Death Valley Ranch, the remote Moorish-styled mansion in Death Valley National Park better known as Scotty’s Castle, continues to fascinate visitors as it has for more than 85 years. Located in Grapevine Canyon, the ranch served as a vacation retreat for wealthy Chicago businessman Albert Johnson and his wife, Bessie. Introduced to the desert in the early 1900s by Walter Scott, a colorful character known as Death Valley Scotty, the Johnsons developed a campsite, then decided to build a grand house. Construction began in 1924, but was never completed. The Johnsons provided the funds and Scotty the notoriety.
Shortly after construction began, the curious braved tedious heat and tenuous connections to see what was going on way out there in the middle of nowhere. News got out about the imported craftsmen, the fine furnishings and the enormous amount of building materials being sent to a rugged desert canyon near Death Valley. Some came by car over chancy roads, others arrived by rail, for the desert then boasted several railroads.
They still come every day, all year long. The roads are better, but the railroads are gone. Scotty’s Castle lies in the northern end of the national park, 176 miles from Las Vegas using U.S. 95 north through Beatty to Highway 267 at Scotty’s Junction. This road runs south about 25 miles to the castle.
Visitors now buy tickets to satisfy their curiosity. They patiently wait their turns for hourly guided living-history tours of the mansion’s lavish interior. These tours run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from November through April with shorter hours the rest of the year. The 50-minute tours led by rangers in 1930s costumes provide glimpses of times and lifestyles now decades in the past. While waiting, many explore the adjacent museum, browse its bookstore or wander the grounds, using a printed tour available in the museum.
To further satisfy curiosity about this unique desert hideaway, the National Park Service in 2002 started offering technology tours of the castle’s original innovative underground power and water systems. Suggested for visitors who had already taken the interior tour, these guided tours limited to 15 people also proved very popular.
Starting in January, yet another limited guided tour will take visitors into an area previously closed to the public. Lower Vine Ranch located near the mansion includes a cabin built by the Johnsons specifically to house Death Valley Scotty. Scotty also used a bedroom in the mansion, seen on the main house tour. Scotty frequented the ranch until his death in 1954, welcoming visitors as if the place belonged to him.
From Jan. 13 to April 10, rangers will guide groups of 15 around Lower Vine Ranch on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tour, lasting about two and a half hours, involves walking about two miles to the site. This tour will not be accessible for handicapped visitors. Since no toilet facilities are available at Lower Vine Ranch, make a stop before you leave the castle grounds.
Pay for tickets for all the tours at the ticket office. Pick up tickets for the Lower Vine Ranch tour at least a half an hour before the tour for $15 per person, regardless of age.
The interior and technology tours cost $11 for adults aged 16 to 62 years, $9 for seniors over age 62, $6 for youngsters aged 5 to 15 years and free for children under 5.
If you buy tickets for both mansion tours, the price is reduced a dollar for each tour. A $20 per vehicle entrance fee also applies, waived for national park pass holders.
Many visitors enjoy picnics while they await their tours, either tailgate picnicking or using scattered picnic tables on site. Plan for each person in your party to have access to two gallons of drinking water. Food and drinks are available at the snack bar in the museum building. The grounds close at 6 p.m.
Visitors no longer stay overnight at Scotty’s Castle, which offered lodgings and camping in its early days. Accommodations and campgrounds are located elsewhere in the park, especially around Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.