Hiking Trails in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park - History

The human stories in this vast land are as numerous as the variations of color found in the hills and valleys here. Whether it was the lure of mineral wealth or the resort industry that brought people here, every person who entered this valley experienced it in a different way. Exploring those differences is what makes a study of the ethnic history of Death Valley so exciting and challenging.

Native Americans
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. To them, the land provided everything they needed and many areas were, and are, considered to be sacred places.

Black Forty-niners
The party of emigrants coming into Death Valley in 1849 had an experience that would ultimately establish Death Valley’s reputation. While much is known about some of the members of this group, the histories of others remain hidden. There were 3 black men in the group of 49ers who traversed Death Valley during that fateful trip. They were Negro Joe, Little West and Smith. Negro Joe was possibly the slave of Dr. Fred Carr. Little West was a slave, unknown owner, probably from Mississippi and Smith, the third man, was from Missouri. Smith travelled with a group of German immigrants for a time and then followed the Jayhawkers. His ultimate fate was unknown but it was rumored that he was killed by Indians after leaving Panamint Valley. How did Smith happen to be travelling with the ‘49ers? What were the experiences of Negro Joe and Little West here? Their stories remain an intriguing mystery.

Chinese Workers
As silver and borax discoveries brought people into Death Valley in the late 1800’s, another ethnic group came into the Valley. Chinese workers built Panamint City in the 1870’s, but they didn’t stay in the area. Another group toiled in the successful mining operation at Harmony Borax. They made a road 160 miles long through the salt pinnacles and raked the borax off the valley floor from 1883 until 1888 when the last 20 mule teams rolled out of the valley. Then, they, too, disappeared, leaving only bits of broken bottles, pottery shards and remnants of porcelain in their place. What were their feelings about this place? Did they ever come back? Questions, with no known answers.

Basque History
The Basque history of Death Valley has produced several people of note. Dolph Nevares was employed by the Pacific Coast borax company as the Greenland ranch caretaker in 1900 and later, as a prospector for borax. He left the borax company and settled at Cow Creek where he grew fruits and vegetables. “ One day I looked around wondering where time had gone--50 years of it” Eventually Dolph left Death Valley and moved to San Bernardino. Domingo Etcharren was known as the Basque butcher from Ballarat. He was also the prospecting partner of Jack Keane. In December 1903 they found gold. Domingo took his profits and bought land in Darwin, becoming a leading citizen of that town. He and Pete Aguereberry, another Basque, were good friends. Pete had come into Death Valley in the summer of 1905 to prospect. While travelling with Shorty Harris, he found gold. In the aftermath of that strike the town of Harrisburg came into being. Long after Harrisburg had boomed out, Pete continued to work in his Eureka mine until death stopped the old prospector and miner in 1945.

Japanese American Internees
When a riot broke out at Manzanar War Relocation Camp in December 1942, a group of 65 Japanese and Japanese American internees were brought into Death Valley for their safety. They were housed in old CCC barracks at Cow Creek and for approximately three months they lived and voluntarily worked with a skeleton crew of National Park Service staff. By mid February jobs and sponsors had been found for them in other parts of the country and they left Death Valley.

In the overall time span of Death Valley their footsteps were as transient as the patterns of shifting sand. The quest to discover their tantalizing legacy is as challenging as the quest to strike it rich that brought so many of them to this area. This is the quest that you and I can embark on today as we explore this land of a thousand stories.

Death Valley National Park - Wildlife

Death Valley's great range of elevations and habitats support a variety of wildlife species, including 51 species of native mammals, 307 species of birds, 36 species of reptiles, three species of amphibians, and five species and one subspecies of native fishes. Small mammals are more numerous than large mammals, such as desert bighorn, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and mule deer. Mule deer are present in the pinyon/juniper associations of the Grapevine, Cottonwood, and Panamint Mountains.

Death Valley National Park - Geology

Death Valley National Park is one of many units within the National Park service established because of its underlying geologic theme. Death Valley NP is renowned world-wide for its exposed, complex, unique tectonics and diverse geologic resources. Contained within its boundaries is a diverse rock record stretching throughout most of geologic time. From 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rocks exposed in the Black mountains, to recent playa sediments deposited in the valley basins, Death Valley possesses a superb geologic record. Paramount is the realization that Death Valley’s geology is an ongoing dynamic process. Wind, water, and plate tectonics are still hard at work, shaping the park on a day-to-day basis.

Death Valley is currently building a rock collection of the park’s stratigraphy. The following list of geologic formations and corresponding ages represents what has been collected in the park and available for viewing at our curitorial facility. 41 formations are listed with a number correlating them to the original reference used to describe and locate them. Based on research, 61 formations are known to exist in the park. Those missing 20 formations have not yet been added to our Stratigraphy Collection. It should be noted that 3 formations have been given unofficial names: Warm Spring Granite, Skidoo Granite, and Strozzi’s Ranch Rhyolite.

