Weekend Guide to Death Valley

Everything you need to know for a southern California weekend trip to Death Valley National Park. You can use this guide to help you plan your camping trip to Death Valley.

When to Visit

As Death Valley is a land of extremes, timing your visit is very important. As an inland desert below sea level, winter temperatures can dip below freezing overnight. It is not uncommon for summer temperatures to reach over 120°F (49°C).

In 1913, the hottest world record air temperature of 134.1°F (56.7°C) was recorded at Furnace Creek. That same year, the park’s coldest recorded air temperature reached 15°F (-10°C).

In terms of temperature, February and March are the most comfortable times of the year. In this two-month period, average temperatures range from 46 to 82° F. Later in the year, October and November offer another two-month period of comfortable average temperatures ranging from 48°F to 93°F. December is a fair time to go as well, however temperatures overnight can be a bit too cold for most tent campers.

Weekend Road trip to Death Valley

Visiting from Southern California

Death Valley National Park is reachable within 4 hours from downtown Los Angeles. Because of this, you could leave Friday afternoon and enjoy two nights of camping in the park before needing to return Sunday afternoon.

If you are leaving from Santa Barbara, the route will take about 5.5 hours driving. From San Diego, the drive takes 6.5 hours, not accounting for stops. If you choose to take Highway 178 from the 395 or the 14, watch for burros!

Spotting wild burros near Death Valley

While the majority of Death Valley is in California, a small bit is in Nevada, so it is also reachable from Las Vegas.

Option: Break the Drive Up

If you prefer to break the drive up into shorter distances, there is a great state park located halfway between Los Angeles and Death Valley.

The first state park in Kern County, Red Rock Canyon State Park offers first come first serve campsites off of Highway 14, the primary highway you’ll take once you get passed the Santa Clarita area.

Founded in 1968, Red Rock Canyon State Park features dusty red cliffs and buttes in an otherwise generally featureless area of the desert.

The Ricardo Campground is tucked back against the red cliffs. It offers 50 primitive sites and features tables, fire rings, and pit toilets. Campsites are $25 per night and additional vehicles cost $6. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a maximum six-foot leash. There is no drone photography allowed.

Camping trip at Red Rock State Park

Related: How to Leave No Trace

Where to Camp in Death Valley

The most popular and largest campground within Death Valley National Park is Furnace Creek. It is a developed campground with 136 sites. This is the only campground in the park that accepts reservations. There are only 18 sites with full RV hook ups in Furnace Creek and they are usually booked 6 months in advance. Plan accordingly.

Located above Furnace Creek is a first come, first served campground named Texas Springs. There are 92 sites here and fees are paid at the entrance of the campground. There is an automated machine that accepts cash or card.

Stovepipe Wells is another large campground offering first come, first served spaces. It is located near a general store, a ranger station, and a privately operated campground.

Two smaller campgrounds within the park are the Emigrant Campground and Wildrose Campground. With only 10 spots, it’s important to note Emigrant is tent only camping. Wildrose on the other hand offers spaces for RVs, but does not have a dump station nor hook ups. Wildrose is also at a higher elevation than the other campgrounds in the park if you’re looking to beat the heat (which may still prove impossible at certain times of the year).

If you can’t find a campsite, you could try the more primitive Sunset Campground. With 230 sites, this campground rarely fills. However, not all sites have picnic tables or fire grates. In addition, this campground lacks privacy, as there is no tall brush. The desert gravel ground may also be of concern if you are tent camping, and if you have a dog.

Related: Japanese Internment Camp at Manzanar


The admission fee for Death Valley National Park is $30 per vehicle. The annual national park pass named America the Beautiful costs $80 and allows access to an unlimited number of parks for one year. The annual pass is free to military families.

Furnace Creek Visitor Center

Furnace Creek is the main hub of Death Valley. The primary visitor center is here where you can pick up souvenirs, grab snacks, or refill water bottles. There is also a gas station and the Furnace Creek Campground.

The visitor’s center has a decent exhibit of the local biodiversity and small gift shop. The gift shop has several different books on a variety of topics, pins, stickers, hats, and a handful of T-shirt options. It is not the largest, most diversified national park gift shop, but it has decent options if you’re looking for a treat.

The snacks are mainly pre-packaged sandwiches stored in a refrigerator and candy. There are also cold drinks.

What to See in Death Valley

1. Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point is a great photo opportunity to capture waves of beige and mocha colored stone. Here you can see Manly Beacon, a prominent point that rises to 823 feet over the badlands. Zabriskie Point is only 15 minutes from the Furnace Creek Visitors Center.

You can do the Golden Canyon hike here, which connects to a larger loop. Golden Canyon is 3 miles out and back. You can check out the trail map here. Scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy were shot here.

2. Artist Drive

Named for its colorful palette, this is a highlight of the park. If you are not interested in a lot of walking, this is a great choice. This 9-mile one way road winds through the rocky hills and offers a few pull offs for capturing pictures of the colorful view before linking back to Artists Dr. There is a vehicle length restriction of 25 feet due to some tight turns.

