Death Valley was given its ominous name by a group of pioneers crossing the vast desert plain in the winter of 1849-1850. The name stuck. Today, it’s the moniker of the national park straddling the border of Nevada and California, only 160 miles (198 km) west of Las Vegas. It’s also the centerpiece of The Death Drive, a road trip route that includes a ghost town and a coffin shop — yes, that says coffin shop, not coffee shop.
But this is no road to oblivion! The Las Vegas to Death Valley drive is quite literally a trip. There’s plenty of life-affirming pleasures on this itinerary, from the vineyards and Nevada wineries in Pahrump or a stop at the Happy Burro Chili in Beatty to exploring Desert National Wildlife Refuge or staring in awe at the grandeur of Mount Charleston or its 18,000 bristlecone pines (the largest concentration in the West of the oldest trees on Earth!). At 11,916 feet (3,632 meters), it’s the fifth-tallest peak in the state. In terms of literal life, some of these radical environments are actually even home to thriving species, like the Devils Hole Pupfish or the more than 35 species endemic to Mt. Charleston alone.
Ready to start The Death Drive? First, drive to Las Vegas. This looping road trip officially begins in Sin City, but if you’re coming from Death Valley to Las Vegas, you can technically start (and end) at whichever unique location you prefer. The distance from Las Vegas to Death Valley is about 120 miles and can be covered in a couple hours, but read on to find out how to make The Death Drive a lot more lively.
The Death Drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley begins somewhat ironically in Las Vegas, a city alive with entertainment, shopping, fine dining, and adventure. Las Vegas is only about a two-hour straight shot from Death Valley National Park, making it the closest urban metropolis to this desert jewel, but a fast blast like that only guarantees you’ll miss all the fantastic stops that have made this road trip so iconic.
First stop is Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, where natural springs maintain green lawns surrounded by the stark Mojave Desert. Just about 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, Spring Mountain Ranch is within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area — a spectacularly beautiful valley with bright red, iron-laden rock formations, yucca plants, desert tortoise and wild burros. Visitors can enjoy short walking trails and tour the visitor center, which is a former ranch once owned by Howard Hughes, among other famous personalities from the 20th century.
But seriously if the timing is right, stop for a bite to eat at the Mountain Springs Saloon, about 15 minutes from Spring Mountain and one of the best biker bars in the state. If you pull in here on the last Saturday of the month, March through October, dive right into the regularly scheduled pig roast. From here, it's just another 30 minutes to the town of Pahrump, a community of 38,000 with many amenities, including two award-winning wineries, Pahrump Valley and Sanders Family Winery; two golf courses, Mountain Falls Golf Club and Lake View Executive Golf Course; and a lake where you can "fly" with Jetpack America at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club.
But that's not the end of it! Enter: COFFINWOOD.
Open by appointment only (which we highly recommend making so you can see this place), Coffinwood is the creation of Bryan Schoening, a carpenter with a penchant for building coffins. He and his wife, Dusty Schoening, own Coffin It Up, a business that makes custom coffins and coffin-shaped items. From ping pong tables to jewelry and purses, Coffinwood is where it’s at if you’re in the business for any and all things, well, coffin. Although there is no gift shop yet, you can have just about anything custom made… as long as it’s coffin-related.
Are you traveling The Death Drive with your companion in life? You’re in luck. If you guys are ready, this is certainly a memorable alternative to a Vegas chapel. Yes, you heard us, you can arrange to exchange vows, here!
Head back to one of Pahrump's resorts to rest up for the next day. For international travelers and those that are hauling a trailer or driving an RV, Pahrump has quite a few stellar RV Parks in the area like Pahrump RV Park and Pahrump Station RV Park. New Frontier RV Park, Canyon Trail RV Park and Whiskey Flats RV Park are also great spots to check out if you're around for Fireworks Over Pahrump.
From Pahrump, it’s about a one hour drive to Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the main visitors' center at Death Valley National Park. Here, you can skip the kiosk lines and pay park admission, then check out museum exhibits on the area's geology and natural history. Or, watch a 20-minute film about the area before exploring the 3.4 million acre park, the largest national park in the Lower 48 of the United States.
The most popular drive is Badwater Road, which includes stops at the Devil's Golf Course and Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest, hottest and driest place in North America. There’s a byway off Badwater Road called Artist’s Drive, which weaves among colorful canyons and mountains.
