Things To Do In Death Valley National Park
As we drive away from amazing places, we will often say to each other, “We’ll have to come back”. With so many Things To Do In Death Valley National Park, our tent camping visit in 2016 wasn’t enough and we went back in our RV in 2019 (but don’t worry if you don’t have an RV there is a great hotel on site!).
We are excited to share this guest post from Matt at Ditching Suburbia. Him, his wife and 7 kids share their experience at Death Valley and all the places they recommend you stop!
Death Valley gets really hot in its off season. Though some do visit in the summer, and staff live in the small town of Furnace Creek year round, it really is more of a warm winter family vacation destination. It is one of the best National Parks to visit in January. In the winter it’s beautiful, nearly the perfect temperature, the star gazing is great as the air is still a bit cold (which I hear helps), and the animal life isn’t hiding from the sun as much.
One thing to note about Death Valley is that there is a lot more life here than the name suggests. Though it’s a desert, there are plants and animals that make this their home to which our kids like to call it valley of life in protest of it’s given name. When you visit, keep a watchful eye for all the life here.
This is the lowest point in all of North America. At 282 feet below sea level, this basin of salt crystals is one of the main attractions for visitors to Death Valley National Park. This is truly a surreal landscape with a salt plain that is crisscrossed with a patchwork of hexagon formations that look like inverted cracks on white concrete.
We went in the late afternoon which is a great time to go as the sun shines on the mountain behind you and you can see, 282 feet up the mountain side, a sign that shows where sea level is. Late afternoon is also a great time to go as the sun casts long shadows of the patchworks onto the white salt giving a great light and dark contrast.
This is a popular place and depending on when you go you might have a hard time finding parking. It’s a decent sized parking lot, but there are a lot of visitors too. There is also an outhouse that is equally busy when the parking lot is.
After parking you walk out onto a small boardwalk that leads to a long trail through the salt flats. There were foreign tourists speaking many different languages and some walked barefoot saying they would pay good money for a foot treatment like this back home. Our kids kept their shoes on as the salt would sting tiny cuts in their feet (from all the other times when they don’t wear shoes when they should).
Devils Golf Course
On the road from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin, there is a turn to the west that goes to Devils Golf Course. Here you will see a large area of salty mineral deposits that were formed long ago and are now shaped by wind and rain water. Though it also has salt crystal formations, being a few feet higher in elevation from Badwater Basin this place is dry as the rainwater pools in Badwater Basin and not here.
One of our children’s favorite places here is Salt Creek where a long boardwalk traverses vegetation and the water. This place looks far from what you would think you would see in Death Valley.
The creek below the boardwalk is home to pupfish, a tiny unique type of fish that are adapted to live in this environment. They are a bit hard to find, but there is a trick. Stand right next to a small bush that overhangs the creek and give the bush a light shake with your foot and watch for the fish to dart out.
In addition to the pupfish and their adjacent plants, there is a lot of life throughout the valley to look out for. Notice the plants, birds, and trees (with our favorite being the palm trees) at Furnace Creek. Devil’s corn field is another place with living plants. The best for us though was seeing an elusive kit fox crossing the road – so be on the lookout for one of those.
One thing to note about Death Valley is that it is full of contrasts. With the distinction of having the lowest point in North America, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the enormous mountains that surround the valley. The best place to get a view of these extremes in elevation is the overlook at Dantes View.
At over 5,400 feet in elevation, the clouds were surrounding the mountain, the parking lot and obscuring the view. From the lookout we only got glimpses of the valley below through occasional gaps in the clouds which made us feel like we had climbed Jack’s beanstalk and could only occasionally look down on the land below.
We did it during the day but apparently the best time to venture up to Dante’s View is early morning to catch the sunrise. You need to get there early so you can watch as the sunlight first hits Telescope peak on the other side of the valley before descending the Panamint Mountains and eventually across the basin. It gets really windy and cold up there so you will probably want to dress warm with gloves and something to break the wind.
While you are up there, you should do one of the hikes. There is a fairly easy trail that goes to the north and has it’s own spots that are great for a lookout. As we hiked, the clouds parted and the sun shone through giving us a great view.
This attraction has been closed for years due to flooding. Apparently on August 5, 2022 Death Valley recieved torrential rain causing flooding. Scotty’s Castle is expected to be closed until sometime in 2023 due to the flooding. Always verify that it is open prior to visiting.
