Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

The Land of Extremes: Death Valley National Park

January 19, 2010, 11:17 am

Manley Beacon photographed at sunrise from Zabrisiki Point in Death Valley National Park, Ashley Pettigrew

Nestled deep in the corner of America’s southwest, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. With summer temperatures averaging well over 100 °F and snowcapped mountains surrounding the valley in winter, Death Valley provides the perfect opportunity to view some of the more spectacular features this country has to offer.

Recognized as the hottest, driest and lowest place in the United States, Death Valley holds numerous records for it’s extreme landscape and weather. The hottest day ever measured in the United States occurred here when temperatures reached a scorching 134°F. The park’s sauna-like temperatures are matched by its parched landscape, which receives a paltry 2.5 inches of rain a year. It is so dry here that several years have passed with no measureable rainfall. These characteristics are not shocking when you consider that the park is home to the lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley earned its foreboding name by a group of pioneers who got lost crossing Valley in 1849. Although two scouts eventually rescued them, many of the pioneers were convinced they would die in the valley. History tells us that, as William Lewis Manly and John Rogers lead the group out of the Valley, one of the pioneers looked back and said “goodbye Death Valley” and the name has stuck every since.

Today Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the United States outside of Alaska, occupying more than 3 million acres of land along the California-Nevada border.  First designated as a National Monument in 1933, it was not until 1994, after years of lobbying, that Death Valley became a national park. In addition to its new status as a National Park, Death Valley is also recognized by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve, meaning that the park is a place for research, training and communications that support ecosystem conservation and rational use of natural resources.

Despite its name, Death Valley is actually home to an abundance of life. More than 1,000 plant species and nearly 500 species of animals inhabit the park. These highly specialized creatures, from the smallest pupfish to the largest Desert Bighorn Sheep, are well adapted for life in the desert. In the absence of water, it’s hard to believe that any plants thrive in Death Valley, yet the park’s flora impressively diverse. Many plants boast complex root systems, some more than 10 feet deep, that allow them to absorb water and ensure their survival. Traveling from Badwater Basin to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak, offers a chance to view four distinct ecological zones determined by climate and elevation.

Death Valley is also home to a thriving Native American culture. The Timbisha Shoshone have called this area home for more than 1,000 years. After the passage of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in 2000, the tribe now governs 7,000 acres of land both in and adjacent to the national park. The Furnace Creek area offers visitors a glimpse of life in the tribe.

There are also several ghost towns in and around Death Valley. These abandoned settlements all as reminders of Death Valley’s rough and tumble mining history.

Some of the ghost towns, as well as other scenic areas of Death Valley, are accessible only by backcountry roads that lead into the heart of the park. These roads may require high-clearance or 4WD vehicles, but getting beyond the main road in Death Valley is a rewarding way to discover the park's secrets.

When planning a visit to Death Valley it is important to be prepared for its extreme elements. Staying hydrated is an absolute must and you should keep extra water (several gallons) in your car during your crossing. Make sure that your spare tire is in good shape and that your air conditioner works if you are planning a visit during the summer. If you follow general safety guidelines, Death Valley is no more dangerous than any other park.

Visitors should not be put off by the park’s inhospitable name—it truly offers something for everyone. Those interested in geology will find the park full of interesting features, while those interested in history will find exploring the park’s large number of ghost towns impressive. Death Valley’s sheer size can make it difficult to visit on a tight schedule, but a few must see sights include: Dante’s View, Badwater Basin, Racetrack Playa, Devil’s Golf Course and Ballarat.

Winter is one of the best and easiest times to explore the park, when cool winter months afford an opportunity to see a different side of this hostile environment. To learn more about the park and to plan a trip, visit the Death Valley page of

Image: Manley Beacon photographed at sunrise from Zabrisiki Point in Death Valley National Park, California. By Mike Norton. Source: