Vacation Highlight Reel: Death Valley

Over holiday break, we traveled to Death Valley National Park in California. Why, You might ask, if you are like everyone else we know? To be honest, even though it’s a place that’s always fascinated us (IT’S CALLED DEATH VALLEY) we ended up there mostly because we were late with the planning, and the flights to Las Vegas (the closest airport, about two hours away) were the cheapest we could find to a place that was warm…or at least warmer than New York. But it turns out, it’s one of the coolest trips we’ve ever taken as a family. I know I’m prone to exaggeration but I’m serious.

Death Valley is a below-sea-level basin in the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert that reaches average temperatures of at least 100°F from April through September — in July it’s regularly in the hundred-and-teens. But if you go this time of year (December through May are prime visiting months) it’s a little more comfortable, and you’re rewarded with some of the most dramatic desert landscape in the world. For people who like hiking and big skies and driving open roads with a Ry Cooder soundtrack on the AUX, well…I don’t know how you can do better. Here’s a quick run-down of everything we did. (Warning: You might contract Blue Sky Fatigue.)

We were only in the park for four days (before heading south to La Quinta near Palm Springs) but I could’ve stayed there twice as long. The weather was in the high 60s, low 70s so it was an ideal time of year to visit. If you’re intrigued enough to plan your own trip here, just know that, like most national park vacations, really the only thing to do here is hike, explore, and of course camp if you’re into that. For kids, there are lodges that offer pools and outdoor fire pits and restaurants with cute saloon themes and old-timey general stores with Wild West signage, but the majority of your day here is hiking or walking to hiking or driving to hiking or hiking to hiking. We launched our exploration with Badwater Basin Salt Flat trail (about a mile) above. The salt dries over packed mud to naturally to form these crazy hexagonal shapes. This is not something I ever thought I’d see in my life.

Later that afternoon we hit Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral (3 miles). Everywhere we walked looked like this, it was insane…

…Here’s where you see why it’s called Red Cathedral. It goes without saying that even better than the views, was the uninterrupted time spent with the girls. We had them conveniently trapped between canyons and gulches.

This was taken right under the Cathedral formation, where we stopped for a quick water break. We saw a bunch of hikers walk along that ridge line to the left of Abby, but there was a precipitous drop on one side (or at least it looked precipitous from my vantage point) and I was too scared to try it, letting my neurosis rub off on everyone else. New Year’s Resolution number 554: Keep buzzkill instinct in check.

I keep waiting for someone to ask me what I’m most proud of as a parent, because I know exactly what I’d say, and it is right up there with the kids finally learning that the dogs don’t feed themselves. It’s this: That we’ve managed to impart a love of the outdoors. I can tell both of my daughters derive joy and solace from hiking or a good walk. Especially when the hike or walk looks as beautiful as Mesquite Flat Dunes (above), a cascade of rolling sand dunes, patterned randomly by the wind, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

One morning, we set our alarms for 6:15 and drove out to Zabriskie Point, one of the most famous viewpoints in the park, where you can watch the sun rise over the badlands of the Furnace Creek formation. My camera had a hard time capturing the pink then purple then gold colors of the dawn, but what I like about this photo is the crowd. Watching the sun rise at Zabriskie is the most popular thing to do in Death Valley, and we were there during one of the most prime visiting weeks of the year, and yet…look how small that crowd is! A little different than Yellowstone in August, right? The novelty of the park’s romantic desolation never wore off.

There are many hikes you can take from Zabriskie, and we chose Badlands Loop. One of these days I’m going to put together a photo album called “Three People Walking in Front of Me on Vacation.” I have so many pics like this through the years it’s ridiculous.

We put a lot of miles on the rental — one morning we drove an hour and a half southwest towards Panamint for a hike. It sounds like a lot of ground to cover just for one morning, but when the driving looks like this…well, you know what they say about the journey and the destination. (Meanwhile, I maintain that Kurt Vile’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Day is the perfect song for pretty much any occasion but it’s really the perfect song for desert driving. Especially when we needed a break from Ali Farka & Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu. The girls discovered “Ai Du” and I’m still recovering from it.)

Also good incentive for long drives? When they end with a hike to Darwin Falls, a tiny little desert oasis about a mile in from the trailhead. (We somehow ended up turning it into a five-mile hike, but that’s a long story.) It was so cool to watch the landscape and feel the vegetation slowly change as we hiked further and further towards the falls. On the way home, we stopped at the general store in Panamint (which essentially all that Panamint is) and rewarded ourselves with ice cream sandwiches.

