The desert landscape and extreme climate of Death Valley National Park seem a little off, otherworldly even. Crooked peaks are capped with black lava, like thick fudge sauce drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Rocks mysteriously move across a dry lakebed. Some of the highest temperatures on earth have baked layers of mineral-stained sediment and volcanic ash into surreal outcroppings.
Death Valley looks so much like another world that it became one: Some of the scenes on Tatooine, the planet where Luke Skywalker was raised in the original “Star Wars” movie, were shot here. Death Valley stood in for a desert planet in the Outer Rim Territories populated by scavenging Jawas, the Sand People, Jabba the Hutt’s palace and abandoned mining machinery.
I got my first look at that otherworldliness in January when, not far from the park’s southern entrance, I walked up a steep path at Zabriskie Point and was struck by the shapes and colors of the uplifted rock. Over millennia, water has carved tiny rills and deep gullies into the rock. This trip, I thought, is going to be a geology lesson.
Bleak with mostly barren slopes, Death Valley is a place of unique features and unexpected character. Tectonic plates shift, mountains tilt, and the Ubehebe craters — formed centuries ago by an eruption of steam and molten rock — are ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey as a moderate threat to explode again. Salt flats and sun-bleached sand dunes spread across the valley floor. Rocks move across Racetrack Playa, propelled by a spooky combination of wind and melting ice. The lowest spot in the U.S. is here at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.
It is the hottest place on earth and one of the driest. Florida communities often get more rain in a day than Death Valley averages in a year — about two inches — but when it does rain, the park is prone to violent flash floods that can reshape the rock canyons. Highs of 120 degrees are not uncommon — in the summer of 1996, Death Valley had 40 days that hit 120 or hotter. It holds the world’s record for heat: 134 degrees in July 1913.
The park — at 3.3 million acres the largest of the national parks outside Alaska — is part of the Mojave Desert in southeastern California, abutting Nevada. The drive from Los Angeles includes more than 100 miles of lonely desert driving after leaving the interstate, with scarce gas station or food stops between I-15 and the park. Although it’s located in the nation’s most populous state, its climate and remote location are daunting. Death Valley had only 1.3 million visitors in 2016, ranking it 19th among the 59 national parks.
When I was there in January, the highs ran around 60. It rained on and off, a rare occurrence, prompting park rangers and hotel workers to speculate optimistically about a big wildflower bloom in the spring.
January is between peak seasons, so the park was not crowded. When I was away from the hotels and organized activities, I encountered few cars and had the place almost to myself.
Hiking was comfortable. Park rangers were available on most days to lead visitors on several easy to moderate hikes at prime spots including Golden Canyon, where some of the “Star Wars” scenes were shot, and Badwater Basin.
3.3 million acres Which makes Death Valley the largest national park in the continental U.S.
It was raining on the morning I started driving to Badwater Basin for the hike. Roadside signs warned that flash floods could happen at any time. I stopped the car and thought about the ways of water: It seeks the lowest point. I turned my car around and stuck to higher ground while the rain fell.
Late one afternoon, I climbed onto a horse at Furnace Creek Stables for a low-lying view. The guide and I set out along the valley floor, not as low as Badwater but still almost 200 feet below sea level. The ground was flat and even, except for a narrow trough that wound through the creosote bush, desert holly and mesquite, where our horses walked.
The surprisingly flat valley floor stretches to mountains that rise abruptly and close in on all sides. They have sharp ridge lines, rocky slopes with little or no vegetation, and scars left by mining. On this afternoon ride, they were illuminated in a rich glow by the low angle of the winter sun, but it was easy to imagine them under the ruthless summer sun, the air shimmering with heat.
We poked along, watching for snakes and talking about the rugged mountains, the UFOs spotted close by in Nevada, the necessity to close the stables in May and ship the horses somewhere cooler, and the remains of Death Valley’s mines.
Death Valley got its name from would-be miners who got lost there while taking a nonexistent shortcut to California’s gold fields during the 1849 gold rush. Later, Death Valley developed its own mining industry in gold and silver, but the most successful was the mining of borax, a mineral used in detergents. The 20-mule teams that pulled wagonloads of borax across the desert became an icon of Death Valley.
Artifacts of that history — photos, fossils, chunks of minerals, mining equipment, wagon trains and cars — are displayed in a couple of small museums. One is the Borax Museum, located at the Furnace Creek Resort within the park, not far from the long-closed Harmony Borax Works, home of the 20-mule teams. The other is the Shoshone Valley Museum, about 50 miles southeast of the park, on California 127.
I visited both museums but wanted more. So on a day with clear skies, I set out from my hotel at Furnace Creek — now the most developed section of the park, with two hotels, a gas station and a park service visitor center — to see the area’s mining history. The road twisted and rolled gently upward through the Amargosa Mountains, from 190 feet below sea level to a ghost town named Rhyolite at 3,819 feet above.
