Looking to make the most of your one day in Death Valley?
Death Valley is often described as one of the hottest National Parks in the United States due to the extreme heat in the summer, but despite the heat and the scary name, Death Valley is one of the most unique and beautiful National Parks to visit in California or Nevada.
Can Death Valley National Park be seen in a day? Absolutely! While Death Valley is one of the largest U.S. National Parks by land area, if you’re short on time, you can visit the biggest highlights in just one day in Death Valley. Death Valley is an easy day trip from Las Vegas!
Of course, if you are spending two days in Death Valley, you’ll be able to squeeze in more relaxation time and sights such as the Ubehebe Crater and Dante’s View. Death Valley can be a great weekend or long weekend trip from San Francisco!
Nonetheless, the most iconic sights can be seen in just a few hours once you’re in the park. We asked our friend Taylor from Taytrum Travels to cover this topic more in-depth.
Death Valley One Day Itinerary
Wondering what are the must-see highlights that you should cover in your Death Valley day trip? Here is an itinerary for one day in Death Valley. I’ve picked the absolute must-see sights of Death Valley and ordered them for efficiency.
Each of these can be found along the drive in the order they are listed, starting from the south of the park and driving north. Of course, you could also do them in reverse order if you arrive from the north.
As Death Valley National Park is huge and there is a lot of driving involved to get to the various vista points, it is important to stay early in the day to ensure you have enough time to cover all the main highlights of the park.
Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and is known for its expansive salt flats, crystalline formations, and dramatic views of the surrounding mountains.
This is perhaps the most important stop in Death Valley as it takes you to the actual lowest point, one of the major draws of Death Valley National Park.
At this stop, you’ll find a relatively short flat walk out onto the salt flats, where you’ll see the iconic salt polygons. Be sure to look up at the mountainside near the parking lot here in order to see the “sea level” sign to give you a sense of how low you really are.
The “Badwater Pool” is a small spring that is the source of the basin’s salt deposits. The water in the pool is so salty that it is undrinkable, and visitors are warned not to drink or even touch it.
The basin is also home to several unique and fascinating plant and animal species, including salt-tolerant plants, insects, and birds.
There are numerous displays here to give you more geological and historical information about the Badwater Basin.
Artist’s Drive is a scenic route in Death Valley National Park known for its breathtaking views of the colorful hills and mountains. Named for its colorful palette, this is another major highlight of the park.
The hills and mountains that line the drive are composed of a variety of minerals and rocks that give them a stunning array of colors, ranging from vibrant reds and oranges to soft pinks and greens.
This one-way road begins on Badwater Road, less than 10 minutes after Devil’s Golf Course. There are several pull-offs for photo opportunities along this brief detour from the main road.
There are also several restrooms along the way. Large trailers cannot take this road as it becomes narrow in some areas, in addition to some sharp turns.
Zabriskie Point is a breathtaking viewpoint known for its stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape and the colorful rock formations.
From this viewpoint, you can take in sweeping vistas of the surrounding badlands, including the Manly Beacon and the Amargosa Range. There are several hikes here to explore the badlands.
Zabriskie Point is a great place to watch the sunrise in Death Valley if you are staying inside the park overnight or driving early enough to the park.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
After Zabriskie Point, you’ll arrive at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in about 10 minutes. Furnace Creek is the main hub of Death Valley. This is the primary visitor center of Death Valley National Park.
This is where you can pay the National Park entrance fee of $30 per vehicle, which is valid for seven consecutive days.
There are various exhibits here to learn more about the park’s history, geology, ecology, and natural features. You can also pick up a park map and get current park information from the park rangers.
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is a great place to buy souvenirs at the gift shop, grab snacks and coffee from the small cafe, or refill water bottles. There is also a gas station here, though it will cost a little more than a usual gallon in eastern California.
Mesquite Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are a bit further away but worth the drive though. Starting at the paved parking lot, there is a main trail to take you out to the expanse of sand dunes.
