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The Ultimate Guide To A Weekend In Death Valley

By Annual Adventure California, North America, Travel Advice

Death Valley has been getting quite a bit of press lately because of it’s rare Super Bloom. While this amazing, once-in-a-decade event makes it particularly worth carving out some time to see the park, it’s a great place to visit in its own right. Here is my guide for how to spend a full 2 day weekend in Death Valley.

Death Valley Road
The road into Death Valley is calling your name.

Where To Stay for a Weekend In Death Valley

There are lots of options for places to stay for a weekend in Death Valley, whether you’re looking for a comfortable hotel or a place to pitch your tent. If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, be sure to book in advance to make sure they have rooms available as they tend to sell out during busy periods.

Hotels In Death Valley

There are 5 hotels actually located inside the park, and I would only recommend 3 of them due to their locations. The first two are owned by the same company and are right next to each other in Furnace Creek. They are the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Ranch, and both cater to a more luxurious experience. They’re both arguably the best located hotels in the park as Furnace Creek is central to most of the park’s main attractions. If you visit in the summer, it’ll be nice to take a dip in their pool or enjoy the luxurious accommodations when you want to take a break from the heat.

The other hotel I would recommend is the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel. While not as central as Furnace Creek, it is still right next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes and Mosaic Canyon. If you’re planning to see the sand dunes at sunrise, this is where you want to be. It also has a good restaurant and saloon on its property, as well as a pool. I stayed in Stovepipe Wells when I visited, although I camped across the street at their campground, and thought it was a great location.

Campgrounds In Death Valley

Death Valley is full of campgrounds and the park also has an open camping policy, with some exceptions. As before, I would recommend both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells due to their location. They are also both near plenty of amenities. If you need cell phone reception, Furnace Creek is the only place in the park to get it, so be sure to stake (pun intended) your claim there early! Both of these sites also have RV hookups as well if you’re traveling by camper.

Now that  you’re all set up with your place to stay, let’s see what the park has to offer!

Day 1 – The Rough Stuff

On the first full day of your weekend in Death Valley, you’ll get all of the really remote and treacherous locations out of the way. Today we’ll be heading north to see the following places:

  • Rhyolite Ghost Town
  • Titus Canyon
  • Scotty’s Castle (If it’s open, currently it isn’t)
  • Ubehebe Crater
  • The Racetrack Playa

It’s a very full day so you’ll want to start as early as you can. This route will also require a vehicle with good ground clearance and preferably off-road tires. If you have a jeep or a reasonably rugged truck or SUV, you’re all set.

If you’re like me and drive a car that is the opposite of off-road capable, then you can do what I did and rent a Jeep from Farabee Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek. They’re a bit pricey but you get them for a full day (and night if you wish) and they let you take them ANYWHERE. These Jeeps are ready for whatever you throw at them, so it’s understandable why they charge what they do.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Abandoned Rhyolite General Store
Rhyolite Ghost Town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This is your first stop, and it showcases the more… umm…. eclectic side of Death Valley. To get here, if you’re coming from Furnace Creek, head North on Highway 190 and turn right at the Beatty Cutoff 12 miles from Furnace Creek. Follow the road for 10 miles until it ends and turn right onto Highway 374/Daylight Pass Road. The turn off for Rhyolite is on the left 4 miles before you reach Beatty.

Rhyolite is the most well known abandoned town in Death Valley, and famous for it’s weird statues and sculptures. It’s also a great place to get your fill of abandoned buildings out in the barren desert. Stop by “The Last Supper” statues for a dose of creepiness and then check out the giant pink “Lady Venus” for a dose of weirdness. One hour should be enough time to get to know this crazy abandoned town before you continue on your way.

Rhyolite Sculpture
This isn’t unsettling at all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Titus Canyon

After Rhyolite, turn around and head back the way you came down highway 374. The first right you’ll reach is Titus Canyon Road, a one way road that requires good ground clearance as well. If you’re equipped for the Racetrack Playa, then Titus Canyon will be no problem. This road will take you 24 miles down to the Titus Canyon trailhead and is a beautiful drive.

