I really did not know much about Death Valley, other than its name, its role in westerns as a harsh landscape, and the image of 20-Mule Teams trudging across its terrain. That impression was confirmed when I heard that parts of Death Valley were used as a backdrop for scenes of isolation in Star Wars on the planet Tatooine. The basics were clear: Death Valley must be a harsh desert that offers scorching heat, little water, and not much else. People must have died while trying to cross its expanse, giving rise to its name.
SOME FACTS ABOUT DEATH VALLEY: Geology, Biology & Climate
I have wanted to visit this remote locale for some time and see its wonders for myself. In preparing for my trip, I learned some details about Death Valley. Herbert Hoover named it a National Monument in February 1933. By September 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work for the next nine years making the area more accessible to visitors by building roads and buildings and installing water and phone lines. In 1984 the area was named an International Biosphere Reserve. In 1994, Death Valley was expanded by over one million acres (darker green area on map) and upgraded to National Park status, becoming the largest national park in the contiguous United States with 91% of its lands designated as a wilderness area.
Death Valley National Park covers close to 3.4 million acres and is traversed by almost 1,000 miles of road. Of that total, roughly 350 miles are unpaved, often requiring four-wheel drive vehicles. Many of the existing roads were built in the 1930s and follow narrow serpentine routes across the countryside. My favorite drive in the park is actually part of the entry portal from Lone Pine, California (the closest California city). It traverses a windy, steep path through a canyon offering many dips and sharp turns with signs noting that the grade at times ranges from 5% to 9%. There are several mountainous drives throughout the park alternating with long straight stretches across flat open spaces.
Spending several days in Death Valley, I am now aware of how expansive this place really is and the great distances separating one key location from another. Although the area looks desolate, it actually covers three biotic life zones and is home to over 1,000 plants, several found only in Death Valley. Typical animal life includes coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, cougars, and mule deer. On my trip, I enjoyed sharing the road for a few minutes with a couple curious coyotes.
The area’s great extremes are seen most vividly through its wide variety of geographical features. Within its boundaries are lakes, springs and aquifers; mountains, valleys and canyons; and deserts, sand dunes and salt flats.
Other extremes are also evident throughout the park. The highest temperature recorded was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913; typical summer temperatures range from highs around 120 and lows in the 90s. The average high temperature in July (the hottest month) is 115 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, low temperatures at some locales consistently drop below freezing. There is very little rain in the area, with the valley floor receiving less than 2 inches a year; some years, no rain makes it to the valley floor. On my trip to Death Valley in February 2015, I enjoyed a high of 82 degrees. With blue skies and slight breezes, it was a glorious visit! I also loved seeing the many “Sea Level Elevation” signs!
Technically, Death Valley is a graben, not a valley. A graben, from the German word for trench, is a depressed block of land bordered by parallel fault lines. This technicality clarifies that Death Valley was formed more by plate tectonics, mountain uplifts and volcanic activity than by erosion from winds and water rushing down canyons. Geologic history shows the area was formed by alternating major periods of volcanism, sedimentation, tectonic deformation and glaciation. When the large lake that once covered the valley floor started to dry up about 10,500 years ago, the many salts and minerals were left becoming today’s salt pan that covers more than 200 square miles.
Much of the area around Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells sits at sea level. Badwater Basin allows access to the great salt pan and is the lowest point in North America (8th lowest in the world), sitting at 282 feet below sea level. Fifteen miles from Badwater lies Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park, rising to 11,049 feet. The vertical drop from Telescope Peak to Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. This fast uplift from the floor to the mountain peak kept the more traditional v-shaped valleys from forming. Telescope Peak is in the Panamint Range, one of three mountain ranges in the area that keep rain out of the valley through what is called the rainshadow effect, meaning storms lose their rain as they travel over the mountains.
SOME HISTORY: Mining Efforts & Father Crowley
Despite these extremes in geography and climate, the area has been home to Native Groups as early as 7000 B.C. Most recently the Timbisha Shoshone have been in the area for at least a 1,000 years. As is fairly typical for America, the history of the area is often ignored until settlers or miners move into the region. Mining is one of the draws to Death Valley, starting in the 1800s. Some of the ores and minerals mined in the area included gold, silver, quartzite, lead, and dolomite, but never in great sustaining abundance.
