Awesome Death Valley
It comprises more than a million acres of desert scenery, complex geology, wilderness and sites of historical importance. K. KUNHIKRISHNAN explores North America's lowest, hottest and driest location.
DURING our last trip to the United States, our son suggested visiting an international biosphere of the United Nations and the largest national park in the U.S., outside Alaska. It is the lowest, driest and hottest place in the western hemisphere; the second hottest on earth and said to be one created by God in His fury! Really hot and the least populated, Death Valley (www.desertusa.com/dv/du_dvpmain.html) is awe-inspiring, mysterious and uniquely beautiful, where time stands still for millions of years. It is spectacular with wild flower displays, snow-covered peaks, 50 feet high sand dunes, purple hills, golden cliffs, abandoned mines, and narrow valleys. In summer, the rocks display their brilliance of colours: red, blue, brown, lilac, purple, pink, and grey splashed and streaked along the sides without disturbing the serenity and peace of Death Valley.
On July 10, 1913, Death Valley recorded the highest ever recorded temperature of 134°F (56.7 C), which was overtaken by the Sahara desert in 1922 with 136.4°F! Average temperatures between July to August are 45° to 46° maximum and a minimum of 29° to 31°. The floor of the valley is nearly 300 feet below the sea level and the annual rainfall is 1.96 inches. Though the name forebodes gloom, because of its natural beauty and scientific importance, Death Valley attracts more than 1.2 million visitors annually. The best season is from November to March when daytime temperatures are in the range of 60° to 85°F and night temperatures around 35° to 45°F. It is 120 miles north west of Las Vegas and 285 miles north east of Los Angeles. Flowers bloom during this season. There are over 1,000 plant species including 13 species of cacti desert annuals referred to as ephemerals. There are interesting plants from the salt tolerant iodine bush to the snow-loving limber pine. Most majestic among the animal species (most of them are nocturnal) is the desert bighorn sheep. They grow curled horns as much as 30 inches long, and can spot someone a mile away. They are confined to the ravines. There are more than 230 species of birds, 17 types of lizards, 19 types of snakes, numerous spiders and insects. Among Death Valley's smallest animals is the two-inch long pupfish, which has survived the Ice Age and can tolerate extremes of temperature and salinity. Trees in the forests include the juniper, the mountain mahogany, the pinion and other pines.
Death Valley is about 140 miles long and five to 15 miles wide and is located in South Eastern California and parts of Nevada. The unique character of the landscape with steep, elongate mountain ranges alternating with flat dry desert valleys is explained by the geological formations. Death Valley has experienced fracturing by seismic forces for more than 35 million years. It also bears its grim name from gold seekers who ventured to cross the hostile and desolate land in 1849 on their way to California's gold fields. They met with tragedy; those who survived gave the name, "Death Valley", which replaced the older name "The Great Basin". The names in the area reflect despair like the Funeral Mountains, Coffin Peak, Hell's Gate, Starvation canyon, Dead Man Pass, Devil's Golf Course, Bad Water, Desolation Canyon, Poison Spring, Suicide Pass and so on, reflecting the troubles and misfortune endured by the pioneers who first travelled and inhabited the place.
Nearly 550 square miles out of the total area of 3,367,627 acres are below sea level. Its natural beauty and scientific importance was brought to light by the late Stephen T Mather, Director of the American National Park Service, in the 1920s. It resulted in the establishment of Death Valley as a monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. With the signing of the Desert Protection Act of October 31, 1994, by President Bill Clinton, Death Valley grew by an acreage of 12,00,000 acres and designate as a National Park, and contains almost 95 per cent of sheer wilderness. To protect a unique species of pupfish, 40 acres at Devil's Hole were added to the park by President Franklin Roosevelt on March 6, 1937. The United Nations recognised Death Valley National Monument as an international biosphere in 1984, dedicated to preserve ecological communities in their natural environment.
... a mushroom rock.
Story of the `49ers
THE history of Death Valley is a mystery but is linked to the California Gold Rush. On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered from California. There was an exodus of 80,000 people into California. In 1849, a party of gold seekers began their long journey across the Great Basin desert from Salt Lake City before climbing over the High Sierra Mountains. They planned to cross the desert before snow began to fall. In 1846, a group called The Donner Party had left Salt Lake and was trapped in a storm, an event that became one of the worst human disasters of the period. The incident was fresh in the minds of the party and it looked like they had to wait till winter was over. But they wanted to reach the gold mines as quickly as possible. Then they heard of Captain Jefferson Hunt, who knew of a route called "Old Spanish Trail" which went the south end of Sierra and was safe in winter. The party consisted of 200 persons, 110 wagons and 500 horses and oxen. Captain Hunt was to receive $10 per wagon for his service of guiding them. The group started slowly with some impatient to strike it rich in California.
