When you hear of Death Valley National Park, the first thing that comes to mind is most likely that it’s the hottest region in the United States. Because of that and the fact that its name has the word ‘death’ in it, it may not be the first place in mind when travelers search for their next destination.
But truth be told, Death Valley National Park is truly one of the best natural wonders in Southern California, let alone the world.
There truly is so much to enjoy in Death Valley National Park – mesquite sand dunes, countless hiking trails, colorful hills, salt flats, and much more. To help you on your journey, this Death Valley itinerary will give you everything you need to spend 2 days in Death Valley: what to do, the best hikes to enjoy, where to stay, how to get there, and more. Let’s dig in.
What is Death Valley National Park?
Before you go, it’s probably best to know what Death Valley is in the first place.
Death Valley National Park is a huge desert located in eastern Southern California, USA. The desert spans over 3 million acres and is mostly known for its beautiful landscape, fun hikes, very hot temperatures (not all year round), and even diverse wildlife.
On top of being the hottest place in the United States, Death Valley National Park is also home to the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, which sits at 282 feet below sea level.
Death Valley offers countless activities for outdoor enthusiasts such as hiking, camping, stargazing, and beautiful drives. There are many species of animals that live here, from coyotes and sheep to jackrabbits and even fish. All in all, Death Valley National Park is truly a natural wonder and is a must-see hot spot (literally) for anyone looking to experience the beauty and diversity of the American Southwest.
Where to Stay in Death Valley National Park
While you can find accommodations in the Death Valley area, there aren’t too many to choose from. If you’re camping, there are countless camping grounds littered throughout Death Valley National Park.
However, if you’re wanting to stay in a hotel, some notable options include The Inn at Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, Delight’s Hot Springs Resort, and The Ranch at Death Valley.
Getting to Death Valley National Park
The two major cities that are nearest to Death Valley are Las Vegas and Los Angeles. If you’re coming from Las Vegas, it will take about two hours to get to Death Valley by car, either by taking the US-95 through the city of Beatty or the CA-193 through the city of Pahrump.
If you’re coming from Los Angeles, it will take roughly 4-5 hours to get there by taking the I-15 N through the city of Cantil and then taking the CA-127 N.
Day 1: Visitor Center, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and Artist’s Drive
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
To start off the first day in Death Valley National Park, most visitors find it helpful to make a pit stop at one of the park’s visitor centers, and Furnace Creek Visitor Center is easily one of the most popular options in Death Valley.
Here at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, you can ask the park rangers for general tips and info, make a restroom pit stop, grab a physical map of Death Valley National Park, and more. There are a few other visitor centers nearby as well, including the Beatty Information Center and Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center.
However, the Furnace Creek Visitors Center is the only visitor center that is physically located within Death Valley National Park.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Now it’s time to really start your first day in Death Valley! In this itinerary, you’ll start off the trip by exploring one of the desert’s most iconic attractions: the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Unlike most of Death Valley’s terrain which is rather rocky and mountainous, the Mesquite Sand Dunes offer a stunning contrast in that they showcase soft and sandy rolling hills. As you can expect, these sand dunes are very popular for photography enthusiasts and social media influencers to snap some amazing pics.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are accessible from Highway 190, and there’s a parking lot where you can leave your vehicle.
The sand dunes cover roughly 14 square miles or roughly 640 acres, so most visitors tend to only explore the first few miles that are accessible right near the highway. Keep in mind that the sand dunes naturally tend to get very hot during the day, especially if you’re visiting Death Valley in the summer months.
Make sure to bring lots of water, some sunscreen, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Wear comfortable shoes since the sand can get hot, and it’s not easy to walk on. That means no open-toed shoes or sandals.
There are a few trails that you can follow to explore the sand dunes, but the easiest and most popular option by far is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Trail. Just a quick 2-mile in-and-out trail, the path takes you through the heart of the dunes and is marked along the way to ensure you don’t lose yourself along the way.
You can explore at your own pace, of course, but completing the trail tends to take about an hour to complete.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Once you’ve soaked in the beauty of the Mesquite Sand Dunes, continue your day trip by heading south to Badwater Basin and the Badwater Basin Salt Flats, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The Badwater Basin is famous for, you guessed it, the Badwater Basin Salt Flats that cover a whopping area of about 200 square miles.
The salt flats were formed when the water that once filled the basin evaporated, leaving behind a thick layer of salt.
