Five Great Ways to Explore Death Valley National Park in Winter | KCET
Five Great Ways to Explore Death Valley National Park in Winter
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Death Valley National Park can seem like one of the most unforgiving places you could visit anywhere, ever. But that may only be true in the depths of summer at low elevations, when temperatures can top 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the fall, winter, and spring, the Death Valley climate can be very temperate – and just a little rainfall throughout the year can result in a wildflower superbloom that will blow your mind.
Visiting Death Valley may be daunting, considering its enormous size – at 3.4 million acres, it’s the largest national park in the contiguous United States. It can take an hour and a half to drive from the western to the eastern border of it.
And it would take weeks if not years to get to know its nooks and crannies. But being a national park, it’s got plenty of visitor-friendly attractions and guided ways of exploring its history.
So put aside your fear, grab a few jugs of water, and embark on one of these five themed excursions through Death Valley, suitable for first-timers and repeat visitors alike.
1. Walk in the Footsteps of Death Valley Scotty
“Death Valley Scotty” (born Walter Scott) was Death Valley's most famous and celebrated resident, drawing tourists out to his famous "castle" to meet him and hear him tell a tale or two about his gun-slinging days with Buffalo Bill, racing trains, melting chinaware, discovering gold, and rescuing old ladies on the side of the road. One of the big draws for tourists to come visit Scotty's Castle was the legend of its namesake’s infamous gold mine, supposedly located right under the castle, the trap door to it located right under Scotty's bed. Of course, it's a bed in which he never slept, in a room that he never used despite being designated for him. In fact, he never actually lived at the former Death Valley Ranch in Grapevine Canyon. Nor did he build or even own it. Nor was it ever finished.
Visit Scotty’s Castle on one of the official tours, and you’ll learn that it was Albert Johnson – a Chicago engineer and businessman who invested in Scotty's gold mine – who built the castle as an elaborate winter home for himself and his wife. Despite being initially duped by him, Johnson became so close to Scotty that he even carved his initial together with his own throughout the house: sometimes J/S, sometimes S/J, but always Johnson and Scotty, together. The resulting and sprawling estate featured the Hacienda guest quarters (where park staff now reside) and stables (which now house a collection of historic cars and wagons). Admire the original carpets, carved wood, and Welte pipe organ, and look for gold under the castle. The road to Scotty’s Castle was wiped out by flood, so the attraction won’t officially reopen to the public until probably 2020. However, you can tour the repairs-in-process on one of the Death Valley Natural History Association’s “Flood Recovery Walking Tours,” offered Sundays through April 14, 2019.
Bonus: About five miles down the road from Scotty’s Castle is where you can find where Death Valley Scotty actually lived: in a modest dwelling now known as Lower Vine Ranch. It's cordoned off and patrolled and protected by the National Park Service, but special ranger-led tours are available so you can see Scotty’s former mule corral, outdoor bathtub (which he rarely used), discarded cans of pineapple rings (a staple of his diet), and bedroom (where he rarely slept).
2. Trace the Path of the 20 Mule Team
The 20 Mule Teams only worked for the borax mining operations in Death Valley for six years (from 1883 to 1889) – but this wagon-pulling caravan has become synonymous with the park itself and with borax, the naturally occurring mineral used for everything from laundry detergent to T.V. screens. Actually a team of 18 mules and two horses, their careers were cut short when Pacific Coast Borax began using the rail to ship borax out of Death Valley – but the legend of the mules remains.
You can see what the wagons looked like up close at the Harmony Borax Works historic site and at Furnace Creek Inn (now known as The Oasis at Death Valley), one of three hotel properties owned and run by Pacific Coast Borax (later known as U.S. Borax and now Rio Tinto) when it shifted its Death Valley focus away from mining and towards tourism. In addition to the Harmony plant, the mule team also would pack up and move out from the Amargosa plant, located in Death Valley Junction where Pacific Coast Borax had built a company town that eventually became the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, still open to the public and available for bookings.
