An Unforgettable Death Valley Itinerary: From 1-5 days

Badwater Basin A Day in Death Valley

Last Updated on: 23rd November 2023, 11:13 pm

Given the massive size of the National Park and how distant its main landmarks are from nearby towns, planning a perfect Death Valley itinerary is extremely tricky. There are also plenty of other variables to consider, such as the season you visit, the type of vehicle you’ll be driving, how much of a hiker you are, and your overall budget.

So while there’s no single Death Valley itinerary that will work for everyone, the guide below features a wide variety of activities, such as scenic drives, hikes, and historical landmarks. While you can, of course, follow it exactly as written, it can also serve as a template for your own custom itinerary based on your interests and schedule.

Throughout the itinerary below, you’ll also find various suggestions on different ways you could make adjustments. But with that said, mentioning every single alternative option would be an information overload. 

If you want a complete list of every single thing there is to do in Death Valley, you’ll have to purchase a guidebook like Moon Death Valley National Park and study it for at least several days. But if you don’t have that kind of time, this Death Valley itinerary and our accompanying articles should serve as the next best thing.

Day 0: Arrive in Las Vegas, Pahrump or Furnace Creek

If you’ll be coming from afar specifically to visit Death Valley, it would be wise to fly directly to Las Vegas and then drive from there. As we’ll cover below, if you plan on visiting Racetrack Playa or doing the Telescope Peak hike, you’ll want to rent a high clearance 4×4 in advance.

If you’ll be visiting Death Valley as part of a longer trip, you might decide to visit Joshua Tree National Park beforehand. If so, you can enjoy a great day exploring the Mojave National Preserve on your way to Las Vegas or Pahrump.

If you’re coming from the east, you could depart from St. George, Utah, spending a day at Valley of Fire State Park on your way to Las Vegas or Pahrump.

WHERE TO STAY: Las Vegas is a couple hours away from the National Park entrance, and it serves as a fine departure point for Day 1 of this Death Valley itinerary.

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. Some good choices outside of the strip area include Tahiti All-Suite ResortSouth Point Hotel or Aloft Henderson, just to name a few.

Another great base for Death Valley is Pahrump, Nevada, which lies 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, such as the Saddle West Hotel Casino.

Day 1: Explore Badwater Road, Furnace Creek & Beyond

Those departing from Las Vegas will arrive at the eastern pay station about two hours later. Those coming from Pahrump, meanwhile, will arrive in just 50 minutes. In either case, it would be wise to leave as early as possible, arriving no later than 8:00 or 8:30.

For the full details of this itinerary, be sure to check out our full guide to spending A Day in Death Valley. But what follows is a concise summary.

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.

When finished, return the way you came back to Highway 190 and proceed along the road for 5-10 minutes. You’ll next want to experience the scenic drive known as the Twenty Mule Team Canyon. But as you must start from the western end, you’ll first drive past the exit before finding the proper entrance.

The three-mile-long Twenty Mule Team Canyon is unpaved but relatively smooth, and it should still be fine for those without 4x4s.

Zabriskie Point Top Things to Do in Death Valley
The view from Zabriskie Point

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.

Next, from Highway 190, turn left onto Badwater Road when you see the iconic ‘Elevation: Sea Level’ sign. Then proceed 14 miles down the road until you reach Badwater Basin. As this is one of Death Valley’s most crowded (and hottest) locations, the earlier you arrive, the better.

Badwater Basin A Day in Death Valley
Badwater Basin

From the parking lot, you can walk all the way out to the salt flats deeper in the valley, but be sure to have enough water. Expect to spend at least thirty minutes out here.

Next, proceed back north the way you came up Badwater Road, but this time you can stop at all the landmarks you missed on the way over, such as Artist’s Drive.

In total, the one-way scenic drive stretches out for nine miles, with a few scenic overlooks to pull over at, such as the stunning Artist’s Palette.

Artist's Drive A Day in Death Valley
Artist's Palette

Badwater Road is also home to a few different trailheads for various hikes. But how you go about this will depend on how many days you plan on spending at Death Valley in total, along with what season it is.

