Blossoms in the Sand – Death Valley National Park

Amid a Wind-sculpted Landscape, the Driest Point in North America Offers a Lush Surprise.

Death Valley National Park is haunted by a strange, desolate loveliness. But this spring, the soaring temperatures, ghost towns and parched landscape softened by a sudden profusion of wildflowers.

For one full month every spring, Alvin and Shirley Smith make their home on a bare patch of gravel in one of the most inhospitable-looking places on Earth. The Oregon couple, enjoys camping in their trailer with the Funeral Mountains looming to the east. Other place names here sound equally desolate: Badwater, Dante’s View, Devil’s Golf Course, and The Last Chance Mountains.

“We love it here,” Shirley says. “We see lots of friends every time we come.”

The Smiths are just a couple of the thousands of RVers who spend time each year – typically in spring or fall – at Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the 48 contiguous states and one of the most spectacular to be found anywhere.

Death Valley signDeath Valley periodically makes news as unseasonable rains carpet the stark desert with a rare explosion of wildflowers, drawing bumper-to-bumper tourists to view rolling acres of blooms on the usually arid terrain.

Sunset Campground, which attracts most of the RVers, is basically a big gravel parking lot next to Furnace Creek Ranch, the spring-fed date palm plantation that serves as a lush administrative center for the 3.3 million-acre park. We’re not talking luxury camping. In Sunset not a single tree blocks the desert sun. Landscaping is reminiscent of an army supply depot. No hookups are provided.

But every evening before sundown the campground has the friendly feel of a small town, a place where kids ride their bikes safely in the streets and neighbors talk with neighbors. At the Smith’s campsite, Alan and Brandy Smith- no relation to Alvin and Shirley- have dropped by from their own fifth wheel trailer, one row over and several spaces up, to sip boxed wine and play “washers,” a homemade game something like horseshoes.

“We’re hoping to spend two weeks here this trip,” says Brandy, who, with her husband, live in Nevada. They met the Oregon Smiths several years ago at Sunset and have kept up with them during annual trips. “This is our first childless year here. We do everything! We hike a lot. Sometimes we bring the motorcycles. You never run out of things to do.”

RVs make a lot of sense in Death Valley. Motel rooms at Furnace Creek are expensive and tent camping can be challenging in the unpredictable desert weather, which can go from a pleasant spring day to a howling dust storm in hours. And RVs can make you crowd-proof. During the height of the wildflower bloom in March, the wait for a table at the restaurant in Furnace Creek (no reservations accepted) was two hours. Both the Smith couples ate dinner when they liked.

Death Valley is so huge and varied a place you can spend a lifetime of vacations exploring it and not run out of things to do.

Hiking is the most basic. The park has trails that range from short, well-graded nature walks suitable for small children to longer canyon rambles that require a little conditioning — or a lot — to enjoy.

A beautiful easy hike takes you up Golden Canyon, whose entrance is three miles south of Furnace Creek on Highway 178. The trail starts at a parking lot and heads up a typical desert wash, scoured out of the rock by flash floods, then takes you to a spectacular area of red rock called the Cathedral. For more adventure, and slightly tougher hiking, take the marked trail up out of the canyon to the right and you’ll cross the base of Manley Peak as you walk to Zabriskie Point, the setting for a movie of the same name in the 1960s.

Try this walk around sunrise or sunset and bring your camera along for some glowing shots of the abstract landscape, which is so fractured and angular it could have been designed by Picasso.

Death Valley is full of strangeness. It has the hottest recorded temperature, 134 degrees in 1913; and the lowest elevation, 282 feet below sea level, in the country. It has ghost towns and abandoned mines. Charles Manson was arrested here. In the back country you’ll come across historic miners’ graves and miners’ homes, a few of the latter looking like someone just stepped out for coffee.

On a grander scale, Scotty’s Castle is an early 20th century mansion built by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson for his fast-talking cowboy friend Walter Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty. Done in full-on Arts & Crafts style, the house contains a pipe organ and an indoor fountain. The Park Service gives tours — the only indoor access — on crowded days expect to wait a couple hours to get on the tour.

Death Valley RVFor sheer isolation take a drive out the West Side Road, which leaves Highway 178 a little south of Golden Canyon. The well-graded gravel road — passenger cars are fine — heads across the salt beds surrounding the Amargosa River and then travels through empty mesquite flats as it parallels the Panamint Mountains.

Several jeep trails head from the road up canyons into the Panamints; if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, drive as far as you’re comfortable – the canyon roads don’t get rough for a couple miles — and then park and go on foot.

Driving on paved roads in Death Valley requires no special equipment other than common sense. Carry extra water. Be sure of your cooling system and tires. Cell phones don’t work here. If you break down, stay with your vehicle and flag down help rather than walking in the heat; March temperatures can get above 100 in the afternoon, and summer temperatures can soar above 120.

Similar common sense rules apply to hiking. The main things you’ll want to bring are plenty of drinking water, sunscreen and a hat – all of which should be used, not just left in your day pack.

You can’t possibly see it all in one visit. Don’t worry about it. Once you’ve spent time in Death Valley, you’re likely to come back again and again, giving you plenty more chances to look for that perfect slot canyon or remote cottonwood spring you missed finding the last time around.


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