Located on the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes. It’s the hottest (134° F) and driest (1.3 inches of moisture per year) place in North America, the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level), and the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
It also features a fantastic range of habitats, ranging from 282 feet below sea level to 11,049 feet above. The park offers the unique and unusual, including ancient geology exposed to upheaval from within the earth to playas holding primeval stories and valuable minerals.
Death Valley is home to canyons curving through arid landscapes and flora and fauna that have adapted to thrive in harsh conditions. This is a destination for the curious, the hearty, and the exuberant because it requires close inspection and dogged resilience to celebrate the discoveries made where few dare to explore.
Why Visit Death Valley National Park in Your RV?
With all the extremes that Death Valley presents, why would you want to visit the park in your RV? As you venture from the lowest spot in the country to desert mountaintops, your RV home allows you to explore the park in comfort.
With a motorhome or travel trailer, you can bring your own shade and experience more of the park on your own schedule. In fact, many RVers stay for long stretches in this unusual place, exploring its many juxtapositions.
Death Valley National Park features extreme topography and climates, with mysteries like moving rocks at The Racetrack or the endangered Salt Creek pupfish that can withstand water temperatures from 32°F to 116°F, a species that is only found in the park.
The ability of inhabitants, past and present, to thrive in this severe environment is impressive. When the rare joy of rain comes to the valley, what is usually a stark, monochromatic landscape erupts with the vibrant colors of massive wildflower blooms. It is apparent that Death Valley is anything but dead … it is alive with life if you’re willing to take a closer look.
When to Visit Death Valley National Park
The park is open year-round, but with the highest temperatures in the Western Hemisphere, most tourists choose to visit from November through April, avoiding the extreme summer heat.
But here’s a little more on the seasons in Death Valley:
Death Valley National Park in the Spring
March is the tail end of the park’s “rainy season,” if you could call it that. Daytime temps average 82℉ in March and climb up to 100℉ by the end of May. But spring is the best time of year to visit if you’re looking to enjoy one of the valley’s infamous—and rare—wildflower blooms.
Death Valley National Park in the Summer
Summer in the park is long, hot, and dry. In 2001, the park recorded its standing record of 154 straight days with temperatures above 100℉. The average high from June through August is above 110℉ and the record high for these months is a scorching 134℉.
Death Valley National Park in the Fall
Daytime highs still exceed 100℉ regularly throughout September and early October, but temps begin to drop when Halloween rolls around. For November, daytime highs average 77℉, and evening temperatures can often drop below 50℉.
Death Valley National Park in the Winter
Winter is the most friendly time of year to visit the park regarding daytime temperatures. They range from highs of 65℉ in December to highs in the mid-70s in February. Lows can drop into the 30s throughout the winter and February is the “wettest” month (0.37 inches of precipitation on average) in what is otherwise an incredibly dry park.
Where to Stay
There are nine official campgrounds inside the national park. Of those, Furnace Creek Campground offers 18 sites with water and electric hookups and flush toilets. The rest are perfect for boondocking or tent camping.
All but two of the campgrounds have water available, although others only offer potable water seasonally. Overnight permits for backcountry camping are required from the visitors center, and since Death Valley has been designated as a gold-tier night sky, it’s the perfect place to count constellations from your campsite.
Additionally, there are three privately owned campgrounds in the park that can handle motorhomes and travel trailers:
- Stovepipe Wells Campground: 14 full hookup sites with a swimming pool, general store, restaurant, and saloon. About 30 minutes from Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
- The Ranch at Death Valley: Located two minutes from Furnace Creek Visitor Center, sites do not have hookups and are only back-in. A golf course, camp store, swimming pool, and shower facilities are nearby.
- Panamint Springs Resort: 10 full hookup sites, plus 28 dry sites with a motel and restaurant. About 60 minutes from Death Valley Visitor Center.
Staying Outside the Park
If you’re looking for full hookups and you have a toad or tow vehicle to get into the park, here are a few nearby options:
- Boulder Creek RV Park: Located in Lone Pine, CA, about 55 minutes from Panamint Springs and two hours from Furnace Creek.
