DEATH VALLEY - Hell’s Gate. Dante’s View. The Funeral Mountains. Coffin Peak. Badwater.
Having such names attached to landmarks doesn’t exactly scream “vacation fun.”
Death Valley is far from being an inhospitable, desolate destination. Nor do you have to be into hiking, scaling rocks, or endurance sports to enjoy a vacation in the largest national park in the Lower 48 States.
Death Valley is a seven hour drive from the 209. But in terms of scenery you might as well as be in outer space. In fact, several movies in the Star Wars saga had planet scenes filmed in Death Valley.
November through January are optimum times to visit. Temperatures rarely get above 85 degrees and typically top out in the high 60s as winter wears on. That’s important given when air temperature is at 100 degrees, the ground temperature in most spots is a good 30 to 40 degrees hotter with the highest temperature ever recorded being 201 degrees on a rock surface.
There are a number of natural features that can be driven to that involve easy to moderate hikes of a half mile to a mile to thoroughly enjoy including the popular Mesquite Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells that start at the road’s edge and reach a height of 170 feet.
At the same time the 3.4 million acres of desert wilderness (it’s bigger than Rhode Island) can satisfy the wishes of virtually every level of outdoor enthusiast from those content to do most of their exploring by car to those more attuned to tackling a 7-mile hike past Bristle Cone pines 3,000 years and older to reach the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak to those looking for the stunning desolation of the Panamint Sand Dunes topping 350 feet that can be reached only by a four-mile hike across the desert floor.
As far as Death Valley being “dead”, there are four distinct ecological systems complete with 51 species of mammals ranging from mule deer to bobcats and kit foxes to 36 reptile species, 307 bird species, two amphibian species, and five fish species.
Thanks to its locations, lack of civilization and being surrounded by mountains that rise abruptly from the valley floor, Death Valley is also an ideal place for stargazing.
The cost of admission is the same as Yosemite National Park at $20 per vehicle for a week.
There are over 800 miles of backcountry roads with many open to camping. There are also nine established campgrounds with the most pristine and isolated while still being accessed by paved roads at Mesquite Spring in the northern end of Death Valley proper.
There are four lodging options within the park with two of them at the “hub” of human activity at Furnace Creek. There at 190 feet below sea level you can stay at the four-diamond resort dubbed the Inn at Furnace Creek (800-236-7916 or furnancecreekresort.com) from mid-October to mid-May. The resort built in 1927 that was once a popular playground for the Hollywood stars of that era offers a spring fed swimming pool, tennis courts, golf, massages, horseback riding and even an airstrip. It is also offers the only restaurant in the park with a strict dress code for dinner - no shorts or T-shirts. Entrees range from $25 to $40. Rooms start at $350 per day.
There are also three campgrounds at Furnace Creek as well as the Ranch at Furnace Creek (800-236-7916 or furnancecreekresort.com) that includes 224 guest units, a general store, airstrip, several restaurants and typical tourist things such as tours, a bicycle shop for rentals, and more. Prices there start at $110 per night. Furnace Creek is also where you will find the visitors center and gas prices that may startle you. It was at $5.15 per gallon on Monday.
That is cheap, however, compared to Panamint Springs Resort (775-482-7680 or deathvalley.com/psr) where unleaded Wednesday was going for the proverbial arm and a leg at $5.98 a gallon with premium at $6.28 a gallon. Panamint Springs has rustic western-style cabins and camping.
My favorite is Stovepipe Wells Village (760-786-2387 or escape to deathvalley.com) where patio rooms start at $90 and gasoline is a more reasonable $4.65 a gallon. There is also a general store, swimming pool, restaurant, saloon and - my favorite - no cell service. Actually most of the park doesn’t have cell service.
Stovepipe Wells is significantly quieter (a lot less people) than Furnace Creek with the added bonus of being more centrally located. You are also within a 30-minute walk or a short drive of the Mesquite Sand Dunes allowing for repeat visits including nighttime trips allowing you to enjoy the solitude while stretched out atop a 170-foot-high dune while gazing in the night sky or watching brilliant sunsets or sunrises.
There are also lodging options outside the park including the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel (760-852-4441 or amargosa-opera-house.com) or in nearby Beatty, Nev. at the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino (702-553-2419 or bestdeathvalleyhotels.com).
And if all of the solitude and stark beauty of nature drives you batty, the Las Vegas Strip is just over a two hour drive from the southern park boundary.
— DENNIS WYATT
209 staff reporter