Death Valley National Park
This is an amazing guide with unique tips you’ll love before visiting Death Valley National Park. The desert in Death Valley is one of the hottest places on our planet! Between May and September the temperatures reach extreme highs and exceed 115 °F (46 °C). The best time to visit depends on what you’re looking for. The must read sections in this article are (click the links or scroll down for even more tips):
- Spring — Summer — Autumn — Winter
- 9 Must-Know Tips (Summer, Late Spring, Early Fall)
- 3 Must-Visit Places & Top Tips
Spring (March - early May)
Zabriskie Point by Giuseppe Milo, CC BY
This is a very popular time for a visit with pleasant temperatures. On the other hand, spring also brings the most wind. The blowing sand, which may last for days, can make camping uncomfortable. A real attraction is the gorgeous spring wildflowers. However, it’s an exception to see whole the desert filled with all kinds of colorful wildflowers. In some years, there are only a few. Regarding crowds: Keep in mind that spring is also a busy season. It gets very busy during spring break holidays from the last week of March through the week after Easter. Make sure to book well in advance for a spring visit.
Summer (mid-May – September)
Death Valley (July) by Murray Foubister, CC BY-SA cropped
Summer arrives early in Death Valley. In May, the average daily high is already 100 °F (38 °C). June, July, August are even hotter (up to 120 °F), as well as September. At least it’s a dry heat with low humidity, which helps a little. The month of August and early September also bring thunderstorms, sometimes causing dangerous flash floods. Always check the weather forecast. Camping or hiking is not recommended during these months with boiling heat. Hikes during the day in lower elevations are dangerous and can become life threatening because of the extreme temperatures. If you do anything outside at lower elevations: Do it until 10 AM. However, there are two summer hikes at higher elevations which can be done: Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak. Most visitors tour by car on the paved road along the main Points of Interest. Despite the heat, July, and August are the months with the highest visitation from Europe and other continents. However, almost all of them stay in their car for a short tour between 2 hours and half a day or a little more, while stopping at the main viewpoints. Also read the 9 Summer Tips in the section below.
Autumn (October – November)
Death Valley - Badwater Basin (October) by Paxson Woelber, CC BY cropped
Warm but more pleasant temperatures and usually clear skies. You may hike at lower elevations now. But still, start early to avoid the possible midday heat. Ranger programs and camping season begins in October. It’s relatively uncrowded, except for the Death Valley ‘49ers Week and Thanksgiving (both in November).
Winter (December - February)
Death Valley National Park (December) by Rob Rattray, CC BY cropped
Temperatures drop, but it never gets cold in the winter except at higher elevations. However, since it's cooler in the mornings, we suggest that you bring an extra jacket. There is less daylight in Death Valley now, but it usually lasts long enough: Sunset - Sunrise. Employees and park rangers say, the winter months of January and February are among the best months weather-wise. January and February bring the most rain, but it usually doesn’t rain heavily. Soaking rain, going for hours, can happen but it’s the exception. Winters also bring snow to the higher elevations and coat Telescope Peak (Panamint Mountains) in white. December, January and most of February are quieter months. Except for public holidays/holiday weekends (see below: Avoiding Tourist Crowds).
A very helpful weather and climate overview can be downloaded here: Death Valley | NPS | Weather & Climate. Rule of thumb for strenuous and longer outside activities: During summer, stay at higher elevations. During winter: Longer activities at lower elevations are possible. Bring layer of clothes for higher elevations.
Blooming Wildflowers (Highlight)
Death Valley is popular for its fascinating wildflower displays in the spring. However, only when the conditions are perfect you'll see blankets of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. Depending on the winter rain, it can be a great year for wildflowers or a moderate one with less blooming flowers. Check the official website: NPS Death Valley - Wildflowers. Another great website with updates and photos for each year: Death Valley NP Wildflower Reports
Peak Blooming Periods:
- Mid-February - Mid April: Lower elevations (Areas: Jubilee Pass, Highway 190 near the Furnace Creek Inn, base of Daylight Pass)
- Early April - Early May: 2000 to 4000 ft. Elevations (Area: Panamint Mountains)
- Early May - Mid July: Above 4000 ft. Elevations (Area: High Panamints)
Death Valley National Park is a paradise for stargazing. Why? For the best stargazing experience a dark sky is require and Death Valley is certified as the largest Dark Sky National Park in the country by the International Dark Sky Association. The park offers one of the darkest skies in the US. When you get the chance for a visit after dark, do it. It's an incredible once in a lifetime experience. Visitors report, that you can see the Milky Way galaxy almost as clearly as on NASA photos. Watch this intriguing video on YouTube: Death Valley Night Skies.
