Last updated January 17, 2022
Welcome back world! I have been away for some time…2021 was hectic, I was balancing a lot, and my blog hobby started to feel more stressful than restorative. I was also blanking on content and feeling super uncreative so I took a break. But now things have calmed a bit and I am back. Recently, I went to Death Valley National Park, my 11th national park (!) and had an incredible time and wanted to share it with all of you.
What is Death Valley and why should I visit?
You probably think of unbearable summer temperatures, well upwards of 100˚F/38˚C, when you hear “Death Valley”. Located on the border between California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is the hottest place on earth, and the driest and lowest place in the United States. And at 3.4 million acres, it is also the largest US national park outside of Alaska. You might wonder why anyone would want to visit such a place, but I can tell you that Death Valley may be the destination for you if…
- You like to drive for long distances with stunning scenery and minimal traffic
- A place that is quiet, peaceful, and vast appeals to you
- You like being off the grid with limited connectivity to the outside world
- Being surrounded by 360 degrees of mountains is your jam
- You like to rent an RV, camp, or go off-roading in a 4×4 vehicle
- Stargazing in a dark sky sound appealing
- You are a Star Wars fan and want to feel like you’re on Tatooine
- Soaking in hot springs after a day of hiking sounds amazing
- You are excited by variety such as craters, sand dunes, multicolored cliffs, salt flats, stunning viewpoints, slot canyon hikes, and mysterious rocks that move by themselves
Death Valley National Park exceeded my expectations and I highly recommend it for a visit. In fact, I liked it so much that I’d like to go back.
When’s the best time to visit?
The best months to visit are October-April, which have the most tolerable temperatures. Death Valley is also known for its epic wildflower superblooms in the spring. You can track conditions here as it doesn’t bloom every year. I would not recommend visiting in the summer as temperatures are quite hot and uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous.
How do you get there? What about getting around the park?
Drive – You will need to drive to get to and around the park. There is no public transportation. A 4×4 vehicle is recommended, especially if you want to see some of the more remote sites. You can visit all of the most popular attractions in a regular car, but I definitely preferred having 4-wheel drive.
Make sure to keep your gas tank full! Out in the desert gas stations can be 60 miles+ apart and there’s no one out there to help you, so I erred on the side of topping off the tank whenever I could to avoid getting stranded with no gas. Also, gas was much cheaper at Stovepipe Wells (<$5 per gallon) than Furnace Creek ($6.50 a gallon!!!!)
There is very limited cell and internet service in and around the park so make sure to download the Google Maps you’ll need to your phone (see how here) or bring a paper map. Don’t rely on your phone, be prepared!
The closest major city is Las Vegas, with a drive of approximately 2.5 hours depending on where you are staying. You can also fly into Los Angeles, as I did, and do the 4.5 hour drive. It really depends on what else you might visit on your trip! Be warned if you drive from LA you might hit nasty traffic on the I-15, which I experienced in both directions, making the trip much longer than anticipated. I don’t know if this is normal but it did happen twice!
Where’s the best place to stay?
There are limited accommodations in and around Death Valley, so book lodging early especially if staying in a central place and limiting your driving time is important to you. Inside the park, there’s accommodations at Stovepipe Wells or The Oasis at Death Valley. People also stay at Panamint Springs, CA to enter the park from the west, or Beatty, NV or Pahrump, NV to enter the park from the east. There are also lots of options for camping and RV Parks.
I booked this trip later than normal plus I was going over the holiday break, so most accommodations were already sold out. But I found a great place south of the park in the tiny town of Tecopa, CA (population 150) which is known for it’s hot springs! Delight’s Hot Springs Resort has cozy rooms with a furnace, a kitchen with stove, microwave, and mini-fridge, and best of all, 24 -hour unlimited access to their hot springs! You can choose between the private bathhouses, where you can spend up to 30 minutes soaking in your own pool, or the shared springs which are outdoors and have different temperatures with nice views of the mountains and stars. You can also park your RV here, check out the Tecopa Brewery next door, or purchase a day pass. Although staying here requires more driving, I loved it and would definitely come back. There’s nothing better after a long day of hiking than soaking in a hot tub especially once the temperature dips at night!
*A note about staying in Tecopa – there is no grocery store in town. You can get basic groceries in Shosohone, about 10 miles north, and they make a lot of their own products like breads and jams. Alternatively, stock up on what you need before arriving in the park area because stores have limited supply and you will likely pay higher prices.
What’s the weather like?
It’s quite pleasant in December, with the highs in the 60s F (15-20˚C) and lows in the 40s or upper 30s (2-7˚C) at night. December and January are the coolest months, while March-April and October-November are warmer (think high of 80-70s / 27-21˚C during the day and 50-60s at night). May-September are the hottest months, with highs well in over 90˚F (32˚C) or even average temperatures over 100˚F (38˚C). The average high in July is 116˚F (47˚C)!
As the driest place in North America, you can expect it to be sunny and dry most of the time. Always check the weather though!
What should I bring on my trip?
- Water – the park service recommends drinking a gallon a day to stay hydrated. To save money, stock up before getting to the park.
