How to Make the Most of One Day in Death Valley National Park
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When something has “death” in the name, it’s not exactly inspiring, right? Actually, no! Two of the most famous places with names like this – the Dead Sea and Death Valley – are actually two of my favorite places to visit. Both have a stark natural beauty that reminds me how fascinating our planet is. (I also had the chance to visit both places in March 2022, which is just by coincidence!)
Death Valley National Park is California’s biggest national park, and easily worth spending a few days exploring. However, many of us have limited vacation time and like to visit national parks as part of road trips – that means you may only have a half-day or one day in Death Valley. What can you do with that short amount of time? Plenty, as it turns out, especially if you know what order to visit everything in to make the most of your time.
In this post, I’ll share my best tips for visiting Death Valley, as well as how to make the most of one day in Death Valley National Park. I’ve put together an itinerary that takes advantage of geography to pack a bunch without backtracking or wasting time. You’ll need to spend the night before and the night of your day in Death Valley to make the most of your time, but I’ve also provided suggestions on where to stay for a short visit.
So whether you only have one day in Death Valley or you’re wondering if one day is enough, read on. My suggested one-day Death Valley itinerary will give you a fair sense of all you can see and do during your trip – and inspire you to stay a little longer if you can.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Timbisha Shoshone and Newe (Western Shoshone) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is huge. I mean, like, Alaska huge – in fact, Death Valley National Park is the 5th largest national park in the United States – and the four larger national parks are in Alaska. It encompasses some 3.4 million acres (5,270 square miles), three quarters the size of Denali National Park and almost the same size as Glacier Bay National Park. All this to say: it’s big and you can’t possibly see all of Death Valley in one day, three days, or – I’d argue – even a week!
Don’t let that discourage you from visiting though. Once you have the logistics in your head and know what to do, you can make the most of one day in Death Valley – or extend your trip for longer once you learn how much there is to see and do.
When to Visit Death Valley National Park
I could probably write an entire post about when to visit Death Valley and what makes each season special, but the short answer is that Death Valley is not a summer destination.
While people do visit in the summer, it is almost intolerably hot and very hard for both humans and vehicles to stay hydrated and cool in this harsh climate. In fact, certain parts of the park – including some campgrounds and services – aren’t even open during the summer months. Be sure to double-check all your plans if you plan to visit during the summer… or reschedule for a more enjoyable time of year.
The best time to visit Death Valley is between Fall (September) and Spring (April). I personally visited in early March and it was hot but bearable.
Driving & Parking in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley has a number of roads within the park, but the most important ones you need to know when visiting for a short time are:
- California 190 (CA-190), which bisects the park from east to west (more or less).
- Badwater Road, which runs north-south from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin.
- Artist’s Drive, which loops off of Badwater Road to visit Artist’s Pallette.
There are many other roads and you’ll encounter plenty of junctions when exploring Death Valley, but these are the three main roads that most people will traverse during their visit – and the only ones you’ll drive on during my suggested one-day Death Valley itinerary.
Regarding parking, there is a fair amount of parking in most parts of the park, though it always pays to visit the popular areas earlier in the day to ensure you get a spot. I’ve laid out the activities I suggest for your one day in Death Valley with this in mind.
Death Valley National Park Entrance Fees
As part of the National Park system, Death Valley operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $30. This makes sense if you have more than one day at Death Valley and plan to drive in or out several times; even if you’re only visiting for one day, you’ll need to pay this fee.
- You can walk into the park for $15 per person, good for 7 days. To be honest, I have no idea why you’d walk into Death Valley, but it’s an option. (This pass also applies for bicyclists.)
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and double-check that the above is accurate – on the Death Valley NPS website.
Where to Stay in/near Death Valley National Park
Surprisingly, there are quite a few options for where to stay in Death Valley. For lodging, there are four properties within Death Valley:
- The Oasis at Death Valley includes both The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley, sister properties in the Furnace Creek area.
- Stovepipe Wells Hotel in the Stovepipe Wells area.
- Panamint Springs Resort in the far west part of the park along CA-190. (This is where I camped the first night of my two-night/three-day stay.)
