Story and photos by Cheryl Levitan
or years, we have ventured around the world searching out unusual destinations. COVID put a hold on much of that but, in so doing, opened our eyes to the unexpected and sometimes rather exotic sites much closer to home. Death Valley is one of those.
Although its name conjures up images of barren desert (hardly a selling point for visitors), it’s anything but drab and boring. With sites created by untold years of volcanic activity, movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, wind and swift-moving flash flooding, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more otherworldly and starkly foreign place.
Comprising more than 3.4 million acres stretched across the California and Nevada deserts, Death Valley is known for its extremes. The largest national park in the contiguous United States, it’s also this country’s hottest and driest place. Ironically, it’s also home to a vast aquifer with natural springs, which serves as a habitat for fish found nowhere else in the world. Within its borders are canyons, badlands, sand dunes, mountain ranges and salt flats. It’s home to this country’s lowest point (Badwater Basin at 280 feet below sea level); the park’s highest point (Telescope Peak, elevation 11,049 feet) is just 15 miles away.
This seemingly inhospitable place is home to 300 species of birds, 51 species of mammals (including bighorn sheep and mountain lions), 36 species of reptiles and more than 1,000 species of native plants (50 of those only found here). Although just 500 people now call it home, archaeologists have found evidence of human presence dating back at least 9,000 years. Today, scattered ghost towns and abandoned mines tell the story of gold, silver and borate mining, creating boom followed by bust. Artists from around the world come to capture Death Valley’s images of haunting beauty and peculiar geography. Those same views, as well as the area’s fascinating history, draw more than 1 million tourists each year.
Despite my willingness to hike all day, my vision of “overnighting” in a national park includes a great hotel. Given that, the Oasis at Death Valley Inn was our lodging choice. Rising up from the sand and surrounded by date palms, it truly is an oasis complete with casitas, fine dining, pools and a spa. Its larger and family-friendly sister property, the Ranch, has an 18-hole golf course and is located nearby. The fact that these two properties are inextricably tied to borax soap, the iconic 20 Mule Team wagons, one of TV’s longest-running Western series and the driving force behind the area’s national monument status sounds like a desert myth, but it’s all true.
Visionary in its thinking and marketing, the Borax company realized that while demand for its soap might wane, the allure of the desert west was eternal. Despite the mule teams’ short tenure hauling soap to railroad cars, the company’s marketing campaign (which included the mule teams) became an enduring symbol of the West. After adding a wagon team to its packaging, the company went a step further, taking the show on the road. Imagine the reaction as teams of cowboys driving mule-led wagons descended upon major cities to promote borax cleaning products! It wasn’t long before requests for appearances included numerous world fairs and Rose Parades. When the profitability of mining declined in the 1920s, the company repurposed its offices and workers’ lodging on its Furnace Creek property, opening an elegant inn in 1927.
It was successful from the start, and rooms, amenities and the moniker Death Valley were soon added. Sponsorship of a popular western-themed radio show, “Death Valley Days,” followed, eventually becoming a long-running TV series with mule-driven wagons in the opening credits. The transition from mining to tourism proved to be the saving grace for the company as well as the valley. Instrumental in initiating protection for the area’s fragile ecosystem, the mining company saved Death Valley for generations to come (while ensuring itself less competition from the growing tourism industry). Declared a national monument in 1933, the valley was eventually designated a national park in 1994.
WHAT TO SEE:
Zabriskie Point: Named for the man who oversaw the mining company’s transition to tourism, this famous viewpoint oversees the badlands, arid terrain where the erosion of softer rock and clay soil by wind and water exposes the colorful strata of varying mineral deposits. At sunset, the light amplifies those colors.
Badwater Basin: The lowest point in North America, its name comes from the salt deposits on top of the ground. Cycles of rain followed by periods of evaporation cause the salt in the sandy soil to look like a shimmering lake of fresh water. The mountain wall behind the basin’s parking lot marks sea level — 280 feet above visitors’ heads.
