Family Travel : 50 hours in Death Valley National Park

Our family’s favorite way to spend our free time is outdoors. We enjoy visiting regional, state and national parks over weekends, and on vacations.  We aren’t “full-time travelers”, but are full-time doctors with a kid in public school,  so we have a modest goal of visiting at least one or two national parks per year, and the more we can fit in the better!

Jason and I first went to Death Valley, pre-kids, back in 2012.  I was blown away with how unique and otherworldly the park was, with a diversity of geologic landscapes from sand dunes, to salt flats and salt pans, to creeks, canyons and badlands.  I’ve been wanting to return and bring the family, so when I saw that there was a 4 day weekend in January on my son’s school calendar, I seized the opportunity to plan a road trip from Orange County to Death Valley and the Alabama Hills (another fun destination that I’ll share in the next blog post).  My parents had never been to Death Valley, so we brought them along and set off, three generations, in our adventuremobile (aka minivan).

Since our work days tend to be pretty busy and tiring (Jason’s a general surgeon and I oversee the psychiatric consultations for an emergency room and hospital), we try not to travel the same day as we work. Sometimes we do, in order to maximize a weekend away.  But we’ve learned that if we actually want it to feel like a “vacation” (not just a “trip” – there’s a difference!) while travelling with kids, the pace has to slow down a bit, with room for flexibility. I considered the abilities and energy levels of everyone in our group (our boys are 3.5 and nearly 6, my parents are 70 and 71), and planned our sightseeing and hikes at a leisurely pace.  I researched and mapped out the points of interest ahead of time. This was particularly important, because we travelled during the government shutdown**, and there were no guarantees that the visitor center or park guides would be available.  I made a list of sites that I thought our family would enjoy, and narrowed it down further to ones I felt were “must see”, so we would know what to prioritize if time was running out.

This was our list of sites that we were most interested in,  with a * by the “must see” locations which we did visit and I describe further below.   

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes*
  • Badwater Basin*
  • Devil’s Golfcourse*
  • Zabriskie Point*
  • Artist’s Drive/ Artist’s Palette *
  • Golden Canyon *
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon – we couldn’t fit this in, but its on our list for next time! There is a great description of this scenic drive and short hike on the Earth Trekkers blog.
  • Harmony Borax Works –  this seems educational/ interesting, but by the time we drove by it was dark, and we were too tired from other hikes/ sightseeing to get much out of it.
  • Dante’s View –  unclear if it was closed due to the government shut down. It’s a little out of the way, and we decided not to subject our kids to more time in the car this time.
  • Salt Creek Interpretative Trail – closed due to government shutdown, but we liked this easy and scenic 0.9 mile trail in 2012.

Closed (regardless of shutdown) as of January 2019:

  • Scotty’s Castle closed until 2020 due to flood damage
  • Mosaic Canyon Road closed until 6/30/2019 due to road construction. You can still access the Mosaic Canyon Hike (our favorite hike from our 2012 trip),  but would have to walk an additional 5 miles total just to get to and from the entrance of Mosaic Canyon, which made it a no-go with kids.

Sites that require either more time due to distance or all wheel drive that we’ll save for next time:    Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa.

DAY 1: SATURDAY  Stovepipe Wells and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We drove from Orange County, California to the West entrance of Death Valley National Park (250 miles or approximately 4.5 hours without traffic), with one stop at a McDonald’s for lunch. Our kids generally eat healthy homemade meals, but we make an exception on road trips. We left home at 9:30am, picked up my parents at their home nearby, and arrived at Stovepipe Wells Village a little before 3pm. Our rooms were ready, so we checked in and dropped off our belongings quickly before heading over to the sand dunes.  We knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to explore the park on this first day, but rather than set an early alarm, our goal was to leave by 10am so that everyone would be well rested and relaxed at the start of the trip. We still made it in time to enjoy an afternoon at the sand dunes, and to catch a beautiful sunset there.  An alternative if you want to maximize your time in the park would be to wake up and start driving early morning (for example, leaving at 5am would have gotten us to the park at 10am).

3:30-5pm Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (1 miles to the furthest tallest sand dunes, for a total of 2 miles out and back)

These sand dunes were one of Jason and my favorite parts of Death Valley when we visited in 2012, and we knew our boys would absolutely love it! We planned to spend both the first day’s afternoon (it’s winter, so we only had until 5pm sunset), and the second day’s morning here.  After all, what’s not to love about a giant sandbox, and hills to run up and roll down?!  We didn’t bring sleds, but we saw groups of kids with them having a blast. Even without the sleds, our kids had a super fun time!

Lodging Saturday Night:  We stayed at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel for its proximity (5 minute drive) from the sand dunes. There is a mini fridge in the room, but no microwave. We ate dinner in the village at the Toll House Restaurant.  Tip: Try to go close to opening 5:30pm, or else the wait for a table can become quite long, given the limited other dining options in the area.

