Death Valley national park is one of the planet’s most beautiful and otherworldly national parks. Yet there are many things no one tells you about Death Valley. Everyone knows that it is a desert in California yet here are 15 things I wish I had known before visiting Death Valley National Park. From the surprising abundance of drinking water in the hottest place in North America to the epic hikes and how to avoid getting a parking ticket. This is a first timers guide to Death Valley national park!
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15 Things Nobody tells you about Death Valley National Park
- There are many canyon hikes to choose from in Death Valley National Park
- Gas is expensive in Death Valley National Park
- Death Valley National Park is huge
- It is easy to get free drinking water in Death Valley National Park
- There are 4 free campsites in Death Valley National Park
- No one tells you how spectacular the sunset from Zabriskie Point is
- The walk to Bad Water Salt Flats is about a mile
- You can spot Coyote in Death Valley National Park
- You cannot go inside the mines in Death Valley National Park
- The road to Mosaic Cayon is a dirt road
- Go to the Death Valley Visitor Centre or you will get a ticket from a ranger
- It gets cold at night in Death Valley National Park
- You cannot always see the stars in Death Valley National Park
- There are no shuttle buses in Death Valley National Park
- Nobody knows when the fighter jets fly in Death Valley National Park
There are many canyon hikes to choose from in Death Valley National Park
The idea of hiking in a desert sounds amazing. The idea of hiking in a canyon in the desert sounds even cooler! No one tells you how many canyon hikes there are to choose from!
Upon researching, it seems that most visitors to Death Valley hike one of the two canyon hikes: Golden Canyon or Mosaic Canyon. These are both beautiful canyon hikes, yet there are over 14 canyons in Death Valley national park. Visitors can hike in Lemoigne Canyon, Grotto Canyon, Sidewinder Canyon or Desolation Canyon. Whilst these canyon hikes may be a little trickier to access you will be rewarded with fewer fellow hikers.
If you are looking to escape the crowds check out the various alternative canyon hikes in Death Valley before embarking on a classic Mosaic Canyon or Golden Canyon hike.
Canyon Hiking Hint: Do not enter a canyon if it looks like rain! Flash floods do happen and kill hikers as there is no one to escape in a narrow slot canyon. Check the weather forecast before you go.
Gas is expensive
You need a car to visit Death Valley. This means you need petrol – or as known in the USA: gasoline. If you are approaching Death Valley from the West, you can fill up in Panamint Springs. Otherwise your next stop will be in the heart of the national park. What no one tells you is that the gas at Furnace Creek costs over 5 dollars a gallon! This is double what gas costs in Utah and about 2 dollars more than gas in the rest of California. Fill up in Panamint Springs or in Beatty if you are approaching from the East to save money on gasoline.
Death Valley National Park is huge! There is so much to see!
Did you know that Death Valley is the largest national park in America outside of Alaska?
We did not realise how vast Death Valley National Park is. Our original plan was to just drive through and stop off at a couple of spots. Yet there are so many incredible things to see in Death Valley national park that we spent a whole day exploring! (This meant we arrived at Zion national park much later in the evening than planned…) No one tells you how beautiful this national park is and how many things there are to see in Death Valley. Whilst you can visit this National park in a day to get a taster, I wish we had allocated more time to explore this park more leisurely. Furthermore, as the area is so vast, places of interest may seem close together yet in reality are over 20 odd miles away.
Do not underestimate the driving distances and plan for extra time to really enjoy the wonders of Death Valley national park.
You can get drinking water easily and for free in Death Valley
Nobody tells you how surprisingly easy it is to get drinking water in America’s hottest place.
Every hiker knows that you need plenty of water for a hike. A hike in the desert requires even more fluids. As we had not planned to do much hiking, we did not bring much water. Yet we were worrying that we should have brought more water to Death Valley national park. Luckily, we found out it was very easy to get free drinking water.
On the national park map that you will receive, there is a handy drinking water symbol (it looks like a glass of water – logical) next to locations which have drinking fountains. You can fill up your reusable drinking bottle at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells Village, Furnace Creek Visitor centre and Wildrose by using the drinking fountains.
