by Lee Foster
Recently I returned to Death Valley to savor this beguiling desert park once again. During one of my earlier visits, the superintendent was eradicating wild burros from the park. Burros were an invasive element, abandoned by long-ago gold miners. However they were devastating to the sparse plant life because they cropped plants thoroughly and close to the ground. Because of the removal of those burros, the native vegetation now appears more robust.
By contrast, the wild mountain sheep keep moving as they eat, consuming only about 2 percent of the vegetation on land over which they pass. Also, brazen burros crowded out the rare, native sheep around water holes because the sheep were more timid. When crowded away from a water source, survival is in question in Death Valley.
On this trip I flew into Las Vegas and drove a rental car up to the park. On earlier ventures I have driven my car or an RV out to Death Valley from my home in Berkeley, 500 miles away. My motive remains the same. I came to commune once again with this majestic desert landscape.
Entering Death Valley
The drive up from Las Vegas is an easy two-hour venture west through Pahrump. I stopped for lunch at the Pahrump Winery, which gets its grapes mainly from California. However, there is a small planting of Zinfandel and Syrah around the property. I stayed in the national park at the Furnace Creek Inn and saw the sunrise fall on the Panamint Mountains to the west.
I have also driven into Death Valley from San Francisco and from Los Angeles. Approaches from the west are through Wildrose and through Panamint Springs. Each approach has its own special aesthetic of desert landscape and mountain views.
The drive in from Las Vegas is the shortest drive, in terms of time, but the drive in from the west may be more suitable for overall travel plans, as an aspect of a travel itinerary from Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The marvel of Death Valley is that there is an occasional water spring, especially strong in the Furnace Creek area. This enduring water source appears magically from the underground aquifer in a landscape that gets only 1.92 inches average annual rainfall.
Orienting Yourself to Death Valley
Furnace Creek is an appropriate base from which to orient yourself to the park. The Furnace Creek facilities can accommodate all kinds of guests. Options include the luxurious and historic Furnace Creek Inn and the more family-oriented Furnace Creek Ranch. Here you’ll also find an RV park and campground, plus the park Visitor Center.
Many of the features of the park have diabolical names, suggesting the inhospitable world all around you. The land features are named with biblical ferocity and some humor. At Devil’s Cornfield, north from Furnace Creek, for example, the arrowweed plants clump together in the manner of harvested corn stalks.
Originally designated a monument, Death Valley’s name changed to National Park status in 1994. That change affected people’s perception of the area. A few more visitors came. Nevertheless, the regulations and policies that manage Death Valley remain mainly the same. All along, the Park Service recognized that Death Valley included both the features and the size that we associate with a National Park.
The earlier legal status of Death Valley as a National Monument rather than a National Park was largely a political consideration. A National Monument can be created with a presidential signature. A National Park requires an act of Congress. When park advocate Stephen Mather shepherded Death Valley through Congress in 1933, it was thought appropriate to keep Death Valley at National Monument status. Mather himself had worked for the borax mining interests in Death Valley, so creating “their” National Park seemed impolitic. Moreover, California already had several National Parks, and creation of more National Parks is a legislative act requiring national cooperation.
You can see many of the important features of the park by making two consecutive day trips from Furnace Creek. Take a day trip north from Furnace Creek to Scotty’s Castle and various other stops. Follow that with a day trip south to Badwater and further sites.
Furnace Creek is the most “developed” area of Death Valley. The greenery of this oasis, made possible by the dependable springs, stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding environment.
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the major Park Service interpretive effort in Death Valley. Be sure to stop to get information, the Park Service literature, and some of the various books on nature and history. Furnace Creek is also an activity center, where you can ride horseback or play golf.
Further orientation is possible at the Furnace Creek Borax Museum, with its geology specimens, Indian relics, and collection of early transportation and mining artifacts.
Day One: Furnace Creek to Scotty’s Castle
Make Scotty’s Castle your first stop in the northern part of the park. The drive can take a couple of hours, with scenic stops, reminding one of the size of the park. Take a guided tour of the Castle, offered by spirited volunteers, sometimes in period costumes.
