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Death Valley National Park in Winter: 6 Features

Giant Sand Dunes sledding; Star Wars Canyon, Salt Flat, Artists Palette, and Natural Bridge. Pros/cons of Death Valley in winter; crowds, stops, and trails. 2-day adventure

Death Valley is a land of superlatives. It is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. We decided to visit Death Valley last minute, driving from Las Vegas.

Death Valley: 6 features we discovered during our trip

1. Convinient location. From Las Vegas => 2 hours, LA => 4 hours of driving

We came to Death Valley the next day after exploring Grand, Antelope, Bryce, and Zion canyons. Relatively short distances were the #1 reason we could see so much in one road trip.

One of the features during the drive from Vegas to Death Valley was… thousands of Joshua trees. They start to appear soon after the city ends and stretch for miles!

2. Death Valley: winter weather. Pros/cons of visiting in December

Winter (and spring) are very pleasant in Death Valley. During our trip weather was very sunny and dry, +12C. Generally, it is even warmer, around + 18C with occasional rain.

Winter is also considered the best time for hiking, due to the colder temperatures. (November – March temperatures are usually under 30C and considered safe for hiking)

The only cons for us during our visit in December were not being able to watch:

  • Wildflowers (around February to mid-April)
  • Salt Creek Pupfish in spawn (February – April)
  • USFWS Pacific Southwest RegionFollow
Devil's Hole pupfish

3. Death Valley: crowds

We visited the canyons and Death Valley during school winter break (but not the initial holiday). Death Valley turned out to be the busiest place of the 4 National Parks we explored on this road trip.

Although parking at the most popular spots was nearly filled, the park itself didn’t feel crowded, so spacious and big it is.

The parking lot at the end of the day, Sand Dunes, Death Valley
The parking lot at the end of the day, Sand Dunes, Death Valley

4. Size of the park, how many days to spend; accommodation

Death Valley is the largest National Park south of Alaska.

It took us more than 2 hours to drive one way through the park, without any stops and turns. As the days are short in winter there isn’t much time to explore in a single day.

During 1st day we drove through the park, hiked 2 trails, stopped at the visitor center for the movie/Junior Ranger program. 2d day was filled with way back through the park, 2 hikes, 3 viewpoints 1 scenic drive.

We spend a night outside of the park, at the Lone Pine: it was much cheaper than inside of the park. And a nice place to visit:

Mobius Arch, Lone Pine, CA
Mobius Arch trail, Lone Pine, CA

5. How we explored Death Valley in 2 days: trails, viewpoints, etc.

Harmony Borax Works, easy hike

Borax (salt minerals) crystalized on the Valley floor and were used by blacksmiths, farmers, housewives, and morticians for centuries.

  • Harmony Borax Works has one of the best views of the Valley

Giant Sand Dunes: easy hike and sand boarding: the most favorite place in the park for our kids

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes was the only spot in the park kids asked to come again in the morning :).

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley

We have spent more than 3 hours at the Dunes until it became really dark. The hike to the furthest dune took us 1 hour. The sand reminds us of Hawaiian sand: soft and fine, just not as white.

We liked Death Valley Dunes much more than the ones in Oregon.

Dune sledding, Death Valley National Park

Star Wars Canyon, viewpoint

Rainbow Canyon was nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon” by visitors who observed military test flights. The Canyon can be viewed without effort: just make a stop at the Father Crowley Vista Point.

Since the 1930s, Star Wars Canyon has been used by the military as a part of the huge R-2508 Complex.

  • Rainbow Canyon aka "Star Wars Canyon"

Badwater Basin Salt Flat: lowest point in North America. Easy hike

We were secretly hoping that salts would be white, as on the pictures, but as our friends said “You guys brought us rains from WA!”

Salt flats were gray from being soaked in water, but still, an interesting place to experience:

Natural Bridge: excellent short hike

The hike is an easy, 1 mile out and back to natural bridge formation. The unpaved road is typically passable by a sedan.

Artists Palette

We only made a short stop at the Artist Palette, but could go for a walk:

Artists Palette overlook
Artists Palette overlook

Artists Scenic Drive

Artists Palette is accessible only through Artists Scenic Drive, a scenic 9-mile one-way loop drive:

Artists Scenic Drive
Artists Scenic Drive

Zabriske Point: short hike to viewpoint from the parking lot

We stopped for an hour at Zabriske Point, a charming place during sunset:

  • Zabriskie Point, iconic Death Valley vista

6. Looking for more? Other National Parks, Monarch butterfly migration grove

What is possible to reach from Death Valley:

Grand Canyon, AZ => 6 hours of driving

Zion National Park, UT => almost 5 hours

Joshua Tree National Park, CA => 4 hours

LA, Pacific beaches, CA => 4+ hours

Monarch butterfly migration grove, CA (October -February)=> 6 hours:

We were eager to visit Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks but decided to postpone because of the snow and road conditions.

Make sure to check out hours, fees, and trail conditions before you go

Death Valley in December: Essentials

  • Take the Annual National Parks Pass, if you already have one.
  • Wear comfy shoes and dress in layers.
  • Leather shoes might not appreciate hiking on salt flats.
  • Pack water and snacks, even during wintertime!
  • During long rides through barren landscape kids became bored. Listening to Agatha Christie audio books was a lifesaver for us. πŸ™‚
  • A snow saucer seemed the best thing to ride the Sand Dunes (watch the video above)
  • Some roads were not very good for a sedan (we had 4wd SUV):
Death Valley: driving from Natural Bridge Canyon
Death Valley: driving from Natural Bridge Canyon

Read next:

National Parks road trip: how we explored Grand Canyon, Antelope, Bryce, and Zion in December. 6 days itinerary. Trails, essentials, etc.

Lone Pine: unknown, Eastern side of California. Alabama Hills, Japanese internment camp, lowest and highest point in the US, hot springs.

7 Things you didn’t know about Iceland, one of the most family-friendly countries in the world. Kissing cousins alarm, grandma’s nightmare, child neglect, etc.

Thank you for reading! πŸ™‚

By Mrs. Grazy Goat

I am Ira, the author behind Grazy Goat. My husband and I run this blog and share our experiences about thrilling places and cultures. Our son Artem recently joined us and helps with editing.

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