Then a young man turned up and showed them a map with a short cut that would cut 500 miles of the journey. So the group was divided but on confronting the Beaver Dam Wash, a gaping canyon, one group returned to Jefferson Hunt.
But 20 wagons continued the perilous journey and the person who showed them the map disappeared.
There were 24 wagons, and more than 100 men, women and children who were pushed into the interiors of what is now known as Nevada. They had a date with destiny in a place they called "Death Valley", a name that came to stay. Captain Hunt's party lost all their worldly possessions, abandoned their wagons and were desperate to escape. They were finally discovered and rescued by Spanish cowboys from Rancho San Fernando. After the disastrous experience of the 49'ers, rare expeditions continued. After the 1870s, gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains, and borax deposits were found in the valley. Starting from Panamint in 1874 to Rhyolite in 1906, towns sprang up but were soon abandoned.
Sights of Death Valley
THE best sights are in the southern parts and most visitor facilities are located around Furnace Creek. The Las Vegas road through Pahrump on the State Line Road takes one to Death Valley Junction and on to the 190 road. After about 50 km is the Furnace Creek Visitor's Centre. There are camp grounds, shops and hotels, a museum and a petrol station. There are no manned entrance points anywhere else in the park. The museum has artefacts on the area's natural, cultural and economic history.
Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village, Scotty's Castle are the places where accommodation is available. Furnace Creek (earlier known as Tabitha or Coyote Rock by the Shoshone and Paiute Indians who lived in the area) is a virtual oasis.
Dante's View (80 km away from the visitors' centre) is the high summit near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley.
It provides the best views of the park. It is 1,670 metres high and the climb is steep. From the summit one can see north and south along many miles of salt flats and sand dunes and also west across the valley to several lifeless mountain ranges.
Hell's Gate is a spectacular point providing a spectacular vista down the length of Death Valley and a magnificent point for watching sunrise and sunset. The most visited place is Bad Water which is a vast stretch in which the lowest point is located miles away from the road. Lower the point, higher the temperature. It is a low lying salt pool with miles of salt flats. Other spots are Zabrinskie Point, 20 Mule Canyons, Devil's Golf Course, Golden Canyon, Stovepipe Wells and a point called Artist's Palette.
THE most fascinating man-built structure in the Death Valley is "Scotty's Castle" and it unravels the history of a beautiful friendship between two individuals! It is 190 km from the Visitors' Centre. Walter P. Scott, a tricks show man with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, vanished from Death Valley in 1902, but reappeared in 1905, mysteriously wealthy.
He went in a hurry to Chicago hiring a whole train and persuaded his friend and multi-millionaire Albert M. Johnson to build a fabulous castle as a vacation home. Death Valley was then promoted as "one of the most alluring and fascinating spots in existence". The first dirt road from Stovepipe to Scotty's Castle was built in 1930.
Johnson and Scotty were such thick friends that Johnson allowed the credit for the castle to go to Scotty. Johnson enjoyed Scotty's stunts and wild tales. Moreover, he thought he owed his life to his friend of 35 years, as Johnson who was critically injured was taken to the West by Scotty. Living in a crude board shack, he regained much of his health. Scotty insisted that the crude shed was a castle! Then Johnson declared that he would build a real castle and the result is Scotty's Castle which receives 2,00,000 visitors annually and is one of the best attractions in Death Valley.
The first people
ONLY a few of the visitors are aware that there is a Native American tribe living in the heart of Death Valley. The ancestors of Timbisha Shoshone Tribe came into the area around 1,000 years ago. They were of the Shoshonean Comanche stock, and depended on the land for all their needs. They migrated seasonally to harvest fruits, seeds and plants. Religion was an important part of their life.
But the arrival of the White people started the end of the way of life for the Shoshone people. Areas with water were inhabited by the Whites and the natives driven away. Hostilities between the natives and the whites claimed lives on both sides. In 1866 Congress ratified the treaty of Ruby Valley which was a statement of friendship and peace.
They were engaged in construction work. In 1936 the national Park Service set aside 40 acres of land for the local people who had by the time been reduced to a population of two digits. In 1983, the Timbisha Shoshone became a federally recognised Native American tribe by the Government.
Today, several members of the tribe work for local companies and organisations. Social workers among them have been trying to improve their plight.
Death Valley is thus an example of American ingenuity, where even the hottest and driest place is made use of, preserved, developed and a money spinner.
The nearest airport is Las Vegas.
US 395 passes west of Death Valley and connects with California 178 and 190 into the park.
US95 passes east of the Valley and connects with Nevada 267, 374, and 373 to the Park.
1-15 passes south east and connects with California 127.
Visitors can travel from Los Angeles. There are tourist buses from Las Vegas to Death Valley and the trip (approximately $50) takes 101/2 hours.
From Nevada, tourist buses and cars can be hired on rent. No public transport is available in Death Valley.
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