Keep Death Valley Weird: Three Nearby Destinations You Shouldn’t Miss
Death Valley National Park is a place of stark contrasts. You can summit Telescope Peak in a dusting of snow one day and then the next, visit the desolate salt flat of Badwater Basin, sitting at 282 feet below sea level. If Death Valley’s juxtaposed physical features are not enough to bend your mind, consider traveling to these three nearby spots to further that eerily weird feeling the Mojave desert can provide. These strange Death Valley destinations lie outside of the eastern park boundary, but they’ll capture your attention (and imagination) and leave you craving more weird desert experiences.
Located 8 miles outside of the park’s boundaries, Beatty (pronounced BAY-Dee) runs along the Amargosa River in Nevada. Originally a railway transit point for the adjacent Bullfrog Mining District, Beatty now has more of a romantic forgotten ambiance. It is a place that truckers travel through en route to another destination, but it also houses some fun gems if you know where to look. On the main road, you will find the Beatty Museum and Historical Society. Founded by three women who once played on the nearby hills, this unassuming building houses amazing relics of the areas’ mining history. From wooden butter churns to dresses from older times, the Beatty Museum gives you a great understanding of what it was like to live in the American West during the gold rush era.
After you take in the artifacts at the museum, be sure to stop by Gemma’s Wagon Wheel Cafe. This is one of our guides’ top picks when we travel out to Rhyolite on our Death Valley Basecamp tour. Gemma’s Cafe is a typical “hole in the wall” small eatery that does not disappoint. They are known for their breakfast food and lattes. Order one of the hot skillet breakfast scrambles as you sit down and plan your day in Death Valley National Park.
Rhyolite Ghost Town
If your travels take you to Beatty, you will inevitably drive right past the signed dirt road turnoff for Rhyolite. Founded in 1904, Rhyolite was a gold rush boomtown that had a bustling main street, an active red-light district, and a station along the Tonopah railroad line. Once all the major ore was mined into usable production, Rhyolite quickly went bust around 1916 and became a crumbling relic in the desert. Much of the town’s infrastructure went on to become building materials for other nearby mining towns. Today, you can walk in between the crumbling bank building, general store, and take photos near the old jail.
If you can find it on your walk, there is a gravesite adorn with old high heels, whiskey bottles, and Mardi Gras beads. This is the grave of “Mona Bell”, a woman who made her living at night working as a prostitute in Rhyolite’s thriving red-light district. She died at the hands of her boyfriend — and a revolver. Her grave is eerily festive, better appreciated in person than an internet description.
Rhyolite is 35 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley and well worth the side trip outside of the park boundaries.
Goldwell Open Air Museum
Adjacent to the Rhyolite ghost town, you will find the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Founded by the late Albert Szukaslski and other prominent European artists, this outdoor art installation is weird and entrancing. It features seven outdoor sculptures in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The installations include a haunting rendition of the last supper (pictured above) and a giant piece of art made of cinder blocks called, “Lady Desert”. Goldwell is a place where contemporary artists visit for inspiration as well as to seek out residency positions. If you are driving from Beatty to Death Valley National Park, this must-see stop is on your way. Usually, you’ll find someone on-site to provide information, but overall, the space is free for a self-guided tour. The Goldwell Open Air Museum is not to be missed — especially for the staggering photo opportunities it offers!
Death Valley National Park has so many sights and trails to keep you busy, but if you find yourself yearning for those strange roadside attractions, consider traveling outside of the eastern park boundaries for these quirky gems.