Death Valley
Historic Resource Study
A History of Mining
NPS Logo


B. Setting

1. Land of Varied Attractions

Death Valley National Monument lies mostly within the state of California, although the Bullfrog Hills area in its northeast corner extends over into Nevada. The park was created by Presidential Proclamation on 11 February 1933, and after some boundary changes it now encompasses about 3,000 square miles of varied desert and mountain terrain. Its landscape has been shaped by tremendous volcanic forces resulting in faulting and folding of the earth's crust. Subsequent erosion and deposition have resulted in the spectacular badlands formations along Furnace Creek Wash and in the large alluvial fans at the mouths of the many canyons that open onto the valley floor. Evidence still remains of the Ice Age lake that once filled the valley, formed by runoffs from the nearby Sierra Nevada glaciers.

It is a land of strong visual contrasts, none of which were appreciated by the first white men who entered the region. This group of '49ers became lost in Death Valley while seeking a shortcut to the California goldfields, and escaped only after days of severe hardship and deprivation. Today's visitor is able to view the spectacular scenery from well-maintained roads, and comfortable accommodations help make a visit to the area a most enjoyable experience. Driving along the valley floor from the southeast to the north one passes through about 200 square miles of salt flats, beginning in the sticky playa clay around Saratoga Springs and ending in the salt pinnacles, pools, and marshes that make up the salt pan in the middle section of the valley. Here also is Badwater, lowest elevation in the United States and consequently one of the park's main tourist attractions. Further north near Stovepipe Wells Resort are fourteen square miles of picturesque sand dunes, fascinating because of their instability that makes them victim to the ever-shifting vagaries of the wind and light. In the most northern section of the monument is the Ubehebe, an area of volcanic activity characterized by several craters, foremost among them being Ubehebe Crater, 800 feet deep and one-half mile in diameter. Other tourist attractions in this area include the Racetrack Valley, stage for the moving rocks, and Scotty's Castle, a mansion blending Spanish and Italian designs that was built in the Grapevine Mountains by Albert Johnson, a Chicago millionaire, for Death Valley's enigma, Walter Scott.

In contrast to the parched valley floor, the surrounding high mountain ranges harbor forests of juniper, mountain mahogany, and pinyon and other assorted pines, while thirteen species of cactus are found at slightly lower elevations. Animal life in the area covers a broad spectrum, ranging from chuckwallas, lizards, and snakes, to rodents, the more exotic pupfish and tarantulas, and larger mammals such as the coyote, fox, feral burro, and desert bighorn sheep. The extreme heat of the valley forces a nocturnal life-style on the animal population, somewhat restricting the public's view of them.

2. Weather and Temperature

For about six months of the year, in fact, the heat on the valley floor is unbearable, with temperatures in summer normally climbing well above 100 degrees F., resulting in a phenomenally high ground temperature, especially on the salt pan. The mountain air is generally several degrees cooler, however, prompting the early Indian inhabitants to live on the floor of the valley only during the winter, and migrate to the higher spots in the summer. Rarely is rain able to pass over the enclosing mountain ranges, making precipitation almost nonexistent on the salt flats. Average annual rainfall is about 1.7 inches, though in some years rainfall is inordinately heavy, washing out roads and precipitating flash floods. The unfortunate effects are somewhat alleviated by the appearance in spring of numerous patches of glorious wildflowers, contrasting strikingly with the dark volcanic hillsides.

3. Topography

Death Valley itself is a deep north-south trough thousands of feet below the summits of the mountains that border it. The driving distance from the foot of the Last Chance Mountains in the extreme northwest corner of the park to a point near Saratoga Springs in the southeast corner is a little over 130 miles; the width of the valley varies from around five to over fifteen miles. At about its midpoint the valley narrows and its axial direction swings to the northwest-southeast. Also at this point low sedimentary hills begin to intrude on the desert floor, and have been construed by some as dividing the valley into two separate and distinct entities. An early 1890s government report, in fact, referred to the southern section of the park as Death Valley proper and to the northern arm as Lost Valley, a distinction continued by a host of later writers. Today, however, the entire area is considered an integral whole despite its variations in topography.

4. Panamint Range

The Panamint Mountains that parallel Death Valley on the west were thus designated by Dr. Darwin French in 1860, although the significance of the name is not known. Highest point in the range is Telescope Peak, 11,049 feet above sea level, and a prominent landmark that remains snow-capped most of the year. It is particularly impressive in contrast to the flat, arid desert floor immediately in front of it. The northwest quadrant of the park is bordered by the northern extension of the Panamints, the Cottonwood Mountains, which stretch north from Towne Pass. Their northern tip extends into the Ubehebe area, separating Hidden Valley from the main valley floor. Highest peak of this range is Tin Mountain, 8,953 feet in elevation. Bordering on the west side of Racetrack Valley is the extreme southern end of the Last Chance Range.

5. Amargosa Range

Extending down the east boundary of the park is the Amargosa Range, an all-encompassing term that includes three distinct series of mountains: the Grapevines, in the northeast corner, possessing the longest valley frontage end the highest ridges, culminating in Grapevine Peak at 8,738 feet above sea level; the Funeral Mountains, facing the midsection of the valley and located between Boundary Canyon and Furnace Creek Wash; and the Black Mountains, rising steeply from the salt flats in the southern end of the monument and extending south to merge with the Ibex Hills. The Owlshead and Avawatz mountains close off the southern end of the valley.

