California’s Death Valley National Park is renowned for its searing summer heat. With the second highest recorded temperature on earth – 134 degrees back in 1913 – Death Valley averages 116 degrees during July. The largest American national park outside Alaska, Death Valley is a massive 3.3 million acres. In addition to its magnificent beauty and stunning landscape, Death Valley features dramatic elevation changes. The park’s lowest point is 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. From that vantage point, visitors can look up to see the Panamint Mountain Range and its often snowcapped highest point: Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. From November through early March, this challenging terrain is a snowshoer’s delight.
Two local Death Valley residents have strapped on snowshoes many a time in pursuing outdoor winter adventures. Andrew and Jennifer LaBar both work at the park’s aptly named Furnace Creek Resort. When not waiting on customers, the pair can be found cutting trails throughout the picturesque Panamints. “The view from any of the Panamint peaks is something to behold,” says Andrew. “From some of them you can view Mount Whitney and Mount Charleston, both of which are roughly 100 miles away.”
Experienced snowshoers, Andrew and Jennifer are well-aware of Mother Nature’s sudden changes in attitude with the corresponding changes in latitude. “First time snowshoers in Death Valley should be aware of and prepared for the possibility of high winds on ridges and summits, as well as possible deep snow drifts,” cautions Andrew. Temperature extremes are also quite common. According to the National Park Service, the standard calculation for the fluctuating temperature in Death Valley is a 3-5 degree drop for every thousand feet of elevation gained. Thus, from the sea level floor of the park to Telescope Peak could be a difference of 55 degrees.
The drive from Furnace Creek Resort to the Charcoal Kilns/Wildrose Peak trailhead takes about an hour and a half. This is as far as you can drive your vehicle. From the Kilns/Wildrose, it’s nine miles one way on snowshoes to Telescope Peak. Along the way though, are two 10,000-foot peaks: Rogers Peak and Bennett Peak. “You can also snowshoe the Wildrose Peak trail, which is 4.5 miles one way,” suggests Andrew. About two miles past the Kilns is Mahogany Flat campground, where the Telescope Peak trailhead begins.
“From Mahogany Flat, the Telescope Peak trail is a great winter trail that skirts southbound around the eastern flank of Rogers Peak, hits the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peaks, and then continues southbound around the west side of Bennett towards Telescope,” says Andrew. “One of my favorite ways to enjoy Telescope is for a sunrise or sunset. Mind you, I’ve summited this peak at least a dozen times, so I really have a handle on planning my visit to coincide with a sunrise or sunset.”
On more than one occasion Andrew and Jennifer have turned their snowshoeing adventures into a once in a lifetime experience. He explains: “I can’t think of a better peak or trail to snowshoe up late in the afternoon, watch the sun set from the summit, then come down under the light of a full moon.” The couple has done this on two occasions, starting at about 2 a.m., and reaching Telescope Peak in time for the sunrise. Andrew adds, “This is beyond description, an absolutely unbelievable way to enjoy a sunset or sunrise. I’ll never forget the sweeping panoramas, the seemingly bottomless valleys, and the uninterrupted solitude.”
Furnace Creek Resort
Located 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Furnace Creek Resort includes the seasonal Inn at Furnace Creek and the Ranch at Furnace Creek, which is open year round. The Inn originally opened in 1927 and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. For more than 20 years, it’s received the AAA 4-diamond award. Open from mid-October through mid-May, the Inn is nestled up against the mountainside and offers 66 rooms and two suites. A mile away, the year-round Ranch at Furnace Creek is more family friendly and features 224 rooms, a general store, the Wrangler Steakhouse, Corkscrew Saloon, and 49er Café. The Borax Museum is maintained and operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
Unique features on the resort property include the swimming pool at the Inn. Fed by a natural spring, the swimming pool water stays at a comfortable 82 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Every two days, the water is filtered through the pool, and re-used for irrigating the property, including the golf course.
Furnace Creek also boasts a one-megawatt solar facility which is the largest zero-emissions renewable energy facility in the tourism industry. It equals one-third of the resort’s annual electricity usage. “Because Death Valley is one of the sunniest spots on the planet, the facility is 40 percent more efficient than an average solar facility,” explains Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra. “The 5,740 panels tilt throughout the day tracking the sun to increase production, and the system is designed to withstand the harsh conditions of Death Valley for the next quarter century.”
Just beyond the reaches of Furnace Creek Resort are several very worthy sites to see and experience. Scotty’s Castle is a must. Located 55 miles north of the resort, this lavish Moorish-style castle consists of several buildings that house beautiful furnishings and spectacular tile work created by artisans, architects, and crafters from Spain, Italy, and throughout the U.S. Outfitted in clothing from the 1930s, tour guides tell you colorful stories of Walter “Scotty” Scott, an alleged prospector and professional con artist. Also, hiking from nearby Zabriskie Point or the Golden Canyon Trail takes you on relatively easy terrain, with views of the stunning layers of colorful strata.
A few Death Valley snowshoeing facts:
*The resort does not rent snowshoes, so bring your own
*You can rent a jeep right there at Furnace Creek Resort
*Stop by the visitor’s center and talk with the National Park Service rep to discuss your snowshoeing trip prior to departure. They will offer invaluable advice
*And remember: Take only pictures, leave only footprints – or in this case, snowshoe tracks