Sometimes a person needs to hunker down in a place that dwarfs headlines and silences cellphones. You don't have to be a survivalist to...
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. Sometimes a person needs to hunker down in a place that dwarfs headlines and silences cellphones. You don’t have to be a survivalist to understand that, though I did think about renting a Hummer to make me invincible on a trip last month to Death Valley National Park, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. On two previous visits, I had seen all the popular, easy-to-reach sights, including the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Scotty’s Castle and Zabriskie Point. This time, I wanted to drive some of the park’s back roads to more remote beauty spots Saline Valley warm springs, Eureka Dunes (taller than the ones near Stovepipe Wells) and Titus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains at the park’s eastern boundary.
Lined by old cracked pavement, gullies, gravel and washboard, these roads often require a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, according to Corky Hays, chief of interpretation at the park. But when I mentioned a Hummer, she laughed. “That’s overkill,” she said. So I chose a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, which, as luck would have it, came with a satellite radio. I checked the tire jack and spare, loaded up on bottled water, peanut butter, rice cakes and oranges, packed my trusty Swiss Army knife and hiking boots, and took off.
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I went in high season, which lasts from mid-February to just about now, peaking (when the conditions are right) in a display of spring wildflowers. It was 85 degrees, clear and slightly breezy, a far cry from summer, when the temperature can easily hit 120 and you start perspiring just looking at the valley from the insulated pod of an air-conditioned car.
I came in from the south, on state Route 178, which yields to Emigrant Canyon Road inside the national park. Along the way I glimpsed snowcapped Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet the highest of the mountains surrounding Death Valley. It’s just north of Trona, a lonely, dilapidated mining and chemical-processing town that sits on the bed of a dried-up lake. Pretty soon the desert gave way to piles of rock that kept getting bigger until I realized they were mountains that, in the harsh light of midday, were all the colors of oft-laundered clothes. These are the Coso, Argus, Slate and Panamint ranges, which boomed briefly during the tail end of the California Gold Rush.
A desert oasis
I am drawn to Death Valley for its timeless quietude and edginess; it’s one of the few places I know that manages to have both. The drive north on partly unpaved Emigrant Canyon Road, with hardly another car in sight, was serenity itself. A side trip about seven miles east to Aguereberry Point in the high Panamints seemed like an adventure, even though a two-wheel-drive passenger vehicle could probably handle the gravel and washboard road, at least in fair weather.
The road on to Furnace Creek Ranch, where I had a reservation for two nights, took me past the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes and the Devil’s Cornfield, where photographers converge at sunset. In the distance, I could see the reassuring lights and lofty date palms of Furnace Creek.
It’s a real desert oasis, watered by thermal springs in the mountains to the east and bordered by a windbreak of bushy tamarisk trees. The little enclave started as an alfalfa ranch that fed the valley’s famous 20-mule teams in the days of borax mining. Ranch wives opened the place to tourists in the early ’30s. Now Furnace Creek has an 18-hole golf course, two restaurants, a general store, a stable for trail and hay rides, tennis courts, a campground, a museum and a swimming pool, one of the best in California, I think. Filled with clear spring water, it’s always a perfect 80 to 85 degrees.
When you think of it, though, it’s pretty amazing that you can get a Caesar salad in the middle of Death Valley. Furnace Creek is a thriving little community, with 345 residents, a school bus stop, post office and gas station. Dennis Riesmeyer, rooms director for the ranch and inn, told me that food is trucked in twice a week from Las Vegas.
Death Valley history
I started my second day in Death Valley at the Furnace Creek Interpretive Center, where visitors get information about what to see in the park and where rangers give lectures.
The museum here recalls the valley’s borax-mining days, with vintage boxes of Boraxo and Johnson’s Foot Soap. Another exhibit explains how Death Valley won the title for the hottest place on Earth on July 10, 1913, when the temperature hit 134 degrees; nine years later Azizia, Libya, in the Sahara Desert, got two degrees hotter and still holds the world hot-spot record.
I scratched a trip to the hot pools about 50 miles up rugged Saline Valley Road and started giving serious thought to making the 44-mile trip to Eureka Dunes in the north. Somehow, Death Valley always seems to turn me into a wimp.
I refused, however, to be deterred from Titus Canyon, a 27-mile backcountry road one way from just outside the park’s eastern boundary to the floor of Death Valley. (The last three miles on the western end are two-way.)
Near the start of the road, beyond Daylight Pass and the state border on Nevada Route 374, I stopped in Rhyolite, once a town of about 10,000 but now just for tourists and ghosts. It boomed with the Bullfrog gold mine, co-founded in 1904 by Frank “Shorty” Harris, who drank too much one night and sold his biggest strike for a song.
There’s an open-air museum created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski along the road, where Modernist sculptures among them, a ghost climbing on a bike are scattered in the creosote, bizarrely juxtaposed with the moldering shells of Rhyolite’s banks, stores and homes. These include the handsome Spanish Mission-style Las Vegas Tonopah Railroad Station and an odd house made of bottles, which were good insulation and cheaper than wood. Volunteer guide Riley McCoy took me and a group of motorcycle riders around the house, peppering his presentation with corny jokes.
Hold on to your seat
Then it was on to Titus Canyon. The drive starts with a straight shot across a spur of the Amargosa Valley, the desert basin to the east of Death Valley. Gradually it climbs an alluvial fan into the Grapevine Mountains, past shimmering metallic cliffs, old lava flows and high-perched hoodoos to 5,130-foot White Pass at the head of Titanothere Canyon. Between White Pass and Red Pass, at 5,250 feet, a chain of shoulderless switchbacks makes the heart thump. Later, the road passes Leadfield, another abandoned mining town, and Klare Springs before entering the winding narrows of Titus Canyon.
It took about four hours to make the trip, stopping frequently to scramble around in the mountains. I was so pleased when I finished that I drove up to Ubehebe Crater, at the north side of the park, for sunset. This windy geologic pockmark 500 feet deep and a half-mile wide is surrounded by so much cinder and ash it seems as though the explosion that created the crater occurred just last month.
By now I was having a grand time driving around Death Valley. The next day, the two-mile gravel road to Darwin Falls, on the west flank of the Panamint Valley, seemed a breeze.
I know Death Valley better than I did before, though I still want to climb Telescope Peak and drive a few more back roads. It’s a place that requires caution, but not a Hummer. If it brings peace, that’s good. If it makes you feel like a wimp, that might be good too. There are lots of things Death Valley can tell us that we ought to know.