Your 48 hr Ultimate Vanlife Nomad Itinerary for a trip to Death Valley National Park

48 Hours Death Valley National Park: Tips and Tricks for Camper Vans, Dogs, & Beating the HEAT!

While tropical beaches, alpine mountains, and rain forests all have their beauty there is just something about the vast expanse of the desert that just calls you in and leaves you always wanting to explore just a little bit more. This week we are talking about one of the best places to go on your California Outdoorsy Vacation or Roadtrip through Death Valley National Park. Located in the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest regions in the entire world, but don’t think it’s a lifeless wasteland because it is quite the opposite! Though the park is open year-round, most visitation happens during the winter months as the summer months can get dangerously hot, note the name of the park.

We visited this winter right after Dalton’s birthday in Las Vegas, NV on an impromptu trip and had an amazing time! The park offers incredible rock formations, delightful dunes, and spectacular sky-scapes should have Death Valley National Park on your South Western Road Trip Itinerary. 

This is how we recommend enjoying 48 hours in Death Valley National Park: 

Table of Contents

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

This was probably our favorite spot to photograph and explore in the park, so why don’t we start here. The feeling of the cool sand gently moving beneath your feet as the warm rays of the sun beat down upon your head is a very surreal experience. As far as the eye can see sand and very little of anything else. Sparse vegetation erupts spontaneously from the dune valleys, each formation radically different in its construction. We could have spent days walking and exploring, getting lost amongst the expanse of sand. 

The Mesquite Sand Dunes are among many in Death Valley NP, they are located right off the side of the road. Driving in through Stovetop Wells it is next to impossible to miss them. We visited at both sunrise and sunset and really enjoyed photographing in both kinds of light. I have to say we had a better experience at sunset, and found the further out you are willing to walk the fewer people you will find around you and the more you feel you are really in a desert. This is one of the only ways to avoid footprints in the sand as well. 

I would say to avoid this place in the mid-day sun, walking or rather hiking in the sand can be quite tiring, and there is nowhere to escape the sun during the mid-day which I can imagine can be quite brutal. Tips? Remember the great secret of making dune climbing and hiking the easiest it can be is to walk quite literally in the steps of those before you, that sand has already been compacted, why do all the work? Succumb to the idea that you will literally get sand everywhere, do a good shake before getting back in your car or van. We wore sandals, and Kat eventually hiked barefoot, but make sure you have something you are comfortable in.

Also good to note not everything works to slide down the dunes….. if it works in the water it doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to work on the sand…. We carry a bunch of toys around with us in our garage, including a skimboard, which after carrying out half a mile we realized does not work to slide down the hills. We did however find out you can buy these little sledding discs? We saw some other people with them and they looked really fun! Check them out HERE: Snow / Sand Sled 

BRING WATER we saw so many people out there without it, and I don’t know how they were doing it! The walking/hiking is more strenuous than it looks especially if you are running around and the hotter it is the faster you get dehydrated. We brought a couple of Nalegenes with Nuun Electrolyte tablets in them everywhere we went in the park 

 

Artists Palette Drive

The name is quite a good indicator of what you will find here, an artist’s delight, a palette of beautifully saturated colors amongst the rocks. The colors are from the oxidation of the metals and elements found in the volcanic rock, there is such a huge variety of colors because of the erosion of the rock. The different rates of erosion caused different states of oxidation and therefore different colors. There are lots of pinks and oranges, contrasting with turquoise bluey shades, but what we found most intriguing were the patches of almost citrine bright yellow/green colored bits of rock.

This is a one-way drive, off of Badwater Road, with one main viewing area (The Artists Palette Overlook) to stop, view, and photograph. The road takes about 10-15 minutes if you were to drive without stopping, it has some tight turns but is a stunning activity easy to do activity in the park, we did it a couple of times. We found if you are just hiking around exploring the area that mid to late afternoon things start to get a bit shady.

We chose to photograph here at Sunrise but had we had the chance to do it all again we would have gone right after sunset when the light was a bit more even. Make sure you do some exploring there are a lot of incredible photo spots just out of view of the main tourist areas. 

The Badwater Basin and salt flats

The Salt Flats in the Badwater Basin are another one of the most iconic spots in the park, and one of the most visited. The Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation spot in the park and North America. When you park make sure to look around and up at the sea-level line noted on the rocks behind you, it is a bit shocking. The Basin sits at 282 feet or 86 m below sea level. To me what is even crazier about this, is that the highest point in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, sits just a mere 150 miles away.

Bit of a hike to get all the way out there, about 2 miles to get to the whitest salt and hexagonal formations, once there you will find intricate almost geometric patterns of salt formed by the evaporation of water. 

We went mid-day, after spending a morning shooting at the dunes, we explored right next to the parking lot together and then took turns walking out because the mid-day temperatures were starting to rise and we don’t like to leave Rory alone in the heat. 

If we were to do it again we would go out at night and get some good long exposure shots when the weather is cooler and the dog can sit comfortably in the van, the path out towards the whitest salt is pretty worn, but if you plan to visit at dark we always suggest bringing a headlamp just in case, these are the ones we use and keep on easily accessible hooks in the van 10/10 recommend if ya need one LINK 

The Badwater Basin is a flood plain so now and then it does flood and there is a thin sheet of water that covers the area and makes for wonderful reflections, this is not often the case, however, and was not while we visited. Hopefully next time though. 

