Well actually 3 days. My family and I had never been to Death Valley and thought it was time to experience the low desert when the weather is more tolerable than in the summer. You don’t want to go there in July or August when the thermometer tops 100. In January, when we made our jaunt, daytime temps hover between 65 and 70, dropping down into the 40s at night. It’s perfect weather for hiking, riding, biking or whatever activity you choose that’s on the desert menu.
After 5 hours of car travel from Los Angeles, we arrived at Furnace Creek Ranch just in time for lunch. Because Death Valley is a National Park, there are only two private facilities in the 3 1/2 million acres of land that extends through California and Nevada. Furnace Creek and Panamint Springs were grandfathered in prior to Death Valley’s National Park designation. We opted for Furnace Creek because of its proximity to horseback riding, one of our favorite activities.
Upon our arrival the ranch, even before checking in, we grabbed a quick lunch at The 49er, a casual coffee shop with excellent breakfasts and lunches....a bit pricey, as are all the eateries at the facility, since they’re the only options in the area. You can’t just drive down the road to a nearby MacDonald’s....that’s a GOOD thing! My son and I shared a Summer Vegetable Quesadilla ($10.50) stuffed with cheddar-jack, tomato, onions and peppers and a Curry Chicken Salad Wrap ($12.95) with apples, walnuts, raisins and celery in a creamy curry dressing. My daughter’s Vegetarian Black Bean Burger ($12.25) was delicious too, as was my husband’s Furnace Creek Omelet ($11.75) with spinach, tomatoes, onion and smoked gouda.
Since we’d arrived early and our rooms weren’t yet available, we decided to see some of the sights before the sun went down. Our first stop: Badwater Basin, 18 miles south of Furnace Creek, a shimmering expanse of white table salt, 282 feet below sea level...the lowest point in North America. Several thousand years ago, it was the site of a 30-foot lake that evaporated and left a layer of salt in its wake. It’s a briny pond in the winter, turning to a puddle as it shrinks in the heat of the summer. We strolled along a pathway through the basin so as not to step on the tiny Badwater snails that live under the crust. It was quite a spectacular sight!
Next stop: Artist’s Palette where green, yellow, blue and pink mineral deposits are splashed across the barren background like dabs of paint from an artist’s brush. It’s a feast for the eye, but if you’re sqeamish about circuitous roads, you may opt out of this adventure or keep your eyes closed (unless, of course, you’re driving.) The drive is a dipping, curving, one- way road that weaves through ravines and colorful rock formations. It’s one of those sights that elicit lots of oohs and ahs.
The last stop that afternoon was Zabriskie Point (made famous in the 1970’s Antonioni film of the same name). It’s where we were told sunrises and sunsets are most spectacular. We were just a tad late for the sunset, but there was enough light to get a glimpse of the wildly eroded and vibrantly colored badlands. From the point you can look down on the mudstone hills riddled with gullies from the occasional, but intense, rain that rushes down the bone dry slopes.
After taking in these very different, but equally spectacular sights, we headed back the five miles to Furnace Creek to check in and have dinner.
Furnace Creek Ranch is a 224-room family friendly facility adjacent to an 18-hole golf course, gold rush-era museum and horse ranch. The rooms are comfortable with two queen size beds, flat screen TV, private patio, refrigerator and a tiled bath with spa toiletries.
There are three dining options at the Ranch: the 49er Cafe where we lunched earlier, the Wrangler Steakhouse who’s breakfast and lunch buffets are available 7 days a week, and the Corkscrew Saloon that serves excellent pub fare. We decided on the Steakhouse where everyone but I had, what else, steak! I had to be different and order the Wild Alaska Salmon ($29.95) with wild rice, baby broccoli and tomato coulis. I usually prefer farm raised salmon, but this was not only the sustainable variety but quite succulent. The best of the steaks, in my opinion, was the Cowboy Steak ($35.95), a 12-ounce full flavored ribeye.
We slept like a log that night..no honking horns, no barking dogs, no noisy mockingbirds....ahhhhh....the desert.
