Stovepipe Wells dunes stretch for miles in Death Valley National Park in Southern California.
Last autumn, a knot of tourists at the bar of the Furnace Creek Resort began comparing notes about why we had come to Death Valley National Park.
"Because it's not L.A.," said a young woman, laughing.
"For the hiking," said a man with a profoundly tanned face.
"For the UFOs," said Reggie from Arizona. "There was a crash around here in 1949 and this would be a good place to look for them."
Normally such a comment would be followed by an awkward silence. But here people just nodded and sipped their drinks and considered the possibility. A moment later someone asked whether Death Valley was technically a valley, or a sunken trough of land known as a graben.
Death Valley is so full of improbable sights—and such a powerful sense of the other—that it all but demands we make room in our heads for alternate theories of the universe. Of course you might see UFOs here. Just look at the terrain, the temperature, the billions of stars overhead. None of this is normal.
I had come to southeast California to see a place that existed in my mind chiefly as a cartoon. You know, the one with the guy in the big hat crawling past the ox skulls and muttering, "Water, water," as buzzards circle overhead. Death Valley occupies an outsize place in the national imagination, due in large part to its name.
The grim moniker was bestowed upon this 140-mile-long valley by a party of Gold Rushers seeking a shortcut to riches. They wandered into the place and by all accounts were greatly bedeviled in getting back out. One died. As they finally made their way west, one looked back and sighed, "Good-bye, Death Valley." The name stuck and has complicated the lives of various people ever since, among them Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for the Furnace Creek Resort. "Let's face it," he told me, "Death Valley is not the best name for marketing."
Even so, for every person turned off by the name there's probably another attracted by the valley's extremes. It's the largest national park in the lower 48 states. It's home to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (some 282 feet below sea level). And it claims the second-hottest temperature reading on earth—a toasty 134ºF in 1913. (Only the Sahara has seen hotter.) Summer days commonly top 120. "Really, 112 to 115 degrees is fine," insists Dickinson, who has lived at Furnace Creek for more than a decade. "But there's a huge difference between 115 and 127. Breathing is hard. When the wind comes up, it's like being in a convection oven. Of course, I still play golf."
I arrived in the fall, when the weather is close to perfection; I wore a light fleece jacket in the mornings and a T-shirt in the afternoons. I checked in at the Furnace Creek Resort, which was opened by the Pacific Coast Borax Company in 1927 after its owners figured out that tourism held a more lucrative future than a hard-to-mine whitening agent.
The resort accepts guests from mid-October to mid-May and closes in the heat of summer. Sitting on a little hill 1.5 miles south of park headquarters, it's an oasis with date palms, a lovely terraced garden, and a warm water pool. (There's no such thing as cold water in Death Valley, even from the taps.)
It works out well that I'm a morning person. That's when furtive mice and tarantulas stir, as do runners and bikers, gliding silently through the pellucid gloaming. As the sun comes up, shadows define the valley more crisply, slicing the vast space into light and dark. There's no better time than an hour after sunrise to explore the salty, knobby landscape at the Devil's Golf Course, or the mesmerizing, 100-foot-high wind-sculpted sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells.
Afternoons bring a flat, punishing light to the broad valley, so that's when I tried to retreat into shady side cuts such as Mosaic Canyon and the nameless ravines along the nine-mile Artist's Drive. One day I drove north to hide out amid the dim glamour of Scotty's Castle.
This bizarre structure is the result of a swindle gone good. Early in the 20th century, Walter "Scotty" Scott—part prospector, part cowboy, all con artist—persuaded a Chicago investor named Albert Johnson to sink money into Scott's Death Valley gold mine. The mine, curiously, always required more cash than it actually generated, so Johnson decided to visit his investment. No mine was evident. What Johnson did find, however, was a climate that pleased him and eased his chronic back pains.
In 1927, Johnson appointed the fast-talking Scotty to oversee the building of a winter getaway designed in Spanish mission revival style. (Johnson rejected a design from Frank Lloyd Wright, thereby qualifying for the Missed Opportunities Hall of Fame.) The castle has been neatly restored to appear as it did circa 1939, and tours are led by guides dressed to look like extras in a Jimmy Stewart movie of the same era.
Your first notion upon driving up to the building will be, Of course someone would build a castle in the corner of a lethal desert. Why not? Your next thought may be that it looks like a fake castle. Be patient: Inside it's the real deal, with stout redwood beams, antique furnishings from Europe, and dragon motifs. Then there's the music room, with its booming Welte- Mignon organ, lending the place a sense of over-the-top opulence leavened with eccentricity.
On my last morning, the rising sun had scarcely touched Telescope Peak when I pulled off on the shoulder along the lone road just south of Badwater. I couldn't shake the urge to cross the valley floor on foot—maybe it was all those cartoon characters. So I put on my big hat, shouldered a pack full of PowerBars and water bottles (it's not the heat that will kill you, it's the aridity), and set off for the range across the way, where I spotted a dab of greenery. (Trees? Shrubs? Who knows? There's no sense of scale here.)
I found that time passed quicker if I stared down and examined the terrain beneath my feet. Loose, gravelly rocks soon gave way to knuckle-like clumps of dried mud. Then came hardpan rucked with crisp fissures, their edges rimmed with salt like margarita glasses. Next I crunched through round chocolate-colored knobs that looked like macaroons dusted with confectioners' sugar.
At this point, I briefly considered the idea that I had grown delirious from the heat and crazed with hunger, but soon realized that after walking for 45 minutes I was still in the deep shade of the Amargosa Range. A half hour later, I crossed into the sun, where I halted for a moment, almost involuntarily. (Perhaps it's an intuitive response here: Sun. Bad.) But I pushed on another half hour, then looked up. The distant greenery appeared no closer.
I looked back at my car. It was as small as a flea at the base of a shaggy brown mountain. I thought about UFOs and alien abductions. I thought it was probably time to turn around. So I tramped back across the salt pan, watching the glint of the sun on cars winding along the valley road. I could barely make them out; I knew for sure I was invisible to them.
In Death Valley you can disappear in plain sight. Of course you can.
Photography courtesy Robert Holmes/California Travel and
This article was first published in January 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up the Southern California & Las Vegas TourBook and California map. For more information, contact Death Valley National Park at (760) 786-3200 or visit nps.gov/deva.