The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Death Valley National Park
This dry lunar landscape actually gets wildflowers this time of year.
Death Valley is a place of extremes. It’s the largest national park in the Lower 48. It’s the driest place in the country. It’s the lowest point on the continent. And as far as we know, it’s the hottest place on earth: On July 10, 1913, the mercury hit 134 degrees—the highest air temperature ever recorded.
A place so vast and inhospitable, Death Valley got its name from California-bound pioneers in 1849. (The pessimistic nomenclature continues throughout the park, in places like Desolation Canyon and Last Chance Mountain.) Behind the intimidating name, however, you’ll find remarkable desert scenery, deep solitude, and astonishing perseverance—from the schools of tiny pupfish that eke out a tenuous existence in America’s driest desert to the once-a-decade wildflower “superblooms” that make this one of the best parks to visit in springtime.
A popular day trip from or en route to Vegas—it’s around three hours by car from LA, and two hours from Sin City—Death Valley isn’t an obvious blockbuster like Yellowstone or Zion. It’s a slow burn, a mood piece that’s more about atmosphere than action. (It’s also why dozens of films, including Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, were filmed here.) Death Valley is big, empty, and remote. The occasional signs of life that you do encounter—an abandoned mine shaft, a 25-foot-tall sculpture of a nude Lego woman—are all the more intriguing for the unlikely feat of being there at all.
The best time of year to visit Death Valley? Not summer.
Unless you’re an extreme ultramarathon runner, we see no reason to visit Death Valley in the summer when temperatures are regularly above 120 degrees in the shade. If you find yourself there during extreme heat, stay in your car as much as possible, and drink water and electrolytes like your life depends on it—because it does!
The spring wildflower season stretches from mid-February to mid-July, meaning you’ve got a pretty big window to catch Mother Nature in action. The carpet of desert golds and grape soda lupines that blankets the valley during large scale “superblooms” are a rare occurrence taking place every 10-15 years. Still, there are usually blossom fields to be found somewhere in the park. Wildflowers bloom at different elevations at different points in the season, so be sure to plan hikes accordingly.
Late fall also makes a great time to visit for cooler temps. Visit in November and you may catch the 49ers Encampment, a week-long Western heritage festival with old timey amusements like wagon rides, pioneer costume contests, and wheelbarrow races. Winter evenings are chilly, but usually stay above freezing. It’s a good time to explore the valley floor, but steer clear of the mountains where you’ll find snow on the roads and hiking trails.
The time of day you go also matters
If you can, plan to stay at least one night. For one thing, the park is roughly the size of Connecticut, and attractions within it are very spread out. The other benefit of staying overnight is experiencing how beautiful the desert is when the sun and heat die down.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to hike, when the yellow and gold-toned earth seems to glow at Zabriskie Point and you can walk the tightrope that forms at the top of each sand dune where the light and shade meet. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sundown are also an unforgettable sight: as the stars slowly take over the night sky, the amber desertscape transforms into an otherworldly lunar terrain. (Just don’t forget to bring a flashlight. Unfortunately, the stars cannot guide you back to your car!)
Finding supplies and a place to sleep
Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle for seven days. Within the 3.4 million acre park, distances between sites are vast and phone reception is spotty. Before you enter, stock up on gas, food, and lots of water (the recommended consumption is a gallon per person, per day). Inside the park there are three areas to buy gas and food—Furnace Creek, Panamint Springs Resort, and Stovepipe Wells Village.
There are three hotel options in Death Valley National Park: the fancy resort accommodation at The Oasis at Death Valley, or the cheap(ish) and cheerful motel rooms at Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs Resort. All three also have campsites, some with RV hookups, and easy access to facilities like restaurants and swimming pools.
If you’re looking for a more affordable option or something closer to nature, there are nine NPS-administered campgrounds in the park. Emigrant campground is tent-only, while Furnace Creek has RV hookups. If you’re planning on spending more than one night, consider basing yourself in different sections of the park to cut down the driving time between sites.
The most incredible things to see in Death Valley
Death Valley’s headline attraction is Badwater Basin, a 200-square-mile salt flat at the bottom of the valley. Its claim to fame? At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America. It’s roughly half-a-mile from the parking lot to the salt flat’s smooth white interior for the obligatory photo. There are no fences or trails so you’re free to roam for as long as you can handle the heat that gets trapped on the valley floor.
In the same section of the park, you can easily hit two great photo ops. One is Zabriskie Point, a hilltop lookout over barren yet beautiful terrain. It’s a panorama of canyons, cliffs and dense folds of earth in multiple shades of yellow, red, and brown. You can snap a pic and be on your way, or hike right into the otherworldly landscape along the 2.5-mile Badlands Loop trail.
Even cooler is Artist Drive, a nine-mile scenic detour that takes you past a spot called Artists’ Palette. Whereas the rest of the landscape you’ll see in the park is essentially desert colored, here mineral deposits have made the rocks look like a dropped eyeshadow compact of pinks, purples, blues, and greens.
Further afield are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, aka the sand dunes of Tatooine from Star Wars. This isn’t the only dune field in the park, but it is the largest and the most accessible. Give yourself ample time to hike, board, and photograph the sandy hillscape. At sunrise or sunset, you can take amazing high-contrast shots of 100-foot-tall dunes with one side completely darkened by shadow.
The deeper you go into the desert, the stranger things get. And if you go deep enough—and we mean way out there—you may or may not encounter some giant boulders that mysteriously move on their own. Head out to the Racetrack, a remote, 3-mile-long playa (or dried lakebed) where you’ll spot the famous Death Valley sailing stones: a drove of rocks that slide across the land without any help, sometimes leaving 1,000 foot-long trails in their wake. Nobody has actually seen them move in person.
Like many things in Death Valley, getting to the Racetrack requires a serious trek, so make sure you’re fully equipped for the journey with four-wheel drive and heavy-duty tires. Bring extra water and prepare to take Google Maps analog.
If you have a real sense of adventure and a couple of days to spend in the park, there’s an even more under-the-radar spot called Saline Valley Warm Springs on the park’s western side. Getting there requires several hours of slow driving over bumpy, rock-strewn dirt roads—it’s not a journey for the faint of heart or those who can’t change a flat. But you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a desert oasis: a surprisingly well kept campsite, three large spring-fed soaking pools, a bunch of friendly donkeys, and a free-spirited (clothing optional) vibe. Welcome to the weird, wild West.
Explore some eccentric desert art
As you’ll come to realize during your stint in Death Valley, mega-heat makes people do some outlandish stuff. That means the weird-ass mirages you’re seeing along the US-95 aren’t psychic visions: it’s actually just some desert art.
If you’re rolling down the highway between Death Valley and Vegas, stop off at Lady Desert, a 25-foot-tall Venus de Milo made of Legos, and the Goldwell Museum, an open-air sculpture park created by Belgian artists. (Nearby, you’ll also run through the town of Beatty, known for the adorable wild burros that roam free.)
If you’re the type that really appreciates art in the middle of nowhere, make a detour south to the odd oasis that is the Salton Sea. And if you just want to swan dive into life as a permanent desert dweller, post up in Joshua Tree, where a bizarre natural landscape joins forces with eccentric, artistic residents to make for a superbly trippy time.
Tiana Attride contributed reporting to this article.