Death Valley Is Place of Unique Features, Unexpected Character

By Lambert, Marjie | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 9, 2017 | Go to article overview

Death Valley Is Place of Unique Features, Unexpected Character


Lambert, Marjie, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The desert landscape and extreme climate of Death Valley National Park seem a little off. Crooked peaks are capped with black lava, like thick fudge sauce drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Rocks mysteriously move across a dry lakebed. Some of the highest temperatures on Earth have baked layers of mineral-stained sediment and volcanic ash into surreal outcroppings.

Death Valley looks so much like another world that it became one: Some of the scenes on Tatooine, the planet where Luke Skywalker was raised in the original "Star Wars" movie, were shot here. Death Valley stood in for a desert planet in the Outer Rim Territories populated by scavenging Jawas, the Sand People, Jabba the Hutt's palace and abandoned mining machinery.

I got my first look at that otherworldliness in January when, not far from the park's southern entrance, I walked up a steep path at Zabriskie Point and was struck by the shapes and colors of the uplifted rock. Over millennia, water has carved tiny rills and deep gullies into the rock. This trip, I thought, is going to be a geology lesson.

Bleak with mostly barren slopes, Death Valley is a place of unique features and unexpected character. Tectonic plates shift, mountains tilt, and the Ubehebe craters formed centuries ago by an eruption of steam and molten rock are ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey as a moderate threat to explode again. Salt flats and sun-bleached sand dunes spread across the valley floor. Rocks move across Racetrack Playa, propelled by a spooky combination of wind and melting ice. The lowest spot in the U.S. is here at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

It is the hottest place on Earth and one of the driest. Florida communities often get more rain in a day than Death Valley averages in a year about 2 inches but when it does rain, the park is prone to violent flash floods that can reshape the rock canyons. Highs of 120 degrees are not uncommon in the summer of 1996, Death Valley had 40 days that hit 120 or hotter. It holds the world's record for heat: 134 degrees in July 1913.

The park at 3.3 million acres the largest of the national parks outside Alaska is part of the Mojave Desert in southeastern California, abutting Nevada. The drive from Los Angeles includes more than 100 miles of lonely desert driving after leaving the interstate, with scarce gas station or food stops between Interstate 15 and the park. Although it's located in the nation's most populous state, its climate and remote location are daunting. Death Valley had only 1.3 million visitors in 2016, ranking it 19th among the 59 national parks.

When I was there in January, the highs ran around 60. It rained on and off, a rare occurrence, prompting park rangers and hotel workers to speculate optimistically about a big wildflower bloom in the spring.

January is between peak seasons, so the park was not crowded. When I was away from the hotels and organized activities, I encountered few cars and had the place almost to myself.

Hiking was comfortable. Park rangers were available on most days to lead visitors on several easy to moderate hikes at prime spots including Golden Canyon, where some of the "Star Wars" scenes were shot, and Badwater Basin.

Late one afternoon, I climbed onto a horse at Furnace Creek Stables for a low-lying view. The guide and I set out along the valley floor, not as low as Badwater but still almost 200 feet below sea level. The ground was flat and even, except for a narrow trough that wound through the creosote bush, desert holly and mesquite, where our horses walked.

The surprisingly flat valley floor stretches to mountains that rise abruptly and close in on all sides. They have sharp ridge lines, rocky slopes with little or no vegetation, and scars left by mining. On this afternoon ride, they were illuminated in a rich glow by the low angle of the winter sun, but it was easy to imagine them under the ruthless summer sun, the air shimmering with heat. …

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