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Death Valley National Park - California

 

Death Valley has an unnecessarily unsavory reputation in the United States and Canada. Fans of the valley often face laughter and derision when they mention a recent visit to their favorite place. Who would want to spend time in a location that has such landmarks as Badwater, the Devil's Golf Course, the Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Devil's Corn Field and Dante's View?

On the other hand, while many North Americans shun Death Valley visitors from Europe and Asia flock to this huge national park in eastern California, because they have studied the place and have fallen in love with its other-worldly atmosphere. When one begins to understand the natural and human history of the place, it becomes obvious that this is indeed a gem of American geography, as well as a thoroughly weird but wonderful environment.

The Valley

Before the mid 1800s, there was no "Dante's View," nor was there a "Devil's Corn Field." These names were coined by the hustlers and con men who sought to attract visitors and investors to this burgeoning mining area. As little mining towns were built on the higher slopes of the Funeral, Black and Panamint mountains, the name-coiners were busy attracting rubes to invest in their low-grade and no-grade mines. Although several successful mining ventures were launched, much of the hype was bogus. And whereas a lot of eastern and San Francisco investors lost money, this has become one of the enduring charms of Death Valley, adding a human dimension to the natural mystique.

Sitting just west of the Nevada boundary, in the basin and range district of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley is all but surrounded by mountain ranges, with a few roads connecting the valley to the outside world through narrow passes. On the east side of the valley is the Amargosa Range, comprised of three separate units. The Grapevine Mountains are at the north, with the Funeral Mountains defining the central section. The Black Mountains lie in a north/south direction between Furnace Creek Wash and the southern end of the valley at Jubilee Pass. The Owlshead Mountains lie in a circular position at the extreme south end of the valley.

The western side of the valley is defined by the Panamint Range, with Telescope Peak its highest spot at an elevation of 11,049 feet. Beyond the Panamints, to the west, is the long, dry Panamint Valley. To the east of the Amargosa Range is the Amargosa Desert, striated by the wide washes of the Amargosa River which intermittently flows south from Beatty, Nevada, through Death Valley Junction, curving to the west and then north to enter Death Valley below Jubilee Pass.

Death Valley Info:

The valley is more than 100 miles long. The southern portion is the Amargosa River sink, dry for most of the time, with a shallow, intermittent lake created by winter rains in some years. The lake disappears soon after the rains cease in the spring. The central part of the valley is hard salt pan. Here is the lowest point in the hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level, and the spring-fed oasis at the mouth of the Furnace Creek Wash, on the eastern side of the valley.

Today, we find the national park headquarters and overnight accommodations in this area, including Furnace Creek Ranch and Furnace Creek Inn. Zabriski Point is a major geological feature. The northern third of Death Valley is bordered by the Panamint and Grapevine Mountains, containing a large area of sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village. Farther north is more salt pan, and a dormant volcanic area which includes Ubehebe Crater. Grapevine Canyon is one of the three eastern exit routes from the Valley, and the location of Scotty's Castle. At the extreme north end of the valley&emdash;reached by road from Nevada&emdash;is the old Palmetto mining area including the hamlet of Lida.

The daily temperature is a popular talking point for visitors. The hottest-ever temperature recorded in Death Valley was 134 degrees F. (56.7 degrees C.), on July 10, 1913. This is second only to a higher temperature taken in Africa. However, this reading was made at Furnace Creek, at a point higher than Badwater. Long-time Death Valley residents say that daily temperatures at Badwater are consistently higher than at Furnace Creek. Could Death Vally be the hottest place on earth? We think so!

Entry Fees

Vehicle Entrance Fee: $20.00 - valid for seven days. This permit allows all persons traveling with the permit holder in one single private, non-commercial vehicle (car/truck/van) to leave and re-enter the park as many times as they wish during the 7-day period from the date of purchase.

Individual Entrance Fee: $10.00 - valid for seven days. This permit allows a single individual traveling on foot, motorcycle, or bicycle to leave and re-enter the park as many times as they wish during the 7-day period from the date of purchase. Passports are valid for waiver of the vehicle entrance fee. A new series of federal parks passes is available, including low-cost passes for seniors and those with disabilities. For those visiting several federal facilities each year a general pass to all federal fee parks saves you money.

For information on Death Valley admission, call the Park office at (760) 786-2331.

