Death Valley in a day is doable, especially if you’re already around the area or can at least make the drive in a reasonable amount of time. Now, ‘reasonable’ definitely varies from person to person. I’d say 2-3 hours is reasonable. When I went to Death Valley for a day a couple months ago, we drove 4-5 hours each way, and that’s not even including the time spent driving in the park itself. Let’s just say we picked a bad halfway point coming down from NorCal. We had already driven 4.5 hours to get to Bakersfield from South Bay, and after deciding to make it to Death Valley for sunrise, took a 30 min nap, and hit the road again. Not a good idea. So, pick a good starting point, or at least be well-rested so that you can make the drive safely.
Since we knew we only had a day to spend in Death Valley (ended up being more of a half-day trip since we wanted to make the drive back before dark), we had a list of must-see spots that we wanted to hit. Looking back, I have no regrets. The route we planned also minimized the amount of back-and-forth driving. So if you’re thinking about doing a day trip to Death Valley, hopefully this list will help! We were in the park from 6am-2:30pm. If you have more time, you can and should definitely add to the list! Death Valley National park is HUGE, and a day doesn’t do it justice, but it was all we had to spare.
1. Zabriskie Point
I did a post dedicated to sunrise at Zabriskie Point a while back (link here). You have to get up pretty early, but I promise it’s worth it. And it’s less crowded early in the morning anyway. More bearable temperatures, too. The shades of pink that dance across the hills during sunrise are absolutely gorgeous. I guess sunset too, but we didn’t stay that late.
2. Dante’s View
A bit of a drive from Zabriskie Point, but also 100% worth. You get a gorgeous panoramic view of Death Valley. The view is absolutely breathtaking. Be prepared to hike a bit from the parking lot, though. You can go as far as you want—the view just keeps getting better. Because this place is relatively higher up, be prepared for wind. Thankfully, though, that means it’s also slightly cooler. We got here around 8am or so and the parking lot was basically empty. The park doesn’t start getting crowded until afternoon, I feel.
3. Badwater Basin
Death Valley’s trademark! The lowest point in North America. Man this place is scorching hot. It’s gorgeous, though! The salt flats cover nearly 200 square miles, so obviously you ain’t walking the whole thing. But you can venture out as far as you want to, which is nice. Plenty of open space to find your own spot to make salt angels 🙂 The crunch you hear when you step on the salt crystals is quite the satisfying sound. It gets really hot out here so you probably don’t want to venture out too far…you’ll have to walk all the way back. But at least remember to get a picture with the sign so you can say you’ve been here!
4. Natural Bridge
Out of the 6 stops that we made, I would probably rank this as the lowest priority. The arch that they dub the “Natural Bridge” is quite small, and not that impressive. The landscape, of course, like the rest of the park, is beautiful. But the road to get up to this particular spot is extremely rough. For the car, not your legs. The hike from the parking lot isn’t bad at all…probably less than a mile each way. And you can get some pretty cool photos. But make sure your car can handle the super rough and gravel-y road. It’s not a long stretch of road, but you AND your car will definitely feel it.
5. Artists’ Palette
Artist’s Palette is such a unique spot. Access is pretty convenient too—you follow a one-way road around the area, and there’s parking along the way if you wanted to get out and walk around. We didn’t stay out here too long since we got here around noon and it was getting really really hot. But this place is so….colorful!! I legit thought people came here and drew over the rocks with chalk or something (hence the name Artist’s Palette). Maybe even spray-painted. But all the colors you see on the rocks here are natural! Pretty impressive, no?
6. Mesquite Sand Dunes
This was our last stop of the day. We were pretty done by the time we got here, haha. I wish we had more energy to venture out further into the sand dunes. But it was getting so hot, the sand dunes were pretty crowded, and we were running off of 30 min of sleep. But this place is gorgeous. We didn’t trek that far in at all. We stayed along the outskirts close to the parking lot. Still pretty, but not quite the same. Once you go far enough in, all you see is sand. No shrubbery, no trees, and no parking lot 🙂 I’d pick between the sand dunes and Zabriskie’s Point for sunrise. Next time I visit Death Valley, I’ll probably make the same stops in reverse. Sunrise over the sand dunes must be really pretty too, I’d imagine.
And that wraps up our 1-day tour of Death Valley!
- Parking is actually remarkably easy to find. All the stops that we made (probably also because they’re the more touristy spots) had parking lots AND bathrooms!
- Once it starts getting hot, it gets hot REAL fast. Try to get most of your stops out of the way in the morning when it’s still relatively cool. I hear after April, the park gets unbearably hot. So if you can, try to visit in the cooler months as well 🙂
- There’s not a whole lot of food in the park. Definitely bring snacks of your own. We stopped by an Indian Taco shop on our way out. It was decent! But don’t expect to find many restaurants.
- There’s a single gas station (that I’m aware of) in the park. Make sure you plan your trip accordingly so you don’t run out of gas midway!
- All the places listed above are easy to find via Google Maps. But signal is iffy there, so download the maps offline so you have a backup.
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