At over 3 million acres, Death Valley is the largest National Park in the United States outside of Alaska. Needless to say, you can’t expect to see it all in a single extended visit, let alone within a single day. Be that as it may, there is indeed a lot one can see and do in a day in Death Valley without needing to stay in the park.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering the sites you can easily experience during a day trip from Las Vegas or Pahrump, either independently or by tour. If you’re planning on doing an extended tour of the park, the following itinerary would be the best way to spend your first day.
Visitors from around the world come to Death Valley in order to experience the hottest and driest place on earth – not to mention America’s lowest. But, as you’ll get a taste of below, many people are surprised by just how colorful and beautiful Death Valley really is.
For more details on the best places to stay in and around Death Valley, be sure to check the very end of the article.
Those departing from Las Vegas should arrive at the eastern pay station about two hours later (see below for info on entry fees). Those coming from Pahrump, meanwhile, will arrive in just 50 minutes.
Just after the pay station, leave Highway 190 by making a left onto Furnace Creek Wash Rd. After 20 minutes and a whole lot of elevation gain, you’ll find yourself at Dante’s View, one of the park’s most spectacular overlooks.
(While you could technically stop here on your way out of the park, the lighting is much better in the morning.)
Looking down from the Black Mountains, one can see Badwater Basin. the lowest point in all of North America at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, and where you’ll be heading shortly.
Across the valley, meanwhile, one can see Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park at 11,049 ft (3,368 m) above sea level.
What’s more, is that in the distance you can also glimpse Mt. Whitney, which, while outside the park, is the highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,505 ft (4,421 m). Needless to say, being able to simultaneously see the lowest and highest points in the country makes Dante’s View a very special place.
Around the top of Dante’s View, you’ll encounter some trails along the ridge, allowing you to do some light hiking for alternate views of the landscape. But as this is going to be a busy day, try not to spend too much time here.
Star Wars fans may recognize this viewpoint from the first film when Obi-Wan Kenobi points out Mos Eisley in the distance. Numerous other destinations below, in fact, also make appearances in the films.
While we won’t be mentioning Star Wars again, those interested can find a comprehensive list of filming locations here.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Next, return the way you came back to Highway 190 and proceed along the road for 5-10 minutes. Our next destination, the Twenty Mule Team Canyon, is a one-way scenic drive which serves as a great introduction to Death Valley’s colorful scenery.
As you must start from the western end, you’ll first drive past the exit before finding the proper entrance.
The road is about three miles long and unpaved, though from my experience, it was quite smooth throughout. There are no official overlooks here, but you’ll occasionally be able to get out and walk around.
While not obvious today, Twenty Mule Team Canyon is just as much a historic site as it is a scenic one. As we’ll cover more below, Death Valley was once home to lucrative borax mining operations.
And once the borax was mined, it had to be transported across the desert to the nearest railway station.
The borax would be loaded onto huge wagons, each of which was dragged by a team of eighteen mules and two horses. And it was through canyons like this one that the Twenty Mule Teams would traverse on their way out.
In 1883, miners built a wooden building along the road, though it has since been moved to Furnace Creek where it now serves as the Borax Museum.
Back out on Highway 190, proceed northwest until you reach Zabriskie Point, one of Death Valley’s most popular viewpoints. From here, you can enjoy a fantastic view of Death Valley’s colorful badlands.
Millions of years ago, this entire valley was filled with water. Over time, ash and silt settled into the lake, eventually hardening. Seismic activity would then shift and twist the formations.
And after the water disappeared, the area was subject to erosion from what little rainfall reaches Death Valley, forming the beautiful badlands we see today. The upper black layers, meanwhile, are hardened lava.
The colorful hills you see in front of you can indeed be hiked through for an up-close view. But if you only have a day in Death Valley, you won’t have time if you want to see all the other sites mentioned below.
As we’ll cover in a future guide, the Gower Gulch/Golden Canyon Loop is the best way to experience this scenery from up close.
But who, you may be wondering, was Zabriskie? Christian B. Zabriskie (1864-1936) was the general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
And when the mining industry began to wane in the 1920s, he was instrumental in helping boost tourism at Death Valley, helping protect its scenery in the process.