There’s a boardwalk that takes you to the middle of the salt flats, where you can get some incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The boardwalk is ADA-accessible, and it’s an easy walk for everyone regardless of age or fitness level. Make sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen since there’s no shade on the salt flats.
To round out your first day in Death Valley National Park, take a (very) scenic cruise through Artist’s Drive, a one-way road that takes you through a vibrant and colorful canyon. The road is roughly 9 miles long and should only take about 20 minutes to drive all the way through.
As the name implies, the canyon is famous for its rock formations that are adorned with vibrant hues of red, aqua, pink, and other colors.
There are several pull outs along the road where you can stop and snap some pics or soak in the views. By a long shot, the most popular pullout on Artist’s Drive is the Artist’s Palette.
Artist’s Palette is an amazing viewpoint that showcases an amazing masterpiece-of-a-view of colorful rocks. The many colors in the Artist’s Palette formation are due to the oxidation of mineral deposits which have been exposed over time due to violent winds, heat, and rain.
Word of caution: Artist’s Drive is rather narrow and winding in nature, so make sure to drive cautiously and keep a healthy space between yourself and other vehicles on the road.
Read also: Guide to Plan the Perfect Southwest Road Trip
Day 2: Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and Golden Canyon
Start your second day in Death Valley National Park by catching a sunrise at Zabriskie Point, one of the most popular viewpoints in the entire Death Valley region. The view from Zabriskie Point offers a panoramic view of the surrounding badlands, making it the perfect spot for photographers and influencers to catch an otherworldly Death Valley ‘Golden Hour’.
Zabriskie Point is easily accessible from Highway 190, and there’s a paved parking lot area where you can park your car.
There’s a short paved trail that takes you to Zabriskie Point, and it’s an easy walk for all ages and fitness levels. Since there is almost no light pollution in Death Valley, be sure to bring a flashlight since it can be rather dark before sunrise.
Being super popular, Zabriskie Point can get crowded during the peak season (between October and April), so be sure to arrive as early as possible for the best viewpoint.
After watching the sunrise at Zabriskie, make your way over to Dante’s View. Yet another famous stop in Death Valley National Park that offers an amazing view, Dante’s View is actually one of the highest points in the park, contrasting Badwater Basin.
Dante’s View is about 13 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek area and offers a picture-perfect 360 view of the valley floor and surrounding mountains. Because Dante’s View is accessible through a rather steep and narrow road, it’s not recommended if you’re traveling with large RVs or trailers.
There’s a parking lot once you drive up to the viewpoint. From there, you can take a short hike on the trail that leads you to the edge of this amazing overlook. The trail is relatively easy, and should only take about 10-20 minutes to hike.
Because Dante’s Point is high in altitude, it naturally can be chilling in the morning and/or evening. Make sure to bring warm clothing and sun protection (sunscreen) to protect yourself from the full-on sun.
Golden Canyon Trail
The Golden Canyon Trail is so beautiful, it almost looks fake.
To end your second day in Death Valley, head over to the Golden Canyon Hike, one of the most popular hikes in the park. The Golden Canyon trailhead is located roughly 3 miles south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road, and there’s a well-paved parking lot for you to leave your vehicle.
The longest hike on this itinerary, Golden Canyon Trail comes in at about 4.4 miles if you complete the full roundtrip. This doesn’t mean that the trail is hard, however. In fact, the Golden Canyon hike is relatively easy and should only take you about 2-3 hours to finish- depending on your pace of course.
The Golden Canyon hike takes you through a canyon that truly showcases Death Valley National Park’s beauty, complete with unique rock formations, vibrant colors, and unrivaled views of the surrounding Death Valley mountains.
As with the other hikes in Death Valley, Golden Canyon Trail can get rather hot during the day. Make sure to bring lots of water, some sunscreen, and a hat, especially since there’s no shade on the trail.
The trail can also be rocky and uneven, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes. You can even see some wildlife here on this hike- just be sure to watch out for rattlesnakes!
Bonus: Darwin Falls
Photo by Wayfare With Pierre
If you still have time and you’re up for some more adventure after your Golden Canyon hike, hit up a waterfall! Yes: surprisingly, Death Valley has a few waterfalls to enjoy despite being the hottest place in the U.S.
