By Kristy Esparza, April 28, 2021
Death Valley with Kids: Ultimate Guide to Family Adventures in the Desert
Death Valley policies and available services may change in response to both weather conditions and Covid-19 safety regulations. Always check the park site directly to see the latest entrance policies and which roads and services are accessible.
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It’s mid-morning on a December Tuesday. I’m standing with the family at the top of the steepest sand 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 shades of green, blue, and purple and the thick salt that covers the valley floor could easily be mistaken for snow. It’s no secret that National Parks are an amazing setting for experiential learning, and Death Valley National Park provides endless wonders for curious kids of all ages.
In this guide, I’ll be sharing details from our adventures in the park, as well as many of the things I wish we could have done if we had more time. We visited in December 2020, so we were not able to participate in any programs or events due to Covid guidelines. I’m a huge fan of interpretive programs, so I’ve included some below that I look forward to joining on a future visit.
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In this post:
- Badwater Basin (distance variable, easy)
- Darwin Falls (2 miles round trip, moderate)
- Golden Canyon (3 miles, moderate)
- Mesquite Sand Dunes (2 miles round trip to the highest dune, easy)
- Mosaic Canyon (1-4 miles round trip depending on route, easy to difficult)
- Natural Bridge Canyon (1 mile round trip, easy)
- Salt Creek Interpretive Trail (0.5 mile loop, easy)
- Ubehebe Crater Loop (1.5 mile loop, moderate)
Other Fun Experiences
Know Before You Go
What to Pack
Click here for some ideas on how to pack for the desert. At least you don’t have to worry about rain gear!
Build Excitement for Your Adventure
Our Itinerary and Things I Would Change
YouTube Video of our visit to Death Valley in December 2020. The RV Trip took longer than expected, so we really had one full day in the park.
Kid-friendly Death Valley Hikes
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)
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)
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.
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 with the goal of summiting 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 sand boarding 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 sand in general because the material tends to dip below soft sand and work like a brake. We purchased this sled and applied a bit of Universal Temperature wax, which kind of worked 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.
Mosaic Canyon (1-4 miles round trip depending on route, easy to difficult)
My plan was 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.
Natural Bridge Canyon (1 mile round trip, easy)
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail (0.5 Mile Boardwalk Loop, Easy)
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)
Amazing Sights the whole family can enjoy
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.
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.
Zabriskie Point Overlook
This iconic Death Valley vista was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the1920s 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 prior to 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.
Scenic Drives in Death Valley With Kids
In 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!!
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!
Family-Friendly Guided Experiences
Though this desert is pretty easy to explore on your own, a good 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
From two-hour trips into the foothills to sunset and moonlight rides, there is a riding experience for every skill level.
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
Fun Death Valley experiences for kids and families
The Borax Museum
Swim Outside in Winter
Sand boarding Mesquite Sand Dunes
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.
Junior Ranger Program
Plan to Drive
Where to Stay
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 & Things
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 like I did!
What to Pack
Trying to figure out how to pack for a Death Valley adventure with kids? Good news…at least you don’t have to worry about the rain layers!
Water, water, water!
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!
First Aid Kit
Get the Kids excited for Death Valley
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
- “The Desert is Theirs” Written by Byrd Baylor and Illustrated by Peter Parnall
- “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! He was so excited!
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.
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!
Finally, 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:
- “Let Us Play I Spy Camping” by Little Dezign Press
- “Death Valley National Park Coloring Adventure” by Mike Foley and Elmira Samatova-Foley“
- 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!)
- Road Runner Stuffed Animal
- 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.
Our 1-day Death Valley with Kids Itinerary…and what I would do differently
Here’s how our one full day in the park unfolded:
- I picked up our Jeep at Farabee’s at 8am sharp! We camped in Furnace Creek Campground, so it was an easy morning walk to pick up the rental.
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: Honestly, the kids loved playing here so much that this could have been a half day in itself! But we had a lot ahead and forced ourselves to move on after about an hour.
- Salt Creek Interpretive Trail: This was an easy 0.5 mile loop after running up and down sand dunes. There was a picnic table in the parking lot area, so we paused for an early lunch.
- Badwater Basin: Because we HAD to see the lowest point in the continental US!
- Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette: I was hoping this might be a good snoozing time for 3 year old Bug, but we decided to take the top off the Jeep and were all having too much fun spotting the pastel colors along the mountainside.
- Golden Canyon Hike: An afternoon hike with our kids was a big risk, and they did drag their feet a bit. But we needed to really stretch our legs and everyone enjoyed the grand finale of rock scrambling into the Red Cathedral. Ants Go Marching got us back to the parking lot.
- Zabriskie Point: We just missed the dramatic sunset, but still enjoyed the views.
- At this point we drove over to the Oasis area near the Ranch at Death Valley and passed by the Borax Museum. By this time the boys were done hopping in and out of the car so we returned back to the campsite.
- After returning the Jeep, we made dinner, roasted marshmallows, and brought out the telescope for a little stargazing. It was a busy, but wonderful, day.
Here’s What I would Change if I could do it all over again:
- I would have started a little further up at Mosaic Canyon to hike the first 0.5 mile and back. The trailhead starts after an unpaved uphill road, so we couldn’t check it out the next day on our way out of the park in the RV.
- We could have skipped the Salt Creek Trail. It was a lovely little walk, but unless you have a lot of time in the park, it’s not a necessary stop outside of pupfish season.
- I probably would have left Badwater Basin to the last stop before Zabriskie Point to make sure we had enough time to actually catch the sunset. Badwater was very accessible with a decent sized parking lot, so we could have added this stop the next day when driving the RV.
- And what I REALLY wish we could have done is add on a full extra day to take the Jeep out to Titus Canyon or Racetrack Playa!!