Something that will raise the hair on the back of your neck, but is also well worth it in the end, is a ride up a dark, winding road to catch the sunrise at Dante's View, in the Funeral Mountains. A half-hour's trip from the central lodging area of Furnace Creek Ranch and Inn, and about twice that from the motel at Stove Pipe Wells Village, it feels in the pre-dawn dark as though you are about to drive off the end of the world.
Once there, however, the sun comes up radiantly over rank after rank of mountain peaks, all now at eye level. Turn around and the new light plays down the heights of 11,000-foot Telescope Peak, then spreads across the white salt pan of the valley below. A short walk reveals both Badwater, the lowest point in North America, and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the United States, at the same time. And at this most impressive of sights, on a Saturday morning, our only companion is a lone, silent biker.
This interest in the highest and lowest spots may seem irrelevant to us, yet they are major attractions to the steady troop, particularly in summer, of foreign visitors to Death Valley. The French, Germans and lately Canadians choose \o7 La Vallee de la Mort,\f7 or \o7 Das Todestal \f7 for their U.S. itinerary, in large part because of such statistics, as well as the legendary heat.
"Like Libya," one French visitor, checking in at the Stove Pipe Wells village motel, explained.
The Japanese, it is said, prefer the Grand Canyon.
On the way back from Dante's View, Zabriskie Point is a spectacular morning stop as well. Some, however, prefer its canyons of raw yellow at sunset.
Those who remember the name from Michelangelo Antonioni's rebellious 1970 film "Zabriskie Point," may be disappointed to learn that, like much in Death Valley, soap powder was in the long run more important than drama, or gold.
The evocative vista is named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, who spent a brief stint as a banker and self-taught undertaker--real knowledge of embalming being considered unnecessary in the hectic life of a mining town--then went to work for the Pacific Coast Borax Co., supervising Chinese labor gangs. He went on to become an executive with the company and retired in 1933, the year Death Valley became a national monument.
Borax, a cleaning agent known for centuries, was discovered in the valley in the late 19th Century. In 1881, in perhaps the most memorable discovery, a down-and-out prospector named Aaron Winters tested a sample from the salt pan and yelled to his wife, "She burns green! Rosie, by God, we're rich!" And they were.
Six years later, Death Valley was the source of most of the world's supply of the stuff.
A particularly haunting reminder of the rigors of the borax business is the present-day ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, just off the main paved road through the valley. It was from this sun-baked, treeless hillock that the celebrated 20-mule teams--actually, 18 mules and two draft horses--began their two-week trudge 165 miles south to Mojave.
Purifying the borax must have been miserable labor, particularly in the summer. The Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch is a gallery of heavy iron machinery used in various ways to transport and handle the mineral. The summers proved so hot at the Harmony Works that crystals wouldn't form. The works, and its 20-mule teams, were abandoned after five years of service. The real value of the teams came when they began touring the nation, like the Budweiser beer wagon. (The TV show "Death Valley Days," with host Ronald Reagan, came long after the promotion of the area was in high gear.)
Tourists became Death Valley's most important customers after the borax business finally fizzled in 1925. Automobile tours had been available at least since 1907, when visitors were challenged with the offer, "Would You Enjoy a Trip to Hell?" And by 1926, a building boom of sorts had begun.
The Stove Pipe Wells Hotel, the first public hostelry in Death Valley, expanded. It is now a clean, quiet motel, with decent food and a big Western bar.
The oasis of Furnace Creek Ranch, down the hill from the more elegant Inn, is now a family-oriented motel and restaurant stop. Its 1,800 date palms, planted in the late 1920s, line the expansive grounds, the pool, golf course and paved roads from cabin to cabin. The ranch had been bought by the Pacific Coast Borax Co. when the company needed a place to grow alfalfa for its mules. Now, in the evening, you can be driven around the place in a horse-drawn carriage, eating pizza.
GUIDEBOOK: Death Valley