The other day, the thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley reached 125° F (51.67 C).
That’s not unheard of this time of year; the average high temperature for July in Death Valley is 116° F. In the summer of 2001, there were 154 consecutive days in which the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. About a century ago, it got up to 134° F (56.7 C) on July 10, 1913, setting the mark for highest temperature ever recorded on the planet.
Bear in mind that those numbers are air temperature. The highest ground temperature recorded at Death Valley was on July 15, 1972 — it was 201° Fahrenheit. In those conditions, wearing shoes is recommended.
So, you might reasonably ask, why go to Death Valley? Well, for one thing, since it is located along the California/Nevada border, tour buses stop there on the way between Las Vegas and San Francisco. But a better reason to visit is that Death Valley is starkly beautiful.
In addition to being the hottest place in North America (which, I’ll admit, had no appeal for me) it is also the driest — only a couple of inches of rain per year — and the lowest. These attributes, if you can call them that, have combined to create sights you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.
There’s a spot called Badwater Basin, named for a small, spring-fed pool of brine and the vast salt flats that surround it. As you get out of your car at Badwater Basin, take a look up the mountains across from the parking lot. Wayyyy up there is a sign that indicates sea level — it’s 282 feet above where you are standing.
A few miles from Badwater is a spot called Artists Palette — slopes of pigmented earth and oxidized minerals in colors one wouldn’t normally expect to find on hillsides. Especially in late afternoon, there are vivid blotches of blue, green, yellow, orange and even purple.
The eroded hills at Zabriskie Point are a deep yellow; in fact, when we photographed them at sunset they were almost gold. At sunrise, the mountains in the distance reflect the light in shades of pink and blue. We were there in March, by the way, when we actually needed jackets in the early morning hours.
My favorite area in Death Valley National Park is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The dunes cast deep shadows at sunset (see photo). Signs of life were evident here, including shrubs and the tracks of small rodents and sidewinder rattlesnakes.
A man-made attraction in Death Valley is Scotty’s Castle, a mansion built in the 1920s. Scotty was a con man who claimed to have found gold in the area and persuaded investors to part with their actual money for a chance at speculative riches. A wealthy man named Johnson owned the castle, but for some reason, Scotty’s name got attached to it, and he is buried on a hill overlooking the castle.
Scotty’s passing had nothing to do with how Death Valley got its name. That is associated with a group of “49ers”, prospectors who hoped to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush. They took what they thought would be a shortcut and wound up getting lost in this bleak region. Many months passed before they found their way out. It’s remarkable that only one man died during that time, but the name Death Valley stuck.
What caused his demise is uncertain, although I wouldn’t be surprised if his traveling companions bludgeoned him to death because he wouldn’t stop saying, “but it’s a dry heat.”