Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park


Along with its stunning natural splendor, Death Valley can lay claim to a rich and colorful human tale that begins at least 10,000 years ago. This fascinating story features ancient hunters and gatherers, foolhardy '49ers, hardscrabble miners, boom towns, 20-mule-teams, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the creation of the largest park in the contiguous United States and much more.


The archeological record indicates that American Indians have lived in Death Valley for the last 10,000 years, a period known as the Holocene. Four distinct American Indian cultural stages emerged during this time frame. The populations, however, have always been small and have fluctuated with changes in the climate.

The first stage—which archeologists estimate occurred approximately 9,000 years ago—coincides with a time of plentiful precipitation, a lake in the basin and a cool climate. Back then, the Nevares Spring people hunted game and used scrapers and knives made of chert, a unique rock type that flakes easily and could readily be fashioned into projectile points.

The next stage was a hot and dry period that lasted roughly 4,000 years; sometime during that era the Mesquite Flat people, who shared a similar culture, replaced the original inhabitants. The presence of a few grinding tools in the Mesquite Flat toolbox, however, suggests that human subsistence was shifting from hunting animals to the gathering of seeds, nuts and berries.

In the third stage, commencing about 2,000 years ago, the Saratoga Spring people evolved in what had become a dry, hot desert. These were more advanced hunters and gatherers, who brought the bow and arrow and left mysterious, meticulously crafted stone patterns in the valley. The people of the fourth stage, which began around A.D. 500, were directly related to some of the Shoshone-speaking tribes who still inhabit the valley. These people introduced pottery to the region and were nomads living on game, mesquite beans and pinyon nuts. 


The first explorers to enter Death Valley were two groups of "49ers" heading for the California gold fields. The pioneers had departed late from Salt Lake City, a major supply stop on the journey to California, in October 1849. Aware that the Donner Party had been stranded in the Sierra Mountains because of treacherous snow storms, the Death Valley '49ers elected to take an old Spanish trail that circumvented the southern edge of the Sierras and was safe to travel in the winter. The decision would lead to one of the nation's most enduring disaster legends.

The first two weeks of travel on the trail were uneventful, but the going was slower than the pioneers had hoped. Inspired by an intriguing map made by explorer John Fremont that showed a shortcut through Death Valley, many impatient pioneers abandoned the old Spanish trail and headed across the desert toward Walker Pass, hoping to cut some 500 miles off the journey. 

The point where these wagons left the trail is near the present day town of Enterprise, Utah, where a monument commemorates the historic mistake. Almost immediately, the pioneers found themselves confronted with the Beaver Dam wash, a gaping canyon on the present day Utah-Nevada state line. Discouraged, most of them turned back to rejoin the old Spanish trail, but about 20 wagons decided to plunge ahead. 

Getting the wagons across the canyon was such a difficult task that it took several days. Meanwhile, the pioneer who had the map grew impatient and—under the cloak of darkness—abandoned the group. Despite the fact that the remaining pioneers did not have any other map, they once again decided to take their chances, assuming they would find the pass if only they continued moving west. After about a month of slow progress through central Nevada—marked by thirst, hunger and bitter disputes—the pioneers finally reached the borders of Death Valley in December. They traveled along the same route followed by Highway 190 and, on Christmas Eve 1849, arrived at Travertine Springs, located near Furnace Creek. 

The lost pioneers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the old Spanish trail. Their oxen were weak, their wagons battered, and their spirits low. Worst of all, beyond the valley stood towering mountains, creating a seemingly impenetrable wall in both directions as far as the eye could see. Two families became detached from the main group and spent 26 days in Death Valley waiting for two of the younger men to look for help. After the men returned, this group headed north near present day Stovepipe Wells, but discovered it, too, was impassible. They decided to leave their belongings behind and walk to civilization, and used wood from their wagons to cook the meat of several slaughtered oxen to make jerky. The place where they did this is today referred to as "Burned Wagons Camp" and is located near the sand dunes of Death Valley.

They continued climbing toward Towne Pass turning south over Emigrant Pass to Wildrose Canyon. After crossing the mountains and dropping down into Panamint Valley, they turned south and climbed a small pass into Searles Lake Valley before making their way into Indian Wells Valley near the present day city of Ridgecrest. It was here that they finally got their first look at the Sierra Mountains, and turning south, followed a trail that brought them to Walker Pass, the place they had set out to look for almost three months earlier. 

From Walkers Pass, they entered into what was to become the worst part of their journey, the Mojave Desert Plateau, a flat, featureless land with very few water sources. They survived thanks to puddles of water and ice from a recent storm. They eventually found their way over a pass near Palmdale, California and, following the Santa Clarita River drainage, were finally discovered and rescued by Spanish cowboys from Rancho San Fernando, located near Newhall, California. 

The story of these lost pioneers and their encounter with the Nevada and California deserts testifies to the significance this area has had in the shaping of human history.


One of the '49ers had reportedly fashioned a gun sight out of a piece of rubble from the valley; later, the "rubble" was discovered to be silver! As a result of this happy discovery, the valley became home to a number of mining booms that lasted for nearly a century. Enthusiastic prospectors searched Death Valley desperately for gold, silver, copper and lead. Towns such as Panamint City, Ballarat, Chloride City, Rhyolite, Harrisburg, Greenwater, Skidoo and Leadfield sprung up to support the mining ventures. Few of these enclaves remained active for long, however, and most people who invested money or work found little to repay their hopes. The most profitable and longest-sustained mining activities in the region centered on talc and borate. In fact, prospectors made more money on talc and borate than all the precious metals combined. Borax deposits, discovered in 1873, were first successfully promoted by W.T. Coleman. He built the Harmony Borax Works and developed the famous system of 20 mule team wagons that hauled the processed mineral 165 miles across the desert to the railroad at Mojave. The Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888 when Coleman's financial empire collapsed, after only five years of production. By the early 20th century, most of the other mining operations had followed suit, leaving the scenery as the region's most valuable resource.


The first tourist facilities in Death Valley were tent houses built in the 1920s at the site of today's Stovepipe Wells. In 1927, a borax company turned its crew quarters at Furnace Creek Ranch into a resort and built the Furnace Creek Inn. The valley quickly became popular as a winter destination and, in 1933, an area of almost 3,000 square miles was established by President Hoover as a national monument under the administration of the National Park Service. The park facilities owe much of their existence to the dedicated work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

As a result of the Desert Protection Act, signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton, about 1.3 million acres were added to Death Valley and the monument became an official national park—the largest outside of Alaska. Today, the park welcomes more than 1 million visitors annually.