Now as then, this corner of the Mojave Desert is a harsh and forbidding place, but for the past 77 years this mission-style hotel made of rocks and adobe blocks has provided weary travelers a welcoming oasis of creature comfort.
Three natural springs nearby account for Furnace Creek's name - the water gushes from the ground at 100 degrees. And it's that unlikely water source that makes this desert
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The spring water continually flows into and out of an expansive swimming pool, such that it doesn't have to be laced with smelly chemicals. Plunge beneath the fresh, sparkling waters after a day of tramping over salt pans and boulder fields and you might have difficulty getting out. The water tends to hover around 84 degrees (higher on hot days) and because of its mineral content is marvelously invigorating.
The spring water also nourishes the inn's sprawling garden, a grove of some 70 palm trees accented with decorative grasses and bougainvillea bushes. Streams tumble through
Stroll through here in the evening and you're sure to be enchanted by the low, dim lights, designed not to interfere with Death Valley's dazzling night sky. In the brighter sunlight of day, you can better make out the many quaint features of the garden: working water wheels, stone steps, bridges, waterfalls and mirror-clear ponds, crowded with blooming lily pads.
Many guests of the 66-room inn seem to pay only cursory attention to these features. The vastness of the national park, and the implicit mandate of trying to take in as much as possible, is surely to blame. Death Valley encompasses 3.34 million acres - it's the largest national park in the contiguous states - and its most popular attractions are spread from one end to the other.
Tourists will dash at dawn for the sunrise at Zabriskie Point or Dante's View, then double back for a day excursion north to Scotty's Castle, Ubehebe Crater, the Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon or Salt Creek. Or they'll wheel south to take in the geologic oddities of Golden Canyon, Artists Drive, the Devil's Golf Course or Badwater - at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the western hemisphere.
They'll often stagger back to the inn only in time for a quick change for dinner.
If you can confine your Death Valley explorations to a short trip in the morning or afternoon - and leave something for next time - you'll likely find that the Furnace Creek Inn is a profoundly comfortable place to while away a few unhurried hours, particularly here in the dead of winter, when daytime highs average in the 60s and the air is often clear and dry.
We ducked out one morning for a dirt-road journey to some historic and geologic sites on the West Side Road, but found our way back to the pool by midday for a lunch of deli sandwiches, chicken-and-couscous salad and cold beer. For much of the afternoon, incredibly, we had the place to ourselves.
It was such a peaceful, scenic place to read and take an occasional dip. Stone arches at the edge of the deck framed the distant spine of the Panamint Range, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak crowned by a rich blanket of snow.
Later that evening, most of the day-trippers were apparently too spent to wander through the romantically lit garden, or to enjoy one of the inn's most sublime treats, a chilly winter evening spent at one of its outdoor fireplaces.
There are two of them, flanking the pool, rock structures whose arched openings are nearly 5 feet tall. And these don't have the phony, antiseptic gas logs that you find at some desert resorts. Built in 1929, they crackle and blaze with real wood, specifically that of the tamarisk trees that grow like weeds at the inn's lower-priced sister property, the Furnace Creek Ranch.
Management lights the fires as soon as the sun sets, and thoughtfully leaves a generous pile of firewood so that guests may later stoke them to their liking.
One of the fireplaces even has a large boulder positioned at its mouth - pull up a chair and enjoy nature's ottoman. Nighttime temperatures were in the 40s, but this was such an inviting spot that one evening we encamped here for a picnic dinner. To the west, Venus beamed like a headlight from the inky sky, and the desert floor was utterly still.
This is precisely the big-city antidote that a borax mining company envisioned in the 1920s when it conceived the idea of a resort, right after some nearby mines played out.
The chosen site was ideal: a west-facing slope of the Funeral Mountains, overlooking the valley floor, close to the crystalline water of those prodigious springs. A 12-room inn was opened in 1927, with additions and improvements following almost annually for the next eight years.
The design is subtle: The hotel appears to have sprung from the hillside. Rock walls and buildings are masonry mosaics, presenting the variety of Death Valley's geology as it tumbled in chunks out of the mountains: rocks of gray, red, black, cream, sand. Adobe walls are painted a soft, buff yellow, accented with pale green windows and doorways. All is topped by a red Granada tile roof that has long since been bleached into submission by the merciless sun.
Because the construction was done in so many phases, the layout is quirky and convoluted, but in a fun way. We encountered quite a few newly arrived guests who weren't quite sure where they were or in which direction they were headed. Looking for the lobby? It's not on the first floor, it's on the third. The pool? Oh, just keep descending staircases and rounding curved walls and you'll find it eventually.
