Backpacking to the Panamint Sand Dunes is an amazing way to experience a remote and often-overlooked part of Death Valley National Park. Getting to the dunes requires a little work, but your efforts are likely to be paid off by having the breathtaking area entirely to yourself! With epic views and ever-elusive solitude, backpacking to the the Panamint Sand Dunes is truly an unforgettable experience.
- About the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley
- Panamint Dunes Backpacking Trip
- About Death Valley
- Hike Details
- Backpacking permits
- Choosing a campsite
- Best time to backpack
- Backpacking trip packing list
Overview: the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley
The Panamint Dunes are some of the least visited dunes in Death Valley National Park, primarily because they are more difficult to reach than other dunes. However, because they are more remote, those willing to put in the effort will be rewarded with peace and quiet in a magical place.
The Panamint Sand Dunes are located on the north end of Panamint Valley, to the west of Stovepipe Wells. As you drive across the valley, you can see the dunes perched at the base of the mountains far in the distance.
Stunning views of the surrounding mountains, untouched waves of sand (no foot prints!), and pure serenity overlooking the valley below await those who complete the journey.
Panamint Dunes Backpacking Trip
While the Panamint Sand Dunes can certainly be visited as a day hike, we highly recommend doing a backpacking trip.
An afternoon spent running around the dunes sounds like a great time. But it is no match for star-gazing while laying in the sand or the indescribable shadows the sun casts across the dunes as it slowly rises over the mountains. There may be no cooler place to spend the night!
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.
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 to sand dunes to craters and red, rugged mountains, the landscapes in Death Valley are unique, outlandish, and starkly contrasting.
Panamint Dunes Hike Details
- Hiking distance | 7 miles roundtrip (to the base of the dunes)
- Elevation gain | 859 feet
- Total time | 3 – 5 hours roundtrip (plus additional time at the dunes)
- Backpacking trip length | 2 days/1 night
- Cost | $30 (national park entrance fee)
- Epic-ness rating | 9
- Difficulty | moderate
Find this hike on AllTrails: Panamint Dunes Trail
Getting to the trailhead
The Panamint Dunes trailhead is located at the end of Lake Hill Road, an unmarked, dirt/gravel road off CA-190 in the western part of Death Valley.
Coming from the west, about 4.5 miles after the Panamint Springs RV Resort (which will be on your right), take a left onto the dirt road. Coming from the east, Lake Hill Road will be about 26 miles past Stovepipe Wells.
Continue down Lake Hill Road for 5.6 miles until you run into the parking lot for the trailhead. The road is in decent condition, as far as unpaved roads go, but gets fairly rocky towards the end. A high clearance vehicle is ideal, but as long as you take it slow, you should be able to make it in any car.
Four wheel drive is not necessary, but would be helpful at times. At the least, make sure you have a spare tire available in case you hit a sharp rock at just the wrong angle! Count on an additional 20 – 30 minutes compared to your estimated arrival time if navigating with GPS.
Although the dirt road to the trailhead is a bit cumbersome, the views the entire way are incredible, making it easier to pass the time as you bump and rock your way towards the trailhead.
You can see the dunes perched at the base of the mountains at the north end of the valley and a small foothill off to the left as you drive closer.
Dispersed camping along Lake Hill Road
There are many spots to pull over and camp along Lake Hill Road, the dirt road leading to the trailhead. If you prefer to take on Panamint Sand Dunes as a day hike, you could spend the night dispersed car camping along the road.
It won’t be as epic as sleeping on the dunes, but the views of the valley are still amazing.
Hiking to the Panamint Sand Dunes
You can see the Panamint Dunes from the parking lot. They are located at the base of the mountains on the north side of the valley. They will look like tiny ant hills in the distance.
There is no marked trail from the parking lot to the dunes. Just pack your bag, make sure you have everything you need and head in the direction of the dunes. You can see the dunes very clearly the entire way, so it’s not difficult to navigate.
The area between the parking lot and the dunes is a typical desert vista – sandy, low-lying bushes, some minor ups-and-downs, but nothing too crazy.
You will slowly gain elevation until you reach the dunes. While the elevation gain is fairly easy, walking through sand does add an additional challenge, especially carrying a heavy pack.
When we pulled up to the parking lot, we thought the dunes looked small and deceivingly close. Well, our sense of perspective was totally off – the dunes are huge and almost exactly 3.5 miles away.
Roundtrip, the hike is about 7 miles to the base of the dunes and back. Plan to add at least an additional half mile exploring the dunes.
Spending the night on the Panamint Dunes
Once you get to the dunes, drop your stuff, set up camp and go explore. You will quickly realize that the dunes are large than you expected. It takes a lot of effort to get to the highest dunes, as you sink into the sand with every step!
