Finding a balance between my love for my job and my love for exploring the outdoors is tricky. Paid time off in my industry is precious, so it usually comes down to packing three days worth of adventure into one day - which can be intense, but I’ve found I’m starting to get the hang of it and our most recent trip to Death Valley National Park was proof. Without feeling rushed, in one day, we managed to see some of DVNP’s heaviest hitting attractions and I’m excited to share our successful itinerary with some of you other weekend warriors.
Where to Stay
Before jumping into the attractions, let’s talk lodging. Death Valley has numerous campsites and hotel options. For this itinerary, I recommend either staying in Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek.
Stovepipe Wells Village is home to the Stovepipe Wells Hotel. Here you will also find The General Store and gas station as well as the Badwater Saloon, Toll Road restaurant, a gift shop and a ranger station. There is also first come first serve campsites in this area (190 sites) or if you’re traveling by RV you can make a reservation through the hotel.
Furnace Creek also offers full service hotels and camp sites. At this location you can either stay at The Ranch at Death Valley or The Inn at Death Valley - both affiliated under The Oasis at Death Valley. The Ranch is your more family-friendly option, while the Inn is more of an adult crowd and offers more elevated amenities. The Oasis has a couple of restaurants, pools (accessible only by guests), horse back riding, gift shops and more.
There are also a number of camp sites in the area. Furnace Creek campground accepts reservations (but make sure you book far in advance - this site books up fairly quick) while Sunset camp ground and Texas Spring camp ground are both first come first serve.
We chose to stay at the Ranch - it was the most affordable (other than camping) and reliable option - plus it was the perfect home base for all of our excursions.
One Day Itinerary for Death Valley National Park
Sunrise at Zabriskie Point (6:15 am)
I had read all about how beautiful the sunrise is at Zabriskie Point, so on Saturday morning, we woke up around 5:30am, pulled ourselves together and drove the 10 minutes up the 190 hwy to the Zabriskie Point overlook. It was an amazing way to start the day, and while we certainly were not alone, it was one of the most peaceful, serene moments of our trip. There must have been at least 30 other people standing beside us, cameras at the ready, on the overlook, but there seemed to be an unspoken understanding - no one spoke above a whisper and everyone respected each other’s space.
The view from Zabriskie Point is unimaginable. Below you are the winding golden canyons of the badlands, beyond that, the pure white salty surface of the salt basin and then furthest in the distance the Panamint range seems to jut up out of nowhere showing off Telescope Peak’s snowy top.
Watching the sun rise from this location is magical, although I’m sure catching a sunset here is pretty surreal as well.
Badlands Loop (6:45am)
After taking in the scenery at Zabriskie Point, we decided to get squeeze in a small hike while we still had the cooler temperatures of the morning. We wanted to explore the surrounding terrain a bit more so we chose to hike the Badlands Loop trail that begin at the bottom of the paved road leading up to Zabriskie Point.
The 2.5 mile loop trail winds your through the badlands where you’ll have views of Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral as well as pass by some of the areas old Borax mines.
Breakfast at The Ranch at Death Valley (8:30am)
After we concluded our morning excursion we decided to head back to the Ranch to grab some breakfast from the buffet and change into clothes better suited for what we knew would be a hot afternoon. The buffet was definitely worth the $15 per person charge. We loaded our plates up full of yogurt, fruit, biscuits and eggs, knowing we’d have a long day ahead of us.
Badwater Basin (10am)
After breakfast we headed out to Badwater Basin. Knowing there would be zero shade at this particular attraction we planned on hitting this area as early as we could - by 10am it was already 85º, but believe me, it felt hotter!
Badwater Basin was such a surreal experience. At 282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. This particular area gets very little rainfall (less than two inches every year) water gets trapped inside the basin, then evaporates and leaves behind mineral deposits that cover the basin looking like fresh snow. In order to reach the snow white, hexagonal shaped, salt flats you have to hike about 1/2 mile. The walk out to the flats feels so close, but still so far (a reoccurring theme in this particular desert). The vast white basin juxtaposed against the massive Panamint mountain range is such a sight and you really can’t take a bad picture here.
