Death Valley is well-known for… its deadly heat. In fact, it has the highest recorded temperature on earth ever, at 134 degrees Fahrenheit.
With average daytime temperatures over 110 degrees during the summer, the park lives up to its fiery name.
It may seem like a dry, barren wasteland that is hotter than the sun.
However, it has so much more to offer than just being hot.
Death Valley is a stargazing enthusiast’s paradise. If you love looking at the stars, this park should be on your bucket list.
The National Park is the most expansive Dark Sky Park in the country. It has a “Gold Tier” rating, which is the highest level a Dark Sky Park can achieve.
Its low levels of light pollution and empty expanses of land make it easy to see the stars without too much interference. You will have plenty of uninterrupted time to take a deep dive into space.
If this sounds like your type of adventure, stay tuned. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to have a fantastic stargazing adventure.
By the time you finish reading, you will be packing your bags (and telescope) and heading to Death Valley!
Getting to Death Valley
There are many ways to get to Death Valley. If you are not coming from California or a neighboring state, you’ll have to fly into McCarran International Airport, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. From there, you can rent a car and drive to the park.
Routes to drive to Death Valley:
Whether you arrive by plane or are taking a road trip, all visitors must drive to reach the park.
From McCarran Airport, it takes about two-and-a-half-hours to reach Death Valley.
Two routes you can take include:
NV-160 via Pahrump and the Death Valley Junction
US-95 via Indian Springs and Amargosa Valley.
Route-160 is slightly shorter and more scenic.
Other ways of reaching the park are:
From Los Angeles: Drive on Interstate 15 to Baker, take Highway 127 north to Highway 190 west. The estimated drive time is 5 hours.
From the northwest: Drive along Highway 395 in Lone Pine, then take Highway 136 southeast to Highway 190 east. Driving from San Francisco takes about 8 hours.
Where to stay in the park
Death Valley has a handful of great options for places to stay during your stargazing adventure. Accommodations are limited and fill up fast, so it is a good idea to book early. Here are a few that we recommend for stargazers:
The Oasis at Death Valley
This hotel complex, located in a lush oasis within Death Valley, has two hotels. One is the Inn at Death Valley, and the other is the Ranch Death Valley.
For a luxurious, 4-diamond resort experience, stay at the Inn at Death Valley.
If you want a casual, family atmosphere, stay at the Ranch. The Las Vegas Astronomical Society holds complimentary Star Parties at this hotel, and visitors are welcome to join.
Both hotels have excellent access to dark sky stargazing spaces.
Stovepipe Wells Hotel
Located next to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the Stovepipe Wells Hotel is another superb stargazing hotel. While there are no guided opportunities offered, the hotel makes a conscious effort to keep light pollution low for visitors. You can easily reach some of the park’s nighttime destinations from this hotel.
Death Valley Stargazing Camp
Located just outside the park, this private camping facility is an outstanding destination for stargazers. There is almost no light pollution at this 80-acre campground, making it ideal for seeing the night sky. Star enthusiasts can either bring an RV or tent to camp here.
General park tips
It costs $10 per non-commercial vehicle and $5 for an individual entering on foot, motorcycle, or bicycle to enter the park.
You can enter and exit as many times as you want within seven days for both types of passes.
If you plan on visiting multiple national parks that year, you may consider an $80 annual pass. You can use this pass at any federal recreation site.
Seniors can buy an $80-lifetime pass or a $20 annual pass.
Active military members and their dependents, U.S. 4th grade students, and citizens with permanent disabilities can obtain a pass for free.
A few essential things you need to know before visiting Death Valley include:
- It is challenging to find cell phone service in the park. Download any digital maps you need ahead of time (GPS will still work) and bring paper maps as a backup. Also, prepare your car with tools and extra food and water.
- Even if it isn’t hot out, it is very dry. Please bring plenty of water for your hikes because it is easy to dehydrate quickly. The park recommends 2 liters per person for a moderate hike during the winter and four liters or more per person for a longer trek during the summer. Make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen.
- Refill your gas tank any chance you get. Gas stations are far apart, and you don’t want to get stuck in the desert. There are two gas stations in the park located at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Both are very expensive compared to outside the park.
Star Gazing at Death Valley
Timing your visit
Timing your visit to Death Valley will help you maximize your experience. The park recommends visiting during a new moon when it isn’t as bright. The moon itself can create some light pollution and make it harder to see the stars.
As for the best season to visit the park, that depends on the type of daytime activities you want to do. Most visitors go to Death Valley in winter and spring when the weather is tolerable. However, you may want to bundle up at night because, surprisingly, it gets chilly (below 40 degrees) during the winter. It is very comfortable to visit different sights during the day because the temperatures are mild.
During the summer, you can only drive through the park. Average temperatures are above 110 degrees, often reaching over 120. At night, it is still toasty, with temperatures between 80-90 degrees.
Best spots for stargazing in the park
Death Valley has some of the darkest skies in the United States. The park is mostly untarnished by light pollution, which makes for some fantastic views. Some of the best areas to see the stars include:
Ubehebe Crater is one of the best stargazing spots in the park. It is a volcanic crater formed many years ago that has spectacular sky views.
Visibility can be limited, but the horizon provides some excellent stargazing experiences.
During the day, it is exciting to walk around this otherworldly volcanic crater.
Harmony Borax Works
This site is easily accessible if you are staying in Furnace Creek. One problem that some locations in Death Valley have is that mountains obstruct their views. You won’t have this problem at Harmony Borax Works. Here, you’ll have endless views of the stars.
It is also a fantastic place to visit during the day because there is a fascinating museum with historical artifacts.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
This stargazing spot is an excellent choice if you are staying at Stovepipe Wells. You can perch yourself at the top of the dunes and have unobstructed views of the stars.
If you come out a little earlier, this stargazing spot is also a great place to watch the sunrise and sunset.
The one downside to stargazing at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is that it is close to the road, and there may be some light pollution.
While mountains somewhat obstruct this area, there are still plenty of skies to see. It is only 17 miles from Badwater Road, and light pollution is non-existent here.
The mountains and salt flats combined with the stunning night sky makes this an extremely photogenic spot for star photographers.
Don’t forget to come back during the day and visit the salt flats, which are impressive in full light.
Equipment you should bring
While there is a lot to see at Death Valley with the naked eye, a few tools can enhance your experience.
The right telescope can make all the difference; you can see deep into space with a quality one.
We shy away from extremely cheap telescope, since image quality and overall durability suffer greatly (as explained here). If you’ve got the budget for a worthwhile telescope–let’s say a few hundred dollars and up–then an entry-level catadioptric (compound) telescope provides the best blend of portability and overall quality. Check out our guide for a much deeper dive.
A less expensive and less bulky way to see the stars is by using binoculars. There are many fantastic options on the market, and we’ve covered several in this round-up.
They do bring some major trade-offs versus telescopes, but a low price and high convenience factor may tilt the scales in their favor.
It takes time for your eyes to become adjusted to the darkness, and a flicker of your phone flashlight can ruin everything. No matter whether you’re using optical equipment or just the naked eye, a decent red flashlight is a huge help for reading sky maps and setting up your observation spot. Head on over to this article to learn more about why they matter and how to choose one.
Ready to visit?
Death Valley is a fantastic Dark Sky destination that should be on every stargazing lover’s list. With the proper planning, you can have one of the best stargazing trips of your life! Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have all of the tools you need to start planning your Death Valley stargazing adventure.