DEATH VALLEY, CA. — Yes, it’s doable: you can make a self-driven day trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley, California, experiencing what Death Valley has to offer and still make it back to the Strip in time for dinner, gambling, and a show. What better a day in Vegas than a hot, sunny day in a beautiful otherworldly national park followed by Vegas nightlife?
We’d been to Vegas enough times that we wanted to explore further on our recent trip, places we’d not yet been before, like the nearby Red Rocks Canyon and Hoover Dam. Death Valley, a place we had only heard by name before and not known much at all about until a friend mentioned it before our trip and prompted me to seek more info. Being Canadian and all, we had never really experienced the desert or an environment quite like it.
Close enough for a day trip
Starting only a two-hour drive from Vegas, Death Valley isn’t far at all. We knew we had to go when our car rental booking surprised us with a Ford hybrid, which was amazingly fuel efficient and fun to drive, so we knew we had to make the best of it and go somewhere to fully utilize excellent fuel efficiency. The Grand Canyon, though also drive-able from Vegas, would be much too far for a day trip.
Leave early to maximize your time
We left at around 10AM after picking up some juice, water, bananas and cubano sandwiches from Trader Joes which would be sufficient to get us through the day. There are few places to eat in Death Valley, so bring what you need. A 10AM start time was later than we hoped, as we wanted to get out early and come back before the sun went down, but as usual, these things take longer than you expect and we ended up getting back after sundown. But this proved perfect. (It was early March so sunset was around 6PM.)
What follows is our summary of the most essential stops to fit everything into a single day trip. You could probably spend a few days in Death Valley but these are the main stops you need to see.
From Vegas, you can enter into Death Valley through Death Valley Junction by taking either US-95 or NV-160 (we liked the shorter 160 that goes through Red Rock Canyon National Park and through Pahrump, Nevada). Stop briefly at Death Valley Junction (essentially the entrance to the Park) to take a look at the surroundings and admire the creepy Armagosa Hotel and attached Opera, then keep driving. Take a photo at the Death Valley National Park sign. Then take the 190 towards the park entrance; just beyond, you’ll turn left towards Dante’s View, which will be your first stop, offering a beautiful overhead view of Badwater Basin and beyond.
1. Dante’s View
An introductory awe-inspiring view to start your Death Valley adventure. Make sure to make the hike to the peak just beside the parking lot, take in the fresh air and enjoy the views. Then, roll back down (almost straight downhill, the hybrid loved this part of the drive) and turn left at the T-intersection where you first started. This will take you further towards the next destinations. The following are presented in order of our recommended journey to get you through the park’s most excellent spots most efficiently in one day, and back just after viewing the sunset in time to Vegas for nightfall.
2. Zabriskie Point
One of the most famous of Death Valley’s viewpoints (it’s on the cover of U2’s “The Joshua Tree” album), and great for sunrise/sunset. It’s an ethereal sight to behold especially when shimmering in the sun, a large mound of rugged badlands, with white salt flats in the main valley beyond. Cool hiking here, with short walks near the viewpoint, or a longer hike down below to the Golden Canyon.
3. Furnace Creek Visitors Center
Go here for a short stop, perhaps to get info from the guides stationed here, buy some cool Death Valley memorabilia, or have a bathroom break. (You can pay the Park fee here if you haven’t already at one of the pay station on the way.)
4. Devils Golf Course
A rugged hellscape of jagged crystalline salt deposits that must be seen. One of those otherworldly landscapes I love Death Valley for. You can walk on the rocks if you want to risk an injury, but don’t dare try the salt (disgusting, my travel companion says).
5. Badwater Basin
This is the lowest point in North America, and is a vast, atmospheric area you don’t want to get stuck in if it gets too hot outside (think: summer). There’s a sign here up on a ridge that reads “Sea Level” which gives you a good idea of how low you are. There’s a nice walkway that lets you trek out further into the salt. This is what Death Valley is all about. After Badwater Basin, you’ll turn around and head back towards the junction we started at (near Furnace Creek) with a stop at Golden Canyon..
6. Golden Canyon
Have a quick hike here. A nice canyon with some cool photo ops. You can do a long or short hike, but beware in hot temperatures. More info here.
7. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Now we take a detour and head back towards Furnace Creek Visitors Center, and quite a ways past it (if you’re short on time or want to get back to Vegas earlier, you can skip the Sand Dunes as its somewhat of a drive, but I found it worth it). You’ll drive past the Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail, Mustard Canyon, Salt Creek Trail, and Devils Cornfield (worth a look from the car window), and then hit the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which are ultra cool for a walk and some great photos. It’s funny, it doesn’t look like much when you approach, but when you arrive, it’s a landscape unlike any other. You’ll wonder how and why this sand got here (and you’ll learn how, too). I think it’s the first sand dunes I’ve ever visited so it was certainly mesmerizing.
The Sunset (Back to Zabriskie Point)
Head back towards Death Valley Junction towards Vegas. Don’t forget to look back while you drive back towards Las Vegas and take some sunset photos. They were glorious the night we were there. Zabriskie Point is supposed to be magical during sunset (we truly regret not stopping!).