The prominent outcrop seen from the viewpoint, meanwhile, is known as Manly Beacon, named after William L. Manly. He’s best remembered for guiding a group of 49ers crossing Death Valley to safety.
While Zabriskie Point is often touted as a scenic sunset point, I came here for sunset one time and was underwhelmed. The sun sets directly behind the badlands, dimming their colors.
Zabriskie Point is best seen in the morning, while, as we’ll cover below, the most scenic place for sunset at Death Valley is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Next, from Highway 190, turn left onto Badwater Road when you see the iconic ‘Elevation: Sea Level’ sign. Were you to take it all the way, this road would eventually lead you outside of the park.
Today, however, we’ll only be going as far as Badwater Basin, about 14 miles south of the intersection.
While you can visit the following attractions in any order you like, we’ll be covering them from south to north.
As discussed, Death Valley is home to the lowest point in all of North America, which is right here at Badwater Basin. Driving here from the turnoff, you’ll have descended 282 feet (85.5 m) below sea level.
And given its elevation, Badwater Basin is also the hottest point of Death Valley at any given time.
Leaving the parking lot, the first landmark you’ll encounter will likely take you by surprise: a pool of water. Early visitors to Death Valley, however, were dismayed that this water was much too salty for human or animal consumption.
In fact, this area got its name after an early surveyor’s mule refused to drink the water, after which he labeled it as ‘bad.’
But the water here is indeed home to life, such as certain aquatic insects and the Badwater Snail – a species so rare it exists nowhere else on earth but here.
As we know, Death Valley and its surroundings receive relatively very little rain. But when it does rain, water ultimately ends up here at the lowest point.
The water sometimes originates at distant mountains, bringing numerous minerals that got washed up with it along the way. And when the water evaporates due to the heat, the salt content is all that remains.
Beyond the entrance, there’s a whole lot of this salt to see. Continuing past the boardwalk area, visitors can walk deeper into the desert via what is essentially a ‘salt road.’
While the walk is entirely flat, it’s about a mile before you reach the main section of the salt flats, so make sure to bring plenty of water.
Thinking I’d have the flats all to myself, I did encountered a couple out here doing jumping selfies. Apparently, even Death Valley isn’t remote or extreme enough to avoid Instagram couples.
Fortunately, they left before too long, and I spent a while enjoying both the silence and unique patterns of America’s lowest and hottest point.
Heading back north from Badwater Basin, you’ll encounter the entrance for Artist’s Drive on your right. In total, the one-way scenic drive stretches out for nine miles.
While similar to Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road, this is arguably the more impressive of the two, while it even contains several official pullouts where you can step outside to take in the views.
The most famous viewpoint here is called Artist’s Palette, known for its striking array of colors.
Here you’ll find a sizable parking lot and pit toilet, while a path leads out to a hill which allows you to get a little bit closer to the surreal landscape. You can also hike down into one of the washes for a different perspective.
The varying colors are a result of different minerals present in the rock. A lot of the red is caused by hematite and the green from chlorite. Other colors, meanwhile, are a result of magnesium, iron and titanium being exposed to different levels of oxygen.
The vibrance and hue of the colors will be dependent on the time of day and position of the sun. This area looks best in late afternoon and evening, but if you’re trying to fit all of these sites into a single day in Death Valley, it would be most practical to visit earlier in the day.
This is the only proper hike included in this one-day itinerary. At 2.5 miles (4 km) roundtrip and also mostly flat, Golden Canyon is an easy hike that makes for an interesting change from the wide open vistas we’ve seen thus far.
Your main concern, of course, will be the heat. While the hike should only take you an hour or so, be sure to carry plenty of water with you. Not long before the time of writing, an elderly man collapsed and died here due to heat exhaustion.
The Golden Canyon can also be included in a longer loop hike that also includes the badlands near Zabriskie Point and Gower Gulch. If you’re spending more than a day in Death Valley, I highly recommend doing the longer hike, though you’ll have to start early in the morning and set aside a few hours for it.
