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Crank up the AC! They don't call Death Valley "the hottest spot in the U.S." for nothing. In summer, the mercury routinely hits 120 sizzling degrees.
If you can stand the heat, you'll see the coolest stuff this side of the moon. There are rainbow-colored rocks (fuschia too!), ghost towns, funky desert museums, resorts, hikes, reptiles -- even real life road runners and coyotes.
Comfort is the name of the game. If possible, plan to come in early spring, when the scorching heat subsides (it only gets up to 85 degrees then). You'll appreciate this desert wonderland much more if you're not worrying about heat stroke.
The park is really big -- 3.3 million acres in California and Nevada. You'll need at least two days to check out the main attractions. Our recommended route covers 50 miles on Highway 190, from Badwater in the south to Stovepipe in the north.
If you're staying in Furnace Creek, at the halfway point along this scenic corridor, start by driving south to Badwater and working your way back up to Zabriskie Point. End the day there with a spectacular sunset. The next day, drive further north to Mosaic Canyon, topping it off with a family-friendly hike.
Take a half-hour to get oriented and see the exhibits on Death Valley's wildlife, world-renowned climate, and natural history. Or watch a 12-minute slide presentation. From November through April, ranger-led talks, walks, and tours leave from here. The schedule changes weekly, so grab one before you head out.
Also pick up Junior Ranger workbooks for the kids, available at the park's three visitor centers. They contain graphics, dot-to-dots, and information geared to your child's age (5-8 years, 8-12 years, and 12 years and up). Upon completion of the workbooks, young visitors get a Death Valley Junior Ranger badge--a replica of the real thing.Stop #2: Badwater
This will be the "low point" of your vacation. Not that you won't enjoy it. It's just that Badwater is the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level. To see just how low you've sunk, look up and east to a tiny white sign on the cliffs of Black Mountains. That's the sea level mark.
For a real mind-blower, look up and west. You'll see Telescope Peak -- the highest point in Death Valley at 11,049 feet above the sea. Chances are, it'll look familiar; its cone-shaped peak has appeared in many car commercials and films. Look down, and you'll see a permanent spring in Badwater. Don't drink from it. The water's bad (tasting, that is, not poisonous). Badwater is located 18 miles south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Rd., off Hwy 190.Stop #3: Salt Flats
Put on really dark shades and follow the Badwater parking lot to the salt flats that stretch across the valley floor. You can hike along the crunchy ground as far as you want.Stop #4: Artists Palette
This nine-mile loop takes you though rainbow-colored badlands -- layers of volcanic rock decked out in bright fuschia, gold, green, blue, and maroon. You can only drive it one way, from south to north, so go to Badwater and Salt Flats first, then catch this must-see on the way out. The drive starts on Badwater Rd., 10 miles south of Furnace Creek.
Remember that little, white sea-level sign? High above it is Dante's View, 5,475 feet above sea level. Park in the lower lot and hike the one-mile roundtrip loop to the top. (Or be lazy and drive to the parking lot at the peak). The payoff: on a clear day you can see 14,495-foot-high Mt. Whitney -- the highest spot in the Continental U.S. -- and Badwater, the lowest point. Located 25 miles southeast of Furnace Creek off Hwy 190 on Dante's View Rd.Stop #6: Zabriskie Point
Sunrise and sunset are prime time at Death Valley's most photographed spot. Train your lens on Manly Beacon, just when the morning sun touches the tip, and you'll be rewarded with the most coveted shot in the park. Zabriskie Point is also a great place for a family hike. Take an easy stroll along the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, a two-mile round-trip trek that gets you up close to colorful canyons. Or check out the rust-colored spiral of Red Cathedral rock, about a half-mile in. The four-mile Gower Gulch loop is a more ambitious, but moderate, family hike that winds through narrow canyons, past old Borax mines. The parking lot is located on Hwy 190, four miles east of Furnace Creek.Stop #7: Sand Dunes
"Why are there sand dunes in the desert?" Tell your curious, beach-going kids that they come from bedrock, high above Death Valley. Wind and rain chip away at the quartz and feldspar, creating caramel-colored sand. Get out of the car and play in this super-size sandbox. During warm months, the sand gets pretty hot, so wait until evening to run across the dunes. The parking lot is located one mile east of Stovepipe Wells on Hwy 190.Stop #8: Mosaic Canyon Hike
This is a short, easy hike that's great for kids. The main attraction: polished rocks embedded in canyon walls by flash floods that filled the narrow canyon. Occasional floods continue to buff and polish the rocks. Off Hwy 190 across from the Sand Dunes at Stovepipe Wells Village.
