3 million acre heritage epitomizes the most rugged terrain that the American southwest deserts have to offer

Death Valley California

By —— Bio and Archives--January 14, 2010

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imageDon’t let the name stop you from visiting one of the most remarkable desert wilderness parks in North America.

From soaring snow-covered peaks down to the blinding-white barren salt flats at Badwater 282’ (86m) feet below sea level, this vast 3 million acre heritage epitomizes the most rugged terrain that the American southwest deserts have to offer.

This is a land of contrasts with extremes of light and color, wet and dry, the vertical and the horizontal.


But as inhospitable as this scorching environment is, having claimed the lives of the unthinking and unprepared, the natural elements are tempered by luxurious accommodations like those found at the Furnace Creek Resort where you’ll experience amenities like fine dining, tennis courts, and a spring-fed swimming pool.

For many, Death Valley is an acquired taste, and it helps if you’re partial to the color brown. My advice is to slow down and take the time to explore the sweeping sand dunes, meandering canyons and broad valley floors at your leisure. Soon you will learn to love this big hole in the ground like I have, especially during the colder months when the rest of the country, including the surrounding high desert, is caught in the chilly grip of winter.


imageI was first introduced to Death Valley many years ago in June. We approached from the west driving a cherry-red 1965 Mustang along Highway 190. On a dare and with a few extra gallons of water stowed in the trunk we rolled down the windows and after a very long winding road finally reached the flat valley floor with a much greater appreciation for the vastness of the place. It was creepy hot and we knew the trick to getting across the park without dying from heat stroke was not stopping. But wouldn’t you know it, just as we rounded the bend we ran into construction that kept us parked for a half-hour.

As soon as I stepped out of the car and walked across the melting asphalt, then cautiously strolled through the barren skillet of scattered stone and bleached gravel, a cautious eye peeled for sidewinders, I knew I had landed on planet Zeon. It was too dry to sweat and too hot to breathe. The flat miles ahead of me shimmered with rolling heat waves, and believe it or not, I really did see an ocean of blue water in the distance, a mirage I thought was reserved only for the desperate and dying. Eons of temperatures over 120 F have baked the floor, cooked the rocks and were morphing my tennis shoes into bubble gum. Daring but not dumb, I beat it back to the car and came away with two epiphanies; Death Valley is not to be trifled with, and avoid it in summer.


imageImagine my surprise 30 miles later when we ventured upon the flourishing oasis at Furnace Creek where the large forest of tall palm trees were thick and inviting. This is where the action is, a welcome hub of civilization. Today you’ll find it buzzing with visitors enjoying amenities like overpriced gas and overpriced groceries, and an out-of-place 18-hole golf course where those inclined whack their little white balls with long metal sticks over green sprawling lawns of grass.

In addition to the fancy resort just up the hill, the Ranch at Furnace Creek offers 224 guest units, including quaint cabins, a saloon, three restaurants, one general store, a 3,040-foot airstrip and The Borax Museum. Surrounding the area are three campgrounds provided by the park service where you may find, depending on the month, legions of RV campers, rows of them, the big ones, those mammoth luxury diesel-pushers and fifth-wheels that have taken the “camp” right out of “camping.”

Don’t let the RV crowds deter you. Many prefer the indoors and will spend weeks hiding inside their homes on wheels, occasionally pulling back the curtain to peek out their tinted windows before rushing back to Oprah and the icebox. But that’s their loss as there is so much to see and do in the park. What follows is just a sample.


imageSipping my soda in the shade of a palm tree one persistent thought crossed my mind: “What in the world is borax, and why would anyone devote an entire museum to it?” As it turns out, borax, a white powdery substance, is an essential ingredient in such products as detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes. During a brief 5 years from 1883 to 1888 it was scraped off the valley floor and hauled 160 miles west over primitive roads to Mojave by the now-famous and romanticized 20-mule-teams pulling massive wagons of the commodity. It was an impressive undertaking, and some of those gigantic wooden wagons still stand as a testament right off the main road near the ranch. You can’t miss them, or the turnoff to the Harmony Borax Works just north of the visitors center.

