We stayed in Pahrump, Nevada (a little east of the park) the night before because there was more opportunity for cheaper gas and places to stay (Saddle West Casino).
Late December is definitely the time to visit Death Valley. The temperature was only 60°, excellent for exploring the desert and hiking around. Understandably, some of the hiking areas were kind of crowded, but we didn’t get to those until later in the afternoon after getting to Bad Water Basin. The lower portion coming in from Shoshone was very quiet.
After passing one of the first salt flats, we came upon a couple of coyotes. One of them was very curious and walked around the car to the driver side after we stopped. Hopefully they aren’t used to people feeding them, but it made for a nice photo op.