Death Valley National Park | Death Valley, CA

Zabriskie Point

As native Californians, we knew of Death Valley but somehow it never seemed to be at the top of our “go-to” list. However, when my husband and I purchased an RV, the appeal of Death Valley took a meteoric rise to the top of our list and we couldn’t wait to plan a trip to Death Valley National Park.

So we did our due diligence, gathered our maps of California, scoured the internet, downloaded camping apps, and came up with an itinerary for our trip. We were very excited as this was going to be our first significant trip in our RV {see here for our first “entertaining” RV experience}. We decided to break this trip up with one night of camping in the RV and two nights at the Inn at Death Valley hotel {see my review here}.

Itinerary Map

Our trip started on the California Central Coast, we caught Hwy 46 heading towards Hwy 5 and made a pit stop for fuel at Blackwell’s Corner. Blackwell’s Corner is probably best known for the fact that it is the last place actor James Dean was seen alive before he perished in a car crash at the intersection of Hwy 41 and Hwy 46 back in 1955.

Today, Blackwell’s Corner offers a 50’s themed restaurant, gift shop and gas station. It’s a perfect stop to pick up some refreshments or nuts {they offer every variety you an imagine} and browse their gift shop while you fill up your tank, and of course, you’ll find a lot of James Dean memorabilia throughout the store.

From Blackwell’s Corner, we continued until we turned south on Hwy 5 and then eventually took Hwy 58 east. At this point, we were getting hungry and decided to stop in Tehachapi for lunch. We chose the popular Kohnen’s Country Bakery and ordered some sandwiches, and oops…a chocolate macaroon fell in the bag as well {so yummy}. We really enjoyed the vintage signs along Tehachapi Blvd and a nice antique store called Auntie Em’s that offered a great selection of vintage goodies. We did not visit the Tehachapi Train Depot located next door to the bakery as it was closed, but from what we could see, it looks like it would be an interesting spot to check out.

With our tummies full, we continued on Hwy 58 until we turned off on Hwy 14 heading north/west to our final destination for the day, Red Rock Canyon State Park.

This was our first visit to Red Rock Canyon State Park {Ricardo Campground} so we didn’t really know what to expect, aside from the fact that we knew it was a first-come, first-serve campsite and we were hoping we would not have an issue obtaining a site. As it turned out, there were plenty of spaces which may have been due to the time of year {May} and it was mid-week.

The State Park is beautiful. It features scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations with dramatic shapes and vivid colors. It looks more like a location in Utah or Arizona than California. The other half of the park is desert grounds with Joshua Trees scattered all about. The most desirable sites seemed to be the ones located at the base of the desert cliffs, however, we opted for a site on the loop heading towards the cliffs so we would have a view of the cliffs. We also grabbed a site {one of three} that had a concrete pad so we didn’t need to worry about leveling our rig.

The Park is really clean and there is a nice Visitor’s Center {it was closed during our visit due to Covid restrictions}. There are 50 campsites each providing picnic tables and fire pits. It is recommended you bring your own firewood or you can purchase some at the Visitor’s Center. We had not planned on having a fire pit so we didn’t have any wood and the Visitor’s Center was closed; however, previous campers had left some wood at the sites so we had no issue in keeping a fire going until late evening. The Park offers portable water, pit toilets and trash bins that are located in several areas around the loop of the Park. There are no RV hook-ups or showers. A maximum of 8 people is allowed per site, there are no group sites although there are several sites that are located in close proximity to each other where you can commingle.

Camping is $25 per night per site, which includes parking for one vehicle per site, or $23 per night with seniors (62 years old or older). Additional vehicles are $6 each. There is a 30 foot length maximum on RVs. Self-registration/payment is required before setting up camp or parking. Quiet hours are 10 pm to 6 am; generators must be off from 8 pm to 10 am. For more specific information {see here}.

The weather was wonderful here and we able to sit outside until late in the evening. The stargazing was incredible. The campground was quiet and campers were polite to follow camping etiquette. Overall, we had an amazing camping experience here, our only disappointment was that we only spent one night here…oh, and that I couldn’t brew my coffee in the morning due to the no generator before 10 am rule.

I’m afraid we’re a little spoiled now though, I hope we come across more sites like this one where the sites are spacious with a unique landscape. If any of you readers have suggestions, please feel free to post a comment below. Two thumbs up on this campsite.

