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If you are planning a California road trip or United States National Parks tour, Death Valley should definitely be on your list! As the largest national park in the contiguous United States, it offers endless alluring sights and colors.
Having visited Death Valley in March for ten days of hiking and photography as a solo female traveler, my Death Valley road trip travel guide provides the best time to visit Death Valley, a Death Valley three day itinerary, suggested packing list, safety precautions, and best places to stay in Death Valley.
Death Valley Road Trip – Best Time to Visit Death Valley
Since November to March typically offers the coolest temperatures and best weather, this is typically the best time to see Death Valley. Since storms January to mid-February can wash out roads and/or lead to flash floods, be sure to check the Death Valley National Park website for conditions and closures before departing for your Death Valley road trip. Additionally, wind storms can be frequent in February and March. While blowing sand can lead to ethereal photography in the dunes, it may also knock out power in the park and exfoliate your skin in unexpected ways.
TOP TIP: If you plan to spend a lot of time photographing in the dunes, you might want to bring along ski goggles to protect your eyes from sand during a sand storm. I ended up not using mine since I didn’t experience heavy winds, but valued this recommendation from another photographer.
If you enjoy hiking, be sure to check out my 14 favorite Death Valley hikes. This will help you plan and prioritize hikes and sights for one day in Death Valley, a weekend or week-long trip.
In April, 90F/32C temperatures are too hot for hiking in my opinion, especially since most trails are exposed with no shade. Residing in San Francisco, I’ve grown accustomed to mild 55-65F/12-18C temperatures. By May, Death Valley temperatures exceed 100F/38C, reaching 120F/49C in July.
Three Day Death Valley Itinerary – Best Things To Do in Death Valley
Whether you are taking a Death Valley day trip or spending two days in Death Valley, my suggested Death Valley three day itinerary will help you explore and find the best things to see. My Death Valley travel guide will help you plan the best things to do in Death Valley National Park, including sunrise, hiking and sunset suggestions. If you have only one day in Death Valley, I’ve starred my favorites below.
Death Valley Itinerary Day 1:
- Sunrise at Zabriskie Point *
- Early morning hike options:
- Easy: Badlands Loop (2.7 miles + 400 feet elevation gain)
- Moderately Strenuous: Golden Canyon Gower Gulch Loop (6.4 miles + ~1000 feet elevation gain) *
- Mid-day hike in Mosaic Canyon (3.3 miles + 950 feet elevation gain)
- Sunset at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes *
Death Valley Itinerary Day 2:
- Sunrise at Badwater Basin
- Early morning hike in Sidewinder (3.9 miles + 1000 feet elevation gain) or Willow Canyon (4.4 miles + 880 feet elevation gain)
- Sunset at Ubehebe Crater *
Death Valley Itinerary Day 3:
- Sunrise at Dante’s View
- Hike to Darwin Falls (1.9 miles + 232 feet elevation gain)
- Late afternoon and sunset at Artist’s Palette
To get more details about the distances, elevation gains and where to find restrooms, check out my 14 best hikes in Death Valley post.
Death Valley Road Trip – Driving Distances
- 2.5 hours (150 miles) from Las Vegas. Fly into McCarran International Airport.
- 4.5 hours (250 miles) from LA. Fly into Los Angeles International Airport.
- 8.5 hours (495 miles) from San Francisco. Fly into San Francisco International Airport.
Death Valley Road Trip – Packing list
- America the Beautiful Pass. This annual national park pass costs $80 and will pay for itself if you visit three national parks in 12 months. I’ve recouped my cost with visits to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Death Valley, Yosemite, and Utah National Parks over the past 12 months. Otherwise, pay $30 for a seven-day Death Valley pass. You can purchase in advance from REI or at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.
Death Valley Road Trip Hiking Items
- Daypack. I prefer ones with hip straps to decrease back strain. Northface makes some of my favorite hiking backpacks.
- Lots of water. I typically guzzled 50 oz of water during a four-hour hike. Bring two 32 oz Nalgene or a 100 oz Camelback or Hydrapak.
- Hiking boots. Be sure to wear boots with great traction to traverse loose gravel/rock scrambles and minimize sand in your shoes. I swear by my Salomon hiking boots!
