Death Valley National Park: The Complete Guide

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

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Death Valley National Park

Address
United States
Phone +1 760-786-3200

At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park outside of Alaska. It’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest park in the system. Its impressive stats don’t stop there. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The two highest temperatures ever recorded on Earth—134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913 and 129.9 in 2020—happened there.

But this vast, remote wilderness in California is special for far more reasons than the records and titles it holds. Set aside as a national monument in 1933 and a national park in 1994, it is simply one of the most surreal, scenic, and unique places in the world with its cracked salt flat floor, multiple mountain ranges that get snow in the winter, pinyon pine and juniper forests, spring-fed oases, occasional super blooms, vibrantly colored badlands, and five species of pupfish only found here. It is the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone and is steeped in Native American, mining, Wild West, and Hollywood history. (It played Tatooine in two "Star Wars" films.) It even features an until-recently unexplained natural phenomenon involving huge boulders that moved on their own.

This complete guide covers must-see points of interest, the best hiking trails, lodging and campground options, where to eat, how to get there, and logistics like park fees, safety tips, accessibility, and rules about pets. 

Things To Do

There’s only one acceptable place to start a visit—the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Here visitors can pay the entrance fee, watch the 20-minute film, attend ranger lectures, sign up for ranger-led activities (November through April), and go through the museum. The non-profit Death Valley Natural History Association runs a great bookstore with souvenirs that has donated $6.5 million since it opened in 1954. It also has the cleanest bathrooms outside the hotels.

Once you’ve paid and grabbed a map, it’s time to set out on an adventure, and DVNP sure has plenty using various methods of transportation. You can, of course, hike (see next section for the best trails), bike, jog, go for a scenic drive (again, see below), or saddle up at Furnace Creek Stables (one hour, two-hour, moonlight, early bird, and sunset rides are available). Farabee’s Jeep Tours also rents Jeeps and runs a wide range of tours, including one that explores an all-day trek out to the very isolated Racetrack Playa where the unique phenomenon of heavy boulders sliding across a dry lakebed happens. 

The park’s must-see sites that don’t require a lot of walking are:

  • Comprised of salt flats stretching farther than the eye can see, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level).
  • Zabriskie Point looks out across golden badlands to the peaks on the valley's other side. It's a pilgrimage spot for Deadheads as the Grateful Dead appeared on the soundtrack of the trippy 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film named after it and filmed there.
  • Sand-surf, spot nocturnal kangaroo rats, and climb to the top of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the tallest of which rises nearly 100 feet. The site is beautiful when the mesquite trees burst with yellow flowers in the spring or when the full moon is out. The tallest dune is about a mile from the parking lot.
  • Keane Wonder Mine is the park’s best-preserved gold mine. Several structures, including an aerial tram, remain intact. Harmony Borax Works is another mining site worth some time. A free museum details the Borax history here.
  • Ubehebe Crater is what was left after a volcanic explosion occurred hundreds of years ago. Can hike up and around the rim.
  • Dante's View and Father Crowley Vista are two other worthwhile scenic points.
  • Scotty’s Castle, a 1920s vacation home built by Chicago millionaires, was thrashed by a flash flood in 2015. Restoration efforts are ongoing, and reopening is expected in December 2022.  

Contrary to the name, you don’t have to be a kid to participate in the Junior Ranger program. Pick up the booklet at the visitor center and after you complete the tasks (and hopefully learn a few things), return it there to retrieve an honorary badge. This is, of course, also fun for children and teens. 

At 214 feet below sea level, Furnace Creek Golf Course is the world’s lowest course. Opened in 1927, the 18-hole, par-70 links were recently renovated to transition from maintained turf to a water-conserving desert design. Fair(way) warning: balls do not travel as far at this low elevation, and coyotes have been known to one-way fetch balls. 

Don’t forget to look up as it’s one of only eight designated gold-tier International Dark Sky Parks and one of a few places where the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. If stargazing is your priority, plan your trip to include a moonless night.

