Inside advice for your hottest, driest, lowest family vacation ever
Allow me to share one of my best travel secrets: despite its ominous name, Death Valley National Park is not only very welcoming, but in fact one of our top favorite family vacation destinations.
Don’t let the barren landscape fool you. Family vacations in Death Valley have it all: warm weather, outdoor adventure, swimming, biking, and hiking.
After numerous visits over the last decade with three generations of our family (most recently in March 2010), here’s what we’ve learned about this desert wonderland:
When to Go:
Death Valley is open year-round, but for most families’ purposes, it is a seasonal national park. Summer temperatures can reach record-breaking highs in the 130s and usually don’t dip below the 100F mark until October, soaring up again as early as April. As such, their busy season runs from late fall through early spring.
We always visit in March, joking that it’s our “poor man’s Mexican Riviera”: our (cheaper) and less crowded spring break go-to location. Springtime highs are customarily around 85 F, with cooler mornings (perfect for hiking) and evenings. If you are in the mood for a desert Christmas, December in Death Valley is wonderful as well!
Where to Stay:
Death Valley is located 2 1/2 hours’ drive northwest of Las Vegas, NV. The closest towns are Beatty, NV (1 hour) and Pahrump, NV (1 1/2 hours), and neither offer much in the way of choice accommodations. In other words, you’re limited to staying in the national park.
The good new is that you have several wonderful options to choose from. The bad news is you’ll need to make reservations early if you’re planning to visit during the peak season.
1. The Ranch at Furnace Creek, centrally located in the Furnace Creek area next to the main visitor’s center. The ranch is much more than just a motel. It’s an entire, well, ranch, complete with a general store, three restaurants, stables, bike rentals, a shady, grassy oasis, a playground, and best of all, a spring-fed swimming pool in the middle of the complex. Room rates in the peak season range from $126-$213.
2. The nearby Inn at Furnace Creek is touted as the ‘jewel of Death Valley’ (and is priced as such with peak rates ranging from $320-$455). The Inn is a beautiful resort nestled on a hillside, surrounded by palms, has its own pool with patio firepits, fine dining, and luxurious rooms. My sister and brother-in-law greatly enjoyed a stay here pre-kids. This past March, we enjoyed a delicious dinner out here while grandma and grandpa babysat at the ranch. See a theme here? The Inn is lovely, but not entirely kid-friendly.
3. For a budget option, consider Stovepipe Wells Village, 25 miles north of Furnace Creek. Rates start at $80.
Where to Eat:
Due to Death Valley’s remote location, we always grocery shop prior to arrival and come equipped with a well-stocked cooler. Rooms at The Ranch at Furnace Creek are appointed with mini-fridges, perfect for storing lunch meats, cheeses, condiments, fruit, and milk and juice. Limited groceries are available at the general store, but expect to pay dearly for the convenience.
We usually eat breakfast in our room and pack picnic lunches. Our favorite dinner pick is the ranch’s ’49er Cafe. Family friendly, fast, and fun, the ’49er also offers take out (or you can order box lunches from the adjacent Wrangler Steakhouse). Bonus: portions at the ’49er are huge (even the kids’ meals). We often take leftovers to go.
What You Don’t Want to Miss:
With many degrees of difficulty and trail lengths to choose from, hiking in Death Valley is very kid-friendly. (But you want to get out there early to avoid the baking sun.) Some of our favorite things to do:
1. Hike Golden Canyon (1 mile each way, trail head located three miles from Furnace Creek on Hwy 190). A moderate interpretive trail leading up a washed out road through a beautiful canyon, this trail offers great views of Manley Peak. If your kids are sturdy hikers, continue on from Manley Peak to Zabriskie Point (2.5 miles). Kids will love walking up and down the rippling borax deposits and will spot the entrances to long-abandoned opal mines.
2. Scramble up a sand dune. Located 20 miles from Furnace Creek at Stovepipe Wells, the extensive sand dunes are iconic of Death Valley. Young hikers can stroll out just a matter of yards to play in small peaks and valleys of sand, while older kids will love the challenge of trekking out to the largest dune (2+ miles over tough terrain). Our kids live for the moment they can roll down the other side!
3. Marvel at the marble in Mosaic Canyon. Just past Stovepipe Wells, Mosaic Canyon is tucked in the Panamint Mountains, offering a cool alternative to the desert’s more open-to-the-elements hikes. You can go as far as you want (from 1/2 mile to 2 miles) up through rock surfaces slowly eroded by flash flood rainwater. The marble canyon walls are beautiful, and kids love trying to climb up them! (Note: there are several places where hikers need to step up and through tight rock formations.)
4. Reserve afternoons for swimming in the pool! After a lunch and nap break for younger kids, we hit the spring-fed pool at Furnace Creek every single afternoon, while the sun is its hottest. If not staying at The Ranch at Furnace Creek, day passes to the pool can be purchased at the registration house.
What to Skip:
1. Unless you’re prepared to entertain kids in the car for a long period of time, I’d skip the drive out to The Devil’s Racetrack (located at the end of a 30 mile all-terrain vehicle-only dirt road at the far corner of the park).
While the geological head-scratcher is interesting (where boulders have slowly moved without cause over a period of millions of years), the natural phenomenon might be lost on young kids. (Ubehebe Crater and Scotty’s Castle, however, in the same area of the park minus the 30 mile dirt road, are worth seeing!)
2. Likewise, Artist’s Palette, a short driving tour of colorful deposits in the canyon walls, can be boring to kids who cannot get out of the car for more than an overlook here and there.
Amy Whitely is a writer, mother of three, and the publisher of Pitstops for Kids, a review blog about family friendly road trips, roadside attractions, restaurants, parks, motels, and airport play spaces.