Borax was the primary mineral that offered commercial success in the area. The iconic 20-Mule Teams hauled borax 165 miles from the Borax Harmony Works near Furnace Creek to the railroad near Mojave. These grueling trips took 10 days and were only conducted for six years from 1883-1889.
An earlier mining operation was conducted by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company that worked lead-silver mines intermittently from the late 1870s until about 1900. In 1877, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns were built to provide a suitable fuel for two lead-silver smelters. These ten kilns, beehive shaped masonry structures that stand about 25 feet high, were built by Chinese, Indian and Mexican laborers. These airtight kilns charred the trees, creating charcoal, a substance that retains the shape and texture of the wood but is converted to 96% pure carbon content. As a result, charcoal burns slower and hotter than wood, providing the greater heat needed to refine ores. These kilns, however, were only used for two years. Documentation is missing to suggest why—either a closer source of charcoal or another fuel altogether must have been found. These kilns’ limited use and their remote location makes them the best preserved kilns of their type in the United States.
The drive out to view the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns follows Emigrant Road to the Wildrose Campground and then goes another seven miles; the last four miles are on a gravel road. The twists and turns of the road and its various vistas are breathtaking—and worth the drive, even if one never makes it all the way to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.
In 1904, two prospectors found quartzite laced with gold, and a new gold rush was on. Soon there were over 2,000 claims in a 30-mile area. Although several camps were set up, the main town established was called Rhyolite for the silic-rich volcanic rock prevalent in the area. The town boomed with buildings springing up everywhere. A stock exchange and board of trade were formed. There were houses, hotels, stores, two electric plants, foundries, a hospital, an ice plant, and a school for 250 children. A three-story bank building was constructed and various entertainment opportunities were set up as well, including an opera house and an ice cream parlor. Population reached 10,000 residents. In 1907, electricity was brought to town, and a mill was built to handle 300 tons of ore a day.
However, over the next several years, finances took a down turn. Mines closed, banks failed, and newspapers went out of business. By 1910, there were only 600 residents left in town, and mill production had dwindled to almost nothing. The main mine closed in 1911, and electricity was cut off to the town in 1916. Now all that is left of Rhyolite, this once booming mining town, are some of its buildings, at least the foundations and outer walls. Of the several ghost towns in the area, Rhyolite is the best preserved. It sits in Nevada, just outside of the Death Valley National Park boundary line but remains a popular attraction for Death Valley visitors.
Area Near Rhyolite En Route to Las Vegas
By the early 1920s an interest in Death Valley and the entire area was growing for its natural wonders as a tourist attraction. Father J. J. Crowley served the Owens Valley and Death Valley areas in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1919, he was given this remote parish that served four counties and 30,000 square miles of desert. His area ran from Bishop, California, to Barstow, California, and included both the lowest point in the country (Badwater Basin in Death Valley) and the highest (Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra).
For a time, Crowley served as the priest for Fresno, California, but returned to the Owens Valley in 1934. Devastated by the changes brought to the area by the diverting of water to Los Angeles, Crowley became determined to build community and emphasize the natural wonders and activities of the region. His efforts brought success, triggering the creation of a new dam. Some water was slowly returned to the area and tourism started to grow, especially in Death Valley, which had just been named a national monument in 1933.
Father Crowley is perhaps best known for his efforts coordinating what was called “The Wedding of the Waters.” This three-day celebration in October 1937 commemorated the completion of a paved road from Mount Whitney to Badwater Basin, connecting the highest and lowest points of the country through the city of Lone Pine. Lone Pine, California, sits today on Interstate 395 and serves as the portal to both Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and Death Valley.
Crowley’s three-day event was a dramatic public relations dream. It involved the entire county and participants included the United States President, the California Governor and historical figures and their descendants from the local area. For example, descendants from both the Donner Party and the Lost 49ers who wandered in Death Valley for months were involved. Each night was marked by feasts and extensive entertainment.