DAY 2: SUNDAY – Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golfcourse, Zabriskie’s Point

6:30am-12:30pm Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes 

I’m not normally a morning person, but the sun doesn’t rise too early in the winter, so I figured we could do this. I set my alarm for 6:15 am, woke my husband up, and we put on our cozy hoodies to go watch the sunrise from the sand dunes. My parents came over from their room, and stayed with the boys who stirred, but continued to sleep. We leisurely hiked the sand dunes, enjoying the calm and quiet of the morning.   Usually overnight, the wind will blow the footprints away and sweep the sand into new formations.  However, this time, the sand was wet from recent rain, and there were still plenty of footprints leftover from the previous days.  The wet sand did seem easier to walk through than the loose sand we remembered from 2012.  

After we returned to the hotel,  I made us some sandwiches with the supplies I brought from home in our cooler.  We packed up our belongings, loaded up the car, and returned with my parents and boys for another round of fun in the sand!  The boys could have easily played at the sand dunes all day, but there were more sights to see.

Around 12:30 pm, after enjoying several rounds of rolling down the hills, we walked back to our car, where we enjoyed our sandwiches for lunch, and continued onwards.

Note: Sunset and Sunrise are recommended times to visit the sand dunes, but if you can’t make it during these times don’t worry – it’s fun and an amazing site to see any time of day!

1:30pm Badwater Basin, (1 mile each way between the parking lot and salt flats, for a total of 2 miles)

deathvalley2019nikon-257We drove by Furnace Creek, and took Badwater Road all the way to Badwater Basin / Salt Flats. We passed several points of interest along the way, but decided to start at the farthest point and make our way back to Furnace Creek at the end of the day.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the United States, sitting 282 feet below sea level.  We walked nearly one mile out to the salt flats, and questioned whether it would be worth it or not.  It was a flat and easy walk, but it was hard to tell if we were getting close, because it looked endless as we were walking along (see below).

Once we made it to the salt flat, we all agreed it is definitely worth the effort. We were completely mesmerized by the texture and landscape.

3:15 pm:  Devil’s Golf Course

As we made our way back towards Furnace Creek, the next stop was the lumpy salt pan named the Devil’s Golf Course.  This is an area of rock salt, eroded by wind and rain over time. The surface is so sharp and serrated that a 1934 national park guidebook joked that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links”.  To get there, you drive down a bumpy gravel road (four-wheel drive not necessary) to the parking lot. No hiking is involved for this attraction.  We recommend closely supervising your children here, because the formations are quite jagged and if you slip it could really hurt.  

4-5pm:  Zabriskie Point 

From the Devil’s Golf Course, we considered continuing onto Artist Drive (our original plan), but decided it was getting late in the day and we wouldn’t have enough time to fully enjoy that area. So, we drove past it, and headed towards Zabriskie Point to enjoy the sunset.

Zabriskie Point is one of the most iconic views of Death Valley. It may look nice in photos, but it is absolutely breathtaking in person.  Of note, none of the photos in this post have been heavily “photoshopped”.  Death Valley really is this colorful and amazing!  When editing, I generally only make slight adjustments to correct lighting or color tones.  From the parking lot, you can take a short paved walk uphill to get 360 degree views of the beautifully colored badlands.  This is another recommended spot for sunrise and sunset, and I think these photos show why. deathvalley2019nikon-522Lodging Sunday Night:  We stayed at the Inn at Death Valley (aka the Oasis) because of its convenient location from the sites we wanted to see and hike on Day 2 and 3.  We stayed in one of the newly constructed Inn Casitas with 2 queens in the bedroom, and a sofa bed in the living room. If you are travelling in a group of 4 or less, a cheaper option might be to stay across the street at the Ranch at Death Valley. For us, booking an Inn Casita that could sleep 6 was less expensive than getting 2 rooms at the Ranch. We heard dinner was rather expensive at the Inn, so we ate dinner over at the Ranch Buffet. This was not cheap either – approximately $30 per person, but at least our kids ate free!

DAY 3:  MONDAY:  Artist Drive, Artist Palette, Golden Canyon

Morning:

The Inn at Death Valley is such a beautiful property, so we enjoyed a leisurely morning at the hotel.  The Inn advertises their pool as fed by natural spring waters, kept at 84F year round.  Give this exotic description, we decided to give it a try!  The water was comfortable once we were in the pool, but getting out was a different story (Brrr! It was only 60F). After our swim, we returned to our Casita to enjoy a picnic brunch on the patio before packing up and heading out for the day.

12:15-2:30  Artist’s Drive / Artist’s Palette (short hikes)  

Artist Drive is a 9-mile scenic drive through colorful rocky landscape. It is a one-way road from south to north, and the entrance is off of Badwater road.  We followed the advice of the bloggers – Earth Trekkers – and stopped at the two places they recommended. 

  • 3.4 miles into Artist’s Drive (we used out odometer to keep track of our distance), there an unmarked and unnamed canyon that we wouldn’t have found, if not for Earth Trekker’s excellent directions. Once we saw the sign for a dip in the road (the landmark to look out for), we slowed down and parked to the side of the road at the bottom of the dip.  We then walked east and scrambled up some rocks to get into the canyon. My parents opted to wait for us in the car here.  As you can see in the photos below, we loved it here!  If it wasn’t for my parents, we probably could have spent an hour or more here. After about 30 minutes, we returned to the car to continue on to our next destination.    

deathvalley2019nikon-570

  • Our next stop on Artist’s Drive was Artist’s Palette.  There is a parking lot that you can pull into, and a trail you can take into the hills. Artist’s Palette is an area on the face of the Black Mountains known for mineral deposits in a variety of pastel colors.

