The Essential Death Valley
* Towering sand dunes that ripple across the heart of a 3.4-million-acre landscape, hidden canyons that echo with splashing, gurgling water that nourishes a surprising cache of lush vegetation, a human history of anguish as well as prosperity. The surreal landscape of Death Valley can be deadly hot in summer, and yet it is one of the more intriguing units of the national park system because of its stark beauty and demanding nature. Beauty can be seen in the incredible wildflower blooms (there are more than 1,000 plant species in Death Valley) that follow wet falls as well as in the intricate and subtle colors that ripple across the park’s badlands and up its canyons in the late afternoon sun. You can even see the park’s beauty in the unusual pupfish that somehow endure the park’s high heat. As for the demanding nature, well, that can be found in the mid-1800s incident that gave the valley its name as well as in the convection oven-like heat that descends on the park during the height of summer.
* When should you visit Death Valley National Park? What do you desire? Europeans seem drawn by the high heat of summer, wearing a visit to Death Valley when the mercury has already broken the century mark at sunrise as some bizarre red badge of courage. Come in early spring and you might be greeted by colorful bursts of evening primrose, orange globemallow, and a variety of cacti in bloom, while in late fall you’ll enjoy more reasonable hiking temperatures.
* Hiking is not a terribly popular pastime in Death Valley, in part because there are few hiking trails and in part because the hot weather that descends on the park most of the year is not the most conducive for hiking. Still, Mosaic Canyon offers a 4-mile roundtrip trek that leads you through a twisting canyon with an interesting conglomerate floor of colorful gravels that time and runoff have nicely polished. You’ve got to be a bit careful in the canyon, as the higher you go the more difficult the trek becomes thanks to slickrock and dry waterfalls you must scale. Still, it’s a tad bit cooler in the canyon than out in the open, and you have a chance of spying some of the park’s bighorn sheep.
* Where is the park's best adventure? Well, what do you think of rocks that walk? That’s one of Death Valley’s mysteries, and you can see them for yourself at the “Racetrack,” a remote section in the northern end of the park where you’ll find solitude as well as rocks that seemingly propel themselves across the blistering playa of Racetrack Valley. Getting to the Racetrack is more than half the challenge. It lies not quite 70 miles north of the Highway 190/137 junction east of Stovepipe Wells, and the last 27 miles are along teeth-wracking washboard roads that test your rig’s suspension and your tolerance. Once you reach the valley with its playa, though, you can marvel at the rocks and the paths they’ve left and try to figure out how they’ve managed to crawl across the landscape. A bonus for making the trip is the sign tree at Teakettle Junction.
Too much of a jaunt in the family sedan? Then head to Scotty’s Castle, a magnificent mansion in the northern end of the park up Grapevine Canyon. Built back in 1922 by Albert Johnson, a Chicago insurance tycoon, the castle-like structure is named after Walter Scott, a desert rat who made a living by convincing investors to stake his supposed prospecting in Death Valley. The story of how the two met and how Scotty made his living off Johnson is incredible.
* During my visits to Death Valley I’ve seen little wildlife, aside from a lone coyote that seemed to be wishing he could wind up in some other, cooler park, and a burro, a descendant from the burros late-19th century miners used while prospecting in the area before it became a national park. But they say desert bighorn sheep can be spotted at times in Mosaic Canyon, while kangaroo rats, kit fox, and even sidewinder rattlesnakes can be found in and around the dunes. And, of course, the most unusual wildlife are the desert pupfish that live in salty marshes along Salt Creek just about 10 miles south of Stovepipe Wells on Highway 190.
* How do you keep kids happy in Death Valley? What kid doesn’t like to play in sand? Death Valley offers a number of dune complexes, but the most readily accessible is the one found near Stovepipe Wells. Rising in places to 120 feet, these dunes can offer kids countless hours of distraction. However, you must carefully parcel your time in the dunes to the early-morning and early evening hours so you can avoid summer’s high heat and a bit more safely enjoy this well-baked landscape. Better yet, plan your park visit to coincide with a full moon and head out after dinner with flashlights.
* How do you flee crowds in this park? Well, there really aren't any, at least not in the same sense as crowds at Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. But for an extra measure of solitude, walk into a side canyon (perhaps the one containing a natural bridge that’s located about 13 miles south of Furnace Creek) or head out to explore one of the park’s ghost towns.
* The Furnace Creek Inn has an amazing dining room, one that on occasion has been known to serve up rattlesnake, as well as the more pedestrian lamb, beef and seafood dishes. Of course, you’ll pay for it. But if you’ve made it this far, why not splurge a little? Just be sure you land a table near the window so you can take in the Panamint Range as sundown approaches.
* Where should you head for breakfast? You can make the decision-making process easy by heading to the Wrangler near the Furnace Creek Ranch and graze at the breakfast buffet, or enter the Forty-Niner Café and order from the menu. Either option is safe and inexpensive.
* Your best accommodations at Death Valley are to be found in the Furnace Creek Inn, the complex up on the hillside above Highway 190 at Furnace Creek and surrounded by palm groves. The rooms carry a Mission influence. They’re on the small side and can be hot as the air conditioners and ceiling fans seem to collectively be losing the battle against the valley’s convection-like heat. But they’re charming and the path outside your room leads down to a swimming pool that seems refreshing despite its 85-degree water.
* For the best bargain lodging (outside of a tent) in the heart of the park, that can be found at the Furnace Creek Ranch, where rooms, though motelish, are more reasonably priced than those found at the inn across the highway. But there’s a pool here, as well as several restaurants where a family can eat without going broke. For a more unique stay, check out at Panamint Springs Resort, which lies 31 miles west of Stovepipe Wells. There’s a good restaurant there and clean, comfortable rooms.