Death Valley National Park is one of the best road trips from Las Vegas. However, it doesn’t come without challenges. This unique national park has more roads than any other park, is the second largest park in the lower 48 and it’s the hottest place in North America. Just driving through it can present problems if you don’t know what to expect.
Add in the remoteness of the area and you can see why it’s so important to come prepared for anything. As someone who’s driven all over the desert, in this article, I’m sharing my best Death Valley National Park driving tips. If you are an east coaster like me, take notes, because this environment is definitely different from back home.
Update: Death Valley National Park suffered major damage in August of 2023 when they received a year’s worth of rainfall in several hours. Secondary roads were washed away and even Hwy 190, the major route through the park from California to Nevada, was damaged. Currently the entire park is closed. Check nps.gov/deva for updates and Caltrans for road conditions.
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Driving in Death Valley National Park
Hugging the Nevada and California border, Death Valley National Park is known for its extreme conditions, aridity and its stark desert landscapes. Temperatures can easily reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The annual rainfall averages less than two inches and when it rains more than that, all at once, problems can arise.
Despite its harsh conditions, Death Valley is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Besides hiking, camping and the usual park activities, there are plenty of unique things to do in Death Valley. You’ll love exploring its interesting historical sites, geological formations and desert ecosystems.
Visiting Death Valley National Park can be an unforgettable experience if you plan your trip carefully and take proper precautions. Here’s a few ways to ensure your experience is a positive experience with this list of tips for driving in Death Valley.
1. Check the Weather
Death Valley can experience extreme weather any time of the year. That includes flash floods and even occasional snow. Both of which can impact road conditions and travel safety. Checking the weather forecast and road conditions before you consider driving in Death Valley National Park is extremely important.
Also, just because you’re in a generally dry region with not much rainfall, doesn’t mean storms and more that the annual average of rain can’t happen.
In the summer of 2022, Death Valley National Park and a few other desert parks experienced unprecedented flooding due to rain and snow melt. Entire roads were washed away and people were even stuck in the park. Cars were washed away.
Even though these desert areas are prone to flash floods and pop-up thunderstorms during monsoon, generally late summer, it’s very important to keep an eye on the weather any time of the year.
Use your favorite weather app to stay informed (If you have service. More on that later) and stop by the visitor center before you dive into the park to ask about current conditions.
2. Make Sure Your Vehicle is in Tip Top Shape
That hot, dry air in Death Valley National can have a pretty big impact on your vehicle’s performance. You’ll even see signs in a few areas of the park advising drivers to turn off the car’s air conditioner so that it doesn’t overheat. It’s very important that your vehicle is in tip top shape.
Before you head out on a road trip, check your vehicle fluids and tires. Tires are really important in this environment. Verify your spare tire is in good condition and that you have all the necessary tools to change it in case of a flat. Other useful tools are a tire gauge, fix-a-flat and even extra water in case your vehicle does overheat.
It’s also a good idea to have jumper cables. Not only for your own safety but you never know when there might be a chance to help a fellow traveler. One of the more useful products I’ve found lately is this jumpbox that can assist in starting a vehicle but can also air up a tire.
3. Pick Up a Death Valley Map
Since Death Valley National Park has so many miles of roads to drive, navigating the park can be extremely challenging. If you don’t want to get stuck on a road that you shouldn’t be on, then make sure to pick up a map at the visitor center or at one of the entrance kiosks. It will make driving in Death Valley so much easier.
The National Park Service maps are updated frequently and have legends and info about the different road types. You’ll find the road categories are divided into paved roads, unpaved roads, high clearance only roads and 4×4 roads.
There’s also a backcountry road map and suggestions about where to disperse camp in those remote areas provided by the National Park Service or purchase a map.
This National Geographic Death Valley National Park map has a 4.8 rating on Amazon and includes a list of backcountry roads and trails complete with descriptions, lengths, and starting points that will help you choose a route that’s right for your activity level and recreation use.
The map base includes contour lines and elevations for summits. Hot weather tips, a temperature chart, regulations, and safety suggestions are included as well on this waterproof, tear-resistant map. Click the map to order.
4. Don’t Rely on GPS
If you are someone that doesn’t like maps, then you might think you’ll just use your GPS. But, that’s not a good idea in places like Death Valley.
The reason for that is that GPS relies on maps for their data. Over the years, the area that makes up Death Valley has had a multitude of mining companies cutting roads. Most of those roads are now unused and impassable. But the GPS company might not know that.
If they use old maps then the info they provide could be wrong. Unfortunately, there have been a few search and rescues, and sadly, even a death, because someone got lost using GPS directions. In desolate parks like Death Valley, at times, the park service works with those companies to update info about the area.
Even though you might not have cellular service, you can still use Google Maps. You just won’t have step by step directions. Just keep in mind some roads maybe outdated and unsafe and that’s why it’s important to use a park or physical map or even both.
5. Drive Defensively
The roads in Death Valley can be narrow and winding, with steep drop-offs, blind curves and limited visibility in some places. Even blowing sand and other conditions can affect driving in Death Valley National Park.
It’s important to pay attention, drive defensively and be aware of your surroundings at all times. The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including coyotes, desert bighorn sheep and snakes. Watch for wildlife on the roads and drive cautiously, particularly at dawn and dusk.
