Death Valley is a desert valley in Eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. It is one of the hottest places in the states, with the Furnace Creek area recording a record-high temperature of 134 °F or 56.7 °C.
The area was named Death Valley by settlers during the California Gold Rush in the 19th century. They were shocked at the barren landscape that also claimed the lives of several who attempted to cross. It’s a harsh but beautiful landscape. I can only imagine how it elicited fear among those attempting to cross it, especially given the harsh conditions.
Also, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll immediately find Death Valley’s landscape familiar. It was used for scenes showing Tatooine, specifically in Episode IV — A New Hope and Episode VI — Return of the Jedi.
In this post, we’ll explore some fun things you can do in the park with a limited budget.
- Fun Things To Do In Death Valley
- 1. Visit The Badwater Basin
- 2. Head To The Natural Bridge
- 3. Stop By The Devil’s Golf Course
- 4. Head To The Golden Canyon Trailhead
- 5. Head To The Zabriskie Point
- 6. Go On A Scenic Drive
- 7. Take A Hike
- 8. Enjoy A Picnic
- 9. Attend A Ranger-Led Program
- 10. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Top Tips For Enjoying Your Stay At Death Valley
- 1. Avoid Booking An Expensive Tour
- 2. Pack Plenty Of Water And Snacks
- 3. Wear Appropriate Clothing
- 4. Download Offline Google Maps
- 5. Rent An SUV
- 6. Pack Sanitizing Wipes And Gel
Fun Things To Do In Death Valley
Death Valley is a unique and stunning national park located in California. Despite its name, the park is full of life and offers visitors a wide range of activities and experiences. With just $200 in your pocket, you can still have a fantastic time in Death Valley and make the most of your visit.
Here are ten fun things you can do in Death Valley on your first visit.
1. Visit The Badwater Basin
The first stop on our day trip was Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America and is a unique and interesting place to visit. It looks like snow from a distance but is instead a salt flat in the desert.
The Badwater Basin is a great spot for hiking and spotting wildlife. You’ll also find an old mining town, which is an excellent starting point for exploring Death Valley National Park.
We walked out along the salt flats and enjoyed the views of the surrounding valley. It was a good place to stretch our legs after being in the car for a while!
2. Head To The Natural Bridge
A few miles down the road from Badwater Basin was the sign for the Natural Bridge. We took the unpaved road on the right and drove a mile to reach the trailhead. The road up was extremely bumpy and uneven but worth the effort.
We took the short 0.3-mile hike uphill to the Natural Bridge, a natural formation that looks like … a bridge! Just past the bridge is the Dry Falls, a rock structure that looks like a waterfall without any water.
Despite being a short hike, the trail surface is loose gravel, making it challenging to walk uphill. It’s deceiving since it appears to be an easy walk-up. Though most people should be able to handle it, it’s important to note if you’re traveling with kids or anyone with physical limitations.
3. Stop By The Devil’s Golf Course
Once we were back on the main road, we kept driving until we reached the sign for the Devil’s Golf Course. We took another dirt road on our left and reached this unique and odd-looking place.
The Devil’s Golf Course is a large salt pan given its name after a National Park Service guidebook stating that “only the devil could play golf on its surface.” The landscape has a rough but unique texture from the Hamite salt crystal formations.
4. Head To The Golden Canyon Trailhead
Continuing down the main road, we encountered another dirt road on the right with a sign for the Golden Canyon Trailhead. There are a couple of hiking options in this area. However, due to time constraints, we opted for the shortest one – a three-mile round-trip hike to the Red Rock Cathedral.
The hike took around an hour to complete. We walked through a Golden Canyon that looked like a setting out of Star Wars. At the trail’s end, we passed through some arches and narrow canyons before climbing approximately 200 feet. Once we reached the top, we were treated to an incredible view of the canyon and valley.
Pro Tip: You’ll be in direct sunlight for most of this hike, so be sure to bring water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect yourself.
5. Head To The Zabriskie Point
One option is to hike to Zabriskie Point from the Golden Canyon Trailhead. However, in the interest of time, we decided to drive there. This is a beautiful spot with vast and eerie views of Death Valley.
Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular areas in Death Valley National Park because it offers great views of the valley floor and the Panamint Mountain Range on the opposite side of the valley. It’s a great place to see the sunset as well!
6. Go On A Scenic Drive
One of the best ways to explore Death Valley is by car. The park is full of beautiful landscapes, and you can take in the scenery by driving on one of the park’s many scenic roads.
Some popular routes include Artist’s Drive and Dante’s View Road. Both drives are free and offer stunning views of the park’s unique terrain.
7. Take A Hike
Death Valley is a hiker’s paradise, and there are plenty of trails for all experience levels. Some popular trails include the Badwater Basin Crossing, Mosaic Canyon Trail, Red Cathedral Out-and-Back, and the Ubehebe Crater Loop.