One of the great things about the sand dunes is that you are allowed to wander and explore. Since wind is constantly changing the shapes and positions of the dunes, it would be impossible to create a designated trail.
The dunes are a popular destination for photographers, who come to capture the dramatic interplay of light and shadow as the sun moves across the sky.
A popular thing to do is to make your pilgrimage to the tallest dune and climb up. Another fun thing to do here is to sled down the dunes. While kids especially love it, adults usually jump in on the fun too. There are no sleds for rent though, so you are responsible for bringing your own. There are several bathrooms at this stop.
On a hot day, make sure that you have enough water, as there is no shade anywhere on the dunes, and the sand can be hot. Sturdy shoes are a must here if you are planning to walk in the sand.
Optional Stops for Death Valley 1 day Itinerary
If you have daylight time left in your day and want to visit some more attractions in Death Valley, below are some additional stops you can make on your Death Valley trip:
Dante’s View is an elevated viewpoint around 30 minutes drive south of Furnace Creek Visitor Center and is popular for stunning panoramic views of the valley floor, Badwater Basin, salt flats, and surrounding mountains from above.
There is a parking lot here and several short dirt/sandy trails to explore the valley views from different angles. It is a great place for sunset views as well.
Devil’s Golf Course
Devil’s golf course earned its creative name due to the strange formations of sharp white rocks. These rocks are actually salt that has become somewhat misshapen due to the contraction and expansion of water as the extreme temperatures fluctuate.
You’ll need to take a short dirt road to get here off of Badwater Road. The dirt road is flat though, and sedans without four-wheel drive can easily take the journey. There are no restrooms at this stop.
Harmony Borax Works
If you feel you have extra time in your schedule, you could add the Mustard Canyon and Harmony Borax Works stop after the visitor center. This optional stop has a dirt road that winds through yellowish hills, hence the name.
It also features a model of the Borax mining cart that used to be common in Death Valley prior to becoming a protected park.
Ubehebe Crater is a volcanic crater in the northern region of Death Valley and is around an hour and a half drive north from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This attraction might be a little hard to fit into a Death Valley one-day itinerary, but you can do it if you are planning to stay overnight.
From the parking lot, you can see stunning views of the Ubehebe Crater. You can walk along the crater rim for different views of the crater. There are trails that you can take to go down inside the crater, but the hike back is very strenuous on dirt and gravel path.
What is Death Valley known for?
Death Valley National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country for good reason. It is known for being the lowest elevation point in the entire North American continent at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.
It is also one of the hottest places on Earth. During summer months, temperatures can go as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
If that wasn’t enough, Death Valley is also the largest U.S. National Park outside Alaska by land mass at more than 3.3 million acres or 13.6 kilometers squared. It was established as a national monument in 1933 before becoming an official national park in October 1994.
Best time to Visit Death Valley National Park
Extreme temperatures are characteristic of this area of California and Death Valley. While it is especially known for its hot temperatures in summer, winter temperatures can fall below freezing overnight, and are not suitable for camping in the park.
During the summer, it is not unusual for temperatures to reach over 120°F (49°C), making it not suitable for sightseeing, hiking, or camping.
The Spring season and especially February and March, are the most comfortable times of the year to visit Death Valley due to the pleasant temperatures. During this period, temperatures range from 46 to 82° F on average. Spring season is also when you might see wildflowers blooming if there is good rainfall in winter.
The Fall months of October and November offer another two-month period of good average temperatures ranging from 48 to 93°F. December is also a reasonable time to go, however, temperatures overnight can be too cold for most tent campers.
How to get to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a popular destination from both California and Nevada cities. The closest major airport to Death Valley is Las Vegas International Airport in Nevada.
Alternatively, you can also take a day tour to Death Valley from Las Vegas.
➡ Death Valley Small Group Day Adventure From Las Vegas – This highly rated small group, full-day tour from Las Vegas to Death Valley will cover all the top attractions in Death Valley and includes lunch and hotel pickup. Check rates and availability.
