Into the Furnace at Death Valley

Wildrose Road, Death Valley National Park, California 92328

Furnace Creek Front Entrance

Death Valley in California remains is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, but not so the Furnace Creek Inn located in the centre of this massive National Park. The hotel remains an oasis for travelers in the valley which is home to more than 900 kinds of plants, desert wildlife and natural wonders unknown in any other part of the world. The name Death Valley comes from the "Jayhawker" immigrants from Utah who suffered a fateful crossing of the valley in the winter of 1849 experiencing extreme thirst and starvation. Even today, depending on what time of year you go, you can drive for a long time without seeing any other cars, and the scenic drive all the way to Furnace Creek is staggering.

Death Valley Dunes

If you go through Mojave Desert on the drive from Los Angeles, then you must stop at Randsburg, an authentic 1880's mining town that is part tourist/part regular town. A chocolate malt shake at the General Store will set you up nicely for the remainder of the trip to Furnace Creek through the one time thriving mining town of Trona. The time to go is between October and April when temperatures are between 68 and 80 degrees, but in summer the temperature is generally way above 100.

The discovery of borax in 1881 turned the fortunes of the area around. The first major claim started at Furnace Creek, and in 1920, plans for Furnace Creek Inn were formulated. It finally opened in 1927 with the Golf course completed in 1931. Over the years, several ownership changes and additions to the original structure have taken place, and it now remains one of the most isolated luxury hotels in the world, and a "must visit" Death Valley explorers. With only 66 rooms available at this AAA four-diamond property, availability is tough especially in winter, but if you love heat, then a summer visit is quite an experience. An interesting feature adorning the walls of the hotel are the portraits of past 49'er presidents, all painted by Cecil B De Mille's artist brother.

20 Mule Canyon viewed from Zabriskie Point

The history of the hotel remains fascinating, and over the years many famous people have graced the rooms, and several famous films have been shot at the hotel or nearby. The thriller "Zabriskie Point" comes to mind, and since the famous rock formation is only a couple of miles away from the hotel, you may get to stay in the same room as one of stars of the film, a rather young Harrison Ford. Architect Albert C. Martin was contracted to design the hotel at a cost of $30,000 for the original twelve rooms. Shoshone Indians were hired to make adobe bricks, with specialist craftsmen completing the stonework. Business grew and grew and in 1930, the swimming pool was built. All the rooms have been re-furbished with air conditioning and ceiling fans, and plenty of other amenities for the serious traveler.

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover declared Death Valley a National Monument, so tourism really picked up. Stars such as Jimmy Stewart, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Bette Davis and Lionel Barrymore put Furnace Creek firmly on the map, and they still come. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are regulars and the likes of Dennis Hopper and Jeremy Irons have all been recent guests. Talking of the swimming pool - it really is a special place. Constantly filtered water at a temperature that rarely varies from 85 luscious degrees. The poolside cocktail bar is open throughout the day, and must be one of the most relaxing places I have ever had the good fortune to visit.

Talking about the movies, dozens of other good ones have been filmed there over the years, starting in 1923 with "Wanderers of the Wasteland," Hollywood's first all color film. Others have included "Unknown Cavalier" with Ken Maynard (1928), "Yellow Sky" with James Cagney and Bette Davis (1948) and "King Solomon's Mines" with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger (1950). Others have included Spartacus, One-Eyed Jacks, The Professionals and Vanishing Point. Most of the scenes for the landmark movie Star Wars were filmed on at the sand dunes, halfway to Scotty's Castle north of Furnace Creek. The dunes here can reach up to 85 feet in height, and are home to such creatures as kangaroo rats, lizards, coyotes, kit fox, sidewinders, "chuckwalla" lizards and red tail hawks.

Badwater

Sports and recreation enthusiasts are well catered for with golf, tennis and horseback riding. The golf course in particular has a certain uniqueness to it after undergoing a major renovation in 1977 by renowned architect Perry Dye. Greater gravity and barometric pressure are apparent due the elevation causing regulars to notice a distinct difference in how the ball responds compared with other courses situated above sea level.

Furnace Creek Hotel is also the location of the only upscale restaurant in Death Valley, the "Inn Dining Room." I did not have the opportunity to sample the dinner menu, but had the outstanding breakfast on a couple of occasions and can highly recommend it, especially the blueberry pancakes. The surrounding windows provide a stunning panoramic view of the nearby Panamint Mountains.

Finally I visited was Badwater the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. Pickleweed and Desert holly grow here and the few ponds remaining are high in salt content. The place is well signposted, about twenty miles from Furnace Creek, and well worth visiting.

Tel: 760-786-2345
Central Reservations: 800-236-7916

Furnace Creek Online

Mike Hepworth, June 2002

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