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location of the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level
Death Valley is a deep trough about 130 miles long and 6-14 miles wide near the California-Nevada border. It is bounded by the Amargosa Range (east), Panamint Range (west), Sylvania Mountains (north), and Owlshead Mountains (south). The valley is a block in the earth's surface that was dropped down by the faults which form its east and west walls
Because it is bounded by mountains on all sides, hot, dry air masses often get trapped in the valley. Average rainfall is about 2 inches a year, and the average August high temperature for Furnace Creek (the official weather station in Death Valley) is 113.9°F. The highest temperature ever recorded in the United States, 134°F, was reported from a ranch in the valley on July 10, 1913. By contrast, the average January low is 39.3°F.
It may be hard to believe, but Death Valley hasn't always been so dry. Geologic evidence shows that much of the valley was filled by a series of lakes during the glacial period from 240,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. Sediments left behind the retreating glaciers gradually built up, however, and by the end of the glacial period the entire region had been cut off from its supply of Sierra Nevada meltwaters. The result is the dry, sandy landscape seen today.
Despite its name and foreboding appearance, Death Valley is actually full of life. Creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite are some of the plants commonly found in the valley, and the otherwise barren dunes literally burst into bloom with wild grasses and flowers after seasonal rains. Death Valley and its surrounding cliffs are also home to 51 species of mammals, 36 reptiles, 5 amphibians, and 346 birds, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, rats, rabbits, squirrels, desert bighorn sheep, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, house finches, geckos, and even treefrogs.
Inhabited by Native Americans for at least 9,000 years, the first "westerners" to cross Death Valley were miners heading for the gold fields in 1849, and they were the ones who gave it its name. Gold and silver were mined from the mountains surrounding the valley in the 1850's, and borax mining operations boomed during the 1880's and 1890's. The only remnants of these booms that remain today are dozens of small ghost towns and one remaining borax processing facility (the 20 Mule Team brand). Death Valley National Monument was established on February 11, 1933; it was redesignated as a National Park in 1994.
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This page was last updated on September 24, 2017.