Death Valley is one of those place’s you have heard about since being very young. Even its name produces strong emotions and it’s high up on a lot of peoples must visit places. Las Vegas is conveniently located quite near to the barren wasteland and people often consider combining a tour to the Valley with their Vegas trip. We highly recommend taking a day to visit Death Valley From Las Vegas if you are interested in seeing this iconic and fascinating location and in this post, we discuss all the best ways to visit and the different options you have along with the best things to see on the way.
Remember it is still quite a long drive and heads out into some pretty savage terrain so it’s not for everyone but if 7-8 hours of pure driving is not a big issue for you we highly recommend making the trip.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a huge valley located in the Majove Desert in eastern California near the border of Nevada approximately 120 miles from Las Vegas. Making Las Vegas the perfect base to head out and explore the Valley.
It is one of the hottest places on earth and also one of the lowest. The Badwater basin drops to 282 feet BELOW sea level. The deep flat valley is surrounded on all side by huge mountain ranges with the peaks over 11,000 feet high making from some utterly stunning vistas and out of this world views.
It really is a place like no other a real wilderness almost devoid of life. Its hostile barrenness holds a real beauty and sense of adventure. Death Valley should be on most people’s bucket lists and is a fantastic break from the craziness of Vegas. As such we highly recommend a day trip there and here how to go about it.
How to Do it?
Really there are only two options to tour Death Valley from Las Vegas. You can either drive yourself or book onto an organised tour.
DIY By Car
This is definitely our prefered option. Not only is it much faster, you are in control of the route schedule stops and what you get to see. You are much more likely to see more of what interests you and avoid the long boring journey times on a bus.
Of course, this means you will be responsible for the trip yourself. Navigation, planning, driving safely etc… It can be quite daunting heading off into the desert with little or no idea where you are actually heading in an unfamiliar hire car. But it is definitely worth the effort.
Being our preferred method this post will mainly focus on the DIY option but first, let’s take a look at the tour option.
There are plenty of companies willing to guide you out into the desert. You will be in modern airconditioned coaches and the tour will usually include Breakfast and lunch. The Driver is also your tour guide and will provide commentary and information on what it is you are looking at. Which is quite an advantage as it can all be a bit bland and featureless. It is, after all, a desert!
Most tours are pretty comprehensive and take you to all the major sights that we talk about below. The tours take plenty of rest and comfort breaks and are really quite enjoyable, the driver/guides are hired on their witty personalities along with their knowledge and make the trips a funs experience.
The downsides to the organised tours are the fact you are on someone else’s tour going to the sights they want you to see. It is also a long day, typically 11-12 hours with a very early start, as early as 5:30 am on some tours! This makes for a really tiring day and by the time you get back to the Strip you will be fit for very little but an early night.
Because of this, we prefer driving ourselves, while it will still be a long day more of it will be spent seeing what you want to see and less of it driving slowly along endless highways. But if the thought of a 3-500 mile drive in a day sends chills down your spine a tour is a great option.
From now on in the Post, we will focus on the DIY Driving side of things but most of this is applicable to the tours and you can expect to see most things we talk about here and the routes will be similar, but realistically you can let the tour guide worry about this.
Like a lot of road-trips, the destination is only part of the joy and getting to death valley there is a lot to see and do along the way and simply putting “Death Valley” into your sat nav will lead to disappointment!
The most Direct route from the Las Vegas Strip is around 118 miles each way and takes in just about NO major sights and attractions. This is clearly not the way to go.
Our Preferred route is to start out heading for Beatty. We head up the 95 and the 121 miles should take around 2 hours. The Tours normally follow this route too but it will take longer (slower) and this is your breakfast stop. That’s a long way to ride in a bus before eating! We normally skip breakfast and just snack on the way, but there are plenty of restaurants along the way, mainly chain restaurants such as IHOP or Denny’s. Stop early though as these start to vanish as you head away from Vegas and into the nothingness. So whatever your plans we advice having food supplies as it is quite possible you will not find anywhere suitable to eat out in the desert.
Once at Beatty there are a number of things to see and do in the town. Including a few museums and lots of cool photo ops, the town is very rural and has a ghost town type feel to it but is still populated by around 1,000 people. It still has a definite wild west feel about it though. From here you can also explore Rhyolite, a real Ghost Town.
From here you can now head to the Park entrance and begin exploring the park. There is a $30 entrance to the park which is good for 7 days. We usually head straight for Furnace Creek and the Badwater Basin. And then take the detour around Artists drive on the way back from Badwater.
