the light of a full moon, a ranger led us across an arroyo
and into a canyon where miners camped more than a century
ago. The crunch of boots on gravel was the only sound as
our hardy band of visitors headed into the badlands of
Death Valley National Park.
streetlight or passing headlights pierced the darkness.
The Milky Way stretched over our heads in a pointillist
vision of infinity. Moon shadows outlined the strange
hills and crevasses around us. Just as I was wondering
what animal life might lurk in this austere setting, the
ranger offered to turn on her ultraviolet light to lure
scorpions out of their hiding places.
have so many visited a place with such an uninviting name
as Death Valley. Situated in eastern California near the
border with Nevada 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, it is
so otherworldly that George Lucas filmed some of his
"Star Wars" scenes there. Remote, weird and a
dry 60 to-70 degrees in February, Death Valley offers a
bracing midwinter contrast to the Northeast.
without the benefit of moonlight, the landscape awes. On
an afternoon walk into the vast salt flats that look west
to Tucki Mountain, I felt a silence as immense as any on
Earth. Nothing interrupted that stillness — not buzzing
fly or flapping bird, not rumbling motor or ringing
at Badwater Basin, crusting salt crystals grew out of
cracks in the ground like a glittering fractal painting.
The salt seemed to bloom like coral in a sea from which
all the water had been drained.
Valley is a place of extremes — the hottest, driest,
lowest place in North America — and one of the most
inhospitable places I’ve visited.
names of its natural attractions — Dante’s View, Devil’s
Cornfield — evoke hellish images. Vast swaths of the
park, the largest in the lower 48, are beyond reach of
cellphone service. Several of its prime sites can be
reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles over washboard
gravel. It is the only place I’ve ever seen a
"urine chart" in a public restroom, with a
color-coded index to the stages of dehydration.
are comfortable oases: The Furnace Creek Resort, with its
luxurious inn, favored by Hollywood glitterati, and its
moderately priced ranch occupying an area that once housed
mine workers, is the most popular of three settlements to
stay overnight. At the Furnace Creek Ranch, the pool is
warmed by hot springs. I swam beneath palm trees as the
setting sun painted the Funeral Mountains pink and orange.
the human history of the park, from its miners and
monopolists to con men and criminals, is fascinating. The
Timbisha Shoshone were the desert valley’s first
inhabitants; they are partners with the park service in
managing the federal lands, and have a year-round village
at Furnace Creek.
park also provides an unusual vantage from which to
consider global warming: As the Earth gets hotter, what
happens to the Earth’s hottest place? The canaries in
the coal mine may be the tiny pupfish, found in only a
handful of warm, salty streams in the park, the last
remnants of a previous geologic era’s lake. The fish may
not be able to breed if the temperature of their waterways
gets any higher, or to survive in sufficient numbers if
the water evaporates before they mature.
Valley became a national monument in 1933, through the
efforts of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. The company built
the Furnace Creek Inn, a masterpiece of Spanish mission
architecture made from stucco and local stone, as a
tourist destination after its local mines had closed. The
inn, which opened in 1927, was envisioned as a way to
continue to use the narrow-gauge railroad the company had
built to transport the mineral to the coast.
promote the inn — and gain public support for the area’s
designation as a national park — the company also
sponsored "Death Valley Days," a radio and,
later, television series about the Old West. Its most
famous host was Ronald Reagan.
never really thought much about borax, a white crystal
that was found on the surface at some spots in the valley,
before my trip. But it was the white gold of the desert.
Its discovery in the 1880s brought miners and mine owners
to the region. More than a century later, it is still used
in laundry and hand soaps, as well as toothpaste, and is
an ingredient in flame retardants, ceramics and
famous brand, Twenty Mule Team Borax — still sold in
supermarkets — originated near Furnace Creek. At the
Harmony Borax Works, now preserved, you can see the old
wagons that made the 165-mile, 10-day trip over the
mountains to the railhead at Mojave, pulled by those
massive beasts. Not preserved are the tents in which some
of the Chinese laborers lived while mining and starting
the refining process. The mine office, the oldest building
in the park, was relocated to the Furnace Creek Ranch,
where it houses the Borax Museum.
park service has established several drives and hikes to
bring visitors close to the bizarre geology of the region.
