Death Valley offers breathtaking scenery and plenty of history (part one)
Death Valley is a lot more lively than its name implies.
In fact, Death Valley National Park is one of the West’s most fascinating and beautiful places, filled with historic sites, unique natural areas and a remarkable array of recreational opportunities.
Death Valley earned its name and image because it can be intensely hot there. In the summer months, temperatures can rise into the 130s (although it can be quite temperate at this time of year).
Of course, the terrible-sounding names of many of the park’s best-known natural features don’t help the regions’ image. For instance, the mountains bordering Nevada are called the Funeral Mountains, the lowest point in the valley is called Badwater, a great viewing area is named Dante’s View (from Dante’s Inferno) while the best place to stay is called Furnace Creek.
Death Valley, which is located along Nevada’s southwestern border, was first settled by roaming tribes of native Americans, including the Shoshone. In 1849, a group of white settlers entered the valley, believing it was a shortcut to California.
After barely surviving the trek across the area, these hardy pioneers gave it a name — Death Valley.
Today, travelers in air-conditioned automobiles can have a much more pleasant experience. A modern visitor center operated by the National Park Service at Furnace Creek is the best place to start a tour of the area.
Located in the center of Death Valley, the visitor center offers an informative 18-minute video presentation and displays describing the history of the area. The center is also well stocked with books, tapes, pamphlets and videos about the region, which can be purchased.
The Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, adjacent to the visitor center, is, along with Furnace Creek Inn, the only privately-owned land in the national park and is a true oasis in the desert. Visitors will find restaurants, a gas station, a general store, horseback riding, a golf course and rustic cabins.
The Borax Museum on the ranch describes this colorful part of the area’s history. Borax is part of a family of chemical compounds used in the production of glass, porcelain enamel, soap, ceramics and fertilizers.
In the 1870s, prospectors discovered large deposits of Borates in the salt flats of Death Valley. In the 1880s, large-scale mining operations developed in the valley. To haul the ore to nearby refineries, the mines began using 20-mule teams, which were the only creatures hardy enough to survive in the desert. These mule trains later were made famous in Borax advertisements.
While there are still borate reserves in Death Valley, nearly all mining has ceased in the region because it is no longer cost effective.
The Borax Museum highlights the unique minerals and mining equipment from that era. North of Furnace Creek Ranch is the site of the historic Eagle and Harmony Borax Works, which visitors can explore.
Across the highway from the Harmony Borax Works are the beautiful mustard-colored hills of the eroded Furnace Creek formation, which is several million years old and, in the distance, the Funeral Mountains.
While the Ranch at Furnace Creek is like an elaborate dude ranch, visitors seeking something a bit more civilized can stay at the Inn at Furnace Creek, a magnificent 1930s resort located a few miles southeast of the ranch, overlooking Death Valley.
Guests here find an intriguing elegance reminiscent of the Great Gatsby era. The four-star inn resembles a stone and stucco Spanish-style castle on the hill, surrounded by lush landscaping.
The ranch and inn also offer 110 shaded RV spaces with services, and another 1,000 undeveloped spaces offered by the National Park Service.
Room rates at both the ranch and inn vary depending on time of year and day of the week. For information, go to http://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/fcinn.htm.
More about Death Valley next week.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.