Death Valley National Park

Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is a United States National Park that is located primarily in the Southern California Desert, with a small portion extending into Nevada. Many potential visitors ignore the park due to the misconception that it is simply a lifeless, empty landscape, but this 3.4 million acre (14,000 km2) park is not only the largest national park in the contiguous 48 States of the USA (although Adirondack state park in NY is larger) but also arguably one of the most striking specimens of Mother Earth. Nearly every major geological era is elegantly exposed here in what sometimes appears to be one of her greatest tapestries, gloriously presenting her full spectrum.

The valley itself is 130 miles (210 km) long, between six and 13 miles (10–21 km) wide and is surrounded by steep mountain ranges: the Panamint mountains to the west, and the Black, Funeral, and Grapevine mountains to the east. Its three million acres of wilderness and rich cultural history make it a lifetime's work to explore all that the valley has to offer.


A land of extremes and superlatives, there are locations within the park that allow the visitor to see both the lowest and highest elevations in the 48 contiguous United States on a clear day. As far as US phenomena occur, not only does it feature the hottest recorded temperature, but also reports the lowest annual precipitation, the tallest sand dunes, and at 13,628 square kilometers, is the largest National Park in the 48 contiguous United States.


The first non-Native Americans arrived in Death Valley in 1849 looking for a shortcut to the California gold fields. Although only one member of their party died, the name Death Valley was given to the area. Various mining operations used the valley afterwards, most notably for borax mining. When mining prospects went sour, the Pacific Coast Borax Company lobbied for federal protection of Death Valley, in order to develop tourism. President Hoover declared about two million acres of the area a national monument in 1933. In 1994 the monument was expanded by 1.3 million acres and declared a national park.


Badwater Basin, lowest point in North America

Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in North America and one of the hottest places in the world. It is also a vast geological museum, containing examples of most of the earth's geological eras. Death Valley National Park includes all of Death Valley, a 130-mile-long north/south-trending trough that formed between two major block-faulted mountain ranges: the Amargosa Range on the east and the Panamint Range on the west. Telescope Peak, the highest peak in the Park and in the Panamint Mountains, rises 11,049 feet above sea level and lies only 15 miles from the lowest point in the United States in the Badwater Basin salt pan, 282 feet below sea level. The California Desert Protection Act added most of the Saline, Eureka, northern Panamint, and Greenwater valleys to the Park.

Flora and fauna

Animal life is varied, and numerous species of reptiles, birds and mammals populate Death Valley, adapting well to the desert environment. However, many of these animals have a nocturnal lifestyle in order to escape the searing climate and can be difficult to spot.

The largest native mammal in the area, and perhaps the best studied member of the fauna, is the desert bighorn sheep. Small herds of sheep are most commonly found in the mountains surrounding Death Valley but at least occasionally visit the valley floor. Look for these animals near the springs and seeps that can be found throughout the park.

Over 350 species of birds are now known to inhabit or visit the area. And even native fish are to be found in Death Valley - several forms of desert pupfish of the genus Cyprinodon live in Salt Creek and other permanent bodies of water.


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°F) 67 73 82 91 101 110 117 115 107 93 77 65
Nightly lows (°F) 40 46 55 62 73 81 88 86 76 62 48 38
Precipitation (in) 0.4 0.5 0.3 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.3

Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world. Air temperatures over 120 °F (49 °C) are common during the summer months of June, July, August and September. The hottest recorded temperature in the world was measured in the park in 1913 at a blazing 134 °F (57 °C) (a measurement of 136 °F recorded in Libya in 1922 has since been dismissed due to questions over its accuracy). Since it is often up to four degrees hotter near Badwater than it is near Furnace Creek where the official record was recorded, it is entirely likely that Death Valley should hold the title as the hottest place on Earth.

Fortunately, temperatures from November through March are mild with highs averaging in the 60s and 70s (15-25) with winter nighttime lows usually in the 40s (5-10). This makes the winter and early spring the best seasons to visit.