We didn’t make it to Ubehebe Crater as it was over an hour drive from our campground on the road that also splits off to the closed roads to Scotty’s Castle. The fuel prices in Death Valley are very high, so we decided that we would save Ubehebe for next time when we can do both it and the castle on the same day. We were told that there are trails to explore and that you should schedule no less than 30 min to see it (and that’s if you don’t hike the trails).
Way beyond Ubehebe Crater is the Racetrack, a flat valley where fallen rocks that have left trails behind them as wind and ice have slowly moved them across the landscape. Driving here is a risky endeavor as the long dirt road is covered in sharp rocks that frequently pop tires. A park ranger told us that people often need to be towed out and that the bill for towing is over $2,000. Potentially being stranded in the desert with an impending huge tow bill didn’t appeal to us so we skipped this.
Artist’s Drive / Artist’s Palette
This was my favorite place this trip. The Artist’s Drive is a colorful one way road that loops away from and then back to Badwater Rd. This thin road was fun to drive as it goes up and down small hills and around sharp curves.
What’s best about Artists drive is all the colors on the rock formations around you. Being colorblind, colorful rocks have never a big deal to me before. However, last year I was given a pair of Enchroma color correcting glasses for the colorblind and driving Artist’s drive with them on was unreal.
Along the drive is a parking area where you can look out on what is known as the Artists Palette. This is a colorful rock formation that is well worth a stop as it’s pink rock swirls seem to glow in the sunset. There are lots of things for you to see in Death Valley at sunset, so stay several nights and be sure that one of those sunsets you are at Artist’s Palette.
Golden Canyon is a great hike for the whole family. The parking area isn’t very big, but it’s not as popular as some of the more heavily visited areas so you should be able to find a parking spot without too much issue.
This trail is where the old road used to come into the valley. We didn’t hike to the end and eventually turned back, but there were several small outcroppings that the kids had fun exploring.
As you come into the valley off highway 190, you will drive right by Zabriskie Point. We all enjoyed going here as the trail was easy to walk up for some amazing views.
The best thing here is the colorful rocks and how the sun makes them look like they are almost on fire. Though you can’t really see the valley, you still have a unique view as there is a stark contrast between the colors of the more immediate Zabriskie rock formations with the Panamint Mountains in the far background. It’s really cool.
Harmony Borax Works
This is a small historical stop just north of Furnace Creek. They used to mine borax here and take it out of the valley with a 20 mule team. It’s an easy stop and our kids liked looking at the ruins.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
One of our kids’ favorite places in all of Death Valley is the sand dunes. These are your quintessential sand dunes. Though they don’t go on forever, the area is big enough that you can spend a long time here.
We went just a little before sunset along with with seemed to be every photographer in the park. The parking lot is probably big enough when it’s not sunset. By the time we got there, there was only parking in the non-paved sections on the outskirts of the lot.
The dunes are fun to climb, slide down, and of course wrestle. Our children had a blast playing king of the hill. And having a free for all wrestling match to see who could get to the top of each dune first. If you go at sunset, the shadows are long and make for great photos.
If you are a fan of the original Star Wars (and you should be), much of the Tatooine scenes were filmed in Death Valley. Go watch the movie before you visit for a fun way to interact with the scenery.
Where to stay
RV Park – Stovepipe Wells – there are full hookups for RVs and access to a swimming pool. There are also cheaper primitive sites with no hookups. Years ago we tent camped (though there are RV spots) at Furnace Creek. Which is a beautiful place right near the Visitors Center which is great for the evening ranger programs.
Are you interested in RV Living but haven’t taken the plunge yet? Consider trying out the RV lifestyle on your trip to Death Valley by renting an RV! Check out our post on how to rent an RV and how to plan an RV trip.
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Pahrump Located in Pahrump, NV
You will need to drive everywhere. The valley is huge! Depending on how long you stay, plan on having to fill up with overpriced fuel at least once.
Verizon (don’t know about AT&T or T-Mobile) internet coverage is spotty. We were offline most of the time and many times couldn’t even get a signal for phone calls. Ask the rangers and they can tell you where the sweet spots are for coverage.
Here is a video of when we Crazy Family Adventure visited Death Valley in 2016. You will see we visited a lot of the places that Ditching Suburbia recommended!
Want to spend more time in California? Check out more posts on what to do when you visit this epic state! From Joshua Tree to Disneyland, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Redwoods National Park. Plus all the posts below:
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