- Layers – Temps can rise and drop quick even at different sites in the park. I was comfortable in a long-sleeved t-shirt with several warmer layers (vest, sweatshirt, or coat/hat/gloves) in the car when needed.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, chapstick
- Food – Grocery stores and restaurants are few and far between, so keep extra food in your car
- Paper or downloaded map – Don’t expect to have cell service. You can get the park map at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s center by showing your receipt of entry fee payment
- Sneakers or hiking boots – Personally I prefer hiking boots, but the hikes described below could be done in sneakers.
- Gas – Keep that gas tank filled up just in case.
- First aid kit / Spare tire – Many places in the park are remote with limited cell service and few people. Don’t get caught unprepared for an emergency.
- A 4 wheel drive car
How much does it cost?
Park entry is $30 for a car and lasts 7 days. Unlike other national parks, there is no ranger station at the entrance where you pay. You need to go to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to pay at the machine and get a receipt for your car. Gas can be expensive and I recommend filling up in Stovepipe Wells rather than Furnace Creek (there was a difference of $1.50/gallon when I went!) You can save money by buying groceries before you arrive at the park. There are some restaurants inside the park, but the menus were average and a bit pricey in my opinion. If you decide to do the hot springs, Tecopa Brewery was fun for the local brews!
What’s a possible itinerary?
This is the two-day itinerary I did, but you could definitely spend 3 days. Keep in mind that staying in Tecopa, I needed to change the order a bit from what I might have done if I had stayed in a more central location, but you can use the map to mix and match depending on your location.
After a slow morning soaking in the hot springs, I drove north from the southern entrance past Shoshone heading north on 178 / Badwater Road to cover the southern part of the park. This road is also an entrance that very few tourists see and so a very fun drive. The first stop was Badwater Basin, salt flats that are the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level.
Continue north to find the Natural Bridge Canyon hike, a 2-mile, out-and-back hike where you can see a natural rock bridge. If you go past the bridge, you’ll also see what used to be a waterfall carved into the canyon wall. You can keep going for some canyon hiking and scrambling, but it didn’t seem like there was much past the dry waterfall. There’s also a great photo spot right when you start the hike, which is where I took the epic cover photo for this post!
Stop at Devil’s Golf Course, which has nothing to do with golf at all, but contains a vast field large oddly shaped salt deposits caused by wind erosion. You can walk on them, carefully, and it’s a really fascinating natural marvel.
Drive along Artist’s Drive Scenic Loop, an 8.5 mile, one-way drive through desolate multi-colored mountains straight out of Star Wars. Stop at the Artist’s Palette, where you can see multicolored hills caused by mineral composition. You can even walk on them!
Visit Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center to learn about the park, speak with a ranger, fuel up on food or gas, shop for souvenirs, or get a passport stamp (I am all about these stamps, #nerdalert)
End the day with a spectacular sunset at Dante’s Peak where you can look out over the whole valley and Badwater Basin. Be warned, it’s windy and cold up there at sunset, but well worth the breathtaking views!
Return to the hot springs and relax, perhaps outdoors under a sky so clear and dark that it’s perfect for stargazing.
I decided to do the Ubehebe Crater, which is quite a drive if you are staying out in Tecopa (2 hours 20 minutes), but I broke it up with some great stops. Enter the park from the east on route 190, as it’s faster if you are skipping the southern portion of the park. Stop at Zabriskie Point, an outlook of the valley with incredible multicolored striations on the rocks. If you have more time, there are some hiking trails that looked fun.
Drive north, stopping on the way at either Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells if you need gas or supplies. Continue until you reach Ubehebe Crater, a large crater in a field of volcanic craters. You can hike the rim (1.5 miles around) and take a detour to see Little Hebe, a smaller crater. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can hike down to the bottom of the crater but it’s a steep climb back up! The drive out there was well worth it.
After a lunch break and drive back to the Stovepipe Wells area, hike Mosaic Canyon, a slot canyon that will show you just how many shades of brown exist in nature, and how beautiful that can be. You’ll also pass limestone formations and get the experience of hiking inside a canyon.
End the day with sunset at Mesquite Sand Dunes, where all that desert sand blown in by the wind has gotten trapped. I had aspirations of trekking out to the tallest one, but it’s a lot farther and more tiring than it looks trudging up and down giant hills of sand! So I gave up and watched the sunset from the top of the dunes, and what a sunset it was. You have 360˚ of mountain views, plus the sand dunes. This was a top experience at the park!
If you have more time, here are some other things on my list that I didn’t get to:
- Twenty Mule Canyon Drive, a one-way scenic drive near Zabriskie Point
- Hike Desolation Canyon (3.6 mile hike, moderate/difficult)
- Hike Golden Canyon Trail to Badlands Loop and finish at Zabriskie Point, then return on Gower Gulch (about 7 miles round trip, moderate)
- Visit the east side of the park to see Darwin Falls, the highest waterfall in the park and the charcoal kilns where mining operations used to produce charcoal
- Go on an offroad adventure to Racetrack Playa, where you can find the mysterious sailing rocks, or Eureka Dunes, another sand dune but with less people
- Spend some time stargazing at night
- Return for wildflower superblooms in the spring!
Have you been to Death Valley? What was your experience? Planning a trip and have questions? Let me know in the comments!