Very little rain falls in the valley, but rainfall in the mountains often sends floodwaters roaring down narrow canyons, scouring boulders, rocks and soil along the way and eventually depositing them in the valley. These deposits are evident in the form of gigantic Alluvial fans seen throughout the valley. Many of these fans reach over a mile wide and are the product of hundreds and thousands of years of this process. The granular structure of these fans is also interesting to note as you will commonly see the larger boulders near the top of these structures and as you go further and further down, the granularity becomes finer and finer until you are finally left with the salts on the valley floor!

The higher elevations of the Panamint Range reach up to 11,049 feet (3,368 m) at Telescope Peak and are usually covered with snow from November to May, making a breathtaking backdrop to this unique desert climate.

Get in

Sun-baked sand in Death Valley

By plane

McCarran International Airport (IATA: LAS) in Las Vegas is the closest commercial airport to Death Valley.

There are also three small airstrips within the park for private plane access at Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek, and Saline Valley.

By train

The nearest city with an Amtrak station is Barstow, which is served by the Southwest Chief Chicago - Los Angeles route.

By car

NOTE: Some roads in the park can occasionally be snowed in at the passes and may require chains in the winter. Please reference the Death Valley Morning Report for current weather and road conditions.

From Las Vegas or Barstow you will need to rent a car as there is no public transportation to and from the park. (If you get stranded in the park, you can have a rental car delivered from Pahrump, about one hour away in Nevada.)

From the East:

From the West:

From the North:

When traveling from Las Vegas, proceed north on US 95 to Lathrop Wells. Then proceed south on NV 373 for 23 miles to Death Valley Junction. Then proceed west on CA 190 for 20 miles to the park entrance.

Many other more adventurous routes into the park are also available particularly for high clearance and 4x4 vehicles. The route in from the Eureka Dunes in the north is notable along with the route from the Panamint Valley through Emigrant Pass from the southwest and the southern route on CA 178 west from Shoshone.

From the South:

Note on routes: "CA 127" means "California State Route 127" and "NV 373" means "Nevada State Route 373." The signs for each state are different. Nevada has a rectangular sign with a white shape of the state with black numbers while California's signs are in the shape of a spade and green with white numbers.


A seven-day pass with unlimited re-entry is $20 for a standard vehicle (car/truck/van) and $10 for each individual traveling on foot, motorcycle, or bicycle.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Death Valley National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

Unlike other National Parks, few of the roads into Death Valley National Park have road-blocking ranger-manned fee booths. You are expected to pay the entrance fee though, and there are automatic kiosks at several places in the park.

Get around

A car is highly recommended although during the more temperate seasons such as the fall and spring a nice bike ride may be in order. But beware that climatic conditions in the park can be extreme so always check the weather forecast prior to entering and plan your activities accordingly. Note that most weather forecasts for the park refer to locations within the low altitude portion of the park and weather conditions at higher elevations can be dramatically different.

The paved roads within the park are well-maintained and accessible to vehicles of all kind, but dirt roads (with the exception of the west side around the Badwater Salt Flats) are rough. Many use a vehicle with moderately high clearance such as a four-wheel drive, but a 4-wheel drive is not essential to visit any of the main sights listed below (except Echo Canyon). Expect excessive washboarding, erosion, large rocks, and uneven surfaces when traveling on the park's dirt roads.

While well maintained paved roads traverse the park from east to west and to the south, most park features other than the visitor center will require some degree of off road travel. In most cases, this will consist of graded dirt/gravel roads. This should not be a problem for a sensibly driven SUV but all drivers should exercise caution: don't leave Furnace Creek without a full tank of gas, make sure your spare tire is serviceable, carry enough water for all passengers to last at least 24 hours (1 qt. per person minimum), don't rely on a cell phone in an emergency, carry a detailed park map and know how to read it. There is likely no other place in the lower 48 states were a traveler could so easily fall off the beaten path than in Death Valley. This advice is not meant to scare you but to remind you that overland travel in the park is serious business. The best way to travel in the park and to see the most is a with a high-clearance 4x4. This designation is used throughout the park maps to describe what vehicles should or could attempt certain routes. Only short sections of some routes might be classified as hard core but what makes the park so challenging is the length of some of the roads. Most tours into remote ares require at least an eight-hour commitment if starting from Furnace Creek, so plan accordingly. Before planning any driving off of the paved roads check with the visitor center or the park website for the latest road condition updates.


