally remain below 90 degrees from November to March. However, these are average temperatures so it’s possible for temps to soar over 100 some days.  If possible, plan your Death Valley trip during the coolest time of the year.  

death valley average weather by month
Death Valley Average Weather by Month Source: NPS

Daytime temperatures were close to 100 degrees when we visited during the first week of April.   A large portion of California was still playing in the snow but Death Valley was already sweating.      

How to escape the heat at Death Valley

Death Valley is hot but you can escape the hot temperatures in the park if you know where to go. The answer is up. Higher elevations are cooler.  

Wildrose Canyon is located about 1.5 hours from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.   The majority of the scenic drive climbs in elevation into the Panamint Mountains.   Due to curves and steep grades, the road is restricted to vehicles under 25 feet in length.

It was crazy to be in Death Valley but see the lush green mountains passing the car window.   The highlight of our trip to Wildrose Canyon was stepping out of the car into a cool mountain air.   During early April, temperatures in the valley were in the high 90s and Wildrose Canyon was in the low 70s.

What is there to do at Wildrose Canyon in Death Valley?

Wildrose Canyon in Death Valley is located high in the Panamint Mountains.  Most park visitors make the drive for the Charcoal Kilns.  Some camp at the Wildrose campground and others hike the Wildrose Peak trail. 

The Charcoal Kilns at Wildrose Canyon are very impressive but the star attraction for us was the cool mountain air.  For more details including the history of the charcoal kilns check out 24 Amazing Things To Do at Death Valley. If the temperatures are too hot in Death Valley, guide your car towards Wildrose.    

charcoal kilns at wildrose canyon in death valley

Hiking Wildrose Peak trail isn’t for novice hikers and is rated difficult.   Over the 8.4-mile hike, the route gains 2,200 in elevation.  We weren’t prepared for such a strenuous hike but were very jealous of the visitors who were hiking in the cooler temperatures.

Wildrose campground is a first come first served campground for tent campers and small RVs.  The curvy road leading up the mountain is restricted to vehicles under 25 feet and trailers less than 10 feet.   

The Wildrose Campground is free of charge but a national park pass is needed.   It is located at 4,100 feet and is much cooler than the valley. 

What is Death Valley known for?

Death Valley is known for being the hottest, driest and lowest place.  The National Park Service regularly issues warnings and alerts for the hot and dry conditions.   For your safety, forecasted weather conditions should guide your Death Valley itinerary.

Visitors are advised to avoid hiking and outdoor recreation after 10 am most of the year to avoid the hottest parts of the day.  During the extreme summer heat, all outdoor recreation is discouraged and staying in air conditioning is advised.  Visitors are encouraged to only drive in well-traveled areas of the park in case of a car breakdown.

The dry conditions at Death Valley take a toll on the human body even during cooler winter months.  All park visitors are encouraged to drink extra water year-round.   Free water fill stations are located at Furnace Creek and many of the park campgrounds but you’ll need your own container. 

Hottest

In July of 1913, 134.1 degrees was recorded at Furnace Creek in Death Valley.  This is the hottest verifiable air temperature recorded on Earth. 

Two other locations have Death Valley beat for surface temperature records.   Death Valley is located in a valley that doesn’t get air circulation allowing warm summer sun to bake the basin and heat the air like a convection oven.

temperature in early April at Furnace Creek Visitor Center
95 degrees during the first week of April

Driest

Death Valley is the driest place in North America with around two inches of average rainfall.   The valley receives so little rain because it lies in the rain shadow of four major mountain ranges.  

What is a rain shadow?

Winter storms coming from the Pacific Ocean towards Death Valley have to pass over mountain ranges to continue east.   The clouds cool as they rise and moisture condenses causing precipitation on the western side of the ranges.  Once the storm clouds reach the eastern side of the mountains, they are empty and no longer have available moisture. 

Lowest

Badwater Basin in Death Valley is located 282 feet below sea level.  This is the lowest point of elevation in North America.   Badwater Basin is the iconic cracked salt flats in every Death Valley social media post. 

At first glance, some park visitors mistake the white crusty salt for snow.  It’s definitely not snow.

chunk of salt from salt flats in badwater basin at death valley

Where does the salt come from in Badwater Basin Death Valley?

The salt is the result of thousands of years of nature. The basin is the lowest point in the area which means all precipitation flows here.    After storms, rainwater drains from the surrounding mountains into the low point in the valley and can even cause temporary lakes. 

Due to the warm and dry climate, the water quickly evaporates leaving behind salt and minerals. Over time, enough salt has accumulated to create the iconic white ground covering.  

salt flats in badwater basin at death valley

Camping at Death Valley

Death Valley offers camping with or without hookups in established campgrounds.  For more adventurous visitors, backcountry camping is also available.

Campgrounds

Death Valley has 9 campgrounds available seasonally within the park.    

Furnace Creek is the only campground with hookups.   It is also the only campground that accepts reservations during peak season.  Sites book quickly so make your reservation on recreation.gov as soon as possible.

The rest of the campgrounds in Death Valley are first come first serve which means you need to drive there to find out if sites are available. Keep in mind the park is big.  Driving time can be more than an hour between campgrounds.  

We chose to go to Sunset Campground across from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center because it is a large campground with 270 sites.  Based on the sheer number of sites, we were confident we could find a place.  We did.   The campground was only 25% occupied during our stay.

If you are visiting in shoulder season and have air conditioners, book a site that lets you run them non-stop.  We stayed at Sunset Campground which has no hookups and doesn’t allow generators during quiet hours.   Therefore we weren’t able to run our A/Cs after 10 pm.

