One of the things that I love most about living in California is the unlimited access to breathtaking national parks. Death Valley is one of those places you don't want to miss, except in the summer when the scorching heat reaches temperatures over one hundred degrees. Plan your trip in the cooler winter months; we went on Martin Luther King Weekend and loved the brisk early mornings and evenings that hugged the sunny, and warm days.
Below I share with you some useful tips when planning your trip to Death Valley as well as our itinerary, which I personally think is perfect! I hope this comes in handy as you plan your adventure!
As mentioned, avoid this area like the plague during the summer months.
When exploring the region during the winter months, dress in layers. The temperature changes drastically from morning to afternoon and then to evening.
Book a hotel inside the park. It will save you tons of driving time.
Load up on sunscreen, the sun shines bright in Death Valley, even in the winter.
Make sure your tank is full. There are long stretches of roads with no signs of civilization in sight. You don't want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere stuck without gas.
Download maps in advance. Cellular service is non-existent throughout the park. Make sure you know how to get to where you're headed without relying on your GPS.
You must purchase a park pass at either of the park's main entrances and display it on your dashboard when parking throughout the park.
Buy LOTS of water bottles and store them in your trunk so that you have a constant supply in between hikes.
Our Itinerary (coming in from the California entrance):
We embarked on our journey at 7:00 am, with a packed breakfast, lunch, and plenty of snacks. The drive to Death Valley from San Diego is quite striking. Depending on what direction you come from, be prepared to drive through ghost towns and perhaps see wild mules close up as we did!
Just a few miles past Furnace Creek Visitor Center, where you will purchase your park entrance ticket which is valid for seven days, head over to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for mountain-sized dunes comprised of the softest sand. The grains are so minuscule that you barely feel them in your hands. The landscape here is a playground for all ages with tons of dunes to roll down, sand peaks to climb to absorb the views, and hundreds of tarantula dens! Look for their burrowed homes throughout the rolling dunes - you won't miss them. If you're brave, get close enough to sneak a peek and spot these critters in their homes. For those who need more action than just roaming countless acres of dunes, you may want to bring a sled since the park does not rent any.
Next on the agenda was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Here you'll truly encounter an other-worldly experience. During the winter, the surrounding mountain peaks are kissed with snow and the expansive salt flats trick your brain into thinking that you are walking on snow when you're actually walking on salt. As you head back to the parking lot make sure to look out for the sign hidden in the mountain ahead marking sea level to gain a strong appreciation of exactly where you are standing at that very moment.
Devil's Golf Course is just a quick drive from Badwater Basin and will drive your brain bonkers with the surreal, vast terrain made of salt formations. Many of these are super sharp so please consider avoiding the urge to walk far into the Mars-like land. The stones are hard to navigate and we saw many people fall and get hurt by spiky structures. To be safe, and to protect the landscape, stand back and soak in the miles of endless beauty that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to form into a truly remarkable and unforgettable sight.
After lots of driving and exploring, we headed to the hotel (an hour before check-in time) to unwind a bit. The Inn at Death Valley is one of four hotels inside the national park and offers the most lux accommodations. Truly a desert oasis, the hotel's bright green palm trees add a pop of color to the natural dirt landscape. In terms of aesthetics and convenience to popular trails and spots in the park, this hotel is the best choice. Guests who book one of the newly built casitas are provided a personal golf cart to get around the property. The rooms are also great for families. They boast a small kitchenette, outdoor seating area, and multiple sleeping areas. If you decide to book a casita, make sure to drive around the sprawling property. We spotted a wolf less than fifty feet away from us! My only complaint about this hotel is the limited dining options. The restaurant is so absurdly expensive for incredibly untasty food. The slow service takes it to a whole new level and the staff is not the most helpful. For example, they didn't know how to answer whether the $49 salmon was wild or farm-raised and couldn't ask the chef because he was not working in the kitchen on that day. Hmmm...I skipped the salmon. In any case, on our second day, we tried our luck at the hotel lounge which offers better service, and although their menu is even smaller, the cocktails, and nibbles were by far better than the main restaurant.