imageIt’s a bit of a drive north from Furnace Creek to the oasis at Grapevine Canyon, but those who make the effort will be rewarded with Scotty’s Castle. Yes, it’s a real castle with a turret and courtyards and ornate doors, all done in exquisite Spanish-Mediterranean styling. They’re still arguing over who actually built it back in the 1920s and 30s, the Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson or the outrageous gold miner Death Valley Scotty. Regardless of their respective claims, the place is darn impressive for being out in the middle of nowhere. If you spring for the official tour you’ll get a peek at how luxury lived back then, the lavish rooms still filled with European antiques, unique hand-wrought iron and tile, hand-selected tapestries and custom-made furniture.


image20 miles south of Furnace Creek are 200 square miles of table salt, the usually blinding-white flats known as Badwater Basin. 9,000 square miles of Death Valley’s drainage system washes minerals and such down the mountain sides to the valley below. Since rainfall rarely exceeds 2 inches per year and the evaporation rate is 150 inches per year, you’re left with surreal patterns and landscapes of Sodium Chloride and a few other minerals.

Staring up at Telescope Peak towering 2 miles overhead you really get a sense of scale, that you’re actually 232 feet below sea level and in the lowest spot in North America. Or put another way, the vertical rise is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you’re a walker, don your sun glasses and follow the line of the curious out across the crunchy crystals. Provided you don’t fall through the crust and break your leg, it’ll be worth it.

Heading north again don’t miss the paved 9-mile one-way road called Artist’s Drive that leads to the Artist’s Palette. Here you will appreciate the rich variety of color that is such a striking contrast to the mundane grays and browns that predominate. Volcanic ash mixed with hot water formed a spectacular clay amalgam of colors ranging from lush carmine red to pale aqua blues and greens. Good cloud cover will bring the hues right out, and believe you me, you haven’t lived until you’ve feasted your eyes on stony swaths of byzantium and cerulean.

imageNext stop, the aptly named Golden Canyon. Formed by violent floods that thunder through the narrow winding trough, the fine sediment and smooth walls make for a semi-strenuous 2.5 mile hike up to popular Zabriskie Point. Avoid the canyon on rain-prone stormy days unless you want your corpse flushed out the west end, and stick to the main trail as tempting as those wayward side canyons might be. Death may be lurking in summer. Also, remember to take plenty of water.

Extremes of color are very evident in Golden Canyon and surrounding regions, lofty light creamy pinnacles and pale gold ridges juxtaposed against the darkest chocolate browns imaginable, and swaths of pale aqua. And red, a deep, rich oxidized red that gives the fluted walls of Red Cathedral its name.


imageWe found it amusing watching the weekend city-slickers wrestle their tents in the roaring wind at Stovepipe Wells last January. Their flies flapped and domes ballooned and tarps trailed off across the tufts of grass and sand in a pointless attempt to secure shelter from the juggernaut that was approaching from the southwest. A massive wall of sand of Arabian proportions was gaining fast and quickly wiped the smile off my face as we made a mad dash for the exit.

The fierce winds explain one of the most enticing natural phenomena in the park, the vast and sweeping Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Memorialized by the splendid black-and-white photography of Ansel Adams, these ever-changing, ever-shifting piles of gentle and gracious sculpted works of art are a favorite destination, especially in the slanted light of dawn. Look carefully and you might spot the S-shaped tracks of the sidewinder, that diminutive sideways-slithering rattlesnake with the fierce disposition, who curls up like an angry cinnamon role with one eye open waiting patiently for Arnold and Maggie from Maple Falls to come sauntering by, especially at night.


The sunny weather during fall, winter and spring can be splendid, perfect for that matter. It’s a shame Ingrid and Gerhard Jonas didn’t know that. One blistering June day Gerhard set off around noon up Golden Canyon for the relatively short trek to Zabriskie Point where Ingrid waited with the car. It was 100 degrees F (38 C) in the shade when Gerhard took off with less than a liter of water. I think you know how this story ends. They found him 5 hours later over in Lower Gower Gulch dead as a doornail from heat stroke.

It was tragic, avoidable and a lesson for all, especially those who suffer from a false sense of security from within the plush interior of their air-conditioned vehicles. The ones who zip through in summer on a whim, like me.

Tourists beware. They don’t call it Death Valley for nothing.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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