The largest national park south of Alaska, Death Valley is known for extremes: It is North America’s driest and hottest spot (with fewer than two inches/five centimeters of rainfall annually and a record high of 134°F), and has the lowest elevation on the continent—282 feet below sea level. Even with its extremes, the park still receives nearly a million visitors each year.
In 1849 emigrants bound for California’s gold fields strayed into the 120-mile long basin, enduring a two-month ordeal of “hunger and thirst and an awful silence.” One of the last to leave looked down from a mountain at the narrow valley and said, “Good-bye, Death Valley.”
The moniker belies the beauty in this vast graben, the geological term for a sunken fragment of the Earth’s crust. Here are rocks sculptured by erosion, richly tinted mudstone hills and canyons, luminous sand dunes, lush oases, and a 200-square-mile salt pan surrounded by mountains, one of America’s greatest vertical rises. In some years spring rains trigger wildflower blooms amid more than a thousand varieties of plants.
Native Americans, most recently the Shoshone, found ways to adapt to the more recent and forbidding desert conditions that exist here now. Rock art and artifacts indicate a human presence dating back at least 9,000 years.
From 1883 to 1889, wagon teams hauled powdery white borax from mines since fallen to ruin, an enterprise that spread word of Death Valley’s striking landscapes, deep solitude, and crystalline air.
As night falls, Death Valley’s elusive populations of bobcats, kit foxes, and rodents venture out. Far above on steep mountain slopes, desert bighorn sheep forage among Joshua trees, scrubby junipers, and pines, while hawks soar on thermals rising into vivid blue, cloudless skies.