- Gaiters. Wear gaiters to keep sand out of your boots in the dunes. Not wearing them my first night = rookie mistake. Despite thinking I removed all the sand from my boots and socks, it hid in crevices. While hiking 27,000 steps the next day, the sand particle friction led to a PAINFUL dime-sized blister under my big toe. Not fun!
- Hiking socks. I love these Wrightsock Coolmesh II crew socks as they have a built in liner that prevents blisters.
- Down jacket. Since the temperatures were mid-40s in the morning, my Arc’teryx down jacket kept me toasty.
- Rain jacket. My rain jacket provided wind protection during early AM photography and hiking outings.
- Liner gloves. My fingers were FREEZING during sunrise so my thin Northface liner gloves came in handy to keep me warm. Having touch screen capability is key!
- Hiking poles. You can leave your hiking poles at home. Since most hikes have a gradual incline, I found I didn’t use mine.
- Rehydration. Use a Nuun Sport electrolyte tablet every night to rehydrate you. I got a massive dehydration headache the one night I skipped this ritual. Tri-berry, fruit punch, citrus and strawberry lemonade are my favorite flavors.
Death Valley Travel Guide Sun protection
- Sunglasses. I swear by my Maui Jim and Costa sunglasses and prefer polarized lenses.
- Wide-brimmed hat with neck strap. Blustering wind gusts tried to rip my hat off numerous times at Zabriskie Point, in the Mesquite Dunes and at Ubehebe crater. The neck strap saved my hat from the relentless winds.
- 50 SPF sunscreen. Since most trails are completely exposed with no shade, the fierce sun will fry your skin. Reapply numerous times a day and don’t forget the back of your neck, ears and hands. Given how much you’ll be sweating, look for a water resistant sunscreen that doesn’t contain harmful ingredients like avobenzone or oxybenzone. Read more about my favorite sunscreen products.
- Hand protectors. I love the Coolibar brand and use them for hiking and driving.
- Lip sunscreen and lip balm to combat the dry air. Aquaphor is my favorite lip balm.
- Hand moisturizer and Neosporin. The combination of dry desert air and hand sanitizer made my knuckles crack and bleed. To offset this, I applied Aquaphor and Neosporin every night.
Death Valley Road Trip – Podcasts & Audio Books
Since there is neither cellular nor radio station access in Death Valley, downloading podcasts and audio books in advance ensures you are entertained while driving and hiking. Some of my recent favorites include:
Death Valley Road Trip Travel Guide – Safety Precautions
1. Download the Gaia App before you visit Death Valley.
A friend on my photography workshop introduced me to the free Gaia app and it’s been game-changing for me!
I wish I’d known about this app years ago as it’s instilled confidence in me to undertake hikes on my own.
I am directionally inept – north is always in front of me as far as I’m concerned.
My directional sense is so bad that I almost missed my own surprise 40th birthday party that my husband spent nine months organizing as a result of getting lost on a hike in Marin. That’s a funny story for another time.
FUN FACT: No internet signal is needed to use the app!
Some cool functions include:
- Mark a waypoint for your parking spot
- Drop waypoints while hiking and take pictures to accompany the waypoint
- Record your track as you hike
The recording functionality is incredibly helpful for slot canyons, meandering trails and the sand dunes, where it’s easy to get disoriented. Create a track and follow that back out. This helped me successfully navigate back to my car in the dark after venturing two miles into the dunes on my own for sunset.
2. Invest in a Garmin In Reach Explorer before your Death Valley travels
I prefer the Garmin In Reach Explorer to the Garmin In Reach Mini as the screen is larger, making it easier to read maps and messages if needed.
Linking to your cell phone with Bluetooth allows you to type messages on your phone and send them via the In Reach satellite network to let family members know you are safe while hiking or backcountry camping.
Since cell signals are generally non-existent on Death Valley roads and hiking trails, the Garmin In Reach Explorer provided my husband and me with additional peace of mind. Also, given that we don’t have an SUV and I drove our super reliable, but not so rugged Prius, having the Garmin ensured I could summon help if I had car issues or got lost or injured while hiking on my own.
FUN FACT: No internet/cellular signal is needed to use this device. It communicates via satellite and allows you to send an SOS signal if needed.
