Colorful Death Valley National Park by Nancy S. Tardy

Isn’t it a curious world? Death Valley brings to mind images of a lifeless, drab sub-sea level valley bordered by craggy, inhospitable peaks. Given its name by wagon train pioneers anxious to put this area behind them on the trek to the California gold fields in the mid-1800s, it now welcomes thousands of tourists each season of the year, who are surprised at the range and depth of color.

Whether you are a day-tripper, content to view the scenery from a car; a desert enthusiast; a photographer; or merely a person who enjoys contrast; Death Valley is a must-see destination. Located in Southern California near the Nevada border, the largest national park in the contiguous United States can be reached in 2 ½ hours from Las Vegas traveling north on Highway 95 to Beatty and turning left onto Highway 374. This brings you into the Park approximately 22 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, a perfect starting place for your visit. From Los Angeles, drive up I-15 to Baker and cut off on Highway 127 to enter the Park from the southern edge near Shoshone, CA. No matter where you enter the Park, you must stop at the first visitor or information center you encounter to pay the $10 entrance fee and receive a sticker to place in your front windshield.

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center (open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily) offers a film and exhibits area which explains the history and geology of the area, including wildlife information. In addition to restroom facilities and shopping options, maps and park brochures are available. Staffed by park rangers, the visitor center has posted schedules of park naturalists’ walks. Additionally, they are able to tell you about camping or hiking options, recent wildlife sightings, wildflower bloom and can answer just about any question you might have about this treasure trove of a park.

While spring is the season for wildflowers, their magnitude is dependent on the winter rains. Over sixty varieties have been identified, and some, such as the Panamint Daisy, are only found in this area. If you’re visiting between February and June, the Visitor Center is the best source for a daily updated listing on the wildflower viewing areas.
Over 3 million acres of Death Valley await exploration, so stay longer than a day, if possible. The elegant Furnace Creek Inn was constructed in 1927; it and the luxurious dining room provide a respite from the harsh desert surroundings (The Inn is closed from Mother’s Day to mid-October). Other overnight room options inside the park are open throughout the year; Furnace Creek Ranch, the motel at Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs Resort. Several campgrounds exist for those who prefer to stay in RVs, campers or tents. Even if you don’t stay at the Inn, try to have lunch or dinner there-many drive from Las Vegas or the Los Angeles area for a meal.

While spring may be one of the more colorful seasons in Death Valley, you can find shades of pink, gold, orange, brown and purple in the mountains and canyons at any time of the year. The contrast of the iridescent blue sky with the multi-hued rocks and white peaks and salt flats provide vistas in all directions. For a special treat spend time sightseeing around dusk and dawn.

Beginning at the south end of this Park, there are many must-see areas; including the ruins of Ashford Mill, a gold ore processing site. Follow the road north which skirts the edge of the Death Valley Salt Pan and stop at the Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in the United States at 282’ below sea level. A boardwalk has been constructed to provide an opportunity to walk out into this unique geologic formation.

The Death Valley Salt Pans near Mormon Point

Traveling north, detour onto a short dirt road to view the Devils Golf Course, an area of jagged salt spikes. If the road has reopened after the winter rains of 2004-2005, take the 9 mile Artists Drive (vehicles longer than 25’ are not allowed) and let your eyes feast on the rainbow-like gradations of color in these low mountains.
If you are interested in a short hike, consider the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail just south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This 1 mile, easy self-guiding trail cuts through colorful sediments of an ancient alluvial fan and ripple marks from silt and sand left from drying lake beds.

Other points of interest near the visitor center include the Harmony Borax Works Trail around the ruins of the 1880s borax works and twenty mule team wagons. Nearby Devils Cornfield is formed of clumps of arrow weed that resemble shocks of corn; quite the photo op.

Have some youngsters with you that need to burn off energy? Or is a full moon enticing you to climb sand dunes? Five dune areas in the park are available for these activities, and those near Devils Cornfield are the most accessible to a paved road.

Sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village during thunderstorm

If you have time to explore the northern area of the park, check out the Ubehebe Crator; this massive hole measures almost one-half mile in diameter and was created 1,000 years ago during a tremendous volcanic eruption.

And, if you make it this far, don’t miss Scotty’s Castle, built in the early 1900s by a millionaire named Albert Johnson, who prospected for gold with a guide and trail boss named Walter Scott. Though no gold was ever found, Johnson liked the area enough that he bought land and built a 31,000 square foot Moorish-style home for winter vacations. He named it Johnson’s Death Valley Ranch, but it has retained the name of Scotty’s Castle, after his irascible friend.

Traveling in Death Valley requires attention to the hazards of extreme temperatures, flash floods, mine openings, and rough, narrow roads and passes. Enjoy this unique park, but heed the warnings about clothing, water requirements, and auto safety.