Death Valley National Park show-cases the subtle beauty and uniqueness of desert environments. What events conspired to create Death Valley? Why is the landscape so varied, and so extreme? Badwater Basin contains the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level, yet it lies in the afternoon shadow of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. This rugged topography, as well as sand dunes, craters, and flood-carved canyons, indicate that Death Valley has experienced a lengthy and complex geologic history.

Ancient Seas
Death Valley’s rocks, structure and landforms offer a wealth of information about what the area may have looked like in the past. It is apparent that there has not always been a valley here. Death Valley’s oldest rocks, formed at least 1.7 billion years ago, are so severely altered that their history is almost undecipherable. Rocks dating from 500 million years ago, however, paint a clearer picture. The limestones and sandstones found in the Funeral and Panamint Mountains indicate that this area was the site of a warm, shallow sea throughout most of the Paleozoic Era (542 - 251 million years ago.)

Warped Mountains
Time passed and the sea began to slowly recede to the west as land was pushed up. This uplift was due to movement occurring far beneath the Earth’s surface. Scientists have discovered that the Earth’s crust is composed of inter-connected sections, or plates. Death Valley lies near the boundary between two of these plates. As the plates slowly move in relation to each other, compressional forces gradually fold, warp and fracture the brittle crust. This widespread rock deformation and faulting occurred through most of the Mesozoic Era (251 - 65.5 million years ago.) While the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada formed, active mountain building alternated with times when erosion prevailed, worked to breaking down the mountains that had formed.

Traveling Volcanoes
The next phase in Death Valley’s development was primarily influenced by volcanic activity that spanned much of the Tertiary Period (65.5 - 2 million years ago.) As fault movement and mountain building stretched the land surface, the crust was weakened. Hot, molten material beneath the surface welled up and erupted at these weak points. The seething volcanoes first appeared to the northeast, in Nevada, and blanketed the Death Valley region with numerous layers of ash and cinders. The topography then consisted of gently rolling hills, perhaps simular to the present-day Skidoo area. Over time, the center of volcanic activity moved progressively westward, finally producing a chain of volcanoes from Furnace Creek to Shoshone, burying the ancient rocks of the Black Mountains. Secondary results of the ash and cinder eruptions include the vivid colors of the Artist’s Palette and Death Valley’s famous borate mineral deposits.

Basin and Range
Approximately three million years ago, the dynamics of crustal movement changed, and Death Valley proper began to form. At that time, compression was replaced by extensional forces. This "pulling apart" of Earth’s crust allowed large blocks of land to slowly slide past one another along faults, forming alternating valleys and mountain ranges. 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. Evidence of this can be seen in the fresh fault scarps exposed near Badwater.

Erosion and Deposition
Concurrent with the subsidence has been slow but continuous erosion. Water carries rocks, gravel, sand and silt down from surrounding hills and deposits them on the valley floor. Beneath Badwater lies more than 11,000 feet of accumulated sediment and salts.

Lost Lakes
In addition to structural changes, Death Valley has been subjected to major climatic changes throughout the past three million years. During North America’s last major Ice Age, the valley was part of a system of large lakes. The lakes disappeared approximately 10,000 years ago, evaporating as the climate warmed. As the lakes evaporated, vast fields of salt deposits were left behind. A smaller, now vanished, lake system occupied the basin floor about 3000 years ago.

Yesterday's Volcano
Signs of recent volcanic activity exist in northern Death Valley at Ubehebe Crater. Caused by violent steam explosions, the craters formed as recently as 300 years ago when hot, molten material came in contact with groundwater. These large depressions show that Death Valley's geology is dynamic and ever changing .

Shape of the Future
Death Valley’s landscape has been changing for millions of years. It is changing now, and will continue to change long after we have departed. Erosion slowly carves away at the ancient rock formations, reshaping the surface of the land. The basin continues to subside and the mountains rise ever higher. It is interesting to imagine, but impossible to predict, the future of Death Valley.
During your visit here, take time to explore the canyons, salt flats, dune fields and mountains See if you, too, can unlock secrets of Death Valley’s long and colorful geologic history.

Death Valley National Park - Ecology

Despite its reputation as a lifeless wasteland, Death Valley National Park contains a great diversity of plants. The park covers over 3 million acres of Mojave and Great Basin desert terrain, with elevations ranging from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin to 11,049 feet on the summit of Telescope Peak. Annual precipitation varies from 1.9 inches on the valley floor to over 15 inches in the higher mountains.

Vegetation zones include creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite at the lower elevations up through shadscale, blackbrush, Joshua tree, pinyon-juniper, to sub-alpine limber pine and bristlecone pine woodlands. The saltpan is devoid of vegetation, and the rest of the valley floor and lower slopes have sparse cover, yet where water is available, an abundance of vegetation is usually present.

