Death Valley’s Winter Weather Is Delightful When The Rest Of The Country’s Weather Is Frightful
Many people in the United States have already experienced the first chill of winter. This is even true in Death Valley National Park, one of the world’s hottest places. The chill Death Valley visitors feel in winter is not caused by temperature drops, rather by the breathtaking beauty of the pristine desert, enjoyed during the season with the most moderate temperatures of the year – the winter season.
Winter is the most popular time of the year to visit this strange and quietly beautiful California park, particularly during the months of January and February. With 3.3 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental U.S. Compared to other major national parks, however, it has relatively low visitation, with only 902,723 people visiting in 2008.
The park’s lodges, RV parks and campgrounds provide overnight accommodations for Death Valley visitors. The majority of travelers visit the park during the months of March, April, August and September. Employees of the Furnace Creek Resort, however, believe the months of January and February are among the best months weather-wise.
“These are the months when we see our repeat visitors,” said Phil Dickinson, director of sales & marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the lodges, restaurants, golf course and shops in the park. “Regular park visitors know that they can hike, golf and explore the park any time during the day, not just during the early morning hours before it gets too hot. Plus, with fewer visitors, most people find the park even more relaxed and casual than usual. We even sometimes have early wildflowers to add color to an already beautiful destination.”
Death Valley’s Winter Sports
A properly equipped winter sports enthusiast in Death Valley is outfitted with good hiking boots, sunscreen, hat, binoculars, camera, golf clubs, bathing suit, tennis racket, water, full tank of gas and light jacket.
Between now and February, the Furnace Creek Golf Course will host a steady stream of golfers. At 214 feet below sea level, the course is the lowest in the world. Because the golf ball does not fly as far as it does at sea level and higher elevation courses, players must adjust their club selections as well as their mental approaches. The course also features small greens, strategically placed Palm and Tamarisk trees and water coming into play on nine holes.
Even if their game is off, golfers can still feel good about playing the course. The golf course was designated a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary” by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System, the educational division of Audubon International. To achieve certification, a course must demonstrate it is maintaining a high degree of environmental quality in several different areas, including water conservation and wildlife and habitat management.
At the historic and elegant Inn at Furnace Creek, guests can swim and relax by the quiet pool. The pool is kept at a comfortable 82 degrees by a warm spring. Surrounded by an oasis garden, the pool offers the feeling of extreme seclusion and relaxation. Soft music is played from the poolside lounge, and a poolside fireplace offers a place for guests to ward off the relative chill of the early evening.
Hiking opportunities in Death Valley are practically unlimited for both casual and seasoned walkers. Although there are no formal trails, paths carved out by past travelers are easy to follow. The National Park Service conducts interpretive programs daily including guided walks and naturalist talks. The programs begin at the National Park Service Visitor Center next to the Ranch at Furnace Creek.
Most park visitors make the 55-mile drive from Furnace Creek to Scotty’s Castle to take a tour of the park’s Moorish-style castle and to learn the convoluted, entertaining tale of how the castle came to be built. The story involves a secret gold mine; a millionaire and his religious, musical wife; and an utterly charming con artist.
Even on the warmest winter days, visitors to the Furnace Creek Resort remain cool, thanks to the power of the sun. Last year, concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts completed construction of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) system in the tourism industry. In the first 12 months of operation, the system generated more than 2.3 million kWh of electricity, or one-third of the total electricity needs of the resort.
Land of Extremes
Death Valley is a land of extreme dryness and heat as well as extreme beauty.
The park is located on the California/Nevada border, approximately 120 miles from Las Vegas and 300 miles from Los Angeles. It is the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. Annual rainfall is about 2.5 inches.
The reason for Death Valley’s extreme climate is found in its geography. There are four major mountain ranges between the Pacific Ocean and Death Valley. When winter storms move east from the Pacific Ocean, they must pass over these mountain ranges to continue east. When the rising clouds cool they produce rain or snow on the western side of these mountains. When those clouds reach the eastern side of the mountains, however, they no longer have as much moisture.
Death Valley is also one of the hottest places on earth. The highest recorded air temperature was 134 degrees – at the Ranch at Furnace Creek in 1912. The summer of 1996 had 40 days with temperatures over 120 degrees and 105 days over 110 degrees. The park’s depth, shape and minimal plant cover all contribute to the park’s extreme temperatures. Death Valley is truly a valley, and the elevation differences are dramatic. From the top of Telescope Peak to the west to Badwater at the bottom of the valley, there is an 11,000-foot elevation change – roughly twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
When Death Valley experiences rain during the winter months, the chances are improved for a spectacular spring wildflower season. The desert’s famous wildflower show can begin as early as late February, when much of the country is still frosty.