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Death Valley National Park has so much to offer! It has lots to do and see with its diverse landscape of salt flats, sand dunes, canyons, kilns and craters. My family and I were surprised by how much there is to do! Between exploring the Badwater Basin salt flats, hiking the canyons, viewing the colorful rocks of Painted Canyon, exploring the moonscape of Devils Golf Course, running down the Ubehebe Crater (and trudging up it), and sliding down the Mesquite Sand Dunes we had almost too much to do!
Nerd moment: With all the natural diversity of Death Valley there's a ton of learning opportunities that will make your adventure even more memorable and meaningful. Seeing all this diversity in the landscape I wondered how it was all formed. How salt flats are made, where sand dunes come from, why there canyons, what about all the alluvial fans? Make sure to ask questions as you explore! For learning ideas check out the Dig Deeper section below! Death Valley is an exceptional opportunity to learn about nature. Don’t miss out!
One thing you should know so your adventure isn’t ruined when you get there… Death Valley is huge! This means you will be driving a lot! Just the drive from the Mestique Sand Dunes near the West entrance of the park to the Ubehebe Crater is a 50 min drive. The drive to the Badwater Basin from the Mesquite Sand Dunes is about 40 minutes. Be prepared with music, car games, audio books, paper and crayons, snacks, lots of water and whatever else you need to help with the drive. There is no cell service throughout most of the park, download anything you might need ahead of time. Being prepared will help your experience immensely, especially if you are traveling with kids.
Death Valley National Park
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A bit about Death Valley
Do you like ghost stories? Death Valley National park has a legend that tells of a group of travelers that took a shortcut through Death Valley trying to reach the California gold fields. They suffered, faced many obstacles, including heat and starvation and saw death on their journey across Death Valley. As they left the valley, they looked back and exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley!” The area has been known as Death Valley ever since! Yes the heat in Death Valley can be brutal during the summer when the heat can reach up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This is so hot that sweat can evaporate instantly leaving you covered in your own salt. While visiting in the summer can be dangerous, the winter temperatures drop to the 60s and 70s, making it a great time to visit.
Death Valley became a National Monument in 1933, then expanded to become a National Park in 1994. In the early 1900s, it was home to silver miners who built several mining towns. Over time these mining towns have been washed away by flash floods, becoming ghost towns. The remains of some of these ghost towns are still around today.
Death Valley is the largest National Park in the United States. It’s home to salt flats, sand dunes, spectacular canyons, a volcanic crater, and much more! Death Valley is a desert, and it looks really dry when you look around, but it may surprise you. Water can be found at Saltwater Creek in the valley. Water is a powerful force of nature and has shaped the canyons, the many alluvial fans, and salt flats that are a highlight in Death Valley. With a little planning and preparation, Death Valley is a fun and unique adventure for the whole family.
What you can see and do at Death Valley
Mesquite Sand Dunes
Walk and slide down Mesquite Sand Dunes. Go early in the morning to beat the crowds and while you have plenty of energy to walk up and down, or go later in the late afternoon to play and watch the sunset.
The sand dunes do get hot and there is no shade so again go early in the morning or as the sun is setting. Most of the crowd stays near the parking lot. If you are willing to hike through the dunes you can find an area all to yourself. Bring a boogie board for sliding down, boogie boards don't sink in the sand, your kids will have a blast! (Don’t bring a sled, sleds sink in the sand and go slow! We learned this the hard way.) Mesquite Sand Dunes are also the only dunes in Death Valley that allow sledding or boarding.
Walk the boardwalk at Salt Creek, 1 mile loop. There is always something so cool about walking on a boardwalk. Especially next to flowing water in the desert that has the world record for hottest temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit! Saltwater Creek has a nice trickle stream of salty water and plants like pickleweed that can survive in salty conditions.
Saltwater Creek is the best place in Death valley to see the desert pupfish. Spring is when the desert pupfish spawn! There is also nice informative signage to learn about the natural history and native wildlife.
Drive through Painted Canyon. You've probably seen pictures of the rainbow colors on the hills of Death Valley. This is a great spot to see them....although most of those amazing pictures are probably Photoshop enhanced. It's still worth stopping and walking around. This is also one of the few areas in the park that has a restroom. (also worth the stop)
Hike the rim of Ubehebe Crater, 1.5 mile loop, or take the trail to the crater bottom with a 600 ft. elevation drop. We had a lot of fun running down this crater...getting back up was a lot more challenging in the deep sand and gravel, especially if you have a little tike. (ours was 5, but she made it!) The loop trail looks fun, but in the end, down to the crater bottom looked more fun to us. Also take a moment to enjoy the black hills around the crater! Its such a unique place to visit in Death Valley.
Pro Planning Tips
Season: Fall, winter, and spring when temperatures drop, spring may have wildflower blooms
Difficulty: Easy hiking, but be prepared for lots of driving as it’s a large National Park
Time: 1-2 days
Cost: $30 or Free with National Parks Pass
No dogs are allowed on trails in the park, only at campgrounds and walking along backcountry roads.
