Living It Up In Death Valley: An Unexpected National Park Experience

Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is larger than two states and encompasses more than 3 million acres. And thanks to its name, coined by the ‘49ers as they took a short cut to the gold fields of California, few know just how magical, storied, stunningly beautiful and how you can live it up. All without the crowds.

It’s totally misunderstood.

Yes, it’s a desert. And in the summer, it’s hot (up to 130 degrees). But in the winter, it’s nice and warm (not hot) when the rest of the country is freezing. And there is water in Death Valley, too – as a matter of fact, there is a full American oasis. In complete contrast to the desert landscape, The Oasis at Death Valley is surrounded by towering palm trees and offers a truly relaxing experience on the grounds of the resort’s two newly renovated hotels: the luxurious and historic four-diamond Inn at Death Valley and the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley. This 1920s Hollywood famous resort features warm spring fed pools, a golf course, gardens, cascading waters, a spa, fine dining and some of the best night-sky viewing in the world. Who knew? Those that do would like to keep it a secret.

Front Entrance - Oasis at the Death Valley |
Front Entrance – Oasis at the Death Valley

The reality is that it would take a lifetime to see all of Death Valley, a park that ranges in elevation from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, to the snowcapped heights of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range. There are expansive salt flats and intimate, serpentine canyons, plus geological features from volcanic craters to sand dunes. And given the right conditions, Death Valley can put on spectacular displays of spring wildflowers.
That’s a lot of ground to cover. But with a little planning, it’s possible to catch many of the park’s highlights while leaving enough time to bask in the silence of the desert and get pampered at the resort. Here’s how:

Day One Morning: Less than a 10-minute drive from the resort, Zabriskie Point might just transform even the most stubborn of night owls into a morning person. This overlook offers a definitive sunrise view as the badlands below the point come aglow with the first light of day. From there take a short drive through the jagged badlands of nearby 20 Mule Team Canyon before heading back to the beautifully restored Inn Dining Room, decorated with Western art and a breakfast menu of regionally inspired specialties.

Over at the national park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center, learn about the region’s natural and human history followed by a stop at the Ranch to visit the Borax Museum. Housed in the valley’s oldest structure, which dates to 1883, the museum exhibits an impressive mineral collection as well as historic mining equipment, wagons, and locomotives on display.

While at the Ranch, pick up a cup of coffee and enjoy the park-like setting of its reimagined town square. Built in a Spanish Colonial Revival style with beautifully landscaped gardens, the square is lined by newly constructed buildings that house the resort’s general store, a Western-style restaurant, and The Last Kind Words Saloon.

Afternoon: Visit the Inn’s landmark spring-fed pool, which maintains a steady temperature in the mid-80s, and enjoy the serene setting at the Inn Pool Café. Then, head south from the resort for the classic drive down Badwater Road and take a 1-mile round trip hike to Natural Bridge, an eroded stone formation that spans a narrow canyon. For a slightly longer trek, explore the starkly beautiful terrain of Golden Canyon, where a 3-mile round trip leads to Red Cathedral, a spectacular ruddy-hued natural amphitheater tucked into a side canyon.

Next, visit Badwater Basin, the continent’s lowest point, and walk out on the boardwalk that traverses the salt flats. On the way back to the resort, take a detour along 9-mile Artist’s Drive to see the most colorful spot in the entire park: Artist’s Palette. With red, pink, purple, and turquoise hues coloring the rock, this remarkable formation lives up to its name.

Evening: Savor an elegant dinner at a table along the veranda with beautiful views at the Inn Dining Room and choose from entrees such as Wagyu ribeye in a tomato and Andouille demi-glace and port-braised prime beef short ribs.

Day Two Morning: Take a walk in the billowing Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. The morning light paints the sands with delicate golds and pinks and also accents the ripples etched into the slopes by the wind. Be sure to look for animal tracks pressed into the dunes by an assortment of Death Valley creatures including coyotes, desert kit foxes, and kangaroo rats.

On the way back to the resort for breakfast, take a detour for a walk along the boardwalk at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Look into the spring-fed creek’s waters, where, especially during the spring mating season there are tiny Salt Creek pupfish, rare creatures that survive from the days when water covered Death Valley.

Afternoon: After lunch at the 19th Hole, which offers a quick-service option overlooking the golf course, head north to see three classic Death Valley sites. Visit the restored Keane Wonder Mine off the Beatty Cutoff preserves a major gold mining operation that dates to the early 1900s. In addition to seeing remnants from mining days, follow a trail that steeply climbs past the towers of the mostly intact aerial tramway.

Back on the main Death Valley road, drive up to Ubehebe Crater in the northern reaches of the park for a chance to walk along the rim of a 600-foot-deep volcano that erupted about 2,100 years ago. Next, take a short drive off the highway to the mouth of Titus Canyon. Hike into the canyon’s narrows, where the soaring walls rise up hundreds of feet.

Evening: Before enjoying dinner at the Inn Dining Room or at the Ranch, savor every last minute of the day on a sunset or moonlight horseback ride along the valley floor with Furnace Creek Stables. For a nightcap, the lobby bar at the Inn is an elegant spot or stop by the Last Kind Words Saloon at the Ranch.

Day Three Morning: Enjoy the heavenly panorama from Dante’s View, an overlook about 40 minutes south of the resort. At 5,475 feet in the Black Mountains, Dante’s View is more than a mile above the salt flats and takes in a spectacular vista looking north across the full sweep of the valley. Hike along the network of trails to get different perspectives for photographs.

The morning is also an ideal time to test your game on the Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest elevation golf course at 214 feet below sea level. A round here is more than just a novelty because the challenging course earned a spot on Golf Digest’s list of America’s toughest courses. And not only are there birdies, there are also birds: The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System designated the eco-friendly course as a certified natural sanctuary.

Afternoon: After lunch, leave the driving to someone else and take in some of the park’s more rugged and remote destinations with Farabee’s Jeep Tours to such spots as Racetrack Playa and Titus Canyon. Of course, there’s also the option of indulging in a little rest and relaxation. For the ultimate in pampering, reserve a poolside cabana with spectacular views at the Inn and book a desert hot stone massage in one of the spa’s two treatment rooms overlooking the Oasis gardens.

Evening: After dinner at the Inn Dining Room, find a spot away from any lights for stargazing and soon discover why Death Valley earned recognition as the country’s third International Dark Park from the International Dark-Sky Association.

Only a two-hour drive from Las Vegas and four from Los Angeles, The Inn at Death Valley, re-opened earlier this year after a massive $100-million-dollar renaissance. Nestled into the mountainside, the Inn at Death Valley features 66 elegantly updated rooms, renovated fine dining restaurant and cocktail lounge, verandas with sweeping views of Death Valley, and new opulent garden landscaping. Twenty-two one-bedroom private casitas have been added and will open later this fall, providing a new level of guest accommodations to the resort. In addition, the brand-new Mission Gardens offers a stunning space for quiet reflection or the perfect location for a wedding or other special event.

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