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A drive through Death Valley National Park is always in our family road trip list but timing is tricky with our big family schedule.
Spring break is the best time to see the fleeting spring wild flowers in their peak blooming splendor from mid March through early May, and the mild temperature of winter through spring will be conducive for hiking.
On the other hand, going hiking in the park in the summer time will not be good because of the blistering summer heat that could be in the high 100 to mid 120 degrees Fahrenheit, thus making it dangerous for heat stroke and dehydration.
We had the opportunity to visit the park in February, and we enjoyed the mild weather but unfortunately, we did not see much of the wild flowers.
I mapped out our route in advance so we could save time and maximize our visit. We started our road trip from LA, stayed 1 night at Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel which is inside the park and ended in a 3 night stay in Las Vegas and then back home.
It was a well planned road trip but staying for 2 nights/ 3 days inside Death Valley National Park would allow us to visit all the must do attractions we planned on visiting, but since we only stayed for 1 night, we missed some beautiful spots.
We did not foresee the longer time it will take to actually get to the attraction sites because of the unpaved roads that slowed visitors when not driving an off road vehicle.
Of note, Death Valley National Park is in the remote desert and there are no stores and dining options for miles and miles in this vast park.
If children are with you, bring lunch or dinner and have a picnic in one of the attraction sites and bring more snacks and water. We bought our lunch in Lancaster, California and we had a picnic at the Darwin Falls Trail parking lot, and that was after about 4 hours of driving.
The only places inside the park that offer full service with food and fuel and lodging are the Panamint Springs Resort, the Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek and they are miles apart.
The must do attractions we visited as we drove through Death Valley National Park
West Park Entrance. We entered the park driving along CA 190 E from LA and we grabbed the opportunity of having photos at the west park entrance.
Father Crowley Vista Point. This stop over was not in our itinerary but this attraction is hard to miss as you drive along CA 190 E. It was about 4.5 miles from the west park entrance and the parking is just right off the highway.
This vista point gives you a panoramic view of the west end of Death Valley, and as you look down from the vista point, you can see the Rainbow Canyon created by lava flow and you can see the amazing view of the Panamint Valley as you walk over the east side of the parking lot.
Darwin Falls. From Father Crowley Vista Overlook, we drove about 7 miles along CA 190 E , turned right into a 2.5 miles of unpaved road to Darwin Falls. Darwin Falls is a small falls and is beautiful in its own right. It is an oasis miracle in this dry desert and that is why you should visit this must do attraction in the park.
The falls is the only permanent fresh water supply in Death Valley and is near the Panamint Springs Resort. We saw sedans driving through but a high clearance vehicle will be better.
The hike is about 1 mile one way with stream crossings, scaling up and over boulders and no swimming allowed. It was the most fun hike for the children!
We got back to the parking lot from Darwin Falls late and so we decided to drive about 43 miles along CA 190 E, and turned right into a 1.5 miles of unpaved road to Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, instead of visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for sunset.
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. The trail is made up of 0.5 mile long loop of ADA accessible wooden boardwalk and it is accessible all year round. Salt Creek is the only home of the endangered Salt Creek Pupfish and there are interpretive signs along the boardwalk about the pupfish.
The area is part of a dried up massive lake from thousands of years ago and the saltiness of the water is from the salt concentrates as a result of the gradual and continuous evaporation of water.
Stovepipe Wells Village. From Salt Creek, we drove about 11 miles along CA 190 W to Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel for the night. Stovepipe Wells is a small village inside Death Valley National Park with a hotel, 2 restaurants, a general store and a gas station. And the gas was cheap despite the remoteness of the area, it was less than $3 a gallon!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Only 3 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the parking lot is right off the Ca 190 E. We headed to the dunes around 6 AM so we can be there for the amazing sunrise. We later came back to the dunes with the children as we continued our adventure through the park towards Las Vegas.
Harmony Borax Interpretive Trail. We then continued driving about 24 miles along CA 190 E to this old borax mining site that was built in 1882. They established the 20 mule teams to carry the refined borax about 165 miles across the dessert to the Mojave Rail Road.
The borax mining was only operational for about 5 years because of the high cost of operation and the borax discoveries in other parts of California.
The graveled trail is only about 0.4 mile loop with some interpretive signs in different parts with the exhibit. It was a quick stop and we finished within 45 minutes.