It was Friday morning when we arose to another cloudless day...sunny but a bit chilly. Nothing a good cup of hot coffee wouldn’t cure. We thought we’d try the 49er for breakfast. Good choice, especially if you like homemade biscuits ($3.50), which I do. They’ll also make an omelet any way you like ($10.50) with hash browns and toast.
Our horseback ride wasn’t scheduled until three that afternoon, so we had a few hours to hang around the resort and partake of the local activities. One of the special attractions on the property is the Borax Museum. Borax mining in the area dates back to 1881 when the ore was processed and hauled 165 miles to the railroad town of Mojave by the famed 20-mule teams. You can explore the history of mining at the museum as well as the mining tools and a steam locomotive that later replaced the mules as a transport vehicle. It takes about a half hour to go through the Borax Museum at no charge.
The kids were eager to play tennis and experience the natural spring-fed swimming pool on the premises. They borrowed a couple of racquets from the shed and spent about an hour volleying tennis balls back and forth. This time of year is apparently pretty quiet, and they had the court to themselves. We adults then joined them at the pool, but instead of taking a dip we opted to sun ourselves on the chaises while the kids got the exercise in 85 degree water. While the water was warm, not so the air....okay, I’m a wimp...
At about 1:30 we went to the Saloon for a bite to eat before the ride. The Corkscrew offers sandwiches ($10-$13) and specialty pizzas ($16-$19) among other lighter fare. We would have had a beer or glass of wine, since it was a saloon, after all, but we didn’t think it would be wise before getting on a horse....especially one with whom we weren’t familiar....
Furnace Creek Stables is just steps from our room and offers one ($45) and two ($70) hour guided trail rides as well as evening carriage and hay wagon rides. The one-hour ride, which we opted for, takes you onto the valley floor to get a real taste of the desert. All around you is the vastness of the valley with the mountains in the background as far as the eye can see.
Before each ride the friendly, knowledgeable guides instruct you on how to handle the horses, and during the ride, help keep the horses on the path and you in the saddle. They also are a wealth of knowledge about the desert and will regale you with its history and topography...fascinating stuff!
Time to get all that dust off and relax in our rooms....watching a little “Back to the Future” on TV before dinner. There are some movies you just don’t get tired of.
We decide to head to Furnace Creek Inn for dinner, another part of the resort about a mile away. The facility is more formal than the Ranch, and the rates higher. Prices range from $135-219 at the Ranch in January, while the Inn charges between $340-385 per night. But the restaurant at the Inn, while more elegant than those at the Ranch, aren’t that much more expensive. The Pan Roasted Free Range Chicken Breast ($26.95) was cooked to perfection and served with a Chipotle syrup. An even more exotic dish was the Rustic Vegetable Tart ($23.95) made with a goat cheese-spinach-artichoke filling and served with curried vegetables. Yum. And here’s a tip: if you want something sweet after dinner, but you’re too stuffed to order dessert, they’ll bring you a chocolate truffle with your check. It’s the perfect ending to a delicious meal.
Off to bed!
Oops....didn’t wake up until ten! And we have so much to see. A quick breakfast at the 49er and off to pick up our Jeep at Farabee’s Jeep Rentals. Richard Farabee fixed us up with a Cherokee for $195 a day including 200 free miles. Gas was on us, and it’s good to know that it’s a lot cheaper to fill up outside the park. Gas goes for over five dollars a gallon in Death Valley, whereas in Beatty, Nevada, about 30 miles from Furnace Creek, you can purchase it for around three fifty a gallon. We had the vehicle from just before noon till after five. Richard said if we didn’t make it back before closing time, we just had to leave the key in the drop slot. Good to know.
After providing us with an ice cooler and several bottles of water, we were off to Rhyolite, the largest ghost town in the Valley, 35 miles from Furnace Creek. Several ruins remain today, including a three-story bank building, a jail and the Bottle House, constructed of hundreds of glass bottles. It was cold and eerie. We were the only ones there, and we could hear the wind howling through the deserted buildings. We quickly took some photos and jumped back in our Jeep. About four miles to the East is a town called Beatty, on the Nevada side of the desert. It’s where we were told gas and food were cheaper. We stopped at KC’s Outpost, a saloon and sandwich shop where we ordered sandwiches to go, since, as I mentioned before, there are no shops or eateries in the park other than at the resorts. We made the right choice.
