“What’s on the agenda today?” asked my dear wife Laureen.
I had been sipping quietly over a cup of coffee overlooking Death Valley – wait, overlooking Death Valley from our hotel room.
“You know me,” I replied. “No agenda. I’m not that kind of traveller.”
An eye roll was all it took me to rip out a very detailed topographical map of Death Valley National Park.
I usually like to travel and see what I see, but since we only had two days planned in Death Valley, there was a long list of places that needed to be visited. There were only 27 hours of daylight each day and we had to see things without a flashlight.
“Actually, I made a little list,” I said.
She glanced at the notes I had jotted down. “That’s a lot for one day.”
“And that’s why we have to go,” I replied. “The daylight burns.”
Why is Death Valley so hot?
Death Valley is a low-lying trough desert surrounded by mountain ranges—the Panamint Mountains to the west, the Amargosa Mountains to the east, and many others whose names I forgot to write in the other directions.
Because of the valley’s location, it is one of the hottest, if not the hottest, place on earth. There are various reasons for the hot summers experienced there.
According to research, the entire desert receives intense solar heat from the sun hovering directly over the desert floor in summer. And since there is little vegetation, the air is clear and dry, with nothing to soak up the sun’s rays.
Because Death Valley is also surrounded by other deserts to the south and east, the air that receives Death Valley is already warm by the time it reaches the valley. As the heated air rises, it has nowhere to cool as it is trapped by the mountains surrounding the valley. In this way, the already heated air is simply returned to the desert floor.
These winds also cause the heat to travel and become trapped in Death Valley. These are warm mountain winds that are driven across the mountains and sent straight into the desolate landscape of Death Valley.
This scientific research was exhausting.
I know Death Valley is a hot place to travel in summer. However, it should be noted that when I camped there in the summer a few years ago, I couldn’t fry an egg on my head.
And I tried.
Death Valley was home to the Timbisha tribe who lived in the valley for over 1,000 years – moving from the desert to the cooler temperatures of the nearby Panamint mountain range during the hotter seasons. For what we know as Death Valley today, their name was “Tumpisa” which means rock color and refers to specific clay in the valley that can be turned into a red ocher color.
All the things you learn while traveling.
According to the National Parks Service, the valley got its name from a fateful adventure of a prospector who set out for the goldfields in California in 1849. Believing the valley to be a shortcut to the mines to the north, the prospector meanwhile ventured into the valley of the scorching summer heat and died.
His last words: “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
I’m not sure if that’s true, but it makes a great legend.
Exploring a desert oasis
The drive through Death Valley is on well paved and marked roads. Of course there are dirt tracks and roads that traverse the entire valley, but we mostly stuck to the paved roads on this trip.
Furnace Creek soon came into view and it is a beautiful sight.
Originally known as the Greenland Ranch, it was built by the William Tell Coleman Borax Company in 1883 and named for the green fields of alfalfa planted there. The actual cattle ranch was built in 1891. In 1933 it was renamed the Furnace Creek Rank. That same year, then-President Hoover declared Death Valley a national monument.
Death Valley’s 1.3 million acres didn’t become a national park until 1994.
Furnace Creek was initially a simple operation, headquarters for personnel working on the ranch or in the nearby borax mines. When these began to close in the late 1920s, a modern hotel and other amenities were built at Furnace Creek for the ever-growing hordes of tourists who ventured into the valley.
Now it is a perfectly landscaped desert oasis.
It was early in the morning when we pulled into Furnace Creek Ranch Resort and marveled at the changes a decade had made since our last stay there.
“This isn’t Kansas anymore,” I said.
“No, it’s Furnace Creek,” Laureen replied.
Water fountains spewing water, green grass that is green, lush trees that are lush, all greeted us as we wandered the resort grounds.
There was a museum of the valley and an outdoor exhibit with wagons, farm implements, wagons, and other paraphernalia depicting the history of Death Valley.
There were shops — the Ranch’s General Store, the Oasis Shop, an ice cream shop, the Desert Outfitters, and the Golf Pro Shop — which accompanies the nation’s lowest golf course, just steps from the resort.
Of course, if there were shops, you had to shop.
A clerk at one of the gift shops informed us that the resort had only opened the ranch cottages, large individual casitas for guests, four days prior to our visit.
“They’re fully booked for the next two months,” she said.
“Will they be more malleable in three months?” I asked.
She just looked at me.
There are many accommodation options available to the traveler here in Furnace Creek. The Ranch Cottages, The Inn at Death Valley, The Oasis at Death Valley and Furnace Creek Campground for the rougher types.
After an hour of looking around and one thing on my debit card, it was time to move on.
We drove into the sunset, even though it was only about 11am, and stopped at the original location of the Harmony Borax Works. A leisurely path takes the visitor around the well-preserved remains of what made this area famous – the borax and the 20-mule horse and cart.
A short drive later we found ourselves at Devil’s Golf Course. It is a vast area of rock salt that is constantly being eroded by wind and rain over the years. Large and jagged pinnacles of salt appear to spring out of the earth, mocking anyone who steps there. It is rumored that if a person is paying attention, they can hear salt crystals pop as they expand and contract due to the heat of the day.
Conquer the lowest point in North America
But the road called. We didn’t have time to burst.
The Artist’s Drive was a winding path through beautiful hills decorated with stones of different colors that lay on top of each other as if an artist was holding his palette and wondering what shade to use next on this natural canvas.
We skipped Desolation Canyon. It sounded depressing and was on a slightly bumpy dirt road which would have made it even more painful.
At our next stop we encountered a large group of people and this one was worth stopping at Badwater. We went to the lowest point in North America. Two hundred and eighty-two feet below sea level.
“That’s bad…” I started to say.
“Water?” Laureen finished for me.
Tourists went to Badwater Salt Flats. An easy walk down a beaten track but gazing at the whiteness of the valley this may not be the case in the summer months. Dry, desolate, but at the same time beautiful in its lonely uniqueness.
Next was Dante’s View and an amazing panoramic view of the entire Death Valley landscape at over 5,500 feet and a hundred degrees cooler. Well, at least 15 or 20.
It was spectacular.
In 1926, a local named Charles Brown stated, “I don’t pay much attention to the scenery, but I know of a view that made me stop and look.”
I looked over at Laureen, who was returning to our temporary home for the night.
“We invested a whole day, didn’t we?”
She nodded, “Yes, but we could spend weeks here and not see everything. We just got a taste of what Death Valley has to offer.”
And that’s perhaps the point when traveling. To see what an area has to offer and then come back many times.
Death Valley National Park is one such place.
A side note: traveling through a desert at any time of the year can be challenging, but a visitor must keep in mind that summer heat can be overwhelming. July is typically the hottest month, quickly reaching temperatures in the 120 F range. But with caution, common sense, and plenty of water, a trip through Death Valley is an excellent experience any time of the year.
Email John R. Beyers at [email protected]