Titus Canyon Narrows
The Narrows of Titus Canyon

While you’re driving down Titus Canyon Road and into The Narrows, keep a slow pace and a vigilant eye out for hikers on the trail. There are quite a few, especially as you get closer to the trailhead, so watch your speed and enjoy the view.

This drive should take you about 2-3 hours and is a fun adventure out in the canyons. Make sure you check weather and trail conditions at a ranger station before heading out just in case there are any road closures.

If You Don’t Have Good Ground Clearance

If your vehicle doesn’t have good ground clearance and you were unable to rent a jeep, you can still see Titus Canyon. Skip Rhyolite and instead of the Beatty Cutoff, take Scotty’s Castle Road north for 14 miles from highway 190 and turn right on to a dirt road. It’s a 3 mile road that’s fairly reasonable to drive in any car (unless you took your Ferrari to Death Valley) that leads to the mouth of the canyon.

From the parking lot there, you can hike as far as you like into Titus Canyon. As with any Death Valley Hike, be sure to bring sun protection and plenty of water, and on this hike in particular watch out for traffic coming from the east.

Scotty’s Castle

As of this writing (and my visit), Scotty’s Castle is not open. The road has been washed away by a flood and it’s uncertain how long it will take for it to open back up. Here’s a guide for how to get there anyhow, since I’m sure it will be open again in the future and I don’t plan on taking this post down.

Scotty's Castle
Scotty’s Castle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
After you exit Titus Canyon on the southwest side, turn right and continue north on, you guessed it, Scotty’s Castle Road. In 19 miles, take a right on Grapevine Canyon and you’ll reach Scotty’s Castle in 3 miles.

The castle itself is a well preserved relic from the 20’s and 30’s with a fascinating story behind it. Its entire premise was built on a false claim of mining wealth from Death Valley, and you can tour the castle and see the original furnishings and architecture. It’s like stepping into the roaring 20’s and the Great Depression all at the same time!

Ubehebe Crater

Death Valley Ubehebe Crater
The Ubehebe Crater.

After you’ve explored the twists and turns of Scotty’s Castle, head back down Grapevine Canyon the way you came and turn right at the end of the road. In 5 miles, you’ll reach the Ubehebe Crater, and you can’t miss it. The paved road terminates at the parking lot for the crater and loops back the way you came, so between that and the black volcanic dirt surrounding the area, there shouldn’t be any problem finding this attraction.

From the parking lot you can hike along the rim of the crater and beyond to other craters in the area, including Little Hebe. The scenery surrounding the Ubehebe Crater is one of the most alien landscapes I’ve seen, and I’ve been around the block! Walking around the area made me feel like I was walking on the moon or on Mars. If you go, I highly recommend bringing your astronaut costume for the full experience (just kidding. Sort of).

Death Valley Landscape
Visit another planet without leaving California!

An hour to an hour and a half should be enough time to enjoy the Ubehebe Crater before moving on to today’s main attraction, just be ready for a bumpy ride to get there!

The Racetrack Playa

From the parking lot at the Ubehebe Crater, follow the road and take the first left you can to loop back towards the parking lot. There will be a dirt road turn off with a sign marking the Racetrack Road on your right shortly. Make sure your vehicle is capable and turn on to one bumpy road!

Death Valley Racetrack Road
The first stretch of the Racetrack Playa Road. It gets rougher from here.

The drive down to the Racetrack Playa will take you 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how conservatively you drive. It’s a straightforward but rugged drive, just be sure to stay right at the fork in the road after 20 miles.

The first parking area you’ll reach is The Grandstand. It’s a nice place for some photos of the Racetrack, but to see the moving rocks you’ll have to drive farther. I was told that the best place to see the moving rocks is the third parking area, but I only saw one more before I hit the end of the road. It’s pretty obvious when you reach the best viewing area as it’s clearly at the southern end of the playa. If you hit the camping area, you’ve gone too far, so just double back and park at the first parking lot you see.

