Hottest, Driest, Lowest: A Guide to Death Valley National Park

death valley national park

As the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in the United States, Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada is a place of extremes. Death Valley is known for its harsh climate, rugged wilderness, starry night skies, and sweeping desert vistas. The breathtaking landscapes and fiery temperatures make Death Valley one of the most popular US national parks.

If you’re interested in visiting this incredible natural area, you’re in the right place. This travel guide covers everything you need to know to plan your visit to Death Valley National Park. From the best time to go to Death Valley to the park’s top hiking trails, we’ll share all the essential information you need to plan an amazing trip.

History

Although Death Valley may strike many people as uninhabitable at first glance, humans are estimated to have lived in the area as far back as 10,000 years ago.

The Nevares Spring People are the first known group to have lived in Death Valley. These hunter-gatherers arrived there around 9,000 years ago when there were still lakes in Death Valley and nearby Panamint Valley. During this period, the climate was milder, and many large game animals frequented the area. The park was also home to the Mesquite Flat People (around 5,000 years ago) and the Saratoga Spring People (around 2,000 years ago).

Around 1,000 years ago, the nomadic Timbisha Shoshone began following seasonal game migrations into the valley and retreated to higher elevations during the summer. For hundreds of years, the Timbisha harvested mesquite beans and pine nuts, hunted bighorn sheep, and built homes using arrowweed in the Death Valley National Park area.

Death Valley wasn’t known to Euro-Americans until the mid-1800s. At this time, prospectors began exploring California with the hope of discovering gold and other resources. When the Gold Rush hit California in 1849, prospectors and miners largely displaced the Timbisha people. Many of those who remained were later forced to relocate when Death Valley became a national monument.

It was also in 1849 that the area got its current name. A group of emigrants experienced significant challenges and hardships after getting lost in the valley’s unforgiving terrain. After several weeks, they managed to find a way out and dubbed the region “Death Valley.”

The mining industry flourished in Death Valley during the second half of the nineteenth century. The most profitable ores were salts, talc, and borate, and large commercial borax operations popped up throughout the1880s. The boom towns around the mines began to fade following a financial crisis in 1907.

The 1920s saw the beginnings of Death Valley’s tourism industry. People flocked to the area’s new resorts hoping to benefit from the supposed restorative powers of Death Valley’s natural springs. The valley became a popular winter destination, with more and more hotels, inns, ranches, and tourist infrastructure emerging to support the budding industry.

Death Valley became a national monument on 11 February 1933. The protected area covered 2 million acres (8,000 km2) in southeastern California and parts of Nevada. That year, around 10,000 people visited the park.

Despite its protection as a national monument, Death Valley remained open to mining until the 1970s. In 1976, the government banned new mining claims and prohibited open-pit mining in the park following public outcry. Limited mining with stricter environmental standards was allowed between 1980 and 2005, but there are no working mines in the park today.

Death Valley received additional protection as a biosphere reserve in 1984 and then as a national park in 1994. An additional 1.3 million acres (5,300 km2) were added to Death Valley’s territory when it received national park status, thereby making Death Valley the largest US national park outside of Alaska.

Since then, Death Valley has become one of the United States’ most popular national parks. The park’s extreme climate and gorgeous landscapes attract over one million people every year, with a record 1.7 million people visiting the park in 2019.

Desert Landscape in Death Valley

Key Facts about Death Valley National Park

Size: 5,347 square miles (13,848 km2)

Number of visitors: 820,000 in 2020, 1.7 million in 2019

Established on: 11 February 1933 (national monument), 31 October 1994 (national park)

Highest point: Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters)

Lowest point: Badwater Basin at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level

Other interesting facts about Death Valley:

