Death Valley National Park is a place that defies expectations. At least, it did for us. A place that is the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park can’t be appealing right? Wrong. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful National Parks in the country.
As you enter the park from on high, you can’t tell the beauty that will be upon you until you get up close but there are hints along the way. There are multiple ways to get into the park. Those coming from the west will take US-395 to CA-190 E or CA-190 W. If you were like us and towing, you avoided highways and took the scary, curvy downhill route of CA-190 E instead of the much smoother route of CA-190 W. The route we went with was from Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park avoiding highways. The downfall of this route is that it is extremely technical. Be aware of this if you’re towing or a long rig. The trip from Colonel Allensworth took us on a very technical back road that easily prepared me for this entrance into Death Valley, but it didn’t make it any easier.
If you’re coming from the east, the easiest route to take is from Beatty, Nevada, which is a great little town to check out. If you’re on the Beatty side, fill up with gas here because it’ll be a lot cheaper than down in Death Valley.
Here are the locations in the park and what they offer.
Since we came from the west side, the first stop coming in is Panamint Springs, which is also the first place to get gas at around $5 per gallon.
This is the first place with the most amenities you’ll find in the entirety of the park
Store with the basics like milk, cream, souvenirs, pre-made sandwiches and other goods
Restaurant and Bar – We stopped here and thought the food was surprisingly good. It’s a great place to rest with some AC. There are not that many places where you can, so stake them out.
RV camping – This is the first spot where RV camping is available. I wasn’t a fan of staying at this site as it is quite far from most of the great sites.
This is the second stop in the park with some basic amenities.
This is the best place to camp and explore from. It also has the most amenities of all the places. There are two campgrounds here, one of them is full hookups for RVs, the other is more primitive, but has water and flush toilets.
We stayed at Texas Springs, which is cheap at around $15 per night. The dump station is just down the road. The place has clean bathrooms, a dish washing station, and water fill stations to fill up your RV.
Another great aspect of Furnace Creek is that there is an upcoming square that will house shops and boutiques. The main shop, The Ranch, has the same food items as in Panamint Springs, but the restaurant is a full-service buffet. There is a laundry mat for the community that is hidden, but easily accessible by going into the campground behind the main pavilion in Furnace Creek. There is a great free museum in the middle of the town called the Borax Museum.
Laundry ($1 for washer and dryer)
RV camping (Recommend Texas Springs)
Shower & Pool ($10/person) *A bit expensive. You can go with a military shower with water available at Texas Springs.
Jeep Rentals for some of the high clearance driving trails.
Gas (around $5 per gallon)
Propane fill (I believe the only place in the park)
Lodging at The Oasis (High-end resort that is mind blowing to see in the middle of Death Valley)
Lodging at The Ranch (middle of the road with family friendly pools and epicenter)
Restaurants (The Ranch – buffet) (The Oasis – expensive, higher end)
Indian Tacos and Shaved Ice at the Timbisha Shoshone Village (Delicious!)
Death Valley Fun Facts:
This land is and was occupied by the Timbisha Shoshone and Timbisha is what Death Valley is really called. The Native people would move into the mountains during the summer months and down into the valley in the winter.
Death Valley was once under water and tropical. Millions of years of shallow sediment created layered deposits of marine life seen in the layered shale.
Subduction uplifted the region, creating massive mountains around the valley and subsequent erosion resulted in the current depressions.
The area was further pulled away from the Pacific Ocean, filling in with sediment over time, and impacted by erosion.
The two mountain ranges in the valley are still pulling apart from each other to this day.
Borax and ore were heavily mined here
There have been a few booms here and the 20 mule teams went through here. The burros left behind are a menace to the ecosystem to this day.
The rarest fish in the world lives here: The Devils Hole pupfish.
What To Do & Where To Go:
There is a lot to do in Death Valley National Park, which is why we stayed for around 10 days. The temperatures are hot until winter where they are perfect. We stayed in Furnace Creek, so all trips are based from here.
*Due to the heat and dryness you will need to drink around a gallon of water a day. You will feel dehydrated all the time. Keep that in mind as you plan for hikes, a major way to see the beauty in the park.
