Take a break from the glitz of Las Vegas and head out into the desert for a memorable day at Death Valley National Park – the largest national park outside Alaska. Despite its size, it’s easy to cover quite a lot of ground in just one day, from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to the Badwater Basin Salt Flats. There are epic contrasts of landscape, lush oases and, perhaps unexpectedly, a great diversity of life. It’s just a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip, and well worth it (and a much shorter trip than heading to the Grand Canyon). Here’s what to do during your Death Valley day trip from Las Vegas.
What Should I See with One Day in Death Valley National Park?
Here’s what to focus on during a day trip in Death Valley:
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center
- Zabriskie Point
- Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
To make the most of your one day in Death Valley, start early – like sunrise early – at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells. You’ll access the sand dunes from Highway 190 or the unpaved Sand Dunes Road. Park and then trek into the Sahara-esque dunes to capture an epic sunrise (come about 30 minutes beforehand). You may be surprised to learn that less than 1 percent of the desert is covered with dunes, which has been created by the prevailing winds, eroded canyons and washes. The wind is always blowing and the sand is always moving. At Mesquite Flat, that sand is geographically “trapped,” creating the dunes you see here, the highest of which stands about 100 feet tall. Look around and you’ll see crescent, linear and star-shaped dunes, mesquite trees and polygon-crackled clay from an ancient lakebed.
While you can sand board at Mesquite Flat, as well as the Saline Sand Dunes, you cannot sled, sand board or sand ski within the Eureka, Hidden, Panamint Valley and Ibex sand dune systems. No off-road vehicle traffic is permitted anywhere in the park.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
After sunrise at Mesquite Flat, head to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, which opens at 8 AM. Pay your entrance fee to the park, pick up a map, fill up on water and check out the interesting exhibits.
From the visitor center, visit famous Zabriskie Point, just a short walk from the parking lot. The far-reaching views are otherworldly, encompassing golden-colored badlands. If you like, take a hike from here around Badlands Loop, which connects to Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Red Cathedral.
Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette
To enjoy the park without a lot of walking, especially if it’s hot out, take the scenic, 9-mile Artist’s Drive through canyons and colorful mountains, stopping at Artist’s Palette for a short hike. This is an excellent point to see up close the dramatic colors of the park’s volcanic minerals. If you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s fun to note that some parts of Star Wars Episode IV: A new Hope were filmed around Artist’s Palette.
The best light along Artist’s Drive is during the afternoon. Watch out for cyclists, who frequent the one-way drive.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Reach Badwater Basin Salt Flats via Badwater Road. The basin is about 30 minutes south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
The sun may have set, but your day in Death Valley isn’t over quite yet. Pull over on your drive back out of the park to enjoy some epic stargazing without an ounce of light pollution. Stop at the famous Harmony Borax Works if you wish, where you can also see some neat historic structures.
Other Excellent Sites in Death Valley
Devil’s Golf Course
Check out this vast “course” of rock salt that has been formed into jagged spires after years of wind and rain erosion. Listen closely – you may here tiny pops and pings as billions of tiny salt crystals burst while expanding and contracting in the heat.
Whether you’re seeking a quick stroll or a 4.5-mile hike, the Golden Canyon offers several options. You’ll tackle the colorful labyrinthian landscape of hills and narrow canyons taking you into the depths of Death Valley. Be sure to pick up a map and route descriptions from the visitor center.
Panamint Springs Area
You’ll find a few miracles in the desert in this section of the park, including Darwin Falls, a spring-fed waterfall that flows year-round. It’s just west of Panamint Springs on a 2.5-mile road. Hike for about a mile to the waterfall, crossing the stream several times.
While you’re here, check out the Lee Flat Joshua Trees, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns and Father Crowley Vista, with its dark lava flows and volcanic cinders.
What Time of Year Is Best for a Death Valley Day Trip?
Spring is the best time to visit Death Valley. You’ll encounter warm, sunny – but not too hot – days, and possibly see some springtime wildflowers, depending on the previous winter’s rainfall. You can find wildflower updates on the Death Valley National Park website. There’s also a Dark Sky Festival during the spring between mid-March and late April. Make reservations far in advance for camping during this time.
Can’t make it in the spring? Autumn is a good alternative, starting in late October. You’ll encounter warm, pleasant temperatures and mostly clear skies. The camping season and ranger programs open at this time.
Finally, winter – with its cooler days, chilly nights and occasional rainstorms – is also an option. The light is especially beautiful for photography at this time.
Shy away from the oppressively hot summer, if possible. You can still come and tour the main points of interest by car, but don’t plan on hiking or getting out too often due to extreme heat.