Death Valley National Park Image gallery
Pinnacle, sand dune, Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the continental USA, covers an enormous area - more than 5000 sq miles - that includes other valleys and mountain ranges to the north. Created as part of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, its primary reason for being is conservation, not tourism. Inside this amazing natural playground, you’ll find musical sand dunes, mosaic marbled canyons, boulders that appear to race across the sunbaked desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases and dozens of rare wildlife species that exist nowhere else in the world.
The actual valley is about 140 miles north to south and 10 miles to 20 miles wide, with the Panamint Range on its western side and the Amargosa Range on its eastern side. But it’s not a true valley - it’s a basin formed by earthquake fault lines. The valley floor and the mountain range are joined as a single geological structure, which is slowly rotating: as the valley floor continually sinks, runoff from erosion in the encircling mountains fills Death Valley like an hourglass. Around Badwater, the lowest elevation in the continental USA, the sediment layer could be 9000ft deep.
The rock formations you see today were created by geological events that occurred as long as 500 million years ago. Extensive faulting and fracturing allows some of the oldest rocks to be visible on the earth’s surface, when normally they would be hidden deep underground. Limestone and sandstone were formed on an ancient seabed and slowly lifted by movement in the earth’s crust. The rock strata were bent, folded and cracked as converging tectonic plates pushed up mountain ranges. These stresses led to a period of volcanic activity, explosively distributing ash and cinders that provided much of the rich coloring seen in the valley.
Peak tourist season is during the cooler winter months and in spring when the wildflowers blossom, though flash floods are a danger then. From late March to the week after Easter, all accommodations for over 100 miles can be booked solid for weeks, campgrounds fill before noon and people wait hours to see Scotty’s Castle. Death Valley used to be practically empty in summer, but recently it’s become popular with European travelers who are keen to experience hellaciously hot weather. The highest temperature ever recorded here was 134°F. With a reliable air-conditioned car, a summer trip is possible, but only if you sightsee in the early morning and late evening, spending the hottest part of the day by a pool or at cooler higher elevations. Autumn is quietest.
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