Thaw the winter chill with a stay in a family-friendly resort in the heart of a California national park. Bound by rugged mountains and watercolor-painted rock formations, Death Valley boasts swimming pools, palm trees and more stars than Hollywood. For the kids, adventure awaits with guided trail rides and bikes to rent. Grab the clubs, the Death Valley golf course is the lowest in the world. Mom can even sneak in a massage at a four-diamond hotel.
Death Valley is a land of extremes. It’s the largest national park outside of Alaska with over three million acres and home to the lowest point in North America, 282-feet below sea level. The highest air temperature ever recorded happened in California at the Furnace Creek Resort in 1913 (134 F/56.7 C). Amidst harsh living conditions, do you know there’s a luxurious side of Death Valley? Nestled in the Furnace Creek Resort, I find an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a horse corral, a couple of spring-fed swimming pools, a playground and several restaurants.
History of Death Valley National Park
Death Valley has been the home of the Timbisha Shoshone for thousands of years. Though the park got its name from a group of pioneers stuck in the valley during the winter of 1849-1850.
Death Valley is 140-miles long and surrounded by the Amargosa and the Panamint mountain ranges. The mountain peaks can reach heights of 11,000 feet. Along the valley floor, I find salt flats and sand dunes. In the 1850s the gold prospectors arrived and in the 1880s borax, a common detergent, was mined.
Protected as a national monument since 1933, Death Valley didn’t become a national park until 1994. It’s also part of the UNESCO’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve.
Why is it so HOT?
As I travel through Death Valley, I hear the same message; it’s hot in the summer. It’s not unheard of for it to be over 90 F (32 C) from April to October. In July and August, expect temperatures over 110 F (43 C) for weeks on end.
Since it’s located between two mountain ranges, the mountains trap the heat. The valley floor is flat and lacks vegetation so the heat radiates. It’s basically an oven.
Lodging in Death Valley National Park
For our Death Valley adventure, I got reservations at The Ranch at Furnace Creek, the more family-friendly of the two properties in the Furnace Creek resort area. This area is centrally located, minutes from the must-dos of Death Valley.
The Pacific Coast Borax Company built this resort in 1933 to support their railroad. It has expanded over the years and features 224 rooms across several buildings within walking distance of a couple of restaurants, a general store and a horse corral.
The Ranch at Furnace Creek has a kid-pleasing western theme. Most buildings look out to a large grassy area that’s dotted with palm trees. I find a swimming pool, a tennis court, a fire pit and a playground. This area is a great place to let the kids run free since it’s separated from the parking lot.
A few miles down the road, I find The Inn at Furnace Creek, a great choice for adults. Built in 1927 to attract the glamorous to the desert; it’s a four-diamond, 66-room hotel with old Hollywood glamour.
There’s a RV park and campground located in the Furnace Creek resort area with access to The Ranch of Furnace Creek’s amenities. The Stovepipe Wells is another area that features a hotel and camping on the western side of Death Valley National Park.
What to Do with Kids in Death Valley
This desert oasis allows for year-round, outdoor swimming in a spring-fed pool with a constant temperature of 82 F. The Ranch at Furnace Creek’s pool is older but well-maintained and there’s plenty of lounge chairs. A short stroll away is the golf course; there’s a sports court area too. Don’t forget the guided trail rides and a kid’s bike rents for $5 an hour.
The Furnace Creek Resort has a solar facility with a viewing area that’s a hit with kids who love science. Tour the Borax Museum (Free, open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) to learn about the mining history of Death Valley.
As the sun falls behind the Panamint Mountains to the west, Death Valley National Park transforms. The yipping of far-off coyotes nudge animals out of their daytime slumber. With some of the darkest skies in the country, it’s possible to see the Milky Way without a telescope. Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park and the park rangers host various star-gazing programs fall through spring.
Your First Visit to Death Valley National Park
I check in at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center (open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to grab the Junior Ranger booklets and stamp my national parks passport book. There’s a 20-minute park movie and an interpretive area, great for kids.
We grab a map, refill the water bottles and drive to the first thing on the kids’ list—Badwater Basin. If you have limited time in Death Valley National Park, this is a must-do.
Badwater Basin is 17 miles from Furnace Creek along Badwater Road. This route takes us down the center of Death Valley with several turnoffs, like Devils Golf Course, Desolation Canyon and Artists Palette; it’s a great scenic drive.
At 282-feet below sea level, it’s a level hike that starts half a mile from the parking lot. The boys really love racing along the salt flats and I grab a taste of the Badwater salt.
Stop at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and let the kids climb. The overlooks at Zabriskie Point and Dantes View offer valley-sweeping views. Be sure to drive through a ghost town outside of Death Valley, like Rhyolite near Beatty, Nevada; my kids love it.
Getting to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located in California, 125 miles west of Las Vegas, the closest city with commercial flights. California Highway 190 transects Death Valley from Panamint Springs on the west side to Death Valley Junction on the east side. Interstate 15 at Baker, California, is 84 miles south of Death Valley Junction.
The Furnace Creek Resort boasts a public airstrip. Public transportation is unavailable into Death Valley National Park.
Getting Around Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
There are nearly 1,000 miles of roads in Death Valley National Park but read the map closely. The majority are unpaved, four-wheel-drive roads, unsuitable for most cars.
Note for 2016 Travel
Scotty’s Castle is closed until further notice according to the NPS. There was a flash flood that destroyed the road and infrastructure servicing Scotty’s Castle; the building was unharmed.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Make reservations for lodging and tours as soon as possible. Lodging reservations can be made 13 months in advance.
- The Ranch at Furnace Creek has cabins but they feature one queen-size bed and room for a pack-n-play.
- Keep wild animals wild. Don’t feed them for your safety and theirs.
- Do not enter mine shafts or tunnels.
- Carry extra water year-round.
- Don’t rely on technology for directions in Death Valley, get a map at the Visitors Center.
- Flat tires are common on unpaved roads, be prepared.
- Don’t hike at the lower elevations in the summer.
- Don’t leave kids or pets in vehicles during the summer. Temperature can reach 160 F.