Hwy 95 north of Las Vegas is not very diverse or dramatic, but it will let you see the ghost town of Rhyolite (in the dark, since you want to be at the Sand Dunes for sunrise—but you’ll have flash capability, right?). Be sure to allow enough time when planning your departure from Las Vegas so you can be at the Sand Dunes a little before sunrise, to enjoy all of it. Either that or plan an overnight stay in Death Valley so you’ll have another chance!
After Rhyolite and Daylight Pass, you’ll drop down into the Valley on Mud Canyon Road; at the Hell’s Gate junction, follow the sign at the junction for Scotty’s Castle and Stovepipe Wells, bearing right. Otherwise you’ll be heading toward Furnace Creek. Be sure to stop at Hell’s Gate (that’s where the junction is) for a view of the Valley looking southwest. It won’t be daylight yet, but whatever you can see will show you a little of the lay of the land.
From Las Vegas to Beatty is about 120 miles, then about 35 miles to the Devil’s Cornfield-Sand Dunes area. You can park anywhere along the road where there is space to get entirely out of the traffic lane, but continue to a paved parking area that gets you closer than the road berm (shorter walk to the dunes). In addition to the magical beauty of the sunrise, there is also the fun of finding footprints from critters that are active at night. You can find prints from coyotes, kit foxes, birds, beetles (yes, the sand is so fine that beetles about the size and shape of a black olive make tracks resembling a zipper). The sidewinder rattlesnake has an unusual track. Snakes cannot regulate their body temperature by sweating, panting, or radiating, so the sidewinder protects itself by moving in a looping motion like a Slinky toy. This puts only small patches of skin on the ground at a time and leaves a series of loose S-shaped tracks. Animal tracks are best seen in the a.m. while they are fresh, before the wind picks up or people have been walking around, and you have the shadow contrasts.
I don’t know if Salt Creek will have pupfish by the time you arrive; they go inactive when the weather gets hot and the water evaporates and becomes too salty. You can call the park visitor center before leaving Las Vegas if you want current conditions: 760-786-3200. Even if there aren’t many fish, the creek is an amazing sight in the depths of the hottest, driest desert in North America. Taste the buds of the pickleweed, the plant that grows closest to the bank and thrives on salt water.
From Las Vegas to Furnace Creek on this route will be about 180 miles, not counting any sightseeing detours. The places where you can get gas are Beatty, Stovepipe Wells Village (just past the dunes), and Furnace Creek; of these, Beatty is always cheapest and Furnace Creek usually highest.
After Furnace Creek, when you go down Badwater Road, the major natural marvels are in the first 17 miles. The southern part is scenic and beautiful, but it’s more about sweeping vistas of the mountains and valley, not so much about specific natural wonders. Visit the places in this order to minimize crossing over the road: Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater on the west side of the road, then backtrack to Natural Bridge (optional if time allows), Artist’s Drive, and Golden Canyon.
Then turn east on 190, maybe take a few minutes to look at the Furnace Creek Inn and stroll in the terrace gardens if you wish (visitors welcome), and proceed according to the rest of your outline. If you go to all the places you’ve planned on, the total distance for this day trip will be approximately (since you and we can’t predict what scenic detours might appeal to you) 360-375 miles.