These trails are a great way to get up close and personal with the park’s natural beauty and can be done for free.
8. Enjoy A Picnic
The desert landscape is stunning, so be sure to take advantage of it by setting up an outdoor lunch at one of the many tables located throughout the park. If you don’t have your picnic supplies, stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center gift shop, which sells sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and treats like ice cream bars.
Death Valley has several picnic areas throughout the park. These picnic areas offer beautiful views and a chance to relax and enjoy a picnic outdoors.
9. Attend A Ranger-Led Program
One of the most popular things to do in Death Valley is to attend a ranger-led program. There are many scheduled throughout the year, most of which cost less than $100. The programs range from hikes and talk about desert wildlife and geology to astronomy events.
These free programs are a great way to learn more about the park and its natural wonders.
10. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Our final stop was the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, located near Stovepipe Wells, towards the northern part of the park. We drove through Furnace Creek on the way, one of the few areas with stores and services. There are some lodging options and an overpriced gas station if you need to fill your tank.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are one of the most popular attractions in Death Valley. The dunes are free to visit and offer a unique and beautiful landscape. You can spend the day exploring the dunes, taking photos, or even trying your hand at sandboarding.
The dunes were an incredible sight and a huge contrast to the salt flats we saw earlier in the day. It was fascinating to see a concentrated area of golden dunes in the middle of nowhere. It’s a great spot for photos and the perfect place to stretch your legs before the drive back to Las Vegas.
Pro Tip: While many people were walking without shoes on the sand, I recommend wearing some footwear. There were red ants on the dunes; the last thing you want is a painful bite.
Top Tips For Enjoying Your Stay At Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes. It’s one of North America’s hottest and driest places and the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Yet it also contains some of the most diverse landscapes on Earth.
If you’re planning a day trip to Death Valley, here are some tips to keep in mind.
1. Avoid Booking An Expensive Tour
The name Death Valley is daunting, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. Everything is well-marked in the park, so it’s easy to navigate. Some quick research online will help you arrive prepared to explore the park.
We researched some tours before deciding to make the trip on our own. We noticed some tour companies quoted $200+ per person for a similar trip and itinerary.
To give you an idea of what we spent, here is a breakdown of our costs:
I’m not opposed to using tour companies. I often use them when traveling abroad. However, I don’t think you need one to explore Death Valley. Also, if you like to hike, you’ll appreciate not being restricted by a rigid tour schedule and itinerary.
2. Pack Plenty Of Water And Snacks
I recommend bringing enough food and water for the day since the park has limited food and drink options. The first built-up area we came across was Furnace Creek after being in the park for around four hours.
The area is very dry, so you’ll want to stay hydrated. Even in the cooler weather, I felt extremely thirsty while hiking on the trails. I recommend using insulated bottles (e.g., S’well bottles) to maintain the water temperature even when exposed to warm conditions. If it’s hard to pack a water bottle due to space constraints, I recommend using collapsible water bottles like the ones from Platypus.
3. Wear Appropriate Clothing
You’ll want to wear layers as the temperature spans a wide range. Even in February, it was fairly warm by late morning. By noon, I was down to a merino wool t-shirt but was back to wearing my Woolly hoodie and jacket by mid-afternoon.
Also, I highly recommend wearing a hat and sunglasses. The area is extremely bright and windy, so you’ll want to protect your eyes. We forgot our sun hats on this trip, so avoid making the same mistake as us!
4. Download Offline Google Maps
There is no reception in the park. This is a travel tip that we often recommend. It was extremely useful to have a map and locational awareness when navigating the park, especially since it’s vast.
5. Rent An SUV
I usually recommend renting the most economical car. Though for Death Valley, I recommend a car with a higher ground clearance and four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. The unpaved roads for some of the attractions listed above were extremely bumpy. We noticed a lot of regular cars struggling to make it to the end of the dirt roads. Some even gave up and turned around since the roads were so rough.
Ironically, I booked a basic economy car for our trip. Since Avis didn’t have one available, they gave us a small all-wheel drive SUV instead. It ended up being a perfect car to explore the park.
6. Pack Sanitizing Wipes And Gel
This is also a travel tip that we often mention. While there are plenty of restrooms in the park, we didn’t see running water or sanitizing gel at any of them. I recommend bringing hand sanitizer or wipes. You’ll feel much more comfortable and clean, especially since the restrooms tend to be spartan.
I was glad we made the trip to Death Valley. It’s an easy day trip from Las Vegas and great alternative activity, especially if you’re not fond of the typical Las Vegas entertainment options.
For example, I’m a horrible gambler and not much drinker, so I’m better suited to exploring the outdoors. This trip allowed us to enjoy both worlds the natural beauty of the desert and the vibrant nightlife of Las Vegas.
Have you been to Death Valley? Do you have any other tips? Let us know in the comment section below.