There's Life in Death Valley

Ecology

There is abundant life in what many consider to be a desolate waste. The life is subtle, tolerant of the arid and saline conditions, but it is there. More than 900 kinds of plants are found within the boundaries of the national park, ranging from saltbush and cacti on the valley floor to juniper, pinyon pine and mountain-mahogany, with bristlecone pine at the top of the Panamint Mountains. Spring wildflowers wave delicately on the gravel fans, roadsides, and in mountain valleys. Animals run, skitter and scrape as they cross the salt pan and the sandy dunes. Bighorn sheep graze on the mountainsides.

The Up-Country

Because of the tremendous variation in elevation between the valley floor and the top of the mountain ranges, there is a great diversity in ecosystems. The highest biotic zone in the park is the Canadian, characterized by limber and bristlecone pine. This zone is restricted to the topmost parts of the Panamint Range, north and south of Telescope Peak. Lower, is the pinyon-juniper woodland zone (Upper Sonoran), with the Lower Sonoran Zone marked with stands of creosote bush mixed with burroweed, near the bottoms of the alluvial fans, with desert holly surviving a little higher on the fans. The spring-fed oases should be considered an anomaly. Furnace Creek Ranch is a freakish version of the Lower Sonoran Zone, one that is largely man-made and not very natural, although pleasant to visit with its palo verde and acacia trees, and towering date palms. A more natural palm oasis surrounds the springs above Scotty's Castle in Grapevine Canyon, although that, too, has had some enhancement with copious plantings.

The pinyon pine grows down to 5,500 feet, while the bristlecone or foxtail pine is seen only at 11,000 feet. At the other end of the ecological scale, no plant grows on the salt pan. In the narrow areas at the sides of the salt pan, creosote bush is the primary vegetation. There is a diversity of life in the briny wetlands of Salt Creek. The desert pupfish, an endangered species, lives in the creek. This is the sole survivor of the fish which inhabited the valley when the water was fresher and more abundant. March is the best time to see this tiny, silvery fish which lives in water with more salinity than sea water. Only a small percent survive the hot summer months when the creek becomes super-hot and almost dries up.

Higher, in the mountains is another collection of birds and animals. The hardiest survivor is the burro. Death Valley burros were brought here and abandoned by prospectors. Living handily off the mountain vegetation, the burros have had a population explosion, resulting in a live capture program conducted by the Park Service. The largest native animal is the bighorn sheep, which roam at various levels on the mountain slopes, depending on the time of year. Other animals to be found above the valley floor include deer, bobcat, kit fox and mountain lion.

Down In the Valley

Salt-loving plants are rare but several live in this harsh environment. Pickleweed and salt grass are found in the salt marsh. They need water, however, and are not found outside this ecosystem. Arrowweed, another salt-tolerating plant, is found in the Devil's Cornfield, near the sand dunes and Stovepipe Wells Village.

Beetles and fly larvae have adapted to the salty water. Insects are prime food for the pupfish. Higher on the food chain, coyotes and larger birds, especially ravens, dine on pupfish. Among the other birds you'll see around the marsh are kildeer, spotted sandpiper and common snipe.

The great blue heron is a sometimes visitor, as is the wood duck. Mallards and eared grebes are infrequently seen throughout the spring months. The turkey vulture is the most numerous raptor in Death Valley. Mississippi kites are seen on a casual basis, as are broad-winged and Swainson's hawks. Coyotes and sidewinders are the kings of the valley floor and feed on small rodents.

On the dunes is an amazing aggregation of small game, including rabbits, various rodents and lizards. The animals and birds were hunted by Indians for hundreds of years. Rodents are very numerous. They include the desert wood rat (pack rat), kangaroo rat, antelope ground squirrel, round-tailed ground squirrel, white-footed mouse, and two types of rabbits: jack and cottontail.

Many of the same reptiles that live in the deserts of Nevada and Arizona live here too: desert iguana, collard and zebra-tailed lizard, horned and striped lizard, and chuckwalla. A few pests should be considered for avoidance. The scorpion in particular is common on the valley floor, hiding under rocks and on damp ground.

What to See and Do

Day Hikes

Sand Dunes Hike

This 4-mile round trip hike leads across the central sand dunes from the parking area, 2.2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells. You'll see animal tracks on your way to the 80-foot-high dunes. It's best to do this in the early morning or late afternoon. The area is also open for moonlit hiking.

