Article Overview: Death Valley National Park Itinerary, Visiting Death Valley National Park
Call me a desert rat. I’m a human born in, of, and around the desert southwest of the United States. Perhaps nowhere on earth feels more like my mothership than the otherworldly arid expanse when I’m visiting Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley’s name seems to shove our mortality in our faces. We tend to notice the more terrorizing names, like Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, Devil’s Golf Course, and Furnace Creek. But did you know there are also a Shoreline (Butte), castle, waterfalls, and a place so colorful it’s named after an artist’s palette?
To me, there’s an honesty about the desert. A desire to thrive in what seems like unsurvivable conditions. It’s one of the lowest places in the world but can take you to the ultimate highs. A place even NASA uses to replicate the surface of Mars and where George Lucas got two droids lost in the sand dunes during Star Wars.
“What a desolate place this is.” – C3PO, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope
What does a droid know anyway? Let’s get you started to see the desert where beauty and brutal conditions swirl, with your Death Valley National Park itinerary.
Death Valley Itinerary
Table of Contents: Death Valley Itinerary
Table of Contents: Death Valley Itinerary
- Things to Know Before Visiting Death Valley National Park
- What’s Special About Visiting Death Valley National Park?
- What Is the Best Month to Visit Death Valley National Park?
- 1 Day Death Valley Itinerary
- 2 Day Death Valley Itinerary
- 3 Day Death Valley Itinerary
- Things to Do on Your Death Valley National Park Itinerary
- Is Visiting Death Valley National Park Worth It?
5 Things to Know Before Visiting Death Valley
- Entrance fees are $20 per vehicle. You can get an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 and then have access to more than 2,000 public lands.
- Sunscreen is essential any time of year at Death Valley. Take it from someone who got second-degree burns only wearing SPF 15.
- You won’t notice you’re sweating because it evaporates too quickly. Bring at least a gallon of water with you and infuse it with electrolytes. One is just as important as the other.
- You won’t have mobile service in most places throughout the park. Bring a map with you. A guidebook helps even more. Charge your phone at your hotel (I like this one best) and then put it on airplane mode while visiting the park to save the battery.
- Check park conditions before you go. While most of the park is open in a post-Hurricane Hilary world, just a little amount of rain can wash roads out.
What’s Special About Visiting Death Valley National Park?
Death Valley is a 3,000-square-mile section of the Mojave Desert in eastern California. It is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. The bottom of Badwater Basin is still sinking, so there’s always potential down the road to chase the Dead Sea’s world record.
To sum up a geological and ecological deep dive, the land we now know as Death Valley was once Lake Manly. Understanding that climate change isn’t a new evolution, but a revolution throughout Earth’s life, we know that this region was much wetter 20,000 years ago.
Between tectonic plates shifting, the adjusting arid climate soaking up the lakes faster than nature could replenish them, and volcanic activity, the desert was crafted into a new splendor. Not only did new features appear, but many things were left behind, like ancient shorelines and a massive volcano crater.
“Even though it looks like a very inhospitable place at first, this is a place that’s so full of life.” – Death Valley Lead Education Ranger, Emily Franco
How Did Death Valley Get Its Name?
In the 1840s, the Gold Rush era was on. Everyone heading west knew of the ill-fated Donner Party from 1846-47, who took a shortcut that was a disaster adding a month to their travels where they were trapped and lost in relentless winter storms.
In 1849, a group of 49ers was anxious to get to the gold. They knew the winter horror of the northern route, so they took the Old Spanish Trail. With only one part of the Donner Party lesson learned, they took a shortcut that was a disaster and ended up four months behind. They were lost in the desert.
As “The Lost 49ers” eventually made their way out of the desert with the heroism of two brave men, having just lost one man during the episode, someone bellowed, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
MORE: An annual festival held by the Death Valley 49ers organization honors the pioneering tenacity and desert landscape.
What Is the Best Month to Visit Death Valley National Park?
Visiting Death Valley National Park in its entirety doesn’t match up well with summer vacation plans. From May through September, average high temperatures are in the triple digits. Yes, “It’s a dry heat,” but it feels like you’re baking in an oven instead of “Florida hot,” where it feels like you’re melting.
The best time to visit Death Valley, with the most potential to see everything, including waterfalls and wildflowers, is late winter or early spring—more specifically, February, March, and early April. Wildflowers are never guaranteed, but the right weather conditions in the prior months can lead to a “Superbloom.”
The best (wildflower) blooms are triggered by an early, winter-type rainstorm in September or October, followed by an El Niño weather pattern that brings above-average rainfall to the Desert Southwest.
