You know the Western Ghost Town area in the Knott’s Berry Farm theme resort in Buena Park, Ca? It’s a step back in time with historical artifacts, wooden sidewalks, and a miniature replica of a borax hauling “Twenty Mule Team.
I found the real thing about five hours away from Los Angeles at The Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. For our last vacation in 2015, we caravanned with my brother’s family to explore Death Valley. He loves the destination, yet has only driven through on a motorcycle. “I’ve always wanted to stay overnight and hike some of the canyons,” he shared with me. “Motorcycles aren’t allowed on certain roads due to the gravel and sand.” So seven of us booked two nights at The Furnace Creek Ranch, offering two Queen size beds in each room and family fun amenities.
The rustic ranch opened in 1933 as a family friendly destination in the middle of Death Valley. There are two types of rooms at The Furnace Creek Ranch – The standard rooms are in two-story buildings towards the back of the ranch. All units have two queen beds, air conditioning, in-room coffee makers, TV, phone, shower/bath and mini-refrigerators. All rooms have small patios or balconies. We stayed in rooms 810 and 812. Drawback: Our rooms were on the first floor and we could hear the guests above us stomping above and it was very loud early in the morning. Also our heater was noisy when turned on.
Next time, I would ask for a second floor room or request a Deluxe Ranch room. These are located in a single-story building, and offer a small patio leading out to the park/pool area. Each room has either a King size bed or two queen beds with a television, air conditioning, phone, private bath and mini refrigerator.
After a hearty breakfast at the Forty-Niner Cafe of omelets, hash browns, toast and coffee, we visited the Borax Museum. It’s the oldest structure in Death Valley, built in 1883 by F.N. “Borax” Smith.
Visitors and guests enter the small museum to learn about the minerals called borates that originate in hot springs. The borax boom started in the 1870s. Used as an antiseptic, killing mold, fungus and bacteria, it’s popularity grew quickly. To transport 20 tons of borax, they hauled the white powder on wagons pulled by 20-mule teams. Museum staff member Christine told me, “There were actually 18 mules and two horses. Mules were excellent because they didn’t drink as much as horses, they didn’t eat as much, and they were sterile.” Ceramic industries used Borax for glazes, china and porcelain enamel. It was also popular with glass, fiberglass and Pyrex. Soon it became an ingredient in detergents and agriculture.
Behind the museum is an outdoor exhibit with 66 historical items. I felt as if I was at Knott’s Berry Farm exploring these artifacts. Inside the museum is a guide sheet highlighting the items from a train locomotive transporting Borax on the Death Valley Narrow-Gauge Railroad to a processing plant from 1915 to 1927. There is also the Mule barn for the 20-mule team. It’s a fun historical lesson about items that no longer exist today.
Next we got into our cars and explored multiple sightseeing spots in the Valley.
We first drove to Badwater – It’s the lowest point in the United States – 282 feet below sea level. There is a sign to prove it. We walked on pure salt that looked like snow, and found some untouched areas to pinch some granules to taste. Thousands of years ago, this area was a deep lake, now all that is left is the salt. There is a restroom at the parking lot for visitors. Rangers stand on the Boardwalk at designated times to enlighten guests about the area. Topics include – Exploring the Extremes and How Badwater Came to Be.
Next, we drove to the Natural Bridge parking area and hiked one mile to see some pretty incredible sights. It’s a gradual uphill walk through a box canyon past unique geological features that include waterfall impressions in huge rock formations and a natural bridge. It’s a visual treat.
Afterwards we drove down to The Devil’s Golf Course to see an array or holes inside what looks like a coral reef. It’s jagged crystalline salt that have been rising on an evaporated lake for the past 2,000 years ago. It’s a one of a kind sight.
Our last stop was The Artist Palette displaying incredible colors of blues, pinks, purples and golds washing over the rocks as minerals leach out from earth. The nine-mile Artist’s Drive offers a kaleidoscope of colors. We stopped at a parking lot to walk into the canyon, and see the colors up close. The ground is more firm and not so sandy.
After a day of exploring the valley, we thought a swim in the pool was ideal before dinner. The Ranch offers a large heated pool with the temperature of 85 degrees. There are chaise lounges to sit and relax while watching little ones swim before sunset. It stays open until 11 p.m. for a moonlight dip. Float on your back and search for shooting stars.
Before dinner, we sat at one of the fire pits to sip a glass of wine and chat with family and friends. We noticed others were roasting marshmallow and making S’mores. There are multiple dining options at The Ranch and one elegant restaurant at the Furnace Creek Inn. At The Ranch, The Wrangler offers all-you-can-eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with hot and cold items. In the evening it is also a steak house. The Corkscrew Saloon offers a juke box and sporting events on televisions in a pub-like atmosphere. The Forty-Niner Cafe is family comfort food with a selection of wines. Open for breakfast with omelets, hash browns, pancakes and French toast. Also open for lunch and dinner in a more casual environment.
After breakfast we visited the Sports Courts. There is one tennis and one basketball court. There is also a shuffle board and bocce ball area. Kid’s enjoy climbing, swinging, and sliding on the children’s playground structure.
Since we ran out of time, on our next visit we will go on a horseback ride. We learned the one hour ride for $60 per person. A two-hour ride is $75 per person and the same price for a sunset wagon ride or horseback ride. The stables are located at the back of The Furnace Creek Ranch near Building 900.
Before leaving we did a final shopping trip at the General Store for Date Nut Bread, Dates, and Death Valley souvenirs.
On our way, we stopped to talk to volunteer Joe Moore to hear about his Flintknapping Stone Tools, and watch a demonstration near the Borax Museum. He sits and chats with visitors every Fridays through Mondays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This Santa lookalike is an expert on archaeology, and makes learning fun.
Driving back to Los Angeles, we made a quick stop at the Desert Valley Visitors Center. It offers interactive displays of the park’s wildlife, climate, geology, and history. There is also a theater to watch a movie titled, “Seeing Death Valley.”
Before getting gas for our drive home at Stovepipe Wells, we stopped at the Sand Dunes to stretch out legs one last time.
There are up to 150-foot sand dunes created from sand from the Cottonwood Mountains rising in the middle of flat desert land. They are spectacular tiny grains of quartz and feldspar. Our girls took off their shoes and ran up and down dunes for almost one hour. My husband even took off his shoes to join them.
Death Valley offered an enlightening experience that tantalized all of our senses. The sights, smells and sounds were unique to any other destination in California. We all came home with a new appreciation for the desert, its wildlife, geology, history and beauty.
To reserve a room at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Ranch, Furnace Creek Inn and RV Camping, go to Lodging in Death Valley.