Give the salt a lick if you dare – play around a bit it’s kind of fun 

Zabriskie Point

One of the most famous sunrise spots in the park, not only for its beauty but for its accessibility. Zabriskie Point is a striped, pointy rock formation that perfectly reflects the rising sun, this area is a vast and expansive network of golden badlands canyons that are truly mesmerizing.

The lookout itself is a paved wheelchair-accessible walkway, it is easy to access and the view is stunning at any time of day, to be honest. We have heard it gets very crowded at first light in the mornings, especially during the park’s peak season during the winter months. 

There are moderate hiking trails that you can access here that connect to the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch where you can experience the beauty of the golden badlands, canyon narrows, and old borax mines. 

Next time we visit we would come here for the second-day sunrise as you can see noted on our itinerary.

Star-Wars Canyon

I haven’t seen this spot on a lot of other blogs, but we had such a blast I felt like I could not leave it out. Rainbow Canyon, more commonly called Star Wars Canyon on the signage, is part of the R-2508 Complex which the U.S. military has utilized since the 1930s. The California Desert Protection Act, which expanded Death Valley National Park, called for the continuation of military overflights in the area, the park plays an important role in training pilots to maneuver new equipment through tight corridors. 

There is the main overlook area that is a paved parking lot, then to the right, there is a rougher dirt road that leads you out to this area where we took these photos. The views from up here were incredible and we had this spot all to ourselves. 

Other Areas to Consider

Devils Golfcourse – Another salt flat, similar to the bad basin 

Saratoga Springs – A true oasis in the middle of the desert, it is located at the southern end of the park, the area has a lot of 2-3000 year old petroglyphs as well which is a big part of the reason we wish to go back to this spot next time.

Racetrack Playa: This seasonally dry lake is extremely famous for its magical moving rocks that mysteriously move across the dry bed’s surface. They create beautiful ‘trail’ like patterns behind them. This area is known for nighttime long exposure photography and it is recommended to have a high clearance or 4 x 4 vehicle to access it. 

Dante’s View: Overlooking Death Valley from 1669 m high, Dante’s View is a viewpoint terrace along the summit of the Black Mountains. This site was also used in the filming of Star Wars Episode IV. 

Camping / Glamping Information

Great News there is camping in the park and the majority of the campgrounds are first come first serve so don’t worry about a reservation. We stayed at two different campgrounds during our brief stay, however, there are nine in the park as well as backcountry spots! The first night we stayed at the Stovepipe Wells Campground and the next night we stayed at the Sunset Campground at Furnace creek. Coming into the park from Las Vegas we hit the Stovepipe Wells area of the park first, there is a gas station, convenience store, park information station, area to take showers, and the campground here. Stovepipe Wells is the closest campground to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, so if you are planning to do a sunrise hike as we did I would recommend staying here. We stayed at the Sunset campground the next night to be a little bit closer to our next sunrise destination, Artists Palette. Both Campgrounds had electronic pay stands where you swiped your card and entered some information to secure a spot and payment. We had no problem finding a spot in late Nov. / Early December but we have heard this is not always the case. 

Both campgrounds were $14 per night and had bath grounds on site. We loved these areas because Rory was also able to walk around with us and stretch her legs and say hello to all the little kiddos nearby. 

The NPS website does note that not as many campgrounds are open during the summer season, it says this is in part because the nighttime temperatures can still be in the triple digits, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So this is something to consider if you are trying to visit during the HOTTER months.

It is good to note there are also 4 lodges within the park as well as backcountry tent camping sites available.  

Traveling with a Pup? Tips & Tricks

– Plan to visit around the weather and temperatures, the hottest temperature ever recorded on this earth was taken in Death Valley… A big thing to consider when visiting, we visited in late November / early December and the temperatures were perfect! A high of low 80s during the day and lows in the 40s at night, perfect for camping and doing early morning activities so the pup is never in the car alone during the hot part of the day 

– Plan to do any Hiking or out of the car/ van / rv activities early at dawn or late around dusk when the sun has gone down at the temperature cools down, this makes hanging out inside a vehicle more enjoyable for anyone. 

– Pack in more water than you think you might need, you never want to be in a bad situation, and have to assume your pup might be thirstier than usual as well! 

– Camp inside of the park so you can do said activities early in the morning, we have more info on the campgrounds we stayed in the above ‘Camping’ Section 

– Make sure your van / car/ rv has proper ventilation and air circulation, we have two fans hooked up to our solar-powered electric system in the van that we looooooove and could not recommend enough. The combination of both helps to circulate the air in our tiny home on wheels: 

Sirocco II fan for RVs: https://amzn.to/3HQHDax

(I have raved about this fan time and time again because it truly deserves it, we love its 3-speed functions and ability to rotate 360 degrees) 

Maxx Air Fan : https://amzn.to/3v41cbE

(This is an overhead fan also wired into our electrical system that can push air in or out depending on the outdoor temperature. We can cool the van down or circulate the air, it has a built-in rain flap so we can keep it open and running even if the weather is not so nice outside) 

We also have a little portable USB charged tent fan I really recommend 🙂 This would be great if you have a car or just at night if the ground temps are too hot. We like to leave it up in the cab to just further circulate the air for Rory. 

USB Tent Fan Portable: https://amzn.to/3JvFHog

– There are a couple of areas you CAN take dogs within the park, the last time we visited in late 2021 they were as follows: 

But… always make sure to check out the latest info from the park service before taking your dog anywhere into a National Park for your dog’s safety and the parks. 

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