- Lake Olancha RV Park: Located in Olancha, CA, about 50 minutes from Panamint Springs and two hours from Furnace Creek.
- Lakeside Casino & RV Park: Located in Pahrump, NV, about 45 minutes from Death Valley Junction and 1.25 hours from Furnace Creek.
- Wine Ridge RV Resort & Cottages: Located in Pahrump, NV, about 40 minutes from Death Valley Junction and 70 minutes from Furnace Creek.
- Nevada Treasure RV Resort: Located in Pahrump, NV, about 30 minutes from Death Valley Junction and one hour from Furnace Creek.
Tips for your Camping Stay
- The 18 hookup sites at Furnace Creek often book up to six months in advance, but all reservations must be made at least two days in advance.
- Reservations for visits to Furnace Creek from October 15 through April 15th can be made via recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
- All other developed campgrounds in the park are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Multiple RV dump stations are available in the Furnace Creek area.
- Bring lots of water and ensure you have a place to get out of the sun!
How to Get Around Death Valley National Park
Getting to Death Valley is a piece of cake—follow California Highway 190 west if you’re coming in from Death Valley Junction, CA, or east from Olancha, CA. The highway intersects the park from east to west.
You can also enter the park through Beatty, NV, by following Highway 374 until it intersects Scotty’s Castle Road. From there, turn left to meet Highway 190.
And from the south, you can enter the park via Highway 178 near the town of Shoshone, CA. This is the most remote entrance to the park and will take you through Badwater Basin (the park’s lowest elevation) before intersecting with Highway 190 near Furnace Creek.
Once you’re in the park, many roads are paved, but you’ll need your own vehicle to get around. If you choose to venture onto dirt roads, be aware that sudden storms causing flash floods can wash out roadbeds without much warning. Several of these roads are still closed because of damage incurred during storms in previous years.
Places to Go
Because it’s such an expansive park, it can require a bit of driving between destinations. But these are some of the must-visit spots:
Furnace Creek Visitors Center
The visitors center is the best place for first-time visitors to begin. Check out the bookstore, collect information, and learn about ranger-led tours. There is a 20-minute film on the park, and ranger talks occur during the winter months of November through April.
This unique structure—an elaborate Spanish-style mansion—was reputedly built in the 1920s by “Death Valley Scotty.” The flamboyant conman perpetuated the myth that the home was built with money he made as a gold miner. Take a tour of the property led by rangers in period clothing from the Roaring 20s.
The Racetrack is a dry lakebed created by evaporation where you can explore the mystery of rocks that move on their own. Rocks from the surrounding hills fall onto the flat surface and mysteriously scrape across the lakebed, leaving a trail as they go.
Saline Valley Hot Springs
The hot springs are accessible via a tough four-hour drive on rough backroads or by personal aircraft (landing on the “Chicken Strip”). They have been carved out of the desert, providing a natural oasis with palm trees. Remote and rustic, the hot springs are not for those who enjoy the creature comforts of a resort.
Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Some of the best activities to do while in the park include:
Because the park is so dry, hikers should carry at least one liter of water for short hikes and a minimum of one gallon for longer or overnight trips. The most pleasant time of year is November through March, especially if hiking at the lower elevations.
Here are a few of the numerous trails throughout Death Valley National Park:
- Harmony Borax Works: About a 0.4-mile ADA-accessible paved loop with 50 feet of elevation gain; easy.
- Salt Creek Interpretive Trail: About a half-mile ADA-accessible boardwalk loop; easy.
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: About 2 miles out and back with 185 feet of elevation gain; moderate to difficult.
- Ubehebe Crater Loop: About a 1.5-mile loop with 500 feet of elevation gain; moderate with exposed edges, so those with a fear of heights may want to avoid it.
- Mosaic Canyon: About 4 miles out and back with 1,200 feet of elevation gain; moderate to difficult.
