We love a good theme for our road trips. We’ve been known to take trips that focus on crazy road signs, the most miles traveled without seeing a car or even wildlife spotting expeditions if we’re desperate and need the kids to believe that out their window is exciting, even if elusive, wildlife. But the best road trips seem to be those where the family pictures take place in front of the biggest ball of twine or world’s largest underwear. Death Valley National Park offers creative families the opportunity for a scrapbook full of record-breaking photo ops.
An easy weekend road trip from much the Southwest, Death Valley got its name without any fatalities, but don’t tell the kids that — let them research the history and make a list of all the record breaking locations. As the hottest place in North America (134 degrees if you can imagine!), it’s a lot more family-friendly to visit in the spring or fall, but you can find mentions of the temperature everywhere, and sending pictures to the family back home pretending it’s in the 130’s might be fun.
Planning Your Itinerary
Death Valley has been the filming location for many movies, so enjoy a movie marathon before leaving on your trip, and then capture as many locations as you can for your scrapbook.
Distances are deceiving in the park, and you’ll want to stop along the way, take scenic loops and just get out an enjoy the park, so avoid the temptation to over schedule, and pick a few highlights to enjoy each day, leaving plenty of time for hiking and side trips.
There’s plenty of camping in the park, but only a small portion of the campsites have hookups, and many are first come first camp. So research in plenty of time. The Inn at Furnace Creek makes an ideal base for road tripping, and is very family-friendly. A huge plus is the adult amenities (spa for mom, golf for dad) and excellent restaurant. The resort blends modern amenities like a stream-fed swimming pool, spa and excellent dining with historical charm and comfort. Start your record-breaking photo shoot at the Furnace Creek Golf Course, recognized by “Golf Digest” as one of “America’s 50 Toughest Courses”. The elevation and slightly greater gravity as well as barometric pressure challenges bring golfers from all over the world. Also research The Ranch at Furnace Creek for a budget-friendly option that is very popular with families.
Be sure to bring a teakettle to leave at Teakettle Junction!
Start your trip with a visit to the Furnace Creek Vistor Center and Museum. The park has a Junior Ranger program and the video about the park is a good overview of what you can visit during your stay.
Head up to Scotty’s Castle, otherwise known as Death Valley Ranch. The main house tour is the only way to visit the inside of the home, which is still furnished as it was when it was occupied. The underground tour takes you beneath the home to see some of the engineering and technology used in the home. Tickets are sold for the day of the tour only (no pre-purchase) so allow time in case you have to wait.
While in the northern part of the park, visit Ubehebe Crater, the site of a volcanic eruption. In the news recently, the site has recently been determined by scientists to have been active more recently than previously thought, and may still be active.
South of Furnace Creek, your second day of touring should include Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Record-breaking photos abound here. Get a shot of the sea level sign on the rocks above the visitor’s overlook with the family in the foreground — just to show how far below the sea you really are. This is also the site of the lowest outhouse in the Western Hemisphere, something kids and dads will enjoy photographing!
There are a number of scenic loops and quick hikes that make for a full day of road tripping this area. Zabriskei Point, Golden Canyon and Artist’s Drive are at the top of the list. Devil’s Golf Course is also a short drive from the main road, and the unpaved road is easily driven in your own vehicle. Dante’s Peak is more than 5000 feet above the valley, and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the park. Death Valley is also the driest location in the western hemisphere, so offer a special prize to the family member who illustrates that best.
If your vehicle is equipped for some rough driving, take the time to drive out to The Racetrack by way of Teakettle Junction. One of the great mysteries of the valley, The Racetrack is a dry lake bed where trails of rock movement are clearly visible on the dried surface of the lake. Why the rocks have moved, and continue to move is a mystery, and the visit is well worth the drive. Be sure to allow for at least a four hour round trip from Ubehebe Crater, and while the road is graded, it’s rough and not for the family sedan. Jeep rentals are available at Furnace Creek if you plan to visit The Racetrack, and this area of the park makes for a full day of exploration. If you have an off-road type vehicle, there are lots of backroads to explore, ask for the backroad map at a visitor center. Note that it’s not permitted to leave the road in your vehicle, but there are plenty of roads to explore.
Explore the ghost towns and back country. Unlike many other national parks, Death Valley is uncrowded and it’s easy to explore without feeling like you’re moving from one attraction to the next. You can easily customize your exploration to suit the ages of your children and interests of the family. The energy of the area as well as the opportunity to hike alone in some of the best scenery in the west make any of the options you choose memorable. A little reading about the history of the area on the drive into the park will add to your appreciation for the pioneers who traveled through the valley on their way to California.