Take Five: Death Valley National Park

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If you hate crowds but love heat and the sparse beauty of desert and rock, Death Valley National Park is an ideal vacation spot. Although it’s one of the country’s largest national parks—it stretches across 3.4 million acres through California and Nevada—Death Valley doesn’t get a ton of visitors. Maybe it’s the name; Death Valley doesn’t scream family vacation … unless it’s the Manson family. (Ironically, Charles Manson was captured at Barker Ranch inside the park.)

But more than likely, it’s due to the oppressive heat. Death Valley is recognized as the hottest location on the planet, hitting 134 degrees back in 1913 and routinely exceeding 120 degrees during the summer months. But in the winter and early spring, temperatures are much more temperate, with highs hovering around the 70s. For folks stranded in the snowy Midwest, that’s more heaven than hell.

Free park maps are available at the DVNP’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center, but here are our top picks.

1. Tour Scotty’s Castle

Fraud was fairly prevalent in 1920s Death Valley, and in one instance it led to an unlikely friendship and one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions. Local con man Walter “Scotty” Scott sold shares in a non-existent gold mine to Chicago millionaire Walter Johnson. But when Johnson learned of Scott’s ruse, his anger turned into fascination. Their friendship inspired Johnson to build the mansion where Scott would spend the rest of his days as a caretaker.

The unusual history behind Scotty’s Castle resulted in an almost equally unusual tour—guides are dressed in 1930s garb and talk as much about the two men’s curious relationship as the two-story Mission Revival home itself. Visitors can also tour the nearly quarter mile of secret tunnels and walkways underneath the house.

2. Hit the High (and low) Lights

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The 18-mile drive from the Inn at Furnace Creek near the center of the park—offers some great views, but pedaling down on a bicycle is perhaps the best way to experience the stark beauty of the landscape. In this particular case, it’s more about the journey than the destination; Badwater Basin is located in a large salt pan and doesn’t have a lot more to see other than a sign designating its low status.

After getting your requisite selfie in front of the Badwater Basin sign, head back toward Furnace Creek. Detour through Artist’s Palette, a one-way road that takes you through some glowing volcanic rock formations; the mineral deposits that make up this road are a rainbow of colors that truly live up to its name.

Take US 190 and head to the Zabriskie Point scenic overlook (pictured above) that offers some gorgeous views of the east side of the park. If that’s not enough for you, keep driving to Dante’s View, a 5,000-foot mountain that will give you an almost unparalleled view of the park. Just be sure to leave before sundown; the drive down the mountain can be somewhat tricky.

3. Jeep Tour of Titus Canyon

Photo by Robert Annis

Farabee’s Jeep Rentals provides vehicles for you to use to go exploring on your own, but if you go that route, you’d miss out on all the great information and trivia that Farabee’s tour guides offer. You’d also be forced to maneuver the dirt and gravel Titus Canyon Road—which features more than a few tricky, off-camber switchbacks—on your own.

The drive through the canyon offers gorgeous views, but the highlights are the two ghost towns. Rhyolite is the largest ghost town in Death Valley that once had a population of 10,000, two churches and more than 50 saloons. A 1911 economic downturn dried up investment, and the townspeople fled. Years later, only a small handful of ruins remain standing, including the jailhouse and a bank.

What Leadfield, the other ghost town, lacks in size, it makes up for in interesting story. C.C. Julian’s Western Lead Mine Company used an elaborate web of lies to attract investors. Prospectors flooded the area in 1925, and just as quickly abandoned it after they realized the promised iron ore was nowhere to be found. But Julian disappeared with the profits, and all that’s left of his fraud are a handful of weathered shacks and a jalopy.

4. Visit Tatooine or the Planet of the Apes

Death Valley’s landscape is otherworldly, which may be why so many sci-fi blockbusters were filmed inside the park. Parts of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake were shot around Trona Pinnacles. But Death Valley is probably most famous for being the stand-in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine in both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. You can find details for a self-guided Star Wars tour of the area here.

5. Stargazing

One of three designated International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S., Death Valley’s remote location means there’s little-to-no light pollution, allowing an incredible view of the heavens above.

The Inn at Furnace Creek hosts sky-watching parties throughout the year, particularly in the winter and spring. Be sure to download an app such as Star Walk to help you identify constellations, as well as individual stars and planets.

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full time, specializing in cycling and outdoor travel journalism.