7 Myths About Death Valley (2023)

7 Myths About Death Valley

Written by: Matt Jaffe , March 14th, 2018

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Plenty of people still marvel at the winter of 2005, when heavy rains filled Badwater Basin with so much water that kayakers could paddle for miles along the desert floor.

Maybe it’s the ominous-sounding name, but Death Valley National Park inspires endless myths. Site of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth and also North America’s driest location, Death Valley certainly comes by some of its reputation honestly, especially during summer. But many people don’t realize that this national park is a kind of desert paradise for much of the year, with ideal temperatures and a stark beauty like nowhere else in the world.

Here, we debunk seven common misperceptions.

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7 Myths About Death Valley (1)

Myth 1: There’s Nothing to Do

Nothing to do? One of the biggest mistakes that visitors make is that they don’t give themselves enough time in Death Valley.

There are endless ways to explore Death Valley’s vastness, from hiking on established national park trails to mountain biking in rugged Titus Canyon. Cyclists also love Death Valley’s miles of relatively traffic free roads, with both easy and more challenging stretches along the way. And you can head out on horseback rides with Furnace Creek Stables, or take a tour into remote parts of the park with Farabee Jeep Rentals.

For anyone who believes that learning is a lifelong pursuit, Death Valley is your kind of destination. The Borax Museum at the Ranch at Death Valley offers a unique look at local mining history, while the national park’s ranger-led talks and outings, including special paleontology tours, bring alive different aspects of this incomparable desert landscape.

Then again, sometimes the best thing to do is, in fact, nothing, such as indulging in a massage or body treatment at The Inn’s newly remodeled spa.

7 Myths About Death Valley (2)

Myth 2: It’s Always Hot

There’s no question that it gets hot — very hot — in Death Valley. But that’s just for part of the year. Temperatures only average above 100 degrees for five months. And what many people don’t realize is that from fall into spring, Death Valley has nearly perfect weather — clear warm days and cool nights with infrequent rainstorms. In fact, during December and January, average Death Valley high temperatures stay in the 60s.

7 Myths About Death Valley (3)

Myth 3: It’s Drab and Colorless

The fastest way to undercut this misconception is to take any doubters up to Zabriskie Point, just six minutes from The Inn at Death Valley, right around sunrise. As the morning light reaches Manley Beacon, the prominent triangular peak in the badlands below the point, the rock brightens to a brilliant gold. And across the valley, the towering Panamint Range comes aglow with pinks and reds.

While Death Valley is at its most colorful at dawn and sunset, in places the exposed geology reveals the vivid shades of rock formations throughout the park.

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Head down Badwater Road south of the resort and hike into Golden Canyon (named for the rich color of its fine-grained sedimentary rock) and you’ll reach the elaborate Red Cathedral, a landmark that gets its rusty cast from the oxidized iron in the stone.

Or take a ride along Artist’s Drive and to reach the unforgettable Artist’s Palette. Death Valley colorless? Not at this geological masterpiece, where the badlands are dabbed with reds, purples, and even greens.

7 Myths About Death Valley (4)

Myth 4: There’s No Water

Granted, Death Valley used to be much, much wetter. In fact, a 100-mile-long, 600-foot-deep body of water named Lake Manly inundated the valley during the Ice Age. More recently a series of shallower lakes have also occasionally filled the valley.

Plenty of people still marvel at the winter of 2005, when heavy rains filled Badwater Basin with so much water that kayakers could paddle for miles along the desert floor. Although Death Valley is notoriously dry, the occasional storms that reach the area can be powerful, resulting in flash floods that carve the park’s famous canyons.

The big rain years and flooding events are certainly rare. But even today, you can walk the boardwalk along Salt Creek, a seasonal stream off Highway 190, and see rare pupfish, remnant species from wetter times in Death Valley. And if you know where to look, you’ll find hundreds of modest spring-fed seeps scattered around the park. In fact, The Oasis at Death Valley is part of one of these natural oases; the resort depends on and carefully manages water from a subterranean aquifer between Furnace Creek and Zabriskie Point for its pools and golf course.

7 Myths About Death Valley (5)

Myth 5: Nothing Grows Here

It’s true that Death Valley poses a challenging environment for most plants, especially along the valley floor’s barren saltpan. Even so, a number of species have found a way to survive the harsh conditions found in many parts of the national park, including pickleweed, the hardy denizen of marshy areas below sea level.

