3 Days in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is home to the lowest elevation in the western hemisphere. Located in California’s Mojave Desert, it’s a unique landscape filled with surprises like slot canyons, expansive sand dunes, crystalized salt plains and colorful mountains painted with mineral deposits. In this post, I’ll give you a great itinerary for 3 action packed days exploring the park.
Just going to Death Valley for the day from Las Vegas? Get your guide has several day tours you can book.
You’ll need to buy a National Park Pass to enter
Best month’s to go: February, March and November (April and October could work too, but bring more water and hike in the mornings and evenings)
Where to Stay
Stay at “the Inn” or “The Ranch” at Death Valley
The Oasis at Death Valley is exactly that, an oasis in the middle of an arid desert. There are 2 locations all in close proximity to each other; The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley. This historic inn was built in 1927, and the location was chosen because natural springs run right through the hotel. Oddly Death Valley actually sits atop one of the largest aquifers in the world, so the lush landscape and spring-fed pool is made possible by this groundwater.
The Inn at Death Valley was recently renovated, and has a few beautiful restaurants to dine at. The Inn Dining Room is a classy joint with the throwback elegance of the 1920’s beginnings. Last Kind Words Saloon & Steakhouse is a gorgeous American Dining Saloon with delicious eats and a cool upscale western vibe.
Make sure you make a reservation because it gets really busy. Also know that these are on the pricier side since they are some of the only restaurants in the entire park.
Camp at Fiddler’s Campground
For a fraction of the cost of the Inn, you can stay at Fiddler’s campground. Campers also have access to the Ranch’s natural spring-fed swimming pool, shower facility, coin operated laundry and sports courts including a Tennis Court, Shuffleboard, Volleyball, Bocce Ball and Basketball Court. Not too shabby, just be sure you check the weather since Death Valley can get up to 116 degrees F in the summer. Book it
Day 1 Itinerary: Death Valley National Park
On your first full day, drive down Badwater Road to see Artists’s Palette, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, and Zabriskie Point. Hike Desolation Canyon or Natural Bridge Trail along the way. More details below…
Day 1 Stop #1: Take Artist’s Drive & See Artist’s Palette
Artist’s Drive is a 9.7 mile scenic drive snaking through mountains with dips and turns. The most notable stop is Artist’s Palette, where the oxidation of rich metals paint the mountains creating greens, purples, reds, oranges and yellows. The color saturation varies on the lighting, but this site is a great place to park and wander around the mountains.
Tip: Wear shoes with good tread
Can you spot all the colors? I imagine they’d be even more vibrant at sunrise or sunset if you want to time your day differently. These photo were taken around 10am. Read more
Day 1 Stop #2: Explore the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin
From Artist’s drive, head south on Badwater Road to Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level, and is made up of over 200 miles of salt flats that look like snow. This site was once a lake, but as it’s dried up sediment and salt have accumulated here over time because the lake has no outlet.
There is an easy to access parking lot here and you can walk down the flat path for as long as 5 miles, but most people just do a mile or so and head back.
Day 1 Stop #3: View The jagged rocks of Devil’s Golf Course
Head back north on Badwater Road to Devil’s Golf course. You have to drive a dirt road for about half a mile to get to it. You can do it with a low clearance vehicle, just go really slow. This geological formation is other-worldly, with jagged salt slabs extended for miles into the horizon.
The name Devils Golf Course comes from a 1930’s guidebook that stated: “Only the devil could play golf on such a surface,” and it stuck. You can walk among the rocks to explore, but be extra careful, a fall onto this surface could definitely cause some cuts and scratches.
Day 1 Stop #4: Hike Desolation Canyon
Head north again to get to the trailhead for Desolation Canyon. This is a 3.6 mile out and back trail through canyons that made of colorful badlands similar to Artist’s Drive. There is a bit of rock scrambling you have to do to traverse the canyon, but nothing too extensive.
The trailhead is clearly marked, but past that you follow the river wash into the slot canyon. A slot canyon is a long, narrow channel with sheer rock walls on either side. They are amazing to wander though as long as there aren’t any signs of rain which can cause a flash flood. This is typically not a cause for concern in Death Valley where rainfall is a rare.
Note: This canyon has a lot of sun exposure so best to do early morning, or when the weather is not too hot. Bring plenty of water.
Day 1 Stop #5: View the Sunset (or Sunrise) from Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point is composed of sediments from Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up 5 million years ago. It was named after the Vice President of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, a mining company in the early 20th century.
From the parking lot you can head straight up the paved road to take in the view, or go the more adventurous route to the right and scramble up the mountain to get a better view of the badlands. The view is spectacular at sunrise or sunset, the centuries of erosion create layers of texture and color across the valley.
Day 1 Stop #6: Have Dinner at The Last Kind Words Saloon
This western saloon style restaurant is located at The Ranch at Death Valley, just down the road from The Inn at Death Valley (they are all part of the same group). It has been newly renovated and features classic old west decor like taxidermy game animals, old western movie posters, “Wanted!” fliers touting the misdeeds of outlaws and antique firearms. It’s really has a great vibe to it, and is the nicest National Parks restaurant I’ve ever been to.
