We visit Death Valley this week, the lowest point in North America. Death Valley’s depths are all the more impressive when you consider that the highest point in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney, is just 100 miles away, in the southern Sierra Nevada near Lone Pine.
To stargazers, Death Valley is the closest thing to heaven in light-blinded Southern California. To rockhounds, it’s a timeless monument to very grounded geologic grandeur. To botanists and bird-watchers, it’s a study in successful adaptation. Its vast spaces sprinkled with petroglyphs, ghost towns, mine ruins, and other enduring marks of human aspiration, to hikers and history buffs it’s one endless discovery trail.
In many ways, a Death Valley visit is also a trip through time, an impressive open-air natural history tour starting some 60 million years ago and narrated by the land itself—the story of the slow but dramatic passage of geologic time, a tale writ large on the land here and flamboyantly illustrated by startling shapes and odd angles, everything brushed with vivid color and then slowly etched by water and wind.
Not until the gold rush of 1849 was the treacherous terrain tested by impatient fortune-hunters heading west by wagon train. The dazed and disoriented settlers who first descended into this bone-dry desert found the land in the mid-19th century much less hospitable than did the resident Shoshone people.
The misadventure that gave Death Valley its name began in Salt Lake City in September 1849 with Captain Jefferson Hunt of the honored Mormon Battalion. Hunt had signed on to lead the 110 wagons of the Sand Walking Company. (Is that a great name for a desert wagon train, or what?) The company following a new southern route west to San Bernardino. Intent on arriving in California’s gold fields as soon as possible, almost immediately groups of sand walkers broke away and headed west on their own, usually returning once their routes proved impossible.
Three groups stubbornly struggled on. With little water and food, they encountered unexpected mountains and high-desert plains before reaching desolation—a vast and barren saline valley boxed in by steep canyons, bad news along with bad water. Their wagons and worldly goods abandoned or burned to barbecue their oxen, some died trying to escape Death Valley. But most lived, after trudging hundreds of desperate miles to Los Angeles, including three families delivered from starvation by rice, beans and fresh oranges—the first oranges the children had ever tasted—sent from a Tehachapi rancho. Looking back from the summit of the Panamint Range someone murmured: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” Yep. That’s how the place got its name.
Dread of this deathly desert deterred settlers, even the U.S. government, but nothing stops the get-rich-quick brigade. Mining fever here followed a Death Valley survivor’s story of a mountain of silver-veined ore—the mythic Gunsight Mine—and the equally elusive Breyfogle Gold Mine. The most famous miner of them all was Walter Scott, better known as “Death Valley Scotty,” always mysterious on the whereabouts of his gold mines. A trick rider in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the turn of the 20th century, Scotty and business partner Albert Johnson left a more lasting legacy—Scotty’s Castle, an eccentric 1920s Moorish mansion, always worth a visit. Just not right now, because the road to the castle and some outbuildings were thrashed a few years back by a wild October storm and flood. Look ahead to 2020.