TravelNevada Pro-Tip: Make the most of your trip to Death Valley during the spring months before temperatures creep into the 100s. If you time it just right, there is often a seriously spectacular wildflower bloom—AKA a "super bloom"—throughout the area (based on the amount of precipitation received throughout the year). Plus, lower 80 to 90-degree temps make exploring this vast National Park more doable, safe and enjoyable.
Don't forget, the weather in Death Valley not only fluctuates but can be harmful to children and older folks. Visitors in the summer months should take extreme precautions to keep themselves and their vehicles safe.
From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, it's about an hour's drive north to Rhyolite Ghost Town. Rhyolite is a former mining town that developed in the early 1900s that was part of the Bullfrog Mining District. The town boomed in the early 1900s, but the financial panic of 1907 (triggered by the San Francisco earthquake) took its toll.
In the next few years, the mines began closing and by 1916, the town was completely deserted. Finding timber in the desert was tough at best, so many of the wooden structures were carried off to new mines and new boomtowns, but some structures—like the bank, miners' union hall, brothel, and jail—remain, and can be viewed and explored. Once you've visited, you'll see why the area is the most photographed ghost town in the entire state.
Adjacent to Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Seven large-scale sculptures are here, which were created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski and other fellow artists in the 1980s. Among them is Szukalski’s ever-popular and often-photographed ghostly sculpted version of “The Last Supper.” From here, it’s about a 15-minute drive east to the community of Beatty.
Beatty was founded at the turn of the century as the central supply hub of the Bullfrog Mining District. The Bullfrog mines eventually played out, and while other mining towns became ghost towns, Beatty survived, and today markets itself as a gateway city into Death Valley National Park.
Learn more about area history at the Beatty Museum and Historical Society while you grab a bowl of chili (or a chili-topped, barbecued burger) and draft beer at the Happy Burro Chili and Beer. This classic watering hole and funky little wooden snack shack also shares a courtyard with a historical building that originally stood in the town of Rhyolite, but was relocated to Beatty after the Rhyolite bust.
‘Grab lunch from Beatty's Sourdough Saloon or Gema’s Wagon Wheel, and maybe some road munchies from the abundantly stocked Death Valley Nut & Candy Co. before hitting the road on this leg. From Beatty, it’s about an hour and a half drive to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge's Corn Creek Visitor Center. At 1.5 million acres, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the continental United States and one of the largest intact blocks of desert bighorn sheep habitat in the American Southwest. Most of the roads in this refuge are primitive, and ordinary passenger vehicles are not recommended; however, the road to the Corn Creek Visitor Center is paved.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Be sure to plan ahead when visiting this stunning, yet vast landscape. The visitors' center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday.
After experiencing one extreme at Desert National Wildlife Refuge, balance it out with another by visiting Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, which includes Mount Charleston. About an hour and 45-minute drive from Beatty, this section of the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest offers 316,000 acres of diverse landscape. The hallmark of the forest is Mount Charleston, and at 11,916 feet, Mount Charleston comes in as the fifth tallest peak in Nevada. It is also the home of one of the largest concentrations of bristlecone Pine Trees (the oldest tree on Earth) in the Intermountain West.
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area also houses a 27-run ski resort, Lee Canyon. The Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway at 2525 Kyle Canyon Road, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, is a 128-complex equipped with a visitors’ center, the Seven Stones Plaza honoring the seven Southern Paiute tribes of the Southwest, the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial, 40 miles of hiking trails, and much more. Escaping to a higher elevation in the Spring Mountains makes for a particularly enjoyable retreat during the summer months.
Interested in extending your time in the Spring Mountains? Plan on staying at the Resort on Mt. Charleston, a lodge-style accommodation with close proximity to this incredible forest landscape. If you've had your share of exploring this gem of the national forest system, begin your drive to Las Vegas, an easy 40-minute trek. As you descend, pay attention to the change in landscape as you make your way through spectacular roadscapes over the span of a 10,000 foot elevation change. There are seven climate zones on the Spring Mountains, a change in habitat that is similar to traveling from Mexico to the Canadian Arctic.
At this point, roadtrippers are out of the woods, literally, and can add completing The Death Drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley as another storied accomplishment in their lifetime.
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