Death Valley Moving Rock
A friendly moving rock running up to me to say hello.

You can see some moving rocks right by the parking area, but it’s roughly a one mile walk to the best spot for viewing these mysterious rocks. The walk is easy along flat ground, but is completely exposed to the sun so make sure you’re covered up.

This was the attraction I was most excited about in Death Valley. I was always fascinated by the mystery of the moving rocks, although it’s been explained now. Even without the mystery, it’s an awesome sight to behold and makes for great photos, especially around sunset when you’ll be there.

Death Valley Moving Rocks
They’re headed right for us!

I loved it there and spent a full hour out at the rocks before heading back down the kidney-bruising washboard road to my campsite for the evening. Be sure to leave some daylight for getting back down the dirt road. It’s roughly a 2.5 hour drive back to Furnace Creek, slightly less to Stovepipe Wells. Reward yourself with a drink at the saloon and congratulate yourself on an awesomely scenic day.

Alternative Plans

If you don’t have an off-road vehicle and are unable to procure one, I would recommend starting your day off at Golden Canyon and working your way up to Ubehebe Crater from there. Skip Rhyolite and enter Titus Canyon from the south, where you can hike into it.

Golden Canyon is an easy hike on its own, but you can make it a real adventure by hiking all the way up to the top of the Badlands Loop and back down Gower Gulch. The Badlands offer some of the most incredible scenery in the park and, if I hadn’t been so fascinated by the moving rocks, this hike might have been my top attraction.

Death Valley Badlands
The beautiful badlands of Death Valley

Day 2: Putting Some Miles On Your Shoes

After an adventurous day yesterday, there’s still plenty more to see in Death Valley. Today I highly recommend starting bright and early before sunrise to both give yourself plenty of time and also see a spectacular sunrise. I woke up about an hour before the sun came up in order to pack up my tent and be fully mobile for the day.

Sunrise On The Sand Dunes

Start your day at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, located about one mile east of Stovepipe Wells. Make sure you get there before sunrise for excellent photos and great views.

Death Valley Sand Dunes Sunrise
Morning light at the Mesquite Sand Dunes

It’s roughly a 2 mile walk from the parking lot to the largest dune, but I thought some of the best photos were closer to the parking lot where you can get views of the entire area. That said, I still highly recommend walking out to the highest dune, it’s a tough walk but you’ll get to feel like you’re in the Sahara. It was one of my favorite areas of Death Valley.

I spent just over an hour at the dunes, which was more or less the time to take the full round trip from the parking lot to the tallest dune and back with plenty of photo breaks along the way. Afterwards I headed to the restaurant at Stovepipe Wells for a quick breakfast before heading on to my next stop.

Mosaic Canyon

Death Valley Mosaic Canyon
I wonder why they call it Mosaic Canyon…

After breakfast, head right next door to Mosaic Canyon. The turnoff is just west of Stovepipe Wells, literally just a few hundred feet. Once you turn on to the dirt road it’s a 2 mile drive that was no problem for my low-slung car, as long as I went at a reasonable pace.

Once you’re parked safely, make sure you have your sun protection on and plenty of water. The most impressive part of Mosaic Canyon is in the first 1/4 mile, where you climb through winding canyon narrows full of smooth, colorful rock.

After the first 1/4 mile, the canyon opens up and continues for roughly 2 miles before it terminates at a dry waterfall. Once you pass the very open section, there will be a rock fall blocking your path. This isn’t the end of the trail, however, and you can climb up the rocks to the left to pass through fairly easily.

Mosaic Canyon Rock Fall
hmmmm….

It’s not much farther past the rock fall to the end of the trail, where the path narrows once again through tall canyon walls. You’ll know when you’ve reached the end of the trail, it’s a small cove with a dry waterfall and no obvious way out except to turn around.