Please do not dehydrate during your visit to Death Valley national park! Drinking water during your trip to Death Valley is essential, especially during the formidable summer months. Also take plenty of fluids on any of the hikes you plan to do in Death Valley.
There are 4 free campgrounds in Death Valley
Planning on camping in Death Valley National Park? There are 9 campgrounds in Death Valley (some of which close during the boiling summer months) yet not everyone knows that 4 of them are free! If you are happy to camp by staying at one of these 4 camp grounds you can save money and enjoy a fairly budget trip to Death Valley.
Of the 4 free campgrounds in Death Valley, they all operate on a first come first served basis. Also, two of them close in winter.
List of free campsites in Death Valley:
- Wildrose campsite in Death Valley NP
- Emigrant campsite in Death Valley NP (tents only)
- Thorndike campsite in Death Valley NP (closes in winter)
- Mahogany Flat campsite in Death Valley NP (closes in winter and four-wheel drive necessary)
Sunset at Zabriskie point is spectacular
Nobody tells you how spectacular the sunset from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is.
Zabriskie Point is constantly said to be a wonderful place for sunrise. Visitors are advised to visit the Mesquite Sand dunes for an epic sunset. Yet the sunset from Zabriskie point is quite magical!
For more sunset inspiration check out this post of 6 insane places to watch the Death Valley Sunset.
Zabriskie Point is a fantastic view point in Death Valley. The surrounding landscape demonstrates the various geological events of the national park with the different sediment layers. This viewpoint has been used to represent the surface of Mars in the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Others such as the philosopher Foucault have been astounded by the view. He spent almost 10 hours at this desert view point and was moved to tears at the beauty of this spot.
In the late afternoon, the sun begins to set over the Panamint mountains turning the desert into a rich orange glow. This must be one of the best instagram spots in Death Valley!
Watching the sunset from Zabriskie Point is one of Death Valleys best kept secrets!
The walk out to the Bad Water Salt Flats is quite far
For many a visit to Death Valley means visiting North America’s lowest point in Bad Water Basin. Bad Water Basin lies 86m below sea level! What no one tells you is that it is a mile from the car park to get to the Salt Flats of Bad Water Basin.
Many of Death Valley’s most popular spots are very easily accessible by car. You pull up, walk for a few minutes and you are at your site of interest. With Bad Water Basin, it takes around a 20-minute walk just to reach the famous hexagonal salt formations. If you are short on time you can walk out a little bit but to reach the salt flat itself factor spending around an hour or so at Bad Water Basin.
You can spot coyote in Death Valley National Park!
Whilst it is hard to imagine Death Valley as an oasis for wildlife you can still spot animals in the national park. One of the easiest animals to spot year-round is coyote.
Death Valley is home to snakes, scorpions, spiders, mountain lions, burros (donkeys), desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and coyotes. Whilst you will probably not see many of these creatures during your visit as they tend to hide in the shade during the day, you may come across a coyote.
Sadly, over the years, visitors have fed coyotes which means that they come to the road hoping for a bite to eat. There are signs forbidding you from feeding wildlife as it upsets the natural order, but coyotes will still approach cars. Do not feed coyotes, drive carefully and admire these beautiful creatures from afar.
The road to Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley is a dirt track
Mosaic Canyon hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in America and the Death Valley National park. You can park at the trail head. Yet be aware that the road from highway 190 to the Mosaic canyon trail head is a dirt trail. The dirt trail is fine in a normal car such as a sedan but it does of course take longer to traverse than on a tarmac road. Factor this in if you have just brought a new car or are on limited time.
You must go to the Death Valley Visitor Centre or you will get a ticket from a ranger
At Yosemite National Park, Zion National Park or the Grand Canyon National park there are ticket booths to go through before you enter the parks. These ask for an entrance fee or accept your America the Beautiful pass. (If you are not sure if the America the Beautiful pass is right for you check out this handy post which answers the question whether the America the Beautiful pass saves you money.) Yet in Death Valley, there are no ticket booths. Some drivers go straight through the park which is why an entrance ticket is not mandatory for driving through. However, as soon as you park up and begin exploring you will need to display a ticket saying that you have paid. If you do not, you will be given a warning ticket from a ranger.
