Death Valley for Beginners

Caroline and I were quite possibly the only longtime Mammoth dwellers never to have visited Death Valley. It’s a proud tradition of the snowbound to escape to the desert in late winter and early spring. For some, it’s the bohemian hot spring culture of Saline Valley; for others, it’s rounds of golf at Furnace Creek’s palm-lined course.

Everyone goes to Death Valley in spring to see wildflowers, which this year delivered an early bloom. Many years in late winter, fields of Desert Gold blanket the alluvial fans and otherwise barren valley floor east and north of Highway 190 from Salt Creek to Furnace Creek. Purple phacelia punctuate the scene.

Our spirits brightened by the color, we first-timers embarked on a laid-back weekend tour outdoorsy enough to be respectable in our hardcore hometown, yet touristy enough to give us a solid introduction to the national park and environs.

Death Valley is huge–3.4 million acres–so targeting just a few intriguing spots was essential. This itinerary took us to the heart of the valley and to the far reaches of Inyo County, sticking to main routes and mostly paved roads.

DAY ONE: DATE OASIS ON THE AMARGOSA

Breezing by Furnace Creek, we drove outside the park boundaries toward our destination: China Ranch. The hour-plus drive passes through Shoshone (funky and charming) and Tecopa (a hot springs resort but too funky for us), where the signs point drivers to China Ranch.

A green oasis nestled in the hills, China Ranch’s date palms have witnessed the region’s transition from hardscrabble mining to tourism. The ranch has been in the family of current owner, Brian Brown, for decades. Brian and his wife, Bonnie, got deep into dates, helping to reshape the area’s economy nearly 20 years ago–China Ranch is primarily a working date farm. Its eco-touristic value is secondary but substantial.

Surrounded by public lands, the 218-acre ranch offers great hiking. We parked at the gift shop, picked up some warm date and vanilla chip cookies at the bakery there, and walked down an old mining road to the Amargosa River–the only perennial stream flowing into Death Valley. Abandoned talc mines and railroad ties speak to the river’s past. Its future was preserved by Congress: the section of the Amargosa that flows past China Ranch was designated a Wild & Scenic River in 2009.

We wet our toes while crossing the river to wander up a dry wash into a short but sweet slot canyon, admiring the streaks and curves in the water-carved rock walls.

MOTEL CAMPING

After weeks of overtime and even moderate snow shoveling, hauling out the camping gear was way more effort than we could handle. We did manage to pack a cooler with cheese, a veggie platter and chardonnay, which we enjoyed in plastic cups, sitting in equally plastic chairs from the small but sunny balcony of our motel room at Furnace Creek Ranch. Even with a parking lot full of tour buses, the ranch was quiet and relaxing, the golf course uncrowded. The spring-fed ranch pool has been renovated recently with nice patio furniture and lounging areas.

We stopped in the elegant, historic Furnace Creek Inn (just up the road on a hillside beyond the ranch) for a late afternoon drink, sunset views, and conversation with the national park-hopping bartenders, a bargain at $20.

DAY TWO: CANYON HIKING

We awoke to gusty winds the next morning, we had a quick salt scrub walking the flats at Badwater and gave up on making it to the exact lowest point in the hemisphere (-282 feet). Instead, we drove a couple miles to the Golden Canyon trailhead. A popular hiking spot, the 4-5 mile loop trail was empty past the first quarter mile or so in the canyon narrows. The trail gets steeper up toward stately Red Cathedral and Manly Beacon, then continues gradually up to Zabriskie Point. We admired the multi-hued, rippled rock and glimpses of the salt flats before hiking down the Gower Gulch wash (more amazing rock formations and caves) to the car.

DEATH VALLEY BASICS:

DIRECTIONS FROM MAMMOTH LAKES

Located approximately 4 hours (214 miles) south of Mammoth Lakes, take U.S. 395 south to Olancha, you can take Hwy 190 into the park or continue south to Lone Pine and take Hwy 136 to Hwy 190 heading east into the park.

WHERE AND HOW

Late winter and early spring are the best time for wildflower viewing, and things heat up fast at the lowest point the US: temperatures can creep up to the triple digits by April.

GENERAL INFO, WILDFLOWER REPORT

Visit the park service site at nps.gov/deva/

CHINA RANCH:

Open daily 9am-4pm. Go to Chinaranch.com for hiking information or ask at the gift shop.

HIKING:

The Visitors Center at Furnace Creek has informational flyers and maps, and a well-stocked book selection. Pick up Hiking Death Valley by Michel Digonnet (Quality Books, 2007), an exhaustive yet easy-to-read guide to day trips and backpacking excursions throughout the park.

Stacy Corless

Stacy Corless moved to Mammoth in 1998 and has been writing and exploring ever since. She co-founded Eastside magazine in 2007, and served as executive director of two local nonprofits. She'll take office on the Mono County Board of Supervisors in January. See more of Stacy's posts and find her online at stacycorless.com

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