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Death Valley: A Vibrant Landscape

Death Valley is a land of extremes as the hottest, driest, and lowest-elevation national park. Contrary to the name, however, it is very much alive

It has been estimated that a total of 1,042 plant species, 51 species of native mammals, 346 types of birds, 36 classifications of reptiles, six types of fish, and five species of amphibians have all managed to flourish in this extreme climate. But how ?

Take a closer look at this vibrant landscape reknown for its remarkable beauty, history, and ecology. 

1. Life in Death Valley—Despite the low precipitation and extreme summer temperatures, Death Valley is home to many diverse species, several of which are endemic (found nowhere else in the world). Coyotes, ravens, roadrunners, ground squirrels, and lizards are the most commonly seen wildlife of the region, but there are many species who thrive here.

Other mammals found in Death Valley National Park include desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions, jackrabbits, squirrels, and gophers. To survive in the desert conditions, mammals have developed a number of important adaptions.

For example, did you know kangaroo rats are so adapted to arid environments they don't even need to drink water? Their unique metabolism and specialized kidneys allow them to survive without drinking fresh water or eating moisture-containing leaves. Desert bighorn sheep are the park's largest native animals, and are always on the move. They can go several days without water and are able to bounce back from losing up to a third of their body weight from dehydration. Their survival strategy includes the ability to travel to water—drinking several gallons of water at a time when it is available—and also having the ability to climb mountain slopes. 

Beyond mammals: Death Valley seems an unlikely place to spot fish. However, some fish like Devils Hole pupfish and Salt Creek pupfish have evolved to live here too. The endangered Devils Hole Pupfish resides in 93-degree waters where temperatures and oxygen concentrations are lethal to most other fish. These inch-long, iridescent-blue pupfish are some of the world’s rarest fish.

Tortoises have lived in the Death Valley region for many, many, years—even before the Mojave Desert was a desert. These tortoises spend up to 95% of their lives underground and can be identified by their high-domed shell and elephant-like legs. The Desert Tortoise lives for 50 or more years and feeds primarily on wildflowers, grasses, and cacti. 

2. Common Plant Species—Death Valley National Park encompasses over three million acres and ranges in elevation from 282 feet below sea level to 11,049 feet above sea level. Annual precipitation varies from 1.9 inches on the valley floor to over 15 inches in the higher mountains. This provides a variety of habitats in which both animals and plants have become established.

Vegetation zones include creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite at the lower elevations up through shadscale, blackbrush, Joshua tree, pinyon-juniper, to sub-alpine limber pine and bristlecone pine woodlands. The saltpan is devoid of vegetation, and the rest of the valley floor and lower slopes have sparse cover, yet where water is available, an abundance of vegetation is usually present.

Broad strategies plants have utilized to survive this harsh environment include escaping, resisting, and evading. According to nps.gov, examples of these are: 

Escaper plants- (ex: wildflowers) wait for favorable growing conditions such as rain and cool temperatures and avoid growing during the extreme heat and dry periods.

Resister plants- are able to resist the extreme temperatures and dryness of Death Valley and live year-round. An example of this are mesquite trees, which have roots up to 80 feet long that allow them to reach water deep underground.

Evader plants- (ex: pickleweed) evade the extreme conditions by living near water sources like springs and streams.

Did you know? The Mojave Desert is rich with cacti and succulent species, yet in Death Valley National Park they are scarce due to the extremes of heat, dryness, and soil salinity. Even so, cactus grow from an elevation of 400 feet above sea level to the summits of the surrounding mountains. Often confused with cactus, Joshua trees actually are a type of yucca that can grow up to 30 feet tall. And although sand dunes may be the first mental image of a desert landscape, less than 1% of this desert is covered with dunes. Death Valley hosts scenery ranging from snow-covered mountains and dunes to wildflower-filled meadows and steep, rugged canyons.

In fact, the opportunity to view a spectacular wildflower show is a big draw to Death Valley. About once a decade the park can experience carpets of wildflowers known as a super bloom, which is a very rare, but amazing sight. Even on "normal" bloom years, early spring months can bring smaller pockets of flowers to the desert floor, and later to the mid- and high-elevations.

3. Fascinating history—Cultures have managed to survive here too, stretching back thousands of years.

The Timbisha Shoshone Indians lived here for centuries before the first white man entered the valley. They hunted and followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans with their families. To them, the land provided everything they needed and many areas were, and still are, considered to be sacred places. The Timbisha Shoshone ancestral homelands encompass what is known today as Nevada and California.

More recently, in 1849, a group set out from Salt Lake City, determined to cross the Great Basin and reach California before winter's snows made the Sierra Nevada impassable. Departing Salt Lake, they opted to avoid the Sierra Nevada and take a different route through today's Death Valley. These lost and struggling 49ers are said to have named the valley. 

Named a national monument in February of 1933, Death Valley National Park owes much of its development to the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. From 1933 until 1942, twelve CCC companies improved the area by creating trails, buildings, and camps. 

Not only rich in beauty and pioneer history, Death Valley was known as a prosperous mining mecca for many decades. The valley was mined extensively for gold, silver, copper, tungsten, lead, zinc, antimony, and borax. Chinese workers built Panamint City in the 1870s, and another group of Chinese immigrants toiled in the successful mining operation at Harmony Borax Works. They made a road 160 miles long through the salt pinnacles and raked the borax off the valley floor from 1883 until 1888 when the last 20 mule teams rolled out of the valley. The last contemporary-era mining operation, the Billie Mine, was located along the Dante's View road and ceased operations in 2005.

4. Mysteries—Just when one thinks Death Valley cannot possibly get any more interesting and livelier, along comes knowledge of sailing stones and singing sands!

Racetrack Playa is home to one of Death Valley's most enduring mysteries. It lies in a remote location of the valley, around 83 miles away from Furnace Creek. Strewn across the flat surface of this dry lake are hundreds of rocks that seem to have been dragged across the ground. Sometimes these rocks—weighing as much as 700 pounds—leave synchronized trails. Some of the moving rocks have traveled as far as 1,500 feet. 

What causes these rocks to move? Remote observations from 2011 to 2013 indicate it's a rare combination of water, ice, and wind. Nps.gov describes from scientific observations the combination of events: 

"First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to allow formation of floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form sheets of 'windowpane' ice, which must be thin enough to move freely, but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa pool. The ice sheets shove rocks in front of them and the moving stones leave trails in the soft mud bed below the pool surface."

Another bizarre natural occurrence is a sonic phenomenon in the Eureka sand dunes of Death Valley that has mystified scientists for decades. Eureka Dunes are about three miles long and one mile wide and are known as "singing" or "booming" dunes, which can be found in only 35 desert locations throughout the world. The Eureka Dunes were designated a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior in 1983.

When the sand is very dry and a sand avalanche occurs, strange sounds can be heard. Data suggests vibration moves through the sand and waves are trapped in the dry surface layer of the dune between the air above and the firmer wet sand below. What we hear is some of that energy escaping in the form of a single musical note, most often G, E, or F. The thicker the sand layer, the lower the note. Guests say the sound is reminiscent of the bass note of a pipe organ or the distant drone of an airplane. 

Death Valley is full of life, from vibrant flora and fauna, to a cultured past, scenic landscapes, and fascinating things to learn. As the largest national park in the lower 48 states, it offers striking contrasts and adventure. What would you be most excited to experience here? 

Join Orbridge to see Death Valley on our eight-day program touring Death Valley and more of California's National Parks. 

Sources: nationalparks.org, usgs.gov, doi.gov, nps.gov, visitcalifornia.com