Death Valley lures visitors


By Marlene Greer
It was mid-April, just past the official end of the busy winter tourist season at Death Valley National Park, when my husband and I pulled our RV into Furnace Creek Campground, one of the few campgrounds within the park open year-round. One plus we immediately discovered was that camping fees were lower — only $12 a night — in the park’s off-season.
And the weather at that time of year, we felt, was still quite pleasant. Although it was warm (in the high 80s) and windy during the day, the nights were cool and comfortable. At the park’s higher elevations, it was actually chilly.
When the heat starts to climb, campers can head to Wildrose Canyon at 4,000 feet. Or visitors can stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which is open year-round.
My husband and I tow a Jeep behind our RV, and we came to Death Valley, which lies between the Amargosa and Panamint ranges, to experience some of the hundreds of miles of off-road trails that crisscross the valley floor, circle the sand dunes and climb the mountain passes.
From several of these passes, looking down on Death Valley an observer may see nothing more than a vast wasteland — a massive basin of salt stretching over 200 square miles. But Death Valley is much more than its salt beds. And much of it is readily accessible by car and short walks or easy hikes.
Some highlights
Badwater Basin: The lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Interpretive signs explain the presence of the water and salt. A half-mile trial leads to the edge of the salt basin. Hikers can continue on for five miles across the valley floor.
Devil’s Golf Course: A short dirt road takes visitors deeper into the salt pan to view the jagged and very sharp salt crystals. Interpretive signs explain how the salt spires are formed. Visitors can walk, with care, into the salt bed.
Artists Drive: A one-way scenic loop drive winds among colorful volcanic and sedimentary hills. The bright turquoise is stunning. Best just before sunset, but also when it’s most crowded.
Harmony Borax Works: Borax was a big commodity in Death Valley in the 1880s, and the company’s need to transport its product over the vast desert landscape brought about the creation of the now-famous 20-mule team. Interpretive signs along the paved trail explain the history of this “white gold.”
Ubehebe Crater: Jutting up from the valley floor, in sharp contrast to the white sands and salt flats, is the black, 600-foot deep Ubehebe Crater. Created in the aftermath of a massive volcanic explosion, the crater can be reached by a paved road. Visitors can walk to the rim for a look or can take the 1.5-mile rim trail for views of several smaller craters.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Near Stovepipe Wells, the dunes are popular with kids. Although easily seen from the road, visitors can park and walk anywhere among the dunes. Great at sunrise or sunset and fabulous under a full moon. Watch out for snakes.
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Wildrose Canyon: The pinon pine woodlands of Wildrose Canyon on the southwest side of the park, at over 5,000 feet, are much cooler than the valley floor. Here, you can hike among the pines, picnic and roam through the old charcoal kilns (beehive-like structures designed to hold fuel for processing silver ore). The paved road ends a few miles before reaching the kilns, but the gravel road is good and, in good weather, is suitable for all vehicles.
Scotty’s Castle: The 1920s Spanish-style home was built, at a cost of over $1 million, by Easterners Albert and Bessie Johnson. But it was the antics of their friend, legendary gold miner/hustler “Death Valley Scotty,” that gave the home its name. Scotty claimed the home was his and that he built it with money from his Death Valley gold mine. Docents in period clothing lead 50-minute tours through the home’s main rooms and spice it up with tall tales of Scotty’s outrageous behavior. All of it fascinating. Adults $12, children $6, seniors $9. Arrive early, as you may have to wait an hour or more for the next available tour.
Best hike: Mosaic Canyon, a beautiful area of water-sculpted polished rock dotted with “mosaics” (pieces of rock cemented together and forming unusual patterns), is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley. The canyon is very narrow for the first mile, then it opens up for the last 1.5 miles. Some stepping over boulders. Traihead parking area is down a graded gravel road two miles from Stovepipe Wells.
Best off-road track: The Titus Canyon Road begins off Highway 374 just outside the park’s eastern boundary. The 26-mile, one-way route climbs up to 5,000 feet, crossing the Grapevine Mountains, then passes an old mining town and descends through the narrows of Titus Canyon. The first eight miles or so of the track is an easy dirt road and, frankly, not very interesting. It’s after you begin the climb that the views shine. The road, in good weather, is easy. It’s well-maintained with only a few steep climbs and rocky spots. It narrows to only about 20 feet in Titus Canyon.
Quirky sidetrip: The deserted mining town of Rhyolite, about five miles outside the park going east on Highway 374, is interesting for its history, historic buildings and a house made out of beer bottles. But what really strikes visitors is the “Ghost Rider,” the 25-foot tall “Painted Lady” and a life-size ghostly replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The Goldwell Open Air Museum, a modern art sculpture garden, is the work of a group of Belgian artists. Their ghostly white forms are their way of tying art to the “death” in Death Valley. The artists designed the sculptures so you can sit on the lap of a ghost or give a ghost a hug. A great photo op!


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