You might be wondering: Which are the best spots for stargazing at night? In fact the whole valley is excellent as long as you're not very close to buildings or other light sources. However, these are some top spots:
Dante's View: This is our favorite place in the valley for stargazing. Its altitude makes it perfect for sky-watching in the night. Read more details the place itself below. Tip: If you have enough time get there earlier to enjoy the sunset as well as the stars later. Also bring warm clothes, and maybe a blanket as it gets a lot colder up there in the night.
Badwater Basin: Different from Dante's View as you are at the lowest level, but almost equally stunning. The mountains may block the Milky Way view. However, the unique night sky view from the salt flats can't be missed. Especially if you want to take photos which look from out of this world. Read more details about Badwater Basin in general below.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: We have a separate article here. For stargazing this is a perfect spot, since your view isn't obstructed by anything. There is as much dark sky to see as possible from here. The only small downside could be light pollution from cars driving on the close highway.
Harmony Borax Works: It's close to Furnace Creek Visitor Center (Harmony Borax Works Map Location). The big advantage here are the great foreground elements for taking photos, like the mule cart (see the photo above).
For the most stunning stargazing experience you should follow some rules and tips:
- The Best Season: The beautiful dark skies can be observed year-round. However, in winter and spring there are even special ranger tours and programs. Check them here: NPS Death Valley Program
- New Moon: Without a visible moon the sky is much darker, which will greatly enhance stargazing with more visible stars. Preferably visit during new moon: Moon Phases Death Valley Calendar
- No Light Pollution: Try to avoid places with nearby lights from buildings or cars. Since the whole valley is a natural area, it's often easy to walk away from light sources. Walking away 100m from smaller light sources is usually good enough.
- Time: Stay outside for at least an hour. It takes about 20-30 minutes for your eyes to get adjusted to the dark. Then enjoy the spectacular view. Even better with binoculars.
Avoiding Tourist Crowds
The busiest times are: Spring (March/April) - even busier from the last week of March till the week after Easter - and summer from July to August (mostly visitors from Europe and other countries), as well as September. According to a park ranger, the least crowded months are December and January. However, even during low season, it gets busy on certain days: From Christmas to New Year's, on Martin Luther King Day weekend in January, and Presidents' Day weekend in February.
To avoid the crowds at the main points of interest during peak months: We know it’s a challenge, but get up very early and try to reach most destinations around 8 AM, at least before 9 AM. It’s worth it, as you’ll dodge the crowds at beautiful places like Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, etc. In the summer, you’ll not only beat the crowds but the boiling heat as well. On a single morning, you could cover the quick 2-hour tour: Badwater | Zabriskie | Devils Course - Google Maps
Death Valley, the hottest, driest and lowest national park! It's an excellent place to go hiking and discover new things about the desert in the Western United States.
- Badwater Basin is an enormous salt pan which is 282 feet below sea level. You can walk around down there and take pictures at the incredible scenery. The ground is just white everywhere you look.
- The Devils Golf Course is another weird place where the ground is broken up into muddy boulders and pits. It looks like a lunar landscape.
- There are some small canyons in Death Valley that we didn't know existed and there is also an extinct volcanic crater called Ubehebe Crater which you can hike all the down into.
- There are sand dunes there as well. Excellent place for taking pictures.
Sky watching at night is awesome. I suggest bringing your telescope, binoculars, and cameras for that. It is quite a treat. On Veterans Day there is a wagon train that comes right by Furnace Creek Ranch so that was something to see. Overall, Death Valley is an outstanding place to visit but you have to be aware of the temperature extremes. Bring plenty of water on your hikes.
