Checking Out Death Valley's New Visitor Center

Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

Standing at Ashford Mills in the southern section of Death Valley National Park, I appreciate this vast park's solitude and spectacular viewsheds. The sun illuminates the mountain ranges to the west, which I frame in numerous photos to document the ruins of the old mill, a relic of Death Valley's gold mining era. To the North, a wash wanders past a spider web of alluvial fans, intersecting canyons and then disappears into the horizon.

However, the purpose of my visit isn't just to marvel at Death Valley National Park's stunning landscapes, but to also visit the park's newly refurbished visitor center that opened in November. Death Valley National Park is visited by over 800,000 people per year and nearly half of them end up at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. It's there that visitors learn about Death Valley's natural and historic resources, get directions for a great day hike, plan a trip into the park's backcountry, or ask other questions at the national park ranger-staffed site.

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Why was there a need to renovate the Furnace Creek Visitor Center? "Primarily the building was outdated and not sustainable. It is over 50 years old and not only had outdated exhibits, but also outdated utilities with an infrastructure that lacked insulation," says Terry Baldino, Death Valley National Park's Chief of Interpretation. "We also knew we needed to attract new audiences and wanted to incorporate more interactive exhibits." Baldino has worked at the park for over 15 years and states that the interactive nature of the new exhibits is a big hit. "Folks have said they really like the things they can touch, feel, and play with."


Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

Like many complex projects, the renovation was years in the making and required the support of numerous partners including the Death Valley Natural History Association, Xanterra Resorts, the Timbisha Shoshone, and the Death Valley 49ers. Remodeling the visitor center was first attempted in the 1970s with the ambitious plan to double the size of the complex, but this design proved to be too expensive. During the 1980s and 1990s, the park made minor building upgrades, and the current planning process began in 1998. It included a significant interior and exterior renovation.

Design proposals were ferried back and forth between the park, Washington D.C., and the National Park Service Denver Service Center. One unexpected turn of events came when park service officials in D.C. communicated that the original building might have historical value, as it was part of the National Park Service Mission 66 period. The Mission 66 initiative began in 1956, with the goal of funding new visitor centers and housing, by the National Park Service's 50th anniversary in 1966. Mission 66 architecture was simple, utilitarian, and sometimes referred to as "Cookie Cutter." Many NPS Mission 66 facilities have had major renovations, but some, like Death Valley's, did not and are now considered historical resources.

After a considerable delay in the renovation planning, the California State Historical Preservation Office determined that the original visitor center did, indeed, have some historically significant features which would have to be preserved. These features included the building's checkerboard concrete back patio and a kidney shaped outdoor pool. By 2009, Death Valley National Park had the green light to proceed with the renovation and the old center was cleared for demolition, minus the historically significant features. Funds for the new design and construction came from recreation fee dollars, money the national parks accumulate through visitor entrance fees and annual passes.

Interactive Exhibits

Skandar Reid of "Bishop Buzz" takes us on a visual tour. | Video: Skandar Reid/YouTube

The visitor center's original exhibits were created during the 1950s and 1960s and weren't interactive by today's standards. There were a significant number of stuffed animals like bighorn sheep and golden eagles with text and labels.

In the new exhibit hall, exhibit designers made the deliberate decision to not label every animal, plant and geologic feature. "We want people to have a sense of self exploration and discovery and perhaps peak their curiosity to learn more and come and ask about that lizard or geologic formation," says Terry Baldino. Baldino reports that the night sky display is one of the most popular exhibits. Visitors step inside the exhibit to experience Death Valley National Park's star studded sky and hear a variety of nocturnal sounds and howling animals.

The themes of pioneer and mining history have been carried over to the new exhibit hall, but these exhibits have been updated. Geology exhibits concentrate on the basics of Death Valley's geology -- faultlines, alluvial fans, basin and range topography and Badwater -- the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. One of the exhibits has geologic formations made of sections of wood that visitors can pull apart to gain a better understanding of how basin and range topography is created. An exhibit about desert animal adaptations encourages adults and children to open a set of drawers to find out about why so many desert plants and animals stink, sting, or stick you.

Baldino says the exhibits also deal with threats to Death Valley National Park, but in a thoughtful and subtle way. Many of the exhibits pose questions about how organisms that live in Death Valley, and that are already walking the fine line of survival, will respond to climate change. The center's Vital Signs exhibit attempts to get people to think about Death Valley National Park's past, present, and future. Four natural resource related videos nearby educate visitors about water resources, desert pupfish, invasive plants and animals, and heat safety.

Saving Energy and a New Environment

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

The benefits of the new center are also appreciated by Death Valley National Park's staff. The new building will receive a gold LEED certification and perhaps even a platinum one. The building is more sustainable -- cool in the summer and warm in the winter, which is important considering Death Valley has extreme temperatures that can range from the triple digits to below freezing. The building is so energy efficient, it will likely save the park enough money annually to pay for an entire staff person for a season.

Other energy saving features include double paned windows and air-lock double lock vestibules, and a double set of doors that lead into the visitor center and minimize a loss of air conditioning or heat. The roof and ceiling have been replaced and insulated. There is also a new air conditioning system and solar panels that drastically reduce the building's energy needs.

So what became of the old building materials? Most were recycled. Old concrete was crushed and reused in the parking lot. The light fixtures were sold off, old exhibit cases donated to other museums, and even the old park theater chairs were given away. The tile and carpet is made of recycled material and the countertop is made out of recycled beer bottles! Best of all, park staff no longer have to compete for work stations as there is a considerable more amount of office space.

The enthusiasm of park staff for the new space is matched by that of visitors. Terry Baldino recounts that even before the new exhibits were completed, the new, large map of Death Valley was a source of endless fascination. "It was not fully set up, and yet one of our rangers was still able to use it in his talk, says Baldino. "We've now got office space we never had before, a chance to expand our interpretive programs, and people really appreciate the fact that the new center's exhibits are interactive."

This story also appeared in The Sun Runner Magazine.

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