Death Valley: A Vast Space, Full of Surprises

Person standing in a mountain landscape
Photo: Jan Arendtsz [CC by ND-2.0]

For a location with a name as forbidding as Death Valley, this extreme location has a surprising amount of life — from miles of wildflowers blooming after rare rainstorms, to oases that are home to tiny fish. This may be the hottest place on the planet, and the driest place in North America, but it is a national park that you'll want to see during your lifetime.

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More than just mountains and deserts

Bust It Away Photography/Flickr.

Most people think of Death Valley and picture vast stretches of dirt covered mountains and valleys ... and that's it. In fact, Death Valley has quite a number of different and amazing natural features, from a miles-long one-inch-deep lake that appears after rain, to mysterious stones that move by themselves, to Telescope Peak, a 11,049-foot high mountain peak. These extremes and oddities are part of the area's appeal.

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Hot spot

Michael Ransburg/Flickr.

While it seems like a place that would keep people away, Death Valley National Park actually has tens of thousands of visitors every month. Some months see more than 100,000 visitors! And there is plenty of room for everyone; he park covers more than 3 million acres of wilderness.

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Wild weather

Mordac/Flickr.

Though clouds may roll over the valley under the right conditions, rainfall is quite rare. The valley gets an average of less than 2 inches of rain a year, and some years there is no rain at all. Meanwhile, the mountains may get as much as 15 inches of rain a year.

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Lots of fun to be had

John Bruckman/Flickr.

While you might think that most activities in Death Valley involve an air-conditioned car, there are actually a lot of activities to enjoy in the area. They include hiking, backpacking, bird watching, biking and mountain biking.

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Burning blacktop

David/Flickr.

It is also a wonderful place to enjoy backcountry roads. Though the vast majority (91 percent) of the park is roadless wilderness, Death Valley has more miles of dirt and paved roads than any other national park. These roads provide a chance for everyone to enjoy and explore this incredible place.

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Desert history

Bust it Away Photography/Flickr.

There are plenty of guided activities in Death Valley, including ranger-guided paleontology tours that show visitors well-preserved fossilized footprints of birds, horses, camels and even mastodon-like creatures. In this way, Death Valley is a window into the fascinating history of the continent.

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Home to human stories

Frank Kehren/Flickr.

Plants and animals aren't the only species with a history here. Death Valley also has an interesting human history. The Timbisha Shoshone Indians lived here for centuries, and later mining parties came to the valley looking for minerals including silver and borax. As Death Valley National Park's website states, "The human stories in this vast land are as numerous as the variations of color found in the hills and valleys here."

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A range of native animals

Richard Giddins/Flickr.

Death Valley may seem void of animal life but don't be fooled. There are 51 species of native mammals — including the iconic desert bighorn and ubiquitous coyote — 307 species of birds, 36 species of reptiles, three species of amphibians and (surprising) five species of native fish. One of the longest-lived animals found out here is the desert tortoise, which can live up to 80 years old.

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Thriving plant life

Albert de Bruijn/Flickr.

If the diversity of animal life surprises you, the diversity of plant life will downright shock you. More than 1,000 species of plants are found here, and more than 50 of these species are found no where else in the world.

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Lowest of the lows

Michael Ransburg/Flickr.

One of the superlatives that define Death Valley is "lowest" and that location is Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Found here is a spring-fed pool of water, undrinkable because of its high salt content.

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Salt of the Earth

Ian Cady/Flickr.

Also found at Badwater Basin are large stretches of salt flats. When rare rainstorms flood the valley bottom, a thin sheet of standing water is created. As it evaporates, salt is left behind. When there is a thin layer of water, the mirror-like surface is strange to behold.

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Dried out

Randy Lemoine/Flickr.

When all the water has evaporated from a temporary lake, the salt typically forms these hexagonal shapes. This is actually an incredibly thin layer of salt covering mud. It is all too easy to leave footprints and tire tracks, so vehicles are restricted to the nearby roads to protect this fragile space.

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Rolling stones

Randy Lemoine/Flickr.

Visitors will notice something incredibly strange at Racetrack Playa, a lake bed located 3,608 feet above sea level. The playa is named after the "racetracks" left by stones that mysteriously skid across its surface. Sliding slowly without any intervention for distances as long as 1,500 feet, the sailing stones have never been filmed in motion, yet they're definitely on the move. The strange phenomenon only happens every few years, and the tracks are left for several years for visitors to ponder. One hypothesis is that winds -- which can howl at up to 90 mph -- push the stones across the slick mud left as the lake bed dries up after a downpour. A second similar hypothesis poses that after a thin sheet of rain falls over the playa and night temperatures drop to below freezing, a layer of ice forms across the surface of the lake bed and the stones slide across the ice with the wind.

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Spectacular sun sights

Pedro Szekely/Flickr.

Of course, one of the most spectacular sights to see in Death Valley is the sunrise — or the sunset. The sky holds as much interest as the ground here during the dawn and twilight hours. When conditions are right, the colors are extraordinary.

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It's full of stars

Randy Lemoine/Flickr.

The fascination with the sky doesn't stop after a spectacular sunset. Death Valley, so far removed from human habitation, offers unbeatable views of the stars. So when you come visit Death Valley National Park, plan on staying at least one night so you can enjoy the view and fully appreciate the saying, "A blanket of stars."