Death Valley National Park is an iconic place in California. It’s featured in movies, songs, yet so many people think of it as a bare desert with nothing to see.
In reality, Death Valley has some of the most incredible, unique scenery in the entire US and is definitely worth visiting.
Whether you’re traveling from California or Las Vegas, a one day trip to Death Valley is all you need to make the most of this unique place.
In this post, you’ll learn all about Death Valley National Park and how to make the most of your one-day trip with our done-for-you itinerary.
Don’t forget to check out our in-depth guide on Channel Island Backpacking for another adventure you won’t want to miss.
A little bit of history
Located in Southern California, just east of the Sierra Mountains, is the iconic Death Valley. Bordering Nevada State, the valley has been home to Indigenous people for over 10,000 years and is now home to a range of wildlife (despite what the name might suggest!).
In the beginning, the tribes that called Death Valley home were hunters and gatherers who came to the valley in the cooler months and then moved up the mountains as soon as the temperatures began to soar.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that miners flocked to this area following the gold rush, in hopes of finding precious metals and gems.
The mining communities decimated Indigenous populations and thrived in the area for years. But as soon as the mining boom fell off, the small towns were deserted.
The name Death Valley comes from a group known as the 49ers who came to Death Valley in 1849, heading west to California. They got lost for so long they were forced to eat their oxen and burn their wagons for warmth. When they finally found their way on foot, one of the women said “goodbye, Death Valley”, and the name stuck.
In 1993, President Hoover declared the area to be “Death Valley National Monument” which was eventually renamed Death Valley National Park.
Now, it’s a tourist spot visited by thousands of people every year and has some unique sights to see.
Things to Consider for Your 1 Day Trip to Death Valley
If you have just one day in Death Valley, here are some important things to consider to make the most of your short time there.
When to visit
Spring is the most popular season to visit the valley. The weather is nice but not scorching, and the beautiful displays of wildflowers are something to see.
The Death Valley Dark Sky Festival is also hosted every spring, which sees thousands of people flock to the area and local campsites get filled up quickly.
Although you can visit Death Valley National Park in the summer months, it’s usually far too hot for most people. Summer starts early too, so by mid-may it’s usually too hot to camp on the low elevations.
Even so, many people still visit the valley during the summer and drive through to see the main attractions (hiking trails are too hot). Some camping is available throughout the summer, but not as much as the springtime.
Driving in Death Valley National Park
Badwater Road runs through Death Valley and is a popular route for those looking to visit the Devil’s Golf course, Badwater, and Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette. That entire road trip takes around an hour and a half and brings you right back out to Highway 190.
If you do plan on driving through Death Valley, you’ll need a 4×4 or high clearance vehicle to take the best routes. Although there are many flat, dirt roads to follow, many of the attractions are on rocky terrain that most average vehicles will find difficult to clear.
Entering Death Valley National Park
You’ll need a permit to enter Death Valley unless you’re going as part of a ranger-led tour. You can fill out a form online to get a digital permit which you should keep a copy of on your trip in case a ranger asks to see it.
If you’re coming from California, you’ll enter the park west off Highway 395. You’ll need to head down onto Highway190 going through Panamint Springs to get to the park from this direction.
If you’re coming from Las Vegas, there are a couple different route options. The easiest is to head out on Highway 160 on the south end and head to Death Valley junction where the road becomes Highway 190 and you can enter the park here.
This route takes you by Dante’s View, Twenty Mule Canyon, and Zabriskie Point, and Furnace Creek with a park visitor center.
Once you’re at Furnace Creek, it’s easy to get to Desolation Canyon, Artist’s Drive (Artist’s Palette), Devil’s Golf Course, and the Natural Bridge.
Things to pack
Even for a one-day trip to Death Valley, there are some essentials you need to pack. Remember, it’s a dangerous place and if you get stranded or your car breaks down, you’ll be glad you have all the necessary survival supplies until help arrives.
- Plenty of water (one gallon per person per day)
- A good supply of non-perishable food (protein bars are good to add)
- Sunscreen (apply regularly throughout the day)
- Sunglasses to protect from glare
- Sturdy hiking shoes
- Crampons (not to be confused with microspikes)
- A light jacket
- First aid kit
- Water purifiers
- Compass or GPS device
- Binoculars and a camera
- Portable charger for your phone
- Flashlight or headlamp
Heatstroke is a real concern in Death Valley in the summer and spring, so it’s important to keep your skin covered and protected from UV rays. However, even in the summer, the temperature can drop considerably at night so make sure you have supplies if camping.
If you’re heading to the mountains, these can be around 40 degrees cooler than the valley floor, so be prepared for the change in temperature.
Summer thunderstorms are rare but do happen and can sometimes wash out the dirt road, which is why it’s important to have a GPS device in case you lose your way.
Entrance Fee and passes
There are fees to enter Death Valley since it’s a national park. You’ll need a permit for your vehicle which will cover an entire week of entry to the park.
