Death Valley is just that – a low-lying valley cradled between three monstrous mountain ranges. And frankly, there isn’t another way to describe it other than to assure you that it is bloody majestic!
The distance from Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains that crowns the range at 11,049 feet to the salt flats at Badwater Basin below is almost twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Entering it from the west affords jaw-dropping views of the expanse of the place.
Standing there looking out at the massive valley and sharp snowcapped peaks surrounding it, I could well understand why the Timbisha Tribe (Shoshone) have lived there for more than 1,000 years.
Technically part of the Mojave Desert, the 3,000 square-mile national park holds the record for being the hottest place on record in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, most of the precipitation that falls there evaporates before ever hitting the ground. That’s some kind of hot.
Amazing then that anything at all grows in such heat, but things do grow. Ancient bristlecone pine trees, some as old as 3,000 years, spawn on the windswept slopes of the mountains surrounding the valley, which provided a primary food source for the Timbisha.
Given its name by prospectors passing through in the late 1800s, more deaths occur now from single car accidents than from hyperthermia. Signs posted everywhere state this, yet in the week I was there, I saw several SUVs flipped off road. Whether from inattention or excessive speeds, cars DO go off the roads here. As in, all the time.
There’s undeniably a lot to marvel at, and the roads are deceivingly not arrow-straight. They're hilly like a roller coaster, so the curves hidden in the slumps aren’t always visible. That said, it amazed me to see the number of cyclists braving the shoulder-less roads given the fact that drivers have such trouble staying on them. But then again, they are a lot unto their own, cyclists.
The Badwater Salt Flats in the southern end of the park are the lowest place on the continent, at 282 feet below sea level. The Salton Sea comes in second at 226 feet below sea level.
Unlike the Salton Sea, which still teams with life, the prehistoric inland sea has long since evaporated in Death Valley, leaving behind the salt (and borax) pans. It was the 40-mile long, 5-mile wide salt pan that justified early pioneer settlement here.