At 3.4 million acres large, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. It’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest national park; it famously recorded temperatures of 134° at the Badwater Basin, a dry salty lakebed expanse that’s 282 feet below sea level.
Most of the park is designated wilderness area. When planning a trip, check out a map and schedule your activities by location to see as much as you can without backtracking. Most attractions are located within a reasonable loop that can be done in 2 nights; greater adventures are afoot if you can afford the extra time. Below is our suggested itinerary for a 2-night stay in Death Valley National Park, along with some must-sees, and some recommendations if you have a bit more time to spend in this beautiful landscape.
From LA, the drive is about 4 hours into the heart of Death Valley National Park.
Day One: Arrival into Death Valley
Our route takes an approach to the western edge of the park to Darwin Falls. A 1.9 mile out-and-back trail takes visitors to an unexpected waterfall in the foothills of the desert. It’s a nice way to stretch your legs, get acquainted with the desert; it’s also the most (and possibly only) water you’ll see for the rest of your time inside Death Valley National Park.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, at dawn.
From there, head another hour into the park and reach Stovepipe Wells, where there’s a cluster of attractions including Mosaic Canyon and Mesquite Flat Dunes. Head to the Marble Canyon hike in the afternoon, whose canyon walls provide some shade from the oppressive heat; later, hike into to the expansive and watch the sun sink behind the mountains at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, considered to be the best sunset spot in Death Valley National Park. There’s no actual trail here, just wander until you find your own dune to watch the end of the day. After the sun goes down, the dunes tend to cool down quickly, so be sure to bring an extra layer as well as a headlamp or flashlight for your walk back after sunset.
Looking east toward the sunrise, high above Badwater Basin, at Dante’s View in Death Valley National Park.
Alternately, sunset at Dante’s View is equally (if not more) stunning and offers some of the most expansive views of the park – including an overlook of Badwater Basin, the park’s most popular attraction. Hike along the ridges from the parking lot to secure a spot overlooking the park below. As the saying goes, photos don’t do this place justice. If you don’t make it for sunset, add it somewhere into your itinerary. Sunrise is also lovely here.
Lodging & Meals in Death Valley National Park
The Oasis at Death Valley offers luxury accommodations within Death Valley National Park. Most other lodging is motel-style.
For lodging, check out Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel (from $144/night) in Stovepipe Wells or The Ranch at Death Valley (from $229/night) in Furnace Creek. Both offer motel-style rooms and both have swimming pools and onsite restaurants offering similar menus. The Toll Road Restaurant and Badwater Saloon are both located at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, and offer a wide array of drinks and bar food including sandwiches and burgers, along with a variety of entrees. Meanwhile, the vibes at the Last Kind Words Saloon are pretty cool, plus the menu offers plenty of appetizer and entree options that are sure to fill up everyone in your party. It’s one of a few options for dining at the Ranch at Death Valley.
On the higher end of things, The Oasis at Death Valley offers a far more luxurious experience with absolutely stunning grounds: think date palm gardens, natural springs and a spring-fed pool, and several onsite dining options. Head to the main dining room if you’re looking for a fancy sit down breakfast or dinner, complete with a full cocktail list for the latter. The Oasis at Death Valley is a AAA rated, 4 diamond resort, so it is the priciest option in the park; a standard king sized room runs around $369 a night. If you have extra dough to spare, it’s worth a splurge.
Check out Escape LA’s comprehensive guide to camping in Death Valley National Park, link below. Photo: Wilson Ye.
If pitching a tent or camping in your RV is more your vibe, Death Valley has several campsites for you to choose from. Furnace Creek Campground is the most popular option and also the only reservable campground in the park, accommodating both tents and RVs. Other campsite options include a variety of amenities for a choose-your-own-adventure in the desert. For more info, check out our comprehensive Escape LA Guide to Camping in Death Valley National Park.
Day Two: Hiking & Exploring the Heart of Death Valley
Sunset over the dramatic landscape of Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park.
Set your alarm to make it in time for sunrise at Zabriskie Point, which is not to be missed. The iconic overlook is ridiculously easy to get to, up a short (but steep) paved path from the parking lot. Bring coffee, then after this early-morning jaunt, head back to your hotel for breakfast before continuing on for more adventure.
If you’re up for a hike, Sidewinder Canyon and Room Canyon are both hikes through slot canyons and labyrinths; scrambling is required for both. Grab a free map at the Visitor Center or download AllTrails maps so you don’t get lost.
Another nearby favorite trail is Natural Bridge, a very short out-and-back hike through a large canyon to a natural bridge formation. Just beyond the bridge gives way to a few dried up waterfalls, which left dramatic shapes through the rocky landscape. Last, the 3-mile Golden Canyon offers dramatic views of the park from its Red Cathedral. Golden Canyon boasts a history in film and TV, having been a filming location for Star Wars: A New Hope and The Twilight Zone, among others. Hike through the canyon to see how it earned its name and do a stop off at the Red Cathedral to scramble up the red rocks that you can spot from the floor of the canyon. Those looking for more of a challenge can hike the full Gower Gulch Loop that will drop you in the parking lot of Golden Canyon after you hike a full 6 miles, crossing badlands on your way to and from Zabriskie Point.