Recommended Sites: We stayed at site #6 and we were very happy. Site #15 is located at the base of the desert cliff and was tucked back a little which looked like a good spot as well.

Red Rock Canyon State Park offers day camping as well on the other side of Hwy 14 from Ricardo Campground. The cliffs are gorgeous with brilliant red coloring but no overnight parking is allowed here.

A few more photos of Red Rock Canyon…

The next morning we hit the road early and caught Hwy 178 heading north towards Hwy 190. Word of caution, this is where the long and desolate drive begins {approx. a 2 hr drive} so I do highly recommend filling up your tank, stocking up on water and taking care of any other business as there is nothing of significance past the town of Ridgecrest as you head towards Death Valley.

Hwy 178 to Hwy 190

Although it’s only a two lane road, the drive is easy, there is hardly any traffic and when someone did approach me, it was easy for them to pass me {picture is a true representation of the majority of the drive}. During your drive to Death Valley you will hit elevations of over 4,000 ft before arriving to Death Valley National Park where you are at Sea Level but we had no issues driving our RV and it was an enjoyable drive.

Some tid-bits to know about Death Valley is it has a hot desert climate with long, extremely hot summers; short, mild winters and little rainfall. The hottest air temperature ever recorded in Death Valley was 134 °F on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek which is the highest atmospheric temperature ever recorded on earth. The valley’s lowest temperature, recorded at Furnace Creek in January 1913, was 15 °F. Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is the point of lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. It’s easy to see why Death Valley is called the land of extremes.

After driving for about an hour on Hwy 178, we turned east on Hwy 190 and entered into the Death Valley National Park. There was no big entrance, we didn’t even realize we were in Death Valley until we saw a few Ranger Stations that were unmanned so we didn’t have to stop {this might be Covid restriction related}.

After about another hour on Hwy 190, we arrived at the Stovepipe Wells Village. This is a very small {don’t blink}, cute Western town that does have a gas station, general store, hotel and restaurant. We took this opportunity to peek into the general store and grab a bite to eat at the Badwater Saloon. The Badwater Saloon was a charming restaurant and the food was surprisingly good. We did not refill our tank here because they didn’t have diesel gas, you have to go into Furnace Creek for the diesel and propane about 30 minutes away.

There is a camping site here with hookups which I assume gets crowded during their busy months of March and April.

Just a 5 minute drive away as we headed out from Stovepipe Wells, we came across Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes so we made another pit stop to check it out. These dunes are pretty famous, you see them in a lot of photo shoots, Instagram photos and there have probably been many movies filmed here. We did not hike far out but for those stunning rolling sand dune photos, you will need to venture out a bit for the best perspective. A skilled photographer could really capture some beautiful images here if they took the time to explore and/or drone {although drones are not allowed in National Parks without a permit}.

Just another half-hour drive from the Sand Dunes, we arrived at our destination for the next two days…The Inn at Death Valley. For details on this historic and unexpected hotel in the middle of the desert, see my article on on my visit here {link here} which is on my other website, www.NoOrdinaryResort.com.

Furnace Creek is where the hub of activity is located within the Death Valley National Park. You will find two hotels here, The Ranch at Death Valley and The Inn at Death Valley, along with a number of National Park Service public campgrounds. Both hotel facilities offers restaurants, stores, activities, a gas station, a public airport and a golf course which claims to be the lowest in the world at 214 feet below sea level.

Furnace Creek is also a great central location to use as a home base for seeing many of the popular attractions in Death Valley. On our first full day at this location, we got an early start in the morning and headed out to do some sightseeing. What I found so fascinating about everything we saw was how different the terrain was between each site. Tip: Due to the intense heat, it is very important to bring lots of water, wear appropriate clothing and a hat. I am not going to go into the detailed information for each of these locations but I will attach a link where you can get more information.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It was an easy drive to this location on Hwy 190 and took about 25 minutes to drive from our hotel in Furnace Creek. We started with this site because it was the farthest* one out from the hotel and we worked our way back from here hitting the other sites. There is a parking lot here with a few RV spots which was convenient and there is easy access to the salt flat walkway.