Visiting Death Valley from California
Death Valley is a little further away from California cities, and I highly recommend driving the day before and staying overnight in or near the park, and spending the next full day exploring Death Valley.
Driving distances to Death Valley from major California Cities:
- San Francisco to Death Valley – Around 7-8 hours by car
- Los Angeles to Death Valley – Around 4 hours by car
- Santa Barbara to Death Valley – Around 5.5 hours by car
- San Diego to Death Valley – Around 6.5 hours by car
The park can be reached within roughly 4 hours from central Los Angeles. If you are leaving from Santa Barbara, the route should take about 5.5 hours driving, and from San Diego, the drive takes 6.5 hours. These estimates do not account for rest stops or traffic on the way.
From the southern route into the park, you have the option of taking Highway 395, Highway 127, or Highway 178. If you choose to take Highway 178, watch for burros! They’re known to frequent this area.
Burros are much like a donkey, however, donkeys are domesticated while burros are not. If you miss seeing them, you can still probably spot their droppings along the side of the road.
For northern California visitors, it takes about 6 hours to get to Death Valley National Park from Fresno or 3 hours from Bishop, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Visiting Death Valley from Nevada
While the majority of Death Valley is in California, a small bit is in Nevada, making it one of the few national parks that straddles two state lines.
Death Valley is around 2 hours from Las Vegas by road.
The fastest route from Las Vegas will take about 3.5 hours without stops. This follows Highway 95 out of the northwest side of Las Vegas.
An alternative route is along NV-160 through the southwest of Las Vegas. This route will take about 4 hours, although it is actually a few miles shorter in distance.
Where to Stay For Death Valley
While camping is a popular option, there are also several hotels either within the park or nearby.
Staying in Death Valley National Park
The most striking hotel in Death Valley is The Inn at Death Valley, located off Badwater Road and Highway 190. This hotel is the nicest in the area and a luxury resort.
A mid-range hotel option still within the park and equally nice is The Ranch at Death Valley, located near Furnace Creek.
Located on the western edge of the park is Panamint Springs Resort which offers motel rooms, newer cabins, and minimalist glamping-style tents. This is a budget accommodation option.
Staying in Ridgecrest, California
For visitors coming from California cities, if accommodation inside the park is not available, staying in the city of Ridgecrest is a great option. From Ridgecrest, it’s around 1 hour and 20 minutes to drive to Death Valley, and perfect for a day trip.
Hampton Inn & Suites Ridgecrest makes a great base to explore Death Valley with daily free hot breakfast and a pool.
SpringHill Suites Ridgecrest is another great option, also with free hot breakfast and pool.
Staying in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada, is the closest biggest city near Death Valley and around 2 hours away. It is ideal to combine your trip to Vegas with a visit to Death Valley. If staying in Vegas, you can do a day trip to Death Valley either yourself or take a tour from Las Vegas to Death Valley.
Bellagio is a great resort in the center strip area of Las Vegas and within walking distance to a lot of Las Vegas attractions.
Camping in Death Valley
Even though you are planning to spend one day in Death Valley, there are various camping options in Death Valley in case you decide to stay overnight or arrive the night before. That way, you will have a full next day to explore the park.
Except for Furnace Creek Campground, all the others are first come, first serve, and non-reservable in advance.
Furnace Creek Campground
The largest campground in Death Valley National Park is Furnace Creek Campground. It is a developed campground with 136 sites. This is the only campground in the park that accepts reservations. There are 18 sites with full RV hookups in Furnace Creek, but they are usually booked six months in advance.
Texas Springs Campground
Located above Furnace Creek is a first come, first served campground named Texas Springs. There are 92 sites here, and fees are paid at the campground entrance using a digital machine that can take card payments.
