Once home to the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, miners and outlaws, Death Valley National Park is a park of extremes. Hot, dry and geologically unique, even just driving through can present problems if you aren’t prepared. It took me three tries before I finally made a proper visit. Here’s my tips and suggestions for planning your visit to Death Valley National Park.
Death valley National Park at a Glance
LOCATED IN CALIFORNIA + NEVADA
established as a national monument in 1933
changed to national park in 1994
elevation -282 ft. to 7000 ft.
visited in october + August
Why Is Death Valley National Park So Special?
Death Valley National Park is truly a unique place on the planet. There are several things that make it so special but here’s just a few of the reasons:
- it’s the lowest point in North America
- it’s one of the hottest place on earth
- with 3000 square miles, 3.4 million acres, it’s the largest park in the lower 48
- there are over 1000 miles of roads in the park
- it’s home to a unique fish only found in Death Valley
What’s the The Best Time to Visit Death Valley National Park?
Death Valley is open every day so driving through to see the sights can be done pretty much year round if you are prepared. However, if you want to hike and really explore it thoroughly, then the best time to visit is in the cooler months. That definitely means not in the summer. The ideal time is December through April and maybe the first part of May. By the end of May, it will begin to get hot. In late March, April and May is when the wildflowers bloom.
Even in the fall of the year, it can be hot. I visited with my daughter in October and it hovered around 116F at Furnace Creek while we were there. We hiked at some of the higher elevations but it was only really tolerable in the morning and late in the evening once the sun goes down. And it’s still hot even then. Keep in mind too, that there’s very little shade. If you happen to be camping, escaping the heat in the middle of the day can be challenging.
How to Get to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park straddles the Nevada California state line with the majority of the park in Inyo County, California. Highway 190 is the main highway that passes east to west through Death Valley. Because the park is so large and has several entrances, there are plenty of ways to enter. Some of the routes are more popular than others.
Driving From Las Vegas
Death Valley National Park is 124 miles from Las Vegas to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. It took us about two hours to drive over from Boulder City. From Las Vegas, there are several routes into the park but the best one in my opinion is Nevada Hwy 160 to Pahrump to Death Valley Junction onto Hwy 190.
Hwy 160 is a nice scenic drive through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Plus Pahrump is a good place to stop for food – we tried these tacos – or supplies you might need and definitely fuel for your vehicle. There is gas in the park but it’s more expensive.
If you’d like to drive a loop route road trip from Las Vegas, then use the above directions but exit the park on Hwy 374 that takes you to Beatty Nevada. It’s a good place to stop off and see some sights – or gamble – and visit the ghost town of Rhyolite. Then, Hwy 95 will take you directly back into Las Vegas.
How to use this map. This map has four layers. Click on the icon on the top left corner to open the layers. Then remove the ones you don’t want to see. You can add this map to your Google maps by clicking the star at the end of the map’s name.
Driving From California
Coming from the west the most popular route is Hwy 395 north to Ridgecrest, where you can access state route 178 into the park. Or you can take 395 north all the way to Olancha, turn on Hwy 190 to Panamint Springs and the park.
Southerner Says: we had no problem using our GPS, if we had service, but we were mostly on main roads. The National Park Service warns against relying solely on GPS as it could lead you to dead ends and roads you don’t want to be on in a car or a rental. Pick up a park map and learn the legend for roads. The National Park Service also has several downloadable suggested itinerary available here.
Fly + Road Trip to Death Valley National Park
If you are doing a fly and road trip vacation, then Las Vegas (LAS) Harry Reid International Airport, is the closest airport. It’s 120 miles to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas so you could easily fly in, see some sites in Vegas or the surrounding area and then go on to Death Valley National Park. Even though it would be a long day, it’s also doable as a day trip from Las Vegas. Rental cars at LAS are always pretty reasonably priced.
Where to Stay in Death Valley National Park
Whether you want to camp or stay in a hotel, Death Valley National Park has options for everyone. Because it’s such a big park, I recommend staying inside the park to cut down on driving. Especially if it’s your first time.
The park is divided into little areas and junctions – Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Beatty Junction, Death Valley Junction, to name a few. The areas with the most lodging, food and gas are Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. We picked Furnace Creek as our base.
Death Valley Campgrounds
There are a total of nine campgrounds in the park. Some are national park service campgrounds and some are concessioner run parks. Four of them are in Furnace Creek. I’m only going to talk about the ones I personally stayed in or actually drove through and checked out. The campground reservation rules change seasonally and there are some RV restrictions at some campgrounds so it’s best to check on nps.gov for latest info as well as info about any closures.
National Park Service Campgrounds
Furnace Creek Campground
We overnighted in Furnace Creek Campground. Mainly because it was one of the only campgrounds open and it was operating as first come first served. There are two other NPS run campgrounds – Sunset and Texas Springs – in this area as well but they were closed.
The Furnace Creek area is a good location because it’s somewhat central in the park and it’s close to several popular sites. It’s also one of the only campgrounds open year round. The campground has 136 sites and is first come first served in low season. During the winter, it’s reservation only.
