Death Valley Adventure Guide

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

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.

Singing Dunes

For centuries, explorers and naturalists have described strange humming and booming sounds emanating from sand dunes disturbed by foot traffic or sandslides. Marco Polo described them on a journey through the Gobi Desert, and Charles Darwin noted them in Chile. If you hear noises in Death Valley (best chance: Eureka Dunes), credit a natural phenomenon Western science discovered in 1832, and the Chinese knew as early as 880 a.d. It goes something like this: Low frequency sounds occur when dry, closely packed sand grains slide over each other. The stationary sand underneath acts like a guitar backboard, amplifying the volume. Sand must be very dry to sing, with grains that are more rounded and polished than average. Singing dunes are found in China, the Sahara, the Middle East, South Africa, Chile, Baja California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Death Valley.

One Tough Minnow

A few of Lake Manly's hardier descendants survive to this day, led by more than 20 populations of pupfish. Due to their long isolation in miniscule mineral springs, these chubby minnows diverged into 10 distinct subspecies, some bland, others colorful. They inhabit the most stressful "freshwater" environments on Earth; water temperatures range from 32°F to 113°F and fluctuate as much as 45°F in a day. Salt content varies from negligible to more than twice that of seawater. And on hot days, dissolved oxygen can drop to less than one part per million.

Vitals

3.3 Size, in millions of acres, making Death Valley larger than Connecticut and all other national parks in the continental U.S.

1.3 Millions of acres added to Death Valley in 1994 when President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, which redesignated Death Valley a national park

11,049 Height in feet of Death Valley's highest point, Telescope Peak, in the Panamint Range

9,000 Years that the Timbisha Shoshone and their predecessors have occupied Death Valley

134 Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit on the hottest day ever recorded in Death Valley--and the United States--on July 10, 1913

136 Temperature recorded in 1922 in El Azizia, Libya, the world's hottest spot

43 Number of consecutive days in 1999 that Death Valley recorded highs over 120 degrees F

0 The approximate odds for surviving a hard hike in those temperatures

1.9 Average annual rainfall in inches in the lower Death Valley basin

Expedition Planner

Prep This is a remote outpost with few amenities. Stock up in Las Vegas (2 1/2 hours) on food, fuel, water, sunscreen, and USGS topos.

Weather In Death Valley, you work with the seasons, because you can't work against them. Summer temps hit 115°F, and winter windstorms rage hard enough to pit windshields. As Ed Abbey put it, "Here, they separate the desert rats from the mice." Spring and fall are prime time for mountain travel.

Cautions Deal with the lack of water by building hikes around water caches--or just carrying a lot of it (6 liters a day). Beware of flash floods during thunderstorms. Use caution when scrambling; the rock is rotten. Watch the ground; sidewinders abound in the washes.

Permits and regulations Overnight backcountry permits are not required, but registration is recommended. Camping is permitted 2 miles or more from a front country road, day-use area, or developed facility, and at least 200 yards from water.

Contact (760) 786-3200; www.nps.gov/deva