California: Death Valley Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Death Valley has secured a place in American history for its active geology, delicate ecological systems, and the fascinating stories of miners and twenty-mule-team borax trains. Death Valley lays claim to having the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level at Badwater basin) and to being the second hottest place on Earth (a surface temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit recorded on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek).

Site Office

Death Valley National Park

P.O. Box 579

Death Valley, CA 92328-0579

ph.: (760) 786-2331

Web site:

Death Valley National Park, established in 1994, encompasses over three million acres of spectacular desert scenery, interesting and rare desert wildlife, complex geology, undisturbed wilderness, and sites of historical and cultural interest. The presence of humans through hundreds of years can be found in almost every part of the valley. Rock drawings, ghost towns, and foot trails remain as traces of this historical development. The mystique, fascination, and long, rich history of Death Valley emerges through the lives of Native Americans, prospectors, and miners who lived in this geological wonderland.

Geological History and Development

Death Valley is best known for being the lowest elevation in North and South America. The valley is a deep trough, about 130 miles long and from 6 to 14 miles wide. The tectonic activity that produced this east-west extension and generated Death Valley may have begun as early as thirty million years ago and is continuing today as the basin is being pulled apart and offset along a number of faults. Faults occur when the earth’s crust breaks and slips into various positions.

All the great divisions of geological time, the eras and most of their subdivisions, are represented in the rocks of the mountains that border Death Valley. These rocks and landforms tell a story of endless changes in the earth’s crust–vast depositions, contortions, tiltings, alternate risings and lowerings, faultings, and intense heats and pressures that have changed the very nature of many of the rocks. In recent geological times, powerful forces of water, wind, and gravity have sculpted much of the scenery that is visible in Death Valley.

As dry as it is today, Death Valley has had periods in its history in which it was largely covered with water. During the last Ice Age, about ten thousand years ago, geological evidence indicates that there were several lakes, including one that was about six hundred feet deep. As recently as two thousand years ago, Death Valley contained a lake about thirty feet deep.

Death Valley is all but surrounded by mountain ranges. On the east side of the valley is the Amargosa Range, which is composed of the Grapevine Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, and the Black Mountains. The Owlshead Mountains lie in a circular position at the extreme south end of Death Valley. Located in the rain shadow of the Panamint Mountains that border the west, Death Valley receives an average annual precipitation of only 1.5 inches. Summer temperatures average about 100 degrees Fahrenheit for day and night combined, whereas winter temperatures average about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

American Indians and Prospectors

The ancestors of the Timbisha and Panamint Shoshone tribes arrived in the Death Valley area sometime between 900 and 1000 c.e. The land provided them with plants, springs, and many kinds of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, rabbits, and lizards. These Native Americans ranged over the land in a seasonal pattern to harvest fruits, seeds, and plants and to hunt animals. Pinion pine nuts and mesquite beans formed a major part of their diet.

Evidence indicates that the native people were very close to one another. Tribe members gathered to listen to stories about the history of the world and to perform different religious dances for healing the sick and influencing the weather. People from different villages and districts frequently intermingled in group hunts, dances, games, and other social events.

The area was inhabited primarily by Panamint Indians when pioneer wagons brought the first white men into the valley on Christmas Day, 1849. These so-called forty-niners were ill-advised emigrants from the east who were looking for a shortcut to the California gold fields. As hardships in the valley increased, twelve forty-niners in this thirty-member party died. The eighteen survivors who escaped named the valley for its desolate desert environment. Some of the forty-niners spread reports of silver deposits in Death Valley, and successive invasions of prospectors and miners sought to exploit the silver ore and other precious metals. Each ore strike gave birth to a new short-lived settlement in the valley. However, only the dreams of a few prospectors ever came true.

With the advent of mining and boomtowns in Death Valley, Native Americans could no longer pursue their traditional way of life. Watering areas became inhabited by white people, pinion pine trees were cut down for wood, and mesquite bushes disappeared. Eventually, the Panamints revolted, and hostilities surfaced during the 1860’s that led to the deaths of both miners and Indians. In 1866, Congress ratified the Treaty of Ruby Valley, a statement of peace and friendship that granted the United States rights of way across western Shoshone territories.

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation that set aside a reservation of 2,980 square miles of desert land as the Death Valley National Monument, thus assuring its continued use for public enjoyment. In 1936, the National Park Service set aside forty acres of the land for the residence of Native Americans. With help from Indian service funds, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and local Shoshone labor, a village of twelve small adobe structures was built. In October, 1994, Death Valley National Monument was expanded by 2,031 square miles and designated a National Park. In 1999, approximately sixty Native Americans were living in the Indian Village of Death Valley. Many members of the Shoshone tribe worked for local companies and organizations in Death Valley.

Mining and Twenty-Mule Teams

Since the discovery of gold in California in 1848, Death Valley has experienced over 150 years of boom-and-bust mining history. From the 1850’s to the early 1900’s, mining was limited and sporadic in the Death Valley region. Because of primitive and inefficient technological methods, scarcity of water and fuel, and the absence of nearby transportation facilities, most of the early mining ventures met with little success. It was economically feasible to mine only the highest-grade ores.

