Death Valley, the most desolate, hottest, lowest, and driest spot on the continent, doesn’t sound like a place anyone would want to visit. Yet, it attracts thousands of people each year. Two large hotels offer accommodations within the national park, with plenty of rooms for visitors.
Or so we thought. Since we decided two days before our departure on our spring break itinerary, we found both fully booked. Unbelievable, I thought. And then I realized that the park was only two hours from Las Vegas. So, if you are like us, and don’t plan ahead, but still want to visit Death Valley National Park, Las Vegas is a great starting point.
Where is Death Valley?
When you think of California, you think of sandy beaches by the water, not sand dunes in the desert. Yet, as wet as it is near the coast, California is also home to the Mojave Desert, one of the driest deserts on the continent. And the Mojave Desert is home to two National Parks, Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley.
We visited Joshua Tree National Park a few times – or rather drove through it the first time, when we were basically the only visitors (about two decades ago), and I was surprised on how many visitors it got last time we were there, a few years ago.
I wasn’t surprised about the popularity of Death Valley though. In the past few years I’ve seen so many photos of it, heard so much about it, I knew people were visiting it. So, part of me was worried that it was getting too many visitors, it was getting ruined. However, on such a vast area, even when the hotels on the premises were full, we felt alone most of the time. Except at the viewpoints. But even that wasn’t too bad. It is also true that it is still the CoVid-era…
Anyway, Death Valley, with a large part of it under sea level (until I knew this, I couldn’t imagine a place being under sea level, and still on land), is in the Mojave Desert, in the state of California, by the state’s border with Nevada.
How to Get there
Though in California, the closest city to Death Valley is Las Vegas, in Nevada. And if you are not staying in the park, Las Vegas is a great place for a base when visiting the national park. Depending on where you are staying in Vegas, the trip is from two to two and a half hours long.
We stayed on the west side, in the outskirts of Vegas, about ten miles from the Strip, so in the morning we were on the road to Death Valley a few minutes after leaving the hotel. We took Hwy 160 through Pahrump, and got to the national park’s entrance in slightly less than two hours.
If you want to be closer, Pahrump seems to be a good choice, with a few a few hotels, restaurants, even casinos.
Why Would Anyone Want to Visit Death Valley in the First Place?
This was a question I’ve been asking for three decades, while resisting the urge to go see it for myself. With a name of Death Valley, and a reputation of being the hottest and driest place on earth, you know the area is a place of extremes. And we are drawn to the extremes. To see them at least.
The extreme heat and constant drought created some of the most unusual, but still beautiful landscapes on the planet. And that’s worth a look for most of us.
But people also tried living in this environment. To be fair, a few places do have enough water to sustain small communities. (Though I don’t understand why they waste this precious water for a golf course.). But, as part of a National Park, Death Valley is safe from mining attempts and with the added amenities, safe to drive through and visit.
The largest US National Park outside Alaska, Death Valley encompasses over three million acres of desert wilderness. And, while you’ll find roads and trails that take you through plenty of spectacular places, most of it is protected as officially designated wilderness.
The terrain in the park includes extremes like valley floors sitting over 200 feet below sea level featuring desolate salt flats, and rugged barren mountains raising as high as 1100 feet, deep canyons and rolling sand dunes, and even an oasis or two filled with green vegetation.
Sites to See in the Park
Even if you just drive through the park you’ll see plenty of sites that will leave you in awe. The main road passing through the park is Highway 190, the one we took all the way through.
We drove through colorful rock formations reminding me of the Painted Desert, but even more desolate, and with more discernible pastel shades. As we drove farther into the desolation, the landscape changed, as it descended below sea level, and we past the salt flats, different from anything I’ve ever seen before. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought it was snow on the ground.
Farther still, as we climbed out of the Badwater Basin, where we reached at the lowest point -282 feet below sea level, we drove by the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and soon reached the end of the park at Stovepipe Wells Village.
This is just the way we travel: drive through the whole site we want to visit, then turn around and stop where we feel we would enjoy spending more time, and take the side roads after we had an overview of the main sites.
