Death Valley is Very Much ALIVE!
Recent Updates & Renovations of $100 Million To
Furnace Creek Golf Course & Oasis at Death Valley

Story and Photos by: Ed Stone

The Oasis at Death Valley was originally called Furnace Creek and is a true American oasis where 80,000 gallons of ancient waters rise to the surface every day.  The native-Americans, prospectors, settlers and 49ers all knew about the water and the oasis.  Eventually the land was purchased by the Pacific Borax Company that mined and hauled borax out of the valley with the famed Borax 20 Mule Teams of the 1880s.  The mules and miners were based at Furnace Creek.

Perry Dye renovated course in 1997
(photo courtesy of Dye Designs)
The course is fairly tight with tree-lined palms and tamarisks.

In 1927, a date-palm caretaker for the Greenland Ranch, now called the Oasis at Death Valley, laid out three-holes of golf.  Little did he know he was building the lowest golf course in the World.  At 214 feet below sea level, it is unique, the undisputed lowest and is now a “must play” for avid golfers.  I know…you’re asking where is the highest?  The purported highest is the La Paz Golf Club in Bolivia, which is at an elevation of 10,800 ft.

By 1931 the course was expanded to nine holes and later to 18.  In 1997, Perry Dye, Pete’s oldest son, was hired to renovate and make some very strategic improvements.   Now, the Furnace Creek Golf Course measures 6,215-yards from the blue tees (the tips) and offers a most challenging round for all levels of players.  It plays to a par of 70 and has a USGA rating of 74.7 with a slope of 128. I must warn you that due to greater gravity and barometric pressure your golf ball does not travel as far as you would normally hit it.  The course is fairly tight with tree-lined palms and tamarisks.  Water comes into play on nine of the 18 holes.  Several fairways parallel each other allowing space for those not always hitting the middle of the fairway.   Most of the greens are small with some interesting undulations.

Water comes into play on nine of the 18 holes

The course has a certification in Environmental Planning from the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System  (ACSS), a program administered by Audubon International. The ACSS helps landowners preserve and enhance the environmental quality of their properties.      

The Furnace Creek Golf Course is home to a variety of wildlife, and management is committed to their responsibility to maximize their ability to coexist with the wildlife and help preserve the natural environment of the Furnace Creek Golf Course.
In spite of its name, Death Valley is very much alive and is home to more than 1,000 plant species and 51 species of native mammals, 307 species of birds, 36 species of reptiles, three species of amphibians and five species and one subspecies of native fish.    

Ed Stone & Phil Dickinson played the world's lowest golf course

As part of the Audubon International program, the golf course staff is involved.  They enhance wildlife habitat by placing nesting boxes for cavity-nesting birds, utilize integrated pest management techniques, conserve water and maintain food and cover for wildlife.  It is noteworthy that Xanterra, the owner of Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, is a leader in the hospitality industry for environmental sensitivity.  They are the recipient of honors from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Travel Industry Association, Colorado Department of Public Health, State of Arizona and Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The majority of the land where the golf course is built was once the alfalfa field providing feed for the mules hauling borax out of Death Valley to Mojave for processing.  Many of us remember the 1952-1970 television series, “Death Valley Days” hosted by The Old Ranger, Stanley Andrews (1952-64), Ronald Regan (1964-66), Robert Taylor (1966-68) and Dale Robertson (1968-70).  Ahhh yes, there were commercials with Rosemary DeCamp, the spokesperson for Twenty Mule Team Borax…and even talking boxes and cans of borax.

Phil Olson with one of the original 20 mule team wagons

It was the Pacific Coast Borax Company who introduced tourism to Death Valley.  With the number of people coming in and out of the Valley for the mining operations, there was a need for respectable accommodations.  The company hired Albert C. Martin of Los Angles to design and create the mission-style structure so guests could enjoy a spectacular view of Death Valley.  On February 1, 1927 the Furnace Creek Inn opened with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area.  Back then, the rates were $10 per night and included meals.

During the next eight years, 54 more rooms were added.  In 1929 the resort began using the Travertine Springs for generating electricity and water for a new swimming pool.  Today, this spring flows through the pool and is used to irrigate the Inn’s gardens.  This is one of those “comfortable elegant” places where you feel special.  Service is impeccable and the food is above outstanding.  Today, the Inn is a AAA Four-Diamond-rated hotel with most of the 66 rooms overlooking Death Valley.

Today's Oasis at Death Valley
Photo by: Scott Temme

The company also saw a need for another type of accommodations that is “closer to nature.”  Thus, the 224-room Furnace Creek Ranch was opened in 1933 for families and adventurers.  The Ranch is located within a mile of the Inn and adjacent to the golf course. This self-contained resort offers two restaurants…excellent food and charming atmosphere, saloon…a great watering hole, general store…with most anything you would need while traveling or exploring Death Valley, and the Borax Museum…a “must visit/stop” for history, maps and information.

