Death Valley Overland Camping and 4×4 Adventure
When we made the spontaneous decision to explore Death Valley over a long weekend, we really had no idea what we were getting into. In the words of Brian, we thought it would just be “dirt and sagebrush.” We could not have been more wrong. From the moment we drove into Death Valley, our eyes were opened to what a truly magical place it is. The variety of scenery ranges from sand dunes towering over 500 feet tall to narrow slot canyons only a couple of feet wide, which led to finding ourselves grossly overusing the word “wow” during our three short days in Death Valley. We loved it so much, that we are plotting a trip back in a couple of weeks, but wanted to share our recent adventure in case you are preparing to visit during what is the best time of year to go, winter.
Overland Camping in Death Valley
After deciding we wanted to take a spur of the moment trip to Death Valley, we immediately started researching where we would be able to stay. We were planning on trying to find an open campground until we found information on the National Park Service website about all the dispersed camping allowed in the park. We were shocked. We love National Parks and in all the ones we’ve visited, dispersed camping is completely illegal. With this little bit of information, we started analyzing every map, blog post, and online resource we could to find the best places for dispersed camping in Death Valley. Keep in mind, we were only there for two nights, so only have two spots we’ve experienced (for now), but we’re pretty sure they are two of the best spots you can camp in Death Valley.
Important note: Although dispersed camping is allowed in the park, there are places where it is not allowed. Make sure you know all the rules before you go by reading information here.
Hole in the Wall
Some Four Wheel Camper friends told us this was their go-to place for dispersed camping in the park, and we absolutely see why. We turned onto Hole in the Wall dirt road as it was getting dark, but were able to see the sign clearly stating that dispersed camping was allowed after the first mile. We set our odometer and as soon as it rolled over to one mile, we quickly passed camper after camper after camper set-up for the evening. It certainly is a popular spot!
We decided to keep going and as we continued down the road, which was actually more like a wash, the campers started to thin. We could see on the map that it was 3.8 miles to the “Hole in the Wall,” and although it was slow going on the bumpy, rutted road, we wanted to see what the point of interest was all about. At this point, it was pretty dark and we couldn’t see much, but we did know that we had come upon an absolute gem of campsite. There was only one other camper van down the road, so we nestled right up against the rock and didn’t see them or anyone else from the time we setup camp a little after 5:30 pm to the time we left the next morning around 9:00 am.
The rock we were camped up against combined with the solitude of the area, made this a truly amazing campsite. We have heard though that camping against the rock like we were can be quite the destination and you’re often not alone. We were beyond grateful to have this place all to ourselves.
Knowing that we wanted to go to the Racetrack Playa for a chance to see the mysterious moving rocks, we came across this camping area on the map just south of the Playa. After a long day exploring and driving down the miles and miles of dirt washboard roads, we pulled in just before sunset and found there were quite a few sites available within the primitive campground. We opted to drive a little further past the other campers and up a 4×4 road. Perched up high above the Racetrack with an amazing view of the Playa and Grandstand, we found an old concrete pad leftover from a miner’s camp. We set-up camp in time to view the incredible sunset and explore some of the old mining equipment that had been left behind from early 1900’s.
Don’t forget to bring your propane firebowl, as wood fires and collecting wood are not allowed in the backcountry.
Checkout the Outland Living Firebowl on Amazon that we love and use all the time!
4×4 Roads Worth a Drive
Between paved, dirt, and 4×4 roads, there are nearly 1,000 miles you can travel within the park to both popular and remote destinations. It’s that expansive! It would take years and maybe even lifetimes to explore everything this park has to offer. After all, it is the largest National Park in the lower 48.
During our three days in the park, we felt like we were constantly driving to get from one destination to the next. A lot of miles were spent on dirt roads and there were a couple that we like more than others. Some of the roads were well-groomed, while others were washboard or extremely technical. Regardless, if you are going to be spending anytime on backcountry roads in Death Valley, I would highly recommend airing down for a smoother ride. We don’t have on-board air to air back up, but we do have a great portable air compressor that we highly recommend.
