Once home to the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, miners and outlaws, Death Valley National Park is a park of extremes. Big, hot, and geologically unique, just driving through the park can present problems if you aren’t prepared. The best way to be ready is by doing research and having a good plan when you visit Death Valley National Park. Here’s my park suggestions and tips.
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 is one of the most unique places on the planet. There are an abundance of things that make it so special but here’s just a few of the reasons to put Death Valley National Park on your travel list:
- 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
When’s the Best Time to Visit Death Valley National Park?
Death Valley National Park is open every day of the year. There are plenty of secondary roads connecting Nevada and California so as long as you are prepared, you can drive through and see some of the popular sights pretty much year round. Just make sure to check the National Park Service website for park alerts and weather closures.
However, if you want to hike and really explore the park thoroughly, then the best time to visit Death Valley National Park is in the cooler months. The ideal time is December through April and into the first part of May. To see wildflowers in the park – visit in late March, April and May.
Summer months in Death Valley National Park are extremely hot. In fact, in the last couple of years, the park broke records with temperatures rising to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Although rare, another thing that can be a problem during summer months is monsoon rains and flash flooding. Since the park is so low, it doesn’t take too much precipitation to cause problems.
Even in the fall of the year, it can be really hot. The first time I visited with my daughter in October the temps hovered around 116F at Furnace Creek. We hiked at some of the higher elevations but it was only really tolerable in the morning and late in the evening. After sunset, it’s still hot and stays hot until after midnight.
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 and some routes are more popular than others.
Driving From Las Vegas
Death Valley National Park is approximately 124 miles from Las Vegas to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and there are several routes into the park. The easiest – and best one in my opinion – is Nevada Highway 160 to Pahrump towards Death Valley Junction and then Highway 190 into the park.
From southern Las Vegas, Highway 160 is a 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 it’s a good place to fuel up your vehicle before you enter the park. There is fuel in the park but it’s way more expensive.
If you’d prefer to drive a loop route road trip from Las Vegas, use the above directions to enter the park but exit on Hwy 374 that goes to Beatty, Nevada. The small town of Beatty is a fun place to stop to see some sights, visit the ghost town of Rhyolite and even gamble. Then, Highway 95 will take you directly back into Las Vegas.
For a fly and road trip vacation to Death Valley National Park, Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) is the closest airport. You could easily see some sites or other public lands around Las Vegas and the surrounding area and then travel to Death Valley National Park. Although, it would be a long day, day tripping from Las Vegas to Death Valley is also doable.
Driving to Death Valley From California
If entering Death Valley National Park from California, the most popular route is Highway 395 north to Ridgecrest, where you 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 follow that route into 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 itineraries available here.
How to use this map. Click on the icon in the top left corner to open the map layers with driving directions and things to do. Click on the destinations to access more info. You can also add the map to your Google Maps by clicking the star at the end of the title.
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 visiting.
The park is divided into smaller sections and junctions – Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Beatty Junction, Death Valley Junction, to name a few. The areas that have the most lodging are Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Of those two, Furnace Creek has more amenities.
Death Valley Campgrounds
In total, there are are nine campgrounds in Death Valley National Park. Some of them are National Park Service campgrounds and some are concessioner run parks. Note that the campground reservation rules change seasonally. It’s always best to check on nps.gov for the latest details and info before you go. For more info about camping inside a park, check out my Practical Tips for Camping in a National Park article.
Furnace Creek Campground
Furnace Creek Campground is the ideal location to stay in Death Valley National Park because it’s somewhat central in the park and it’s to several popular park features. This area has three park service campgrounds – Furnace Creek, Sunset and Texas Springs. The latter two close in low season but Furnace Creek campground is open year round.
Furnace Creek campground has 136 sites is the only campground in Death Valley National Park that accepts reservations in the high season of Oct 15 – April 15. If you plan on visiting in the winter months, reservations can be made up to six months in advance at recreation.gov. The rest of the year is first come first served.
One of the best things about the Furnace Creek campground is some sites have small trees that provide shade to pitch your tent under. It makes a huge difference. All the sites have gravel pads and picnic tables plus there are bathrooms and water available in the campground.