  • Death Valley is the largest US national park in the lower 48 states.
  • The park is home to the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin.
  • Death Valley is known as the hottest place on earth. On 10 July 1913, a world-record-setting air temperature of 134°F (57°C) was recorded at Furnace Creek.
  • The park contains more than 785 miles (1,263 km) of paved and dirt roads. Around 300 miles (483 km) of the park’s roads are paved.
  • Death Valley National Park straddles the border between California and Nevada, with most of its territory in California.
  • With only around 2 inches (50.8 mm) of rainfall a year, Death Valley is the driest place in North America.
  • 93% of the land within Death Valley National Park is designated as wilderness.
  • Death Valley has many abandoned mines, with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 mine features spread throughout the park. As many as 3,000 mine openings are considered potentially hazardous.
  • Despite its name, Death Valley is home to abundant plant life. There are over 1,000 plant species found in the park, including 50 species that are not found anywhere else on the planet.
  • In addition to diverse plant life, Death Valley also provides a habitat for many animal species, including mountain lions and bighorn sheep. The park is home to around 300 species of birds, 51 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles, and several fish and amphibian species.
  • One of the park’s most commonly spotted species is also one of its most famous. The roadrunner, made famous by the Looney Tunes TV show, frequents the area around Furnace Creek in search of water and shade.
  • The endangered Devils Hole Pupfish, which resides in the warm waters of Devils Hole in Death Valley, is one of the rarest fish in the world.
  • In 2001, Death Valley saw temperatures above 100°F (37.8°C) for 154 consecutive days.
  • In the summer of 1996, Death Valley had 40 days over 120°F (49°C) and 105 days over 110°F (43.3°C). In the summer of 1917, there were 43 days in a row with a high temperature of 120°F (49°C) or more.
  • Although Death Valley is known for its hot, dry climate, the park’s highest point at Telescope Peak remains snow-covered for much of the year.
  • Death Valley is a popular Hollywood filming location. Movies and TV shows with scenes filmed in the park include Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Tarzan, Spartacus, and The Twilight Zone.
  • Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park and continuously works to minimize light pollution and protect night sky resources.
  • Around 550 square miles (1,425 square km) of the valley floor are below sea level.

Climate and Weather

Death Valley is a place of extremes on the border between the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts. The climate is considered a hot desert, with scorching temperatures from May through October. However, winters can be chilly, with temperatures known to fall below freezing, especially in the higher elevations. Death Valley has an arid climate, with average daytime humidity ranging from around 10% in the summer to 32% in the winter.

With more than 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) of elevation change within the park, there are substantial variations in temperature at any given time. Keep in mind that for every 1,000-foot (305-meter) increase in elevation, temperatures drop by around 3 to 5°F (1.7 to 2.8°C). As a result, places like Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater are around 10 to 15°F (5.6 to 8.3°C) cooler than lower spots like Furnace Creek and Badwater.

You can read more about what kinds of weather conditions to expect in each season below.

Summer (late May through early October)

Summers in Death Valley begin earlier than most other US national parks, with average daytime high temperatures already soaring to 100°F (38°C) in May. July and August are the hottest months, with average highs of around 115 to 116°F (46 to 47°C). Sometimes even the low temperatures in Death Valley are above 100°F (38°C), so summer visitors should plan for extreme heat and avoid outdoor activities during the day.

Fall (late October to November)

Temperatures in Death Valley remain too hot for many visitors until the end of October when the fall season finally arrives. Camping and hiking are pleasant this time of year, with average highs in the upper 70s and 80s Fahrenheit (25 to 31°C). Average lows range from 61°F (16°C) in October to 48°F (9°C) in November, and skies are usually clear.

Winter (December to early March)

Wintertime in Death Valley sees comfortable to cool days and chilly nights, with occasional rainstorms. Snow typically covers the park’s high peaks and can fall as low as Scotty’s Castle and Dante’s View. December is the coldest month, with average highs around 65°F (18°C) and lows around 38°F (3°C). By February, daytime highs reach an average of 73°F (23°C), and lows hover around 46°F (8°C). February is the wettest month of the year in the park and has an average of 0.37 inches (9.3 mm) of precipitation.

