Not dead -- or forgotten, either Desert: There's a sense of history in Death Valley, plus stunning scenery and luxury accommodations amid the desolation.

March 16, 1997|By Luaine Lee | Luaine Lee,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

With names like the Dante's View, Badwater and Funeral Mountains, it doesn't exactly sound like a tourist's paradise.

But Death Valley, the largest national park in the continental United States, offers more wonders than a sunken Spanish galleon.

The 3,000 square miles of desolate terrain in California and Nevada testify to nature's ancient battles. Here gigantic lakes submerged the valleys, volcanic flows oozed across terraces and alluvial fans buried the mountains that had borne them.

The people who braved the valley -- the 70-pound pioneer mother who survived the trek with three small children, the Shoshone who unearthed springs in the waterless wastes, and the intrepid prospectors who scratched for gold, silver and borax -- make up the human profile of the place.

Today, with a desert castle, ghost towns, stunning geology and even an elegant inn, Death Valley is one of the nation's most underestimated destinations.

Fully 75 percent of summer visitors hail from foreign countries, perhaps because we know something they don't: The temperature soars to 115 degrees in the summer, but in the winter and spring, Death Valley is an arid Eden.

In the middle of the crusty salt deposits, the singing sand dunes, the rainbow lake deposits lies Furnace Creek Inn, an oasis fed by springs that have gurgled from the wash since before man was a gleam in God's eye.

Furnace Creek Inn and the nearby Furnace Creek Ranch were built in 1927 to house executives from the Pacific Coast Borax Co., but when the government designated Death Valley a National Monument in 1933, tourists began making their way to the valley.

Here you can find horseback riding, sightseeing tours, tennis courts, RV spaces and an 18-hole golf course. There's also a hotel at Stovepipe Wells, so called because the thin pipes used for the early water wells resembled stovepipes.

Today families can stay at any of nine campgrounds. Reservations may be made up to five months in advance for Furnace Creek or Texas Springs..

A stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch, with its stables and golf course, will run $105 per person double occupancy, with children under 18 free when accompanied by an adult.

The elegant Furnace Creek Inn, which is undergoing renovations to be completed this month, runs about $285 for a double. The ranch boasts a coffee shop, a saloon and a steakhouse, while the inn features excellent formal dining (try the valley's native peaches), a lounge and pool bar.

At the Panamint Springs Resort, at the far western extent of the park, there is an unpaved airstrip, campgrounds, motel and restaurant.

The Furnace Creek Visitors Center, with hosts from the U.S. Park Service, offers tips on recreational activities.

The center also features an orientation film every 30 minutes, as well as ranger talks about the history, flora and fauna, legends and tales of travail in the valley, with titles such as "Cold Blood in Scorching Heat."

Scotty's Castle

Sites to see include Scotty's Castle, built in the late '20s by a wealthy Chicago businessman for his con-man buddy, Walter Scott. The Park Service conducts living-history tours hourly from 9 a.m. Admission is $8 for adults, seniors $4, at the castle, which is 53 miles north of Furnace Creek.

The caramel-colored dunes near Stovepipe Wells are easily accessible from the road. The aptly named Badwater, a saltwater flat, marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.

You won't want to miss the dawn or sunset at Zabriskie Point (five minutes from Furnace Creek Inn) or the Devil's Golf Course or Mosaic Canyon with its stone-cemented walls.

Other sites include the remains of the Harmony Borax Works, the Ubehebe volcanic crater and the Amargosa Opera, where Marta Becket performs dance interpretations in her desert opera house.

There are also guided tours from Furnace Creek aboard an air-conditioned bus to ghost towns like Rhyolite, Nevada, and JTC Leadfield or other areas of the valley. Tour prices range from $10 to $32.

This time of year, wildflowers ignite the fields through mid-April at low elevations, and, from late April through June, they color the higher elevations.

Only two hours by car from Las Vegas and six hours from Los Angeles, Death Valley is one of the natural wonders of the world, where eons have etched history onto the face of the land.

If you go...

Park entrance fee: $10 per vehicle

Getting there: By auto, 120 miles from Las Vegas, 300 miles northeast of Los Angeles; or by chartered flight from Las Vegas.

Weather: Average maximum temperature is 72 degrees in February, 80 in March, 90 in April and 99 in May. In summer, it can climb to 130.

Camping: There are nine campgrounds, some accessible only by four-wheel drive. For reservations, call (800) 365-2267. For more information about accessible park facilities and trails, call the park at (619) 786-2331.

Furnace Creek Visitors Center: Operated by the National Park Service, it offers talks, guided tours, films and information. Facilities include diesel and gas, auto repair and towing, gift shops, laundromat, post office, general store at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch. Call (800) 236-7916.

Hotels: Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, (800) 236-7916; Stovepipe Wells, (619) 786-2387; Panamint Springs, (619) 764-2010.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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