With elevations ranging from -282 feet at Badwater to 11,049 feet at Telescope Peak, the park is a surprisingly varied place. More than 1,000 plant species grow, from creosote at the lowest elevations to Joshua trees at Lee Flat and bristlecone pines in the higher mountains, which annually average 15 inches of rain.

In the right year with well-timed rainfall, Death Valley’s wildflowers can put on a spectacular show, as desert gold carpets sections of the valley floor, while orange bear poppy and pink sand verbena splash more color throughout the park.

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7 Myths About Death Valley (6)

Myth 6: It’s Lifeless

Go out to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes early in the morning and you’ll see irrefutable evidence that a variety of wildlife has adapted to Death Valley’s extremes.

All sorts of animals have etched fresh tracks into the soft sands of this Sahara-like expanse: coyotes, kit foxes, jackrabbits, and kangaroo rats. The kangaroo rats are so uniquely adapted to the arid conditions that they can survive on the moisture from seeds and plants. These tough little creatures may go their entire lives without ever drinking water.

At the park’s higher elevations, you might spot desert bighorn sheep deftly working their way up steep, rocky slopes, while mountain lions, though present, are more reclusive.

Amazingly, Death Valley also supports populations of amphibians, including the Pacific treefrog, which lives in areas with water sources, including around Furnace Creek. Survivors of the days when Death Valley was covered by water, five different species of tiny pupfish are hanging on during these decidedly drier times. Less surprisingly, Death Valley is also a reptile paradise, where nearly 40 species thrive, including Mojave Desert sidewinder snakes and desert iguanas.

With both numerous resident birds and hundreds of other species passing through during migratory seasons, savvy birders know that Death Valley offers all sorts of spotting opportunities. Even casual observers are bound to see plenty of roadrunners. The Oasis at Death Valley does its part to support the area’s bird populations and other wildlife. The environmental efforts at the Furnace Creek Golf Course earned the facility designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary from the Audubon Society.

7 Myths About Death Valley (7)

Myth 7: There’s No Human History

Just as a diverse assortment of wildlife has managed to figure out survival strategies in the desert, an eclectic group of people have lived and worked in Death Valley.

Some folks, like the pioneers in wagon trains, arrived here accidentally and suffered great tragedy. But miners and prospectors came to the valley in search of treasure, while plenty of desert rats appreciated the solitude that the area provided.

Indeed, eccentrics just seem to come to come with the territory, none more so than Walter (Death Valley Scotty) Scott. He was the Wild West showman (and likely con man) who built Scotty’s Castle, the famous Mission Revival landmark in the northern part of the park that’s now being renovated following devastating flash floods in October 2015.

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For a millennium before outsiders ventured here, the ancestors of today’s Death Valley Timbisha Shoshone Band of California called the area home. They carved out an existence, ranging from the valley and into the surrounding mountains to find food sources. Members of the tribe still live in a small village near Furnace Creek.

How to Explore

The Oasis at Death Valley in Furnace Creek is situated in a lush oasis surrounded by the vast and arid desert of Death Valley National Park — just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The resort encompasses two hotels — the historic AAA Four Diamond, 66-room Inn at Death Valley and the family-oriented, 224-room Ranch at Death Valley. The entire resort recently underwent a complete renaissance with an extensive renovation. The property includes natural spring-fed pools, an 18-hole golf course, horse and carriage rides, world-renowned stargazing, and is surrounded by Death Valley National Park’s main attractions. For information and reservations, visit The Oasis at Death Valley or call 800-236-7916.

For A World of Unforgettable Experiences available from Xanterra Travel Collection and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.

Written by: Matt Jaffe

Specializing in California, the Southwest, and Hawaii, Matt Jaffe is an award-winning former senior writer at Sunset magazine and contributes to a variety of publications, including Los Angeles, Arizona Highways, and Westways. His books include The Santa Monica Mountains: Range on the Edge and Oaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico.

FAQs

What is the story behind Death Valley? ›

A group of European Americans, trapped in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California, gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there. Several short-lived boom towns sprang up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to mine gold and silver.