After this, we head back to Scotty’s castle Junction before heading up Scotty’s Castle Road to the Ubehebe Crater. This dogleg is a long arduous drive and can add significant mileage and time to the Journey for what so some is just a hole in the ground and not really worthy of your time. We think it is an excellent diversion and one of the highlights but there is no doubting it will add at least 3 hours to the trip!
Racetrack Playa is also located down this road. From Ubehebe continue down the Racetrack Playa Road to see the Sliding Stones. A real wonder. However, this road is off-road and fairly rough. Only a 4×4 with good clearance is recommended and it’s likely to void your hire car warranty. While the end result is pretty magical (depending on your perspective as they are just rocks on a lake dry bed Really) it’s hard to recommend the journey especially in a one day trip!
I If you skip Ubhebe then we would recommend head towards Panamint springs to see the vast endless roads vanishing off into the desert. Finally, all roads lead back to Furnace Creek where you will take the 190 out of the park and back towards Las Vegas via Death Valley Junction and then the160 after Pahrump. But not before the last two stops at Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View. Not to mention passing Pyramid Peak our favourite Death Valley mountain (Pic Below)
The Final Payoff of the day is the descent down from mountain view as the Big Lights Of Vegas come into view as you descend off the mountain plateau. After a long day driving, You will have covered over 800 Miles and over 8 hours of driving no including stops. That is one long day and you best hope you have a nice Spa Bath and bottle of Bubbly back at the hotel!
Things to See
Map of Things to See in Death Valley
Sorry for stating the obvious, but really the main thing you will see is the desert. Miles and Miles of absolutely nothing! But this isn’t a bad thing it’s literally the point! The endless roads disappearing into the horizon the heat haze melting the ground into mirage’s and the astoundingly Big skies, Big Mountains and Big Country. It is an incredible place the firmly lets you know just how small you are.
This is really “the” reason to come out here. While the remaining sights are all very good if you are not coming just to witness the harsh endless unrelenting desert then you will probably find the trip disappointing! Remember while cruising along in your Air conditioned car to nock the AC off and drop the windows to feel the wind in your hair…Think hair dryer on hottest setting!
Beatty is the first stop on our suggested route and is the last place you are likely to be able to stock up on food and fuel. The town now almost solely relies on tourist trade and the whole place has a very backward kind of charm about it. There isn’t much to see and do in the Town and it’s mainly a pass-through type of place. There are a couple of small museums you can check out and a few shops, restaurants and Gas Stations.
A real-life Ghost town, the old mining towns last resident died in 1924 and the old prospecting camp has been empty ever since, well apart from movie companies and tourists who flock here for the real authentic wild west look and feel of the place.
Rhyolite is an absolute must stop if you head in through Beatty. While it’s not quite what ti was a few years ago there are still many abandoned buildings and eerie streets and cars preserved by the arid desert air.
Wildly considered the centre of Death Valley and home to the Visitors centre and a few shops and some very expensive petrol stations. Here you will find several overnights options including the camping grounds for the insane or stupid. The town is one of the few locations in the park where you can stock up on things and refuel. It is remote and caters to the ill-prepared so don’t expect cheap prices but if you need something you may get it here.
The town has a golf course and is oddly green and lush, a testament to the American idea that you can change any environment to suit your need. This little Oasis in the desert is a must stop and a stark contrast to what is coming up. However, the town holds the record for hottest recorded temperature on earth!
Bad Water is the lowest and often the hottest point in America. At a staggering 282feet below sea level, the air remains trapped by the mountains and cannot cool down by rising up like in most places. It is also usually dense due to low pressure and this means the air warms to staggering temperatures. This is true across the whole valley but is at its pinnacle at Badwater.
The Boardwalk over the river wherBadwaterer gets its name allows access to the salt flats and a short half mile walk out onto the flats gives a real taste of how utterly hostile and unforgiving the valley really is. You have never experienced hot until you have Walked the Badwater Flats! Or like I did run on them! a 1-mile run had me nearly collapsing with heat exhaustion.
We usually save Dantes View until last as the access road is on our way out of the park. But it is actually less than two miles from Badwater, It’s just that it’s two miles and up a near verticle cliff face for 6000 feet. Not a recommended route.
The View gives a staggering panoramic view of nearly the whole national park, and on clear days you can see the highest (Mount Whitney) and the Lowest points in the contentious united states! This is one of those spots where no matter how good the photo it will never do it justice.
