Are you ready to visit a different planet? Death Valley feels like you’ve been transported out of this world! The park is a land of extremes with some of the driest parts of the country and some of the highest temperatures in the world. This vast desert landscape encompasses more than 3 million acres, so there are plenty of things to see in the park.
Trying to plan a weekend visit to the park can get overwhelming, but luckily I have crafted the perfect Death Valley Itinerary to plan the best weekend in the park. This itinerary is perfect if you only have the weekend to explore. It does not include any areas where you would need 4WD or off-roading vehicles. You can easily adjust and rearrange things as you see fit!
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Table of Contents
Things to Know Before You Go
- The park fee is $30 per vehicle. If you have a park pass like the America the Beautiful pass, you can show it to the park rangers at the fee stations. The rangers will exchange your pass for a paper pass to put on your dashboard. The plastic passes will warp in the extreme heat.
- Prepare your car before you go into the park. This park is huge and it takes hours sometimes to drive between destinations. You’ll want a full tank of gas before you get into the park. Gas prices in the park can get very expensive. When we were there, it was $6.56 for one gallon at one of the gas stations in the park.
- Death Valley has some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded. You will need to prepare accordingly. If you’re going on a hike, then you should bring a liter per mile. Also, you will need to apply sunscreen year round, because the sun is very strong.
- There is almost no cell service in the park. The only places you can get a little service are at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. You should download all maps and trails that you need beforehand. It also helps to plan ahead and know what you want to do before you go into the park.
- Some of the roads in Death Valley can be rocky and rough. You may not be able to see everything that you want to if you don’t have a 4WD car or one with high clearance. There are plenty of backcountry roads that can only be accessed with 4×4 vehicles.
- Death Valley has a couple restaurants and general stores within the park if you need to get food while you’re there. You can find places at both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells to find sustenance.
- You can disperse camp in the park’s bounds. There are a number of good spots for dispersed camping. You must camp a mile into the road. As of 2023, you’ll need to get a free permit to dispersed camp at Hole in the Wall, Echo Canyon, or Green Water Valley. You can get them at the visitor center.
The Perfect Death Valley Itinerary:
Day 1 in Death Valley
If you’re entering the park from the West Side, then the Mesquite Sand Dunes is the perfect first stop on your Death Valley itinerary. After driving into the park, you’ll want to head to the Stovepipe Wells area of the park. The Sand Dunes are located just a mile or so past the entrance fee station.
These sand dunes are formed by winds and are ever changing. This is one of the best sunset spots in the park with the colors glimmering over the sand dunes. Bring a sandboard to sled down the dunes, walk in your bare feet among the dunes, or hike all the way to the tallest sand dunes (2 miles round trip) in the back of the dunefield. No matter how far you choose to go, you’ll be amazed at the magnitude of the dunes and the beauty all around. Note that it is hard to walk in dunes and your legs may get more tired than you expect!
Since you’ll be nearby, why not stop at Stovepipe Wells for dinner? The restaurant in the Stovepipe Wells village is first-come first-served and has surprisingly good food. We split a hearty burger and savory soup and were more than satisfied. If you are camping in the park, you can also pay $5 to get access to their showers and pool for the day (which we did!).
Day 2 in Death Valley:
Many people will tell you that Zabriskie Point is one of the most stunning locations for the sunrise. Photographers get there early in the morning to set up their tripods and wait for the light to illuminate the badlands below. Pinks and purples decorate these textured rock formations that have been carved by water for many years. It’s a stunning show that you will never forget!
I recommend that you get there half an hour before the sunrise, so you can witness the complete transformation of colors. From this point, you can see the salt flats and Panamint Mountains behind the rocky mounds. You can choose to hike to Golden Canyon from the point for a total of 6 miles or leave that hike for later!
Travel a quick two minutes down the road from Zabriskie Point to Twenty Mule Team Canyon! This is a one way drive down a dirt road surrounded by yellow and brown badlands. Star Wars was filmed in these very hills and they are beautiful to see. It’s a quick and easy stop to add to your trip!
Continue down the road and then turn onto Dante’s Road to travel up to 5500 feet above sea level. This drive takes about 40 minutes from Twenty Mule Team Canyon to the top of the mountain. Dante’s View is one of the best vistas in the entire park.
