What do you think of when you hear Death Valley? Hottest Place on Earth. Yep. Desolate and barren. Yep. Even though Death Valley is synonymous with these images, I think that like most people, I didn’t really have a clear image in my head of what it would look like. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but what I got definitely wasn’t it.
Death Valley is our 22nd national park and I have to say even as our numbers grow, the parks continue to impress. I keep waiting for the ‘been there, done that’ attitude to set in either with my 6 year old or myself, but so far each park we have been to really has had some great things to offer. Death Valley is no exception.
We spent 3 days at Death Valley, but you could reasonably see the highlights in one day (on the way to/from Mammoth or Vegas) or spend even longer (like my son wanted!) to check out more hikes than we were able to do.
The following is our rundown, recommendations and 1 day itinerary suggestions for families visiting Death Valley.
What to Do
There is quite a bit to see and do in Death Valley, that even with a 3 day visit, we only scratched the surface. For families, we would recommend not packing in too much. You will spend all of your day driving, rather than just enjoying the park. There are a few definite must see’s and a few misses provided below to help narrow down your to do list.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
This is number one on all kid’s lists of what to do in Death Valley. If it was up to my son he would have spent his entire visit here. Come prepared to get sandy from head to toe, bring lots of water, snacks, sunscreen and just walk until you can’t anymore. You can also bring sleds, cardboard or anything to help slide down the dunes if you want more excitement.
To the furthest, tallest dune it is about a 2 mile hike there and back depending how much you zigzag. This is a must! This is as close as you can get to experiencing the Saharan Desert without going around the world.
If you are staying nearby to the dunes, head here first thing in the morning to see the beautiful creations the wind has swept the sand into and to check out tracks to see what the creatures of the night have been up to. For breathtaking sunset coloring, dusk is your best bet.
On the other end of the park from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is another out of this world sight, Badwater Basin. This large salt flat isn’t quite as mesmerizing to kids as the sand dunes, but it’s pretty spectacular. And who doesn’t want to tell all their friends they have been 200+ feet below sea level?!
Walking on a massive field of salt will also be pretty cool. Go ahead, have the kids take a lick! It sure is salty. Badwater Basin is a great place for sunset. Park brochures warn not to hike out here during super hot days.. not sure if the reflections make it hotter or what, but take that into account when planning your visit.
Hidden away off a dirt road is the cute and short Saltwater Creek interpretive trail, home to the elusive pupfish. The trail is a boardwalk leading along a creek (yes, a real flowing water source in the middle of the desert!). It is a year round creek that increases depending on recent rains. Try your luck to see if you see the pupfish. We searched for ages. My son swears he saw a couple, but I’m not sure. Spring is your best bet if you really want to see them in action. This is the view that will contradict your belief that Death Valley is an arid wasteland devoid of life!
Artist’s Drive is an inspiring one way 9 mile drive through multi-colored rocky landscape made from ancient ash falls. The colors come from the different metals in the ash that fell throughout different time periods in history. There are a couple stop off points to get out, walk around, stretch the legs and take photos. It proved quite inspiring for our little artist who went straight to coloring! If you have kids who are over the amount of driving, it may be worth a miss or be good during nap time, but my son loved the colorful rocks and twisty road. (Note: This road will be closed from March 2017 for some time to work on the roads.)
Dante’s View is about 15 miles off the main road and well worth a detour for spectacular views over the entire valley. From more than 5,000 feet up, along the crest of the Black Mountains, visitors get a bird’s eye view of how large the salt plains are from above. Then to experience the salt plains on the surface is mind-blowing! During our visit, it was super chilly up here, so plan to bring some layers even during the hotter seasons.
One of the most iconic views of Death Valley is seen from this view point. A short paved walk uphill leads you to views over the beautifully colored badlands. This is idea for sunrise and sunset. For the adventurous parents you can (0r the let the kiddos) climb some of the hills. Otherwise, head down to the Badlands Trail and go from the bottom to experience it all! We found ourselves here several times during our 3 day visit, and the color was different every time. Such a mesmerizing landscape.