Spring (mid-March to late April)

Spring in Death Valley offers warm, sunny days and wildflower blooms in years with winter rains. Average high temperatures range from 82°F (27°C) in March to 90°F (32°C) in April. Over the same period, average lows heat up from around 55°F (13°C) to 62°F (17°C).

When to Visit

The best time to visit Death Valley depends on your personal preferences and what you want to do while you’re there. Visitation numbers at Death Valley remain fairly steady throughout the year compared to many other national parks, with holiday weekends and school breaks attracting many visitors year-round.

Late spring and late fall generally offer the most pleasant weather, with spring being the most popular time to visit. Prime camping season and ranger-led programs run from around late October to late April, so plan your trip during this period if you want to enjoy these activities.

If you want to experience Death Valley’s extreme heat and plan to explore the park mainly from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, summer is a perfect time to visit. However, if you want to go hiking, camping, and experience the park on foot, you should generally avoid planning your trip between May and mid-October.

If you want to explore the park when visitation is at its lowest, opt for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Keep in mind that you can experience solitude and avoid the crowds no matter when you visit because of the park’s large size. Campgrounds and popular attractions may be buzzing with people during springtime, but there are always less-visited corners of the park and hiking trails that you can escape to.

Overall, there’s no bad time to visit Death Valley. It all depends on your schedule and what you want to do while you’re there.

Recommended Gear

A trip to Death Valley requires standard outdoor gear tailored to the season and your chosen activities. We’ve included detailed advice about packing for an outdoor adventure in our Day Hiking Checklist, Backpacking Checklist, and Desert Hiking articles. Below are a few things you’ll want to pay extra attention to when preparing for Death Valley’s extreme climate.

Hydration

With dry air and low humidity year-round, you’ll need to drink plenty of water. The National Park Service recommends that visitors to Death Valley drink at least a gallon of water a day. Make sure you have large water bottles or hydration reservoirs and know where to refill them in the park (such as the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station). You can also bring electrolyte packets or sports drinks to help replace salts and other nutrients that are lost as you sweat.

Moisturizers

Death Valley’s dry air also means you’ll want to bring moisturizing products such as lotion, eye drops, lip balm, saline nasal spray, and throat drops. These will help keep you comfortable in the dry climate.

Sun Protection

With minimal shade, sun protection is important when visiting Death Valley, especially during warmer periods. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing with a UPF rating of 30 or higher will help keep you cool and shield your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. A buff or bandana is another good choice to protect you from the sun and works great as a cooling wrap – just dip it in water and tie it around your head or neck.

Layers

Dressing in layers is key when spending time outdoors, and this is crucial in Death Valley. The park’s terrain features drastic changes in elevation, and with it, substantial variations in temperature. You’ll need to bring seasonally appropriate layers to ensure you’re prepared for these temperature swings.

Colorful hills in Death Valley

What to Do in Death Valley National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Death Valley’s vast wilderness and striking landscapes make it an incredible place to enjoy hiking and backpacking. Hiking season in the park’s low elevation areas runs from November to March, while high elevations, such as Telescope Peak and Wildrose Peak, are best explored in the summer and early fall.

Death Valley has few constructed hiking trails. However, due to the desolate landscape, maintained trails are generally not necessary. Hiking and backpacking routes in Death Valley National Park typically follow canyon bottoms, mountain ridges, alluvial fans, open desert washes, and abandoned dirt roads. As a result, you’ll need excellent outdoor navigation skills and a good navigation system when exploring Death Valley.

The National Park Service requests that backpackers obtain a free backcountry permit before their trips. You can get a permit online or in person at the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station or the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Death Valley does not have any established backcountry campsites in the wilderness areas. Check the park’s website ahead of your trip to make sure you understand where you can camp and familiarize yourself with other backpacking regulations.

While November to March is an excellent time to hike in the park’s lower elevations, most hikers should not attempt to climb the park’s high peaks in the winter. Hiking in Death Valley’s high elevation areas during winter is only suitable for those with prior mountaineering experience and proper equipment, including an ice axe, crampons, and warm winter clothing. You can read our Winter Hiking article for more information about preparing for cold-weather hikes.

