Looking for an epic itinerary to spend 3 days in Death Valley National Park? Then keep reading!
Located in Southern California, Death Valley National Park is the the largest national park in the continental U.S. and the ultimate adventure destination. It’s filled with awe-inspiring landscapes that invite you to venture beyond the ordinary and transport yourself into a desert dreamscape unlike any other place on Earth.
This article shares how to spend 3 days in Death Valley National Park to make the most of your trip, including hiking trail recommendations; where to stay; and tips for exploring safely.
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Table of Contents
- About Death Valley National Park
- How to Get to Death Valley National Park
- When to Visit Death Valley National Park
- Recreating Responsibly in Death Valley National Park
- Trip Itinerary: Three Days in Death Valley National Park
- Where to Stay When Visiting Death Valley National Park
- What to Pack When Hiking in Death Valley National Park
About Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located in Southern California, right on the border of the Mojave Desert and Great Basin Desert. You could easily spend weeks exploring Death Valley and barely scratch the surface on all there is to see.
From the sprawling salt bed at Badwater Basin, to the rolling hills of Mesquite Sand Dunes, to the unearthly landscape around Zabriskie Point, Death Valley is truly an explorer and photographer’s dream. It’s no surprise the park was selected as a filming location for Star Wars.
It’s important to acknowledge that present-day Death Valley National Park is the ancestral homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone, who live in the park today. Death Valley is the first national park to have a tribal co-management program between the National Park Service and the local tribe.
Death Valley National Park Entrance Fee: The entrance fee for Death Valley National Park is $30 for a private vehicle, but I always recommend having an America the Beautiful pass if you’re planning on taking more than 1 national park trip per year. The pass is $80 and provides access to hundreds of federal fee areas across the United States.
How to Get to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes from Las Vegas. Nevada, and 4 ½-5 hours from Los Angeles, California.
From Las Vegas:
To get to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas, take U.S. 95 N to NV-373 to CA-190 W. This will take you into the park via Death Valley Junction. Alternatively, you can take NV-160 W out of Las Vegas to Bell Vista Ave. in Pahrump, California. This will take you to Death Valley Junction where you’ll get on CA-190 W into the park.
From Los Angeles: To get to Death Valley National Park from Los Angeles you can either take U.S. 395 directly out of LA, or take CA-14 to U.S. 395. From U.S. 395 take CA-178 E, which will take you into the park via Panamint Valley.
Flying into Las Vegas is the most convenient way to get to Death Valley National Park. You’ll need to rent a car in order to get from Las Vegas to Death Valley and complete this 3-day itinerary. There are tours that can take you from Las Vegas to Death Valley, but you’ll be limited to tour stops inside of the park.
Find affordable flights to Las Vegas:
Rent a car to drive to Death Valley National Park:
When to Visit Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park sees over a million visitors each year, so timing your visit is key. There are strategies to beat the crowds when visiting a popular national park, including getting an early start to the day and planning ahead.
Death Valley is also home to extreme weather. Peak season in Death Valley National Park occurs from October through April. Summers in Death Valley National Park are brutally hot, with temperatures typically reaching over 120°F on the hottest days. I would strongly advise against visiting Death Valley during the summer. Winters in Death Valley National Park are chilly, but mild, and perfect for hiking.
Recreating Responsibly in Death Valley National Park
With so many people exploring Death Valley National Park, it’s incredibly important that you do what you can to minimize your impact on the land and environment during your visit.
Here’s how you can recreate responsibly in Death Valley National Park:
- Plan ahead & prepare. Hiking in the desert comes with unique considerations, so make sure you research your trails and pack appropriately. Always carry a map while hiking.
- Travel & camp on durable surfaces. Stay on trails or other durable surfaces like slickrock and washes.
- Dispose of waste properly. Pack out all waste, including human waste.
- Leave what you find. Don’t carve into, take, or stack rocks.
- Minimize campfire impacts. Check for fire bans and practice campfire safety. This means creating your campfire in an existing fire ring; making sure the fire is attended and doesn’t get out of control; and making sure the fire is out completely (stir the ashes until they are cool to the touch).
- Respect wildlife. Never feed wildlife. Make sure to maintain a safe distance from wildlife.
- Be considerate of others. Wear headphones instead of blasting music over a bluetooth speaker. Remember uphill hikers have the right of way.
Respect Archaeological Sites
This itinerary does not include any trails where archaeological sites are located, however Death Valley National Park is the ancestral homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone people who still live in the park and their presence remains throughout the park.
Petroglyphs and other archaeological sites are protected by federal laws, including, but not limited to, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Damaging, defacing, or destroying archaeological sites is a federal crime. Please treat the land and any archaeological sites with respect when visiting Death Valley National Park.
Here are some best practices when visiting an archaeological site:
- Never sit, touch, lean, or stand on walls of archaeological sites.
- Don’t touch petroglyphs and pictographs (the oils from your fingers can break them down faster).
- Leave all artifacts where you find them.
- Don’t allow pets or small children in archaeological sites.
- Don’t share locations or coordinates of archaeological sites online.