Cacti and Desert Succulents
The Mojave Desert is rich with cacti and succulent species, yet in Death Valley National Park they are scarce due to the extremes of heat, dryness and soil salinity. Even so, cactus grow from an elevation of 400 feet above sea level to the summits of the surrounding mountains.

The cactus species most commonly seen are cottontop barrel, silver cholla, and beavertail cactus. Engelmann hedgehog cactus are locally abundant above 3000 feet elevation. Grizzly bear pricklypear is the most common species in the pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Joshua trees--the indicator species of the Mojave Desert--are found in only a few locations here. The Lee Flat area contains the finest stand in the park.

In contrast to other succulent species, pickleweed is very salt-tolerant and can be found in marshy areas below sea level.

These questions are often asked by people planning spring visits to Death Valley. Although there are many variables involved in the desert wildflower shows, there are a few guidelines you can use to find answers to these questions.

Some years the desert is spectacular with wildflowers; other years the blossoms are almost nonexistent (but never totally absent). A good wildflower year depends on at least three things:

-Well-spaced rainfall through-out the winter and early spring
-Sufficient warmth from the sun
-Lack of desiccating winds

There are over 1000 plant species in Death Valley National Park, including 13 species of cactus and 23 endemics (plants that are known to grow only in the Death Valley region). Most of the "showy" plants are desert annuals, also referred to as ephemerals (short-lived). Colors range from white and yellow to purple, blue, red and bright magenta.

The best time to see a spring floral display is in years when rainfall has been several times the Death Valley annual average of about 1.9 inches. In general, heavy rains in late October with no more rain through the winter months, will not bring out the flowers as well as rains that are evenly-spaced throughout the winter and into the spring.

Peak Blooming Periods for Death Valley are usually:

Mid February - Mid April at lower elevations (valley floor and alluvial fans)
Best Areas: Jubilee Pass, Highway 190 near the Furnace Creek Inn, base of Daylight Pass
-Dominant species: desert star, blazing star, desert gold, mimulus, encelia, poppies, verbena, evening primrose, phacelia, and various species of cacti (usually above the valley floor).

Early April - Early May at 2,000 to 4,000 ft. elevations
Best areas: Panamint Mountains
-Dominant species: paintbrush, Mojave desert rue, lupine, Joshua tree, bear poppy, cacti and Panamint daisies.

Late April - Early June above 4,000 ft. elevations
Best areas: High Panamints
-Dominant species: Mojave wildrose, rabbitbrush, Panamint daisies, mariposa lilies and lupine.

Death Valley National Park - Contact

Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum
Open Daily, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time
Phone: (760) 786-3200

The visitor center is located in the Furnace Creek resort area on California highway 190. Furnace Creek is 30 miles from Death Valley Junction to the east, and 24 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village to the north and west.

Special Programs
A 15 minute long introductory slide program is shown throughout the day. During the winter season, November through March, rangers present a wide variety of walks, talks, and slide presentations about Death Valley cultural and natural history.

The visitor center has displays dealing with the geology, climate, wildlife and natural history of the park. There are also specific sections dealing with the human history and pioneer experience.

Available Facilities
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the main visitor information source for the park. There is a fully staffed information desk with information on all aspects of the park and it's operation. The Death Valley Natural History Association maintains a well stocked book sales outlet specifically geared towards the natural and cultural history of the park.

Scotty's Castle Visitor Center & Museum
Open Daily
Summer 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Winter 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Phone: (760) 786-2392

Scotty's Castle and the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center are located at the north end of Death Valley National Park 53 miles from Furnace Creek and approximately 45 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village. From U.S. Route 95, 154 miles north of Las Vegas, it is 26 miles to Scotty's Castle on Nevada State Route 267.

Special Programs
The highlight of a visit to Scotty's Castle is the 50 minute long guided living history tour of the interior of the main house. The tours are first- come-first-served on the day of the tour. Tickets are available at the Castle Ticket Office during the winter months and at the Visitor Center during the summer. A self-guiding tour of the Castle grounds is available. Check at the Castle Ticket Office for information and guide booklet.

The Scotty's Castle Visitor Center contains exhibits and interactive displays from the Castle Museum Collection. Exhibits cover the fascinating history of the Castle with special emphasis on the two personalities Death Valley Scotty and Albert M. Johnson.

Available Facilities
During the summer season, from April through October, the Visitor Center serves as the ticket office for guided tours of Scotty's Castle. The Death Valley Natural History Association operates a book sales outlet in the Visitor Center. The Association makes available books and information on the story of Scotty's Castle and general information on Death Valley. Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates a sandwich shop and gift shop on the Castle grounds, and also operates a gasoline station during the day.

Death Valley National Park
P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328

By Phone
Visitor Information
(760) 786-3200

Commercial Permits
(760) 786-3241

By Fax
(760) 786-3283