We had a fabulous five day-four night trip to Death Valley National Park. Man, was it hot! Even for Death Valley, it was hot. It was in the high 90s in March! None the less, we discovered that Death Valley for kids and families is a great spring break destination.
There are so many things to do in death valley that the biggest struggle for us was getting in everything…first thing in the morning. By 11:30, it was blazing. But, we carried on, drinking tons of water, slurping electrolytes, slathering sun screen, and hiding beneath big hats. Oh, and a dip in the The Ranch at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek) pool each afternoon helped.
Here are some of our favorite things to see, do, and learn in Death Valley.
(Scroll to the bottom for more info on getting to, and staying in, Death Valley National Park.)
Death Valley for Kids and Families
Artists Drive Death Valley Auto Tour
Artists Drive is a 9-mile (14.5 km) one-way paved road winds through multicolored, eroded hills. It’s a popular scenic drive as well as a popular bike route, so take it slowly and watch for riders. It’s a good way to see some of the spectacular colors and formations in Death Valley without having to leave the car.
There are opportunities to get out and walk along the way and we were sure to take advantage of those.
Getting into the multi-colored hills was amazingminerals in turquoise, purple, orange, yellow, brown, and more, make up the hills. We got out at Artists Palette and wandered around, climbing the small hills, finding caves, and wandering the washes.
The kids also love the HUGE dips in the road that feel like a roller coaster.
Artists Drive has a vehicle length restriction of 25 feet (8 m) due to dramatic dips and sharp turns. The drive will take 25-45 minutes, but I recommend planning for more time to wander the colorful hills.
To reach the beginning of this Death Valley drive go about 9 miles south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. The start of the drive is clearly signed.
Ubehebe Crater Death Valley Hike
Our main activity during our stay was Death Valley hiking. And sweating. Each of the Death Valley hikes has something different to offer. Ubehebe Crater offered a cool name and big craters. Plus, the higher elevation meant cooler temperatures.
Our favorite things about Ubehebe Crater:
- Saying the word Ubehebe over and over.
- Walking around the edge of the steam volcano crater and looking into the bottom and at the orange sherbet-colored walls.
- The amazing number of flowers on the inside of the crater.
- Maybe this should be #1 — It is about 15 degrees cooler up there.
- Hiking to the bottom of the crater –just Anders and I. It’s a slog on the way back up. Plan on sliding back down each of the 500 feet you step up. And don’t do it in sandals. The rocks were piercing my feet with every step. Still worth it.
If you walk the 1.5-mile loop, you’ll also see Little Hebe Crater. “Little Hebe” is my new nickname for Finn. We walked counter clockwise, as most people do, so that the uphill is at the beginning. If you go this way you reach Little Hebe in about 0.5 miles and this is a good turn around point if you don’t care to walk the whole perimeter of the crater.
The Ubehebe Crater loop is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) with 500 feet (152 m) of elevation gain and takes about 1 hour if you don’t go down to the bottom of this Death Valley crater. There are exposed edges along the edge of the crater so it might not be good for those with a fear of heights and watch little kids.
The parking area is large enough for buses and large RVs, you may want to get there early to avoid those crowds. The nearest bathroom is 5 miles east of Ubehebe Crater at the Grapevine Ranger Station.
Pupfish at Salt Creek Death Valley Walk
This is an easy boardwalk trail that you can do even on a hot afternoon. It’s a 0.5 mile (0.8 km) ADA accessible wooden boardwalk loop.
The boys thought the pupfish were “so cute.” I think it’s amazing they can live in such high salinity and at temperatures ranging from almost freezing to 100 degrees. Tough pups!
Some species of pupfish are thought to be extinct, some are threatened, but the Salt Creek pupfish are doing ok for now. Check them out while you can. There are interpretive signs along the trail describing the Death Valley pupfish natural history.
The best time of year to visit is February – April as that is when the Salt Creek Pupfish spawn and you can see them. The water from Salt Creek reaches the boardwalk November – May. If you are visiting during a different month, you may want to skip this one.
There is a vault toilet in the parking lot (another reason this Death Valley location is so family friendly).
Mosaic Canyon Death Valley Hike
Even if you just walk the first 0.5 mile or so of this trail, it’s well worth it. The canyon walls are gorgeous, and the rhyolite forms short canyons or narrows, and there are lots of rocks to climb over. You’ll see outcroppings of Mosaic Canyon Breccia, for which the canyon is named. It’s composed of tiny angular fragments of various types of parent rock locked within a natural cement looking just like a mosaic.
If you like to scramble and play, this hike is for you. We walked up to a pile of boulders that block the trail (which you can climb over on the left). We were told the boulders are two miles up, but they seem closer. Now I wonder if we didn’t make it to the “end” of the trail since I later learned there are three rockfalls blocking the trail. We probably only made it to the first.
