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There's Life in Death Valley

 Life In Death Valley

Photo by John Donohue

Heat is Only Relative

Acknowledged by science as the second hottest place on earth---many locals say it's actually the hottest. Death Valley in the summer is at first overwhelming, but then the heat becomes almost incidental to a visitor faced by the valley's amazing geological and biological displays. To those who may be intimidated by summer weather reports showing Death Valley temperatures above 110 degrees, I urge you to go! The heat is affecting, but it is only a small part of the traveler's Death Valley experience.

The place has a bad reputation in the United States and Canada. I often face laughter and derision when I reveal that I have recently visited Death Valley. 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, especially in the summer, visitors from Europe flock to this recently-enlarged national park because they have studied the place. When one begins to understand the natural and human history of the place, it has a mystery and aura which is completely captivating.

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.

Geography

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.

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 -- reached by road from Nevada -- 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 now seems to be the hottest temperature anywhere taken on Earth. The 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 Valley be the hottest place on earth? We think so. The Bedouins around Timbucktoo think not!

There's Lots of Life Here

There is abundant life in what many consider to be a desolate wasteland. The life is subtle, and 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 aged 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. 

Death Valley Zones

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. 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.

Burros & Small Game

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 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.

Where to Stay

Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, P.O. Box 1, Death Valley CA 92328,
800-236-7916
This year-round ranch resort with deluxe motel and connected cabin-style units is located at the palm oasis next to the park headquarters on State Route 190. There is a golf course, tennis courts, riding, archery range, large pool, saunas, and whirlpool. The complex includes the fascinating Borax Museum, and you can buy dates fresh off the palms. The ranch has several restaurants including a cafeteria and coffee shop. Deposit required.

There's also a campground with 26 full-hookup sites.

Furnace Creek Inn, P.O. Box 1, Death Valley CA 92328
800-236-7916
This grande dame of a resort hotel is perched on a hillside overlooking the depths of Death Valley. Palms shade the garden terrace. There are 67 rooms, a heated pool, saunas, whirlpool, and lighted tennis courts. Not open during the torrid summer months, the inn is just the place for winter socializing with visitors from around the world. There are two dining rooms. The Sunday brunch is a Death Valley tradition.

 Stovepipe Wells Village, Death Valley, CA 92328, 855-866-1911.
The quasi-rustic resort complex is near the sand dunes, 24 miles from the ranch on State Route 190. There are 82 units with full baths, and shower units, a hot spring pool, store, and service station. The restaurant and bar are open from 7 am to 2 pm and 5:30 pm to 9 pm.

Death Valley National Park Campgrounds
Camping is available year-round, ($20 for 7 days) 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 mid-April. The Furnace Creek Campground is open year-round. To reserve your Furnace Creek site, call toll-free 877-444-6777 or go to recreation.gov.

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 -- no campers or motor homes), and Mahogany Flat, 9 miles east of Wildrose and suitable only for high-clearance vehicles.

Fraser Bridges


 

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