What is under Death Valley? ›

Portions of the great salt pan that forms part of the floor of the valley are the lowest land areas of the Americas. About 550 square miles (1,425 square km) of the valley's floor lie below sea level. A point in Badwater Basin, lying 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level, is the lowest area in North America.

Is anything alive in Death Valley? ›

Life in Death Valley

Coyotes, ravens, roadrunners, ground squirrels and lizards are the most commonly seen wildlife of the region, but there are many species who thrive here, hidden or unnoticed by visitors.

Is Death Valley still sinking? ›

Badwater Basin, the Death Valley salt pan and the Panamint mountain range comprise one block that is rotating eastward as a structural unit. The valley floor has been steadily slipping downward, subsiding along the fault that lies at the base of the Black Mountains. Subsidence continues today.

How long can a human last in Death Valley? ›

As the film says, Death Valley is not a place you want to be without water, as while a human can survive three days without water, in this desert you can live just 14 hours.

Can you sleep in your car in Death Valley? ›

Per the NPS, the following are the requirements for car camping: Only car camp on a dirt road. Be at least 1 mile from a paved or a day-use only road, 1 mile from all mining structures and 100 yards from any water source. Only car camp in previously disturbed areas.

Who called it Death Valley first? ›

Clemson's Memorial Stadium (81,500) and LSU's Tiger Stadium (103,321) are each frequently referred to as Death Valley. Clemson was the first to own the nickname, back in the 1940s, while LSU grabbed the nickname later in the 50s.

Who first found Death Valley? ›

'49ers. The first explorers to enter Death Valley were two groups of "49ers" heading for the California gold fields. The pioneers had departed late from Salt Lake City, a major supply stop on the journey to California, in October 1849.

Where is Devil Hole? ›

Devils Hole is nestled within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, an incredibly biodiverse, spring-fed oasis in southern Nevada.

Can you swim in Devils Hole? ›

Devils Hole is a perfect summer swim spot in Deep Creek. Requiring a further hike than the nearby Aztec Falls, this swimming hole is less crowded and even more rewarding. It is roughly 3 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking northward from Splinter's Cabin Trailhead.

Can you swim in Death Valley? ›

NO SWIMMING - this water is the drinking source for Panamint Springs Resort. Note: pets are not allowed on any trail in Death Valley National Park, even if carried. Do not leave your animal in your vehicle. Speak with a ranger about one of the incredible dirt roads where you may walk your pet.

Can we Flood Death Valley? ›

Not if we're smart about it. Terraforming this area, a process of turning a hostile environment into one more suitable for human life, would require building a channel from the Pacific Ocean to Death Valley. This would be about 480 to 650 kilometers (300-400 miles) long and would bring water into Death Valley.

Does Death Valley have snakes? ›

There are three venomous snakes found in Death Valley; the desert night snake, the California lyre and the rattlesnake. Of these, only the rattlesnake has a strong enough poison to cause serious harm and, possibly, death.

What is the largest animal in Death Valley? ›

The largest native mammal in the area, and perhaps the best-studied member of the fauna, is the desert bighorn. Small herds of these sheep are most commonly found in the mountains surrounding Death Valley, but they occasionally visit the valley floor.

What is the hottest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley? ›

Of note: Death Valley holds the world record for hottest temperature ever at 134°F, which was measured back in July 1913.

How hot does Death Valley get? ›

Death Valley holds the record for the highest air temperature on the planet: On 10 July 1913, temperatures at the aptly named Furnace Creek area in the California desert reached a blistering 56.7°C (134.1°F). Average summer temperatures, meanwhile, often rise above 45°C (113°F).

How deep is the sand in Death Valley? ›

Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin with a depth of 282 ft (86 m) below sea level.

Is it illegal to take rocks from Death Valley? ›

Picking wildflowers, taking home stones or arrowheads as keepsakes, and defacing canyon walls with graffiti are all actions that degrade the parks for other visitors. In addition, it's against the law.

What happens if my car breaks down in Death Valley? ›

If your car breaks down, the National Park Service recommends that you stay with your vehicle and wait for help. They advise against walking to find help in the desert sun. If you get stranded, try to get out of the sun and drink plenty of water. Always keep enough water in the car in case of an emergency.

Why do you have to turn off AC in Death Valley? ›

Turn off their air conditioning in their vehicles to avoid overheating in the desert.

Can you have fire in Death Valley? ›

Possessing or using fireworks or explosives is always prohibited within Death Valley National Park.