Best Day Hikes in Death Valley

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: This classic Death Valley hike is an easy 2.8-mile (4.8-km) route that will allow you to experience some of the park’s most beautiful natural features. The hike offers stunning views of expansive sand dunes framed by rugged mountains in the distance. This trail is best in the winter. If you hike it between May and October, make sure you finish by 10 am.
  • Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop Trail: At 5.8 miles (9.3 km), this moderate hike is a perfect choice if you only have one day in the park. The trailhead is close to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, making it easily accessible. Hikers will enjoy views of Death Valley’s rock walls, badlands, and desert peaks and will visit iconic Zabriskie Point. It’s best to hike this loop trail between November and April. Make sure to check the forecast ahead of your hike since both Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon are known to experience flash floods.
  • Telescope Peak: Hiking to Death Valley’s highest point is challenging but rewards hikers with unforgettable views of Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin. The trail is 14 miles (22.5 km) long and is considered challenging. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to the trailhead. Hikers should only attempt this trail between June and October unless they have prior winter hiking and mountaineering experience and special equipment, including crampons and an ice axe.
  • Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail: This easy 1.9-mile (3-km) trail allows hikers to explore Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. The salt flats in the basin cover an area of 200 square miles (518 square km) and are surrounded by soaring mountain peaks. The hike is best between October and March. If you’re visiting in the summer, avoid this trail after 10 am.
  • Dante’s View Trail: Dante’s View is one of Death Valley’s most beautiful overlooks and offers panoramic views of features like Badwater Basin and Telescope Peak. The hike is only 1 mile (1.6 km) long, making it a great option for those with limited time in the park. Hikers with more time can continue and complete the 8-mile (12.9-km) Dante’s Ridge loop. The strenuous route features Mt. Perry and a ridgeline along the Black Mountains.
  • Ubehebe and Little Hebe Crater Trail: This moderate trail takes hikers to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, a large volcanic crater in the park that measures 600 feet (183 m) deep and half a mile (0.8 km) across. The trail is only 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long but should not be underestimated. The terrain is steep, and there are loose rocks that make it challenging to navigate – especially on the way back out of the crater. This trail is best between October and April.
  • Darwin Falls: Many people don’t expect to see a waterfall in a desolate landscape like Death Valley, making Darwin Falls a unique and exciting hike. The trail is 2 miles (3.2 km) long and suitable for hikers of all skill levels. Hikers will pass through rocky canyons and clusters of cottonwood and willow trees, ending up at an oasis in the Mojave Desert. The National Park Service recommends reaching the trailhead in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance.
  • Mosaic Canyon Trail: Mosaic Canyon is a narrow slot canyon that makes an exciting trip for hikers who enjoy scrambling. The 4-mile (6.4-km) moderate trail provides views of the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes and gives hikers the chance to explore Death Valley’s fascinating rock formations.

The view of sand dunes in Mesquite Flats, Death Valley National Park.

Camping

Camping is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of Death Valley National Park. The park has nine different campgrounds with around 750 campsites. It’s possible to camp in Death Valley year-round, but the best time of year for camping is from October to April when temperatures are more pleasant.

Of the park’s nine campgrounds, four are open all year. These include Furnace Creek, Mesquite Spring, Emigrant, and Wildrose. Furnace Creek takes reservations from 15 October to 15 April, while all other campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Biking

Death Valley has hundreds of miles of roads that are open to cyclists, making the park a fantastic biking destination. There is a wide range of road cycling and mountain biking routes in varying levels of difficulty. You can view the National Park Service’s website to find recommended routes for your experience level. Biking is not allowed on service roads, closed roads, in the wilderness areas, off of roadways, or on any trails.

