By CARY ORDWAY
It is said that Death Valley gets 1.8 inches of rainfall each year and, in our fist visit to this "parched" landscape, it felt like we got it all on our first day. It was enough, anyway, to wash out a bridge and require us to take a 40-mile detour just to get to Furnace Creek.
So much for the image. We don’t remember Ronald Reagan saying anything about rain when he hosted the Death Valley Days TV show all those years.
Of course, the timing of our trip was just luck of the draw, and there’s no doubt that most people will enjoy a "normal" Death Valley adventure in which they’ll experience hot, sunny weather most of the time. In summer, the operative word is hot – as hot as the record high of 134 degrees – which is why winter is an ideal time to enjoy a near-Death Valley experience in the 70’s or 80’s.
For our November visit, we drove to Death Valley by heading north from Las Vegas and, as best as we could tell, this seemed to be the easiest route into the Valley. In theory, Furnace Creek is just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But the bridge washout changed all that and sent us further north and then back down into the Valley on a different, longer route.
And so our first exposure to Death Valley was a little disconcerting as we traveled in darkness and rain, making our way along a stretch of narrow, sometimes winding, two-lane roadway that certainly seemed like a road less traveled – hardly another car in sight for 40 miles. Eventually we arrived at Furnace Creek where water was standing on many of the roadways and rain continued to fall from the heavens.
With great relief, we at last found our destination: the Furnace Creek Inn. Just like the desert oasis that the Furnace Creek area is reputed to be, the inn became our "oasis" from the downpour and a long afternoon of driving.
The Furnace Creek Inn is an upscale, historic hotel that was opened in 1927. Originally just a small resort, the adobe bricks were hand-made by local Native Americans, and the resort was built on a hill with panoramic views of Death Valley and the 11,000-foot mountains nearby. By 1935, the hotel had 66 rooms altogether and was on its way to attracting larger numbers of tourists to this unusual destination.
After a restful sleep in our well-appointed suite, we awakened to a different Death Valley. Gone were the storm clouds and rain, and taking their place were rays of peek-a-boo sunshine which added warm colors and sparkle to what clearly was a magnificent desert landscape. It was as if Nature was illuminating the desert, the rock formations and the surrounding mountains with a set of stage lights that changed the coloration with each passing cloud.
Experiencing this for the first time, we could understand why Death Valley has captured the hearts of so many visitors who sense an almost spiritual connection with this land. If someone suggests you should get your head examined for going to a place called "Death" Valley, the truth is this just might be a place to get your head straight. It’s completely unique.
We hopped in the car and drove into Furnace Creek to look around a bit. The Borax Museum does a great job of telling the story of those early miners who found large deposits of borax – used in fiberglass, detergents and other products – which were hauled to Mojave on huge wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules. For us baby boomers, the old Death Valley Days television show will forever link Death Valley with Borax and those darned mule teams.
The museum is located in the Furnace Creek Ranch, where you’ll find accommodations that are less expensive than the inn and a little more family-oriented. The ranch includes 224 recently refurbished rooms as well as several restaurants. A large RV park is located in the area and, nearby is an 18-hole golf course where it is said golf balls don’t react the way they usually do to gravity – believe it or not, the valley’s elevation 200 feet below sea level affects gravity and barometric pressure.
There is a lot to see up and down the valley – after all, Death Valley National Park consists of 3.3 million acres. Just in case you wondered, there are 900 species of plants, six types of fish, five amphibians, 36 reptiles and 51 mammals that are native to the region. And that’s not counting the 346 species of birds that migrate through the area.
Just south of the Furnace Creek Inn is the "Artist’s Drive," an eight-mile stretch of road that takes you through washes and mud hills with fascinating colors and natural rock formations. A little further south is Badwater, one of the most visited spots in Death Valley and the area’s lowest elevation – 282 feet below sea level. This pool of water is said to have a salt content five times what you find in most seawater.
North from Furnace Creek are the sand dunes, which can raise up to 85 feet in height and are forever changing. If you walk on the dunes today, your footprint will be gone tomorrow.
One of the most popular stops in Death Valley is Scotty’s Castle, about 55 miles north from Furnace Creek. The story goes that Walter "Scotty" Scott convinced Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson to build a Moorish castle – although some wonder if Scotty discovered a secret gold mine that financed the construction. In any event, the result you see today is a castle with more than eight buildings, all housing beautiful furnishings and spectacular tile work created by a variety of artisans. In fact, many of the rooms at Scotty’s Castle include the original décor. Among the items still on display is the Welte pipe organ with its more than 1,221 pipes, some up to 16 feet in length.
About 25 miles north of Furnace Creek is Stovepipe Wells where you can explore many historic trails. This became an important stopping point for settlers in the Old West because the well here provided water for these travelers to continue their journey.
Throughout Death Valley you’ll find spectacular salt formations. The Devil’s Golf Course is one particular area to see these unusual shapes – the salt formations there are shaped like pyramids pointing toward the sky.
In between drives to explore the valley, we made time to just relax and enjoy the Furnace Creek Inn. With spectacular, carefully manicured grounds and an expansive swimming pool that is heated year-round, the inn could be located anywhere and be an attraction unto itself. We enjoyed the many meandering pathways through the groves of palm trees, as well as the many different viewpoints the property has of Death Valley. Tennis courts were at the ready. Horseback riding was nearby. Just about everything you need for the perfect California vacation.
The rooms and suites at the Furnace Creek Inn include high quality furnishings and antiques that seem to mirror the historic and ornate hotel lobby. A fine dining room and restaurant are on property and the feeling you take away from the resort is one of elegance and charm – quite frankly, not exactly the image we had of Death Valley.
But then again, no one talks much about the rain at Death Valley, either.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Death Valley is in the southeastern part of California, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Driving to the Valley eastward from Highway 395 can be an arduous journey, but there are other options. We recommend that you visit the Furnace Creek Inn website at www.furnacecreekresort.com for specific driving directions from several different starting points.
WHAT: Death Valley is famous for its extremely hot weather and low elevation, and also for the hardships early settlers endured while traveling through the valley. Today, Death Valley National Park showcases much of the area’s unique natural beauty. People can enjoy luxurious resort stays or cheap vacations in Death Valley -- it just depends on what accommodations you choose.
WHEN: Any time of year, but to avoid super-hot temperatures, visit during the winter months. Always check ahead for special travel deals and vacation packages that can save you money at certain times of the year.
WHY: Great beauty, unusual land formations, surprisingly good accommodations. If you're coming from out of state, any California vacation should include a stop at Death Valley.
HOW: For more information on Death Valley, visit www.death.valley.national-park.com, the website for Death Valley National Park. For more information on Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, phone (760) 786-2345 or visit www.furnacecreekresort.com. Be sure to ask about travel packages.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Death Valley is your kind of California vacation, be sure to check out California Weekend's articles on Palm Springs, La Quinta Resort and Bodie.
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