You’d have to be crazy to visit the hottest place on earth in the summer, right? Well, things aren’t always the way they seem. Don’t get me wrong, going to the hottest place on earth in summer is crazy, but it is also doable…from your well-tuned and air-conditioned vehicle. You may not be taking long hikes, but there is still a lot to explore in Death Valley National Park during the summer months.
Two weeks before my scheduled trip to Death Valley National Park last summer, Furnace Creek set a record high for the hottest temperature on Earth. Fortunately, it cooled off a little before I visited, but it was still hot! So hot that as I made my lunch from the back of my Honda HRV, the metal bumper of my car burned my legs when I leaned against it.
Tips for a safer summer visit to Death Valley National Park
Get up early
So when I was planning my trip to Death Valley National Park last summer, I actually had plans of getting to Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the western hemisphere) by sunrise. Well, that didn’t happen. In reality, I got there about noon. I failed to account for how big the park is.
But with that said, I still was up before the sun, leaving my motel in Lone Pine, California, to explore the Death Valley in the summer. Visiting and exploring the park early in the day allows you slightly more comfortable temperatures because you are there in the coolest part of the day.
Remember that Death Valley National Park is big and even though you get up early, you may still find yourself driving across the park in the hottest part of the day. That is what happened to me. But a bonus, summer sunrises in Death Valley National Park are pretty amazing.
Make sure you’re gassed up
Death Valley is big, and in the summer months, it seems even bigger as you drive endlessly across the barren land. You want to make sure you have plenty of gas in your tank. When I drove across Death Valley I entered in the west, leaving from Lone Pine. I exited on the eastern side of the park at Shoshone.
The distance between Lone Pine and Shoshone is about 175 miles. There are a few places to gas up within the park – Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek. So you don’t have to worry about being stranded within a nearly 200-mile radius. But as you can imagine gas is pretty expensive.
Make sure your car is reliable
With Death Valley being such a big wilderness, as well as the hottest place on Earth, this is not the place you want to break down. But if you do break down, the park advises you to stay with your vehicle. While I drove through the park, I typically passed another vehicle about every 30 minutes or so. Because cell phone service is limited, you can flag down another vehicle and send for the ranger.
Have plenty of water in your vehicle
You will also want to carry plenty of water with you while you visit Death Valley in the summer months. Even in the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle, it gets hot and you will probably consume more water than you think. It’s also important to have plenty of water in the event you do have car problems and need to wait in the hot sun for help.
Things to see from your vehicle
Father Crowley Vista Point
This vista is shortly after you enter the park driving in from Lone Pine. Here you can see dark lava and volcanic cinders that turn into colorful layers of Rainbow Canyon. If you are lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of military flight training.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are not flat. You can find the dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village. They are large and seem to go for miles before being stopped under 8,000-foot peaks. I got out and walked a little way here and watched a crow pant. Some large bug also kept buzzing me, which was not pleasant.
Just south of Furnace Creek you will find Artists Drive. This is a one-way loop that leaves from Badwater Road. It takes you into the foothills and immerses you in the multi-colored layers of rocks that make Death Valley so beautiful. It really does make you want to paint the scene. I just took pictures and made a note to come back in the winter when it wasn’t so hot.
No trip to Death Valley National Park in the summer or winter months is complete with a trip to Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point in the entire western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. This surreal and vast area of seemingly landscaped textures is actually a large salt flat.
By this point in my trip, it was so hot I simply took pictures of the informational placards on my phone to read later in the air conditioning.
Ashford Mills Ruins
About 28 miles south of Badwater Basin on Badwater Road, you come to the Ashford Mills Ruins. This historic site shows where miners processed gold ore from a mine about five miles to the east. It is neat to see the ruins and imagine anyone working in that heat!
Hiking in Death Valley National Park in the summer
Believe it or not, you can hike in Death Valley in the summer months. Death Valley may have the lowest point in the western hemisphere, but it also has some high peaks. Hiking in higher elevations will give you cooler temperatures.
The park’s newspaper suggests Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak.
Wildrose Peak is an 8.4-mile out-and-back and takes you through pinyon-juniper woodlands. It climbs 2,200 and takes hikers to an elevation of 9,046 feet above sea level, a big difference from 282 below sea level.
Telescope Peak is a 14-mile out and back trail that climbs to the highest peak in the park at 11,049 feet above sea level. With such a big difference from Badwater Basin, you can see how very rugged it is in Death Valley.
Camping, lodging at Death Valley National Park in the summer
There are several places where you will find lodging within the park that is open all year round. And they have air conditioning. But if you are like me and camping is more of your cup of tea, believe it or not, there are some places to camp at Death Valley National Park in the summer.
Furnace Creek is kind of the hub of the park, but it’s also at a lower elevation so the campgrounds are closed in summer. It’s here where you will find most of your lodging. You can also find lodging at Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells Village. But campgrounds at the higher elevations are open all year round. They are typically first-come-first-serve and fill up on holiday weekends.
Visiting Death Valley in summer
Summer may not be the ideal time to plan a trip to Death Valley National Park, but there is still plenty to do and see. I only budgeted one day because I knew it would be too hot to do many things, but I feel I could have used more time.
Another reason I only gave myself one day was because I’m a cheap traveler. I didn’t want to pay for lodging. And I was afraid the first-come-first-serve sights at a higher elevation would be booked up by the time I got there. But honestly, I didn’t plan for so much driving to get from one place to another. Like I said above, I drove about 175 miles from one side of the park to the other. So I’m not sure staying at the higher elevation campsites so far from other places in the park would have been ideal.
Furnace Creek is kind of a central hub and a great basecamp for Death Valley…just not in the summer months if you are not going to stay in a hotel.