Keane Wonder Mine Trail

This is a 2-mile round trip, starting at the parking area at the mouth of Titus Canyon. Drive 3 miles from Scotty's Castle Road, on a gravel road. This very steep trail climbs from the ruins of a mill to the mine, located 2,000 feet above the road. There are fine views of Death Valley from the mine.

Keane Wonder Springs Trail

A 2-mile round trip, this trail departs from the Keane Wonder Mill parking area, 2 miles off the Beatty Cutoff Road. From the trailhead, follow the pipeline north along the base of the mountain to the sulphur springs and travertine mounds. An old stamp mill and cabin are located beyond the springs.

Mosaic Canyon Trail

The trailhead for this 2-mile return walk is located two miles from Stovepipe Wells. Take Mosaic Canyon Road from State Route 190. This is an easy, and very popular, hike up the narrow canyon, some of it over slickrock. The Mosaics are rock fragments which are cemented together in the walls of the canyon. You may see bighorn sheep on this walk.

Golden Canyon Trail

Another 2-mile route, the trailhead is at a parking lot at the end of a short side road which leads from Highway 178 (Badwater Road), south of Furnace Creek. An easy, self-guided trail with trail guides available at the park visitor center, the walk leads through the narrow canyon. Red Cathedral is located half a mile up the canyon, beyond the final trail marker.

Backcountry Hikes

Jayhawker Canyon Trail

This moderate backcountry hike has an elevation gain of 2,600 feet, starting at the 3,000-foot level, on State Highway 190, 2.3 miles past Emigrant Junction. The route offers a 10-mile return hike. The trail starts with a mild grade to the base of Pinto Mountain. A topographical map (#851 Emigrant Canyon) is available at the park visitor center. This is part of the famous Jayhawker route of 1850. The Jayhawkers signed their names on a large boulder, at two miles along the trail.

Wildrose Peak Trail

This trail between the Charcoal Kilns parking area, on Upper Wildrose Canyon Road, provides a 4.2 mile, one-way hike to the mountain peak at 9,064 feet. The trail begins at the north end of the kilns area. The elevation gain is 2,200 feet. There are great views as you approach the peak. The last mile is considered strenuous.  

 

Where to Stay -- Hotel Guide

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Death Valley National Park Guide

 

Planning Your Stay

One of the most important parts of the vacation planning process is making sure you have a place available while in Death Valley. Fortunately, there are several places to stay, ranging from campgrounds, operated by the Park Service; a motel with restaurant and lounge, gas station and store at Stovepipe Wells Village; the Furnace Creek Ranch, a year-round resort complex next to the park visitor center, including cabin-style units and upper-scale motel units on the Death Valley golf course, plus a store, restaurant, coffee shop, and gas station; and the Furnace Creek Inn, a deluxe hotel operated year-round, at the mouth of Furnace Creek Wash.

The Furnace Creek Inn (760) 786-2361 and the Furnace Creek Ranch (760) 786-2345 provide motel accommodations in the Furnace Creek area. Further on-line information and reservations are available at www.furnacecreekresort.com

Stovepipe Wells Village provides motel accommodations and limited recreational vehicle camping facilities. (760) 786-2387

Panamint Springs Resort offers resort accommodations and camping in the Panamint Valley, the next valley to the west. (775) 482-7680

If you would prefer to stay outside the park while approaching the park from the west, there are motels in Lone Pine and Independence (in the Owens Valley). A motel in Beatty or the rustic motel in Death Valley Junction are good places to stay before a morning drive into the valley, from the east.

Death Valley Camping

Camping is available year-round, although there are few campers during the hottest months, and some park campgrounds are closed during summer. The national park operates nine campgrounds, and all campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis except for the Furnace Creek Campground from October through April.

Furnace Creek sites can normally be reserved. For national park reservations, go here.

The other campgrounds are located at Texas Springs and Sunset (both just south of Furnace Creek), Stovepipe Wells (mid-valley), Emigrant (nine miles west of Stovepipe Wells), Mesquite Spring (4 miles south of Scotty's Castle), Wildrose (near the western edge of the valley), Thorndike (8 miles east of Wildrose&emdash;no campers or motor homes), and Mahogany Flat, 9 miles east of Wildrose and suitable only for high-clearance vehicles.

Death Valley Links:

For useful links to information on Death Valley National Park,
go here.

 

Where to Stay -- Hotel Guide

Reserve a hotel in California

To search hotels, cruises,
and vacation packages around the world,

go to the Hotel Guide

Death Valley Information

 

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