This beautiful and historic, four-diamond mission-style Oasis at Death Valley recently had a grand reopening in November 2018 after a major $100 million dollar investment. The property, privately owned by Xanterra Travel Collection, features 66 elegantly updated rooms, renovated fine dining restaurant and cocktail lounge, new Tranquility Spa, verandas with sweeping views of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains, opulent gardens and a stunning spring-fed pool (naturally at 84.5 degrees) bordered by a new pool café and numerous cabanas. Twenty-two private, one-bedroom casitas have been added, providing a new level of guest accommodations to the resort. In addition, the brand-new Mission Gardens offers a stunning space for quiet reflection or the perfect location for a wedding or other special event. The entire property is now adorned with amazing Western art, and the outdoor terraces are properly shaded and furnished to provide a true inside/outside experience.

Twenty-two private, one-bedroom casitas have been added, providing a new level of guest accommodations to the resort.
Photo by: Scott Temme

Recently, the family-friendly sister property on the resort, The Ranch at Death Valley featuring 224 guest rooms, emerged after extensive renovations, including a transformation into a mission-style town square, complete with a courtyard that will elegantly welcome guests into a streamlined, welcoming reception area. New retail and food and beverage facilities, including the 1849 Buffet featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner, creates a central hub for entertainment and socialization by providing an ice cream counter, a retail store and the heartbeat of the property – The Last Kind Words Saloon.

Death Valley National Park:
The Oasis at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Resort) is a privately owned resort inside a National Park. The area did not become a National Park until 1994 and is the largest U.S. National Park outside of Alaska. The Oasis at Death Valley works closely with the U.S. National Park Service to educate people on the importance of Death Valley as well as preservation and sustainability.

The most popular manmade attractions in Death Valley is called the Death Valley Ranch or Scotty’s Castle.  The story behind this “must see” museum/home is quite interesting.

Walter Scott ran away from his Kentucky home in 1883 when he was 11 years old to become a cowboy in Nevada.  He learned all the tricks of the trade and at the age of 18, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, touring Europe and the United States, recruited him.  After 12 years of touring, he decided to take up prospecting for gold.  He convinced several wealthy associates that he had a gold mine in Death Valley, agreeing to split the profits once the ore was extracted.  He was affectionately called “Scotty” for most of his life.

Death Valley Ranch is also known as "Scotty's Castle"
Guides in period costume provide tours of Scotty's Castle
Ornate designs at Scotty's Castle

After leaving the Wild West Show, he returned to this Southeast California area…a place he was very attached to in his younger years of being a cowboy.  On a trip to New York City, Scotty met his wife Josephine, whom he called “Jack,” in a sweet shop and promised her a gold mine and beautiful home out west.  En route, they stopped off at a gold mine of one of Scotty’s friends.

The friend gave “Jack” two large size nuggets.  These two gold nuggets would become an important entrée for Scotty in later years and the persuasion for building the largest manmade attraction in the Death Valley National Park.  However, his wife was not very happy living in such isolated environs.  She would give Scotty an ultimatum to either take her back to the “big city” or she would leave him in the desert.  Scotty stayed in the desert enduring temperatures up to 135 degrees.

Scotty attempted to secure financing to set up a gold mine in California and did so with several individuals.  Most of the deals went bust, but one became his fame and somewhat fortune.  Using the two gold nuggets given to his wife, he convinced these individuals he struck gold and they would be partners in his gold mine.  The first investor became wise to Scotty’s scheme, cut his losses and severed the relationship.  However, another investor, Albert Johnson became intrigued with Scotty’s stories and unusual character.  Johnson was a graduate of Cornell University with a degree in mining engineering and changed his career to insurance after severely injuring his back in a train accident.

The tower at Scotty's Castle

For several years, Albert Johnson gave Scotty his loans and never ventured to see where the gold mines were in Death Valley.  Then, finely, Johnson decided to pay Scotty a visit in California.  They never saw a gold mine, but the dry air did help Johnson’s health and he enjoyed the friendship of Scotty.  Later Mrs. Johnson would visit and she too enjoyed the quiet location and climate…especially in the winters.

Albert and Bessie Johnson were very pious people and did not approve of Scotty’s wild behavior and shady antics.  They did enjoy his humor; story telling and even realized most of his stories, including business dealings were stretched more than they should believe.  Albert Johnson was once quoted as saying, “Scotty’s stories are my payment for the loans I have given him.”

One of Johnson’s largest investments during the early 1920’s was at the suggestion of Bessie and convincing of Scotty.  This was a 5,800 square foot Spanish-Mediterranean style home and a 6,700 square foot guesthouse with music room built on 1,600 acres at the Northeast corner of Death Valley.  Scotty only lived in the mansion the last two years of his life.  To the locals, Scotty told that he was building the two million dollar home with profits from his secret gold mines. When reporters questioned Johnson about the financing of the Castle, he agreed that Scotty owned the place, and stated that he was "Scotty's banker."