Stop at the Visitor Center and get a map of the park; cell service cuts in and out.
Bring one extra gallon of water per person.
Bathrooms are located at Badwater Basin, Artists Pallet, Salt Creek and Mesquite Sand Dunes.
Bring boogie boards not sleds, to slide down Mesquite Dunes.
The drive to Ubehebe Crater is about 50 minutes from Mesquite Sand Dunes. Plan on the crater trip taking most of your day. You can still visit the dunes afterwards on the way back to the campgrounds.
If you have time check out Devils Golf Course. It has unearthly looking rock salt deposits that make small ping sounds as some of the rock crystals burst apart as they expand in the heat. Stay quiet and listen carefully.
The trail down to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater is steep and a lot of fun to go down, but it is very tiring to go back up. Take lots of water. It can be done with kids if you take a lot of breaks.
When driving through Painted Canyon, make sure to stop at Artists Pallet to walk around and see the many colors of Painted Canyon up close. There is also a bathroom there for your convenience.
If you are interested in Junior Ranger booklets go to Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Dig Deeper with a Death Valley Learning Adventure
If your planning a trip to the Death Valley with your kids and want an easy way to learn about why Death Valley is so unique then check out The California Adventure Activity Book. This is a great resource for your family. It includes our Top 10 CA Desert destinations (Including Death Valley) with activities for each location and fun earth science lessons. It's like your own learning adventure for each location. Here are some of the things included:
- 10 adventures in the CA Desert
- 10 Earth Science Lessons
- 10 Hands-On Science Activities
- 10 Coloring Pages
- 1 Sticker Map
- Reward Tickets
- 10 Scavenger Hunts
- Journal Pages
More Death Valley Favorites, Can you Spot it?
Death Valley bonus! If you keep your eyes alert you will see some of the unique and incredible things that make Death Valley so incredible.
Alluvial fans form when rain forms canyon rivers and flash floods that carry boulders, sand, and silt (called alluvium) out of the canyon and deposit them in the shape of a fan as the water disperses and slows. They have formed at the mouth of every canyon in Death Valley.
The pickleweed got its name because its stems look pickle-like and it also tastes salty. It can survive in extreme salty conditions that most other plants die from. Any salt that the plant absorbs is stored in its pickle-like ends causing them to turn reddish and fall off. Best place to find it in Death Valley is Saltwater Creek
Tracks from beetles, snakes, and other dune animals can be seen after a windstorm. The dunes record the tracks of every creature that walks on them like paint on a fresh canvas. The best place to find tracks in Death Valley are near the creosote bushes on the sand dunes where the animals burrow and seek shelter.
The brittlebush is a desert shrub that has fuzzy, silver-gray leaves and yellow flowers that bloom in winter and spring. It’s an important plant that provides food for mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, and occasionally kangaroo rats.
Cairns are stacks of rocks made by hikers to help them find their way back from a long hike in a new area. Don’t make cairns for fun. Hikers can become lost if too many cairns are randomly made.
Where We Stayed on our Trip to Death Valley
We chose to stay outside Death Valley National Park at Panamint Springs Resort and drive into the park from the west side. The west entrance to the park has a long grade on which we didn't want to take our RV and it's the only campground we found in which we could get internet service since we work remotely. Also it's located across the street from a gas station.
The campgrounds inside the park are more convenient for driving around everyday and cost less, between free-$36. If you don’t need internet service these would be a good option for you.
Death Valley Campgrounds that are Open year-round
Furnace Creek Ranch. Reservations recommended. 760-786-2345.
Panamint Springs Resort. Reservations recommended. 775-482-7680.
Stovepipe Wells Village. Reservations recommended. 760-786-2387.
Furnace Creek Inn. Open from mid-October to mid-May. Reservations recommended. 760-786-2345.
2 Day Itinerary in Death Valley
If you have 2 days to explore Death Valley. Here' a fun/realistic itinerary.
1) Badwater Basin
2 Devils Golf Course
3) Natural Bridge
4) Artist Palette Drive
5) Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
6) Sunset at Mesquite Sand Dunes
1) Ubehebe Crater
2) Scotty's Castle
3) Mesquite Sand Dunes (play and sunset)
Only 1 Day Itinerary in Death Valley
This list is in order from farthest destination/drive and returning to west entrance. Start by Stopping at Furnace Creek Visitor Center on you way if you are interested in Junior Ranger Program.
1) Badwater Basin
2 Devils Golf Course
3) Artist Palette Drive
4) Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
5) Mesquite Sand Dunes
Visiting Death Valley National Park with family and friends is an incredible opportunity to create lifelong memories and learning experiences. Whether you're exploring the park's unique geology, hiking, playing on sand dunes, or learning about how this incredible park was formed there's something there for everyone. Death Valley really is an ideal destination for families who want to give their kids a fun, hands-on, immersive experience in nature.