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The best day hikes and backpacking in Death Valley National Park, California!

The best day hikes and backpacking in Death Valley National Park, California!

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I didn’t have many expectations for Death Valley. I’d never really heard much about it apart from the fact it gets super hot. But on our visit to Death Valley during our 3 month USA road trip, not only did it pour down with rain more than it did at any other point during our trip, but I was genuinely surprised about how pretty and extensive the park is. In fact, I’d put it out there that Death Valley National Park was one of my favourite National Parks from our visit. If, like me, you like hiking, then perhaps you’re wondering about the hikes in Death Valley National Park. Whilst you’re not going to want to hike across Badwater Basin in the height of summer, there are still plenty of hiking trails in Death Valley. I’ve picked out some of the best hikes in Death Valley below, along with some other useful information.

best hikes in death valley national park california

Where is Death Valley National Park?

Death Valley National Park is in eastern California and is just west of the Nevada – California State border. It’s 123 miles from Las Vegas to Death Valley (2 hours), and roughly driving from Los Angeles to Death Valley takes around 3.5 hours.

best hikes in death valley

Death Valley entrance fees

The Death Valley entrance fees are $30 per car, this lasts for 7 consecutive days.

If you’re entering by foot, bike or by taking the Zion National Park shuttle bus then the entrance fee is $15 per person.

If you’re visiting a few US National Parks over the course of a year then you’ll be better off buying the “America is Beautiful National Parks Pass” from REI for $80.

Best hikes in Death Valley National Park

See my day hiking packing list here

Death Valley map

death valley national park map[Click the link to see an enlarged Death Valley map]. Here’s a map of Death Valley National Park that shows the roads and main sites some of which are mentioned below or in other posts.

What to know before hiking in Death Valley

To have an enjoyable and safe hike, here are a few things you should know before hiking in Death Valley.

  • The best time to hike in Death Valley is from November through March. Summer temperatures can be dangerous in the park’s lower elevations (like Badwater Basin). Even during spring and autumn the heat can be unbearable for most people.
  • The higher elevations in Death Valley are a good place to escape the summer heat but are usually covered in snow in winter and spring.  You must be experienced and have adequate winter clothing, an ice axe and crampons.
  • Water: Death Valley has a very dry climate and you’ll need to drink more here than elsewhere, even in the cooler months.
  • Always carry at least 2 litres for a short winter day hike, 4 litres or more for longer hikes and overnighters.
  • Leave your itinerary with someone who will notice if you are overdue and report it to 911.
  • Always pack your 10 essentials.

Day hikes in Death Valley

best hikes in death valley

Some of the best hikes in Death Valley are day hikes. Take a look at these day hikes for some ideas for your Death Valley itinerary!

Easy day hikes in Death Valley

Badwater Salt Flat

Badwater Salt Flat is probably the most famous place in Death Valley National Park. It’s the boiling hot salt flat that reaches temperatures of well over 100 Fahrenheit (50+ Celcius). The whole salt flat covers over 200 square miles (322km) of Death Valley and known as being the lowest point in North America.

In the winter months, you can walk up to and/or across the salt flat, but it’s strongly advised you never attempt this in summer.

From the parking lot, you can walk down to a boardwalk or on to the salt flat itself.

Distance: 1 mile/1.6km to the edge of the salt flat. 10 miles/16km each way if you want to cross the salt flat and come back
Time:
30 minutes – 5 hours
Elevation:
Minimal
Trailhead location:
Badwater Road, 17 miles south of Furnace Creek

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

This easy Death Valley hike is an out and back trail which takes you into and up the dunes. These are the most famous dunes in the park. I personally think it’s very cool to see sand dunes like this, it’s not something you see every day!

Distance: 2 mile/3.2km
Time:
1.5 hours
Elevation:
65m
Trailhead location:
In Stovepipe Wells Village (west of Furnace Creek)

Salt Creek

This trail is done via a boardwalk which makes it an accessible hike in Death Valley. It’s best to do this hike from February – April when there’s usually more water and the Salt Creek Pupfish are being born. You can use the signs along the trail to learn about pupfish, how they’ve adapted and about other pupfish in the Mojave Desert. This is a great kid-friendly hike in Death Valley.

Distance: .5 mile/0.8km on a wooden boardwalk
Time:
30 minutes 
Elevation:
Minimal
Trailhead location:
Salt Creek Road

Moderate/difficult hikes in Death Valley

death valley best hikes 2

These hikes are longer and tend to have more elevation change. They’re best reserved for more experienced hikers.

