Death Valley is hands down one of the most impressive national parks in the United States. Death Valley is known for being one of the hottest places on earth, together with the Sahara and deserts in the Middle East, but Death Valley is so much more than sand and heat. The national park encompasses an incredibly diverse environment with salt flats, sand dunes, badlands, canyons, valleys, and mountains. The remote location on the California-Nevada border makes Death Valley the perfect place to explore on a road trip and to get away from the stresses of everyday life.
Planning your Death Valley road trip can be a bit overwhelming as there is so much to see and do there. Use this itinerary to get the most out of your road trip.
Know Before You Go
If you have never tried vanlife, Cabana is the perfect way to start exploring the endless possibilities of living a life on the road. There are a few things to keep in mind before you set off on your Death Valley adventure with a Cabana.
· Death Valley is extremely remote and you likely won’t have any cell reception here. Make sure you download the area in Google Maps so you can access the map offline. If you are planning to watch any movies, listen to podcasts or music, or use any other online resources, remember to download them before you leave civilization.
· To enter Death Valley National Park, you need to purchase a park pass. A 7-day park pass is $30 per vehicle and you can either purchase it online ahead of time or at the ranger station the first day you get to the park. Alternatively, they accept the America the Beautiful annual passes as well.
· The temperatures in Death Valley range from extremely cold to extremely hot. It is a desert and offers very little shade. Make sure you are prepared and pack sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and bring a lot of water.
· Pack multiple layers of clothing to prepare for the fluctuating temperatures of cold nights and hot days.
· Charge your laptop, camera, phones, and other gadgets before you leave. Cabana vans are outfitted with batteries which are powered by solar energy. The batteries will easily charge your phone and camera while you are on the road, but it is always best to charge in advance.
Where to Camp in Death Valley
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all campgrounds in Death Valley National Park are open, and camping in the national park might be prohibited completely at times. This should not deter you from visiting this beautiful place as there are plenty of great spots to camp outside the national park.
If you are not able to, or prefer not to, camp in a campground, the best way to find a spot to stay overnight is by checking the iOverlander app. The app includes information on campgrounds and other possible places to stay. The best camping solution for when campgrounds are closed is to look for public land, also known as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Such BLM-managed lands are the perfect place for camping under the stars.
The iOverlander app specifically marks BLM lands (just look for wild camping spots which are marked by a tent and a moon icon) and most places include reviews of other campers who have stayed here already. Most such spots are simply public land and don’t have any fire pits, outhouses, or other facilities but they make for a perfect place to park your Cabana for the night. Be sure to note of any signs in the area that prohibit camping, as sometimes information on the iOverlander app can be outdated.
Day 1 – Pick Up Your Cabana
Arriving in Los Angeles, your first step is to pick up your Cabana in West Hollywood. You can pick up your van any time after 3:00 pm. The entire pick-up process is contactless, quick and easy. All you have to do is make sure you download the Cabana app and follow the instructions.
The drive from Los Angeles to Death Valley National Park is about 4.5 hours. Before you leave greater Los Angeles, make sure you pick up groceries, water, and anything else you need for the next 4 days as Death Valley is very remote and the nearest grocery store is an hour away.
After the long drive, head to your camp site for the night and set up the Cabana. This is the perfect time to familiarize yourself with the van, prepare a snack in the kitchenette, and enjoy your first evening off the grid.
Day 2 – First Taste of Death Valley from Zabriskie Point to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Start your day with coffee and home-made breakfast in the Cabana kitchenette. There is nothing quite as peaceful as sitting in bed, sipping coffee, and watching the sun rise over the mountains, without anyone else around.
Energized and refreshed, start your day exploring Death Valley National Park. If you camped outside the national park, this would be your first time entering the park. Make sure you stop by the Ranger Station to get your national park pass. A 7-day pass is $30 per vehicle and you can enter and exit the park as many times as you like. If you plan on entering the park prior to the ranger station opening hours, you can also purchase a pass online.
