48 Hours in Death Valley: A Road Trip Guide

04/06/2017 01:06 pm ET

It’s 7 a.m., and the sun remains far beneath the horizon, leaving us captivated – and cold – as we await one of Death Valley’s most magical moments: sunrise.

At the crowded Zabriskie Point – a popular hilltop viewing spot in Death Valley – everyone’s a photographer. Some carry tripods and extreme camera bags. Others have cracked-screen iPhones. No matter the gear, all parties will capture impeccable photos as the sunshine floods over the ribbed mountains surrounding Zabriskie.

And flood it does. Even on our partly cloudy morning, the sunrise changes the mountains from tan to golden to orange, then tan again – all in the matter of minutes.

Sunrise is one of the many times Death Valley takes your breath away – and, ehrmahgerdd, don’t even get me started on sunset {cue butterflies and goosebumps}.

<em>Zabriskie Point at sunrise</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost way
Zabriskie Point at sunrise

My mom and I visited Death Valley this January, and spent a weekend road tripping from place to place, using Furnace Creek Ranch as our home base. Today, I’ll guide you through those magical 48 hours so you can head out on your own DV adventures, too.

Friday morning: Drive

Drive two hours from Las Vegas to Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Ranch. Stop by the “Welcome to Death Valley” sign on your way in (and, obviously, pose in front of said sign).

<em>Death Valley National Park</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Death Valley National Park

Once you check in at Furnace Creek, you’ll probably want to grab food of some sort to avoid the whole hanger sitch (they have restaurants and a convenience store onsite), then head out on your merry way to the first hike of the trip: Golden Canyon.

Friday afternoon: Golden Canyon

This hike, just slightly over two miles, takes you through – wait for it – golden canyons (get it?) filled with loose rock and dust before you reach the Red Cathedral (a natural wall consisting of copper-colored rock). This should take you roughly one to two hours, depending on how long you spend photographing.

<em>Golden Canyon, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Golden Canyon, Death Valley

Friday evening: Badwater Basin

After Golden Canyon, head over to Badwater Basin Salt Flats and prepare to be absolutely blown away. This 200-square-mile pattern of crystallized salt flats is the lowest elevation in North America (282 feet). It’s exceptional during golden hour; the white salt perfectly reflects the colors of the sky, making forever-changing scenery.

There’s a one-mile path out into the flats, but you can go further if you’d like (just be safe – one salt crystal looks like another, so it’s easy to get lost).

Come with plenty of memory cards, because this one’s also a major beauty.

<em>Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Death Valley

Saturday morning: Mesquite Sand Dunes

As if salt flats and canyons aren’t enough, Death Valley is also home to two different sand dune areas. We went to the more easily accessible Mesquite Sand Dunes, which are close to Stovepipe Wells, another hotel/ restaurant area in Death Valley.

We hoped for a stunning sunrise from the dunes, but ended up with overcast skies and muted colors. All was OK, though, because I packed the hotel’s tray table to use as a sled for sand sledding.

All became not OK, though, as the sand was too deep and ended up flooding into my jeans and about every possible orifice of my body.

But I digress. We don’t need to go into the great sand invasion of 2017. Moral of the story: Death Valley dunes are pretty sweet, sunrise or not.

<em>Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley

Saturday afternoon: Titus Canyon

We hit up Stovepipe Wells for breakfast and coffee before heading off for a drive through the breathtaking Titus Canyon.

I’ll get this out of the way: The Titus Canyon drive is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it’s also not for the non 4WD-ers. It’s tough; you’re basically driving 27 miles on bumpy dirt and rock roads through old mining towns, mountains and, at the end, Titus Canyon itself. There were multiple times I thought our car might flip over rough terrain– and we even had a Jeep.

<em>Titus Canyon, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Titus Canyon, Death Valley

The drive will exhilarate or terrify you, depending on your personality, but believe me – it’s worth either emotion. The whole route will take a while – and don’t rush it. You’ll need every minute of those two to three hours spent driving.

Saturday evening: Artist’s Drive

For a much less intense but scenic route, we traversed Artist’s Drive – a nine-mile stretch of road that takes you through some of the country’s most colorful mountains. Think bright pinks, blues, greens, purples and yellows. Yes, those are the colors of the mountains in Death Valley (thank you, Mama Nature), and yes, those colorful mountains can be explored on Artist’s Drive.

The Drive also has a stop-off point, Artist’s Palette, which is a must-do because you can actually walk among the rocks instead of photographing from afar.

This stretch of Death Valley is unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and was particularly dazzling before sunset, when the mountains picked up colors I didn’t even know existed in nature.

<em>Artist’s Drive, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Artist’s Drive, Death Valley

Sunday morning: Zabriskie Point Sunrise

And… we’re back, here at one of my favorite memories from our Death Valley trip – sunrise! Before you head back home or on to your next road trip destination, make it a point to stop at Zabriskie for sunrise on your way out.

The mornings are pretty cold, so be prepared with gloves, hats, and (because it’s Death Valley) multiple memory cards. People stake out spots at Zabriskie Point well before sunrise, so get there early, claim your spot and prepare to be dazzled as the sun presents itself in all its warm, golden goodness, reminding us spectators that despite the name, Death Valley is vivid, alive and absolutely magical.

<em>Zabriskie Point sunrise, Death Valley</em>
Stephanie Vermillion | The Wanderlost Way
Zabriskie Point sunrise, Death Valley

A version of this post originally appeared on The Wanderlost Way.

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