Scenic Drives and Backcountry Driving

With more than 785 miles (1,263 km) of roads, Death Valley National Park is an excellent place to explore in a vehicle. If you visit during the scorching summer months, this may be the only activity you can safely enjoy in the park. You’ll have the most routes to choose from in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, such as a Jeep. If you don’t have a vehicle with these features, you can rent one in the park near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

Make sure you have a good paper map and don’t depend on GPS. You’ll need solid navigation skills since many road junctions in the park’s backcountry areas are unmarked. Popular backcountry driving destinations in Death Valley include the Racetrack, Titus Canyon, Eureka Dunes, and the ghost town of Leadfield.

 

Cactus in Death Valley National Park

 

Stargazing and Night Photography

With some of the darkest night skies in America, Death Valley is a fantastic spot to stargaze and take pictures of the night sky. Top spots to observe the cosmos include Ubehebe Crater, Harmony Borax Works, Badwater Basin, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Plan your visit around the new moon for the best view.

Where to Stay

You can see Death Valley’s highlights on a day trip, but you’ll get the most out of your visit if you plan to stay a few days in or around the park. As the largest national park in the contiguous United States, you’ll want to choose your accommodation carefully to make sure it offers convenient access to the parts of the park you are most interested in exploring.

Unlike many US national parks, lodging and camping are available in Death Valley year-round. As a result, the most convenient place to stay for many travelers is inside the park’s borders. You can choose from nine campgrounds (see details in the camping section above) and four hotels. The hotels are Panamint Springs Resort in Panamint Springs, The Ranch at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Ranch) and The Oasis at Death Valley in Furnace Creek, and Stovepipe Wells Village in Stovepipe Wells.

If you want to stay outside of the park, the closest places are:

  • Beatty, Nevada: 45 minutes to Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Pahrump, Nevada: 1.5 hours to Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Shoshone, California: 1 hour to Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Lone Pine, California: 1 hour and 45 minutes to Furnace Creek Visitor Center

Pahrump, Nevada, is a good place to stay for those who want a mid-way point between the park and Las Vegas. For example, if you’re coming from California but plan to visit Las Vegas after your trip to Death Valley, Pahrump provides a short drive time to Vegas.

Beatty, Nevada, is between Las Vegas and Reno and offers affordable lodging relatively close to the park. There are various historical sites, ghost towns, museums, and other attractions in Beatty, making it a good place for budget-minded travelers who also want to experience the area’s mining history.

Shoshone, California, is a small desert town that provides relatively easy access to Death Valley. The town has a museum, a nearby mining ghost town, a quaint diner, hiking trails, and other attractions. You can choose from various lodging options, including an inn and an RV park.

Lone Pine, California, is a bit further from the park, but it is a convenient option for travelers who also want to explore California’s Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. The town is situated between Death Valley and other national parks, including Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Interestingly, both the highest and lowest elevations in the lower 48 states (Mt. Whitney and Badwater Basin) are located close to Lone Pine. The small town has many lodging options and is a great place to stay for hiking and fishing enthusiasts.

How to Get There and Getting Around

You’ll need a car to get around Death Valley, as there is no public transportation inside the park. You can reach Death Valley by car from the east in Nevada and from the south and west in California. A two-wheel-drive vehicle is sufficient for the park’s paved roads, but you’ll need a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance if you want to explore dirt roads in the vast backcountry.

If you want to fly into the area and then rent a car, your best options are:

  • Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS): about 2-2.5 hours from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): about 5-5.5 hours from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO): about 5.5-6 hours from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center

brown rock formations in death valley national park

Conclusion

Death Valley National Park is a fantastic year-round destination. Whether you want to experience the soaring summer temperatures the park is famous for or enjoy hiking over sand dunes and salt flats in the winter, the park offers something unique in every season.

Did you enjoy this guide to Death Valley National Park? Check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5% Discount
No prize
25% Discount
Almost!
10% Discount
No Prize
30% Discount
No luck today
20% Discount
Next time
15% Discount
Unlucky
Get your chance to win a prize!

Enter your email address and spin the wheel. This is your chance to win an amazing discount on your first order!

  • One game per user