DEATH VALLEY: A Natural History In Pictures

 DEATH VALLEY National Park, located in the southwest corner of California, bordering Nevada, is a land of extremes: a below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat. Yet it harbors both delicate (rare wildflowers and tiny fish) and harsh beauty (striking landforms and geology).

Opuntia basilaris_pse0614

Opuntia basilaris – Beavertail Cactus. CCM

       It isn’t usually known for flowers – only exceptional rainfall brings on a bloom from seeds that have lain dormant for years. (Click on the small pictures below to enlarge.)

People come for the extreme climate (believe it or not) and landscapes. The valley itself is a rift basin or graben (an area dropped down between two or more faults). In fact it is one of many within the Basin and Range geomorphic province which covers much of the western USA and northern Mexico.

Badwater Basin - salt flats in the distance.

Badwater Basin – salt flats in the distance. CCM

DV Salt Flat_pse0670Photo: Badwater Basin salt flat (middle right); the colorful rocks on the left are volcanic. The valley (basin) sits 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, while Mount Whitney, only 85 miles (137 km) to the west, rises to 14,505 feet (4,421 m) in the Sierra Nevadas.  A lake filled the valley in wetter times and left behind salt and borax minerals.

Geology in the park is amazing, stretching in age from 1.7 billion years old Precambrian metamorphosed  rocks to Cenozoic and Pleistocene sedimentary rocks, volcanics and modern sand dunes.

DV sand dunes_pse0555

Sand dunes. CCM

My husband, an expert in depositional environments, recognized  sedimentary rocks belonging to shallow seas, lakes and braided streams and alluvial fans.The sedimentary layers shown in the photo below were probably deposited by a braided stream and later uplifted and tilted .

Death V rx sky_pse0660

An ancient braided stream preserved in this rock outcrop. CCM

Periods of extensive volcanism and tectonic deformation shaped the landscape.

DV Artist Palette sat_pse0664

Volcanism left behind the colours in these hills at “Artist’s Palette.” CCM


ODDITIES: Some very peculiar plants grow in the desert including, Desert trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum (love the name!)…

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(click on arrows to see the 3 slides)  Desert candle, Caulanthus inflatus (even better!)  above, grows 3-4 ft tall.

And this weird plant, called dodder:

DVmts and flwrs w-sky_pse0629

Wildflowers and dodder (bright orange) in a wash with colorful volcanic hills in the background. CCM

I kept seeing these gorgeous orange “bushes” but looking closely I realized the bizarre orange matter (it looks something like soft fishing line) was twining itself around other plants.

(Click on the small pictures above to enlarge.) Although colorful, this plant is parasitic and unfortunately destructive.

Then there are the mysterious  “Sailing Stones” found on a dried-up, flat lake-bed, each one followed by a track incised in the earth. Some of these furrows are straight, others are curved, but how did they form? They appear to have been dragged, but no one has ever seen the rocks move.

Magic rock (one of dozens). Photo thanks to Jon Sullivan

Magic rock (one of dozens). Thanks to Jon Sullivan for sharing this photo.

There have been a number of studies, the most promising hypotheses contends that the movement is due to ice, which occasionally forms on the desert floor. “The ice causes virtually no friction…so the stones are able to glide with just a slight breeze.”   For more information read:

Death Valley Facts:

  • A temperature of 134 degrees F (56.7 C), a century ago is thought to be the highest ever recorded anywhere.  Summer is regularly over 110F (>43C); 116 F (>47C) was the average high last July and August. Flora and fauna live on the edge and biologists worry about desert species surviving a change to an even hotter climate.
  • The Death Valley region is the northernmost part of the Mojave Desert, in California.
  • A rain shadow effect makes it North America’s driest spot, receiving about 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rainfall annually in the lowlands like at Badwater; however that more than doubled for this rainfall season.
  • Several springs derive water from a regional aquifer.  Much of the water has been there since the cooler and wetter climate of the Pleistocene ice ages. Today’s drier climate does not provide enough precipitation to recharge the aquifer.
  • In 1977, Death Valley was one of the filming locations  used by director George Lucas for Star Wars.


When I first visited Death Valley (way back) in my college days, you would occasionally see old wagons like these or even Model T’s stuck in the sand.  I remember Dr. Webb, my geology professor, pulled out tools and scavenged a rusting car for parts for his own Model T!

Old wagon Death Vly_auto-e0562~~

Comments? Questions?  Ask me anything about this post.


7 thoughts on “DEATH VALLEY: A Natural History In Pictures

  1. My APOLOGIES to those who received an email for this post on Tuesday with a link that didn’t work. I was writing a draft and tried to schedule it and apparently “it tried” to publish and sent followers an faulty link. If you are reading this … glad you made it. Thanks for your patience!


    • It was kinda cool wasn’t it? And you’d drive for miles without seeing a soul and hope your car didn’t overheat or run out of gas! (Last week we actually had to stop briefly in a line of cars for road repair.)


  2. I really enjoyed this informative and interesting post, Cinda. The geologic phenomenon was fascinating, photos terrific. I have seen dodder before, but never knew anything about it. Thank you!


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