5-Day Las Vegas to Death Valley Road Trip

Aside from being one of the world’s premier destinations, Las Vegas also serves as a handy base camp for exploring southern Nevada’s natural and recreational attractions. With flights arriving from around the country and around the world, the city’s McCarran International Airport makes it an easy gateway to the state. This road trip itinerary will guide you from Las Vegas to Death Valley in 5 days; adding a day or two in Vegas at the beginning or end of your trip will round it out to a full week.

aerial shot of the hoover dam
Marvel at the engineering behind the Hoover Dam. Photo © Kobb_dagan/Dreamstime.

Day 1: Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

33 Miles / 45 Minutes
Head south on I-515 to Boulder City (about a 30-minute drive), gateway to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. You will burn a lot of calories today, so treat yourself to breakfast at the Southwest Diner. Park at the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, downstream from Hoover Dam, and walk across, pausing to read the interpretive signs and take in a fine view of the engineering marvel. Next drive to the visitors center and tour the bowels of the dam. Check out the visitors center until lunchtime.

Restaurant choices in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area are slim, so pick up a few snacks and rent a pontoon boat at Lake Mead Marina. Spend the afternoon exploring the lake’s coves and enjoying a floating picnic. The marina also sells fishing gear and licenses in case you want to match wits with the lake’s legendary striped bass.

Return to the marina before sundown and head back up the hill to Boulder City for some window shopping and an evening stroll through the historical downtown, full of curiosity shops and boutiques housed in 1930s Spanish Colonial Revival buildings. On the way back to Vegas, stop again at the Southwest Diner for a home-style dinner of meatloaf, pot roast, or grilled ham steak, but make it an early night.

Day 2: Caliente, Panaca, and Pioche

180 Miles / 2.75 Hours
After exploring some of humanity’s greatest creations in Boulder City, today you’ll head out on a jaunt through nature’s handiwork. Order coffee and muffins to go and head out on US 93 for the roughly 90-minute drive to arrive at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Get there early to catch a glimpse of deer, foxes, cougars, egrets, and tortoises, which are most active in the early morning. Continue north on US 93 for lunch at Caliente’s J&J Fast Food for fried finger food made from scratch but served in minutes.

Spend the afternoon looking up at the eerie spires and spindles at Cathedral Gorge State Park, then drive up to Pioche for dinner at the Silver Café, the best of the sparse offerings in this part of the state. Head back to Panaca and settle in with a good book and a restful night’s sleep at the Pine Tree Inn and Bakery.

jagged landscape of Cathedral Gorge State Park
Cathedral Gorge State Park. Photo © Rinus Baak/Dreamstime.

Day 3: The Extraterrestrial Highway

210 Miles / 3.25 Hours
Dig into the Pine Tree Inn’s full breakfast for the fuel you will need for a full day of chasing extraterrestrials. Drive the 65 miles from Panaca to Hiko (following US 93 south). Pick up a Martian coffee cup and take a selfie with the 30-foot-tall metallic spaceman standing guard at the Alien Research Center. Then head west on the Extraterrestrial Highway (NV 375) to Rachel for an Alien Burger lunch at the Little A’Le’Inn. Explore the perimeter of Area 51—carefully—including the “Use of Deadly Force Authorized” sign. Reach the end of the ET Highway at Warm Springs and head on to Tonopah for a spicy, cheesy dinner at El Marques.

If you don’t mind sharing a room with the ghosts of miners and working girls, book the night’s stay at the Comstock-opulent Mizpah Hotel. But don’t turn in before a star party with the Tonopah Astronomical Society under the dark, dark canopy illuminated by thousands of stars.

Day 4: Boomtowns and Ghost Towns

93 Miles / 1.5 Hours
You won’t need a pick or pan for today’s lesson in Nevada’s mining history. Start the day with the Miner’s Breakfast amid Comstock-era decor at the Stage Shop Café at Tonopah Station casino. Peer into the shaft of Burro Tunnel and peruse the hoists and works at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. Visit the Central Nevada Museum to gain some perspective into mining’s place in life in the Old West. The faithful boomtown re-creation outside includes a saloon, blacksmith shop, and stamp mill.

Head 30 minutes south on US 95 to stretch your legs with a wander around Goldfield. Its turn-of-the-20th-century hotel, fire station, and courthouse serve as apt selfie backgrounds. Finish with burgers and fries at Dinky Diner, then continue another hour south to Beatty and onto NV 374 to see the surreal plaster cast sculptures and other modern art at the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Head next door to check out the Bottle House, railroad depot, bank building, and other relics at Rhyolite ghost town before beating it back to Beatty for a casual alfresco dinner at KC’s Outpost. Load up on jerky and trail mix at Death Valley Nut & Candy Co. for tomorrow’s adventure, then hit the hay at the retro-cool Atomic Inn.

sky turning purple and pink at sunset over sand dunes in Death Valley
Watch the sun set over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Photo © Bukki88/Dreamstime.

Day 5: Into Death Valley

220 Miles / 4 Hours
Leave Beatty early for the drive southwest along NV 374 into Death Valley toward Stovepipe Wells Village (roughly 40 minutes), planning to arrive at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to see the sunrise. Climb a dune to watch the play of light and shadow on the sand and rock formations. Backtrack slightly through the Titus Canyon Narrows and follow the signs to Scotty’s Castle for a guided tour of the iconic Spanish-style residence. The landmark castle was damaged during flooding in 2015, but the National Park Service offers a limited number of tours to witness its recovery, planned for completion in 2020. Either way, it’s worth a stop.

Head back south on CA 190 (60 miles, 75 minutes) for lunch at the Ranch at Death Valley, fuel for the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch trail. Park at the trailhead on Badwater Road, two miles south of the junction with CA 190. The trail encompasses Zabriskie Point and views of Red Cathedral, Manly Beacon, and wave after wave of basalt ridges.

Returning to your car, drive the scenic Artist’s Drive loop through Artist’s Palette. The scenic route, lined with canyon walls stained green, yellow, pink, and white by minerals in the rock, starts three miles south of the Golden Canyon trailhead on Badwater Road. Nine miles and 22 minutes later, the drive returns to Badwater Road, four miles south of the embarkation point. From here, go north on Badwater Road and take CA 190 and NV 373 to Amargosa Valley (61 miles, 1 hour). Enjoy a late dinner at the Nebraska Steakhouse, a little slot play, and a room for the night.

Return to Las Vegas via US 95 or NV 160 (roughly 120 miles; a two-hour drive).

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