BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
I have always loved the desert. You sit down on a sand dune and you hear nothing. And yet something shines, something sings in that silence. —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Death Valley, the national park with the lowest elevation and the most infamous name, is more than Twenty Mule Team Borax: the mining bonanza that made it famous. And Zabriskie Point is more than just a cult movie title, it is the place to go in the park to see the sun rise and set.
The largest national park below Alaska, Death Valley resides near the border of California and Nevada, just over two hours from the Las Vegas airport. Make your plans to visit in the spring, fall, or winter—its reputation as the hottest and driest of our national parks in the summer is no exaggeration.
Chicagoan Daggett Harvey, who has visited the park more than 25 times and will return with childhood friends in the spring when the wildflowers bloom, never tires of tromping and tumbling through the 100-foot sand dunes at Mesquite Flats. His wife, Yvonne, extolls the area’s many hiking trails, such as the two-mile Golden Canyon Trail, connecting with Zabriskie Point.
The Harveys will introduce their friends to The Inn at Death Valley, once a Fred Harvey Hotel, which has just finished a multi-million dollar renovation and offers fine dining, beautiful rooms, fine Western art. The hotel features magnificent landscaping by Daniel Hull, who worked on Yosemite’s iconic Ahwahnee Hotel, Old Faithful Lodge, and several key areas in the Grand Canyon. Hull, a graduate of the University of Illinois and a native of the state, worked with Frederick Law Olmsted in several national parks implementing the rustic, informal feel of his architecture and landscaping.
For our group—first timers to the area, comprising three generations—the centrally located Ranch at Death Valley was just the place to stay for our visit over Thanksgiving (together with The Inn, the property comprises the Oasis at Death Valley resort). It features many family-friendly activities: horseback riding, shuffleboard, tennis, basketball and bocce courts, a warm spring-fed pool, a variety of dining spots, and even a borax museum. There’s even an 18-hole, par 70 golf course, set amidst tamarisk and palm trees 214 feet below sea level, making it the golf course with the lowest elevation anywhere.
While there, we walked the Badwater salt flats; visited the haunting Rhyolite, a ghost town just over the Nevada border; and rode horses while viewing mountains awash in deep reds, sharp grays, and an array pastel shades, due to the variety of their mineral content. At night we stargazed with rangers, who also speak on crucial topics during the day such as water preservation on scheduled tours of a variety of trails and landmarks. We ventured through slot canyons, under natural bridges, and along alluvial fans and were able to get a real flavor of the park during our four-day visit.
We began at the Visitors Center, which not only gives a full introduction to the park’s offerings but also invites children to become Junior Rangers if they pass the nature test. Jeeps are available for rent nearby to explore nearby roads that are not passable for your typical rental car.
Some of the area’s most famous visitors, forty-niners who got lost there during the winter of 1849-50, gave it its forbidding name. Although almost all of these pioneer prospectors survived, thanks to two members of their party who quickly learned to be scouts, they supposedly said “Goodbye Death Valley” when they finally found their way out. Today you can explore abandoned gold, copper, and silver mines in the park and visit the Harmony Borax works, the once-profitable borax mining operation.
Frank “Shorty” Harris and Edie Cross were the first to strike gold in the Bullfrog District of Rhyolite, a boom-town in 1907 named after a volcanic rock, and now an artistic installation, populated with tongue-in-cheek ghost statuary, and a sometime Hollywood movie set. They named their mine Bullfrog after the green color of the ore. The town’s symbol, a penguin, represented the challenge of gold mining: “As much chance of finding gold in the desert as finding a penguin.” In the spirit of bullfrogs and penguins, a local guide told us the story of the donkey that would appear every day at local restaurant, demanding a pancake from each guest upon exit as its toll.
At the height of operations, Rhyolite had nearly 5,000 inhabitants, and the town was fully equipped with electric lights, telephones, its own opera house, a school, hospital, and even a stock exchange. But by 1910, the mine had become unprofitable, and by 1911, it shut down. By 1920, the town’s population had dwindled down nearly to zero.
Not far from Rhyolite, things were faring far better. Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson and his wife, Bessie, settled in the area in 1922, building a Spanish mission-style castle at a cost of $2 million. They named it Scotty’s Castle after the prospector, performer, and, ultimately, con man Walter E. Scott who had appeared with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Although Johnson was initially angry at “Death Valley Scotty” for urging him to invest in a fraudulent mine, he became the couple’s friend and visited them at the castle frequently, along with Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, and others who made movies in the area. Severely damaged in a flash flood, Scotty’s Castle will be reopened in 2020. The more than 6,000 intriguing items inside are currently being carefully restored.
While Ronald Reagan is perhaps the best-remembered host of the most popular and longest running western series, Death Valley Days, Robert Taylor, Rosemary DeCamp, and Dale Robertson also introduced the episodes which began as a radio series in the 1930s and continued until 1970. Jane Russell, Angie Dickinson, Rory Calhoun, and James Coburn were among the stars presented each week by the Pacific Coast Borax Company on the weekly television show, filmed almost entirely in Death Valley.
It wasn’t until 1933 to 1942, the early days of the star-studded radio series, that most of Death Valley’s trails, buildings, and campsites were created. This was accomplished by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression-era public works relief program. Decades later, in 1994, what was then known as Death Valley National Monument was expanded by 1.3 million acres and re-designated a national park by the California Desert Protection Act.
Of this remarkable land, Ray Caccioli, a member of our group, commented, “The thing that struck me about Death Valley is how magnificent it is in its austerity. Then once you look closely, you’ll see many things of interest.”
Or in the words of our favorite desert poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”