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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

The Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort - Death Valley

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 caf and restaurant, a general store, a museum, the park service office, and a 3000-foot airstrip. There are also campgrounds and an RV park nearby.
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.