Desolation Canyon

Desolation Canyon is an unmarked route that requires some rock scrambling making it one of the more difficult hikes in Death Valley.

From the parking lot, you’ll head east toward the Black Mountains and into some of Death Valley’s designated wilderness. Keep the mountains to your left as you continue on.

Soon you’ll enter the canyon where colourful walls grow high and you’ll find yourself in a wineglass-shaped canyon. The trail goes uphill gradually and there are some short side canyons that are fun to explore. Just be careful not to get lost! If you do, going downhill is generally the way back where you came from since the canyon was shaped by flowing water

Distance: 3.6miles/5.8km
Time:
2.5 hours
Elevation:
183m
Trailhead location:
Desolation Canyon Road
More trail details 

Sidewinder Canyon

This hike in Death Valley is rated as extremely difficult but if you’re up for the challenge and have adequate experience then it’s one you’ll remember forever.

It’s both physically and mentally challenging as you’ll be climbing over 2m high ledges and crawling into tight spaces. There are no signs identifying the hike’s trailhead and you’ll be in a designated wilderness area.

See full trail details here

Distance: 5 miles/8.4km 
Time:
6 hours
Elevation:
482m
Trailhead location:
Down an unmarked gravel access road that’s between mile 31 and 32 along Badwater Road

Telescope Peak

You’ll get incredible views from the summit of Telescope Peak. It’s a long hike with quite a lot of elevation gain and can be done over a couple of days if preferred with camping at the meadow between Rogers and Bennett Peaks.

See full hike details here.

Distance: 14 mile/22.5km
Time:
7 hours
Elevation:
914m
Trailhead location:
Begins at Mahogany Flat Campground

Wildrose Peak

If you’re visiting in the warmer months, this hike is a great option. It’s cooler here than in the valley but be warned that in winter there may be some snow.

This hike offers something different than just views. The Wildrose Peak Trailhead is close to the historic Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. These 10 kilns are shaped like beehives and were completed in 1877 to provide fuel suitable for use in two nearby smelters. The trailhead is just to the left of these kilns.

You’ll start by heading into a pined woodland and just before the 3km marker, you’ll get views down into Death Valley. At the summit, you’ll get 360 degrees that are well received after this hike!

Distance: 8.4 miles/13.5km
Time:
6 hours
Elevation:
671m
Trailhead location:
Badwater Road, 17 miles south of Furnace Creek. Parking area at the Charcoal Kilns
Full trail details here

Backpacking in Death Valley

death valley best hikes

Backpacking in Death Valley National Park is often challenging both due to terrain and climate. If you have experience with backcountry hiking and camping then you’ll be treated to sweeping vistas, amazing night skies and incredible geology.

Death Valley has around 3 million acres of designated wilderness and there are few established trails. Therefore, backcountry hiking in Death Valley often means following canyon bottoms, open desert washes and old dirt roads.

What to know about exploring the Death Valley backcountry:

  • Overnight group size is limited to 12 people and no more than 4 vehicles. Larger groups will need to split up and camp at least 1/2 mile apart.
  • Campfires are not allowed in the backcountry. Use a camp stove instead.
  • Pets are not allowed on trails or in the wilderness. However, pets are allowed on the Furnace Creek bike path and hundreds of miles of backcountry dirt roads.
  • Water at springs can be dry or contaminated. Carry your own water or stash it ahead of time.

Backcountry permits for Death Valley

Backcountry permits for Death Valley are free but you do still need to get one. You can get them from either the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre or the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.

Backpacking trails in Death Valley

There are loads of backpacking trails you can take in Death Valley, I’ve picked out two that sounded the most interesting and you can see a more complete list of suggested trails and more information on those below here.

Surprise Canyon & Panamint City ghost town

This old road was washed out in the 1980s and is officially closed to vehicles but it makes a great hiking trail. The main end point of this trail is the ghost town of Panamint City but along the way you may come across bighorn sheep as well as springs and beautiful mountain scenery.

If you want to make it an even longer backcounty experience, you can take at the overpass towards Johnson Canyon Road.

Distance: 5 miles to ghost town
Time:
6 hours
Elevation:
1219m

Hole-in-the-Wall

There’s no trail on this hike and there are many variations. It really is an example of choose-your-own-adventure hiking in Death Valley!

In the large amphitheatre, you can choose between Schwaub and Pyramid Peaks and take some of the small side canyons. Or, if you ave climbing skills and equipment you can also explore canyons in the Funeral Mountains.

Distance: 2 to 10 miles
Time:
6 hours
Elevation:
91m – 457m
Trailhead location:
Hole in the Wall

More US National Park hikes