How to Spend an Epic One Day in Death Valley National Park
Thinking of spending one day in Death Valley National Park? With incredible natural beauty and unique landscape, Death Valley is definitely a National Park you must add to your California road trip! In this Death Valley itinerary, I am sharing how to spend an epic one day or even day trip in this incredible park!
This itinerary has been designed to flow from one destination to the next in order to reduce backtracking! You can also do this Death Valley road trip itinerary in reverse if you’d like to see the sunrise and sunset in a different location. This road trip guide has been designed to make it even easier for you with a map below!
Designated as a National Park in 1994, Death Valley is not only the largest National Park in the contiguous USA, but also the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America! Clearly, this California park has a thing for being number 1!
Additionally, for over 1,000 years, the Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans have lived here, although many natives were pushed out during the 1800s by mining companies.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
- How to Spend an Epic One Day in Death Valley National Park
- Death Valley Quick Facts
- Is One Day in Death Valley Enough
- Getting Around Death Valley
- One Day in Death Valley – Day Trip Itinerary
- Death Valley at Night
- Honorary Death Valley Attractions
- Best Time to Visit Death Valley
- Where to Stay in Death Valley
- One Day Death Valley Itinerary Wrap-up
Death Valley Quick Facts
Location: Death Valley stretches across California and Nevada, covering 3.4 million acres.
Entrance: There are 3 main “entrances” that people drive through. Death Valley Junction (if you are coming from Southern California), Route 190 (if you are coming from LA or Northern California), and Route 374 coming from Las Vegas.
Admission: Death Valley Day Entrance Fee per vehicle is $30 USD. It can be paid for at the visitors center. If you plan on visiting 3 National Parks, consider getting the America The Beautiful Pass which is $80 USD and offers entrance into all of the National Parks for 1 year.
Lodge/Camping: There are 4 lodges and 9 campgrounds.
Death Valley Climate: Subtropical, hot desert climate. The air is very dry. In higher elevations during the winter, Death Valley can see snow.
Closest Airports: The closest airports are Las Vegas McCarran Airport (LAS), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and Hollywood Burbank Airport also known as Bob Hope (BUR). Check Skyscanner for flights!
Nearest Cities: Las Vegas, 106 miles to Death Valley Junction (2 hours); Los Angeles, 218 miles (4 hours); Palm Springs, 231 miles (4.5 hours); Joshua Tree National Park; 228 miles (a little under 4 hours).
Wildlife: Bobcat, Desert Iguana, Kit Fox, Desert Big Horn Sheep, Kangaroo Rat, Bats, Rattle Snakes, and more. During our road trip, we saw a bat at sunset and a raven.
Operating Hours: Death Valley is open 24/7 All Year Round.
Best time to visit Death Valley: November – April.
Is One Day in Death Valley Enough
You might be wondering if one day is enough time to see the best of Death Valley, and the short answer is yes. You can see a ton of the main attractions the park has to offer with a full day or even a day trip from Las Vegas!
However, if you plan on doing lots of long hiking trails, you might want to stretch your Death Valley itinerary an extra day or two.
Getting Around Death Valley
The best way to explore Death Valley is by car. The park has more than 800 miles of road throughout the park along with off-roading. Additionally, there are only 3 gas stations in the park, so you will want to make sure your tank is filled up! Find Rental Cars here!
The gas locations are Furnace Creek (has diesel), Panamint Springs Resort (has diesel), and Stovepipe Wells Village.
Death Valley Tip: It can take around an hour to get out of the park, and the nearest gas station an additional 30 minutes to an hour! So, make sure you have at least a half tank. Additionally, you can expect gas to be much more expensive in the park. During our visit, gas was over $6. So, you can try to fill up about an hour or so outside the park.
Furthermore, you will want to bring an old-school Satellite GPS or download the offline Google Maps. Make sure to download the map way before getting to the park since it is almost impossible to get a phone signal in Death Valley.
One Day in Death Valley – Day Trip Itinerary
Now that you are more oriented with some of the basic information you should know for visiting Death Valley, here are the best attractions to see in the park in one day!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
To start your one day in Death Valley, I’d recommend catching the sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes! The dunes are located closest to the Stovepipe Wells Village and cover 14 square miles of the park!
You will be able to see the dunes before even getting inside the parking lot, as they are quite massive, some around 150ft! The source of the sand comes from the Cottonwood Mountains.
From the parking lot, the highest dunes are located about a mile away, but it feels much further than that as you start trekking over the dunes.
