In 1849, a wagon train heading for the gold fields of California took a shortcut through a barren desert valley, a grueling slog across an inhospitable landscape. One of the 49ers died, and according to legend the last trekker to leave the barren land turned around and yelled, "Goodbye, Death Valley."
The story may or may not be true, but the name stuck -- and for good reason. Anyone who has visited Death Valley in the summer months, for example when the average temperature in August is 113 degrees, knows that to be stuck somewhere in that rocky terrain in the blazing sun could mean a slow, withering death.
A debate about whether Libya or Death Valley has recorded the highest surface temperature ever is currently leaning toward Death Valley's 134 degrees on July 10, 1913.
Happily, today the heat is no longer a deterrent in Death Valley. Now it is a national park, and if visitors were to wander away, a ranger would find them before heat stroke became a problem.
While my wife and I were having dinner at the Inn at Furnace Creek, the waiter told us that British and German visitors like to come to Death Valley in the summer so they can brag about withstanding the heat.
The best part is that they can then recover in the inn's world-famous pool or simply turn up air conditioning in the beautifully appointed rooms.
Since I'm from Arizona, I don't have to leave home to visit a hot place, but I had always wanted to visit Death Valley for two cultural reasons: Zabriskie Point, the name of a prominent viewpoint in the park, was also a really bad movie by Michelangelo Antonioni, and "Death Valley Days" was a Western TV show hosted by Ronald Reagan before he became president.
We visited in late autumn, when the daytime temperature was in the moderate 70s. With blue skies above, a bit of early morning nip in the air and Las Vegas in the rear-view mirror, we entered the park near the hamlet of Shoshon to begin our own "Death Valley Days."
There are at least a half-dozen entry points to the California park because at 3.4 million acres it is the largest national park in the United States outside of Alaska. Coming from Las Vegas, we had the luck of geography with us.
The entrance from this route is the southeast gateway, which in my mind is the best pick. Along the 72 miles from the boundary of the park to the Inn at Furnace Creek are some of the most famous Death Valley sites, including Badwater, the lowest spot in the Northern Hemisphere.
This is also a scenic route as the ride passes through two mountain passes, Salsberry Pass at 3,315 feet and the twisty Jubilee Pass at 1,290 feet. Although the passes aren't at high elevations, the mountains here are rugged, and after Jubilee there are miles and miles of descent into the thin strip of barren earth called Death Valley.
The first stop I'd suggest on this route is an old ruin called Ashford Mill. There's not a lot here, but when I arrived in the early morning the shadows on the old walls made for beautiful photography.
The next stop is Badwater, the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level.<<p>Much of Death Valley is a salt pan, the residue of a saline lake that existed more than 10,000 years ago, and at Badwater it is possible to access this odd natural formation.
A pathway carved into the salt flats makes for an interesting walk, but rangers warn that in hot weather even this small walk can be brutal. A spring flows here, which is how the spot got its name. Water, yes, but drinkable, not really. A sign on a cliff behind the parking area marks sea level, but people often miss it.
The next short hike is a little farther down the road at the turnoff to a natural bridge. The road here is unpaved but well maintained. After about a mile and a half there is a parking area, and from there is a short path to a bridged canyon. When we arrived at the natural bridge, a couple was there taking pictures.
"Not much when compared to Arches," the man said.
He was right, but the bridges at Arches National Park in Utah are eroded sandstone. The rocks here are harder stuff, making this bridge a very rare formation.
Still heading north, we took the nine-mile detour called Artists Palette, which is a loop through an outcropping of hard rock formations that are colorful in pinks and even blues due to mineral content.
About two miles before the park headquarters at Furnace Creek and our destination, the Inn at Furnace Creek, was a sign that said "Salt Creek Interpretive Trail."
What sounded boring turned out to be the best short hike on this route, and more aggressive hikers can take ancillary trails all the way to Zabriskie Point. We ended up getting there by car, so we were able to look out over undulating golden rock formations.
If memory serves me well, in the movie of the same name the young protagonists have a romantic interlude among the rocks, but I wouldn't suggest trying that today. The ground is hard and unforgiving, and someone in the crowd at the lookout point could take a picture with his or her phone and have the image on the Internet within moments.
WHEN YOU GO
Death Valley National Park is huge and contains diverse topography from sand dunes and salt flats to canyons and mountains. We were there for three days and still didn't get to see it all: www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm.
There are numerous places to stay at Death Valley, including motels, campgrounds and RV parks, but there is only one "jewel of Death Valley," the famous Inn at Furnace Creek. Originally opened in 1927, the resort still retains an aura of earlier times.There are only 66 rooms, but there is also fine dining, an oasis of a pool, beautiful gardens and an outstanding view: www.furnacecreekresort.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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