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Archive for March, 2010

Driving back from Scotty’s Castle, I could feel the fatigue creeping into my bones. The daylight was almost gone and we were both tired and hungry. The Wrangler Steakhouse was beginning to feel like a regular end-of-the-day haunt for us, so we headed there almost out of habit. It was our last dinner at Furnace Creek and we were rewarded with excellent service and another delicious meal, mine built from the salad bar and Dad’s designed by adding grilled chicken to a spinach salad with dates, glazed almonds and goat cheese. It was just what we needed before turning in for the night.

I set my alarm for five thirty a.m. and drove out to Zabriskie Point, hoping for a few photographic opportunities, but the sun didn’t cooperate. There were other tripod-toting figures there, equally disappointed. But it was worth the early morning visit just to see the views another time before leaving.

On the way back, I stopped at Furnace Creek Inn to check it out. It was smaller than I had expected, having compared it in advance to other upscale national park lodges – the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn in Yell owstone, for examples. Yet it exuded a desert peacefulness that was in contrast to the active atmosphere of the ranch resort. Given the right bank account and a desire to hide away, it would be a good lodging choice.

I returned to the ranch, loaded up our bags, checked out and headed west, stopping only at Father Crowley Vista Point to look back out over the winding road below. We left Death Valley with many sites yet unvisited: Racetrack Playa, Mosaic Canyon, Natural Bridge, Charcoal Kilns, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Titus Canyon and Ubehebe Crater. But it never hurts to have reasons to revisit outstanding destinations. Death Valley National Park certainly warrants another visit. Or two or three.

Leaving Death Valley behind, we headed north on Hwy 395, stopping for a quick fast-food lunch in Lone Pine, a town known for its proximity to the Alabama Hills. Used as a location for over 300 feature films, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood and Spencer Tracy all came to Lone Pine long before our quick visit. We didn’t hear the clattering of horse hooves or the commotion of The Lone Ranger’s ambush, but we did get a look at the wall mural outside the Museum of Lone Pine Film History.

From there, we drove on to Manzanar;, a former WWII war relocation center, now a National Historic Site. The Interpretive Center on the property is exceptional and the guides behind the desk very knowledgeable. The award-winning, 22-minute film, “Remembering Manzanar,” is shown every half hour, so it wasn’t difficult to fit it into the visit. It was educational and emotional, as well.

Pushing on, we weathered some snow between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Dinner was casual at a Carson City Applebee’s, after which we found a fairly amazing room at the local Courtyard Marriott. Richly decorated in rust and ivory tones, the room was spacious and absolutely gorgeous, not to mention a bargain at 89.

It was tempting to linger a second night in Carson City, simply because the room was so delightful. But we managed to pull ourselves away, grabbing an early breakfast in the lobby before checking out.

Fueled on by dramatic pre-storm lighting, we took a side trip to Virginia City, NV, for a little photography. I had been there recently, but had not had the opportunity to visit the town cemetery – actually a cluster of small, independant cemeteries. Under threat of rain, I wandered from headstone to headstone, feeling the interconnectedness of the lives of those buried there. It felt eerily as if I were walking through the pages of Spoon River Anthology. A small world, even in the hereafter.

Retracing our steps out of Virginia City, we stopped in at the Gold Hill Hotel, located just a mile outside of town. Built in 1859, this hotel is the oldest in Nevada and has been on my “wish list” for some time. Though it wouldn’t be possible to stay that night, I was allowed to tour open rooms and took notes for future visits. We took advantage of their Sunday Brunch to enjoy homemade tomato herb soup and sandwiches in their Crown Point Restaurant before hitting the road.

Our last night’s destination took us up and over Hwy 50, around Lake Tahoe and down to Placerville, where we checked into the Historic Cary House Hotel, an impressive red brick building in the heart of town. Originally built in 1857 and later demolished and rebuilt in 1915, it served as a stage stop during the gold rush heydays. For us, it served as a perfect last night stopping point for the end of our trip. Typical of old hotels, the rooms were not large, which was fine for me, but felt a little too small for Dad’s liking. It was nicely restored and conveniently situated for our needs. Parking was complimentary and a continental breakfast was included with lodging. It would work well for the night.

We followed the recommendation of the front desk clerk and had dinner at Z Pies, an easy half block walk from the hotel. The menu was clever and unique, offering delicious pot pies in a variety of hip flavors. My choice was Spicy Black Bean with Tofu, while Dad opted for Lamb with Rosemary. It was a fitting and hearty meal for weary travelers, just the right touch for the end of a long day. We returned to the hotel to read, edit photos and prepare for our final re-entry into normal daily life.

