Something called me to Death Valley last week. An irrational idea came to me that I could pass through Death Valley unaffected by the desolation and mid-May heat. But it didn’t turn out that way.
California Highway 190 and 30 miles to Furnace Creek, Death Valley.
A detour in life took me to a place where I was hanging out at a hotel in a desert oasis during the middle of the day, literally with no other people to be seen during the time I was there. The Twilight Zone experience at the historic 1927 Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley, California was my California adventure ride.
The Inn at Furnace Creek Death Valley.
Death Valley was a totally unplanned road diversion last Thursday when I was driving home to California from Las Vegas.
I can drive Las Vegas to Monterey in 9 hours over a distance of 520 miles via I-15 (150 miles), Highway 58 Barstow to Tehachapi and Bakersfield (130 miles), cross the big valley from Bakersfield to Paso Robles (110 miles) on Highway 46 then Highway 101 up the Salinas Valley (110 miles) and crossover to California Highway 1 (20 miles) and home.
About two-thirds of the road distance is on what reasonably is considered freeway driving. The Mojave Desert and California ‘Big Valley’ drive can be a drag of a trip when the temperature is 110 degrees in the Mojave Desert and Bakersfield. The thought of stepping outside of the car to hike in some of the desolate desert scenery is an idea long faded by past experiences.
Driving Las Vegas to Monterey via Death Valley and over Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park only added 90 miles via the direct route; the route I did not take. Death Valley ended up delaying me a day as I spent the day driving the lows and highs of remote desert lands on little used paved back road highways of western Nevada and eastern California.
The Amargosa Range forms the eastern boundary of Death Valley National Park. The Amargosa River flows mostly underground along the east side of the Amargosa Range and then turns northward to drain into an underground Death Valley aquifer on the west side of the Amargosa Range at Badwater Basin, –262 feet. This is the deepest point of land in North America. Argentina’s Laguna del Carbon is –344 feet.
Going to the Historic Road House at Furnace Creek
The cooler weather while driving in the Nevada desert was a sign to me that this might be the perfect day to drive Death Valley. On a day when I was driving on U.S. Highway 95 in Nevada and the temperature was only in the low 80s some fifty miles north of Las Vegas, I got the idea that I might be able to take a 70-extra-miles detour through Death Valley National Park and pass through the valley without the temperature hitting 100 degrees.
That didn’t happen.
Death Valley National Park, California. The temperature topped out in one spot north of Furnace Creek at 104 F around 1pm.
Zabriskie Point is one of the first pullouts after some 25 or so miles of driving from Death Valley Junction into the park.
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
The road signs showed the elevation had dropped from 2,000 to 1,000 feet alongside the road. Zabriskie Point is five miles from where the valley floor drops to sea level and below. Zabriskie was a long-term Vice President of the Pacific Coast Borax Company who started work in 1885 and spent nearly 50 years with the company.
Zabriskie Point is also the name of a 1970 movie featuring music from Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Youngbloods and Rolling Stones. Death Valley was one of the film locations for the Michelangelo Antonioni film.
The temperature was rising as the road descended deeper into Death Valley; rising from 82 F on Highway 95 in Nevada to 87 F at the entrance sign for Death Valley National Park in California to 93 F at Zabriskie Point, the lowest elevation I had reached in Death Valley National Park.
The sign at Zabriskie Point said this valley was filled with lakes three to five million years ago. Volcanic activity and earthquakes resulted in ash filling in the lakes to create layers of sandstone, clay and siltstone that have been subsequently crumpled by earthquakes into the layers of earth creating the Furnace Creek geologic formation.
The French invasion was here in Death Valley National Park too, just as I had encountered in each of Utah’s five National Parks during the previous week. Bus loads of French tourists accompanied me in exploring Zabriskie Point and taking their own photos on cameras, phones and iPads.