In additional to mission-style arched windows, there are arched tunnels and hallways, because the inn was literally hewn into the side of a mountain. "These were miners," hotel manager Toni Jepson said of the builders. "If there were two things they knew how to do, it was dig tunnels and excavate."
One such subterranean space used to be the bar, directly below the lobby, and its floor-to-ceiling rock walls and timber posts and ceiling beams create the feel of a mine. It's used for private functions today, because a few years ago the bar was moved to a space on the lobby level ... a bit closer to a window.
This was one of several recent improvements undertaken by Xanterra Parks & Resorts (formerly Amfac), the national park concessionaire that operates the inn. The golf course at the ranch - at 214 feet below sea level the lowest in the world - was redesigned. The lobby and public rooms were renovated. Guest rooms were refurbished, swapping the pink and turquoise of the 1980s Southwest fad for more subtle desert hues.
And a restoration of the original adobe blocks is ongoing. "A contractor digs out the old blocks and makes new ones on the property," Jepson said. "We're encasing the new ones in lath and plaster, because rain was really taking its toll on the adobe."
Elsewhere, a free-standing poolside cottage, simply called Room 199, got a makeover. Its carpeting was replaced by hardwood flooring, and some stylishly rustic furniture was brought in. That only served to enhance its innate charm _ a vaulted, beamed ceiling and an arched, open closet (a one-time fireplace).
As at all historic hotels, you might have to weather a few inconveniences owed to 1920s plumbing and wiring. Travertine in the spring water builds up in pipes and causes showers to drain slowly. We also found that the water from our bathroom tap was never more than lukewarm.
There is room for other improvements at the Furnace Creek Inn. Its dining room is decidedly hit-and-miss. We had enjoyable dinners when we stuck to simple grilled meats - filet mignon, lamb rib chops. It was when the kitchen launched into some ambitious sauces that it ran into trouble. One of the specials one night was strip steak in an apple butter and port sauce (OK, OK, I was taking a chance), and three huge, dry slabs of meat were positively suffocating under this heavy adornment.
Service, meanwhile, was certainly friendly, but we also found it spotty. One evening our waiter simply disappeared late in the meal, forcing us to flag down someone from the bar to help us.
The wine list leans heavily to California selections, and a number of bargains can be found on it.
There are some whimsical items on the menu, too, and here it pays to be adventurous. The Crispy Cactus appetizer is just that, strips of prickly pear cactus lightly floured, spiced and fried, and served with dipping sauces of creamy guacamole, yellow tomato salsa and prickly pear jelly. It may sound bizarre, but it proved quite tasty - think French-style green beans.
Another popular item is a traditional one: date bread, once a byproduct of the many date palms on the property. (The aged trees now produce a dried-out fruit, which is left to fall to the ground, there to fatten the coyotes.) Order a few slices as an accompaniment to the inn's impressively hearty breakfasts.
Before or after dining - at any time of the day or night - be sure to wander out onto the broad terrace that fronts the lobby. The view to the west, across the valley floor to the towering Panamint Range, is mesmerizing.
Somewhere out in that national park expanse are Coffin Peak, Dry Bone Canyon, Deadman Pass and Lost Lake.
But it's awfully hospitable right here.
Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681, email@example.com ------
Guest Comment Card:
Best attribute: View from the lobby terrace across the floor of the valley, especially in the early morning.
Something unique: No need for bottled water. Inn is entirely served by three refreshing natural springs.
Don't miss: Spending part of an evening at one of the massive wood-burning fireplaces at the pool.
Could be better: Dining room inconsistent. Aims high but sometimes misses the mark.
Final thought: After a dusty day in the harsh environs of Death Valley, this is a supremely comfortable place to unwind.
IF YOU GO:
LOCATION: The Furnace Creek Inn is at the intersection of Highways 190 and 178 in the eastern reaches of Death Valley National Park.
ACCOMMODATIONS: In the late 1990s, the inn had a brief flirtation with year-round operation, but it resumed a seasonal schedule after European business fell off in the wake of 9-11. Rates from $240 to $365 until the inn closes on May 9. Upon reopening Oct. 15, low-season rates will range from $240 to $350. Holiday periods slightly higher. The nearby Furnace Creek Ranch, a moderately priced sister property, is open year-round.
AMENITIES: Massage therapy available. Spa tubs in five rooms. Terry cloth robes in all rooms (ideal for a nighttime visit to the pool). Four lighted tennis courts. An 18-hole golf course is adjacent to the ranch.
INFORMATION: (760) 786-2345; www.furnacecreekresort.com.