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Scotty’s Castle draws visitors to Death Valley

A center of attention in Death Valley for 86 years, Death Valley Ranch, better known as Scotty’s Castle, continues to draw visitors to its remote location in Grapevine Canyon. Operated as a living history museum aimed at re-creating the late 1930s, the Moorish-styled retreat welcomes guests as it did in its heyday. Costumed rangers lead visitors on tours of the house, its fascinating subterranean workings and the cabin built on nearby Lower Vine Ranch for Walter Scott, a colorful character better known as Death Valley Scotty.

The ranch lies at the northern end of Death Valley National Park about 175 miles from Las Vegas. Follow U.S. 95 north from Las Vegas through Beatty to Scotty’s Junction, Highway 267. Also called the Bonnie Clare Road, this route runs south about 25 miles to Scotty’s Castle. It follows a natural travel corridor used by people of prehistory, as well as by fleets of trucks carrying building materials from a railroad siding after construction at the ranch began in 1924.

The ranch developed as a vacation retreat for Chicago insurance magnate Albert Johnson and his wife, Bessie. Introduced to Death Valley in the early 1900s by Walter Scott after investing in Scott’s much-touted gold mine, the Johnsons returned to camp on land they bought in Grapevine Canyon. Eventually they planned a grander residence where they could entertain friends. The Johnsons provided the financing, and Scotty spun tales about "his castle" in the desert that brought notoriety to the site where the finest materials were assembled and the best craftsmen labored. Braving tedious heat, tenuous roads and terrible dust, the curious soon found their way to the house rising in splendid isolation.

During Death Valley’s busy season from November through April, visitors often wait a couple of hours for their tour of the main house. Limited to 19 visitors at a time, the tours take about 50 minutes, from 9 a.m. to the last tour at 5 p.m. When you arrive, immediately visit the ticket office to pay for the house tour. Tours cost $11 for those aged 16 to 61, $9 for senior citizens, and $6 for federal recreation pass holders. Children aged 5 and under tour free of charge, but must be under supervision.

The Underground Mysteries Tour of the technologies used to heat, cool, illuminate and pipe water to the self-sufficient mansion in its remote location is limited to 15 visitors. It is not wheelchair accessible. Participants must wear hardhats. This tour takes more than an hour. Ticket prices are the same. If you buy a combination ticket, you save $1 on each tour.

The Lower Vine Ranch Tour takes visitors to an area normally closed to public access. It will be available this season on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Jan. 19 through April 9. The tour takes two and a half hours, involving a two-mile walk. It is not suited to small children or disabled visitors. Participants should wear sturdy shoes, use sunblock and bug repellent, and bring at least a quart of water. Make reservations for this tour by calling (760) 786-2392. Tickets cost $15 per person. Pick up your tickets 30 minutes before your tour meets at an assembly site on the grounds.

The mansion’s music room was equipped with a fabulous pipe organ installed in 1928 at a cost of $50,000. It has 1,121 pipes, multiple musical instruments and sounds such as bells and bird calls. Once popular as a main source of entertainment, the pipe organ is now heard just once a year at three concerts in June played by a noted organist. Just 40 tickets for each performance are available, and they always sell out. Tickets for the 2011 concerts go on sale in January for $40 per seat. Call the Death Valley Natural History Association to get your name on the list at (800) 478-8564, Ext. 10.

Under the National Park Service administration, restoration and preservation at the property enhance visitors’ experiences. Just restored and opened this season to the public, the ranch cookhouse behind the main house adds to accessible outbuildings visitors see on self-guided tours.

Touring the grounds, perusing exhibits in the visitor center, browsing in the book and gift shop and getting a snack for a picnic are popular ways to while away the time until your tour begins.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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