BLOG #12, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #10
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
March 21, 2012
Death Valley (one of Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) may be summed up in three superlatives: “Hottest,” “Driest,” “Lowest.” In July of 1934, a temperature of 134E was recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch—at that time, that was the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth. Later, a site in Libya recorded a temperature of 136E (two degrees hotter). It is the driest area in our National Parks system (average rainfall, less than two inches; some years, none at all). Its Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) is the lowest place in North America.
The name, of course, is part of the mystique. Apparently, it dates back to 1849 when a wagon train of pioneers en route to California chose this valley as a route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But rather than a route out, they got instead lasting heat, hunger, thirst, and “awful silence.” One man died; the rest were found by a rescue party, and climbed out over the Panamint Mountains. One of these, more dead than alive, upon reaching the summit, turned for one last look and, with deep feeling, muttered, “Good-bye, Death Valley”—and the name stuck.
The valley is 120 miles long and over 60 miles wide. Surprisingly soaring up from the deepest spot in North America, are peaks such as Telescope Peak (11,049 feet), representing one of North America’s greatest vertical rises. In the winter, these mountains are often snow-capped.
In spite of its hostile climate and scarcity of water, “desert rats” (most prospectors or desert wanderers) have long haunted these silent reaches. Over 10,000 abandoned mining claims can be found here—gold, silver, lead, zinc, mercury, copper, salt, manganese…and borax. Interestingly enough, a young graduate of the University of California, Stephen Tyng Mather, early on became sales manager for Pacific Coast Borax. A born advertising genius, Mather generated a flood of publicity glamorizing the early days of Death Valley, and branded his product as “20 Mule Team Borax.” Over 100,000 copies of his Borax recipe book was distributed and sold within one month! Before long, Mather started his own borax company, and quickly became very wealthy. As fate would have it, however, in a 1914 letter to his good friend, Franklin Lee, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Mather groused about the condition of America’s national parks. Lee zinged a letter right back, challenging him with these words, “Dear Steve, if you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, why don’t you come down to Washington and run them yourself?” That’s all it took—and today Mather is considered to be the father of our national park system, now the envy of the world.
Mather never forgot Death Valley; no matter how many other great scenic wonders he managed to save for posterity, he kept pushing for its preservation. Zane Grey’s blockbuster desert novel, Wanderer of the Wasteland (set in Death Valley), a media trifecta (magazine serialization, book publication, and movie) helped Mather’s cause no little, as did the advent of that long-running radio show (later movie series), Death Valley Days, memorably hosted by none other than Ronald Reagan. In 1933, President Herbert Hoover (formerly president of the National Park Association) signed a bill giving it National Monument status, with an area of 1,600,000 acres. Yet mining continued even after that time. Not until 1994 (61 years later), when President Clinton pushed through the Desert Protection Act, did Death Valley at last become a national park (at 3,396,000 acres the largest national park in the lower 48, and roughly the size of Connecticut).
FURNACE CREEK INN
By late 1926, Pacific Coast Boraxt was building Furnace Creek Inn, the type of upscale resort Mather favored because he felt it would enhance the park’s status with the general public. The company had great plans for the resort (designed by Los Angeles architect Albert Martin), and saw to it that rail service into the basin was arranged for. According to Christine Barnes, the process was a bit involved: the underutilized Tonopah and Tidewater railroad lines transported arriving guests from Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroad stops to the Death Valley Junction; there they would climb aboard the Death Valley Railroad cars for the twenty-mile journey through the Funeral Mountains to Ryan, where the tracks ended. Motor coaches would take them the rest of the way (Barnes, 52).
Martin’s Spanish Revival hotel was built on a low knoll at the mouth of occasionally running Furnace Creek, but received its water supply from nearby Travertine Springs. Furnace Creek Inn officially opened on February 1, 1927. As time passed, the complex continued to expand. By 1928-29, more and more tourists were finding their way here. A nine-hole golf course was completed in 1929, as well as an exquisite freshwater swimming pool. Daniel Hull, renowned landscape architect, had been brought in to complete the masterpiece that is the inn.
