Death Valley, CA – Desert Explorations

Genie Davis November 15, 2010 2 Comments

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We started taking our kids to Death Valley before they were even born. I was pregnant with my daughter when I began to appreciate the beauty of the desert. In the interim we’ve driven, hiked, swam, toured, and off-roaded in this large, wonderful park of brilliantly hued mountains.

Death Valley National Park is about five hours drive from Los Angeles, three from Las Vegas, and eight from San Francisco. If you’re planning a trip to LA or Vegas and it’s not on your itinerary, it should be, especially with children in tow. Don’t be afraid of the park’s high temperature reputation, which is really only relevant in the summer. We’ve even been there on the 4th of July, and that’s quite doable too, but I’ll save that experience for another article.

For now, let’s start with the basics. Because Death Valley is in such an isolated desert portion of the state, your accommodation choices are somewhat limited. Just outside the park on the south eastern side, just over the Nevada line, you’ll find the reasonably priced Longstreet Inn and Casino. With a swimming pool, a diner-style restaurant, and an RV park along with it’s clean, large, basic rooms, it’s a fine choice for park exploration. Many rooms have beautiful views of the Funeral Mountains of Amargosa Valley which border the park. Outside the northern end of the park, you’ll find the small town of Beatty, Nevada. A variety of basic motels are located here, the Exchange Club has the largest rooms; the Stagecoach has a restaurant. Best of all though, is staying in the park itself, at the Furnace Creek Resort. You have a choice of the ranch, with cabins or nicely appointed motel-style rooms; or the elegant, historic vibe of the Furnace Creek Inn.

At the sixty-six room inn, you’ll find a beautiful pool with fantastic mountain views, an outdoor fireplace – yes, the nights do get chilly except in mid-summer – and a restaurant with excellent food. Regardless of where you stay inside or outside the park, try and make it to the restaurant’s Sunday brunch. This huge and elegant feast of breakfast and lunch items is reasonably priced for kids, and the dining room looks out at the beautiful desert scenery. You won’t find a better meal in the desert, and it fueled our family for an entire day of exploring. Children under three are free. The dining room and the inn itself are closed in the summer.

Death Valley California - Badwater

The water looks appealing but it's "Badwater," the lowest point in the contiguous US, in Death Valley National Park.

Open year round, the ranch has four restaurants, all more casual than the Inn’s dining option. It also has shops, a Borax Museum, a large swimming pool fed by an underground spring, tennis courts, horseback riding,  carriage and hay rides. There’s a well kept children’s playground with swings and slide. You can easily enjoy the views and stay centered right around the ranch and experience the beauty of the Valley. The pool is enormous and warm, and delightfully unchlorinated. We’ve always found it difficult to tear ourselves away from its soothing mineral water.

But when you do, a good place to start exploring is nearby,  indoors at the ranch’s  Borax Museum. The kids will love the authentic regional exhibits including mining equipment, a stage coach and  locomotive. You’ll learn about the mining history of Borax and its multiple uses in common household products, which is fun. Outside there’s a steam tractor and wagons perfect for climbing.

If your kids are over five, you can rent horses at the Furnace Creek Ranch Stables and take a gentle lope around the ranch grounds.

In the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, also on site, you’ll find a small museum with models of Death Valley that explain its geology as well as providing information on the Native Americans who once lived in the region and the various plants and animals that reside in the desert. A child-friendly touch table allows you to touch date palm fronds, fossils, a coyote skull, sheep and coyote pelts.

When you’re ready to venture out of the oasis, head below sea level, two hundred and eighty two feet below to be exact. Here you’ll find Badwater – aptly named for the undrinkable water that shimmers on the vast salt flats. It was named by a prospector whose horse sensibly didn’t consume the salty water. You can walk across the salt flat very easily and seeing the vast flat white expanse of salt crystals is truly beautiful, and kids of all ages will be fascinated. Point out the big white dot on the cliffs just east of the visitor’s parking area that indicates sea level.

Hop back in the car and take a short drive back toward Furnace Creek and Artist’s Drive. The road is unpaved, but passenger cars can take the short dirt loop road easily, we’ve done it many times. Cutting through a canyon in the Black Mountains, Artist’s Palette is so named for the various and brightly colored rocks. The multi-colored palette is caused by the oxidation of different metals – red, pink and yellow from iron, the green mica and copper, and the purple is caused by manganese.

Death Valley National Park - near Zabriskie Point

Another beautiful view in Death Valley National Park - near Zabriskie Point.

After completing in the loop, drive back toward Furnace Creek and east to Zabriskie Point. This stunning look out offers you a view of golden sandstone and chocolate brown hills – our kids said they looked like melting candy – all the way down to Badwater. While it’s a very brief walk from the parking lot to the view point, it’s uphill, be prepared to carry your little ones. It’s paved and stroller accessible. This is an especially beautiful spot late in the day, when the lowering sun colors the hills in even more vivid shades.

I’ll lead you west and north through the park in my next article, but for now, return to your accommodations for the night and be sure to step outside and look at the stars – there’s no light pollution in Death Valley, and this is a great spot to point out some night sky basics to your children.

Death Valley Articles in this Series:

Death Valley, CA – Desert Explorations

More Desert Explorations – Death Valley National Park

Death Valley – Rhyolite Ruins, Charcoal Kilns and Mosaic Canyon

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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2 Comments to “Death Valley, CA – Desert Explorations”
  1. avatar Death Valley National Park - Scotty's Castle and Dunes says:

    [...] magnificent sand dunes is early morning. Grab a quick breakfast to go from the convenience store at Furnace Creek ranch – you’ll find fresh fruit and muffins – and head out. This time of day [...]

  2. avatar Death Valley Family Vacation - Rhyolite Ruins and Charcoal Kilns says:

    [...] Death Valley, CA – Desert Explorations More Desert Explorations – Death Valley National Park Dea… VN:F [1.9.6_1107]please wait…Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)VN:F [1.9.6_1107]Rating: 0 (from 0 votes) About the Author: Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. http://www.geniedavis.com Tags: Central California, Death ValleyReviews, Travel Excursions [...]