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Life in Death Valley National Park


Tourists take picture of wildflowers near Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California (February 24, 2016)

Tourists take picture of wildflowers near Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California (February 24, 2016)

Today, we visit a place of strange and silent beauty. As beautiful as this place is, its name provides evidence of very real danger. We are exploring Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley is a land of beautiful yet dangerous extremes. It has nearly 1.4 million hectares of desert and mountains.

There are mountains that reach more than 3,000 meters into the sky. The valley’s Badwater Basin area is the lowest land in the Western Hemisphere. It lies 86 meters below sea level.

The salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley

The salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Death Valley can be dangerously cold during the winter months. Storms in the mountains can cause sudden floods on the floor of the valley. But, during summer months, the air temperature has been as high as 57 degrees Celsius.

The extreme heat of Death Valley has killed people in the past. Death Valley does not forgive those who are not careful.

Within Death Valley National Park is evidence of several ancient volcanoes that caused huge explosions. Evidence of one of these explosions is called Ubehebe Crater. The explosion left a huge hole in the ground almost a kilometer and a half wide.

In many areas of Death Valley, it is easy to see where the ground has been pushed up violently by movement deep in the Earth. This has created unusual and beautiful rock formations, with colors of red, brown, gray, yellow and black.

Looking down Golden Canyon in Death Valley

Looking down Golden Canyon in Death Valley

In other parts of Death Valley, there are lines in the rock. The lines are evidence of the past presence of water. The area was deep under an ocean for many thousands of years.

Much of Death Valley is flat and extremely dry. In fact, scientists believe it is the driest place in the United States. In some areas the ground is nothing but salt. Nothing is able to grow in this salty ground.

However, it would be wrong to think that nothing lives in Death Valley. The valley is full of life. Wildflowers grow very quickly after even a small amount of rain. Some desert plants can send their roots down more than 18 meters to reach water deep in the ground.

Several kinds of birds live in Death Valley, as do mammals and reptiles. Visitors might see the dog-like animal called the coyote, or wild bighorn sheep, or other animals like the desert jackrabbit, the desert tortoise, and a large reptile called a chuckwalla. Many different snakes live there too. Some are dangerous, like the one sidewinder rattlesnake. It is an extremely poisonous snake with long sharp teeth, or fangs.

Throughout history, Native Americans found ways to survive in Death Valley. Rock art and other remains show that humans lived in the valley as far back as 9,000 years ago.

Death Valley is a huge place. It extends more than 225 kilometers across the southern part of California into the neighboring state of Nevada. The valley is part of the Mojave Desert.

The area got its name in 1849. That was the year after gold was discovered in California. Thousands of people from around the country traveled to the gold mining areas of the state. They were in a hurry to get there before other people did.

Many people were not careful during their travels. One group trying to reach California decided to take a path called the Old Spanish Trail. By December they had reached Death Valley. They did not have to survive the terrible heat of summer, but there was still an extreme lack of water. There were too few plants for their work animals to eat. The people could not find a pass through the tall mountains to the west of the valley. Slowly, they began to suffer from a lack of food.

To survive, they killed their work animals for food and began to walk out of the valley. As they left, a woman in the group looked back and said, “Goodbye, death valley.” The name has never been changed.

Death Valley officially became a national park in 1994. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states.

More than one million people visit the park each year.

The narrows of Titus Canyon can be explored either by vehicle or on foot

The narrows of Titus Canyon can be explored either by vehicle or on foot

Titus Canyon is one of the most popular places to visit in the park. It has huge mountains, colorful rocks, ancient rock art and rare plants. There is even a “ghost town,” a town that has abandoned by all its residents. Death Valley is full of ghost towns.

Many people visit Death Valley in late winter and early spring, when wildflowers come to life there. The harsh desert floor becomes very colorful.

This year, some people called the wildflower display a “super bloom.” The National Park Service called this year’s bloom “the best the park has experienced in a decade.” Many rare storms in October brought a lot more rain to the valley than normal. During one storm, almost 8 centimeters of rain fell in the park in just five hours. Death Valley usually gets only five centimeters of rain per year.

This Tuesday, March 1, 2016 photo shows blooming wildflower Purple Phacelia in Death Valley National Park, California.

This Tuesday, March 1, 2016 photo shows blooming wildflower Purple Phacelia in Death Valley National Park, California.

Some visitors come to Death Valley for just a day. Tour buses bring travelers from Las Vegas, Nevada. They ride around the park in their bus, visit several places and are back in their Las Vegas hotel by night.

Cheng Jia, of China, poses by a digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Vistitor Center in Death Vally National Park

Cheng Jia, of China, poses by a digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Vistitor Center in Death Vally National Park

However, many other visitors stay in the park. The most popular area to stay in is Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek is the largest area of human activity within Death Valley National Park. There is a hotel, as well as places to camp.

The historic Inn at Furnace Creek is a beautiful hotel that was built of stone nearly 90 years ago. The inn is built on a low hill. The main public room in the hotel has large windows that look far out over Death Valley. Hotel guests gather near these large windows in the evening to watch the sun make long shadows on the floor of the valley and on the far mountains.

This beautiful image seems to change each minute. The sun slowly turns the valley a gold color that deepens to a soft brown, then changes to a dark red. As night comes, the mountains turn a dark purple color, then black.

Usually, visitors are very quiet as they watch the setting sun. A few try to photograph it. But the valley is too huge to capture in a photo. Most visitors leave only with the memory of the fiery sunset in the extraordinary Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley at sunset

Death Valley at sunset

This year, the U.S. National Park Service turns 100. America’s 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, formed the National Park Service in 1916 to “protect the wild and wonderful landscapes” in the United States.

Today, the National Park Service protects over 400 parks and historical sites from coast to coast. Every week, VOA Learning English will profile one of the sites within the National Park Service.

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