Looking to venture out into the extremes? A Death Valley day trip hits the spot! While you can easily spend several days in the hottest place on earth, you can also hit the highlights in a day. If you are visiting Las Vegas, this national park is the perfect day trip!
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Best Time For A Death Valley Day Trip
Summers in the Mojave desert are scorching hot. The highest temperature of any place in the world ever was recorded in this otherworldly national park in June 2013. It was 134 Fahrenheit, that’s a balmy 54 Celsius. Summer is not the time to hike and explore, though it’s perfectly feasible to take a trip and only make quick stops. Be extremely cautious though!
The best time for a Death Valley day trip is November through March. If you get very, very lucky, you will see the valley in bloom. About once every decade, this inhospitable desert fills with wildflowers. But don’t count on it! The most recent bloom happened in 2016.
You can absolutely rent a car and visit Death Valley by yourself, and if you want to spend more time, and possibly go hiking, that’s what you should do. However, for a Death Valley day trip I highly recommend booking a tour. I have done both, and I enjoyed the tour a lot more, because our guide was very knowledgeable, and learning about Death Valley’s climate, history, wildlife, and terrain was so interesting. A tour is also the smart choice if you decide to go in the summer. You’ll stay plenty cool in the tour vehicle, and the guide will provide you with loads of water and make sure you don’t wander off into the desert when it’s 100 plus degrees.
On another note, while it is actually hot enough to fry an egg on the ground, park rangers strongly discourage us visitors from trying that fun trick for ourselves. One park ranger demonstrated this trick, frying an egg in a pan on the ground, which lead to tourists doing the same and leaving a mess of discarded shells and egg cartons.
Be Off To A Fun Start
Death Valley is amazing, but don’t miss the fun stops along the way!
Area 51 Alien Center
No matter if you choose to book a tour for your Death Valley day trip or decide to rent a car and explore by yourself, a very fun stop along the way is the Area 51 Alien Center. In case you haven’t heard of Area 51 and wonder what this is all about: Area 51 is a highly classified United States Air Force facility that’s become synonymous with UFOs and aliens. It’s the object of many conspiracy theories. But don’t be afraid! The little green men you’ll encounter at the Alien Center are friendly (mostly). It’s a good stop to stock up on snacks and water, LOTS of water, and buy fun alien souvenirs!
Next Stop: Rhyolite
Have you ever been to a ghost town? If you have not, stop in Rhyolite on your trip to Death Valley! The town was established in 1904 as a mining town, but it’s decline started very soon thereafter. The financial panic in 1907 lead to the gold ore mines closing and banks failing. By 1910, the population had dwindled to 611. In 1919, the short life of Rhyolite ended and it became a ghost town. It’s been used as a set for several movies. Wander through the old town and imagine what it was like at the height of its boom. And maybe, just maybe, you even see a ghost!
You’ve broken up the long drive to the park with a couple of fun stops, but now you are ready to start your trip!
After a long drive from Las Vegas you finally cross the Nevada/California state line and arrive in Death Valley. Make sure you stop at the iconic Death Valley National Park sign for a quick photo op! There’s not much else to see, time to carry on.
Salt Creek Boardwalk
Here’s another reason not to plan your outing to Death Valley during the summer months. Water is a rarity in the desert, and when we visited in June, the creek had dried out. I was disappointed, because I’d been looking forward to seeing endangered pupfish. But if you visit during the winter, you’ll witness the creek flowing merrily, nurturing a few plants such as Pickleweed, and providing life for a few different species of birds – and the pupfish! If you haven’t heard of pupfish before, take a minute to look them up. They are remarkable little creatures!
Death Valley Visitor Center
Stop at Furnace Creek and stroll through the visitor center. If you haven’t booked a tour for your Death Valley day trip, this is the place to pay your park fees. Chat with the rangers, they can answer all and every question you have. Did you bring your little ones along? Here they have the opportunity to be sworn in as Junior Rangers! If you want to learn more about the Junior Ranger Program, click here.
There are several informative exhibits that you shouldn’t miss, including a 20 minute movie. And, of course, a gift shop! From snacks and water to postcards, t-shirts and books, everyone is guaranteed to find a souvenir they like.
Stop at the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level – Badwater Basin. The landscape here is truly surreal. Nearly 200 miles of salt flats make you feel as if you have landed on the moon. You have a good view from the easily accessible boardwalk. Look up the cliffs of the Black Mountains to the east. Far overhead you will see a sign that indicates sea level.
But for the perfect view you’ll need to hike about 1.5 – 2 miles out onto the flats. This is not an activity you should do if you choose to go on your one day adventure in the desert during the summer months!
Discover why Artist’s Palette is aptly named on your trip. The compounds of volcanic deposits color the hills red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green, creating the beautiful rainbow effect. This is why it is one of the most photographed spots in all of Death Valley! There’s a half mile hike you can do if it isn’t super hot to explore the different shapes and colors in this area.
Now if you are planning to stay inside the national park and not just do a Death Valley day trip, The Oasis is the place to be. This resort is an exclusive desert getaway, the right place to get some R&R after your day’s exploration.
If you aren’t planning to stay here, The Oasis is still well worth a visit. The general store is even better for buying souvenirs than the visitor center at Furnace Creek. The selection is outstanding and includes not just books, t-shirts, and postcards, but also items such as pottery and specialty foods. I bought some very yummy desert tea here, as well as Joshua Tree seeds.
Fun fact: Joshua trees only grow in the Mojave desert of California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona at elevations between 2000 and 6000 feet!
Zabriskie Point is the most popular place to watch sunset and sunrise, and it’s the final stop on your Death Valley day trip. If you do plan to be present here at either dawn or dusk, make sure to book a tour that explicitly includes this. Hike up the (very short) way to the viewpoint and admire the badlands below you. In the distance you can spot the salt flats at Badwater Basin, and beyond tower the Panamint Mountains. Zabriskie Point is another of the most photographed spots in Death Valley.
After that, it’s time to head home – or to your home away from home! A Death Valley day trip covering the most important spots takes about 10 hours, so plan for a long day!
Jenny grew up in Germany. All she ever wanted out of life was to leave and have adventures. Jenny always traveled as much as the budget would allow, and when she met her husband traveling became a full-time thing. You can follow Jenny on her blog and Facebook.