More Desert Explorations – Death Valley National Park

Genie Davis November 15, 2010 1 Comment

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Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley California

Early morning is a great time to explore the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

The desert quiet is intense, and no matter where you spend the night, you’ll get a sound night’s sleep. And it’s a good thing, too, because one of the best times to explore Death Valley’s 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 there’s usually no wind to cause any blowing sand; the light isn’t glaring, and you’ll still be able to point out the footprints of passing desert creatures left on the sand. We saw evidence of pack rats, jack rabbits, snakes and lizards. The drive from Furnace Creek to the dunes near Stovepipe Wells at Mesquite Flats is less than twenty minutes, and from the roadside parking lot, it’s only a few steps onto the sand.

Whether you walk to just the next dune or traverse the sandy hills dotted with mesquite and creosote as far as you can see them, you’ll spend many great hours with the kids admiring the still, soft beauty. Some dunes rise over one hundred feet, others are gentle rolling waves less than five feet tall. It’s a photographers haven, and small children love to take off their shoes and just play in the sand. More active pursuits are available too, of course, like  sliding, rolling, drawing pictures in the sand, jumping off dunes, leaping into one. From babes in arms to adults, everyone enjoys this enormous, and beautiful sandbox.  Where did these dunes come from?  Most likely erosion of quartz and feldspar minerals from the Cottonwood Mountains nearby. The high quartz content of these dunes explains the sparkle in the white sand.

Although the sand dunes are only a very small part of the desert landscape, these dunes are a huge attraction, and you’ll see plenty of families here. The spacious expanse is never too crowded though. Be sure to bring water with you – the dry desert heat will make you thirsty any time of year. And, don’t forget the sun screen, either; the sun reflects off the dunes with great intensity any time of day.

Sand Dunes Death Valley National Park

Race ya to the top - enjoying the sand dunes at Death Valley National Park.

After some vigorous dune play, make a stop in the general store at Stovepipe Wells. You’ll find toys and books in the gift shop and a freezer full of individual ice cream and popsicle selections, as well as an opportunity to replenish your water supply.

Suitably refreshed, you can push on to the nearby Salt Creek Nature Trail. This pleasant and stroller friendly trail traverses a boardwalk just above the salty creek. Winter or spring you’ll spy tiny silver pup fish, living fossils, the hardy survivors of an ice age lake. Summer months will find the creek dry.

Driving north toward Beatty – clearly marked off Death Valley’s main road, highway 190, you’ll head toward Scotty’s Castle, one of the few man-made points of interest in the vast park. Scotty’s Castle looks like a mirage when you first approach it, located in a small oasis near the grape vine mountains in the northern part of the park. It’s not a real castle; rather it’s a two-story Mission and Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built in 1922. When an itinerant prospector and raconteur known as “Death Valley Scotty” convinced a Chicago millionaire named Albert Johnson to invest in his gold mine in the Death Valley area, Johnson built this elaborate home. Today, rangers dress in the clothing of the era and take visitors on a stroller accessible, very enjoyable tour of the house, with its rich furnishings and architecture. In the Music Room, tour goers enjoy the sounds of an impressive Welte organ with eleven hundred pipes and learn about both the construction of the property and the life style of the Johnson’s and their close friend, Scotty. The tour is anecdotal enough to keep older children occupied, and brief enough that small children won’t be bored.

A well designed museum on the property provides plenty of information about the property if you’d prefer to eschew the tour, which does require tickets. Children under three are free. On your own, feel free to wander the grounds. Next to the main house, the Chimes Tower originally constructed to store hot water tanks, instead contains twenty five carillon chimes that play enchantingly every fifteen minutes. The kids will enjoy a short trail behind the house that leads to Scotty’s grave site.

Death Valley National Park Mountains

There's beauty everywhere from the dunes to the mountains in Death Valley National Park.

A short drive from Scotty’s Castle is the natural wonder of Ubehebe Crater. This impressive crater was formed over six thousand years ago from a volcanic explosion, and it is more than five hundred feet deep. It’s easy to get into it and considerably more difficult to get back out, so if you’re carrying small children, make sure you’re up to the rigorous climb out. There’s an easy trail from the rim of Ubehebe to a smaller crater five minutes away, named Little Ubehebe as an enjoyable alternative. Our kids were awed by the enormous “hole in the ground,” and the colors and striations of the volcanic rock formations here are fascinating.

If you have a four wheel drive vehicle, you can take the rough dirt road out to Racetrack, where a natural formation mimics that of a speedway, but the only moving ‘vehicles’ are rocks, inching slowly across the sand due to wind and erosion. This is a wonderful spot, but don’t attempt it without a high clearance vehicle.

Just outside the park, near Beatty, is an easy to see attraction in any vehicle, the fascinating ghost town of Rhyolite and the intricate, well preserved bottle house located there. I’ll describe this leg of our Death Valley journey in my next article on this fabulous and varied desert landscape.

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

Tags: , , , Reviews, Travel Excursions
One Comments to “More Desert Explorations – Death Valley National Park”
  1. avatar Death Valley Family Vacation - Rhyolite Ruins and Charcoal Kilns says:

    [...] my last article on this wonderful Death Valley desert landscape, I left you heading out of the park to the north toward Beatty, Nevada and the wonderful ghost town [...]