Throughout my journey of the United States (and some of Canada), I have had to find interesting ways to save money.
Having hit 22 states, 3 provinces, countless National Parks, National Monuments, and public lands, I have become a self-proclaimed expert on budget travel to the National Parks.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some of the ways that I have learned to save money while camping in Death Valley National Park.
How to Save Money in Death Valley
When driving into any National Park for the first time, I have at my disposal an arsenal of websites to find the cheapest gas in the area, free camping sites, and low-cost grocery stores so I don’t have to depend too much on gas stations for sustenance.
Death Valley National Park was like many others in that it created a captive audience, allowing it to massively upcharge for gas and food.
If you use my tips to avoid the money traps, then Death Valley National park can be a fantastic budget vacation.
For any good camping trip, you’ll need three things:
There are a few restaurants and general stores in the park near the visitor centers, but unless you want $5 cans of chili, these should be avoided.
The nearest Walmarts are in Pahrump if approaching from the west, and Ridgecrest from the east. Nobody likes shopping at Walmart, but you’re reading this because you’re visiting Death Valley on a budget and nobody does budget like Walmart.
To the East, the last cheap gas we found was at a gas station with a quaint, attached brothel in Amargosa Valley. They really live up the Area 51 hype in this adorable little shop.
They sell a lot of essentials and silly merchandise in the convenience store, and the gas was pretty average priced for most of Nevada. When I went, they had a problem with their pumps being extremely slow, but they still worked.
If approaching from the other side, Ridgecrest is your best bet. Not as cute, and no brothels, but a regularly priced gallon of gas, and it should last you through the park.
Places to Camp in Death Valley
You have your gas and rations for the trip, now to find a place to sleep without an hour and a half drive out of the park. Fortunately, if you’re camping in Death Valley, there are four free campsites to choose from.
The first, most accessible, and convenient of these is Emigrant campsite. It is right off 190 just after Stovepipe Wells.
There are ten sites, each with a picnic table, it has convenient trash cans, and the picnic area directly adjacent has a flush restroom and running water. This is where we stayed for our duration, and we were visited by an adorable kitfox as we ate dinner our first night.
The site says tents only, but everybody there was sleeping in their vans, including us, and nobody ever came by to check. The ten sites were all very close to each other, and the site was right off the road, so it didn’t feel isolated at all, but all we did there was sleep anyway.
The second site is Wildrose Campground. It takes about 30-40 minutes on a windy and sometimes rough dirt/gravel road. The park recommends not taking vehicles over 25’ on this road, and regardless of vehicle length, you should take care to avoid damage in a low clearance vehicle.
This site is a little more isolated, and each spot has a table and charcoal grill. It also has a well maintained and beautifully built pit toilet. There are 23 sites available, the first of which are basically a parking lot, with the sites further back getting more isolated, and the farthest back ones being pretty lonely and “tent only”.
The turnoff to the charcoal kilns is right after the site, so if you plan on seeing these on your trip, this is a great place to stop for the night.
Thorndike and Mahogany Flats
The other two free campsites, Thorndike and Mahogany Flats, are past the Charcoal Kilns, and incredibly difficult to get to. They close in winter due to snow, which seems crazy about Death Valley, but these sites are pretty far up at 7400’ and 8100’ respectively.
Both of these sites require high clearance vehicles and recommend 4 wheel drive for any inclement weather. While some people have made it in sedans, I wouldn’t try it without having driven it before.
The views in this area are pretty astounding so I hear, and people like to start summit hikes from both of these sites to Telescope Peak.
Thorndike is walking distance to the charcoal kilns and has 6 sites complete with picnic tables, grills, and a pit toilet, and Mahogany Flats has 10 sites, tons of juniper trees for shade, and very cool temperatures.
Great places to stay on your way into or out of the park are Alabama Hills in the BLM land outside of Lone Pine, California to the West of Death Valley National Park and an area known locally as “The Pads” outside of Ryan, California to the East.
Alabama Hills area has ample boulders strewn about that beg you to climb them, tons of trails, and is even a great place to go backpacking up Mt. Whitney which casts its majestic shadow on this very campsite.
“The Pads” is mainly interesting for its curiosity. While it is well known among locals, nobody seems to know who owns it or why. It seems to be an old sewage treatment facility or some such and has about 20 very flat and rather large concrete slabs perfect for any size RV and plenty of nearby hills to hike.
Things to See and do in Death Valley
While in the park, entertainment is basically free if you like hiking. There are awesome hikes in every part of the park for people of any ability.
You can go on an accessible boardwalk to the Badwater Salt Flats, the lowest point in North America, or you can take day-long hikes in breathtaking canyons.
The biggest hike we did was Sidewinder Canyon, a backcountry hike just down 190 from Beatty Junction. The side canyons offered natural bridges and astounding beauty.
On our way out we hiked Marble Canyon which was very close to our base camp at Emigrant Campsite. This hike offered some of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed in stark granite and marble. When we finally hit the end, it was truly hard to turn around and not attempt to climb the sheer wall of a marble dry fall.
Unless you have a pass, the entrance fee is $20 per vehicle, with a planned increase to $25. If you have a pass, you could stay at this park for a week for the price of a tank of gas and a week of groceries.
One tank made us into the park, from Emigrant to the surrounding hikes, and then out of the park to the next developed town. I wouldn’t recommend buying anything in the park besides souvenirs, and maybe the beer if you run out.
With all the hikes, diverse wildlife, and wildly varying landscapes, camping in Death Valley was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to reconnect with nature in one of her most unforgiving environments.
Good luck and happy trails.