Death Valley: 'Ground Afire'

The many morsels of this dry California landscape add up to a feast of geology, history, and beauty

In the summer months, the vast Death Valley National Park is a virtual frying pan. Temperatures can soar to more than 120 degrees during the day, and hover around 90 degrees at night.

Heat takes on a new meaning when your shoes stick to the pavement in parking lots. At a roadside stop called Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, tourists from France, Japan, and Germany arrive by the busload. Bring on the heat, they say. "They step off the air-conditioned buses, and spread their arms," says Dick Martin, the park superintendent. "They want to experience the heat."

Death Valley's legendary heat hasn't changed much since President Hoover designated the area a national monument in 1933. But last year President Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act. Death Valley became a national park, with 90 percent of it designated as wilderness area. It was enlarged by 1.4 million acres for a total of 3,367,000 acres of heat, almost twice the size of Delaware. Many new scenic areas and sites are now part of the park.

But unless you have superb anti-wilt capacity and love heat, try a refreshing winter trip to Death Valley. Temperatures seldom go above 80 degrees during the day from November through March, and seldom below the 50s at night.

All the astonishing wonders of this part of the California desert are a little more accessible when the heat waves are not so relentless. The Indians called the valley "Tomesha," or "ground afire" in the summer.

Remember, though, that Death Valley spreads out in a vast, dry landscape requiring vehicles in good condition with a full tank of gas at the start of each day, and plenty of bottled water in reserve. Some roads are passable only with four-wheel-drive vehicles or on mountain bikes.

Approaching Death Valley from the south along California Highway 127, just past the town of Shoshone, turn onto 178, a road first built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the l930s. For the next 70 miles or so, the drive is along the floor of the valley, most of it well below sea level with the Amargosa Range on the east and the Panamint Range on the west.

This two-lane road leads to Furnace Creek and the park visitors' center. Along the way stop at Badwater, just at the edge of salt flats that are dazzling white in the sun. Although the tendency might be to conclude nothing is here, Death Valley's many morsels add up to a whole feast with equal parts of geology, history, legends, incredible starry nights, snow-capped peaks, and the sheer magnitude of the landscape.

For instance, Badwater is a good place to "see" and understand what makes Death Valley the hottest place on Earth.

First, valley skies are almost always bright and clear. Few clouds filter out the heat, and there is virtually no vegetation to provide cooling. As warm air rises and expands, it picks up more heat radiating from the valley floor and is confined somewhat by the valley walls. The heated air continues to rise as heavier, cooler air moves in to replace warm air and gains heat by compression. Not until the sun goes down does the heat diminish.

At Furnace Creek, where a spring keeps the area green around the Furnace Creek Inn, accommodations include expensive rooms and dining in the handsome stone-and-adobe inn built in 1927.

Down the hill is Furnace Creek Ranch with less expensive motel rooms, several restaurants, a general store, swimming pool, and a golf course. In addition there are 136 campsites and RV sites. Death Valley has a total of nine campgrounds.

The busy park visitors' center here offers exhibits, maps, publications, and ranger talks about natural and human history, plus schedules of guided walks and evening programs.

There are plenty of short walks and longer hikes within driving distance from the visitor's center. Zbriskie Point is a colorful overlook of rocky formations next to 20 Mule Team Canyon. And a short, dusty walk to Natural Bridge is another popular spot to see the pastel-colored canyons.

North of the center is Harmony Borax Works with adobe ruins, old equipment, and a 20-mule-team wagon from the 1880s. Or drop into the Borax Museum for displays about the importance of borax to the valley.

You can walk across drifting sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village and have a picnic nearby. The village is where the first resort in Death Valley was located, known in 1926 as Bungalette City just at the edge of the dunes. Stovepipe Wells now has a motel, gas station, and prices about 50 percent higher than outside the park.

Another hour to the north is the legendary Scotty's Castle, the last resting place of "Death Valley Scotty," a charismatic liar and jocular hustler who always claimed to have a gold mine somewhere in Death Valley.

The castle was built by Albert Johnson, a Chicago insurance magnate as a Mediterranean-style hacienda. Started in l922, the multimillion dollar structure grew to include 31,000 feet of floor space.

Walter Scott or "Scotty" and Johnson had an odd but enduring friendship. Quiet and taciturn, Johnson enjoyed the company of Scotty, who first gained national fame by chartering a special train to race from Los Angeles to Chicago in record time. Always larger than life, Scotty ended up penniless because of lawsuits, and lived at the castle and entertained crowds with his stories. His grave site is on a nearby hill.

*For hotel reservations at Furnace Creek Inn, call (619) 786-2361. For Furnace Creek Ranch, call (619) 786-2345. The park visitors' center can be reached at (619) 786-2331.

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