Bonus: Pacific Coast Borax Company built Zabriskie Point in the 1920s as a tourist stop, naming it after the company's vice president and general manager, Christian Zabriskie. It still provides one of the most famous views of Death Valley and is reachable by car, with onsite parking available.
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3. Find Watery Wonders
Yes, there is water in Death Valley. Well, sometimes. There are the waterfalls of Darwin Falls and Surprise Canyon, but the water that’s easiest to reach is at Salt Creek. In the winter you can find some shore birds around the creek, but in the spring, you find thriving spawns of Death Valley pupfish – tiny little salt-resilient fish that playfully dart around the water and dig around in the bottom. They are, of course, elusive. Locals say the stream and the fish can be thriving one week, and then just disappear the next.
There’s also a geothermal aquifer-fed pool within a limestone cavern, called Devil’s Hole, located in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge just east of Death Valley but managed by Death Valley National Park. It’s home to the Devil’s Hole pupfish, perhaps the rarest fish in the world. You can view it from a platform, but for heaven’s sake, stay out of the water to keep the fish – and yourself – safe. The bottom of the hole has never been found, despite professional attempts to map it.
Bonus: If you’re lucky enough to be in Death Valley after a rain, and the roads are passable, head to Badwater Basin. The former Lake Manly does occasionally fill, as it’s 282 feet below sea level. Or visit the “sailing stones” of Racetrack Playa, the rocks that move by a seemingly mysterious and invisible force that turns out to be ice forming and melting.
4. Explore Unique Geology
If you’re not quite ready for rogue hiking in the most unforgiving place in this hemisphere, you can take one of the moderate, designated trails: Gower Gulch Loop. You start the hike in Golden Canyon, through a gorge along an interpretive trail, which follows an old road that's long since been washed out by flash floods. Along the wash, you can see geology at work amongst the tilted sandstone, in an area that was once underwater in one of Death Valley's many prehistoric lakebeds.
The main path is relatively clear, but it's easy to get distracted by several misleading side trails that lead you either into a slot, or to a dead end, until you reach the end of the Golden Canyon loop, past the Red Cathedral and proceed onto the Gower Gulch loop. You traverse the badlands, up to Manly Beacon, until you reach the main drainage of Gower Gulch, marked by the dark gravel pathway. There is no formal trail there – but, with feet crunching along the gravel, it's relatively easy to follow the wash through the ravine. Once you’re out of the mouth of the gulch, scramble down two dryfalls (a.k.a. waterfalls with no water). You can bypass the second drop of 25 feet by taking a winding, narrow path to the right.
Bonus: If driving is more your speed, rev up your 4WD and head into Titus Canyon by turning off the 374 south of Rhyolite and heading into the eastern gateway of the park, passing Leadfield ghost town along the way and emerging at Ubehebe Crater.
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5. Visit Tatooine at "Star Wars" Filming Locations
Large-scale filming used to be permitted in our national parks – but now that commercial filming in wilderness is prohibited, you won’t spot any Hollywood celebrities or crews in Death Valley. But you can visit some recognizable filming locations from both "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "Return of the Jedi" without going too far off the path. In addition to hiking Golden Canyon (as in #4, above), you can take a self-guided tour of "Star Wars" sites in Death Valley, which include the area around the Artists Palette along Artists Drive, the landscape outside of Jabba the Hutt’s palace (in Twenty Mule Team Canyon) and the view looking down on Mos Eisley (from Dante’s View).
The largest dune field in Death Valley National Park, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, also served as the dunes of Tatooine in "Star Wars: A New Hope" You can view them from your car, but you’re allowed to climb up them and wander through them to explore the former lakebed. Among the mesquite trees, a dry, cracked, ancient lakebed peers out from underneath the sand. And the ripples of the windblown dunes make you wonder whether the water ever really left at all.
Top Image: Father Crowley Vista Point, overlooking the Panamint Valley | Sandi Hemmerlein
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