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Death Valley – land of little rain

The annual precipitation in Death Valley measures 1 to 2 inches. The exception occurs occasionally, as in the 1997-98 rainfall season, when 6.09 inches of rain were recorded. That rainfall caused a magnificent display of flowers from mid-January into April.

The Death Valley region has a fascinating human history, especially adopted plants and animals and unforgettable scenic landscapes. The Death Valley Shoshone Indians, the 49ers and the prospectors provide an incredible human story of the past. The place names Furnace Creek, Funeral Range and Badwater, as well as the names of legendary characters Shorty Harris, Death Valley Scotty, Seldom Seen Slim and Panamint George, should arouse your curiosity.

In 1933, President Woodrow Wilson, by presidential proclamation, set aside 1.9 million acres as Death Valley National Monument. In 1994, Congress established Death Valley National Park with 3.3 million acres. The new park includes the original Monument lands, making it the largest national park in the contiguous U.S.



Before you do any extensive exploring in Death Valley, stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, which has an excellent museum. Ask about road conditions. This will get you started on the right foot so you can make the most of your vacation.

There is some good news and some bad news for visitors arriving early-on this year. Terry Baldino, acting chief of interpretation for the park, has informed me that recent flooding has closed Highway190 between Death Valley Junction and Furnace Creek, as well as the lower portion of the road to Dante’s View until the end of April. Also, the Titus Canyon road will be closed until March due to flooding. The good news, according to Terry Baldino, is that because of the plentiful rainfall, a spectacular desert wildflower show is expected for the months of February to May.




Death Valley is not a barren land as one might believe. There are more than 600 plant species. On a good rain year, more than 100 species of wildflowers may show off their colors. Surprisingly, there are only 15 species of cactus but two species of orchids and 10 types of ferns. More than 230 species of birds have been observed at or below sea level in the Valley. At the museum, you will discover that Death Valley is an important bighorn sheep stronghold but you’ll be extremely lucky to see them.

I’m going to suggest four one-day trips that will give an excellent overview of the area.

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1. DANTE’S VIEW and BADWATER. It is best to start early. On the way up Furnace Creek Wash (Highway 190 ), you might wish to stop at Zabriskie Point for a view of upended eroded lake beds. Afterwards, continue on up the highway for about 11 miles and take the designated road to Dante’s View. From this 5,475-foot vantage point, you will see the 11,049- foot Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountain Range across the valley. The salt flat directly below is 280 feet below sea level. It’s an incredible vista. Return some 25 miles to Furnace Creek Inn and take the road to Badwater. Two points near Badwater are 282 feet below sea level (lowest point in the Western Hemisphere ). As you stand at Badwater, the somber gray rock on the steep face rising above you was formed some 1.7 to 1.8 billion years ago. Pickleweed, some aquatic beetles and soldier fly larvae reside in the salty water. Don’t miss Artist Drive with its intense color display in the late afternoon on your return to Furnace Creek. If time permits after enjoying Badwater, drive down to the Devil’s Golf Course. Then, just before reaching Furnace Creek, don’t miss a walk up Golden Canyon.

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2. SCOTTY’S CASTLE and UBEHEBE CRATER. Scotty’s Castle is located in Grapevine Canyon at an elevation of 3,000 feet. You will be driving 53 miles north of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Albert Johnson, an insurance millionaire from Chicago, and Walter Scott, a prospector and wild west show rider, became great friends. In the 1920s, Johnson built his elaborate vacation home. The public loved reading about Death Valley Scotty – a great storyteller. Johnson’s Moorish mansion is filled with surprises. Tours are scheduled daily every hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some food and gas is available. You can rest and eat on a shaded lawn.

Ubehebe Crater is only five miles beyond the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle. A few thousand years ago, molten basalt exploded as it interacted with groundwater. Ash and Cinders, up to 150 feet in depth, cover about six square miles. There are several craters in the area but Ubehebe is the youngest and largest (about 1Ú2 mile across and 750 feet deep).

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3. TITUS CANYON. The beginning of the 26 mile one-way gravel road through Titus Canyon is about seven miles east of the Nevada State line on Highway 374. En route, you might consider visiting the Keane Wonder Mine and mill ruins where rich gold ore was discovered in l903. The mine was profitable until 1916. The 3.9-mile dirt road to the mine is off the main road to Daylight Pass. Before entering the road down Titus Canyon, a visit to nearby Rhyolite is recommended. From 1904 to 1908, it was a bustling gold mining town. Concrete ruins, a railroad station, a famous “bottle house” and the cemetery are what remain. The dirt, one-way road to Titus Canyon crosses the Amargosa Desert for some 12 miles before reaching Bloody Gap. Below the gap is the town of Leadfield. A promoter fraudulently advertised the riches of this town in 1926. The town and post office closed in 1927. Beyond the ruins of Leadfield, the canyon narrows and shortly you come to Klare Spring, a water supply for Leadfield. The last three miles twist between sheer 500-foot rock walls, at times only 15 feet apart. The limestone and dolomite in the narrows began forming nearly 500 million years ago in warm, shallow sea waters similar to some Caribbean water environments of today.

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4. SAND DUNES, MOSAIC CANYON and SALT CREEK. A trip to the sand dunes is best early or late in the day. The sandy toe of the Cottonwood Canyon alluvial fan is a ready source of sand for the dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Winds and Tucki Mountain serve to preserve the location of the dunes. The bare sand dunes cover about 14 square miles. To get a closer look, take the historic unpaved road along the eastern edge of the dunes. Mosaic Canyon can be reached easily by a 3.3 mile graded road just west of Stovepipe Wells Hotel. A short walk will allow you to see the water-polished mosaic and white marble. If time permits, exploring the points of interest in the Panamint Mountains is an option. The remains of the profitable gold mining town of Skidoo or the Charcoal Kilns in upper Wildrose Canyon are good choices. On your return trip to Furnace Creek, don’t miss the turnoff from Highway 190 to Salt Creek. A 1Ú2-mile nature trail on a boardwalk through pickleweed and salt grass is the home of the desert pupfish – a remnant of the past.

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Richard Whitsel lives in Grass Valley and enjoys traveling.


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