Going to Las Vegas anytime soon, for a convention or just to see the glitter and glitz? You might want to consider taking a day or two and drive over to one of America's newest national parks...and one of the biggest, Death Valley National Park in California. About 4 years ago congress changed Death Valley from a National Monument to a National Park, added several million acres to it, and the winter months are definitely the best time to visit an incredibly beautiful place...

There is a place in Death Valley called Bad Water. It is the lowest point in the western hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. In the picture close to these words sunup glows red on the Panamint Mountains that rise 11,000 feet above us. It's a little chilly on this winter morning, not like it's going to be, say, oh, in the middle of July...

In the deep, dead of summer, the ground temperature on the valley floor out there can be over 200 degrees. And the record temperature here, air temperature in the shade, was 134 degrees.

You spend a lot of time driving above and below sea level in Death Valley, and a long way from anywhere. Even in a car it's a place to respect...what's that song? All day I've faced the barren waste...The Sons of the Pioneers classic song about an old prospector facing the burning desert is appropriate when you hear the story about how Death Valley got its name...

Some of the 1849 pioneers, headed for the gold fields, came through here taking what they thought was a shortcut. When they finally got out and went out over the mountains in the south end of Death Valley, supposedly one of the ladies turned around and said, "Goodbye, Death Valley!"

Even as cool as it is today, shimmering harbingers of the days warmth are already doing their little hokey-pokey across the desert floor. Come here and visit now because now is a nice time but in summer this place is literally hell on earth! Vast, vast panoramas that brought more than one strong man to his knees...

Death Valley! Listen to the names of places: Furnace Creek; Dante's View; Funeral Mountains; here, the Devil's Golf Course, a strange mixture of mud and salt dried by desert winds that fascinates just about everybody and sometimes surprises golfers who see this on a map and actually think there's a golf course here. True story: one day this guy flew into the Death Valley airport, jumped out with his golf bags...

If you've only got a day to look around, you really ought to give it two days, we found that the concessionaire, Fred Harvey, runs excellent tours that give you a good sense of Death Valley. Reasonably priced, the guides are knowledgeable and they wander into places you might not find on a casual visit.

The early pioneers looked at all this and saw sand and heat and desolation and death and now we hold Death Valley in an almost mystical reverence. But that is what makes Death Valley so special, it is a magnificent desolation. Marvelous, long views literally untamed by man.

That's why a small, year-round creek, fed by an underground spring, is such a surprise. An incredible oasis is Furnace Creek Inn. This is a fancy place with fancy prices. Down the hill a bit, sort of in the basement below sea level and still benefiting from that spring, is Furnace Creek RANCH for skinnier pocketbooks. In the picture to the left there is a road far below and if you could see them, the cars would be tiny, tiny. Down there is where we started this story at sun rise...down below sea level at a place called Bad Water.

Our story ends now a mile above that at Dante's View and a little taste of Death Valley humor There's the story about the guy who got a job on the GRAVEYARD shift at the COFFIN mine in the FUNERAL mountains. Hope he wasn't the least bit superstitious.



How to get there - First of all, get a map. Then you have several choices. From Las Vegas, you can come in via Death Valley Junction. That's about 140 miles and has great scenery of the valley as you approach it.

You can come via Pahrump and New Road...distance, about 120 miles. But, you come up the valley floor from the south.

The visitor center is at Furnace Creek, more or less centrally located in the valley.

Death Valley National Park is twice the size of the state of Deleware, making distances you travel from one place to another not inconsequential. It's not a bad idea to fill the tank whenever you have an opportunity. Don't leave the main road unless your car is in excellent shape and equipped to handle whatever road you're heading down. There are a number of 4-wheel drive roads in the park, but check locally before using them.