It took me about 1.5 hours to make the round trip from the parking lot. I definitely recommend the full hike, but if you’re pressed for time or exhausted then you should at least hike the first 1/4 mile as it’s gorgeous and a lot of fun.

Badwater Basin

You can’t visit Death Valley without stopping by Badwater Basin, so hop in your car and head east down highway 190 for your next stop! Keep driving until you pass Furnace Creek, then turn right onto Badwater Road. Badwater Basin is the crowded parking lot 17 miles down the road.

Death Valley Badwater Basin
Gotta get that obligatory photo!

For those unfamiliar, Badwater Basin holds the title of lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It’s also just down the road from where the hottest temperature EVER of 134 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded, so have fun if you visit in the summer!

I was there in March in mild weather, and even on my 85 degree day it got pretty uncomfortable after about 30 minutes with the sun reflecting off the salt flats below me.

Another interesting juxtaposition you can find in Badwater Basin is that you have a clear view of Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley at 11,043 feet. In fact, you’re only a 2 hour drive away from Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states! It’s pretty cool to be standing at the lowest point and look up at the giant peaks in the distance.

Badwater Basin Mountains
The lowest and some of the highest, all at once.

30 minutes on the salt flats was enough for me, and if you visit in July or August then you may need even less time! From here, head back up Badwater Road the way you came towards Furnace Creek and stop by the many attractions along the way.

The Devil’s Golf Course

Devil's Golf Course
Where every shot is a hole in one!

On the way back up Badwater Road, take a quick detour to the west to see the Devil’s Golf Course. The road going in is another unpaved road, but it should be fine for any vehicle. This was just a quick detour for me to see the scenery as there’s really not much hiking to be done here other than venturing a short ways onto the Golf Course. Including the 10 minute drive in and out, allow yourself 30-45 minutes to take in this unique landscape. When you’re done with a few rounds of your golf game, turn around and keep heading north towards Furnace Creek.

The Artist’s Drive

Departing the Devil’s Golf Course, drive just a short way farther up the road before turning right on to the Artist’s Drive. This one-way road is paved throughout and easy to navigate, but only vehicles under 25 feet are allowed due to the sharp corners in some spots.

Death Valley Artist's Drive
One of the scenic views along the Artist’s Drive

The 9 mile Artist’s Drive winds along smooth roads with plenty of scenic viewpoints where one can stop and enjoy a lunch break or just take in the scenery. The road only goes one way and the only turnoffs are for parking areas, so it’s impossible to get lost.

The biggest highlight of the Artist’s Drive is the Artist’s Palette, an outstandingly colorful rock formation caused by the oxidation of assorted metals that are found in the hillside. When you see it, you’ll think someone spilled paint all over the landscape. There’s a parking area where you can stop to hike through the formation, which makes for some great photo opportunities.

Death Valley Artist's Palette
The colorful hillside of the Artist’s Palette.

Once you pass the Artist’s Palette, the road narrows and takes you through some of the most scenic parts of the Artist’s Drive. At the end, it will spit you back out on to Badwater Road where you can continue on your journey.

Zabriskie Point

Your final destination for today is Zabriskie Point, and you’ll be going out with a bang. Zabriskie Point has, in my humble opinion, some of the most scenic landscapes in all of Death Valley. It overlooks the badlands and Golden Canyon beyond that, and is extremely easily accessible.

To get there from the end of the Artist’s Drive, continue north on Badwater Road until it ends, then take a right onto Highway 190. After about 10 minutes you’ll see the turnoff for Zabriskie Point on your right.

Zabriskie Point Path
Visitors wind their way up the paved path to Zabriskie Point.

The view from the top of Zabriskie Point is nothing short of spectacular. It’s one of the biggest rewards for lowest efforts I’ve experienced, as it’s only a 500 foot walk along a paved path from the parking lot to the viewpoint. From the top, if you walk to the right portion of the path in this picture, you can get some great views and a spectacular photo op at an outcrop in the landscape with the badlands behind you.