If you will indeed be doing the loop hike at some point, skip Golden Canyon for now, perhaps replacing it with the Natural Bridge hike elsewhere along Badwater Road.
Most visitors doing the one-way hike through Golden Canyon end at a formation called the Red Cathedral.
Eventually, you’ll encounter a sign for the Red Cathedral Junction, with the left-hand path taking you closer to the Red Cathedral and the right-hand path taking you past Manly Beacon, the prominent formation seen from Zabriskie Point.
Confusingly, however, the Red Cathedral path doesn’t really take you to a good viewpoint of it, and you can actually see the Red Cathedral more clearly from farther away. Rather, the trail ends in a dead end, forcing you to scramble up some steep and slippery rocks just to get closer.
While not pictured here, instead of following the Red Cathedral path, I’d recommend taking the right-hand path for a little bit. Before long, you’ll see excellent views of both the Red Cathedral and Manly Beacon – something I only discovered later when doing the full loop hike.
Just don’t get carried away – especially at this point in the day – as continuing along that trail will eventually take you all the way to Zabriskie Point.
Devil's Golf Course
The ominously-titled location near the northern end of Badwater Road starts to make sense once you get up close to it. This would indeed be a golf course from hell!
Like the Badwater Basin at the other end of the road, Devil’s Golf Course is entirely comprised of salt. But here the salt has crystalized into rough and sharp formations that you certainly wouldn’t want to fall onto.
Visitors are free to leave the parking area and walk out onto the ‘golf course.’ Just be very careful about where you step. Aside from avoiding injury, you also don’t want to accidentally break the crystals and ruin the scenery for others.
Listening carefully, you may even be able to occasionally hear salt cracking around you in the heat!
The Visitor Center & Furnace Creek
Death Valley is so massive that it even has a few ‘towns’ within it. And Furnace Creek is considered the park’s central hub. It’s here that you’ll find the Visitor Center, campgrounds, a gas station, multiple hotels, a general store and more.
Just nearby, meanwhile, is a reservation of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, the original inhabitants of the region.
If you’re hoping to stop for lunch at some point, note that the cheapest restaurant here is a buffet that goes for $36 per person! If you’re on a budget, it would be wise to pack food in the car with you beforehand.
The only essential stop here for those with just a day in Death Valley would be the Visitor Center. Just outside, you’ll find the iconic thermometer display.
The Visitor Center also has a nice little museum where you can learn about the region’s geology, ecology and history. And the gift shop isn’t bad, either.
Furthermore, the Visitor Center is a good place to get the latest updates on what may or may not be open at the park. While you should also check the official website, the rangers here sometimes post openings or closures before they go live online.
Harmony Borax Works
Leaving town, continue heading north along Highway 190. After just a mile, you’ll encounter an outdoor museum known as Harmony Borax Works. This very location, in fact, functioned as one of Death Valley’s prominent mining operations from 1883-1888.
As was the case with much of the West, miners fled to Death Valley in search of gold. But while they didn’t find much here, what they did encounter was an abundance of borax, which came to be dubbed as ‘white gold.’
Borax is a combination of Boron and various salts. It’s most known for its use as a cleaning agent and laundry detergent, while it can also serve as a natural pesticide and rust remover.
At Harmony, a borax refinement plant was built in order to remove some excess waste before the long journey to the nearest railroad. Much of the borax was brought here in the first place by Chinese laborers who obtained the substance from the nearby salt flats.
Aside from being educational, Harmony Borax Works is also a great place for photography – both in the day and at night.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
By now it should be late afternoon or early evening, and our next and final destination is about a 25-minute drive along Highway 190 from Harmony Borax Works.
While you will also have to drive back the same way, nobody regrets the trip out to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Death Valley is actually home to several different dune fields, but the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – named after the local Mesquite Tree – is the most accessible by far. It’s located just a mile east of Death Valley’s other main village, Stovepipe Wells.
The best way to experience the dunes is to simply freely explore them on foot. Arriving shortly before sunset, you’ll get to experience the dunes at their most dramatic, when shadows create lots of interesting shapes and contrast.