A great place to start your Death Valley experience is at Zabriskie Point. It is the most famous viewpoint in Death Valley and it is easy to see why. Overlooking the golden badlands which formed 5 million years ago, the view from Zabriskie Point is unparalleled and a must-see.
Zabriskie Point is a very popular spot to visit during sunrise, but even if you are here a bit later, the views won’t disappoint. There are a variety of hiking trails around Zabriskie Point which are worth exploring. If you are looking to do a hike in Death Valley, this is a great place to start and hike to your next destination: Golden Canyon. It is a moderate 6-mile hike round trip which takes you through the golden colored badlands. Make sure you bring a lot of water with you as there is not a lot of shade along the trail. Even if the temperatures don’t seem very high, the air in the valley is warmer as the rock reflects the sun.
Golden Canyon has its name from the golden colored hills and narrow canyons. It is the perfect place to explore the badlands and a great starting point to hike to Red Cathedral. The hike is moderate and 3 miles round trip and will reward you with impressive views of towering red rock formations which remind of a cathedral over the golden colored canyon.
There are a variety of hiking trails here for any skill level. Make sure you download the map and trail description before going on any of the hikes as they are not all equally well labelled.
Mesquite Flat Dunes
The Mesquite Flat Dunes are not actually flat as the name might suggest, but are filled with sand dunes that are constantly changing in size and shape. The highest dune rises about 100 feet. They are the easiest sand dunes to access in the park and are also the best known. The sand dunes are easily accessible with your Cabana van and you can wander around the dunes as far as you like.
While the sand dunes are impressive to see any time of the day, it is the perfect place to watch the sunset. Walk along the rim of the dunes and find a spot to sit down and take it all in.
After a day of exploring, head back to your campsite and enjoy a quiet evening under the stars. Given the remote location of Death Valley and the lack of light pollution, it is a great place to do some star gazing. Turn off all the lights in the van, open the back doors, and look straight up as you lay on the comfortable van bed.
Day 3 – From Salt Flats to the Artists’ Palette
Your second day in Death Valley will take you to completely different landscapes than what you have seen the day before.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in Death Valley and the lowest point in all of North America, with a depth of 282 feet below sea level. The entire area is a salt flat and it is incredibly vast. You can park your van here and walk out onto the salt flats as far as you would like to go.
It may not look like you are getting very far as you walk here because distances on the salt flats can be deceiving. You can walk for miles and enjoy the peace and solitude here. Make sure you bring enough water and keep an eye on the distance from the parking lot when you wander around the salt flats. With zero shade here and the dry salty air, you will want to make sure you are not out in the sun for too long.
Devil’s Golf Course
Not far from Badwater Basin is Devil’s Golf Course. The area got its unique name from salt formations which very much resemble golf balls. The landscape is very unique and unlike any other in Death Valley. If you are looking to wander around here, be extremely careful as the rocks and salt formations are very sharp.
One of the highlights in Death Valley is Artist’s Palette. The area is best described as a series of hills colored in pastel hues. The color of the hills stems from the oxidation of a variety of different chemical elements such as iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium, as well as red hematite and green chlorite.
The colors range from purple to orange, yellow, blue, and turquoise and are incredibly impressive. The intensity of the colors highly depends on the time of day, clouds, and recent rainfall. The best time to visit is on a sunny day, around noon, as you will see the colors in full sunlight.
You can easily spend a few hours wandering around the hills and exploring different areas.
After a long second day exploring Death Valley, head back to your campsite for dinner and another beautiful night of star gazing.
Day 4 – Drive Back to LA and Return your Cabana
Your time in Death Valley is coming to an end and it’s time to return the Cabana. Before you head back to civilization, make sure you leave your campsite clean and collect all garbage. The drive from Death Valley to Los Angeles takes about 4.5 hours depending on traffic. You might want to wake up early to be back in Los Angeles prior to check out at 11am. Alternatively, you can request a late check-out.
You will drop off the Cabana in West Hollywood. Similar to pick-up, the drop-off process is quick and easy, and contactless. Once you park and grab all of your belongings, you lock the van using the Cabana app.