The size and scale of Death Valley National Park is almost beyond comprehension. It’s vast 3.3 million acre size includes soaring peaks, including the 11,043 feet (3,366m) Telescope Peak, and salt pans that reach 282 feet (86m) below sea level. In between there are sand dunes, multicoloured rock formations, old gold mines, resort hotels, and even unexpected wildlife sightings.
From snow-capped peaks to the lowest, driest and hottest place in the United States, it’s a true land of extremes. Only when you reach its high places, or its low places, do you really get a sense of this extraordinary place.
The size of Death Valley makes it hard to decide what to see and do when you only have a couple of days. Even a conservative itinerary requires a lot of driving. We made a last minute decision to go to Las Vegas, so planned to spend our second night at Furnace Creek before driving into Nevada. In the meantime, we set off to see a few things west of Stovepipe Wells. First stop, the 6,433 feet high Aguereberry Point.
The views over Death Valley are little short of spectacular, and at this altitude it’s also a little breathtaking. On a good day you can see for 30 miles or more, and can easily see Dante’s Peak 20 miles away across the valley floor. We drank in the views and returned down the dirt road to the abandoned mine we’d seen. As we did something moved in the scrub, there, in front of us, was a coyote.
Aguereberry Point was named after one of Death Valley’s many extraordinary characters, Jean Pierre “Pete” Aguereberry. A Frenchman from the Basque country, Aguereberry came to America in 1890 aged 16 to seek his fortune hunting for gold. After almost dying trying to cross Death Valley on foot in 1905, he eventually struck lucky at a small, inauspicious hill in the middle of nowhere.
He named the hill Providence Ridge, filed his claim and soon there were 300 people living in what was optimistically called Harrisburg, after Aguereberry’s partner, Shorty Harris. The mine Aguereberry dug was known as the Eureka Mine, and he worked it alone from 1907 to 1930, extracting around $175,000 of gold from it. He died in 1945 in the appropriately named Lone Pine.
Some of the old Harrisburg buildings can still be seen from the Eureka mine, slowly crumbling, and off in the distance is a rusting 1947 Buick Roadmaster. Who it belonged to seems to have been lost in the dust. The wooden ruins on the hillside are of Cashier Mill, used to crush the ore before mercury and cyanide were used to extract the gold. The whole scene is like a movie set.
Further along the road is another former gold mining settlement, Skidoo. Gold was discovered here in 1906, and once news got out a small town of around 700 people grew up around the site. It’s remarkable that in this desolate place once stood a bank, stores, saloons, homes and a post office. There was even a telephone service installed. None of the town is left, only remnants of the mine and mill remain.
Skidoo is famous as the site of the only hanging in Death Valley. The murder of Jim Arnold, the Skidoo general store owner, by a violent drunkard, Joe Simpson, in April 1908, resulted in the lynching and extrajudicial hanging of Simpson. It’s rumoured that Simpson was hung twice, the second time so that newspaper photographers could get a picture of the doubly-dead man.
Like nearby Harrisburg, Skidoo’s existence was short lived. By 1917 the gold and profits were drying up, people were leaving the town and all the energy and enterprise that had put Skidoo on the map petered out. The mine closed in September 1917, the death knell for the town. It’s an evocative place to wander around, although pay attention to the signs warning of hidden mine shafts and other dangers.