A day in California’s Death Valley National Park is a great way to experience a harsh but beautiful Mojave desert. Considered the lowest, hottest, and driest place on Earth, it’s also the largest National Park in the contiguous United States. It’s impossible to see all Death Valley has to offer within one day. With careful planning, you can still fit in a lot of the amazing views the park has to offer. This post is for the casual visitor who does some light hiking but nothing too extreme. I’ll share our experience driving from Las Vegas to Death Valley, including tips and what we saw in a day.
A Few Things To Know About Death Valley
- It’s roughly a 2-hour drive from Las Vegas, a 4-hour drive from Los Angeles, and roughly a 6-hour drive from San Diego.
- Be sure to fill your tank before entering the park. If you think it’s expensive outside the park, you’ll be in shock to see it’s will be about double inside the park.
- With temperatures that have reached 130 F. and areas as low as 282 feet below sea level, you should come expecting the extremes.
- Bring water and some snacks. There are a few places to stop and get both, but it is good to come prepared.
- A bandana or facemask is really helpful to prevent you from inhaling the blowing sands.
- A good pair of hiking shoes is beneficial as the terrain is quite rocky and rigid.
- Internet on your phone will be selective at best. I recommend downloading an offline map before your trip.
Looking for another amazing desert park near Las Vegas? Check out my post on visiting Valley of Fire State Park When You Only Have Half A Day
Las Vegas to Death Valley
We took the southern route to enter the park, this took us through Pahrump where we stopped to get gas. The entrance to the park is based on the honor system and is not manned. Park entrance is $30 per car. There are vault toilets but be warned that this is one of the foulest things you’ll ever smell.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Twenty Mule Team Canyon is known for its early 20th-century borax mining operation. Made famous by the “Twenty Mule Team Borox” product, this canyon represents a unique piece of Western history. While the main attraction of the canyon is its historical significance, it also boasts some great hiking and backcountry camping. While accessible during warmer months by car, but you’ll need a high clearance 4WD vehicle to get through during winter.
This was our first stop once we entered Death Valley National Park and we almost drove right past the entrance. There’s a sign a few hundred feet before, the actual entrance is only noted with a “one way” arrow sign. The road is a narrow (on most of the trail), unpaved winding road with a few areas safe to pull off the road. Be sure to drive cautiously as you may come across other visitors pulled over very close to the road. We stopped closer to the exit to take some photos before getting back to I-90 and continuing our journey.
Zabriskie Point is a must-visit while you’re in Death Valley. With incredible views, it’s considered one of the most popular places to watch the sunrise and set in Death Valley. Once you leave the Twenty Mule Team Canyon, turn left and continue down I-90 W for about 2.8 miles. Turn left onto Zabriskie Point Road where you’ll see some vault toilets (gross), and a parking lot.
From here, it’s a short walk up to the lookout point where you can enjoy sweeping views of Death Valley. In addition to being one of the best spots for sunrise and sunset, Zabriskie Point is also known for some amazing hiking trails that meander through its golden badlands formations.
We opted to just walk up to the look out point. The winds were very intense the day we were at the park and we were almost being pushed by them as we walked up the slight incline. We had our hoodies pulled over our heads and tied tight to hold our hats and sunglasses on, it was intense! Once we got to the top we took a moment to take in the views. We had 360 degree views of incredible layers of color, it was spectacular.
We left Zabriskie Point to continue on our way listening to oldies vinyl radio as we headed West on I-90 to our next destination.
Mosiac Canyon, An Unexpected Stop
I had our trip planned out in full detail, but plans don’t always work out and that’s okay. We had planned on getting lunch at this Ice Cream Shop at The Oasis at Death Valley, but we didn’t realize we passed it on our way so we carried on to our next destination which was going to be the sand dunes. Once we got to Stovepipe Wells, we debated eating there and decided we could wait. While we were there, we decided to add a stop that wasn’t on my original plans: Mosiac Canyon.
