GETTING THERE: Several airlines fly to Las Vegas, the closest major airport to Death Valley National Monument. Braniff offers a round-trip unrestricted fare from Washington National for $318. It's an easy 150-mile drive from the airport to monument headquarters in Furnace Creek, via I-15 (through Las Vegas); U.S. Route 95 north to Lathrop Wells, Nev.; Nevada Route 373 and California Route 127 (the same road) south to Death Valley Junction, Calif.; and California Route 190 west to Furnace Creek.
WHEN TO GO: Because of extreme summer heat, the most comfortable time to visit is from mid-October through April. Also, lodging, food and other services are limited during the hottest months. The monument is probably the most crowded in the second week in November, during the annual Death Valley '49er Encampment. Other busy times are Thanksgiving, the Christmas-New Year's week, Washington's Birthday and Easter. If there's been rain, the desert flowers can be lovely in spring.
WHERE TO STAY: Within the park, accommodations range from a deluxe lodge, the Furnace Creek Inn, to two modern motel-type facilities, the Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells Village -- all three operated by the Fred Harvey Co. There are also mountain and valley floor campgrounds and back-country campsites.
Furnace Creek Inn is open only from mid-October until mid-May. Rates range from $159 to $185 a night for two, which includes a full and hearty breakfast and an excellent multicourse dinner. Taxes and tips are extra. The inn has a dress code, and jackets for men are required at dinner. There are tennis courts, a sauna and a swimming pool on the premises, and an 18-hole golf course nearby.
At nearby Furnace Creek Ranch, a 250-room facility, the rates do not include meals. They range from $69 to $78 a night for two. There are a coffee shop, cafeteria and grocery store on the grounds, as well as a western bar serving free, all-you-can-eat freshly popped popcorn with your beer. The ranch is open year-round.
Once the place really was a ranch, growing feed for borax mule teams. Today, fresh dates are harvested from the palms and are sold at roadside booths. Recreational facilities include a riding stable, the park's golf course, a heated swimming pool and tennis courts.
For reservations at either the inn or the ranch, contact: Reservation Manager, Furnace Creek Resort, P.O. Box 1, Death Valley, Calif. 92328, (619) 786-2345.
Stovepipe Wells Village is located about 28 miles north of the two Furnace Creek facilities and park headquarters but close to Salt Creek and the sand dune areas. Lodging is in a 75-room motel, and winter rates (no meals) range from $45 to $54 a night for two. Summer rates are about $10 less. Facilities include a dining room, grocery store, bar and heated swimming pool.
For information: Stovepipe Wells Village, Death Valley, Calif., 92328. The village does not have dial telephones. To reach the reservation desk, you must ask a long-distance operator for Toll Station No. 1 at Stovepipe Wells, area code 619.
There are about 1,600 campsites in the valley and the adjacent mountains. The valley floor campsites have little shade and most are closed during the summer months. Some mountain sites are closed during the winter. Fees are $4 or $5 a night. Reservations are not taken. For information, contact the Death Valley Visitor Center at Furnace Creek, (619) 786-2331.
WHAT TO DO: Hike canyon trails; bicycle, golf, swim; go trail riding; take a guided van tour of Death Valley ($18 per person) or Titus Canyon ($30), both available through the inn or ranch reservation desks; explore ghost towns; tour Scotty's Castle, a spectacular home in the desert with an eccentric history; visit the museum at the visitor center and the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch; drive the park's back roads; join a park ranger for a walking tour or a campfire program.
PRECAUTIONS: The Park Service publishes survival tips for summer visitors to Death Valley, aimed especially at hikers and back-road explorers. The most important thing to remember is to carry enough water for you -- a gallon per person a day -- and your car.
INFORMATION: Superintendent, Death Valley National Monument, Death Valley, Calif. 92328, (619) 786-2331.