Scotty’s Castle is an imposing house in the northern sector of the park. This mock-Moorish edifice appears like a mirage or a tall tale. The structure of the “castle” was the creation of a famous desert gold mining prospector. Named Walter Scott, aka Death Valley Scotty, he was a story teller, flim-flam man, con artist, and former Buffalo Bill Road Show entertainer. He also was a charmer, and he convinced a Chicago insurance millionaire named Albert Johnson to build the house as a vacation retreat. Johnson maintained Walter Scott as a court jester brought in to entertain Johnson and guests.
The most interesting aspect of Scotty’s Castle today is the craftsmanship quality of its construction, reflecting a unified Southwest architectural vision. Such details as the wrought-iron sidewinder rattlesnake light fixtures or the careful tile work in the kitchen add up cumulatively to create a pleasing architectural effect. One tour de force aspect of the house is its Welte organ, which can reproduce a symphony of instrumental sounds. Another special feature (ingenious for the 1920s) is the Pelton-wheel electrical system, which used spring water pressure to turn a generator that could light the place.
Death Valley Scotty’s supposed gold mine may have been purely mythical, but the borax, talc, and other mineral treasures of Death Valley have been real and substantial.
After Scotty’s Castle, proceed to nearby Ubehebe Crater, a depression 600 feet deep. Ubehebe was the scene of a major volcanic event, a steam explosion, about 3,000 years ago. The scattered ash and rock from the explosion can be seen throughout this area of Death Valley.
Then turn south to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which are about 85 feet high, created by the confluence of winds that drop the sand here. The dunes shift constantly, presenting some sensuous shapes, especially at sunrise and sunset when the light hits the curves at a tilt.
As a visitor walks onto the sand dunes and begins to study the desert closely, the marvels of life here become apparent. For example, spines on the cactus have evolved partly as a mechanism to break the flow of hot wind, reducing wind’s drying effect on the plant. The sidewinder rattler’s graceful looping stride evolved as an efficient way to avoid slipping on sand and to reduce the snake’s body contact with the hot desert ground.
Next to the sand dunes is a patch of arrowweed, a plant that requires fresh water, indicating a water source close beneath it. The arrowweed clumps together, inspiring the name Devil’s Cornfield, as mentioned earlier.
Turning south, as you approach Furnace Creek, stop at the Harmony Borax site, where the 20-Mule Team wagons carried out this desirable mineral. The enterprise has a huge place in myth and history, but actually was only in operation for a short period, 1883-1888. Borax is still widely used in industrial operations, especially in the making of fiberglass, but more accessible sources of it at Boron, outside the park, provide the material today.
After a day in the field and a stop at the Visitor Center, it is easy to identify a few of the dominant plants in the park, such as creosote bush, cholla cactus, sage, mesquite, and desert holly. More difficult to see are the animals, which are often nocturnal, such as the sidewinder rattlesnake. A ranger at the Visitor Center can alert you to where mountain sheep may be seen, such as Daylight Pass.
Day Two: South to Badwater
On a second day from Furnace Creek, travel south and be sure to see the park’s lowest point, at Badwater, which is 282 feet below sea level. Badwater is said to be the hottest and lowest point in the USA. In July, the Badwater Ultra Marathon from here to Whitney Portal inspires runners who wish to flaunt their resilience when confronted with heat and elevation gain. Runners proceed from the minus 282 feet to plus 8,360 feet from sea level, with a few ups and downs along the way. At Badwater, in winter and spring, you can sometimes see snow on Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains, complete with a reflection of the snowy peak in the water on the low valley floor.
In 1913 a temperature of 134 degrees was recorded in Death Valley. Rainfall here is slight, an average of 1.92 inches per year, but when a half inch of rain falls, flash floods result. The 2004 rains, which amounted to a colossal 4.54 inches, caused immense flash floods and wiped out roads, changing the landscape. The resulting abundant wildflower show in 2005 lingers in the memories of those who observed it.
