Death Valley National Park
The name “Death Valley” instantly conjures the image of a desert so hot and dry, that life would be impossible to sustain. With roughly two inches of rainfall each year and 115 degree summer days, Death Valley is by far the hottest and driest National Park. With its lowest point measuring at 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley also has the lowest elevation of all the National Parks. Despite the seemingly sterile and infertile climate, the landscape is able to support strong and hardy desert-dwelling animals such as frogs, bats, coyotes, horses, butterflies, and even fish!
A Day In Death Valley National Park
Due to the extreme summer temperatures, plan your trip for winter or spring, when temperatures are mild and pleasant and outdoor activities can be enjoyed. Even in December and January, temperatures can reach a high of 65 degrees, perfect for a hike or an afternoon of birdwatching. If your schedule will only allow for a day trip, plan to begin your day at Zabriskie Point at sunrise, to view the vast valley of ridges and peaks bask in the stunning warm glow of early morning light. Next, visit the Devil’s Golf Course, which features a unique and foreboding valley of crusted salt and rock as far as the eye can see. Then, head over to the Natural Bridge for a short half mile hike to check out the huge rock arch, which extends above massive rock walls. Don’t miss Badwater Basin, a vast area of textured salt flats, which boasts the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. At sunset, plan to take the two mile round trip hike on the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, to enjoy the beautiful golden glow that the sun’s rays cast on the rock walls. Lastly, jump in the car and head over to Artist’s Palette while the sun is still setting to view the uniquely formed walls of volcanic ash in a myriad of color.
The story behind Death Valley’s namesake is an interesting tale of perseverance despite the fear and bad luck that resulted from poor decision making. The story began when a group of pioneers found themselves leaving Salt Lake City much too late in the year to reach Sutter’s Mill during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Because they were leaving in October, and they would most certainly freeze to death before reaching their destination, they decided to take a short cut. They heard that the Spanish Trail was a safe route to travel during the harsh winters. The group set out on the Spanish Trail, but quickly began to lose morale because the trip was lengthy and the pace slow and tedious. When they received a hand-drawn map from someone in the company, proposing another route, which would trim nearly 500 miles off their journey, many of the pioneers in the company decided to take this route. Before long, they found themselves trapped within the confines of the massive Panamint Mountains in Death Valley. After nearly two months, the pioneers finally found a way out of the valley. As they were leaving, one of the pioneers in the group looked back on the valley and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley”, and the valley was never known by any other name again.
One of the most intriguing and perplexing phenomena in Death Valley National Park is that of the "Sailing Stones" over a dry lakebed, or playa, called the Racetrack. The Racetrack features the crusted and richly textured mud surface of a vast, and flat lakebed. Strewn across the Racetrack are large and small rocks with long trails where the rocks have moved across the playa. Some of these trails intersect, take winding paths and even sharp turns in the opposite direction. For decades, the Sailing Stones have stumped scientists. They proposed many theories, but the theories didn’t seem to explain how some of the rocks weighing up to 600 pounds could travel 1,000 feet across the playa. Even today a myriad of theories are still highly debated and the answer still a mystery.
Nestled in the northern section of Death Valley is a secluded and lush desert oasis which surrounds a swanky two million dollar mansion constructed in the 1920’s. The mansion, called “Scotty’s Castle”, stands as a tribute to an eccentric swindler named Walter Scott. At the age of 30, Scotty began prospecting for gold in the Death Valley area, but quickly realized that there was none. So, he sent samples of ore to several wealthy men that he claimed had been extracted from his fictitious gold mine in Death Valley. He convinced these men to send exorbitant amounts of money to extract the gold, all with a future promise to share his earnings. Time passed, and slowly the disenchanted investors ceased their cashflow after Scotty failed to deliver on his fabulous tall-tales.
Albert Johnson, a religious and well-respected man of Chicago was the only remaining funder of Scotty’s fabricated gold mine. Finally, Johnson traveled to Death Valley to personally witness the mine. Scotty considered Johnson to be an easy target of his schemes due to his poor health. Figuring that Albert Johnson was weak and sickly, Scotty took him on a rugged and exhausting horseback ride through the valley to the mine. They obviously never reached the mine, but the bigger surprise was Johnson’s discovery that the desert climate seemed to improve his health and rejuvenate him. He didn’t seem to care that Scotty’s tales were not true, and actually ended up staying for several more weeks. That was the unconventional beginning of a lasting friendship between the two men. Johnson continued to visit his strange con-artist friend each year for several years, until his wife convinced him to build a home in Death Valley.
The mansion is incredibly ornate, with Spanish-style architecture and intricate tapestries. The home also features numerous chandeliers, elaborate floor tiles, imported European furniture and a large pipe organ. The castle still stands today with the same furniture and decor, and can be toured by visitors who wish to see the lavish home that became the product of the most unusual and unlikely of friendships.