I’m always torn at the end of trips – half tired and ready to be off the road, yet half wanting to continue the journey. These were my feelings as we loaded up the car the next morning. Travel is tiring, yet it is also energizing. The trick, I think, is to think of it all as travel. In that sense, the trip never really ends. Just as we stop a few days at a hotel, we can stop a few months at our own house before moving on. With this thought in mind, my conflict was resolved. I let out a sigh of relief, started the car and headed for home.

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“Death Valley Scotty” was born Walter Scott in 1872. From a young age he sought adventure, running away from his Kentucky home at age 11 to his brother’s Nevada ranch. After working a variety of jobs, including some in Death Valley, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a cowboy.

Though he stayed with the traveling group for a period of twelve years. a new career was on the horizon for Scotty. In a clever and ingenious plan, he convinced numerous eastern investors to finance a gold mine that he had discovered out west, promising to split the profits with them. As proof of his discovery, he displayed an impressive hunk of gold-laced ore. It was a great plan, with just one catch: there was no mine and the ore specimen had been purchased by Scotty on a trip to Colorado. No matter, the investors believed the convincing story.

The funds intended for the mine allowed Scotty to live in wild fashion, spending the “earnings” from his lucrative mine at fancy hotels and saloons. So convincing was his flamboyant character that the charade continued for years, until the investors began to be concerned about the profits from the mine, which were missing in action.

As investors backed out, one important financier remained. Albert Johnson, an insurance magnate from Chicago, came out west and decided the beauty of Death Valley was more valuable than mining returns. He, along with his wife, Bessie, formed a lifelong friendship with Death Valley Scotty.

In 1927 contruction began on Death Valley Ranch and the impressive building that would come to be known as Scotty’s Castle. Though actually financed by Albert Johnson – to the tune of nearly two million dollars – the quiet insurance man went along with his colorful friend’s story that the castle was being built by Scotty himself, from his gold mine’s profits.

The details of the 32,000 square foot Spanish-Mediterranean main building are mind-boggling. Natural springs above the Grapevine Canyon property were used to provide electricity by using a Pelton water motor. A Leonard electric refrigerator was installed in the kitchen -a modern luxury that impressed many a guest – and cooking was done on a natural gas stove. Indoor waterfalls kept common rooms cool. Handcrafted tiles, wrought-iron chandeliers and European tapestries filled the “castle” in palatial style. A Welte pipe organ with over one thousand pipes was installed in a 37-ft-long upstairs music room.

With such opulence, as well as Scotty’s aptitude for self-promotion, stories of the “castle in the desert” began to spread. The Johnsons and Scotty became hosts to overnight visitors who arrived to see the extravagant building and surrounding desert and to be entertained by Scotty himself. Lodging fees were charged and the castle’s library was turned into a dining room. Custom dinnerware was imported from Italy.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought a quick halt to finishing the ranch’s construction. Albert Johnson no longer had the means to pour money into the project. In addition, an error in the original survey and homesteaders’ filing on the property revealed that Death Valley Ranch had actually been built on government land. All construction stopped, leaving the 270 foot swimming pool and numerous other features unfinished.

Johnson managed to straighten out the legalities of ownership and acquired the land, but it passed to the non-profit Gospel Foundation of California upon his death in 1948. The National Park Service purchased it in 1970 and continues to maintain the grounds and buildings.

Park rangers in 1939 period dress do an excellent job explaining the history of the ranch. The stories of Death Valley Scotty and Albert and Bessie Johnson seem very real while ambling through the doorways of the rooms they once inhabited. And seeing is believing when it comes to the many luxuries and technological advances that helped create Scotty’s Castle. Indoor tours are offered hourly from 9-5 daily, with additional underground tours available at varying times. Though it’s possible for visitors to wander the grounds on their own, the only way to see inside Scotty’s Castle is to purchase a tour ticket. It’s well worth it – a Death Valley experience that is not to be missed.

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We continued north to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a winding boardwalk that follows Salt Creek’s warm, salty waters. Though water here is saltier than sea water and can reach temperatures over 100 degrees, tiny “pupfish” are able to survive. Impressive, considering Salt Creek Pupfish have a lifespan of less than one year and a maximum size of 2.5 inches.

Seeing the ruins of Harmony Borax Works was next on the agenda. Built after borax was discovered in the early 1880’s, the plant only operated for five years, closing in 1888. During that time three tons of borax were produced daily, hauled to Mojave by the much romantized mule teams that became a symbol of the borax industry. A one-way drive through gold-hued Mustard Canyon led us back to the highway.

