Everybody has a bucket list or a place to go whether it is a closer destination reachable by car or a faraway location overseas. My desire to travel took me to Death Valley in California and I visited the National Park in three days. As a nature lover I could not find a better place to explore. I’m an avid traveler so I grab every opportunity to get on the road. I have visited 36 countries so far and my ‘specialty’ is filling up the days with activities. If you are looking for days full of adventures here is my 3-day ultimate guide to Death Valley.
Death Valley National Park is located in Eastern California by the border of Nevada stretching out to a vast area of over 3 million acres. It has various geographical terrains including rigged mountains, sand dunes, hidden canyons, colorful rock formations and a salt flat that is below sea level. There is a high probability that you find something to your liking.
Death Valley is a road trip destination with limited access to gas stations within the National Park. Whichever directions you arrive by car to Death Valley you should prepare for a nice couple of hours (I mean it could be even 4 hours) drive into nowhere with some places without radio and cell phone signal.
Day 1: Rhyolite, Mosaic Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
1. Rhyolite Ghost Town
Start your first day by visiting RHYOLITE ghost town in Nevada. The best way is to start your day in the morning so you can get back to Stovepipe Wells by lunch.
This tiny Gold-rush era village is not located inside the National Park but it is close by. It’s a 40-min drive from Stovepipe Wells into Nevada just outside of the town, Beatty. Watch out for the sign Rhyolite – it’s very easy to miss. If you like eerie stuff and places that are abandoned you would find Rhyolite very interesting. It has some old statues, modern art creations and remnants of buildings left behind. The town had a very short lifespan of 15 years from 1904 when it was born to 1919 when it became a ghost town. By looking at the deserted buildings it’s hard to imagine that at one point it had three train lines, three hospitals, an opera, a symphony, three newspapers and 53 saloons!
The most interesting art pieces were the Last Supper, which is a group of empty hooded ghost sculptures made of fiberglass, and the Ghostrider (a ghost on a bicycle). They were created by Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski in 1984 as the part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
Entrance is free and it is open for 24 hours 7 days a week.
After you finished in Rhyolite drive back to Stovepipe Wells for a lunch. You can either dine in the Toll Road restaurant or in the Badwater Saloon.
2. Mosaic Canyon
After lunch drive to MOSAIC CANYON to explore the rock formations and its steep sided ravine.
Mosaic Canyon is a 4-mile round trip hike from Stovepipe Wells Campground. It is moderately hard but the view of this gorge will make you forget about the obstacles on your way. Walking in the canyon feels like being in the early episodes of Star Wars. It’s just feels like you are walking on another planet surrounded by unique geological stone features, very narrow pathways and smoothed marble layers in the dry waterfalls. On many points so you can see the sediment layers of different rocks very clearly. Look for the colorful breccia rocks, which gave the canyon’s name: Mosaic. It’s a cement layer consists of tiny pieces of colorful minerals and rocks. Make sure you wear suitable hiking shoes with aggressive grip on slippery terrains. And always take you water with you! Temperature can get very high in the afternoon even in winter time.
Restrooms are available in the parking lot.
3. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Once you finished the hike in Mosaic Canyon drive to the MESQUITE SAND FLAT DUNES. Make sure you get there by 3pm (if you visit before sunset) so you can experience the different shadows of the sunshine.
Sand dunes only cover 1 % of the whole Death Valley and this one is the most well-known. The sand is carried by the wind from the canyons and dropped at a place that is trapped within the mountains. The Mesquite Sand Dunes are very close to Stovepipe Wells and the best time to visit in the winter is either early morning after sunrise or just before sunset. There is a golden shine passing through the dunes just before sunset creating some shadow phenomenon, which is also extremely beautiful. No wonder why it was chosen for the location in Star Wars’ New Hope episode as planet Tatooine. They have three types of dunes: crescent, linear and star-shaped.
I suggest you to plan to spend enough time here including enjoying the sunset. Bring your picnic – you can find picnic tables not far from the parking lot. You can also take games with you, take off your shoes and enjoy the sand, sit and read your favorite book or just roll down the hills. Be creative how you can use this scenery to your image background. This is the only sand dunes in Death Valley you can actually sand board. The dunes are very low only about 100 feet. Rental, however, is not available in Death Valley.
Restrooms are available in the parking lot.
4. Stovepipe Wells Village
The best accommodation you can book around the sand dunes is STOVEPIPE WELLS VILLAGE.
Stovepipe Wells Village is located in the middle of Death Valley providing various establishments including a general store, a hotel, a gas station, an RV park with camping ground, a restaurant, a saloon and a gift shop. This is one of your important points of travel as you will stop by occasionally here.