A ranger said she had once used the analogy that the Grand
Canyon’s sedimentary layers were like a pack of
different colored sticks of gum, stacked. At Death Valley,
all those different colored pieces of gum have been chewed
up together and then flattened out. At places like Artist’s
Palette, reached via an undulating one-way drive through
Candyland-like hills, different minerals reaching the
surface have colored the hills pink, green, orange and
yellow. Mosaic Canyon looks as its name implies. And you
can walk on beach-like sand dunes at Mesquite Flats.
North America’s lowest spot, Badwater Basin at 282 feet
below sea level, it’s possible to see one of its
highest, the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak. At those
elevations, snow precautions are advised.
best months of the year to visit are December through
March, when the average high temperatures range from the
mid-60s to 90 degrees. From May through September, the
average highs are in the three digits; the thermometer
reached 129 in June 2013. June is the month the Furnace
Creek Golf Course traditionally hosts the Heatstroke Open.
Distances between the scenic highlights are long, and
roadside services are available only at a few locations,
so fill up on gas and carry water and snacks with you.
favorite hike was up Golden Canyon to a natural red-wall
amphitheater, then down through Gower Gulch. Along the
way, we ascended partway up a towering cliff face, called
Manly Beacon, from which we could look out over the
badlands to the huge salt pan on the valley floor.
sheer entertainment, though, a visit to Scotty’s Castle
is worth the 53-mile drive from Furnace Creek. The
beautiful Spanish revival mansion is an engineer’s dream
— a self-sustaining luxury home in the absolute middle
was neither owned nor built by Scotty — Walter Scott, a
con man who today would be scorned and prosecuted for his
fraudulent scheme to attract investors in a fake gold
mine. Rather, it was built by one of those investors, an
abstemious, teetotaling Midwestern life insurance magnate,
Albert Johnson. When Johnson, who had overcome a nearly
paralyzing back injury in his 20s, insisted on visiting
the gold mine with Scotty, a sham gunfight set up to
thwart his inspection backfired — one of the poseurs was
accidentally shot — and Johnson realized he’d been
STORY CAN END HERE)
of getting mad, however, Johnson got a lifelong friend.
The millionaire spent the next nine summers vacationing
with the hard-drinking raconteur before deciding to build
his vacation home in Grapevine Canyon, in the northeastern
corner of the park. The park service’s costumed rangers
provide tours of both the mansion and its service areas,
including an early air-conditioning system, solar water
heater and an electrical powerhouse with a waterwheel and
row upon row of massive batteries. There’s even a music
room with a working pipe organ.
picnicked outside the visitor center at the castle,
keeping an eye on the resident coyote who seemed
interested in our food. Then we drove down the road to the
Ubehebe Crater, formed from the explosion of gas when
rising magma hit groundwater. The two-mile hike on cinders
around the rim of the crater was a workout for the calf
millionaire’s castle, an almost-tame coyote and an
unusual geologic formation — all part of a day in Death
Valley, whose forbidding name belies its considerable
is available at Furnace Creek Resorts, which includes the
Inn at Furnace Creek ($349 to $399 a night), the Ranch at
Furnace Creek ($139 to $189 a night) and an RV park and
campground. See FurnaceCreekResort.com.
smaller settlements in the park also offer lodging,
Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs, and the National
Park Service maintains several campgrounds. Reservations
are a must.
food, Furnace Creek Ranch offers a general store, a tavern
and two restaurants, and the Furnace Creek Inn has a more
formal, four-star restaurant.
National Park Service Visitor Center is at Furnace Creek.
There are a variety of ranger-led activities and talks, as
well as an interpretive film, museum and bookshop. See