Perched on a rise in the middle of one of the world’s driest and hottest deserts sits what is surely a mirage. At least, it must seem that to first-time Death Valley visitors who are unfamiliar with elegant Furnace Creek Inn. The inn, an AAA Four-Diamond resort, endures and continues to welcome visitors with luxurious accommodations in what can only be described as an unusual setting where summer temperatures average over 100 degrees and frequently soar above 120 degrees. Although a seemingly desolate land where annual rainfall averages less than two inches, Death Valley is home for variety of hardy wildlife, and a timely burst of rainfall can produce a sea of spring wildflowers.
The Pacific Coast Borax Company constructed Furnace Creek Inn in the mid-1920s as part of the company's effort to stimulate and profit from increased visitation to Death Valley. The hotel opened on February 1, 1927, a few months following completion of a less luxurious hotel approximately 25 miles northwest at Stovepipe Wells. Constructed of bricks produced on-site by Paiute and Shoshone Indians, the original hotel comprised 12 rooms, six on each side of a dining area and semi-circular lobby with westward-facing windows overlooking the valley floor. An additional 20 rooms were added in the next several years, and improvements, including the additions of a swimming pool and tennis courts, continued into the mid-1930s.
Mostly complete when President Herbert Hoover designated Death Valley a national monument in 1933 (expanded and changed to national park status in 1994), the inn has operated in its present form since the late-1930s, except for three years during World War II when it was closed because of rationing. Unlike most national park lodges, including those in Yellowstone, Glacier, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, and Zion that are government-owned, the Furnace Creek Inn and nearby Furnace Creek Ranch are privately owned and situated on private land within Death Valley National Park. One of the park’s two other lodging facilities, Panamint Springs Resort, is also privately owned.
The mission-style inn faces west toward the valley and, in the far distance, the Panamint Mountains that provide a jagged, looming background, especially after the sun has slipped behind the peaks. The inn itself, sits on a terraced hillside oasis of green grass and date palm trees complete with stone walkways, a small stream, and ponds. The greenery along the west side of the inn is in stark contrast to the surrounding desert. An attractive restaurant serves upscale meals including an excellent Sunday brunch. An afternoon tea is offered in the lounge and afternoon drinks are served in the lounge and on the front patio.
Furnace Creek Inn offers 66 rooms in five price categories that vary according to size, amenities, and view. Rooms are spread through four floors with elevator access near the registration desk. A limited number of the least expensive rooms are on the backside and offer no views. Other rooms are on a U-shaped terrace above the pool, while somewhat larger and more expensive rooms offer a terrace or deck. Five large "Luxury View" rooms each have a spa tub. The inn has two suites, each comprised of a living room with a sofa bed plus separate bedroom with either two queens or one king. All rooms have a television (many national park lodges do not), refrigerator, coffeemaker, iron and ironing board, hair dryer, and a telephone with data port. (Keep in mind that cell phones do not work here.)
The inn serves as a convenient base for several days of desert-related activities. The park’s most famous landmark, Scotty’s Castle, 55 miles north, offers an opportunity to tour the home of a wealthy entrepreneur, best known as a friend to Death Valley Scotty for whom it is named. Seventeen miles south of the inn is Badwater, the lowest point in North America, where a person can stand 232 feet below sea level and gaze west at 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. Just north of Badwater, an area known as Devil’s Golf Course is named for the rugged terrain of evaporated salt that was once a lake bottom. A number of interesting hiking trails are scattered throughout the park.
A short distance north of the Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch offers additional lodging and a small commercial center that includes a steak house, saloon, café, gift shop/grocery, post office, and a National Park Service visitor center. The Ranch also boasts an 18-hole golf course advertised as the lowest (214 feet below sea level) on earth. A complimentary shuttle operates between the inn and the ranch.
A luxurious hotel in a unique natural environment offers an opportunity for a special vacation. Temperatures are often ideal during the spring and fall when evenings are cool and days are warm and sunny. Keep in mind the inn is closed from mid-May to early October when scorching temperatures can make outdoor activities unpleasant. For those determined to experience the desert on its harshest terms, rooms are available year round at nearby Furnace Creek Ranch and 35 miles north at Stovepipe Wells. The latter offers more of a true desert experience than either the inn or the ranch.
IF YOU GO
Reservations: The Furnace Creek Inn, along with nearby Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells, are operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts. For Inn reservations call (800) 236-7916 or book online at www.furnacecreekresort.com. Rates for 2009 range from $305 for rooms without a view to $430 for luxury rooms with a view. Rates differ according to room size, view, and season. Specials and packages are often available. Rates at Furnace Creek Ranch ($124 to $197) and Stovepipe Wells ($77 to $117) are much less expensive.
Season: The Inn is open from mid-October to mid-May. Rates are increased approximately 10 percent from mid-October to the end of December. Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs Resort are open year round. Desert wildflowers are a big draw during spring when the park has experienced above-average rainfall.
How to get there: Death Valley National Park is approximately 135 miles from the nearest major airport in Las Vegas, a convenient place to fly because of the large number of flights from nearly everywhere in the country. The airport has a well-organized car rental center that includes most major companies. Check online for rental rates that can vary widely.
Activities: Tennis, swimming, golf, massage therapy, sauna, horseback riding, hiking, and guided tours.
Park Fees: Death Valley National Park levies an entrance fee ($20 per vehicle) that can be paid at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Consider buying an America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass if you are likely to visit additional national parks during the year. This $80 pass allows free entrance to any national park for one year from the date of purchase. The $10 America the Beautiful Senior Pass available to citizens 62 years and older allows free entrance to any national park area for the holder’s lifetime. A free lifetime pass is available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities.
David and Kay Scott are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia, and have traveled America’s national parks for 40 years.