We opted for the Safety Freedom Plan, which is $14.95 per month and can be deactivated when you aren’t using it. I also opted to pay $25 a year for the optional evacuation insurance. Since we’ve had two friends who would have incurred $50,000 bills for emergency airlifts if they hadn’t had evacuation insurance, this seemed like a worthwhile investment. Given I do a lot of hiking on my own and am running tours in Bhutan, this is an invaluable safety resource for me to utilize.
TOP TIP: In settings, set your send interval to every 30 minutes to dispatch your location to the satellites and your log interval to every one minute. That way, if you are lost while hiking, rescue and response has your most recent location within the past 30 minutes. If you send an SOS, it also provides search and rescue with an exact GPS location. To conserve battery, make sure to turn Bluetooth off, except for when you need to use your phone to compose a text message to send to a friend/family member.
3. Always keep extra water and food in a cooler in your car.
4. Pack a down jacket, rain jacket, headlamp, gloves, food and water in your backpack just in case something happens on a hike.
Death Valley Gas Stations
Only 3 gas stations exist in Death Valley and they are pricey! Prices as of March 2021:
- Stovepipe Wells. $4.05/gallon (open 24 hours)
- Furnace Creek Gas Station. The price increased from $4.65 to $4.90 /gallon while I was in the park (open 24 hours). A friend saw prices of $6.56 in February 2022 and another paid almost $9 a gallon in March 2022!
- Panamint Springs Gas Station Fill (open 7AM – 930PM)
Given the long distances in Death Valley National Park, fill your car anytime you get to half a tank. Since cellular service is non-existent in most of the park, calling for help if you run out of gas isn’t an option.
TOP TIP: If you are coming from Southern California, fill your tank in Trona when entering and leaving the park for $3.35/gallon. After visiting Rhyolite Ghost Town, fill your tank in Beatty, Nevada, for $2.75/gallon.
Driving a sedan and want to visit some areas with rougher roads that need high clearance vehicles like Racetrack Playa? You are in luck! You can rent a jeep for the day from Farabee’s Jeep rentals, right next to the Furnace Creek gas station.
Where to Stay in Death Valley
Three lodging options exist in Death Valley, ranging in price and amenities:
- Price: This is the cheapest lodging option in the park, but it’s still $200+ per night. However, after discovering that my deadbolt wouldn’t lock and shivering all night since my heat wouldn’t stay on, I wouldn’t recommend staying here.
- WiFi: Be aware WiFi isn’t available in the rooms and cell service is very spotty. I could only access WiFi while standing between the restaurant and front desk.
- Mini–fridge in the room, but no microwave.
- Restaurant: They have a saloon offering a variety of options, including chicken fingers, quesadillas, veggie burgers, salads and grilled cheese. Prices range from $8-$15. This is the most affordable restaurant in the park.
- General Store: Coffee, candy, slushies, ice cream and souvenirs are offered. The General Store at the Ranch at Death Valley is larger and better stocked, so I recommend stopping there instead.
- Price: This is a mid-range pricepoint, typically $300+ per night. I stayed here eight nights and highly recommend it, given its cleanliness and proximity to the most popular Death Valley sites. They also have a pool.
- WiFi: Fast and available in all rooms. I could access email and social media with no issue. I didn’t try to stream anything or do zoom calls.
- Mini-fridge in the room, but no microwave.
- Restaurant: Last Kind Words Saloon offers a variety of options, including veggie burgers priced at $20, which is a bit steep in my opinion.
- General Store: This sizable and well stocked general store offers juices/teas, fruits, ice cream, sandwiches, cheese, bread and souvenirs. Lots of prickly pear flavored items are available.
TOP TIP: The Ranch at Death Valley tends to sell out on Saturday nights, so make sure to book well in advance for weekend stays!
- Price: This is the most expensive option in the park, typically $400+ per night. It recently underwent a $100m renovation.
- Restaurant: I hear the restaurant and drinks are tasty, so I plan to try them next time!
- I didn’t stay here during my trip, but hear nice things about their spring-fed pool.
I hope you found my Death Valley travel blog road trip planning tips helpful to make the most of your trip to this expansive United States National Park.