Good Day Sunshine: If ever there were an ideal place to harness solar energy, it’s sun-drenched Death Valley National Park. Staying at Furnace Creek Inn recently, we found that the resort and its sister, Furnace Creek Ranch, get 30 percent of their electrical juice from solar power panels.
Over 30 years, the system will eliminate more than 284,000 tons of pollutants that contribute to global warming, acid rain, and smog, according to Xanterra, which operates the resorts.
To some, Death Valley is just a dusty, isolated rock pile that heats up to 115 degrees in summer. (Foreigners love it then, for reasons I’ve never been able to discover.) In fact, Death Valley has just been recognized as the hottest spot on Earth.
It took decades for the park to win that dubious honor, but it’s now been officially proclaimed that on July 10, 1913, the mercury hit 134 degrees at Furnace Creek. But in winter and spring, when the valley cools off, it’s a mecca for those of us who find great beauty in the panorama of rocky hills painted subtle colors, and the vastness where, once you leave Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, there’s little sign of man.
And it’s quiet, something rare in our noisy world. Sue and I sat on the deck at 1927-era Furnace Creek Inn and gazed down on 3.3 million acres of designated wilderness, or as much of it as we could see, and heard — nothing.
But there’s plenty to see. One of the major attractions is murky Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. It’s a temporary lake, where water collects after rare heavy rains. You can walk far out on the salt flats, just don’t drink the water. Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest point in the contiguous United States, is just 84.6 miles from the lowest point, Badwater.
One of the busiest places is the 18-hole Furnace Creek golf course, where you can tee off at 214 feet below sea level. It’s our favorite spot for a burger. (Not to be confused with Devil’s Golf Course, a rough expanse of eroded rock salt where, as the saying goes, “only the devil could play golf.”)
I’d never been to Scotty’s Castle before, having mistakenly crossed it off as some kind of tourist trap. This time Sue and I made the 50-mile drive up to the north end of the valley and found a spring-fed oasis where millionaires Albert and Bessie Johnson, lured west by con man Walter (“Death Valley Scotty”) Scott, decide to build a magnificent Spanish-Moorish castle in the arid desert.
Scotty, one of the great fast-talking crooks of the West, made a practice of bilking the rich with tall tales of his (nonexistent) gold mine. The easy-going Johnson caught on quickly to the ruse but enjoyed Scotty’s stories. They became fast friends. Scotty entertained guests and gave the impression that it was his home. Johnson poured millions into the place during the 1920s and 1930s, harnessing the spring to provide power using a Pelton water wheel. Upstairs, the mansion rang with music from a grand piano and an organ, according to our guide, a tall park ranger by the name of Eric Knackmuhs, who was dressed in a period pinstripe suit. Tours are $15.
The only problem was, the Johnsons mistakenly built their castle not on their own land but on public property, due to a surveying error. That got settled and now it’s park property and well worth seeing. Ubehebe Crater, 600 feet deep, result of an ancient volcanic explosion, is nearby.
There are a variety of cabins and motel-like units at Furnace Creek Ranch, along with a restaurant, bar, and general store. Also a service station where we found gas at around $5.30 a gallon. No matter, make sure you fill up. Running out of gas can be dangerous. Gas is also available, and cheaper, we found, at Stovepipe Wells, near the west entrance to the park, along with accommodations and food.
You can’t miss the expanse of hundred-foot-high sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, with a place to park so you can wander over. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Best shots are in the morning or late afternoon. With luck, you may spot a coyote. To explore remote parts of the park not suitable for the family jalopy, Jeeps are available for rent at Furnace Creek.