Death Valley National Park comes to life in springtime


Death Valley National Park attracts visitors year-round, but springtime brings the greatest number of people.

The season’s generally balmy days and clear skies lure winter-weary folks for a wide variety of recreational options.

Death Valley is just 150 miles from Las Vegas, the closest national park to Southern Nevada. The shortest route to the heart of the park follows state Route 160 from the Las Vegas Valley through the Pahrump Valley to Bell Vista Road north of Pahrump. This shortcut skirts the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to reach Death Valley Junction. Take California Route 190 from Death Valley Junction to park headquarters at Furnace Creek.

Many people find so much to do near Furnace Creek that they don’t visit much of the rest of the park. The most developed area in the park, Furnace Creek offers a newly renovated visitor center, campgrounds, a historic hotel, motel and cabin accommodations, restaurants, a museum, a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and stables. Pay park entrance fees of $20 at the visitor center or use a federal recreation pass. Fees are also payable at other entry points.

Several scenic drives and points of interest are located within easy driving distance of Furnace Creek. Outstanding overviews of the vast expanse of Death Valley await visitors who take the roads to Zabriski Point or Dante’s Peak. Learn about Death Valley’s mining history at the Harmony Borax Works, often the site of ranger-led talks and walks.

Other scenic routes include a short, unpaved loop through Twenty Mule Team Canyon and the 9-mile, one-way Artist’s Drive. Don’t miss seeing the Devil’s Golf Course, where lumps and pinnacles of salt would make drive a golf ball difficult. Nearby Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the United States at nearly 280 feet below sea level. The terminus of the Amargosa River, the salty pools at Badwater reflect high, forested mountains topped by jagged Telescope Peak, which at 11,050 feet in elevation is often streaked with snow in the springtime.

Plan your visit to include more attractions, such as the sand dunes and Salt Creek near Stovepipe Wells about a 30-minute drive north of Furnace Creek. Ubehebe Crater and Scotty’s Castle are in the far northern part of the park, another 45 minutes from the turnoff to Stovepipe Wells. Overnighters find campgrounds at Stovepipe Wells and near Ubehebe Crater as well as motel-style accommodations and a restaurant at Stovepipe Wells.

Reached on a graded side road, the 600-foot volcanic crater can be circled on a hike of about 1½ miles. The famous Moorish-style mansion at Death Valley Ranch and parts of its grounds are open to several kinds of tours. The most popular tour of the interior of the house runs daily at least every hour. Buy your tickets as soon as you arrive. While you wait, tour the visitor center and the grounds or have a picnic.

The approach road to Scotty’s Castle from U.S. Highway 95 in Nevada is closed until April to repair flood damage from last summer’s storms. Access Scotty’s Castle from the south on state Route 190 until repairs are completed.

Flash floods are a fact of life in the desert. Stay out of washes and canyons if storms threaten. A popular one-way trip through scenic Titus Canyon demonstrates the awesome power of such storms.

Best done in a high-clearance vehicle, the 26-mile drive starts outside of the park south of Beatty from the Daylight Pass Highway into Death Valley. It climbs into a rugged range of hills cut by steep canyons, passing old Leadfield, a long-dead mining camp. Look for mud and flood debris high up in the cliffs of a narrow canyon before you emerge into Death Valley. Route 190 lies below you with Stovepipe Wells to the west and Scotty’s Castle some distance north. Hikers often park below Titus Canyon and walk up between the narrow canyon walls.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.