You can find this Viair Portable Compressor on Amazon here.
This fairly easy dirt road is one that I would put high on your list. The trailhead is actually outside of Death Valley to the east, near the old ghost town Rhyolite. This quirky old settlement with a free museum is good enough reason in itself to drive up to the trailhead. The town of Beatty, NV is also close by. If you are thinking you are going to need gas, I would definitely recommend gassing up here to avoid the crazy prices inside the park.
After you check out Rhyolite, the trailhead is just to the southwest. The canyon is one-way, so you will have to start the trail here. Don’t try to come in from the other way or you will surely be disappointed when you reach the one way sign before you are able to enter the canyon. Give yourself 2-3 hours for the 26 mile drive, which includes time to explore the old mining town of Leadfield, which is just before you enter the canyon narrows.
The narrows are absolutely breathtaking. We’ve hiked through slot canyons before, but have never seen a canyon like this that you can drive through. The road winds through the canyon like a river and the sheer walls are absolutely beautiful and striped with different colors of rock layers that look like they were painted.
Before going any further, let me start by saying this is one of the most dangerous roads in Death Valley. If you do not have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle or proper off-road experience you may want to pass on this one.
We started on this 7-mile road after spending the night Homestake above the Racetrack. Where we were coming from, we were traveling down the pass, which allowed us to take in some of the incredible views. The road itself is very rocky and rugged with steep drop offs and some technical sections to maneuver. In some places, it is barely wide enough for one vehicle. We were lucky enough not to encounter anyone coming up the pass, as we would have had to back-up to find a place to pullover, which were very few and far between.
After making our way down the series of switchbacks, we entered the most technical section of the trail. There are a few boulders that you have to make your way through and then a washout section that will definitely make you clench your cheeks. After that, it is pretty smooth sailing down into Saline Valley.
Amazing Places You Have to See
As mentioned before, there are enough places to see and explore in Death Valley that it could take you years, if not lifetimes. During our long weekend, we crammed in as much as we could, but there is so much that is already on our list for next time. For this past trip, below were a few of the highlights.
A quick 1/4 mile walk from the parking lot up a paved pathway will take you to an incredible viewpoint of the badlands. This is one of the most photographed areas of Death Valley, and for good reason.
Another very popular spot in Death Valley for photography, this area of the park is like no other. The colors that can be found in the mountainside are absolutely jaw-dropping. It looks like you are peering through a kaleidoscope as you take in the colors before you. The array of colors are due to oxidation of various metals in the rock. Iron produces the reds, pinks, and yellows, mica produces the greens , and manganese produce the purples. This is definitely a must-see when you are in Death Valley.
Bad Water Basin
What else is there to say other than it’s pretty freaking cool to explore the lowest elevation in North America? At 282 feet below sea level, the salt flats cover nearly 200 square miles. Walking on the salt flats makes you feel like you are on another planet. If you visit here, make sure you walk out on the flats for about a mile. The ground changes drastically from where it meets the parking lot and is definitely worth exploring.
When I first heard there was a “racetrack” in Death Valley, I automatically assumed it was a barren section of the valley where cars would literally race as fast as they could. Little did I know that the Racetrack is actually not an area you can drive on at all, but instead, an old dry lake bed that is home to the mysterious moving rocks or as some call them, sailing stones. Up until 2014, there were various hypotheses as to how the rocks, some weighing up to 700 pounds, moved across the playa and left their tracks behind. The different ideas ranged from aliens to pranks. In 2013 some scientists set-up a way to monitor the rocks using GPS and other weather gauges and found that the rocks moved when there was a combination of ice on the playa and wind in the forecast. That would be a sight to see… and some pretty crazy weather conditions to be out there in!
This post barely scratched the surface on things to see and do in Death Valley, and we can’t wait to come back! If you’ve been here, please leave a comment on your favorite things to do. Also, check out the videos we created and consider liking and subscribing to our channel for more adventures. Happy trails!