The lowest, hottest, and driest national park in America encompasses approximately 3.4 million acres, making Death Valley the largest wilderness in the contiguous United States. Bordering the Great Basin Desert and considered part of the northern Mojave Desert, Death Valley is known for the intensity of its heat, with the hottest temperature on record reaching 134 degrees Fahrenheit in July 1913. (This not only broke the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley but also the highest temperature ever recorded on the planet).
According to Wilderness Connect, heat “sears” the valley floor six months out of the year, with the average July temperature reaching 116 degrees Fahrenheit. For many people, this kind of heat seems unfathomable, as it tests the limits of human endurance and makes us wonder how life can be sustained in such an arid and isolated environment.
Death Valley was named a national monument in February of 1933, but mining and other activities continued in the park up until 2005 (the National Park Foundation notes that the last mining operation was called Billie Mine). It wasn’t until 1994 that Death Valley was named a National Park, thereby making it one of the 425 national parks within the United States National Park System. The National Park Service website states, “One of the reasons for the long wait was that the desert had negative connotations for many Americans and was often seen as an inhospitable and threatening wilderness wasteland, not a national treasure. Here it is not hard to find places devoid of people, where your only company is the heat, the rocks, the quiet, and open space.”
Let’s take a closer look at all the factors involved in the relentless heat that blankets this unique desert landscape.
The scorching heat found within Death Valley results from a combination of factors, including its low elevation, arid climate, and geographical features that work well to trap and intensify heat. Death Valley's sun-soaked expanses and lack of significant vegetation and rainfall further contribute to its notorious reputation as a desert environment that’s not fit for the faint of heart.
As ABC News reported in July 2023, “Most visitors at this time of year make it only a short distance to any site in the park before returning to the sanctuary of an air-conditioned vehicle.” That same article notes, “More than 1.1 million people annually visit the desert park. About one-fifth of the visitors come in June, July and August.Many are tempted to explore, even after the suggested cutoff times. Physical activity can make the heat even more unbearable and leave people feeling exhausted. Sunbaked rocks, sand and soil still radiate after sunset.”
Here are the main factors that make Death Valley a desert that is as beautiful as it is challenging—a beloved National Park where summertime visitors experience scorching heat in exchange for forging a deeper bond with nature.
Death Valley’s shape can best be defined as long and narrow. The elongated shape of this below-sea-level, 282-foot basin has been heavily influenced by tectonic activity, as the land lies above two major fault zones that have caused the Earth's crust to sink and to create the low-lying depression that characterizes Death Valley as we know it.
Death Valley’s low elevation makes the air denser and therefore allows it to retain more heat. The narrow shape of the valley creates a powerful heat trap, making that hot air linger rather than disperse. Since Death Valley is a basin, its shape is also influenced by the high, steep mountain ranges that surround and enclose it.
The main mountain ranges encircling Death Valley include the Amargosa Range, Black Mountains, Funeral Mountains, and Panamint Range. The Amargosa Range is located to the north, the Black Mountains to the east, the Funeral Mountains to the south, and the Panamint Ridge to the west. All of these mountains and their geographical features play an important part in Death Valley’s intriguing landscape and its ability to trap heat.
Impressively, all of these mountain ranges have peaks that reach over 11,000 feet in elevation. The height of these ranges makes it possible for them to act as natural barriers, trapping heat in Death Valley as well as preventing any cooling breezes from coming anywhere close to the valley floor. When that heat has nowhere to go, the temperature risesand, in the confines of Death Valley's topography, reaches unparalleled extremes.
As an interesting sidenote, National Park Foundation notes that “Death Valley National Park owes much of its early 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. They also introduced phone and water service to some areas of the valley. Much of what they built is still in existence and utilized in Death Valley National Park today.” Those who do visit Death Valley can enjoy various opportunities to hike, bike, camp, and climb in certain areas within the aforementioned mountain ranges.
We all know that a defining characteristic of all deserts is marked by a significant lack of rainfall. In Death Valley, the lack of rain is almost hard to believe: on average, Death Valley gets two inches or fewer! If/when it does rain in Death Valley, the rainfall occurs mostly during the winter months. There are only two years on record when it did not rain in Death Valley at all: 1929 and 1953.
Little vegetation grows in Death Valley because of the sweltering heat and lack of water, making it difficult for most plants to grow and thrive. The soil also isn’t fertile because it lacks the nutrients needed for plant life to survive. Death Valley’s dry air and limited plant cover add to the already searing temperatures. The clear air settling in the valley allows more sunlight to reach the ground, and the sparse plant cover is simply not enough to shade the ground from the sun.
