Surprisingly diverse, Death Valley has much to offer your family during the cooler months of the year.
Death Valley. I know, it doesn’t sound all that inviting, does it? “C’mon kids, we’re going to Death Valley for spring break?” Honestly, it was a tough sell to my husband, my teenagers, and the family who were traveling with us. But when we departed after only two days, everyone wished that we had another two days to explore. With 3.4 million acres, this national park is vast. But what makes it unique is its diversity; each section of the park offers something different and something to please every member of the family.
But timing is of paramount importance. One of the hottest and driest places on the globe, summer temperatures in Death Valley often exceed a blistering 120° F… in the shade! You’ll find late fall, winter, and early spring to be ideal times to visit.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The outside thermometer makes for a good photo op.
KidTripster Tip: While at the visitor center, pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge. Also make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
KidTripster Tip: Cell phones don't work in Death Valley, so plan accordingly.
What to do?
Rule of thumb for Death Valley: get up early, explore in the morning and early afternoon, and then find a swimming pool for the rest of the day!
Mosaic Canyon is a perfect early morning hike. It starts by winding through narrow corridors of polished marble before opening up into a wide canyon. Older kids will enjoy the challenge of climbing on the high ridge above the main trail (and watching their nervous parents cringe down below), only to discover the real challenge is finding a way down! The entire hike is 4 miles along moderate to difficult terrain, but you can easily hike for an hour and then just turn around.
KidTripster Tip: To get to Mosaic Canyon, you’ll need to drive a long and dusty dirt road. We were able to drive a 35-foot RV to the parking area, but know that it’s a slow ride.
Hiking the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is another good morning activity. This rather bizarre sand dune field is formed by three different types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star-shaped. The hike to the high dune is about a mile each way and takes roughly an hour and a half.
Of course, Death Valley’s claim to fame is its elevation. At Badwater Basin, you’ll be standing at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest spot in North America. Turn around and look up on the hill behind the basin to spot the sea level marker. You’ll be amazed at just how low you really are!
It’s hard to believe that any species could survive the intense heat of Death Valley, but many do, including fish! Tiny pupfish are visible at the Salt Creek during the spring mating season; just follow the half-mile Salt Creek Interpretive Trail.
Drive the scenic 9-mile loop called Artist’s Drive. The stunning hues of the surrounding hills, which appear like ribbons of chocolate (ok, maybe I was just hungry!), are best photographed in late afternoon light. The road is one-way and only drivable with a vehicle less than 25 feet long. If you’re driving a longer RV, don’t worry; you’ll see plenty of beautiful scenery along the main road as well.
KidTripster Tip: Looking for that killer photo? Try Zabriskie Point at sunrise or sunset.
If you have extra time, head out to the Scotty’s Castle Area to ponder the mysteries of The Racetrack, a dry lakebed where rocks - some 700 pounds in weight - mysteriously slide, leaving behind long tracks. Know to get here, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle with heavy-duty tires to traverse the 27 miles of rough road. There’s also another dune field in this section of the park, called Eureka Dunes, the highest in California. Before setting out, check conditions with the rangers at the visitor center.
Where to stay?
Because of Death Valley’s size, I’d suggest that you stay where you play. In other words, plot out how you plan to move around the park and choose your campground or lodging according.
We started our stay in the central part of the park near Mosaic Canyon and Mesquite Sand Dunes. Stovepipe Wells RV Park is frankly nothing more than a gravel parking lot with hookups. However, guests are able to use the small pool at the hotel across the street, and we were well-positioned for the following morning’s hikes.
The Ranch at Furnace Creek is a nicer campground though very popular. During peak periods like spring break, the check-in process can be painfully slow. Spots are close together, and the park layout is rather odd. However, the saving grace is the very inviting resort-like pool, surrounded by loungers and palm trees. Kids also can spend time playing bocce ball and shuffleboard.
KidTripster Tip: If you want to be able to say that you’ve played at the lowest golf course in the world, you can tee off at Furnace Creek Ranch. However, the golf itself is unremarkable.
There’s also a number of campgrounds around the park for tents and RVs (no hookups), but several of them are closed during the summer.
Camping not your thing? Opt for the historic Inn at Furnace Creek, a luxury resort with a beautiful spring-fed pool, right in the heart of the national park.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.
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