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John Kukreja Recommends Death Valley Must-Sees

John Kukreja Recommends Death Valley Must-Sees

The Oasis at Death Valley manager shares where to find the unexpected delights of his desert paradise

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John Kukreja has seen a lot of the world. Born in New Delhi and now general manager of the historic Oasis at Death Valley resort, Kukreja spent time during his childhood at the base of the Himalayas, where the family would visit his grandfather, a civil engineer. After going into the hotel industry, Kukreja’s peripatetic career took him to places as varied as a luxury hotel on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia and such landmark California properties as Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar in Santa Monica.

But for all his travels and years in the hospitality industry, nothing quite prepared Kukreja for Death Valley National Park. On the summer day he came out to interview at the Oasis, the temperature hit 122 degrees. Then, on his first day at work, the high reached 128 degrees. “In the hospitality industry, we call that ‘warm,’” jokes Kukreja.

Like they say, it’s a “dry heat.” And, as Kukreja will tell you, Death Valley, despite its ominous name and reputation as the hottest place on Earth, is a desert paradise for much of the year. Plus, his commute has definitely improved. “On a good day my commute used to be an hour and 10 minutes. On a bad day, it was three hours,” he says. “Now it’s 30 seconds. By golf cart.”

People measure their time in Death Valley by the number of summers they have lived through. Kukreja and his wife Michal have spent seven summers there so far and taken advantage of all that Death Valley offers: sunrises at Zabriskie Point and hikes through colorful, eroded canyons that reveal just how beautiful the desert can truly be. There’s even golf at Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley, the world’s lowest-elevation course at 214 feet below sea level.

Kukreja didn’t even know exactly where Death Valley was before interviewing with Xanterra Travel Collection, the company that owns the resort. The job appealed to him because Xanterra was embarking on a $23 million improvement project intended to preserve the resort’s historic character while modernizing the property that first opened in 1927. That effort expanded into a $150 million project that has added casitas, cottages, retail buildings, the Western-style Last Kind Words Saloon, and a new Spanish-inspired plaza, not to mention an essential in the desert: an ice cream parlor. Sustainability played a big part in the project, and the resort improved its energy efficiency and also introduced a host of water-saving measures.

Living in Death Valley means that Kukreja, Michal, and their four children are part of a unique community of resort staff and national park employees, many with families of their own. So, Death Valley is kind of like any other American small town, if drier and with soccer games not down the street but an hour away.

“Early on, there was a day I remember walking outside with two of my kids and one of them said, ‘Hey papa, it’s nice out today.’ I looked at the temperature and it was 118. And I thought, ‘Home run. We got them!’”

FIVE MORE FAVORITES

Here are a few more of John Kukreja’s suggested things to do during a visit to Death Valley.

Colorful drive: “Visitors don’t realize that Death Valley National Park isn’t just shades of brown. Artists Palette is a formation where oxidized minerals and chemicals have created amazing colors on the rocks. It’s on a driving loop and you don’t even have to get out of your car to see the colors.”

Canyon views: ”Mosaic Canyon is about 28 miles from the resort, and at first it looks like you’re walking into normal desert terrain. Then you hit the canyon, and the marble and granite that’s inside there is amazing. It’s breathtaking. The canyon narrows and winds through serpentine walls of rock that have been polished by flash-flood debris flows—a spectacular bit of Death Valley geology to take in for a comparatively brief trek.”

Family hike: Just a few minutes from the Oasis, the easy route up Golden Canyon travels into rugged badlands of eroded mud hills. The canyon gets plenty of visitors and Kukreja likes to hike there early on Saturday mornings. “That’s my go-to because I have younger kids,” he says. “It’s easy, and with the sun falling at different angles, it looks different almost every time we go.”

Low point: “At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in North America. If you look way up from the lowest point, there’s a sign high on a cliff that marks where sea level actually is. It’s cool to look out on the valley and realize you’re standing below sea level and that Mount Whitney, just two and a half hours away, is the highest point in the Lower 48.”

Desert dining: “We didn’t want to make the Inn Dining Room too formal, so it has a relaxed bistro ambience, but with high-end food. The desert views are terrific. When you think of the desert, you think salts and heat and pomegranate and citrus, so we’ve tried to incorporate those tastes from the surrounding area into a menu. A farm-to-table feeling.”

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