We found dinner again at the Wrangler Steakhouse, where a basket of fresh, hot bread sliding onto our table was a welcome sight. Roasted glazed chicken got Dad’s vote for the meal, while I ordered up a Greek salad with kalamata olives, feta cheese and citrus-herb vinaigrette.

The following morning required a room change, as we’d added a third night after arriving and it necessitated moving to a standard accommodation. The room was not as desirable, and there were a few mix-ups involved in the transfer. But it did give us an opportunity to continue our stay. For that, we were grateful. We lugged our bags over to the new room and prepared for another busy day.

A little more exploration to the south was in order, so we headed out on Hwy 190 again. Turning left at Furnace Creek Wash Rd., we continued to Dante’s View Rd., where we took a right turn and maneuvered the twisting, steep terrain thirteen miles to a ridge on top of the Black Mountains. Situated 5500 ft. above sea level, the vistas from Dante’s View are nothing less than spectacular. In one glance, visitors can see both the lowest and highest points in Death Valley: Badwater Basin, at 282 ft. below sea level and Telescope Peak, at 11,049 above. From the parking area, trails lead off to both the south and north, giving additional vantage points to enchanted visitors and eager photographers.

Doubling back, we took a side loop through 20 Mule Team Canyon, which gave our car a slow, bumpy journey and gave us close-up views of rock formations. I made a note to myself to advise future visitors to take advantage of the side loops offered in various areas of the park. They allow a closer view of Death Valley’s wonders, both literally and figuratively.

Zabriskie Point was next on the list, conveniently located just west of the 20 Mule Team Canyon loop. The astonishing views of canyons, ridges and rock formations were so dramatic that I would go back a second time before our trip ended. Breathtaking scenery stretched out in every direction. Not surprisingly, photographers were staked out all along the edges of the viewing area. There would be even more when I returned during early morning hours.

After a quick lunch of leftovers back in the room, we changed direction and headed north. Though we now faced a driving distance of over one hundred miles round trip, it was our chance to see inside the mind of one of California history’s biggest characters.

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It didn’t take long to realize the obvious: It would not be possible to see all of Death Valley National Park in three days. The three million acre expanse was not going to be conquered in seventy-two hours. We would need to make choices.

We entered from the northeast, driving in by way of Rhyolite, a ghost town just four miles outside Beatty, NV. The drive from Las Vegas had not been difficult, but I’d attended business meetings in the morning, picked up my father at Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport and then trekked a fair distance. It was with a sigh of relief that we finally checked into our lodging for the night.


We knew immediately we had made a wise choice in reserving a deluxe room at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort. It was a sizeable accommodation, newly remodeled in soothing earth tones, decked out with high-class bedding and accented with artistic, framed prints of Death Valley scenery. Located in a single story building, the vaulted ceiling made the room feel even more spacious. A refrigerator, coffee maker, plush towels and upscale bath amenities made it a comfortable home away from home. Added to all this was a private patio that looked out over the lawn, pool and tennis areas. Parking was at our doorstep. At half the price of the prestigious Furnace Creek Inn just a mile down the road, it was perfect.

Once settled into our room, we headed eagerly for the nearest grub. This we found at the Wrangler Steakhouse, one of several eateries on the property. Dinner was excellent – filet mignon for Dad and spinach fettucini with portabella mushrooms, white wine, roasted tomato, and garlic for me. Delicious.

Over post-meal coffee, we discussed options for the next day. Sites within Death Valley are spread out and require travel – twenty miles to this one, thirty miles to that one, etc. We grouped our intended destinations into general directions, made a tentative outline for our explorations and returned to the room for a good night’s sleep.

Morning brought good weather and we loaded up camera equipment and headed out, stopping at the ranch’s casual 49er Cafe for an easy breakfast. Our first goal: salt flats.

Badwater Basin sits at 282 ft. below sea level – the lowest point in No. America – and derives its name from the undrinkable salty water of its spring-fed pool, located near the parking area. Visitors are treated to a stunning vista across the basin to Telescope Peak, which hovers 11,049 feet above the valley. I hiked cautiously out on the muddy trail towards the ocean of white salt, a result of the area’s rapid evaporation of rainfall. While I admired and inspected the rugged crust, Dad stayed behind to take photographs on the main boardwalk area.

Backtracking along the highway, we veered off the main road to follow the Artist’s Drive loop to Artist’s Palette, a colorful, rocky display caused by oxidized metals. Nine miles in length and situated along Badwater Rd, this drive is an easy addition to a trip to Badwater Basin.

After a brief rest at the ranch, we stopped in at the Death Valley Visitors Center to pick up an official park map and gain a little more insight into the area. The National Park Service is always good about staffing its visitor centers with knowledgeable rangers. We left there armed with new information.

