Describing Death Valley brings a potpourri of superlatives: hottest, driest, lowest. In 1913, the valley hit a record 134 degrees Fahrenheit! But despite its brutal image, Death Valley is a beloved mecca for geologists and other nature lovers. It also has a colorful history of ghost towns!
Death Valley measures approximately 3,000 square miles. It spans the border of California and Nevada and is the principal feature of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, which is devoted to ecological conservation. The diverse landscape features desert sand dunes, snow-capped mountains, and a vast expanse of multi-hued rock. It is also home to uniquely adapted plants and animals. Among the mammals, for example, are the black-tailed jackrabbit, the long-tailed pocket mouse, and the chisel- toothed kangaroo rat!
Death Valley is surrounded by several mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevadas, the Amargosa Range, the Panamint Range, and the Sylvania and Owlshead Mountains. Encircled by peaks, the valley has the lowest dry elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level. (The continent’s lowest point overall can be found at the bottom of Lake Superior, but Death Valley contains the lowest spot on dry land.)
The valley is especially noted for its geologic splendor. The cliffs reveal rock layers spanning from Precambrian to modern times. By studying the layers, geologists learn about the earth’s condition in the distant past. For example, layers from the late Pleistocene reveal that the valley was once filled by a freshwater lake, now dubbed Lake Manly. The valley was partly filled again during flash flooding of 2004 and 2005. Still, at that time the water was only two feet deep; before the last ice age, it measured 800 feet!
The 19th century saw many mining camps set up when rock layers revealed valuable minerals. Men were drawn to gold and silver discoveries in the 1850s, and they mined Borax in the 1880s. They gave their camps names like Chloride City, Skidoo, and Panamint City. The mining camps usually became ghost towns within a few years.
In most cases, little remains of these Death Valley mining towns besides stories about their lively inhabitants. Skidoo, for example, is marked only by a sign. It once had a population of 700 and is infamous for having the only hanging in the valley. The hanged man was Hootch Simpson, a down-on-his-luck saloon owner who tried to rob the town bank. He was foiled and later returned to kill an employee! The townspeople hanged Hootch that night. In fact, according to legend he was hanged twice: once for real and once again for the benefit of photographers.
Visitors to Death Valley can ssee a few ghost town ruins, such as those of Panamint City. Panamint was reputedly the roughest town in America! Its founders were outlaws hiding from law enforcement. Although 2,000 people eventually resided there, Wells Fargo refused to open a Panamint bank because of the inhabitants’ lawless reputations.
Although prospectors left the valley when mining became unprofitable, Native Americans have lived in Death Valley for more than 1,000 years. Timbisha families, who are part of the Shoshone tribe, still reside at Furnace Creek. They received 7,500 acres of ancestral homeland with the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act of 2000. As of 2000, only 31 people lived at Furnace Creek, setting the record for lowest census in the nation. Death Valley National Park is open year-round, but considering the summer heat, most people find the valley’s winter climate more comfortable.Since 1933 Death Valley National Park has offered extensive public works for visitors’ comfort. These include developments such as campgrounds, picnic facilities, and hundreds of miles of paved roads.