VIPs began to arrive—including the likes of Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando. Today, it and the nearby Furnace Creek Ranch are operated by XANTERRA Resorts.
Once again, in this all too short a journey we call life, we woke up in the venerable El Tovar Hotel. Since it would be a long day, the alarm clock rang at 6:15 a.m. Luckily, we landed the NW window table and were served by our favorite waiter, Noah. A scrumptious breakfast of French toast, coffee, and splitting a to-die-for cinnamon roll. By 8:15 a.m., Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and I, were ensconced in the Lincoln Town Car and “On the Road Again.” Our route took us west through Kingman, Arizona, 93 through Las Vegas to 95, then up to Death Valley junction on 190. The temperature kept climbing, and climbing as we descended into the deepest valley in America. In reality, it is not really a valley at all because 2,000 years ago this was a great lake 600 feet deep. Even though this was still a spring May day, it was already 98E when we checked in at Furnace Creek Ranch. One of our trip’s major disappointments had to do with our inability to stay at Furnace Creek Inn, reason being that it is open only during the “relatively cool” winter months. The rest of the year it lies fallow. But at the Ranch, we were pleasantly surprised by the spacious, comfortable, and cool rooms. Afterwards, we drove up to Furnace Creek Inn, and walked around the Shangri-la where we’d hoped to be staying. The palm groves were hauntingly beautiful, as was the turquoise Mediterranean pool. The lawns, shrubs, and flowers were verdant. The inn was everything we heard it was—at least from what we could see. Some day, we vowed, we’ll return and stay here. Then back to the Ranch for dinner, ice cream, and early sack-time. It had been a long day.
Next morning early, we headed up to famed Zabriski Point for sunrise, then back for breakfast. We quickly discovered that meals at the Ranch, because of the continual influx of tourist groups (by bus, auto, and motorcycle), was semi-cafeteria style—necessary because of the off the street clientele. But the food was good. It felt no frills Old Westy. Afterwards, we drove to a place I’d dreamed of visiting all my life: Scotty’s Castle.
Because it is nestled in the hills about 3,000 feet above the valley floor, it is about nine degrees cooler there. After strolling through the visitor center, we joined a tour group, and were lucky enough to snag a marvelous guide. I’m sure you too have discovered that, in traveling, the guides make all the difference. As we moved through the lovely castle, our guide brought to life the fairy-tale story behind its building :a talented westerner known as Death Valley Scotty, who had ridden with Buffalo Bill for twelve years in his famed Wild West Shows all across America and Europe; but Scotty was also a desert rat, a miner, and a con man who sold shares in nonexistent or non-producing mines. One of his victims, Albert Johnson, a millionaire, overlooked being duped and built a castle that cost several million dollars to construct, then let Scotty claim ownership of it, supposedly built from the fortune made in his nonexistent mines. Johnson and his wife had no wish to claim ownership, they’d just listen to Scotty tell tales and let him bask in the adulation of his devoted public. Oh there’s so much more to their story and to the castle! You’ll just have to come and explore it for yourself. By the time we got back to the ranch, it was 105E in the shade.
We mixed with pilgrims from all over the world, including a large cavalcade of Brazilian motorcyclists. We were told that even in the blistering heat of summer, visitors come anyway, seeking to experience one of the iconic extremes life has to offer. After supper, we retired early, for tomorrow would be another very long day.
Atchison, Stewart, Death Valley: Splendid Isolation (Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press, 2002).
Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks (Bend, OR: WWW West Inc., 2002).
Parker, Stanley W., Death Valley’s Scotty’s Castle (Wickenburg, AZ: K.C. Publications, 2010).
Schultz, Patricia, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (New York Workman Publishing, 2003).
Southern California & Las Vegas Tour Book (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States, (Washington, D. C. National Geographic Society, 2009).