I’ve seen some very interesting pictures of this site where it looks like snow and there are interesting patterns in the salt flat. At the time I went, I didn’t see that landscape it looked more like old snow but it was still interesting all the same. We spent about 25 minutes here and moved on to the next one. Link {here} for more information.

*There were other sites such as Dante’s View that were a little farther out from Badwater Basin but we were not able to visit that location as they do not allow RV’s, buses or passenger vans up that road. I heard from many people though, that it is well worth the time to go there for spectacular vista views.

I think I might proclaim this landmark was my favorite. Artists Palette is off Hwy 190 and is an 8.5 mile one-way loop that you drive in your car. The loop is a very pleasant drive and since it’s a one-way road so you don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic or any distractions for taking pictures. The scenic drive offers rainbow colored hills and at certain points beautiful vista views. There is a particular spot called Artists Palette where the hills are vibrant in color. We were here late morning and it was beautiful, but going at sunrise or sunset is supposed to offer the most spectacular color variations. There are many turnout spots on the loop where you can get out of your car and hike to get a closer perspective and some better views. Plan on spending about 45 minutes here.

Note: RV’s or other vehicles longer than 25′ are restricted from driving this loop. The roads wind around with rock overhangs and larger rigs could have some trouble around those corners. We just made the cut with our 24′ RV, and we had no issues. Link {here} for more information.

As with the other sites, Zabriskie Point is off of Hwy 190 and has an easy access parking lot and is a simple walk to the viewing point. Zabriskie Point was the most surprising for me. I didn’t really have much expectation coming here, however, when you reach the crest of the walking path, the formation of waves in the rocks along with the color striations are stunning. These yellow and brown stripped hills have been shaped by the powerful force of water, and the badlands and views of the salt flats covering the floor of Death Valley are visible in the distance. It was a pleasant surprise and this is one of the most photographed sites in Death Valley {again sunrise and sunset would be the best time of day for taking photographs}. I was here right at noon and, unfortunately, my photographs don’t begin to do this site justice, you have to experience the colors, shapes and scale in person. Link {here} for more information.

After our 3 days in Death Valley, it was time to head home. We chose to continue around the loop and take Hwy 127 south to Hwy 15 west and back to Hwy 58 west towards the Central Coast. We filled up our tank in Furnace Creek and drove for an hour until we reached the town of Shoshone {pronounced Sho-sho-nee}, considered the southern gateway to Death Valley and the last public services available before reaching Furnace Creek.

We grabbed a bite to eat at the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon, visited the Shoshone Museum and stopped into the Charles Brown General Store which offers many local goods and gift items as well as providing the last gas station before heading into Death Valley. The town also offers a hotel, the Shoshone Inn and an RV campground.

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and thought the the combination of camping at Red Rock Canyon State Park and staying at the Inn at Death Valley hotel was a nice combination…especially considering the weather was over 100 degrees during our visit. Staying at the hotel kept us comfortable and safe from the extreme heat. Another time of the year might be more appropriate for camping at Death Valley, see list of campsites throughout Death Valley {here} and dispersed camping information {here}.

I found the terrain here so interesting and diverse. Each site we visited was completely different in appearance, altitude and color variations. It’s easy to see why this is a photographer’s paradise. If you are looking to visit this area, here are a few suggested tips especially during the warmer months:

  • Best time of year to visit is October through May – with March and April being the most popular {crowded} months. Summer months not recommended, highest recorded temperature during the summer is 134 degrees, with the average summer temperature being around 120-125 degrees.
  • Do a complete safety check on your vehicle prior to your trip. You do not want to break down on the remote roads leading up to and in Death Valley.
  • Keep your gas tank full. Gas stations are sparse, and for RVers not all stations have diesel, so I suggest topping off your tank whenever possible.
  • Do not rely on your cell phone. Service is sketchy at best as you travel through Death Valley.
  • Try to avoid remote areas as much as possible. If you roam too far, you may find yourself stranded with no way of communication.
  • Do your sightseeing early in the morning or at dusk. Not only are these the best times for catching the best light for photography, but you will want to avoid mid-day hiking.
  • Bring plenty of water and food with you. It’s really important to keep yourself hydrated and cool.
  • Wear sunscreen, a hat and even consider SPF clothing for protection from the glaring sun and heat.

I know these tips might seem basic but but if you take the time to prepare, you will have a safe and an enjoyable experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s