The only caution I’ll give you about spring in the Mojave Desert is the winds. I didn’t know wind rage could be a thing until one particularly relentless spring that left me wondering if I had sunburn or windburn. Turns out I had both. I was also sneezing mud from all the dust that blew into my nose and throat.
How to Avoid the Crowds on your Death Valley Itinerary
To avoid the crowds, the best time to visit Death Valley National Park is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Crowds spike between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and all three-day weekends and free entry to national parks holidays.
The best time for visiting Death Valley if you just want to drive through can be the summer, as all the access roads are open. You just need a reliable vehicle and an emergency kit ready to go.
Visiting Death Valley in the winter is beautiful, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Winter also brings the greatest chances of rain, but don’t hope for a rainout—the region gets just two inches of rain each year on average. Temperatures at night can get at or below freezing, especially in the higher elevations.
Any season is great for visiting Death Valley National Park to see the amazing dark sky views, but February brings the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, which is free and open to the public. If the stars align (pardon the pun), you might enjoy the festival and see the first blooms of the wildflower season.
What Is the Worst Month to Visit Death Valley National Park?
The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. It was 134°(F). July is also historically the hottest month in Death Valley, with an average temperature of 116°(F).
Between May and September, temperatures will almost certainly get at or above triple digital for highs. From June through August, nighttime temperatures won’t get out of the 80s.
THE HEAT IS ON: The world record for Earth’s hottest temperature in September happened in July 1912, in Death Valley, peaking at 134° F. In more modern times, July 9, 2021, saw 130° F.
For your health and safety, July is the highest-risk month and the worst idea for visiting Death Valley National Park’s lower elevations.
While some tourists seek to be in the “hottest place in the hottest month,” it’s strongly discouraged. The park rangers won’t stop you, but the power of nature might. Strongly reconsider any trip between June and September.
The single greatest risk in Death Valley happens before you’re even exposed to the elements. The National Park Service tells me that single-car accidents are by far the leading cause of death in the park.
Why Is Death Valley So Hot?
We know that hot air rises, so why aren’t the valley floors of Death Valley cooler? When the air over the mountains gets heated, it drops into the valley, raising the temperatures.
Then the sunlight reflecting off the ground causes the hot earth to radiate more heat into the dense air. The heat tries to escape, but the mountains keep it trapped. Without much rain to provide relief, it just stays hot.
Should I Be Concerned About the Death Valley Flooding?
People who live in a desert know that flash flooding just takes what most people think is a typical storm.
The onslaught of rain, even 0.5″, can cover the roadways for a short time. The bigger issue is the debris that slides down the plantless mountains, leaving sludge, mud, and rocks on the road that have to be scraped off. In the desert, we use snow shovels for mud removal.
When Hurricane Hilary hit Death Valley in late August of 2023, it wiped out many of the roads. The park was closed for a while and then slowly re-opened.
In August 2022, 1,000 people were stranded in Death Valley after 1.46″ fell in a fast-moving storm. Cars were buried in mud and debris. At least one flash flood event with significant impacts happens each year, either during summer monsoons or winter storms.
Which Entrance(s) to Use at Death Valley National Park?
Now that I’ve cleared my conscience to tell you the risks of Death Valley and help you understand the landscape, let’s talk about why visiting Death Valley National Park is one of the greatest experiences on earth.
The first thing to know about driving to Death Valley National Park is that you can’t trust GPS. Bring your paper map with you. Be familiar with GPS coordinates if you do have service, as entering an address is inevitably going to lead you to the wrong place.
East side entrances include:
- Use CA 190 from Death Valley Junction, CA
- Take SR 374 from Beatty, NV
- Follow CA 178 from Shoshone, CA
- Another option is SR 267 from US 95, NV
West side entrance options are:
- Using CA 190 from Olancha, CA (SR 136 from Lone Pine, CA)
- Take SR 178 (Panamint Valley Rd) from Trona, CA
You do not have any public transportation options in Death Valley National Park. Either you’re driving or walking.
Visitor’s Centers are located at Furnace Creek, Lone Pine, and Stovepipe.
1 Day Death Valley Itinerary
Start the day with a sunrise viewing at Dante’s View. Summer visitors should visit Badwater Basin no later than 10:00 am.
Head to Harmony Borax Works and visit the Furnace Creek Visitors Center to view the exhibits and watch a short movie about the park. Stop at Zabriskie Point.
Double back a short distance and head to Devil’s Course viewing (do this before 10:00 am in the summer if you plan to hike).
Beat the afternoon heat with a drive around Artist’s Drive, which gives an amazing view of Artist’s Palette, which doesn’t have a trail anyway, so you won’t be tempted to risk walking in the heat.
End the day at the Mesquite Flat Salt Dunes and watch the night skies.
