Death Valley: An Almost Mystical Place of Legends and Stories

Thursday, October 01 2009 10:51   OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley
Keep a lookout for them as you drive the road to Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park. If you are watchful, you'll see the wagon tracks as they cut across the desert landscape and disappear into the distant hills.

Looking as fresh as yesterday, these tracks were made more than a hundred years ago by wagon trains seeking a shortcut to California. The tragedy of those early wagon trains is written all across the West.

In the pioneers' search for easier trails for their wagons and livestock, and shorter ways to the Promised Land that always lay farther west, some of the trains met with tragedy. The Donner Party survived a horrible winter in the High Sierra in 1847. Yet another near tragedy occurred in what was to become Death Valley in 1849 when the Manley Party nearly met with disaster.

Working from maps of dubious provenance, a wagon train of settlers split up after leaving Salt Lake City. Some of the party made it through by avoiding the valley completely, but some wagons led by Manley headed for a "shortcut" straight through what is today Death Valley.

When the party got bogged down in the valley, they sent Manley for help. He brought help back after an arduous journey lasting some four weeks. And as the rescued settlers reached the top of the pass leading out of the valley, one is said to have looked back and said "Goodbye, Death Valley." So the valley got its name and a mythical reputation as a place of death and hardship. However hard the journey was, history seems to indicate that only one of these 49'ers died.

For me, Death Valley is an almost mystical place; stories and history abound in an environment where time changes are measured in millennia and where wagon tracks last for centuries.

The barren rocks almost constantly change color with the shifting light. And contrary to myth, the desert is full of life. True, most living creatures seek shelter from the heat during the day and lead nocturnal lives, but there are plants that have adapted so well to the environment that you might not even notice them.

One such group is popularly called belly plants (they are so small you have to be on your belly to see them) and many resemble small pebbles. Since they commonly grow among desert rocks, it's very efficient camouflage.

While visitors today-even in air-conditioned cars-need to respect the desert environment and prepare for it, Death Valley is a place of surprising diversity. Rare desert pupfish inhabit pools that become hot in summer and cold in the winter. Clear springs gush forth such huge amounts of water that Furnace Creek Ranch and the neighboring Inn sport a golf course and an oasis of palms and plants.

Then there's Scotty's Castle, some 50 miles north of Furnace Creek. A Spanish style mansion nestled in Grapevine Canyon, it might be mistaken for a mirage at first glance. But this enduring attraction is real enough, yet surrounded in enough myth and legend to keep storytellers busy for years.

Today, visitors to the castle in the northern part of Death Valley always ask about Scotty. Many think that Walter Scott, who had prospected the California desert for years, struck it rich and built the castle. The real story, however, is even stranger. They should be asking about Albert Johnson. You see, it was the millionaire Johnson and his wife Bessie who built the castle as a getaway in Grapevine Canyon. Scotty was the romantic figure who inspired Johnson. Over the years Johnson and Scotty formed an unlikely friendship. Johnson supplied the money and Scotty supplied the dream.

And what a dream it was. The house is luxurious even by today's standards. Although much was completed in the twenties, the 1929 crash came and the uncompleted parts of the house stand in testament to dreams unfulfilled.

The National Park Service has tours that explain the history of the castle and also the relationship between Scotty and Johnson. Both left their mark on Death Valley.

Every fall one group celebrates the history and lore of Death Valley. The Death Valley 49ers Encampment features events that are unique to the valley and the desert environment. Each year some mule-drawn wagons arrive and there are contests with horseshoes and wheelbarrows and even cowboy poetry. There's even a golf tournament in recognition of one of the Valley's current pleasures.

Check out for more information. The 2009 encampment is set for Nov. 4-8, and will mark the group's 60th anniversary for the encampments.

For more information about Death Valley National Park, see the web site at to help plan your visit. On the park's home page you'll find a link to a downloadable PDF visitor guide that covers everything from park information to desert survival tips.

So go enjoy Death Valley. It's a place you'll remember for a long time.


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