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Death Valley National Park, California

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Did You Know … ?

  • Death Valley recorded Earth’s highest reliably recorded air temperature (134 F) on July 10, 1913.
  • When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works produced three tons of borax daily (1880s).
  • Wagons pulled by 20-mule teams weighed 7,800 pounds empty, 36.5 tons loaded with borax.
  • The saltpan on the floor of Death Valley extends more than 200 square miles.
  • Some scenes from the “Star Wars” movies were shot in Death Valley.

The not-so-dead valley

Death Valley gives its name to America’s largest national park outside of Alaska. It’s a dreary name, too, but earned after California-bound gold seekers suffered much hardship and thought they would die crossing this, North America’s hottest valley, in 1849-1850.

The valley is famous for several things, beginning with its extremes. It is North America’s hottest (typical summer temperatures of more than 120 F), driest (averaging two inches of rain yearly) and lowest (282 feet below sea level) place. But the valley comprises about 60% of the 3.4 million-acre park, which also encompasses mountains, topping out at 11,049 feet atop Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range.

Given the size, but especially the differences in elevation, this “dead” place supports a lot of life. It hosts more than 1,000 species of plants, 50-plus found nowhere else in the world. When the rains and other conditions are right, the landscape is abloom with wildflowers in spring. The park is good for birders; the birds also benefit from the varied elevations and hence varied microclimates.

Miners picked over this turf, too, leaving behind ghost towns and abandoned mines. Prospectors found gold and silver, copper and lead, but this part of California is best known for borax and the 20-mule teams that pulled huge wagonloads of the stuff out of the desert.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the park is home to four resorts for the modern comforts — and 3.1 million acres of designated wilderness (91% of the park), the largest wilderness in the contiguous 48. It’s an area rich with choices for the hiker, backpacker and/or backcountry camper. Extremes in weather and widely varied elevations call for appropriate planning.

The park’s remaining 300,000 acres have more roads than any other national park (nearly 1,000 miles, some paved and some not), opening the way for all visitors to experience many of the park’s highlights, ranging from dramatic scenery to birds and wildflowers, from ghost towns to the night skies unpolluted by city lights. Park rangers lead informative programs from fall through early spring while temperatures are moderate and visitation is at its highest.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Provision the backpack and plan for a hiking and camping excursion into the park’s wilderness. Options include a climb on the seven-mile (one way) Telescope Peak Trail. A winter climb requires ice axe, crampons, and experience as a winter climber.
  • Combine hiking and the ghost town hunt, with a strenuous trek in Surprise Canyon to Panamint City. Plan to camp out on this outing, too.
  • For those with access to horses, ride along the park’s backcountry dirt roads.
  • Report wildlife sightings to the park, to assist the park in creating distribution maps of wildlife. Viewings and even photos of Nelson’s bighorn sheep and desert tortoises are of particular interest.
  • The park boasts hundreds of miles suitable for mountain biking. Take advantage, being aware the bikes are not allowed on closed roads, service roads, off roadways, in the wilderness or on any trails.
  • Try a different twist on desert tourism: At the China Ranch Date Farm near Tecopa, hike to nearby abandoned mines, then drift back to the shop to buy date nut bread or other goodies. The farm and its date palms sit on a stream in the Mojave Desert.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Look for a ghost town or two. You can drive to Rhyolite, which was the largest town in the Death Valley area and even had a stock exchange and opera house. Its remains are 35 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, in Nevada.
  • Get out of the car and take a relatively easy walk, such as into Desolation Canyon, Mosaic Canyon or Natural Bridge Canyon. There are a lot of canyons.
  • Park rangers offer night sky programs and lead stargazing events. Attend one. Because of its dark, uncluttered night skies, the park has been designated an international dark sky park.
  • Look for at least one of the heavy-duty wagons that, filled with borax, was pulled out of Death Valley by the famed 20-mule teams. One is at the Furnace Creek Ranch and the other at Harmony Borax Works.
  • Pack the binoculars in anticipation of bird spotting. November through March is the least promising season for birding, but especially at times of spring and fall migrations.
  • Search for the must-see sites, such as Badwater Salt Flats for surreal salt flats and to say you have seen the lowest point in North America; Zabriskie Point, surrounded by vibrantly colored badlands, and Dante’s View, a breathtaking mountaintop overlook more than 5,000 feet above the heat of Death Valley.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Overnight at the historic Inn at Furnace Creek, which is open from mid-October through mid-May. Play golf on the world’s lowest-altitude golf course here (214 feet below sea level).
  • In spring, glory in the blossoming wildflowers, which blanket the area when conditions are just right. Hike among them, but with care, or join a ranger-led walk. It’s not a sure thing, but with luck, you could have a super bloom year. The most recent were in 2005 and 2016.
  • Stop for lunch at one of the park’s four resorts.
  • Remember all those 20 Mule Team Borax ads and the “Death Valley Days” TV show when visiting the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch.
  • Choose one of several park-recommended scenic drives, such as one called Artist’s Drive through multihued volcanic and sedimentary hills. The nine-mile paved road is one way and is only drivable with vehicles of 25 feet in length or less.
  • Attend a performance (not necessarily opera) at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel in Death Valley Junction near the park. The quaint hall features wall paintings of a 16th century audience.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the National Park Service at www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm