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Backpacker Magazine – September 2004

Death Valley Adventure Guide

Lose the sun-baked stereotype and bring thoughts of shady canyons and breezy passes.

by: The Backpacker Editors

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The Timbisha Shoshone called it Tomesha, "The Flaming Land," and to most hikers, Death Valley still conjures images of sun-baked salt flats, crusty prospectors, and skeletons lying face down under a white-hot orb. But this national park harbors a refreshing secret: The blazing sands are surrounded by four rarely traveled ranges--the Cottonwoods, Grapevines, Panamints, and Funerals.

High in these steep, gorge-cut mountains, you can find shady slot canyons, breezy passes, and crystal-clear vistas. Most of this extreme landscape is nameless, trail-less, and waterless. But what it lacks in convenience it more than makes up for in scenery and challenge. 

Ocean Views

Badwater, the Western Hemisphere's lowest point at 282 feet below sea level, was named after a prospector's mule that tried a salty, rank spring and spat it back out. During the Pleistocene Epoch, prehistoric Lake Manly filled Death Valley; it topped out at 600 feet deep about 120,000 years ago. It dried out roughly 8,000 years ago, leaving only alkaline swamps and remnant ponds like Badwater.

Ancient Culture

Though humans have lived in the Death Valley region for 8,000 to 10,000 years, the oldest artifacts you're likely to stumble across are 2,000-year-old stone arrowheads called Amargosa points. They're often found near dry lakebeds and along the Amargosa River Valley. The points are actually the tips of atlatl darts, hybrid spear-arrows propelled from a throwing stick. The nomadic culture that made them also left behind woven baskets, sandals, and petroglyphs, but little in the way of ruins.

Their descendants, the Timbisha "Red Rock Face Paint" Shoshone, were hunter-gatherers who employed a no-nonsense survival strategy: They headed to the mountains every summer. Now the Timbisha may become players in Death Valley tourism. In 2000, Congress expanded the Furnace Creek Reservation, giving the 280-member tribe almost 10,000 acres in gateway regions of Nevada, and 1,640 acres to build homes, a cultural center, inn, museum, and gift shop.

Lizard People

According to various legends--some Native American, some urban--Death Valley is home to a race of mutant humanoids with reptilelike characteristics. Cursed with gross skin deformities, long-fingered hands, and a hunched stride, these creatures supposedly hide in mine shafts to protect their light-sensitive skin. Modern mythmakers link the mutations to radioactive fallout from the nearby Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Older stories, like prospector Bourke Lee's 1932 report of his interview with a Paiute elder, describe encounters with flying saucer people inhabiting caverns in the high Panamints.


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