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Death Valley National Park
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Death Valley National Park

Wild flowers © Michelle Leco / USATourist.com
After an unusually wet spring, the valley floor erupts with wild flowers that have lain dormant for years.

Death Valley National Park is located about 200 miles (330 km) northeast of Los Angeles, California along the eastern border of California and Nevada. It is less than 50 miles east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and lies wholly within its rain-shadow desert. Moisture coming off of the Pacific Ocean surrenders its precipitation to the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada peaks, so very little moisture reaches Death Valley.

Death Valley is nearly 100 miles (165 km) long and varies in width from 6 miles (10 km) to over 15 miles (25 km). It is sheltered on both the East and the West by 5,000 (1500 m) to 10,000 foot (3000 m) high mountains. The floor of the valley receives less than two inches (5 cm) of rain per year. Clear blue skies without a cloud are normal in all seasons of the year.

One of the hottest places in North America

Since the valley is secluded between high mountain ridges, it is well sheltered from any cooling breezes. The nearly incessant sunshine typically heats the valley floor and its rocky walls to high temperatures. During July and August, daytime temperatures of 130° F (50° C) are not uncommon, while it seldom cools below 100 degrees (38 C) at night. The best season to visit Death Valley is in December or January when daytime temperatures are typically a very pleasant 65 – 70 degrees (18 – 21 C).

Several bands of migrant Native Americans have long used this valley as their winter residence, migrating to higher altitudes during the hot summer months and returning to the warmer valley during the winter. A small Shoshone Indian Reservation is currently located at Furnace Creek.

History of Death Valley

Sand dunes © Michelle Leco / USATourist.com
The Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells are a favorite place for visitors to explore and take in the scenery.

Death Valley received its name in 1849, when a wagon train of overland immigrants headed for California became lost in the valley for several weeks. They had to burn their wagons and cook their oxen to survive. At least one of them perished in the valley. When they finally hiked their way out, one of the women reputedly said, “Goodbye Death Valley”, and the name stuck.

Afterwards, Death Valley was probed by intrepid prospectors seeking gold, silver and other valuable minerals. It eventually supported several borax mines that used huge wagons drawn by teams of twenty mules to haul the refined mineral 165 miles to the nearest railroad. These operations eventually proved uneconomic and were abandoned.

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Driving to Death Valley

You can drive to Death Valley from Los Angeles by taking Route 395 north along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then turning east on Route 190 into Death Valley. It is about 220 miles and will take at least five hours.

You can drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley in just a bit over two hours by going through Pahrump and Death Valley Junction to route 190. Either way, make sure you have a full tank of fuel and plenty of drinking water before you venture into this desolate land.

Death Valley Junction is a nearly abandoned borax mining town with a population of only 3. It is home of the famous Amargosa Opera House resurrected by the New York ballerina Marta Bennet who fell in love with this almost ghost town in 1966. She reconstructed the theater with her own hands, and has conducted weekly theatrical performances in the desert for over forty years.

Accommodations in the Park

The only facilities located within Death Valley National Park are located at Furnace Creek and at Stovepipe Wells. Fuel, accommodations, food and limited supplies are available at both locations, but the prices can be rather high. Outside of the park, the nearest accommodations, food and fuel are at Panamint Springs, just outside the Western entry and in the Amargosa Valley about 35 miles east of the park. A much wider selection is available in Pahrump 60 miles southeast of the park.

Camping is available at various locations in the park. Some of the campsites are closed during the hottest months, but a few are open year round. Camping in Death Valley during the summer can be quite challenging when you realize that butter, chocolate and even wax candles often liquefy at daytime temperatures.

Bad Water © Michelle Leco / USATourist.com
Visitors follow the board walk into Bad Water.

Beautiful scenery

This extremely hot and forbidding land can be strangely beautiful. A small area of open sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells has a classical desert landscape. Near Bad Water, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, the broad flat floor of the valley glistens with immense plains of gleaming white salt. In stark contrast, Furnace Creek offers an oasis of green mesquite shrubs and lofty date palms.

Artists Drive and Golden Canyon display multihued vistas of mineral deposits exposed on parched and eroded canyon walls. A drive to Dante’s Peak, attainable via a twenty mile journey over unpaved road, offers a vista of the entire valley from its 5,700 foot (1750 m) summit.

Within Death Valley National Park, there are a number of isolated roads and hiking trails open to sightseers and adventuresome explorers. You can easily drive or hike into the less accessible regions of the park that are seldom seen by tourists. Just remember, in this land, it is wise to always be aware of your fuel gauge and to carry plenty of drinking water.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Urban
Photo Description: Death Valley