One of our favorite day trips from Vegas is a little further than the rest, given that Death Valley isn’t exactly around the corner: you’ll have to drive about 3 hours each way, or take a 40 minute flight. But it’s also one of those mind-blowing experiences that might be worth it to you, if you have the opportunity while you’re visiting.
You can make the trip in a single, 9 to 12 hour day (in fact, there are some tour operators who organize such trips – more on that below), or you might opt for a more relaxed, overnight trip before you return to your hotel. In this post, we’ll give you some highlights and let you decide how you’d best like to tackle this natural wonder for yourself.
Death Valley: A Day Trip To Die For?
Death Valley’s name may not be entirely deserved. Death Valley lies on the California side of the California-Nevada border, and prospectors trying to cross the arid expanse gave it that name during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, even though only a single death was recorded during the Rush. Death Valley is really only threatening to those who try to cross it without proper preparations – sufficient water, fuel, etc.
Death Valley’s desert vastness – over 5,000 square miles – is mind-boggling. It’s also thoroughly desolate, painted in primary colors that pit sky against terrain in a beautiful contest of shape and shade. The place teems with life that goes largely unseen and offers a surprisingly diverse landscape – from vast flat plains to valleys to mountains – across its thousands of miles.
It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees here (so to speak). In other words, it’s easy to focus on some of the ingredients that make this place what it is – “hottest, lowest, driest,” as the National Park Service describes it – without really letting its magnificence hit you.
So whatever you do here, here’s our top suggestion: find a good spot, take a few moments, and just soak in the grandeur of it. Death Valley unveils one of Mother Nature’s hardest-edged guises on a scale that is simply breath-taking. So we recommend that you pause for a minute and breathe it in.
Leaving Las Vegas
You basically have three options for getting there: fly, drive or take a Vegas-based tour. If you’re driving, you can head out of town along US-95 N, which is the most direct route. A more scenic way would be to take Route 160 through Pahrump. Why might you want to do that? Read on…
The Pahrump Valley Winery
Pahrump Valley Winery, 3810 Winery Road, Pahrump, Nevada 89048
Nevada isn’t exactly known for its vineyards. At last count, we had something like three. That’s compared to thousands in California. One of those three is in the small town of Pahrump, where the owners opened the Pahrump Valley Winery with no winemaking experience. That just makes the fact that the winery produces gold medal winning wines all the more remarkable. How’d they do that? You can find out on a tour or simply by wandering around the vineyards.
Death Valley National Park Visitors Center
Furnace Creek resort area on California Highway 190, open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Visitors Center is the most sensible place to begin your journey inside Death Valley, as it will have resources and staff to help you figure out a plan for your visit. The National Park Service also offers several guided tours, including a hugely popular paleontology tour: you might find these good options to maximize your time in the park while helping ensure that you avoid any dangerous conditions. Visit the website for more information.
Otherwise, we’ve listed some of our own favorite Death Valley hotspots below.
To get there: take Badwater Road south out of Furnace Creek. This area contains the lowest point in the United States, some 280 feet below sea level. Enormous salt pans spread across the area, up to the Black Mountains on the horizon. Reaching this point means you have stood in one of the most extreme places in the world, surrounded by harsh Martian beauty as far as the eye can see.
Scotty’s Castle is an oasis in Death Valley, a gorgeous estate built in Grapevine Canyon at the far northern end of the Valley (opposite direction from Badwater Basin, about 90 minutes from the Visitors Center). Also known as Death Valley Ranch, this is neither a castle nor did it belong to anyone named Scotty. Rather, Walter Scott (the Scotty of the story), was a gold-digger (literally) who persuaded millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in Scotty’s goldmine. After some trips to the area, Johnson decided to build this beautiful estate.
Today, the National Park Service owns the estate and grants guided tours, where tour guides dress in 1930s garb to pull visitors back in history. It’s only too bad we can’t stay overnight. Johnson’s wife Bessie once remarked, “Moonlight anywhere is a delight. But theres no moonlight in the world that can compare with the moonlight in Grapevine Canyon, our desert canyon, where the Castle stands.”
Important note: there is no gas available at Scotty’s Castle. The nearest fuel is either at Stovepipe Wells (45 miles away), Furnace Creek (53 miles) or Beatty, Nevada (60 miles).
Scale. That’s the theme of Death Valley. It’s immense. It’s extreme. And it’s old: this is a place that existed before man, and will probably endure long after. A hint at its age: Ubehebe Crater is the result of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, a geologic event whose footprint has endured for millions of years.
The crater is actually the result of a special kind of volcano, called a maar volcano, “created by steam and gas explosions when hot magma rising up from the depths reached ground water. The intense heat flashed the water into steam which expanded until the pressure was released as a tremendous explosion.”
The crater is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Note that if you want to delve into its depths, getting down is easy. Getting back up, not so much. You can also walk around the rim for 360 degrees of views, including some additional, smaller craters; that walk will add up to about 1 ½ miles. Watch your footing regardless of what path you take; all the paths have loose rocks.
You might consider basing out of Beatty, Nevada, just on the border. Watch out if you’re driving: local law enforcement strictly enforces the posted speed limits. Or so we’re told, not that we’d have first-hand knowledge of that or anything…ahem.
Death Valley may not be as likely to murder you as you might fear, but you still want to take common-sense precautions. Carry a plentiful supply of water, make sure you never run low on fuel (fill up whenever you have the chance) and take printed maps with you. GPS systems are notoriously unreliable in the area.
Vegas-Based Guided Tours
As an alternative to driving or flying yourself, you could opt for a guided tour. There are several tour companies that offer this service, and many of them will pick guests up at hotels along the Strip. While the Riviera doesn’t endorse any third-party tour operator, we’ve heard positive reports about the Viator trip; specifically, its tour guides have a good rep for their in-depth knowledge of Death Valley.
Death Valley tours based out of Vegas will typically transport you by bus and hit a few major points of interest in Death Valley, like those mentioned above. They usually include at least lunch. You can expect ticket prices to start around $200 per person, depending on the tour operator.