The winter months are the most popular time of the year for travelers to explore this surreal and quietly captivating California park. The largest national park in the continental U.S. with 3.3 million acres, there is plenty of park to explore. Compared with other major national parks, however, it has relatively low visitation, with only 704,122 people visiting in 2007.
The park’s four lodges, two RV parks and nine campgrounds provide overnight accommodations for Death Valley visitors. Concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates three lodges –Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells – as well as an RV Park. Campgrounds are managed by the National Park Service.
While the early spring and late summer are also peak Death Valley visitation periods, employees of the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, however, believe the months of January and February are among the best months weather-wise.
“Death Valley is the desert equivalent to a winter beach vacation, except instead of sun tanning on a beach, our guests are hiking, golfing and exploring the geological wonders of the park,” said Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the lodges, restaurants, golf course and gift shops in the park. “We even sometimes have early wildflowers to add color to an already beautiful destination.”
The lowest and sunniest destination in North America is also a low-impact destination, and getting lower all the time. Concessioner Xanterra recently completed construction of the U.S. tourism industry’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) system to power one-third of the electricity needs of the Furnace Creek Inn, Ranch, Golf Course and employee offices and housing. Xanterra’s facility is one of the largest privately owned PV energy systems in the country. The massive one megawatt (MW) system – larger than five football fields — will eliminate the emission of more than 29,000 tons of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — primary contributors to global warming, acid rain and smog. This reduction of pollution is equal to removing more than 5,100 cars from California’s highways. Xanterra has been steadily working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions for several years, and with the addition of the Death Valley system, the company expects total company-wide reductions to be more than 20 percent since 2000.
Xanterra recently received the National Park Service’s Environmental Achievement Award for the system.
In addition to capturing the energy of the sun to power its facilities, the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort is minimizing its water and electricity use and offering sustainable cuisine in its restaurants.
Death Valley’s Winter Sports
A properly equipped winter sports enthusiast in Death Valley is outfitted with good hiking boots, sunscreen, hat, binoculars, camera, golf clubs, bathing suit, tennis racket, water, full tank of gas and light jacket, just to be on the safe side.
At the historic and elegant Furnace Creek Inn, guests can swim and relax by the quiet pool. The pool is kept at a comfortable 82 degrees by a warm spring. Surrounded by an oasis garden, the pool offers the feeling of extreme seclusion and relaxation. Soft music is played from the poolside lounge, and a poolside fireplace offers a place for guests to ward off the relative chill of the early evening.
Now through February, the Furnace Creek Golf Course will host a steady stream of golfers, but preferred morning tee times are still available. At 214 feet below sea level, the course is the lowest in the world. Because the golf ball does not fly as far as it does at sea level and higher elevation courses, players must adjust their club selections as well as their mental approaches. The course also features small greens, strategically placed Palm and Tamarisk trees and water on nine holes.
Even if their game is off, golfers can still feel good about playing the course. It was designated a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary” by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System (ACSS), the educational division of Audubon International. To achieve certification, a course must demonstrate it is maintaining a high degree of environmental quality in several different areas, including water conservation and wildlife and habitat management.
Hiking opportunities in Death Valley are practically unlimited for both casual and seasoned walkers. Although there are no formal trails, paths carved out by past travelers are easy to follow. The National Park Service conducts interpretive programs daily including guided walks and naturalist talks. The programs begin at the National Park Service Visitor Center next to the Furnace Creek Ranch.
Most park visitors make the 55-mile drive from Furnace Creek to Scotty’s Castle to take a tour of the park’s Moorish-style castle and to learn the convoluted, entertaining tale of how the castle came to be built. The story involves a secret gold mine; a millionaire and his religious, musical wife; and an utterly charming con artist.
Land of Extremes
Death Valley is a land of extreme dryness and heat as well as extreme beauty. The park is located on the California/Nevada border, approximately 120 miles from Las Vegas and 300 miles from Los Angeles. It is the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. Annual rainfall is about 2.5 inches. The reason for Death Valley’s extreme climate is found in its geography. There are four major mountain ranges between the Pacific Ocean and Death Valley. When winter storms move east from the Pacific Ocean, they must pass over these mountain ranges to continue east. When the rising clouds cool they produce rain or snow on the western side of these mountains. When those clouds reach the eastern side of the mountains, however, they no longer have as much moisture.
Death Valley is also one of the hottest places on earth. The highest recorded air temperature was 134 degrees – at the Furnace Creek Ranch in July 1913. The summer of 1996 had 40 days with temperatures over 120 degrees and 105 days over 110 degrees. The park’s depth, shape and minimal plant cover all contribute to the park’s extreme temperatures.
During the winter months of 2004 and 2005, Death Valley experienced a remarkable – for Death Valley – 6.43 inches of rain. That strange winter weather resulted in what experts called “the bloom of the century” and one of the park’s most spectacular wildflower seasons in living memory. Death Valley’s famous spring wildflower show can begin as early as late February, when much of the country is still frosty.