One of the valley’s two supply centres
A general store, a petrol station, a motel and a public swimming-pool all make a welcome appearance at Stovepipe Wells, the second of the valley’s two supply centres. (The actual well after which the village takes its name is a mile or two north-east.)
Just east of the village, a marker indicates Burned Wagons Point, where a group of ’49ers’ – migrants travelling overland from the east during 1849 and looking for a southerly route into California – became trapped, eventually burning their wagons to smoke the meat of their slaughtered oxen, and then finding a route out of the valley on foot. Incidentally, it was another 49er who allegedly gave the valley its name, turning back to utter “Goodbye, Death Valley” as he and his party made their escape.
Slightly further east along Hwy-198, 14 square miles of sand dunes appear to the north. Formed by desert winds wearing down fragments of quartz, these shifting yellow carpets at the feet of the surrounding hillsides are fascinating to see when the sun casts moving shadows across their rippled tops. The dunes can also be viewed from a signposted vantage point off North Highway, on the detour described below.
Detour – Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater
With a few hours, or half a day to spare, leave Hwy-190 near Stovepipe Wells and continue north along the North Highway. Thirty or so miles ahead lie two of Death Valley’s more celebrated features. Nature presents itself in many curious guises in Death Valley but the region’s least likely sight is a man-made one: the red-tiled roofs, balconies and arched entrances of Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-Moorish mansion which sits at the foot of the brown hillsides off Grapevine Canyon, 3 miles east of the North Highway.
Though named after Walter “Death Valley Scotty” Scot, a colourful frontier character who claimed to have built his castle with the proceeds of a secret gold mine, the $2.5 million which funded the mansion was actually raised by a Chicago millionaire, Albert Johnson, who moved to the desert for health reasons in the 1920s and lost most of his fortune during the Depression.
Both men lived at the mansion which, though never officially completed, boasts 18 fireplaces, a massive pipe organ, heaps of ornate wrought ironwork – and a 185-ft-long swimming-pool for cooling off in the dry desert heat – all of which are viewable on guided tours.
Half a mile wide and 800 feet deep, the Ubehebe Crater – turn west off North Highway a mile north of the Scotty’s Castle turning – was formed in a split second by the terrific explosion which occurred when molten lava struck the valley’s water table. From the rim, the sheer size of the crater is highly impressive. Take the trail leading to the crater floor for a close look at the different-coloured layers of sedimentary rock in its walls, exposed by the explosion.