The bad news is, this area is one of the hottest areas in the park. You are still 196 ft. below sea level. Since it was 116F the day we got there, you can imagine how hot even the ground is at that temperature. Set up your tent, lay down and the ground feels like a heated blanket. Not ideal. I’m not going to lie, the first night was rough. In fact, it’s probably the worst night I’ve ever spent in a tent. And this is with some trees and the fly off the tent. Occasionally a light breeze would pick up but it wasn’t enough. The second night was slightly better and a bit cooler, so it was easier to get to sleep.
Furnace Creek Campground
- first come first served in summer/reservations in winter
- automated credit card machine for payment so no cash accepted
- flush toilets
Mesquite Springs Campground
Mesquite Springs campground is in the northern section of the park, near the Ubehebe Crater. It has 40 sites and it’s also open year round. No reservations. It’s always first come first served, no matter the season. We only drove through this campground to check it out but now that I’ve been to the park once, I would consider staying in this area. Even though the park wasn’t crowded at all, there are WAY less people in this area. It’s also a higher elevation (1800 ft) so it’s much cooler. I also enjoyed the crater and would like to explore it more.
There isn’t a whole lot of shade in the campground, mainly because there’s not much shade anywhere in the park but there are flush toilets, water and drinking water. The campground also has a campground host in high season
Mesquite Springs Campground
- first come first served
- credit card machine for payment so no cash accepted
- flush toilets
National Park Service Free Campground
In addition to fee campgrounds, Death Valley National Park has several free, developed camping areas too. That’s not something you see in every park so I feel like I should mention those. Again, these were campgrounds we saw and drove through.
Emigrant Campground is about 40 minutes from Furnace Creek and closer to the Stovepipe Wells area. It’s really just a lot with 10 tent only sites right off the road but it’s always open and first come first served. At an elevation of 2100 ft. it should be a bit cooler than Furnace Creek. It’s basic but you can’t beat free. I would definitely pitch my tent here in a pinch.
The free, first come first served, open year round, Wildrose Campground is located off Wildrose Canyon Road in a more remote area of the park. The campground is primitive. It’s basically just a gravel lot but there are 23 sites with pit toilets and water. It’s also at an elevation of 4100 ft. so it’s much much cooler. Even though the campground is open year round, sometimes because of weather, the road to get there is not. Always check NPS.gov before you go.
There’s plenty of opportunity for backcountry (fee) camping in Death Valley National Park. I have no first hand knowledge, so I can’t recommend any particular area. The National Park Service has downloadable info here with the regulations and suggested areas.
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Park Hotels + Lodging
For the non campers, Death Valley National Park has several lodging options at the Furnace Creek area of the park. These properties are run by concessioners and not the NPS. The Oasis at Death Valley features the more upscale and historic Inn at Death Valley, that opened in 1927. There’s also the more casual and family friendly Ranch at Death Valley.
Both properties have plenty of amenities. Restaurants, pools, tennis courts coffee shops, and playgrounds are just a few of the luxuries you’ll find there. You can even play golf on a beautiful course surrounded by palm trees. There is also an RV and tent campground called Fiddlers’ Campground. Cost for a tent campsite is $24 a night. Included in that price is access to the Ranch’s spring fed swimming pool, showers, laundry facilities and use of their sports courts like tennis and basketball.
Stovepipe Wells Village, (currently closed) has a hotel, restaurant, saloon, gift shop and gas station. They’ve been serving drinks and renting rooms to weary travelers or workers since 1926! If I was going to stay in a hotel, this would be my pick. I loved the cute old western vibe. We didn’t get to see much of it since it was closed because of the pandemic but I was told it would be open soon for busy season.
On the west side, right outside the park is small resort in Panamint Springs. This area has also been servicing travelers and workers for a long time too. There’s hotel lodging, a campground, a restaurant, bar and camp store. The lodging is currently closed but campground is open.
Beatty, Nevada, on the east side of the park, is also another option for lodging. It’s referred to as the Gateway to Death Valley and is only 7 miles from the entrance. There are a few hotels in town. At least one even has a casino. There are also some RV parks and camping as well as a few cute Airbnb properties. Learn more in my 5 Fun Things to do in Beatty post.
What To Do in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is big and spread out. Many of the roads are unpaved. If you are prepared, there’s still plenty to do without a 4×4. Some of the roads don’t require 4×4’s but a high clearance vehicle in necessary. Make sure you pick a park map so you’ll have a road info. The National Park Service does an excellent job at keeping the roads maintained.
We were able to do of most of what we planned on for a first time visit but I do feel like we missed out on a lot because of not having a 4×4. I’m determined to go back in a truck or a Jeep to drive some of the unpaved roads. You can also rent a jeep in the park if you have time. Here’s just a few of the fun things you can do in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley National Park officially has two visitor centers. One at Furnace Creek and one at Scotty’s Castle.
Furnace Creek is open every day 8am – 5pm. Besides interpretive information about the park, there’s a film, a passport stamp station and of course rangers, to answer any questions. It’s also where the park thermometer is.
The Scotty’s Castle area has a visitor center but that entire section has been closed since 2015 after flooding damaged the roads. No info on when it will reopen.