Tip: Make a reservation. This is a large restaurant, but since there aren’t many in the park it so it fills up quickly.
Day 2: Death Valley National Park
On your second full day, wake up early to see the sunrise over the sand dunes, hike Mosaic Canyon, visit the ghost town of Rhyolite and see the Goldwell outdoor museum. Finish your day off off with a Dinner at classy dinner at the Inn Dining room. More details below…
Day 2 Stop #1: Watch the Sunrise at Mesquite Dunes
Wake up before the sunrise and head to Mesquite Sand Dunes. Sunrise is the best because over night the winds sweep across the sand and remove any footprints from the day before. You may want to bring a flash light or head lamp along if you’re planning to get there in the dark. I recommend doing this so you can walk into the dunes for an amazing vantage point when the sun rises. Also getting there early means you’ll get a more dramatic view with less footprints in the sand. It’s pretty amazing watching the soft colors unfold as the sun slowly comes up.
There is a clearly marked parking lot for the dunes, and you literally just walk into them until you find a spot that you like. Bring coffee and a snack and watch the magic happen!
Day 2 Stop #2: Hike Mosaic Canyon
Just down the road from the sand dunes is Mosaic Canyon, a 4-mile out and back hike through narrow canyon slots of polished rock and marble. The canyon is named for something called Breccia, a composition of tiny angular fragments of various types of parent rock locked within a natural cement. If you’re pressed for time, you can see most of the hike’s interesting features within the first mile in, making it a 2 mile hike rather than 4.
The access road to this hike’s parking lot is unpaved, but you can usually get away with driving to it in a sedan, just go slowly and with caution.
I highly recommend this hike because the features are truly unique and quite beautiful.
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Day 2 Stop #3: Find some Breakfast or lunch in Beatty, Nevada
Take a detour to Beatty, Nevada after Mosaic Canyon to grab some breakfast or lunch in town. Try Happy Burro Chili and Beer!
It’s a quaint town to the east of Death Valley. Nearby are the attractions of the ghost town of Rhyolite and neighboring art installations at The Goldwell Open Air Museum.
Day 2 Stop #4: Visit the ghost town of Rhyolite
Rhyolite Ghost Town only existed from 1904 to 1916, another sad deserted mining town that closed just as quickly as it was built up.
Today you can find several remnants of Rhyolites glory days. Some of the walls of the 3 story bank building (cost 90,000 to build) are still standing, as is part of the old jail, and a beautifully constructed casino just waiting to be renovated.
Day 2 Stop #5: View Art Installations at The Goldwell Open Air Museum
Goldwell Open Air Museum is a free outdoor sculpture park right next to Rhyolite. This is a non-profit museum organized in 2000 after the death of Albert Szukalski, the Belgian artist who created the ghostly sculptures you see below. The most notable work being his rendition of The Last Supper in ghostly form. This was especially haunting against the stormy sky the day that we went.
Lady Desert The Venus of Nevada by Dr.Hugo Heyrman is the statue seen below. This sculpture is really large and based on the idea of the pixel.
Day 2 Stop #6: Have Dinner at The Classy Inn Dining room
The Inn Dining Room is a classy fine dining experience in the recently renovated Inn at Death Valley.
Day 3: Death Valley National Park
On your way back to west (if you’re heading west), check out Harmony Borax Works on your way out, then hike Darwin Falls (4 wheel drive needed), and stop to see the Father Crowley Overlook. If you have more time consider a few other points of interest like volcanic Ubehebe Crater, the infamous “Racetrack” of mysterious moving rocks, or Dante’s View. More details below…
Day 3 Stop #1: Check out Harmony Borax Works
Day 3 Stop #2: Hike Darwin Falls
This 2 mile out and back trail is on the way out of the park if you’re heading west and takes you to see a waterfall in the middle of this arid desert. There is a rocky dirt road to get to the trail head, that’s iffy to go on if you have a sedan.
Day 3 Stop #3: Take in the View at Father Crowley’s Overlook
This is an easy turnout point if you’re heading back west on your way out of the park. The lookout is nice enough, but the draw here is the chance at seeing real life Top Gun style fighter pilots zipping through the canyons. They train at a nearby base, but when they train is top secret so hopefully you’ll get lucky.
Other points of interest if you have more time
Death Valley is massive! If you’re in for the drive, or have more days to spare there are some other great things you can add to your itinerary like the volcanic Ubehebe Crater, the infamous “Racetrack” of mysterious moving rocks, or Dante’s View.
Have any other tips on Death Valley? Please leave them in the comments at the end of this post.
Just For Fun Park Tees
These tees are unnecessary for hiking, but it’s always fun to get a tank or tee with the National Park name on it for photos. I found these Tees on Etsy.
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