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, is open year round and is always first come first served, no matter the season.
We only drove through this campground to check it out but I would definitely stay in this area. This northerly area of the park has less people and since it’s a higher elevation (1800 feet) it’s cooler. The crater was one of my favorite things in the park. Staying nearby would give you plenty of time to wander around and explore this part of the park more.
Just like Furnace Creek, there isn’t a lot of shade in the campground – mainly because there’s not much shade anywhere in the park – but there are a few scruffy trees. The campground also has flush toilets, water, drinking water and 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. These were the ones we had a chance to check out when we were there.
Emigrant Campground is about 40 minutes from Furnace Creek and is closer to the Stovepipe Wells area. It’s really just a cleared 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 feet, 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 feet so it’s much much cooler. The campground is open year round but sometimes because of weather, the road to get there is not.
Death Valley National Park has plenty of opportunity for free backcountry camping as well. Although, I have no first hand knowledge and can’t recommend a specific area, the National Park Service has downloadable info here with suggested areas and regulations for dispersed camping.
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Hotels Inside Death Valley National Park
For the non campers, Death Valley National Park has several hotel options in the park that are run by contracted concessioners and not the National Park Service. The Oasis at Death Valley, near Furnace Creek, includes two hotels – the historic, upscale Inn at Death Valley and the more casual family friendly Ranch at Death Valley.
Both properties have all the necessary amenities. Restaurants, pools, tennis courts coffee shops, and playgrounds are just a few of the luxuries you’ll find there. There’s even a beautiful golf course surrounded by palm trees.
For a camping experience with more than just basic options, Fiddlers’ Campground has RV and tent sites. One of the perks, included in the price of a campsite is access to the Ranch at Death Valley’s spring fed swimming pool. The campground also has wi-fi, showers, laundry facilities and tennis and basketball courts.
Additionally, in Stovepipe Wells, the Stovepipe Wells Village, has a hotel, restaurant, saloon, gift shop and gas station. This hotel has long been a stop for weary travelers. They’ve been serving drinks and renting rooms since1926! Even though we didn’t see much of it – I loved the old west vibe of their facilities.
Hotels Outside Death Valley National Park
On the west side of the park, right outside the entrance, is a homey resort in the small Panamint Springs area. This is another popular Death Valley area that’s been accommodating travelers and workers for a long time too. In addition to a gas station, visitors will find a hotel, campground, restaurant, bar and camp store.
Beatty, Nevada, on the east side of Death Valley, is another convenient option for lodging. The town is referred to as the Gateway to Death Valley and is only seven miles from the entrance. There are a few hotels in town and at least one casino. You can also find RV parks and camping. Learn more about Beatty in my Fun Things to do in Beatty article.
What To Do in Death Valley National Park
As mentioned, Death Valley National Park is the biggest park in the lower 48 states. Most of the roads are well maintained in good shape and but there are a lot of unpaved roads in the park. Some of these roads can be driven in a car but in certain cases, having a high clearance vehicle is a best and a 4×4 vehicle would get you just about anywhere – weather permitting.
Most first timers to the park shouldn’t have an issue visiting the most popular sites. However if you are like me, after a couple of visits, I feel like I’ve missed out on some spots because of not having high clearance. I’m determined to go back in a different vehicle to experience a few of the unpaved roads. It’s also possible to rent a jeep in the park. Four wheel drive vehicles aside, here’s a few of the other things you can do in Death Valley National Park in a car.
Park Visitor Centers
Death Valley National Park officially has two visitor centers. One at Furnace Creek and one at Scotty’s Castle.
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is open every day 8am – 5pm. Besides plenty of information about the park, there’s a park film, a passport stamp station to get your park passport stamped and of course rangers, to answer any questions. It’s also where the must-see, famous park thermometer is.
The Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center has been closed since 2015 after severe flooding damaged the roads in the area around it . The National Park Service hasn’t released and official info on when it will reopen.
