Experience the beauty of Death Valley

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Lindy Washburn, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (Tribune News Service)
June 13, 2015

Under the light of a full moon, a ranger led us across an arroyo and into a canyon where miners camped more than a century ago. The crunch of boots on gravel was the only sound as our hardy band of visitors headed into the badlands of Death Valley National Park.

No streetlights or passing headlights pierced the darkness. The Milky Way stretched over our heads in a pointillist vision of infinity. Moon shadows outlined the strange hills and crevasses around us. Just as I was wondering what animal life might lurk in this austere setting, the ranger offered to turn on her ultraviolet light to lure scorpions out of their hiding places.

Rarely have so many visited a place with such an uninviting name as Death Valley. Situated in eastern California near the border with Nevada 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, it is so otherworldly that George Lucas filmed some of his “Star Wars” scenes there. Remote, weird and a dry 60 to 70 degrees in February, Death Valley offers a bracing midwinter contrast to the Northeast.

Even without the benefit of moonlight, the landscape awes. On an afternoon walk into the vast salt flats that look west to Tucki Mountain, I felt a silence as immense as any on Earth. Nothing interrupted that stillness—not buzzing fly or flapping bird, not rumbling motor or ringing cellphone.

And at Badwater Basin, crusting salt crystals grew out of cracks in the ground like a glittering fractal painting. The salt seemed to bloom like coral in a sea from which all the water had been drained.

Death Valley is a place of extremes—the hottest, driest, lowest place in North America—and one of the most inhospitable places I've visited.

The names of its natural attractions—Dante's View, Devil's Cornfield—evoke hellish images. Vast swaths of the park, the largest in the lower 48, are beyond reach of cellphone service. Several of its prime sites can be reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles over washboard gravel. It is the only place I've ever seen a “urine chart” in a public restroom, with a color-coded index to the stages of dehydration.

And yet.

There are comfortable oases: The Furnace Creek Resort, with its luxurious inn, favored by Hollywood glitterati, and its moderately priced ranch occupying an area that once housed mine workers, is the most popular of three settlements to stay overnight. At the Furnace Creek Ranch, the pool is warmed by hot springs. I swam beneath palm trees as the setting sun painted the Funeral Mountains pink and orange.

And the human history of the park, from its miners and monopolists to con men and criminals, is fascinating. The Timbisha Shoshone were the desert valley's first inhabitants; they are partners with the park service in managing the federal lands, and have a year-round village at Furnace Creek.

The park also provides an unusual vantage from which to consider global warming: As the Earth gets hotter, what happens to the Earth's hottest place? The canaries in the coal mine might be the tiny pupfish, found in only a handful of warm, salty streams in the park, the last remnants of a previous geologic era's lake. The fish might not be able to breed if the temperature of their waterways gets any higher or to survive in sufficient numbers if the water evaporates before they mature.

Death Valley became a national monument in 1933, through the efforts of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. The company built the Furnace Creek Inn, a masterpiece of Spanish mission architecture made from stucco and local stone, as a tourist destination after its local mines had closed. The inn, which opened in 1927, was envisioned as a way to continue to use the narrow-gauge railroad the company had built to transport the mineral to the coast.

To promote the inn—and gain public support for the area's designation as a national park—the company also sponsored “Death Valley Days,” a radio and, later, television series about the Old West. Its most famous host was Ronald Reagan.

I had never really thought much about borax, a white crystal that was found on the surface at some spots in the valley, before my trip. But it was the white gold of the desert. Its discovery in the 1880s brought miners and mine owners to the region. More than a century later, it is still used in laundry and hand soaps, as well as toothpaste, and is an ingredient in flame retardants, ceramics and insecticides.

That famous brand, Twenty Mule Team Borax—still sold in supermarkets—originated near Furnace Creek. At the Harmony Borax Works, now preserved, you can see the old wagons that made the 165-mile, 10-day trip over the mountains to the railhead at Mojave, pulled by those massive beasts. Not preserved are the tents in which some of the Chinese laborers lived while mining and starting the refining process. The mine office, the oldest building in the park, was relocated to the Furnace Creek Ranch, where it houses the Borax Museum.

The park service has established several drives and hikes to bring visitors close to the bizarre geology of the region. A ranger said she had once used the analogy that the Grand Canyon's sedimentary layers were like a pack of different colored sticks of gum, stacked. At Death Valley, all those different colored pieces of gum have been chewed up together and then flattened out. At places like Artist's Palette, reached via an undulating one-way drive through Candyland-like hills, different minerals reaching the surface have colored the hills pink, green, orange and yellow. Mosaic Canyon looks as its name implies. And you can walk on beach-like sand dunes at Mesquite Flats.

From North America's lowest spot, Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level), it's possible to see one of its highest, the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak. At those elevations, snow precautions are advised.

The best months of the year to visit are December through March, when the average high temperatures range from the mid-60s to 90 degrees. From May through September, the average highs are in the three digits; the thermometer reached 129 in June 2013. June is the month the Furnace Creek Golf Course traditionally hosts the Heatstroke Open. Distances between the scenic highlights are long, and roadside services are available only at a few locations, so fill up on gas and carry water and snacks with you.

Our favorite hike was up Golden Canyon to a natural red-wall amphitheater, then down through Gower Gulch. Along the way, we ascended partway up a towering cliff face, called Manly Beacon, from which we could look out over the badlands to the huge salt pan on the valley floor.

For sheer entertainment, though, a visit to Scotty's Castle is worth the 53-mile drive from Furnace Creek. The beautiful Spanish revival mansion is an engineer's dream—a self-sustaining luxury home in the absolute middle of nowhere.

It was neither owned nor built by Scotty—Walter Scott, a con man who today would be scorned and prosecuted for his fraudulent scheme to attract investors in a fake gold mine. Rather, it was built by one of those investors, an abstemious, teetotaling Midwestern life insurance magnate, Albert Johnson. When Johnson, who had overcome a nearly paralyzing back injury in his 20s, insisted on visiting the gold mine with Scotty, a sham gunfight set up to thwart his inspection backfired—one of the poseurs was accidentally shot—and Johnson realized he'd been duped.

Instead of getting mad, however, Johnson got a lifelong friend. The millionaire spent the next nine summers vacationing with the hard-drinking raconteur before deciding to build his vacation home in Grapevine Canyon, in the northeastern corner of the park. The park service's costumed rangers provide tours of both the mansion and its service areas, including an early air-conditioning system, solar water heater and an electrical powerhouse with a waterwheel and row upon row of massive batteries. There's even a music room with a working pipe organ.

We picnicked outside the visitor center at the castle, keeping an eye on the resident coyote who seemed interested in our food. Then we drove down the road to the Ubehebe Crater, formed from the explosion of gas when rising magma hit groundwater. The two-mile hike on cinders around the rim of the crater was a workout for the calf muscles.

A millionaire's castle, an almost-tame coyote and an unusual geologic formation—all part of a day in Death Valley, whose forbidding name belies its considerable attractions.

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