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Death Valley is for the livingDeath Valley is for the living

Wll-known facts about Death Valley: It's hot there in the summer. It's not on the way to anywhere.


The 3.4 million acres of Death Valley National Park are located 180 miles west of Las Vegas. Furnace Creek Airport (L06) has a 3,065-foot paved runway; Stovepipe Wells Airport (L09) has a 3,260-foot paved runway.

Wll-known facts about Death Valley:

  • It's hot there in the summer.
  • It's not on the way to anywhere.

Little-known facts about Death Valley:

  • Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
  • Only one person — Capt. Culverwell — died in the desolate valley that later became known as Death Valley.
  • Pilots will enjoy a visit.

Death Valley isn't often mentioned in the same breath as a vacation spot, but it's a good fly-in destination. Most pilots set a course for the Furnace Creek Airport during the late fall, winter, or early spring because the temperatures are tolerable and because there is plenty to do. That list includes, but isn't limited to, hiking, tennis, golf, bicycling, and camping.

Flying in

There actually are two airports in the park, both operated by the National Park Service. The Stovepipe Wells Airport has one 3,260-by-65-foot runway and is at the northern end of the park. It's the one that is above sea level. The one that isn't, Furnace Creek Airport, is 16 miles southeast of Stovepipe Wells. Its field elevation is 281 feet below sea level and it features a single 3,065-by-70-foot runway. There is a $10-per-vehicle entrance fee for each visit but no overnight fees. There are ramp cables at both airports but pilots must bring their own ropes and chocks. Camping spots are located close to each airport. Park service information can be accessed online or by calling 760/786-3200.

From the air, you can see that the Stovepipe Wells Airport is surrounded by a bleak and monochromatic landscape, especially when compared to the lush surroundings of Furnace Creek. Yet there's a general store, restaurant and bar, hotel with 83 rooms, and camping area within a short walk of Stovepipe Wells. And in fact, one of the most photographed sites in the valley is the area of sand dunes located just north of the airport. Park personnel report cracks in the runway surface with a few weeds growing up through the pavement, but otherwise the runway is very usable.

First-time visitors to the park will get a new understanding of what oasis means when they catch sight of the Furnace Creek area. Because of the fresh water that flows from a natural spring (up to a million gallons a day), the Furnace Creek area is awash with lush greenery. There's a well-manicured, 6,205-square-yard, 18-hole golf course, and the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort is known for its gardens and palm trees.

Both 100LL and Jet-A are available at the Furnace Creek Airport from fixed sites on the northeast end of the ramp, but fuel services are available only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., seven days a week. Tiedowns for transient airplanes are located in front of the Forest Service hangar. Directly below the beacon tower is the rest room building. There's a phone there to call for fuel or for a ride to the Furnace Creek Inn or Furnace Creek Ranch. Be forewarned, cell-phone service is nonexistent in the park.

If you can, bring a bicycle, because a number of attractions are within easy pedaling distance and the road traffic is pretty light. Unfortunately, there isn't a bicycle or an automobile rental facility in the park. The Pahrump, Nevada, office of Enterprise Rent-A-Car will bring a car over if reservations are made ahead of time by calling 775/537-6677. There's an additional — and substantial — drop-off and pickup fee. Without ground transportation many of the interesting historical and geological features of the park, such as the Scotty Castle Museum, Ubehebe Crater, Devil's Golf Course, Artist's Palette, Zabriskie Point, Natural Bridge, and ghost towns of Ballarat, Panamint City, and Rhyolite, are out of reach.

But there's still plenty to do nearby.

The Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort

The Furnace Creek Ranch was established in 1881 as Greenland Ranch to provide accommodations for the borax mine workers, grow alfalfa for the horses and mules, and raise cattle for food (see " Death Valley Sunday," June 2002 Pilot).

The ranch has been converted and upgraded for guests and includes amenities such as a spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, and horseback rides, as well as three restaurants. The ranch and surroundings are pretty informal. What else would you expect at places with names such as the Corkscrew Saloon, the Forty-Niner Cafe, and the Wrangler Buffet and Wrangler Steakhouse? The tone is more upscale and respectful at the inn.

The Furnace Creek Inn was designed by Albert C. Martin in the Mission style. Local workmen built the first section using adobe bricks and it opened in February 1927. By 1937 construction was complete with 66 rooms. The inn, located one mile beyond the ranch, is famous for its fine dining, and pilots fly hundreds of miles to enjoy the Sunday brunch. One pilot on the Furnace Creek Airport member-comments section called the Furnace Creek Inn brunch "one of the best-kept secrets in California." The inn is a four-star resort known for its quiet setting, 1930s-style elegance and atmosphere, and beautiful spring-fed gardens that are framed by a grove of mature palm trees. The ranch is open year round but the inn will be closed from May 14 through October 12, 2006. For more information about the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, go to or call 760/786-2345.

Before you go

There are a couple of simple good-neighbor policies. Maintain at least 2,000 feet above the valley floor and fly patterns on the nontown side of the airports. Be aware of extensive low-level military traffic in both the Panamint and Saline military operations areas located on the west side of the valley. Flight following isn't available and air traffic control radar coverage is poor below 11,000 feet in the park area, so all traffic avoidance depends on pilot vigilance.

It won't matter whether you're flying out for the brunch or planning to spend a few days taking in the quiet and stark beauty of this famous place, Death Valley is worth the trip. Since flight following isn't available, file a flight plan, carry plenty of water, and let your airplane take you to Death Valley for another aerial adventure in California.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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