It’s a great feeling looking down on the Badwater basin knowing you where there earlier, and watching the ants (people) scurrying about on the salt flats. The Drive up to the point is a little hairy but this is one not to be missed.
Often rated above Dante’s View, Zabriskie point offers incredible beautiful and unique landscapes. For us, if we had to choose between Dante’s and Zabriskie we would go for Dante’s view, but still strongly suggest seeing both. Zabriskie is a favourite for photographers and it’s not hard to see why with the incredible colour pallets and almost surreal lines of the dunes.
The Drive from the 190 is much shorter than Dante’s and we think that is one reason this gets more visits then Dante’s.
Artist Pallete / Artist Drive
Artists drive is a short 9-mile loop road that heads away from the Badwater salt flats and into the mountainous valley walls. It has one thing that most roads in this area lack…Corners! As such its a very fun drive and a great break from the endless straight lines you will have encountered up to now. The Narrow road has a number of blind corners and dips but it is a one-way road so it’s a fairly easy drive.
Around halfway is Artists Palette. This volcanic rock formation derives its name from the incredible array of colours that are visible on the rock formations. Causes by different metal oxidising over time it is quite a spectacular sight and combined with the fun road it’s a well deserving detour. We always do the road on the way back from Badwater as the top of the loop is No Entry so if you drive it on the way back there is no backtracking.
A small rock formation resembling a mushroom. This product of erosion makes for some great photo opportunities and selfies. Located just a short walk from Badwater Rd.
Mesquite Flat Sand dunes
The Mesquite’s Flat Sand dunes are the archetypical sand dunes. The waves of sand roll off into the great beyond in a seemingly endless fashion. If the Dunes seem familiar well that’s because their perfect form has drawn the filmmakers of Hollywood for years so often a far-flung desert scene is shot here even scenes on other planets including Star Wars have been filmed here and other places in Death Valley.
The Sand dunes are Visible from the pull out on the 190 and you can hike a short way out into the dunes for the best views.
Devils Corn Feild
Another very unique location is the Devil’s Cornfield. Here Arrowood bushes grow in a tortured and sparse manner giving the appearance of some kind of farm from hell. Its name is probably more spectacular than the actual location but it’s well worth a stop and a few snaps as you drive past located near the junction of Scotty’s Castle Road and the 190.
Devils Golf Course
Again another very exciting name that’s not really matched by the location. This time it relates to the very jagged and uneven surface of the dried up lakebed of the Valley. The phrase “only the Devil could play Golf here” gave rise to the name.
There is no golf course here just a vast expanse of uneven rough lake bed. If you do want to play golf then you can find a real golf course and not devils in Furnace Creek.
The YooBeeHeeBee (pronunciation) Crater is a fairly recent volcanic crater situated in the northern part of the National park. The large crater is very striking and appears out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. It looks more like an impact crater but is definitely volcanic in origin and could be as young as 700years old.
You can follow one (or all) of three short trails in the area. One circumnavigates the crater while on heads down the 700 feet to the bottom. The last heads of to the smaller “little Hebe” crater.
The Drive from the 190 can take up to 1hr30 and add a lot of time into your day and you have to be really sure you want to head out to it. While it’s one of the better points of interest in the Valley the 3Hours plus it takes to visit can be too much for some. It’s a long day already and spending 3 hours to see a hole in the ground can be seen as a waste to some. Guided tours do usually head out this way though and while the drive is long it takes some really remote and stunning scenery.
I have been enthralled with Racetrack Playa since I was very young and the sliding stones in particular. The Dried up lake bed is home to a collection of small smooth pebbles that apparently move around by themselves when we are not looking leaving trails in the dirt behind them! This phenomenon confounded science for years and always piqued curiosity in me as a child.
As such it was a dream come true to eventually visit. However, for others, the chance to see some stones in a lake bed is pretty low on the list of priorities and this location adds a huge amount of time to any Death Valley trip and requires a long offroad drive in a very remote and hostile environment. A break down here would be very troublesome.
As such despite the payoff, we don’t really advise including this on most itineraries. If you REALLY want to visit the stones nothing will stop you but think very carefully about making this trip. The Racetrack is accessed by continuing on past the Ubehebe Crater down the Racetrack Playa dirt road.
The Park is home to some of the darkest skies in the word and visiting at night is a phenomenal experience. Billions of stars are visible and you can clearly see the milky way by eye. The desert atmosphere is very clear and perfect for stargazing and astrophotography. If you have never seen a truly Dark sky it is an experience you are unlikely to forget quickly.
We only recommend this if you plan to stay over in the park as driving back to Vegas in the dead of night is not recommended.