It has authentic western style buildings that makes you feel you are back in old times.
The hotel is actually pretty comfortable, – the Deluxe rooms are for sure – and the interior is aligned with their western style. The WIFI is not that fast though. The architecture of the restaurant and saloon follows the Gold-rush era design with the wooden characteristics. They also have a swimming pool that is open daily from 8am to midnight.
It also introduced environmental and sustainable initiatives including water conservation, energy saving techniques and appliances, waste management and the protection and preservation of the park.
The dining establishments serve American menu with hamburgers and steak while you can taste their draught beers. Their local Death Valley Pale Ale is pretty delicious.
Day 2: Dante’s View, Golden Canyon, Artist’s Palette, Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin
1. Dante’s View
For the second day’s first activity you need to wake up very early. If you want to experience something extraordinary and spectacular you need to wake up at least 5am. You will have about half an hour to get ready. The drive to DANTE’S VIEW will take about an hour from Stovepipe Wells.
This is one of the highlights of Death Valley if you are willing to rise early. It depends where you stay overnight but you need to get to Dante’s View before sunrise. In the winter time the sun rises at around 6.30am so you need to make sure you get to the top of the mountain before that time. Be prepared as it’s very cold up there and it might be windy too. This is when you need to have gloves, hats and warm layers with you.
The view and watching the sun rise is an incredible experience so you should soak up in the moment. Enjoy it with a hot mug of cocoa or coffee in your hand. The choice is yours! (If you wish to drink any hot beverages you need to prepare it yourself before you leave your accommodation)
After finishing on the top of Black Mountains you can drive back to Furnace Creek and have a well-deserved breakfast in the Oasis at Death Valley.
2. Golden Canyon
After breakfast you should drive to GOLDEN CANYON first, which is about 10 minutes from the hotel.
Golden Canyon is another great hiking place to visit. It’s worth going in the morning hours to avoid crowd and the heat. The canyon got its name from the colors the sun creates by ‘lighting up’ the rock formations. The hike from Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral Trail is about 1.5-2 hours round trip. You end up in front of these amazing huge red rock structures. It’s a moderate 3 miles hike. You can also do the Gower Gulch Trail, which is a 2.5-hours or 4.3-mile loop and it can be extended with the Badlands loop too.
Restroom is available in the parking lot.
3. Artist’s Palette
Your next stop is the ARTISTS’ PALETTE OR ARTIST’S DRIVE, which is about a 20 minute’s drive from Golden Canyon.
This is mainly a drive-by attraction; however, you have a chance to get out of the car and walk closer to the Artist’s Palette. This is the predominant natural arrangements of colorful soil painted by minerals on the mountainside. The 9.7-mile trail is actually a very enjoyable drive passing by badlands and unique rock compositions. It’s a one-way road with weak traffic so you can stop anywhere and take pictures in the middle of road.
4. Devil’s Golf Course
After finishing at the Artist’s Drive, you can go up to DEVIL’S GOLF COURSE. It’s a 10 minute’s drive from Badwater road.
Devil’s Golf Course is a flat covered in eroded rock salt formations. They are very sharp so be careful when you walk among them as you can scratch your skin or clothes. Occasionally you can find a hole that is a resemblance to a normal golf course hole. Apparently, its name is from a guidebook from the 30s that stated: ‘Only the devil could play golf on such a surface’.
5. Badwater Basin
Next you can drive up to your last attraction of the day: BADWATER BASIN
If you drive a little more inland you get to the parking lot of Badwater Basin, the lowest point of North America and the United States at 282 feet below sea level. The water pool next to the boardwalk got its name, Badwater in the early days after a mule who didn’t drink from it. It was too salty to drink. The salt flats stretch out to 200 square miles and you have to walk about 20 minutes to reach them from the boardwalk. It’s worth going there and explore the geometric salt polygons. We even tasted the soil and guess what? It is real salt!
6. The Last Kind Words Saloon
I have to put THE LAST KIND WORD SALOON on this list. Its interior is just so unique and full of history that you should not miss eating here for lunch or dinner.
Since your day have been full of adventures the easiest and quickest stay would be in the Oasis of Death Valley. It’s a hotel complex with everything you need: different types of accommodations, restaurants, café shop, general store with groceries, golf course, museum, wellness spa, gas station, post office, visitor center, etc. Their general store is the best-equipped I have ever been to! They literally have everything you would need out for a desert adventure.
