By Valerie Coffey
Death Valley is one of America’s most “to die for” National Parks, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve visited the park perhaps nine times in four decades. It’s a must-see National Park if you like natural beauty, mountains, the desert, or history. Here’s why:
Death Valley, situated about three hours west of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, is a region of extremes — it is the lowest in elevation, the hottest in temperature and the driest in recorded rainfall in North America. It’s also one of the quietest places, and perhaps the darkest region of the U.S. at night. It’s not so much a single desert valley as much as a region consisting of several valleys, plateaus, and mountain ranges in Eastern California’s Mojave Desert. Its name comes from pioneers (the Lost 49ers), who struggled to cross this part of the frontier in 1849. The hottest air temperature ever recorded on Earth is 134°F (57°C), which occurred July 10, 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch, which is #1 on my list:
1. Furnace Creek Ranch: Furnace Creek was the first real settlement in Death Valley and today it still isn’t quite “civilization.” But something about it (quite possibly the thickest oxygen you’ll encounter in this hemisphere) makes me giddy. Maybe it’s the western frontier flair — Giddy-Up! The Furnace Creek Ranch and Resort is a lovely little village with a General Store, a few casual restaurants, a pool (my favorite!), a golf course, campground, cute little rental cabins and a couple of RV parks. The Death Valley National Park Visitor Center is located within walking distance from Furnace Creek Ranch. You pass through a grove of date palms to get there. From August through December, you can buy sun-warmed dates from a roadside table. In February, it’s often the only place in the U.S. that is consistently above 70F. Even if it’s chilly (and it’s always chilly at night in the desert), you can lounge by gas firelight and watch the comings and goings. It’s my happy place.
2. Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette: This short, scenic drive has twists and turns through canyons that are too tight for vehicles longer than 25 feet, so a motorcoach like our 45-foot-long “Love Shack” must stay behind. Hiking trails take you up through colorful canyons, great for tiring out kids young and old who like to climb.
3. Badwater Basin: Named for water that a propector’s mule refused to drink, Badwater is the lowest point in elevation in all of North America at 282 feet below sea level. People laughed at the first person to suggest it was lower than sea level, because it wasn’t below water. But it’s quite low indeed. And it does have some extremely salty water containing plenty of bacteria and little critters in it.
4. Ubehebe Crater: This crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) in the northern part of the park was not formed by a meteor. It was formed when magma rose through a fault close to the surface a few thousand years ago and flash heated groundwater, causing a steam-fueled explosion.
5. Zabriskie Point: This scenic viewpoint is located in part of the Amargosa Mountain Range located east of Death Valley in Death Valley National Park. The surrounding maze of colored and eroded badlands makes it a popular sunrise and sunset destination.
6. Scotty’s Castle: A charming con artist named Walter Scott, aka Death Valley Scotty, told people that he was rich from gold he discovered in secret mines around Death Valley. He brought a wealthy man named Albert Johnson and his wife Bessie to visit the region, and in spite of Scotty’s tall stories, Bessie fell in love with Death Valley. Johnson built a vacation getaway home for Bessie in the Grapevine Mountains of Death Valley in 1920s and ’30s. Scotty convinced people that he had built the castle with money from his secret gold-mine riches. You can tour the home today with a costumed ranger-interpreter channeling the characters of the castle, presenting an historic window into Death Valley’s past. [Update 2/19/18: Scotty’s castle is closed until further notice due to flood damage; it is not likely to reopen to the public until 2020.]
“Moonlight anywhere is a delight. But there’s no moonlight in the world that can compare with the moonlight in Grapevine Canyon, our desert canyon, where the Castle stands.”
— Mrs. Bessie Johnson from Death Valley Scotty (1932)
7. The Inn at Furnace Creek: The jewel of Death Valley is a four-star historic inn built in 1927 by the Pacific Coast Borax Company as a means to save their newly built Death Valley Railroad. The Railroad was an attempt to bring tourists into this increasingly attractive location. Spring water from nearby Travertine Springs feeds the pool and waters the grounds. The Inn sits high on a plateau that gives it a view across the valley to the Panamint Range. [Update: The Inn at Furnace Creek was fully renovated indoors and out, reopening on Feb. 1, 2018 as the Inn at Death Valley.]
8. Devil’s Golf Course: Hundreds of years ago, an inland freshwater sea called Lake Manly covered all of Death Valley. The lake was cut off from its source (the Colorado River), and gradually evaporated, leaving a thick layer of salts and minerals behind. Devil’s Golf Course is a vast dry salt pan from which large halite salt crystal formations protrude.