For lunch on the road, it’s slim pickings, but we love Timbisha Tacos who serves up delicious fry bread tacos. (Note: they’re currently closed for Covid-19, but hopefully they’ll be re-opening soon.) Other options include the aforementioned restaurants, but at lunchtime the steep prices can seem almost offensive. BYO picnics are possible but challenging; with no grocery stores around, you’ll need to plan ahead.
Badwater Basin encompasses 200 square miles of salt flats, and can be really spectacular at sunset, especially after a rain.
Finally, make a golden-hour pilgrimage along scenic Artist’s Drive to visit Artist’s Palette, an explosion of color created by the oxidation of various metals and minerals embedded in the rock. From there, it’s a short drive to Badwater Basin, the park’s most famous attraction. At 282 feet below sea level, the salt flat is home to the hottest temperature ever recorded: a balmy 134º Fahrenheit. It just so happens to be a great place to watch the sunset, too. (Hot tip: if you’re lucky enough to be there after a rain, the 200 square mile expanse turns into a reflective pool and is not to be missed at sunset.)
Day Three: More Hiking, Hot Springs and Date Shakes
The first rays of light ignite the mountaintops at sunrise.
Set those alarm clocks for one last sunrise in Death Valley National Park; the most beautiful time to see the desert is when the sun is close to the horizon, the light is soft and golden, and the world is just waking up.
Campers staying at Texas Springs, Furnace Creek, or Sunset won’t have to go far; just stumble out of your tent to be dazzled by the way the first rays of sun hit the Panamint Mountains. For those seeking a more adventurous beginning to the day, Harmony Borax Works is an unexpectedly beautiful place to watch the sunrise. The soft colors of sunrise offer the perfect juxtaposition against the sun-and-weather beaten remains of a ranch borax production ranch. It’s a cool piece of history, too: Harmony Borax Works was the central feature in the opening of Death Valley and the subsequent popularity of the Furnace Creek area.
On your way out of Death Valley National Park, towards Death Valley Junction, if you’re in for an easy off-road drive, check out 20 Mule Team Canyon (named for the journey in which mule-and-wagon teams once hauled borax to Mojave.) Fun fact: Parts of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi were filmed here. The road is typically passable for sedans and low clearance vehicles, but as always, be sure to check with a park ranger.
The legendary Amargosa Opera House & Hotel in Death Valley Junction.
If you have time to stop as you make your way through Death Valley Junction, stop at Amargosa Opera House to take in some of the area’s rich history and maybe even see a ghost or two. New York ballet dancer, Marta Becket, bought the Opera House in 1967 and turned the dilapidated building around, breathing new life into it as well as the surrounding town. While performances and tours of the eccentric Opera House have picked up, be sure to look before you go due to ongoing changes due to Covid.
Natural hot springs in Tecopa, CA. Check for possible Covid-related closures, and always leave it better than you found it.
As you make your way south, the town of Tecopa is a must-see whether you’re able to stay for an hour, or tack on an extra overnight. If you’re ready to relax in the desert after your non-stop traveling and hiking in Death Valley, look no further than Tecopa Hot Springs. Just off the side of the intersection of Tecopa Hot Springs Road and Elias Road are the natural, mineral hot springs. However, if soaking in a very public, mostly nude natural spring isn’t your thing, the town of Tecopa offers a few more favorable options for you to get a good private soak in. Delight’s Hot Springs Resort offers not only overnight accommodations (with doubles starting at $80), but also day and night passes that allow you to take in the desert views from the warmth of the mineral tubs.
Tecopa is also becoming a foodie escape, with some of Las Vegas’ top chefs leaving the lights of the strip and opting for the dark skies and bright stars of desert living. Get some finger lickin’ good BBQ at Tecopa Brewing Co. & BBQ, grab a beer at the tiny Death Valley Brewing, or a bite at the aptly named Steaks and Beer.
Make the China Date Ranch the final stop on your Death Valley itinerary. Though it’s outside the park, it’s well worth the trek.
The grand finale to any trip to Death Valley National Park can be had at the magical China Date Ranch. If you do nothing else in Tecopa, make this your one stop, for some delicious date delicacies (or even a quick hike.) Getting there is half the fun: a rather dramatic drive through a narrow, dusty canyon opens into an absolute incredible desert oasis, in which visitors will find themselves surrounded by date palms with the backdrop of the nearby mountains. Earn your calories by stretching your legs on any of the trails that get their start at the farm – then stock up on some delicious baked goods. Don’t skip the ranch’s acclaimed date shakes, which you’ll savor during the 3:30 drive back to LA – new favorite beverage in hand.