6. Fuel Up Often
The availability of gas stations in the west might be a little different than what you are used to where you live. Since they are few and far between, it’s a good idea to fuel up your vehicle frequently. To be extra safe, you may want to top off your tank when you see a station.
Definitely, gas up before you get to the park but since you will probably be doing a lot of driving once there, it’s good to know that there are gas stations in the park at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs. Just be prepared to pay more per gallon.
7. Let Someone Know Your Plans
When traveling in remote areas and driving in Death Valley, where there just aren’t that many people around, it’s important to let someone – a family member, a friend or even a ranger – know your plans. Especially if it includes unpaved roads.
You can ensure your safety in Death Valley by sharing your trip details such as routes and expected duration with someone and then, check in as often as you can. This provides peace of mind for you and people at home.
8. Have an Emergency Kit
It’s important to be prepared for anything when you road trip and visit national parks. Especially remote, hot parks like Death Valley National Park. It’s crucial to have an emergency kit on hand. They don’t have to be fancy or complicated. What’s important is that it keep you comfortable and alive.
You can purchase a pre-made emergency kit that comes with pre-packaged food and other medical items or make one yourself. Some items that you definitely want to pack are water, food and something to keep you warm while you wait for help to arrive.
9. Stay on the Established Roads
With so many unpaved roads in Death Valley, you might be tempted to drive one of the them. However, this is a mistake if you aren’t fully equipped for driving in hazardous conditions. A low passenger car might not be best for some of Death Valley’s roads.
Because of that, avoid driving off-road in Death Valley National Park because the terrain in some places is rugged and can damage your vehicle and the desert environment. Most of the unpaved roads are designed for high-clearance and 4 wheel drive vehicles only.
If the lure of the unpaved road proves to be too strong, you can always rent a jeep in the Furnace Creek area of the park. In the hottest summer months it’s best to just stay on the paved roads.
10. If You Have Trouble, Don’t Leave Your Car
Unless you are on Highway 190, there isn’t much cellular service in Death Valley National Park. That means if you do happen to have car trouble or an accident you may not be able to contact anyone. It’s possible you will have to wait until someone else comes along.
The National Park Service recommends always staying with your vehicle until help comes. This is why is so important to have an emergency kit and be prepared to wait it out as long as necessary. That way at least you are in a relatively safe spot until help arrives.
11. Upgrade to a Satellite Phone
Because of the lack of cell service in Death Valley National Park, you might want to consider upgrading to a satellite phone for added safety. That way you can reach out for help in case of emergencies
As long as they aren’t restricted, satellite phones can be used anywhere in the world. Here’s a round-up of the best models for 2023.
12. Leave No Trace
No matter the park or public lands you’re visiting – or driving in – always use Leave No Trace principles. “Leave No Trace” is an outdoor ethics program that encourages people to enjoy the outdoors in a way that minimizes their impact on the environment.
This means being conscious of how you drive and where you drive. Use only marked roads and don’t pull off just anywhere. People seem to think that since the desert appears to be barren, it doesn’t matter what they do to it.
This is absolutely wrong. The desert is an important part of our ecosystem and although it may look harsh, it’s actually very delicate. Damage can take years to rehabilitate.
The Leave No Trace program’s principles are based on the idea that we should leave nature as we found it and that it’s our responsibility to preserve it for future generations. And I know we all want that.
How to Get to Death Valley National Park
With three main entrances, Death Valley National Park is is easily accessible California in the west or Nevada on the eastern side of the park.
Most people coming north on Highway 395, on the western side of the park, turn at Olancha and enter the park near Panamint Springs.
Coming from Las Vegas, there are a couple of routes to the eastern entrances. One way is to drive Nevada Highway 160 to Pahrump towards Death Valley Junction and then Highway 190 into the park.
Driving in Death Valley FAQ
Is it okay to drive through Death Valley?
Yes definitely! Hwy 190 passes through the park east to west and is the Death Valley Scenic Byway. It begins approximately 13 miles west of Death Valley Junction on Highway 190 at the entrance to Death Valley National Park. The end if the byway is the western boundary of the park. Of course, you can also drive it west to east.
How much does it for one vehicle to enter Death Valley?
It’s $30 USD for cars to enter Death Valley National Park or $15 for motorcycles. An annual pass is $55 USD. Entrance is free with an America the Beautiful pass. Find out more about this super useful purchase and how it can save you money at over 2k other public lands.
Do you need all wheel drive to drive in Death Valley National Park?
No. Even though Death Valley National Park has a high number of unpaved and gravel roads, there are plenty of road and experiences for regular passenger cars. The National Park Service’s map has a road legend to help you figure out which road to avoid.
Driving in Death Valley National Park Resources
You can never be too prepared or have too much info about a national park. Having a park guidebook is a useful resources for even more things you need to know about Death Valley National Park.
For years Moon Guides have been my go-to source for all things travel. Their national park guides are super useful and written by authors who spend a lot of time in the parks they write about. I’ve linked to this helpful Death Valley National Park guide in the photo.
America The Beautiful National Park Passes can be purchased one at the many kiosks found throughout the park or on nps.gov. As of June 1, 2023, Death Valley is a cashless park so to use the kiosk, you’ll need a credit card.
I hope you have a wonderful time visiting Death Valley National Park. Check out my other related park and road trip guides:
See you on the road!