Since Death Valley National Park is so big, there’s plenty of opportunity for hiking. Just how much you are able to hike likely will depend on when you visit and how hot it is. We did as much as we could early and late in the day but honestly, even in October it wasn’t so fun. Here’s a couple of easy things to see and do even when it’s hot.
Created by movements in the earth’s crust, Badwater Basin is unlike any place you’ve probably seen before. If this was a wet climate, a place this low – 282 feet below sea level – would be covered by water but because Death Valley National Park is so dry, when it does get rain, it evaporates quickly and leaves behind the round or octogon looking salt flats.
If you visit in fall, Badwater Basin is a prime area for sunset in the park since it was shade once the sun went down. You can walk out to experience more or of the salt flats or just stick to the viewing area.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Because of its location near Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the most accessible sand dune areas to get to in the park. You might also recognize this area as the famous desert area of Tatooine in the movie Star Wars.
And while you probably won’t see any droids, it is a lot of fun walking the dunes and imagining running across one. However, you’re much more likely to spot tracks left from the sidewinder rattlesnakes that frequent the cool dunes at night than you are a droid.
To get the most out of your Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes visit, it’s best to go early in the morning, while the sand is still cool. Just remember to take plenty of water because it it can get hot really quick on the sand. We were done with our walk by 10am.
Death Valley National Park is full of reminders its past. Since the area was a mining area, there are several ghost towns in the park. Some are in the middle of nowhere and only reachable by unpaved roads. However, one of the easier ones to visit is Harmony Borax Works.
Located right off Highway 190 and Mustard Canyon Drive, this operation became popular because of its use of large mule teams and double wagons that hauled borax to the Mojave for pickup. You can walk through the remains a few of the original buildings and see wagon used in the mule teams minus the mules.
Because of safety concerns, most of the mines in Death Valley National Park have been closed for years. But 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 one of the aerial tramways that was used to move the product around. A visit to Keane Wonder Mine does require a high clearance vehicle. See nps.gov for more info and directions.
Dark Sky Park
Since Death Valley National Park has no big cities around, it’s a designated Dark Sky Park. It’s one of the best parks for starry night skies and astrophotography. Unfortunately, we were there during a full moon so we weren’t able to see that many stars but the moon was amazing.
To better experience a Dark Sky Park, the National Park Service offers some suggestions on their website. The park also hosts a popular Dark Sky Festival every year.
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 the entrance fee. The kiosks also have park maps and a current park newsletters.
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 when we last visited in 2021. If you are driving in from 395N, I would get gas before making the turn onto 190. If you are coming from Las Vegas via Pahrump, then definitely stop there to gas up and buy any supplies.
Is There Cell Service in Death Valley?
Cell service is spotty. Although I do think it depends what provider you have. I use Verizon and had little to no service the entire time we were in Death Valley. My daughter has AT&T and had better coverage.
Why is it Called Death Valley?
Death Valley National Park gets its name from a group of pioneers that almost died 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.
Death Valley October Packing List
What should you pack to visit Death Valley? Here’s a few suggestions for October and really anytime of the year:
- a water bottle or several. These REI Nalgene bottles are my favorite because they can be frozen ahead of time. I also like Hydro Flask
- plenty of food and snacks
- a camp stove since fires are frequently not allowed
- a cooler or coolers. It’s also important to follow the manufacturers instructions to cool the cooler down ahead of time
- hand sanitizer, soap & toilet paper
- baby wipes (I never road trip without them)
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 needed.
Preparing for a Visit to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a great park for anyone – solo travelers, families and even non-hikers or people that aren’t able to hike. There are plenty of scenic drives, turnouts and accessible overlooks in the park.
The key to visiting Death Valley is preparation. Make sure to prepare for heat and whatever you might encounter – even in winter. Your car should be in tip top shape. Check the fluids and make sure your spare tire that is good. You might also want to pack a battery jump box just in case. Have a plan and let someone know about those plans.
More Death Valley National Park Resources
- Death Valley National Park by Moon Guide
- NPS Visitor Guide
- NPS map of Death Valley National Park
- Backcountry Camping Map & Rules
- Learn Leave No Trace principles for visiting public lands