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Death Valley Days and Nights

Don't let the name scare you: There's more than stifling desert heat in the biggest national park south of Alaska.

The majestic Death Valley got its name when survivors of a lost 20-wagon train heading for California during the Gold Rush of 1849 looked back and said, "Goodbye, Death Valley." An exaggeration at the time -- since only one person actually died there -- it became such a popular name that it is now spoken proudly by its few residents and its many visitors (about one million) as a badge of endurance for just being there. And as a result of a presidential stroke of the pen back in 1994, it's now the biggest national park in the contiguous 48 states, with 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness (only Denali in Alaska surpasses it nationwide). Along the center of the valley is the mostly submerged Amargosa River, which starts in Canada and ends in the Gulf of California.

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin here is the lowest point in North America, yet within the park are the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak on the west and 5,475-foot Dante's View on the east. From Telescope Peak, locals claim, when there is no breeze in summer, the rising heat from the valley below acts like a lens, making it possible, they claim, to read a license plate down on the valley roads below.

Deserts are defined as areas where there is less than six inches of rain a year, and Death Valley averages only 1.92 inches. Yet there have been flash floods when only half an inch of rain falls in a day, and occasionally, as in spring of 2005, there are gorgeous spreads of flowers in spring (usually alongside roads and on dry stream beds). It gets hot here (the record being 134°F in 1912, the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the world), but the summer average is "only" 126.5°F. (Since you're asking who had the highest temperature, it got up to 136°F in the Sahara in 1922, the current world's hottest.) Despite coming in second highest, the National Park Service says "on average, Death Valley is the hottest place in the world" with an average temperature of 116°F in July.

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Water is taken seriously here, as can be seen in an ad in the Nye County Nifty Nickel, published just outside the park's boundary, offering 60.05 acre feet of valley floor water rights at $15,500 per acre foot. The United Nations in 1984 designated Death Valley as an International Biosphere Preserve, and foreign park managers come here to study how to help preserve their own natural assets.

Death Valley has been the site of many Hollywood movies and TV shows, including the long-lived Death Valley Days, hosted by, among others, a certain Ronald Reagan. The earliest famous movie done here was Greed (1924), but a few others should be mentioned, including Twenty Mule Team (1940), King Solomon's Mines (1950), Spartacus (1960), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Zabriskie Point (1970) and Star Wars (1977). Good use has been made of the unusual terrain, too; the rovers for use on Mars having been tested here, among other endeavors.

Highlights

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The flora and fauna of the valley attract many visitors, from the lizards (up to 20 pounds), the three kinds of geckos, sidewinders (after being bitten, legend says, you can take one step before dying) and rattlesnakes (you get two steps). Look also for coyotes, which won't be difficult -- at least twice on my short trip, young coyotes simply stood in the middle of the road, facing our car, until we slowed to a stop. Then they came alongside to beg for food, which you should not give them as it lessens their ability to learn to fend for themselves in the wild. (Also, feeding wild animals here is against the law.) Weirdest animal here is the tiny pupfish that flourishes in salt-drenched streams and hibernates in its mud.

In addition to twelve varieties of sage and some desert holly, look for the creosote bush, which kills off nearby plants during dry spells to keep what little water there is to itself. Geology freaks should love the vast alluvial fans here, probably the best anywhere, and certainly the largest exposed fans in the world, between mountains in both the older Panamint and younger Amargosa ranges, which flank Death Valley itself.

Two things have to be said right up front: Scotty's Castle isn't a castle, and the residence it refers to is not named for Scotty, who wasn't the owner, anyhow. Death Valley Ranch, the real name of the home of Albert and Bessy Johnson, is now a museum, with 50-minute guided tours that show how rich mid-westerners lived when roughing it out west back in the 1920s. Walter Scott ("Scotty"), a rough kind of fellow with a background as a Buffalo Bill Show performer and full-time con man, was a kind of court jester to Johnson, a Chicago millionaire in the insurance racket, and his highly religious wife. People came to see him, not the Johnsons, when the owners opened the place to visitors. Among other amenities and facilities, the residence had its own cooling system, solar water heating, generating plant and acetylene gas stove. At the end of the tour in the splendid Music Room, your guide will play the automatic organ for you, maybe something like Arthur Sullivan's ultra-Victorian masterpiece, The Lost Chord.

