If you want to see Death Valley in a day, then it calls for a very very early start. By 8am you should already be at the park. This depends on where you’re from. It was a bit over a 4 hours drive from Los Angeles. I spent two days in Death Valley; one night camping at Furnance Creek (highly recommended). But if you have no time, one should allow you to see some of the coolest things about Death Valley.
One thing that you should know about this national park is that is it is one of the biggest. With more than 3 million acres, it is impossible to see it all in a day. Maybe one must revisit dozens of times or spend at least weeks here to see “everything”, but maybe not even then.
This quick itinerary is perfect if you’re doing a drive from LA north and want a detour through the national park or if you’re driving from Las Vegas to northern California. This will show you the lowest point in the country, the rawness and the strangeness of the desert, and the classic sand dune view that you probably expect of a desert.
good to know
- Death Valley is very hot from April to October. it can be consistently over 100 degrees every single day of the summer. Best time to visit is the winter months from November to March. Death Valley can also be very cold at night and during the day at the peak of winter in January and February.
- there’s no shade…like at all
- the road is paved and well maintained in Death Valley
- there are 4 main roads that lead you into the park, depends on where you’re coming from but they all eventually lead to the same attractions and points of interest
- Death Valley has a developed visitor center where you can get water and snacks.
- Entrance fee required, pay at the visitor center.
- Food services available at the Stovepipe Wells resort
stops on this day trip
- Shoshone Museum
- Badwater Basin
- Devil’s Golf Course
- Ashford Mill
- Artist Drive & Palette
- Golden Canyon
- Mesquite Sand Dunes
- Ubehebe Crater
day trip overview
- require all day; should be at the park around 8am to maximize your day
- a lot of driving
- Start from 178 Hwy at Shoshone, CA and ends at Ubehebe Crater
- If you look on google maps, it will not recommend you to take this route. Most likely, it will tell you to drive up 395 to Lone Pine to get into the park, but i suggest to look at the park map. This route makes sense because instead of getting to Stovepipe wells then have to drive south in the park to get to all of these attractions, you will enter the south entrance of the park instead which will minimize driving.
- This road trip is perfect for south-north road trip bound. You can do this in reverse if you’re driving toward Las Vegas, Nevada, or Southern California
- please orient yourself with this map of Death Valley to help you fully understand this itinerary
stop 1: shoshone museum (15 – 30 mins)
From LA, Orange County, Riverside, and San Diego area, you can take the I-15 North toward Vegas or south if you’re coming from Vegas, then make the turn off at HWY 127. Drive to the town of Shoshone. There’s a small museum in the town that you can stop by for a few minutes. This isn’t a part of the national park, but it’s worth visiting because of the Mammoth Skeleton.
Notes: you should refill in Baker or you will regret it. Below is the picture of the gas prices at the only station in Shoshone.
stop 2: ashford mill (30 mins)
From shoshone, take the 178 HWY into the park. After Jubilee Pass, you will see an old building ruin. This is Ashford Mill and it is our first stop. Get out, stretch your legs and appreciate the great and vast view of Death Valley. You’ve made it into the park! This hwy is amazingly beautiful and the view is just great. Ashford Mill is one of Death Valley’s easily accessible ruins. There’s a bathroom here as well.
stop 3: badwater basin (30 mins – 1 hour)
This is Death Valley’s single most popular attraction. You must stop here to be considered actually been to the park. When you arrive, please note that you will be standing at the lowest point in the entire North America. Can you believe that you’re really just a couple of hours drive away from the highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney? Badwater Basin is a unique place because it’s so vast and low. This makes the surrounding mountain range looks particularly tall. Take a short walk into the basin and be amazed by what surrounds you.
stop 4: devil’s golf course (15 – 30 mins)
From badwater basin, drive a bit further north to the devil’s golf course. Similarly to badwater basin, this place is what is left of a large lake. Now it’s just salt everywhere. The amount of salt have create a unique landscape that resembles millions of golf balls on the ground; that’s where they got the name. Exploring in this area can be tricky. The ground is spiky, so don’t trip. The view is equally spectacular and it is a quick stop.
stop 5: artist’s palette (1 hour)
Death Valley isn’t just a big flat land with soil and sand. This area proves to you that a desert can be amazingly colorful. Volcanic explosion created this multi-color rocks canyon on a face of the black mountain. It’s a unique site in the park. From here, you will do a short detour off the main road onto a well graded dirt road. Park near the palette and take a short walk.
stop 6: Natural Bridge and Dry falls (2 hours)
From artist’s palette drive north and the dry falls will be on your left. A good sign will direct you. This is a short hike deep into the canyon. The hike is easy and flat. From the parking lot, you will march into the canyon. There are a three points of interest; the natural bridge, waterfalls 1, and waterfalls 2. The golden canyon used to be filled with water! Yes, you’re walking in what used to be dozens of feet under water. You will see a natural bridge, kind of an arch rock, and two evidences of what used to be waterfalls. It’s extremely scenic.
(Check with ranger if this destination is still accessible from Shoshone road as it is occasionally closed)
stop 7: mesquite sand dunes (30 mins – 2 hours)
Drive north from golden canyon and keep going toward Stovepipe Wells. There’s a sign that direct you. Right before you get to stovepipe wells, the unmissable huge sand dunes will present itself on your right. Park your car and march into the dunes. This is a classic desert hike. A desert trip wouldn’t be completely if you don’t get your backpack filled up with sand. This area is high remote and there’s no trail. It is impossible to get lost though because there’s no tree or anything to block your view. The parking lot will never leave your sight. The dunes are spectacular and it really offers you a moment of solitude and a vast 360 view of the park. You’re quite literally in the middle of it all here. If you choose not to hike, you can see the dunes from the parking lot. But where’s the fun?
Now it’s time to decide, you can continue on the road and leave the national park and head toward Lone Pine, Ca and continue on your road trip or you may choose to explore the park a little more. If you have the time, i highly recommend that you make a long detour to Ubehebe Crater.
EXTRA stop 8: ubehebe crater (2 hours)
From Mesquite Sand Dunes, turn left back to where you came from. Get on the Scotty’s Castle Road. This drive will take an hour to get to the crater. You will park your car right at the mouth of the volcano! You can take a short 1 mile walk around the rim. If you still have energy left, be sure to hike down into the crater!
From the crater, you can continue on the road north on the dirt road and connect with Joshua Flat road toward Big Pine, which is nearby Yosemite National Park.
That’s the ultimate one day trip through Death Valley! I recommend that you spend at least a night or two here to absorb it all in. It’s truly a magnificent park. Other than what i’ve mentioned above, other must-do’s in Death Valley are Scotty’s Castle, Eureka Dunes, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, Telescope Peak, and the famous sliding rocks at the racetrack playa. But these places will require an additional day each. Just more reasons for you to go back!
Other cool things to do within a couple of hours drive from Death Valley
- Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp (largest interment camp during WWII)
- Horseshoe Meadows (wilderness backpacking trailhead – kings canyon national park)
- Mt. Whitney (tallest mountain in the lower 48 states)
- Onion Valley (wilderness backpacking trailhead – sequoia national park)
- Bristlecone Pine Ancient Forest (oldest living thing on earth)
- Devil’s Postpile National Monument (super duper cool rocks; john muir trail)
- Tuolumne Meadows (high country Yosemite National Park)
- Alabama Hills (most filmed desert location in the country)
other desert parks in california