2 Day Death Valley Itinerary
Day 1 – Death Valley Itinerary
Take the entrance from the west side of the park at Father Crowley Vista Point for the sunrise. Head to the Darwin Falls two-mile trail for an early morning hike. Check-in at Stovepipe Wells Hotel and grab a meal.
At midday, check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Take the scenic route around Artist’s Palette during the heat of the day, but stay in the car. Non-summer visitors can get out and explore the trails. A short drive south takes you to Devil’s Golf Course.
Badwater Basin is nearby, so go to that low point for the highlight of the day. Hike the Natural Bridge Trail with just a mile to get to this geological novelty.
Drive the scenic route to Ubehebe Crater for an early evening hike through Ubehebe Crater Loop. Just be sure to finish the hike before dark. Enjoy the night skies and head back to the hotel.
Day 2 – Death Valley Itinerary
Climb the dunes as the Mesquite Flats before the heat of the day, then head to Wildrose Peak, where you can check out the Charcoal Kilns before starting the strenuous hike up Wildrose Peak or Telescope Peak. These hikes will take six to eight hours, so plan accordingly.
Summer hikers should definitely consider these options as the climb avoids the worst of the oppressive heat.
End the day with a view of the night skies at Badwater Basin.
3 Day Death Valley Itinerary
Day 1 – Death Valley Itinerary
Get ready for the adventure by visiting the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center first. Ask about road/trail conditions and any other safety concerns.
Drive through 20 Mule Canyon before heading to Zabriskie Point, then walk the Harmony Borax Trail. Take an easy walk along the Salt Creek boardwalk with an interpretive trail to learn about the Salt Creek Pupfish, which are only found in this part of the world.
The adventurous among you with high-profile vehicles can visit the Keane Wonder Mine. Otherwise, hike the four-mile Mosaic Canyon through flash-flood smoothed marble walls and canyons.
Finish the day at Father Crowley Vista Point. Enjoy a meal at Panamint Springs.
Day 2 – Death Valley Itinerary
Plan for a big hike to start the day, either at Wildrose or Telescope Peaks. You’ll see the charcoal kilns here. After the six to eight-hour hike, head to Stovepipe Wells for a huge meal and visit the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
From there, head up the road a bit to get a photo taken at the Hell’s Gate information center. You’re now at a crossroads where you can leave the park for a short drive to the Rhyolite Ghost Town or head up to the easier Mesquite Spring Trail. End the day with a view of night skies from Badwater Basin. Your legs will be happy for the long drive to get there.
Day 3 – Death Valley Itinerary
Get up early to see the sun rise over the colorful Artist’s Palette.
Unless you have a high-profile 4WD vehicle with thick tires, book a Jeep tour to get to the Playa and Eureka Sand Dunes. Ghost town tours or custom tours are available. This will take three to eight hours, depending on which tour you choose.
I’d recommend taking the Titus Canyon Backcountry Tour. It has so much diversity in what you can see in one tour, including petroglyphs, summit views, canyon walks (SHADE!!!), bighorn sheep, and layers of rock sediment rising above and below you.
Soak in the night skies at Mesquite Flat Salt Dunes.
Things to Do on Your Death Valley National Park Itinerary
Death Valley offers wonderful flexibility for all itineraries. Unless you plan to summit a mountain or backcountry hike to places like the lost town of Panamint City, two to three days are plenty of time to visit Death Valley, with one-day options that won’t leave you feeling like you missed out.
The 3.4 million acres might seem intimidating, but everything is calculated for maximum viewing please for all experience levels.
Below I’ve included some of the basics but for more details check out our article: 25 Amazing Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Watch the Sunrise, Sunset or Night Skies
I’ve seen a thousand desert sunrises, and I haven’t been unimpressed with any of them. The National Park Rangers at Death Valley put together this helpful list of the best spots to see the sun rise or fall.
There’s not a bad view in the park for the night skies, but you’ll get the most immersive and safest experience if you view the heavens from the Mesquite Flat Salt Dunes or Badwater Basin when the moon is full. Park ranger-led tours of the night skies are regularly scheduled in winter.
Hiking in Death Valley
More than 20 hiking trails are available in Death Valley. Summer hikers should remember that the only trails even worth considering are the higher elevations, and even then, don’t leave after 10:00 am.
When you start planning your hiking trails, it hits you that not only does this park have the lowest spot in the United States, but it also is less than 85 miles from the tallest peak in the United States. The tallest mountain in Death Valley is Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet above sea level. From the summit to Badwater Basin, that’s a vertical drop twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
The tallest peak in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney at 14,494. It’s not in Death Valley, but the America the Beautiful Pass will get you into the park where it’s located at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.