Where to Stay: If you’re not camping, there are only a handful of places to stay in the park (all are listed in the Lodging section of the park’s website). We stayed in Furnace Creek at the Ranch at Death Valley (above) which has a range of price options depending on what time of year you’re traveling. Its fancy sister property, The Inn at Death Valley is about a half mile away. My brother and his nephew stayed at Stovepipe Wells, closer to Panamint and was happy there, as well. Be Warned: There’s nothing else around, so everything sold in the General Store or the Saloon-themed casual restaurants is overpriced. (Except the $8 kids’ cafeteria style all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet!) Highly recommend loading up on snacks, wine, and other basics in Las Vegas before arriving.

One more for posterity: Have I mentioned how much I love that sky? And wow do I miss it.

P.S. When the girls were little, we bought them this book, a beautifully photographed collection of all 59 National Parks in America, and it ignited an obsession that exists to this day, particularly with Abby. Two parks down, only 57 to go!

P.P.S. Interested in supporting our National Parks? Donate here.

PPSS: Vacation Highlight Reels from Austin and Miami, plus 72 hours in Seattle.

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Yes to imparting a love for the outdoors! My three are littles and we are building those hiking skills looking forward to the day we can all enjoy a trail without having to carry someone! Thanks for sharing.


Though my children are adults, I try to keep up with notable picture books. Check out You are Home: an Ode to the National Parks by Evan Turk. Stunning artwork! Beautiful words! Not just for children.

PS: Death Valley is now on my bucket list.

Deborah Kim

I was going to ask incredulously that you went to Death Valley and skipped Scotty’s Castle….but I didn’t realize until just now that the castle was damaged by flooding and won’t be open until later this year. Nooooo!!! Oh well, it just means that you guys will have to go back!

I’m glad that you loved Death Valley. My husband and I are huge National Park nerds (we’ve been to over a dozen of them together) and can’t wait to introduce our children to them as well.


Oh Jenny! One of the things I’m planning on doing is camping at Death Valley on New Year’s Eve! Because what can be better than a gazillion stars to celebrate?!!!


Wow, what a plan that is, amazing! And it’s amazing I wrote this whole post without mentioning that majestic night sky. Report back!

Sam Phillips

Came across your story about Death Valley, my wife said the same thing, that she wished that we spent more time there! That surprised me because it was on my bucket list and promised we wouldn’t be there long on our way to Rt.66. You mentioned Darwin Falls, on the way in from the west we saw a sign for the city of Darwin, we decided to see it since it was only a couple of miles off the road. We still talk about it, pop. 40 and driving thru the town, we saw no one…it was very weird. You may want to look it up. Enjoyed your story. Sam and Mary Phillips.


Death Valley is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been — and the quietest. In yoga during savasana, I frequently imagine myself a Zabriski Point (we were there in November and we were the only people at the point when we visited. Thanks for reminding me of this magical place.


In 2016 we did a road trip with our 6 and 8 year old. Flew from PHL into Boise and went to Craters of the Moon, Jackson Hole, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Banff and Glacier. It was my second time to Glacier and the whole trip was built around getting the kids there. There is only so much hiking that a 6 year old can do but he surpassed my expectations! I did bribe with candy when I needed to. We had a 4 mile hike that turned into an 8 mile one. Also another story for another day.

National parks are amazing and we loose sight of how vast and open the rest of this beautiful country in the suburbs. Acadia is next on my list!! Although this is now a close second. Thanks for the summary!

Kathy L

What a great post–we love Death Valley, too. Wish I’d known you were headed for PS/La Quinta–I’d have recommended the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, and East Jesus (really!) as some more off-the-beaten-path-way-cool destinations. Looking forward to your posts from the desert!


I visited Death Valley about 8 years ago when I was like 6 months pregnant. The scenery is stunning – it was like every part was completely different than the last. I can’t wait to take my kids when they’re old enough to enjoy it!


I’m so jealous of your travels! We have a week in February, but are stymied because of our dog. Our regular boarder is on vacation at the same time. so we will be road-tripping somewhere along the mid-atlantic, tbd….What do you do with pups?

Kathleen McClean

I had to go back and double-check, but because I used your post as a guide when we went to Hawaii 2 years ago, and I clicked your link above that says “2 down” and it took me to your Virginia post, I was pretty sure you had also been to Volcano National park, and I was right. So, 3 down, 56 to go? 🙂


Consider any of the Utah national parks, the are all beautiful. I’d start with Bryce Canyon. The hoo doos are other worldly.


What destinations are you considering for your big summer trip? (Love all your recs from those posts).