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There's also an Underground Mysteries Program, costing $11 (above and beyond the castle's main tour), which takes about 60 minutes to guide you beneath the house, learning how it was heated, cooled, etc. Featured are a water wheel, a bank of batteries, and a diesel generator. Also stored here are the tiles for what would have been the largest swimming pool in California if it had been completed (the hole is there, but it's not tiled).

The castle is at the north end of the national park. (Xanterra concessionaires operates a sandwich and souvenir shop here.) Grounds open free of charge, museum entrance and tour $11. Open daily, 9am-5pm, tel. 760/786-2392; website www.nps.gov/deva.

To get an idea of what's plan for in the park, look over the Furnace Creek Visitors Center before you explore the park. The rangers present many free programs here, including slide shows, trail talks and more. One alarming lecture is titled "101 Ways to Die in Death Valley," a 40-minute ranger talk that outlines the unusual ways you could expire here if you're not careful. The museum here is extremely helpful in orienting yourself and for clues as to what you should look for, and there is a good gift shop, too.

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The Ubehebe Crater is awe-inspiring, 770 feet deep and about 3,000 years old. It's about eight miles west of Scotty's Castle. You can walk around the rim (1.5 miles) but watch your footing. The red iron oxide strata you see here is the same as that in the Grand Canyon, running across southern Nevada from here to reach the mighty gash in the earth in northern Arizona.

Artist's Drive and its Artist's Palette give you marvelous views of pink, green, purple and brown rock, with lemon and blue added at the Palette itself. You drive this on a one-way road, off Badwater Road, ten miles south of the visitor center. Dante's View, from more than 5,000 feet above the valley floor, offers an extraordinary sight, across most of the 110-mile-long park. As in the Dante masterpiece, imagine the valley below as the Inferno. If you were to hike up to Dante's View, you could see the highest and lowest points in the contiguous USA at the same time (Mount Whitney at 14,494 feet and Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level).

You can explore the Mesquite Flat sand dunes, some 150 feet high, and walk (not drive) on them. South of those is the Harmony Borax Works, dating from 1883, which used to produce three tons of borax daily. This where the early miners used the famed 20-mule teams to haul the stuff 165 miles to the railhead in Mojave, requiring about 30 days for a round trip. (The teams were actually two lead horses and 18 following mules.)

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Zabriskie Point is a popular lookout for its views of brightly colored and highly eroded badlands, best at sunrise and sunset, and itÂ?s just five miles south of Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, where you might be staying.

Adventures

You can hike anywhere in the park, the only caveat being that you should bring plenty of drinking water. In summer, you are advised to drink at least one gallon of water per day (that's 128 ounces or 16 of 8-oz. glasses). Among the most popular round trip hiking routes are: Golden Canyon Trail (two miles, two hours, or half a day and five miles if you go to Zabriskie Point); Harmony Borax Works (quarter-mile, 30 minutes); Salt Creek Nature Trail (half a mile, one hour); Sand Dunes (half a mile or more, one hour or more, 2 miles to the highest dune); and Wildrose Peak Trail (8 miles, all day).

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Driving Titus Canyon is quite an adventure, with 17 miles of unpaved road, one way into the park from Nevada. But the views are extraordinary, visitors say.

If you like re-enacting history, you might want to join the Death Valley '49ers, who meet here the second week in November in 19th-century costumes, some arriving in covered wagons. You don't have to be related to the original '49ers, and it costs only $20 per year (per couple) to join. The proceedings, which have been going on since 1949, include a lot of country and western music programs, often by members themselves, and folksy goings-on. More information is online at www.deathvalley49ers.org.

The Lower Vine House, built for Scotty by the Johnsons toward the end of the con man's life, is open occasionally, with a charge of $15, and you have to be prepared. It's an easy, two-mile round trip lasting 2.5 hours, but there are no bathroom facilities and you must bring your own drinking water. Ask the rangers at the Visitor Centers at Furnace Creek or at Scotty's Castle. Reservations (there's a 15-person limit) at tel. 760/786-2395, ext. 224.

