The Heat Is Off Death Valley: You needn't sweat a visit to the hottest place on earth. Rattling around this national park in PTC the fall provides a refreshing view of its barren beauty.


The mountainous track went one-way only, straight up 8,500 feet, with no room to turn around or turn off. If we didn't plunge over the edge first, we were going to be ambushed at the top, I just knew it.

"We're going to die, aren't we?" I wailed. Our underpowered rental car was struggling behind a stranger's pickup as it led us up a steep, dust-clogged path along the brink of California's Inyo Mountains. That's when it struck me that our quixotic way-off-season vacation could end here very badly.

We hadn't acted a bit like our usual skeptical selves getting into this predicament. A denim-clad man in a battered, green pickup had pulled up to the roadside historical marker we'd stopped to read on California Route 136, about 100 miles west of Death Valley, and offered us a guided tour of Cerro Gordo since he was headed that direction anyway. We had paused only to consider if the rental could make the 7.5 miles up.

As it turned out, our car did make it, though that dirt road can wash out for a week at a time when it rains - and we made it out alive after a fascinating look around the ruins of a legendary mining town. Cerro Gordo - the Fat Hill that yielded $1.7 million in silver, lead and zinc to 19th century miners - turned out to be the crown jewel in our weeklong trip in and around Death Valley National Park, a part of the country flush with spectacular scenery, wacky history and colorful characters like Frank Purkart, the guy in the pickup, a retired aircraft mechanic from Chicago spending his retirement in a shack he's excavating in the mountain ghost town.

Timing is everything

Late fall and early winter are great times to visit the rock and salt pan vistas of the 3-million-acre national park, and while you'll likely encounter the same teasing incredulity we did from co-workers about such an unlikely sounding vacation destination, it is a trip worth making. Most visitors hit the park as a side trip in mid-summer, enroute to or just back from Yosemite or Las Vegas. That's really courting danger, not to mention discomfort.

Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world - 1907 travel ads enticed tourists to see the closest thing to Hell on Earth - with July temperatures that routinely reach 115 and bake rocks to 200 degrees. Park rangers have studded the valley with tanks of water for overheated car radiators and with posters about the warning signs of dehydration; the National Park Service's Guide for the Visitor includes a section: "Surviving Death Valley," and the slide presentation at its Visitor Center instructs tourists to take precautions in the face of flash floods.

Traveling in November, we encountered, instead, pleasant temperatures that ranged from warm to sweater-chilly, no crowds and lower, off-season prices. Yosemite and other California mountain towns just a day's drive away might have been on our itinerary except their roadways were closed for the winter. One other small drawback: Sightseeing is pretty much over by 4:30 on fall afternoons, when the light starts failing. To see everything, you must rise early and plan on early lights out.

Glittery, man-made Las Vegas is the inappropriate entryway, at least for travelers from the East Coast, to the barren wilderness in and around Death Valley. We rented a car and drove 115 miles north to Beatty, Nev., which bills itself as the "Gateway to Death Valley."

With five modestly priced hotels, six RV parks, the comfort foods served at the Burro Inn Hotel & Casino and a just-opened one-hour photo-developing shop, Beatty isn't a bad launching pad into Hades. You can also stay at the palm-tree decorated Furnace Creek Ranch Resort or the ornate Furnace Creek Inn in an oasis at the heart of the park, but you'll pay three to six times as much. We opted to stay in Nevada, but couldn't resist driving immediately into the park at night.

Prying into Rhyolite

We didn't pay anything for the best parts of our Death Valley vacation, starting with the sight that first night of a full moon climbing up the black velvet crags of the Funeral Mountains and the spray of the Milky Way over the immense bowl of the valley.

We set out for the park from Beatty again the next morning, but got waylaid by an arrow pointing to Rhyolite. Visiting Death Valley, you'll quickly pick up enough information to make your old ninth-grade earth-science teacher proud: how erosion results the formation of alluvial fans, the chemical composition and manufacturing uses of borax and that rhyolite is a rock harboring gold.

Gold discovered in the rhyolite near Beatty in 1904 brought in as many as 10,000 people eager to cash in. By 1919, everyone had gone, leaving behind a train depot, school, 50 saloons, banks and stock brokerages, a jail, stores, residences and a ring of mine tailings and plumbed-out holes in the hills.

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