Harmony Borax Works: Central to the opening of Death Valley at Furnace Creek, borax was first processed here and hauled out by wagon train until the operation was moved closer to a railroad. On display is one of the last remaining 20 mule team wagons, the symbol of Death Valley.
Devil’s Golf Course: Don’t bring your clubs! With rock salt eroded into jagged points as far as the eye can see, it’s said that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” Listen for pops and crackles as billions of tiny salt crystals burst, expanding in the heat.
Artist Palette and Drive: A 9-mile, one-way road, Artist Drive takes visitors through canyons where mineral deposits have leached and oxidized to create displays of color. With dips worthy of a roller coaster, this curvy road’s greatest concentration of color occurs 5 miles in, at Artist Palette.
Titus Canyon: The park’s most popular back road, this passage is often so narrow that vehicles’ passengers can almost touch the walls. Check the forecast, though, since it’s not a place to be caught by a storm’s flash flooding! This canyon is home to the ghost towns of Leadfield (which “boomed” for less than a year) and Rhyolite, as well as Native American petroglyphs and a spot where the underground aquifer creates a ground-level spring.
Mesquite Flat Dunes: Located centrally near Stovepipe Campgrounds, this is one of the few places where sand collects. The shadows at sunset and sunrise highlight the dunes’ ripples and edges.
Dante’s View: It is located 25 miles south of Furnace Creek. The view from the top of the Black Mountains is one of the valley’s most popular photo spots.
Rhyolite Ghost Town: 35 miles from Furnace Creek, Rhyolite was named for the area’s volcanic rock. The discovery of gold here in 1904 created a town almost overnight. Its 10,000 residents had three banks, a symphony hall, opera house, train depot and even electricity. Buying the town in 1906 for millions, Charles Schwab lost his investment after the Panic of 1907 caused a stock market crash. By 1916, all that remained were the silent ruins of broken dreams.
Goldwell Open Air Museum: This is a bizarre collection of sculptures created 35 years ago by acclaimed Belgium artists. No one knows why this group chose the obscurity of the desert near Rhyolite for their artistry.
The best season to visit is off-season elsewhere: mid-October to mid-May, with the peak in March and April (in hopes of viewing desert wildflowers). Since reservations for hotels and campgrounds fill nine to 12 months in advance, by the time conditions needed for a spring wildflower “super bloom” are known (early fall rain followed by above-average moisture, low winds and warm winter temperatures), the likelihood of finding accommodations is basically nonexistent. A rare but amazing site, this massive blooming occurs about once a decade. Local flower species and predictions for bloom can be found on the National Park Service’s “wildflower seasons” page (nps.gov). With a 5- to 6-hour drive from Visalia, a two-night stay is the minimum, three or four if you plan hikes and/or visits to more distant sites like Ubehebe Crater, Scotty’s Castle (closed until 2022 after flash flooding damage) or the mysterious “sailing stones” at Racetrack Playa. Be aware that the roads to these lesser-trafficked sites are infamous for flat tires and best traveled by four-wheel-drive. Once you are stranded, the lack of cell service guarantees a long wait for help. Renting a four-wheel-drive Jeep from Farabee Jeep Tours is wise or, better yet, rent one with a driver as we did. It doubles the price but ensures that everyone can relax, maximizes your time and allows you to hear the stories that make these sites come alive. If hiking, use an app that allows trail downloads before embarking.
Don’t forget to bring a cooler with cheese and charcuterie for dining alfresco at sunset. With COVID restrictions precluding indoor dining during our stay, the “fine dining” experience we hoped for was reduced to expensive entrees served in cardboard boxes, flimsy plasticware and paper-thin napkins. Fortunately, I have learned that packing for pandemic road trips includes life’s “luxuries”: sturdy paper plates, knives that can actually cut meat and lots of napkins.
Finally, if you want a taste of the experience now, visit the YouTube Death Valley channel or the National Park Service’s video highlights at nps.gov.