It goes without saying that Death Valley National Park is not for the faint of heart-- if it was, it probably wouldn't be called Death Valley. However, in a way, the entire park itself is a hidden gem. Its extreme conditions (it's the hottest, driest, and lowest park in America) also mean extreme beauty. From its Wild West history to its natural features (seriously, just check out the Artist's Drive and Palette) Death Valley is well worth the adventure.
Scotty Doesn't Know
Scotty's Castle doesn't look like it belongs in the desert wasteland of Death Valley at all-- I mean, why would anyone build a castle in the middle of nowhere? It was built in the 1920's by a wealthy business named Albert Johnson for his friend Scotty, who Johnson met when Scotty conned him into backing a fake mining company. Scotty was a something of a legend in his day, starting off life as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, and his high-profile arrest and ensuing trial garnered some attention. The castle today has been meticulously preserved, so if you want a break from the dusty Western ghost town thing, stop by for a taste of the Roaring '20's!
Here are the facts: the rocks at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley move all on their own. Scientists know that for sure-- you can even see the trails they leave behind. What remains a mystery is exactly how the stones do it-- the more imaginative explanations involve aliens, while others theorize that magnets might somehow be involved. Current studies point to a phenomena that has ice floes forming around the rocks at night under specific conditions, which helps them slide along the desert floor as the wind pushes them. But, when it's all said and done... no one has actually seen the rocks move on their own, and until I see some evidence, I don't want to rule anything out. Not even aliens. Oh, and if you do visit, don't steal the Sailing Stones (which researchers have named things like "Karen" and "Nancy")... it's illegal, and it hinders important research!
A land of extremes
The highest point in the park, an 11,000 foot mountain peak called Telescope Point, is a short 15 miles away from the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, the infamous Badwater Basin, so named for the salty water the pioneers found undrinkable. The temperatures also vary vastly, since it's the hottest place in America, with summer temperatures in the 120 degree range being common, and winter temperatures falling down to below freezing at night. Still not extreme enough for you? It's also the driest place in America-- it sees less than 2 inches of rain on average per year. Moral of the story? Visit in the winter, when temps are usually around 60-70 degrees... and pack sunscreen and water. Lots and lots of sunscreen and water.
The vast desert of Death Valley may not be good for growing anything-- or even sustaining life at all-- but there was something valuable to be found in the arid plains: borax. It's not quite as epic as gold, but this useful mineral (found in detergents, cosmetics, enamel and more) was discovered in the area in the early 1880's, and a few hubs of borax mining popped up, like Harmony Borax Works and Eagle Borax Works. Of course, they weren't long for this world. The extreme temperatures weren't prime for the borax to crystallize, and most closed within 10 years. You can still visit the ruins, though!
I ain't afraid of no ghosts!
Once you've visited, it's not hard to see why people who settled in the region didn't want to stick around. It's not a huge surprise that there are tons of ghost towns in and around the park. Check out Darwin Ghost Town, the little village that got their 15 minutes of fame after a 2012 BBC clip of the townspeople outlining their need to switch to broadband Internet from the dial-up that they had went viral, the failed gold mining settlement of Skidoo, or Ballarat California, which was a one-time campsite for the infamous Manson Family.
Lights... camera... action!
Death Valley's unique landscape has made it prime for Hollywood productions. Small bits of the park were used for Tatooine in the original Star Wars films, and it's appeared in other projects, ranging from Kill Bill Volume 2 (Zabriskie Point, specifically) and Spartacus to the Twilight Zone and Easy Rider.
Whether you're looking for a hotel, or a campsite, or a place to park your RV, or you just want to cool off for a bit, Stovepipe Wells Village is probably your best bet. They've got a gift shop, a saloon, a restaurant, and HALLELUJAH a pool. The Furnace Creek Inn is a gorgeous oasis a short bit away from the park... it boasts the world's lowest golf course at 214 feet below sea level (which, when you think abut keeping the grass alive, is super impressive), a cocktail lounge, a spa, and tons more.