This is our first year of being intentional about visiting all of the National Park Service sites near us as we travel. In the past, we practically drove right past a ton of places because we forgot to research our surroundings. Or–even worse for this slightly-OCD girl–we went, but forgot to get our passport stamp!
One tool has made it simple to track our proximity to NPS sites lately, and that’s the free mobile app, National Parks by Chimani. We use the map view to zoom into our location and see what’s around us. Then we can click on each location for more information. And once we’ve visited, we can record the year we were there. Totally fun for NPS-lovers and list-makers.
Thanks to the app, I know we’ve visited four national parks, three national monuments and one national recreation area so far in 2016. The latest: Death Valley National Park.
Las Vegas –> Death Valley National Park
I had been planning a day trip to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas ever since we set out on our Grand Loop Trip. A lot of Las Vegas locals don’t realize that the park is only two hours away! We left around 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday and were in the park by 8 a.m., including a gas stop and quick breakfast run. There is a gas station near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, but the prices are shocking.
We took the shortest route from Las Vegas, but NPS also provides information on the easiest, most scenic and ghost town routes from Las Vegas.
Seeing the Park in One Day
Late March is a perfect time to visit the park. The weather was perfect for us. It’s definitely best to arrive as early as possible, to get in some time before everyone else arrives, and to make the most of your day.
Speaking of which, don’t stay home just because you only have one day to visit Death Valley National Park. Although it’s huge (more than three million acres), you can see the most popular areas and get a sense of this magnificent place in only a few hours. It’s absolutely worth the trip.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
If you didn’t already pay your entrance fee at the information kiosk before Zabriskie Point, then you can do so at Furnace Creek Visitor Center. There’s also a really good museum where you can familiarize yourself with the park and its history.
Most of all, make sure you stop by the video monitor right by the door. It’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever seen at a visitor center, with detailed itineraries based on your interests and how much time you have. Each itinerary has a map with mileage, and there’s even a video for each stop along the way! It was so well done, and I’d love to see this at the larger national parks across the country.
Get your passport stamp, use the restroom and refill your water bottles before you leave. Water fountains and taps are surprisingly scarce in a place where your body demands regular hydration.
Golden Canyon Trail
Back on the road, retrace your tracks just a couple miles to the east, and turn south at the sign for Badwater Basin. I recommend you get your hiking in during the coolness of the morning at Golden Canyon Trail.
There was a 0.75-mile ranger-guided tour at 9 a.m. on the day of our visit, but you may prefer to go at your own pace and do the whole trail. It’s only two miles in-and-out, with rock walls on either side. My favorite features are the varied paths carved by water through the rock. We could also see a mud line along the walls, from a recent flash flood through the canyon (the ranger said that you should head for high ground if you ever see running water on the floor of the canyon).
There are variations to make your Golden Canyon hike longer, if you like. Find the full guide to hiking in Death Valley here.
Turn left out of the Golden Canyon parking lot and drive about 14 miles to Badwater Basin. This is usually the place people think about when they think of Death Valley National Park. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point of elevation in North America. Look up at the face of the cliff to see where the sea line is marked!
A half-mile hike will take you out onto the salt flats. As I lifted my palms from the ground, white, sharp particles clung to me. I couldn’t resist–I had to sample Death Valley salt! Eric captured my distressed reaction in a photo. It was the saltiest salt I’ve ever tasted.
Devils Golf Course
As you go back north along the same road, you’ll come to the dirt turnoff that leads to Devils Golf Course on your left. Any vehicle can make it, though you may want to take it slow.
Devils Golf Course purportedly gets its name from an old park brochure, which said only the devil could play golf in this place. When you see it, you’ll understand. Here, too, the ground is covered with salt. But instead of the relatively flat surface found at Badwater Basin, the salt has created jagged formations that are always changing. We even saw a tiny salt statue growing on a rock.
Enjoy rambling over the formations and appreciating their variations. But be careful. A fall could result in serious injury, and definitely pain.
Artists Drive and Artists Palette
As you get closer to the main road, don’t miss Artists Drive on your right. This short, scenic drive was one of our favorite things in Death Valley. At the first main hill (you’ll probably see cars pulled over on the shoulder), we took a picnic lunch and blanket to the top.
The view was incredible. On one side, we could see Badwater Basin in the distance. Directly in front of us on the other side, hills rose like a painting. The chemicals in this volcanic rock have reacted to the elements over time, and visitors can now see blues, greens and pinks on display.
When you continue on the scenic drive, you’ll reach Artists Palette, which is the big draw. Many people stop at the parking lot for a short hike closer to the rocks. There’s also a restroom.
The length limit for vehicles on Artists Drive is 22 feet long.
Okay, It Was Half a Day
A lot of times when we visit national parks, it’s easy to feel rushed and even stressed because there’s so much to see. That misses the whole point of escaping into nature. By the time we finished Artists Drive, it was only about 1 p.m. We had enjoyed a relaxing five hours in the park, going at a slow pace and taking time to see the details around us. It was awesome.
We could’ve hiked nearby Zabriskie Point, or headed north from the visitor center to see Mustard Canyon and Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail, which references past mining operations in Death Valley. But we didn’t. We felt really content about what we had seen, and decided to make the two-hour drive back to Las Vegas, so we could still have time to relax before the end of the day.
We made the right decision for us. But hopefully our slow-paced itinerary reveals to you how much you can accomplish at Death Valley National Park in just one day.
What We Missed
Scotty’s Castle is a whopping 55 miles northwest of Furnace Creek. I would’ve loved to have taken a tour of this Mission Revival- and Spanish Colonial Revival-style villa, but it was a moot point for our visit. Since the October 2015 flooding, it has been closed.
Ubehebe Crater, about ten miles away from Scotty’s Castle, sounds spectacular and I’d love to see it in person on our next visit. The crater is 600 feet deep and half a mile wide, and the distance around the rim is a mile and a half.
Unique National Park
Wilderness doesn’t need to include verdant life and growth to be valuable. Even this desolation is beautiful and worth appreciating. Although Death Valley National Park is far from typical, I’m glad this area is protected.
Three million acres takes some time to explore, so we’ll definitely be back.