When I think of most U.S. National Parks and Monuments a certain image comes to mind. I see families hiking through lush green forests and splashing themselves in tranquil lakes. I see them traversing snow capped mountains and paddling canoes down lazy rivers. During the evenings, I see them gathered ‘round the campfire with nothing but the stars to keep them company.

For the more adventuresome folks, I see them adorned in orange lifejackets as they struggle to remain on board while whitewater rafting or bracing themselves as they hurtle down a mountainside at breakneck speed with nothing but a pair of skis and a pole to maintain their balance. I see lodges and resorts with all the comforts of home like a warm fire place, a hot shower and a decent restaurant.

I certainly don’t picture the middle of the freakin’ desert.

The Birth of “Death Valley

To the Native Americans, Death Valley has been around forever. There was even a tribe of them known as the “Panamints” that called the place home and they lived there in relative peace and harmony weaving their baskets and living off the land as best they could. Little did they know that their world was about to change.

A little thing known as the California Gold Rush drew people from far and wide looking to stake their claims and make their fortunes. Along the way, some prospectors decided to try a short cut across the desert and on Christmas Day, 1849 a group of them descended to the desert floor. Unfortunately for them, they were ill prepared for what lay in store. They soon found themselves stranded and splintered into two separate groups. Each of them thought they knew the best way out of this god forsaken hellhole and only one group was lucky enough to be rescued. Of the original party of thirty, only eighteen managed to survive. Upon being saved, one of the prospectors turned around and said “Goodbye, death valley.”

And the rest is history.

The Teenage Years

Those that made it out didn’t leave empty handed. They took with them caches of silver and gemstones and soon the valley saw more and more prospectors who were better prepared to deal with the extreme conditions. Soon, mining towns were springing up and closing down even faster. When word of mouth reached them that a discovery had been made in one place, the town would be abandoned and the prospectors would make their way to the new locale only to wind up disappointed. This scenario played out over and over again and is responsible for the many ghost towns that still dot the landscape. Even the discovery of borax, the so called “white gold of the desert” wasn’t enough to sustain a local economy. Teams of 20 mules would haul their precious cargo about 165 miles through the desert to the nearest rail station where the borax would be sent back east for processing and turned into soap and detergents. That soon proved to be unfeasible and the mining operations were moved closer to railroad depots.

The Adult Years

Death Valley was proclaimed a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1933. (His only claim to fame?) In 1994, another 1,200,000 acres were added and it was given “national park” status and entered into the realm of the National Park Service. All in all the park covers over three thousand square miles encompassing over three million acres of wilderness. At a place called “Badwater basin”, it dips to almost three hundred feet below sea level and is lowest recorded point in the Western Hemisphere.

How hot is it?


Death Valley has the distinction of being one of the hottest places on earth. One summer day back in 1913, the thermometer clocked in at 134 degrees F. The only other place on Earth to top that was in Libya where a ground temperature of 136 degrees F was reported in 1936. If you’re looking for one of those summer thunderstorms to come along and cool things off you can pretty much forget it. The average annual rainfall is less than two inches.

If that hasn’t scared you off and you’re still thinking about taking a trip, bear in mind that the temperatures in the desert usually vary in extremes. The following is a chart that I lifted from http://www.death.valley.national-park.com/weather.htm that indicates the average seasonal highs and lows. Note for all you Europeans and Aussies and the like, all temperatures are listed in Fahrenheit

Jan - 65.7, 39.1
Feb - 73.8, 46.2
Mar - 80.8, 53.6
Apr - 89.7, 61.5
May - 99.0, 71.2
Jun - 108.7,80.2
Jul - 115.2,86.9
Aug - 113.4,85.2
Sep - 105.7,75.2
Oct – 92.8, 61.6
Nov – 76.1, 46.8
Dec – 64.8, 38.1

If I go, what will I see?

Sand. Lots of it

While that’s certainly true, depending on the time of year when you go, you can expect to see many types of wildflowers and other desert fauna such as cactus and other assorted sagebrush. As a matter of fact, Death Valley is home to over one thousand different species of plants of which twenty three are endemic to the area.

If plants don’t suit your fancy and you’re more of an animal lover, Death Valley plays host to a variety of small creatures such as mice, rats, bats, gophers and coyotes that call the desert their home. In the surrounding mountains, if you’re lucky you might spot some larger varieties such as bobcats, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and assorted foxes, badgers and skunks.

For those of you with a sense of architecture and history, there are dozens of ghost towns and abandoned mines and mining operations for you to kill some time in. The friendly neighborhood Parks Department has organized tours to visit these places but if you’re adventuresome, you can go on your own. The only thing they ask is that you leave the place they way you found it. No taking of souvenirs is allowed and if you get caught you can expect to pay a hefty fine.

As for yours truly, I don’t know if I’d make the trek. Over the years, I’ve lost some of my sense of adventure and would rather kick back in a nice hotel drinking a decent drink and dining on a Porterhouse.

In my younger days, I would’ve jumped at the chance to go.

Such is life.



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