Few places are as foreboding -- or as beautiful -- as Death Valley National Park. Sprawling across 3.3 million acres of the Mojave Desert, the park is almost completely surrounded by mountains.
To the east, the bare walls of the Amargosa Range rise steeply from the desert floor, forming the sawtooth peaks of the Grapevine, Funeral, and Black mountains. The range is creased by dozens of deeply eroded canyons, exposing layers of pastel-colored sediments deposited millions of years ago by a series of ancient seas.
To the west, the Panamint Range rises to some 11,000 feet and is peppered with the ruins of mining camps where prospectors once searched for gold, silver, and later, borax. The mountains and canyons are still cross-hatched by old mining roads, many of them now used as hiking or four-wheel-drive trails.
This is a harsh and unforgiving land. Less than two inches of rain fall annually, much of it in brief showers that may last only a few minutes. Summer temperatures routinely soar above 120 degrees, while winter temperatures commonly dip below freezing. Expecting a heat-scorched desert, first-time visitors are often surprised to see a dusting of snow atop the highest peaks as late as March or April, when the weather on the valley floor is already quite balmy.
Between the mountains is the valley itself, about 140 miles long and as much as 16 miles across. Here, sand dunes are sculpted into ever-changing shapes by the ceaseless action of the wind; salt flats shimmer in the heat; and knobby crystal formations (such as those at the Devil's Golf Course) sparkle in the sunshine.
Death Valley National Park Photo Opportunities
The unique landscape of Death Valley provides hundreds of photo opportunities. Here are some suggestions:
- Dante's View: On the west side of the park, the overlook at Dante's View offers a stunning panorama of snow-white salt flats and scattered mesquite hummocks on the valley floor.
©2006 National Park Services
The 5,475-foot peak at Dante's View overlooks the expanse of the valley.
- Zabriskie Point: Also on the west side of the park, Zabriskie Point overlooks an area known as the Badlands, a broken landscape of gullies and ridges that have been gouged out of the earth by erosion.
- Racetrack Valley: To the north, on a dried lakebed known as Racetrack Valley, rocks leave mysterious trails across a sun-baked playa. Geologists speculate that they have been blown by powerful winds across a thin layer of ice or slippery mud.
- Ubehebe Crater: Some 30 miles from Racetrack Valley, Ubehebe Crater was blasted out of the planet's surface by a volcanic eruption about 3,000 years ago.
Despite its treacherous terrain, Death Valley has been occupied by various settlers -- mostly as a result of the successive discoveries of silver, gold, lead, copper, and borax on the lands. On the next page, learn about the remaining ghost towns in the valley and about the remnants of an unfinished castle at the foot of the Grapevine Mountains.