Known as the “largest U.S. National Park outside of Alaska,” Death Valley National Park is overwhelmingly large, occupying 3.4 million total acres throughout California and Nevada. With so much territory to explore and so many sights to see, it is understandable as to why so many travelers think Death Valley is the kind of destination that requires a long visit. While it is true that the longer you visit the park, the more you will see and experience, it is also true that you can see some of the park’s most iconic spots in just one day. Below, I’ll share how I made the most of my 1-day visit to the park and explain just how much you can see in a short time!
After spending the night in Las Vegas, my husband and I drove through Nevada for approximately two hours and eventually arrived at the park’s east entrance. Unlike many of the other national parks we’ve visited, we did not have to go through an official entrance to enter Death Valley, but instead pulled over into a small parking lot and paid $30 for our day pass at a unmanned kiosk. After getting back into our car and driving a short bit down the road, we saw a sign for Dante’s View which was approximately 13 miles away. We really had no idea where the road would take us, but as we continued to drive, we could see a large white area appear on our GPS and assumed it was the salt flats. The closer we got to our destination, the windier the road became, until we were on top of a mountain overlooking the entirety of Badwater Basin. It was quite nippy and windy at this location, but the grandeur of the view distracted us from the cold and got us excited for the rest of the day.
Once we began our descent back to the main road, we realized we’d benefit from a map, and made our way towards the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. A few minutes into our drive, we got sidetracked by Zabriske Point. We were intrigued by the narrow trailhead in front of us, and decided to see where it would lead. As we ventured along Zabriskie Point Trailhead, I was initially hesitant to climb to the peak, but with some encouragement from my husband, I was able to face a small fear, and got to the top. Let me tell you, the views were worth the hesitation and discomfort I felt.
We climbed back down the mountain (but I was really just sliding down rocks on my butt), and then resumed our drive towards the visitor center. We passed two hotels along the way; The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley – both of which are pretty pricey, but are architecturally beautiful. A quick mile or two later, we passed a gas station and a Jeep rental shop, and then arrived at Furnace Creek Visitor Center, where it was a much warmer 60 degrees outside due to the lower elevation. Once inside, we received a free park map and got some tips from the clerk. He told us that Badwater Basin was a must see spot that “felt like somewhere on another planet.”
On our way to Badwater, we parked at Golden Canyon and watched a storm elicit its rage on the other side of the valley. In awe of nature’s force, we retreated and entered the trail behind us, safely away from the storm. Shortly after a walk through what resembled a slot canyon, we discovered a narrow cut out in a rock, and followed its gradual path until we were high enough to see Badwater Basin beneath us.
After our mini-adventure at Golden Canyon, we resumed our drive to Badwater Basin and the infamous salt flats. As we neared our destination, we spotted a mile-long path that lead directly towards a sea of white. To get from one end of the path to the other took us about 17 minutes. When we finally arrived at the salt flats, we savored the view at 282 feet below sea level.
We arrived back at our car after another 17 minute walk, and were off to explore some more amazing views, this time at Artist’s Drive, which is a 9 mile drive through the mountains. While driving along the one-way road, we passed Artist’s Palette and appreciated the dramatically vibrant rocks that posed before us. Blues, purples, golds, and pinks danced along the mountainside, resembling a street artist’s colorful masterpiece. Unfortunately, the wind picked up in this spot, so we didn’t spend much time here, but we did thoroughly enjoy the rest of the drive back to the main road.
After exploring five beautiful spots (Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Badwater Basin & Artist’s Drive), we noticed the sun was slowly setting, and the temperature was growing colder. Our day was coming to a close and it was time to head out. But as we drove towards Stovepipe Wells and the park exit, we passed the sand dunes in the distance and envied the relentless visitors perched atop the peaks. A panoramic backdrop surrounded the dunes, and the park, though named after death, felt nothing short of alive.
If you’re looking to make the trip to Death Valley National Park, be sure you’re prepared and plan ahead.
- The park experiences extreme weather conditions ranging from extreme heat to flash flooding.
- The park is located off the beaten path and is also extremely large with tons of different roads. Bring safety/emergency supplies in case your car breaks down or you get stranded somewhere.
- There are some steep roads throughout the park so make sure your car can handle a steep grade.
- The park has many unpaved roads, so 4×4 or offroad vehicles are useful.