Looking for a spectacular place to visit that feels out of this world? Then, check out our favorite things to do in Death Valley to consider for an out of this planet trip.
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.
The following is our rundown with our thoughts on the best Death Valley things to do, where to stay and eat and one day itinerary suggestions for those just passing through Death Valley on a day trip.
17 Spectacular Things to Do in Death Valley
We have now visited Death Valley several times in a span of several years, both during the winter. During one trip we stayed at the local Ranch Inn, while we opted to try the camping experience for our next visit. One both trips, we spent 3 nights/4 days in the park, 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.
After exploring a vast expanse of the park during these two trips, we provide our top tips on how to visit the park, what Death Valley points of interest are worth seeing and which places in Death Valley you can easily skip.
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 at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. 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.
Tip: Plan to arrive for sunset at least 1-2 hours before sunset as it does take time to get through the sand to a sand dune that isn’t already occupied! Bring a headlamp for the walk back.
Badwater Basin Is A Unique Death Valley Attraction
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 282 feet below sea level?! This is one of the coolest places I have been in the United States.
Walking on a massive field of salt is also 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.
To reach the area where the salt flats are ruffled up like you see in most photos, it is about a 1 mile hike out.
Saltwater Creek is an Interesting Place to Visit in Death Valley
Hidden away off a dirt road is the cute and short Saltwater Creek interpretive trail, home to the elusive pupfish. This is one of the most interesting places to visit in Death Valley. 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 One of Our Favorite Death Valley Activities
Artist’s Palette 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.
Tip: Make sure to stop at the viewpoints to get out and hike around. The best in our opinion is the middle viewpoint with dedicated parking. Climb down into the colorful canyons to experience the rainbow sandbox up close.
Dante’s View is A Must Visit
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.
If you are lucky you can see the highest point in the US while also looking down at the lowest point in the US. We have also seen adorable California quail wondering around up here!
Zabriskie Point is the Iconic Death Valley Thing to Do
One of the most iconic views of Death Valley is seen from this viewpoint. A short paved walk uphill from the parking area leads you to views over the beautifully colored badlands. This is idea for sunrise and sunset. If you plan to arrive for sunrise, plan to arrive early as spots fill up quick early.
You will not actually see the sunrise over the badlands, instead it will rise behind you, offering a beautiful coloring of the rocks and hills in front of you.
For those of you wanting to really experience this area, we highly recommend hoping down to the Badlands Loop Trail. This 3 mile trail takes you up and over the badlands with great views of Zabriskie Point as you go. 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
Golden Canyon is one of the most popular areas in the park (apart from the sand dunes and Zabriskie point for sunrise!), but that doesn’t mean you will be crowded in with people. There are several great options here for hiking to explore the area.
- The Badlands Loop – A 3 mile moderate hike with minimal elevation gain that starts north of the Zabriskie Point parking lot. Goes up and down the hills, with some walking in a rocky wash.
- Gower Gulch Loop – 4 miles with about 700 feet elevation gain offering some of the most epic landscapes here. This begins at the Golden Canyon Trailhead and follows numbered markers along the way. Near market 10, the loop leaves Golden Canyon. Here hikers can go to Red Cathedral or continue on.
This basic hike that most people do however is an out and back of just 1 mile each way, leading through a beautiful canyon. This part is an interpretive trail, with numbered signposts along the path that tell the geological history of the land. A guide for this can be purchased at the visitor center and sometimes at the trailhead itself.
Titus Canyon Drive
The Titus Canyon drive is a one-way 25 mile off road adventure that is one of the best things to do in Death Valley if you like off roading and beautiful scenery. To begin this 25 mile off road adventure you will need to take the road to Beatty. (While you are out here you can stop off at the Rhyolite Ghost Town to check it out for yourself.)
Once you start the drive you cannot turn back. While you don’t need a 4×4, those cars definitely went much faster than we did in my SUV. There are a few steep areas that take careful consideration, but it can be done by even novice off roaders like myself. If in doubt, wait for another car to follow behind.
Titus Canyon is amazing though and well worth the effort. The most spectacular part is the last section where you drive through a beautifully carved slot canyon just big enough for your car to fit through.
Tip: For those of you nervous about this long adventure, you can drive the last 3 miles to the exit of the slot canyon and walk up through the canyon. This part of the road can be found on the way to Ubehebe Crater.
There are several options for exploring Ubehebe Crater. While this area is a bit off the beaten path on the road before Scotty’s Castle, it is worth checking out on a visit to the park. Once you have arrived, you have a few options. The hike to Ubehebe Crater is about 1 mile, the hike around the rim of the crater is 3 miles and the hike to little Hebe Crater is 2.2 miles.
We haven’t had time to check them all out, but we have heard that the crater rim hike is one of the best to explore since you also have options to explore down inside the crater if you are feeling up to it. As always make sure to take a ton of water, hats and snacks as it gets hot even in winter. If it is windy, it is difficult to do the rim hike, but a trip here is still well worth your time.
