The very name evokes all that is harsh, hot and hellish – a punishing, barren and lifeless place of Old Testament severity. Yet closer inspection reveals that in Death Valley nature is putting on a truly spectacular show: singing sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, boulders moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases and plenty of endemic wildlife. This is a land of superlatives, holding the US records for hottest temperature (134°F/57°C), lowest point (Badwater, 282ft below sea level) and largest national park outside Alaska (over 5000 sq miles).
Death Valley is a contradiction of the natural world. Its deadly heat is contrasted by snow capped mountains. It’s dry and below sea level, yet the occasional rain causes wildflowers to bloom. Even its name is a contradiction as plenty of life and beauty exist here.
Death Valley National Park comprises more than 3.3 million acres of spectacular desert scenery, rare desert wildlife, complex geology, undisturbed wilderness and sites of historical interest. Death Valley is unique because it contains the lowest, hottest, driest location in North America. Nearly 550 square miles of its area lie below sea level. Ecologically, its plants and animals are representative of the Mojave Desert.
The moniker belies the beauty in this vast graben, the geological term for a sunken fragment of the Earth’s crust. Here are rocks sculptured by erosion, richly tinted mudstone hills and canyons, luminous sand dunes, lush oases, and a 200-square-mile salt pan surrounded by mountains, one of America’s greatest vertical rises. In some years spring rains trigger wildflower blooms amid more than a thousand varieties of plants.
The park protects part of the Mojave Desert and many other formations such as mountains, canyons, valleys, sand dunes, and salt flats. There is roughly three-million acres to explore in the park and due to its desolate nature, it’s important for travellers to plan and pack thoughtfully.
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the United States. Humans made their mark in Death Valley at least 9,000 years ago, with rock art and other artifacts left behind as evidence.
Dozens of scenes from Star Wars have been filmed in Death Valley, including Artist’s Palette (the Sandcrawler scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Golden Canyon (Jawa scenes from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (Droid scenes from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope).
“Death Valley is really wide-open – it’s bigger than Rhode Island – and it’s less a part of California than an ungoverned territory, so there’s lots of weird cops-and-robbers stuff going on.”
– Gus Van Sant
Despite it’s foreboding name, Death Valley is home to bighorn sheep, reptiles, lizards, snakes, amphibians plus more than 300 species of birds, not to mention the explosion of fauna that erupt after a rainfall.
“Probably the one Bible passage that is read by Jews and Roman Catholics, Protestants, Islam, more than any other chapter is Psalm 23. And in Psalm 23 there is a verse that says, ‘Surely, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ “
Only 15 miles separate the highest elevation in Death Valley National Park (Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet) and Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level).
In 1849 emigrants bound for California’s gold fields strayed into the 120-mile long basin, enduring a two-month ordeal of “hunger and thirst and an awful silence.” One of the last to leave looked down from a mountain at the narrow valley and said, “Good-bye, Death Valley.”
Almost like being on another planet, a trip to Death Valley should be on your bucket list because it’s truly like no other place on Earth.