AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nevada
If you think the fountains at the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip are something special, just wait until you see the water show that takes place a hundred or so miles to the north, out here in what appears to be about as dry and dusty a place as you're likely to find. Well, as dry and dusty as you'll find until you go just a little farther to the west and descend into the sub-sea level environment of the valley known as Death.
The Las Vegas Strip and Death Valley both are major attractions for tourists, though not nearly so many people take the time to explore this, the Amargosa Valley, or the isolated trails that venture off across desert dunes, through narrow canyons and up into the mountains that lie just outside the national park's borders along Nevada's diagonal western boundary.
We're here because we had to be in Las Vegas for a week-long trade show and decided to arrive early and do some exploring. No, we didn't search The Strip for its guilty pleasures. Instead, we loaded up a Nissan Xterra equipped with the Pro-4X off-road package and set up base camp here at the Longstreet hotel, casino and RV resort, where there is live entertainment, a small restaurant, a gigantic cow (not real, it's a statue) and where roughing it is very reasonably priced and can include a room with a fireplace.
Commercially, this area is the country's only source of sepiolite and saponite, absorbent clays that are used in such diverse activities and products as drilling for oil and producing cat liter and cosmetics.
The valley also is home to the Big Dune, an ever-changing, wind-sculpted sand pile taller than a 20-story building and open to exploration on ATVs and other off-road vehicles.
We ventured just far enough out onto the sand to need the Xterra's Low-4-Wheel-Drive system to propel us back to a more solid surface.
Just a few miles south of the Big Dune is another natural wonder, Ash Meadows, a desert oasis where natural springs bubble from the earth and provide a home to four species of fish, including the Warm Springs pupfish, whose native habitat spans less than one square mile, and the Devils Hole pupfish which lives only in one narrow and very closely protected cavern.
Also found in Ash Meadows are creatures such as the Western zebra-tailed lizard, which can stand up on its hind feet and run at speeds approaching 20 miles per hour, and such rare plants as the Amargosa niterwort and Ash Meadows sunray ad milkvetch.
We'd stopped by the famed Amargosa Opera House, founded in 1968 by former Radio City and Broadway dancer Marta Becket, on a previous visit to Death Valley, so this time, armed with a copy of Adler Publishing's Nevada Trails/Southern Region: Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails, we drove further north on 95, to Beatty, where we turned west on Nevada 374.
If you are visiting for the first time, you'll want to turn right off 374 to visit Rhyolite, a ghost town and the adjacent Goldwell Open Air Museum with its 15 acres of sculpture.
We didn't take the turn to Rhyolite, but not much further down 374 we veered off on Titus Canyon Road, which crosses the open desert, and the Nevada/California state line, before entering the Grapevine Mountains, scaling Red Pass, and showing you what remains of Leadfield, a 1920's boom town that at one point had 300 residents and, for six months -- until boom went bust -- its own U.S. Post Office.
For most of its way, Titus Canyon Road is narrow and can be traveled only from east to west. After making its way through the canyon, which is more of a meandering slot through tall walls, the road spills us out into Death Valley
If it's early enough in the day, you can turn north toward Scotty's Castle, a Roaring '20s villa, and the Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic cone that generates amazing winds along its rim.
We'd visited both on previous trips, so we kept going past the crater to the Racetrack, one of Death Valley's most mysterious attractions -- and one you reach by driving each way on a 26-mile, oh-so-rough, narrow and tough gravel road.
Be sure to stop at Teakettle Junction, in part to see the unusual junction markers, in part to calm your body after so many miles of bumpy road. Fortunately, it's not all that far, just a few more miles, from the junction to the Racetrack, which is actually a dry lake bed, two miles wide and three miles long and covered to a depth of more than a thousand feet by dried and hard-baked mud.
A large rocky island emerges from that lake bed like an eerie, ancient submarine. But the real attraction are the rocks. The Racetrack is called the Racetrack because those rocks move -- you can see the evidence in the gouged trails they leave in their wake. However, no one actually has seen them the rocks move, though scientists believe that when the area gets rain, the hard-mud turns icy slick, so slick that the wind -- which can blow here at 50 miles per hour -- pushes the rocks across the surface.
The site is amazing, but at some point you have to walk back to your vehicle and tackle the jarring 26-mile drive back to pavement.
The next day, we drove well beyond Beatty, turning west at Scotty's Junction on Nevada 287. Six and a half miles later, we turned north at what's left of the Bonnie Claire mine and followed the Hard Luck Mine trail, which climbs slowly at first, and past some interesting artifacts, as well the mine and Hard Luck Castle from which the trail takes its name, and then more severely up a few thousand feet to Hanging Mesa.
We wanted to return to 95 on an intersecting trail that includes Hell's Gate, but the trails became a maze of side trails and rather than risk spending the night lost in the desert, we opted to turn around and drive back down the way we'd come up.
But we'll be back. There's another trade show to attend next year, and 40 more trails in the guidebook waiting to be explored.