It may have a haunting name and a stark appearance, but the valley is a very much alive desert set between high, snow-capped mountains. The name is totally in contrast with the vibrancy of Death Valley. It captures many guests for the life mysteries sustained in this arid and isolated landscape.
This area below-sea-level basin is a land of extremes due to its steady drought and record hitting summer heat. This extremely high temperature has a striking contrast. During winter, the towering peaks are covered and frosted with snow. Rainstorms rarely happen but bring vast fields of wildflowers, oases harbor to small fish species, and refuge for animals and humans. A great diversity of life thrives in this Death Valley.
The valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States and the hottest, driest, and lowest among national parks in the state. It covers about 3,373,063 acres occupying a boundary zone between the Great Basin and Mojave deserts, protecting the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert and its diverse environment of salt-flats, dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains.
The park became home to many flora and fauna species that had adapted to the harsh environmental conditions. Almost 91% is a designated wilderness area. UNESCO included the Death Valley as the principal feature of its Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve in 1984.
Early inhabitants of the valley included four Native American cultures known to have lived during the last 10 000 years. The Nevares Spring people were the first group. They were hunters and gatherers that had arrived in the area about 7000 BC. By 3000 BC, the Mesquita Flat people displaced the former settlers and followed by the Saratoga Spring people who moved to the area about 2000 years ago. This group has more advanced hunting and gathering skills and were good at handcrafts. Some mysterious stone patterns were proof of their artistry.
The nomadic Timbisha moved into the area a thousand years back. They hunted and gathered Mesquite beans along with Pinyon pine nuts. The Timbisha practiced a vertical migration due to the valley’s wide altitude differential between the valley bottom and the mountain ridges, especially on the west. They set up their camps near water sources in the valley bottoms during winter. During spring and summer, grasses and other plant food sources ripened at progressively higher altitudes.
In 1849, two groups heading California Gold Country with perhaps 100 wagons stumbled into Death Valley after getting lost on what they thought was a shortcut of the Old Spanish Trail. These people called the Bennett-Arcane Party were unable to find a pass out of the valley for several weeks, so they were forced to slaughter and eat their oxen and find fresh water. Eventually, they used the wood of their wagon to cook their food. They call the area “Burned Wagons Camp” where they stayed.
They finally were able to hike the valley and left their wagons. A woman in the group exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley!” just after leaving the valley. Another person included in the party was William Lewis Manly, who wrote in his autobiographical book Death Valley in ’49 the details in their trek and popularized the park.
The valley became a national monument in February of 1933. Early development made possible by the Civilian Conservation Corps or the CCC. 12 CCC companies improved the area by creating trails, buildings, and camps from 1933 until 1942. The phone and water system were also introduced to some areas of the valley. Today, much of what they built is still in existence and utilized in the national park.
Driving through Death Valley is worthwhile if you can stop at Zabriskie Point, one of the most surreal landscapes you will ever see. You will be welcomed by Ripples of white, yellow, mauve, pink, and chocolate sand dunes frozen in time. It also has a purple sandy river running through it, and the snow-capped Panamint Mountain ranges in the background.
Don’t miss seeing Badwater Basin on your first visit, so it will boast that you have reached the lowest point in North America. You can walk out on the salt flats and see the hexagonal honeycomb shapes. There is a small natural pool of undrinkable water next to the road in a sink, and the accumulated salt crystals of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name.
It is a nine-mile one-way road that leads through some of Death Valley’s most vibrantly hued sedimentary and volcanic formations. The Artist’s Palette is the highlight where you can see the rock with a rainbow of colors. It’s best to visit late in the afternoon to experience a magnificent view.
Wildlife in the Mesquite Flat Dunes
The early morning light reflects the beauty of this sea of shifting sands off State Highway 90. It gives accents and contours and ripples in the dunes. You also might see coyotes, desert kit foxes, and kangaroo rats.