If the world really is going to hell, you should get your brakes checked. The ride is going to be very downhill.
I learned that lesson, among others, after my own brakes started to smoke while descending down, down, down Highway 190 into California’s answer to the underworld—Death Valley.
I did not run into the Devil on this Death Valley visit. The thermometer on these winter days never surpassed 70, and Satan, suggested one local tour guide, feels more comfortable this time of year in the hellish Southern hemisphere summer of Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. Instead, I enjoyed some hiking and the otherworldly vistas of mountains, deserts, and salt flats in Death Valley locations like Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, and the Amargosa Chaos.
Despite such sights, Death Valley attracts just over 1 million visitors annually, about a third of the hordes that cram into Yosemite to check an item on their bucket lists each year. Although it’s located in California, the park is easier to access for Nevadans, who don’t have to go around or over the Sierra to get there.
This relatively lower number of visitors is healthier for the sensitive desert ecosystems. But Death Valley deserves Yosemite-level respect, and not just for its staggering temperatures or the damage that a drive to the lowest point in North America can do to your car.
Death Valley is bigger than Connecticut. It’s the largest national park in the continental United States, and one of the world’s largest sections of protected desert. Nearly all of it is officially wilderness, allowing adventurous visitors with high-clearance cars or backpacking skills a level of quiet, darkness, and solitude you can’t find anywhere else in our state.
Death Valley is also an extraordinary teacher. The National Park Service bills it as a “vast geological museum,” for the way you can see examples from most of the planet’s geologic eras.
Now, Death Valley offers a portal to our planetary future. As the climate changes, our world is becoming a place of extremes. Death Valley is already there. It’s at once the hottest and driest place in the country, and a place where a sudden, dangerous rain storm can bring snow, level hills, or revive ancient lakes.
Because of its scary extremes, Death Valley is misunderstood. Just as Voltaire famously joked that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor a real empire, Death Valley is not exactly a valley, nor is it dead.
It’s a graben, the geologic terms for a block of the earth’s crust that has dropped between two higher pieces of crust, often seen as mountain ranges. And it’s full of life—with more than 300 species of birds, 50 species of native mammals, and even species of native fish. Its plant life is unusual (the beautiful evening primrose can only be found in one group of sand dunes) and highly diverse. That’s the result of the park’s mix of extreme low and high altitudes—the Panamint Mountains within the park surpass 11,000 feet above sea level—and its location in the Mojave Desert, a place of species overlap between the Great Basin Desert to the north and the Sonoran Desert to the south.
Understanding the way life flourishes in Death Valley should demonstrate that, as California’s landscapes and climate change, we shouldn’t trust our eyes. Places may come to look more barren, but they still contain much that is worthy of our attention and protection.
Protecting places of extremes will demand more sharing of responsibility, and more varied participation in governance. In recent years, Death Valley has received some notice for a novel system of governance that gives its Indigenous residents, the Timbisha Shoshone, real power in the park.
In 2000, after decades of activism and lobbying, the federal government created the first reservation inside a national park for the Timbisha Shoshone. Since then, the Timbisha Shoshone and the National Park Service co-managed Death Valley in the service both of protecting its treasures and allowing its Native people to use the park for their traditional practices.
The collaboration initially drew criticism from some environmentalists who didn’t want people, whether park visitors or the Timbisha Shoshone, touching too much of the park. But in recent years, such criticism has faded because of the powerful and mounting threat of climate change to the park, and the ability of the Timbisha Shoshone, or anyone else, to survive there.
As the writer and philosopher Margret Grebowicz described in a powerful January essay for the New Republic, Death Valley’s already scorching summer temperatures have been rising. The mercury has reached 130 degrees the last three summers in Furnace Creek, where the Timbisha Shoshone live and where overnight visitors to the park often stay. Such heat is drying up the piñon pine nuts and killing off the honey mesquite, both of which the tribe’s members harvest. The heat also makes the Timbisha Shoshone’s traditional summer migration more dangerous.
Along with the greater heat has come unusual rain, and the damage and danger of flash floods. Death Valley has seen a “thousand-year” storm in each of the last two years, forcing temporary park closures.
The 2023 storm—the remnants of the Pacific Hurricane Hilary that hit parts of California hard late last summer—created ephemeral lakes, some of which are still present. This includes Lake Manly, which last appeared in 2005 in Badwater Basin, North America’s lowest point, and is the remnant of a large lake that dominated Death Valley in ancient times.
After a Furnace Creek mechanic added some brake fluid to my car, I visited Lake Manly, which demonstrated one silver lining of our downhill drive to climate hell: there will at least be some compensating beauty.
To get to the lake from the road, you walk across white salt flats that resemble freshly fallen snow. The lake perfectly reflects the Panamint Mountains to the West. Its color is silvery blue, and feels not quite of this planet.
Several visitors removed their shoes to wade into the two-feet-deep waters. Among them was a Nevada church group, one of whose members appropriately recited the 23rd Psalm, and its famous lines about facing future peril:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.