Best things to do in Death Valley in one day
The hottest place on earth is not somewhere you would think would be a must see on a USA road trip in summer, but a visit to Death Valley National Park in California is so extraordinary, it’s worth the stop. We were brave enough (or just plain crazy) to spend a day in Death Valley during the peak of summer 2017, and thankfully there were plenty of things to do in Death Valley by car, with only a few short walks added in.
Death Valley is one of the most intriguing and incredible landscapes we have ever seen. From sand dunes to salt flats, and mountains of every conceivable colour, Death Valley constantly changes as you explore further into the park. The contrast of each area within the park is enormous and quite hard to believe until you see it for yourself.
Death Valley Must See
This was by far my favourite place to see. It’s an easy walk up the hill from the car park to see the vibrantly coloured and extraordinarily shaped (from erosion) badlands. This spectacular landscape is Death Valley’s most famous viewing point. If it wasn’t so hot, I could have stood there for ages.
Being the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin is hot! Way too hot in summer to enjoy the surreal salt flats outside of your car (believe me, we tried). Badwater Basin was an insane 52 degrees Celsius (126F) when we were there and the short walk from the car out onto the flats is not something I will ever attempt again in summer.
If however you’re there in the cooler weather, take a walk out onto the flats with the kids. It’s pretty amazing.
Get up high (about 1500m/5000ft above the Valley floor high) and look out over the mountains and the saltpans for a breathtaking view. Dantes View is at it’s best at sunrise and sunset.
Devils Golf Course
With jagged peaks of rock salt that not even the devil would be able to play golf on, this enormous expanse of earth is fun to explore but just careful not to fall over. Devils Golf Course is usually closed after rain.
It’s easy to imagine you’re on another planet or in a scene from Star Wars as you drive along Artists Drive, a scenic loop of 14.5km (9 mile) through the coloured hills. It looks its best in the late afternoon.
Furnace Creek Visitors Center
A stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre is a must do, to learn about the fascinating history, landscape, people and animals of Death Valley. This is where the kids can earn their Junior Ranger badge and is the best place for a toilet stop. Don’t expect to find any food here but you will find souvenirs. Make sure you take a look at the temperature gauge at the front of the centre.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
It is an incredible sight to find an expanse of sand dunes right in amongst the mountain ranges and salt flats. Stop in the car park and take a walk on the sand dunes. Remember to take your water and hat.
Death Valley for kids
A stop off at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is essential for the whole family, but especially so if you have kids. Here they can earn their Junior Ranger badge by completing the activities in the free Junior Ranger booklet you get at the centre. The booklet and things they learn at the centre are a game changer when it comes to driving around the arid landscape, so try to visit there early in your day.
Our boys were desperate to see some of the Death Valley wildlife like rattlesnakes and scorpions but we parents were very relieved not to have found any. Coyotes are the most commonly spotted mammals in Death Valley but it was too hot for even them when we were there.
What to see in Death Valley in one day
If you’re looking to do a Death Valley day-trip then these are the must see sights to include. Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin, Devils Golf Course, Artists Drive and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Furnace Creek Visitors Center.
If you’re there in summer, you’ll soon learn why it’s earned its reputation as the hottest place on earth and you’ll largely stick to a driving tour. However during the cooler months, there are some great walking tracks spread throughout the National Park to explore.
Remember, if you’re doing Death Valley in a day, you’ll most likely have two hours of driving just to get there, and it is a huge national park so it will take some time to get around to the different locations.
Is it worth visiting Death Valley in summer?
Absolutely! Although it’s not the best time to visit Death Valley, if it’s the only time you can go, then do it. It is an experience like never before and is one place our family will never regret visiting.
I am however really pleased we did Death Valley as a daytrip in summer because the heat is so oppressive I wouldn’t want to have stayed there the night. We are from Queensland Australia and love the heat, but Death Valley is a whole other level of hot.
The great thing about Death Valley National Park is you can do most of your sightseeing by road, with just a little bit of walking.
The only reason I personally wouldn’t visit Death Valley in summer is if I had a baby or a child with special needs who can’t communicate or drink small amounts of water constantly, due to the serious risk of dehydration.
