As Low as You Can Get
Its fearsome name draws folks from all over the world, but what strikes them upon arrival is not just the area’s brutality, but its spectacular and varied beauty, with parched Deadman Pass and Dry Bone Canyon standing in contrast to the dramatic hills and mountains, such as 11,000-foot Telescope Peak.
Under the desert sun, hundreds of species of plant and animal life are indigenous to this parched environment, forty of them found nowhere else on earth.
The Valley is actually not a valley at all, but a block of land that has been steadily dropping between two mountain ranges that are slowly rising and sliding apart. More than 10,000 years ago a vast fresh water lake once filled Death Valley to a depth of 600 feet.
Today, after thousands of years of dry, hot weather, only crusty salt flats remain. Within the long and narrow park confines (140 miles from one end to the other—about the size of Connecticut), one of the most popular sights is Artists Palette, where mineral deposits have caused swathes of red, pink, orange, purple, and green to color the hills.
Others are Zabriskie Point, with its views of wrinkled hills, and 14 square miles of perfectly sculpted Sahara-like sand dunes. Find the dead-end road that leads to the mile-high (and aptly named) Dante’s View, from which you can see 360 degrees for 100 miles, taking in both the highest and lowest points in the Lower forty-eight: Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet, and Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level.
Air-conditioned cars and luxury inns have improved on the experience that led 19th-century pioneers to give the valley its name. Among the latter, the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn is a veritable oasis of natural springs and palm gardens, with a lush 18-hole golf course thrown into the bargain.
Built in 1927, the stone-and- adobe Mission-style inn is historic, and, with its less expensive motel-style ranch next door, a longtime favorite weekend getaway for weary Angelenos.
You’ll hear every language in the world around the spring-fed pool, a floating vantage from which to watch the changing colors of the Panamint Mountains in late afternoon. At night, gaze up in wonder as the desert sky is filled with a sea of brilliant stars.
What: site, hotel.
Death Valley National Park: at the California/Nevada border, 300 miles northeast of Los Angeles, 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Tel 760-786-3200; www.nps.gov/deva.
Cost: admission $10 per car.
Furnace Creek Inn: tel 760-786-2345, fax: 760-786-2423; www.furnacecreekresort.com
Cost: doubles from $155 (low season), from $265 (high season).
Best times: Oct- May; dawn and late afternoon for the visual power and play of light.