Death Valley may not sound like a particularly exciting place, but don’t let its name fool you. From its continuously shifting landscape to its vast array of wildlife and vegetation to the annual springtime proliferation of wildflowers, Death Valley is anything but dead.
Located in eastern California, east of the Sierra Nevada between the arid Great Basin and the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states at 3,000 square miles. It’s also the lowest, hottest, and driest area in North America – and that makes for a pretty interesting adventure.
Its unusual geologic profile, unique vegetation, and extreme climate make Death Valley one of the most intriguing places to visit in the country. Let’s explore why:
1. The Landscape
The oldest rocks in Death Valley are over 1.7 billion years old, but Death Valley as we know it today was formed about three million years ago in a process referred to as “Basin and Range”, which occurs when the Earth’s crust stretches and develops faults to accommodate this extension. But Death Valley’s formation isn’t quite so basic; Death Valley’s landscape is characterized by unique strike-slip faults that perpendicularly border the central extent of the region. This means that the valleys formed by Basin and Range are wider and exhibit more “subsidence”, or gradual caving in or sinking in of the land. And the process is ongoing – the basin is still subsiding, and mountains are still growing.
As a result of these seriously fascinating geological processes, Death Valley contains an extreme range of elevations and is home to an abundance of different geological formations, including salt flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains. Here are some of the highlights:
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point of elevation in North America, and it’s the second lowest point in the entire Western hemisphere.
The highest point in Death Valley is Telescope Peak, which reaches an elevation of over 11,000 feet above sea level.
Ubehebe Crater is a large volcanic crater over half a mile wide and between 500 and 800 feet deep. It was formed between 2,000 and 7,000 years ago when a hydrovolcanic eruption threw large quantities of rock and magma across the Valley floor. Pits like these are called “maars”, and Ubehebe Crater is the last and largest maar of this kind to occur in this area. you can see Ubehebe Crater on our guided tour of Death Valley.
During the last major Ice Age, Death Valley was part of a large system of lakes. These lakes disappeared 10,000 years ago, but as they evaporated as the climate warmed, they left behind vast fields of salt deposits. Death Valley’s major salt plan is over 200 square miles!
2. The Inhabitants
“Death Valley” is a bit of a misnomer. While some areas of the park (such as the salt pans) are generally devoid of life and the valley floor and lower slopes are more sparsely populated, the higher mountain ranges where water is more abundant are home to thriving communities of vegetation and wildlife.
Death Valley is home to 51 species of native mammals, over 300 species of birds, and 36 species of reptiles. There are also more than 1,000 species of plants in Death Valley, 23 of which are entirely unique to Death Valley and can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Even in the drier areas of Death Valley, vegetation like creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite has thrived by developing extensive tap-root systems that dig 50 feet down into the ground to access a year-round supply of ground water. Talk about adapting to your environment.
Plus, thanks to cooler, wetter winter weather, wildflowers flourish throughout the National Park every spring, even at Furnace Creek. Spring of 2016 saw one of the largest wildflower blooms in recent history, and while the flowers are moving north as temperatures rise, fields of flowers are still blooming throughout the Park.
3. The Climate
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America. In fact, Death Valley is so hot, many calculations of the highest daily temperatures in the country omit it as a matter of course.
Death Valley’s climate is a result of a lack of surface water and its low elevation. The Valley’s location and the surrounding mountain ranges cause a climatological phenomenon known as the “rainshadow effect”.
This means that air masses lose moisture as they’re forced above the mountains surrounding Death Valley, resulting in higher average temperatures and low precipitation levels:
- During the winter months, the average temperature at Death Valley is between a balmy 65-75 degrees. During the summer, the temperature can easily climb above 100 degrees.
- Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North American, receives only 1.5 inches of rainfall each year, though higher areas of elevation can receive over 15 inches of rainwater each year. In these areas, the rainfall is often intense and can cause flash flooding, but vegetation thrives.
If you love the heat, especially dry heat, you can’t miss Death Valley. Take a look at our Death Valley tour.
Visit Death Valley
Don’t let its name get you down – Death Valley is full of life, and it’s an incredibly interesting place to visit. It’s only a few hours away from Las Vegas, making it the perfect destination to add to your Vegas adventure!
Visit Death Valley on our Scotty’s Castle and Death Valley tour and become a certified Death Valley Explorer!