California’s Death Valley is an expansive place with 3,336,000 acres of mountain and desert terrain, including more than 3 million acres of wilderness. In the winter, climbers may need to use an ice axe and crampons to scale 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. And from that lofty crown at the park’s highest and coldest point, they can gaze down on the warmest spot, Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
While Death Valley as we know it today is one of the hottest and driest places on earth, it is far different from what it used to be. During the last Ice Age it was wetter and cooler, with a 600-foot deep freshwater lake. Still, despite today’s harsh climate, more than 900 kinds of plants live within the park.
You can observe many of these plants while hiking monument trails. You’ll find trails ranging from short, easy walks, to more strenuous climbs of seven miles and an elevation change of 3,000 feet. Backcountry hiking trips are also popular.
Extreme heat engulfs the lower elevations during the summer, thus only high elevation hikes are recommended. These include Telescope Peak and Wildrose Peak. Fall and spring hiking can be hot as well; hikers should carry at least one gallon of water per person per day.
Although you can enjoy Death Valley at any time of year, fall, winter and spring are certainly the most comfortable times to visit. Temperatures are mild during these seasons with spring offering a variety of wildflowers. Although blossoms are sometimes nearly nonexistent, they are never totally absent. According to the park service, a good wildflower year depends on three things: well-spaced rainfall throughout the winter and early spring, sufficient warmth from the sun, and lack of desiccating winds.
Those visiting the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Museum will find a variety of ranger-guided activities. These include nature walks, slide programs, films, auditorium talks and patio talks. Here you can learn about the local flora and fauna, and discover a thing or two about tarantulas, a gentle, almost classy, but certainly misrepresented kind of creature.
Death Valley is an enormous place, with campgrounds and other accommodations spread out to serve travelers. Near the center of the park is Stovepipe Wells Village. Named for a stovepipe that was stuck in the sand to mark a water hole nearby, the tiny, man-made oasis claims to be set among “the most-photographed sand dunes in the world.”
Perhaps it’s true for walking across and photographing the sand dunes is probably the most popular thing to do in this area. You must visit the dunes sans trail, but it is no matter. Park your car and walk where you please. The highest and most popular dune is one to two miles away.
Other nearby attractions include a showcase of geologic wonders at Mosaic Canyon. Polished by nature’s tears, rain-sculptured marble walls hug the canyon, begging hikers to explore.
Another must-see is about 37 miles away, but well worth the effort. Drive west from Stovepipe Wells, turning onto a signed paved road leading to Wildrose and Trona. Much of the road is narrow and winding; trailers are not recommended. As you climb up Emigrant Canyon, you’ll pass the turnoff to Aguereberry Point, which provides a wonderful view of Death Valley.
The dirt road also passes Aguereberry Camp and the Eureka Mine in one mile. Aguereberry Point was named for Pete Aguereberry, a Frenchman who lived and worked here. You can snoop around the remains of his old cabin, built in 1907. His mine is just around the corner. The tunnels are safe to enter (they’ve been stabilized with netting) provided you carry a flashlight.
You’ll pass the Wildrose Campground en route to the abandoned Charcoal Kilns built more than a century ago by Chinese laborers. Most people are amazed when they find out that the laborers didn’t use mortar. Shoshone Indians tended the kilns, which were used to manufacture charcoal for use in ore smelters.
From the kilns, a steep gravel road continues up to Thorndike and Mahogany Flats campgrounds, both of which are subject to winter closures due to snow and ice. This is also the takeoff point for those climbing Telescope Peak, home to a stand of twisted bristlecone pines.
Like most folks, you’ll probably want to visit Scotty’s Castle, located 53 miles north of the main visitor hub at Furnace Creek. As you travel north, be sure to stop at the historic Harmony Borax Works. In the late 1800s, workers gathered borax “cotton balls” from the nearby salt flat and processed the load here before transporting the borax (known as “white gold of the desert”) out of Death Valley via the famous twenty mule team wagons.
Along the way you’ll also pass the Salt Creek area. A half-mile boardwalk trail loops around, and here you can easily observe the rare Salt Creek pupfish.
Rhyolite, Skidoo and Leadville were once prosperous towns, but today they are mere ghost towns with only remnants remaining. In the early 1900s, gold prospectors invaded the land, and Rhyolite, the Queen City of Death Valley, claimed a population of 10,000. But prosperity was short-lived as the mines closed, banks failed, and townsfolk disappeared.
From Furnace Creek it’s a scenic 53 miles to Scotty’s Castle. Also known as the Death Valley Ranch, the Mediterranean-style hacienda (it’s not really a castle) and its magnificent interiors delight guests.
It was built by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson between 1922 and 1933. Although Johnson owned the 1,500-acre ranch, his lifelong friend Walter Scott, or Death Valley Scotty as he was known, claimed the castle as his own, saying he paid for it with money from his “secret gold mine.” A colorful character with an insatiable appetite for publicity, Scotty and his dog Windy are buried nearby.
Castle tours are offered daily. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis, with fees $11 for adults, $9 for seniors 62 and older, $6 for children 6 to 15 and adults with disabilities, and free for those 5 and younger.
If you’re up in castle country, be sure to take the side road five miles to Ubehebe Crater. Known as a maar volcano, the one-half mile wide crater was formed between three and five thousand years ago when groundwater trapped deep inside the earth and surrounded by molten rock, was super heated. Instead of the magma erupting, however, the steam exploded, forming a crater rather than a mountain.
A person could spend a day just watching the light change on Ubehebe Crater. But unless you have unlimited time, there are just too many things to see and do to linger watching the light. Of course, a person could always return again and again for another Death Valley Delight.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
IF YOU GO
Death Valley was established as a national monument on February 11, 1933, when President Herbert Hoover signed the proclamation. It became a national park with the passage of the Desert Protection Act of October 31, 1994. It is the largest national park outside of Alaska.
Entrance fees are $10 for those entering on foot, horseback, bicycle or motorcycle. Vehicles are $20. Permits are valid for seven days. The America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 a year, admits holders to all national parks and other federal recreation areas. Lifetime America the Beautiful passes are available for $10 to persons 62 and older and are free to the disabled.
There are nine campgrounds in the park; fees range from no fee at all to $18 a night.
U.S. 395 passes west of Death Valley and connects with California 178 and 190 to the park. U.S. 95 passes east and connects with Nevada 267, 374, and 373 to the park. Interstate15 passes southeast and connects with California 127.
You’ll travel great distances when exploring Death Valley. Be sure your car is in good mechanical condition before heading out for a visit and always make sure your fuel tank is full before starting out each day. Fuel is available at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
Temperatures are extreme in the valley, especially on its floor where summertime temperatures often surpass 120 degrees. A record high of 134 degrees was set in 1913.
For more information, contact Death Valley National Park, P.O. Box 579, Death Valley, CA 92328. Phone (760) 786-3200 or visit www.nps.gov/deva. A 12-page visitor’s guide can be downloaded at the Web site.