Buttoned-up engineering, unbuttoned.
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I SLOWLY OPEN MY EYES, SHIVERING IN MY SLEEPING BAG AS THE NIGHTS CHILL PRICKS THE SKIN OF MY EXPOSED NECK AND FACE. AS I GRADUALLY RECLAIM MY SENSES FROM SLEEPS GRIP, MY EARS ADJUST TO THE NEARLY COMPLETE SILENCE SURROUNDING ME, BROKEN ONLY BY AN OCCASIONAL WHISPER OF WIND. I UNZIP THE DOOR OF MY TENT AND POKE MY HEAD OUTSIDE. THE DESERT SPREADS OUT BEFORE ME, BRILLIANTLY AND EERILY LIT UP BY THE NEARLY FULL MOON. IT LITERALLY TAKES MY BREATH AWAY. I STEP OUTSIDE, A SMILE CREEPING ACROSS MY FACE AS I BASK IN THE STARK, INCREDIBLE BEAUTY THAT IS DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK.
Earlier that March morning back in Los Angeles, my fiancee and I loaded up our 2004 Subaru Impreza with the essentials – tent, sleeping bags, food, and lots of water. We also remembered to pack warm clothing. Although the mercury regularly soars well past 100 degrees during the summer in Death Valley, early spring is a much more comfortable time of year to visit. Temperatures range from the low 50s to mid-70s. In addition, the wildflowers are just beginning to bloom, painting the barren moonscape with splashes of vibrant color.
Death Valley is a land of harsh extremes – hot and cold, extremely arid yet prone to flash floods, and home to towering mountains as well as Badwater, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
The park requires a few days to fully explore, as it covers almost 3,000 square miles. Of course, if youre simply cruising through, happily gazing out at the scenery from your climate-controlled car, these factors of temperature and distance dont present much of a challenge.
The idea is to get out and explore, though. Give it a try – stand for a few minutes on the cracked, baked, salty sands at the bottom of the desert basin, gazing up at the sublime, snowcapped peaks rimming the park, and youll realize that this is a place like no other.
We entered the park from the southwest, quickly climbing to about 4,000 feet. The sunlight shone crisp and bright across the sand and scrubby brush, shimmering in hues of brown, red, orange, and tan. The road began to descend toward Stovepipe Wells Village, one of the main ranger stations and visitor centers. We wound our way through sweeping panoramas of desert holly and stoic Joshua trees framed by distant summits. The occasional lizard scurried across the sand in a flash of pale green.
We soon reached the desert floor, passing the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes shimmering like a mirage in the distance. Our first destination was Scottys Castle, a weird time capsule from the early 20th century. Set in the rugged north end of the park, it was built in 1922 at the behest of Death Valley Scotty, an eccentric gold miner.
After perusing the old jalopies and Spanish colonial architecture, we drove south, stopping to explore Fall Canyon. This is an excellent hike for those looking for something relatively undemanding. The trail, a wide gravel path, begins at the mouth of the canyon. You can walk as far as you wish, although most stop at a rock wall that requires some skill to climb. Its a remarkable experience to view the striated walls closing in around you as an occasional tumble of dust poofs off the cliffs edge far above. And when youre out of sight and earshot of other hikers, the silence is majestic.
The next day, after camping at Mesquite Spring in the northern end of the park, we continued south past Technicolor ranges of yellow wildflowers infusing the sun-baked landscape with a startling vitality. Several painters and photographers were ensconced along the road, attempting to capture the beauty laid out before them. Inspired by this creative spirit, we took a detour off the main road to Artists Palette, a location noted for its brightly colored rock formations.
We pulled over to enjoy our last stop of the day before heading back to civilization. An urge to fill my senses with this miraculous landscape overtook me, so I ran up a gently sloping sandy shelf for a better view. Panting, I stopped and turned around. The barrens spread out before me as far as I could see, dotted everywhere with flecks of color proving that, despite its name, life thrives in Death Valley.
Information on Death Valley points of interest, campgrounds, weather, lodging, and geography can be found on the National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/deva).
Visitors must pay an entrance fee of $20 per vehicle upon entering the park thats good for seven days. However, you can buy an annual pass for $40 that allows you to visit as many times as you wish within 12 months of the purchase date.
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and this is a good central starting point to gather information when you visit the park. Los Angeles and Las Vegas both make good base cities for those interested in visiting Death Valley. The shortest route from Las Vegas is approximately 120 miles and takes about two hours, while Los Angeles lies approximately 270 miles away and takes about 4.5 hours to reach.
Many people choose to camp at one of Death Valleys numerous campgrounds, which are pleasant but often laid out in parking lot-like formations across flat, sandy areas. You can make reservations online or by phone for the Furnace Creek Campground during the high season from October 15 to April 15 (www.recreation.gov or  444-6777). Other campgrounds are on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you prefer accommodations that are a bit more refined, the Furnace Creek Resort (www.furnacecreekresort.com) offers in-park lodging complete with an 18-hole golf course, bar, several restaurants, stores, swimming pools, and childrens playground. There are two lodging possibilities at the resort – the Inn at Furnace Creek (open October to May) and the Ranch at Furnace Creek (open all year). For the Inn, rates range from $330 to $460 per night, while the Ranch offers lower prices ($130 to $213 per night).
Getting around Death Valley is relatively easy and straightforward, since most roads are maintained and well marked. It is important not to speed, however, because the roads tend to have sudden curves and narrow passages. Some roads require four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance to access rugged backcountry areas. Take note: Cell phones tend not to work within the park.