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Horseback rides are available from the Furnace Creek Stables, a one-hour ride costing $45, two hours at $65. They also have moonlight rides on full moon nights. Phone them at tel. 760/786-3339, or dialing ext. 339 from the Ranch or the Inn.

For the ultimate adventure, consider running the130-mile course from Badwater (immense salt flats) to Mount Whitney, starting every July at 282 feet below sea level and ending at the Whitney trailhead at 8,360 feet. In 2000, the winner finished in just 25 hours, 9 minutes and 5 seconds.

Safety

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Local authorities claim the paved roads in the park are patrolled every two hours in daytime, every four at night, and unpaved roads every four hours by day, once a night. You need to know this because your cell phone wonÂ?t work here at all (no towers), so if you have road trouble, you need a CB or other form of radio to communicate with park rangers, who may or may not be listening for you. Otherwise, just sit there and wait for help to arrive.

Lodging

Furnace Creek Inn (tel. 760/786-2345; www.furnacecreekresort.com) is a gorgeous hostelry that started life in 1927 when the Pacific Borax Company turned its crew quarters into a resort, using adobe bricks created on site by Native Americans and perching the place on an alluvial fan. The "Furnace" in the name comes from exactly that, a furnace for smelting ore that stood here. The lush date palms you see now were imported from Algeria in the 1920s. Amenities include tennis courts, horseback riding, carriage rides, golf on the world's lowest course, a splendidly warm spring-fed pool and 66 elegantly appointed rooms.

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Regular rates for a double room range from $250 to $400, depending on view and season. The Inn is closed from mid-May to mid-October. Several packages are offered from now through May 10, 2007, including a Scotty's Castle deal that gives you a room for two night, two tours of the castle, a copy of a castle book and other treats from $602 for two persons at the Inn, $343 at the Ranch. There is also a Romantic Escape package at the Inn only with three nights for two, spa tub, Champagne, fruit and cheese basket, two terrycloth bathrobes, tour of the castle and horse-drawn carriage ride at sunset for $1,500 per couple. There's also a golf deal through December 15, 2006, with rates from $172 at the Inn, $104 at the Ranch. Seniors (60 and over) get a discount of ten to 30 percent off room rates almost anytime through May 10, 2007 at either the Inn or the Ranch.

Furnace Creek Ranch (tel. 760/786-2345; www.furnacecreekresort.com) is bigger and much more casual than the Inn and is open year round. Rates for one of its 224 double rooms range from $108 to $192, depending on location and season, and this is motel-style, with some rooms scattered fairly far from the front desk. There are three restaurants, spring-fed swimming pool, tennis, a couple of shops and a gas station. The 18-hole golf course is in the adjacent oasis, and on the property is the tiny Borax Museum. Outside is a collection of rusting engines and a locomotive from the days of borax mining.

Dining Out

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The best food here is in the two Xanterra properties, the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch. At the Inn, you can dine in relatively elegant surroundings on such specialties as rattlesnake empanada or beavertail cactus fritters. But more sedate fare is also on hand, with marvelous service and innovative dishes. Main courses run about $30. At the Ranch, you can eat in three spots: the 49er Cafe, where fish & chips go for $14, a burger for $8.75 at lunch; the Corkscrew Bar, where you can get a 14-inch pizza for $20 and a draft Bud at $3.50 or a glass or Merlot at $5; and at the Wrangler Steakhouse, where the lunch buffet goes for $12.39 or a BBQ platter for $22.

Contacts and Details

Unless you have a National Park Pass or Golden Age Pass, the entrance fee is $20 for passenger cars, or $40 for an annual pass. The park is transected from east to west by California Route 190, but there is easy access from US 95 in nearby Nevada. Gasoline is sold at only three spots in the park, so plan carefully and carry extra with you.

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If you want lots of company, visit here in springtime, when flowers peak in late March and early April. In summer, you'll find many Europeans around, especially from Germany and France, locals say. The least crowded time of the entire year is between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For all information on Death Valley National Park, go to www.nps.gov/deva.

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