It’s mid-morning on a December Tuesday. I’m standing with the family at the top of the steepest dune we can find in the Mesquite Sand Dunes. My five-year-old is perched at the edge in a shiny red sled, giggling with anticipation. With a dramatic count of 1-2-3, I push him over the edge. We hear his laughter grow louder as he picks up speed. We’re having the time of our lives, and our family’s Death Valley adventure has only just begun.
Death Valley is often described as otherworldly. George Lucas proved this point when he chose locations in the park as the setting of Tatooine in “Episode IV — A New Hope” and “Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi”. Located in the Mojave Desert in eastern California, near the border with Nevada, the valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. It is a land of striking contrasts, where the oxidation of natural metal deposits has painted the mountains green, blue, and purple, and the thick salt that covers the valley floor could easily be mistaken for snow. Death Valley provides endless wonders for curious kids of all ages.
In this guide, I share details from our favorite adventures in the park, plus some of the many things I wish we could have done if we had more time.
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IN THIS POST:
YOUTUBE VIDEO OF OUR DEATH VALLEY ADVENTURE
BEST HIKES TO TRY WHEN EXPLORING DEATH VALLEY WITH KIDS
Death Valley has no shortage of easy hikes that allowed our family to discover new and exciting landscapes. We packed a lot into our short visit and left wanting more. The park is huge, so try to pace yourself and enjoy each moment.
The Death Valley hiking seasons favor the mild winter months. If you are visiting in the warmer months, time your hikes for the morning and early evening hours. And regardless of season, prepare to drink more water here due to the dry climate. Some areas have spring water, but given that you’re in the driest desert in North America, it’s best not to rely on springs for refills!
BADWATER BASIN (1.5 MILES ROUND TRIP, EASY)
The lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is covered in vast salt flats as far as the eye can see. This is one of the most iconic stops in Death Valley, so make sure to make time to stop here.
It’s an easy and accessible walk on to the salt flat from the parking lot. The best views require a flat 1.5 – 2 mile round trip walk. As I write this, I still have my doubts that we ventured out far enough.
As you walk out, make sure to look up to the cliffs of the mountains behind you. You’ll see a sign high above that shows you sea level.
We were there in December, so it was no problem to visit around noon, but make sure not to visit mid-day when it’s hot!
DARWIN FALLS (2 MILES ROUND TRIP, MODERATE)
After you’ve spent a few days in the desert, you may welcome the novelty of finding a 20-foot spring-fed waterfall near the driest place in North America. This hike doesn’t follow a marked path, and the rock scrambling and creek crossings you’ll encounter are said to add to the adventurous feel of this hike into lush canyon vegetation.
Darwin Falls is located near Panamint Springs on the west side of the park. We didn’t make it to the falls on this trip but would add it to a longer visit when the boys are a little bit older. Given its location, it would make a good stop to stretch your legs on your way into or out of the park on the California side.
GOLDEN CANYON (3 MILES ROUND TRIP, MODERATE)
This section of the park offers many different hiking paths and opportunities. Given that we were hiking with a 3-year-old near the end of the day, we kept it simple and took the Golden Canyon trail to the Red Cathedral. This is a 3 mile out and back trail with a vertical ascent of 577 feet. It was the biggest hike of our trip, and the boys especially loved the bit of rock scrambling near the Red Cathedral. It came as no surprise that this was one of the most popular hikes in the park.
There are many different possibilities for hikers in this area. Many seeking a more strenuous adventure turn off toward Manly Beacon on a trail that connects with the Badlands below Zabriskie Point or loops back to the Golden Canyon parking lot via Gower Gulch. Those with a full day can choose to do the 7.8-mile full circuit, which would make for an amazing day! The National Park Service has a helpful map to help you plan your adventure.
MOSAIC CANYON (1-4 MILES ROUND TRIP DEPENDING ON ROUTE, EASY TO DIFFICULT)
Ah, Mosaic Canyon. This was honestly one of the top hikes on my list, but I fumbled some of our logistics and didn’t make it. The trail starts through a slot canyon walled with mosaic conglomerates and smooth marbleized rocks. Truth be told, I’m only partially sure what that all means, but it sure sounded like a cool hike to me.
I planned to just do the first part of the hike, which is an easy 1-mile round trip. For more advanced and adventurous visitors, the route continues through 3 sets of narrows that require some rock scrambling. The National Park Service has a detailed description of the route here.