- Panamint Dunes: About 8 miles out and back with 1,028 feet of elevation gain; moderate to difficult.
- Wild Rose Peak: About 8.4 miles out and back with 2,200 feet of elevation gain; difficult.
Many visitors opt to see the park on bicycles, which are allowed on all public vehicular roads. Considering that there are 785 miles of roadways to ride, there’s a lot of ground to cover!
Death Valley has many bird species that call the park home or migrate through it. You can try birdwatching in places like Salt Creek, Saratoga Spring, and Furnace Creek, where a viewing platform awaits.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Water and shade are in short supply in the park. Pack extra water in bottles or a larger water cooler, and bring your own instant canopy or shelter to provide extra shade.
- If your RV is equipped with an awning, ensure it’s in good condition before your visit.
- Limited grocery services are available in the park. Stock your RV refrigerator or pack a camping cooler with your food necessities before entering the park.
- Several restaurants are available at The Inn at Death Valley, The Ranch at Death Valley, Timbisha Shoshone Village, Stovepipe Wells Village, and Panamint Springs Resort.
- The park’s hot temperatures frequently take a toll on engines and tires. Bring extra engine coolant and ensure you have a good spare and the tools needed to change a tire in the event of a blowout. (Or be sure you know what to do if you need roadside assistance!).
- Cellphone coverage is limited throughout the park. Consider investing in a signal booster to improve service in areas with limited reception.
- Pets are allowed in the park but not recommended. The heat and lack of water make life tough on our four-legged companions. If you bring your dog, it must always remain on a leash when outside your RV.
Brief History of Death Valley National Park
Several Native American cultures inhabited the deserts of Death Valley up to 10,000 years ago when the climate was milder and large game roamed this region. Inland lakes were more plentiful then, and Lake Manly covered what is now the Badwater Basin.
The human settlements dispersed as the temperatures rose and water evaporated, leaving salt, talc, and borate in their place. But it wasn’t until the California gold rush of 1849 that the first European descendants arrived in the area, stumbling into the valley by accident.
Getting lost while looking for a shortcut from the Old Spanish Trail, a group of 100 wagons found water but had to eat some of their oxen to survive. They finally abandoned their belongings and transportation and hiked out of the valley. One group member turned and said “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving this harsh, barren landscape an inescapable name that we still use today.
About 40 years later, some enterprising settlers discovered the borate deposits, and Death Valley’s first commercial borax operation was created. Those early entrepreneurs used 20-mule teams to haul the mineral to Mojave, which is about 165 miles away.
At about the same time, two men named Jack Keane and Domingo Etcharren discovered gold and thus began a ‘mini gold rush’ to the area. A few towns grew out of this activity, but the gold soon played out, and the communities became the ghost towns of Rhyolite and Skidoo.
By the turn of the century, resorts centered around natural springs were being built in the region, and Death Valley became a popular winter destination. One stands out today: Scotty’s Castle was constructed by Albert Mussey Johnson as a gift for his bride.
However, Johnson had been fooled into investing in non-existent gold mines in Death Valley by a con man named Walter Scott. Johnson fell in love with the area when he visited said ‘mines.’ He knew he was being taken to the cleaners but didn’t seem to care. He built the enormous home for his wife and let “Scotty” reside there until his death.
Walter Scott led everyone to believe that he was the owner of this unique property, and Johnson encouraged the deception. Today the mansion offers tours to park visitors, with rangers dressed in period costumes.
Shortly after Scotty’s Castle was completed, almost two million acres of the region were set aside as a national monument to protect its unusual landscapes, environment, and wildlife. Finally, in 1994 Death Valley acquired another 1,300,000 acres and was bumped up in status to become a national park.
Is Death Valley National Park on your list of future locations? Why or why not? Leave a comment below!
Shelley Dennis is a travel photographer and writer who threw caution to the wind and gave up most of her belongings to travel the country in an RV. Her trusty sidekick for this lifetime adventure is her Golden Retriever, Sully. You can find them both at www.PhotoTrippingAmerica.com