On my first visit to Death Valley National Park, its historic inn, a green oasis of swaying palms and red-tile roofs, captured my imagination from afar.
Five years later, I have returned to the emerald isle in the middle of the hottest desert on Earth, this time as a guest.
The Oasis at Death Valley is built atop an honest-to-god oasis from which 80,000 gallons of subterranean waters bubble to the surface each day. When a hotel first went up here in the 1920s, the stunning juxtaposition of flourishing life amid a deadly desert drew Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and a young Ronald Reagan.
The casitas at the Inn at Death Valley.(Scott Temme/Xanterra)
Ongoing renovations since 2018 have ushered the inn at the oasis into a new era in which nearly two dozen, updated one-bedroom casitas rise up from the fertile ground. There's a restaurant, a cocktail lounge, and spa. A mile away, a second property, The Ranch, got its own extensive renovations including 224 updated guest rooms, soon-to-open cottages, and an ice cream parlor all arrayed around a quaint town square.
Dusty and dirty from a seven-hour hike to Panamint City, a ghost town on the park’s southeastern edge, by the time I stumble into the inn well after dark, it feels like a mirage. In short order, a staff member whisks me away in a golf cart to my casita. On the way, he explains that, once there, I’ll have a golf cart all my own to drive around the resort whenever I please; it comes complimentary with my stay.
Inside, the casita is dressed up in unpretentious, well-appointed comfort. Just beyond the back patio where I’ll drink hot tea with the rising sun, a creek wends its way through the casita village. And beyond that, a lovely garden of spindly palms, flowing waterways, and ponds beg for a stroll.
The Last Kind Words Saloon at The Ranch.(Scott Temme/Xanterra)
The next morning, after breakfast on the inn’s verandah, where the views stretch like taffy across the valley, it’s once again time to venture into that unforgiving desert. At Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, it’s 85 degrees. That’s downright chilly for the park which, last summer, reached the third hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere on the planet, 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
From there it’s on to the Artist’s Palette, a volcanic uprising of rock naturally colored in hues of blue, purple and pink, then to Rhyolite, another ghost town—this one accessible by car—just outside the park’s Nevada entrance. With the heat and the dust and the dry dry air, there’s just one thing I have in mind as I pull back into the parking lot at the inn: the spring-fed pool. With its stone chimney, open air cabanas and cushy lounges, it looks nearly identical to the historic photo that hangs on the wall of my casita, and was, I imagine, just as restorative then as it is now.
The Inn's rooftop deck beneath a starry sky.(Mike Knetemann/Xanterra)
I head down to the Ranch for dinner that night and find myself belly up to the bar of The Last Kind Words Saloon, the resort’s steakhouse-cum-watering-hole, beneath a dense gallery of Western imagery, taxidermied animals, and cowboy accoutrement. A famous rendering of the 20-mule teams that moved borax, a mineral powder used in cleaning and washing clothes, through Death Valley in the 1880s, dominates one wall. Outside, diners are seated around a stone chimney that’s crackling with life.
I nosh on hearty, strength-reviving fare—dishes like ribeye, baby back ribs, and salmon—and by the time my belly is full, the stars have begun to emerge in the night sky; back at the inn, I have the most comfortable spot in the park to see them shine. I sit on a lounge chair on the fourth floor viewing deck and bask in their pale glow. Nearly full tonight, the moon keeps the Milky Way at bay, but in this certified International Dark Sky Park, thousands of pinpoints of light dance nevertheless.
The next morning, I sleep so soundly in my cozy casita that I miss the iconic sunrise at nearby Zabriskie Point, but no matter. I’ll be back,’I think to myself, as I steer my golf cart into the blazing morning heat.
// Oasis at Death Valley (Death Valley), oasisatdeathvalley.com
Zabriskie Point at sunrise.(Temme/Xanterra)