Thirty million years ago, this was a lush tropical paradise. Ten thousand years ago, hunters, gatherers and harvesters lived here along the shores of a huge prehistoric lake. Through the centuries, the climate changed, small lakes dried up and a hot, dry desert emerged. It became a desolate land and legend says that as settlers passed through here in 1849, one turned and said, “Good-bye Death Valley,” thus giving it its name.
Today, Death Valley is many things—a national park, a place to gaze at the stars, and a fascinating landscape to explore. It is the home of Timbisha Shoshone Indians, a historic resort, a variety of campgrounds and much more.
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover proclaimed this 2 million acres of mountains and arid but very alive desert (with a few well-placed springs) to be Death Valley National Monument. During the Great Depression and on into the 1940s, 12 companies and the Civilian Conservation Corps built buildings, created roads and trails, and put in water and telephone lines, campgrounds, and an adobe village with a trading post for the Shoshone Indians. Open pit and strip mines became a source of contention but it wasn’t until 2005 that the closure of the last mine finally ended mining in the park.
Declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1984, it did not become Death Valley National Park until 1994. With the addition of 1.3 million acres, it now covers 3.3 million acres, with 91 percent of the park as designated wilderness. It is the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
In the middle of the park on privately owned land is Furnace Creek Resort. The Inn at Furnace Creek opened with 12 guest rooms in 1927. The dining room observed a “casual elegance” dress code and the windows looked toward the forbidding Panamint Mountains. Since 1927, the 12 guest rooms have increased to 66 and fine dining is still offered to guests from all over the world. The inn was constructed of hand-made adobe bricks with Moorish-influenced stonework in tiered levels. Stone steps and walkways lead down to the lowest level.
Today, the secluded inn, considered a relaxing and romantic getaway, still perches high above the desert within a lush, green oasis surrounded by palm trees. Guests can watch magnificent sunsets from the dining room terrace. This perfect spot catches the waters from three converging springs in the Funeral Mountains for irrigation and keeping a flow-through 70-foot pool at a soothing 82 degrees. Beside it are two massive stone fireplaces awaiting a fire, wine and conversation under twinkling desert skies. The inn, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2012, is open mid-October to mid-May.
The inn is one section of Xanterra’s Furnace Creek Resort and it holds the prestigious AAA Four-Diamond Award. A bit on the pricey side, it attracts the rich and famous, who sometimes fly in specifically for the Sunday brunch.
Handy with a shuttle, the inn is always ready to take guests down the hill to the second section of the resort called The Ranch at Furnace Creek. It is surrounded by activities and open all year. With 224 rooms that are more in the range of a family pocketbook, it also has a spring-fed pool, plus playground equipment, horseback riding and tennis courts.
Close by, the Borax Museum is packed with local artifacts. Stagecoaches, mining equipment and a steam locomotive are in the courtyard. Dining possibilities reign with the Wrangler Buffet, the ‘49er Café, and the Corkscrew Saloon. They brag on Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest at 214 feet below sea level. It has its own café, The 19th Hole, where you can drive right up to the window with your golf cart and order lunch. Psst—the CV Mulligan Burger is to die for!
In 2013, the palm-tree surrounded Furnace Creek Resort added 26 full-hookup, Wi-Fi-access RV spaces to accommodate rigs needing sites 35 to 50 feet long. The 35-site Fiddlers’ Campground, adjacent to the golf course, has sites for RVs needing 40- to 50-foot spaces, but it has no hookups. Both facilities are within easy reach of all the fun stuff. RV guests are welcome to utilize the ranch’s activities and services, including a pro shop and general store.
It’s an easy walk to the largest privately owned photovoltaic energy system in the country. Built in 2008, Xanterra’s installation has produced more than 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and met the company’s goal of reducing purchased electricity by 30 percent. The one-megawatt system covers five acres with 5,740 solar panels to service the inn, the ranch, golf course, employee offices and housing. Xanterra fully owns the system and the energy it produces.
National Park Campgrounds
The place to start any visit to Death Valley National Park is the visitor center, where you will find information and an overview of the park. The center offers movies, interpretive programs, guided walks, naturalist talks and evening programs.
