Death Valley - view from Artists Drive

How to Visit Death Valley in One Day: 5 Things to See and Do

Death Valley is known as the most desolate, hottest, lowest, and driest spot on the continent. It doesn’t sound like a place anyone would want to visit. Yet, it attracts thousands of people each year. Two large hotels offer accommodations within the national park, with plenty of rooms for visitors.

Or so we thought. Since we decided two days before our departure on our spring break itinerary, we found both fully booked. Unbelievable, I thought. And then I realized that the park was only two hours from Las Vegas. So, even if you don’t plan ahead, you can visit Death Valley National Park. Just use Las Vegas is a base.

Death Valley - view from Zabriskie Point
Death Valley scenery – View from Zabriskie Point

Where is Death Valley?

When you think of California, you think of sandy beaches by the water, not sand dunes in the desert. Yet, as wet as it is near the coast, California is also home to the Mojave Desert, one of the driest deserts on the continent. And the Mojave Desert is home to two National Parks, Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley.

We visited Joshua Tree National Park a few times. The first time, about two decades ago, we were basically the only visitors. When we returned a few years ago, it almost seemed crowded, at least the Visitor Centers were.

I wasn’t surprised about the popularity of Death Valley though. I knew it was a popular spot from all the photos I’ve seen of it in the past few years. In travel magazines, online sites, Death Valley always popped up as a must-see National Park.

Given its popularity, part of me was worried that it was getting too many visitors, it was getting ruined. But when I finally visited, I realized I shouldn’t worry (too much). It covers such a vast area, even when the hotels were full, we felt alone most of the time. Except at the viewpoints, which I expected. But even that wasn’t too bad. It is also true that it is still the CoVid-era…

Anyway, Death Valley, with a large portion of it under sea level, is in the Mojave Desert, in California.

How to Get there

Though the park is in California, the closest city to Death Valley is Las Vegas, in Nevada. So, if you are not staying in the park, Las Vegas makes a great place for a base. Depending on where you are staying in Vegas, the trip takes from two to two and a half hours.

Since we stayed on the west side, in the outskirts of Vegas, we were closer. We were on the road to Death Valley a few minutes after leaving the hotel. Taking Hwy 160 through Pahrump, it took us a bit less than two hours to reach the national park’s entrance.

If you want to be closer, Pahrump seems to be a good choice. Though a smaller town, it has a few hotels, restaurants, even casinos.

Why Would Anyone Want to Visit Death Valley in the First Place?

This was a question I’ve been asking for three decades, while resisting the urge to go see it for myself. With a name of Death Valley, and a reputation of being the hottest and driest place on earth, you know the area is a place of extremes. And we are drawn to the extremes. To see them at least.

Death Valley - View from the main road
Death Valley is a place of extremes, resulting in some gorgeous, if desolate scenery.

The extreme heat and constant drought created some of the most unusual, but still beautiful landscapes on the planet. And that’s worth a look for most of us.

However, people also tried living in this environment. To be fair, a few places in Death Valley have enough water to sustain small communities. (Though I don’t understand why they waste this precious water for a golf course.). But, as part of a National Park, Death Valley is at least safe from mining attempts. With the added amenities, it is also safe to drive through and visit.

The largest US National Park outside Alaska, Death Valley comprises over three million acres of desert wilderness. And, while you’ll find roads and trails that take you through plenty of spectacular places, most of it is protected as officially designated wilderness.

The terrain in the park includes extremes. You’ll find valley floors sitting over 200 feet below sea level featuring desolate salt flats; see rugged and barren mountains raising as high as 1100 feet, deep canyons and rolling sand dunes; you’ll even find an oasis or two filled with green vegetation.

1. Drive Through the Park for Great Scenery

Even if you just drive through the park you’ll see plenty of sites that will leave you in awe. The main road passing through the park is Highway 190. This was the road we took all the way through.

The drive took us through colorful rock formations reminding me of the Painted Desert. Even more desolate, their pastel shades seemed more discernible. Driving farther into the desolation, the landscape changed. Descending below sea level, we drove past the salt flats, different from anything I’ve ever seen before. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought it was snow on the ground.

Driving through Death Valley - on Artists Drive
Driving through Death Valley …

We drove through Badwater Basin, where we reached the lowest point in the park at 282 feet below sea level. Climbing out from it, we drove by the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. Soon after, we reached the end of the park at Stovepipe Wells Village.

The way we visit places is to drive through it all, then turn around and stop at the sites. This works well when we know we don’t have a lot of time. In this case, since we only had one day to explore all of Death Valley, it worked best.

So, we turned around at Stovepipe Wells. If you were low on supplies, it is a good place to stop. They have a gas station, and a small store. Our next stop was the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes.

2. Hike or Play in the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes

I didn’t think I saw any mesquites in these sand dunes, so I was wondering where the name comes from. The only plant that seemed to survive here was the creosote bush. However, at a closer look, I realized that sometimes the creosote was growing out of mesquites. Not a mesquite tree as I am used to it in the Sonoran Desert. Here, the mesquite grows shorter than a bush, but it allows the creosote to grow out of its dead limbs.

The Mesquite Flats sand dunes
Even with other people relatively close by, you can feel alone in the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

The most accessible sand dunes in Death Valley, the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes were the best introduction to exploring Death Valley with all our senses. With no marked trail though them from the parking lot, we wandered through the silky golden sand. Up on the ridges we noticed people looking like tiny ants in the not-so-far distance. Between the dunes though we always felt alone, far away from civilization, and any kind of life.

As inviting as the deep sand seems for your toes, don’t make the mistake of taking off your shoes. I did. Though it was cool enough to wear a light jacket, the sand was so hot, my feet burned. I imagine it would be nicer early in the morning or later in the day though.

Regardless, a walk through the sand dunes, surrounded by views of the distant mountains, was a great start of our visit through Death Valley.

3. Stop at the Harmony Borax Works

The next stop on the road was the Harmony Borax Works. And, since I use Borax – a natural cleaner – this was interesting to see. I learned a bit about the history of this mineral, and the reason I still see the name 20-Mule Borax on my box.

They used 20-mule team wagons to haul borax from this desolate area to Mojave. The closest town is 165 miles to the closest town, so this had to be a grueling journey. Though the plant only operated for five years, between 1883 and 1888, the image inspired the label still used today.

4. Experience Artists Drive

Besides the sand dunes, a fun place to play in, my favorite spot in Death Valley is Artists Drive. The one-way, nine-mile scenic loop off Badwater Road, is probably the most spectacular spot in the park. The winding road took us through colorful eroded desert hills, and narrow canyons surrounded by tall mountainsides.

Stop at Artist Palette

The most visually stunning stop on this loop is the Artist Palette. Here, it seems like all the colors of the surrounding mountains come together in one spot. You are surrounded by colors ranging from pastel shades of reds, purples, and yellows to those of blues and greens. Caused by the oxidation of the minerals contained in the rocks, their visual effect is amazing.

The Artists Palette in Death Valley
View from the parking lot overlooking Artist Palette

A smaller parking lot offers an even more spectacular view of the area where the colors start. We stopped and enjoyed the view for a long time, before I realized that you could take a short walk down in the middle of it. By then I decided against it, though I am sure it would’v been worth it.

5. Enjoy the Views at Zabriskie Point

Before leaving the park, we stopped at Zabriskie Point, the most famous viewpoint in the park. Overlooking the golden badlands of the Furnace Creek formation, the effect is stunning.

Death Valley. View from Zabriskie Point

The point is named after Christian Zabriskie, the vice president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in Death Valley. I’m not sure why the point is named after him, but here it is.

Is One Day Enough to Visit Death Valley?

For us, familiar with the desert environment, one day in Death Valley was enough. But I have to admit, we didn’t see everything worth seeing. There are other sites in the park that we could’ve explored, if we had more time.

We didn’t stop for the salt flats, though have seen them from the road.

We didn’t see the “Devil’s Golf Course” either. Mostly because it is off a dirt road, and we didn’t want to drive through it. But with a name including golf course, I just wasn’t interested. Golf courses in the desert are one of my pet peeves. I can never understand why anyone would waste precious water in the desert to play golf.

We missed the hike through Golden Canyon, either. The parking lot was busy, and we felt like we have seen enough by then.

You can add all the above sites to your itinerary even if you only spend one day in the park. Just make it longer. We would’ve had enough time for them, if we only stopped briefly. We made it back to Vegas by dinner time, left the park around four in the afternoon. You could easily add a few more hours to the day trip.

But if you plan ahead, and get a room in the park, you have more time to explore the park, and find plenty to do for two – even three – days. If you live somewhere with cold winters, you might enjoy a longer stay in Death Valley during that time. But you can see the best of the park in one day.

Death Valley in one day
Death Valley - sites to explore in one day
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