The actual event moved water from the mountains to the desert in a relay reminiscent of the carrying of the Olympic flame. For this event, the water was drawn from Lake Tulainyo, the highest lake in the Western Hemisphere. An Indian runner scooped the water into a gourd and ran it down the mountain to the start of the paved road at the trail head to Mount Whitney. He handed the water—called “crystal clear tears of the clouds”—to a man on horseback who rode for five miles and handed off to another man on horseback for a seven-mile stretch. They rode along the highway that was lined with close to 100 cars. That night, the gourd was kept safe in a bank vault. The next morning the Governor handed the gourd to a veteran prospector who used his burro to move the water to a covered wagon that had been driven through Death Valley in 1849.
From there the relay gets even more inventive. The water was carried by a 20-Mule Team, a stagecoach, and a railroad, staying overnight in the Talc Company for safe keeping. The next day, after an early morning mass in Lone Pine, the gourd was handed off to a 1938 Lincoln Zephyr that was driven to the dedication summit where Western Union had set up a temporary telegraph, so the President of the United States could signal the ribbon cutting where the roads were joined together.
The car ride then continued delivering the gourd to a plane that flew toward Telescope Peak. En route, the water from the gourd was dumped over the Badwater Basin. As the clear mountain water hit the lake at the lowest point in the park, the gathered crowds cheered, and a flame was ignited signaling the completion of “The Wedding of the Waters.” The flame triggered spotters—including a boy scout troop—to light their torches back along the entire route, sending the completion signal back down the line to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney. It must have been quite a spectacle!
Father Crowley died in 1940, after hitting a steer with his Model T-Ford on one of his many trips throughout the state. An overlook in Death Valley near the western entrance is named in his honor, and a memorial cross is displayed further down into the valley, reachable by a short hike. The Father Crowley Vista Point was my first official stop on my trip into Death Valley. I did not learn his story until later, but I can certainly understand why someone who so loved the communities and the natural wonders and activities of the area would be so honored.
TWO POPULAR DESTINATIONS: Artist’s Drive & Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
I spent two days playing in Death Valley on this trip, and I need to go back many more times because I left so much unseen. Staying mainly in the middle of the park, I did not make it yet to Scotty’s Castle, Dante’s View, the Devil’s Gold Course, or the Racetrack Playa, to name a few of the popular destinations. Some of these are only reachable via four-wheel drive vehicles or hiking. Other than the locations already mentioned (Crowley Vista Point, Harmony Borax Works, Charcoal Kilns, Badwater Basin and Rhyolite), I also visited Artist’s Drive and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Both were impressive.
Artist’s Drive is a paved one-way nine mile scenic loop through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills that cut into the Black Mountains. The drive itself starts from Badwater Road and rises to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon. The Artist’s Palette is on the face of Black Mountain and showcases various colors of rocks: red, pink, yellow, green and purple. The colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals, such as irons salts, tuff-derived mica, and manganese. The entire Artist Drive Formation is evidence of a violent explosive volcanic period in Death Valley during the Miocene epoch.
Variations in light and in local rainfall enhances the ever-changing colors of this canvas that at times does seem to be painted by artists. The best viewing would be in the late afternoon. I was there a bit earlier than that, but the sights and colors were still dramaric. [In Star Wars, the Artist’s Drive area is the locale for some of the scenes where R2D2 is being abducted by Jawas.]
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, located on the western side of the park just past Stovepipe Wells, are one of three sand dunes in Death Valley. The other two are Ibex Dunes and the Eureka Dunes. Of the three locations, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are easiest to get to, so they remain one of the most popular locations in the park. The dunes rise 100 feet, changing with every wind storm and breeze. At times, the trunks of the dead Mesquite trees visible in the dunes are totally covered by sand. [In Star Wars, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were the backdrop when R2D2 left C3PO after their escape pod crashed on Tatooine. I can almost see them trudging along.]
DEATH VALLEY’S NAME
Traveling through much of the park myself this February, I was constantly impressed with how varied the landscape was. I could drive 15 miles through a narrow, steep canyon and then another 20 over a long flat stretch of road. It was not always easy to get from Point A to Point B without re-tracing my steps. For example, the 27-miles leading to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns went mainly to the Wildrose Campground and then on to the kilns; to get to other popular locations in the park, I needed to head back over that same route to reconnect with Highway 190, one of the main roads through the park.