You can also camp in Death Valley National Park. There are nine campgrounds in total; three have vehicle restrictions and another three are only open late fall through spring (so there are six winter campgrounds and three summer campgrounds). During my visit, I was renting a van from Travellers Autobarn and that gave me the flexibility to stay in different parts of the park each night; the first night I stayed out in Panamint Springs, and the second night at Sunset Campground since Furnace Creek and Texas Springs were both full.
What to Do in Death Valley National Park
(When You Only Have One Day)
If you have only one day in Death Valley, here’s what I recommend:
- Sunrise at Zabriskie Point
- Stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center
- Hike Golden Canyon to the Red Cathedral
- Visit Badwater Basin
- Navigate Artist’s Drive
- Lunch at Stovepipe Wells
- Hike Mosaic Canyon
- Watch Sunset at Mesquite Flat Dunes
- Stargazing (Optional)
Here are more details on each of those activities and how to do them.
Sunrise at Zabriskie Point
I’ll be honest, I had a hard time deciding where to start and end the day when you only have one day in Death Valley; I decided to begin with Zabriskie Point because it’s close to Furnace Creek – and that’s a good, centrally located area to stay or camp with such a short time in the park. it’s a 7-minute drive from Furnace Creek to Zabriskie Point.
Zabriskie Point is a great sunrise spot because you can watch the sky lighten behind you and light up the Badlands all around once you climb the short less-than-quarter-mile paved path to the viewpoint.
Stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Next, I advise swinging back to Furnace Creek to stop by the Visitor Center. This is always a good idea since it’s the place to get the most updated information on what’s open and accessible in the park.
Depending on the season you visit, the Visitor Center might not be open just after sunrise; in that case, continue on with this itinerary as noted below and stop by the Visitor Center before continuing on to lunch at Stovepipe Wells.
Hike Golden Canyon to the Red Cathedral
Hiking is one of the top activities in Death Valley; I actually put in about 20 miles in my three-day visit, which is way more than I normally hike! There are just so many cool trails here, especially if you’re willing to endure a bit of sun and heat to take advantage of some trails during the day.
The first trail I recommend is one you need to reach early: Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral. This trail is awesome but gets very hot during the midday, and parking can also be tricky since it’s one of the most popular trails in all of Death Valley. It’s a short five-minute drive down Badwater Road from Furnace Creek.
Golden Canyon connects to a number of other trails in the Badlands; it’s actually just “below” Zabriskie Point if you look at the map. In any case, the trail I recommend is Golden Canyon to the Red Cathedral spur. This trail is an easy-to-moderate 3 miles out and back with stunning rock formations. At the far end in the Red Cathedral, you’ll stand at the base of a 400+ foot cliff.
Visit Badwater Basin
After hiking back out from Golden Canyon, continue south down Badwater Road to Badwater Basin. Along the way, you could make stops to explore and hike at sights like Devil’s Golf Course or Natural Bridge Trail, but I recommend skipping those since you only have one day in the park. (Those are great spots to visit if you have more time!)
Badwater Basin is at the southern “end” of Badwater Road – the road actually continues on but isn’t worth driving further if you only have one day in Death Valley. Instead, park and get out to explore this huge salt pan at the lowest point in North America.
The trail out onto Badwater Basin stretches over a half-mile each way – you can follow it a long way out onto the salt, should you choose. Be aware though that this area is completely exposed, and the sun will be beating down on the salt pan by mid-morning. Be sure to bring plenty of water even if you only plan on hiking a mile out and back.
Navigate Artist’s Drive
From Badwater Basin, turn your wheels back north and head up Badwater Road to the Artist’s Drive turnout. Unlike other parts of this itinerary, Artist’s Drive is beautiful during the midday – though obviously still very hot!
Artist’s Drive is a nine-mile loop road that detours off of Badwater Road. It’s a one-way journey, so you must enter from the southern turnout and exit at the northern one. Along the way, there are pull-outs and parking areas, as well as a few easy trails. Be sure to stop at the parking area 1.5 miles up the road and hike to the top of the hill – there’s an incredible panoramic view at the top.
