With its stunning geography, geologic diversity, and low desert climate, Death Valley National Park is like no other place on earth. The borders of Death Valley National Park encompass 3.4 million acres of harsh, unforgiving desert terrain that will leave you awestruck. Uplift, extensive volcanic activity, erosion and deposition, and prolonged periods of inland flooding have helped to shape Death Valley into a world of its own. More than 20,000 years ago this once temperate climate was the home of the enormous Lake Manly, an 80-mile long, 600-foot deep inland lake that left behind some of the park's most unusual features. The lake also created the aquifer below Badwater Basin that feeds Salt Creek and occasionally surfaces as tainted water along the flats. Mineral deposits attracted mining operations to the area from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, and several of these historic mines and extraction sites such as Harmony Borax Works can be visited throughout the park.
It's a good idea to have a basic understanding of the geography before you make the drive to Death Valley. Many of the park’s activities are set miles apart, so plan on spending just as much time between destinations as you would on the trails. The park is loosely divided into five different areas. Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs are along Highway 190 and offer campgrounds, lodging, and gas stations with basic provisions. Grapevine and Wildrose are less traveled and offer no amenities other than campgrounds, though they both have a lot to offer if you’re looking for solitude and some stellar views of the park.
Furnace Creek is the hub of Death Valley National Park. Here you will find the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center in addition to a store, a gas station, and several other amenities. Four different campgrounds are nearby, and there are two resorts for lodging options. Some of the main attractions at Death Valley are not far from here, so you can get a good overview of what this park has to offer if you are here for a short period of time.
Stovepipe Wells is also a great choice for access to a lot of the park’s adventures. If you plan on exploring the outer regions of the park and still want to maintain the comforts of lodging and other amenities, this may be a good spot to stay for the duration of your time. Not only are there a bunch of adventures close by, the road to Scotty's Castle, Ubehebe Crater, and the Racetrack is not far away. Stovepipe Wells has a ranger station, gas, and a small store for minimal resupplies.
Following Scotty’s Castle Road from Stovepipe Wells will take you to the Grapevine area. If you're looking for solitude and a place to get away from the busy areas of the park, this is a great option for you. There are no amenities here, but the incredible views and Death Valley's natural diversity make this an amazing place to stay. From here, Ubehebe Crater and Scotty's Castle are just a short drive away. To reach the Racetrack, take the Racetrack Valley Road starting near the crater, but be aware that you will need a high clearance vehicle.
The Panamint Mountains dominate the landscape at Death Valley, and the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak is the tallest summit in the range. To access this peak, you will need to travel to the Wildrose area of the park. Though remote, this area is home to arguably some of the most beautiful landscape in the park. The Timbisha Shoshone people would come here during the summer months to escape the low-elevation heat and return to the basin in winter when temperatures were less extreme. Because of the elevation and temperature change in this area, visitors will find a unique population of flora and fauna.
Panamint Springs is a small town located on the outer fringes of Death Valley National Park. This area does not have an abundance of activities, but it does offer a place to start your adventures farther into the park. It may also be a good option if you arrive at the park later in the day because it is near the entrance. Panamint Springs has a gas station, a store, options for lodging, and a few food choices as well.
With all of the exciting adventures that await, there are some real dangers you should consider before leaving the comfort of your campsite. While Death Valley National Park is a free-hike area that allows visitors to hike and camp almost anywhere, a free-hiking permit from the ranger station is required if you do decide to leave the common visiting areas. Make sure you are informed and well prepared for weather conditions before you go: Imagine traversing a bleak, inhospitable desert in 134-degree weather, the country-record air temperature recorded at Furnace Creek in July, 1913. Death Valley National Park has an average summer temperature of 116 degrees, and it averages 67 degrees in the winter. When traveling in Death Valley, be sure to bring plenty of water with you wherever you go. This landscape is so devoid of moisture, you can almost feel the earth stealing yours any chance it gets, even on the cooler days. Of course, bring plenty of sun protection for your body: hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and protective clothing are essential.
While Death Valley is known for its high temperatures, overnight temperatures can be quite chilly. Average overnight lows are near 40 degrees in the winter, so warm clothes are definitely in order in certain seasons. Beyond your normal camping gear, you’ll want to bring a portable shade for exposed campsites. Campfires are permitted seasonally and only in established campground fire rings, so a stove will be essential. Also, note that the only method of payment in some campgrounds is by credit card using an automated teller, so be sure to bring your credit card. Backcountry campers can obtain voluntary permits from the visitor center that help the park service locate you in case of emergency. Maximum stays for backcountry and most campgrounds are a whopping 30 days; Furnace Creek is limited to 14 days. For more on camping in Death Valley National Park, check here.
Some of the adventures in Death Valley National Park are easily accessible and have parking lots right off the main road. A vast majority of them are not so easy to reach and require driving down dirt access roads that are minimally maintained. Some may require a four-wheel drive vehicle. These access roads will wreak havoc on small cars or sedans, so it is preferable to drive a high-clearance vehicle. If the roads do not slash your tires, they will shake your car apart, so use caution and take this into consideration when choosing a vehicle to use in the park. Also note that most car rentals do not insure vehicles that go off road.
If you happen to break down, stay where you are and wait for help. Your vehicle can be a source of shade and supplies if you’re carrying extra water, food, and first aid. Consider bringing a full 5-gallon gas can into the park in case you run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, and top off your tank when you can.
Furnace Creek has the least expensive gas, followed by Stovepipe Wells. Panamint Springs is the most expensive, and gas there almost twice the Furnace Creek price.
To protect wildlife and park habitat, pets are allowed only in developed areas of the park. This means campgrounds, roads, and picnic areas, and similar areas. They must be kept on a 6-foot leash whenever outside of a vehicle. Given hazards such as extreme heat and coyotes, visitors may want to consider leaving their pet at home.