If you’ve never explored dunes before, ascending them is a lot more tiring than it first seems. As always at Death Valley, be sure to bring adequate water as you enjoy this photographer’s paradise.
Those interested in dunes should also look into visiting the Eureka Dunes in the northern part of Death Valley, which are some of the tallest dunes in the country. Unfortunately, they’re in one of the most remote parts of the park and are quite difficult to reach.
While outside of Death Valley in the nearby Mojave Natural Preserve, the Kelso Dunes are nearly as high and relatively easy to reach for those with more time in the region.
At the time of writing, Death Valley costs $30 to enter (learn more here).
If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.
Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.
These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.
What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.
As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.
Only have a day in Death Valley but would rather not deal with all the driving and logistics yourself?
Fortunately, there are plenty of tour options from Las Vegas available, with this highly-rated tour taking visitors to most of the attractions featured above. It even includes a stop at the fascinating Rhyolite Ghost Town.
Figuring out where to stay for your Death Valley trip can be stressful and challenging. Given the park’s massive size, the most convenient base would be at one of the hotels within the park itself.
Unfortunately, however, all of the hotels and restaurants within Death Valley are owned by the Xanterra Corporation and they don’t come cheap. The different options include The Ranch, The Inn at Death Valley and The Oasis.
If you don’t have the budget to splurge on those hotels, you’re left with two options: stay in a city outside the park or camp. First, let’s explore the best bases outside of Death Valley, all of which are located in Nevada.
Las Vegas isn’t ideal for those doing longer adventures in the park. But if you only have a day in Death Valley, it serves as a fine base. As mentioned above, it’s about two hours one-way between the city and the eastern pay station.
Tourists into gambling, nightlife and an all-around typical Las Vegas experience tend to stay on or near the Strip. This area is home to a myriad of hotels and casinos, many of which are household names, such as Mandalay Bay or Luxor.
Las Vegas, however, is a fast-growing city with new residential areas being built each year, and much of the greater metropolitan area feels surprisingly normal.
The small city of Pahrump is arguably the best base for Death Valley. It’s right in between Las Vegas and the park, or an hour each way from either.
It has lots of shopping and restaurant options, while many of the local casinos also feature hotels. My only experience was at the Saddle West Hotel Casino. While the rooms were nothing special, they did have all of the essentials and were reasonably priced.
Beatty, Nevada is another convenient base for Death Valley, being only 50 minutes from Furnace Creek. Compared to Pahrump, however, it’s harder to reach for those coming from afar.
All in all, Beatty is much more charming than Pahrump but it also has fewer shopping and dining options. I stayed once at the Exchange Club Motel, which was fine as far as motels go. It seems to be run by the same management as the nearby Death Valley Inn (not to be confused with The Inn at Death Valley inside the park).
If you’re still considering camping, read more below.
Death Valley is home to numerous campsites, with the most popular one being right in Furnace Creek near the Visitor Center. I spent a night there during a recent visit and it only cost $22 per night. But would I recommend it?
While the campsites themselves are cheap, consider the fact that the gas stations at Death Valley cost around double what they cost in Pahrump or Beatty.
Also keep in mind that the campsites lack showers. So if you’re hoping to shower after a long day, your only option will be to buy a pool pass from one of the Xanterra hotels which will grant you access to their showers. But at the time of writing, these passes go for a whopping $14 per person per day!
And if you want to eat at a restaurant within the park instead of cooking at your campsite, you’re going to spend more than double what you would at a restaurant in a nearby city.
Taking all of this into consideration, you may even end up spending more by camping at Death Valley compared with booking a cheap hotel in Pahrump.
Another issue to consider when camping is that it can sometimes get extremely windy without warning in the desert. And the ground is so hard at the lower elevation campsites that you can’t use your tent stakes.
If you have an RV, of course, some of the issues above can be averted. (If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.)
Despite all of the issues, there’s still one major reason to camp at Death Valley: getting an early morning start for a hot low-elevation hike, such as the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop hike.
In the end, the best way to enjoy a longer stay at Death Valley is to mix things up by camping and staying at hotels outside the park on alternate nights.