Natural Bridge Trail (11:30am)
As the sun moved higher in the sky the basin began to heat up even more, so it was a good time to head out to the Natural Bridge Trail for a light, semi-shaded hike. As we made our way back towards Furnace Creek the turn off for Natural Bridge Trail is just 10 minutes from Badwater a the end of about a mile long unpaved road.
Natural Bridge Trail lead you to… you guessed it… a natural bridge! Throughout the years differential erosion created the impressive 50ft conglomerate rock bridge. It doesn’t look like much in photos, but seeing it in person you really get a sense for it’s massive size, spanning from one side of the canyon to the other. The trail is well marked, and while I would say just about anyone can accomplish this hike, even so, hiking up hill through the gravel-like sediment is a bit of a slog. Luckily, it’s a fairly short jaunt (maybe 15 minutes) to reach the bridge and it’s a beautiful spot to seek refuge in the shade before continuing on, or heading back to the your car.
Artist’s Drive / Artist’s Palette (12:15pm)
From the Natural Bridge turnoff, about 4 miles North along Badwater Road you’ll find Artist’s Drive. Artist’s Drive is a one-way road that travels south to north so it is an ideal adventure if you’re heading back to Furnace Creek like we were.
Artist’s Drive meanders through the mountainside above the basin and is composed of super vibrant soil colored by rich metals from volcanic activity throughout the years. The scenic drive also passes by a popular attraction called Artist’s Palette. Here, the bright patches of soil along the mountainside are so bright and scattered - reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock piece - it’s really a sight to be seen and so hard to capture in a photograph.
Lunch at The Last Kind Words Saloon (1:30pm)
After spending the entire morning in the Death Valley heat, we decided to finally head back to Furnace Creek to cool off and eat lunch. We posted up at The Last Kind Words Saloon and filled up on BBQ Pulled Pork and Potato Skins - a heavier lunch than we wanted, but gave us plenty of fuel for the rest of the day ahead.
Salt Creek (4pm)
Salt Creek was a surprise favorite on our itinerary. After fueling back up during lunch, we decided to head toward Stovepipe Wells. Initially, we were just going to post up at the dunes, but along the way we decided to take the road toward Salt Creek - a quick, and fulfilling detour.
This seasonal stream of salty water is the only home of the rare Salt Creek Pupfish who we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of! While the Salt Creek Pupfish’s ancestors long ago swam in freshwater, this subspecies had to adapt to live in saline water and every March and April you can catch them squirming around in the shallow waters defending their territory and attempting to mate.
The boardwalk loop around Salt Creek is a quick 1-mile lollipop loop, and though it may not seem like much for a creek anywhere else, it sure feels like an extraordinary oasis in the dry depths of Death Valley.
Sunset at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (5pm)
Our last stop of the day was out to Stovepipe Wells to catch sunset at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This was definitely the highlight of my trip. Mesquite Flat Dunes are the most easily accessible dunes in Death Valley and rise over 100ft from the ground. I had never seen dunes like this before - it’s hard to imagine that there are other dunes in the area, like Eureka and Kelso, that are nearly 6x higher than them!
This was the perfect spot for sunset. If it’s not too windy, you could settle in with a blanket and watch the sunset turn the surrounding hills from pink to purple. Or, if you’re feeling super ambitious, stick around after sunset and do some amazing star gazing.
There is no official trail to follow, but if you’re looking to get away from the hundreds of foot prints and find some more pristine sand, you’ll need to hike about a half mile out towards the highest sands. The sand can be a bit tiring to tread through and there is very little shade, so make sure you bring plenty of water on this excursion.
Summing it Up
Considering this was our inaugural trip to Death Valley, I’m pretty happy with the amount of hiking and sight-seeing we got to do in just 12 hours. That said, there is still a LOT left to explore in the park and surrounding area. If you’re lucky enough to have more than a day, be sure to check out some of the park’s other popular hikes and attractions.
Other Popular Attractions:
Scotty’s Castle (closed till 2020)
Devil’s Golf Course
Other Popular Hikes:
Mosaic Canyon Trail
Red Cathedral Trail
Golden Canyon Trail