Death Valley is a land of extremes—extreme temperatures, altitudes, and environmental occurrences. Because of this, it’s been the catalyst for some of the most unusual natural and historical phenomena this planet has ever seen. And since it’s mostly uninhabitable, evidence of these extraordinary things has remained intact much longer than it would have elsewhere. Here are a few things you may not have known about the natural wonder.
1. THE ART MADE BY PEOPLE IN DEATH VALLEY DATES BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
Daniel Mayer, Wikicommons// CC BY-SA 3.0
Some of the oldest records of man can be found painted and chiseled on the rocks of Death Valley. A few of those pieces are thought to have been made by the people of the Mesquite Flat Culture, who lived in the Valley from 3000 BCE to 1 CE. However, thanks to carbon dating, it is now believed that most came from Saratoga Spring Culture that resided there between 500 and 1000 CE.
2. DEATH VALLEY HOLDS THE RECORD FOR THE HIGHEST TEMPERATURE EVER RECORDED.
Death Valley is known for its hot, subtropical, desert climate. Visitors can typically expect long, hot summers, and short, mild winters. However, July 10, 1913 wasn't typical. That day, the temperature in Furnace Creek (an area of Death Valley) hit 134°F, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth at the time. The area held the record for nearly 10 years, until residents of El Azizia, Libya experienced a reported high of 136.4°F in September 1922.
Nearly a century later, the World Meteorological Organization determined that the Libya record was the result of the operator misreading the thermometer and the temperature was deemed invalid. So in September 2012, the record was officially returned to Death Valley.
3. IT'S HOME TO OVER 1000 DIFFERENT SPECIES OF PLANTS.
Despite its extreme temperatures and harsh environment, Death Valley has surprisingly diverse plant life. Some take up residence on the valley floor, and have adapted to the meager amount of precipitation by growing incredibly long roots. These roots either shoot down up to 100 feet to grab moisture from the lower soil levels, or span wide to collect any amount of moisture they can from the atmosphere. They also have special leaves that slow evaporation, allowing them to hold onto moisture as long as possible.
4. THE VALLEY EXPERIENCES 'TSUNAMIS' WHEN EARTHQUAKES HAPPEN ELSEWHERE IN THE WORLD.
There’s a deep, water-filled chasm in Death Valley National Park called “Devil’s Hole.” It’s home to the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish, a species that may have been residing there for up to 20,000 years. It's not the chasm's only impressive feature. The water in the hole reacts to seismic activity around the world. If there’s a giant earthquake in Japan, chances are it will be making some waves in Devil’s Hole. Here’s an example of how a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico impacted the area in 2012.
5. IT PLAYED A PART IN THE ORIGINAL STARS WARS MOVIES.
It may not surprise you that Death Valley was the ideal spot to shoot many of the scenes that took place on Luke’s desert planet of Tatooine in the 1977 film Star Wars IV: A New Hope. According to Star Wars experts, over a dozen scenes were shot there, including the ones where the droids escape, where R2 gets attacked by Jawas, and the establishing shot of Mos Eisley Cantina. One expert in particular, Steve Hall, actually went there and mapped them all out, in case you want to take a self-guided tour.
6. THIS YEAR, DEATH VALLEY IS EXPERIENCING AN INCREDIBLY RARE 'SUPER BLOOM.'
With an average annual rainfall of just two inches, Death Valley is not known for its floral displays. But this year is the exception. While the rest of the country has been enduring heavy rains and strangely warm winter days due to El Niño, the Valley’s had heavy rainfall in the fall and then more moderate weather.
These perfect conditions allowed for an exceptionally unusual event to occur on the valley floor—a sudden flood of blooming flowers. According to park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, flowers do occasionally bloom all over Death Valley, but this concentrated bloom only happens about once every decade.
"You never know when it's going to happen," Van Valkenburg said in a YouTube video on the subject. "It's a privilege to be here and get to see one of these blooms. Very few people get to see it, and it's incredible."
7. DEATH VALLEY RECEIVED ITS NAME FROM PIONEERS WHO THOUGHT IT WOULD CLAIM THEIR LIVES.
In 1849, a group of pioneers who were searching for gold out west lost their way in Death Valley—and were certain it would be the end of them. However, as far as history knows, only one member of their party actually perished. They were rescued by two young men, but were forever haunted by their journey through the desolate wasteland. Legend has it that as they left they area, one of the surviving travelers stated, "Goodbye, Death Valley." They would be come to be known as “The Lost 49ers” and the area would take on that ominous nickname.
8. THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 GHOST TOWNS AND MINES IN DEATH VALLEY.
It wasn't just the destination of The Lost 49ers. Death Valley was on many gold seekers’ routes out west. During the mid to late 19th century, small towns sprung up throughout the area, as more and more travelers began using the Valley as a sort of pit stop. This became even more common when thousands of gold, silver, copper, and borax mines started appearing out west. However, the primitive technology and scarcity of water made mining difficult. When the gold rush started to peter out, these midpoint towns began to close up shop. While most have been eroded by time and the elements, some still remain to this day. You can find them on this handy chart.
9. IT'S HOME TO SCOTTY'S CASTLE—A SELF-SUSTAINED MANSION THAT WASN'T OWNED BY A MAN NAMED SCOTTY.
, or Scotty, as he was commonly known, convinced a Chicago millionaire named Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in property in Death Valley. Scotty told Johnson there was plenty of gold to be had in a local mine, but when that turned out to be false, the two men struck up an unlikely friendship.
In 1922, they began building a house on Johnson’s 1500 acres in the Grapevine Valley region of Death Valley. Because the land was located below a healthy spring, the partners used the flowing water to power the house. They had a Pelton wheel that powered a generator, which took care of all the house’s electrical needs.
10. DEATH VALLEY IS HOME TO THE LOWEST POINT IN THE UNITED STATES.
The Valley’s Badwater Basin is a staggering 282 feet below sea level. It’s less than 100 miles from Mount Whitney, which happens to be the highest point in the contiguous United States. There is a low level of “bad water” (where the site gets it name) in the basin from a nearby spring that is undrinkable, but it attracts a good deal of flora and fauna.
11. DEATH VALLEY HAS MYSTERIOUS, SAILING STONES.
Over the past 100 years, visitors have noticed that the rocks in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa would leave trails behind them in the sand in varying patterns. Many different theories developed to try and explain the apparent movement, from changing magnetic fields to slippery algae. Finally, scientists (and cousins) Richard and Jim Norris set out to crack the mystery.
After several years, they pinpointed the movement down to what happens when the Valley floor freezes over, then cracks and melts suddenly when the sun comes up. The broken ice is then blown across the surface of the playa by winds, and pushes the rocks enough to get them moving, and the slippery surface allows them to go quite the distance—sometimes up to the length of two football fields. The two cousins were lucky enough to witness the rare phenomenon once, but they believe their work is far from over since they didn’t see the larger, 700 pound boulders budge.