Background

Death Valley is located in southeastern California. It is just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. These mountains to the west squeeze out most of the moisture from Pacific storms, leaving Death Valley in the "rain shadow" receiving an average 1.5 inches of precipitation per year. Due to extremely high temperatures; 120 degrees Fahrenheit is a fairly common summertime temperature; the rain that does fall is subject to an evaporation rate of 150 inches a year. In driving east toward Death Valley in winter, one can see vegetation gradually change from lush green grass on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada to more sparse and hearty brown brush and scrub. There are four major ranges one must cross when traveling from the west: the Sierra Nevada, the Inyo, the Argus, and the Panamint.

Map of California
Death Valley received its name from pioneer miners and settlers who died or nearly died crossing the Valley on their way to the gold rush of 1849. A reporter for the "New York World" fifty years later called Death Valley, "the loneliest, the hottest, the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States." Perhaps because of its reputation, as well as its barren and stark features, it took a while for Death Valley to be recognized by the public and politicians as an important place worth preserving. Just three and half years ago, on October 31, 1994, it was finally promoted to National Park status, with the signing of the historic Desert Protection Act.

 Map of the Great Basin Death Valley is an enclosed basin--rain or water that flows into the basin remains or evaporates. Death Valley forms the southwestern portion of the Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin lives up to its name. It contains nearly 1/4 million square miles covering most of Nevada and portions of Oregon, Utah, and California. Death Valley is different than the hundreds of other valleys in the basin because it's the lowest, hottest, and driest location in the Western Hemisphere. Death Valley itself is 130 miles long and between six and thirteen miles wide. The valley is surround by steep mountain ranges: the Panamint mountains to the west, and the Black, Funeral, and Grapevine mountains to the east. Telescope Peak in the Panamint range is the tallest peak in Death Valley National Park, topping 11,000 feet above sea level.
When you find yourself in a such a dry and barren place, it's difficult to imagine that in the past Death Valley was largely covered with water. Only 2,000 years ago, a 30-foot-deep lake filled part of the valley. About 10,000 years ago there were several lakes, including one body of water know as Lake Manly, which was nearly 600 feet deep! We know about the existence of these lakes from the sediments that they left behind. Evaporation has created a huge salt pan in the valley.  

Bighorn Sheep
Death Valley is home to a variety of wildlife including this bighorn sheep. Photo provided by the National Park Service.

"Geology in a Land of Extremes"

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