It is very easy while cruising along in your Air conditioned car to forget how harsh and brutal Death Valley really is, especially in the summer months. This is not a place you want to get stranded. You are unlikely to have any phone signal and walking for help is out of the question due to the incredible heat and distances involved.
As such sensible precautions should be taken before heading into the desert.
Carry a lot of water. You lose water so fast when it’s hot and dehydration and heat stroke come on fast. If you are driving take as much water as you possibly can. Bottled water is cheap and it really could save your life. As a minimum, we have a 1-gallon bottle per person. preferably more. You don’t need to drink crazy amount if everything is going ok, just drink to thirst. But having that reserve could be very important should you have a breakdown.
You may as well leave it at home for all the good it will do. Out in the remote wilds, there will be no signal. If you have a breakdown and need assistance you are not going to be able to phone it in. Fortunately, as long as you stay on paved roads the odds that someone will be along in a few minutes is pretty high. This is why we advise not heading to a too remote location. Sticking to the tourist areas mean you can always catch a lift back to civilisation pretty quickly to arrange a recovery.
Likewise, if you see tourists looking a bit standard it might be nice to offer assistance if you can. Of course care should be taken when receiving lifts from strangers but on the whole, it’s pretty safe as most of the time you will encounter fellow tourists. Never split up and if something feels unsafe or you are unsure decline the offer, someone else will be along soon enough.
If you do break down it is important not to panic. As we stated help should be only a few minutes away and even if you are somewhere very remote someone will be along at some point. As long as you have brought reserves of water you will be fine for days as long as you don’t do anything stupid.
Unless you are close to a town you are unlikely to be able to walk anywhere so the best bet is to stay with your car. Find shelter from the sun during the hottest part of the day if you can and keep drinking water. Don’t take risks with strangers and don’t head off into the wilderness on a “shortcut”. Just wait it out and sooner or later you should be able to flag down a good Samaritan,
Snakes, Scorpions and Black Widows are all present in the Valley but unless you hunt them out they will not find you. During the day they will be safely tucked under rocks, logs and in crevices. Leave these things alone and you will no trouble at all.
There is one thing that kills more people than anything in death valley. It’s the same danger we face in most tourist locations, and almost no tourist locations too! Yep, It’s the good old Road Traffic Accident. While Death Valleys name conjures up many images of death and danger, on the whole, it’s pretty safe and very few people get into trouble every year.
Like more things in life, it’s the normal things that can get us more than the obvious. So drive safe. Keep the speeds down and take breaks when tired. This way you will have a safe trip that you will remember for years for the right reasons.
Most people do Death Valley as a day trip, but if you want to extend it a bit and see a lot more of the valley or take-in the dark skies or just spend time with your camera getting the best shots there are a few options for staying over.
Check out the NPS page for up to date lodging information.
There are various Camping grounds, but with temps over 120 Degrees F during the day and potentially freezing in the night it’s not what we consider a good option. If you are hardcore then go for it, but we prefer a bed.
As we have said this is a long day and for many, it’s just not worth the drive but you still want to get a taste of death valley. You could take a really direct route to the valley and just stop at Badwater and Furnace Creek but we don’t really advice that instead check out these options.
A few miles to the west of Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National conservation area. The Drive is short and takes only around 30-45 mins depending on traffic. There is a short loop road that takes you around the area and a lot of the formations and the landscape is similar to what you would experience in death valley. It is likely to be cooler but still very warm.
While similar t is not a patch on the real thing but it takes a whole lot less of your day and you don’t even have to leave the car if you don’t want.
Valley of Fire State Park
Along similar lines is the valley of fire. More desert rock formations and roasting high heat. This mini death valley is the most spectacular of the 3 in terms of rock formations the bright red rock has been eroded to bizarre and fascinating shapes and formations. Well worth a visit even if you plan on seeing death valley also.
L.A – Las Vegas – The Long Way
One of our favourite way to experience Death Valley is by heading through it when driving to Vegas from Los Angeles. It’s still a really long day, but the drive from L.A to Vegas (or vice versa) is a good 4/5 hours so at least you are killing two birds with one stone.
It is a really fantastic drive and we will be featuring it in our Road trips section very soon. We would much rather do Death Valley this way than simply driving in from Vegas.
Have Your Say?
Have you visited Death Valley? Did you take a tour or drive it yourself? Which do you think is better? What did you check out when you were there and the most important question…How Hot was it? Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions about visiting the park or if you have any comments about the article at all. We would love to hear from you.