DEATH VALLEY?" I asked in disbelief. Now why would an Eastern newcomer to California want to spend a three-day weekend there?

"The desert's beautiful," my husband, Bruce, soothed. "All the guys at work say it's worth the trip."

I was unconvinced. What about Coronado and that great old hotel there? Or Santa Barbara with its long beachside promenade and old Spanish atmosphere?

"But we'll stay at the old Furnace Creek Inn," Bruce said, reading from the guidebook.

I knew it. Heat. Excruciating heat. But I looked over his shoulder into the guidebook. Seventy-nine dollars a day with meals for a double room, Nov. 1 to April 30. An inn charging $79 a day in Death Valley? What on earth could be there? We had to go.

Thus we set out on one of our most satisfying excursions to date. If I sound surprised, it's because my husband and I have different interests. An intricate formation of sedimentary rock would excite Bruce more than meeting Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I prefer people, cultural excursions, or simply a snooze in the sun in appropriate surroundings.

Death Valley is a composite. A feast for the eye, mind, and spirit, it can be explored on several interest levels.

Of course, there's geology; a desert valley formed by block faulting east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Panamint Range stands to the West, Grapevine and Funeral Mountains to the East and Avawatz and Owlshead Mountains to the South. Of Death Valley's 3,000 square miles, 550 are below sea level. Moreover, each geological division of time is represented in the Valley, which is 120 miles long and from 4 to 16 miles wide. Well-named peaks, points and craters (Mosaic Canyon, Dante's View, Artist's Palette, Mustard Canyon), unique in geological formation, change color hourly as light plays on the somber terrain or highlights mineral pigments in volcanic deposits.

Yet one could all but ignore geology (except for obvious aesthetic pleasures) in favor of several days spent focusing on the region's early history. I tried to piece together fragments of stories I'd heard - about prospectors and drivers of 20-mule teams who collaborated to dig out a rich store of borax; idle mines, ghost-town ruins, and early 49er attempts to cross this forbidding land on a short cut to the gold fields.

The region's modern history is fascinating, too. Especially the exploits of Death Valley Scotty, a deset celebrity, whose long-time friendship with millionaire Chicagoan Albert Johnson culminated in the building of Death Valley Ranch, known as "Scotty's Castle."

The first-time visitor should choose one subject for concentration or use the inn as a desert rest farm. But we tried to sample some of each to satisfy our polar interests.

From Los Angeles, we traveled via Rtes. 10, 15 and 127 through Death Valley junction, to enter Death Valley National Monument on Rte. 190. The weather was a dry, clear 75 degrees. (In summer it gets very hot - a maximum temperature of 134 degrees has been recorded in the shade.) Thirty miles further on we rounded a bend at about 4:30 p.m. to find a sprawling multi-level stone building bordered with palm trees. But for the palm trees and green trim on the building, the umimposing Spanish-style structure with 67 guest units made little impact on the scenic environment.

A small sign read Furnace Creek Inn. We turned into the driveway of our lodgings, winding our way round past a couple of doors (one with a sign announcing Oasis Lounge), under an archway, past a beauty shop and into a parking lot behind the buildings. To our left we looked across the valley floor to Pinto Peak and the Panamint Range wrapped in the soft purple hues of early evening.

Check-in went smoothly, but we didn't get the desert view requested. For the same price, we had a "garden view" of palm tree tops; definitely a disappointment after our first glimpse of the desert panorama.

Pacific Coast Borax Co. (of 20-Mule Team and Borax mining fame) constructed all the present facilities - rooms, lounge, terraces and springfed swimming pool - between 1920 and 1930. Steam heat replaced individual fireplace heating in 1935. Fred Harvey, a division of AMFAC corporation, acquired the property in 1969 and has a master plan in the works for modernization and development of present facilities.

Room 121 was small and not completely soundproofed. We could hear coughing and muted conversation through the bathroom medicine cabinet. Furnishings were massive - two large leather wing chairs, a dresser-desk, a highboy. And the carpet in the hallway needed to be replaced. We were sure the best was yet to come.

We checked out the mealtime schedule, then headed to the pool for apredinner dip. An ancient elevator took us to terrace level, then we hiked down more steps to a pool which was, well, old, but large and surrounded by comfortable-looking redwood furniture. Facing west through stone arches on the far side, one could see a shuffleboard court, ping-pong table and two tennis courts. Beyond that the brooding purple of the desert.

Plenty of fresh white towels were available in the dressing rooms after a plunge into the spring-fed pool maintained at a constant 87-degree temperature.