Death Valley and Furnace Creek

Devil's Golf Course
Historical locomotive for Borax-carrying in the Death Valley (Furnace-Creek-Museum), USA, in June 1993
Zabriskie Point

Stovepipe Wells and Vicinity

Scotty's Castle and Vicinity

Backcountry Sights

Eureka Sand Dunes
Racetrack Playa


There are numerous hiking trails within the park, ranging in difficulty from short loops to overnight, mountainous treks. Always bring sufficient water when hiking in Death Valley; the heat can kill.

Photography is another popular activity. The odd geologic formations in the park are great for early morning and late evening photography, although during the day the harsh sun tends to wash out most photographs. During March and April the wildflowers within the valley bloom, making it a particularly photogenic time of year.

The clear desert air, scarcity of clouds, and a great lack of nearby light pollution makes Death Valley an ideal spot for stargazing. Ideally come during a new moon to fully appreciate the darkness of the night sky.

Death Valley has numerous high-clearance roads that offer a challenge for four-wheel driving enthusiasts. Driving off-road is not permitted.

Bicycles are allowed on all roads in the park, including the many rough, trail-like backcountry roads that attract four-wheel drive enthusiasts. As with motor vehicles, riding off-road is not permitted.

Other park activities include:



Although you can get gas in the park it typically costs up to a dollar more per gallon than outside the park. It is recommended to fuel up right outside the park before coming in. But once in the park, don't try to squeak out with just enough gas as the results can be fatal if you are stuck in the wilderness or just plain costly if you need to get gas brought to you by a tow truck.




Desert wildflowers after a late winter rain.


Within the park

There are 4 in-park lodging facilities in Death Valley National Park.

Outside of the park



Backcountry camping is allowed 2 miles away from any developed area, paved road, or "day use only" area. Due to the rough dirt roads, backcountry roadside camping is generally only accessible to visitors with high clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicles, or well-equipped mountain bikes.

Stay safe

Follow Desert Survival guidelines. The name of the park says it all. Unprepared tourists die each year within the borders of the park. Make sure you have plenty of water (at least a gallon (4 liters) per day, per person) for your activities, whether it be on a back-country trail, or on the main highway. A good rule of thumb is to always carry enough food and water for an additional 3–4 days longer than you intend to visit. Should you become stranded while driving, stay with your vehicle as it is likely to provide the only shade in the area. Pack plenty of water for your car in case of overheating, especially in summer! Rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders are present in the park. Never place your hands or feet where you cannot see first!

If you are going a significant distance on any of the unpaved roads, phone a friend and tell them where you are going, when you will be back, when you will phone them again to tell them you are safe, and give them an emergency number to call (760-786-2342) if you don't get back in touch with them by a chosen deadline. Some of the unimproved roads eat tires for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you could lose your spare tire too. In addition, make sure you have more than enough fuel; roads may be impassable and can require unforeseen detours. Don't rely on a GPS routing alone. Figure out where you're going on the official national park map first, then make sure the GPS device precisely follows the same route. If in doubt as to a route's safety or your vehicle's ability to make it, return to established paved roads sooner rather than later.

Cell phone service does not exist in most of the park, so don't count on being able to use it in an emergency.


Free Wi-Fi internet access is available at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, but only when it is open.

Furnace Creek has reliable 3g service for Verizon and Sprint (others may function but, there is no confirmation of this).

Some high peaks do receive signal, however, this is not to be counted on but, should be attempted in an emergency.

Go next

Routes through Death Valley National Park

Bakersfield Ridgecrest  W  E  Shoshone Pahrump
Ends at Olancha-Cartago  W  E  Death Valley Junction Ends at

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.