Their sandwiches are all made on fresh baked French bread. The day’s special was fresh roasted turkey with stuffing and cranberries that came with a side of homemade potato or macaroni salad and a slice of cake for $8.95. It was tough not digging in right away, but we knew we wouldn’t be eating until after five that evening, so we’d better save it for later in the afternoon.
We had a real trek ahead as we headed west through Titus Canyon. It’s definitely a route that, while breathtakingly magnificent, is certain to shake you up. It’s 27 miles of dirt road, some of which is so narrow, if you don’t keep an eye on every turn, it could prove fatal. That’s why four-wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended. But if you can tolerate the bumpy two hour plus ride through the canyon, you’ll be gasping with awe at every turn. The Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge cut into the steep face of the Grapevine Mountains to the east of Death Valley. It features limestone rock formations, formed some 500 million years ago, at a time when the area was submerged under a tropical sea. The shapes and colors are so amazing, you might think they’ve been designed by Hollywood art directors.
We spent so much time stopping along the way to take photos and examine the rocks along the side of the road, we failed to notice the time. But we were getting hungry, so we stopped on the road and wolfed down our sandwiches before another car came along. Luckily the canyon was deserted, at least where we were. By the time we emerged from the canyon it was nearly 3:30, and we had to make it to Scotty’s Castle by four or we’d miss the last tour.
My husband’s a great driver. We got to the Castle at 3:55 and made the last tour of the day. We were lucky enough to get Ron, a veteran guide who really knows how to tell a story. As if the saga of Death Valley Scotty wasn’t bizarre enough, Ron’s storytelling technique kept us hanging on every word. To make a very long story short, the castle came into existence thanks to Scotty’s friend, Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, who built it for Scotty. Although Scotty was able to con many folks into investing in his profitable “gold mine,” he had enough charisma to get away with the lie. Johnson, himself, allowed himself to be conned and actually lived at the castle with his wife and Scotty, until times got hard, and they had to turn the edifice into a bed and breakfast. But not just any b&b...it hosted such luminaries as President Hoover and Bette Davis.
By the time the tour was over it was five o’clock, closing time. We were so happy we’d gotten to experience this architectural gem filled with exotic furnishings from all over the world.
We had about an hour drive back to Furnace Creek, and it was nearly dark, but we knew if we didn’t stop at Ubehebe Crater, we’d miss this three-thousand year old volcanic remnant in the northern tip of the Cottonwood Mountains. It’s a 770-foot steam explosion crater which you can actually descend or circumnavigate at the rim. Of course we couldn’t do that at sunset, so we just stared in amazement by the light of the full moon. Wow!
We made it back to Richard’s Jeep Rentals around 5:30, dropped off the vehicle and headed back to the Ranch. Dinner at the 49er. A game of hearts with the family, and off to bed.
It was Sunday, our last day in the desert. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the 49er, packed up and decided to take a different route back to L.A. We took the Western route on Highway 190 through Stovepipe Wells, in the northern end of the park. There we stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, 150-foot dunes surrounded by mountains on all sides. The tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that began as solid rock became sand sized through erosion over the years. We were able to walk through the Flat, seeing the various patterns in the sand made by the wind and climbing the smaller dunes, feeling the warmth and softness of the sand between our toes. Glad we didn’t miss this experience.
We did miss other sights like the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns from the 19th century, The Devil’s Golf Course with its gnarled crystalline salt spires dotting the landscape, and Racetrack Playa where sliding rocks have puzzled geologists for decades. Guess those will have to wait for our next trip to Death Valley.
Furnace Creek Inn
Furnace Creek Stables
Farabee’s Jeep Rentals
100 E. Main St.-Hwy 95
Beatty, NV 89003