We did not know this.
We had the America the Beautiful pass which we planned to show to any rangers who asked for it. However, after our canyon hike we had a ticket on our wind screen asking us to go to the closest visitor centre to show proof of payment or to go and pay. Luckily, we were at Golden Canyon which is just around the corner from the visitor centre. We showed her our warning ticket and national park pass and everything was fine. We were given a piece of paper to display on our dashboard.
In order to avoid an embarrassing situation like that, go to the visitor and show your pass or pay the entrance park fee to get the entrance ticket to display on your dash…
It gets cold at night in Death Valley
You may already know this but many people do not know that it gets cold at night in Death Valley. Except for July and August (the temperature will never drop beneath 17 degrees in those months), the temperature can drop to single figures. Minus temperatures have also been recorded in the national park and you may see snow on some of the mountain peaks.
For more guidance on where to stay in Death Valley, click here to read the ultimate guide to accommodation in Death Valley.
Plan accordingly as I wish I had known how cold it gets in Death Valley before booking to stay in a tent in November… we had planned to stay in a tent in Panamint Springs but actually upgraded to a heated cabin in the end!
If you would like to stay in Panamint Springs consider using this affiliate link. We receive a very small commission which helps keep MyTravelScrapbook running!
You cannot always see the stars in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is known for spectacular clear night skies. What is not known is that it can get cloudy in the areas around Death Valley.
Whilst the valley floor itself does not see as much cloud cover, if you are staying in Panamint Springs which is nestled by the hills, you are not guaranteed clear skies. I would love to say we saw the most incredible starry skies during our November trip to Death Valley but sadly we only saw a couple due to cloud cover.
Be prepared to not see the stars or to drive into the valley at night for a better chance of good star gazing possibilities!
There are many abandoned mines in Death Valley but you cannot go inside them
There are a few abandoned mines in Death Valley. Visitors can hike to the abandoned mines but you cannot go inside the mines.
Some of Death Valley’s most famous mines such as Eureka Mine and the very successful Keane wonder mine are accessible by short hikes. Yet you cannot go inside the mines. You must also not touch the mine ruins for safety and conservation purposes.
Not everybody knows you cannot go in the mines so rather than expect an Indiana Jones exploration, use the mines as an interesting place to hike to rather than in.
There are no shuttle buses in Death Valley National Park
Many national parks in the USA have fantastic shuttle bus systems. This limits nasty pollution from cars and puts less strain on the precious environment with no need for huge car parks. In Death Valley there is no shuttle bus system. You need your own mode of transport for exploring Death Valley. Do not expect to be able to park up and explore by bus. You will have to do all of the driving.
No one knows when the fighter jets fly in Death Valley
Death Valley is one of the few places in the world where you can watch military training flights for free! Yet no one knows when or where they will fly.
Fighter jets zoom across the skies of the national park. It is possible to watch the flights from above and see the combat aircraft fly below you. Photographers and jet enthusiasts head to Rainbow Canyon (also known as Star Wars canyon) and hope to see a glimpse of a plane. The planes travel through the canyon at 200- 300 miles per hour, yet no one knows when or if they will fly. Flight schedules are not available to the public meaning you could make the trip out to Rainbow Canyon and not see the fighter jets. They do not fly everyday either.
You may be lucky and see the planes. They even fly by Panamint Springs. During our stay the fight jets were using Panamint Springs gas station as target practise meaning they flew incredibly low to us!
Did you know these things about Death Valley National Park?
Has this helped you plan your trip to Death Valley? Hopefully these Death Valley tips will help you avoid embarrassing situations, save money and stay hydrated.
There are many epic USA national parks to visit and Death Valley national park is a spectacular place which deserves more than a day to explore. There are so many wonderful things to see in Death Valley national park – maybe you have been inspired to visit Death Valley for yourselves! Let us know in the comments below if this was helpful!