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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Finding Life in a Drive Around Death Valley

I stood at the edge of the Dantes View overlook soaking in one last moment at Death Valley National Park. The valley floor, covered in salt sediment, sprawled out before me from south to north; I was 5,475 feet above sea level. I wanted one last moment with the park, however fleeting, before I continued my drive east to Las Vegas. The previous day had been good and I wanted to remember it and wish for a quick return.

I climbed the Panamint Mountains (above) early the previous morning in my car. I was heading east toward the main part of the park. I had an agenda that was open to interpretation; I really had no idea what I was going to do, but a few things sounded intriguing. After a quick stop at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (below) near the Stovepipe Wells Village to snap a couple of photos, I turned left and headed north to Scotty’s Castle. Something about the thought of an old medieval castle tucked in the northern reaches of the park caused my curiosity to grow.

Construction of the Death Valley Ranch began in 1922; the Mediterranean-style hacienda was meant to be a vacation home for Chicago insurance millionaire Albert Johnson. It is known as Scotty’s Castle because one-time Buffalo Bill showman Walter Scott entertained guests who stayed at the mansion, virtually calling it his own home.

In truth, although he kept a room there, Scott lived a short walk away in a nearby hut. He told stories at mealtimes, though, for both invited and paying guests of the Johnsons, since they also rented rooms to travelers in order to be able to afford upkeep and continued expansion of the residence. And if the opportunity would have presented itself, I gladly would have paid to stay there that day as well; the lavish rooms were only slightly more expensive to rent in the 1930s as the tour cost today. Sadly, they are now only available by tour with a ranger dressed in period outfits.

It was an interesting tour and I left satisfied, although hungry to learn more about the castle and Death Valley National Park. So, to better appreciate what attracted Scotty and the Johnsons to the area, I continued to wander the castle grounds on my own. The palm tree-studded views were magnificent, as was the architecture of other similar buildings on the property. I can only imagine the impression it must have left on travelers in that era, since the property was ages ahead of its time; ammenities like solar water heating and indoor plumbing weren’t in everyone’s home at that time, particularly for those who lived at the edge of Death Valley.

I climbed a nearby hill to pay my respects to Scotty and admire the view his eternal resting place now commands. It was a magnificent site and worth the climb that left me slightly breathless, no longer used to the higher elevations that I left two weeks previous in Denver. I had more to see, though, so I was unable to linger as long as I would have liked. Instead, I trudged back down the hill, climbed into my car, and headed east out of the park.

Instead of retracing my route through the park, I headed east, passing through Beatty, Nevada, before returning to Death Valley. I was intent on stopping at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail to see the pupfish, a small tadpole of a creature that had adapted to live in salt water below sea level. Apparently they were commonly seen in the spring months, splashing around in the water that a boardwalk trail followed.

I hadn’t walked twenty feet down the trail before I heard excited exclamations for a woman telling her mother than she thought the pupfish were having sex. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what the little critters were doing. By rubbing up against each other, the pupfish were somehow procreating. I momentarily stopped to watch this and then decided I ought to give them their privacy. So, instead of lingering, I continued on the trail finding another promiscuous party: a small lizard I spotted on the boardwalk, according to a ranger, apparently turns shades of orange when she is pregnant.

I passed by the main visitor center in the park, which was under reconstruction, in Furance Creek and continued south the the Badwater Basin. After living at a mile above sea level in Denver for so long, I was intrigued by the possibility of actually being below sea level; Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level. I stopped momentarily to walk out amongst the salt flats before quickly becoming disinterested with the novelty of the situation and turning around to head back north to more scenic sites.

My guidebook told me the hike through the Natural Bridge Canyon was an easy half-mile hike, but my lungs disagreed. I found myself huffing and puffing while climbing through the rocky canyon. It was worth it, though, as my eyes widened to the beautiful view of a natural arch formed by rushing waters, just like at the Natural Bridges Natural Monument in Utah.

I briefly paused to snap a few photos and catch my breath, but I could not linger. The day’s light was beginning to wane and there was not much time left for one last stop. Before I took the long drive back to Panamint Springs for the night, I had one last site I wanted to see: the Artists Palette.

A short drive back to the north along Highway 190 was the scenic Artists Palette Drive. I could instantly tell it was a popular route due to all of the cars; several vehicles were parked along the side of the road, their occupants climbing out to snap photos, or at short trailheads where the more adventureous climbed on the rocks of Death Valley. I remained relatively unimpressed on the nine-mile drive, though. Not a bit of it was wowing me, not until I came back up from a large dip in the road and was presented with a view quite unlike any I had ever seen before:

Mineral deposites over millions of years in the valley created the brilliant colors on the sides of the mountains that are now known as the Artists Palette. And with that thought in mind, I could only be impressed. This was Nature’s work at its finest and I was going to be damned if I rushed through my enjoyment of this just to return back to my hotel room. Only after hunger gnawed at me long enough did I beging my drive back to the west and to the Panamint Springs Resort.
In bed later that night, I closed my eyes and smiled as I recalled all of the wonderous things I experienced earlier that day. I enjoyed a fantastic drive through Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the continental United States, as I toured stunning man-made structures, witnessed pupfish having sex, and became awestruck at some of Nature’s finest works. I had no problem smiling about it the next day, either, as I left the park to begin my drive back to Denver. I was taking in one last amazing panoramic at Dantes View, which was only making me hungry for a return trip.

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  1. A Las Vegas Trip to Death Valley National Park | Jason's Travels - September 20, 2012

    […] on a hike in Zion National Park, or hitting up some museum off the Strip, but in the end decided on heading out to Death Valley. Driving down into the valley from more than a mile above sea level at Dante’s View, the […]

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