Stay Slot Canyon Safe
Many of the hikes in this Death Valley itinerary take you through narrow slot canyons. Slot canyons are spectacularly stunning natural features that can be a blast to explore, but they can also be deadly if flash floods occur. Make sure to follow these best practices for exploring slot canyons to ensure your safety:
- Never enter a slot canyon if there is ANY chance of rain anywhere in the vicinity. Flash floods can be triggered by rainfall miles away from where you are located, so stay out of canyons in the event of inclement weather.
- Make sure you know your abilities and don’t be afraid to turn around if things are too challenging. The hikes I’ve included in this itinerary are non-technical (which means you won’t need a rope), but they do require some scrambling. If anything is outside of your comfort zone
Trip Itinerary: Three Days in Death Valley National Park
This three day Death Valley National Park itinerary is best completed in the spring, fall, and winter, when temperatures are mild enough to hike throughout the day. If you’re traveling to Death Valley National Park during the summer you should scrap all of the midday activities in this itinerary and try to find some air conditioning!
Day 1 in Death Valley National Park:
To make the most of your 3-day trip to Death Valley National Park, plan to stay in or near the park the night before. I’ll talk more about where to stay in Death Valley below. If staying in or near the park isn’t possible, plan to get an early start so you have a full day in the park.
Your first stop in Death Valley is going to be the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. This is going to allow you to check the weather forecast, pick up a park map, talk to rangers about your trip, and grab a permit for one of the park’s dispersed campsites. If you’re coming in from the West, you can stop at the Stovepipe Wells Visitors Center instead.
Morning Hike: Mosaic Canyon Trail
From the Visitor’s Center, head to Mosaic Canyon for your first hike in Death Valley National Park. This is a popular hike through a scenic canyon with some short sections of slot canyon.
The Mosaic Canyon Trail is easy to navigate, but it requires some light scrambling and packs some solid elevation gain in a relatively short distance. Overall, it’s a very fun hike, but may be challenging for small children. In my opinion, the best views are near the beginning of the trail, so if you’re not up for the full hike it’s still worth heading out.
After you work up an appetite on your hike, head over to the Toll Road Restaurant in Stovepipe Wells for a bite to eat. You can also have a picnic in the area if you packed your own lunch.
Afternoon Scenic Drives to Father Crowley Vista Point & Emigrant Canyon Road
You’re going to spend your first afternoon going on a scenic drive up Hwy 190 to Father Crowley Vista Point where you can take in sweeping panoramic views of Rainbow Canyon. This area has been used as a military training facility for decades, so keep an eye out for fighter jets.
After visiting Father Crowley Vista Point, loop through Panamint Valley to Emigrant Canyon Road. This is a scenic drive that will take you past palm trees and unique rock formations. The environment in this area of Death Valley is vastly different from other areas of the park and will have you thinking you found a tropical oasis.
Sunset at Mesquite Sand Dunes
Wrap up your first day in Death Valley by taking in the sunset at Mesquite Sand Dunes. Feel free to explore the dunes as much (or as little) as you’d like while you watch the setting sun light up the landscape, but don’t feel pressure to go far. You’ll be back to this otherworldly part of Death Valley on Day 3.
Day 2 in Death Valley National Park:
Sunrise at Zabriskie Point & Morning Hike: Gower Gulch & Golden Canyon Loop Trail
Start the second of 3 days in Death Valley by heading to Zabriskie Point for sunrise. This is an extremely popular sunrise location in Death Valley National Park, so expect to have plenty of company. It’s a short walk up to the overlook, so I recommend bringing a small stove, like a Jetboil, to make some coffee while you watch the sunrise.
After the crowds disperse, get ready to head out on a hike. There are a variety of trails to explore in this area of Death Valley, but I suggest hiking the Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon Loop.
The trail begins at the Zabriskie trailhead and takes you through two ruggedly beautiful desert canyons that provide plenty of opportunities for photo opps. If you’re not up for the full loop you can hike through Gower Gulch as a shorter out-and-back.
Afternoon Adventure to Dantes View
After your hike, enjoy lunch at the trailhead or head over to The Ranch at Death Valley for a hot meal at The Ranch 1849 Buffet or The Last Kind Words Saloon. Then spend the afternoon going on an adventure up to Dantes View. You’ll gain thousands of feet of elevation gain on the drive up before topping out at 5,525 ft. with expansive views of Badwater Basin.
While it’s a bit of a detour from the main highway, Dantes View is one of the best views in Death Valley National Park. You can take a short hike at the summit while you take in the spectacular scene.
Sunset Scenic Drive Along Artists Drive
End your second day in Death Valley National Park with a drive along Artists Drive. This is a 9-mile, one-way loop with a number of scenic lookouts along the way where you can stop and stretch your legs, including the colorful Artists Palette. Be aware, there’s a 25 ft. length restriction along Artists Drive.