Here’s a breakdown of the Death Valley entrance fees:
- $30 for a single, private vehicle
- $25 for a motorbike
- $15 per person if you’re entering on foot
- $55 for an annual pass
Where to stay
There are three different hotel options inside Death Valley National Park if you want some home comforts after a day of exploring:
- The Inn at Death Valley at Furnace Creek
- The Ranch at Death Valley at Furnace Creek
- The Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel in Stovepipe Wells
If you would prefer to camp, the best campsite is in Furnace Creek. It’s set up in a rugged cradle surrounded by mountains and has some incredible nighttime views. It also has bike paths and an old mine nearby to go exploring.
If you want to take your RV on a road trip through Death Valley, there are flat parking campgrounds near the Furnace Ranch Resort and Furnace Creek Hotel. These both have a couple hundred spots with a dump station, toilets, and water and are open between October and May.
Must-see Attractions in Death Valley
With so much to do and see in Death Valley, there are a few attractions you won’t want to miss.
1. Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are one of the most photographed areas of Death Valley and when you see them for yourself, you’ll understand why.
When the sun hits the dunes, they cast long, curved shadows creating some incredible views. The mountains are in the background, making for some scenic photos.
You can walk the Mesquite sand dunes and take on climbing to the higher points, or just sit for a while and take in the unique view. On busy days during peak times, the dunes are pretty busy and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one without someone climbing on it, but if you go off-season and it’s quiet, it’s really a beautiful spot.
The other dunes to include on your trip through Death Valley are:
- Eureka Dunes
- Panamint Dunes
- Saline Valley Dunes
- Ibex Dunes
2. Badwater Basin
At the south side of Death Valley, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the entire western hemisphere sitting 277 feet below sea level.
Even in the winter months, Badwater Basin is an incredibly hot area to visit. However, at certain times of year, there is a shallow lake surrounded by crusted salt. It’s interesting to learn about and there are a range of activities surrounding Badwater Basin to keep you busy.
3. The Racetrack
If you’re driving through Death Valley in a 4×4, you visit the Racetrack(it’s a tough road to take in a normal vehicle). It’s a huge, dry mud bed with large stones dotted around. Behind each stone is a long trail as if someone pushed them through the mud before it dried.
With a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can take a rugged road that leads to one of Death Valley’s most mysterious sights, known as The Racetrack. This area is a huge dried mud bed, where stones of various sizes can be seen with long tracks trailing behind them, as if they have been pushed through the mud.
For years, scientists argued about how the rocks were moved but recently, it was found the rocks are moved by floating ice slowly pushing them along.
Whatever the cause, they’re an interesting part of the valley to see for yourself.
4. Zabriskie Point
There’s an eight-mile hike that leads up to Zabriskie Point. This famous viewpoint is where you’ll get some jaw-dropping views of the brown and gold ridges of earth below. With the mountains in the distance, it’s a sight you won’t want to miss on your trip.
5. Artist’s Palette
Take a short, scenic drive along Artist’s Drive and you’ll come to Artist’s Palette near a section of the Black Mountains. This colorful section of hillside has shades of brown, green, pink, and turquoise, all created by the metal ore in the rock.
To get there, you need to drive the one-way loop of Artist’s Drive that’s around nine miles long, but it’s worth the short detour to see the vibrant yet beautiful colors for yourself.
6. Devil’s Golf Course
The flat expanse of salt flats near Furnace Creek is known as the Devil’s Golf Course. The jagged salt boulders stretch out for miles and you can walk right out onto the planes. There is less to do here and it’s difficult to walk along the expanse, but it’s a great place to sit in peace and take in the massive expanse of the salt flats.
7. Natural Bridge
Another popular tourist attraction, Death Valley’s Natural Bridge is near Badwater. You can get to it on a two-mile popular hike but it also has a parking lot just half a mile away for those on a road trip.
It’s a hot trek so think about taking this one early in the morning or later in the evening to enjoy it more. There isn’t much else around but it’s an interesting natural monument to see.
One Day Road Trip Itinerary
Whether you’re solo trekking in Nepal or visiting Boulder Chain Lakes, planning your trip in advance is the best way to make the most of it.
It can feel like there’s too much to do in Death Valley to spend just one day there. But with a planned-out itinerary and an overnight stay to make the most of your trip, you can pack a lot in. Here’s what we would do on our road trip:
- Enter the park from the west side through Panamint Springs
- Head straight to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes which look best at sunrise
- Stop off at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to learn more from the rangers
- Head to the Devil’s Golf Course next to take in the scenery
- At sunset, take a walk around Badwater Basin (so the temperature is more bearable)
- End your day at Furnace Creek Campground
- Get an early start and watch the sunrise at Dante’s View
- Head over to Zabriskie Point to take some incredibly pictures
- Take on the short hike to see the Natural Bridge
- Leave the park on Highway 190 heading toward Las Vegas
This trip aims to include all of the major tourist attractions at Death Valley National Park. But it’s easy to add in a few more if you want to see something specific the park has to offer.
Onto the Next Adventure…
So many people think Death Valley is a barren wasteland but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much to explore in this park that a one day trip needs to pack a lot in. Make sure to plan your trip in advance to make the most of it.
Looking for your next adventure? Check out our guide on the Big Pine Lakes Trail to see glacier-fed lakes like no other.