Gold is what attracted miners to this area back in the '49er days. But Death Valley is best known for its "white" gold -- Borax. The mineral, which is used to make soap and other products, was discovered near Furnace Creek in 1881. Borax was hauled to market in wagons pulled by 20-mule teams, which remain the symbol of the industry today.
The B was one of several mining operations. It closed in 1888. Today you can walk around the four-level ruin and check out remains of tanks, machinery, and piping. Budget about 45 minutes to tour the site yourself, or check at the visitor's center for guided ranger tours.
To see an authentic wagon, swing by the Borax Museum at the Furnace Creek Ranch. You'll learn more about the mining process and the 20-mule teams (which were actually 18-mule, 2-horse teams). Plan on 30 minutes at the museum.
Make no mistake: Scotty's Castle, at the north end of Death Valley, is no mirage. Built in the 20s by Chicago inventor and millionaire Albert Johnson, it was home to the area's greatest legend -- Death Valley Scotty.
Scotty was known for his secret (but nonexistent) gold mine. It's said he made his fortune by convincing wealthy backers to pay to extract the gold in exchange for splitting the profits. The Spanish-style mansion, with 14 fireplaces, is packed with original furnishings and musical instruments that reflect Scotty's flamboyant lifestyle.
Costumed guides take visitors on 50-minute castle tours. Also, check out the Gas House Museum, which contains artifacts and a three-minute video showing the construction of the castle. Budget two hours, but be forewarned: Your littlest ones may be bored here.
Type of travel: Outdoor, educationa
Best ages: 8 and up
Ideal trip length: Weekend
Distance: Las Vegas (177 miles), Los Angeles (224 miles)
Best time to go: December and January for coolest weather and fewest crowds. Avoid peak tourist months of November (during the '49er celebration) and February through mid-April.
Weather: June (109/80 degrees), July (115/88), and August (113/85 ) are scorchers. December and January are coolest, averaging 65/39. In peak season, temperatures start off at 72/46 (February) and climb to 90/62 (April).
Squirm factor: Some. There's lots of driving involved, so make frequent stops to keep kids interested.
Furnace Creek Visitors Center & Museum On California Hwy 190, Furnace Creek Phone: 760-786-2331
Death Valley Natural History Association Furnace Creek Visitor's Center, Hwy 190 Phone: 760-786-3285
Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station 25 miles north of Furnace Creek and 80 miles east of Lone Pine, CA Phone: 760-786-2342 Note: Harmony Borax Works. Hwy 190, two miles north of Furnace Creek
Borax Museum Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, Hwy 190, Furnace Creek Phone: 760-786-2345
Scotty's Castle & The Gas House Museum North end of Death Valley, 53 miles from Furnace Creek off Hwy 190 (look for the clearly marked signs) Phone: 760-786-2395
Beatty Information Center Beatty, NV, (Death Valley's eastern portal), Rte. 374, 41 miles east of Furnace Creek Phone: 775-553-2200Lodging:
You won't hear screams or clinking chains here, but you will see some pretty cool old stuff at Death Valley's most accessible ghost town. Highlight: the 1906 Bottle House, a building constructed entirely of bottles (by a bartender who didn't have enough cash to buy proper building supplies). There's also a small jail, a train depot, and shells of the town's 68 saloons and stores. In its heyday from 1905 to 1911, the town was home to 10,000 residents. Plan on one to two hours to tour the site. Located 35 miles from Furnace Creek Visitor's Center.
Best souvenir: A Junior Park Ranger badge
Annual events: Death Valley '49ers Encampment, early November, Furnace Creek. Singalongs, art shows, desert trail rides, back country tours, draw thousands of campers to the area each year.
Traffic alert: Remember that you're traveling through unforgiving terrain. Always carry one gallon of water for each member of your party -- especially in summer. And take along extra water for the radiator, which may heat up.
Reviewed April 2004.