MESQUITE SAND DUNES (2 MILES ROUND TRIP TO THE HIGHEST DUNE, EASY)
Death Valley has 5 sets of dunes, but the Mesquite Sand Dunes are the most accessible in the park. From the parking lot, you simply make your way out into the dunes. There is no formal trail, you just head out and have fun!
Many people head out intending to summit the highest dune. We ended up not making it that far out, but the boys had a blast playing in the sand. John and the kids all named the dunes as their favorite stop in Death Valley, and we would have loved to squeeze in one more visit.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are also the only part of the park where sandboarding is allowed, and we came prepared! I’m not a fan of snowboarding, but many years ago I reluctantly tried sandboarding with friends in the Atacama Desert and LOVED it. Turns out, falling in the sand doesn’t hurt at all, and I was hooked.
Because dry sand has a lot more drag than snow, it’s a bit of a challenge to find a board that works properly. Cardboard, saucers, and soft plastics don’t slide well on the sand in general because the material tends to dip below soft sand and work as a brake. We purchased this sled and applied a bit of Universal Temperature wax, which kind of slid on the steeper dunes where the force of gravity could finally compete with the dry sand drag. It worked enough for my young kiddos to have a blast. If you’re thinking through which materials might work best, I found this article helpful.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are also known as one of the best spots in the park for sunrise, sunset, or even a night hike. Any of these would be magical.
NATURAL BRIDGE CANYON (1 MILE ROUND TRIP, EASY)
Natural Bridge is another wonderful example of the varied geology of Death Valley, and it’s also pretty cool to walk around and snap some photos. It’s 1 mile out and back to the Bridge, and hikers can continue on the trail for another mile out and back.
SALT CREEK INTERPRETIVE TRAIL (0.5 MILE BOARDWALK LOOP, EASY)
This trail follows alongside Salt Creek on an accessible boardwalk. The big lure here is spotting Salt Creek’s famous pupfish when they are spawning, roughly February to April. Interpretive signs along the boardwalk explain the creek and how pupfish have adapted to survive in the Mojave Desert.
We enjoyed the walk, though there was not a pupfish to be seen in December. As a bonus, there are a couple of picnic tables here next to the parking lot at the trailhead. After our walk we relaxed a bit and enjoyed the lunch we packed before moving along down 190.
UBEHEBE CRATER LOOP (1.5 MILE LOOP, MODERATE)
From slot canyons to dunes to salt flats to … volcanoes!? Formed over 2,000 years ago, the Ubehebe Crater is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. A 1.5-mile trail follows the rim and offers views into the center of the crater as well as the surrounding cinder fields. You can hike into the center, but note that the steep climb out is much more difficult than the climb in! The loop hike involves a 500-foot elevation increase. The initial climb, loose footing, and exposed edges on the rim earned this hike a moderately difficult rating.
AWE-INSPIRING DEATH VALLEY SIGHTS
Several sights in Death Valley are hiking optional, which can be a welcome break when exploring with kids. You can drive to a parking lot and walk a few feet out to a lookout for wonderful views. These spots offer hiking and exploration options as well, which would be a fun experience for families with older kids.
This iconic Death Valley vista was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the 1920s and named for the company’s vice president and general manager, Christian Zabriskie. A short paved uphill path to the overlook is easily accessible and offers views of the surrounding badlands, including Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral.
The spot is one of the most popular areas in the park for sunrise and sunset. If you are visiting during sunset, plan your visit for at least a half-hour before the official sunset time for Death Valley. The 11,049-foot Telescope Peak blocks the sun early. We arrived and were hurriedly getting some snacks ready for family sunset-viewing as a stream of people headed back down to the parking lot. We enjoyed the view with the daylight we had left, but we missed the big light show. This photo was just after we arrived.
DEVIL’S GOLF COURSE
The Devil’s Golf Course is an easy stop on the way to or from Badwater Basin. Like Badwater Basin, this unique landscape was created from the existence of Lake Manly over 10,000 years ago. Here the wind and rain shaped the salt crystals into hard jagged rocks. You are allowed to walk out onto the “golf course”, but be careful. The rough and rocky terrain has apparently caused more than a few salty cuts and twisted ankles. Ouch!
JJ was very curious about Death Valley names, which make some of the locations feel a bit more ominous than they really are. Devil’s Golf Course was named from a National Park Service guide in the 1930s that states “only the Devil could play golf” on such a surface.
