Death Valley is a desert on the border of southern California and Nevada. It is noteworthy as the lowest point in North America and as the site of the highest recorded temperature in the western hemisphere. Annual rainfall is also famously low. It has a thriving ecosystem, however, and is the site of a U.S. national park. The area was named by gold prospectors during the 1840s; despite the name, only one prospector is known to have died there.
Death Valley is part of the larger Mojave Desert, which stretches through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The high mountain ranges that surround the valley cause it to absorb high levels of summer heat. Low air pressure created by the depth of the valley contains this heat, leading to temperatures that regularly top 120° Fahrenheit (49° Celsius) during summer months. Rainfall is also impeded by the surrounding mountains, which absorb most of the moisture from rain-bearing coastal clouds. This effect is called a “rainshadow.”
In 1913, the air temperature at a Death Valley recording station was 134° F (56.7° C). It is the hottest measurement ever recorded on earth. The record for the hottest place on earth was given to the Libyan desert for some time but that measurement was invalidated by the World Meteorological Organization in 2012. So the record remains with Death Valley. In 1972, scientists recorded a ground temperature of 201° F (93.8° C), another record, at the appropriately named Furnace Creek. Rainfall averages less than 2 inches annually; in 1929 and 1953, there was no rain at all. The dry climate accounts for Death Valley’s status as the lowest place in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. Most areas this low fill with water and become lakes or reservoirs.
The area was inhabited for centuries by the Timbisha Shoshone tribe. It became a passage during the westward expansion of the United States, particularly during the 1849 California Gold Rush. The misdirected prospectors now known as the “Lost '49ers” gave the place its name, because they believed they would meet their doom there; all but one of them escaped to safety. Later in the 19th century, miners stayed in Death Valley to harvest silver and borax, a crystalline chemical that occurs naturally in the area.
Eccentric residents include “Death Valley Scotty,” a former prospector who convinced a wealthy benefactor to build a luxurious home there. The residence, now known as “Scotty’s Castle,” is a popular tourist destination. Mass murderer Charles Manson was hiding out at a Death Valley ranch when he was arrested in 1969. Other oddities include the “sailing stones,” large rocks that change position in the desert without apparent human or animal intervention. Geologists theorize various causes for their movement, including ice sheets and high winds, but consensus and definitive evidence remain elusive.