Our night camping on the dunes turned out to be a bit of a fiasco… but it makes for a crazy story to tell looking back! Originally, we had set up camp at the top of a medium-sized dune.
However, the winds quickly picked up to the point that we were afraid we would be swept off the side of the dune, so we decided to move down to the base.
At the bottom of the dunes, the winds were still strong, but we definitely felt more protected. We decided to start cooking dinner. As our pasta was boiling, we started to feel sporadic drops of rain. Not minutes later, it was torrential down-pouring.
We quickly scrambled to dump our half cooked dinner and pull all our gear inside the tent. There was sand everywhere! We huddled together as extreme winds gusts ripped against the side of the tent, listening to the surreal sound of pelting raindrops in the middle of the desert.
Death Valley is one of the driest places in North America, averaging about 2 inches of rain each year. So of course we managed to find ourselves in a tiny backpacking tent miles from any other human, let alone civilization, on the one night it rained.
Be sure to check the weather before taking off to the Panamint Dunes. You probably won’t be as unlucky as we were but it is best to always be prepared. If there is any chance of rain or thunderstorms in the forecast, it may be best to opt for car camping just to be safe.
Sunrise on the Panamint Dunes
There are no words that can adequately describe the experience of watching the sunrise in complete solitude on the Panamint Sand Dunes.
While our camping experience the night before had made us question why we were here, watching the sunrise from the dunes was the perfect reminder of why we chose to spend the night in the middle of nowhere.
It was magical, unforgettable and overwhelmingly beautiful. The sight of the sun slowly creeping out from behind the mountains, casting long shadows over the peaks of each dune, was absolutely breathtaking. More so, you are likely to have the entire place to yourself (or at most, shared with a few other adventurous souls).
No noise, no footprints, no accidental photobombs. Just you, the sun, the mountains, and the sand.
We woke up about one hour before sunrise, put on a few extra layers (it can be chilly!), and hustled up to the tallest dune. Remember it will take you longer than you realize to walk in the sand!
Once the sun was up and we had taken about a million pictures, we meandered back to the tent, fired up the JetBoil and enjoyed hot coffee and oatmeal. It was a perfect morning!
Tip: don’t forget to check the sunrise time before you leave, so you know what time to set your alarm! There is no cell service on the dunes.
The return hike
After you have enjoyed the sunrise and a warm breakfast, it’s time to pack up your gear and make your way back to the car. The return hike is straightforward – just go back the same way you came. You might even be able to see your car shining in the distance.
It’s about 3.5 miles back to the parking lot and slightly downhill.
Panamint Sand Dunes backpacking logistics
In the section below, we’ll cover all the details you need to know to plan your Panamint Dunes backpacking trip.
While backcountry permits are not required in Death Valley, you can submit a free, voluntary permit to inform the park rangers about your plans in case of a search and rescue or other emergency. The permit form is available online here or at the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station or Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Although the backpacking permit is voluntary, it’s very easy and worth filling out for the peace of mind.
Choosing a campsite
There are no established campsites on the Panamint Dunes. Camp wherever you like!
Remember, we started at the top but wind quickly forced us to lower elevation. You may be comfortable at a higher elevation on a clear night with no winds. However, keep in mind that it can be perfectly calm one minute and extremely windy the next.
It’s probably safer to camp at the base of the dunes to avoid having to scramble in the middle of the night.
Death Valley Entrance fees
Entrance to Death Valley National Park costs $30 per vehicle, and tickets are valid for 7 days. Alternatively, you may opt to purchase an annual 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.
Find more details about entrance fees here.
Backpacking trip difficulty
The Panamint Sand Dunes make for an easy one night/two day backpacking trip or moderate day hike. The 7 mile round trip hike is fairly easy, with some gradual, but hardly noticeable, elevation gain on the way out. The most difficult aspect of the hike is walking through thick sand.
In terms of backpacking trips, getting to the Panamint Sand Dunes isn’t that difficult. While you will need to drive for nearly 6 miles down an unmarked road and hike in 3.5 miles, you can see the dunes from the parking lot, so navigation is a breeze.
Best time to backpack to Panamint Sand Dunes
It goes without saying that Death Valley is extremely hot. Even at night, temperatures can be in the 90’s. Do not try to hike during the summer. Like most hikes in Death Valley, the best time to hike or backpack to the Panamint Sand Dunes is from November through March.
Panamint Dunes packing list
In addition to your typical backpacking gear, it is important to be sure you bring a few additional items for this adventure, including:
Waste Disposal | Biffy Bags
It’s not glamorous, but you must pack out all your waste (that includes your #2!) so be prepared with waste disposal bags. These Biffy Bags do the trick (and they’re actually quite “luxurious” in the backcountry!).
