Millions of years ago, those 7800 km˛ where Death Valley is today, were covered by an ancient ocean. Traces of it can still be seen in the form of salt deposits that stayed behind when the waters turned into a desert. Today, water is a rare and valuable commodity in the valley, where on an average of 138 days per year the temperatures are above 38° C. The highest temperature ever recorded in the US is from Death Valley, they recorded 56,7° C here in July 1913. In large parts of the valley, less than 50 millimeters of precipitation are registered per year. However, due to the long droughts the soil cannot absorb much precipitation so that when it rains heavily, sometimes dangerous springfloods can develop.
The Death Valley National Park encompasses the valley itself as well as a few adjoining sceneries with a total area of more than 13,000 square kilometers and has been set up as National Park in 1994. Almost the entire National Park is a designated wilderness area. There are some endangered species living here that have adapted to the hostile conditions. Altogether, Death Valley is a habitat for more species than one could assume at first glance; among others, there are bobcats, lynxes and the rare bighorn sheep. At the National Park’s Visitors Center near Furnace Creek at State Route 190 Park Rangers inform about the species and offer guided hiking tours. Those preferring to gop on their own will find several hundreds of kilometers of paved and dirt roads that may be used by hikers, mountainbikers and for scenic drives. Due to the prevailing temperatures here, the time between October and May brings the most visitors to Death Valley.
The sights within the National Park mostly are the scenic overlooks that can be found for especially beautiful landscape formations and, as an attraction of a special kind, Scotty´s Castle. This two-storied mansion in Spanish Revival style was built beginning in 1922 on orders by Albert Johnson, an affluent businessman from Chicago, who believed in the claims of one Walter Scott, who had convinced Johnson of a glorious future for the area, complete with gold and other hidden resources. Johnson lost his fortune soon thereafter and tried to sell his property to the government, which politely declined. Only in 1970 the federal government indeed purchased the building from the foundation that had been charged with the property’s administration after Johnson had died. There are guided tours available to see the house.
Another famous attraction of Death Valley is Badwater, with 86 meters below sea level the deepest point of North America. Here, the ground is completely covered with salt sediments. Occasional rainfalls cover the salt with a thin layer of water that vaporates in no time. An especially good view of Badwater can be had at Dante´s View, an overlook at an altitude of 1669 meters on the peak of one of the Black Mountains that seam the valley. Another version of salt sediments can be seen at Devil´s Golf Course. This point is located higher than Badwater, so that is experiences rain even less frequently, a fact that allowed the salt to form some bizzare figures.
Not salt, but sand forms the Mesquite Sand Dunes in the northern part of the valley. The sand dunes tower up to 200 meters tall andf have repeatedly been used as a backdrop for Hollywood movies. Another very special sight, located close to the sand dunes is Racetrack Playa. This is an at times dried-up lake, on whose ground rocks are moving in a mysterious way, leaving visible tracks on the ground. There are several scientific approaches to explain the phenomenon that rocks with a weight of several hundred kilos wander all over an area - often not even in straight lines and sometimes even in the opposite direction of the soft decline in altitude - but at the end, nobody yet could prove one of these theories and the movements remain a mystery. Starting point for explorations of the valley often is the small village of Furnace Creek, population 30, home to a resort hotel and to the Visitor Information Center.