Death Valley: Then and Now

The jagged mountains of Death Valley form a barrier like broken glass atop a wall. They were a warning to the fortune seekers who wished to pass through to the gold fields of California, or lay claim to any of the gold, silver, copper, or borax hidden deep inside the ancient seabed. The mountains also provided a temporary wall of protection to the land’s original inhabitants – the Timbisha Shoshone.

Death Valley National Park is at the same time peaceful yet threatening, stark yet lush, and a mesmerizing, illusory kaleidoscope of flowers, minerals, dreams, and disappointments. The park claims a unique distinction in the U.S. national park movement. As the first desert park, its founders dashed the idea that extraordinary beauty and landscape worth protecting is defined solely by majestic mountains surrounded by lush forests, lakes, and waterfalls. National parks can also be characterized by significant geological features, fragile ecosystems, and unique cultural and historical resources.

Our goal with Death Valley: Then and Now is to tell the park’s story by matching beautiful and fascinating archival photographs with photos from today. Join us as we reveal the hidden history of familiar locations. The galleries of this collection are set up thematically and mostly chronologically, from the earliest settlers in the 1850s to the neon-clad tourists visiting in 2022.


Click on the titles below to view each gallery. Please check back periodically, as we are building this collection over time.

Black and white photograph of a man leading a mule on sand dunes with mountains in the distance.

Perils of Opportunity- Mines and the Miners

In the last half of the 19th Century, there were those who decided to leave the relatively organized societies of St. Louis, Chicago, or New York to try to find a new life for themselves in California. These travelers were often drawn by the illusory dreams of riches, or sought freedom from stifling traditions. After a difficult journey across the plains and deserts of the Great Basin, some took a southern “shortcut” across Death Valley to avoid the snowy passes of the Sierra Nevada. Here they encountered a parched, unforgiving landscape with summer temperatures which regularly soar to 120 degrees fahrenheit or more. Some, like “Shorty” Harris, Pete Aguereberry, and William Coleman decided to stay and work the rock, eking out a living on gold, silver, copper, and borax. Most moved on as quickly as possible to the verdant valleys beyond the mountains.

Black and white image of a cluster of buildings and canvas tents in a wide desert canyon.

Perils of Opportunity - The Mining Towns

The flow of miners grew around the turn of the 20th Century as word spread of gold that was just lying around on the ground. Nevada boom towns like Tonopah, Goldfield, Rhyolite, and Beatty paved the path southward along what is now U.S. Highway 95. From Rhyolite, old-timers like “Shorty” Harris led new arrivals into Death Valley and its nearby mountains, where they sometimes found deposits of valuable minerals. Millions of dollars of gold, silver, and copper were eventually extracted from some of these mines, but the richest discovery ended up being borax.

The increase in the number of prospectors led to tensions between Native Americans and miners, who typically had little respect for Native rights. The federal government intervened to maintain order while pressuring native people to give up mineral-rich lands.

Black and white image of a man driving an old car with part of a building and tree in the background.

Tourism - The Entrepreneurs

As mining opportunities diminished, there were those, particularly the owners of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who saw the opportunity to transform some of the old mining camps and facilities into hotels and other visitor services. The increase in automobile ownership eased the journey into the valley from the growing population center of Los Angeles. Roads were built along the mining and emigrant trails, and the first tourist accommodations were established to welcome hot and weary travelers.

Black and white image of two men and a woman standing on a tile porch with a telescope and part of a building in the background.

Tourism - The Showmen

Death Valley Scotty - it’s remarkable that in such an expansive landscape, one person has so captured the public’s imagination. Even though he died 68 years ago, Scotty’s presence in the stories of the park endures. The mansion in Grapevine Canyon, built and owned by Albert Johnson, is known as Scotty’s Castle.

However, Scotty wasn’t the only person who knew how to promote. There were big events such as the Great New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908 which ran right through Rhyolite, Stovepipe Wells, and Ballarat. In 1937, the Wedding of the Waters celebrated the opening of the Whitney Portal Road to Badwater Road, connecting the highest waters in the land to the lowest.

Black and white image of a car and a person in the bottom of a gravel wash with narrow vertical rock walls towering on all sides.

Tourism - Finding Desert Solitude

Death Valley National Monument was created in 1933 after years of effort to protect it from mining and other interests. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that Congress designated Death Valley a national park. One of the reasons for the long wait was that the desert had negative connotations for many Americans and was often seen an inhospitable and threatening wilderness wasteland, not a national treasure.

Fast forward to our modern, fast-paced world. Today, many people travel to the park specifically to find the solitude of that same daunting wilderness. At over 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. Here it is not hard to find places devoid of people, where your only company is the heat, the rocks, the quiet, and open space.

Black and white image of several buildings in a barren desert landscape with mountains in the distance.

Fighting for Justice

Death Valley is no stranger to the challenges that have confronted American society over the past 150 years: the Timbisha fought to hold on to their homeland, Depression-era workers struggled for an economic foothold through the Civilian Conservation Corps and Japanese Americans were rushed to Cow Creek from their incarceration at Manzanar during World War II.

Black and white image of divers and gear around a small pool of water surrounded by natural rock walls.

Protection and Preservation

There was a time when desert ecosystems were not considered worthy of protection. Deserts were viewed by many as wastelands, devoid of life, valuable only for the wealth that could be extracted from the unending rocky landscape. With no large waterfalls, forests, or mountain majesty, even the National Park System had a hard time seeing the sense in protecting a place like Death Valley. Fortunately, there were those who saw things differently, people like Bob Eichbaum, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright and activist Edna Perkins who saw in the landscape “a mantle of such strange beauty that we felt it was the noblest thing we had ever imagined.” There was also a tiny pupfish that opened a window to preservation, and restoration that unleashed the power of Earth’s resilience.

Black and white image of three old vehicles crossing jagged salt flats with people posing for the camera near and on the vehicles.

Power of the Earth

Death Valley is a marvelous exhibit of the forces that shape our planet: it’s clash of tectonic plates that have lifted sea floors to towering heights, the extremes of temperature from the heat of the valley floor to the freezing snow on the mountaintops, and the flash floods that flip cars and tear the earth apart.

By visiting Death Valley, one begins to understand the depth of geologic time. The erosion that has carved the canyons happens slowly (except during flood events) due to little rain, the collected water at Badwater melted from glaciers in the mountains of Nevada 15,000 years ago, and the changing climate turned a massive lake (Lake Manly) into a desert valley that is one of the harshest on the planet. In human time, it all happens slowly, but in geologic time, it’s a blink of an eye.

Colorful watercolor painting of a desert canyon.

Painting Death Valley

Painters and photographers have long been drawn to Death Valley’s rapid changes in light, its vast and stark landscapes, and vibrant, yet nuanced colors. The intensity of the desert environment plays tricks with the soul of the artist - it’s rough, it’s abstract. The lines are remarkably precise before they blur with time. Each of these paintings reflect the humility of the artist in Death Valley’s overwhelming setting.

Last updated: September 8, 2022

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Death Valley, CA 92328


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