Extensive salt flats and playas exist within Death Valley. One of the most famous areas
where salt flats dominate the landscape is the iconic Badwater Basin, which is regarded as the lowest point in North America. It’s here where salt flats stretch for miles; their bright, reflective surfaces play a crucial role in intensifying the desert heat. Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is a place where temperatures can soar even higher than other parts of Death Valley because of the highly reflective nature of these salt flats which, by the way, offer visually stunning scenery for nature lovers and photographers alike.
Death Valley is located in an area that experiences what’s called the rain shadow effect;
moist air from the Pacific Ocean is prevented from reaching Death Valley because the rain falls on the western side of the mountains while the dry air descends on the eastern side. This makes Death Valley not only hot but also extremely dry. National Park Service points out that “Death Valley’s four major mountain ranges lie between Death Valley and the ocean, each one adding to an increasingly drier rain shadow effect.”
Most people are surprised to discover that Death Valley is home to some cold areas. Death Valley is not the place where you’d expect to find snow-capped mountains, and perhaps that’s one reason why Death Valley is considered “a land of extremes.” That description couldn’t be more accurate!
During the winter months, temperatures in Death Valley can drop significantly, especially during the nighttime. Since Death Valley is flanked by mountain ranges with high elevations, and the desert’s clear skies allow for temperature fluctuations, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to fall to near or below freezing, especially when cold fronts move through the area.
Remember how Death Valley’s hottest temperature was recorded in the year 1913? It turns out that Death Valley’s coldest temperature was recorded in that year as well; on January 8, 1913, the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the area called Furnace Creek, according to the National Park Service.
It’s also worth noting that Telescope Peak, the highest point in the Panamint Range, is a popular destination for visitors seeking to experience a refreshing, brisk climate within Death Valley. Those who trek Telescope Peak must be prepared for potentially chilly and windy conditions, even when it's hot in the valley. Once hikers reach the peak, they can marvel at the contrasting weather conditions while gazing upon vast, breathtaking vistas from their vantage point on a mountaintop that’s likely covered in snow.
The National Park Service states that “summer starts early in Death Valley . . . by May the valley can be scorching hot.” Summer in Death Valley, then, lasts from May through September. During these months, temperatures are the highest and the arid conditions are exceptionally harsh. For these reasons, those who enter the park in the summer months should be prepared to take all the precautions necessary to stay safe. This includes packing lots of water, wearing protective clothing and sunscreen, and being mindful of the weather forecast.
During the summer months, there’s no doubt that Death Valley lives up to its reputation as one of the hottest and driest places on Earth.
Death Valley is a fascinating National Park that is unlike any other within the National Park System. The scorching climate has everything to do with its shape, nearby mountain ranges, scarcity of vegetation, minimal rainfall, and unique geological features that all come together to intensify the oppressive heat in the valley. It’s no wonder Death Valley’s challenging yet picturesque terrain makes it a compelling destination for adventurers, geologists, and nature enthusiasts eager to explore and learn about the park’s history, geology, and ecology.
Let it be known that the unforgiving heat is only one of many interesting characteristics of Death Valley. Death Valley’s unique topography, geological formations, and diverse ecosystems make for a multifaceted and extraordinary desert realm where life is showcased in all its splendor, from the lowest depths of the valley to the highest peaks of the mountains.
Thanks to Death Valley, other unique parks have been deemed worthy for inclusion in the National Park System. Death Valley played a huge role in the United States National Park Service representatives recognizing that all parks are different. Many national parks feature lush forests, seemingly bottomless lakes, and majestic waterfalls, but these aren’t the only ones worth celebrating and preserving; as the first desert park within the National Park System, Death Valley became a pioneering symbol of the National Park Service’s commitment to designating landscapes characterized by geological features, fragile ecosystems, and unique cultural and historical resources.
Leave it to the National Park Service, then, to describe Death Valley best: “Death Valley National Park is at the same time peaceful yet threatening, stark yet lush, and a mesmerizing, illusory kaleidoscope of flowers, minerals, dreams, and disappointments.” So while it’s true that Death Valley is a record-shattering desert in California and Nevada, it’s important to also think of this legendary desert as a testament to how the forces of nature come together to create a landscape and environment that speaks to the remarkable adaptability and resilience of life on Earth.