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We decided to visit Death Valley for our first trip of 2019. One of our resolutions this year is to visit as many national parks as possible. We’re lucky to live within easy reach of many National Parks, and since we have the Southwest Companion pass for another year, it’s made it even easier! In this post and video, we review what to do in Death Valley for a day trip, and some tips to keep in mind when visiting the area.

Why we stayed in Las Vegas

Old Welcome to Las Vegas sign in Las Vegas, Nevada
We stayed in Las Vegas due to our free night certificate and its proximity to Death Valley

Las Vegas served as the starting point for our trip. Since I needed to use the free annual night from my World of Hyatt credit card by March, we decided to use it at the New York-New York Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. Since we’re not avid gamblers or partiers, we decided to focus the weekend on a day trip to Death Valley.

American Express Gold Card

TIP: The New York-New York hotel has a Shake Shack on premise, so we were able to use the monthly dining credit on our Amex Gold Card during our stay, which was a nice little bonus. Learn more about American Express cards.

Where is Death Valley?

Death Valley is a desert valley located in Eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. It is one of the hottest places in the world in the summer, with the Furnace Creek area recording a record high temperature of 134 °F or 56.7 °C.

Poster of gold hunter during the California Gold Rush
The name “Death Valley” was coined by settlers during the California Gold Rush

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 an intimidating but beautiful landscape. I can only imagine how it elicited fear among those attempting to cross it, especially given the harsh conditions.

Our day trip itinerary

We wanted to share our one-day itinerary from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park. This is a fun day trip for those of you visiting the Las Vegas area who might want to do something a bit different.

We started the day early and picked up a rental car around 7 am. Since we have Avis Preferred as one of our Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits, it was easy for us to get on the road without having to stop for any paperwork or lines.

We headed out of Las Vegas on Highway 160 towards the small town of Shoshone. After stopping for gas, water, and snacks, we took Highway 178 straight into Death Valley National Park, along Jubilee Pass and past Ashford Canyon.

This initial drive took around 3 hours (including a stop) and was easy to navigate. This driving time included an hour in the park, with incredible views and places to stop for photos along the way.

R2D2 Star Wars action figure on Tatooine
Star Wars fans will feel at home when exploring Death Valley

Also, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll immediately find the landscape in Death Valley to be familier. It was used for many of the scenes showing Tatooine, specifically in Episode IV — A New Hope and Episode VI — Return of the Jedi.

Stop #1: Badwater Basin (10 AM)

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.

Badwater Basin sign in Death Valley, California
Badwater Basin was one of the most spectacular stops on the trip

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!

Stop #2: Natural Bridge (11 AM)

Natural Bridge rock formation in Death Valley, California
It’s worth the short hike to see the Natural Bridge rock formation

Just 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.

Dry Falls rock structure in Death Valley, California
The Dry Falls are only a few minutes up from the Natural Bridge

We took the short 0.3 mile hike uphill to the Natural Bridge, which is a natural formation that looks like … a bridge! Just past the bridge are the Dry Falls, a rock structure that looks like a waterfall, though without any water.

TIP: Despite being a short hike, the trail surface is loose gravel which makes it challenging when walking 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.

Stop #3: Devil’s Golf Course (12 PM)

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 very unique and odd looking place.

Hamite crystals at the Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley, California
The Hamite salt crystal formations are beautiful but dangerous!

The Devil’s Golf Course is a large salt pan that was given its name after a National Park Service guide book stated that “only the devil could play golf on its surface”. The landscape has a rough but unique texture from the Hamite salt crystal formations.

TIP: There are signs warning of significant injuries and even broken bones due to falling on the sharp crystals in the area. If you’re traveling with kids or obsessed with selfies, you’ll want to be especially cautious.

Stop #4: Golden Canyon Trailhead (12:30 PM)

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 from this area. However, due to time constraints, we opted for the shortest one – a three-mile round trip hike to the Red Rock Cathedral.