Tips: Ubehebe Crater is more than 50 miles from Furnace Creek. There are no services at the destination, so stop at the Ranger station 5 miles prior to the turn off for restrooms. Also, if it’s windy, its difficult to do the rim hike!
For those of you staying near Panamint Springs this is a unique look into something that doesn’t quite fit into the Death Valley scene. A waterfall! Darwin Falls is a 2 mile hike that is easy and a little adventurous. Here you can find yourself crossing running rivers(yes, as crazy as that sounds in this desolate desert), scrambling over rocks and finishing at an actual waterfall. This trail starts off like many others in the park in a canyon wash, but soon enters a lush oasis of cottonwoods and willows. This is a great little hike when you are craving some green in your scenery.
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!
For those of you with 4×4 cars and looking to get way off the beaten path, a visit to Mahogany Flat Campground and the Telescope Peak trail is for you. The road to the campground is steep and rough and definitely requires high clearance vehicles to pass, so don’t try it otherwise!
Sidewinder Slot Canyon
One last recommended hike that you should put on your things to do in Death Valley list include Sidewinder Slot Canyon. This 5 mile hike is a beautiful way to see slot canyons, explore off the beaten path a bit in the park as well as test your rock scrambling skills. We didn’t have time to complete this trail, but it is one we hope to return to soon as it was beautiful and so much fun to explore.
Other Death Valley Things To Do
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. Book as soon as you arrive to the park as the rentals book up quickly.
Rhyolite Ghost Town
During our most recent trip to Death Valley, we decided to take a day trip out to Ryolite Ghost Town. Rhyolite is the largest ghost town near Death Valley, located about 35 miles from Furnace Creek. It is actually outside of the park’s bounds in Nevada, but can easily be visited in a short amount of time. These little excursions are also great for when you have a napper and can’t get out of the car often at the sights!
Death Valley Attractions You Can Give A Miss
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.
Where to Stay When Visiting Death Valley National Park
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 nowhere, 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! Without further ado, here are some of the cool places to stay in Death Valley.
The Inn at Death Valley
The Inn at Death Valley, also known as the Oasis at Death Valley, 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!
The Ranch at Death Valley
Also rebranded like the Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch is now known as The Ranch at Death Valley. This 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.
I would be remiss if I were not to also mention that we did get bed bugs here – hence our next visit was camping! I will say the hotel was very well prepared for the treatment of bed bugs, but it was still quite a stress. Note, this was 5 years ago in 2016, so things could have changed quite a bit since then.
Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel
The Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel 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 which is perfect for early morning or sunset visits.
Panamint Springs Resort
Panamint Springs Resort is a small, western-style hotel located in the Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park that provides lodging, camping and RV services, a restaurant and bar, and a gas station with a well stocked general store.
Camping in Death Valley
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 The 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.
During the winter months, the only campground that you can make reservations for is Furnace Creek. This location often sells out quickly, but don’t fret as there are a ton of other sites that are first come first serve all season long.
Our top picks for camping in Death Valley include Texas Springs Campground. This campground is centrally located, large and first come first serve. There are limited tent only sites (around 30) with the rest being RV sites.
More Information on Camping in Death Valley
Camping in Death Valley is a fun experience, but there are a few things you should know before setting out for this adventure.
- There is often high wind in Death Valley which can result in a long night holding your tent up! Check wind before you set out on a trip.
- First Come First Serve sites are filling up quickly during COVID times, so plan in advance your camping options if your first location is full. We recommend Thursday morning arrivals as the weekday campers have left and the weekend campers haven’t arrived just yet.
- There is water at the main campgrounds, but come prepared in case you need to camp further out at one of the more remote campgrounds.
Where to Eat in Death Valley
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 overpriced. Our recommendation is to pack a cooler with as much as you can before you head out.
The Inn at Furnace Creek Dining Room
The Inn at Furnace Creek Dining Room offers decent food at fine dining prices. The menu is limited, but offers classic American options as well as a few vegetarian options and kid style food.
The Badwater Saloon is located not in Furnace Creek, but near Stovepipe Wells. This is a classic eatery with basic options. I hear the veggie burger is amazing, but it was closed when passed by.
Panamint Springs Resort Restaurant
The Panamint Springs Resort Restaurant is a typical resort restaurant with decent food. Note however that there have been issues with gratuity being included at quite an elevated rate. If you are on a budget check before you buy!
Last Kind Words Saloon
During our stay, we sampled most of the options available. Our favorite place was the Last Kind Words Saloon in Furnace Creek, which is open for all meals of the day. 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. Alternatively, 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.
Death Valley Day Trip – 1 Day Itinerary Suggestions
Depending which way side of the park you arrive at to visit Death Valley National Park, 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.
Stop For A Quick Walk
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 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.
Take A Detour
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 Death Valley attractions now! Two last viewpoints – 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.
For those arriving to the park from Las Vegas, you will do all of this from the reverse. You will pass Dante’s View turn off first and then Zabriskie Point before turning to the Badwater Basin area 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!
EVEN MORE AMAZING PLACES TO VISIT IN CALIFORNIA
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