What to see in Death Valley - a 3-day road trip itinerary for photographers
Updated: Jan 24
A winter van-camping weekend
For avid road-trippers, getting through the winter can be tough. Even on the central coast of California we got a lot of rain for months on end this year. Although we are grateful to be out of drought and the wildflower superbloom was a bonus, I still occasionally had my nose pressed up on the window, longing for the next weekend we could take our camper van out to explore. So by February, I was getting itchy feet and was eager for some sunshine. A weekend road trip to Death Valley? It sounded like the perfect solution. My husband, who is a professional landscape photographer, quickly pieced together a fabulous three day, four night road trip form the Central Coast. So you can either do the same short itinerary, or add it to a longer trip you are planning.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4 ; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; d/c space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 ( but 2 adults have most room); outdoor canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover. Go here to see more photos of the interior.
Time of Year
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Death Valley has its name for a reason. And the key time to see this marvelous desert landscape is in winter, from November – March. From April to October, the temperatures start increasing from 90-116 degrees Fahrenheit. UGH.
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Camping and accommodation options
There are several campsites and RV parks throughout Death Valley National Park and in Stovepipe Wells. The IOverlander app is very helpful in this regard, as well as for locating areas to free camp. If you are wanting to do this road trip without camping, there are also a few hotels, including one really nice resort with a golf course.
The Inn at Death Valley - a historic 4 diamond hideaway Oasis that’s been pampering guest since 1927. It even boasts a golf course!
The Ranch at Death Valley – part of the same property as The Inn, but with more family-friendly prices
Fiddlers Campground – RV's, camper vans
Furnace Creek - National park campground with 136 sites and 18 hook-ups, washrooms, water supply and fire pits.
Day 1 – Sunset at Mesquite Dunes
The drive from the central coast of California takes six hours. So on the first day, we left in time to check out the dunes in the late afternoon. They are quite spectacular. And with a little bit of effort, you can get up high on the sand ridges and get some really great shots as the sun goes down.
Campground – Furnace Creek
This campground is about a 25 minute drive after your sunset dune stop. But for us it was worth it, as it made the pre-dawn drive the next morning, shorter. If you don’t mind getting up early and having a longer drive in the morning, there are camping areas closer to the dunes, near Stovepipe Wells.
Day 2 – Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Badwater Basin
2A – Zabriskie Pointe for sunrise
Get up early and drive to the trailhead parking lot for sunrise. If you stayed at Furnace Creek campground, its only about a ten minute drive. Then after your shoot, you can either go back to your camper van to sleep a few hours, or do a short hike on one of the trails that start right at the parking lot.
TIP - The pre-dawn Blue Hour was best. Once the sun came up, everything seemed to wash out.
2B – Golden Canyon hike - late morning
This area is on the opposite side of the badlands from Zabriskie Point. So you will need to backtrack on 190 a bit and then head down Badwater Road. Golden Canyon is really an interesting and beautiful place to hike, with many side trails and offshoots begging for exploration. Next visit, we plan to spend more time here.
Artiste Palate Road (option) - en route, midday
A beautiful, scenic one-way paved loop that is en route to Badwater Basin. There is a view site on the loop, but is often full of tourists and hard to find parking. It was a scenic drive and a nice option for a pull-over lunch stop. But we opted to not take pictures, as it was mid-day and the sun was high.
2C – Badwater Basin Salt Flats for sunset
After a pass around the Artist Palate loop, we continued on to the Badlands Salt Flat area. Its about a 15 minute walk to get out on the flats from the parking area. But the hexagonal formations are very unique and challenging to photograph in the setting sun.
Camp location - Titus Canyon, End of Red Pass trailhead
TIP – a park ranger told us that although Titus Canyon's 27 mile road is very popular with many off road, 4x4 enthusiasts, driving is not the only way you can experience it. In fact, the most beautiful part of the canyon was the last two miles called The Narrows. This section is commonly hiked on foot, starting at the Red Pass exit point. So we decided to camp at the canyon outlet, and hike in the next morning. Google maps will try to take you the full counter-clockwise driving route to get to Red Pass. But if you simply want to camp at the ‘exit’ trailhead and hike backwards into the canyon, you can do directly to that end.
Directions - Out of Stovepipe Wells, take 190 to Scotty’s Castle Road and then turn right on Titus Canyon Road. The parking area is ~ 2.8 miles from the turnoff and there is a very clean pit toilet outhouse there as well. We were the only ones van-camping there and woke up to the beautiful view below.
NOTE - Tent camping prohibited. But there was not any signs prohibited van camping.
Day 3 – Titus Canyon hike and then Trona Pinnacles for sunset
3A - Titus Canyon Hike - morning
3B - Sunset at Trona Pinnacles (outside of Death Valley)
Our camp spot – Trona Pinnacles
This is one of THE coolest camp spots I’ve even been to. This is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, so camping is not rigidly regulated. We didn't see a fee area. And you can pretty much camp anywhere. There is no water and only one pit toilet at the front of the main line of pinnacles. You can get deeper and further into the Pinnacles with a 4x4 vehicle. But even if you have a standard RV or car, the five-mile, gravel road to the main row is manageable. Hiking around at sunset was like walking in another planet.
Day 4 - Sunrise and morning exploration at Trona Pinnacles, then home
Alternative option (within Death Valley National Park)
Mosaic Canyon trail – if heading to Trona is a bit out of your way, or you have limited time, this trail has great reviews but was closed for some trail work when we are there .