Shortly after midnight, I woke from my three-hour nap a little bit groggy and disorientated.
“Why am I getting up?” I asked myself. Then I remembered. The Delta Aquariid meteor shower should be putting on a show, especially since the moon was 6% full.
In the early hours of a July morning, I left the cool comforts of my lush room at the Inn in Death Valley and hopped in my rental car. My destination was less than 10 minutes away, Harmony Borax Works. More than 120 years ago, this was a mining operation where 20-mule teams hauled borax 165 miles to Mojave, Calif. Remnants of buildings, machinery, and piping remain. This was also the darkest location closest to the Inn to observe the meteor shower.
My mouth dropped and I could not stop saying, “wow” when I stepped out of my car and into darkness. The temperature had cooled off to 100 degrees and although refreshing from the day’s high of 124, something else grabbed my attention. Looking over the mountains, thousands, if not millions, of sparkling stars, lit up the night sky. In the middle was a chalky-white swath. It was the Milky Way.
Despite being about a two-hour drive west of Las Vegas, Death Valley has some of the country’s darkest skies. Light pollution within the park is minimal and, in most spots, such as Harmony Borax Works, the night sky probably looks like what it did before colonization.
The International Dark Sky Association designated Death Valley a Dark Sky Park in 2013. According to the IDSA website, “Astronomical objects seen there [Death Valley] are available only to some of the darkest locations across the globe.”
Every so often, I saw faint white streaks fade into the galaxy. They were meteors. Looking up, I wished there was a way to bottle the awesomeness surrounding me. My nighttime photography skills need some work, so I decided to live in the moment. After about 45 minutes of soaking up the nighttime sky, I called it a night.
Another morning, my alarm sounded at 5 a.m. and I made my way to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunrise with at least a hundred other visitors. Despite all those people, it was practically silent, except for the light whistle of wind. Sunrise watchers paid this experience as much respect as stepping into a church.
As the sun rose, mountains changed from a dark gray to purplish, to a deep brown color. It was almost 7 a.m. when Zabriskie Point was in the full golden light.
A PARK WITH EXTREMES
Death Valley National Park boasts extremes. Some of the hottest temperatures in North America and the world have been recorded in the park. On July 10, 1913, Death Valley reached a recorded maximum temperature of 134 degrees, making it a world record high. Last summer, the park broke the record for hottest monthly temperature anywhere in the world.
The July average temperature was 108.1. I stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center where the temperature fluctuated between 127 and 129. Although great for a photo opportunity, that is not the official thermometer for the park and the official high that day was 124.
With an average annual rainfall of 2.36 inches, it is the driest place in the U.S. The park also is home to the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level. Here, find a carpeting of salt flats that crunches with each step.
Surrounded by crinkled canyons and purple mountains is a lush, spring-fed oasis in the form of the Inn at Death Valley. For a year-and-a-half during the late 1990s, I called it home, when I worked for the park management company now called Xanterra Travel Collection, and I was overdue for a visit.
The 66-room Inn, then called Furnace Creek Inn, opened in 1927 and was built by the Pacific Borax Company. It was and still is, a popular winter retreat for those seeking a break from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, especially those in the Los Angeles area.
Eventually, Furnace Creek Ranch, about a half-mile from the Inn, was built with more family-friendly features including 224 hotel rooms. Recently, the properties, privately owned by Xanterra Travel Collection, were aptly renamed the Oasis at Death Valley and underwent an 18-month, $100 million renovation and enhancements including a new dining and gift shop building and town square at the Ranch. An additional $35 million project will begin at the Ranch soon, including expanded shopping and dining options.
The Inn has been AAA Four-Diamond rated for years and the enhancements have made it better. Twenty-two casitas were added, bringing the number of sleeping accommodations to 88. They offer privacy and include a golf cart rental making it easier to navigate the property.
A natural spring pumping out 80,000 gallons of water a day hydrates the lush, green gardens which pop with colors of white and pink flowers. Tall, thin date palms shoot up from the ground and offer some shade.
The Inn’s spring-fed pool is 84.5 degrees and offers relief from Death Valley’s heat. Because it is open until 11 p.m., it is a refreshing place to look up and enjoy the night sky. When getting out, be prepared for a minute or two of chilliness. The dry air will evaporate the water off your skin, creating a tingling and cooling sensation.
Since the Inn and Ranch are privately owned, they offer comforts typically not found in other national park lodges, such as the lowest round of golf you’ll ever play, at 214 feet below sea level; flat-screen televisions; WiFi; spa services; and exquisite dining.
Dates were once harvested in the Furnace Creek area, and that may be happening again, soon. Try the date bread and the Blue Cheese Stuffed Dates wrapped in prosciutto and topped with a pomegranate reduction at the Inn Dining Room.
At the Ranch, try a date milkshake. The Last Kind Words Saloon is a feast for the eyes and stomach. It is like stepping into an old west saloon. Taxidermied game animals, antique cowboy apparel, and posters from the wild west accent the walls of the two-story eatery. Find plenty of options to make a buckaroo grin including the 36 oz. tomahawk ribeye, a perfect entrée to share.
July and August are some of the busiest times in the park, a popular spot with European visitors and vacationers from Southern California and Las Vegas. It is also a popular location for car manufacturers to test their vehicles in extreme conditions. During my visit, I saw a handful of companies testing cars including autonomous vehicles. By chance, I watched military jets race through the sky. Death Valley has also been the stage for several television shows, commercials, and movies, including some of the Star Wars films.
The desert dry heat, which feels like sticking my head in an oven, made me feel physically exhausted. I traveled as much as I could through the park and realized, although I had lived there for a short time, there was much more to explore. Three days was not enough to see everything, but it was enough time to disconnect from a 24/7 world and connect with Mother Nature.
Driving back to Las Vegas, I pulled over at the park’s boundary. Unlike those ‘49ers who never returned, I whispered, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” promising myself I will return.
In an area full of extremes, it may seem as though nothing can survive in Death Valley. Plants line roadways in higher elevations and around waterways. Animals such as kangaroo rats, roadrunners, desert tortoise and pupfish call the park home. So do the invasive burros, descendants of the donkeys left behind more than 150 years ago. Life is not easy under extreme conditions. But, hearty souls are resilient and survive and thrive in the desert, and so do I.