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Guides and Maps
9 Must-Know Tips for the Heat (Summer, Late Spring, Early Fall)
- Water: Carry at least 2 gallons (7 liters) of water for each(!) person in your car. Drink at least 1 gallon each day, even if you don't feel thirsty. Drink more depending on your activities.
- Dehydration: As soon as you feel dizzy or nauseous while being outside, get out of the sun immediately. Dehydration is life threatening! Drink a lot of water and place a wet towel or t-shirt around your neck.
- Shoes/Feet: Do not wear flip-flops or sandals. Wear shoes all the time as the ground can burn your feet when temperature exceeds temperatures of 100°F (38°C) in the desert of Death Valley.
- Hats / Sunscreen: Even if you normally don't wear hats. As soon as you step out of your car, put on a lightweight hat. Always put on sunscreen.
- Driving: Do not leave the paved roads if possible. Always stay on the established roads to the popular places and major attractions in Death Valley. If you have to drive on gravel, slow down! Most accidents on gravel roads can be prevented by slowing down. If you have a flat tire or your car breaks down for any other reason: Stay in the car until help arrives. Never wander away from the car for too long!
- GPS/Cell Phones: Don't rely on your mobile phone or GPS. Mobile phones won't work in most areas in Death Valley. Also do not follow any GPS directions. They often tell visitors to take dangerous shortcuts over desert or even into canyons. Bring a map, study it and ask park rangers or at the visitor center for advice.
- Outside: When arriving at your desired place, you can often enjoy the views from within your vehicle. However, sometimes a short walk is required to get to the viewpoint. Tip: Even if you can view everything from the car; we really think the it's worth stepping outside for a few minutes. For example at Zabriskie Point it's only a short walk of 400m (¼ mile) from the parking lot.
- Heat: It's true that the summer heat in Death Valley can be very dangerous and life threatening. However, you won't fall in a coma after being outside for more than 10 minutes. Of course, a hike at midday can be dangerous and we'd never suggest that. But if you want to stay outside a little longer than 10 minutes during the day it's totally fine. Please remember to follow our tips above regarding shoes, hats, water and dehydration!
- Hiking: It's possible to hike even in the boiling summer months. However, DO NOT hike on the valley floor (Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, etc.) after 10 AM! Don't do longer hikes at all in summer at lower elevations. However, the easy and short ones are possible if you finish them before 10 a.m. and if you bring enough water and protection. For longer hikes: During the very hot months it's only safe if you hike in higher elevations like we described above in the summer section (Wildrose Peak, Telescope Peak). Bring some layer of clothes if you start early, since it's cooler up there.
3 Must-Visit Places (+ Top Tips)
Must-visit places in the desert wonderland of Death Valley are definitely Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point and Dante's View. While Badwater and Zabriskie are close to Furnace Creek, Dante's View is a little more remote. Badwater and Zabriskie can be easily visited together with Devil's Golf Course in 2 hours with your rental car. You can also include Artist's Drive.
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Driving Tip: If you enter from Las Vegas you can easily do Dante's View as a first stop or later on your way back. If you visit in the summer months we highly recommend to get up early and visit these three popular spots in the morning (at least Zabriskie and Badwater). That way you'll dodge the boiling heat as well as the crowds. In the winter months you can get there later. Dress a little warmer, if you visit early in winter. Another must-visit place in the other direction from Furnace Creek is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
With 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, it's the lowest point in North America. An otherworldly Martian-like landscape of salt flats covering 200 square miles. One of the largest salt flats on our planet.
- Crowds: This is a very popular place in Death Valley. It's packed at times. Get there early during the busy months or later in the evening. Walk out on the salt flats to get away from the crowds.
- View: You could view the area from the inside of your vehicle. However, it's worth to step out onto the viewing platform and even walk at least a little further on the salt flats.
- Time: You can/should spend about 30-60 minutes here.
- Hike: Easy 1.8 miles trail: Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail AllTrails
- Facilities: Very basic restrooms near the parking lot. Be prepared for waiting lines when it's busy.
- Location: On the south end of Death Valley. Badwater Basin - Google Maps It's a 30 minutes drive south, coming from Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Most visitors drive south to Badwater, view the basin or hike on the salt flats, and then drive back north on Badwater Road the same way they drove in.