When is the best time to visit Death Valley?
Spring is the most popular time to visit Death Valley National Park. The spring wildflowers are the big drawcard, along with the more favourable weather conditions. Winter and autumn are also great times to visit but the closer it is to summer, the hotter it’s going to get and the harder it will be to do anything outdoors.
Entering Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is not like most other major national parks in that there are no ranger’s booths at the entrance waiting to let you in. You need to stop in at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station or at one of the fee machines throughout the park.
It’s best to go to the ranger station or visitor centre when you first arrive so you can pick up the National Park newsletter, which will help you decide where to go with the amount of time you have available and to find out about any tours that day. You can download the newsletter before you go on the National Parks website.
Single visit pass will cost you $25US per vehicle, which is valid for entry for seven days.
If like us you are visiting a number of national parks, buy an Interagency Annual Pass for $80US per vehicle at the first national park you go to.
Tips for visiting Death Valley in summer
- You will need to bring A LOT of water. They recommend a minimum of 4 litres (1 gallon) per person per day. Before we left our hotel we filled up our 10-litre water cooler with lots of ice and water, plus everyone’s drink bottles and a few disposable ones, and we were so glad we took every drop of it.
- Always carry plenty of water with you when you get out of the car, even if only for a few minutes.
- Bring rehydration tablets, powder or liquid. We took Hydralyte Orange Flavoured Effervescent Electrolyte Tablets as a precaution and we absolutely needed them even though we didn’t go hiking. When it’s up to 52 degrees Celsius you lose a lot of fluid in a very, very short amount of time.
- Stay on the roads so if you break down you can be found quickly.
- Phone reception isn’t available through most of the national park.
- Don’t hike anywhere after 10am if at all. If you want to hike, head for the hills and hike at higher elevation where it is cooler such as Telescope Peak, Wildrose Peak or Dante’s Ridge
- Other essentials for a day at Death Valley include sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, sturdy shoes, and light clothing that covers your shoulders.
- Bring snacks, as food is not always easy to come by, especially in summer.
Where to eat in Death Valley
We found the food in Death Valley wasn’t anything to get excited by but there were a few places to choose from in this remote region, and things are improving with major refurbishments to The Inn and The Ranch.
The Inn at Death Valley is the most highly rated restaurant in Death Valley but because it’s closed in summer, we didn’t get to try it out. Also in the Furnace Creek area you can try The Ranch at Death Valley , or Indian tacos and shaved ice at Timbisha Shoshone Village.
Other places to eat in Death Valley include the Toll Road Restaurant and Badwater Saloon at Stovepipe Wells Village, or the restaurant at Panamint Springs Resort near the western entrance to the park.
We would recommend you take some food with you, even if it is just snack food as you’re a long way away from anywhere.
Where to stay near Death Valley
We stayed the night in Ridgecrest, California at the Hampton Inn and Suites Ridgecrest, which we found was great. It took me hours of research to decide on Ridgecrest (we were coming from Yosemite) and to find a nice plus safe area to stay in. Hampton Inn was our number one choice and we were so pleased we stayed there. We even got to see a Roadrunner just outside our window.
Tip: ask for an upgrade to a suite. We were lucky enough to get an upgrade, which gave us extra room, a few couches and space for us parents to sit and relax while the kids slept.
The other place to stay in Ridgecrest we would recommend is the Marriott Spring Hill Suites, which are just across the road from the Hampton Inn.
Both Hampton Inn and Spring Hill are the most highly recommended hotels in Ridgecrest on Booking.com plus they are in the best neighbourhood.
If you’re coming from Nevada, Las Vegas is only two hours away from Death Valley National Park and there are plenty of accommodation options there. After our day at a Death Valley, we stayed at Desert Rose Resort, Las Vegas which was a family-friendly resort only one block away from the strip, so easy walking distance without some of the non-family-friendly aspects of Las Vegas.
One thing you absolutely must be sure of, no matter where you stay, is it must have excellent air-conditioning. This is one reason we chose a good hotel over AirBnB or a cheaper hotel.
We hope you make it to Death Valley National Park some day. Let us know if you have any questions.