“Hottest, Driest, Lowest”
Why “Badwater Basin?” The story goes that a surveyor mapping this area couldn’t get his mule to drink from this pool of water. He wrote on his map that the spring had “bad water” and the name stuck. It isn’t poisonous—just salty. On the subject of names, Death Valley was named by gold-seekers, some of whom died crossing the valley during the 1849 California gold rush.
The highest mountain in Death Valley National Park is 11,049 foot Telescope Peak; the lowest point is 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. The vertical drop from Telescope Peak to the Badwater Basin is twice the depth of Grand Canyon. Twice. The. Depth. That isn’t apparent standing there because of the magnitude of space. Death Valley is a place of extremes, including the world record, highest air temperature of 134 degrees F recorded in Furnace Creek Ranch on July 10, 1913.
The Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans lived in Death Valley for centuries before the first white man entered the valley. This tribe followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans. They hunted game, and for them, the land provided everything they needed. There are many areas within the Valley that remain sacred places to the Timbisha Shoshone, whose descendents continue to live in Death Valley.
The salt pan on the floor of Death Valley covers more than 200 square miles. It is 40 miles long and more than 5 miles wide. It is one of the largest protected salt flats in the world. The majority of salts covering Badwater Basin is sodium chloride—better known as table salt.
Surface crushed by tourists; basin beyond
The source of these salts is Death Valley’s drainage system of 9,000 square miles of mountain ranges. Rain falling on distant peaks creates flood and rush toward the basin. Along the way, minerals dissolve from rocks and join the flood. Here, at the lowest elevation, minerals concentrate until only the salts remain. After thousands of years, enough salts have washed in to produce layer upon layer of salt crust.
Leaving Badwater Basin the road curved in such manner that I could roll down the window and fire off a shot of where we stood in the Basin. See how small the people are in this vast, immense, amazing valley?
Over time, tourists have crushed a huge swath of salt crystals at the Badwater Basin overlook. We walked out into the Basin as well for it was there one could feel the power and enormity of Death Valley. An overpowering desire came over us to experience the basin standing in the middle of this incredible geologic miracle. We threw our arms out wide, breathing in the dust of dinosaurs and the stars. This landscape dwarfed the petty human condition and humbled me, touched my very soul, changed me.
The Visitor Guide’s newsletter headline was “Death Valley Responds to Climate Change.” I was interested to read that Death Valley National Park and its partners are creating new strategies in response to the uncertain future in the face of a changing climate. Their course towards a “greener” NPS leads toward reducing paper usage, building a LEED certified visitor center and incorporating climate friendly behavior into park operations, facility management and communications. The future is, of course, uncertain. That’s the way futures are. NPS acknowledges that plants and/or animals in the park may be pushed to find new homes, or succumb to threats and become extinct. All the Park can do is continue forward to reach its goal of becoming a carbon neutral park by 2016. There are tough questions ahead and I was very excited to learn that the Park is leading by example.
Sadly, this is likely the last installment of our Death Valley road trip. Maybe. I have scads of images not yet shared. For example, we thought it would be a grand idea to take images of the roadway there and back again. Maybe make a little movie, or photo montage. I’m not sure I’ll ever do anything with them but they are certainly fun to look through. Regardless, goodbye Death Valley National Park for now. We only visited a small portion of the part due to time limitations as well as vehicular limitations. Many interesting areas like the Racetrack and Devil’s Golf Course are down long—sometimes miles long—gravel and rocky roads only be reached in off-road vehicles with tires created for deserts filled with sharp rocks. Goals for another day, another road trip to Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley National Park was not what I expected. I didn’t expect magnificent, colorful mountain ranges. I didn’t expect an oasis, or water standing in the basin, or salt marshes much like those we have along the Cape Fear River. I didn’t expect feeling the same way I felt upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time—awe. True awe is a physical feeling. I truly loved this Park.
Informational Sources: National Park Service, DesertUSA