DEATH VALLEY, CA – From a lofty perch at The Oasis at Death Valley, Bill Walton, Hall of Fame basketball star, side-stepped his “Holland” bike, looked out over Death Valley and said, “This is Mother Nature’s playground.”
Little wonder the 6-11 former UCLA center loves coming to the desert, spending weeks at a time, enjoying a place where he can get away from crowds, go on 100-mile bike rides, swim laps in the warm springs fed tiled pool — all between his commenting gigs on Pac-12 (“Conference of Champions”) games for ESPN.
Things were a lot different way back in the olden days.
When the gold fields of California lured 49ers to trek westward one party of pioneers envisioned a shortcut. Desperate for water they stumbled into an oasis. They found salvation in the springs at Furnace Creek, but as the stragglers climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
So a lot of years have passed by since that ill-fated excursion. 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.
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.
Transition to the 1930s and beyond when Hollywood celebrities found and enjoyed the Furnace Creek Inn and its solitude. The names included Ronald Reagan, William Powell, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, John Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart and many others, stayed at the spectacular luxury oasis. Guests also included honeymooners, including one especially well-known pair – Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Today, The Oasis at Death Valley has a lot to brag about. The grand re-opening, held in December, was a huge success, with billionaire owner Philip Anschutz of Xanterra Travel Collection present along with Walton.
Furnace Creek Golf Course:
You will shoot the lowest round of your life
Located within the three million acres that is Death Valley National Park, and declared as the lowest golf course on earth at 214 feet below sea level, this layout has a storied past, and has a promising future with 100 million dollars spent on the resort.
My group was eyeing a rain forecast but that soon became no rain, but a sandstorm. What the heck, they once hosted “The Heatstoke Open” here and this day was a comfortable sweater day temperature.
I had a great time on the 6,236-yard, par-70 layout because at that altitude the ball doesn’t travel as far. What a conundrum to my usual altitude ball striking at home in Colorado. Also, watch for coyotes that might snatch your golf ball.
The recent upgrades included a focus on water conservation and the transition of 15 acres of maintained turf to desert with low-water-use native plantings. Still, palm and tamarisk trees frame the fairways and desert mountains are visible from all areas of the course.
Tag the course with a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary” by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System (ACSS) — the 42nd course in California and the 630th in the world to receive the honor.
Furnace Creek Golf Course was one of California’s first desert courses and actually had a short version in 1927, when date palm farmers laid out three holes, then expanded the course to nine by 1931, to provide some fun after work time. Although surrounded by barren and desolate land, it sits on an oasis so there is water to sustain the course.
Early photos even show sheep grazing in the fairways – nature’s first mowers.
Heralded course architect William F. Bell (Torrey Pines) added a second nine in 1968 and Perry Dye, son of hall of fame designer Pete Dye, came in for a renovation and redesign in 1997 and installed a full irrigation system. Dye also added subtle mounding and re-contoured greens to the already fun layout. Water comes into play on nine holes now and four sets of tees provide an enjoyable challenge for players of all skill levels.
Despite the trees, ponds, green grass and oasis look only die-hards wanting to challenge themselves play in 115 degree heat of a July or August day.
This is a fun golf course, but don’t expect Pinehurst, Pebble Beach or even The Broadmoor, which interestingly is a sister course owned by the same Xanterra Travel Collection. Furnace Creek Golf Course was recognized by Golf Digest in their list of “America’s 50 Toughest Courses.”
Burgers and hot dogs are also tasty at The 19th Hole — an open-air venue that offers a variety of food options and looks out to the golf course. I once include an area where you could just drive your cart up a ramp to order food and drink.
The 2018 Renaissance of The Oasis at Death Valley
Originally built in 1927, the historic, four-diamond mission-style Inn at Death Valley is even better today after a major $100 million dollar investment.
The property features 66 updated rooms, renovated fine dining restaurant and cocktail lounge, new Tranquility Spa, verandas with panoramic views of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains. Lavish gardens, and a stunning spring-fed pool (naturally at 85 degrees) borders a new café and cabanas.
There are 22 private, one-bedroom casitas, providing a new level of guest accommodations. In addition, the brand-new Mission Gardens offers a space for quiet reflection or the ideal location for a wedding or other special event. The entire property is now adorned with amazing Western art, and the outdoor terraces are shaded and furnished to provide a true inside/outside experience.
The Ranch at Death Valley also emerged after extensive renovations, including a transformation into a mission-style town square, complete with a courtyard and welcoming reception area. New retail and food and beverage facilities create a central hub for entertainment and socialization by providing an ice cream counter, western saloon, retail store and Borax Museum artifacts.
Death Valley is one of only eight designated “gold tier” International Dark Sky Parks in the United States where stargazers can actually see the Milky Way with the naked eye. If you are planning your trip specifically around night sky viewing, check with the resort about potential astronomical events. Also, remember to check the moon calendar. Stars are best viewed on moonless nights.
Dining and amenities
Dining options include The Inn Dining Room, Last Kind Words Saloon, Inn Pool Cafe and 1849 Buffet.
• Located next to the National Park Visitor Center
• Spring-fed pool that is consistently 87 degrees
• Communal fire pits
• Tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts
• Horseshoe pits
• Playground for the kids
• Horseback rides and carriage tours
• Rent a Jeep to explore the park
So how hot does it get?
On July 10, 1913, when Death Valley hit 134 degrees, a record was posted – the hottest air temperature ever recorded on Earth. But if you go to Death Valley in many months of the year it can be in the 70s. My visit had temps in the 60s.
The Oasis at Death Valley is just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles, California. It is a place to get away from it all. And you might just have a conversation with a Hall of Fame basketball player.
Bet Bill Walton is thrilled we just told the world about his hideaway.
Bill Walton photo taken by writer David R. Holland in The Last Chance Saloon, The Ranch at Death Valley, pictured with Temecula Roads, a young singing group
Story By David R. Holland