Mosaic Canyon Trail
The Mosaic Canyon trail can be a short excursion through slot canyons with rolling white walls or it can be extended into a longer hike. From the parking lot to the lower canyon, it is about .5 mile. You know have reached lower canyon when it opens up to an expansive gravel path. From here, most visitors turn around as the most impressive points were getting to this point. Being one of the first stops into the park, it can be crowded at times. For those who are claustrophobic, know that there are some areas where it is a very narrow path between the rocks.
Golden Canyon Hike
This hike is 1 mile each way, leading through a beautiful canyon. This is an interpretive trail, meaning sign posts along the path tell the geological history of the land. A guide for this can be purchased at the visitor center and sometimes at the trailhead itself. However, it is not a necessity to enjoy the hike into the canyon. Keep an eye out for the occasional piece of concrete; remnants from it’s days as an actual road!
If you are for a longer trek, continue on from Manley Peak to Zabriskie Point (2.5 miles). It is amazing to walk along the rippling borax deposits along the way.
There is so much to do in Death Valley, that it’s often helpful to have a sense of what you should do, but also what things you can give a miss. In our opinion, for most families, you can skip the Harmony Borax Works Site. We participated in a Junior Ranger program there which made it more informative and interesting, but without a guided program, it will most likely be of little interest to children.
We also felt that a visit to the Devil’s Golf Course could easily be passed up if you already spent some time at the salt plains. It’s not quite the same, but it’s not different enough (in my 6 year old’s opinion!) to make two stops, especially if you are short on time. Walking on the Devil’s Golf Course is not easy and will surely result in at least one scraped up leg if you venture too far into it.
We were sort of excited by the Natural Bridge hike and then sort of disappointed. As my son said ‘we have seen better natural bridges’. If you haven’t ever seen one or just need to get the little legs hiking, this is a short 1 mile trail up a rocky path. The scenery up isn’t that spectacular, however there is a super cool ‘cathedral’ looking area cut into the rocks. And of course, the natural bridge is there too! It’s uphill the way up, which can be tiring for little legs, but then downhill will be easy!
If your kids are like mine and horse obsessed, then make some time for the horse riding. Riders 6 and up are welcome. One hour rides are $60 per person, 2 hr rides are $85 and sunset rides are $75 per person. There are also carriage rides for $40 per person that are fun for families with younger kids. This is not a must do, as the ride is just into the flat sandy landscape behind the ranch, however it is a fun experience if you are looking for something more to do during your visit.
In order to really experience some interior parts of Death Valley, you need a 4×4 vehicle. Since many people don’t arrive with off-roading capabilities, visitors can rent a local jeep for the day. Rates are around $100 per day. But if you really want to get on the backroads to check out Racetrack Playa this may be your only option.
Ehyolite Ghost Town
We did not have time to do this, but my little one has insisted I put it on the list for our next visit! Ehyolite is the largest ghost town near Death Valley. About 35 miles from Furnace Creek, it could easily be visited in one day. These little excursions are also great for when you have a napper and can’t get out of the car often at the sights!
Where to Stay
One of our biggest obstacles in actually getting to Death Valley were the accommodation options. There are limited options in the park and they are quite expensive. Furthermore, Death Valley is pretty much in the middle of no where, meaning it’s not very feasible (with kids) to consider staying outside of the park. We finally took the plunge and just paid the high rates in order to have the experience of Death Valley. If I were to do it again I might rent a Jucy and camp. Because, let’s be honest when you are in this vast of a park you don’t have a ton of time to chill in your room anyway!
Furnace Creek Inn
Furnace Creek Inn is the more upmarket, always very expensive (think $400 and up) hotel in the hills overlooking the beautiful desert below. If I had boatloads of money I would stay here. Apparently the folks who fly in on their private planes stay at the Inn. I am not one of those people, so we did not get to stay there!
Furnace Creek Ranch
Furnace Creek Ranch is the most family friendly of the two main hotels in Death Valley. There is a playground, a warm springs fed swimming pool which stays at 84 degrees year round, horse stables and it’s right by all the dining options of Furnace Creek. Rooms are not cheap, and unfortunately the quality doesn’t match the price tag. Think old school, a bit rundown, motel style rooms. We are all about cheap motel rooms…when they are cheap! However it is almost never cheap here, with the cheapest room I have seen coming in around $165 a night. There is also an additional resort fee on top of that, which includes internet and pool access. I would be remiss if I were not to also mention that there is the possibility of bed bugs here. You can read more about our experience (coming soon!).
Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel
This is another ‘old school’ motel type hotel at higher than usual prices! We didn’t stay here, but it looked decent on the outside. The biggest negative is that you are about 30 minutes from Furnace Creek with restaurant options and 45 minutes from the main parts of Death Valley. The good news is you will be very close to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes!
If you can manage the cool nights of winter or the hotter days of spring/fall, camping is your best bet at Death Valley. There are tons of places to camp in Death Valley, but we would recommend staying as close to Furnace Creek as you can. If you camp within Furnace Creek Ranch area, your facility fee includes internet and use of the pool, playground and gas fire pits. If your aim is to be as far away from civilization as possible, there are also lots of possibilities for that as well! Check this NPS site for more information on what each campground has available.
Where to Eat
Just like with accommodation, there are very few options in Death Valley for meals. It’s even more restrictive if you have any food restrictions. And as per usual for a National park, the food is mediocre and way over priced. Our recommendation is to pack a cooler with as much as you can before you head out.
During our stay, we sampled most of the options available. Our favorite place was the 49er Cafe in Furnace Creek, which is open for all meals of the day. For breakfast, the 49er Cafe seems to have the best selection. If you want real eggs, make sure to ask for them as they use liquid eggs which my 6 year old thought were gross. To give you an idea of the prices, a salmon plate (yeah I know, it traveled a long way) is $20, hamburgers are $15. The buffet meals at the Saloon is not great value for kids unless they like traditional BBQ type foods. However, the food was good and the chef was super helpful in preparing items for our food restrictions. We did not eat there for dinner, but it sounded like it was very good for the meat lovers at night.
As there are no options once you are away from the village, pick up a lunch at the General Store or bring your own foods from home and keep it in the hotel mini fridge or your own cooler. Prices are high here on everything you purchase, so bring as much as you can if you want to go easy on your pocketbook.
One Day Itinerary
Depending which way side of the park you arrive at, you can do this from start to finish or vise versa. If you are making a detour from Mammoth, your first stop could be Mosaic Canyon for a hike among beautifully carved canyon walls or you could head on a bit further to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. If you are limited on time, choose one and decide how long you will spend here and plan accordingly. From here, if you have time for a little walk, we would definitely recommend the Salt Creek Trail. It’s short and can be done quickly, but offers a unique alternative view in the barren desert environment you will see everywhere else.
Next on your list is the Death Valley Visitor’s Center. Stop in to check out the film to learn more about this unique place, check out the awesome exhibits and complete your Junior Ranger booklet! If you need food, gas or other supplies, a stop off at Furnace Creek Ranch is a must.
Heading deeper into the park, you will turn off the main road to drive all the way down to Badwater Basin. This is about a 20 minute drive. Spend some time exploring the salt flats. Go out as far as you can to see some super cool effects on the ground that haven’t been trampled by peoples shoes! Don’t forget to sample it too.
Turn around and go back the way you came from, hitting up some more sights on your way back to the main road. If you need a hike, either check out the Natural Bridge or Golden Canyon Trail. If you skip Natural Bridge, make sure to take the detour off for the Artist’s Drive (if it’s open) before heading to the Golden Canyon Trail.
You are almost through the main attractions now! Two last view points – Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View are all that remains for our recommended list. If you don’t feel like the detour out to Dante’s View or are not heading this direction to leave the park, a last stop at Zabriskie will be a perfect ending to a beautiful day.
If you are arriving to the park from Las Vegas, you will do all of this from the reverse, passing Dante’s View turn off and then Zabriskie Point before turning off to Badwater Basin ending at either the Mosaic Canyon hike or the Sand Dunes.
If you like to drive, have kids who aren’t fussy in the car and you like out of this world scenery, pack up the car and head to Death Valley! Even if you only have a day, it’s worth a visit!
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