The first part of the trail gets pretty crowded, so be prepared. It’s one of the best Death Valley hikes, in our opinion, so it’s worth it to brave the crowds.
The length of the trail is 4 miles (6.4km) out and back with 1,200 feet (366 m) of elevation gain. As I said, it seemed shorter and less steep to us, but maybe because it is so fun to climb around as you ascend the canyon.
The 2.3 mile (3.7km) unpaved Mosaic Canyon Road is located in Stovepipe Wells Village just across from Stovepipe Wells Campground. The road is typically passable in a sedan. The parking lot is large, but not recommended for buses or RVs. The closest bathroom is in Stovepipe Wells Village.
Star Wars in Death Valley
Our boys are Star Wars nuts. Imagine their delight when we ran into Ranger Taylor Jordan in Mosaic Canyon and he told them four locations in Death Valley were used to film scenes in Star Wars. Apparently George Lucas ran out of money or time, and when he had to re-shoot some scenes of Tatooine, he didn’t go back to Tunisia; he went to the Death Valley sand dunes.
Local kids dressed as Jawas and carried a droid up a hill. There are all sorts of fun stories that make up the Death Valley Star Wars saga.
Parts of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, were filmed around Artists Palette.
If you are really into it, here’s a self-guided tour to where the Star Wars scenes were filmed. Costumes not required.
If you aren’t a Star Wars fan, check out all these other movies filmed in Death Valley.
These movies were made at a time when that sort of commercial filming was allowed the park. Now there are much stricter rules to protect the habitat and cultural resources of Death Valley.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
You have to stop at Badwater Basin, it’s a Death Valley must see. Badwater Basin is the lowest spot in North America (until the Salton Sea dries up). Take a photo at the sign, walk out a little bit, then get back in you car and drive a couple miles down the road.
It’s about 1 mile (1.6km) out and back to the edge of salt flat and 5 miles (8km) each way to the other side. The whole salt flat covers 200 square miles of Death Valley. It’s huge.
There is an ADA accessible ramp leading down to boardwalk. Find vault toilets in the parking lot.
After you have your fill of Badwater Basin, drive on down the road. Between mile markers 19 and 30, you can pull over and walk out onto the Death Valley salt flats without the inhabitants of all the tour buses at Badwater Basin. Around mile marker 20, the salt flats get really close to the road.
Be sure to taste the salt while you are there. Go ahead and lick the ground, we did.
Can you imagine how much effort the people driving the twenty-mule teams through here went through? Easier to drive around in a car and lick salt off the ground.
Mesquite Sand Dunes
I wanted to bring a sled for the sand dunes, but didn’t have room in the car. I was glad I didn’t shove them in, because when I watched other people with sleds, it didn’t seem to be going so well. They’d get halfway down and then just stop. You need something slipperier to slide down the dunes.
However, it’s pretty fun to climb up them and run down. And it’s really hot. We found lizard and bird tracks in the sand. If we had stayed longer (we had a bathroom emergency ;)) we would have dug into the sand to see how cool it is below the surface.
There isn’t an official trail to these Death Valley sand dunes, but it is about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the highest dune. This is one of the Death Valley activities that we really love — just wandering around. If we hadn’t had to dash back to the parking lot, we could have played in the sand, ran down the dunes, and immersed ourselves in sand for hours.
The Death Valley dunes are located in Stovepipe Wells Village 30 minutes (24mi/39km) west of Furnace Creek. The paved parking lot has vault toilets and room for buses and RVs.
Junior Ranger and Hiking Club
We always join in the Junior Ranger programs when we are in a national park. It’s a great way to learn about the place and get to know it better.
Grab a Junior Ranger booklet at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and complete the activities inside. Then bring it back to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to be officially sworn in as a Junior Ranger.
Death Valley is in the inaugural year of a Hike Death Valley program. Popular hikes in the park are given a point rating and if you get four points you get a sticker. I found completing the challenge was just the motivation Little Hebe needed to keep walking. (I don’t think they are running this program anymore. If you find out otherwise, let me know!)
The Pool at The Oasis at Death Valley
An afternoon dip in the pool is what kept us going late in the day. The pool is spring fed and just the right temperature. We timed it so we’d get to the pool about 4:00 pm and by the time we were back at our campsite, it was in the shade. No more sweating! This is an important part of Death Valley camping.
Get a $5 pass at the The Ranch at Death Valley (Formerly The Furnace Creek Ranch) registration desk. There are also showers in the pool dressing rooms, if you are into that sort of thing.
And as long as you are in the area, you might as well get ice cream at the general store.