If you’re spending multiple days in the park during a hotter month, you should do the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Hike as an early morning hike on a different day.

You could then try to fit in either the Desolation Canyon hike (3.7 miles) or the Natural Bridge hike (1.4 miles) on your first day instead.

If you’re visiting during a hotter month and only have a day in Death Valley, consider the Golden Canyon hike (3 miles) on its own as a short out-and-back hike.

If you’re visiting during a colder month and only have a day, you could do the full Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Hike in the late afternoon or evening, but you’d have to omit the other attractions featured below in this Day 1 itinerary.

In any case, be sure to stop at the fascinating Devil’s Golf Course as you leave Badwater Road.

Visitor Center One Day in Death Valley

Next, head to Furnace Creek, Death Valley’s main ‘town.’ Here you’ll find the Visitor Center which has a nice little museum. It’s also a good chance to enjoy an air-conditioned environment.

Furnace Creek is also home to a few restaurants, but they definitely don’t come cheap.

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. You probably won’t spend more than half an hour here.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes A Day in Death Valley
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. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located just a mile east of Death Valley’s other main village, Stovepipe Wells.

Arriving shortly before sunset, you’ll get to experience the dunes at their most dramatic, when shadows create lots of interesting shapes and contrast.

Note that if you’re spending multiple days in Death Valley, you could also visit the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes on your way back from Ubehebe Crater or Racetrack Playa (more below). 

As mentioned, if you’re visiting in winter for multiple days, you could end your first day with the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Hike and then save the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for a different day.

Note: The attractions mentioned above are accessible by group tours from Las Vegas, such as this highly-rated tour. Most other landmarks featured in the rest of this Death Valley itinerary, in contrast, can only be accessed independently. 

WHERE TO STAY: If this is your only day in the park, return to Pahrump or Las Vegas. If you’ll be following this itinerary further, consider staying in Beatty, Nevada instead, which is a convenient base for Day 2 of this Death Valley itinerary.

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).

Day 2: Ubehebe Crater & More

Those staying in Beatty will have easy access to the fascinating Rhyolite Ghost Town, one of the best places to gain an understanding of historical Death Valley.

Rhyolite was established just after the discovery of gold in the area in the early 20th century. While Rhyolite underwent a dramatic rise, it would experience a sudden downfall just several years later when many of the mines closed.

Give yourself around an hour to visit the various abandoned structures of Rhyolite and the nearby Goldwell Open Air Museum.

Rhyolite Ghost Town Top Things to Do in Death Valley
Rhyolite Ghost Town

From Rhyolite, it’s just an hour to this day’s main destination: Ubehebe Crater. In comparison, it would take you two hours from Pahrump and about 80 minutes from Furnace Creek, while Stovepipe Wells is also an hour away.

Ordinarily, one would also be able to complete the one-way scenic drive through Titus Canyon when traveling from Rhyolite towards Ubehebe Crater. But the canyon is closed at the time of writing.

On the way to Ubehebe Crater, one could also make a detour to see Scotty’s Castle along the way. But this too is closed, with the landmark not scheduled to open until late 2025.

Ubehebe Crater Hike
Overlooking Ubehebe Crater

Arriving at Ubehebe Crater, there are a few ways to approach it. You could simply admire it from an overlook near the parking lot, though that would be a bit anticlimactic after the long drive over. The real highlight of visiting the crater is hiking it.

But rather than a single hike, think of this experience as three short back-to-back hikes. In addition to descending into the crater, you can hike around the rim and then go on to see a smaller crater called Little Hebe.

By doing all the hikes and taking your time, you could spend as much as 2.5 hours at the crater. But if you’re in a rush, you could probably do the full Ubehebe Crater hike in around 90 minutes.

Combining Ubehebe Crater & Racetrack Playa

If you only have two days in Death Valley, it makes sense to visit Racetrack Playa after Ubehebe Crater, as Racetrack Road begins right behind it.

But in contrast to the road leading to Ubehebe Crater, which is entirely paved, Racetrack Road is only passable with a very rugged high-clearance 4×4. Even an AWD SUV would not be enough. Therefore, you should either bring or rent an adequate vehicle before arriving in Death Valley.

