In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to explore Death Valley National Park in a variety of ways: by camping and hiking, motorcycle travel, family travel, a photography workshop, and 4×4 excursions. Through those adventures, I’ve become a huge fan of the park. That means I often get quite enthusiastic about extolling the virtues of what it has to offer visitors.
So today I’m bringing you a beginner’s guide to Death Valley. Hopefully this basic introduction will give you the important details you need to make the most of your first trip to the park. Be sure to check out the full photo galleries at the end of the post for more images.
- Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. At over 3.3 million acres, it’s almost as big as the state of Connecticut. Even at its narrowest width, it can take two hours to drive across it.
- It was designated a national monument in 1933. In 1984, the boundaries were expanded and it became a national park.
- In spite of its foreboding name, it is rich with history and natural diversity.
- The park hosts about 1.3 million visitors a year.
- Activities for visitors in the park include hiking, camping, sight-seeing, bicycling, birding, and backcountry driving.
Before you go
- Visit the park website. It is the ultimate clearinghouse of introductory information as well as the constantly changing details about road conditions, campgrounds, and points of interest.
- Understand that there is very little cell service in the park so you can’t rely on your phone for emergencies or even basic communication in the vast majority of the park.
- There are wide seasonal variations in temperatures and weather. The time of year you visit will dictate how you need to prepare for outdoor activities.
- The wildflower bloom season in February is very popular. A trip at that time of year often requires lodging reservations months in advance.
- If you’re coming for dark skies, pay attention to the moon. It may seem obvious, but rangers often encounter visitors who come for the park’s dark sky status but haven’t figured on a full moon. While any nighttime experience in Death Valley is spectacular, pay attention to your timing if your focus is dark skies.
- Follow the park’s Facebook page. It is active and extremely informative.
When you get there
- The visitor center is always the best place to start your adventure in any national park but particularly in Death Valley. The park rangers can help you decide the best way to spend your time at the park, what programs will be offered while you’re there, and give you the latest information on road and trail conditions.
- Pick up the park’s Visitor Guide newspaper. It is chock full of the most important information all visitors need to know about the park. You can pick one up at the park entrances, hotels, restaurants, or the visitor center. It’s even available online if you want a head start.
- Once you decide on some activities, pick up a tip sheet for your selections. The park offers individual one-page guides for almost every trail and site. You can find them at the ranger desk in the visitor center.
- Pay the fee. There are kiosks that accept credit cards at the major entrances or you can pay at the visitor center. Many visitors don’t realize there is an entrance fee to visit the park.
- Dogs must be on leash at all times. They are permitted along roads, in campgrounds and picnic areas, as well as select developed locations. But there are vast limitations on where you can go with your pet. They’re not permitted on trails, in the open desert, or inside most buildings and they cannot be left unattended in a vehicle. Please choose wisely when considering bringing your pet to Death Valley.
- You must stay on roads when traveling in a vehicle. But you can hike anywhere; trails are not the limiting factor in Death Valley.
- Collecting anything in the park is prohibited—rocks, plants, animals, and artifacts are all protected. If you’d like a memento of your visit buy a souvenir from the visitor center. That helps support the park and preserves the landscape for future visitors.
- Vandalism is a growing problem in all parks and Death Valley has had some high-profile, extremely damaging events in recent years. I know you aren’t planning to drive your car onto the Racetrack Playa like a recent visitor did, but please keep in mind that even building cairns—though it may seem harmless—is considered vandalism. Simply leave the landscape as you found it and future visitors will get to have the rich experience you’ve had.
- Water! Dehydration is one of the most serious considerations in Death Valley. Most visitors need more water than they realize. The park experiences more rescue incidents when temperatures are over 100 degrees (F) because it doesn’t feel that hot due to the low humidity. In extreme heat, it’s also crucial to manage your electrolyte levels since your body is losing these, too. Without adequate electrolyte balance, you can still have a critical situation even if you have enough water.