Rhyolite, once the largest of the gold rush settlements, sits five miles outside the park’s eastern entrance near Beatty, Nevada. The town was established in 1905, but the nearby mine went bust a few years later and the town died with it. Many of Rhyolite’s buildings were transplanted to settlements that bore more promise. But a number remain, including the railroad station; a “bottle house” built of thousands of (mostly beer) bottles in neat rows embedded in mortar; and the skeleton of a three-story bank, the debris from the walls and roof scattered on the ground. Signs warn visitors to watch for rattlesnakes.
As I drove out of Rhyolite, a big metal sculpture of a miner, identifiable by his pickax, and a penguin caught my eye. Behind it was a building that turned out to be a tiny museum and souvenir store, and behind that was an eerie sculpture of what looked like ghosts.
I had stumbled upon the Goldwell Open Air Museum, anchored by “The Last Supper” sculpture by Albert Szukalski, a Belgian artist who was drawn to the desert. In 1984, he translated Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting into 3D art, creating life-size figures by draping people with sheets of plaster-soaked burlap. The models stood still until the burlap dried into cloaked forms. He then arranged the cloaks, all white, to match the painting. After Szukalski died in 2000, the nonprofit museum was organized. His ghostly figures have been joined by the miner and other artists’ sculptures in that unlikely space.
Death Valley, 275 miles from Hollywood, has played a part in almost 100 movies.
Back at Furnace Creek that evening, it was dark. Very, very dark. Which was a good thing, because I was going stargazing.
Death Valley National Park is a dark-sky park, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as being free of light pollution. Without outdoor lighting, the skies above the park are some of the darkest in the U.S. No kidding, I thought, as I struggled to park in a lot illuminated only by my headlights, then walked up an uneven path to a level space at Harmony Borax Works where a park ranger waited, a red headlamp glowing dimly on her forehead.
When it seemed that everyone who was coming had arrived, she turned off her headlamp and we turned off our cellphones. While our eyes grew accustomed to the dark, the ranger told stories about the stars — some ancient legends, some newly made-up stories that featured Death Valley.
I had never seen so many stars. Even the easy constellations I knew, Orion the Hunter and the Big Dipper, were hard to distinguish amid so many stars. For the first time, I saw the Milky Way with my naked eye.
We followed the ranger’s voice and clustered around her, asking about the skies, looking for constellations that are too faint to make out through city lights. Where is Cassiopeia? Where are the Pleiades? Is that bright star Venus? Is that moving light the space station? With a laser pointer that she assured us would not interfere with pilots, she patiently pointed out every star or planet we asked about and answered all our questions.
But it is the geology that makes Death Valley unique. While other national parks have some of the same elements, nowhere do these elements combine to create the same spectacle.
I thought of that as I stood at Zabriskie Point, one of the most accessible features in the park and part of its badlands, shaped by the violence of flooding and sudden movements of the earth and colored by minerals in the sediment of a prehistoric lake. Around me, people speaking several languages took photos of the landscape, and a caravan of at least two dozen motorcyclists pulled up to see the landmark.
“Zabriskie Point” was a bad ’70s movie that was partly filmed at the landmark for which it was named. In fact, Death Valley is quite the movie star. The National Park Service says it has played a part in almost 100 movies and television shows, starting with “Chimmie Fadden Out West,” a 1915 silent movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Death Valley must have changed since then — mountains eroded, new canyons carved out, the Furnace Creek oasis turned into a resort. But for me, with its harsh desert climate, long-abandoned mining operations and outlaw history, Death Valley will always be Tatooine.
Going to Death Valley
Getting there: Furnace Creek, the main resort area of Death Valley National Park, is about a 285-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles and 125 miles from Las Vegas. Gas up before leaving the interstate — gas stations are few and far between and most charge premium prices. Take lots of water. Cellphone service ranges from spotty to nonexistent.
When to go: Peak seasons are late fall and spring, when blooming wildflowers briefly transform the valley. Winter is comfortable; average highs in January are in the mid-60s, with the possibility of rain. Most summer days are over 100 degrees, but can bring monsoons. Some amenities close from approximately May to October.
Where to stay: The two main hotels are the Furnace Creek Inn, which opened in 1927, and the nearby 244-room Furnace Creek Ranch, which opened in 1933. The 66-room Inn has a AAA Four Diamond rating. With a pool and spa, it is the more upscale hotel. The Inn (rooms from $469 in spring) closes from May to October. Furnace Creek Ranch (from $269 in spring, $159 late summer) is the more casual, family-oriented lodging, with a golf course and horse stables. The resort also has a campground. Reservations for all can be made at 800-236-7916 and furnacecreekresort.com. Other hotels: Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel (rooms from $140), north of Furnace Creek, deathvalleyhotels.com; and Panamint Springs Resort (rooms from $99 in spring), west side of park, panamintsprings.com.