Nov 012013

Isn’t it fitting that Death Valley became one of our National Parks on October 31? It was declared a National Monument by President Hoover in 1933, and a National Park in 1994. The Desert Protection Act added more than 1.3 million acres the monument area, and Death Valley became the largest National Park in the lower 48 states.  

With approximately 95% of the park designated as a wilderness area, it certainly does appear to be spookily uninhabited. Yet it is home to more than 1000 different species of plants. In the spring, wildflowers blanket the area and photographers are drawn to it from far and wide. The area is also inhabited by a large number of animals. You might be surprised to know that it is home to tortoises, bats, birds, shrews, gophers, mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, porcupines, coyotes, foxes, skunks, mountain lions, bobcats, burros, horses, deer, sheep, and fish. Yes, I said fish. Pupfish inhabit Salt Creek, the Amargosa River, Saratoga Springs, and Devils Hole areas of the park. It seems that Death Valley is not quite as uninhabited as you might have imagined.  

Death Valley is filled with fascinating geologic phenomena. It is home to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere: the Badwater Basin.  The metamorphic rocks of that area may be as old as 1.7 billion years. The badlands found in the park appear to be from another world, yet they were actually created by water. It is hard to believe that the area we know as Death Valley once rested along the Equator (albeit that was almost a half million years ago) and was actually a tropical sea. As the water receded dramatic changes happened. The area became volcanically active, and visitors today can see the resulting beautiful cinder cones resting on the park floor.  As a result of the geologic upheaval, the area is rich with borate minerals, and borax mining became an economic boon for the area in the mid to late 1800’s. The Mining in the Parks Act of 1976 prohibited new mines in the area. The Billie Mine, the park’s only remaining borax mine closed in 2005.

Perhaps the most interesting area of the park is Artist’s Drive. Located on the face of the Black Mountains, the Artist’s Drive area of the park was created during the Cenozoic Period after repeated floods blanketed the area and created layers of sand and gravel. The deposits became almost 5000 feet thick in some areas. Once chemical weathering and hydrothermal alteration began to alter the area in the Miocene Period bright layers of red, pink, green, and yellow layers were revealed. The colors are the result of hematite, volcanic ash, and iron oxides mixed into the sand and gravel deposits. My fifth grader referred to the attached image is of a section known as Artist’s Palette as “the moldy mountains.”

Temperatures in the park can reach as above 130 degrees in the summer and fall below freezing on cold winter nights. If you can’t take the heat and cold, visit the area on a virtual fieldtrip courtesy of the USGS at:

I have placed beautiful pictures of Death Valley on:

Please take a moment to think of all the wonderful treasures that we are blessed to have in this country. Death Valley, and its breath taking scenery, should remind us of What IS Right With America.


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.

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