As the largest National Park in the contiguous United States, it can be a challenge to figure out where to stay or camp, what hikes to do and how to get around in Death Valley. When we started planning our road trip, we were overwhelmed but the sheer size of the park and amount of information online.
To save you the effort, in this article, we’ve detailed everything you need to know to make your trip a breeze! From where to camp (campgrounds, backpacking, and dispersed car camping) to the best hikes, we’ve got you covered.
Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, and we’ve been road tripping across the United States, making a new place our home month to month. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking and exploring new places!
In these article, we’ve organized all the resources we think you will find useful in planning your trip to Death Valley, from where to camp, must-see stops and the best hikes. Here’s an overview of what you will find in this article:
About Death Valley National Park
About Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, spanning over 3.3 million acres in Southern California and into Nevada. Originally established as a national monument in 1933, Death Valley was officially designated as a national park in 1994. The park is most well known as the hottest place on Earth, with the highest temperature ever recorded of 134°F.
Before planning our trip to Death Valley, we had a vision of the area as a barren desert wasteland and not much else. But, there is so much more in Death Valley! We were completely surprised by the vast array of geological formations. From salt flats and sand dunes to craters and rugged, red-toned mountains, the geological formations in Death Valley are otherwordly and unique.
As an example, elevation changes within the park are extreme. From the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak, which rises to 11,043 feet above sea level, you can see the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, as well as Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.
Death Valley Entrance Fees
Entrance to the park costs $30 per vehicle, and tickets are valid for 7 days. Alternatively, you may opt to purchase an annual pass Death Valley National Park pass for $55, or an annual U.S. National Park pass for $80, giving you access to all national parks in the United States for one year. You may purchase an annual pass at the park entrance, or in advance online at REI.
Best Time to Visit Death Valley
Winter is a great time to visit Death Valley. From December to January, average high temperatures fall in the mid to upper 60’s with lows in the 30’s-40’s. If you are looking for a winter getaway with warm temperatures, Death Valley is the perfect location! However, note that snow will still cover the higher elevations in the winter, and some roads may be impassible.
Spring (February – April) and Fall (October – November) are also good times to visit Death Valley, as temperatures are relatively mild. However, beware that in late spring and early fall, temperatures can still get very hot and the strong sun can make it feel sweltering! Expect highs in the 70’s – 90’s and lows in the upper 40’s-60’s.
Summer (May – September) in Death Valley is extreme. Highs easily reach 120°F, with lows often not falling below 90°F. It is best to avoid planning a trip to Death Valley in the summer, especially if you wish to hike. Rain is sparse, but occasional thunderstorms can cause flash flooding.
Death Valley Map – Campsites, Hikes & Key Sights
Death Valley is HUGE! Choosing the most efficient way to get around can be daunting. To help you plan your trip, we’ve compiled a map which shows all the front country campgrounds, easily accessible dispersed camping, the can’t miss hikes hikes and key highlights of the park. You will find:
- Front country campgrounds: Red
- Dispersed camping: Green
- Hikes/Attractions: Blue
Road Trip Logistics
Due to the expansive size of Death Valley National Park, road trips require a bit more advance planning. Convenience stores and gas stations are few and far between, so be sure to plan ahead if you plan to spend a few days in the park.
Where to get gas
Be sure to fill up your gas tank before entering Death Valley. The park is enormous and not the place you want to be stuck with a low gas light. There are two gas stations in the park: one at Furnace Creek and one at Stovepipe wells. However, be warned that these gas stations are prone to running out of gas, so do not count on filling up inside the park, and prices are extremely high compared to outside the park!
If you are camping in the park, it’s best to come prepared with all the food, water and toiletries you will need for the duration of your stay. There is a market in Stovepipe wells that sells the basics – snacks, drinks, and basic necessities in case you forget something, or have a craving for an ice cold Diet Coke…
Where to Stay in Death Valley
Since Death Valley is so large, staying inside the park is really the best option. There are 9 established campgrounds available, ample opportunities for dispersed camping and a few hotel options inside Death Valley National Park.