The other must-see spot is Artist’s Palette. Located 4.5 miles up Artist’s Drive, this small parking area leads to a trail system in the hills. It’s one of those must-see (and must-photograph) spots in Death Valley and worth grabbing a water bottle for your walk to enjoy the scenery and feel “lost” among the incredible colored hills.
Lunch at Stovepipe Wells
After making the loop on Artist’s Drive, head north on Badwater Road back to CA-190. There, turn toward Furnace Creek – and stop at the Visitor Cetner if you haven’t yet – before continuing on to Stovepipe Wells. This is another small waystop in Death Valley where you can fuel up – in this case, I mean lunch!
Since I was #vanlifing it in Death Valley during my trip, I made most of my own meals, but there’s also a restaurant and saloon for those who didn’t bring food into the park. Toll Road Restaurant has an American diner-style menu (burgers, etc.0 and also makes box lunches which you can arrange in advance and pick-up to continue your adventures without stopping for a sit-down meal.
Hike Mosaic Canyon
The turn-out to Mosaic Canyon is just after Stovepipe Wells, and a great way to spend the afternoon. This canyon is better-protected from the sun than Golden Canyon, making it a perfect option for the afternoon hours during the heat of the day. It’s named for the mosaic-like rock formations you can see along the first section of the trail.
The four-mile out-and-back trail ranges from easy to difficult depending on how far you want to hike; there are cairns and stone arrows laid out on the trail to help you find your way. There are three main parts of the trail, each one progressively more difficult – and more impressive. The trail ends at a dry fall (middle photo above) so it’s very clear when you’ve reached the end and need to turn back.
I recommend starting this trail no later than 3 hours before sunset so you can enjoy it properly without worrying about the light. (Since Death Valley is a big basin, the sun goes down quickly behind the mountains!)
Watch Sunset at Mesquite Flat Dunes
After Mosaic Canyon, you could stop for dinner at Stovepipe Wells (or make your own if you brought food) before heading back toward Furnace Creek for the night. Along the way, you can’t miss the towering dunes of Mesquite Flat, which is a perfect spot to pull over and hike out onto the dunes to enjoy sunset.
As I mentioned, the sun goes down quickly, so I recommend bringing a flashlight if you plan to hike more than a quarter-mile out onto the dunes (the summit of the high dune is 1 mile each way). It’s easy to get disoriented or lost among the dunes especially as the sun goes down.
After sunset, head back to your car and make the drive back to Furnace Creek. If you haven’t had dinner yet, you could eat at 1849 Restaurant at the Ranch at Death Valley, or prepare whatever you’ve brought with you.
There’s one more activity to enjoy once the sun goes down: stargazing! Death Valley National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and has some of the best dark skies in the country (and certainly in Southern California).
There are some ranger-led stargazing programs, or you can head out on your own to enjoy the stars. I’ve got a complete guide to stargazing in Death Valley (including the best places for stargazing) over on my space tourism site.
Once you’ve had your fill of the night sky, it’s time to sleep and then head on to your next destination tomorrow.
If You Have More than One Day in Death Valley
At this point, you might be thinking maybe I should stay in Death Valley for a few extra days! And you’d be right to think that – there’s so much more I didn’t cover in this post!
Some additional activities you could do if you decide to spend more time in Death Valley include:
- Explore Panamint Springs, and the west part of the park
- Hike to Darwin Falls (a real waterfall in Death Valley!)
- Challenge yourself at the “extremely difficult” Sidewinder Canyon with the park’s best slot canyons (I’ve gotta go back and finish this trail)
- Take a stroll to see unique fish species at Salt Creek
- Hike to Natural Bridge
- Admire the weird salt formations at Devil’s Golf Course
And there’s so much more. I’ll be sharing my guide for 2-3 days in Death Valley soon which will incorporate some of these activities into a longer itinerary; I’ll add the link here once that’s published, so you can compare the itineraries and decide if adding extra days is worth it. (Spoilers: I think it is!)
Have any other questions about how to spend one day in Death Valley? Let me know in the comments!