too hot to handle
The air, hot and thick like a woolen blanket, enveloped us as soon as we opened the car doors. It may have been close to 8pm, but the temperature at the aptly named Stovepipe Wells hovered close to 100°F. If we had jumped the gun in the Sierra Nevada, visiting Yosemite and Lake Tahoe a few weeks before the official start of the tourist season, then we were definitely late to the party in Death Valley.
Before the Westward Expansion, Death Valley National Park was home to the Timbisha tribe, the descendants of which continue to refer to the area’s remarkable valleys and canyons as Tumpisa, meaning “rock paint.” The discovery of gold in the middle of the nineteenth century drove thousands of adventurers to California, some of whom accidentally found their way to this hot, arid spot and gave it a name that evoked the difficulties they surely faced there.
In the spring, after the rains flood the valley floor, Death Valley blooms with a myriad of eye-dazzling wildflowers. The streams, which are home to small fish that are endemic to just this one, forsaken yet hauntingly beautiful corner of the world, swell and cascade through the canyons. This explosion of life lasts for a matter of weeks. Death Valley receives only two inches of rain over the course of the entire year, its hot, desert expanse more than justifying its harrowing name the rest of the year.
Although the gold and silver deposits in Death Valley were relatively minute, the area boomed for about a decade after the Gold Rush when borax was found in its multi-hued hills. Three miniscule towns remain from this late-nineteenth century expansion: Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek. The twenty-mule teams that hauled the borax out of the desert have long since passed into the realm of history, but the three towns continue to thrive, serving as a hub for the nearly 1 million tourists who visit Death Valley each year.
Each town has a hotel, gas station, and restaurant. Because all three are located inside the national park, concessions are limited and the prices they charge out in the desert with no competition are outrageous. We briefly blanched at the room rates and considered camping but fortunately thought better of it. Though far from the record-setting 134°F logged in Furnace Creek about a century ago – the hottest temperature recorded anywhere in the world – the needle reached 109°F during our stay, which would have made camping incredibly uncomfortable.
We made our base of operations at Stovepipe Wells, which was farther from many of Death Valley’s main attractions, clustered around Furnace Creek, but much more reasonably priced. The hotel and restaurant left much to be desired, but at least the air conditioning worked round the clock in every room of the establishment. We needed sweatershirts to avoid freezing during dinner while outside the hot air that had been trapped by two mountain ranges on the valley floor continued to stew deep into the night.
With just a day and a half to explore Death Valley, we made a laundry list of must-see highlights and set our alarms for 5:30, knowing full well that we would only have a few hours after the sun rose before it would become unbearably hot outside.