Life in Death Valley

IN 1848 gold was discovered near Sacramento, California, U.S.A. By the next year, some 80,000 fortune-seekers had poured into the state in hopes of striking it rich. On December 25, 1849, one group, part of a train of some 100 wagons traveling west from Salt Lake City, entered what is now known as Death Valley. They hoped that this parched depression near the California-Nevada border would be a shortcut.

The valley was cool that time of year, but the terrain was forbidding. The group separated into several bands, each taking a different route. One band, which included women and children, attempted unsuccessfully to find a way out of the valley over the mountains to the west. Exhausted and low on provisions, they camped at a spring near what is now Furnace Creek and then moved on to a water hole later named Bennett’s Well. From there, two 20-year-olds, William Manly and John Rogers, went for help. The rest stayed put.

Manly and Rogers expected to reach the city of Los Angeles in a few days. Little did they know that it lay some 200 miles [300 km] to the southwest. After nearly two weeks on foot, they reached the San Fernando Valley, north of the city. There they obtained supplies and immediately headed back.

When they arrived at the campsite after 25 days away, they saw no signs of life. Manly fired a gun, and a man emerged from under a wagon. Manly later wrote: “He threw up his arms high over his head and shouted​—‘The boys have come. The boys have come!’” Others also appeared, too overcome with emotion to speak. Thanks to Manly and Rogers, all but one man survived​—he had left the camp to walk out of the valley alone. As the band of settlers departed, one woman reportedly looked back and said, ‘Good-bye, Death Valley!’ And that became its name.

Land of Extremes

Death Valley​—about 140 miles [225 km] long and between 5 and 15 miles [8 to 24 km] wide—​is the driest, lowest, and hottest spot in North America. The air temperature at Furnace Creek has been recorded at 134 degrees Fahrenheit [57°C], while the ground temperature has reached a searing 201 degrees [94°C]​—11 degrees [6°C] below the boiling point of water at sea level! *

Rainfall averages less than two inches [5 cm] annually, and some years see no rain at all. The lowest elevation in the entire Western Hemisphere​—282 feet [86 m] below sea level—​is found in the valley near a salty pond at Badwater. Only 85 miles [140 km] away stands 14,495-foot [4,418 m] Mount Whitney​—the highest point in the United States outside Alaska.

By 1850, small amounts of gold had been discovered in the valley at Salt Spring. Prospectors also found silver, copper, and lead in the area. Mining towns with such colorful names as Bullfrog, Greenwater, Rhyolite, and Skidoo popped up all over the valley.  But when the ores ran out, these boomtowns became ghost towns. In 1880, however, borax​—a white crystalline compound used in the manufacture of soap and other products—​was discovered in Death Valley, leading to the most successful mining period in the valley’s history. Until 1888, teams made up of 18 mules and 2 horses hauled dual, 16-foot [5 m] wagons loaded with borax a grueling 165 miles [270 km] to the town of Mojave. But no shipments moved from June to September; the heat was too intense for both man and beast.

Death Valley was designated a national monument in 1933. Its boundaries were gradually expanded to encompass 3.3 million acres [1.3 million ha]. In 1994, this area became Death Valley National Park​—the largest national park in the continental United States.

Death Valley Pulses With Life

One could be excused for thinking that Death Valley is lifeless. Yet, hundreds of animal species either visit or live there, many being nocturnal in view of the heat. The largest mammals are the majestic desert bighorn sheep, which occasionally venture into the valley from nearby mountains. Other creatures include badgers, bats, bobcats, coyotes, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, mountain lions, porcupines,  rabbit, skunks, wild burros, lizards, snakes, and desert tortoises. Birds include coots, hawks, herons, quail, ravens, sandpipers, vultures, and hundreds of other species.

Among the hardiest of all these creatures are the kangaroo rats. They can live out their entire life without imbibing a drop of water! “All of the water they need to survive can be metabolized within their bodies from starch and fats in the dry seeds they eat,” says a reference work. And their kidneys can concentrate urine up to five times that of human kidneys. These small, burrowing rodents escape the intense heat of day by foraging at night.

More than a thousand plant varieties flourish in the valley. The Shoshones, Indians who have lived there for over a thousand years, sought local plants for food and for raw materials to make utensils. If you know what to look for, they say, you will find lots of food in Death Valley.

When the Desert Blossoms

Every so often, Death Valley puts on a spectacular show of  wildflowers. These spring from the countless seeds that lie dormant in the soil​—sometimes for decades—​waiting for just the right combination of rainfall and temperature to germinate. “We have many years [when] we don’t see any blooms at all,” says National Park Service botanist Tim Croissant.

But during the winter of 2004/2005, Death Valley experienced its greatest rainfall on record​—over three times the normal. The result was an explosion of more than 50 kinds of wildflowers, including larkspurs, lilacs, orchids, poppies, primroses, sunflowers, and verbenas. The valley had the fragrance of a flower shop, said one visitor. Of course, blossoms beckon bees and other insects. So when Death Valley blooms, it also hums with countless tiny wings.

If you ever decide to visit this valley of extremes, be sure to have a reliable vehicle and plenty of water. And if you come when the bees do, you will want to pack your camera as well. Family and friends back home will be amazed at the amount of life that thrives in Death Valley.

[Footnote]

^ par. 7 The current world record of 136.4 degrees [58.0°C] was recorded in 1922 in Libya. In overall summer temperatures, however, Death Valley appears to be the hottest place on earth.

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The driest, lowest, and hottest spot in North America

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Fish in the Desert!

Four species of an amazing little fish called the desert pupfish live in Death Valley. In winter these two-and-a-half-inch [6 cm], silvery colored creatures lie dormant in the muddy bottom of the creeks and isolated pools there. Then, when the spring sun warms the waters, they become active and breed. Males change color to iridescent blue and vigorously defend their territory against other males. But summer’s blazing heat soon dries up most of the water, and pupfish die en masse. Those that survive cope with water that becomes highly saline and may reach a temperature of 112 degrees Fahrenheit [44°C].

[Credit Lines]

Top fish: © Neil Mishalov--www.mishalov.com; bottom fish: Donald W. Sada, Desert Research Institute

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(For fully formatted text, see publication)

United States of America

California

Death Valley National Park

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Mules: Courtesy of The Bancroft Library/​University of California, Berkeley

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Burros: ©Joseph C. Dovala/​age fotostock; top panorama: © Neil Mishalov--www.mishalov.com; flowers: Photo by David McNew/​Getty Images