Death Valley wins my vote for the best weekend getaway from Las Vegas, especially in the winter. Even though Highway 190, which provides the most direct route into the valley from Pahrump, was washed out last August and is still closed, Death Valley is easily accessible from Las Vegas. From Pahrump, a road leads into the south end of the valley through the town of Shoshone, or you can take Highway 95 north from Las Vegas to Beatty and enter the park from the north.
I chose the Beatty route when I went out there on Wednesday, winding over Daylight Pass by Corkscrew Peak and down into the valley through Hell’s Gate. The valley floor, still covered with water from recent storms, was a mirror reflecting the snow-capped Panamint Mountains. Wildflowers have begun to pop out everywhere. Death Valley, in spite of what its name implies, is alive.
While many people think of Death Valley as a place to “rough it,” I had something different in mind — a stay at the fabled Furnace Creek Inn. The Inn has only 66 rooms and winter is “high season,” but luck was on my side. Thanks to a fortuitous midweek gap in reservations, a balcony room with a desert view was waiting for me.
The Furnace Creek Inn, which has been pampering guests since 1927, is enchantingly nestled into a palm-filled canyon at a point where three springs bubble forth, providing not only enough fresh water to support all the Furnace Creek developments (which include a ranch with a 224-room hotel, a golf course, campgrounds, and employee housing), but also to fill the Inn’s 70-foot-long swimming pool with naturally heated water. The pool stays at a constant and idyllic 82-84° F.
My room was even more inviting than the manager had described. The Inn has recently been beautifully refurbished, and great care has been taken to preserve its 1920s Mission-style décor and charm. The room opened onto a shaded balcony that overlooked the Inn’s gardens and spring-fed lily ponds as well as to the other-worldly vistas beyond. Although I could have easily relaxed into a wicker chair and sat there entranced as the sun turned the mountains to gold, I decided instead to explore the rest of the Inn and have dinner in the dining room.
Dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn is definitely not “roughing it,” but the innovative menu reflects its unique location. Unusual offerings include venison and rattlesnake (which is not local, but imported from a rattlesnake ranch in Ojai, California). I started with “nopalitos,” crispy prickly pear cactus served with several kinds of dipping sauces. Much more fun than ordinary French fries, I have no doubt the dish appeals to the many international visitors the Furnace Creek Inn attracts. After an excellent and unusual carrot ginger soup, I opted for steak and shrimp kebabs, and the knowledgeable waiter recommended a lovely Pinot Noir to go along with them. The dining room has picture windows, and I watched the desert slowly recede into darkness as the sky lit up with stars.
After dinner, I wandered down to the swimming pool, where two huge fireplaces were blazing. I can’t think of a more lovely way to close out a day than sitting by a fire in the desert with a sliver of moon and a million stars overhead.
In the morning, my only regret was that I was staying only one night. The bed was comfortable, and the shower in the bathroom had the best water pressure that I have ever experienced in a hotel. My stay was too short for me to enjoy afternoon tea on the Inn’s terrace, and I hadn’t given myself time to enjoy “desert hot stone therapy” administered by one of Furnace Creek’s massage therapists. What all this means, of course, is that I must return someday soon, and that I’ll sign up for Furnace Creek Inn’s E-mail Club, which lets members know about specials and discounts.
Highway 190 should open again sometime this spring, but don’t let a slight detour keep you from experiencing the glories of Death Valley and the elegant charm of the Furnace Creek Inn this winter. It’s still little more than a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, but it’s another world and another century. It’s the perfect place to forget your cell phone, give your eyes a rest from neon, and escape.