From here, you can see the salt flats below and Telescope Peak (the highest point in the park) across the way. It can get extremely windy at the top, so make sure to layer up when you go outside. This is also a great spot to watch the sunrise or sunset.
If you chose to save this hike for later, now is your chance to complete it! Travel back down the road half an hour to get to the trailhead. There are many ways to see the Golden Canyon and you’ll have to choose the trailhead that’s right for you. Along the way you will see stunning badlands and vistas. I recommend the Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch Loop!
- Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon (5.8 miles) – Takes you through Zabriskie Point and over to the canyon
- Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch (4.3 miles) – Walk up a steep climb to see the best views of the badlands before continuing through the flat Gulch.
- Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral (1.5 miles) – The shortest route will still take you through the canyon to the stunning red rocks, but you won’t see as much of the badlands.
You will continue along the Badwater Road for 15 minutes to get to Artist’s Drive. This drive is one way and features bright colored mountains all around. It’s important to note that trailers and vehicles longer than 25 feet are not allowed!
The most famous spot on the road is Artist’s Palette. This spot has mountains that are covered in an array of colors from purples to greens. You can view this point from the overlook or you can choose to visit it and walk amongst the painted hills. We chose to walk over the hills to get up close and personal with the bright rocks!
Ready to visit one of the most underrated areas of the park? Devil’s Golf Course sits five miles from Artist’s Palette. These salt flats create jagged formations that cover the landscape and seem to extend for miles. Stop here for a quick picture or play around amongst the amazing rocks!
Just a few miles later, you’ll reach the trailhead to Natural Bridge. This hike is a short one mile up there and back trail up a steep sandy trail to get to a natural bridge. The bridge extends over the mountains and is connected at the top. People line up here to take pictures!
Honestly, we were fairly underwhelmed by this spot and we would not go back. The trail itself was uninteresting, we have seen natural bridges before, and waiting to take a picture seemed very unappealing. However, some people say this is a highlight of their trip, so you’ll have to visit to see for yourself and decide!
If you only had time for one thing in the entire park, then you need to see Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point in the United States and one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen! Badwater Basin sits at 282 feet below sea level and the salt flats there cover more than 200 miles of land. The salt flats here create an incredible geometric pattern that is truly marvelous.
You can just walk to the edge, but the further you go, the cooler the vistas get. Start walking out on the Basin about an hour before the sunsets in order to get the full effect. As the sunsets, the colors reflect off the Basin floor creating a magical effect and a romantic vibe. Make sure to walk on salt flats that have already been stepped on to preserve the area! This was the highlight of our trip and no Death Valley itinerary is complete without it!
Day 3 in Death Valley:
The time it takes you to get here will vastly change your plans. Ubehebe is 40 minutes from Stovepipe Wells and a little less than an hour from Furnace Creek. We stayed right next to the crater on Saturday night, so we were lucky enough to not complete the drive early in the morning!
Ubehebe crater was formed when a volcano erupted over 2,000 years ago. The crater itself is massive at more than half a mile wide and 600 feet deep. You can choose to just stay at the viewpoint or take a 1.5 mile walk around the rim of the Crater. Either way it’s truly spectacular to see!
Finally, end your amazing weekend Death Valley itinerary with a hike through Mosaic Canyon. This canyon has stunning colorful walls and also has narrow areas that were clearly carved by water. If you have never walked through a slot canyon before, then you will definitely want to see this before you go. This trail was aptly named for the mosaic like canyon walls with small pieces of rock throughout them.
You can choose to hike the entire 4 miles or you can just hike to some of the narrowest parts of the canyon about a quarter mile into the hike and back. We were pretty exhausted from the rest of our trip and we had a long drive ahead, so we chose to just do a 1 mile round trip! We still had an amazing time.
If you have more time you can include a long hike to Telescope Peak or rent a jeep to get to Racetrack Playa. Next time, we definitely plan on making it to the Racetrack to see the rocks that move across the ground. We really loved our trip to Death Valley and we were wowed by all of the crazy landscapes. It’s amazing that the earth has created areas as wild as the ones in the Valley.
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