Death Valley's Magnificent Desolation

September 30, 1990|By Chris Kaltenbach

Just how important are first impressions?

Land in Hawaii, and you get a lei draped around your neck. Check into a hotel room in New York City, and get a guide to the latest Broadway shows. See the Grand Canyon, and get a booklet containing tips on how best to photograph wildlife.

Drive into Death Valley National Monument from the west, pull over to the isolated information station on your left, and you'll find a little yellow pamphlet entitled, "Hot Weather Hints: How to Survive Your Summer Trip Through DEATH VALLEY."

First impressions indeed!

But please, don't be put off by the valley's name, or its reputation. Death Valley -- at just under 2.1 million acres the 11th largest land preserve ministered by the National Park Service -- is a place of majestic landscapes, fragile beauty and intense isolation. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin once used the words "magnificent desolation" to describe the surface of the moon; it applies here, too.

But it's also hot in Death Valley -- the average high temperature in July is more than 116 degrees. And it's dry. And it's dangerous. Distances are especially deceiving; that mountain range over yonder looks like a 10-minute walk, right? Wrong. Try about 10 miles, probably even more.

When, according to legend, a pioneer woman in 1849 looked back on a valley that had just claimed two members of her expedition and said, "Goodbye, death valley," she wasn't just whistling "Dixie."

Take the warnings seriously. Keep a canteen of drinking water with you at all times, and don't hesitate to use it. Make sure your car is in good shape -- even if tanks of radiator water are scattered throughout the valley, engine boilover in the middle of the desert is no fun. And don't hike so far that you find yourself stranded and exhausted out in the middle of nowhere.

By now, of course, you're probably thinking you'd have to be insane to visit Death Valley.

You're wrong.

This huge expanse of dirt, rock, abandoned borax mines and only occasional signs of civilization is like few other places in these United States. With a little preparation and a little care, your visit to Death Valley will leave you yearning for nothing more than a return trip.

The monument, which lies primarily in California but reaches into Nevada, is about 170 miles from Las Vegas, 310 miles from Los Angeles. Bus and air service is available from Las Vegas, but the best way to see Death Valley is by driving yourself to it and through it. If you're approaching from Los Angeles, try taking California Route 14 east to California Route 18 east, then U.S. 395 north to California Route 178, which takes you into the valley.

SG This route, although different than the one most visitors use, will

take you through the town of Trona (where one local has painted a large rock with the greeting, "Welcome to the Trona Zone") and then over a series of mountains before reaching Death Valley. What's more, it will provide a serious introduction to one of the cardinal facts of desert driving -- emptiness. The drive from Trona to Death Valley is about 50 miles, and about as desolate as anything you could imagine.

Inside the monument, lodging is available at Furnace Creek Ranch, which lies almost smack in the middle of Death Valley, or at Stovepipe Wells, about 27 miles northwest. Campgrounds are available at both these resort areas, as well as a few other sites scattered throughout the valley.

The quiet of Death Valley is almost distracting. Park your car on the side of the road, preferably near designated sites, then put on a pair of comfortable shoes and start walking. Time yourself -- distances are deceiving, remember, so set a limit on how long you're going to walk, not how far -- and get moving. Always keep your car in sight; Death Valley is pretty flat, so that shouldn't be too difficult.

Walk for maybe 20-25 minutes (know your limitations; seasoned hikers can walk a lot farther than that). Then stop and consider what's going on around you. More than likely, what's going on is nothing -- and standing in the middle of that can be awfully relaxing, maybe even giving you pause to reflect on whatever it is you're reflecting on.

If you're visiting the desert during January, where the average high is a chilly 65 degrees, try reflecting on the fact that all your friends back in Baltimore are freezing their butts off.

For those more into sightseeing than simply walking, Death Valley still has plenty to offer. A few examples:

*Harmony Borax Works. Located just over a mile from the Visitor's Center, Harmony was the first successful borax plant (1883) in Death Valley. The famous 20-mule teams once hauled loads of borax out of Death Valley weighing as much as 20 tons, on wagons with wheels 6 feet in diameter.

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