Death Valley (California)
The National Park is Not Dead
The name Death Valley is synonymous with, … death, a rather foreboding topic. As my wife and I first approached Furnace Creek Ranch, the heart of the valley, we were a little apprehensive. The native inhabitants, the Timbisha Shoshone Indians called their home ‘Tumpisa’, meaning ‘rock paint’, coming from the red ochre paint they made from clay. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors tried to cross the valley, but never found their way out. The story goes that one of the prospectors after being rescued, looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley”… and the name stuck. William Manly, one of the early prospectors recorded that ”this was the most God-forsaken country in the world…the Creator’s dumping ground where he left the worthless dregs after making the world”. These words seem a little harsh.
Death Valley is a geological phenomenon. Located west of Las Vegas along the CaliforniaNevada border, the valley is approximately 70 x 225 km (45 x 140 mi) in size. To the south is the Mojave Desert and to the north is the Great Basin Desert. The valley is surrounded by five mountain ranges, with the Amargosa Mountains to the east and the Panamint Mountains to the west. The valley was created by the folding of the earth’s crust, which resulted in extremes in elevation like Mt. Telescope at 3370 m (11,049 ft) and a deep valley below sea level. Death Valley is known for being the lowest, driest and hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. The lowest point is Badwater Basin, which is 86 m (282 ft) below sea level. For the record, the lowest point on earth is the Dead Sea at 414m (1,360 ft) below sea level. Because of its unique geography, Death Valley has set many records for temperature. In five separate instances, temperatures have reached 53.9 °C (129 °F) but they usually average 47 °C (116 °F ) during the summer months. On our early March visit, it was a comfortable 33°C (92 °F).
SO WHAT IS THERE TO SEE IN DEATH VALLEY? VIEWPOINTS
In order to really see Death Valley, it is necessary to view the valley from various mountain tops. Start at Zabriskie Point, eight km (5 mi) south of Furnace Creek Ranch. A short uphill hike from the parking lot leads to a panoramic view of the valley, along with the barren golden brown mudstone hills. The most impressive viewpoint is Dante’s View, 42 km (26 mi) south. From over 1500 m (5,000 ft), you can see Badwater Basin, the alluvia fan, the saltpan and the rest of the valley to the north.
Following the 1849 goldrush in California, Death Valley was mined for both silver and gold. Within four years, Panamint Springs went from boomtown to ghost town. Mining towns sprung up throughout the valley, including Skidoo, Leadfield, Chloride City and Lost Burro Mine. The largest town was Rhyolite, near Beatty, Nevada. Rhyolite is also known as the ‘Queen City’ of Death Valley, which achieved a population of 8,000, had two banks, three railroads, an opera house, fifty saloons and an equal number of brothels between 1905-1911.
The richest mineral in Death Valley was not gold, but borax, the “white gold of the desert’. Borax is used in the making of glass products such as pyrex, as well as detergents and cosmetics. It would be the transportation of borax with the 20-mule team wagons that carved out the famous Canyon Road.
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
Stovepipe Wells Village is the geographic centre of the park. It was named after a stovepipe was found in the sand and used as a marker for a watering hole. The oasis is surrounded by the most photographed sand dunes in the world. George Lucas used this location in the original Star Wars movie. If you are planning a hike, bring your camera and lots of water.
Death Valley has been described as haunted and mysterious, defying Mother Nature. A playa is a flat lake bed. Racetrack Playa is 136 km (85 mi) northwest of Furnace Creek Ranch and involves navigating a rough gravel road. The Playa is the site of the sailing stones, the rocks that move by themselves. All size of rocks slide across the desert floor, leaving a long visible trail in the muddy clay. Explanations as to how the rocks move vary from the supernatural to extraterrestrial aliens. The most reasonable scientific explanation is that the clay surface is filled with ice crystals, and the frequent 115 to 145 kph (70 to 90 mph) winds move the rocks over
the playa. Remember, the stones only move under perfect conditions, which can be a rare event.
This castle is located in Grapevine Canyon, 85 km (53 mi) north of Furnace Creek Ranch. The castle is more like a European villa, built in the Spanish Provincial mode. The castle was the idea of the legendary Walter Scott or Death Valley Scott, who in his youth, worked in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The 2.5 million dollars it took to build the castle is rumored to have come from a secret gold mine, but it appears that a business man from Chicago, Albert M. Johnson, really owned and financed the project.
DEVIL’S GOLF COURSE
This is not a real golf course. The name comes from the idea that only Lucifer the Devil could play on this surface. As Lake Manly slowly evaporated, a salt pan was left on the valley floor. Technically, the rock salt is a halite crystal formation and provides a unique hard landscape. Do not confuse the Devil’s Golf Course with the playable 18-hole golf course at Furnace Creek Ranch.
On arriving at Furnace Creek Park, visit the National Park Visitor Center/Museum and pick up some reading material. If looking for a full service park, there are only 41 sites in the entire valley, including Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek Ranch. We booked ten months in advance. Across from Furnace Creek Ranch is Sunset Campgrounds operated by the National Park Service, having 270 sites for dry camping. Furnace Creek Ranch is operated by Xanteera Parks and Resorts, with the village having many amenities. The village has a general store, restaurants, a saloon, swimming pool, golf course, Borax Museum, gas station, post office, tennis courts, horseback riding and 214 hotel rooms/cabins. If interested, the Inn at Furnace Creek, built in 1927, is a four diamond hotel/resort.
Death Valley is far from dead, nor is the valley the “Creator’s dumping ground.” The valley is beautiful, barren, mystic and peaceful. After a week, we still had not visited the Artist Drive, Ubehebe Crater or the Mosaic Canyon. Our next visit is not too far in the future. Clockwise from top left: Zabriskie Point - the Badlands, Dennis Begin playing golf on the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and Rhyolite Ghost Town.