What (and Where) Is Death Valley?

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Death Valley is one of the most bizarre, unique, and extreme places in the world. It’s below sea level, experiences some of the highest recorded temperatures, and even has mysterious rocks that move around by themselves. So, what exactly is Death Valley and where can you find it?

What Is Death Valley?

Highway 190 crossing valley in Death Valley National Park
Credit: Radoslaw Lecyk/ Shutterstock

Death Valley is an area of extremes. It’s the lowest, driest, and hottest region in North America. It’s a valley between the Panamint and the Amargosa mountain ranges that runs roughly 140 miles north to south and stretches between five and 15 miles east to west. Much of the land has been designated as a national park. Death Valley is located in the western United States in California and Nevada.

Geography

Hikers standing on rocks in Death Valley National Park
Credit: Dan Sedran/ Shutterstock

Death Valley is a land of extremes. Not only are there extreme high and low temperatures, there’s also an extreme geographical diversity throughout the valley. Badwater Basin is a salt flat that's home to the official lowest point in North America. Its salt-lined floor is 282 feet below sea level!

Death Valley is also home to Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park, which is 11,049 feet tall. In addition to the mountains and valleys, there are also plenty of geographical oddities that fill the valley. There are sand dunes, salt flats, canyons, and jagged rock formations known as The Devil’s Golf Course.

Climate

Rocky mountains in Death Valley National Park
Credit: cinegeek/ Unsplash

Death Valley also has the hottest and driest climate in North America. In the summer, Death Valley becomes unbearable. Temperatures in the lower regions often soar beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1913, Furnace Creek in Death Valley experienced a record temperature of an astounding 134 degrees!

As you’d imagine in such a hot climate, winters in Death Valley are comfortable — at least in the valley. Up in the mountains, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to dip below freezing and you might be able to see some snow on the peaks — even in summer. Although uncommon, it’s possible for the temperatures down in the valley to reach the freezing point as well. If the heat isn’t enough for you, Death Valley is also the driest region in North America. Average annual rainfall is less than two inches. It’s not uncommon for it to take years to rain. For 40 months between 1931 and 1934, only 0.64 inches of rain fell.

Wildlife

Solitary coyote rests on the ground in an empty Death Valley landscape
Credit: dmodlin01/ Shutterstock

Surprisingly despite its name, Death Valley is filled with life! Hundreds of species of animals call the valley home including bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, tortoises, coyotes, and jackrabbits. There’s also many species of birds, which makes the area a popular travel destination for birdwatchers. One of the most famous residents is the roadrunner. Much like the “Looney Tunes” cartoon series, roadrunners and coyotes live together in Death Valley.

There are also plenty of insects crawling and flying around. Many people travel to Death Valley to see the variety of butterflies that enjoy the warm weather. Unluckier visitors might run into a desert tarantula, which are also common. If you do find a tarantula, don’t worry. They might look scary, but they’re docile and mostly harmless.

Vegetation

Aerial view of Death Valley with road running through landscape
Credit: Eisenlohr/ iStock

There are about 1,000 species of plants that call Death Valley home. Of course, some areas of Death Valley are uninhabitable like the salt flats, but other regions are filled with life. Every now and then, when the conditions are absolutely perfect, Death Valley will experience a wildflower “superbloom.” During this unique event, the desert is filled with brilliant colors from the millions of wildflowers blooming together. The last superbloom was in 2016.

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