GETTING THERE: Las Vegas McCarran is the nearest major airport to Death Valley National Park; fares start at about $200 round trip from the Washington area.
A car is a necessity in Death Valley (weeklong park passes are $10 per vehicle, or $5 per pedestrian). From Vegas, the ride is about two hours; opt to go via the town of Pahrump for some spectacular desert scenery, including Red Rock Canyon and jackrabbits eyeing the passing traffic. I paid about $24 a day, including taxes and fees, for a Dollar rental car (economy size).
WHERE TO STAY: To be in the middle of the sultry action, there's no better spot than the decidedly un-luxe, 224-room Furnace Creek Ranch. The ranch comprises four two-story buildings (deluxe rooms), a couple of single-story buildings (parkside rooms) near the pool and cabins near the resort entrance. I stayed in a well-appointed cabin (two double beds, large TV, ceiling fan, coffeemaker) and paid $105; the room wasn't cold enough for my taste, but I could only blame Mother Nature for that. Other rooms start at $135 a night double. This season, the tony Furnace Creek Inn, whose rooms start at $250, is open mid-October through mid-May. Details: 760-786-2345 or 888-297-2757, www.furnacecreekresort.com.
Another in-park option is Stovepipe Wells Village, about 24 miles northwest of Furnace Creek. There's a pool, restaurant and saloon, and rooms are basic motel fare. Rates start at $83. Details: 760-786-2387, www.stovepipewells.com.
WHERE TO EAT: There's a general store/gift shop at Furnace Creek for snacks and meal supplies, but two decent restaurants are also on site. The Wrangler Steakhouse offers a protein-packed menu of steaks, chops and chicken in a surprisingly swank dining room; entrees start at $23. The nearby Forty-Niner Cafe is more casual, more crowded and a lot less expensive; entrees -- including burgers and salads -- start at about $8. The Corkscrew Saloon, a popular watering hole, has a full-service bar, pool table and pub fare like chicken wings and hot dogs.
WHAT TO DO: Due to damage incurred during flash floods last year, some of the most popular vistas -- including Artist's Drive Road and Dante's View Road -- remain closed to traffic but are slated to open this fall. Still, there's plenty to see in the Furnace Creek area if you can stomach the heat, including the visitor center, the Borax Museum (free) at the ranch, the trail at the old Harmony Borax Works, the moonscape topography of the Devil's Golf Course and the spectacular view at Zabriskie Point. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, has a boardwalk straddling the parking lot with some interpretive signage.
Farther afield are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells and Scotty's Castle, a mansion that's now a museum ($11) in the park's northern reaches.
If you must hike, rangers suggest heading for the cooler higher ground, including the Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak trails.
TIPS: The park provides excellent guidance on how to deal with the extreme heat, which generally lasts through September or so. Rangers advise visitors to drink about a gallon of water a day, avoid hiking in the heat, stay on paved roads and to look for signs of heat-related sickness, including dizziness, nausea and headaches. In the event of illness, drink plenty of water or a sports drink, retreat to an air-conditioned area and dampen clothing to cool off.
I also found it helpful to keep the car windows rolled down when parking at tourist sites (my rental interior zoomed to 140 degrees after only five minutes at one stop), to wear light- colored, loose-fitting clothes and to eat lightly.
INFO: Death Valley National Park, 760-786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva.
-- John Deiner