Death Valley CA Overview & Travel Tips

Back road in Death Valley taken at sunset heading to a Ghost Town
Back road in Death Valley taken at sunset heading to a Ghost Town

I was on my way back from a road trip to San Diego, heading up from the city of Ramona. Ramona is probably not a “must-see” city but my amazing roommate from college lives there with her equally amazing husband (who I also knew in college). Now normally, if I were hoofing it out of San Diego, I’d take the 5N to the 405N, etc. etc. But since I was out in Ramona it made more sense to take 15N and then cut over. I left early knowing it was an urban legend to think I’d be able to bypass the SoCal morning traffic (like none I’ve ever seen with the exception of the drive out of JFK, New York to Connecticut). As I approached each freeway that would take me over to the 5, I met up with a line of cars that looked like they were waiting for a ride at Disney Land (and had NOT heard of the Fast Ticket). By the time I hit Riverside, CA it occurred to me – “I’m close to Death Valley!” Now I admit, my “close” and yours maybe different, but with Death Valley only 3 hours away, it was now a must see!

California map I had in my car showing Death Valley
California map I had in my car showing Death Valley

So here’s what I do when I  head off on a spontaneous adventure when traveling. By that I mean, I’m heading home (or I guess anywhere), and I get this insane idea to head off in a different direction. If you’ve never tried this, I highly recommend it. Sometimes the things we do that are unplanned, become our most exciting adventures. So back to being spontaneous when you travel. With the advent of smart phones it’s pretty easy to plan on-the-fly. I pulled up Google, input hotels in Death Valley and found The Furnace Creek Resort. I called, yes they had rooms, and yes there were expensive. They also mentioned that there is a sister hotel called The Furnace Creek Ranch. Since I had been wearing my favorite pair of holy jeans with sneakers (sorry that I can’t give you a more fashionable vision of Photo Girl when she travels), I thought a place described as a “ranch” may be more suited for me on this particular trip. I checked and the ranch also had rooms (and was a lot less expensive). If you’re traveling with the spice of spontaneity, I can say that it’s always a good thing to know that you can get a room. Especially if you’re heading into an area that has a name that starts with “Death”. I got directions and began my 3 hour drive. I also sent a text to my family to let them know of the change of plans…my sister’s text back to me is below:  Too funny Dana!!! But who wouldn’t want to go to Death Valley? 😉

Make sure you let your friends and family know where you're going!
Make sure you let your friends and family know where you’re going!

Death Valley is the largest national park south of Alaska, and is known for extremes: It is North America’s driest and hottest spot (with fewer than two inches/five centimeters of rainfall annually and a record high of 134°F), and has the lowest elevation on the continent—282 feet below sea level. Even with its extremes, the park still receives nearly a million visitors each year, me being one…!

I headed over to Barstow on 15N, then 127N and 190 NW. Along the way I will confess, I was starving and ate at Arby’s. I’d not been there in a while and I must say that their classic roast beef sandwich dipped in that glorious horseradish and BBQ sauce was amazing. And those curly fries. Not as good as bacon but close. Anyway, I always regret when I get a wild hair and do that, but I did, and it’s done. After dragging myself out of the bliss caused by the sandwich and fries, I got gas and headed off on highway 190 into the state park. As you drive into the park you’ll see a sign. It’s a MUST to have your picture taken! Because I was alone, I took a photo of myself which is below.

Here I am at the Death Valley welcome sign! Hi!!!!!
Here I am at the Death Valley welcome sign! Hi!!!!!

Also, once you drive past the sign you’ll need to look for a kiosk and pay an entry fee. You can use a credit card to do this. If the machine doesn’t work, you can also pay at the Welcome Center in Furnace Creek. You will need to place the receipt on your dashboard otherwise you will receive a ticket.

Kiosk in Death Valley where you pay your entry fee
Kiosk in Death Valley where you pay your entry fee

Since both hotels are located on the 190 I stopped at the fancy one first, just to check it out. It’s nice and is a four diamond AAA which is always a good sign. But then let’s get back into the holy pair of jeans I was donning and the men’s Hanes white t-shirt (yes I know, the outfit just keeps getting better), so I got in my car and drove another mile down the road to The Ranch. As soon as I drove up, I was in love! The Furnace Creek Ranch is very quaint and I would highly recommend it.  I will dedicate an entire blog to it including a number of photos.  But for now make a note.

Travel Tips

So let’s get into the travel tips. 