Situated 3,000 feet above Badwater Basin, Dante’s View is a favorite viewpoint of many park visitors, especially during sunrise and sunset. Looking down, you’ll see an almost bird’s eye view of the salt-covered valley floor. It’s about a 45-minute well-signed drive from Furnace Creek, and informational plaques are there to help you understand what you are viewing.
SCENIC DRIVES THROUGH DEATH VALLEY WITH KIDS
n a park as large as Death Valley, driving is not only essential for exploring, it can be a big part of the fun! Several Death Valley experiences require some off-roading. Farabee’s Jeep Rental, located next to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center rents family-friendly 4-door Jeeps from September through May for those looking for an off-road adventure. They also provide itinerary tips and a cooler with water for your provisions.
Because we drove to Death Valley in an RV, we decided to splurge on a Jeep rental even though most of our itinerary didn’t require a 4WD. Had we had more time for them to stretch their legs after the long drive to the park, we would have definitely taken a longer trip out to Titus Canyon and Racetrack Playa. It’s on the list for our next trip for sure!!
This one-way 26-mile drive can be completed without a four-wheel drive, which is one reason it’s the most popular off-road experience in the park. Beginning at the mouth of the canyon, you’ll look up and enjoy some of the best scenery in Death Valley. With canyon walls, wildlife sightings, petroglyphs, and even a ghost town, this adventurous excursion has wide appeal. As always, check-in with a ranger about road and weather conditions as Death Valley canyons can be prone to flash floods.
You may have seen the iconic Death Valley photos of a large boulder resting on dry cracked land with a long streak of a tail following it in the distance. This is Racetrack Playa, in which boulders somehow slide across the dry lakebed inch by inch over time. It takes exactly the right conditions for this to happen, a unique combination of water, ice, and wind. Don’t expect to see the boulders rolling along, but the resulting landscape is still pretty awe-inspiring!
It’s a long drive to get there with some challenging conditions, so 4WD is recommended. On the way, you may see some bighorn sheep and petroglyphs at Klare Spring, Ubehebe Crater, a forest of Joshua trees, and Tea Kettle Junction where it’s considered good luck to leave a kettle and take another home with you. This drive is at the top of our list for our next visit!
This narrow one-way trail is only 9 miles long, but winds through some incredible canyons and mountains unbelievably painted blue, purple, green, and yellow thanks to a unique mix of oxidized minerals. As we bounced up and down hills and around each bend, I felt as though we were in an amusement park driving ride. We made the obligatory stop at the Artist’s Palette scenic overlook and walked around a bit, but all three boys were having fun with the drive and wanted to continue on the road! This was one of my favorite parts of the day and an easy detour near other Death Valley highlights. I highly recommended adding it to your list.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY GUIDED PROGRAMS
Though this desert is pretty easy to explore on your own, a guided experience can add a whole other dimension to your visit. This is especially true when traveling through Death Valley new with curious kids who never tire of asking questions!
Our visit was in December 2020, so all tours were canceled due to the Covid pandemic, but we hope to enjoy some of the following experiences on a future visit when it’s safe to do so.
FURNACE CREEK STABLES
Families with kids nine years and older can pretend they’re back in the Wild West on guided horseback outings with Furnace Creek Stables.
From two-hour trips into the foothills to sunset and moonlight rides, there is a riding experience for every skill level.
Knowing that Death Valley was designated a dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association, we brought along our telescope and hoped to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. While we could clearly see more stars than we’d be able to in our backyard, I do not doubt that attending a ranger-led astronomy event would completely change our family’s perspective on the cosmos.
In addition to ranger-led experiences, you might also be able to participate in one of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society’s star parties at The Ranch, or even the Dark Sky Festival which is often held in early March.
INTERPRETIVE RANGER WALKS
Death Valley Rangers lead interpretive walks at some of Death Valley’s most popular sights, including Golden Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and the Harmony Borax Works. Take a listen if your visit happens to coincide with one. A good tour can help you see things on the trail that might otherwise pass by unnoticed.
FUN DEATH VALLEY EXPERIENCES THE WHOLE FAMILY
THE BORAX MUSEUM
Curious to learn more about the old West? Check out this museum next to The Ranch at Death Valley hotel. Real stagecoaches and locomotives displayed outside are fun photo opps. Housed in the oldest structure in Death Valley, artifacts on display inside the museum include tools, arrowheads, and photographs. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free.
