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Trip of the Week

Luxury and Candlelight Dining in Death Valley

March 13, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

DEATH VALLEY — You can be sure the gold rush miners who named this foreboding place in 1849 never dressed for dinner. Today, however, male visitors routinely wear coat and tie for their candlelight suppers.

They're dining in style at the fabled Furnace Creek Inn. Guests can also sunbathe around a spring-fed swimming pool, golf on an 18-hole course where the traps are grass instead of sand and play tennis on lighted courts in the cool of the evening.

You'd hardly expect a luxury resort in the middle of this vast desert, where the attractions have names like Hell's Gate, Devil's Hole, Dante's View and Badwater. But winter vacationers have been flocking to the inn ever since it opened in 1927.

Six years later Death Valley was declared a national monument, and over the past half a century this 2-million acre park has become a very popular destination.

The 70-room inn has a sister property, Furnace Creek Ranch, with 225 rooms. And you'll find 85 additional rooms not far away at Stove Pipe Wells Village. For visitors who prefer the stars for a rooftop, 1,600 campsites are available in Death Valley.

Scotty's Castle

Most accommodations are in the center of this arid expanse of sand dunes and salt flats, ringed by a barrier of mountains. From the hub at Furnace Creek, visitors fan out on paved roads to see the park's best-known sights, such as Scotty's Castle, the 1920s baronial ranch home of a Chicago millionaire.

At Badwater you can look to the lowest spot in the United States, 282 feet below sea level. Then wind up a mountainside to Dante's View, which extends from Badwater to 11,000-foot Telescope Peak. Along the way are beautiful badlands at Zabriskie Point.

A Death Valley itinerary also should include seeing a multicolored hillside of mineral deposits called the Artists Palette, and the Devil's Golf Course that is an ancient lake bed with jagged pinnacles of salt-covered mud.

Be sure to wander on foot over the shifting sand dunes, especially at sunset when they take on a special glow.

Also explore man-made points of interest from early mining days, such as ruins of the Harmony Borax Works and beehive-shaped charcoal kilns high in a forest of pinion pines. At Death Valley Junction outside the park boundary, you can watch a one-woman performance in the 60-year-old Amargosa Opera House.

Driving or Touring

Considerable driving is required to reach some attractions in the 3,000-square-mile monument, so visitors often sign up for tours operated by Amfac's Fred Harvey division. You can see Death Valley's highlights on half-day outings, including Scotty's Castle, the Amargosa Opera and spectacular Titus Canyon.

Headquartered at Furnace Creek, Amfac owns or operates most of the park's visitor facilities. The Fred Harvey folks have been running the inn and ranch with loving care for years.

First-time visitors are surprised to find that Furnace Creek is an oasis of date-bearing palms. That tasty fruit is in season now and can be bought at a pair of roadside stands.

The verdant vista at Furnace Creek is extended by the lowest all-grass golf course in the world (214 feet below sea level). Greens fees are $14/$16; rental clubs and electric or hand carts are available.

The par-70 course borders lodgings at the ranch, where you can bed down in modern fairway-view rooms or rustic tree-shaded cabins. Guests can use a swimming pool, two lighted tennis courts, a children's playground and even a museum of mining artifacts from the time the property belonged to a borax company.

To quench your thirst, push through the swinging doors of the Corkscrew Saloon. Meals are served in a coffee shop, cafeteria and a steak house that opens in the evening. The adjacent general store is stocked with groceries and curios.

Horseback Rides

Also at the ranch is a stable where you can mount up for a horseback ride that wranglers lead over the valley floor or into the mountain foothills. The two-hour trail trips cost $12.

Nearby is the Death Valley Visitors Center, with exhibits on park history, geography and plant and animal life. Pick up a map and visitor guide and ask about the rangers' tours and talks.

This is also the place to pay the park's entrance fee that became effective this year: $5 per vehicle, valid for seven days. Seniors enter free with a Golden Age Passport from the center.

With Death Valley's sunshine and warm daytime temperatures, many visitors come to the park just to relax at the Furnace Creek Inn. The classic Old West hotel operates on the modified American plan, which includes breakfast and dinner daily.

After enjoying poached eggs Florentine or another breakfast entree in your room or on the veranda, head to the swimming pool that's filled with warm mountain spring water. It also flows to fountains and fish ponds in a lush garden of palms.

All the Comforts

Constructed on a hillside by Panamint Indians using adobe brick and native rock, the inn sits with a regal view of the valley and snowcapped mountains on the horizon.

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