Death Valley: The Perfect California Road Trip Destination

Zabriskie Point Death Valley
Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth, if not the hottest place. It broke the record back in August of 2020 at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with this startling fact, Death Valley draws visitors due to its otherworldly landscape and unique views and trails. A common way to get to Death Valley is from Los Angeles or Las Vegas and is a great add-on for a longer Roadtrip in California or the Southwest. 

How to Get to Death Valley from Los Angeles

Death Valley to Los Angeles is about a 4-5 hour drive depending on traffic. The drive will most likely follow highway 395 to the park entrance or follow CA 14 North until it merges with 395.

I will admit – the drive isn’t particularly scenic until you get closer to Death Valley when some of the mountains start coming into focus. You’ll pass through tiny desert towns here and there with little to offer besides gas stations. Once you start approaching the mountains, the highway will look like it continues vertical.

There is quite a bit of elevation change as you get to Homewood Canyon and then taking 190 into the park. In fact, if you’re visiting in the summer months, the heat is so extreme that there will be signs posted to turn off your air conditioning while driving through the mountains so the car doesn’t overheat.

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Best Time of Year to Visit Death Valley

As previously stated, Death Valley sets records for extreme heat in the summer months. This is not to be taken lightly and really puts visitors in danger if not properly prepared. For this reason, the best time of year to Visit Death Valley is during the winter months from November to March. Temperatures average about 60s to 70s during the day and lows reach 30s to 40s.

How much time do you need in Death Valley?

Being that Death Valley is at least 4 hours from Los Angeles, a day trip is possible but not recommended. The park covers about 3,000 square miles so even once you arrive at the park, you’ll be driving around quite a bit to see each viewpoint.

It is possible to see all of the popular view points and do a short hike in just 2 days – this is what I did but wished I had just a bit more time. The ideal amount of time to spend at Death Valley is about 3 days including the drive time from Los Angeles. Although you could definitely fill up more days with various hiking and off-roading activities.

Mesquite Sand Dunes Death Valley to Los Angeles
Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park

Top Things to do in Death Valley

The top things to do in Death Valley can pretty easily be grouped into two groups: hikes and viewpoints. There are various other activities to explore the park like backpacking, road and mountain biking, but my favorite was seeing the various pull-offs during sunset and sunrise.

Best View Points in Death Valley

The nice thing about Death Valley is how easy it is to see the top viewpoints. Each location has a parking lot and typically a walking path. The most difficult part is dealing with hot weather that will dehydrate you and slow you down (which is another reason why it is better to visit in the winter). You’ll also want to take a look at a map and plan your route to each destination. The park is big and some places can take over an hour to reach.

Zabriskie Point

Los Angeles to Death Valley Zabriskie Point
Exploring the badlands around Zabriskie Point

One of the most photographed points in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point is the perfect stop for sunrise. Park at in the parking lot and walk a short ways uphill to see the rolling badlands. This is a very popular spot though, so be prepared. Even at sunrise there can be a crowd. Luckily you can explore the walking paths off of the paved walkway which allows for more space. The only perk of visiting Death Valley in August was having these viewpoints almost completely to ourselves for a while. 

Artists Palette

Artists Palette at Sunset in Death Valley National Park
Artists Palette at Sunset in Death Valley National Park

Just 20 minutes from Zabriskie Point you’ll find the equally famous Artists Palette. Artists Palette is a pull off on a one way, scenic road where you’ll see rock formations light up in purple, green and blue hues due to minerals and oxidizes metals. Artists Palette was my favorite spot to see at sunset in Death Valley as the colors really pop. Although it’s important to note I’ve seen this location all over instagram and some photos have been overly edited which set unrealistic expectations. It’s still beautiful and looks unreal but it wouldn’t be fair to set unrealistic expectations. 

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Mesquite Sand Dunes at Sunrise in Death Valley

The Mesquite Sand Dunes were my second favorite site to see in Death Valley. Some dunes reach 100 feet high (although there are taller dunes in the park but further away). The sand deposits look out of place, a Sahara Desert within Death Valley due to the mountains and wind. Park at the parking lot and begin a 10 minute walk to get to the higher dunes. Make sure to wear proper footwear; don’t get sand everywhere like I did. The dunes are about 20 minutes from Furnace Creek so they make an easy add-on with the other popular stops. 

Badwater Basin

Los Angeles to Death Valley Badwater Basin
Los Angeles to Death Valley Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin is probably the most popular point in Death Valley. It is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and is one large salt flat. Make sure to walk out at least a quarter mile onto the salt flat in order to see the large salt lined polygons. Badwater Basin is also a popular spot for sunset and sunrise. I stopped by just after sunset and could see the sky lit up behind the mountains which made me want to come back earlier next time to experience the full show!

Ubehebe Crater

This crater is 600 feet deep and about a 1 mile wide created from a volcano. I sadly didn’t get to visit being I only had 2 days and its about 1 hour from Furnace Creek area which is where the majority of the other stop are. Ubehebe Crater would be a great addition if you have the time!

Top Hikes in Death Valley

The hikes listed below are all moderately trafficked, moderate hikes that are easily accessed within the same area of Death Valley as the view points. This will maximize outdoor time and minimize drive time. 

Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon is a highly rated out and back trail that is about 2.9 miles long (though this varies depending if you add other connecting trails). Golden Canyon is probably the most popular hike in Death Valley as it’s pretty easy to get to and near the other popular viewpoints like Artists Palette and Zabriskie Point. You can actually hike to Zabriskie Point from the Golden Canyon trailhead. 

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon is a short hike (though can be made a loop or into a long hike/backpacking trip) that is slightly less popular probably because it requires a high-clearance, 4×4 vehicle to get to the trailhead. It’s only about 1.9 miles but a nice getaway from the more popular Golden Canyon and Mosaic Canyon hikes. 

Mosaic Canyon

This 3.6 mile, out and back hike through a canyon is also very popular. Near Stovepipe Wells and offering a chance to do some rock scrambling if you’re feeling adventurous, Mosaic Canyon is a great hike in Death Valley. 

Red Cathedral

Red Cathedral hike starts at the Golden canyon trailhead which is very popular. The hike to the Red Cathedral is out and back and about 3.2 miles long. 

Where to Stay in Death Valley

If driving from Los Angeles to Death Valley National Park, you will want to book a place to stay for at least one night. Death Valley has lots of  camping options, some cabins inside of the park, and only a few hotels nearby. There are slim pickings so make sure to book ahead if visiting during peak season. I’ve outlined a few options below including the place I stayed during my visit.

Best Hotels Near Death Valley

There are not many hotels near Death Valley. When deciding on where to stay, you’ll want to balance budget with convenience. Two hotel options (both owned by The Oasis) in the park are the most expensive options but are closest to the main sites and have the most amenities like onsite restaurants and pools. 

The Ranch at Death Valley 

I stayed at The Ranch which is a 3 star hotel with onsite restaurant and outdoor pool. The room I stayed in was pretty dated but it had a patio and the location and restaurant made it convenient.

The Inn at Death Valley 

The Inn offers all the same amenities as The Ranch but is newer/nicer and of course more expensive.

Stovepipe Wells 

Stovepipe Wells is a little more budget friendly but still conveniently located. It’s right next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes which works well if you plan to catch a sunrise over the dunes.  

Panamint Springs Resort

Panamint Springs is much further away than the other options but still decent in case the closer ones are booked. 

Camping Options near Death Valley

There are plenty of camping options in Death Valley though you should check the national parks website for any reservations and additional information.

The two campsites with the best location (closest to the popular viewpoints) and the most amenities are Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. 

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The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park