California: Death Valley starkly beautiful

By Ted Simmons

You can't breathe. Every breath is difficult. The sun is hot and burns your skin. Your throat needs water. This is Death Valley National Park in California, an easy drive barely two hours from Las Vegas.

The dramatic Death Valley landscape. Photo / Supplied
The dramatic Death Valley landscape. Photo / Supplied

The time not to visit Death Valley is from May to October, where the maximum temperature can rise to 46C and the minimum is 31C. The record high temperature of 57C was recorded in July 1913 and the lowest minimum was minus 9C in January the same year.

Great extremes haunt this hottest, driest and lowest national park in the United States. The desert supports nearly 1000 native plants and also harbours fish, snails and other aquatic animals which are not found anywhere else.

Death Valley, to the uninitiated, appears to be a vast, empty wasteland but to those interested in research and exploration, it is an area of wonder and endless stories. The colourful and rugged landscape shouts tales of amazing forces that have pushed rock layers upwards and of opposing forces battling to tear them down.

Desert winds whisper romances of the past - of the miners lured by the glitter of gold, of Chinese labourers scraping borax-rich crystals from the valley floor, dust devil stories of partnership between a teller of tall tales and his castle builders.

And throughout the past, present and into the future, the Timbisha Shoshone people live in the area sustained by their "valley of life''.

In 1994, the US Congress changed Death Valley from a national monument to a national park, enlarged the park to its present size and designated most of it as wilderness. It is a land of stories and experiences for those who wish to explore. Stories of gold found in the newly acquired territory of California had been published in the media late in 1848 but President Polk's official notice to Congress sparked the California Gold Rush, enticing more than 250,000 people to join the search for riches during the next four years.

Among those who caught the "gold fever" was 28-year-old William Manly who joined a group from a pioneer wagon train across the desert who were seeking a short cut to the goldfields. They ultimately came into Death Valley in what became the region's first recorded visit.

These "Lost 49ers'' not only survived but picked up mineral samples of high grade silver ore, leading to prospecting which discovered gold and silver and other minerals. Underground mines were created in many areas, in some places leaving abandoned sites and an ecological mess when operations ceased. In the early 20th century, newer technologies changed the mining industry with the arrival of railway lines, roads and cars. Death Valley's last active mine closed in 2005 but consequences still remain of the previous 130 years of mineral extraction. More than 700,000 visitors arrive in Death Valley National Park each year and all are warned of the dangers of the heat and told to resist the temptation of entering a mine opening or an old building.

It is suggested to each visitor to drink at least four litres of water per day to replace loss from perspiration, do not hike in low elevations where temperatures are hotter, if your car breaks down stay with it until help comes and never place your hands or feet where you cannot see first. Rattlesnakes, scorpions or black widow spiders may be sheltered there. And finally, the main cause of death in the Valley is single-car accidents.

Walking in Death Valley is a trying experience. The heat is a constant thick blanket and a hat is compulsory. There are numerous stops where refreshments can be obtained and a must-see visit should be made to Badwater Salt Flats, the nation's lowest elevation at 90m below sea level. The salt flats are 8km across and present a shimmering sight on arrival. A path leads from Badwater Pool to the pure white salt display but there is a lack of shade and the tendency is to take the necessary photos and return to the shelter of your vehicle.

Amongst the other viewing areas are Eureka Dunes rising nearly 200m and the highest dunes in California, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, some 30m high, Darwin Falls, a year-round waterfall with lush vegetation and Desolation Canyon which is a narrow canyon through colourful badlands, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Scotty's Castle.

Prospector "Death Valley Scotty'' claimed this elaborate Spanish-style mansion was built by gold from his fictitious mine. In reality, it was the 1920s holiday home of his wealthy friends. Today, living history tours of the castle's richly furnished interior are given by costumed park rangers. More than 10,000 years ago, the Ice Age ended and early people lived by lakes and streams. As the climate dried, small, mobile family groups travelled between their summer and winter camps and the Timbisha Shoshone trace their ancestry to those people.

From 1492 to 1849, the Shoshone sustained their way of life with their intimate knowledge of Tumpisa (Death Valley) and the surrounding desert. The mining era began in the 1870s, gold was found in 1904, President Hoover established in 1933 the Death Valley National Monument while President Clinton in 1994 re-designated the area as a National Park.

The Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in 2000 allotted the tribe acreage within their ancestral homeland to live on in perpetuity and they now work with the National Park Service to jointly manage zones within the park boundary and to preserve the area and its stories for present and future generations.

Death Valley is unique and the raw desert landscape shapes its human story. Like the mesquite tree, some of its people have deep roots, drawing sustenance from hidden sources. Others blow in on the hot winds of get-rich-quick schemes, then out again on scorched dreams. It is the largest US national park outside of Alaska, at more than 13,000 sq km, and a variety of projects have been planned for its improvement.

Roads will become better, solar energy will be used to produce electricity, rehabilitation projects for park campground facilities and new signs will be created to provide visitors with interesting and accurate information. Mountains make Death Valley extremely dry by forcing most moisture out of eastward-moving clouds before they reach the valley. Under sunny skies, the deep basins trap heat to generate record summer temperatures. It is a landscape of contrasts which creates more niches for life. It is unique.

MORE INFO:

GETTING THERE: Death Valley National Park is about 200km from Las Vegas, a drive of barely two hours, and about 400km from Los Angeles, a drive of little more than four hours.

PLAYING THERE:

Visit the US National Park Service official website

STAYING THERE:

There are various accommodation options inside and outside the park. Visit the official park website or gocalifornia.about.com

- AAP

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