Blonde woman on the Golden Canyon Trailhead in Death Valley, California
We kept expecting to see R2D2 and C3PO in the Golden Canyon

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 end of the trail, we passed through some arches and narrow canyons before making a small climb of approximately 200 feet. Once we reached the top, we were treated to an incredible view of the canyon and valley.

View of the Golden Canyon from the Red Cathedral in Death Valley, California
The view from the Red Cathedral is worth the hike

TIP: You’ll be in direct sunlight for most this hike, so be sure to bring water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect yourself.

Stop #5: Zabriskie Point (2 PM)

Couple taking a selfie at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, California
Zabriskie Point offers an incredible but eerie view of the valley and canyon

There is an option 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. Apparently, it’s a great place to see the sunset as well!

Stop #6: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (3 PM)

Our final stop was the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which are 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 in case you need to fill up your tank.

Man climbing a sand dune at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley, California
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were extremely unique!

The sand dunes were an incredible sight and a huge contrast from the salt flats that we saw earlier in the day. It was fascinating to see a concentrated area of golden sand 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.

Close-up of red ant
Watch out for red ants on the sand dunes

TIP: While a lot of people were walking without shoes on the sand, I recommend wearing some kind of footwear. There were red ants on the sand dunes and the last thing you want is a painful bite.

Heading back to Las Vegas (3:45 PM)

We left the park and drove back to Las Vegas via Beatty. It took us 2.5 hours to make it back to Las Vegas, including two stops for coffee and gas. We were back at our hotel after returning the car by 7 pm, just in time for dinner.

Tips for visiting Death Valley

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 on your own. Some quick research online will help you arrive prepared to explore the park.

Screenshot of Viator tour of Death Valley
Day trip tours from Las Vegas are over $200 per person!

We researched some tours before deciding to make the trip on our own. We noticed some tour companies were quoting $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:

Cost breakdown of day trip to Death Valley from Las Vegas
I could have easily spent $56 in a casino, but I doubt it would have lasted as long

I’m not opposed to using tour companies. In fact, I often use them when traveling abroad. However, I don’t think you need one to explore Death Valley. Also, if you’re someone who likes to hike, then 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 there are limited food and drink options in the park. The first built-up area we came across was Furnace Creek after being in the park for around four hours.

Soft water bottle with cream backdrop
Platypus water bottles are easy to pack and allow you to carry water without having to purchase expensive bottled water

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) that can 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. I was down to a merino wool t-shirt by noon but was back to wearing my Woolly hoodie and jacket by mid-afternoon.

Man wearing multiple layers at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California
Wearing layers is essential since the temperature can reach both extremes in the desert

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 actually forgot our sun hats on this trip, so avoid making the same mistake as us!

4. Download offline Google Maps:

Offline maps option in Google Maps app
Downloading offline maps allows you to navigate without any wireless reception or signal

There is limited to 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 we were navigating the park, especially since it’s so vast.

5. Rent an SUV:

I usually recommend renting the most economical car. Though for Death Valley, I recommend a car that has 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.

SUV parked on the side of the road in Death Valley, California
An SUV is recommended since many of the Death Valley attractions require driving on bumpy and uneven dirt roads

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:

Small bottle of Cuticura hand sanitizer gel and pack of Wet Ones antibacterial wipes
Sanitizing wipes and gel are essential travel items, especially when visiting National Parks

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 a bit spartan.

Final thoughts

Photo mosaic of Death Valley and Las Vegas
We loved being able to enjoy both the outdoors and nightlife on this trip

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 of a drinker, so I’m better suited at 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.

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2 comments

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  • Thanks for the video! Especially liked the detailed breakdown of costs. As a solo traveler, I wish I could split costs more often, but oh well. Also, since you mentioned that you were going to be traveling to many more parts, you may want to get a US Parks Pass for the year…I think it’s $80 and you can bring guests with you free. Keep up the great content and congrats!

    • Thanks for checking out our post and video! The National Park Annual Pass is an incredible deal. We had one last year, but we still need to renew it. We were hoping to see a ranger station in Death Valley, but we didn’t see one. We are definitely going to get one before our big road trip in September. 😊

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