We did not see the Furnace Creek Borax Museum because the children were hungry and now becoming impatient and wanted to go back to the civilization after almost 2 days of driving across the dessert. So we went to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center instead which is only about 1.5 miles away, still driving along CA 190 E.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The Furnace Creek Visitor Center was built in 1959 and the facility has modern amenities. This is where you also pay the $25 park entrance fee that is good for a 7 day period for 1 noncommercial vehicle. The visitor center has small museum of the area and you can watch a 20 minute movie about the history of Death Valley through out the day.
The visitor center provides information about the park, the attraction sites and the wild life. It also have a gift shop for souvenirs and a variety of to go sandwiches, snacks and drinks. Be sure to buy your food here because from here, there is nowhere else to buy food with in at least 24 miles aside from the nearby Oasis hotel.
Mushroom Rock. The Mushroom Rock is not in the list of Death Valley National Park attractions to protect it from human interference, but you can see it as you drive along CA 190 E, into Badwater Road and it is on the left side of the road, about 5.8 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
From the Mushroom Rock, we headed southwest along Badwater Road towards Artist Drive. Artist Drive is a 4.6 miles of one way winding and narrow but paved road. It was a slow and relaxing drive and then you pull into a good size parking lot and there was a toilet in this site.
The Artist Palette. The Artist Palette is a multi-color rock formation in Artist Drive as a result of chemical weathering and hydrothermal alterations of volcanic rocks. Our pictures did not do justice in showing the beauty of this attraction.
The Badwater Basin. The Badwater basin covers about 200 square miles of protected salt flats and it is the lowest point in North America at about 282 feet below sea level. It was an experience walking in the salt pan and being in this phenomenal place. I walked about 1 mile into the field and the temperature was over 80 degrees in the middle of winter. I considered the visit to this place as the highlight of this family road trip!
On the side of the road just before you walk into the salt flat is a small spring fed pool that is salty and undrinkable, thus the name “badwater”.
By this time the children are all cranky and just wants to leave for Las Vegas. We loaded up and headed 17.5 miles along CA 190 E towards the eastern part of Death Valley to visit the last attraction for the day, the Zabriskie Point, which is also along the way to Las Vegas.
Zabriskie Point. As you pull into the big paved parking lot, a beautiful landscape of different hues of yellow and brown greets you. Zabriskie Point is the remnant of the dried up Furnace Creek Lake 5 million years ago leaving this amazing landscape behind. You can appreciate the magnificent view as you walk the paved pathway up the hill with plenty of picture perfect spots on both sides.
From Zabriskie Point, we then headed to Las Vegas and we welcomed the craziness of Sin City after being in the wilderness for 2 days. And of course the children loved the buffet meals that they were so looking forward to after a day of eating sandwiches.
These are attractions in our itinerary that we missed because we ran out of time and because of the unpaved roads to these attractions.
Devil’s Golf Course. Devil’s Golf Course is not an actual golf course but a vast salt field with large salt clumps.
Mosaic Canyon. This attraction has 2.6 hike round trip up to the boulder jam and it would be wonderful to see the polished and colorful marbled canyon walls as a result of countless flash floods in the area millions of years ago.
Natural Bridge Canyon. I can say it is my sad regret driving to Death Valley and was unable to see the Natural Bridge. It is only a 1 mile hike round trip to see the bridge but to get to the trail is a drive through 13.5 miles of unpaved road. The natural bridge is a result of countless floods into the area millions of years ago.
Dante’s View. I saved this attraction for last because I would like to see a beautiful sunset from this vista point. Dante’s View is 3,000 feet above Badwater and it will be amazing to see the views of death valley below. But the parking lot is undergoing a makeover when we visited and no one is allowed access.
A drive through Death Valley National Park is definitely a must do road trip for everyone who loves to see beautiful natural landscapes, at least once in your lifetime. And as I mentioned, as you drive through like we did, it will be best to stay at least two nights to give you more time to see most of the attractions.
If you start your journey from the west end like we did, you should stay one night at Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel to see the attractions nearby and the next night at the Oasis Death Valley. This way you will not be driving back and forth and you will save time.
But you can also go camping as there are a number of camping sites in the park, or RV through or just revisit the park again in the future.
There are a number of other attractions and hike spots not mentioned in this article. For more information, please visit https://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm
As for me and Jorge, we will definitely go back in the future, just the two of us and we will take our time and visit each of the attractions we missed and more!
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