Land of Extremes
The hottest and driest national park in the United States, Death Valley is known for its sand dunes, deep canyons and even fields of wildflowers.
Rocks that seem to glide across the desert floor. Abandoned ghost towns. Native American legends of an underground city. A study in extremes, Death Valley in eastern California boasts of an iconic name and
“Three words best capture Death Valley: hot, dry, low,” says Char Miller, co-author of “Death Valley National Park: A History” and the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College in California. “Everything about Death Valley’s climate and physical geography is striking.”
It is one of the hottest places on Earth. In the summer of 2001, for instance, a record 154 consecutive days of over 38 degree Celsius were recorded. But, winters can be equally punishing.
The average annual precipitation in the narrow desert valley is less than two inches. The rain it does receive can, however, cause flash floods.
“However infrequent the precipitation, plants soak it up, and can later produce a super bloom of desert wildflowers that will take your breath away,” says Miller.
The lowest point in North America, the aptly-named Badwater Basin, is located in Death Valley. It is 282 feet below sea level. Equally remarkable is that “from that basin, on a clear day, and gazing west, you’ll glimpse Mount Whitney which, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the contiguous United States,” says Miller. “Who wouldn’t want to spend time in a place of such singular extremes? Okay, maybe not in August… .”
Death Valley National Park sprawls across well over a million hectares at the border of California and Nevada. This immensity “blows me away every time I go there,” says Miller. “To stand at a vista that allows you to take in its vast sweep. To walk out deep into Badwater Basin, and then stop, go silent and listen: you’ll hear little and see so much. What you sense is just how elemental this place is—sand, gravel and rock; a salt flat which reminds that this long stretch of valley was once part of a large inland sea; its palette so unlike any other.”
“This stunning desert that white explorers thought was empty and full of terror, and hence named Death Valley, is, in fact, vibrant, vivid and alive,” he continues. “But differently so, whether you walk through its many canyons, climb to Zabriskie Point, press out to one of the magnificent sand dunes, run down the 600-foot slope to the floor of Ubehebe Crater or, at night, stretch out to absorb the dark night sky. You just have to slow down and pay attention.”
On Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed about five kilometers long and three kilometers wide, large rocks seem to sail across the desert floor of their own volition, inspiring endless theories. “No one has ever witnessed them shift ground, but the grooves and scratches that trail behind the stones clearly indicate that they have done so,” says Miller. “Even those boulders that weigh hundreds of pounds have been on the move.”
Researchers finally discovered in 2014, using time-lapse photography, that rain froze in thin ice sheets on the surface, which thawed and broke due to light winds. This combination of ice, water and breeze “nudged” the rocks a little at a time, explains Miller. “Mystery solved!”
He recommends preparing for a visit with research on the area’s geology and natural history. Its visitor centers also offer a wealth of information on its cultural history, like its ghost towns, abandoned mines and the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe. The visitor centers are “rich repositories of compelling exhibits, books, films and other information that will introduce you to this extraordinary desert park,” says Miller.
“Oh, and if you drive along the road to Badwater [Basin], be on the lookout for a pair of begging coyotes. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them. If they’re lucky, you won’t feed them.”
Death Valley National Park is open year-round and may be visited day or night. “One of Death Valley’s most beguiling features is its remoteness,” cautions Miller. “That is also one of its dangers.”
Global Positioning System (GPS) and cellphone navigation systems are next to useless in the park. “Park rangers have an expression, ‘Death by GPS,’ that is no joke,” says Miller. “Also, drink lots of water. Being careful is the best way to explore this rugged land of extremes.”
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.
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