Why is it called Badwater? Once a miner passed through here and was looking for water for his mule. Since the water he found was full of salt, his mule refused to drink it. He said, that this is 'bad water' and the name was born. Today, there is still a pool of salt water right at the site next to the road.
Where is the salt coming from? Once an ancient lake, the salt forms because the whole area is an enclosed basin. For thousands of years floods come to rest here. Water evaporates quickly and only the salt remains as the basin doesn't allow for any drainage to the sea. The whole surface is a dry salt crust, with those intriguing hexagonal layered shapes. However, there is the pool we already mentioned with salt water. On the ground throughout the basin there are sometimes soggy spots, depending on recent rainfall. An amazing fact about the pool: Despite the harsh conditions with water being 5 times saltier than the ocean, insects are living in the water, including the Badwater snail.
Visiting Tip (Walk Further): You are allowed to leave the wooden viewing platform and walk further out. The first couple of hundred meters have been trampled down by countless visitors over the years anyway. After a mile or so the ground becomes pristine and you'll notice the untouched salt surface with bigger and intriguing patterns. You'll also get away from the other visitors in case you're going during a busy time. When temperatures are not too high, you might even walk more than a mile. If you're planning to walk out further while visiting in the summer months: Only do this walk/hike in the early morning because of the heat. But even then, bring a hat and enough to drink! There is even an 'official' hike with a hiking trail description available: AllTrails Badwater Basin Please keep in mind that cars are prohibited on the salt flats.
Zabriskie Point is an elevated lookout, although not as high as Dante's View. You can view the impressive badlands with colorful surrounding rock formations as well as the salt flats of Badwater Basin in the distance. You'll love the fascinating colors and shapes of the mountains.
- Crowds: Probably the most visited place in Death Valley. Usually lots of buses and many visitors. Get here midweek and early in the morning to dodge the crowds. However, very early (= sunrise) means that there are often photographers with their tripods set-up at sunrise (and sunset of course).
- View: A steep but easy and quick walk (400 m) from the parking lot on a paved path to the top viewing platform. It's wheelchair accessible. Due to its steepness it can be difficult for older visitors when visiting in the boiling heat. You have to walk, the view is not available from the car.
- Time: Visitor usually spend about 15 minutes here. We recommend about 30 minutes if you want to take photos.
- Hike: Badlands Loop (easy/moderate) with a Length of 2.7 miles (4.3km). Time: 1.5 - 2 hours round trip. More details at NPS Golden Canyon - Badlands Loop and AllTrails - Explore Badlands Loop. We highly recommend this short hike. It's otherworldly and gets you away from the crowded platform. This is also the trailhead for 2 longer hikes. You'll find an interpretive sign with more details right there.
- Facilities: Very basic restrooms at the parking lot. No water for cleaning your hands.
- Location: Zabriskie Point is fairly close to Furnace Creek Visitor Center: 9 Minutes Drive - Google Maps
Why is it called Zabriskie Point? The place was named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, who served for 36 years until 1933 as manager and vice president for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The company was mining in Death Valley and used mule teams to transport borax out of the area. Christian Zabriskie devoted a major part of his colorful life to the company. He died three years after his retirement. Trivia/Pop Culture: The 1970s movie from Michelangelo Antonioni was named after this spot and some scenes were shot here.
Death Valley Zabriskie Point - Sunrise
Sunrise/Sunset Tips: A must-see place at sunrise! The first rays of sunshine in the morning as well as the sunset bring gorgeous color changes which make the rock formations come alive. The sight at Zabriskie Point is breathtaking. Experienced visitor say sunrise is even better than sunset. If you want to take photos with a tripod, we recommend to get there about 20 minutes before sunrise as many photographers are already there setting up their tripods and equipment (depending on the season, see above). Tip: If you just want to take photos without a tripod, you can even get there 20 minutes after the officially listed sunrise at Death Valley. Due to the mountains the sun won't appear at the exact time: Sunrise - Sunset Death Valley. If you visit in the winter months, bring an extra jacket as it can get cooler in the morning.