I am not complaining! I loved those drives, where I often saw no other cars so could enjoy not just the vistas but the solitude as well. But those roads also made me wonder about all who traveled this land before the roads. What native peoples lived here? What specific events gave this beautiful area its deadly name? With a little research, I learned that the ordeal endured by The Lost 49ers gave rise to the park’s name. I also learned that the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in this area for hundreds of years and continue living here to this day.
Here is the story of The Lost 49ers:
In 1849, a group of emigrants seeking the gold fields in California arrived in Salt Lake City too late to follow the traditional route into California if they wanted to avoid the fate of the Donner Party (1846-1847). Rather than staying in Salt Lake City until spring, the group decided to take the Old Spanish Trail that promised a passable more southern route. After several weeks making slow progress, a man showed up with a map claiming a short cut that would take 500 miles off the trip. About 20 wagons decided to try the short-cut and ended up spending at least two months wandering in what later came to be called Death Valley.
This group splintered further, and one cluster was terribly weakened and arrived in the current area called Stovepipe Wells. To continue their journey, they killed several of their oxen, smoking the meat on the fire built from their falling-apart wagons. This group then continued on foot, eventually coming out near the present day city of Ridgecrest, California. This event is now commemorated as California Landmark #441. Its plaque offers this explanation: “Near this monument, the Jayhawker group of Death Valley Forty-Niners, gold seekers from Middle West, who entered Death Valley in 1849 seeking short route to the mines of central California, burned their wagons, dried the meat of some oxen and, with surviving animals, struggled westward on foot.”
The other splinter group was blocked by the Panamint Mountains when their first attempt across the range proved impossible. The group returned to the valley and sent two men out in search of safe passage across the mountains. Thinking the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada, the group in the valley expected their scouts to return quickly with supplies and help. When their absence dragged on to over a month, several families struck out on their own to find a different passage over the mountains. Two families with children waited to be saved and were not disappointed. The two scouts finally returned and led them out. As they left the valley, one woman turned back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” This statement generated the name for the area, even though only one person died from those who waited to be rescued.
The Timbisha Shoshone call Death Valley home:
What is called Death Valley today was called “Burning Land” by the Timbisha Shoshone who have lived in the valley since “time immemorial” as explained by the tribe’s oral history. This name makes perfect sense, especially given the volcanic activity evident throughout the park. Lava rock formations are strewn along many of the roads and fields, and signs of recent volcanic activity can be viewed at the still active Ubehebe Crater in the northern part of the park.
The Timbisha still live in the valley today, after enduring struggles and hardships initiated by the miners and other developers and explorers who diverted water, displaced the tribe off their traditional lands, and introduced new plants that compete with native vegetation, especially the mesquite trees. The mesquite trees had always been the life source for the tribe, providing food as well as building materials. The Timbisha cared for the new sprouts in the spring and cleared debris from the base of the mature trees. The tribe was sustained by cakes made from ground mesquite pods throughout fall and winter.
The mesquites continue to be in trouble because local developments (past and present) have diverted much of the area’s water and the introduced tamarisk (salt cedars) dominate the usage of what water is left. The mesquite trees, once so prevalent across the area, are now stunted and dying. The Timbisha Homeland Act, which Congress finally passed in 2000, has set aside lands for tribal use and made possible The Mesquite Traditional Use Pilot Project that is working to restore the mesquite to healthy existence in the valley.
When many outsiders wonder how and why the Timbisha have remained in the valley even after being displaced so many times since the mid 1800’s, the tribe is surprised. What is called Death Valley is their home, and they see its many virtues and have always lived in harmony with its extreme conditions. As Pauline Esteve, Timbisha elder and former Tribal Council Chairperson wrote: “The Timbisha people have lived in our homeland forever and we live here forever. We were taught that we don’t end. We are part of our homeland and it is part of us. We are people of the land. We don’t break away from what is part of us.”
I certainly appreciate that sentiment. We are all part of the natural world around us and should value and protect it. Wouldn’t that be great? I just wish we could officially change the name of this great national park from Death Valley back to Burning Land.
SOME LAST VIEWS OF DEATH VALLEY
If you have not visited Death Valley yet, you should do so! Just be careful, carry lots of water, and maybe avoid the summer months.