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I pulled the car over to the side of the road and we climbed out, staring at the breathtaking spectacle with nothing to hear but the slight breeze that rustled the plants. Off to the northwest, snow-capped Telescope Peak stood sentinel at 11,000 feet, separating us from Death Valley proper. We were still miles from the park entrance, and by the time we had sped past the swirling columns of dust and began snaking up the mountains and over into the park, I knew I was not only as close to nowhere as I’d ever been, but also in a place unlike any other on earth.
This feeling draws a million adventure-minded visitors a year to Death Valley. At 3.3 million acres, this is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. And unlike Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, getting to the stark, dramatic Death Valley requires some planning and determination; you don’t simply jaunt off to the area looking for sun and fun. Between April and October, 100-degree temperatures are common; in fact, in July daytime temperatures average 115 degrees. And unlike the desert oases of Palm Springs, Calif., or Las Vegas, there are few pools or restaurants at which you can lay back, put your feet up, and cool off.
The first nonnatives who stumbled into the valley learned these lessons the hard way when they tried to find a quick route that would take them around the southern end of the Sierras. Instead of finding their fabled shortcut, however, they ended up hemmed in the valley, eventually killing and eating their oxen to stay alive until they could find a way out.
Today, of course, there’s little chance one would end up in such dire straits. After all, during the spring the main roads in and out of the park are filled with snowbirds in RVs, backcountry campers, and visitors from other countries who are anxious to walk on the salt flats at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level.
It’s this combination of the weird and wonderful that is so alluring. In one area you can explore creepy ghost towns or clamor up and down 150-foot sand dunes and watch giant beetles carve paths over them; in another you can hike out onto the rugged salt formations of the Devil’s Golf Course and feel as if you have climbed on to the surface of the moon. From there, perhaps you’ll choose to hike the sandstone-walled Golden Canyon at sunset and watch as the light changes second by second, illuminating everything around you. Or perhaps you’d rather drive up to world-famous Zabriskie Point and gaze out at the entire valley over beautifully eroded badlands. The options for nature lovers are truly endless, provided the weather’s right.
Of course, the reason so many people visit in early spring—aside from the bearable temperatures—is the hope that they will see the desert wildflowers in bloom. If the valley has received its normal 1.9 inches of rain through the previous 12 months, chances are good you will see bursts of color dotting the rocky hillsides. Last spring, however, we got lucky: Death Valley had received over six inches of rain, and the entire park was exploding in color. The most amazing sight, however, wasn’t the carpet of flowers—it was the giant lake that covered a huge expanse of the valley floor near Badwater. During normal years, a small brackish pond exists here—a modest collection of runoff from the nearby mountains. This year, however, we were able to wade a half-mile out into the lake in calf-high water, the normally crusty and salty valley floor smooth under our feet. Older tourists who had been coming to the park for decades stood near the lake’s edge, remarking that they had never seen anything like it. We even spied one car with a canoe tied to its luggage rack.
I know that when I next visit Death Valley, the lake will be gone, having evaporated into the bone-dry air. The salt flats will have re-emerged, a blinding white expanse that stretches as far as the eye can see. And the flowers may not be there, their bright dots of color replaced by the dominant earthy shades of brown, rust, and gold. Journeying to this desert outpost, however, is not about what you want to see: It’s about taking in everything you never thought you would see.
Watching the sunrise on our first morning in the valley, I rubbed my tired eyes as the towering, snow-capped mountains turned fiery orange in the distance, and I understood: I’d arrived in the middle of nowhere, but it felt like home.
Gay travelers are not uncommon in Death Valley, but this is not a gay mecca, either; we saw a grand total of two same-sex couples we thought were, well, “together.” The bottom line is that although this is a national park and the Furnace Creek Inn, in particular, had a more cosmopolitan clientele, it’s still a rural area on the California-Nevada border.
The beautiful Furnace Creek Inn (Highway 190, 800-236-7916) is at least a must-see even if you can’t get a reservation. Open from mid October through mid May, this 66-room, AAA four-diamond property was originally opened in 1927. It was renovated a few years ago but retains the feel of a mission-style California resort, complete with a gorgeous swimming pool fed by natural hot springs and flanked by beautiful stone fireplaces, which are lit at night for guests to enjoy. This is definitely the high-end accommodation in the park and worth the money if you can swing it. For something cheaper, check out the Furnace Creek Ranch (Highway 190, 800-236-7916), which is a mere mile down the road and open year-round, so you can see what it feels like when it’s 125 degrees outside, should you feel so inclined. With 224 rooms it’s more family-oriented and feels like a roadside motel. It’s also closer to all the main services in the area, like the gas station and general store as well as the Furnace Creek Golf Course, which sits 214 feet below sea level. Twenty-four miles northwest of Furnace Creek is Stovepipe Wells Village, which is also open year-round and features modest accommodations and campgrounds (Highway 190, 760-786-2387). It’s less busy than Furnace Creek and not quite as near the park’s main attractions, but that may be exactly what you want. There are campgrounds all over the park, from the desert floor to the mountaintops. Some are open year-round; others are seasonal. Check out www.nps.gov/deva for more info on where you can pitch a tent. For outdoorsy same-sex couples, this is a wonderful option to get some privacy and truly enjoy time alone.
If gastronomic delights are what you’re after in your vacation, Death Valley is probably not for you. The Furnace Creek Inn features an upscale restaurant that eschews shorts and flip-flops for “casual elegance,” and the menu is serviceable if a little expensive. Still, think of how they have to get all that food to the restaurant and you begin to feel a bit more forgiving. Tip: Order room service at least once, especially if you have a room that looks out over the valley floor to enjoy the sunrise or sunset. Down the road near the ranch, more food options exist and for less money. The Wrangler Steakhouse (Highway 190, 760-786-2345) is exactly what it sounds like, and the 49er Café (Highway 190, 760-786-2345) is the place to go for cheap breakfasts and lunch in a very casual, diner-like setting. Also here are the Corkscrew Saloon (Highway 190, 760-786-2345) and the golf course–adjacent 19th Hole (Highway 190, 760-786-2345). In Stovepipe Wells you’ll find the decidedly ye olde Western-flavored Toll Road (Highway 190, 760-786-2387) restaurant and Bad Water Saloon (Highway 190, 760-786-2387), which were partially constructed from timber from old mining operations in the valley.
Death Valley is a four-hour drive from Los Angeles and a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. If you plan to drive anywhere off the paved roads, make sure you have a car in good working order with four-wheel drive, extra water, and fuel. The park is twice the size of Delaware, and you could be miles away from any amenities. Also make sure someone knows where you are headed. Some of the most spectacular sights (see Ubehebe Crater and the mysterious Racetrack Playa, where giant boulders slide across mud flats when no one is looking) are so remote that it’s questionable anyone would find you soon if you had a problem—a troubling prospect if it’s extremely hot. For all the information you need, start at the National Park Service Web site, www.nps.gov/deva, or call 760-786-3200. Most people visit between February and April. Entry to the park is $10 for passenger vehicles.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST…
If you approach Death Valley from the south you will pass through Death Valley Junction, where you’ll see the Amargosa Opera House. But don’t expect to catch a production of Verdi or Puccini here—instead, you’ll meet Marta Becker, a former professional dancer who moved to the desert from New York City in the ’60s. Lo and behold, she’s still performing! Call 760-852-4441 or see www.amargosa-opera-house.com for more information. Performances began October 1 and take place on Saturdays only. Need I tell you how high the camp factor is?