A breathtaking overlook at 5400 feet (1500m) above Death Valley. Dante's View provides a truly dramatic sight and the most breathtaking view in the park! You'll see the entire valley, the salt flats of Badwater Basin, as well as surrounding ranges. Visitors walking at Badwater Basin look like ants from up here. The platform received a major upgrade in May 2018 with a better viewing area, benches, and a wall with a railing: NPS Dante's View Facelift
- Crowds: Also very popular. Every year more than half a million visitors drive up to Dante's View. Getting here early in the morning is the easiest way to avoid the heavy crowds during peak seasons. The car park usually fills up after 10 a.m. The crowds get lighter in the late afternoon, often busier at sunset and thin out afterwards again.
- View: You need to get out of your car to enjoy the stunning view.
- Time: Many visitors spend about 10-20 minutes here. We suggest 30-60 minutes.
- Hike: You can enjoy the full 360° view without hiking. There isn't even an officially listed trail by the National Park Service. However, AllTrails (Dante's View) has it listed.
- Facilities: There is a basic vault toilet. However, not at the top parking area (maybe this has changed after the upgrade, we'll let you know), instead it's down the road: Restroom Dante's View. You should use the toilet on the way up or down.
- Location: A little more remote than Zabriskie Point and Badwater Basin. It's a 45 minutes drive from Furnace Creek Visitor Center, or 1.20 hour from Pahrump (if you stay there).
Visiting Tips: Pictures cannot do justice to this majestic views. You have to be there! A few tips you should know before you go: First of all, it's about 20°F (about 7°C) degrees cooler up there. It's also very windy sometime, so dress accordingly. The road is very steep at the end and narrow, with a few twists. Nothing dangerous but make sure you're familiar with your rental car. RVs and buses are not allowed to the top. Interesting tip from a visitor: 'We recommend that the driver asks his passengers to close their eyes before the final turn and then step out of the car to open them. They will be blown away!' At the top we suggest to hike along one ridge (see the 'Hike' bullet point above) for a couple of minutes. It's the one to the north towards the peak and a great way to get away from the crowds. That way you can enjoy the dramatic and unobstructed views even more. Clearly Dante's View is the perfect spot for a sunrise or sunset visit.
As of 2018 the vehicle entrance fee for 7 days is 30 USD (individual fee without a vehicle is 15 USD). During this 7 day period you can leave and re-enter Death Valley as often as you like. You can pay with credit card or cash during business hours at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or at Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station or Lone Pine Interagency Visitor Center. There are also fee machines available where you can pay 24/7 with credit card. Additionally fee machines (credit card only) are located at Grapevine Ranger Station, Ryan Kiosk (east entrance to park on Highway190), Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin and Hell's Gate (Daylight Pass Road).
Furnace Creek (Visitor Center)
If you visit Death Valley for the first time, you should at least stop at Furnace Creek once. It's well worth it. Depending from where you enter the park, you could go there first and then continue to the desert spots which are close (Zabriskie Point, Badwater, etc.). Location Furnace Creek - Google Maps. You'll find lots of interesting information here. About the history, the geology and everything about the miners. Make sure to watch the film in the auditorium. Ask the rangers about the guided tours. The rangers are very helpful and many of the offered tours are really great: NPS Ranger Tours Final tip: Use the bathrooms here. These are real toilets compared to those at places like Badwater Basin.
- Excellent Visitor Guide (Summer 2018): NPS Death Valley Visitor Guide 2018
- Points of Interest: NPS Main Viewpoints
- Summer Hikes: Telescope & Wildrose Peak Trail
- All Hiking Trails: NPS Death Valley Hikes | Easy - Moderate - Difficult
- Great Hiking Trails Details: National Parks Traveler - Death Valley Hiking Trails
- Special Tip: Visit Rhyolite Ghost Town
- Official Alerts: NPS Current Conditions & Alerts
- NPS Death Valley Maps
- Map of Death Valley National Parking
- NPS Death Valley Camping
- Backcountry Camping
- Where Should I Camp in Death Valley?
Alerts / Updates
Scotty’s Castle is closed until 2020 due to flash flood damage. Special Flood Recovery Tours are being offered!