SWIM OUTSIDE IN WINTER
Pools at the Ranch and Stovepipe Wells offer $10 day passes. Fed by natural springs, the pools remain right about 85 degrees at all times, so you can comfortably swim outside after a long day of exploring in the winter. Of course, it works just as well when you need to cool down mid-day in the summer! Inquire about passes at the hotel registration desks.
We mention this above when describing the Mesquite Sand Dunes hike, but I wanted to repeat it since it was the boys’ favorite thing to do! Sandboarding is a ton of fun, as it doesn’t hurt when you fall like snowboarding. There are no rentals in Death Valley, so make sure you arrive prepared with a board or sled that won’t sink in the sand. Mesquite San Dunes are the only dunes in the park that allow boarding.
Though the number of desert blossoms varies each year, they are never totally absent. Most of the Death Valley wildflowers are annuals. These flowers lie dormant as seeds, sprout and bloom when enough rain finally falls, and then go back to seed again before the heat returns. A good wildflower year depends on well-spaced rainfall through winter and spring, sufficient warmth from the sun, and a lack of drying winds. Check out the park’s wildflower season page to see if your trip coincides with a good year for wildflowers!
JR RANGER PROGRAMS
Junior Ranger Programs are always a good way to get the kids engaged in your park explorations. Pick up your booklets at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or print out your activity book before you go. Return your completed books to the same visitor center where a ranger will check your work. Badges are available for purchase in the bookstore.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
PLAN TO DRIVE
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest National Park park in the continental US. With a park larger than the state of Connecticut, driving is necessary for exploration. Gas is available at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, but as with many national parks, gas is a bit pricier inside the park. Las Vegas is the closest major city, about two and a half hours to the east. If you’re coming from the western California side, fill up when you can. The closest gas station we found was in Trona, about an hour and a half west of Stovepipe Wells.
WHERE TO STAY
Given the size of the park, it’s much easier to explore while staying within the park itself. You can reserve a camping site at Furnace Creek during the busy season, from October – April. Sites at all other campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Only a few campgrounds remain open in the summer due to the extreme heat, and they are not staffed. It’s always a good idea to check the official National Park website to see current conditions and availability before you go.
If you prefer a hotel with air conditioning, you can find lodging at The Ranch at Death Valley and the fancy pants Inn at Death Valley in the Furnace Creek area, both of which are branded together as “The Oasis.” You can also choose the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel located about 30 minutes away.
SOUVENIRS AND THINGS
You can find souvenirs and educational materials at park stores managed by The Death Valley Natural History Association. Stores are located at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station, Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center, and the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.
You’ll also find ice, firewood, and basic supplies at the stores in Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells in case you forgot the dishwasher soap as I did!
WHAT TO PACK
WATER, WATER, WATER
Given the dry climate of Death Valley, plan to drink more water here than in other places, even in the winter. Springs are rare and should not be considered a reliable source of drinking water. Bring your favorite water bottles (these are great if you’re looking for one), and pick up some extra gallons at the grocery store before you go.
Because cell phone service is unreliable outside of the main visitor centers at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, I recommend bringing at least one map with you. We brought the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map. I’d also recommend becoming familiar with it before you go, especially if you’re like me and have become a bit too accustomed to following Google Maps on your phone.
Since you’re going to the hottest, driest, National Park in the United States, you want to make sure to bring plenty of sun protection for the whole family. Start with sunscreen and chapstick, and consider getting a hat designed to keep your face and neck covered. JJ’s forest school teacher recommends this one for kids by Sunday Afternoons.
Finding hiking shoes for kids can be kind of a pain, but they really make a difference when you’re on trails with loose rocks and gravel. Check out our post on kids’ hiking shoes to find the perfect pair for your child. On a related note, if you have shoes with white soles, wear them to Badwater Basin. I’ve heard that the borax cleans up right up as you walk!
You won’t have to worry about water and rain layers here, but the temperature definitely shifts a great deal throughout the day. We brought fleece jackets similar to this one for the morning and night around the campfire. The boys took them off by 10 am to enjoy the warm and sunny Death Valley winter day.
FIRST AID KIT
Last but not least, we always bring along our handy dandy first aid kit. It’s just a little peace of mind, especially when you’re doing walks and hikes in the desert an hour or so away from the park stores.
GET THE KIDS EXCITED FOR THEIR VISIT TO DEATH VALLEY
Over my years working in museums, I noticed a pattern with visitors. Most were so much more excited to see an original work that they had studied or were familiar with than they were to learn about new works, even those that interested them. This was even more true when they had journeyed to see a specific work or exhibition.
