By Joan Rattner Heilman
Planning a trip to Death Valley National Park? If so, you’re unusual. And that’s good. Except for the busloads of foreign visitors stopping for lunch or overnight on their way to Yosemite National Park or Las Vegas, you’ll have the place pretty much all to yourself most of the year. That’s because, despite its spectacular unique beauty, Death Valley, in central California on the edge of the Mohave Desert, has a bad reputation.
Called one of the most inhospitable places in the world, it is the hottest spot in North America. In summer, the temperature can top 115 degrees. A long narrow basin walled by steep mountain ranges, it is also the driest place in North America, with an average of only 1.92 inches of rain a year (six inches or less per year defines a desert).
It is the lowest, too. Some parts of the park are 282 feet below sea level and its golf course, at 214 feet below, is the lowest in the world. And it is the starkest. Its mountain ranges are raw naked rock that is exposed in all its geological varieties and crazily tilted layers formed by cataclysmic forces in the earth’s crust over many thousands of years.
But don’t let all that scare you off. Inhospitable, hot, dry, low, stark, Death Valley is also one of the most spectacular places in the world. Don’t expect to fall in love with its bare beauty with a cursory visit. Stay for at least a few days in late fall, winter, or early spring, when the temperature is a comfortable 80 or 85 during the day and much cooler at night. It takes time to feel the wondrous serenity of this 3.3-million-acre park. At first glance a barren wasteland, silent and hostile, it grows on you. I recently spent three days in Death Valley, wondering what the big deal was when I arrived and addicted to its eery charms by the time I departed. Besides, even if you never passed earth sciences in school, pay attention and you will emerge as a junior geologist after a week or two.
Death Valley got its name from the grim journeys of parties of ‘49ers who had to cross this treacherous land as they trekked westward in their desperate search for gold. Just an hour and a half from Las Vegas, the capital of overload, it is a fine antidote to that city’s noise, crowds, lights, and commotion. There’s no place like it for splendid isolation. Take a hike, for example, into one of the canyons along trails that wind through mountain peaks, cliffs and sandy dunes, and you may not see another soul.
The only accommodations right smack in the Valley are at the rustic but swanky Inn at Furnace Creek and its more casual partner, the Ranch at Furnace Creek, just down the road (800-236-7916; www.furnacecreekresort.com). The Inn started out in 1927 when the Pacific Borax Company turned its crew quarters into a resort. Today it is the most elegant accommodations within hundreds of miles with amenities that include tennis courts, a tasteful and innovative restaurant, a lush garden with palm trees imported from Algeria in the 1920s, an 18-hole golf course, a spring-fed pool, and 66 rooms. The Ranch, with its general store, museum, restaurants, and stables, has another 224 motel-type rooms. The Inn is closed from mid-May to mid-October but the less-expensive Ranch is open all year. Of course, you can bring your own housing and stay at one of several RV campgrounds. Beyond those, the next lodgings are a batch of bungalows in Stovepipe Wells, a few miles away, and in Pahrump, a casino-strewn roadside community about 50 miles closer to Las Vegas.
Death Valley has plenty to recommend it for adventurers who revel in nature’s marvels, although for most of the year there are few plants besides mesquite, creosote bushes, and sage (but try it in April or May when desert wildflowers bloom after a good rain) and little to be seen in the way of wildlife (although I didn’t see them, I’ve been told it has a surprising variety of animal species such as lizards, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, snakes, and coyotes). A new adventure offered by Furnace Creek Resort is a two-night package that includes accommodations at the Ranch, a one-day four-wheel-drive Jeep with off-road tires, trail maps, and box lunches, so you can explore on your own.
A major activity for the sure-footed is hiking because there is terrain suitable for either amateur or seasoned trekkers. You can go on your own if you possess a good sense of direction and the ability to scramble if necessary, but it’s better to choose a guided walk, available through the hotel or offered by the National Park Service and booked at the Visitor Center. Be sure to take plenty of water because this air is dry. My favorite hike was through the Golden Canyon, across natural formations in breathtaking pastel colors, through narrow passes, sandy slopes and huge slabs of rock. The spiky peaks that surround the canyon change color according to the minerals they contain and their unpredictable silhouettes are the result of unimaginable upheavals eons ago. A short—maybe two or three miles—walk, this one is doable by any able-bodied adventurers, including senior citizens. Mosaic Canyon, a geologic wonder, offers a moderate hike and can be reached by a 2.5-mile drive up an alluvial fan. The 150-foot sand dunes in the north end of the park are ideal for explorations on foot, while other treks are for more experienced hikers.
Of course, you can drive around the Valley perhaps following Artist’s Drive (but not in an RV which can’t negotiate the sharp curves), a one-way road that meanders 8 miles through magnificent washes and mud hills. The highlight is Artist’s Palette, where rock formations display green, yellow, blue and salmon pink mineral deposits.
Don’t skip Badwater Basin, the famed lowest point in North America, for otherworldly landscapes and a walk down to the small briny pond and fields of salt, all that’s left of a 30-foot lake that evaporated a few thousand years ago. Check out Dante’s View, a popular viewpoint that draws visitors because of its 5,475-foot elevation overlooking the entire Valley floor and the mountains beyond. Zabriskie Point provides another panoramic vista, while Ubehebe Crater, 770 feet deep and half a mile across, requires a strenuous hike to the bottom or at least a walk up to the crater’s edge for a look inside. The ever-shifting sand dunes on the flat floor of the Valley reflect a different light throughout the day; and the Devil’s Golf Course, popular with photographers, is an otherworldly expanse of gnarled sharp-edged pinnacles of solid salt.
Everyone who goes to Death Valley must stop at the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works where about 120 years ago workers mined three tons of borax (known as “white gold”) a day out of the tortured hills and hauled it at two miles an hour in huge wagons pulled by 20-mule teams 165 miles to the nearest rail station.
And finally, never leave this place without a drive to Scotty’s Castle, an exotic Mediterranean-style mansion built in the 1920’s as a winter vacation home by a Chicago millionaire. Take a tour through the castle escorted by a park ranger in a 1930’s period uniform who will tell you the story of the millionaire and his friend Scotty, an eccentric cowboy-prospector who spent more time here than the millionaire.
For more information, visit Death Valley National Park
Joan Rattner Heilman, a New York travel writer is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles and columns and over a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50.