Sure, it would be great to jet set to the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or Hawaii for spring break or summer fun, but sometimes, that's not always possible. Maybe you don't have time to travel so far afield, or perhaps the funds aren't quite there. Either way, take heart: Death Valley, California offers up the same warm climes as Palm Springs or Arizona, sand and swaying palms to rival Mexico or the Caribbean, and more hiking and cycling than the Hawaiian islands. Best of all, this national park is a warm-weathered playground that won't break the bank.
Ambiance in the Desert
Death Valley isn't just sand dunes and rattlesnakes (though you'll find both). Furnace Creek Resort, which includes the family-friendly Ranch at Furnace Creek and the more sophisticated Inn at Furnace Creek, is situated on the eastern end of Death Valley National Park, and an easy drive from Las Vegas. Fed by natural spring waters, the massive ranch property includes a golf course (at the lowest elevation on Earth), several stores and retail outlets, casual dining, and horseback riding. The romantic, historic AAA Four Diamond, Inn at Furnace Creek is located just down the road, nestled into the mountainside and surrounded by palms. Built in the late 1920s, it's features fine dining, verandas with sweeping views of the park, opulent gardens, its own spring-fed pool, and tennis courts.
Certainly, visitors seeking sun can spend all their time at Furnace Creek, which also features a full service campground, should you want to rough it. But spring temperatures can reach the high 90s during the day, so it's best to plan any outdoor activity for the morning or early evening, spending the majority of your vacation time by the pool (poor you!). At the Ranch, families will find lawn games and basketball courts, and a playground. Hotel rooms overlook a wide grassy knoll where kids can skip from pool to play area to tree climbing. Insider Tip: look for dates on the ground!
Hiking, Scrambling, and Exploring
Death Valley National Park is sprawling and imposing, which means you'll want to plan your days carefully to avoid too much time driving from point A to point B. Hiking trails are just minutes away from the visitor's center, but here are some of our favorites for families and adventurers:
Golden Canyon: This hike from the valley floor to scenic Zabriskie Point is 2.5 miles one-way, but multiple routes exist to make it shorter or longer. To extend the hike, travel the 2.5 to Zabriskie, then backtrack one mile to the Glower Gutch turn-off, which take you back to the parking lot via a different canyon. The Glower Gutch section takes you along a dry wash and then into a very narrow canyon with plenty of scrambling down a dry waterfall. The last 1/2 mile is exposed as you hike along the Alluvial Fan of the mountainside back to the car.
Mosaic Canyon: Mosaic Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in the park, with challenging scrambling to be had at the beginning before opening up to a deep wash. The first half of the hike is shaded, but the second half is definitely exposed so make sure to pack your sunscreen and a hat. The hike is just a few miles each way, but you’ll want to stop often to let kids explore. If you have limited mobility, this is a trail you may want to skip as the beginning section is quite challenging.
Titus Canyon and Falls Canyon: Titus Canyon is often driven (26 miles or so from the one-way entrance), but can also be hiked from the ‘exit’ side. The trailhead is located en route to Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater (also great photo stops), and families can go as far or as short as they want. The steep canyon walls are fun to play on, just be aware of cars. For an alternative route, try Falls Canyon, which is accessible from the same trailhead. Backpackers love this spot, but other than that it's largely empty. Either is a one-way route for most.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: You can see Mesquite Flat miles before arriving as these dunes are nearly 100 feet tall. Go early in the day to avoid the blazing sun as you hike and play (if you come before breakfast, you may be rewarded with animal tracks). Moonlight on the dunes can also be magical, but be sure to bring headlamps and beware of rattlesnakes.
Maybe you don't want to spend all your warm-weather vacation hiking? No problem. There are plenty of historical sites you can drive to in the area.
Scotty's Castle: Once the opulent home of Death Valley's most famous resident, Prospector “Death Valley Scotty,” this Spanish-style mansion is open for tours conducted by park rangers. Kids and adults will enjoy a glimpse into his 1920s life, where he threw opulent Gatsby-esque parties for his friends and family.
Rhyolite: Be sure to stop at Rhyolite Ghost Town on the way in to town (near Beatty). Kids can explore ruins at-will and there’s a short walk to a mine tunnel. Don't miss the jail cell and old brothel (whether you explain that last one is up to you!). There are no services here except toilets, but it’s a nice place to stop for picnic (just keep your eyes and ears peeled for rattlesnakes).
Know Before You Go
Death Valley's temperatures make it for a fall or spring visit. Summer temperatures make the area uninhabitable. Even during moderately hot days, always carry extra water with you as the national park is large and stretches can be desolate. Be sure to secure backcountry permits from a ranger station before venturing out on your own, and if you're planning to camp at Furnace Creek, note that wind storms can occur. Due to a fairly short vacation season, you'll want to book your room at the resort well in advance to avoid disappointment.