9. Racetrack Playa: If you only have two hours in Death Valley, a visitor could see the Visitor Center and drive to Badwater Basin. If you have a day, you can drive north to Ubehebe Crater and take a tour of Scotty’s Castle (or alternately, explore one of the numerous gorgeous hikes, like Golden Canyon, or Mosaic Canyon, or drive up to Dante’s Viewpoint). If you have at least two nights beyond that, you can rent a Jeep at a local outfit and drive three hours from Furnace Creek to Racetrack Playa, a remote but beautiful salt flat featuring mysterious tracks in the mud made by rocks or “slithering stones.” I had been looking forward to getting to Racetrack Playa for years to see these mysterious and remote phenomena. Mitch caught my excitement and we scheduled a rental Jeep on a Monday to spend the day going to and from Racetrack Playa.
These “sailing rocks” appear to move across the playa when conditions are right, like when it rains a lot and then gets windy. But until recently, nobody had ever seen them move. Scientists observed them for decades, speculating that maybe nobody ever sees them move because when conditions are ripe, weather conditions are awful: pouring rain and cold, gusting wind, probably in the middle of the night when nobody in their right mind is camping in this extremely remote area. So they set up time-lapse cameras to video the rocks and GPS tags to track their movement when nobody was looking.
Finally, in Dec. 2013 and Jan. 2014, the cameras and sensors caught movement in the rocks. A bout of heavy rain had caused a pond to form over the end of the playa. On a freezing cold night, the water began to ice over. The next day, the hot sun began to break up the ice, and the force of the wind against the thin sheet of ice caused the rocks to move, taking the “collared” rocks with it. The rocks were easier to move because they were semi-floating in the water. While this discovery reveals the reason that the tracks are formed, it doesn’t take away from the wonder and beauty of Racetrack Playa.
But as the old saying goes, life is not about the destinations, it’s about the journey. Surprisingly, the trip to Racetrack Playa was accomplished by noon. We had a Jeep and hours to go before it got dark. This is why the second half of our day turned out to be the most thrilling one of our five months on the road thus far.
The National Park Service is very clear in its bulletins and posts and brochures about taking chances in the remote, extreme environment that is Death Valley. Cell-phone service is non-existent. “Take at least two gallons of water per person per day!” their messages shout. “Take enough supplies for 24 hours and tell someone where you’re going.”
“Take at least two gallons of water per person per day! Take enough supplies for 24 hours and tell someone where you’re going.” — NPS bulletins in Death Valley National Park
We had a rough map of a vast area, dotted with abandoned mines and washed-out, one-track, four-wheel-drive dirt roads. We hadn’t seen more than a few high-clearance vehicles coming to and from the maintained road to Racetrack Playa.
Mitch and I are cautious people. We want to live long lives. So what possessed us to take off and explore on these remote, sketchy roads? Well, for one, the 4WD Jeep gave us confidence that we could go anywhere there were tracks (actually a bold assumption). For another thing, we had in our possession an emergency beacon with a battery-operated GPS locator that the Jeep rental company gave us. It should perhaps be called the “Idiot Box,” but we liked our chances on this cool and sunny January day. It was 75F at the Playa, and the weather forecast was for more mild weather.
The reward for our risk: watch this condensed version of our afternoon exploring the heights of remote Death Valley:
Without even mentioning Dante’s View, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, Salt Creek Trail, Darwin’s Creek Trail, and numerous other destinations in the park, I have only one last “must” in Death Valley:
10. The Death Valley Sky at Night: Because half the park is after dark. Death Valley National Park has one of the darkest night skies in the United States. The International Dark-Sky Association certifies only three places as International Dark-Sky Parks in the U.S. National Park System. The Park Visitor Center has several astronomy programs after dark. When we attended, they had seven telescopes set up to view planets, galaxies, star clusters and even Comet Lovejoy.
To qualify for the IDA Dark Sky designation, the park made improvements to external lighting at its facilities at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, reducing energy consumption, sky glow, and glare. The designation requires the park to continue its efforts to protect night sky resources and educate visitors. The downward-directed lighting and low-light-level guidelines preserve the natural character of the night and leave the stars visible for all to see.
Death Valley’s features come in a startling variety: high mountain ranges, pristine sand dunes, huge alluvial fans, eerie salt formations and painted canyons. It’s a playground for historians, geologists, and hikers. The clear desert air highlights nature’s art at every turn, from the glittering saltpan basin to the snow-capped Panamint Range high above Death Valley’s floor — even, or perhaps especially, at night.
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