The resort complex have four types of accommodation: The exclusive Inn at Death Valley along with the Inn Casitas. The Casitas also offer privacy on the top of luxury. Prices for the Inn starts at $350 up to $600 per night. It has 66 rooms in the AAA-rated four diamond resort, while the Casitas have spacious rooms with extra beds, living room and a wet bar. The best part is that you get a complimentary electric golf cart to get around the property.
And the moderately priced Ranch at Death Valley, which was transformed from a working farm. Your fourth type of accommodation is the RV park called the Fiddler’s Campground. The Ranch has 224 rooms with cute balconies and rocking chairs. Yes, rocking chairs. Its room price is reasonable within the $200-$400 range.
Choosing an eco-conscious accommodation is the best you can do to lower your carbon footprint. The hotel follows sustainability best practices on all their properties. They have two natural springs that provide them with fresh water so they implemented water conservation systems and procedures. They also have solar panels supplying over 50% of their energy use.
Day 3: Zabriskie Point, Oasis at Death Valley
1. Zabriskie Point
There is another place with unique rock formations bathed in sunlight that should be on your list. It’s the ZABRISKIE POINT.
Again, the best time to visit Zabriskie Point is at sunrise. You need to be here before sunrise (in the winter time it’s at around 6.30am) and ready for the amazing colors, changes and golden rock reflections. It’s located on a lower level of the mountains as Dante’s view so you won’t need so many layers of clothes. It’s cooler but not as cold as at the top of the mountain. Watch the sunrise from the beginning to the end and enjoy the play of lights.
2. Oasis at Death Valley
If you didn’t have time before you can explore the Oasis of Death Valley. They have the Borax Museum, which is an open museum, full of old equipment, machines, wagons, carriages and a steam locomotive used in the mining days. Death Valley is one of the two places in the world where Borax (or sodium borate) could be found. It was used to clean laundry.
The Oasis of Death Valley also offer horseback riding, a golf course, wagon rides, jeep rentals and tours. If you love these activities, you can enjoy them on your last day.
* * * Summary * * *
The ultimate 3-day Death Valley guide covers pretty much all the main attractions in Death Valley. These few days are full of fun, adventures, hikes, attractions so if you like outdoors and nature this is for you. You can switch around if you want to spend more time in a certain place, but Day 2 attractions line up nicely. The drive to these places is located after each other so this is the best way to do it. Always take water with you! And prepare snacks every day.
Hiking gears are recommended including hiking shoes, layers of clothes, hat and gloves for the mountain tops, water bottle (always and everywhere), snack packs and different types of cameras. You should aim for eco-friendly products.
I also suggest you to check your car the day (or more) before your trip and fill up with gas. We had a tire light on just an hour into the trip and every ‘village’ we stopped (there was only one or two) at every single gas station the air machine was broken. Every single one of them. We arrived from Los Angeles on Highway 14 and turned to road 178 at around Ridgecrest. Just before Panama Springs you need to take road 190 to the middle of Death Valley National Park. You can find gas and air (working machine) at Stovepipe Wells and the Oasis at Death Valley (previously Furnace Creek Center). The Oasis also have car chargers for electric vehicles.
Due these unprecedented times please check opening times and availability on the hotel’s websites. Some facilities might be temporarily closed.
Where to stay
There are two main hotels within the Death Valley National Park and many campgrounds, otherwise you have to book accommodations a couple of hours drive away out in Nevada county. You can find many places on Airbnb.
- Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel – www.deathvalleyhotels.com
Address: 51880 Highway 190, Death Valley, CA, 92328
Front Desk: Phone: 760-786-7090
Toll Road Restaurant, Hours of Operations: Breakfast 7:00am-10:00am, Dinner 5:30pm-9:00pm, Call for reservation on (760) 786-7090.
Badwater Saloon, Hours of operation: Open daily from 7:00am to 8:00pm, Breakfast 7:00am-10:00am, Lunch/Dinner 11:00am-8:00pm
The General Store Hours: 7:00am-8:00pm
The Nugget Gift Shop Hours: 7:00am-9:00pm
- The Oasis at Death Valley – www.oasisatdeathvalley.com
Address: Highway 190, Death Valley, CA 92328
Reception phone number: (760) 786-2345
The Last Kind Words Saloon hours: Breakfast from 6:30am to 10:00am, Lunch 11:00am to 2:00pm, Bar Bites 2:00pm to 4:00pm, Dinner 4:00pm to 9:00pm
The Inn Dining Room hours: Breakfast 7:00am to 10:30am, Lunch 11:00am to 2:00pm, Dinner 5:00pm to 9:00pm
Advanced reservations are required. Phone (760) 786-3385
Author: Lexi Randazzo