Death Valley – 3 Million Acres of Weird

2022 brought us a visit to Death Valley National Park, an area once described by The New York Times as “3 million acres of weird.”

But first things first: meet our new family member and adventure buddy! Two days after getting Finn, a 10-week old English Cream Golden Retriever, we threw her in the RV and taught her all about the camping life. She’s a natural!

Straddling California and Nevada, Death Valley is a a lot of things: hottest, lowest, driest, and largest National Park below Alaska. 93% of its 3.4 million acres are designated wilderness. That’s a heck of a lot of nothingness! And yet, its complex and colorful geology has a allure all its own.

Hottest: as in REALLY hot. Even in January during a nationwide cold snap, it was 61 degrees during our visit. The hottest air temperature in the world (134 degrees) was recorded here in 1913, and a ground temperature on the valley floor was once measured at 201 degrees! Death Valley is the most sunbaked place in the world.

The Marketing Department for Death Valley NP probably needs to be fired. With names like Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, Hells Gate, Furnace Creek, and Desolation Canyon, it’s a wonder anyone wants to visit here! And yet, here we are.

Death Valley’s 200-square-mile Badwater Basin salt pan is at the lowest elevation in North America, at -282 feet below sea level. Thousands of years ago, a 30′ deep lake evaporated and left behind a one-to-five-foot layer of salt.

A tiny sign on the opposite hillside marks the point of sea level. The people’s heads in the foreground give you an idea of how low you really are in Badwater Basin.

Only Satan himself could golf at Devil’s Golf Course … a bunch of lumpy salt pinnacles and jagged spires. In the summer, you can hear tiny pops and pings as the crystals contract and expand due to temperature changes (presumably, changing from hot, to really hot, to scorching hot, to merely miserable hot).

Constructed hiking trails are rare in Death Valley, but Golden Canyon is a good choice for a pretty, and pretty easy, three-mile stroll. Most importantly, it’s centrally located in this vast, massive park.

The Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile, one-way, dipping, curving loop highlighting gorgeous mineral deposits from one of the Park’s most explosive volcanic periods.

In the late 1880s, mining companies sought out borax, “the white gold of Death Valley,” used in laundry detergent and more. After processing the borax, Harmony Borax Works used their famed “20-mule teams” to drag it 165 miles to the nearest railroad stop.

Unsurprisingly, low yields in these parched lands meant rapid failure, but remnants of the mine, plus an excellent Borax Museum at the historic Ranch at Death Valley, are a fun find for history aficionados. More into sports than history? Bring your clubs … for the country’s lowest golf course!

Death by dehydration isn’t the only possibility in Death Valley … how about death by sticker shock at the gas station!?

Because the Park is so large, many interesting features are only available for multi-day visits, and only after a long drive. The lengthy list of attractions includes mysterious sliding rocks, a huge blast crater, ghost town, mining remains, gigantic sand dunes, and even a 1920’s Spanish-style mansion (currently closed due to flood damage). Two of my favorite RV bloggers have written extensively about Death Valley. If you’d like to visit, I recommend you check out their blogs!

With millions of acres available, for some unfathomable reason the Furnace Creek Campground in the center of the park has closely-packed sites, all jammed together. Why didn’t they spread them out with all that available real estate? Most sites are no-hookup, but the surroundings and dark skies are worth the isolation!

About 30 miles outside Death Valley to the East, the ghost town of Rhyolite (1905-1911) is a fascinating glimpse into a boomtown that sprang up overnight and left with the same sudden speed when the mines dried up. At that time, nearby Las Vegas was still just a stage stop!

Rhyolite had the potential to be the next Nevada metropolis, and speculators built accordingly, with two electricity plants, plumbing, telephone service, 2 churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, 2 undertakers, 19 hotels, a stock exchange, a hospital, an opera, and the obligatory red-light district.

Ruins include a train station, three story bank building, and a jail, as well as a “forgotten flower” burial memorial to the ladies that kept Rhyolite gentlemen happy.

Also located in Rhyolite is the Tom Kelly Bottle House, the largest and oldest bottle house in the USA. It is constructed of an astounding 50,000 glass medicine, whisky and beer bottles gathered from local establishments (Reportedly, Kelly did not drink from them, nor wash them out, before setting them in place).

If you’re into houses made out of weird/recycled materials, be sure to check out our post about the Earthship community outside Taos, NM!

Hmmm, what’s that? An enormous 24 foot tall miner accompanied by a penguin? Turns out Shorty Harris, one of the early discoverers of gold in Rhyolite, “drank a bit and in his fuzzy condition was sure that a penguin followed him everywhere he went.” Perhaps Shorty was the one responsible for supplying most of Tom Kelly’s whisky bottles.

Just outside Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an offbeat outdoor art installation that is free to wander.

You may think the dry desert air has affected your vision as you spot this sculpture garden, advertised as “art where it seemingly shouldn’t be,” in the middle of nowhere!

The project of an artist residency program, it is best known for Belgian artist Albert Szukalski’s The Last Supper, 12 life-sized ghostly figures made of plaster-soaked fabric rising from the desert floor.

According to Atlas Obscura, my favorite go-to site for interesting facts about weird stuff, the artist for The Last Supper “cast these twelve ghosts in an echo of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ’s Last Supper. Though arranged in a similar fashion, Szukalski’s figures are like an Opposite Day version of the original fresco.”

“Rather than appearing to act out the final, vivacious moments of life, each is nothing more than a stark white cloak draped over nothing. The human figures they should contain are missing entirely. Similarly, the table at over which the figures seem to hover was omitted.” Read more about it here, or instead just admire the style of this Japanese kid who was Luke Skywalker’ing them.

Although probably the most interesting and certainly the most-known, The Last Supper isn’t the only artwork here in the gallery in the middle of nowhere.

Beyond Rhyolite, the tiny, dusty town of Beatty was founded at the turn of the century as the central supply hub of the Bullfrog Mining District.

Beatty greets dusty Death Valley visitors with a few classic saloons, and a cafe known as Happy Burro Cafe, one of those quirky, funky, fun places that also happens to have the BEST chili you’ll ever taste. Besides beer, it’s also the only thing on the menu, though you can have bowl of chili, chili dog, chili with fritos, or burger with chili. See what I mean … CHILI! A life lesson for us all: find what you do well, and do only that!

Also … an unusual urinal! Although the honor of most unusual restroom still belongs to Lucas, Kansas, from our last summer’s Midwest trip.

Why the name Happy Burro? Wild burros (that are no longer wild at all) roam the streets of town and attempt to hitchhike in your vehicle.

We were drawn to a gorgeous old building across from Happy Burro, and started poking around and peering through windows at the gold-rush era Exchange Club.

The door flew open and the welder artist-in-residence, James, came out to give us an impromptu tour of the work. Quite the fascinating fella! Almost certainly a money-laundering operation, he explained that the owner, who owns most of Beatty, has given him two years and an unlimited budget, to do anything and everything he wants to do to the place, which will eventually be a small casino and coffee shop.

The details on the building were astounding, and it truly will be a work of art, though with its location pretty much 100 miles from anything and everything, only time will tell if this also turns into a boom-gone-bust story for the ages.

East about four miles from the Exchange Club, the now-closed Angels Ladies Brothel beckons, not necessarily because it’s a brothel, but more because of the crashed plane in front.

Why didn’t the rightful owner of the plane clean it up? Well, that’s because it nose-dived onto the property of its rightful owners. That’s right — the plane crashed during a promotional stunt by the brothel itself.

Another nod to Atlas Obscura, who informs us that “in what must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the owners of the establishment promoted an interesting challenge with a very naughty prize. A mattress would be placed in the center of a large star painted on the desert floor—if one were to parachute out of an airplane (airplane provided) and land on the mattress, they would be the lucky winner of a night with the lady of his choice, on the house!”

“Unsurprisingly, things went horribly wrong. Long story short, scantily-clad women plus distracted, inexperienced pilot plus heavy cross winds equal the plane plummeting straight into the ground. Luckily no one was hurt in the accident, and the clever owners decided that the wreck was enough of a spectacle to attract people from the road, so there it stayed.”

Although Nevada is still a prostitution-friendly state, the brothel is no longer in business, but the plane remains for gawkers and graffiti’ers alike to enjoy.

Further south In Death Valley Junction (population 20), the Amargosa Opera House has twice-a-day guided tours of the ultimate out-of-place establishment.

The Opera House was opened by Marta Becket, a New York City actress/dancer/singer/artist and the consummate narcissist and self-promoter. She stumbled upon the place in 1967 when she and her husband found themselves with a flat tire while camping at Death Valley.

Never wanting to play to an empty house (a strong possibility here in the middle of nowhere), Marta spent four years painting an entire audience on the walls, filled with characters who might have wanted to attend an opera in the 16th century, including royalty, bullfighters, ladies of the night, monks, nuns, Indians, gypsies, and even her two beloved cats.

The audiences even have complex stories such as the “group of royal children tended by a governess who is being courted by a gentleman seated in the balcony above.” Or, how about the group of nuns, staring at the group of prostitutes.

From the 1960’s until her death in 2017, Marta performed a few nights a week, no matter who or how many people were there to see her.

All of her shows were self-written, self-performed, and self-promoted, and presumably not that great, but what do I know?

She saved herself the best seat in the house … right in front, closest to the heat stove, with an endless supply of flowers, of course. The 30-40 minute tour is full of stories of this interesting character’s life and well worth a stop!

Death Valley NP is the 58th we have visited, since we began RV’ing 8 years ago. We love our National Parks, and have the home decor to prove it! We memorialize our visits with these awesome posters from www.national-park-posters.com every time we visit a new one. Here is the wall visible as you walk through the front door of our Phoenix sticks-n-bricks house!

The week before our Death Valley adventure included New Years’ Eve, and a great time with six other RV’ing couples at one of our favorite Arizona locations: Willow Beach, just south of the Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border, under beautiful cloudy skies.

Our group hiked, kayaked, watched football, grilled out, strolled the campground, and generally recharged our batteries after the holidays.

Back home, we did a Happy Dance, because the January 2022 issue of RV Destinations Magazine is featuring one of our photos on its cover! And, inside, an article about our visit to the Havasu Balloon Festival. It’s a beautiful online magazine — check it out and consider subscribing!

I would be remiss to include all these pictures of our new baby puppy and not of our grandson, Connor, who is now 9 months old and almost as fun as a puppy.

Connor (a.k.a. Miss Cleo) has looked into his magic ball and ascertained that our next RV trip will be to California’s Salton Sea (the SECOND lowest place in the U.S., behind Death Valley), Anza Borrego State Park, Julian, San Diego, and more, coming soon in March!

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