A wandering band of '49ers, searching for a winter shortcut to California's Gold Rush Country, stumbled into a large desert valley 137 years ago and almost never made it out again. So arduous was their trek that, when they finally escaped safely over the mountains to the west, one of the party is supposed to have sighed in grateful relief:
"Goodbye, Death Valley."
Whatever the truth to the legend, the ominous name stuck -- though it really shouldn't have. It has given the valley -- now a national parkland -- the undeserved image of a desolate and forbidding wasteland. In fact, it is a surprisingly inviting place -- a wild, desert and mountain moonscape of stunning beauty, where animal and plant life have managed to survive and freshwater springs burble from the rocks.
Today, there are even a couple of palm-tree oases dotting Death Valley -- at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells Village -- providing comfortable lodging, beckoning spring-filled swimming pools and magnificent views across the valley floor to the snow-tipped Panamint Range and its tallest mountain, the nearly 12,000-foot Telescope Peak.
And what a fascinating history: grizzled prospectors, accompanied by a loyal pack burro, hunting (mostly phantom) gold and silver in the wind-swept hills; roaring boom towns that went bust when the mines played out; and the colorful 20-mule-team wagon trains that hauled tons of more profitable borax from the valley. These are the romantic tales of the Frontier West made famous by the old TV show "Death Valley Days," which in the mid-'60s featured Ronald Reagan as host.
Still, tell someone you are headed for Death Valley, and they will look at you as if you had chosen to holiday in hell.
The gold seekers aren't entirely to blame for this enduring misconception. For all its attractions, the valley can be a harsh and threatening place for the unwary. Its weather statistics are awesome.
In summer, the valley is consistently the hottest place in the world, and daytime temperatures of 115 to 120 degrees in the shade are not uncommon. On July 10, 1913, the thermometer soared to 134 degrees, a record at the time and topped since only by a 136-degree reading a few years later in Libya.
Just as grim is the minimal rainfall. Death Valley gets one of the lightest rainfalls in this country, an average of under two inches a year. Less than an inch fell in 1985. The landscape has a dry, dry look to it; indeed, those desolate desert scenes in the movie "Star Wars" were filmed here.
And if hell is somewhere deep below, Death Valley is as close as you can easily get in the Western Hemisphere. Much of the valley is below sea level, but the hemisphere's lowest accessible spot is near Badwater, a salty valley pond, where the elevation reads minus 282 feet.
Some travelers go to Death Valley in midsummer just to find out what the hottest place on Earth feels like: It's quite bearable, actually, because of the low humidity, air-conditioning and the swimming pools. The valley is home to about a hundred year-round residents, including National Park Service personnel and their families and a small tribe of Shoshone Indians, whose predecessors came to the valley 10,000 years ago.
Given its climatic extreme, the best time to visit Death Valley is after summer's heat has abated -- from about mid-October into April, when daytime temperatures average between 65 and 85 degrees. Most winter days are mild and sunny, just about perfect for exploring the valley's history and amazing geological phenomena -- whether on foot, bicycle, horse, in a four-wheel drive vehicle, in the family car or in a guided-tour van.
You can hike an easy three-fourths of a mile up narrow, smooth-rocked Golden Canyon -- one of more than 50 named canyons in Death Valley -- where each twist in the path presents an incredible jumble of time-worn rocks in a kaleidoscope of colors: reds, purples, greens, pinks, browns and rich golds. In some parts of the canyon, extreme erosion has created a "badlands," where nothing grows; yet the slashed and contorted slopes have the esthetic appeal of dramatic architecture.
At nearby Badwater, follow the short trail out onto the vast white salt bed that covers the valley floor. But be careful as you walk. The salt, kept permanently moist by underground seepage, is as slippery as new-fallen snow. You can even mold a handful into a salty snowball and fling it at an unsuspecting companion.
There are ghost towns to see, such as Leadfield up Titus Canyon, which for a short time was the home of 300 people drawn by the prospect of mining riches. So quickly did the town emerge and then disappear that the post office, established in 1926, closed in February of 1927. The few mining structures that remain are eerie testament to the mostly illusive search for quick wealth in Death Valley.
The road through Titus Canyon is part of a network of more than 250 miles of unpaved, dusty back roads for which four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended -- or required. Other unpaved canyon roads -- such as the scenic route through hilly Twenty Mule Team Canyon -- are easily negotiated by most cars; and for the less-adventurous, another 250 miles of paved and patrolled roads lead to most major attractions.
One of the most interesting sites is at Salt Creek, a shallow saltwater stream that flows intermittently over the valley floor and is the home of the curious Salt Creek pupfish, found nowhere else in the world. A half-mile boardwalk traces the water's path though thick clumps of pickleweed and saltgrass, two plants that can grow in the salty soil.
The month of March, spawning time, is best for spotting the pupfish, usually swimming in large schools. Like other plant and animal life in Death Valley, these tiny silver creatures, about two inches long, have adapted to the rigors of their habitat.
They are the descendants of freshwater fish that once swam in the lake that covered the valley. When the lake dried up, leaving a residue of salt, the pupfish managed to adjust. Now a small percentage survive each summer in the deepest pools, their numbers increasing by the hundreds when winter storms replenish the flow of Salt Creek.
A desert brings to mind huge sand dunes, and these you can find just east of Stovepipe Wells Village, where short paths lead from the roadway into the dunes. Visitors can scramble up and down these miniature mountains, or simply watch the intriguing play of sun and shadow dancing across the drifts. The sand is as fine as dust, and footprints are erased by the next gust of wind.
By day, there is an amazing lot to see, to learn and to enjoy in Death Valley. And at night, the clear desert sky -- undiminished by city lights -- fills with more stars than you remember ever seeing before.
The official name is Death Valley National Monument, a 3,000-square-mile public preserve in southeastern California (and a small portion of western Nevada), an area that is about 1 1/2 times larger than the state of Delaware. The park -- about 90 miles long (from north to south) and 50 miles wide -- takes in not only the valley floor but the mountain slopes (forested at higher elevations) that drop into it from the east and west.
The park is an easy three-hour drive west from Las Vegas on good highways; the route east from Los Angeles takes about twice as long.
Ages ago, the valley held a deep lake, but shifts in the Earth's surface and changes in weather patterns dried it up. Today's prevailing winds, sweeping from the Pacific Ocean, lose most of their moisture over the high Sierras. Very little precipitation is left over for Death Valley.
As the lake evaporated, it left behind a bed of salt, forming what is one of the largest "salt pans" or "salinas" in the world. This salt crust, looking from afar like a lake gleaming in the sun, is at most six feet thick, covering layers of mud and salty brine. While we watched, a jogger, attempting to cross a five-mile expanse of the salt pan at Badwater, soon turned back when he began sinking ankle-deep into the mushy mixture.
The presence of water at Badwater, in Salt Creek and pouring into the swimming pools at Furnace Creek surprised us, and it does many first-time visitors who read about the infrequent rains and wonder where the water comes from. An excellent exhibit at the Death Valley Visitor Center at Furnace Creek explains that it emerges from underground reserves fed by melting snows in the adjacent mountains.
Within three miles of the visitor center there are at least 65 springs or seeps. The problem for the '49ers and the early prospectors who followed -- some of whom died of heat and thirst -- was where to find them.
From about the 1870s into the 1920s, Death Valley experienced a frantic, roisterous boom and bust economy. Gold and silver were discovered and -- more importantly, as it turned out -- borax, used initially for pottery glazes and boric acid antiseptics and more recently in fiberglass production.
For about five years, until 1889, the famed 20-mule-team wagons carried borax from the Harmony Borax Works, just north of Furnace Creek, to the railhead at Mojave, 165 miles to the south. The trip took 10 days, with the mules pulling two huge wagons and a rolling 1,200-gallon water tank to quench theirs and the drivers' thirst.
Some of Harmony's adobe structures still stand, and nearby rests a weathered but authentic wagon train -- two borax wagons in tandem with wheels seven feet high and the smaller water tank that trails like a caboose. Fully loaded, the whole rig weighed 36 1/2 tons.
Ultimately, other sources of borax supplanted the Death Valley deposits, and the mining camps and towns withered. But the boom times had brought visitors who recognized the valley's beauty and marveled at its wonders, and in 1933 the White House formally proclaimed it a national monument.
Death Valley's image probably would be much different if someone had called it "Beautiful Valley or Rainbow Valley or Heavenly Valley," all fully appropriate names, explained tour guide Dirk Bierhaalder, who ushered us into his van for a half-day trip through Titus Canyon.
A retired Marine and amateur geologist, Bierhaalder has been conducting winter tours through Death Valley for a park concessionaire for five years. He has an obvious enthusiasm for his subject, which is a quality you always hope to find in a tour leader.
As we headed toward the canyon, his eyes swept the desert landscape, and suddenly he pulled to a stop. Out the window we saw small, rounded clumps of bright green, about the shape and size of turtle shells. Bierhaalder called the plants "desert turtles," admonishing us to keep our eyes open for green vegetation, which usually means the plant is in bloom.
"Something's always in bloom here," he said. The "turtles" have tiny yellow flowers you would never see unless you got out of your car and almost put your nose into them.
What we considered a large and rather ugly and spindly plant along the road, the creosote bush, he saw as a marvel of adaptability. Its shallow roots fan out across the desert floor to capture as much rain as possible, he explained, at the same time killing off any other competition for that precious water.
Titus Canyon, a popular drive, can be negotiated by passenger car -- we saw two compacts that seemed to have no trouble -- but the road is sometimes steep and always narrow, rutted and rocky, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are advised. Mountain cloudbursts in the summer sometimes wash out sections of the road, closing it for days or weeks at a time. So it is wise to check with park rangers before you set out.
Since the road through the canyon, an entrance to Death Valley, is one-way, you must first leave the park to get to the road's beginning, about 40 miles northeast of park headquarters at Furnace Creek. Bierhaalder took us over the Funeral Mountains (part of the Amargosa Range -- and a name that does nothing to improve the valley's image) to the gold-mining ghost town of Rhyolite in Nevada. Once a desert railhead, the town's former train station now serves as a properly seedy frontier bar.
Just outside Rhyolite we saw a herd of about a dozen wild burros, descendants of the pack animals brought by prospectors to the area. They have prospered in the desert far better than their masters and have become a problem for the Park Service.
Park officials contend that burros destroy scarce vegetation -- needed by native animals, including bighorn sheep -- because they pull plants up by the roots when they feed. The park is concluding a three-year program to remove most of them. More than 5,000 have been deported so far, many in an "adopt-a-burro" program for people who want them as pets. The burros, though wild, are easily domesticated.
Near Rhyolite we picked up the Titus Canyon Road and headed west again back over the mountains on the 26-mile return to Death Valley. The rough surface was slow going, and our breakfast took an unpleasant shaking as the van bounced from rut to rock. But that was soon forgotten as the road twisted and climbed, and we found ourselves gaping into the abyss dropping away from our scary, cliff-hanging perch.
The road briefly served as a supply trail from Rhyolite to the boom town of Leadfield. How anything could have been hauled up the steep ascent to Red Pass and down the equally precipitous descent to Leadfield is a wonder. Part of the roadbed, at its steepest, passes over packed clay soil. A few drops of rain, says Bierhaalder, can make the path "as slippery as grease."
We picnicked at Leadfield, at the bottom of a gorgeous red-rock mountain valley, and poked our heads into a "Cousin Jack," a primitive, easily built mining-town shelter made of stone and timber. It looked a lot like a cave, and about as comfortable.
The roller-coaster thrills were over, but the drive still held some surprises. We stopped to study Indian petroglyphs, carved on a large rock centuries ago at the site of a spring. The tiny stream bubbled from an island of reeds and arrowwood -- so named because the Indians used its long, straight stalk as arrow shafts. Within a few yards, the stream disappeared again, swallowed up by the sandy soil.
Now the canyon narrowed, and the walls towered high above us. Following what in ancient times must have been a raging water course -- when more rain fell in the region -- we wound our way between polished rocks, at one point the color of deep purple. Once the squeeze was so tight we could touch the canyon walls from either side of the van.
And then, when we thought we might wander this shadowy, increasingly claustrophobic tunnel forever, we rounded a rock and suddenly found ourselves thrust into the welcome sunlight and expanse of Death Valley. "I love this place," Bierhaalder remarked, as much to himself as for the benefit of his passengers.
We stayed at Furnace Creek Inn, a very pleasant 67-room deluxe resort that is draped elegantly across a high bluff with a grand view of Death Valley and the Panamint Range beyond. Beautifully maintained, it is one of the grand old lodges within the National Park system.
Opened in 1927, it was built (by the Pacific Coast Borax Co.) in Spanish-hacienda style of adobe bricks and stone, topped with red tiles and trimmed with painted tiles. In front, an oasis of palm trees, freshwater pools and miniature waterfalls drops in terraces to the valley floor.
As lovely as it looks, both inside and out, the inn's most attractive feature may be its splendid tiled swimming pool, occupying one of the terraces beneath the palms. The pool -- especially welcome after a dusty day's hike or ride -- is fed by nearby natural hot springs.
Even as winter evenings turn chilly, the pool remains an enticing 88 degrees. You can soak in muscle-soothing warmth and watch the sun sink behind the Panamints.
And while you soak, you are apt to reflect, as we did, on all the marvels that you have seen: the colors and contours of Zabriskie Point, an area of especially scenic, and jumbled, land formations; the gaping mouth of Ubehebe Crater, an inactive volcano into which the hardy can descend via a black cinder trail; the oddly contorted field of salt pinnacles called the "Devil's Golf Course"; Mustard Canyon, where the yellow mud walls leave no doubt how it was named; and the vistas that change every moment of the day.
Yet one more treat awaited us, the drive up to Dante's View, which we made on our way out of Death Valley. Some people go there first, but I think I prefer the way we chanced to do it. Only after you have spent a few days in the park can you really appreciate what you are about to see.
The 13-mile climb to Dante's View begins near the park entrance on the main road from Las Vegas. From near sea level it takes you in a gradual ascent to almost 5,500 feet, the last half-mile a series of steep turns that abruptly end at the cliff's edge. There, spread beneath you, is one of the most majestic desert views in the country -- comparable in awe, I think, to the first glimpse you take of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
You can see -- or so it seems -- all of Death Valley from north to south, and its mountain ranges marching beyond into the distance. Storm clouds swept low over Telescope Peak while we watched, dusting it with snow, while directly below us on the valley floor the wide, white salt beds of Badwater gleamed under a brilliant sun.
The '49ers left Death Valley gladly; we told ourselves we would be back again, and soon.