Surreal Death Valley

In Destinations, Staycations by Richard Carroll

Through heat waves shimmering surrealistically under an intense blue sky, the great land inspires an exhilarating spirit of discovery and exploration. The enormous horizon makes one feel detached from the modern world. Here you can hear the rhythm of your heart and be totally alone with your thoughts, and at peace with a setting unlike anything on the planet.

The core of this 3.4 million-acre National Park where more than 90 percent of the land is designated wilderness is that of immense distances, stark beauty, and subtle earth colors amidst arid splendor. Miles of shimmering sand dunes sculptured by an unhindered wind, rugged salt flats, colorful badlands, and steep-sided, bolder-strewn canyons that seem to stretch forever remain untamed by man and dwarf the human perspective. It’s a time to slow your pace, take a deep breath and feel the overpowering energy. This travel experience can pull you within the environment slowly engulfing the senses. It seems as if nature went into a wild and abandoned fury arranging a massive dream-like landscape that can play tricks with your eyes.

The pristine, almost untouched, look of the valley takes one back to the Old West and the days of the restless and brave pioneers who in 1849 made a fatal decision to try a shortcut on their way to the California gold fields. The valley floor averages a measly inch or two of rain a year, yet incredibly, the Timbisha Shoshone people survived there for hundreds of years on mesquite beans, pine nuts, and small game. Unfortunately, the 49ers lacked the Shoshone’s valuable survival expertise. They attempted to cross the unknown wilderness in rickety wagons drawn by oxen traveling sixteen grueling miles a day, leaving shattered dreams and broken hearts along the desert floor. According to legend, a member of the rag-tag group wearily turned and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley” and thus the name was forever etched in America history.

Though it is the country’s hottest, driest, and lowest national park, yet incredibly it is home to 1,000 native plant species, and has fish and other aquatic animals found nowhere else. Hundreds of canyons wind through the valley and are a blessing for visitors with the push to discover.

Splendidly maintained by the National Park Service, Death Valley is surprisingly clean and far from commercialized. The stunning setting is tightly framed by the rugged Funeral Mountains on the east, and the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak crowning the towering Panamint Range to the west. The mountains, often draped with a blanket of snow during winter, affix a diversity to the park with their forested peaks and ancient Bristlecone pine.

In the distance, 100 or so miles due west, is 14, 494-foot Mt. Whitney in the snow-capped High Sierra, the highest point in the lower 48 states, while in the valley itself is the lowest point in North America –aptly named Badwater—a salty pond that shattered the hopes and dreams of the parched pioneers. The setting is put into perspective by a small sign 282 feet overhead on a nearby volcanic facing that reads “Sea Level.” The valley vistas are almost endless, and shapes seem to change as shadows deepen. When the sun slowly drops below the mountains it’s as if a curtain opens to a world of mystery, inky darkness, a blanket of blazing stars, and the mesmerizing song of coyotes.

Amidst the history of historic characters in chase of riches, and boom and bust mining, stands the famed palm-laden Furnace Creek Inn smack dab on an oasis. Opened in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Lindbergh flew to France in the Spirit of St. Louis, the proud and immaculate, 66-room, mission-style California architecture from the Art Deco era with adobe rock walls, thick beams, soaring arches and tile roof, is the perfect desert setting to capture the nostalgia of the Old West. Locked tightly in the desert’s grip, the ageless Four-Diamond AAA property, a member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, also has a 3,040 by 70-foot. lighted airstrip for small, chartered or private aircraft with arranged inn pickup.

Built on a bluff with unobstructed views across the valley floor to the lofty Panamint Range, the inn’s 1930 era dining room, decorated with eight wrought-iron wagon wheel chandeliers, subtle lighting, and original furniture, offers black tie service with a dress code stating no jeans, shorts, or T-shirts for dinner. Chef Russell Schillereff’s table deserves casual/elegant dress with cuisine inspired by the inn’s historic origins and glorious all-desert plant and grass oasis garden. During winter two fireplaces blaze on either side of the large swimming pool fed by a natural spring, which spills water out at a pleasant 85F into the pool. Guests can book trail rides, jeep rental and tours, a poolside massage, or enjoy a game or two of tennis.

Down the road a few minutes is the casual, family-style, Furnace Creek Ranch, a General Stone, restaurants, campground, service station, museum, and an 18-hole, par 70, resort golf course with Pro Shop and 19-Hole Bar & Grill, all open year-round. The world’s lowest grass course, 214 feet below sea level, has resident coyote pups that skillfully snatch the balls off the wide-open, tree-lined fairways while chattering birds flit about the confused golfers. Director, Kip Freeman, a PGA Professional and esteemed teacher wonders when the clever coyotes are going to set up a stand on the highway and sell discounted slightly used golf balls.

The National Park Furnace Creek Visitor Center at Furnace Creek Ranch, open year round, is an information source for self-guided walking and driving tours to canyons, historical sites, and vista points. The Rangers offer patio talks and splendid slide shows throughout the week along with guided walks, depending upon the time of the year, such as Dark Skies & The Lives of Stars at Mesquite Flat Dunes, a spectacular guided Mosaic Canyon Walk reached by a 2.5-mile hike up an alluvial fan, or a three-hour, Nameless Canyon Exploration.

Artist’s Drive is a one-way road that winds eight miles through impressive rock formations that look as if an artist, deep into his cups, threw buckets of pastel paints helter-skelter over the mountains. The Golden Canyon Trail two miles south from the Inn on Badwater Road, offers another unforgettable hike through a steep-sided canyon where the morning sunlight stirs the golden hues in the eroded badlands.

Scotty’s Castle, 53 miles north of Furnace Creek, designed like an 18th Century Spanish hacienda, dates from 1922 when it was built by Chicago-based financier Albert Johnson and Walter Scott – a robust, bigger-than-life character known as Death Valley Scotty with a silver tongue, a quick wit, and phantom gold mine. The castle, on a 1,7 00-acre spread in Grapevine Canyon at 3,000-foot elevation, is a wondrous 12,000-square-foot, two-story home filled with imported hand-painted tiles, crafted wrought iron, and antique furniture. U.S. National Park Service Rangers, dressed in 1930s-style clothing offer entertaining tours.

One visit to the castle and Death Valley is never enough.

WHEN YOU GO

The Furnace Creek Resort consists of the inn at Furnance Creek and Ranch run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts is located about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and 295 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The inn’s high season is from October to May. www.nps.gov/deva