There’s is an abundance of hiking at Death Valley National Park. How much you are able to do depends on when you visit the park. We did as much as we could early and late in the day but October is just still really hot. Here’s a couple of easy things to see and do even when it’s hot.
Created by movements in the earth’s crust, at 282 ft. below sea level Badwater Basin is unlike any place you’ve ever seen before. In a wet climate, a place this low would normally be covered by water but because Death Valley is so dry, when the area does get rain, it evaporates and leaves behind salt flats. It’s a nice location for to experience sunset in the park. It was shaded and you can walk as much or as little as you like.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
We loved the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. You may recognize them as the famous dunes of Tatooine in Star Wars. And while you probably won’t see any droids, it’s a lot of fun walking amongst them. Go early in the morning, when the sand is still cool. We were done by 10 am because it just got so hot really quick. If you are lucky you might just spot tracks left from the sidewinder rattlesnakes that like to frequent the dunes at night.
Death Valley National Park is full of reminders of the past. Since this area was a working and mining area, there are the remnants of several ghost towns in the park. Some are in the middle of nowhere and only reachable by some of those unpaved roads I mentioned. However, there are a few easy to get to sites right off Hwy 190. Harmony Borax Works is off Mustard Canyon Drive and can be accessed via a .04 loop trail. It takes less than half an hour to walk through and see the mule team wagons and some of the original buildings.
Most of the mines in Death Valley National Park have been closed for years. Time and lack of use made many of them unsafe. But just a couple of years ago one of the defunct mines was reopened. Keane Wonder Mine is now accessible via several trails. You can even hike to aerial tramway. We didn’t have a chance to visit the mine because even though it’s not far off the main road, it does require a high clearance vehicle to get to it. See nps.gov for more info and directions.
Dark Sky Park
Death Valley National Park is a designated Dark Sky Park. Since there are no major cities around the park, you’re in one of the best areas to view the night skies. Unfortunately, we were there during a full moon so we weren’t able to see that many stars but the moon was spectacular. I can only imagine how beautiful the Milky Way must be. The National Park Service has some suggestions about how to best experience a Dark Sky Park on their website. In normal years (not 2020) there is even a Dark Sky Festival at Death Valley.
Death Valley October Packing List
What should you pack to visit Death Valley? Here’s a few suggestions for October:
- a water bottle
- food and snacks
- a camp stove since you frequently can’t have fires
- cooler or coolers
- hand sanitizer and soap for the bathrooms
- baby wipes (I never road trip without them)
- appropriate shoes for hiking in dusty and rocky conditions
- shorts and cool shirts
- a hat or head covering
- a bandana or buff to wet down and keep your neck cool
- a small fan mister
- a battery operated fan
- some shade 🙂
Southerner Says tip: we were able to buy ice in the park but next time I would take an extra cooler with frozen water bottles or ice and not open it until I needed to.
FAQ’s About Death Valley National Park
- How much does Death Valley National Park cost?
The entry fee is $30 for 7 days for cars and $25 for motorcycles. However, I encourage people to purchase an America the Beautiful annual park pass. It’s $80 but good for one year and is accepted at over 2k interagency sites across the country. Everyone in the car is covered. If you plan on seeing a lot of parks, it’s the way to go.
There’s no manned entrance station at Death Valley but there are kiosks where that have credit card machines to pay your fee. While you are there, pick up a park map and a current newspaper
- Are Dogs Allowed in Death Valley National Park?
Yes but with restrictions. They must be on a leash and never left unattended. It’s just too hot and there are reports of coyote snatchings. They are not allowed on trails and even the board walks at Badwater Basin. Suggested areas in the park that you can take them are found here.
- Are there gas stations in Death Valley?
Yes! There are gas station in Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs. Gas is the cheapest in Stovepipe Wells and will run you about $3.50 a gallon (Oct 2020). Furnace Creek and Panamint were more. If you are coming from 395N, I would get gas there before making the turn onto 190. If you are coming from Vegas via Pahrump, then definitely stop there.
- Is there cell service in Death Valley?
Service is very spotty, however, I think it depends which provider you have. I use Verizon and I had little to no service the entire time we were in Death Valley. My daughter has AT&T and she had better coverage than me.
- Why is it called Death Valley?
Because a group of pioneers almost lost their lives there in the winter of 1849-1850. When they were finally rescued, as they were leaving, one of them turned around, looked and said “goodbye, death valley” and the name stuck.
Visit Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a great park for really anyone; solo travelers, families, couples and even non hikers or people that don’t want to hike. There are plenty of scenic drives, turnouts and overlooks. It can even be done on a day trip from Las Vegas or combined with other nearby national parks and sites. However, the heat is brutal at least 8 or 9 months out of the year. If you decide to visit anytime that’s not winter, plan well, make sure your car is in tip top shape and have plenty of water. Make sure you have a spare tire that is in good shape.
After one visit, I certainly don’t claim to know everything about Death Valley but I hope my first hand experience helps. For more info and resources use:
- Death Valley National Park by Moon Guide
- NPS Visitor Guide
- NPS map of Death Valley National Park
- Backcountry Camping Map & Rules
- Learn About Leave No Trace ethics for the outdoors