Death Valley – A Getaway with Something for Everyone
There are moments, in Death Valley National Park, where you can imagine that you are variously on Mars, in a Louis L’Amour novel, a biologist in search of a new species or a visual artist who just fell upon a subject for a life’s work.
Or you can just exhale, close your eyes and listen to the sound of vast silence in a place nature has created to inspire awe.
If you are planning a trip, let me suggest heading for an overnight in Lone Pine, on U.S. 395. As you move into the high desert you’ll have the glorious Sierras on your left and, arriving in Lone Pine you’ll be looking up at Mt. Whitney and her neighboring peaks. We stayed at the Comfort Inn, Lone Pine and found it very comfortable, clean and welcoming. There are a few decent restaurants in Lone Pine, so you won’t be out of luck if you want to dine out.
If you can, bring food and drink in a cooler. Your day ahead is long with gorgeous stops along the way.
Try to wake early to see the beauty of the morning sun on the tips of the Sierras. Get on the road early to catch more of the “magic hour” light. You’ll head south east on Highway 136 and, if the Visitors Center is open, just off the intersection off U.S. 395 and Highway 136, stop and get a map and brochure and look at the exhibits.
This is a “get oriented” option if you haven’t acquired any maps of Death Valley before your trip. A little prep is always recommended as it enhances your experiences.
Nonetheless, if you get on the road too early, you can always stop at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, smack in the middle of Death Valley proper.
With Owens Lake on your right (see the movie “Chinatown” for a little history) you’ll connect to Highway 190 and drive about half an hour before you enter the Death Valley National Park official boundary. You’ll come to Father Crowley Point, overlooking Rainbow Canyon. This is worth a stop. Hear the quiet. Sense the history. Regard the landscape and contemplate the forces that created it.
While on the subject of “stopping,” we tried to adopt a “no rush” agenda as we started into the park, with the agreement that if either of us needed a moment, we would stop without question. Sometimes it is good to establish this, and Death Valley is a good place to do it.
Passing Panamint Springs (food, gas, campground), you’ll climb, dive and curve your way over Towne Pass in the Panamint Range (4956 ft) down into Death Valley proper, coming to Stovepipe Wells Village where there are also amenities, Death Valley-style (gas, food, lodging, camping).
Beyond Stovepipe Wells are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, somewhat incongruously placed, but, making sense when you think, “duh, we’re in the desert.”
Shortly afterwards you’ll come to a crossroads that can take you north to Mesquite Spring, Grapevine, Ubehebe Crater and the popular Scotty’s Castle, named for Death Valley Scotty, a great con-man and storied personality of Death Valley history. There is a visitors center and museum there as well. A bit out of the way, but if you are going to really “do” Death Valley, and have time, consider it a worthy side trip.
There are several ways to continue on into Nevada at this point. One, above, is via Scotty’s Castle, on Route 267 northeast to U.S. 95 and, at the junction of Route 190 and Scotty’s Castle Road, via Route 374 to Beatty, NV, also on U.S. 95.
Our choice is to continue south on 190, after the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. You might guess that they don’t call it Furnace Creek for nothing. It is hot here in the summer. August average temperatures can range from 85 to 113 F and there is not a lot of shade. That said, you can play golf at Furnace Creek. At Furnace Creek you’ll find food, lodging at the Furnace Creek Ranch as well as the Borax Museum.
Just beyond Furnace Creek, at the turnoff for Artists Drive and Badwater, is what might seem like a mirage but it is, in fact, the palatial Furnace Creek Resort. It’s quite a place.
Continuing south, towards Badwater you’ll come to a turnoff for Artists Drive. Take it. It is a one-way loop through some extraordinarily beautiful rock formations that change colors with the arc of the sun. There are plenty of places to pull off on this loop and absorb what Mother Nature has presented us with.
Back on the road, Route 178, still heading south, you can drive all the way past Badwater and Ashford Mill and exit the Valley at Shoshone. On this trip we chose toreturn to Route 190 after Artists Drive and take in the view at Zabriskie Point, a very popular stop, but seemingly uncrowded once you hike the moderate slope to the overlook and find a spot to appreciate the fall-away view of the Valley.
Once you’ve gotten this far on the road, you are an “old hand” at navigating Death Valley and have probably figured out if you want to continue on to Las Vegas, on U.S. 95 or another destination, or head back to Los Angeles. Whatever your final destination, you won’t soon forget this incredible part of America.
-Story and Images by Frank DiMarco