A weekend trip to Death Valley. How to see Artist's Drive

3. Mesquite Sand Dunes

The sand dunes are a popular feature of the park. During good weather many people bring a picnic and have lunch out on the dunes. There are no official trails in the dunes so people spread out and explore. You may be interested in bringing a sled, as sledding down the dunes is quite fun. They are visible from Highway 190, the main highway through the park.

4. Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The area is surround by salt flats. The flats are comprised largely of sodium chloride, gypsum, calcite, and borax.

At the parking lot, be sure to look up onto the rock face to see the “sea level” sign to get a sense of how far below sea level you really are. You should walk the 1.5-2 mile trail to see the best view of the salt polygons.

5. Devil’s Golf Course

These bizarre formations of sharp white rocks are actually salt flats that have expanded and contracted with changes in the heat and wind. After driving down a short dirt road, you’ll come to a small parking area where you can get out and explore the formations. The dirt road is relatively flat and sedans are able to traverse it.

6. Dante’s View

Located 5,500+ feet above Badwater Basin, this detour rewards you with an impressive view. Situated on the ridge of the Black mountains, sunrise and sunset are popular times for this spot. There are also trails in the area that allow you to spread out from the crowds though. Dante’s View is a 45-minute drive from Furnace Creek.

7. Mustard Canyon Drive

Close to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, this stop features a dirt road that meanders through a mustard yellow canyon. Starting at the historic Harmony Borax Works site, this road will take you through a rocky canyon with little plant life. While the road is dirt, it is relatively flat and short. It is doable without an SUV or four-wheel drive.

8. Father Crowley Point

On your way either into or out of the park, you pass Father Crowley Point. After a long, winding road, this stop is a great refresher. While not as impressive as Dante’s View, the point offers sweeping views of the valley and canyon. At about 4,500 feet in elevation, you can take in the view from either the paved parking lot or a short dirt road to see more of the valley.

Death Valley's Father Crowley Point

Related: Local’s Guide to 37+ Things to do in Santa Barbara

Gas Stations

You can fuel up your vehicle at gas stations in the park. There is gas available at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Valley. As supply and competition for gas in the area is low, you can expect to pay $1-2 more than you would outside the park most of the time.

Visiting with your Dog

If you are visiting during any time when temperatures exceed 75°F, you should strongly consider using boots to protect your dog’s paw pads. The urgency to use boots to protect your dog’s paws increases as the temperature does.

As a general rule, if you cannot hold the back of your hand to the asphalt for more than 5 seconds, it is too hot for your dog. If the air temperature reaches 90°F, the asphalt temperature is usually about 150°F. The ground temperature at Furnace Creek has been recorded at over 200°F. For reference, an egg can fry on the ground in less than 5 minutes at these temperatures. Burned and blistered paws are a preventable injury.

Another safety concern for dogs in the area are venomous snakes and coyotes. Coyotes have been known to snatch small dogs in the park. A coyote scampered through our campsite one evening in Texas Springs, so be mindful.

Do not leave your dog’s food and water bowls out at campsites as they attract animals. Store your dog’s food in a secure location.

Dogs are not allowed on park trails or in park buildings. This includes the boardwalks at Badwater Basin and Salt Creek. Paved trails such as Zabriskie Point and Harmony Borax Works are also off limits to pups. This is the case even if the dog is carried by hand or in a backpack.

Related: Congaree National Park- one of the most dog friendly parks

Death Valley National Park with a dog

That said, there are several paved and unpaved roads that allow you to walk your dog. Devil’s Golf Course Road, 20 Mule Team Canyon, Lake Hill Road, and Mustard Canyon Road are all places where you can let your dog out of the car for a leashed walk.

Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, but must be attended to at all times. While the national park has strict rules for visiting with dogs, the regulations help protect the environment. If you would like to take your dog for longer walks, consider exploring areas near the park such as Lone Pine and BLM land.

Related: Visiting Alabama Hills and Lone Pine

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Hey there!

I’m Taylor. If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to the website, drop a message into my inbox. Thanks for visiting!

Santa Barbara, California


10 thoughts on “Weekend Guide to Death Valley

  1. That landscape is so surreal! I’d love to see that with my own eyes. So cute your dog can join you on your travels!

  2. The views of the unique landscape here are just incredible. I would definitely come here in the off season to avoid the heat.

  3. I passed thru Death Valley on my way to Arizona from California. I did not hit it during the middle of summer but it was very hot. I loved the color of the soil and some of the historical sites.

  4. Taylor, this looks amazing! The only thing I had heard about Death Valley is that the road gets so hot in summer that rental vehicles aren’t permitted to travel there. I love the landscape, it looks other-wordly for sure. I bet on a clear night it would make a perfect spot for star gazing too. Thanks for sharing, I loved your photos and I’ve saved the list of things to do.

  5. This is detailed post and I liked how you have mentioned very useful tips for bringing dogs and taking special care of them. You pictures look beautiful and your dog is so adorable!

  6. Having not yet visited Death Valley this was a good post to get an overview of what to expect. But I sure would not be visiting in the summer heat! Those views all look so stunning. I can see why camping lets you have more time to enjoy all this beauty.

  7. The geology of Death Valley (and those salt flats) are really interesting, and spectacular to see! I would loooove to visit, just not in the summer time as I am pretty sure I’d melt!

    Doggy shoes are such a good idea for those hot days!

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