The National Park Service has nine campgrounds, and its comprehensive visitors guide lists whether they are tent, high-clearance-vehicle only, or seasonal sites. Five dump stations are accessible. Limited RV hookups are provided at the park service’s Furnace Creek campground for an extra utility fee. Otherwise, RV hookups are only available at the concession-run Stovepipe Wells RV Park and privately owned Panamint Springs and Furnace Creek Ranch resorts.
The Death Valley ‘49ers
The annual encampment of the Death Valley ‘49ers is a commemoration of events that occurred when covered wagons bound for the gold fields in 1849 encountered the harsh conditions of Death Valley. The Death Valley ‘49ers is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization created in 1949 to “promote and expand understanding, appreciation, and public awareness of Death Valley and its history.” The union of the ‘49ers, Death Valley National Park, and the private Xanterra ownership and staff is unique. They all support and participate in encampment activities, which are mostly located at Furnace Creek Ranch.
Always held the first full week of November, the 2014 Encampment will be November 5 to 9. It will have poker and golf tournaments, a photo and craft show, an art show, a pioneer costume contest, tours and parades. Furnace Creek Golf Course and Stovepipe Wells both offer Sunday gatherings with songs that are musical mini-sermons, “I have two eyes; the world is mine. Dear Lord, forgive me when I whine.” It is an opportunity for national and international visitors to become acquainted over sausage and scrambled eggs or biscuits and gravy.
The Big Moment is the arrival of the Death Valley Wagon Train and horseback riders that commemorate the first wagon train’s arduous trek in 1849. The wagon party usually spends eight to eleven days on the trail, with a layover day to give members and livestock a rest. This event had to be canceled last year because flooding had damaged roads.
Pre-encampment activities are as much fun as the real thing. The evenings are blessed with impromptu groups jamming. “Y’all come” is a standard invitation to play, sing, dance, or listen to everything from New Orleans jazz to foot-stomping country music. Hundreds of lawn-chair-carrying visitors wander the campgrounds. If they tire of one entertainment, they fold their chairs and amble into another.
On Saturday nights, they snuggle under those bright twinkling stars with blankets against the chill and listen to basic humor at the Ol’ Dinah Fiddler’s Stage. They listen and clap until the “Star Spangled Banner” signals the ending of another magical evening. The encampment is a celebration of life with hugs to old cronies and warm good-byes to new friends—”until next year.”
While visitors sleep under those bright desert stars, the coyotes and owls converse, repeating tales of gold seekers, prospectors, abandoned mines, ruins, and a fascinating history.
If you can’t come to Death Valley during the encampment, there is still much to see and do at other times of the year. If you mosey on over to my Silver, Single, and Solo column, I’ll tell you a bit more. After all, Death Valley National Park is yours. n
Sharlene Minshall’s first e-book novel, Winter in the Wilderness, is available at most Internet book sites. A print edition may be obtained from Amazon.com or you can order an autographed copy from the author at Box 1040, Congress, AZ for $7.95 plus $3.50 for postage and handling. The fourth edition of RVing Alaska and Canada is available at Amazon.com.
IF YOU GO:
Without Fail: Carry sunscreen, hats, water, survival rations, extra clothes and blankets in your vehicle for emergencies. Use a vehicle in good condition, keep your fuel tank full and have tools for fixing tires. A vehicle breakdown or getting lost while hiking can become life-threatening quickly.
Suggested Items: Have good hiking boots, a light jacket, binoculars, camera, golf clubs, bathing suit and tennis racket just for the fun of it.
Pets: Must be on a leash or confined. They may not be left unattended in the campgrounds. They are not allowed on hiking or cross-country trails. They may be walked on back-country roads, leashed.
Alerts: Check the National Park Service website at nps.gov.deva for road closures or other problems. Access to Scotty’s Castle and Zabriskie Point could be affected at times this year.
Warning: You cannot depend on cellphones or GPS to work within the park.
Reservations: For Furnace Creek Resort reservations, visit furnacecreekresort.com or call (888) 236-7916. For reservations at Xanterra campgrounds, call (800) 236-7916. For reservations at National Park Service campgrounds, visit recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.