It takes about 25-30 minutes to get to some of the sizable dunes, and we still didn’t make it to the furthest one! They are a ton of fun to explore, so you will want to give yourself some time here!
Death Valley Tip: It gets very hot at the Mesquite sand dunes which is why it is recommended to visit during sunrise or sunset. The sand can reach temperatures close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep in mind when visiting during the summer you may see rattlesnakes. We were able to see their tracks in the sand.
If you decide to do this itinerary in reverse, make sure to bring a jacket with you for sunset! When the sun drops, it gets cold! See my Full Death Valley Packing List here!
Harmony Borax Works
If you leave Mesquite Sand Dunes around 9:30 AM, you may want to consider stopping by the historic 1883/1884 borax plant. Here you can see what’s left of old buildings machinery and piping.
You will also get to learn more about how the famous 20 mule teams that would haul borax 165 miles to Mojave! The trip would take around 30 days round trip and the plant was producing around 3 tons a day.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Next, you will want to head back southeast towards Stovepipe Wells to make a stop at Furnace Creek Visitors Center. You can get your Death Valley National Park guidebook and map that comes with loads of additional information about the attractions and lands. Consider also checking out the exhibits, ask a park ranger questions, and pay for your entrance to the park if you haven’t already.
Easily one of the most popular lookouts is Zabriskie Point! Take a short walk to the top lookout or explore these badlands by hiking through and over them! The unique and dramatic ridges of these golden mudstone hills are a must-see with one day in Death Valley National Park!
Fun Fact: 3 -5 million years ago, this area was the bottom of a lake bed and what we see today is a result of earthquakes, volcanic activity, and intense storms.
Golden Canyon Trail
Moving right along to Golden Canyon Hike, known as one of the most popular trails in Death Valley, and for good reason. Maybe most known for being a Star Wars filming location, enjoy walking through the canyon.
We chose a short stroll since it’s so hot, however, you can go further to do a 4-mile loop trail hike if that’s your jam. There are also restrooms here.
Alternatively, you may want to check out Natural Bridge Hike instead which is located a little past Devils Golf Course (next on your Death Valley itinerary). While we didn’t get a chance to see it due to time, if you are a fast traveler or want to change Golden Canyon for this one, you totally can!
Devils Golf Course
Before our visit, I had heard mixed reviews about visiting Devils Golf Course. It is located maybe 5 minutes or so from Golden Canyon and on the way to our next stop, so if you have plenty of daylight left, I’d recommend the stop!
Death Valley Tip: Between the drive from Golden Canyon Trail to Devils Golf Course, look at the sides of the road for mud cracks and tiles!
You will drive down a dirt road and see jagged rock-like spears on either side. It is said to have gotten its name because only the devil could play golf on such a landscape!
What you are actually seeing is crystalline salt spires. Basically, clumps of sharp salt. This unusual landscape is what was left after the evaporation of Death Valley’s last significant lake around 2,000 years ago.
You will not find an official trail but are free to go down and wander around them. They are sharp and catch on baggy/loose clothes, so be careful!
Artist Drive & Artist Palette
Another unique place you can’t miss on a day trip to Death Valley is Artist Drive Scenic loop and Palette. It is a one-way 9-mile road that leads you through golden hills with hues of purples, blues, and greens! Halfway through the drive, you will spot the Artist Palette parking lot.
It is a lot of fun to explore these colorful hills, so I’d recommend giving yourself some time here! The colors come from volcanic eruptions that happened over 5 million years ago. This left deposits of minerals like iron, aluminum, magnesium, red hematite, green chlorite, and titanium!
It is said you can see the best colors during the “blue hour” (right before the sun comes up and right after the sun goes down) because the shadow allows for more color. Unfortunately, it is hard to be everywhere for sunrise and sunset, unless you spent lots of time in the park. In order to catch the sunset at the Salt Flats, you need to leave a little before 4 PM.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Now for the final show stopper in Death Valley, Badwater Basin! You have likely seen photos of the famous hexagon-shaped salt flats, and this is where you will be enjoying the sunset to end your one day in Death Valley. This salt flat is actually the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level.
The Badwater Basin Salt flats area was once a lake that evaporated 2,000 – 4,000 years ago leaving behind around 1 – 5 feet of salt layers. After thousands of years, the salt forms a crust that gives us salt flats! If you dare to give it a taste, it is almost all made up of table salt!
When you first get to the boardwalk, you will not see the hexagon shapes. To make it to where the salt flats are shaped in hexagons, it’s about a 25-30 minute walkout.
