By Terry Baldino, Chief of Interpretation & Education, Death Valley National Park
Tumpisha—what a wonderful sounding name for a national park—or at least it would have been. The Timbisha Shoshone Indians have lived in Death Valley for tens of thousands of years. To them the land is full of life and began at Ubehebe Crater.
However, it was a group of gold seeking '49ers who stumbled into Death Valley in the winter of 1849-50 who would give this place its infamous name. As the last of the remaining survivors climbed from the depths of the lowest place in North America one proclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley!”
Today Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska, with over three million acres designated as wilderness. Exploring these wild lands now can be as challenging as it was for the original '49ers, but the dreadful feeling of imminent death is now replaced with exciting anticipation of exploration and discovery.
Death Valley's mining history spans over 100 years. Gold camps such as Skidoo and neighboring Rhyolite have plenty of rusting and crumbling remnants of the boom time era. Access to some of these old mining camps is possible if you have the right vehicle and are prepared with the essentials—water, food, a good set of tires, and a sense of adventure.
Borax was the most profitable mineral extracted. Today you can walk among the ruins of the 1883 processing plant and past the last set of 20-mule team borax wagons at Harmony Borax Works.
To avoid the blistering heat of the world's hottest place, we recommend the winter and early spring for a visit. The mild temperatures make it a joy to hike any of the hundreds of canyons and dune fields or explore historic structures like Scotty's Castle. It's also the best time of year to catch a glimpse of desert bighorn sheep as they work their way down to the valley floor in search of water. The diversity of life in Death Valley is astounding and can be found at all elevations from Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, to the 11,000-foot Telescope Peak.
If you're a geologist at heart, what better place to learn the secrets of the planet than at Death Valley where 1.7 billion years of Earth's history is exposed for all to see?
Check the Death Valley National Park website to get a feel for its size, beauty, and diversity, and then plan your visit around some of the cooler months.
-- By Terry Baldino, Chief of Interpretation & Education, Death Valley National Park
Plan your visit to Death Valley National Park:
Death Valley National Park is open year round. Modern well-maintained and air-conditioned vehicles usually have little trouble with desert travel, but summer trips do require extra planning and extra care. Temperatures begin to moderate, dropping below the 100-degree mark, in mid October and the peak visitor season runs through the cool winter and spring months into the middle of April when temperatures again climb above 100.
There are nine national park campgrounds with varying facilities and seasons. The low elevation campgrounds, with the exception of the Furnace Creek Campground, close during the long summer months because of the extreme heat. Several higher elevation campgrounds and camping areas in the mountains remain open year-round.
Death Valley National Park Travel Resources:
- The Death Valley Visitor Guide is a good source of free information published by the National Park Service.
- If you are looking for a comprehensive travel guide book, check out the Explorer’s Guide to Yosemite and the Southern Sierra (Including Death Valley and Sequoia National Park) by David T. Page.
- Death Valley Photographer’s Guide by Dan Suzio is a comprehensive guide to photographing the park, which includes tips on photographing wildlife and maps to more than photogenic 60 locations.
- And for more information online, head over to the National and State Parks site on About.com. There you will find top destinations and sites within Death Valley and basic park information.
- Planning a National Park camping trip? Check out our national park resources on About Camping.
- Find a campground online with our state by state campground finder.
- Planning a trip to the Death Valley? Check out About.com's California travel guide to Death Valley.
- Or plan your Death Valley National Park camping getaway with online resources at the National Park Service website.