I’ve incorporated those memories into my approach to family travel, so I always start the adventure at home by building up the boys’ excitement about our destination before we leave. When planning a family trip, I like to think of it as building an experience that will unfold for the kids little by little, hoping that they will be excited to recognize what we’ve seen in books and movies when they finally get to see it in person.
The week before leaving for Death Valley, I incorporated some new books into the rotation:
- The Cat in the Hat’s “Why oh Why Are Deserts Dry?” Written by Tish Rabe and Illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu
- “Who Pooped in the Park? Scat and Tracks for Kids” Written by Gary D. Robson and Illustrated by Robert Rath
We compared “Who Pooped in the Park?” to the wildlife information found on the NPS Death Valley site. This book was actually really helpful for Death Valley, knowing that we’d be much more likely to see evidence of animals than the animal itself. Sure enough, JJ used the book to explore our campsite and identified bobcat scat with a track nearby! An exciting moment for the whole family.
Knowing that Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, we also brought out our telescope to do some practice at home, hoping the comparison between our light-filled neighborhood and the campsite would be noticeable. It was an improvement but would have been even better if we were able to venture out into the park at night.
On a related note, if you have Star Wars fans at home, I would definitely watch some of the Tatooine scenes filmed at Death Valley and incorporate some of them into your plans as well!
50 MILE RULE
We continued our 50-mile surprise tradition on the road to Death Valley. On long road trips, we pass back a little surprise every 50 miles to help the time pass by. I try to find fun things related to our destination, but also throw in simple things like snacks. There was plenty of room to be creative on our 465-mile drive! Some of our Death Valley themed surprises were:
- Artist’s Palette: Ranger Larry And El Camino’s Coloring Adventure” by Mike Foley and Elmira Samatova-Foley
- Big Horn Sheep Stuffed Animal (that I love!)
- Suziyo Digital Camera with Video so the kids could take their own photos and videos throughout the trip.
And of course, these have the added benefit of keeping the kiddos occupied in the car between each 50-mile break.
FOUR DAY SUGGESTED ITINERARY: DEATH VALLEY WITH KIDS
Our trip to Death Valley was also our first experience renting and driving an RV. I drastically underestimated the time it would take us to drive, so we were basically left with one full day in the park. While one day will get you to a lot of the centrally-located park highlights, it definitely left me with tough choices and a strong desire to return!
The following is an itinerary I would pull together for a 4-Day visit.
DAY 1: GET SETTLED AND UNWIND
Head to your home away from home, settle in, and get a lay of the land.
Pick up a Jr Ranger book at the visitor center, then head over to the Borax Museum for some park history and photo opps.
DAY 2: DEATH VALLEY HIGHLIGHTS
Get ready to explore some of the most popular sights and trails in the park!
- Start the day with a cool hike through the easy portion of Mosaic Canyon.
- Bring some sleds or boards over to the Mesquite Sand Dunes and have fun playing in the sand.
- Take a picnic break at the tables near Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. If your visit coincides with pupfish season, head over to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail to say hello.
- See another side of the park with a hike through Golden Canyon. Ooh and aah at the Red Cathedral, especially if it’s getting close to the golden hour.
- Enjoy snacks and a sunset show during at Zabriskie Point.
- Join a night sky interpretive program to experience the park’s natural wonders after dark.
DAY 3: OUT FOR AN ADVENTURE
Rent a Jeep at Farabee’s and see some of the sights further afield.
- Take a detour through Titus Canyon, a one-way 26 mile drive with some of the best scenery in Death Valley. Enjoy wildlife sightings, petroglyphs in Klare Spring, and even a ghost town along the way.
- Make sure you have your tea kettle ready for a stop at Tea Kettle Junction, where it’s considered good luck to leave a kettle and take another home with you.
- Enjoy the world’s slowest racetrack at Racetrack Playa, where boulders mysteriously slide across the dry lakebed inch by inch over time.
- Make your way back to home base, keeping an eye out for bighorn sheep, Ubehebe Crater, and a forest of Joshua trees along the way.
- Relax and unwind at The Oasis, with an evening dip in the Ranch at Death Valley’s swimming pool.
DAY 4: A FEW MORE BIG STOPS
- Start off the day with a Jr Ranger Badge and souvenir in the gift shop.
- Don’t forget to stop at Badwater Basin before going home! Best visited in the morning or evening hours, this iconic spot marks the lowest point in North America and can be the hottest as well!