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The bright lights of Las Vegas were long gone by the time I pulled over outside Beatty, NV. I’d managed to convince my father to fly into Las Vegas and meet me, setting aside several days for desert exploration. We’d traveled 120 miles northwest so far and were about to reach our first destination.

The town of Rhyolite played a prominent role in the mining history of the Death Valley area. Gold-laced quartz was discovered in Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills by Shorty Harris and E. L. Cross in 1904, setting off a hectic period of activity that lasted from approx. 1905 to 1911. Though brief in duration, it was long enough to build a bustling community that grew to estimates of 5,000-10,000 in population at its peak. Electric plants, lodging facilities, saloons and assorted mercantiles grew quickly to match the demands of the town. A hospital, school, ice cream parlor and opera house were just a few of the many establishments that Rhyolite boasted during its heyday.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1907 financial panic both played a role in the demise of Rhyolite. The Montgomery Shoshone Mine, purchased by Charles M. Schwab in 1906 and the largest of the area’s mines, closed in 1911. The post office soon followed and in 1916 the electrical power in the town was turned off, leaving little but partial ruins and memories of busier days.

Crumbled walls and vacant lots now remain for visitors to see. The Tom T. Kelly Bottle House, built in 1906 with 50,000 beer and liquor bottles, stands complete, having been restored by Paramount Pictures in 1925. The old Las Vegas and Tonapah Railroad Depot looks down over the now ghost town from high on the hill, privately owned and carefully fenced off for protection. Portions of the Porter Brothers Store, old jail and three story John S. Cook and Co. Bank building are also still standing.

Our drive from Las Vegas landed us in Rhyolite too late for ideal photography light. Still, we snapped the shutters a few times and braved a chilly wind while wandering up and down the deserted main street.

Before leaving, we paused at the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which displays sculptures by numerous artists, including several by Albert Szukalski. His ghostly rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, as well as his “Ghost Rider” made this a very worthwhile stop. It’s no coincidence these figures look eeirily real. To create them, he draped plaster-soaked fabric on live models, later coating the hardened shapes with fiberglass. Against the dramatic desert backdrop, they are breathtaking.

With 35 miles left to drive before we could settle in for the night, we returned to the car and headed back to the highway, watching the remnants of Rhyolite fade into the hillside. Before us, an entire desert filled with mining history and geological wonders stood waiting. We turned southwest and headed for the entrance to Death Valley National Park.

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As much as my travels usually land me in historic hotels and funky log cabins, I have a new Las Vegas favorite lodging: Motel 6 Tropicana. Yep, that’s right. Good old Motel 6 has now left the light on for me twice in Sin City, the second time a result of how impressed I was with my first stay.

I’ll admit that I have to place this second to The Venetian, which is a city unto itself. Given an ample budget and a few days to relax and wander without leaving a property, that has always been my choice. But in a financial pinch and with canine in tow on a recent visit, I took advantage of the very reasonable 30.59 Internet rate for a “remodeled/remarkable” room at Motel 6 Tropicana, located on the corner of Tropicana and Koval.

Convenient to both The Strip and McCarren International Airport, this Motel 6 – the largest in the chain – turned out to be all that it advertises and more. The ‘remodeled/remarkable” rooms are indeed remarkable, with contemporary decor, flat screen televisions and a clever sitting area with work table in one corner. The beds are super comfortable and the bathroom spacious and immaculately clean. True to Motel 6’s general formula, guests won’t find a lot of fancy extras in the rooms. But everything needed for a comfortable night’s stay is there. And for a whopping 2.99 fee, Internet access for 24 hrs. can be included, as well.

The property itself is massive, with a large pool area that also offers tables and chairs in a garden setting. A desire for a snack won’t necessitate walking to the nearest fast food establishment. There’s a convenience store across from the front lobby – not a typical corner hotel alcove, but a building the size of a small 7-11, with as much variety. If looking for a full meal, there’s a Coco’s restaurant on the property as well, though the MGM Grand and other Las Vegas resorts and casinos are within walking distance.

Admittedly, this lodging establishment is not for those looking for massive suites with sunken living rooms, marble bathrooms and premium-stocked honor bars. Guests won’t find hot stone massages and aromatherapy body wraps on the Motel 6 menu. But still, all those nifty luxuries are just a short meander down the road. And for what customers save in room charges, it’s not inconceivable to add a treat or two to a trip.

A final note: customer service is clearly a priority at my new favorite Las Vegas budget digs. On both of my visits the front desk was friendly, courteous and helpful. That’s a nice icing on a cake that already exceeds expectations.

This last visit won’t be my last stay at Motel 6 Tropicana. The place deserves a shout out for the job they do, so there it is.

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