I’m going to try to finish this up today, with a post on Death Valley, and then one on Vegas, baby.
(Which I hated. /spoileralert)
Death Valley is about two hours northish and west of Las Vegas. When Thursday began, we were in Saint George, which is about two hours east of Las Vegas. So this was going to be a big driving day, but also remember that because of the time change, it would, in the space-time continuum, be only three, not four hours between here and there.
There were times in the run-up to the trip I had regretted casually mentioned Death Valley, even though I wanted to see it. Once I brought it up, the other two had decided that the trip wouldn’t be complete without it, but it was on the opposite side of all of the rest of the trip. I wondered if we would have been better off with another day in Zion instead. And that would have been great, but that said, in the end, despite the slight hassle, I’m glad we went.
Even though…it was…hot.
Duh. Of course it was. It was late May in one of the hottest places on the planet! And I do like hot, and would not be too sad if I never spent time in frigid climes again. But still…this was something else.
So that’ my first recommendation – if you do go to Death Valley, don’t go during the summer. Take everyone’s advice. They know what they’re talking about. If you go during the winter, you can probably stay outside and actually do some hiking, which is really almost impossible and not advisable in the summer.
Once we got to Las Vegas, I believe we hit an In n’ Out for lunch, and then drove on. I took the northern route in on 95 instead of the more southerly route through Pahrump, mostly because I wanted to hit the ghost town called Rhyolite.\
Really interesting, and a valuable lesson in the reality of ghost towns. Rhyolite existed for less than ten years, but during its existence, it was quite a busy place after gold was discovered nearby….
The town immediately boomed with buildings springing up everywhere. One building was 3 stories tall and cost $90,000 to build. A stock exchange and Board of Trade were formed. The red light district drew women from as far away as San Francisco. There were hotels, stores, a school for 250 children, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries and machine shops and even a miner’s union hospital.
The town citizens had an active social life including baseball games, dances, basket socials, whist parties, tennis, a symphony, Sunday school picnics, basketball games, Saturday night variety shows at the opera house and pool tournaments. In 1906 Countess Morajeski opened the Alaska Glacier Ice Cream Parlor to the delight of the local citizenry. That same year an enterprising miner, Tom T. Kelly, built a Bottle House out of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles.
And then…bust. The San Francisco Earthquake and the 1907 financial panic brought everything down, and by 1917, the town was basically abandoned. A really good lesson in the transitory nature of life and achievement and….stuff….
Below are photos of the Bottle House
Around 1905, during the Gold Rush, Tom Kelly built this famous house in Rhyolite, NV. It was built with 51,000 beer bottles and adobe mud. Bottles were also used in the walkway to the house. Kelly chose bottles because “it’s very difficult to build a house with lumber from a Joshua tree.” It took him about a year and a half to build the three room, L-shaped building with gingerbread trim. He spent about $2,500 on the building with most the money for wood and fixtures. Some of the bottles were medicine bottles but most were Busch beer bottles donated from the 50 bars in town.
(Where did the town building go? People were frugal..they wouldn’t just leave the structures..they dismantled them and used the materials elsewhere.)
There’s an outdoor sculpture installation nearby and a tiny little museum staffed, the day we were there, by a retired history teacher.
I don’t remember in which town his school was located, but…BUT..he told us something quite exciting…while he was teaching in the 1970’s, several of the children from his school were used as extras in STAR WARS, which was filming in Death Valley.
Okay, now, we were all definitely on board for Death Valley. The search for filming locations was on.
First, the entrance.
And then you drive….down, down…down. I saw a lot of fascinating sites on this trip, but this drive down into Death Valley was, oddly enough, near the top of the list, partly because went into this with no expectations other than “hot.” I had never seen the television show “Death Valley,” and had never thought much about the place. I had never considered that it is an actual, well, valley, and what that means. From that north entrance, you head down into this vast, shallow basin surrounded by mountains, and it really is like you are driving into another world.
First stop was Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, which are the only dunes in Death Valley, and where some Star Wars stuff was filmed. It was..hot.
Then on to Stovepipe Wells, which is a tiny settlement and the location of one of the few accommodations in Death Valley. Stopped at the little store, looked around, saw a tiny bird outside on the sidewalk, wings spread, panting, got back in the car to drive to our accommodations in the Furnace Creek area.
This is the most historically developed area of the park – it’s where the Borax mining operations were centered. (And yes, this is where your “20 Mule Team Borax” got its start.
We stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch – the less expensive and more available of the two lodgings in that area. I had absolutely no problems getting a room, and I don’t think I even booked it until a couple of days before we got there. To Death Valley. The Furnace Creek Inn is the fancier, more expensive, and more historic lodging – an interesting history is here. The borax had been mined out, but the railroad company didn’t want to waste the investment in had made in the transportation into the valley, so they decided to try to make it a tourist attraction.
As I said, the Inn is pricier and was always booked up when I checked, so we settled for the Ranch, which was fine – us an the Europeans – mostly Italians this time, which was unusual. For most of the trip, we’d been following Germans and Asians. I don’t know why Italians suddenly popped up at Death Valley.
The Furnace Creek Ranch is on NPS property, but of course it is privately managed, and I do want to talk about this for a bit. As I had mentioned before, we had stayed at the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, also on NPS property, and managed by Forever Resorts. It was fine, and you can’t beat the Grand Canyon, but there were certain aspects of the experience – mostly the value-to-quality ratio of the food that you are forced to pay for because you are a captive audience. It was overpriced and not that good (in the restaurant, at least).
The Furnace Creek Ranch is run by a different company – Xanterra – and it was a different experience. Just as the case at GCNP, there are no other options for dining other than what’s at the hotel, but here, the food was pretty good and reasonably priced. In other words, I didn’t feel taken advantage of or ripped off, and yes, I made a point of mentioning this on checkout. So thumbs up for the Furnace Creek Ranch. (Very nice pool, too…in Death Valley, anything cool and wet is a nice pool, though)
After we checked in and once it had cooled off a bit, but before it got dark, we set off to see a few things. We also so a few things the next morning – as early as I could possibly rouse them, so we could try to beat the heat. I won’t go moment by moment, but just offer some photos:
Badwater Basin, lowest point in North America. In the photo above, he’s pointing to a sign marking sea level.
The Devil’s Golf Course. It’s all salt. Hardened, dried salt. Would be very painful to fall on this!
Death Valley was fascinating, quite beautiful and haunting, and I would love to go back and hike in canyons and so on…in December.