One of the most notable but short-lived mines was the Harmony Borax Works, which was active from 1883 to 1888. Borax is used in soaps, medicines, and glass. William Tell Coleman built the Harmony plant, which produced three tons of borax daily during its peak years. This mine became famous not for its ore deposits, however, but for its twenty-mule-team wagon trains, as well as for the advertising campaigns in the 1950’s for the radio and television series Death Valley Days. The twenty mule teams hauled loads of borax, up to forty-six thousand pounds at a time, a grueling 165 miles to the railroad in Mojave, California. In 1890, the operation was transferred to Daggett, in the Calico Mountains, which was closer to rail transportation.

With renewed interest in gold and silver mining during the early 1900’s, many mines–particularly the Skidoo, Rhyolite, Keane Wonder, Radcliffe, and Eureka mines–became large-scale operations. The boomtowns that sprang up around these mines flourished until they were slowed down by the Panic of 1907. Besides gold and silver, prospectors scoured the valley for antimony, copper, lead, zinc, and tungsten. Prosperous, large-scale metallic mining in Death Valley ended around 1915.

Upon creation of the Death Valley National Monument in 1933, Death Valley was closed to mining exploration. By prior agreement, however, the valley was quickly reopened to exploration by action of Congress in June, 1933. During World War II, the talc industry developed; it remained active until the 1980’s, when declining markets made mining unprofitable. The National Park Service periodically reviews the status of over 140 active mining claims in Death Valley, determining their validity, ensuring that federal guidelines are being followed, and protecting the resources of Death Valley.

Places to Visit

In the late 1990’s, a yearly average of about one million tourists were attracted to Death Valley by the vastness of mountain panoramas, the pleasure of the winter climate, and the lore of past frontier life. Death Valley is generally sunny, dry, and clear throughout the year. The winters are mild, with occasional winter storms, but summers are extremely hot and dry. Death Valley National Park is open all year, but winter is the best time to visit the points of interest in the valley. The hot summer from May through October is only for the hardy and venturesome.

Located at the center of Death Valley is the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, which houses museum exhibits, a visitor information desk, and the Death Valley Natural History Association bookstore. California Highway 190, the Badwater Road, Scotty’s Castle Road, and paved roads to Dante’s View and Wildrose provide access to major scenic viewpoints and historic points of interest. More than 350 miles of unpaved and four-wheel-drive roads provide access to wilderness hiking, camping, scenery, and historical sites. From November through April, ranger-guided hikes, talks, and evening programs are presented.

Twenty-Mule Team Canyon, from which twenty-mule teams hauled borax in the 1880’s, is a picturesque part of Death Valley to visit. A 4.5-mile unpaved road meanders through the mud hills, which have been strikingly sculpted by centuries of erosion. Still standing among the crumbling adobe are the old boiler and some of the vats of the borax works. Another spectacular tourist attraction is Scotty’s Castle, the former dwelling place of one of the world’s richest gold miners, Death Valley Scotty. On the way to or from the castle, a geological attraction to see at the northern end of the park is the Ubehebe Crater, an explosion crater that is a half a mile across the top and four hundred feet deep.

Rhyolite, the largest town in Death Valley during the mining boom of the early 1900’s, is a visitors’ attraction. Located near Beatty, Nevada, the ruins of Rhyolite include a house built completely of bottles, a train depot, a jail, a two-story schoolhouse, and a three-story bank building. Other places to visit and explore include Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere; Devil’s Golf Course, the most rugged surface on Earth; Stovepipe Wells, a rustic desert outpost; Death Valley Sand Dunes, some rising eighty feet high; Mosaic Canyon, full of naturally polished marble; and Artist’s Drive, a traverse through the most colorful rocks on Earth in Artist’s Palette. Another historical attraction is at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where the Manzanar Relocation Center was one of ten camps that interned Japanese American citizens and Japanese aliens during World War II.

For Further Information
  • Cronkhite, Daniel. Death Valley’s Victims: A Descriptive Chronology, 1849-1980. Morongo Valley, Calif.: Sagebrush Press, 1981. Stories of the forty-niners, fabulous mining exploits, and men and women who braved some of the wildest, most remote, and desolate country east of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Digonnet, Michel. Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to Its Natural Wonders and Mining Past. Boston: Michel Digonnet, 1997. Well-organized, clearly written, and detailed maps showing a variety of one-day and multiple-day geological and historical excursions in Death Valley.
  • Greene, Linda W. Scotty’s Castle: An Interior History of Death Valley Ranch, Death Valley National Monument, California. Harpers Ferry, Va.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1991. Reviews the history of many intriguing sites in Death Valley. Includes many bibliographical references.
  • Laycock, George. Death Valley. New York: Four Winds Press, 1976. Traces the history of Death Valley and discusses the minerals, plants, and animals that are found there.
  • Lingenfelter, Richard E., and Richard A. Dwyer, eds. Death Valley Lore: Classic Table of Fantasy, Adventure, and Mystery. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1988. Describes the historical development of Death Valley, including stories and folklore associated with the forty-niners, prospectors, and miners.
  • Nadeau, Remi. Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of California. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Crest, 1992. A historical look at the towns and mining camps of California, including Death Valley. For both the casual reader and the serious history buff.
  • Sharp, Robert P., and Allen F. Glazner. Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 1997. Excellent overview of the geological history and formations in Death Valley, including mineral ore deposits.
Categories: History