Scotty's Castle, the Mediterranean-style hacienda in the northern part of the park, is Death Valley's premier attraction. Visitors are wowed by the Spanish tiles, well-crafted furnishings, and innovative construction with ahead-of-its-time solar water heating. Even more compelling is the colorful history of this villa in remote Grapevine Canyon, brought to life by park rangers dressed in 1930s clothing. Construction of the "castle" -- officially, Death Valley Ranch -- began in 1922. It was to be a winter retreat for Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson. The insurance tycoon's unlikely friendship with prospector/cowboy/spinner-of-tall-tales Walter Scott put the $2.3-million structure on the map and captured the public's imagination. Scotty greeted visitors and told them fanciful stories from the early mining days of Death Valley.
The 50-minute guided tour of Scotty's Castle is excellent, both for its inside look at the mansion and for what it reveals about the eccentricities of Johnson and Scotty. Tours depart about every 20 minutes from 9am to 5pm in the winter and 9:30 to 4pm in the summer; they fill up quickly, so arrive early for the first available spots. The tour costs $11 for adults, $9 seniors, $6 children 6 to 15, and is free for kids under 6. During busy periods, you may have to wait an hour or more, perusing the gift shop, relaxing in the snack bar, or hiking to Scotty's grave on the hill behind the castle. Or, you can order tickets (at least 24 hr. in advance) at www.recreation.gov?or tel. 877/444-6777. There's also a self-guided walking tour (excluding the interiors); the pamphlet A Walking Tour of Scotty's Castle leads you on an exploration from stable to pool, from bunkhouse to powerhouse. Organized groups only can reserve tour times by calling tel. 760/786-2392.
There are also seasonal tours of Scotty's true domicile, Lower Vine Ranch, and the amazing "Underground Mysteries Tour" below the castle. Call tel. 760/786-2392 for current information; fees are the same as the castle tour for the latter and $15 per person for the former.
In 2000, Congress passed a bill that returned 7,000 acres (including about 300 acres in the Furnace Creek area) in and around the park to the Timbisha Shoshone, an American Indian tribe that inhabited the area for thousands of years before it became a national monument. This represents the first time that an Indian reservation has been established within the boundaries of a national park, and nearly 50 tribal members now live in the valley year-round in a private community. For more information, contact the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe (tel. 760/872-3614; www.timbisha.org).
For yet another side of the human experience here, visit the Harmony Borax Works, 1 mile north of Furnace Creek off Calif. 190 (take a short spur road and a very short trail). This is a rocky landscape as tortured as you'll ever find. Death Valley prospectors called borax "white gold," and though it wasn't a glamorous substance, it was a profitable one. From 1883 to 1888, more than 20 million pounds of it were transported from the Harmony Borax Works; some borax mining continues in Death Valley to this day. A short trail with interpretive signs leads past the ruins of the old borax refinery and some outlying buildings.
Transport of borax was the stuff of legends, too. The famous 20-mule teams hauled the huge loaded wagons 165 miles to the rail station at Mojave. (To learn more about this colorful era, visit the Borax Museum at the Ranch at Furnace Creek, near the park visitor center.) Other remnants of human industry are the Eagle Borax Works ruins, 20 miles south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road and the unpaved dirt West Side Road, and the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, 39 miles south of Stovepipe Wells off Emigrant Canyon Road, where vast amounts of charcoal were manufactured for use in the lucrative silver mine near neighboring Panamint Valley. Located near the Wildrose campground, the road to the kilns is partially paved and twists precariously; vehicles over 25 feet are prohibited.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.