So, as we turned around at Stovepipe Wells – where you could stock up on supplies, gas, water and food, if you need to -, we stopped at the sand dunes.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
I didn’t think I saw any mesquites in these sand dunes, so I was wondering where the name comes from. The only plant that seemed to survive here was the creosote bush. However, at a closer look, I realized that sometimes the creosote was growing out of mesquites. Not a mesquite tree as I am used to it in the Sonoran Desert. Here, the mesquite grows shorter than a bush, but it allows the creosote to grow out of its dead limbs.
The most accessible sand dunes in Death Valley, the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes were the best introduction to exploring Death Valley with all our senses. With no marked trail though them from the parking lot, we could all just make our own way as we walked through the silky golden sand. Up on the ridges we had views of people looking like tiny ants in the not-so-far distance, but it was easy to be on our own at any given time, feeling far away from civilization, and any kind of life.
But don’t make the mistake of trying to take your shoes off if you are walking on the dunes, unless you are there early in the morning – even on a cool day. The sand looked so inviting for my toes, I could not resist, and took my shoes and socks off.
On a day cool enough that we were comfortable walking in long pants and light jackets (or sweatshirts), the sand was so hot it burned my feet after a few steps. Unexpected, though as someone who lives in a desert, I should know. We were there late in the morning, closer to noon. However, early morning and after sunset the sand should be much cooler – maybe even cold in the winter months.
Regardless, a walk through the sand dunes, with views of the surrounding mountains in the distance, was the best start of our visit through Death Valley. This was also our longest stop, since we enjoyed this desert environment, the most different from our own and from the Painted Desert we visit often.
Harmony Borax Works
The next stop on the road was the Harmony Borax Works. And, since I use Borax – a natural cleaner – this was interesting to see, and learn a bit about the history of this mineral, and why I still see the name 20-Mule Borax on my box.
Though this plant only operated for five years, between 1883 and 1888, the image of the 20-mule team wagons of hauling borax from this desolate area to Mojave, a grueling journey of 165 miles, inspired the label still used today.
Besides the sand dunes, a fun place to play in, my favorite spot in Death Valley is Artists Drive. The one-way, nine-mile scenic loop off Badwater Road, is probably the most spectacular – from a visual point of view – spot in the park. We drove on a winding road with views of some of the most colorful eroded desert hills, and through narrow canyons surrounded by tall mountainsides.
The most visually stunning stop on this loop is the Artist Palette. It seems like all the colors of the surrounding mountains come together in this spot, from pastel shades of reds, purples, and yellows to those of blues and greens. They are caused by the oxidation of the minerals contained in the rocks, and the effect is amazing.
A smaller parking lot offers an even more spectacular view of the area where the colors start. We stopped and enjoyed the view for a long time, before I realized that you could take a short walk down in the middle of it. By then I decided against it, though I am sure it would’v been worth it.
Before leaving the park, we stopped at Zabriskie Point, the most famous viewpoint in the park, overlooking the golden badlands of the Furnace Creek formation.
In case you were wondering about the name, the point is named after Christian Zabriskie, the vice president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in Death Valley. I’m not sure why the point is named after him, but here it is.
Is One Day Enough to Visit Death Valley?
For us, already living in the desert – even if it is a different desert – one day in Death Valley was enough. But I have to admit, we didn’t see everything worth seeing. There are other sites in the park that we could’ve stopped for or explored, if we had more time – or even if we spent less time at the sand dunes.
Sites we missed, though have seen from the road, include the salt flats – though it would’ve been easy enough to stop for them, we opted not so, since we saw them from the road, and felt we would be rushing the trip.
We didn’t see the “Devil’s Gold Course” either. Mostly because it is off a dirt road, and we didn’t want to drive through it. But with a name including golf course, I just wasn’t interested. Golf courses in the desert are one of my pet peeves, even if that’s about the real ones (I can never understand why would anyone waste precious water in the desert for a golf course).
We didn’t hike Golden Canyon, either, but that was because the parking lot was busy, and we felt like we have seen enough by then.
You can add all the above sites to your itinerary even if you only spend one day in the park. We would’ve had enough time for them, if we only stopped briefly. We made it back to Vegas by dinner time, left the park around four in the afternoon. You could easily add a few more hours to the day trip.
But if you plan ahead, and get a room in the park, you have more time to explore the park, and find plenty to do for two – even three – days. If you live somewhere with cold winters, you might enjoy a longer stay in Death Valley during that time. But you can see the best of the park in one day.
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