Camping in Death Valley
Front county and back country camping options are available within Death Valley National Park. Reservations are not typically available in advance, either for front country or back country camping, but can be made in some cases.
Front Country Camping
There are 9 front country campsites in Death Valley with amenities like restrooms, running water, picnic tables and fire rings. All campgrounds, with the exception of Furnace Creek, are available only on a first-come, first-serve basis. Furnace Creek accepts advance reservations during peak season, October 15 to April 15. During peak season, you will need to arrive fairly early to get a first-come, first-serve campsite on the weekend. This is particularly true on Saturdays, since many people come on Friday and stay for the weekend.
Below is a list of front country campgrounds, with hikes and other attractions nearby
- Mesquite Spring: Ubehebe Crater
- Stovepipe Wells: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe Wells General Store
- Furnace Creek: Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, Zabriskie Point
- Sunset: located right at the trailhead for Golden Canyon
- Texas Spring: At Furnace Creek
- Wildrose: Telescope Peak hike (the closest you can get if Thorndike and Mahogany Flat are closed)
- Mahogany Flat: located at the trailhead for Telescope Peak (closed during the winter)
- Thorndike: located about 1.5 miles from the trailhead to Telescope Peak (closed during the winter)
- Emigrant: Panamint Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon (tents only)
For complete details on campground amenities and fees, visit the National Park Service.
The night before ort hike to Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley, we stayed at the Wildrose Campground. We arrived around 4:00 on a Friday and got the last available spot. The scenery around the campsite was nice, although nothing spectacular, and the sites felt a little close together. But all-in-all, a good place to spend the night if you are hoping to reach the summit of Telescope Peak. Read more about how to hike to the tallest point in Death Valley here.
Back Country Camping in Death Valley
As there are no maintained backcountry campsites, backpacking options are limited in Death Valley, although there are a few popular spots, such as the Panamint Sand Dunes. Permits for camping in the backcountry in Death Valley are free and voluntary, although they are strongly recommended and take just a moment to complete. We always filled them out for the peace of mind in knowing that rangers were aware of where we were camping and when we expected our trip to end. Backcountry permits may be completed online here.
We spent one eventful night in the backcountry at the Panamint Sand Dunes and would highly recommend it! After a bit of a journey down a bumpy road and a 3.5 mile hike, you will be surrounded by amazing dunes, and will likely have the place to yourself. There is always space to find solitude in the expansive Death Valley backcountry!
- Read more about how to spend an epic night on the Panamint Sand Dunes here.
Dispersed Camping in Death Valley
There are many options for dispersed car camping on specific dirt roads throughout Death Valley. In all areas, you must be parked at least 1 mile from the main road. Some dirt roads do not allow camping, so be sure to check before you go (it may also be easiest to check with a park ranger). A few great options for dispersed camping include:
- Lake Hill Road: access to Panamint Sand Dunes hike, road is rough (high clearance is necessary, 4×4 is not)
- Racetrack Road: camping is permitted beyond 2 miles , road is rough (high clearance is necessary, 4×4 is not for the first several miles)
- Echo Canyon: a great option if Furnace Creek campground is full, located across the road from Zabriskie Point and provides easy access to Badwater Basin, Artist’s Drive, and Golden Canyon
- Hole in the Wall Road: another good option near Furnace Creek
- Upper Wildrose Road: close to the trailhead for Telescope Peak, a good alternative if Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flat campgrounds are full
While you won’t have the amenities (running water, fire pit, restrooms, etc.) of a campground, dispersed camping is almost guaranteed to be quieter and more peaceful than a campground. Furthermore, some of the coolest sunsets we watched in Death Valley were from dispersed campsites down remote dirt roads.
We spent one night on Racetrack Road and one night on Hole in the Wall Road. Both had plenty of space for dispersed camping. Racetrack Road was probably a bit more scenic than Hole in the Wall, although the road was definitely rougher. But both are great places to stay if you are in the area.
