enculturating las vegas into the next millennium... art, dance, film, music, poetry, theater, history, nature and everything else that enriches the lives of those who live and visit southern nevada... Since 2003...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Death Valley and little known facts...

I will be the first to admit that I am a Death Valley junky. There is something serene about one of the most inhospitable places on earth where temperatures at night can fall well below zero and daytime temperatures rise well over 125 degrees. As a native of the desert, better known as a desert rat and proud of it, I will admit that there is a beauty in the desolate plains that make up the American Southwest. I have visited Death Valley National Park on multiple occasions and the place never ceases to amaze me as I discover new and exciting things about the environment. I sometimes wonder to myself what life could have been like for the Timbisha Native Americans or the first pioneers to settle the area. But even in this harsh environment life seems to thrive quite beautifully whether you are flora or fauna.

This past Sunday I visited the park yet again with a couple of old friends who actually texted me the night before asking me if I wanted to go. The flowers were going to be in full bloom thanks to the heavy rains that blessed the desert this past winter, so Death Valley would be in shades of color for a few weeks before the temperatures seared the plants. I had been toying with the idea for sometime and my schedule just would not permit it but luckily all I needed was a bit of encouragement to light my fire and make me go. I woke up early as I always do, packed up a few gallons of water, put some fuel in the car, air in the tires and off we were. Despite being a little tired from attending a fabulous party the evening before I was giddy to be on the road. The way I always drive into the park is through the small hamlet of Beatty which is roughly 100 miles North of Las Vegas on the 95. After you hit the middle of town you make a left at the Sourdough Saloon onto the 374 and drive about five miles west until you hit the Nevada entrance to the park. As is tradition prior to hitting the entrance to the park we made a small pit stop at the Goldwell Open Air Museum and Rhyolite Ghost Town. Two great little historic attractions well worth the drive even if you are not going into the park.

I always drive the 374 out of Beatty because it is by far the most beautiful way into the park. The 374 is famous for being one of the routes that goes into infinity and disappears in the mountains. In addition the road has the most dramatic drop in elevation from several thousand feet to well below sea level. This is definetly not the road you want to take if your breaks fail but in either case it would be the trip of a lifetime to say the least. Once you are in the park and over the mountain pass you want to make sure to pull over at the ticket station to get your ticket into the park. Though this week all National Parks are free pull over anyway just to take in the dramatic view of the valley itself which is breathtaking.

As we continued on our journey we began seeing the dramatic bloom of flowers that have over taken the park due to heavy rains. All the colors were represented but it was yellow that ruled the Valley this year with dramatic carpets in all directions interspersed with purples and oranges and even many of the cacti were in full bloom. Once we got to the valley floor I went South on the 190 to Furnace Creek one of the few hamlets located in the park, the others being Stovepipe Wells, Emigrant and Panamint Springs. One thing you will notice about Death Valley is that everything tends to be named according to their environment; Devil's Golf Course, Dante's Peak, Badwater Basin and Artists Palette to name a few.

Borax Museum
The small village of Furnace Creek which is located in the middle of the park has several interesting attractions that educate the public about the history of the area. The Furnace Creek Visitors Center is the main location to get information about the park and is run by the National Park Service. Another interesting attraction is the Borax Museum located at the Furnace Creek Ranch which also houses a hotel, restaurants, a saloon, gift shop and bike rental facilities. As a major fan of small rural museums this one is definitely  worth visiting.

Interior of the Borax Museum
The Borax Museum is located in the oldest structure in Death Valley which was built in 1883. Due to the structures importance to history it was preserved in 1953 and moved to its current location to serve as a museum. The museum educates the public about the importance and history of Borax Mining that took place in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is chuck full of artifacts and photos about the mining operations. Yes I know you are probably thinking what is exciting about "Borax?" Well borax is an important mineral that is used from everything from laundry detergent to room deodorizers, agriculture and even preservation of lumber (Rio Tinto Borax). As a matter of fact the largest Borax Mine in the world is located just outside Death Valley near Boron, California and I am sure we have all seen the 20 Mule Team Borax at the store? Its not so much that borax is exciting and we know it is not as sexy as gold and sliver mining, but rather the fact that it took place in such a harsh environment.

Imagine being a top a wagon train with three fellows and 20 mules pulling 9 metric tons of borax in the middle of Death Valley during the summer. That alone is what makes this museum one of the most interesting museums I have ever visited. It is the humanity that makes you wonder what makes us go through this torture just to bring things to market. Now growing up in Nevada we are constantly reminded about mining and its contribution to the history of our state but when you think of mining you tend to think of going into a hole in the ground and digging up Eldorado and having Mark Twain write about it. Borax mining on the other hand was not as important as gold mining but was an important part of the economy at the turn of the century in the Southwest. Interestingly enough what caught me by surprise as you walk through the museum were the multiple references to Las Vegas and the Spring Mountains that surround our valley. Much of the timber that was used in borax mining operations in Death Valley came as far away as Las Vegas. Again we ask ourselves how did they do it?

In the back of the museum there are dozens of rusting artifacts reminiscent of the industrial age such as steam engines, anvils, crucibles, wagons, a locomotive and even an old fire proof safe that belonged to the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad which was owned by Senator William Andrews Clark the father of Las Vegas. All in all this museum really made me smile and the fact that my home town played a significant role in the development of the area made me even more proud to say I am from Las Vegas.

If you get a chance to go to Death Valley make sure you visit the Borax Museum it is well worth it. But I would suggest avoiding the area from June through September. Bring lots of water and make sure your car is running well, this environment will be the harshest yet most beautiful one you will ever visit, I guarantee it!

For more information about Death Valley please visit this site -

Death Valley National Park

Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium...

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Youre Welcome Paco! glad i was able to help get you out there b4 it TOO HOT!

2:20 PM


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