We don’t deserve the name Death Valley,” says Abby Wines, management assistant at Death Valley National Park, who has lived and worked in the park for fifteen years. The largest national park in the United States outside of the state of Alaska, Death Valley covers a surface area equivalent to the state of Connecticut, on the east coast, and covers areas from those that are 282 feet below sea level to those 11,000 feet above it. Speak Up met with Wines. As she explained, the area has a rich history that precedes the people that gave it its ominous name.
Abby Wines (American accent): We don’t deserve the name Death Valley. The people that have lived here since time immemorial, basically forever, are the Timbisha Shoshone, and for them, this is their homeland, this is a place of life, this is a sacred place. The Timbisha still live here, and when you come into the national park, the park entrance sign says “Death Valley National Park, homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone”, which is pretty amazing. And they have a small village within the park boundaries.
The park is full of resilient wildlife, as Wines explains.
Abby Wines: There are no big herds of bison or massive amounts of deer. What you will see are lizards, rabbits, birds, coyotes... You are almost guaranteed to see a coyote. But the thing to keep in mind is what challenges these animals go through. They live in the hottest place on earth, and so the fact that there’s anything at all is really what’s mind-blowing. There’s a small cute mouse called the kangaroo rat that hops around on its back feet, but the kangaroo rat never drinks water its entire life. It lives in the driest place in North America, hottest place on the planet, and never drinks water. It generates all the water it needs chemically in its body from the dry seeds that it eats. So, the life here is pretty amazing.
FOLLOW THE RULES
So, how do visitors cope with the extreme temperatures? Wines advises that even those more tolerant to heat should stick to the recommendations.
Abby Wines: Death Valley is the hottest place on earth, and our record is 134 degrees Fahrenheit [56,6 °C]. Just in the summer of 2020, it hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit [54,4 °C]. And now, how do you stay safe in the park? Years ago, the park used to close down some of the more remote parts of the park, and close gates and close off areas. We don’t do that anymore, but we do have really aggressive messaging. We have signs up saying, “Don’t hike after ten o’clock in the morning,” and we definitely recommend that people be very cautious. When it’s that hot and that dry, your body... as soon as you sweat, it’s gone. You don’t realize you’re sweating. It doesn’t drip off your face or anything like that. And so, often people don’t realize how hot they are and how much water they’re losing. So, drinking a lot of water, a minimum of four liters per day, eating small salty snacks throughout the day is really important as well. But the most important thing is just don’t do much, don’t exert yourself. The summer in Death Valley is not the time to go for a hike, it’s the time to come and take a picture with the thermometer in front of the visitor center, visit the salt flats, and just briefly experience that intense heat. But no, don’t plan to run a marathon or do a long hike.
And the park boasts some breathtaking scenery.
Abby Wines: Some of the highlights in the park would be sites like Badwater, which is the salt flat that is down at the lowest elevation in the United States, it’s 282 feet [85,9 m] below sea level. You walk out on that, it’s white salt that’s fractured into polygon patterns, with dark, black mountains on either side of you, so it’s [a] really dramatic, stark landscape, really impressive. Artist Palette is a really colourful section of rocks that you can drive through, and Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, those are some of the top highlights that you should not miss if you come to Death Valley.
And while day activities can be fun, after dark the park is truly spectacular, says Wines.
Abby Wines: The activities are similar to what you would find in most national parks. So, you can drive the roads and look at the scenery, stop at viewpoints, you can hike on trails. One thing that’s different here is that you don’t have to stay on trails. So, you can hike anywhere, you will experience the quiet and the peace that is part of what makes Death Valley so special… Another thing not to miss is the night sky. Death Valley is designated as an International Dark Sky Park because of how pure the night sky is. If you come on a night with a full moon, you’ll be able to walk out on the salt flats or walk out on the sand dunes, and that’s really magical. Your shadow being cast by the moon, dark mountains around you, it’s very surreal. But even speciales than that would be to come when the moon’s not out, on a no-moon night, and see the Milky Way paint[ed] across the sky, and just how many stars there are. It’s amazing!