Stovepipe Wells Campground
Stovepipe Wells is a large campground with non-reservable campsites. It is near a general store, a ranger station, and a gas station.
Emigrant Campground is a smaller campground within the park. With only 10 spots, it’s important to note Emigrant is for tent camping only. There is limited privacy in this campground as there are few trees and little vegetation.
Wildrose, on the other hand, does have spaces for RVs but does not have hookups or dump stations. Located at a higher elevation than the other campgrounds in the park, Wildrose is a good option if you are looking to escape the heat.
As a worst-case scenario, there is also the more primitive Sunset Campground. With 230 sites, this campground rarely fills. However, not all sites have picnic tables or fire grates. In addition, this campground lacks privacy, as there is no tall brush. It is also located near the main road at Furnace Creek.
The desert gravel ground may also be of concern if you are tent camping and if you have a dog. Honestly, this campground looks more like a big dirt lot. Its best feature is that it is close to the visitor center.
Where to eat in Death Valley?
I was pleasantly surprised by the plenty of food options in Death Valley National Park! There are quite a few restaurants in Death Valley! You will be spoiled for choices.
The Ranch at Death Valley has The Ranch 1849 Buffet and The Last Kind Words Saloon, both open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Ranch also has a cafe and ice cream parlor.
Stovepipe Wells Village near the Mesquite Sand Dunes has Toll Road Restaurant and Badwater Saloon, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Death Valley Entrance Stations and Admission Fees
Unlike many other national parks, there is no specific entrance station for Death Valley. To pay the fee, you’ll need to stop at one of the indicated pay stations, where park rangers will give you a color-coded slip of paper to display on your windshield to indicate you paid your entrance fee.
Some popular places in the park where you will find the fee machines are the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station, Zabriskie Point, and Badwater Basin. The fee kiosks can also be found at several campgrounds within the park.
Admission to Death Valley National Park is $30 per vehicle, which is valid for seven consecutive days.
Alternatively, the annual national park pass costs $80 and gives you access to an unlimited number of parks for one year. If you plan to visit at least three national parks this year, the annual pass is a better value. Active duty and retired military members and their families can get in for free.
What else is nearby Death Valley?
There are many things to see on your way to and from Death Valley National Park, especially on the California side.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
If you have a long drive back to or from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, or San Diego, you might also consider breaking the drive up by camping at Red Rock Canyon State Park.
If you’re not camping, Red Rock Canyon is also a great spot to stretch your legs, as the scenery is striking and beautiful. Red Rock Canyon State Park is Kern County’s first state park. It is about 3 hours southwest of Furnace Creek.
Manzanar National Historic Site
Many people stop by the historic site of Manzanar, one of ten concentration camps in the United States used during World War II to unconstitutionally hold Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans under surveillance.
It is located about an hour northwest of the western park boundary on Highway 395, near the towns of Lone Pine and Independence.
Final Takeaways: Death Valley day trip itinerary
Death Valley is a very unique and amazing National Park with a very varied, interesting, and colorful landscape, and it is definitely worth visiting, even if for a day!
Visit during Fall, Winter, and Spring months for a more pleasant experience, as summers can be very hot in Death Valley with triple-digit temperatures.
Summary of 1 day in Death Valley itinerary:
- Visit Badwater Basin – the lowest elevation point in North America.
- Drive on Artist’s Drive – a scenic route with colorful rock formations.
- Zabriskie Point – panoramic views of surrounding badlands, great sunrise spot.
- Stop at Furnace Creek Visitor Center – for current park information and to pay the entrance fee.
- Mesquite Sand Dunes – hike or stroll on the sand dunes, a great sunset spot.
Optional stops if you have more time in Death Valley:
- 6. Dante’s View – Panoramic views of the valley floor
- 7. Devil’s Golf Course – sharp rock formations
- 8. Ubehebe Crater – Volcanic crater that you can hike into from the rim
- 9. Harmony Borax Works
Check out my other post about Death Valley, California, and Nevada: