Death Valley Day Tripper
6 Great One-Day Trips from Furnace Creek Resort
When you really want to get away, there’s hardly a more remote place than the Furnace Creek Resort in the heart of Death Valley National Park. But while the historic property — which includes the AAA Four Diamond Inn at Furnace Creek and the family-friendly Ranch at Furnace Creek — may appear to be between the middle of nothing and nowhere, orbiting Furnace Creek are several sights, towns, and attractions close enough to reach on a day trip.
Here are a few fun options:
Lone Pine/Mount Whitney, CA
Where: 105 miles west
Travel time: 2 hours
Why go: A few things will tell you when you’ve reached the town of Lone Pine: The city limit sign (pop. 2,035), Mount Whitney (elev. 14,505 feet), and a landscape that may look vaguely familiar.
For decades, Lone Pine has been a favorite setting for directors of Hollywood Westerns. Over the years, film cowboys including John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Cisco Kid were here to shoot hundreds of serial Westerns. In 2012, Quentin Tarantino dropped by to shoot Django Unchained. To learn about Lone Pine’s involvement with motion pictures, be sure to visit the Museum of Western Film History. Just west of town, the Whitney Portal Road leads to the base of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. If you have the time and stamina, it’s a 22-mile round-trip hike to the peak and back.
Red Rock Canyon, NV
Where: 104 miles east
Travel time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Why go: Before your day trip gets lost in the glare of Las Vegas, pull over some 20 miles west of the city and enjoy an extraordinarily complex natural landscape. Although most travelers tend to rocket past it, when you detour into the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area you enter a different world.
Once submerged beneath a prehistoric sea, dunes were cemented into rock over millions of years, and iron sediment helped create a varicolored landscape that would look at home on Mars. While driving a 13-mile scenic loop, you’ll recognize the strength of the powerful Keystone Thrust that exposed sandstone peaks and walls that rise as high as 3,000 feet. Whether on a drive or while hiking on trails within this 197,000-acre conservation area you’ll be among hundreds of species of plants including the Joshua tree, juniper, scrub oak, and ponderosa pines. You may catch a glimpse of local residents including wild burros, bighorn sheep, tortoises, and gray foxes.
Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, NV
Where: 44 miles east
Travel time: 52 minutes
Why go: While its natural history goes back millions of years, the modern history of this preserve dates back to 1952 when President Truman learned through conservationists of an endangered species called Devils Hole pupfish, which live in a geothermal aquifer-fed pool within a limestone cavern. To this day, they’re considered the rarest fish on earth, numbering only about 200.
Three decades after the president made this a protected area of Death Valley National Park, Ash Meadows — the largest remaining oasis in the Mojave Desert — was established as a refuge. Good thing. These 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and desert uplands hold such value they’ve been named a wetland of international importance. Rangers are eager to point out that there are more than two-dozen species of plants and animals here that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. It’s an incredibly diverse micro-world that has America’s highest concentration of endemic species in the United States. Don’t forget to bring your camera. Blue pools of fossil water are what remain from the last Ice Age.
Where: 83 miles north
Travel time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Why go: What was once the home of the Shoshone became, as did many places in the American West, a new home for settlers who put down roots in Oasis Valley. From its early days as a mining town, the town’s development accelerated in the 1940s with the arrival of neighboring Nellis Air Force Base.
There’s quite a bit of history packed into the last century, which is highlighted in displays at the Beatty Museum and Historical Society. Not every town was as fortunate as Beatty, which was the center of the Bullfrog Mining District. A few miles west, the remnants of Rhyolite remain as a ghost town while just outside Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which consists of seven monumentally large sculptures placed in the vast upper Mojave desert.
Travel 18 miles east of Beatty and you’ll reach an even more curious place. If you lived in Las Vegas in the 1950s, some days you could peek out your window and catch a glimpse of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Monthly visits, which fill up fast, are offered at the Nevada Test Site where nuclear weapons were detonated above ground before a 1963 treaty with the USSR sent testing underground.
China Ranch Date Farm, Tecopa, CA
Where: 71 miles south
Travel time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Why go: Nearly any kitsch film set in the Sahara will show a caravan of travelers stopping at an oasis where they’ll gather under tents, watch belly dancers, and nibble from a platter of dates.
That’s an experience you can enjoy at an oasis in the Mojave Desert (minus the tents and belly dancers). The China Ranch, a family farm framed by cottonwoods and willows and creased by a stream, is rich with date palms that can be sampled à la carte or enjoyed as a special ingredient in date nut bread, muffins, and cookies.
History has touched nearly every inch of the region, and this ranch is no exception. Take a walk and soon you’ll be following the path of the Old Spanish Trail or the rail bed of the historic Tonopah & Tidewater line. Guides also lead nature walks to share details about the area’s geology, botany, birds, and Native American history.
Where: 58 miles east
Travel time: 1 hour, 3 minutes
Why go: The first town of note you’ll find after departing the eastern border of Death Valley National Park, Pahrump (pop. 36,441) has enough diversions for a town twice its size — many of which include trails for mountain biking, ATVs, and off-road vehicles.
A range of trails for hiking, biking, four-wheel drives, equestrians, and off-road motorcycles can be found around the town, many in places that reveal views of Spring Mountain peaks and widespread Pahrump Valley. East of town in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is the state’s most prominent peak, Mount Charleston, a 7,500-foot summit surrounded by 50 miles of hiking trails. Pahrump has even more of the great outdoors at the Elk Meadows Trails, a network of narrow, challenging paths for bicyclists (who can find themselves sharing the lane with deer and the aforementioned elk). Also in town, the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club has a racing school and private freshwater lake.
Not everything in Pahrump is an outdoor adventure. There are wineries that welcome visitors and host tastings, and Pahrump Valley Roasters is the largest specialty coffee roaster in southern Nevada.
Which just goes to show that there’s plenty of life near Death Valley.
For information and reservations at Furnace Creek Resort, visit oasisatdeathvalley.com/ or call 800-236-7916.
For travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Written by: Gary McKechnie
The author of the best-selling Great American Motorcycle Tours, Gary McKechnie also wrote National Geographic’s USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks. He lectures on American travel and history aboard the ships of the Cunard, Seabourn, and Silversea lines.