Zabriskie Point Photo Spot
WAY easier to get to than it looks!

The spot I’m standing in for this photo didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but when I offered to return the favor for the person who took my photo they were too squeamish to stand at the edge, so if you’re afraid of heights than this might not be the spot for you.

If you have a long drive home ahead of you, then now is the time to say goodbye to Death Valley and take in one last breath-taking view. If you do have some more time to play with, I HIGHLY recommend hiking into the badlands from Zabriskie Point. There is an unpaved trail right by the entrance sign that leads to the Badlands Loop, one of the most beautiful trails in the park.

Zabriskie Point View
Those twists and turns are just calling your name.

Hike down into the alien landscape and be one with the strange formations in the earth. You won’t regret it. It’s the perfect hike to finish your weekend in Death Valley and leave you wanting more.

Packing To Survive Death Valley

Death Valley has a reputation for unforgiving conditions, to say the least. Even if you don’t plan on hiking for miles on end, you’ll want to  be prepared just for stepping out of your car! Here are some of the things I brought to be ready for my weekend in Death Valley.

Clothing

When traveling to Death Valley, you’ll obviously want to prepare for the heat. However, you should also take into account that most of the park is fully exposed to the sun, meaning you’ll want to cover up as well! I recommend a lightweight, breathable top and your preference of pants or shorts. I like pants, just for the sake of keeping my legs covered and fighting against the dust in the area.

For men, I can’t rave enough about ExOfficio shirts, like the Reef Runner. It covers you up properly, looks good, and has enough ventilation to keep you cool. Other than that, I often wear long sleeve synthetics like this Dri-Equip shirt. For women, white linen or similar shirts like this one from Hollister should do a great job. Long sleeve shirts work better than sunblock, and there’s no need to worry about re-application!

Even though it may look a bit goofy, I also wear this hat to keep my face, ears and neck properly shaded. It may look a bit silly, but it gets the job done!

Other Gear

You’ll want to be well prepared to stay hydrated and healthy when you visit the hottest place on earth. If you’re planning on hiking, I highly recommend a hydration bladder like the Platypus Big Zip. It doesn’t have the awful taste Camelbaks are notorious for and it’s fantastic just reaching for the tube and taking a sip whenever you want! Be sure to bring additional water to keep in the car and refill your hydration pack as needed.

Lastly, you’ll want to bring your camera gear! It’s such a beautiful place full of unique landscapes that you’d be remiss if you didn’t capture it for your memories. Be sure to bring spare batteries as well, especially if you’re camping where there’s no power available.

Get Out There!

The moving rocks and Super Bloom may be what initially drew me in to spend a weekend in Death Valley, but the entire park is so vast and filled with diverse scenery that I was blown away at every turn.

Got any questions? Other advice on a weekend in Death Valley? Drop me a line below!

Useful Info

NPS Map of Death Valley:  Death Valley Road Map

Death Valley Hiking Guide: Hiking Guide

Other Points of Interest:

 

The Ultimate Guide to a Weekend in Death Valley

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4 comments

  • This is very helpful! Just moved to Southern California and want to visit Death Valley at some point, but had no clue how to go about it. Great pictures!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear it’s helpful, it’s a great place to visit from Southern California (I’m in LA myself). Feel free to contact me with any other questions you have, I’m always happy to help 🙂

  • Thank you for this. I have lived in So Cal for 20 odd years and never ventured into Death Valley. We are looking into spending 2 days there after the new year to enjoy the views, hike without the heat. Your guide and commentary is helpful. Still debating if we should take the Prius or our ancient suburban on this trip.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful! It should be great just after the new year. The Prius should suit you fine for most excursions there, but if you want to visit the Racetrack Playa or drive through Titus Canyon from the north, the Suburban should be perfect. Other than my jeep excursion, I drove through most of Death Valley in my BMW Coupe, so I think a Prius should be able to handle anything that my car did!

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