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 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 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 to visit Death Valley National Park:
- 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 National Park is open every day of the year. Some of the main roads connecting Nevada and California go right through the park. As long as you are prepared, driving through to see some popular sights can be done pretty much year round.
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. After that, it starts to get hot again. If your plan includes seeing wildflowers – that happens in late March, April and May.
Summer months in Death Valley National Park are extremely hot. Just in the last couple of years, the park broke heat records with temperatures rising to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Although rare, another thing to contend with during the summer is monsoon type rains and flash flooding. Since the park is so low, it doesn’t take much rain to cause problems.
Even in the fall of the year, it can be 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 till 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.
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
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.
Fly + Road Trip to Death Valley National Park
If you are planning a fly in and road trip vacation, then Las Vegas (LAS) Harry Reid International Airport, is the closest airport. Since Death Valley National Park is so close to Las Vegas so you could easily see some sites or other public lands around Las Vegas or the surrounding area and then go on to Death Valley. Even though it would be a long day, it’s also doable as a day trip from Las Vegas.
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
In total there are are nine campgrounds in the park. Some are National Park Service campgrounds and some are concessioner run parks. The campground reservation rules change seasonally and there are RV restrictions at some campgrounds. It’s always best to check on nps.gov for the latest details and info before you go. For more info about camping check out my Practical Tips for Camping in a National Park article.
Furnace Creek Campground
Furnace Creek is a good location to stay in Death Valley National Park because it’s somewhat central in the park and it’s close 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 and operates as first come first served in low season. During the winter months, when the park is busier, it’s reservation only.
There isn’t a lot of shade but some sites have a few small trees that you can pitch your tent under. There are picnic tables, plenty of restrooms and water 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 consider staying in this area. For one thing, this area of the park has way less people and since it’s a higher elevation (1800 feet) it’s much cooler. The crater was one of my favorite thing so I’d love to wander around this part of the park a bit 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 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. These were the ones we drove through.
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.
There’s plenty of opportunity for free backcountry 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 Inside the Park
For the non campers, Death Valley National Park has several lodging options in the Oasis at Death Valley resort area near Furnace Creek. These properties are run by concessioners and not the National Park Service. The resort includes two hotels – the historic upscale Inn at Death Valley, that’s been open since in 1927 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.
Park Hotels + Lodging Outside the Park
On the west side of the park, right outside the entrance, is a homey resort in 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 7 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 9 Fun Things to do in Beatty article.
What To Do in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a big park and really spread out. Most of the roads are in good shape and well maintained but there are a lot of gravel or 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 bonus and a 4wd would get you just about anywhere, weather permitting.
We were able to do of most of what we planned or 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 Visitor Center is open every day 8am – 5pm. Besides interpretive information about the park, there’s a park film, a passport stamp station and of course rangers, to answer any questions. It’s also where the famous park thermometer is.
The Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center and that entire area has been closed since 2015 after severe flooding damaged the roads. No 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 do depends 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, at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is unlike any place you’ve probably seen before. If it was a wet climate, a place this low would be covered by water but because Death Valley National Park is so dry, when this area does get rain, it evaporates quickly 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
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the most popular dune areas in the park. It’s easy to get to right off of Highway 190 near Stovepipe Wells. You may recognize the dunes as the famous desert area of Tatooine in Star Wars. And while you probably won’t see any droids, it is a lot of fun checking out the dunes and imagining running across one. You’re much more likely to spot tracks left from the sidewinder rattlesnakes that like to frequent the dunes at night than you are a droid.
To properly visit Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, it’s best to go early in the morning, while the sand is still cool. It gets hot really quick and we were done by 10am.
Death Valley National Park is full of reminders of the past. Since this area was a working and mining area, there are remnants of 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 get is Harmony Borax Works right off Highway 190 and Mustard Canyon Drive. At the site, there’s some of the original buildings and mule team wagons.
Because of safety concerns, most of the mines in Death Valley National Park have been closed for years. But just a couple of years ago one of the defunct mines was reopened. Keane Wonder Mine is now accessible via several trails. There’s even an aerial tramway that was used to move product that you can hike to. 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
Another awesome thing about Death Valley National Park is that it’s been designated as a Dark Sky Park. Since there are no major cities around, the park is 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. The park also hosts a yearly Dark Sky Festival.
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.
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:
- 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.
Prepare to Visit Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a great park for really anyone – solo travelers, families and even non- hikers or people that can’t hike. There are plenty of scenic drives, turnouts and accessible overlooks. Visit Death Valley National Park on day trip from Las Vegas or combine it with other nearby national parks.
Make sure to be prepared for the heat and whatever you may encounter, even in winter. 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.
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 the Leave No Trace principles for visiting public lands