This is a lovely walk through a canyon into bluff-colored badlands. We hiked the two-mile (round trip) to Red Cathedral. Toward the end of the trail, the canyon gets tiny and you get to climb through and over rocks.
There are interpretive brochures, but the container was empty when we got there. We made something up for each of the interpretive spots. I think it was even better than what the Park Service had planned.
There are several Death Valley hiking options here:
- Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral and back, which is what we did. It’s 3 miles (4.8 km) round trip with 577 feet (176 m) elevation gain.
- Golden Canyon – Gower Gulch Loop. Start up Golden Canyon and at the signed junction in the photo above, go right and make two more rights at signed junctions to return to the trailhead via Gower Canyon. This loop is 4.3 miles (6.9 km) and 850 feet (259 m) elevation gain. Add the spur to Red Cathedral of an additional 1 mile.
- Golden Canyon – Gower Gulch – Badlands Loop. The full circuit is 7.8 miles (12.6 km) and 834ft (254 m) elevation gain. Walk up Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral, backtrack to the junction and go left toward the Badlands Loop. At the Badlands Loop junction, go left to Zabriskie Point. Backtrack to the Badlands Loop and then continue on to Gower Canyon.
There are vault toilets in both the Golden Canyon and Zabriskie Point parking lots.
Death Valley Super Bloom!
We hit the desert in a super bloom– picture carpets of wildflowers. Actually, you don’t have to picture it, you can look at my photos.
When the right amount of rain falls at the right time of year, the desert comes alive with flowers. If you can time your Death Valley trip for a year with a super bloom, I highly recommend it.
We didn’t get to see or do everything we wanted to on this trip, but we made a good effort! And we have a list of things for next time.
Getting To Death Valley
There are nine routes leading into Death Valley, but five main entrances. The Park Service says:
- On the east in Nevada, U.S. Route 95 parallels the park from north to south with connecting highways at Scotty’s Junction (State Route 267- Access closed until further notice), Beatty (State Route 374), and Lathrop Wells (State Route 373).
The most direct route from Las Vegas (via Pahrump, NV) and other options are available by downloading Routes From Las Vegas
- Coming from the west, State Route 14 and U.S. Route 395 lead to Ridgecrest, CA where State Route 178 heads east into the park. Further north on Hwy 395 at Olancha, CA you can join Hwy 190 to the park, or north of that at Lone Pine, CA, Hwy 136 will also join Hwy 190 heading east into the park.
- South of the park, Interstate 15 passes through Baker, California on its way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. State Route 127 travels north from Baker to Shoshone and Death Valley Junction with connections to the park on State Route 178 from Shoshone and connection with California Highway 190 at Death Valley Junction.
Don’t depend on your GPS for getting to Death Valley National Park — bring a map or download the appropriate Google map.
Staying in Death Valley
There are nine campgrounds and four hotels in the park. We loved camping in Death Valley, but admittedly, it was hot at Furnace Creek (hence the name). We chose Furnace Creek Campground because it is the only campground where you can make reservations and it was central to a lot of the Death Valley attractions and sights. The low elevation campgrounds aren’t even open in the summer because it’s deathly hot. Don’t visit in summer.
Our friends spent the last two nights of their trip at the first come/first served Mesquite Campground and it was much cooler. Downright comfortable, actually.
Reservations for the Furnace Creek Campground and group sites are available for the camping season of October 15 to April 15 by calling 1-877-444-6777 or by going online. Reservations must be made at least 4 days in advance, but can be made up to 6 months in advance. All unreserved sites are open first come/first served.
Between April 16 and October 14 Furnace Creek is first come/first served.
Lodging, camper stores, restaurants, dump stations, fuel and auto services are available in Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells Village, Panamint Springs, and in the towns adjacent to the park. There are several vacation rentals near Death Valley National Park. This cozy cottage is part of an eco village and just 1 mile from Death Valley.
Maps and Books About Death Valley
We used the National Geographic Death Valley National Park Map in combination with Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past. Between the two, we were able to easily navigate on our hikes. You can also get hiking print outs at the visitor centers, but I like the map so I can see what else is around me and the hiking guide book to learn more about the natural and cultural history of our Death Valley hikes.
Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy will help you find the best campsite within whichever campground you choose.
Mojave Desert Wildflowers is my go to for wildflower identification. If you visit Death Valley in spring, even if it isn’t a super bloom, this is a great resource. I am always surprised by how many flowers there are in the Mojave Desert.
Other Death Valley Posts and
Mojave Desert Camping and Hiking
- Mojave National Preserve
- Planning your Valley of Fire trip
- Joshua Tree National Park Camping and Playing
- Almost home in Death Valley
- Super bloom flowers of Death Valley