The Last Oasis in American Travel

Around the spring equinox, Death Valley comes alive. But don’t expect to find huge crowds at the popular jaunts. Set out to explore the Racetrack Playa and its mysterious sailing stones, and paths may cross with one or two other souls, but that’s it.

Early spring heats up enough to feel that Death Valley vibe; otherwise, what’s the point? Granted, it’s far from its recorded record as the hottest place on the planet. It’s only about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, so day-trippers come and go. The popular stops along a scenic byway will have their share of vehicles, yet it’s no problem finding a parking space, unlike most national parks and monuments. Traffic between the hot spots is sparse.

An ideal itinerary is spread over a three-night stay. That enables daylong treks to further out places few brave to go. The park covers 3.4 million acres and is the largest in the continental states. Warnings galore scare most people enough not to consider venturing far from Furnace Creek, the closest thing to civilization. Rough non-paved terrain frequently ruins plans when tires are slashed open by sharp-edged lava rocks. And if it’s a rental car, guess what? Most don’t even have a spare tire anymore, not even a donut! Death in Death Valley is something to consider!

But life in places is surprisingly teeming. The boardwalk at Salt Creek enables a close view of tiny pupfish schooling in the water that reaches 110 degrees. Yes, fish in Death Valley! And they are one the rarest fish in the world and were among the first species to be classified as endangered.

Rent a Hummer (H-3), or better yet, book a guided tour in a Hummer to reach long-distance off-road destinations. The color commentary and wealth of knowledge with the ride are worth the price of these day-long excursions. Quickly, it’s evident how easy it is to get lost by going it alone. Or worse, get the vehicle buried in sand up to the axis because of the lack of inside knowledge a guide has to avoid certain weak spots in the terrain.

Teakettle Junction is at an off-road fork in the middle of nowhere. Go in one direction and end up at the mind-boggling Racetrack Playa. The other direction meets up with the Lost Burro Mine. The tradition is to bring a teakettle to hang with the others, inscribed with a message.

“Life without adventure is like pizza without cheese,” read one kettle bottom. Take a moment to read the clever messages.

Racetrack Playa is a bucket list-worthy pursuit. The vast majority of visitors to Death Valley never make it here. Upon approach, it’s already special: a light-colored, perfectly flat, dry lakebed surrounded by dark mountains. It’s the oasis within the oasis. Park the vehicle and take a walk. It may be intimidating at first. The only sound is the padding of feet on the leather-like surface dried into hexagonal cracks. But it is tough ground. And it is permitted to set out onto it by foot in search of sailing stones. However, if it has rained, it’ll be muddy, and no one is permitted to venture onto it.

Sailing stones are rather large rocks – many are too big to lift – that mysteriously left carved paths across the ancient lakebed. Again, the ground is so solid that the markings are there to stay. Many theorized what caused the phenomenon for generations until, relatively recently, a revealing scientific study was conducted. First, the rocks on the three-mile Racetrack aren’t easy to find. Bring binoculars to help locate them. They got there by falling from the surrounding mountains. Once on the flat surface, how they traveled long distances independently was baffling. When rainwater freezes (it can get chilly in the higher elevations at Death Valley), usually at night, it gets under the rocks. When it thaws during the day, strong winds help them glide slower than the eye can see it happening over the slippery surface, leaving a trail that may be straight, curved, or take sharp turns. It’s a wild sight. The sailing stones look like they are racing each other.

And to make the scene even more peculiar, on one end of the flat Racetrack is what’s called the Grandstand. It is boulders of lava rock jutting up from the dry lake floor like a lost island, which is probably what it once was. Racetrack Playa also provides opportunities to see dust devils that may stretch a kilometer high, twisting sand into the sky and moving like a miniature tornado across the flatland. It is a spectacle!

Time permitting, take the other fork at Teakettle Junction to maneuver higher into the rocky cliffs and Joshua trees to make a pit stop at the abandoned Lost Burro Mine. It has a trifecta of an old gold mine, mine shaft, and mine shack to explore. The wind-warped, sandblasted boards of the old shack make for a deteriorating photogenic work of art.