These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals. Iron contributes to the reds, pinks, yellows and golds. Volcanic ash deposits form the greens, and Manganese creates the purple colors.

2:30 – 4pm:   Golden Canyon Hike – approximately 2 miles

After leavning Artist’s Drive, we turned right back onto Badwater road and drove about 3 miles until we reached the parking lot for Golden Canyon.  We’ve read that the entire loop hike is 4.4 miles. To be honest, our kids were kind of tired at this point after swimming in the morning, and hiking a couple miles in Artist’s Drive.  So instead of pushing through the entire hike, we did what we could, took plenty of breaks, and played some “tag dad” to encourage them to keep going.  In the end, we only made it up and back through Golden Canyon for a total of about 2 miles, but it was still very enjoyable and beautiful.

To show that our kids are just like any other kids, we carried them at the very end of this hike. We literally could see the parking lot and our car, but they whined that they just couldn’t. take. another. step.  Sigh. So, we obliged and gave them piggy backs.  We’re pretty proud of them, regardless. They walked / hiked on this entire trip, other than this short stretch. After we left Golden Canyon, we returned to the Ranch at Furnace Creek with the hopes of getting some Date Shakes (blended California Dates with ice cream) before driving out of the park to our next destination – Lone Pine. To our disappointment, they no longer sell date shakes here. A pleasant surprise was that the Borax Museum is right next to Furnace Creek Ranch, so we spent a little time walking around the outdoor Borax Museum before saying goodbye to Death Valley.  The museum is an outdoor collection of historical mining equipment, including the historic “20 mule team” wagons. There is a guide sheet you can find in a box outside the gift shop (closed by the time we arrived) to help identify what you’re looking at.

General Advice for Death Valley:

  •  Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C, and average rainfall of 2 inches/5 cm per year. For this reason, we recommend travelling during the late fall, winter, or early spring for the most comfortable temperatures. 
  • The National Park Service provides the following warnings about technology in the park:  “Cell phone service is very limited in the park. GPS devices frequently tell visitors to take “shortcuts” onto unmaintained or even closed roads. Use maps, a compass, and common sense as your primary navigational tools, and use the technology as a backup.”  We found this to be true.  We have Verizon and only had limited cell phone service (LTE) near our hotels (Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek). We had no wifi or imessage access throughout the park, except for when we stayed at the Inn at Death Valley.  If you travel in a group with more than one car, it is a good idea to bring walkie talkies, in order to communicate between groups/ cars.
  • Food options in the park are limited and expensive. You can eat at the resort restaurants, but it is very pricey for what you get.  We brought our own breakfasts and lunches, and only ate out for dinner.  If you have the ability to bring a cooler, I recommend bringing some things from home, or purchasing groceries before heading into the park. We brought many non-perishables (bananas, cereals, single serve milk, muffins, crackers, pretzels, peanut butter and jelly, sandwich bread), and a small cooler of cold cuts, cheese, fruits and vegetables.  We also brought all our beverages – 4+ gallons of water, juices, milks, and canned cold brew coffee.  The Ranch at Death Valley has a small market with ramen, cereal, bread, and some frozen meals.

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Lodging Tips:  We decided stayed within the park to maximize the time we could spend enjoying the park, and to reduce the time spent driving. While this is definitely more expensive than staying outside the park, we’ve found that less driving = happier kids, and happy kids = happy family vacations. The park hotels tend to book up several months in advance during the winter months, which is considered “high season” because the temperatures are more mild.  We booked our room at the Inn at Death Valley on Black Friday, when they were offering a special discount.

I want to share some of the other blogs and websites I used to help plan my trip. Of note you can see Death Valley in 1-2 days, but I opted for a slower pace for my family, given our demographic of young kids and grandparents.

I hope this trip summary and guide was helpful! Happy Travels!

**With regards to the government shutdown, I was reassured by the updates on TripAdvisor, and inside reports from fellow instagrammers who had recently travelled there (@cosmic.american and @flyingzapata) that our trip would not be significantly affected. We love our parks and donated the more than what we would have paid for the entry fee, and packed out our trash which we disposed of at our hotels.

***This is not a sponsored post.  I researched and planned this trip, and we paid for all our accommodations and meals. All the opinions expressed in this post are our own. We do have a collaboration with Keen footwear, and they sent us the pictured hiking shoes.  Our Keen shoes have been awesome for our adventures, and we would definitely recommend Keen hiking shoes (Targhees) to enjoy the terrain of Death Valley National Park!

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I am a mom, wife, daughter, sister, doctor, adventure enthusiast, food lover, and photographer. I spend a lot of time researching fun things for my family to do, explore and eat - so I created this space to share some information that might be helpful to others.

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