Just east of Las Vegas, the Wild West can still be found

Opening the drawer of your hotel nightstand can tell you a great deal about a destination. But you won’t see anything if you peek in a hotel drawer in Beatty, Nev.

Operated by the U.S. National Park Service

Operated by the U.S. National Park Service

Opening the drawer of your hotel nightstand can tell you a great deal about a destination. But you won’t see anything if you peek in a hotel drawer in Beatty, Nev. It’s a place so remote that even the Gideons haven’t been there to put Bibles in the nightstands — and that definitely says something.

Beatty is a quirky little town that is situated just east of Death Valley National Park. With a population of just over 1,000 souls, it is a popular overnight stop for individuals and groups heading out to explore the local sites.

Our little group arrived in Beatty late in the afternoon and after settling into our hotel, immediately headed down Nevada Route 374 to explore the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum and the historic ghost town of Rhyolite, which are both just a short drive outside the town.

Sunset is the best time of day to explore the Goldwell site and the sun was just beginning its descent when we arrived at the outdoor museum. Situated on a sparse patch of ground in the upper Mojave Desert are seven large outdoor sculptures that make up this odd art museum, which was created by a group of Belgian artists who were led by the artist Albert Szukalski.

We wandered around this free park taking photos before heading out on foot to the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite.

Nevada is home to more than 300 ghost towns, some of which are surprisingly well-preserved. One of the most famous is the little gold rush town of Rhyolite, which went from boom to bust in just six years. Located at the intersection of three railways, Rhyolite had a population of close to 5,000 at its peak in about 1908.

When the rich ore was gone, the townspeople also left and by 1920, the entire town was pretty much abandoned. As we wandered around, we examined the remains of the bank and a number of homes, including the Tom Kelly bottle house, a house made out of 51,000 beer bottles and one of the few homes still standing in the town.

Once the best light had faded, we went back into town to enjoy supper at the Sourdough Saloon. This old fashioned saloon makes you feel as if you have stepped into the Wild West.

On the evening we visited the saloon, the Beatty Cowboys, a local group that performs Wild West shows in the town, were also dining in the saloon. Part way through the evening, we experienced an old fashioned holdup. During the spring and summer months, they say that shootouts and holdups are a regular occurrence in Beatty. Some of the cowboys dress up 24/7 just for the fun of it.

After a good night’s rest, we headed out the next day to explore Death Valley National Park. You could spend weeks exploring the more than 13,000 square km of desert protected inside the boundaries of this unique park, but we only had a day to try to catch some of the highlights.

Death Valley is chock-full of natural wonders. Rolling waves of sand dunes, ancient Joshua trees, cacti, wildflowers, valleys, and mountains provide stunning backdrops for the orange glow of evening desert sunsets. The park is also home to Badwater, the lowest — and hottest —place in North America.

Our first stop in Death Valley National Park was an historic villa located in Grapevine Canyon that is run by the U.S. National Parks Service. Known as Scotty’s Castle, the villa is famous because it isn’t really a castle and it never really belonged to Scotty — even though most people seemed to think it did. Park rangers dressed in period costume offer living history tours of the house, where you can learn the real truth about Death Valley Scotty and his good friend millionaire Albert Johnson.

From Scotty’s Castle, we drove to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, located near the centre of the park. After a buffet lunch at the visitor’s centre, we checked out some of the museum exhibits and the bookstore before heading out to see some of the key sites of Death Valley.

Our first stop was the Devil’s Golf Course, a place so rough that it is said that only Lucifer himself could play golf there. The area is really just a large salt pan on the floor of Death Valley that was created when a lake, which once covered the area, dried up. A park ranger explained that the lack of rain in this part of the park caused the salts of the lake to be moulded by erosion into this fascinating landscape.

Not far from the Devil’s Golf Course, you can visit Badwater, the lowest point in North America at 86 metres (282 feet) below sea level. Due to its low elevation, this area of the park receives more rain annually than the Devil’s Golf Course and the adjacent salt flats take on a different appearance, being more flat and smooth. From a distance, the salt looks like snow and ice.

If you don’t dawdle, you should have time to see the Artist’s Palette, a colourful rock formation on the face of the Black Mountains. The red, pink, yellow and green colours are caused by oxidizing metals in the rocks.

Unfortunately, our group took too long at the other sites, so we missed seeing the Artist’s Palette and headed directly to Zabriskie Point to watch the sun set over one of Death Valley’s most popular viewpoints. The soft illumination at the end of day, made the view absolutely magical and as I stood there with about a dozen other visitors, I couldn’t help feeling grateful for the remote beauty of this place. Watching the fading light of day paint shadows along the Amargosa Mountains would not have been the same if it were crowded and overrun with people.

I suppose it’s worth going without a Bible in your hotel nightstand to experience something like that.

If you go:

• A two night exploration of Death Valley can easily be added to any Las Vegas itinerary, but you’ll need a car rental to do this trip. A four-wheel drive will give you access to more roads in Death Valley, but you can access the main sites in a standard vehicle on paved roads.

• It takes a couple of hours to drive from Las Vegas to Beatty and you should allow at least an hour to explore Rhyolite and Goldwell. We stayed at the Stagecoach Hotel in Beatty, but there are several other hotel options. For information on Beatty hotels, visit www.beattynevada.org.

• Be sure to fill your car with gas and take water with you into Death Valley National Park. A park pass for one vehicle will cost $10 and allows access for up to one week. In a single day, you can visit Scotty’s Castle (www.nps.gov/deva), the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater and the Salt Flats, Artist’s Palette, and Zabriskie Point. Sunset is a great time to experience Zabriskie Point. From Zabriskie Point, we drove to Pahrump and stopped for dinner and a short tour of the Pahrump Valley Winery before checking into the Saddle West Hotel and Casino in Pahrump (www.saddlewest.com). It is about a one-hour drive from Pahrump, Nev., back to Las Vegas.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.