Thankfully it cooled down slightly at night so we slept with our windows open.  We would have been more comfortable if we could run our A/Cs overnight.

Backcountry Camping 

Backcountry Camping is available in vast areas of the park.   

Free permits are required for backcountry camping.  Permits can be obtained online or in-person at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.

Check out the Death Valley backcountry camping site for a more comprehensive guide to the backcountry camping restrictions and locations. If possible, talk to a park ranger in person to get current details.

Lodging in Death Valley

There are several lodging options within the park boundaries for a range of budgets. The closest hotels outside the park are at least 45 minutes from the park boundary.  In my opinion, it is worth staying in the park for driving time savings. 

Lodging options in Death Valley National Park include Stovepipe Wells Village, The Inn at Death Valley, The Ranch at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Ranch), or Panamint Springs Resort. 

If you are traveling by car, book a hotel room with a swimming pool and air conditioning.   Seriously the Stovepipe Wells Hotel in the park has a pool.  We were very envious of the kids playing the pool midday when the temps were at their worst.

What is there to do at Death Valley National Park?

The park has several really unique areas and a variety of things to do.  A few highlights are learning the history of the park, hiking, slowing down to watch nature, and sightseeing. For full details, check out 24 Amazing Things To Do at Death Valley.

Learn About the Park

Don’t miss the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek and spend some time exploring the whole Furnace Creek area.  The visitor center offers educational information, maps and the personal expertise of park rangers.  

Furnace Creek is one of the few locations in the park with services (showers, laundry, post office, gas station, general store, and more).  The Ranch at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Ranch) has a really nice shady courtyard and café to take a park break.   There is also a small mining museum in the complex focused on the area’s history of Borax mining.

Hiking

Hiking is only safe during cooler weather.  Ideally, hikers should visit the park in winter for cooler days but spring and autumn hiking can be done in the early morning before the heat of the day.   Check out our Hiking Death Valley post for a complete guide to the numerous established trails in the park.

kevin hiking in death valley

Slow Down and Watch Nature

Since Death Valley is so remote, it is a great place to unplug, slow down and just watch nature.  

Death Valley park rangers can guide you to a few areas around the park for wildlife spotting such as the pupfish at Devils Hole. Due to the extreme environment, many creatures are out of sight during daylight hours.

However, sunrises, sunsets and stargazing at Death Valley are all worthwhile.

Best Death Valley Locations for Sunrise

We are retired and don’t usually set alarms.   However, Death Valley was an exception.  To avoid mid-day heat, we woke up early for hiking.   Since we were already up, we decided to check out the sunrise at nearby Zabriskie Point.

Zabriskie Point is popular and the parking area is filled before the sun crests the horizon.   The small lookout point provides views of the badlands and salt flats.  It attracts photographers.  Despite the crowds, we were able to secure seats on the stone retaining wall for nature’s show.  

The best locations to watch the sunrise over Death Valley are Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, or Harmony Borax Works.

sunrise at zabriskie point at death valley

Best Death Valley Location for Sunset

Sunset brings cooler temperatures.  Therefore, watching the sun go beyond the horizon each was a mini celebration for us.  On our way back to the campsite after a full day, we stopped at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes to watch the sunset.  To find a little solitude, we walked about half a mile out from the parking area. 

If going to the sand dunes, prepare for sand and wind.  We were forced to leave as the sun was hitting the horizon due to strong winds pelting sand on our bare skin. On a less windy day, we would have likely stayed a little longer to look for nocturnal wildlife.

The best locations to watch the sunset over Death Valley are Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Dantes View, Father Crowley’s Vista Point at Rainbow Canyon, or Ubehebe Crater.  Since the park is so large, I’d recommend planning your last stop of the day at one of these locations rather than driving there specifically for sunset.  

sunset over mesquite flats dunes in death valley

Sightseeing

Death Valley is primarily a driving vacation.  The key attractions at the park are many miles apart.   Plan to spend a lot of time in your car.  Pack snacks, download audio entertainment, bring water and settle in. 

We used the Just Ahead audio guide to navigate Death Valley and it greatly helped us.   Thanks to the GPS-based audio guide of Death Valley, we learned the history, geology and ecology of the park.   It also provided us insight into attractions, we might have otherwise missed.

Planning Your Death Valley Itinerary

If you are planning a trip to Death Valley, here are a few sample itineraries.  Also, check out our upcoming post Top Things You Can’t Miss at Death Valley for more details about each stop.

Half-Day Itinerary

If you only have a few hours at Death Valley, the top things you can’t miss are Artist’s Palette Overlook, Badwater Basin, Devil’s golf course (just a funny name it is not a literal golf course) and Zabriskie Point (great for sunrise).

One Full Day Itinerary

If you have a full day at Death Valley, visit the top can’t miss things from above and add Dante’s View, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes (great for sunset), Harmony Borax Works.

More than One Day Itinerary

If you have more than one day and you’ve already visited all of the top can’t miss things from above, then check out some of the more remote attractions.  A few of the most popular are Ubehebe Crater, Wildrose Charcoal Kilns (higher elevation and cooler temperatures), and Father Crowley Vista Point.

Spend some time exploring the resort area at Furnace Creek.  The grassy, shaded courtyard is a great place to spend an afternoon with a good book.

the ranch at death valley courtyard

Summary Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is hot and dry but its beauty is unlike anywhere else.    

There is a reason Hollywood films movies here, professional photographers plan classes and trips here, and Instagram is full of epic amateur nature shots from this park.   It is a bucket list location and shouldn’t be missed.

For an epic Death Valley visit, use our guide to plan your trip.  A few advance preparations for the extreme environment will make your time much more enjoyable.

view overlooking death valley

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