Alternatively, you could either rent a jeep or take a tour with Farabee’s Jeep Rentals and Tours, which is located in Furnace Creek. Obviously, if you were to do this, you wouldn’t want to depart from Beatty as mentioned above.

So if you only have two days in Death Valley and want to combine Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa on your second day, and are also planning on using Farabee’s services, you should stay in Furnace Creek or Pahrump the night before.

On the other hand, if you can add the extra days to your itinerary, seeing Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa on separate days allows you to take your time at each, while also leaving time for more sightseeing in the late afternoon.

If you plan on visiting Ubehebe Crater without making the onward journey to Racetrack Playa, you’ll have time afterward to see what you may have missed from Day 1 of this itinerary. You could also do the Mosaic Canyon hike on your way back through Stovepipe Wells.

WHERE TO STAY: If you plan on taking a tour to Racetrack Playa with Farabee’s Jeep Rentals and Tours the following day, you’ll need to have easy access to Furnace Creek the next morning.

Furnace Creek itself is home to a few hotels, but they’re all owned by the Xanterra Corporation and they don’t come cheap. The different options include The RanchThe Inn at Death Valley and The Oasis.

Camping at the campsite near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is another option. While the campsite only costs $22 per night, all campsites in Death Valley lack showers. As such, you’ll be forced to pay a whopping $14 for a pool pass to shower at one of the nearby hotels.

Aside from staying in Furnace Creek itself, staying in either Beatty or Pahrump would be fine, as both are about an hour away from Furnace Creek.

On the other hand, if you’ll be visiting Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa on the same day, check the ‘Where to Stay’ section for Day 4 of this Death Valley itinerary.

Day 3: Visit Racetrack Playa

As mentioned, if you plan on driving to Racetrack Playa yourself, you can visit it on the same day as Ubehebe Crater, as Racetrack Road begins from just behind the crater.

But those who are able to spend more time in the park may want to see it on a separate day. Considering roundtrip transport, even if you only spend 90 minutes at Racetrack Playa itself, this is roughly a long 6-hour excursion.

As such, even with all the backtracking involved, visiting Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa on separate days is the best way to really make the most of each destination.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
The enigmatic sailing stones

If you have your own high clearance 4×4 vehicle already, it doesn’t particularly matter where you start from. But if you’re taking a tour with (or renting from) Farabee’s Jeep Rentals and Tours, you’ll need to visit their office in Furnace Creek first.

Beginning the journey, you’ll first have to make it to Ubehebe Crater, the details of which are mentioned above. And from right behind the crater begins Racetrack Road.

Racetrack Road is 27 miles long and extremely rough and rocky. People’s driving times will vary greatly depending on how careful they are.

In case you get a flat tire, be sure to have a spare and know how to change it. But some people even get multiple flat tires at the same time due to the jagged, sharp rocks!

Along the way to the playa, be sure to stop at Teakettle Junction for a quick break. Then once you reach the playa, there are two main sections at which to get out and walk around.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones
The Grandstand

The southern end is home to the mysterious sailing stones. And here’s a hint: there are a lot more of them than it first seems when you walk out to the playa from the parking area. There are so many, in fact, that time will quickly fly by as you try to seek out as many as you can.

The northern end of the playa is home to a large volcanic rock formation known as the Grandstand. It can even be climbed, and it offers fantastic views of the playa as a whole.

When finished, you’ll have to make the long, treacherous return trip to Ubehebe Crater, and then onto your resting place for the night.

If you’re visiting Death Valley in summer and are interested in hiking Telescope Peak, be sure to have adequate time left over after Racetrack Playa so that you can make it out to the remote Mahogany Campground.

WHERE TO STAY: For the next day of this Death Valley itinerary, we recommend trying one of the park’s epic long hikes. Where you should stay this night largely depends on which hike you plan to do, which should in turn be based on which season you’re visiting in.

If you’re visiting in summer, don’t miss the chance to hike Telescope Peak. And for that, you’ll want to spend the night at the Mahogany Campground, about a two-hour drive from Furnace Creek.