- You can find a complete list of roads in Death Valley where dispersed camping is permitted here.
Hotels/Lodging inside the park
If camping isn’t your thing, there are a few hotels and lodges available inside the park:
- Stovepipe Wells Village: a small town featuring a restaurant, saloon, general store, hotel and campground, centrally located near Mesquite Sand Dunes.
- The Oasis at Death Valley: a fancier hotel tucked away among a forest of palm trees, centrally located near many Death Valley attractions. It features the Inn at Death Valley, an luxury hotel, and the Ranch at Death Valley, a more casual but still nice motel.
- Panamint Springs Resort: Small village near the southwest entrance of the park that offers motel rooms, small cabins, RV parking and camping .
Accommodations outside Death Valley
Unfortunately, convenient options for accommodations located nearby but outside the park are limited. Due to the enormous size of Death Valley, it can take a couple hours just to get from one destination to another inside the park! Below are a few options:
- Ridgecrest, California: located 1 hour 15 minutes from Panamint Springs.
- Lone Pine, California: also located about 1 hour 15 minutes from Panamint Springs.
- Bakersfield, California: about 3 hours from the southeast entrance to Death Valley.
- Beatty, Nevada: located just 10 minutes from the north entrance to the park, but honestly there isn’t much here and I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Las Vegas, Nevada: about 2 hours from the north entrance to the park.
We’d recommend staying in either Ridgecrest or Lone Pine. We spent a month living in Ridgecrest, and visited Lone Pine many times. Ridgecrest is a larger city that feels safe, clean and has all the necessities. Lone Pine is a cute, small town with a few good restaurants and shops.
What to do in Death Valley
With over 3.3 million acres of land and a vast variety of unique landscapes, there is so much to explore in Death Valley. From strenuous hikes to quick stops, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite experiences in Death Valley.
Can’t miss sights in Death Valley
- Badwater Basin: salt flats at the lowest point in North America, with elevation of 282 feet below sea level.
- Ubehebe Crater: a 600 foot crater caused by a volcanic explosion hundreds of years ago. The crater can be seen from the parking lot, and you can also hike around the rim and to the bottom of the crater.
- Artist’s Drive: a scenic 9-mile drive featuring colorful sandy hills, including the popular Artist’s Palette.
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: the largest and most popular sand dunes in the park. While they are beautiful, don’t expect to find any solitude or sand that hasn’t been trampled by preceding visitors.
- Zabriskie Point: popular viewpoint overlooking the Badlands and the famous Manly Beacon.
Best hikes in Death Valley
- Badwater Basin: an easy 2 mile roundtrip walk out to the salt flats of Badwater Basin. To beat the crowds, start your morning early with a sunrise hike out to the flats. We were the second group of people on the flats and loved watching the sun slowly rise over the surrounding mountains!
- Darwin Falls: an easy 1.9 mile hike that leads to a real desert oasis, featuring a lush forest and waterfall.
- Mosaic Canyon: an easy-moderate 3.5 mile hike through a marbled canyon, with some fun and easy rock scrambling required. This is a popular hike so don’t expect much solitude.
- Golden Canyon Loop: a moderate 2.9 mile hike through a beautiful stretch of land with rippling wave-like golden-hued walls, expansive red rock formations in the distance, and a characteristic desert vibe.
- Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point: moderate 6.8 mile hike that combines several smaller trails into one incredible loop, giving you a behind-the-scenes tour of the view from the famous Zabriskie Point. We did this hike and loved it! Read more about this epic adventure here.
- Panamint Sand Dunes: moderate, 8 mile roundtrip hike to one of Death Valley’s lesser known (but still incredible!) sand dunes. One of our favorite experiences in all of our travels was watching the sunrise over the mountains and valley after spending an eventful night camping on the dunes. Read more about why you should backpack (or hike!) to Panamint Sand Dunes here.
- Corkscrew Peak: challenging, very steep 7 mile hike up to a summit with stunning 360 degree views of the rugged red Grapevine mountains. One of the best views in Death Valley, read more about how to reach Corkscrew Peak here.