First you need a general idea of how Death Valley is laid out. Since I only knew I’d be there about 3 hours before I arrived, I knew nothing about the area.  Here’s a map of where it is located in relation to Las Vegas, and then I’ll describe the key areas after this map. The city of Furnace Creek is where I stayed:

Map of where Death Valley is located in relation to Las Vegas, NV
Map of where Death Valley is located in relation to Las Vegas, NV

Also, here is a link to a very detailed map which you’ll want to review before you get there. This link has a high-res version. You can also get a printout of the map at the Welcome Center:

Detailed map of Death Valley
Detailed map of Death Valley

Warnings (Information from Death Valley National Park Website)

  • Many of Death Valley’s roads were built in the 1930s. They are narrow and serpentine and cannot be driven at high speed. The most dangerous thing in Death Valley is not the heat. It is the “single car rollover.”
  • Travel on the park’s hundreds of miles of backcountry roads requires the correct type of vehicle for the road conditions, a vehicle in good repair with all necessary tools and replacement parts, and some knowledge of driving on rough dirt, gravel and 4-wheel drive roads. Backcountry travel in the summer months, April through the middle of October, can be dangerous and also requires plenty of water and supplies stored in the vehicle and knowledge of how to survive a failed vehicle in desert summer conditions! Ask the Rangers.
  • Cell phones do not work in Death Valley! Do not depend on them. In some cases there is spotty reception, but dependence on a cell phone in an emergency situation can be fatal. Check with the Rangers for specific recommendations on travel safety.
Driving along the interior roads in Death Valley - very few cars will pass you in an hour!
Driving along the interior roads in Death Valley – very few cars will pass you in an hour!

Consider Taking These Items in Your Car – These are my suggestions, if you have ones to add please let me know.

  • Extra bottles of water – You can buy extra bottles at the General Store in Furnace Creek
  • Sneakers
  • Suntan lotion – with a high SPF – lather it on, face, arms, hands, etc.
  • Long sleeve shirt – although it’s hot, I wore one the entire time to keep the sun off my arms
  • Sun glasses
  • Books on CD – radio reception is not good and it can take a while to drive 15 miles when the speed limit bounces back and forth between 55 – 15mph
  • Blanket – although it was hot during the day, the nights were cool.  Just in case you get stuck 😉
  • Snacks – anything that doesn’t melt or spoil.  Jelly beans, Good and Plenty, beef jerky. Or if you’re healthy, apples, oranges
  • Map of the area
  • Cell phone – you don’t always have reception but occasionally you do get lucky
  • Program an ICE (In Case of Emergency) number in your phone.  You should have this anyway, but if anything happens the police will look through your phone to find it.
  • Keep an extra car key in your pocket or tied under your car.  Imagine, you get out of your car and lock your keys inside.  When I travel I always do this.

If You are Traveling Alone

  • This is a good idea regardless, but especially important if you’re traveling alone. I had cell phone reception when I was in Furnace Creek, but otherwise it was nowhere to be found.  I would highly recommend that you text your family when you head off to see one of the highlights and let them know where you’re going. Also, let them know when you get back. There really weren’t a lot of cars that passed me and if I got a flat tire, or got stuck it would be good for them to know which part of the park I was in.


Furnace Creek Visitor Center

  • Open Daily 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Pacific Time Phone  (760) 786-3200
  • They can help you figure out what to see while you’re there. There’s a lot to see so prioritizing is critical.

Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center – more on this attraction in a later blog

  • Open Daily
  • Winter   8:45 am to 4:45 pm Pacific Time
  • Summer 9:30 am to 4:15 pm Pacific Time
  • (760) 786-2392 ext.231
  • I’ll provide more detail in a later blog but I really enjoyed visiting this castle.

Entrance Fee

Vehicle Entrance Fee

  • $20 for 7 Days
  • This permit allows all persons traveling with the permit holder in one single private, non-commercial vehicle (car/truck/van) to leave and re-enter the park as many times as they wish during the 7-day period from the date of purchase.
  • Other fees are noted in the link below.

Here are some past posts on Death Valley in case you missed them

Death Valley Road Trip!

Death Valley CA Overview & Travel Tips:

Death Valley Road Trip: Ghost Towns and a Sunset:

Death Valley: Dantes View:

Death Valley: Zabriskie Point:

Death Valley: Badwater, Lowest Pt in N. America:

Great link for more information:

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If you’d like to purchase a print to remind you of this beautiful area, please click on “Contact”. My photography is printed on aluminum. Utilizing an advanced process which infuses dyes directly into the metal, the colors and saturation are really amazing. In addition, your print will be displayed using mount blocks which float the image ½ inch off the wall.

©2013 Shelley D Spray – No content on this site (including all photography) may be reused in any fashion without written permission from the author.

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