- In Death Valley a GPS receiver can be misleading at best. Satellite navigation devices often lead visitors to roads their vehicles can’t handle or that don’t exist at all. Pick up a physical, printed park map and orient yourself to the major roads and facilities. Your life could depend on it. The map from the park service is helpful if you’re sticking to the main, paved roads but I highly recommend the National Geographic Death Valley map from Trails Illustrated (Amazon affiliate link).
- Road conditions change constantly in Death Valley, especially on the vast network of dirt roads. Many of the roads that are usually accessible to an average sedan can sometimes be treacherous depending on recent weather conditions. That’s why it’s important to learn about conditions while you’re there. There are also roads in Death Valley that are only accessible by high-clearance or 4×4 vehicles even at the best of times. It’s important to know which roads are appropriate for your vehicle.
Food, Lodging, and Supplies
- The three lodging and supply centers within the park are The Oasis at Death Valley (formerly called Furnace Creek), Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs. These privately operated facilities offer hotel rooms, cabins, tent cabins, and campsites for RVs and tents.
- There are many camping options within the park, both developed and in the backcountry. Some require reservations but many are first come, first served.
- Given the location and size of the park things like fuel, food, and supply choices are limited. That also means the prices are higher than many visitors anticipate and it catches them off guard. Visitors simply need to understand it takes more effort to get supplies to the park. It’s extremely isolated. That raises prices.
My recommendations for activities
For a park the size of Death Valley, the seasonal variations, and the variety of activities you can choose from, it’s nearly impossible to give a definitive recommendation on what to do. Your timing, inclination for adventure, and current park conditions will determine your best choices while you’re there.
However, for a first-timer, you can’t go wrong with some of these tried and true favorites to initiate yourself to the wonders of Death Valley.
- Participate in a program! Attend a ranger talk or get your children involved in the Junior Ranger program.
- Spend the night in the park. It may be tempting to come in for just a day. But Death Valley is just as spectacular at night as it is in daylight. And in a very different way. Take the opportunity to soak it in and know that one day barely scratches the surface here.
- Artist’s Drive: It’s like a roller coaster for vehicles, with glorious geologic scenery.
- Zabriskie Point: Accessible to even the most casual of visitors but a stark and extraordinary landscape.
- Badwater Basin: At 282 feet below sea level, the salt formations are entrancing.
- Dante’s View: Remarkable vista over Badwater Basin. The view is incomparable.
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: Sunrise and sunset here are captivating. The way the light plays on the sand, ripples, and dunes is magical.
- Rhyolite Ghost Town: Just outside Death Valley, this ghost town is home to a historic train depot and quirky art. Take your camera and have fun! The sights are truly bizarre and fabulous.
- Mosaic Canyon is an easy, accessible hike near Stovepipe Wells that gives you an up-close look at the intricacies of the geology of Death Valley.
- Titus Canyon: If you have a high-clearance vehicle or decide to rent one at the park, this drive is extraordinary and well worth the few hours it will take you. The geology, history, and vistas are amazing.
- The Racetrack: The famous Racetrack Playa is a huge draw for visitors to Death Valley. Walking amongst the mysterious “floating” rocks is a delight but is only appropriate in dry conditions. Don’t walk on the playa if it is wet or muddy. Getting to the playa involves rugged driving, therefore a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Check with rangers at the visitor center for advice on whether or not your vehicle is suitable for the current road conditions when you visit.
Enjoy your visit!
Of course, this is just enough to get you started at Death Valley National Park. There’s so much more you can dive into if you have the time to go deeper. But that’s a post for another time.
And like any outdoor adventure, visitors need to approach the park with curiosity as well as caution. For all of its extraordinary beauty and the accessibility provided by the National Park Service, Death Valley is still a wilderness. Armed with the information here and on the park’s website, you’re on your way to having a fantastic experience.
I have to send out extreme appreciation and thanks to the the fabulous Ms. Abby Wines, National Park Service Management Assistant for Death Valley, for sharing her knowledge about the park with me to help make this guide as comprehensive as possible. Thank you, Abby!