Do you have to turn off your AC in Death Valley? ›

You will still see a few signs in the park suggesting turning off a/c for "Next X Miles to Avoid Overheating." They will be at the beginning of long, steep ascents. It will almost never be necessary unless the cooling system malfunctions, which isn't likely with modern closed-circuit systems.

Is driving through Death Valley Safe? ›

Yes, but you must be prepared and use common sense. With an air conditioned vehicle you can safely tour many of the main sites in Death Valley. Stay on paved roads in summer, and if your car breaks down, stay with it until help arrives.

What was Death Valley before? ›

According to current geological consensus, at various times during the middle of the Pleistocene era, which ended roughly 10,000–12,000 years ago, an inland lake, Lake Manly, formed in Death Valley. The lake was nearly 100 miles (160 km) long and 600 feet (180 m) deep.

What is Death Valley's nickname? ›

DEATH Valley, located in the Mojave Desert in California, got its name from pioneers who got lost in the area. After their near-death experience, one of the men in the group nicknamed the area Death Valley.

Why is the Death Valley so hot? ›

Why so Hot? The depth and shape of Death Valley influence its summer temperatures. The valley is a long, narrow basin 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, yet is walled by high, steep mountain ranges. The clear, dry air and sparse plant cover allow sunlight to heat the desert surface.

What do they protect in Death Valley? ›

The California Desert Protection Act

The act outlined protection for millions of acres of diverse landscapes, including volcanic lava flows, sweeping sand dunes, high mountain ranges, conifer forests, high desert sagebrush plateaus, and vast lowlands separated by rugged mountain ranges.

Which city is called valley of Death? ›

Valley of Death (Gettysburg), the 1863 Gettysburg Battlefield landform of Plum Run.

What is under the Devils Hole? ›

Devils Hole itself is a water-filled cavern cut into the side of a hill. The cavern is over 500 feet (152 m) deep and the bottom has never been mapped. Devils Hole provides its resident pupfish with conditions of constant temperature (92°F, 33°C) and salinity, unlike the fluctuating environments of many other pupfish.

What animals live in Devils Hole? ›

Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) live in the upper 80 feet of a deep water-filled cavern and sun-lit shallow pool at the cavern's entrance, making this the smallest range of any vertebrate species on the planet.

Why Do They Call It Devils Hole? ›

Edward T. Williams, Niagara Falls 1925. On his return to Lake Ontario, LaSalle and his guide passed the huge cavern in the cliff of the gorge, below the whirlpool, which is known today as the Devil's Hole. LaSalle look down into it, and his guide told him that it was the abode of the Evil Spirit.

Can you jump of Devils pool? ›

The Devil's Pool itself is a deep natural pool that nature had eroded and creased into a unique rock ledge on the lip of the Falls, where the water's just a few inches deep. This natural barrier is what slows down the current and allows you to jump into the deep pool, but not get swept over the edge.

How deep is the water at Devil's bathtub? ›

Dubbed “The Devil's Bathtub,” the name fits: the 12-foot-deep depression in the creek bed is shaped just like a bathtub, and a small waterfall drips into the basin like a faucet.

When should you not go to Death Valley? ›

Summer temperatures make hiking in the desert dangerous. Therefore, we do not recommend hiking in the lower elevations in the summer. If you do decide to hike at lower elevations, start and end your hikes as early as possible, but definitely before 10 am.

Can you drink the water in Death Valley? ›

You can get drinking water easily and for free in Death Valley. Nobody tells you how surprisingly easy it is to get drinking water in America's hottest place.

What do you wear in Death Valley? ›

A broad-brimmed hat, protective clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses are always in order in Death Valley.

Is Death Valley a dark sky? ›

Death Valley National Park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States and was the third International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. National Park System certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Is Death Valley a fault? ›

Death Valley's current fault system is a bit more complicated. A network of two strike-slip fault zones is linked together by a normal fault zone. The normal fault zone is being pulled apart by the lateral (side to side) motion of the two strike-slip faults (see figure).

What predators are in Death Valley? ›

Mountain lions are not the only predator in death valley; the coyote also eats these preys as well. This shows a competition between the coyote and the mountain lion. Another example is a fox and a jack rabbit.

Are there mountain lions in Death Valley? ›

Mountain Lion

Mountain Lions are apex predators in Death Valley. The mountain lion is the apex predator of Death Valley.

Do spiders live in Death Valley? ›

Death Valley National Park, California. Male desert tarantulas (Aphonopelma chalcodes) are most visible at dawn or dusk, particularly in the late fall and spring when temperatures are most suitable for them to travel in pursuit of females. Otherwise, they are typically nocturnal and stay close to their burrows.

Is Death Valley bigger than Yellowstone? ›

Death Valley is 3.4 million acres of epic landscape to explore. The 2nd largest national park in the lower 48 is Yellowstone National Park with 2.2 million acres.

What created Death Valley? ›

A volcanic explosion left its mark in Death Valley.

The massive crater was formed about 2,100 years ago, but the most recent explosion might have happened as recently as 300 years ago.

What is Death Valley most known for? ›

The largest national park south of Alaska, Death Valley is known for extremes: It is North America's driest and hottest spot (with fewer than two inches/five centimeters of rainfall annually and a record high of 134°F), and has the lowest elevation on the continent—282 feet below sea level.

Who gave Death Valley its name? ›

Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost here in the winter of 1849-1850. Even though, as far as we know, only one of the group died here, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave.

Did you know facts about death? ›

15 Strange & Scary Facts About Death You Probably Didn't Know
  • A human head remains conscious for around 20 seconds after being decapitated. ...
  • A body decomposes four times faster in water than on land. ...
  • Within three days of death, the enzymes from your digestive system begin to digest your body.
19 Jun 2015

What are 2 features of Death Valley? ›

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park are excellent places for nature study and recreation.
  • Salt Flats. The salt flats in Badwater Basin cover nearly 200 square miles, among the largest protected salt flats in the world.
  • Devils Hole. ...
  • Racetrack Playa.
28 Sept 2021

Does Death Valley have a nickname? ›

Built in 1942, Clemson's home field didn't earn its sinister nickname until 1948. According to Clemson's official website, the Tigers owe the name to Lonnie McMillian, who dubbed the stadium “Death Valley” after his Presbyterian College team was continuously dominated there.

What language does Death Valley speak? ›

Timbisha (Tümpisa) or Panamint (also called Koso) is the language of the Native American people who have inhabited the region in and around Death Valley, California, and the southern Owens Valley since late prehistoric times.

What is a scary fact? ›

46 Pigs can eat anything, and that includes humans. 47 Fatal familial insomnia makes it impossible for someone to sleep for months. 48 Medical errors cause around 250,000 deaths every year. 49 Locked-In Syndrome is a scary condition where you are conscious while in a coma.

What are some scary true facts? ›

Scary Facts to Make Your Skin Crawl
  • Humans shed skin too. Like, a lot of skin. ...
  • We could solve American homelessness easier than you think. On average, there are over 17,000,000 vacant homes in America at any given time. ...
  • Your cellphone is more disgusting than a public toilet.
4 May 2020

What are some very scary facts? ›

29 Horrifying Facts That I Really Suggest You Don't Read
  • There are over 250,000 deaths a year due to medical error. ...
  • Fir trees can grow in human lungs. ...
  • There's a 1-in-3 chance police will never identify your killer if you're murdered in the US.
21 Apr 2022

Why is Death Valley so deep? ›

Much of the extra local stretching in Death Valley that is responsible for its lower depth and wider valley floor is caused by left lateral strike-slip movement along the Garlock Fault south of the park (the Garlock Fault separates the Sierra Nevada range from the Mojave Desert).

Is there more oxygen in Death Valley? ›

Now, as the point is below sea level the pressure increases. As a result of the partial pressures of all the constituent of the gas increase. The partial pressure of oxygen is A. Higher at Death Valley.

What do Native Americans call Death Valley? ›

The Timbisha Shoshone (Tümpisa Shoshoni) have been known as the California Shoshoni, Death Valley Shoshone, Panamint Shoshone or simply Panamint. ″Coso, Koso, Koso Shoshone″ (probably a derivative of Koosotsi - ″People from Coso Hot Springs area″, the name of one local group of the Little Lake Band), once commonly used ...

What tribe is in Death Valley? ›

The Timbisha Shoshone Indians lived here for centuries before the first white man entered the valley. They hunted and followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans with their families.

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