Mosiac Canyon is a beautiful slot canyon that is worth a hike. You’ll enter down a long, dirt road that feels like it takes forever to drive down. Once you get to a small parking lot, you’ll see a large opening to the canyons and some signage about them. I really appreciated the note on one of the signs calling out that even just a short hike into the canyon is worth it for the views.
The canyon itself has some amazing rock formations and textures; it’s perfect for photographing. It’s a fairly easy hike for the first part. You’ll eventually have to climb up some narrow, twisting rocks but it doesn’t get too intense. I’m glad we stopped, this was our first slot canyon and I look forward to visiting more in the future. The drive back out of the canyon was on the same rocky road you drove to get in, however, it felt as if you were able to drive so much faster. I can’t explain it.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
On our way back towards I-90, we stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This is one of the most iconic locations in all of Death Valley National Park. Flowing mounds of sand as far as the eye can see make for an exhausting hike that is so worth it. Since the pandemic is still a thing when we visited, we had our masks with us in case somewhere indoors required it. These were perfect bandana replacements. The wind was blowing the sand all over and this helped us not inhale it. This was also a destination used in the movies ‘Star Wars’, so cool.
Star Wars Filming Locations
at death valley national park
There are several parts of Death Valley that were used to film Star Wars: A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi. We visited a few locations like Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes which is where R2-D2 and C-3PO were lost and argued once landing on Tatooine. There’s Twenty Mule Team Canyon which was used when R2-D2 and C-3P0 tried to find Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. Finally, we also visited Artist Palette which was used in a scene with R2-D2 crossing a canyon alone.
Some filming locations we did not visit are Dante’s View which acted as Mos Eisley, and the Golden Canyon with Jawa’s hiding in the gorges to capture R2-D2.
Here’s a cool article on StarWars.com’s website if you want to read more about the Star Wars filming locations.
Visit my post Seeing The Grand Canyon South Rim In One Day if you want to visit another amazing National Park a few hours from Las Vegas.
Lunch Time & A Power Outage
We had planned on visiting an old fashioned ice cream soda fountain at the Oasis at Death Valley, however, we learned there was a power outage which closed down all the restaurants and shops. There was one little convenience shop open where we were able to get a a drink and some pre-made sandwiches which was better than nothing considering we had a few more hours planned in the park. The Oasis at Death Valley looked incredibly beautiful, I’d love to stay there some day.
A long 2 mile drive down a desert highway away from the Oasis is Badwater Basin. You’ll pass the entrance for Artist Drive, but I recommend continuing to Badwater Basin first. At 282 feet below sea level, you can experience the feeling of standing at the lowest point in North America. Near the entrance is a spring-fed pool of “bad water”. With the salt making it undrinkable, it is still miraculously able to house animal and plant life.
Near the pool is a wide stretch of flat, white salt that is relatively flattened, my guess is from the large number of visitors. If you’re looking to find the unique, hexagonal shaped salt formations, though, you’ll need to venture out about a mile. This walk will be a bit rough with the terrain, but also satisfying to hear the crunch of salt below your feet. Just pay attention to your steps, I wouldn’t want to trip and fall on this jaggedy landscape.
Desert-themed National Parks are some of my favorites. Check out my post A November Day In Joshua Tree National Park for more amazing desert views.
Artists Drive, Our Last Stop In Death Valley
There’s a reason I recommended passing up Artist Drive to visit Badwater Basin first. You’ll pass the exit of Artist Drive first, which means you’d have to do a lot of back tracking which is a waste of time. Once you visit Badwater Basin, you’ll return back the way you came on Badwater Road for roughly 15 minutes until you see the entrance to Artist Drive.
This 9-mile one-way stretch of road takes you through some unique and colorful geological formations. This winding road is one of the more beautiful drives in all of Death Valley and made the perfect final destination for our visit. As you continue your way through the drive, you’ll want to stop off at Artist Palette. A series of pastel-hued hills that gained its coloration from weathering and oxidation.
At this point, we were finished for the day at Death Valley National Park and start on the 2-hour trek back to our hotel in Las Vegas. We had such a great time exploring another National Park!