After refueling with an afternoon glass of wine and some snacks, put your explorer hats back on and follow Mother Nature's bountiful beauty. We didn't want to miss the famous sunset at Zabriskie Point, so we decided to get there at 4:00 pm to wander and get ready for the skies magic show. The breathtaking panorama here overlooks canyons and gulches that change colors by the minute as the sun prepares to call it a day. I think Zabriskie Point is a must-stop while in the park and I'd even dare to say a must on your bucket list. This place on our planet is heavenly in all aspects. If you need a refresher course on humbleness, this is the place to grab a free lesson.
Notes: After dinner, we drove across the street to The Inn at Death Valley's sister property, The Ranch at Death Valley to check it out. This hotel is geared towards families and offers buffet-style restaurants, a convenience store, and an ice-cream saloon. If you find yourself craving a scoop while you're in the middle of nowhere, rest assured your craving will be satiated. We also took a seven-minute drive to Harmony Borax Works which is known for exceptionally dark skies and incredible stargazing opportunities. Unfortunately, the moon was full, and it lit up the sky on both nights we drove over but you should give it a try when you are in the area!
Death Valley has loads of trails for all levels. Make sure that everyone in your group packs their bags with a couple of water bottles, snacks, a cap, a layer, and sunscreen to ensure you have everything you need for a wonderful day ahead!
Start your day with an unforgettable sunrise at Zabriskie Point. I can't suggest a more exhilarating way to begin your day than watching the sun paint the sky in the most striking hues of pinks and oranges. Should you wish to begin your day with the utmost feeling of gratitude, look no further than waking up with the sun at this spectacular location.
Next, drive over to the Golden Canyon Trailhead. This is one of the more popular trails in the park so I highly suggest heading over as soon as the sun rises. Not only will you beat the heat, but you'll also beat the crowds. We had the entire trail to ourselves. This trail is aptly named Golden Canyon as the canyons remarkably resemble gold when the sun hits them. It's a fairly easy 2.5-mile hike; make sure to continue the hike onto the Red Cathedral path where you'll be greeted by some fun rock scrambling and slot canyons and a very cool naturally occurring amphitheater. Let loose and release some howls to hear your voice bounce back off the rocks and then find some taller areas to safely climb up to a magical lookout point.
At this point, you'll probably get hungry so head back to the hotel for a carby breakfast that will hold you over until lunchtime. One of the biggest advantages of staying at The Inn at Death Valley is the proximity to everything so you can easily drive back to the hotel to re-energize and refuel.
Following breakfast head on over to The Natural Bridge Trail for a moderately difficult but short two-mile hike that offers constant changes in terrain which will keep you wondering what to expect next. From dried-out waterfalls to gorgeous stone colors, huge boulders to a beautiful, naturally occurring bridge, your eyes will be wild with excitement. My biggest suggestion here for you is that you'll reach a point that will make you think the trail has come to an end because of the tall, smooth rock formations that form a barrier but keep going. Many fellow hikers turned back around at this point. However, one of the most fun parts of this trail is figuring out how to climb these rocks and to challenge yourself to keep climbing up until you truly hit a point where you cannot possibly climb any higher. Just be careful, the rocks are slippery!
Next, rest your legs and drive through two strikingly scenic routes: Twenty Mule Team Road (2.5 miles) and the better-known Artist's Drive (9 miles). You'll find yourself hopping out of your car often. The vistas are so stunning you'll want to not only see them, you'll want to get out and be in them. Artist's Drive takes you to Artist's Palette which are mountains that Nature decided to use as her canvas and paint in various hues of color from mineral deposits that have been made over the centuries.
There's so much to see and do in the park but we decided to head back to the hotel for a late afternoon snack. I'm so glad we did! That's when we spotted the wild wolf while we were riding in our golf cart. We ended the day with one last sunset at Zabriskie Point, this time, we walked the trail into the valley which gave us an entirely different perspective than when we were above looking down. You can easily find this trail to the right of the viewpoint entrance.
There is so much more to explore in Death Valley and we plan to return one day to dive into the other sides and sites of the park. If you're looking for a visit that balances some relaxation and eliminates driving time while also immersing yourself in a great itinerary, I think you'll find this post quite helpful. It's always great when you leave a place wanting more of it, giving you good reason to return for a second visit!