Best Hikes & Trails

Death Valley has trails for every level of hiker, ranging in length from .4 miles to 14 miles—or more. Some of our favorites include:

  • Natural Bridge trail is an easy mile-long stroll through high-sided canyon to the namesake rock formation.
  • Salt Creek Interpretive Trail is a mostly flat boardwalk through salt marsh. The rare pupfish can usually be seen in the spring.
  • You probably aren’t expecting a cascade in the desert either, but the 2-mile moderate Darwin Falls trail leads to one. No swimming here, as this is a source of drinking water.
  • Fall Canyon is an out-and-back hike through a dramatic canyon. Bighorn sheep sightings are common.
  • Desolation and Sidewinder Canyons both require light (and fun) rock scrambling to see colorful badlands and slot canyons.
  • Wildrose Peak is a difficult 8.5-mile trip with 2,200 feet of elevation gain through pinon-juniper woodlands. It will be much colder up here. In the height of winter the path might even be covered in snow.
  • Telescope Peak is a strenuous 14-mile scenic slog to the highest peak in Death Valley (11,049 feet). The road to it requires a high-clearance vehicle and is closed when icy winter conditions are present.
Death Valley National Park sand dunes with mesquite tree

Courtesy of Visit California

Scenic Drives

If you prefer to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of your car, the park has several scenic drives:

  • Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile one-way loop through seemingly painted hills. Exit the vehicle to see the Artist’s Palette in all its glory.
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a less colorful, almost 3-mile one-way road through eroding badlands. Still worth checking out, especially if you’re a "Star Wars" fan, as scenes from "Return Of The Jedi" were filmed here. 

Where To Camp

From primitive plots to full hook-ups, the park has a wide range of campsite types spread across nine campgrounds at various elevations from below sea level to 8,200 feet above it. Fees vary depending on the campground, type of site, and time of year. There are camp stores at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek.

  • The Furnace Creek Campground requires reservations between Oct. 15 and April 15 as that's the high season in these parts. They must be made at least two days in advance and can be made up to six months in advance. It has 136 sites and 18 hookups with water, tables, firepits, a dump station, and glorious flush toilets. It's open year-round. It also has many coveted shady tent spots.
  • Mesquite Spring Campground is a good place to hunker down if you are hoping to explore the northern section of the park, which includes Grapevine Canyon and Scotty’s Castle. It is fairly rustic with fire grates and picnic tables, but it does have flush toilets. 
  • Sunset at Furnace Creek, Texas Springs at Furnace Creek, and Stovepipe Wells are only open late fall through spring. In contrast, the campgrounds at the highest elevations, Thorndike and Mahogany Flat, are usually open only from late spring through fall because of snow. They are free to rent as are the next highest sites, Emigrant (tents-only at 2,100 feet) and Wildrose (4,100 feet in the Panamint Mountains). The three highest locations have only pit toilets. The higher campgrounds also often require high-clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive.
  • The Fiddlers’ Campground is a private site adjacent to the visitor center with more bells and whistles like tennis, volleyball, basketball courts, shuffleboard, bocce, laundry, showers, and access to a spring-fed pool. But the sites don’t have personal grills or tables. There are two centralized common areas with fire pits and picnic setups. 

Where To Stay

If you prefer not to rough it, there are two hotels in Furnace Creek collectively called The Oasis at Death Valley. Now operated by Xanterra Travel Collection, the retro properties were originally built by the Pacific Borax Company in the late 1920s and attracted Hollywood royalty like Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, and George Lucas. Much of the resort was overhauled in 2018 to the tune of $100 million.

Open year-round, the Inn at Death Valley is an elegant mission-style hotel with 66 rooms, a fine dining restaurant, cocktail lounge, spa, a gift shop, panoramic views of the valley, palm-dotted stream-filled gardens, and a showstopping spring-fed pool that naturally stays 84.5 degrees year-round. In the recent redo, 22 one-bedroom casitas were added in the gardens near the pool. They come with a personal golf cart to use. 

The 224-room Ranch at Death Valley is a more affordable option geared toward families with expansive lawns, seating areas, sports courts, fire pits, and a pool. It’s in the same complex as the visitor center, stables, restaurants, a market, the golf course, and other necessities like the gas station and post office.  