Mealtimes at the inn (7:30-9 a.m.; 12-1; and 6-8 p.m.) take place in a dining room with a huge rock fireplace, high ceilings and exposed beams. The inn's decor may be fading, we thought, but here we'll find value for our money. In reply to our query, the waitress gave us a breakdown on meal prices; $3.50 for a single breakfast; $4 for lunch and $9.50 dinner. That's $34 a day for two of the $79 total. (Considering today's prices, and the isolation of the area, I suppose that the tab is not too unreasonable.)

The management requires a jacket and tie at the dinner meal. Most male guests wear long pants and cardigans to breakfast and lunch. Women wear knee length attire or modest trousers. We counted only 16 guests who seemed under the age of 35.

For dinner, a "continental chef" provides a choice of chicken, a creamed seafood dish, sliced leg of lamb or ham steak; relishes, canned green vegetables, dry duchess potatoes and a quadruple-decker pastry cart stacked with pies, cakes, tortes and custards. Nothing we ate was exceptional so we passed up the desset cart. I can only report the plaintive comment from a nearby table: "They didn't taste half as good as they looked." To sum up, the food at the inn was more bountiful than tasty.

A stroll to the gift shop for postcards and reading materials, then early to bed, with several well-researched paperbacks on the area. We slept heavily on the quiet blackness of the desert night. Not a single neon and very few electric lights on the outside of the inn are visible.

Service was not in the quiet unobtrusive style one would expect to find at similar establishments back East, but extremely pleasant and friendly. Our young waitress, a recent college graduate, spent her junior year in Spain and now works her way around the National Parks waiting tables. Her husband, an intense, dark-haired young man wearing '60s-style circular wire-rimmed glasses, was the bus boy. Other waitresses were plumpish, middle-aged women from nearby desert towns given to chatting over "last-year-about-this-time" with older regulars. (Of course they're the ones who book a year ahead and get rooms with a desert view!)

For the next few days we were faced with endless choices. Should we play tennis? Have lunch poolside and then nap in the sun? A box lunch packed for a field trip to Scotty's Castle and other geological wonders of the Valley (chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, cola, fruits, stale date bread)? A steakfry dinner under the stars? Dinner in the Oasis Lounge (the inn's supper club right on the premises where Lorin Paulsen, Pat Paulsen's brother, entertains Tuesday through Sunday)? These options were available at no extra cost.

Should we have a game of golf on an 18-hole, par-70, all-grass, 5,700-yard course at 215 feet below sea level? A horseback ride from stables at nearby Furnace Creek Ranch? Our decision as first-timers was two votes for the box lunch and geological wonders. We could swim, eat or play tennis anytime.

Stopping first at the visitor's center about a mile down the road, we found maps, trail leaflets, historical exhibits, an excellent Kodak sound/slide show on taking pictures in the changing light of the Valley, and a cram course in geological formations.

We learned that Death Valley is not a valley in the strict sense. (It was not excavated by a stream, but is a trough between uplifted mountains blocks.) That desert mountains are bare slopes planing down to form huge aluvial fans. That valley surface water evaporates in enclosed basins allowing salt borate and other water-soluble minerals to accumulate. And that sand creeps across certain portions of the valley floor sculpturing patterns in undulating dunes.

We didn't prolong the orientation. Why see a slide of what you're about to see, when you can be outside seeing it? At 9:35 a.m., as we were traveling north on Rte. 190 toward Scotty's Castle, only a few cars passed by. Yet we had sen hundreds of white campers parked in even rows across the valley floor. Our color impressions are chocolate browns, tans, pure white and rose. Then creosote trees and mustard colors on the left, spare vegetation and purple shadows on the right.

Bruce was delighted that we would stop at Salt Creek to search for descendents of prehistoric pupfish (Wisconsin Glacial Age) on the way. I couldn't get interested in the search for these creatures barely one quarter inch wide and one inch long, but I was fascinated with Albert Johnson's desert home. It has 18 rooms and was constructed around 1920, in the California romanesque style, using archways and red tile roof. And I mused over the unique long-term friendship between Albert Johnson, the frail, elegant Eastener, and Death Valley Scotty, a con man, sometime prospector, and racesteur par excellence.

And so it went. Up at 5 o'clock for sunrise at Zabriskio Point, a quick return to Furnace Creek Inn for breakfast (in our modest trousers), then south to Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the United States. Listening to Ginger Burley, an aquatic biologist employed seasonally as a park ranger there, I even began to care about aluvial fans and salt borate deposits. But not enough to give up poolside lunch, desert sun and a swim.

We had only a half-day left to explore. Soon our choices would be limited to freeway driving, desk work, household chores. We could stay a week more and pack our days with natural wonders. I'd heard nothing of Death Valley in the East. Now I'm going every year.