Water | Platypus 2-liter
There are no reliable water sources along the trail, so you’ll need to pack in all the water you need for drinking and cooking. We use these 2-liter Platypus bags to pack extra water on backpacking trips in the desert and have found them to be reliable.
Stuff sacks | Sea to Summit lightweight sacks
Sand will get everywhere! We probably still have sand in the tent, honestly. Bring some stuff sacks to protect any important items you don’t want to get sandy.
Our Backpacking Essentials
Good gear can make all the difference on a backpacking trip. Below we’ve compiled a list of our tried and true backpacking gear essentials – we use these items every time we backpack and couldn’t live without them.
Backpack | 40L Osprey Tempest / 65L Osprey Ariel / 55L REI Co-Op Flash
For one-night backpacking trips, I (Sarah) love my 40L Osprey Tempest! It fits the essentials but is super lightweight. For longer trips and/or carrying more weight, the 65L Osprey is more spacious, really comfortable, and provides more hip support. Matt’s go-to pack for most trips is the lightweight 55L REI Flash.
Backpacking Tent | Mountain Hardwear Aspect 3
A reliable tent makes all the difference in the backcountry, and the Mountain Hardwear Aspect 3 has not let us down. Though it’s not cheap, it’s lightweight (less than 4 pounds), durable, easy to set up and feels spacious enough to fit 2 people comfortably.
Campstove | Jetboil Flash
Picture this: you wake up in the dark in the backcountry, aiming to catch the sunrise somewhere nearby but its so cold you don’t want to get out of bed… then you remember you’ve got a Jetboil and piping hot coffee can be ready within minutes! Morning made.
Coffee | Sea to Summit Collapsible Coffee Filter
If you’re a coffee snob (like me…) who needs *real* coffee in the morning, even in the backcountry, the compact Sea to Summit collapsible filter makes it easy. Pair with the Jetboil Flash and Sea to Summit cups and you’ll have your cup of joe in no time!
Sleeping Bag | REI Co-op Women’s Magma 30 / REI Co-op Men’s Magma 30
At this price point, you can’t beat the REI Co-op Magma 30 (Women’s and Men’s). We both use this sleeping bag, and it’s lightweight enough for backpacking without sacrificing on warmth and durability.
Sleeping Bag Liner | Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner
I’m a very cold sleeper so I often bring this Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner,even for summer nights. It’s super cozy, lightweight, adds 8 degrees of warmth and helps keep your sleeping bag cleaner.
Trekking Poles | Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles / Distance NFZ Trekking Poles
I had always thought trekking poles were silly until one very steep, exposed, slippery hike in Death Valley left me feeling quite insecure even with solid tread on my boots. Immediately after I bought my Black Diamonds and haven’t hiked without them since.
Sleeping pad | Women’s Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad / Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad
I often sleep better on my Therm-a-rest sleeping pad than I do in a hotel bed… this thing is so comfy and weighs only 12 ounces! Only downside I have found is it is a bit noisy if you tend to move in your sleep a lot.
Inflatable Pillow | Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow
This Sea to Summit inflatable pillow is super lightweight and packs down tiny (I’ve actually lost it a few times because it packs down so small), so it’s great for camping and backpacking trips. The best part, it’s shockingly comfortable! I am a light sleeper (in a normal bed), so this is huge for me!
Dehydrated Meals | Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken
Backpacker’s Pantry has a huge variety of dehydrated meals that we’ve found to be surprisingly tasty. The Pad Thai and Chana Masala are our all time favorites!
GPS | Garmin InReach Mini
The one piece of gear you hope you never need to use, but is worth its weight in peace of mind. We always carry our Garmin In-reach Mini in case of emergency in areas without cell service and it gives us (and our parents) peace of mind. It can also be used to simply let a loved one know you’ve arrived at your destination.
Headlamp | Black Diamond Storm 400
Navigating around a campsite is nearly impossible after dark without a headlamp. We both use Black Diamond Storm 400’s, and we’ve found them to be reliable and long-lasting despite the compact size.
Other Useful Resources
Planning a trip to Death Valley? We spent a month in the area, and compiled some resources we think you may find useful:
- Death Valley: 9 Best Things to do in Death Valley & How to Escape the Crowds
- Death Valley: How to Hike Corkscrew Peak in Death Valley
- Death Valley: Ultimate Guide to Death Valley: Camping, Hiking, and Road Trip Logistics
- Death Valley: How to hike to Telescope Peak Hike: Tallest Point in Death Valley
- Death Valley: Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point Loop Hike
- Eastern Sierra: A Treasure Hunt for Alabama Hills Arches
For all things California: California Travel Guide
Questions about backpacking or hiking to the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley? Drop your question in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to help!