Death Valley National Park: A user's guide
Most people know this park for its superlatives — hottest, lowest and the largest in the continental U.S. — but it holds many more secrets worth exploring.
Mon, Aug 29, 2011 at 08:43 AM
Measuring well over 5,000 square miles, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48. Of course, most people know it for its other superlatives: it is the hottest and lowest (in terms of elevation) place in the country.
While summertime visits generally require a well-maintained, air-conditioned vehicle, temperatures do moderate during the winter, making exploring the trail-less expanses without motor-power possible. Death Valley is usually characterized by its salt flats. However, dunes, badlands-like landscapes, and mountains also fall within the boundaries of the park.
Previously a hotbed for mining activity, a portion of Death Valley was designated as a national monument in the 1920s. Roads were built throughout the area as part of a massive public works project by the Civilian Conservation Corps. A lucrative industry, mining, was resumed in the area after miners petitioned the government.
It wasn't until 1976 that mining was again restricted. Already opened mines were able to continue operating under strict environmental standards. The last one closed in 2005. Death Valley became a national park in 1994, with more than 1.3 million acres being added to its overall area.
Things to do
From November until April, during the tourist high season, ranger-led tours are available. These guided walks allow visitors to walk through sections of the park without having to go it alone. Short hikes, one to five miles in length, are possible on various trails. Longer, high-mountain routes are best for the summertime, while walks through the valley itself, including one five-mile route that crosses the famous salt flats, are best left for the coolest season.
A full menu of back-country routes are available to hikers who have enough ambition and skill to find their way despite the lack of trails. Most popular hiking routes follow river beds, abandoned roads, gravel washes, and the bases of canyons and rock formations.
Desert weather conditions make car travel sometime the only viable choice for visiting in-park attractions. Nearly 1,000 miles of dirt and paved roads wind through the park. Even this form of travel is not without its dangers: the park publishes road conditions on a daily basis.
Why you'll come back
The stark beauty, surprising geographic diversity, and weather conditions that change depending on the time of year make Death Valley National Park a good candidate for repeat visits. Sure, the dry, impossibly hot salt flats attract people seeking a been-there-done-that story, but the valleys, foothills, mountains, and rock formations mean there is a lot more to explore.
Flora and fauna
Death Valley, with its change in elevation and differing landscapes, is home to a surprisingly wide range of plants and animals. Mammals thrive in the park's mountainous areas, with coyotes, foxes, and bighorn sheep living slope-side. Bats take to the air above Death Valley each night. Rattlesnakes, meanwhile, are one of the most notable slithering species in the park. Another Death Valley trademark is the roadrunner (pictured above), one of the park's few year-round avian residents.
In the park's salt-pan and other low-lying areas, vegetation is scarce. At higher elevations, it thrives with wildflowers and trees that are able to grow in arid climates, such as junipers and Joshua trees. Cacti, an ever-present part of the landscape of the California and Nevada deserts, grow in areas that are above 400 feet in elevation.
By the numbers
- Website: Death Valley National Park
- Park size: 3,373,042 acres (5270 square miles)
- 2010 visitation: 1,020,541
- Busiest month: April (184,487 visitors)
- Slowest month: December (27,872 visitors)
- Funky fact: During the summer, daytime highs are regularly 120 degrees (in the shade).
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.
Inset photo of roadrunner: GrahamKing/Flickr;