Along the road to Badwater, there is a must-see one-way loop road to the west, called Artist’s Drive. The multicolored rocks, especially the iron-oxide reds, make nine-mile Artist’s Drive a pleasing side road, especially at a stop called Artist’s Palette, where you can walk back into the colorful canyons. Various minerals in the rock cause the green, yellow, purple, brown, and red appearance.
Another stop not to miss along this route is the Devil’s Golf Course, where holes in the salt hardpan are caused by water dissolving the minerals. Devil’s Golf Course is an immense area of jagged rock salt, eroded by wind and rain. The sharply serrated chunks of salt make this, indeed, a golf course only the devil could play.
The superlative late afternoon view near Furnace Creek is at Zabriskie Point, where folds of stone seem to flow down a mountain side. The clarity of the air makes a traveler lose the perspective of distance at Zabriskie, giving a trompe l’oeil effect of deceptive closeness to the rock formations.
I hiked early one morning from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon, going one way, which was possible because I was able to arrange a shuttle at Furnace Creek Inn. Without a shuttle I would have hiked in and out of Golden Canyon, one of the most popular hikes in the park. The inspiring landforms to see here are a peak known as Manley Beacon and its adjacent red rock formation called the Red Cathedral.
The desert experience Death Valley offers a traveler is rewarding. The possibilities of self discovery, the sense of man’s fragile hold on the environment, the spare beauty of light on the spartan terrain, and the remarkable examples of plant and animal adaptability all make a visit to Death Valley refreshing.
Death Valley: If You Go
For further information on Death Valley, look at the Park Service website at www.nps.gov/deva.
Any season but summer is a good time to visit Death Valley. In summer the area may be the hottest place in North America. The record temperature here is 134 degrees in the shade. Some facilities close in summer, so be sure that the resource you want will be open. Check ahead on the park service website.
Las Vegas is the nearest major airport city. At Las Vegas or Palm Springs you could rent a car and drive to Death Valley. Most visitors drive cars or RVs to Death Valley.
The main lodging options are the upscale Furnace Creek Inn and the more family-oriented Furnace Creek Ranch. Details on both at www.furnacecreekresort.com.
RVs and Campers
For RVs, there are electrical hookups at Stovepipe Wells and at Furnace Creek. Both sites have swimming pools open for RVers. The Furnace Creek Campground is the RV site with the more pleasing physical setting. Tank dumping is possible at Stovepipe Wells and at Furnace Creek. Outlying campgrounds are shared by RVers and tent campers.
Tent campers favor the Furnace Creek Camp, with its amenities such as trees, picnic tables, and one section segregated from RVs (with their audible generators). Tent camping on the hard desert floor is also possible at Stovepipe Wells.
Outlying camps, such as one at Mesquite Springs, appeal to travelers in search of desert solitude. Mesquite Springs has a total-silence-after-dark rule with no RV generators allowed.
When the weather turns hot, swimming pools at Stovepipe Wells and at Furnace Creek can cool down the traveler. The Stovepipe Wells pool closes in summer, however.
Restaurants and Food
Restaurant food service is offered at Stovepipe Wells and at Furnace Creek. Both sites have year-around General Stores selling food and drink.
The fine dining option in the park is the Inn Dining Room at Furnace Creek Inn. Close behind is the more casual Wrangler Steakhouse at Furnace Creek Ranch.
Gasoline is available at Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek, and Panamint Springs. Keep your tank well filled because driving distances in the desert can be deceptive and fuel supplies aren’t always assured.
See that your vehicle is in good condition for a desert crossing. Carry a gallon of water per person extra in case of a breakdown. Plan your lodging and food arrangements before going. Organize your trip for the cooler seasons rather than for summer if you can.
Scotty’s Castle Tours are sometimes quite full. Plan to take a tour early in the day, allowing you to catch the next tour if your tour time is sold out.
Stay on the paved roads unless you have the four-wheel-drive and high-clearance vehicle for gravel roads. Note that the final quarter mile up Dante’s View is a 14 percent grade.
Nature and History Literature
The Visitor Center at Furnace Creek carries ample nature and history literature about Death Valley.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page