Death Valley – Rhyolite Ruins, Charcoal Kilns and Mosaic Canyon

Genie Davis November 15, 2010 No Comments


In 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 of Rhyolite en route. Not only is the town well preserved, its easily accessible on a paved road.

Rhyolite Ruins Death Valley

Rhyolite Ruins Death Valley


Maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, Rhyolite is a wonderful stop. Our kids were wide eyed, exploring the abandoned train station and the still standing walls of buildings once three stories tall. Signs placed around the buildings explain the history and remains and many include photos of the original buildings. Founded in 1904, this town once had over ten thousand residents, and it was booming until area mines played out. Its prosperity was short lived, and now it’s just picturesque ruins, but ruins conveniently located on a paved road and often used as a movie location. Park and enjoy exploring the stark remains of banks and brothels. Still standing is a fascinating house built from beer bottles. There were originally three such houses; the one still standing was rehabilitated in 2005, stabilizing its foundation and replacing missing bottles.

On the southern end of Rhyolite, there’s a modern installation:  the statues built by Albert Szukalski and other artists from Belgium. Serving as The Goldwell Open Air Museum, this site was created after the death of Albert Szukalski. Visitors are welcome to explore the massive sculptures which include ghostly white figures on bicycles and representing The Last Supper, a gigantic pink lady, and a tribute to the namesake of Scotty’s castle, Scotty Harris, created from heavy steel. The kids will love the visual contrast to the desert landscape and the Rhyolite ruins, and there’s plenty of room to walk around and explore the art works at close range.

Heading back into the park again, if you’re fortunate enough to cross through Stovepipe Wells at sunset, take another look at the dunes. The colors are beautiful, and in the cooler evening air you can enjoy another walk on the sand. Watching the moon and stars from the dunes is wonderful, too, but be careful – after dark snakes will come out, so stay clear of the creosote and mesquite bushes that dot the sand. Snake warning aside, there are many wonderful desert creatures to see at night, if you step quietly across the sand. Our kids have seen foxes, rabbits and kangaroo rats. Bring a flash light!

Kilns Death Valley California

Charcoal Kilns Death Valley California


To begin another day’s adventures, go west on Highway 190, toward Wildrose Canyon, and head up hill to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. While the last three miles of road are unpaved, the road is graded gravel and we’ve taken it many times in a passenger car. The bumpy drive is worth it for the strange site at the end of the drive: ten impressive rock kilns rising up in a clearing in the pine forest. These bee hive shaped kilns were used to produce charcoal as fuel for the silver lead smelters built in the 1877′s. Each kiln is twenty five feet tall and about thirty feet wide. They once held forty two cords of pinyon pine, and when burning for a week, they produced two thousand bushels of charcoal – that’s a lot. Today, these kilns are great fun for kids. They’re echo chambers great for singing a round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and a terrific spot for a game of hide and seek. Temperatures are cooler here on the mountain side, and the kids will enjoy some play time in the area. You can take a short hike into the cool woods on an easy dirt trail to admire the view down into Death Valley below.

After spending some time at the kilns, we were ready for lunch. Rejoining Highway 190, it isn’t far to the small “resort” of Panamint Springs. A rustic motel court is supplemented by a restaurant with some surprisingly good food. We enjoyed house made soups and salad and rich chocolate cake. Sit out on the porch and admire the view of mountains and dunes in the distance. If you’re heading out of the park from here, Highway 190 will take you past many broad scenic views high above the desert floor. If you’re turning back toward Furnace Creek, make a stop at Mosaic Canyon.

Death Valley National Park Road

The wonders of an open road - leading to a ghost town or another desert exploration near Death Valley National Park.


Mosaic Canyon is simply gorgeous, a nature made sculpture garden of beautiful colors and varied shapes. This is not stroller territory, but you can make your stay as brief or as long as your children are capable of walking or you are comfortable carrying them. In many ways this canyon is made for kids – it’s narrow passage ways seem tailor made for small scramblers; you’ll walk in a single file line to get through the more restricted sections. Carved and shining from flash floods, this is virtually an outdoor museum of geologic wonders. It begins with a totally easy quarter mile walk to the canyon narrows. Here the rock walls are smooth marble, polished by those years of flash flood waters. Our kids loved touching the silky stone, which feels like no other rock you’ve ever touched. The walk through this lower section takes no more than fifteen or twenty minutes, but the mosaic shapes are marvelous. Again, depending on your abilities and your children’s interest, you can turn back to the car here or slip through the narrow section and walk on across open stony areas and through more narrow passages if you wish -  up to two miles through a canyon chiseled and sculpted into curves and whorls of marble and limestone.

As you drive back to Furnace Creek, point out the mysterious ‘hay stack’ formations of Devil’s Cornfield, and salt flats you’ll see along the way. Maybe a coyote or two will wander by along the road. Death Valley is full of color, creatures, and – life. Children of all ages will enjoy exploring the wonders of this vast desert playground.

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

avatarAbout 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.

Tags: , , Reviews, Travel Excursions

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