See Scotty’s Castle
The story of how a mansion was built on a “throne of lies,” as Buddy the Elf would say, is fascinating. Scotty’s Castle has been drawing tourists to regale the tales for years. That’s until a tremendous flood in 2015 and a fire a few years later closed it indefinitely. Somehow, the property managed to escape damage in Hurricane Hilary in 2023.
Guided tours are available seasonally and should become more frequent as the repairs go on. If you can see this elegant desert oasis, I highly recommend it.
The tremendous force of volcanoes crafted this rainbow rock formation, with the browns and reds of the desert giving way to blue, pink, and green. A scenic drive with pullouts along the way gives you the best views.
Named for the water so salty that even a dehydrated mule wouldn’t drink it, this is all that remains of Lake Manly. It’s the lowest point in the part (and the United States). As with the Great Salt Lake, no outlet for water meant salt and sediment settled in. Beneath the basin is a huge groundwater pool, creating polygon cracks in the dried salt. Drive up or hike around this desert feature.
This is a must-see for any Death Valley National Park itinerary. The view is 5,600 feet above Badwater Basin. Crowds gather here, but short hikes give you some solace, or you can continue this path to Mt. Perry (5,738′).
Harmony Borax Works
The remains of the 1883 Borax production facility still stand, with an interesting history about how the desert supplied a bounty of a substance that fell victim to the harsh conditions, the business moved elsewhere, and the 20 mule teams that once forged the salt flats became an American icon.
Mesquite Flat Dunes
The mix of mesquite trees growing amid vast expanses of salt dunes brings people here to climb the dunes and observe the night skies. Dunes reach as high as 200 feet in the air.
Walk around the edge of or climb to the bottom of a 600-foot volcanic crater. The hike back up the crater is a doozy, so consider that before you make the descent.
Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
These beehive-shaped stone structures are 25 feet tall and were once used to produce charcoal for the busy mining industry of California and Nevada. They were only used for a few years before better options were discovered in more ideal landscapes.
Father Crowley Vista Point
This stunning vista of Rainbow Canyon (aka Star Wars Canyon) is on the western side of the park. View the layers of volcanic deposits from the parking area or walk a short unpaved trail to see the full scope of Panamint Valley.
This dried lake bed, known as a playa, sits more than 50 miles as the crow flies from Badwater Basin. It’s famous for the moving rocks that still aren’t 100% scientifically explained. The rocks leave trails behind, and some have moved 1,500 feet across the flat surface. A parking area provides a view, but you can get closer using the hiking trail.
WARNING: Getting to The Racetrack requires a high-profile vehicle and driving skills to tackle miles of tough, unpaved, and somewhat dangerous roads.
These are the tallest dunes in California and will sing you a song as you walk when the conditions are just right. Warning: these dunes look so much easier to climb than they really are. I always called them Charlie Horse Dunes because my calves took a beating with each visit.
Devil’s Golf Course
Don’t bring your golf clubs because the name is ironic. This field of salt rock jagged piles inspired the thought that “Only the devil could play golf there” with the serrated, firm rocks. Stand still to hear the rocks snap, crackle and pop in the desert heat.
Star Wars in Death Valley: If you want to see the Star Wars filming locations, complete with a visit to the desert planet Tatooine, here’s a list of locations. The NPS app will give you an audio tour.
For more details check out our article: 25 Amazing Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Is Visiting Death Valley National Park Worth It?
Death Valley seems so prophetic to me—it’s a world of resilience, adaptability, and tenacity, even as the winds and storms continue to craft the landscape. It’s worth it to see the law and order of a desert ecosystem protected in perpetuity.
Between the salt, sand, and rocks, there are animals that exist nowhere else on Earth but right here. Death Valley is more colorful than many realize and comes with secrets that reveal themselves with each new step.
So yes, Death Valley is absolutely worth the trip so long as you go when it’s not 134°!
FAQ – Death Valley Itinerary
I recommend spending at least two days in Death Valley as there are just so many sites and many of them require long drives.
The best month to visit Death Valley is March with April being a close second.
Map of Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located in the southeastern corner of California on (and just over) the Nevada border. The park is situated in the heart of the Mojave Desert.
Massive slanted valleys that go on forever and seem to lack only the crashed spaceship in the distance, snow-capped mountains, and a year round waterfall (wild, right?) is just the start. Expansive Joshua Tree forests, abandoned mines, conifer groves, and some of the most stunning dune fields in North America comprise this park with the most morbid name.
The Award-Winning Death Valley Video
We created this 3 minute video based on our travels to Death Valley. It won some awards and was even featured by National Geographic.
If you’re planning a trip to the park we encourage you to take a few minutes and watch our film. To make this film we spent weeks in the national park, mostly in February and March when the temperatures are more manageable.
We traversed hundreds of miles hiking most of the parks trails to capture the park like never before.
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