6. Roads and Trails

Access to Death Valley is possible via a comparatively large number of mountain passes, many of which, due to the valley floor's situation below sea level, possess relatively steep grades. From the west, entrance can be made via Searles Lake and Trona across the Panamint Valley to Ballarat, thence up into the Panamint Range through Wildrose Canyon, along the old road once used by freighters carrying goods from Johannesburg to Skidoo and environs. The route was originally pioneered by burro trains hauling charcoal from the kilns in Wildrose Canyon to the Modoc Mine in the Argus Range. In Wildrose Canyon the road forks, the southern branch proceeding on to the kilns and Thorndike's camp close to the Panamint crest near Telescope Peak, the other going north toward Harrisburg Flats and Emigrant Spring. Old trails lead across the flats to Skidoo and other nearby mines and prospects. The Harrisburg road has been extended on to the crest of the Panamint Range at Aguereberry Point from which a gorgeous panorama of the valley floor unfolds below. North of Emigrant Spring the road exits from Emigrant Canyon out onto Emigrant Wash, in the north-central part of the valley, joining California State Highway 190 just east of Towne Pass. This faster route crosses over the Panamints from Lone Pine, following the tracks of the old Eichbaum toll road, a forty-mile stretch built in the 1920s from the foot of Darwin Wash to Stovepipe Wells in order to promote tourism in the valley. These two routes are handy for traffic bound between Los Angeles and Goldfield or other northeast Nevada points.

In the extreme north part of the valley, entry can be made from the east over a good paved road from Sand Spring through Death Valley Wash. Another good route from the east leaves U.S. Route 95 at Scotty's Junction and winds down Grapevine Canyon past Scotty's Castle. Titus Canyon, a little further south in the Grapevines, is a one-way road from the east branching off of the Beatty-Daylight Pass Road, and is characterized by a sandy and tortuous grade varying in width and steepness throughout its approximately twenty-eight-mile length. Originally built to promote the short-lived boom town of Leadfield, it is often closed due to washing and erosion. It is now used mostly for leisurely sightseeing trips. The next large pass south, Boundary Canyon, is one of the earliest-known entryways, probably having been traversed by one group of the '49ers. Travelers from Beatty or Rhyolite enter here, and then can go either south to Furnace Creek, west to Stovepipe Wells Hotel, or north to Ubehebe. Furnace Creek Wash is the most famous early passage to the valley, as evidenced by its designation as the "Gateway of the '49ers." It provides access northwest from Shoshone or Death Valley Junction and, like Boundary Canyon, is a natural break in the mountains. Travelers can also enter the monument west from Shoshone and Tecopa via Salsberry Pass.

In the southeast corner of the monument several smaller routes unite near the south boundary before entering the valley below Ibex Spring. One comes from Mojave, Randsburg, and Johannesburg via Granite Wells and Owl Holes Wash; one originates in Barstow and Daggett and approaches the valley by way of Garlic Spring, Cave Spring, and Cave Spring Wash; while a third enters from Silver Lake through Riggs Valley. These are old desert roads built from water hole to water hole, and their use varies according to climatic conditions. Another now-unused route entered the southwest corner of the valley via Wingate Pass, rounding the south end of the Panamints. This road, originally used by the borax-carrying twenty-mule teams, is always sandy, sometimes washed, and always tricky to navigate. Only twenty or so miles of the route are now open to travel, the remainder being part of the Naval Weapons Range.

7. Water Holes

Water is always a precious commodity in desert environments, and no less so in Death Valley, which contains an about-average supply of watering places, although slightly more than Panamint Valley, its higher neighbor to the west, and many more than Saline Valley to the northwest, which contains not a single water source. Most of Death Valley's supply, however, is characteristically warm and tainted with minerals. Several important water holes are located along West Side Road, including Gravel Well; Bennetts Well, named for Asa Bennett of the Bennett-Arcane party of '49ers; Shortys Well; and Tule Spring, now thought to have been the last camping spot of the Bennett-Arcane party before their rescue. In the Panamint Range are Wildrose and Emigrant springs, both heavily used by Indians and miners. Further north on the valley floor are Salt Well, located beside the main valley road four miles southwest of old Stovepipe Wells, actually nothing more than a pothole filled with saline water that is used mostly by stock; Stovepipe Wells, originally two holes about five feet deep providing good water for early Indian and miner transients and later for the Rhyolite-Skidoo trade; Sand Spring, north of the monument boundary; Grapevine Springs near Scotty's Ranch; Daylight Spring near Daylight Pass; Hole-in-the-Rock Spring in Boundary Canyon; Furnace Creek; Bradbury Well in the Black Mountains; and Ibex and Saratoga springs further southeast.

Valley watercourses consist of the Amargosa River, an intermittent stream flowing north through the southeast corner of the monument near Saratoga Spring and continuing up to the vicinity of Badwater Basin where it loses itself in the salt flat. Because it never carries much of a flow it often peters out before reaching even this point. Salt Creek, an undrinkable stream, flows south from about the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells thirty miles down the middle of the valley, and is responsible for the often marshy conditions near the salt pools where it terminates in the Middle Basin area. Furnace Creek, given this name by Dr. Darwin French in 1860 supposedly because of the presence of a crude ore reduction furnace in the vicinity, is fed by Funeral Mountain springs, mainly Travertine and Texas. Its plentiful water supply has enabled the Furnace Creek Wash area to become a veritable garden spot and eventually the site of two large resorts.

8. Tourism

In the years since its opening to the public Death Valley National Monument has become one of California's most popular scenic areas. Its rich and varied history involving the Indian, emigrant, and mining communities, is a constant source of interest and amazement to visitors. Their new appreciation of the area's scenic splendor and of its wealth of prehistorical and historical resources linked to its early aboriginal and mining cultures has done much to dispel the vision of Death Valley as a hot, barren wasteland. [8]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Dec-2003