The main living area in the Castle
The dining room of the Castle

It took five years (1926-1931) to build the fortress touting the most modern of conveniences for its time.  Realizing the distance from civilization where this “castle” was located, there was an electrical generator, air conditioning, refrigeration, solar heating, gas stoves, etc.  Mrs. Johnson was very religious and had her own music room in the Castle that was also used as a place to preach to the employees and surrounding neighbors…what few there were.  All employees were required to attend her church service each Sunday or not show up for work on Monday.  Many of the workers were local Native Americans and some skilled craftsmen from Spain, Italy and Los Angeles.

In 1930, President Herbert Hoover wrote an order to conserve two thousand acres of Death Valley and created a National Monument.   In 1931, construction was halted when Johnson discovered a surveying error.  He realized that the Castle was on federal land.  As the Great Depression was taking its toll, especially on the insurance business, construction was stopped.  The Castle stands today as it did in 1931, just as Johnson left it…incomplete. Thus, the mote in front of the castle was never finished even though the special ordered tiles are still in the basement ready for installing.  The moat was really a very large swimming pool.  But, to keep from paying a luxury tax, it was called a mote.

The U.S. Government later allowed the Johnson’s to purchase the house and land for $1.25 per acre.  Mrs. Johnson died in 1943.  She was thrown from an automobile near Townes Pass, some forty miles south of the Castle.  Mr. Johnson died in 1948.  Scotty died in 1954 and is buried on a hill overlooking the Castle.

Prior to his death, Johnson set up a foundation called the Gospel Foundation to which he willed the castle.  This foundation turned the Castle into a hotel and also conducted tours to help offset expenses.

In 1970, the National Park Service purchased the Castle and all lands from the Foundation for $850,000.  Federal law would not allow furnishings to be purchased.  So, the Foundation donated the furnishings in the Castle today.

Death Valley Scotty once proclaimed:
"The Hall of Fame is going up. We're building a Castle that will last at least a thousand years. As long as there's men on earth, likely, these walls will stand here."

The pool was not finished.  It can been seen here as it was left in 1931

Today, Scotty’s Castle (officially known as Death Valley Ranch) is one of the main attractions in the National Park.  Guides dressed in period costume from 1939 offer a one-hour tour of the castle 365 days a year.  It is open year round and attracts some 80,000 visitors per year.  

Center stage for any visit to Death Valley National Park is the Park itself.  The Park annually draws over 800,000 visitors and is the largest of the National Parks in the lower 48 states with 3.3 million acres.  The largest in the U.S. is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska (13.1 million acres).

There are miles and miles of roads to traverse and spectacular scenery in Death Valley National Park.  Hiking the many trails is where you learn to appreciate the colors, shapes, formations and unique typography of this unique Park.  Watching the sun rise or set at Zabriskie Point is like none other.  Climbing through Golden Canyon is a bit treacherous, but easy for those in good shape for a two to three mile hike…in the mountains.  There’s Badwater, Artist Palate, Devil’s Golf Course and many other interesting places throughout the Valley.  Another attraction is the Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail.  Here is where one of the famous twenty mule team borax wagons is on display with excellent signage relating the story of how this product brought such fame and fortune to the area.  Also, the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center and Death Valley Museum are a “must see” to become oriented and educated about the area.  The National Park Service also operates this facility.  Here we found that the number one use of borax today is in making insulation for buildings…and, yes, the number four largest use is in soaps and cleaning agents.

Badwater is the lowest point in the Park
Golden Canyon is a beautiful area with walking trails to enjoy
Devil's Golf Course

Horseback riding is also offered at Furnace Creek Stables operated by Robin and Mark Berry.  They are located approximately one mile from the Inn and offer one-hour, two-hour, midnight and private rides as well as carriage rides.  What a perfect way to see the area just as the early settlers did.

America is blessed with some 56 National Parks.  Death Valley is one of those we would consider unique.  The stories of the 49’s trials and tribulations, the influence of borax to the area, the creation of the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, the building of Scotty’s Castle and the many characters who conjure up stories about settling the area are all intriguing.  Thus, the reason to visit, play the lowest golf course in the world, relax and enjoy an area that is very much alive.


Furnace Creek Golf Course
Oasis Inn & Ranch Resort

Phone: 760-786-3373

PO Box 187, Death Valley, California 92328
Physical: Highway 190, Death Valley, CA 92328
Two hours west of Las Vegas and four hour northeast of Los Angeles on well paved state roads.

Death Valley National Park
Reservations at in-park lodges
Toll Free 1-888-297-2757
Or, 1-303-297-2757

Furnace Creek Airport is a public airport located 0.75 miles west of Furnace Creek, Death Valley, serving Inyo County, California, USA. This general aviation airport covers 40 acres and has one runway. At −210 feet MSL, it is the lowest elevation airport in North America.