*Scotty’s Castle is CLOSED until 2020. The place was destroyed years ago, and it’ll take years to rebuild the castle and the surrounding access roads.
Drive - Day Trip 1:
From Furnace Creek, go right on Badwater Road 17 miles to Badwater Basin. This is what everyone likes to do, see the lowest place in the western hemisphere. Take a picture at the 282 feet below sea level sign, but what no one tells you is that most people walk a half mile out and back through a massive salt flat. It’s something you can, and should, do. It’s hot and you’re very exposed, so plan accordingly.
Head back toward Furnace Creek and take pictures at the Devil’s Golf Course. This is quite the experience.
The third stop is going right onto the Artists Drive, stopping at the Artists Palette for pictures. This drive is lots of fun. Vehicles over 25 feet are not allowed. There are some tight turns. The drive will show you how amazing Death Valley is, if you haven’t already seen it on the drive to Badwater Basin. The colors in the sand and hills, from mineral deposits, are stunning.
After Artist Palette, head to The Oasis. Walk around the historical hotel and gardens, grab some dates to eat or eat in their restaurant and enjoy the views.
Lastly, head to Zabriskie Point, which is just passed The Oasis. The paved walkway is wheelchair accessible and a bit uphill but offers some of the best pictures in the park. Try going here multiple times. Once at sunset and once at sunrise. The reflections off the colored hills are stunning.
Drive - Day Trip 2:
From Furnace Creek, head toward Stovepipe Wells Village, stopping first at Keane Wonder Mill and Mine. This is a less traveled location. Partly because it’s about 3 miles in on an unpaved rough road that is bumpy and may require some clearance, although we saw all types of vehicles doing it. Regardless, it’s a unique view into the history of the region, witnessing an old gold mining operation with an intact aerial tramway. There are still contaminants there to this day though, so be careful.
Head back and check out the historic Stovepipe Well. It’s hard to spot. The actual well that became the meeting point for people in the region is where Stovepipe Wells Village got its name.
As you drive toward Stovepipe Wells Village, you’ll turn into Mesquite Flats Sand Dune. This is a unique formation from multiple wind channels blowing sediment, into one location, over millennia.
Turnaround from here and head toward Beatty, Nevada to check out Rhyolite Ghost Town! This place was lots of fun. Don't forget to stop at the infamous glass house. If you’re around in October, check out Beatty Days, a great town event with a car show, chili cookoff, and parade.
Lastly, stop at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail on your way back to Furnace Creek to hopefully see the world’s rarest fish, the Devils Hole pupfish.
Drive - Day Trip 3:
For those that are extremely adventurous, there are a few hot spots that are worth the long drive. Firstly, there is Ubehebe Crater, 17 miles west of Stovepipe Wells.
Follow that up by a long drive out to Charcoal Kilns on Emigrant Road.
Lastly, there is Father Crowley Vista Point, which is at the beginning entrance of the park for those, like us, that came in that way. If you are staying at Panamint Springs, it’s a quick drive. If you’re staying elsewhere, and you came in from the other side of the park, it might be a day drive on its own.
There is little light pollution in the park, making it ideal for night shots and stargazing. Be careful of the roaming coyotes.
Golden Canyon Trail: This is our favorite hike. The hike can be difficult (3 miles) as it is mostly uphill but the stunning cathedral rocks near the top are stunning. The canyon provides some good shade at places but it's a hike so bring lots of water.
Zabriskie Point: Short uphill hike to stunning views.
Harmony Borax Works: 0.4 miles and a great site to see the 20 mule trains.
Natural Bridge: 1-mile hike. The first half mile is steep. The bridge is stunning, and the dried-up waterfalls are a bonus.
Badwater Salt Flat: It’s 1 mile of solid exposure on salt flats, but the panorama shots are priceless.
Salt Creek: Easy half mile loop to see the rare pupfish.
There are lots of very long hikes, but with temperatures at 100 degrees, we kept our hikes to the mild ones. You can view more of the hikes available here.