Let me make one thing clear: attempting to do Death Valley National Park justice in a single day is a mighty task. It is, in fact, an impossible task. You will barely be able to scratch the surface of this massive, otherworldly place in such a time frame.
Now that we’ve come to terms with that, let’s discuss what to do with 24 hours in Death Valley anyway.
When I found myself in this exact situation, with a tight itinerary that required my Mom (Hi, Mom! Best road trip buddy ever!) and I to be in Colorado by the end of the week, I toyed with the idea of cutting Death Valley out of the trip altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t. First of all, it’s such a convenient pitstop when driving East out of Central California. I’d literally pass by no matter what; might as well see what there is to see.
Second of all, Death Valley National Park is just so freakin’ cool. It’s truly like stepping onto another planet (probably why they filmed Star Wars here). Like the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, Death Valley National Park is somewhere you simply must see for yourself.
Here’s how you can see Death Valley in one day, with some careful planning and lots of water.
Plan around the night sky
If you have 24 hours in Death Valley National Park, for the love of god experience some of them at night. Camp if you can. The park’s utter isolation and world-renowned lack of rainclouds produced the most stupidly gorgeous night sky I have ever laid eyes on—and I literally live in a National Park in the middle of nowhere most of the year.
I don’t have schnitzy camera gear so I don’t have any pictures of my own, but just Google it and you’ll find stuff like this:
From what I’ve read, Death Valley has some truly spectacular campgrounds. If you’re arriving late though, as those pesky tight schedules tend to force us to do, the smaller and more coveted campgrounds may be full. No worries, the night sky is just as beautiful next to an RV (as long as they don’t keep their lights on! We didn’t have any issue with folks ruining the stargazing). We stayed in Stovepipe Wells, which is really conveniently located for a drive-by Death Valley visit.
Get to a visitor center, ASAP
The number one factor that helped us maximize our time in Death Valley was asking an expert. Get thee to a Park Ranger!
Seriously, though. Find a volunteer or a Ranger who will happily whip out a map and tell you where to go. We arrived in the park as the sun was setting, pitched our tent, and spent a night happily stargazing and listening to the howling of coyotes. After a spectacular sunrise from the comfort of our campsite, we packed up and headed straight to Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The wisdom of the volunteer at that front desk was instrumental to planning our precious few hours in Death Valley National Park.
To be sure, it’s the most humiliating thing in the world to tell this person, who is so clearly in love with the natural beauty and wealth of experiences to be had in their park, that you only have a few hours in this sacred land. Seriously. It’s the worst. They will scold you, and you will deserve it. But, their advice will save you time and help you make the most of every last second.
Don’t Miss These Highlights
Below is a short list of some pretty universally-agreed-upon must-see stuff, whether you only have one day in Death Valley or a week.
A valid argument could be made for every National Park, that everything is a highlight. Or the true highlights come way off the beaten path. I get it. However, if you have to pick just a few (somewhat easily accessible) places to see in Death Valley National Park, grab a map and a pen, because they should be the following:
- Badwater Basin: part of the thrill of Death Valley National Park, it’s “thing”, is being at the lowest elevation in North America. Enter Badwater Basin. It’s basically endless salt flats, but you’ll get a kick out of taking pictures of the “-282 feet below sea level” signs.
- Artists Drive: this one is super popular with Park Rangers, whether they work in Death Valley, or Acadia, or Denali. It’s a 9-mile out and back drive through what the Park Service describes as a “geologic rainbow”, so sign me the heck up.
- Devils Golf Course: a ridiculously gnarly looking field of rock salt that, true to its name, only the devil could play golf on.
- Zabriskie Point: a stunning, can’t-miss overlook, particularly at sunrise and sunset. PLEASE GO HERE.
- Golden Canyon: this one could count as a hike, but since there’s no real designated length it’s more of a “wander at your own pace” situation. If you find yourself super short on time, 5 minutes wandering about Golden Canyon is better than nothing. If you have a few extra hours in Death Valley, you could spend them all wandering even farther into Golden Canyon (the latter isn’t recommended in summer, obviously)!
Bonus: If you have time, hike!
Here are just a few options, organized by length.
- Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail: 0.4 miles (loop), just West of Furnace Creek on Highway 190. Super kid friendly!
- Salt Creek Trail: 0.5 miles (boardwalk loop), on Salt Creek Road 13 miles West of Furnace Creek
- Natural Bridge Trail: 1 mile (out and back), located on Badwater Road about 13 miles South of Highway 190
- Dante’s View Trail: 1.6 miles (out and back), located at the end of Dante’s View/Furnace Creek Road. This one came HIGHLY, highly recommended by the park staff! Plus, Dante’s View is part of the Star Wars Tour of Death Valley, fellow nerds.
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail: 1.8 miles (out and back), conveniently located on the main Badwater Road
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Trail: 2.8 miles (out and back), East of Stovepipe Wells on Highway 190
There are some more in-depth descriptions of these trails and updated hiking conditions always available on the Death Valley National Park site.
Okay, I think that’s about everything. Excuse me while I go frantically plan a much longer trip to this crazy cool alien world of a National Park. I really wish I’d had at least three full days, more time to hike, and arrived early enough to stay in one of the smaller, isolated campgrounds.
Would you add something to this tight itinerary, or recommend one hike over the rest? If you had one day in Death Valley National Park and followed this guide, how’d it go? Please let me know!