Fly into Las Vegas early, rent a car, and beeline two hours west to Death Valley (alternatively, it's a 9-hour drive from San Francisco). Christen your car with some sacred Death Valley dirt on the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road, a 2.5-mile dirt road that loops and rolls through an old borax mining region; it's like riding a real-life version of Disneyland's Thunder Mountain Railroad. Fifteen minutes down the highway, stop and take an afternoon hike through Golden Canyon, a giant gorge glowing with orange, yellow, and red shades of sandstone. After a mile, lose the crowds and take the offshoot trail toward Gower Gulch (a map is available at the visitor's center). Skirt below the Manly Beacon sandstone formation, where the texture resembles swirls of giant marble ice cream. The trail runs through the quiet and narrow Gower Gulch, which is filled with old borax mines (don't enter!). After your canyon excursion, drive 15 miles south to the lowest point in North America, Badwater (282 feet below sea level). Step onto the salt flat and gaze up at 11,000-foot Telescope Peak, the highest in the park.
Kick back and relax at your base camp, Furnace Creek Inn. The red-tile-roofed Spanish architecture, palm trees, and wide views of the Panamint Mountains are all part of the package. And the naturally spring-fed swimming pool is a muscle-relaxing 82 degrees. Two outdoor fireplaces flank the pool, making an ideal setting for a day-ending toast.
TIP: The Furnace Creek Ranch is a less expensive sister property with 224 units that sprawls over several acres. This family-friendly complex has a saloon, three restaurants, tennis courts, and even a golf course. For tent camping, your best bet is the centrally located Texas Springs campground near Furnace Creek.
The Gold Canyon trailhead is 2 miles south of Hwy 190 on Badwater Rd. Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch, Hwy 190, Death Valley; 760-786-2345. The Inn is open mid-October to mid-May; the Ranch is open all year. Rates at the Inn start at $325 per night; rates at the Ranch start at $147. Camping at Texas Springs costs $14. Plan to visit Death Valley before May, or wait until November.