Fun fact: These famous hexagon shapes are formed due to the freezing and thawing processes of water. This creates a type of natural convection, and thus the shape.
We left Artist Palette at 4 PM to get here for sunset and almost missed it. The sun dropped behind the Black Mountains at about 4:40 PM (February).
Death Valley at Night
At the end of your day when the sun has gone down, make sure you take a moment to look up! Death Valley is very popular for stargazers because they are also considered an International Dark Sky Park, meaning there is very little light pollution.
The National Park says some of the best places to stargaze in the park are at Badwater Basin, Borax Works, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Every so often, Rangers even hold stargazing events for park-goers to enjoy!
Honorary Death Valley Attractions
With just a day trip in Death Valley, you can’t see it all. However, if you decided you potentially wanted to switch one of the above activities or travel at a very fast pace, you might want to add Dante’s View.
Instead of turning back at Zabriskie Point, continue down the road for about 30 minutes to see the overlook which is at 5,476 ft. On your way back you can drive through the 20 Mule Team Canyon as well.
The other attraction you may want to add to your day trip in Death Valley is near Mesquite Sand Dunes. Mosaic Canyon is a 4-mile hike through what is said to be a pretty unique canyon.
The trail is moderate/difficult. The full hike is estimated to take around 2.5 – 3 hours. If you don’t have much time and you want to see it, you can always just do a short walk to not feel FOMO.
Best Time to Visit Death Valley
The Best time to visit Death Valley National Park is in the winter. This is also the most popular time to visit the park because the temperatures are milder. When I say mild, I mean around the 70s-80s during the day.
During the summer, it is ill-advised to do any hiking in the park because of how hot it gets. To give you an idea, in 1913 Furnace Creek recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in the world at 134 degrees Fahrenheit!
Furthermore, if you can visit during the weekday as opposed to the weekend, you will also see fewer crowds. The busiest weekends are Thanksgiving Holiday and Christmas. Annually, the park receives around 1.7 million visitors.
Because it is so hot and dry in Death Valley, you will also want to make sure to have and drink plenty of water. The National Park recommends drinking a gallon per person and having a couple of extra gallons. I would also suggest bringing sunscreen (this is my go-to for sensitive skin and mineral-based) and bug spray.
See more of my Death Valley Travel Tips Here!
Where to Stay in Death Valley
There are 4 main areas to lodge in Death Valley National Park and they are all quite pricy! However, not staying in the park will result in over an hour’s drive into the park. From what we saw driving in and out, I wouldn’t really recommend Airbnb in that area.
Because there are not many accommodations available, you will want to book ASAP. Additionally, you can view the Death Valley campgrounds here.
The Ranch Oasis at Death Valley: This is where we stayed. In terms of price, it is down the middle of the road. The Ranch is resort-style with a giant pool, golf course, and tons of amenities. However, with just a day in Death Valley, we really didn’t check them out. The rooms are nothing special, but the location puts you right near Furnace Creek which is closest to most attractions.
The INN Buffet Dining did not look appetizing for the price so we went to the General Store and got lots of snacks and water. The WIFI wasn’t great, but it did work. Overall, I feel all Death Valley accommodations are overpriced (welcome to lodging inside a National Park), but if I was in Death Valley, I would stay here again just for the ease of the location. For one night it was around $350 USD. Check Availability Here!
The Inn at Death Valley: This is the Ranches’ sister property, but offers a lot more luxury. This is your 4-star resort in the Desert that includes a sauna, fitness room, pool, etc. If you are looking to splurge, you will want to stay here. Check Availability Here!
Stovepipe Wells: This is the most affordable lodging in the park and is located near Mesquite Sand Dunes. I’ve heard a handful of stories from other travelers that made me decide to take a hard pass at staying here.
One Day Death Valley Itinerary Wrap-up
This covers the best things to do with one day in Death Valley National Park. I hope you have the best time exploring Death Valley. If you have any questions or feel like I missed something, let me know in the comments below!
Other Guides you may enjoy: How to Spend 3 Days in Los Angeles | 2 Days in Yellowstone National Park | Must-See Yellowstone Attractions | One Day Joshua Tree Itinerary | Joshua Tree Travel Tips | Weekend in San Diego
Additionally, remember to Leave No Trace, meaning anything you take into the park, TAKE BACK OUT or dispose of properly. Also please follow all the park guidelines. These include staying on the trails and staying at a safe distance from wildlife.
Want to see this itinerary in video format? Check out how our trip went in live-action on youtube!