In 1849, a group of prospectors took a wrong
turn on their way to California's gold fields.
They found themselves in a desolate but beautiful
desert. As they made their way out of the broiling
valley that had brought them to the brink of death,
one adventurer called out a snide farewell, "Goodbye,
Death Valley." The name stuck.
Death Valley has many claims to fame. With 3.3
million acres of protected wilderness, it is the
largest national park in the continental United
States. It is also the lowest, driest, and usually
the hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere. Temperatures
of 120 degrees in the shade are commonplace in
summer months. More than a million visitors come
to experience Death Valley every year. They come
for the scenery - desert flatlands 200 feet below
sea level to mountaintops two miles high. There
are geologic marvels - volcanic craters, sand
dunes, rainbow colored foothills. There are myriad
hiking trails. And there is history - remnants
of ghost towns and mining camps, and a castle
in the middle of the desert.
There have been countless times I have driven
north on Highway 395 to the slopes of Mammoth
or along Highway 15 to Las Vegas. Speeding along
to my destination, I all but ignored those signs
reading "Death Valley." They always
seemed more a warning than another destination.
Recently, however, I made that turn off the main
road and discovered another world - Death Valley,
a 4 1/2 hour drive, 285 miles northeast of Los
Angeles. While many places there have macabre,
less than inviting names such as Funeral Mountain,
Coffin Peak, Badwater, and the Devil's Golf Course,
there is an oasis in its midst. It is called the
Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.
The Furnace Creek Inn (760-786-2345) is a 75-year
old first class resort. Designed by L.A. architect
Albert Martin (who also designed Los Angeles'
City Hall), the Spanish adobe style hotel with
an imposing red tile roof is listed as one of
America's historic hotels. It opened in 1927 as
a corporate retreat for guests of the Pacific
Coast Borax Company. Borax was profitably mined
from the desert for decades and transported by
legendary "20-mule teams." By 1935,
the hotel had expanded to the 66 rooms it has
today and opened to year round guests. Mining
faded away and tourism became Death Valley's principal
business. The Inn overlooks the flat expanse of
the desert floor and is carved into a hillside
of sand and rock. It surrounds a beautiful palm
garden with spring-fed streams, ponds, and waterfalls
and meandering flagstone paths. And in the distance
are the snow capped peaks of the Panamint Mountains..
It offers the service and amenities of a world
class hotel - in the center of a foreboding desert.
Rates vary from $195/night in the torrid summer
months to $360/night in the cooler days of winter.
The Inn's dining room is an elegant restaurant
with black tie service, no jeans allowed. Its
swimming pool is fed by underground hot springs
which keep it at a constant 85 F. There are also
lighted tennis courts and horseback riding facilities.
For many, it is a premier golf destination whose
18-hole course is famed for being the lowest golf
course in the world, 214 feet below sea level.
Less than half a mile down the road from the Inn
is the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort with 224 rustic-style
rooms and rates less than $100/night. There you'll
find, amidst an oasis of hundreds of date palms,
another café and restaurant, a general store,
a museum, the park service office, and a 3000-foot
airstrip. There are also campgrounds and an RV
Furnace Creek is the ideal starting point to explore
Death Valley. Carry water, check your radiator,
and set out. Visit Zabriskie Point, a viewpoint
over the starkly beautiful "badlands."
Experience Dante's View and gaze down to the valley
floor from a mile high overlook. Ubehebe Crater
is half a mile wide and 600-foot deep, blasted
out a few thousand years ago by a cataclysmic
volcanic eruption. A few miles west of the crater,
you'll be amazed to find Scotty's Castle, a multi-million
dollar mansion built in the style of a Moorish
Castle in a remote Death Valley canyon. The park
service offers dramatic tours of Scotty's Castle,
describing how it was built as a desert vacation
villa by insurance magnate, Albert Johnson, and
became a home for his unusual friend, Walter Scott,
a flamboyant schemer and self-promoter.
Wait for night in Death Valley and discover another
world. The air becomes comfortably cool, clean,
and sweet; the sky is sprinkled with a billion
stars; and it is oh, oh so quiet. If you want
to get away from civilization, this is a place
where you can truly get away from it all.