Situated southwest of the Panamint Springs area, Darwin Falls stays green and vibrant for much of the year, a stark contrast to the rest of Death Valley National Park’s sandy and rocky terrain. The dirt road getting to the waterfall is not paved, so it’s best to visit Darin Falls if you have an SUV or larger vehicle with some clearance from the ground.
However, regular vehicles do often reach the falls just fine. There is also a parking area once you reach the end.
To get to Darwin Falls, take the two-mile trail down the canyon. While not marked, the trail is well-beaten so there’s little concern about getting lost.
With each step, you’ll notice the view becomes greener and greener, with more cattails and other water plants to be found. Once you reach the end, you’ll see the beautiful 18-foot waterfall that splits in two as it reaches the bottom.
Important note: Darwin Falls is a drinking water source for residents of the Panamint Springs Resort. Therefore, there is absolutely no swimming allowed here to protect the amazing yet fragile quality of the water.
Essential Tips for Visiting Death Valley National Park
Bring plenty of water
Let there be no mistaking: Death Valley National Park system is hot. In fact, it’s one of the hottest places in the U.S. and on Earth.
To err on the side of caution, be sure to bring lots of water with you along the way, and have extra water with you in your vehicle when you’re exploring the park.
As a guide, Death Valley Park officials recommend bringing at least one gallon of water per person per day. The last thing you want to happen is to have no water if your car stalls on you in the middle of the desert.
Check the weather
Speaking of weather, the conditions in Death Valley can suddenly change at any given moment. Although hot and dry for most of the year, Death Valley has been known to experience flash floods, strong winds, and more.
Make sure to check the weather forecast before you set out on your way to Death Valley so you can plan accordingly.
Wear sunscreen and a hat
Continuing on the topic of Death Valley’s weather, the sun tends to be intense and direct, with little to no cloud or tree coverage to provide shade. To avoid getting sunburned, be sure to bring sunscreen with you and wear a hat when roaming the park.
Cell service is virtually nonexistent
Depending on your service carrier, there’s a good chance you won’t have any cell signal once you reach Death Valley. It may be spotty at best, so be sure to prepare for this accordingly. This could be the perfect opportunity for a digital detox.
Keep in mind that the GPS on your phone will still work just fine, just as long as you cache/save the map of Death Valley National Park on your phone beforehand. This can usually be done by simply using the GPS app to navigate your way to Death Valley- it should save the map automatically.
To be safe, you may want to stop by a gas station, convenience store, or visitor center to pick up a physical map.
Keep your gas tank full
Since gas stations are scarce in Death Valley, be sure to fill up your gas tank every chance you get. The two primary places to find gas in the park are Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, with gas prices being comparable in both places.
Keep in mind that your cell phone service will be almost nonexistent in Death Valley National Park. If you run out of gas and end up stranded in the park, you will most likely be unable to call for help.
Respect local wildlife
Death Valley National Park is home to a surprisingly wide variety of wildlife, such as snakes, coyotes, sheep, scorpions, and even fish.
While it’s absolutely okay (and encouraged) to admire them from afar, be sure to keep a safe distance and avoid interrupting their natural habitat. That includes feeding them since foods unnatural to their environment can do more harm than good to them.
Leave Death Valley the way you found it
Don’t let the rugged and rocky terrain fool you. Death Valley National Park is actually a very fragile ecosystem, and many of the wonders of the park took hundreds if not thousands of years to be formed.
Therefore, it’s absolutely important to keep it untouched and beautiful for other visitors and generations to enjoy. As a general rule of thumb, follow the Leave No Trace rule of thumb and be sure to leave no trash or other unnatural items behind.
Rounding Up This 2-Day Death Valley Itinerary
Death Valley National Park is an immensely beautiful and unique work of art that offers many activities, hikes, and experiences for visitors to enjoy. From the rare rock formations to sandy dunes and everything in between, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most popular national parks in the United States.
If you’re planning to visit Death Valley for a couple of days, make sure to follow this itinerary. This two-day Death Valley itinerary covers the best hikes and highlights that the park has to offer in a rather short time to ensure that you can fully experience the wonder of the park.
Remember to bring water galore, wear sunscreen and a hat, and respect the land and wildlife. With proper planning and preparation, you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience in Death Valley National Park that you’ll look back on for years.
Pierre is your average, everyday digital nomad. Join him on his blog Wayfare with Pierre as he travels the world, giving you the best tips and pointers on destinations, cheap travel, and remote working from your laptop.