Death Valley National Park has been on my bucket list for a long time! Though it is only two hours drive from Las Vegas where I have been multiple times, Death Valley seemed elusive. So this time we decided to dedicate this trip to this fascinating land of extremes. We flew into Vegas and drove to Parhump.
Arriving/Departing airport: LAS, Las Vegas Airport
Stay: Holiday Inn Express, Pahrump. This location is the midpoint from Vegas to Death Valley.
Best season to visit: November through March/April
Travel tip: There is no cell service inside the national park, so be prepared to disconnect and download offline maps. You will find spotty service near the restaurants/inns which are also the places to stay within the national park.
Day 1 Itinerary:
We drove from Pahrump (one hour drive) to the park, this drive is breathtaking. Take in the expansive views before entering the park and make sure to take a picture or two of the long straight roads giving a worms-eye view of the natural splendor that lies ahead of you.
- Dante's View: A must stop after you enter the park is Dante' View - you get a birds-eye view of the heart of Death Valley. Make sure to pay the park fee at a station just before you take this turn. Alternatively, you can pay at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This is also the view of Mos Eisley, if you are a Star Wars fan you know what I am talking about :)
- Twenty Mule Team Canyon: Drive this unpaved road to get a real feel of the colorful badlands. Make sure to get out and climb a small hill to get a beautiful view of the colorful hills with a background of the bad water basin. Again, if you are a Star Wars fan you may find some familiar spots.
- Zebriskie Point: A popular vista point to get stunning views of the badlands below and to watch sunset or sunrise. There are a few hikes here, but we skipped them to do another popular hike which basically connects back to Zebriskie Point - if you have the time to do long hikes.
- Golden Canyon Trail with Red Cathedral Hike: We then made a quick stop at the visitor center, grabbed a sandwich and headed out for our first hike. Do check out the Inn and Ranch at Death Valley, it's pretty cool to see these oases in the North America's driest, lowest and hottest national park. This is a popular hike, we chose the 2 mile out and back trail that takes you through the stunning golden canyon and ends at Red Cathedral. This is a moderately difficult trail with an elevation gain of 574 feet. After a mile, the trail requires you to scramble over rocks through slot canyons to get to the base of the red cathedral. The view is worth it, trust me!
- Badwater Basin: Keep in mind the shorter days in winter, we got out of the trail around 4pm. We then headed to the one place we came to see in the first place - and experience how it feels to be below sea level and still stay dry! Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. Walk at least a mile out into the salt flats to see the fascinating geometric salt polygons and soak in the views of mountains all around you. You can also spot the Telescope Peak in the Panamint range right in front of you. The scenery is absolutely dramatic and we ended up watching the sunset here, adding cherry on the cake.
- Devils Golf Course: Last stop for the day, we took a quick look at these rugged salt pan. Be careful if you step on these as the formations are very sharp.
We had dinner at 'Last Kind Words Saloon' in the Ranch at Death Valley, great place and good food. A bit pricey though. Also, remember to take time to look up at the dark skies as Death Valley is the largest Dark Sky National Park in the country. In short, everything in this park is spectacular!
Day 2 Itinerary:
- Natural Bridge: Ideally you should cover this when you visit the Badwater Basin as it is close to that location and has a small one mile hike up the canyon. Do not miss the dry waterfall, believe they call it "dryfall", it is a pretty cool sight. The unpaved road is passable to sedans.
- Artists Drive: A must do! A scenic 9 mile drive through the park with a view of colorful hills formed by volcanic deposits. It is a one way drive. Definitely make a stop at Artists Pallette and soak in the mesmerizing view of purple, green and pink hills.
- Ubehebe Crater: We then decided to take a long drive out to the Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater formed around 2,100 years ago. You will see Kit Fox hills, Titus Canyon and Salt Creek Interpretive Trail on the way. The crater is one of its kind, very colorful and you can hike around the rim (1.5 miles).
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: We then drove back to end of our day at Mesquite Sand Dunes and catch the sunset on these unusual dunes. These are easy to get to and close to Stovepipe Wells. We spent almost 2 hours just running around, sliding down the soft dunes, and admiring the sunset as the dunes put on a show of shadow and light.
We had dinner at the 'Stovepipe Wells Village Saloon' with a view of the mountain range ahead of us. The dunes are also the best place to catch the dark and clear night skies. We spent an hour here watching the Milky Way band and infinite twinkling stars all around us.
Day 3 Itinerary:
We started the day pretty lazily, and got to the park at noon.
- Harmony Borax Works: If you think you are missing a bit of history and culture amidst the stunning natural landscapes around you, visit the Harmony Borax Works where Borax was produced in the 1800s. This is a small interpretive walk, my personal recommendation is to skip it.
- Mosaic Canyon: We then got to the exciting part of the day. Our next big hike was the 4 mile out and back trail near Stovepipe Wells. Another popular hike in the park, this is a perfect trail if you like hiking the narrows, incredible mosaic breccia, and scrambling over boulder jams. It does get difficult as you hit the first boulder jam to get through the narrow rock walls. We had to crawl through a few and mostly slide through the smooth rocks on the way back. This one is for the books, an adventurous and fun hike that ends with a 25 feet vertical dryfall in a dramatic amphitheater.
We had to head back to Vegas to catch our flight back home, but if you have more time other recommended places are Panamint Springs, Darwin Falls, Charcoal Klins and The Racetrack Playa (rough and remote road, good tires 4x4 and high clearance are usually required). If I had to do one thing differently I would switch the Mosaic Canyon hike and Ubehebe Crater in the daily itinerary above.
If you have less than 3 days stay in the park and see more. It's completely worth it!
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