This Is Death Valley (Backgrounder)
Contrary to the dire sound of its name, Death Valley is actually a thriving natural environment situated in the Mojave and Colorado Desert’s Biosphere Reserve along the California/Nevada border. The Valley is home to more than 900 kinds of plants, desert wildlife, and natural wonders unknown in any other part of the world.
Established as a National Monument in 1933 and a National Park in 1994, the region is comprised of 3,000 square miles (more than 3.3 million acres) of widely differing topography and is now the largest national park in the continental United States. The Valley generally receives about 1.8 inches of rainfall per year and weather conditions vary throughout the region. The term “Death Valley” was first coined by immigrants who bid the basin good bye after their fateful crossing in the winter of 1849. The months between October and March are uniformly cool and pleasant with highs ranging between 68 and 80 degrees, but snow is not uncommon at higher elevations during the winter.
The landscape is the first breathtaking feature noticed by visitors. Rock layers visible throughout the Valley reveal a nearly complete record of the Earth’s geologic past. It is a past, however, pushed out of its natural order as mountains of rock were forced upward in recent geologic times creating a unique strata of exposed layers.
At 282 feet below sea level sits Badwater. Named so after the high salt content in its few ponds, this area marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Yet even here, life thrives. Desert holly, which lives on salt water, grows plentifully, and in the summer, salt crystallizes on the holly’s leaves creating a shimmering, silvery coating. Pickleweed also grows at Badwater, with green leaves resembling stacked up pickles. Plant life is plentiful in the Valley due to shallow ground water and springs that exist around the margins of the salt flats.
An interesting detail about the Valley’s low elevation is its slightly greater gravity and barometric pressure. At the Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest course at 214 feet below sea level, golfers notice a distinct difference in how their golf balls respond to a swing in relation to courses at sea level and higher elevations.
Salt formations are beautiful features of the Valley. At Devil’s Golf Course, an area so named because of its undulating topography, visitors find salt formations shaped like pyramids covered with fine brown dust pointing toward the sky. The famous dry salt floor of the Valley can even be heard creaking on hot days as it expands in the shimmering heat.
North of Furnace Creek, halfway to Scotty’s Castle, one finds sand dunes that rise up to 85 feet in height. The dunes are home to desert wildlife such as kangaroo rats, lizards, coyotes and kit fox. Other wildlife in the Park include road runners, lizards called “chuckwallas,” sidewinders, red tail hawks and many more creatures.
Death Valley’s natural beauty and color are most evident along Artist’s Drive where exotic rock formations of pink, lavender, emerald, brown and purple illuminate the landscape. The Valley’s extraordinarily clear air makes colors all the more vivid and alive, attracting touring artists, photographers, film makers and visitors from around the world to this dazzling, living natural environment.