Death Valley—Does It Live Up to Its Name?
THE name Death Valley is known the world over. But many persons know little about the place itself. Is it really a valley of death? Where is it located? Why is it so famous?
Death Valley is in the United States, in eastern California near the Nevada border, approximately 250 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It is a valley from about six to fourteen miles wide and 130 miles long. In 1933 the valley and surrounding mountains, an area of nearly 3,000 square miles, was established as a national monument, being called Death Valley National Monument.
The valley itself is a vast sunken area, 550 square miles of which is below the surface level of the ocean. Here, near Badwater, is found the lowest point in the western hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. But, ironically, it is only eighty miles from Mount Whitney, which, at 14,496 feet, is the highest point in the United States outside of Alaska.
On the western edge of the valley is Telescope Peak, rising to 11,045 feet. From Badwater it is one continuous climb to the summit. This peak is indeed remarkable in the way that it towers above its immediate surroundings. What a marvelous view is obtained from it!
In the distant past a large lake occupied Death Valley. Then, as the aridity increased, the lake decreased in size and finally evaporated, with heavy concentrations of salts in the water being deposited. This left some two hundred square miles of a salty sink, which is the lowest, hottest and driest area of the valley.
The Climate and Its Effect on Life
The blazing sun raises temperatures in the valley to record-breaking heights, making it dangerous to humans. On July 10, 1913, a shade temperature of 134.6° F. was recorded, which was then the highest recorded in the world. But nine years later a Libyan village reported 136.4° F., to take the world heat record, which it still holds.
Death Valley ground temperatures frequently reach 185° F. One mother, as the wife of Death Valley’s chief park naturalist, reported that she hard-boiled eggs by burying them in her youngster’s sandbox. And she made tea by placing tea bags in a jar of water set out in the sun.
Death Valley also is one of the driest places on earth. Humidity drops to less than one fourth of one percent! But the weather does moderate in the winter, and from November to May the climate can be nearly ideal.
Rainfall averages only about two inches a year. Brief sprinkles usually occur during spring and fall. Steady downpours are infrequent. But when they do occur, the moisture brings to life seeds that may have lain dormant for many years. Areas of the desert then become blanketed with a wide range of pretty flowers—primroses, poppies, sunflowers, and so forth. Twenty-two plants in the valley region are said to be found nowhere else on earth.
Despite the extreme heat and aridity, a remarkable number of animals also live here. Some twenty-six species of mammals have been recorded on the valley floor, including coyote, kit fox and kangaroo rat. There are also many varieties of lizards, snakes, spiders and insects. But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the land reportedly supports 230 species of birds.
Would you believe that fish live in Death Valley too? They do! The tiny desert pupfish, rarely exceeding two inches in length, lives in shallow Salt Creek, the only year-round stream in the valley. Observed James E. Deacon, Professor of Biology at the University of Nevada:
“We’ve recorded water temperatures from 111°F. down to 39°, and the pupfish show no ill effects. From our laboratory work we know they can survive readings as low as 33°, and we suspect that this fish may be able to tolerate water as much as five times saltier than the sea.”
With its plant and fish rarities, its high mountains, its barren hills, its vast salt deposits, golden sand dunes, warm winter temperatures and other features, Death Valley National Monument has become a real tourist attraction. In 1969 half a million people visited it. But what is the significance of its name—Death Valley?
Origin of the Name
This takes us back over 120 years. In 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento in northern California. Soon caravans of wagons, people and supplies were heading there to ‘strike it rich.’
A location near Salt Lake City, Utah, became the point from which the long, hazardous trip began. A wide, dry desert, which is now the state of Nevada, had to be traversed, and then there were the high Sierra Nevada Mountains to be crossed. Deep snows made these impassable much of the year.
Therefore, late in 1849, a caravan of nearly one hundred wagons embarked from Salt Lake, seeking a route around the Sierra Nevadas to the south. Due to miscalculations and a faulty map, the wagons wandered into Death Valley. It was obvious that the gold seekers were lost. There was dissension among them, and they separated into fear-haunted little bands, each searching for ways out through the mountain walls.
One good-sized group, tired and discouraged after eighty days on the trail, camped near a spring under Telescope Peak. From there two young men, Lewis Manly and John Rogers, left to obtain help and supplies. They had no idea of the torturous test of endurance ahead of them. After getting out of the valley, they trudged on, crossing the great Mojave Desert to the coastal country, a 250-mile journey!
Obtaining supplies, they started on the return trip. How happily they were received, after being gone twenty-six days! Abandoning the wagons, the entire party of gaunt men, women and children began the long journey to safety. Reportedly, as they crossed over the Panamint mountain range, they looked back at the great white valley for the last time, and someone said, “Good-bye, Death Valley.” The name stuck.
Although, thanks to Manly and Rogers, this party survived, others were not so fortunate. From three to eight persons of the caravan are reported to have perished in the valley. And if a person does not treat the extreme heat and aridity of Death Valley with respect, it can live up to its name today.