Exploring Death Valley National Park with kids

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the continental United States.  It is also known as the hottest, driest and lowest of the national parks.  Despite what the name implies, it is not a huge wasteland and there really is a lot to do here even with kids.  The desert landscape and various geologic formations are unlike the other National Parks we’ve visited.  It really is a wonder how living things have adapted to this harsh environment.  We concentrated on the southern part of the park since we were only here for a day.mesquite Flat sand dunes

Getting There
We drove to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas for a day trip during Memorial Day weekend in 2011.  The scenic 120 mile drive through the desert took a little over two hours from our hotel and went through the town of Pahrump.  Surprisingly, this was actually a pretty big town with a Walmart and a few grocery stores to stock up before driving through the desert and the park.  It was a pretty easy drive on the highway where, at most times, we were the only car on the road for miles during a holiday weekend.

Highway to Death Valley

Unlike other parks, there was no actual entrance with a ranger kiosk to pay for the entrance fee.  There was a self-service kiosk a couple of miles down the road from the park’s Welcome sign.  The fee was $20 for 5 days and credit cards were accepted.  I’m not sure how the rangers actually enforced entrance fee payments.   Maps can be obtained from the visitor center which was temporarily at a trailer by the Ranch at Furnace Creek.

Death valley sign

Zabriskie Point – This was one of the first attractions we saw along the drive to the heart of the park.  We pulled into a big parking lot where restrooms were available here much to our relief.   It was a short  uphill climb to enjoy the views of the valley and the surrounding multi-colored canyons.   The landscape here was amazing.

Zabriskie Point

 The stripes and layers on the rocks were a bit more evident here.  These stripes used to be at the bottom of an ancient lake in the valley.  This was recommended as a popular place for sunrise and sunset viewing and definitely not to be missed.

Zabriskie Point at Death Valley

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – This attraction has become the symbol of Death Valley.  The sand dunes were visible from the road and as we turned into the parking lot.  We didn’t quite see the ripples on the undisturbed sand or how the sun played with the lighting on the sand because we got there around 11AM.  Stovepipe Wells Village with a store and restaurant was nearby.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
It was spectacular and I almost felt like I was transported to a mini Sahara Desert.   The sand dunes rise nearly 100 feet from Mesquite Flat.   There were trails that led to the dunes that we followed and hiked to the first set of hills.  The sand was inviting and warm enough to take off our shoes.  There is always something refreshing about walking barefoot in sand even if it is in a desert.  We did see some red ants on some areas so please be aware of them.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

It offered a giant sand box for kids to play in.  Not surprisingly, my kids really loved being here and didn’t want to leave.  They enjoyed playing with all the sand and sliding down the little hills.  This was definitely one of the highlights of their trip.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes kids play

Badwater Basin – This was a must-see attraction and is the nation’s lowest elevation at 282 feet below sea level.  We were in the parking lot for awhile waiting for the rain and wind to stop.  Who knew it would be raining and cold in Death Valley during the last week of May?  Luckily, the rain stopped after about 15 minutes.  Please click on the picture to learn more on salt flat formations as they do a much better explanation than I ever could.

badwater Basin salt flats

There was a wide path leading to the salt flats that we followed.  The polygon shape salt formations resembling giant honeycombs were truly unique things to see and stretched out for miles.

Badwater Basin Salt flats sign

We kept walking until most of the salt crystal formations looked undisturbed.  We were here during the mid-afternoon where it was a comfortable mid-70 temperature with a slight breeze.  It was truly amazing and it made for some incredible pictures.

Badwater Basin Salt Flats

With the sun shining, it was a little too bright with the light reflecting on the salt flats.  Yes, it really was salt.  Let’s just say someone in our party did a little taste test.

Badwater basin salt flat collage

From a distance, it looked like a blanket of snow with no end in sight.   It was so unique and marvelous.  It was amusing to see all the visitors’ writings on the salt flats near the parking lot.  It was the park’s version of salt graffiti.  Going back to the parking lot, we saw the actual sea level marker high up in the cliffs.   It was pretty amazing to see how far below the sea level we actually were.

Badwater Basin sea level sign

Natural Bridge – This was our only “off-road” adventure at the park.  The road to the parking lot was about 1.5 miles of gravel which was a recipe for a flat tire.  Unfortunately, we weren’t driving an SUV or a 4-wheel drive  but seeing that the compact cars came out intact we decided to go.  It was a very rocky, bumpy and slow drive and somewhat scary since I kept expecting to hear a popping sound from our tires.  Luckily, we made it safely to the parking area which offered beautiful views of the Badwater Basin’s saltwater flats and the surrounding valley.

Badwater Basin view from Natural Bridge

There was another half mile or so of hiking on a gravel path which was fairly easy even for our kids.  They kept themselves busy looking for lizards after we spotted one.  It was pretty much the only animal we saw on land at the park since many desert animals are nocturnal.  We found plenty of rock crevices and areas perfect for the kids to climb on.

Natural Bridge death valley canyon

The natural bridge was an arch that connected the canyons.   We were expecting something a bit bigger and more impressive but it served its purpose.  Our little hike stopped here even though there were more hiking trails beyond the bridge.  If you need an easy hike with breathtaking views of the basin, then go on this one.  But, if you’re pressed for time, then skip it as the drive towards the parking lot alone could take awhile.

Death Valley Natural Bridge

Artist Drive/Palette – This nine mile drive along a one way, sometimes narrow, paved road was not to be missed and was well worth it.  The Artist Drive was appropriately named and was on a turn-off a few miles from the Badwater Basin.  We drove through during the late afternoon and saw the multi-colored canyons along the way.  Some areas of the road felt like we were on a roller coaster ride with its various dips.

Death Valley Artist Drive

The Artist Palette lookout and its surrounding landscape was quite remarkable.   While many of the canyons we passed displayed various layers of colors, the hues of pink, red, yellow, purple, white and green were much more vivid here.   There were plenty of viewing points with parking areas to enjoy them up close.  The varying layers of color on the rocks and canyons were results of various “mineral pigments”   brought on by hot water.  For example, iron salts gave the rocks its red, pink and yellow hues.

Death Valley Artist Palette

Death Valley National Park was such a vast land to explore we barely touched it.   Now knowing the drive was fairly easy from Las Vegas, we definitely want to return and stay overnight to experience its beauty and atmosphere at night.

Death Valley National Park with kids basics and tips

  • Go between October and  May when the temperatures are not in the extreme 100s.
  • Bring plenty of snacks and water since there were not that many provisions around other than the area by Furnace Creek Ranch.
  • Gas Up in Pahrump or nearby towns outside of the park.  We hardly saw stations in the park and the ones there were expensive.
  • Dress in layers and bring clothing with hoods for unpredicatable weather and temperature.
  • Join the Junior Rangers to keep the kids entertained between the long drives.
  • Bring sand toys for the kids to play with in the san dunes.

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