As I’ve made my way around the planet, I’ve found myself in freezing cold temperatures and places so hot, all I could think about was finding a pool or a walk-in freezer. I’ve been to the Middle East, the Serengeti, Australia’s Badlands and the Sahara Desert, to name a few famous hot places. Guess which one is the hottest? None of them. The hottest place on the entire planet is in eastern California; Death Valley National Park.
I have always been curious about a place that has such a Debbie Downer name. If you’re going on vacation, do you really want to go someplace with the word “death” in it? That probably discourages a few tourists. Then there’s the fact that many people don’t really have a grasp on its location. You’ve seen an outline of the national park on the map, perhaps, but it appears to be in the middle of nowhere. There’s a lot of other tantalizing park options in California, like Yosemite, Tahoe, Sequoia and the Redwoods. Who really can be bothered making it to a place that seems to have some serious image problems? The truth is that Death Valley is only two hours from Las Vegas. It’s easily accessible and an amazing place to visit.
Death Valley is a beautiful park. There’s sand dunes, craters, lookouts, moonscapes and some very interesting history nestled in the desolation. Much of the park is below sea level, and it is excruciatingly hot in the summer. If you’re a hiker or like to get out of your car occasionally, don’t go in the summertime. The hottest temperatures recorded on the planet are in this park. However, the rest of the year can be very pleasant. The roads are well maintained, most of the sites are accessible, and it’s easy to get to the main sites without a lot of hiking.
When you first enter the park from the Nevada side, Dante’s Lookout is the first stop. One can drive right to the peak and enjoy the view of the salt flats and get a feel for the ruggedness of the park. There’s a nice short downhill hike to the edge of the abyss. Because of the lack of life-sustaining elements, there’s no plants on the salt flats. There are lots of varieties of scrubby bushes, Joshua trees, mesquite and cactus in the mountain areas. Furnace Creek is the closest thing to a town in Death Valley, and it’s a little over half an hour to get there once you’ve left Dante’s Lookout. Along the way, there’s a couple of interesting stops including Zabriskie Point.
Zabriskie was the manager of Pacific Borax company. Borax? Yes. Borax put Death Valley on the map. Borax occurs naturally throughout the area, and in the late 1800s (100 years before Death Valley became a national park), several companies such as the Pacific Borax and Harmony Borax Works gathered up the “white gold,” refined it and then transported it by mule teams 160 miles away to the nearest train station to be sold.
You also might recognize the area from the U2 album The Joshua Tree or the movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars. What? You haven’t seen Robinson Crusoe on Mars? Adam West starred in it in 1964 before he was Batman or the mayor on Family Guy. The terrain in the area is unique because of the strange erosion, which has created otherworldly-looking ridges and canyons. The lack of plants really makes you feel like you’re on another planet. The ground is covered with a cracked, dried mud-like surface that looks like some strange kind of mosaic. There’s great hiking in the area that takes you through the maze-like cliffs.
Furnace Creek is the halfway stop where most people end up spending the night if they’re staying in the park. There’s sites for camping, a middle-end hotel/cabin area and then the resort at the top of the hill for the bigger spenders. There’s a few choices for dining, a bar, a small grocery/T-shirt store, horse riding and The Borax Outdoor Museum. The museum features some amazingly preserved wagons and equipment from days gone by. If you don’t know anything about borax, you’re guaranteed to get a quick course in the history of one of the weirdest businesses of the Old West. A few minutes north, one can see the ruins of the factory and mule team wagons that were used to transport this mineral, making it affordable to manufacture detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes. The companies are long gone, but feel free to grab some borax off the ground. There’s no one around to judge you.
An hour north is Scotty’s Castle, a quirky, half-finished mansion that was mistakenly built on parklands by millionaire Albert Johnson. It was named after the conman Walter Scott, who scammed Johnson into investing in a fraudulent gold mine. The building was sold to the park years later and is now one of the must-see destinations of Death Valley, although at the moment, epic flooding and mud have caused the site to be closed for some time. A few miles west of the castle turnoff, travelers can stop at the mesquite sand dunes. The area is extremely photogenic with its majestic dunes and dead trees. Because of its easy access, the location was used to film several Star Wars scenes. Actually, a lot of Death Valley was used for filming various episodes of Star Wars. If you’re a big fan, you can do a self-guided tour with this map.
There’s a dozen other great places to stop in Death Valley. Some of the major sites are closed due to record flooding, and road closures can change from moment to moment. A Wikipedia list of interesting sites can be found here. If you’re visiting from Las Vegas, you can make a loop from Vegas to the southeast entrance and exit back to Nevada from the northeast entrance. There’s a few interesting stops along the way, such as the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.
Next time you’re bored or having bad luck in Vegas, why not do a road trip?