You’ll first want to drive past Stovepipe Wells before turning left onto Emigrant Canyon Rd (just after Emigrant Campground). The windy mountain road will eventually lead you to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. And after that, the final stretch to Mahogany Campground is a steep, dirt road for which at least an AWD is recommended.

As long as you’re mindful of the time, it would be possible to visit Racetrack Playa, return to Furnace Creek and then make the drive to Mahogany to set up camp. (This is another reason to see Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa on separate days).

Alternatively, if you’re visiting in winter, consider a hike like Corkscrew Peak. And for that, the best base will be Beatty, Nevada (see above).

Day 4: Hike Telescope Peak (or Corkscrew Peak)

If you’re visiting Death Valley between the months of June and September, don’t miss the opportunity to hike up the National Park’s highest peak.

As mentioned above, you’ll want to camp at the Mahogany Campground the night before, giving you immediate access to the trailhead. But if the campground happens to be full, you’ll probably have to start from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns or from the Thorndike Campground.

This would be far from ideal, however, as it would add an additional strenuous few miles to what’s already a long hike.

The Telescope Peak hike is a 14-mile (22 km) out-and-back hike with an elevation gain of about 3000 ft (914 m). Assuming you’re beginning at the Mahogany Campground, expect the hike to take around 6-7 hours roundtrip.

Whether or not you decide to get an early start should depend on what you have planned for the rest of the day, as well as the next day.

If you’ll be following this Death Valley itinerary all the way through to Day 5, that means you’ll be camping (or splurging on a hotel) in Furnace Creek. But by getting an early start for the Telescope Peak hike, you may find yourself with too much time to kill in the sweltering heat of the park’s lower elevations.

In any case, when finished with this thrilling hike, you’ll eventually make your way back to the center of the park.

Alternatively, if you get a really early start on the Telescope Peak hike and still have energy left over, you could consider taking a big detour to the western part of the park. Here you’ll find the Darwin Falls hike and the Father Crowley Overlook.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Summer snow patches along the Telescope Peak hike

As mentioned, Telescope Peak should only be attempted in summer due to the trail being encapsulated in snow for the rest of the year. But what if you’re visiting during a colder month?

While I have yet to try it, Corkscrew Peak seems like a great alternative. The hike should take 4-7 hours and is considered strenuous. The trailhead is right across the state border from Rhyolite, Nevada, so staying in Beatty would be a good choice for the previous night.

You can learn more information about the Corkscrew Peak hike here.

WHERE TO STAY: For the final day of this Death Valley itinerary, we recommend hiking the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Hike first thing in the morning. As the trailhead is located along Badwater Road, you’ll want to base yourself in Furnace Creek the night before.

If you don’t have the budget for one of the local hotels, camping will be your only option. While camping at Furnace Creek might not be the smoothest or most comfortable camping experience, it’s well worth enduring in order to experience the amazing hike the following day.

Day 5: Hike the Golden Canyon & Gower Gulch Loop Hike

As mentioned above, if you’re visiting in winter, you could potentially do this hike on your first day in Death Valley during your tour of Badwater Road. But those visiting in a warmer month should only consider doing this hike first thing in the morning.

This would also be a good hike to save for your final morning in Death Valley before heading out of the park. Therefore, the final day of this Death Valley itinerary is only a half-day, though you could also stay longer to see anything you may have missed.

Hiking the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop

The Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Hike can either be done starting from the Golden Canyon parking lot (situated along Badwater Road) or from Zabriskie Point (situated along Highway 190).

Starting from Golden Canyon, you have the option of either including the detour to Zabriskie Point in your hike or skipping it. There’s also an additional Red Cathedral detour accessed from Golden Canyon.

While you can leave out the detours if you wish, expect to hike at least six miles, and it should take you around 3-4 hours. Even if you get an early start in summer, it will be sweltering hot by the time you finish, so having enough water is imperative.

When done with the hike, it’s time to make the drive to your next destination, such as Las Vegas, or perhaps southwest Utah to see Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon.

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