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Devilishly extreme winter wonderland

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Devilishly extreme winter wonderland

Postby ERIC » Tue Jan 24, 2006 8:53 am

Devilishly extreme winter wonderland

By Andrew Dean Nystrom
Salt Lake Tribune
01/14/2006 03:01:40 PM

The sand dunes at Stove Pipe Wells in California's Death Valley take on a serene splendor at sunset. (Richard Nebesky/Lonely Planet Images )
Death Valley is gloriously crowd-free in the winter - and the climate is enticing, too. While skiers are schussing down the nearby peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada range, Death Valley devotees can picnic in the incredibly arid Great Basin Desert, then delight in an apr s-picnic dip in the natural hot springs.
In the summer, the possibility of experiencing the Lower 48 states' highest and lowest points in the same day draws adventure-seekers to this region. In contrast, in the winter months, savvy hikers and nature photographers take advantage of the low-angled light, moderate climate and improved air quality while reveling in the peace and solitude that's abundant in the vast park's less-explored middling elevations.
The name itself suggests all that is harsh and hellish, evoking the image of a lifeless place hotter than Satan's hoof. This character is part of the park, but Death Valley encompasses a mesmerizing medley of rugged canyons, towering sand dunes, colorful mountains, intriguing ghost towns and, thankfully, a few welcoming oases. It's the largest national park outside Alaska (4,687 square miles), and holds national records for the lowest point (Badwater, 282 feet below sea level) and hottest temperature (134 degrees, measured in 1913). With an average of less than 2 inches of rain per year, the high desert experience is all about uncompromising severity and austere extremes.
Many visitors attempt to see the park in a day-long driving tour. If you head out early, the following loop can be enjoyed in a single day and is best done from Las Vegas in an air-conditioned convertible. Begin by catching the sunrise at Dante's View, where you can see both Badwater and Mount Whitney (14,497 feet). Afterward, check out the museum at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, then head over to Stovepipe Wells to enjoy the interplay of light and shadow while clambering around the gilded sand dunes.
Another 36 miles north is Scotty's Castle, at 3,000 feet above sea level and noticeably cooler, a lavishly furnished ex-hideaway of an eccentric Chicago insurance magnate. Eight miles west, the 1/2 -mile-wide Ubehebe Crater is the result of a massive volcanic eruption. The roundtrip hike to the bottom takes about 30 minutes. Backtrack south for 60 miles to the Badwater Basin, where you can walk on the crackling saline flats. A few miles back north at the Devil's Golf Course, the valley floor is dotted with lumps of crystallized salt. Nearby, Artists Drive is the perfect place to watch the mountains erupt in a riot of color at sunset.
If you go:
Bring plenty of water for both you and your vehicle. The centrally located settlement of Furnace Creek has the most facilities, including a general store, restaurants, visitor center and public showers. Stovepipe Wells, 24 miles northwest, has a store, gas station, motel, restaurant and ranger station. Gas and provisions are also available at Scotty's Castle, in the north, and Panamint Springs, on the park's western edge.
For National Park Service visitor information, call 760-786-3200 or visit Entrance fee $10 per vehicle. For Scotty's Castle tours, call 760-786-2392. Admission is $11; it is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
When to go:
The park is open year-round, but some facilities close in the summer. Most foreign visitors come to experience the searing 125-degree highs in the summer. Most locals prefer to take advantage of the cooler winter climes; accommodations are often booked solid in January and February. Fall is less crowded. The spring wildflower bloom can be famously prodigious; the park's Web site posts helpful updates.
There's no public transport to or within the park. Chartered bus tours depart frequently from Las Vegas, a 2.5-hour drive one way. Confirm current road conditions with the National Park Service: Repairs are still being made along major routes where flash floods caused washouts in the summer of 2004. Gas is expensive in the park, so fill up before entering.
Where to stay and eat:
Near the main visitor center, the Furnace Creek Inn has basic cabins and family-friendly motel rooms. The adjacent Furnace Creek Ranch Resort has 66 nicer rooms in elegant, Spanish-style stone buildings built circa 1927. There's also a golf course, a bar, a good range of eating options and a spring-water-fed swimming pool. For reservations, call 760-786-2345, 800-236-7916 or visit http://www.furnace; inn/. Resort doubles are $105-$182/ $250-$390.
The Valley's cheapest motel rooms come in various sizes at Stovepipe Wells Village (760-786-2387, doubles $55-$99). The pet-friendly Panamint Springs Resort (775-482-7680,, rooms $65-$94, two-bedroom cottage $139, tent sites $12) is on the park's western edge. Both have campgrounds and decent restaurants.
Although none of the park's nine developed campgrounds is that attractive, during the peak wildflower-watching months of March and April, they fill by midmorning. Summer heat makes camping at the lower levels intolerable, while winter nights can be surprisingly cold. Only year-round Furnace Creek (800-365-2267,, $16 in winter, $10 in summer), the most pleasant and shady campground, accepts reservations.
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