Death Valley seems to be appropriately named– lose your bearings in this hostile environment and it may just be the last place you ever visit.
Death Valley National Park is located on the borders of California and Nevada in the USA. It sits in the Great Basin east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The valley has a hot subtropical, desert climate; prone to incredibly warm and long summers, mild winters, and sparse rainfall. The high valley walls act like a blanket– when the sun heats the valley floor the hot air rises but cannot escape and it’s pushed down back to the valley floor. The valley floor is heated by this compression in much the same way as a convention oven.
Death Valley is a place of punishing temperatures, sudden environmental changes, and extreme altitudes but its name can be misleading. While this desert will easily take the life of someone not prepared to deal with it, it’s not all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite in fact, this is a place teeming with life. There are many species of plants and fish that are only found in this one area of the world and the park is also home to interesting geological formations. It’s even been a hideout for an infamous serial killer!
15. Record Setting Heat
If you’re longing for a little bit of warm weather then maybe you’d consider a trip to Death Valley. But be warned– the temperatures are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. In the summer of 2001 the valley experienced temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) for 154 days in a row. Now that’s hot, but it’s nowhere near the highest recorded temperature in this part of the world. That record stands at a sweltering 134 °F (56.7 °C) recorded during a heatwave on July 10, 1913. During that heat wave, temperatures soared over 129 °F (54 °C) for five, long days in a row. Recently, in 2013, the mercury climbed all the way to 129 °F (54 °C) at Furnace Creek station. Better pack plenty of water!
14. Mysterious Sailing Stones
One of the greatest mysteries of Death Valley is the curious movement of rocks and boulders across the desert floor. The rocks, some the size of pebbles and others weighing up to 700 pounds appear to move along the floor overnight, leaving tell-tale trails and patterns in their wake.
There have been many different theories put forth as to how this movement happens. Some scientists believe that the rocks are affected by shifting magnetic fields while others theorized that slippery algae forming underneath them could enable them to slide over the sand, guided by the wind.
Richard and Jim Morris were researchers who had the unique privilege of seeing this phenomenon occur before their eyes and they maintain that the Valley floor freezes over during the night and when the ice cracks and melts after sunset the rocks are moved with a combination of wind and water.
13. Death Valley Was Once A Lake
It may be almost impossible to believe but scientists believe that Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, may have once been covered with water. It was quite some time ago, though, roughly 12,000 years back, during the Pleistocene Ice Age. During this era, Death Valley lay beneath the massive Glacial Lake Manly which stretched out over 100 miles and dipped down to an impressive 600 feet.
Today evidence of this great expanse of water can still be seen in the isolated populations of pupfish in certain areas of the park. The Death Valley pupfish is only found in this part of the world and these hardy little guys can survive in conditions that would spell the end for most other fish. They can withstand water temperatures between 116 °F (47 °C) and 32 °F (0 °C) and can handle water four times more salty than that of the open ocean.
12. The Missing Germans
On the 21st of October 1996, a helicopter pilot was flying over the park, on the lookout for evidence of clandestine drug-making operations when he spotted a green Plymouth Voyager in Anvil Canyon. He landed to investigate further but the vehicle was abandoned, with no indication of what had happened to its occupants.
The car had been rented by a family of German tourists– Egbert Rimkus, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, and their two children Georg (11) and Max (4)– in July 1996 and upon further investigation it was found that the family had signed a park visitor logbook on July 23rd.
The car had been driven for at least two hundred miles with both back tires flat before becoming embedded in the sand. A full 13 years later hikers discovered human remains in the area which are believed to be Egbert and Cornelia but no trace of the children has ever been found.
11. How Death Valley Became Death Valley
During the California Gold Rush, countless pioneers and prospectors attempted to cross Death Valley in order to reach the gold fields, hoping to make their fortunes there. Not all of them made it. In 1849 a group of men lost their way and it wasn’t before the valley had claimed one life that they were thankfully rescued. They become known as the “The Lost 49ers”. Despite being rescued and given a second chance at life the men were changed by their experience in the arid wasteland forever and memories of the time they spent in the desert were said to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Legend has it that as the survivors were led out of the valley one looked back and said “Goodbye, Death Valley,” and so the nickname was born.
10. Manson Family Hide-Out
The Barker Ranch is an isolated dwelling located deep within Death Valley where Charles Manson and his “family” planned their gruesome murders and where they hid out after committing their heinous crimes.
They were arrested during a raid on October 12, 1969, by members of the Inyo County sheriff department, California Highway Patrol, and National Park Service law enforcement, but not for the murders. At the time the officers were unaware of their crimes and wanted to prosecute the group for stealing and vandalism. Charles Manson almost escaped capture on this day by hiding in a bathroom cabinet but a keen-eyed policeman noticed strands of hair sticking out of the cabinet door and uncovered him.
9. Underground Catacombs In Death Valley?
The Native Americans, who have called Death Valley home for centuries have a legend about a man who goes searching for his lost wife and in doing so finds himself in a large underground amphitheater where he’s finally reunited with her. But is this just folklore?
Many people have reported finding underground caves and catacombs underneath Death Valley and some of them believe that this could be proof of an ancient civilization. In the 1920s a man named White claimed that he found a series of underground tunnels and caves and in those caves he found mummies wearing leather clothing and heaps of treasure. He and another man set out to find the caves a second time but they were unable to find them.