- Telescope Peak: a strenuous 14 – 18 mile hike to the tallest point in Death Valley, at an altitude of 11,040 feet, with views all the way down to Badwater Basin. To learn how to complete this epic adventure, read our article on the hike to Telescope Peak.
Other tips for visiting Death Valley
- Print out a map or pick one up from one of the visitor centers or ranger’s stations. There is no cell service in the vast majority of the park, so once you’re here, don’t count on your phone to navigate around.
- Fill up on gas before entering the park. There are gas stations location at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, but these stations sometimes run out of gas and are expensive. Best to have a full tank before entering.
- To beat the crowds, plan to visit the most popular places as sunrise. Like the majority of National Parks, the most popular sites in Death Valley can get very crowded during peak season (October through April for Death Valley). Luckily, most tourists aren’t out and about before sunrise.
- Skip the campground in favor of dispersed camping. During peak season, the campgrounds fill up early. Unless you plan to take time out of your day to snag a campsite, you are likely to be out of luck. Save some time driving from campground to campground and plan on camping on one of the many roads where dispersed camping is permitted in Death Valley.
- Get off the beaten track. Don’t get me wrong, Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Dunes are incredible. But there are so many unique landscapes in Death Valley just waiting to be explored! Escape the crowds with a hike to Corkscrew Peak, camping at Panamint Dunes and find the best views in the park from Telescope Peak.
- Plan to visit during the winter. If you are like us, you’re always looking for somewhere warm to spend time outdoors during the winter. Death Valley makes for the perfect winter getaway! Temperatures in the summer are unbearable, so best to visit from November to March.
Death Valley Packing List
There are a few essentials you don’t want to forget for your trip to Death Valley:
- U.S. National Parks Pass: gives you annual access to all U.S. National Parks for $80
- Sunscreen: even when temperatures feel relatively cool, the sun here is very strong. We got burned when we least expected, so be prepared and layer up with sunscreen before heading out for the day.
- Printed maps: as mentioned before, you will not have cell service in most of the park.
- Hiking poles: many of the trails here are steep with loose gravel that makes for dangerous footing. Hiking poles can help you maintain balance and take some pressure off the knees (We use Black Diamond poles, and can’t imagine hiking without them!).
- A strong tent with stakes: we don’t always stake our tent down if we know the weather is calm and we are getting right in, but in Death Valley it’s absolutely necessary. The winds here are insane, and if you wish to still have shelter by morning, you’ll need a sturdy tent that can be staked down (It’s nothing fancy, but our Rei Co-op Trail Hut has done us well).
- Extra water: in case it wasn’t obvious, there is no water available in the desert! Pack extra water, more than you think you will need, particularly if you are planning to backpack or dispersed camp.
- Wag bags: the pack-in-pack-out rule applies everywhere in the park, which means what comes in must go out (and yes, that includes your #2!).
- Camping Stove: Fires are allowed only in fire rings at campgrounds, so if you plan to dispersed camp or backpack, you’ll need to bring a camping stove (We love our Jetboil Flash).
- GPS device: this is especially important if you are planning to backpack or dispersed camp down a bumpy dirt road. Death Valley is incredibly remote – in the unlikely event of an emergency, it’s best to be prepared. (Our Garmin inReach Mini has given us invaluable peace of mind hiking and backpacking in remote locations).
Other Death Valley Resources
Planning a trip to Death Valley? We think you may find some of these resources useful:
- 9 Best Things to do in Death Valley & How to Escape the Crowds
- How to Hike to Telescope Peak: A Epic Journey to the Tallest Point in Death Valley National Park
- How to Hike the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point Loop: One of the Best Hikes in Death Valley
- Backpacking to the Panamint Sand Dunes: A Complete Guide
- How to Hike Corkscrew Peak: Stunning Mountain Views in Death Valley
For all things California: California Travel Guide
If you have questions about camping, hiking, or anything Death Valley, feel free to reach out – we’re happy to help however we can!