Day 3 in Death Valley National Park:
Morning Sandboarding at Mesquite Sand Dunes
Kick off your final day in Death Valley by heading back to Mesquite Sand Dunes to go sandboarding and sand sledding. Spend the morning exploring the sand dunes and taking in the stark desert landscape. Be aware, the sand is quite coarse, which makes sandboarding a little challenging, but it’s a blast once you get the hang of it!
Afternoon Hike: Desolation Canyon
During the afternoon, drive over to Desolation Canyon for a scenic hike. This is an underrated hike in Death Valley with stunning views throughout a rocky canyon. Some scrambling is required, but there are solid hand and footholds to make it easy. While the final push up to the top of the canyon is steep, the views of Artists Drive in the distance makes it worth it.
Sunset at Badwater Basin
After your hike through Desolation Canyon, drive up Badwater Road to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. You can walk out onto the expansive salt flat, which provides endless opportunities for photos. It also provides stunning views of Telescope Peak, which is the highest point in Death Valley National Park. Badwater Basin is the perfect sunset destination to conclude your trip.
Where to Stay When Visiting Death Valley National Park
There are a variety of lodging options available in and around Death Valley National Park that work well with this three day itinerary. Because the park is so huge, I recommend staying inside of the park or camping right outside of the park’s boundaries.
Hotels & Resorts
There are 3 hotels and resorts located inside of Death Valley National Park, all of which would be suitable for spending 3 days in Death Valley and completing this itinerary. The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley are both located near the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, while the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel is in the Stovepipe Wells area of the park. There are also nearby motels located outside of the park.
- The Inn at Death Valley | From $300+ per night during peak season (October-April).
- The Ranch at Death Valley | From $179+ per night during peak season (October-April).
- Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel | From $200+ per night during peak season (October-April).
If you want to visit Death Valley National Park on a budget, camping is the best way to do it. For the most convenience, stay at a campground inside of the park. To make it even more affordable opt for free dispersed camping outside of the park. While dispersed camping is free, it also means there are no amenities, so plan to be fully self-sufficient and remember to practice Leave No Trace.
Death Valley National Park has a few campgrounds to choose from throughout the park. For the purpose of following this 3-day itinerary, I recommend camping at:
- Furnace Creek Campground (RV hookups available; $22-60/night)
- Stovepipe Wells Campground (first-come, first-served; $14/night)
- Emigrant Campground (first-come, first-served; seasonal; free)
Unlike most national parks, which don’t allow dispersed camping, Death Valley allows you to pitch your tent off of some of the park’s backroads. Dispersed camping inside of Death Valley National Park requires a permit which can be obtained at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. Sites are limited and first-come, first-served.
In addition to the camping available inside of the park, there is dispersed camping available outside of the park on surrounding BLM land. There’s a large camping area shortly before the Eastern park entrance with dozens of cement platforms that are perfect for vans, trailers, or RVs. It’s not great for tent camping because it’s too rocky to stake anything in the ground, but I made it work on a past trip (although my tent almost blew away in a wind storm on the last night…).
If you’re planning on dispersed camping during your three days in Death Valley National Park, plan to do some extra driving and prepare to be fully self-sufficient. Most dispersed camping areas do not have amenities like trash service or toilets, so it’s important to pack everything out (this includes human waste in the desert!).
What to Pack to Go Hiking in Death Valley National Park
Hiking pack recommendations are incredibly subjective. I personally use and love the Osprey Sirrus 24L, but you could definitely get away with a smaller pack for these Death Valley National Park hikes. A trail running vest is a great option if you want to be able to carry sufficient water while staying light on the trail.
You should plan to carry at least 1L per hour of hiking that you plan to do in the desert (more in warmer weather). Depending on the time of year, temperature, and how acclimatized you are to the desert, you may need more or less. Also consider carrying electrolyte packs like Liquid IV to add to your water, especially if you’re hiking during warmer months.
The Death Valley National Park hikes included in this itinerary are fairly short so you don’t need to pack a ton of food. A protein bar, trail mix, pb&j, dried fruit, and jerky are great snack options!
A well stocked first-aid kit should always be in your pack as part of the 10 essentials, but while hiking in the desert make sure you have band-aids, moleskin, tylenol, and tweezers.
Map & Compass:
While all of the trails on this list are easy to navigate, you should always carry a map & compass in the event you get lost. At the very least be sure to download the trail map to your phone before heading out!
A knife can come in handy for a variety of purposes from cutting an apple to fixing your gear. Plus it’s part of the 10 essentials, so it should be one of those items that just lives in your pack.
While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have to spend an emergency night on the trail, it’s important to carry an emergency bivvy or space blanket to help you stay comfortable during an emergency situation, just in case.
Trekking poles are optional but recommended to help your knees during some of the steeper hikes.
The clothing you need to wear on your hike depends on a number of factors including the forecast, time of year, and your personal preferences. Helpful layers to consider wearing/bringing include a sun shirt and outer layer (how heavy of an outer layer you need to carry will depend on the month you’re hiking).
You won’t have cell service in most parts of Death Valley National Park. I recommend carrying a Garmin in-reach mini GPS on hikes, so you can easily get in contact with authorities in the event of an emergency.
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