Even stranger is the story of Dr. Russell and Dr. Bovee who also claimed that they came across underground caves and the remains of three giant men. However, they were unable to locate the site a second time and soon afterward they both disappeared, never to be seen again.
8. The Devil’s Hole And The World’s Rarest Fish
You’ve got to love some of the names of places located within Death Valley. For example, there’s Dante’s View, Furnace Creek, Hells Gate and The Devils Hole. The Devils Hole is a deep, dark, water-filled chasm within a limestone cavern warmed by the heat below. The chasm is located in Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, to the east of Death Valley. The water within this hole responds to seismic activity from all over the world. That means if there’s an earthquake in Japan, the water inside The Devils Hole will ripple. Scientists believe that the cavern opened up to the surface of the valley about 60,000 years ago.
The Devils Hole is home to Cyprinodon diabolis, also known as The Devils Hole pupfish, who have resided there for the last 20,000 years. There are less than 200 of these fish remaining and they are considered to be the world’s rarest fish.
7. Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater is a large volcanic crater that can be found on the north side of Death Valley National Park. The crater is massive– half a mile wide and between 500 and 777 feet deep. Initially, researchers believed that the crater was formed between 2000 and 7000 years ago but new evidence suggests that it may have been formed just 800 years ago.
And how was it formed? Well, the crater lies in a crater field, at the base of the Cottonwood Mountain Range. Underneath these mountains is a fault line and it’s believed that magma from this fault line heated groundwater rapidly turning it into steam and the resulting force blasted rocks outwards, leaving the pit (known as maars) behind. Steam explosions like this are called hydrovolcanic eruptions.
6. The Park Was Used As A Shooting Location For Star Wars
Star Wars fans may already know this– Death Valley was used to shoot dozens of the scenes from the original Star Wars movies. The arid desert-like conditions of the valley were perfect for filming scenes that took place on Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s desert planet. The following scenes from Star Wars IV: A New Hope are rumored to have been filmed in the valley; the scene where R2 gets attacked by Jawas, the part where the droids escape and the establishing shot of Mos Eisley Cantina. Many die hard Stars Wars enthusiasts visit Death Valley to see these famous locations for themselves and there are even guides on where all the locations can be found. The valley was also used to shoot episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as many other movies.
5. The Desert Blooms
When conditions are just right you can watch the desert break out into a showy colorful display. Beautiful yellow, pink, and purple wildflowers defy the odds of this dry and hostile environment and spread out over the desert floor almost every spring. These wildflowers are brought to life by the moisture from the melting snow.
Death Valley National Park is not completely without water. The 3,000 square mile park is home to 600 ponds and springs which enable life to exist here. If you travel to the western side of the park you’ll find Darwin Falls, a series of waterfalls that drop down 100 feet into a large pond. This pond is surrounded by willow trees and other plant life, as well as over 80 different types of birds.
4. Golf In Death Valley?
If you’re wondering what there is to do in Death Valley (besides sweat and drink water) then never fear, there are loads of attractions and hotels to keep you busy during your stay. You can enjoy guided tours, check out amazing views over the valley and even, if you’re brave enough, enjoy a round of golf.
That’s right, at the Furnace Creek Golf Course, golfers can enjoy an exhilarating 18 holes and be more grateful than ever to enjoy a cold one at the 19th hole! This golf course is the lowest altitude golf course in the world– sitting roughly 214 feet below sea level. We wouldn’t suggest a game during the summer, rather go in February when the average temperature is around a bearable 74°F during the day. This is also the region’s prime time for rainfall.
3. It’s Home To Ancient Artwork And Cultures
Death Valley is home to ancient artwork which allows us to glimpse back into human history. This arid place was home to the people of the Mesquite Flat Culture who made the valley their home between 3000 BCE to 1 CE. Rock paintings and chiseling work have been carbon dated and prove that life has survived the odds here since the dawn of humanity.
The valley is also home to the Native American Timbisha tribe (once known as the Panamint Shoshone) who have lived in harmony with the extremes of Death Valley for at least the last 1000 years. These families now mainly reside in Furnace Creek. During a 2010 census, the population of this tribe was 24 and many of the older members still speak their ancestral language– Timbisha.
2. 1000 Species Of Plants Thrive Here
There are more than a 1000 different species of plant life that thrive in the extreme conditions of Death Valley, including 50 species that are found nowhere else on Earth. And that’s not all– the valley is teeming with life. There are approximately 300 bird species, 36 types of reptiles, 51 different mammals and most surprising, a small number of fish and amphibian species. The mammals include bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
The plant life here has adapted to the harsh conditions by maximizing on the small amount of precipitation that occurs by developing extremely long roots. These roots, which can creep down 100 feet into the earth and spread out, are able to leech moisture out of the lower soil. Most of them have also developed specialized leaves which slow down evaporation and retain as much moisture as possible.
1. Reaching Telescope Peak
For the best views in Death Valley National Park, you’ll need to don your outdoor gear and get hiking. It might be quite a trek but if you can reach the highest point in the park, located at Telescope Peak in Inyo County, you’ll be rewarded with awe-inspiring views.
Telescope Peak is located in the Panamint Mountain Range and sits at an elevation of 11,043 feet. From his point, you can see for an incredible 100 miles in almost every direction. To get there you’ll need to embark on a 14-mile hike, along a trail that begins in the Mahogany Flat campground. It’s about 7 miles up the mountainside and the gradient is approximately 8%. You don’t need any special permit to climb this trail although obviously, the park recommends you come fully prepared.
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