Furnace Creek, Death Valley
As the road wound around from Zabriskie Point to the left, I came down to Furnace Creek with the appearance of a few buildings, palm trees and hotel on the hillside.
I had already made up my mind to visit the hotel at Furnace Creek for a respite from driving. The parking lot had only a few cars.
There were no people around though.
The Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley National Park.
I walked up the drive to the hotel passing the cave space with the elevator sign in the now 100 degree noon heat.
There was nobody around.
View of Death Valley at sea level. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, is about 13 miles to the left, heading south in Death Valley from the Inn at Furnace Creek. My trip took me to the right, traveling north, deeper into Death Valley and eventually to Scotty’s Castle. I added another hour or two of driving with this route.
Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley National Park.
The historic Furnace Creek Inn buildings, surrounded by rock and the Funeral Mountains, seemed like a place that would bake in summer heat even though a garden oasis is right outside the door. The historic hotel does not have central air conditioning in its 66 rooms and suites. The hotel operates seasonally from mid-October to mid-May and opens on a limited basis for tour groups in July and August.
Furnace Creek Inn rates run $345 to $475 per night for 2013.
I met a manager last year for one of the Death Valley hotels, possibly Furnace Creek Inn, who told me that Europeans love being in Death Valley in July and August when the temperature some nights does not drop below 100 F degrees before dawn and the next day’s sun stirs the valley heat upward again.
There is another hotel nearby, Furnace Creek Ranch. open year-round, with more affordable rates of $139 to $199. The Furnace Creek Ranch hotel is by the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center, about one mile north of Furnace Creek Inn.
Plenty of room in the swimming pool.
The grounds at the Furnace Creek Inn offer an oasis of green grass, palm trees, flowering shrubs and ponds with streaming water flowing downhill out of natural springs. Leave the hotel’s immediate oasis and the Furnace Creek area is surrounded by hot rock and dust all around.
The Furnace Creek Inn facilities pre-date the designation of Death Valley as a National Monument in 1933.
Pacific Coast Borax Company and the 20 Mule Team
Before tourism and folklore of the wild west from 30 years of Death Valley Days radio and TV shows where even President Ronald Reagan served a hosting stint in 1964-65, Death Valley was a mining operation in possession by the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Borax was a chemical ingredient used for soap and ceramic glazes.
Furnace Creek Inn opened February 1, 1927 as a destination resort for desert tourism and Hollywood film crews. Many actors have stayed at the Furnace Creek Inn including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard who stayed their honeymoon at the Death Valley hotel.
The story is tourism was another revenue stream for the Tonapah & Tidewater Railroad that was originally built as a mine railway for shipping borax out of Death Valley.
Pacific Coast Borax Company moved its headquarters to Boron, California in 1927. There is the 20 Mule Team Museum in Boron for a free tour of Death Valley mining history right off Highway 58, about 40 miles west of Barstow. There is also the Harmony Borax Works for mining history information in Death Valley.
Garden oasis at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Garden at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Empty seats and benches awaited me at every turn walking around the garden in the noon day 100 F sun.
The Inn at Furnace Creek originally opened in 1927 and is a current member of “Historic Hotels in America”.
A good read on the history of Furnace Creek Inn is by Joe Zentner in DesertUSA magazine.
A room window air conditioner was running in a hotel room I walked by.
The setting looked like a great environment for a day in the 80s in late February or early-March.
Last year in 2012 Furnace Creek set a temperature record for the hottest April temperature in the USA.
The Inn at Furnace Creek, Death Valley.
My plans to check out the inside of the hotel, buy something to drink and use the toilet did not happen that way.
The signs taped onto the glass windows of the Lobby doors stated
“Closed for renovation”.
Ghost like hotel experience as I stayed and left the Inn at Furnace Creek, Death Valley without ever encountering another living person. Life here in the Death Valley desert was all around me in rocks, plants, water and ghost tales from a historic inn.
Outside the Inn at Furnace Creek, Death Valley.