Wandering the West
We’re stuck in-between seasons here at 7,000 feet in the Wasatch. Too late for the summer stuff and too early to get out the skis. The fall color is fading and it’s time to get out one last time before we hunker down for another great winter.
Might I suggest Death Valley? Sounds pleasant doesn’t it? I’ll bet you didn’t know it is the single largest national park in the lower 48 states and has a lot more to offer than a quick walk out to Badwater, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level.
Weather wise, this is the beginning of prime time at Death Valley, in southeastern California near the Nevada border. In mid-October, the summer heat finally begins to break and the heaviest period of visitation is about to begin. Sure, you can go in the middle of summer, but since it’s the hottest, driest place in North America, expect blast furnace temperatures of 120 degrees, with nights "cooling" to 95. But starting now, days are pleasant and there’s a lot to see.
At 3.4 million acres, there’s a lot to see in this spread out park, and a lot of the roads require high clearance vehicles and high levels of patience. For example, if you want to see the famously weird Racetrack Playa, its 27 rough dirt road miles in and the same road back out. But the reward is a strange, otherworldly dry lakebed with bowling ball sized rocks scattered around. And behind each rock is a trail dug into the dirt showing where the rock came from. Who moved them? How? The answer is really quite simple, but its fun to not know the answer and start looking around for UFO’s and the aliens who fly them.
The center of any Death Valley experience is the Furnace Creek area, where in the heart of the bleak, barren valley you’ll see an improbably green, palm tree lined 18-hole golf course part of the Furnace Creek Inn and Resort, where the fanciest in-park lodging is located. Its also where the main park visitor’s center and museum is, along with nearby attractions like Badwater, the Devil’s Golf Course (eroded rock salt spires), and the ruins of an old borax mine. There really were 20-mule teams that hauled borax out of mines here. Some among us will remember the old Death Valley Days TV show hosted by an actor named Reagan and sponsored by something called Twenty Mule Team Borax. I never did understand what the stuff was for, or why it took mules to haul it around.
Starting about now, the park is pleasantly hike able. People still die of heat exhaustion and dehydration out here just like they did on Reagan’s TV show, but common sense, a map and a few water bottles should keep you out of trouble this time of year. There are countless canyon hikes reminiscent of ones you’d find in southern Utah, only instead of the red sandstones, you’ll find more browns and yellows in the sediments.
In Mosaic Canyon, the walls will actually be marble, polished as if they were part of a Deer Valley fireplace.
Ubehebe Crater is another one of those weird sites where you might be looking for the aliens. It is a nearly perfectly round hole in the ground 600 feet deep, created just seconds ago in geologic time. About 300 years a volcanic explosion roared through the desert floor here, and afterwards, all that remained was a deep crater.
Besides the Furnace Creek golf course and the borax mine, there’s another man made creation worth a stop. Scotty’s Castle is over on the eastern edge of the park, named for eccentric Death Valley Scotty, a grizzled old prospector who talked a rich Chicago insurance magnate into building a lavish vacation home and letting him live in it. Scotty’s Castle is an elaborate Spanish style mansion where you can take tours. It’s kind of desert rat’s version of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, and like Hearst’s Castle, Scotty’s Castle was never finished a little event called the Depression got in the way.
As in so many wanderings around the west, getting there is half the fun. You can fly into Palm Springs, Las Vegas or Los Angeles, but when I’ve gone it has been across the Nevada desert, poking around in desolate outback towns like Goldfield with its huge hotel and high school long abandoned, and Rhyolite, with its grand train station for a railroad that was never built.
A walk in the valley of death can be really pleasant this time of year.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Furnace Creek (by car) 588 miles
Airports: Las Vegas, Palm Springs
Insider tip: Late fall and winter is prime season here, so plan ahead with reservations.
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Park City officials are preparing to take what is considered to be an important step in protecting the Treasure land from wildfires. City Hall in early June requested proposals from firms interested in the work.