Admittedly, the marketing leaves something to be desired: Death Valley doesn't sound like a place you'd want to go to relax for a few days--especially if you plan to return alive.
Don't be misled by the name, however. Death Valley is a place of surpassing, solitary beauty and surprising variety. Temperatures can reach 115F in the summer, but they're pleasant the rest of the year, with highs in the 80s and 90s in the spring and fall, and the 60s in January. (Nighttime temperatures can be 20 to 30 degrees cooler.) The landscape ranges from salt flats to strangely sculpted badlands, canyons, sand dunes, and mineral-rich mountains in pastel shades of green, pink, and yellow. And unlike the early explorers and borax miners whose survival was always in doubt, you can enjoy Death Valley in rustic luxury, dining on rattlesnake empanadas as well as more conventional fare, and relaxing in a spring-fed pool where you can have a drink and admire a panoramic view of the valley.
Death Valley National Park, covering 3.3 million acres, is the largest national park outside of Alaska. Situated in Southern California, just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it's a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, four hours from Los Angeles, and about eight hours from San Francisco. The valley, about 125 miles long and 5 to 15 miles wide, is the hottest, driest, lowest spot in North America.
At its nadir lies a blindingly white salt flat called Badwater, 282 feet below sea level. Badwater also happens to be only about 100 miles from the highest point in the continental U.S.--14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, west of the park.
During most of its history, Death Valley has been filled with water. Thirty million years ago, this simmering dust bowl was covered with lakes and forested hills and populated by deer, horses, rhinoceroses, and dogs. Then earthquakes ravaged the area. Fractures in the earth's crust produced mountains and deep basins. A vast lake formed in Death Valley, with no outlet to the sea. When it evaporated about 10,000 years ago, it left large deposits of salt and borax, a mineral now used as a cleanser and water softener. In the 19th century, miners were drawn not only by borax but by deposits of gold, silver, copper, and lead.
The best way to explore Death Valley is on foot, although you will need a car to get to the trailheads. Despite the rugged terrain, many of the most spectacular walks and hikes take only an hour or two. A good place to start is Golden Canyon, a few miles south of the Furnace Creek visitors' center on Route 178. The canyon is framed by yellow walls that rise in some places to heights of 50 or 60 feet. An interpretive brochure available at the mouth of the canyon will give you background on its geology and history, keyed to markers along the trail.
The trail extends a mile or so to the top of the canyon--about an hour's walk gently uphill in a pebbly dry riverbed. If you're game, you can continue for a half mile to a spectacular amphitheater of red rock walls, 100 feet high, known as the Red Cathedral. From the cool shade of the cathedral, you can look out over the valley, where the air is so clear that distances appear to be much shorter than they are. The only sound you're likely to hear is the muffled shuddering of the wind. City dwellers, take note: The silence could unnerve those used to falling asleep to the sound of sirens and car alarms.
A second trail from the top of Golden Canyon takes you on a five-mile round-trip through the badlands west of Zabriskie Point, an overlook accessible by car and one of the park's most popular destinations. Hikers wind in and around small, softly rounded hills of bare yellow clay 50 to 100 feet high.
Another spot not to miss is Badwater itself, about 15 miles south of Golden Canyon. Most visitors stop at the salt-rich pool near the parking area, but a better bet is to lather yourself with sunscreen and walk 15 or 20 minutes out on the salt flats. Put on your sunglasses, too, because the salt reflects and magnifies the sunlight, which is intense to begin with. When you've ventured onto the flats, turn around and look up near the top of the cliff behind you. You will see a painted white line next to the words "sea level." It's an amazing sensation to realize that if Death Valley were still filled with water, you'd be almost 300 feet below the surface.
Because the landscape is so uncluttered, you can enjoy much of its beauty through the window of your car. On the other hand, if you're looking for more of a challenge, you can make the trek to 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, the park's highest point. It's 14 miles, round-trip, and you'll need to carry at least a gallon of water with you.
However you decide to enjoy the park, you can dine and relax in luxury at day's end at the Furnace Creek Inn, just up the hill from the visitor's center. Opened in 1927 by the Pacific Coast Borax Co., the inn is situated on a natural oasis, which feeds the swimming pool and nurtures a rich, green palm garden, improbably blooming in the middle of the barren wilderness.
The 66-room inn offers tennis, guided hiking, sightseeing, and 18 holes of golf on the world's lowest golf course--214 feet below sea level. (If your shots don't go quite as far as they should, you can blame it on the heavy air.) The rooms range from $125 to $365 a night, depending on the time of year, the size, and the view. Many overlook the garden and valley below. The restaurant offers Southwestern fare along with steak, a vegetarian dish, a cactus appetizer, and those rattlesnake empanadas. (No, it doesn't taste like chicken; more like beef.)
Motel-style rooms, starting at $102, are available at the Furnace Creek Ranch in the valley and at Stovepipe Wells, where you can also find inexpensive restaurants. And there are nine campgrounds with about 1,500 campsites, though some are closed during the summer.
Rattlesnake isn't for everyone, and neither is Death Valley. But if you can understand the allure of a vast, uncrowded desert, this wilderness will captivate you with its serenity and breathtaking beauty.
By Paul Raeburn