Step inside, and amidst ruin hangs a bright painting on the wall that looks museum preserved. The guide swore it wasn’t planted there. The Borax Museum back at Furnace Creek displays many relics and stories of the mining history at Death Valley. The outdoor yard features old borax mining and rail equipment from the late 1800s. The Old Dinah steam tractor, ore wagon, stagecoach, and steam engine are some relics on display.

Another side trip features the Ubehebe Crater. A massive volcanic explosion blasted a hole into the earth 600 feet deep and a rim a mile and a half long. Walking to the bottom (climbing back out will tax the lungs) and around the perimeter is allowed. It was created by a steam and gas eruption known as a Maar volcano. Cinders from the explosion are found near and far.

Though the word crater may lead to thoughts of outer space, Death Valley has that covered, too. Indeed, the stars at night are plentiful and bright, but much of the landscape seems out of this world. At least, that’s what George Lucas thought when he envisioned scenes for Star Wars Episodes IV and VI. Self-guided tour maps highlight scenes shot among the dunes and canyons at Death Valley.

Envision R2-D2 traveling a dry riverbed before being seized by Jawa in the Sand Crawler Station scene from the hill at the first pullout along Artists Drive. At Dante’s View, listen closely for echoes of Obi-Wan Kenobi looking at the Mos Eisley Spaceport saying, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be careful.” Star Wars enthusiasts love breaking out their miniature action figures for photo ops to commemorate their favorite scenes.

Now, about the beautiful must-see places nearly every visitor to the Valley sees.

Artists Drive is a smooth 10-mile one-way leisure cruise through a canyon outside Furnace Creek. It’s dotted with scenic overlooks. Between the stops is just as striking. The ribbon of road wraps between rock walls, often opening to new vistas and sounds of “Ooh—Aah.” Usually, the road through rock leaves little room to maneuver larger vehicles, some not at all (there’s a strict size limit). Hiking trails are plentiful. The payoff of this journey is undoubtedly Artists Palette! There’s no sign of R2-D2, but a colored mountainside pops with a rocky rainbow of red, yellow, green, blue, and purple hues. It’s concentrated in one enormous stoneface resembling a painter’s palette. The color comes from the oxidization of various metals in the clay, appealing to art and science lovers alike.

Nearby is a much larger phenomenon – Badwater Basin. Be sure to bring water; it gets much hotter out there than in the parking lot and is a much further walk than it first appears. A sign reads, “Lowest Point in North America – 282 feet below sea level.” The magnitude of the salt flats is surreal. At first, there’s a long walk to get to them—a trampled sense of what’s ahead coming into view. To walk among more pristine formations of the polygonal salt rims encircling flat interiors one after another, all adjoined for 200 square miles, be willing to trek further than most do and on an angle to get away from the in-and-out foot traffic. Death Valley never ceases to amaze.

There are several lodging options in Furnace Creek, but the immersive experience awaits at The Inn at Death Valley. It’s a green and blue oasis in the desert that comes at a price, but the historic stay is worth it. A tunnel cuts into the rock of the inn built into the side of a cliff. It connects the parking lot to an elevator. Halfway through the tunnel is an old mining scene. This elegant retreat was built in 1927. A recent massive influx of renovation has made it again the high-end stay that once lured Hollywood legends to escape Tinseltown and find seclusion to recharge.

After a long day of fervent exploration, nothing is more relaxing than the vintage, tiled, spring-fed pool. Some may never arrive at the pool because there’s a paradise of gardens and babbling water cascading down the hillside. It has nooks, and crannies tucked into the vegetation that people lose themselves with a book or meditation. It’s indicative of the entire property. Walking out any door may lead to a grand fountain, a labyrinth of rock gardens between stone walls, or a view of the night sky that’ll reveal a canopy rarely seen in the lower 48. The pampering never ends, from the guest room balconies and patios to the fine dining.

Time and geography make Death Valley the last oasis in American travel. Around April, temperatures can reach 100 degrees but are more likely in the 80s to 90s. It makes it a perfect time to explore the national park. But Europeans flock there in the summer to experience the hottest place on Earth. They hope it hits 134 degrees as it did in July 1913, which reigns as the hottest recorded temperature measured anywhere in the world.

A parting hurrah is a sunrise over Zabriske’s Point. Don’t miss it.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun

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