Where To Eat

There are a handful of restaurants in Furnace Creek:

  • The Inn Dining Room is a classy, old-fashioned fine dining experience. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner using local ingredients including cactus, dates, citrus, and pomegranate from the resort garden as inspiration for the steakhouse-style cuisine. If the weather is good, opt to sit on the terrace with sweeping views of the valley below and out to the mountains.
  • Several new dining options have opened in the last few years, including The Inn’s poolside café and Coffee & Cream, a fast-casual counter serving ice cream, coffee, sandwiches, and other grab-and-go goodies. The Wild West-themed Last Kind Words Saloon was part of the 2018 Ranch revitalization. Check out antique firearms, wanted posters, taxidermy, and posters for movies shot in the area while you wait for steaks, ribs, pasta, whiskey, and key lime pie to be served.
  • The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe runs a delicious fry bread taco and shave ice shop in the Indian Village of Death Valley, 40 acres in Furnace Creek set aside by the park service in 1936. They also serve breakfast items, including fry bread topped with eggs, cheese, and bacon. Besides delicious food at some of the most reasonable prices you’ll find in the park, the money stays within the community. Follow signs from the main road, and remember you are a guest on their land. 

How To Get There

Death Valley is isolated, so you’ll likely have to drive into the park—or grab a ride on an all-day tour like ones with Pink Adventure Tours. The closest airport is McCarran International in Las Vegas. The drive via Pahrump and CA-190, which goes through the middle of the park east to west, takes about two hours. There are multiple routes from Los Angeles, usually taking around five hours depending on traffic and time of day.

There is a small public airport in Furnace Creek and a roughly paved strip in Stovepipe Wells that can handle small private planes, but neither has fuel. 

Accessibility

The visitor center, which features automatic doors, has accessible parking, restrooms, auditorium, patio, and museum. The film and videos have captions. Assistive listening devices and wheelchairs can be borrowed. American Sign Language interpreters are available to accompany ranger-led programs, but requests should be made at least two weeks in advance. 

There are accessible campsites and restrooms in Furnace Creek, Texas Spring, and Sunset campgrounds. Hikes that are ADA accessible include Harmony Borax Works, Salt Creek, and the Badwater Salt Flat trail. Dante’s View has an ADA accessible viewing platform. Scotty’s Castle has a tour translation in English for the hearing impaired and a lift to the second floor for those unable to climb the flight of stairs. Many of the points of interest have curb cuts in the parking lots or can be viewed from the car. Only a few have accessible vault toilets.

Most restaurants, stores, and the post office at the Ranch are accessible, and all of the hotels mentioned have ADA rooms. The Inn’s pool has a lift. Find more detailed information here

Tips For Your Visit

  • The park charges a fee year-round. It's $15 per individual on foot or bicycle, $25 per motorcycle, or $30 per car. The park's annual pass is $55, and guests can also purchase a system-wide annual America The Beautiful pass for $80. Active military, fourth graders, and people with disabilities are eligible for a free pass while seniors qualify for a $20 annual pass or an $80 lifetime pass.
  • Winter, specifically Oct. 15 to April 15, is the park's high season. You’ll likely need reservations in advance for campsites, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, and for popular tours.
  • Death Valley didn’t earn its name or its nickname, Land of Extremes, for nothing. The heat is just the start of your worries. Always carry water—two liters for short, winter hikes and four for longer treks or anything during summer. If rainy, avoid canyons as flash flooding is common. Look out for snakes, scorpions, and other potentially dangerous wildlife. And watch driving speeds as these are serpentine skinny old roads. Car accidents are the single largest cause of injury and death in the park.
  • Before you go, download the free NPS app through the Apple Store or Google Play. It has info and maps for more than 400 national parks.
  • Pets are allowed in the park’s developed areas on leash. Poop must be bagged and pet interaction with wildlife should be minimal. They should not be left unattended as coyotes have snatched more than a few Fidos. Food and water bowls should also be placed inside cars or campers overnight so as not to attract coyotes or ravens into campgrounds.
  • Driving off-road is illegal and extremely harmful to the ecosystems as it can permanently scar the land, pollute precious water sources, and compact the soil. Violators face fines up to $5,000, six months in jail, or both. Should you get stuck, hefty tow costs will also be your responsibility.
  • Feeding wildlife is also illegal and makes them dangerously dependent on humans.
  • Cell phone and internet access are extremely spotty and slow, if you can get it at all. This makes it all the more important to pick up the paper map.
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Death Valley National Park: The Complete Guide