Who’s ready for some incredible Death Valley facts! Despite the morbid name, this park is full of otherworldly landscapes and interesting stories.
Situated on California’s southeastern border with Nevada, the park spans over 5,000 miles of otherworldly vistas. Death Valley is definitely a park for superlatives: hottest place on earth, lowest place in the US, and driest place in America. And we’re just getting started!
In this article we’re covering 10+ fascinating facts about Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley Facts
1. Death Valley Got Its Name From A Group Of Lost Goldminers
Every place has a story to tell. The story of how Death Valley National Park got its name is a particularly fascinating one.
Our story begins with the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley of California in early 1848. Once gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, pandemonium set in as “gold fever” swept across the nation.
The Bennett-Arcane Party were a group of particularly unlucky prospectors who came from the East. Their destination was the Sutter’s Mill area of Northern California. In those days, folks didn’t have GPS. They made a wrong turn crossing the desert and got trapped in Death Valley.
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“Stout-hearted and determined, and utterly self-reliant were these prospectors who crossed and re-crossed the salt floor of the valley and climbed the mountainsides, with burro for companion, and hope springing eternal, looking for the rich finds alleged by gossip and campfire yarn to be awaiting them.
Some of them, indeed, found pockets of gold; many of them found only happiness and death–happiness because they learned to love the absolute freedom of the nomad life, with a beckoning fortune awaiting them in the very next ‘porphyry’ ;
death because they wagered too heavily upon their iron nerve, missed the waterholes, let their burros stray, or stayed too long into the hot season and were driven mad by a furnace blast that has been known to touch 134 degrees in a modern thermometer shelter.”
-Freeman Tilden, The National Parks
Hoping To Avoid The Same Fate As The Donner Party
After learning about the infamous Donner Party who had perished on their way to California, this unlucky party took the Old Spanish Trail hoping to avoid the same fate.
Lost and starving, part of the group decided to remain at Travertine Springs while others trekked a grueling 300 miles to the nearest Mission. A month later, they returned with help.
Unfortunately for some of them that help came too late. By the time they arrived, some had already perished in the valley. As one of the more fortunate survivors managed to escape the valley, he supposedly said on his way out, “Goodbye, Death Valley”, and the name stuck.
2. Death Valley Featured Its Own Television Series
How many national parks have their own television series? Death Valley did! Death Valley Days was first a series on the radio. Later, it was adapted for television. It was an anthology series featuring true accounts of the Old American West.
Death Valley Days was originally created in 1930 by Ruth Woodman. The original inspiration for the show was the group of prospectors who perished in Death Valley. Little did anyone know that the show would prove to be one of the most popular westerns on television.
One Of The Longest Running Westerns On Television
The program was originally broadcast on radio until 1945. It came to television in 1952 and ran until 1970. The show continued in syndication until August 1, 1975. This made Death Valley Days one of the longest running western television programs in history.
The show’s sponsor was the Pacific Borax Company. The company was famous for its “20 Mule Team Borax” slogan which was the brainchild of its advertising manager Stephen Mather.
This is the same Stephen Mather who would go on to become the first director of the National Park System.
Pacific Coast Borax Works Lobbied For Protected Status
The company which sponsored Death Valley Days, Pacific Coast Borax, was the same company which lobbied the National Park Service to preserve and protect the area’s natural resources. As a consequence of their efforts, the area was designated a National Monument in 1933.
Mining was allowed to continue there until it received official National Park designation in 1994.
You’ll Never Guess Who Hosted Death Valley Days
Death Valley Days stories were introduced by the show’s host. During its long run, the series had several hosts including: Stanley Andrews (1952-64), Ronald Reagan (1964-65), Rosemary DeCamp (1965), Robert Taylor (1966-69) and Dale Robertson (1969-70).
That’s right! The series was hosted by a future President of the United States–Ronald Reagan.
This long-running series spanned 452 episodes. Compare that with the 456 episodes of the ever-popular crime series “Law & Order,” which is still in syndication today. This gives you some idea of just how popular it was even though you probably never heard of it.
There Was Only One “Old Ranger”
Both of these long-running series were based on true stories. In the case of Death Valley Days, Stanley Andrews, the original host, portrayed a fictional character named the “Old Ranger.” He introduced each of the episodes.
The format was so popular that, after Andrews left the show, he was replaced by a series of successors.
For Death Valley Days fans, however, there was only one “Old Ranger” so each of Andrews successors as host introduced episodes under their real names rather than portraying a fictional character.
3. Death Valley Is The Lowest Point In America
Badwater Basin is situated at 282 feet below sea level, is not only the lowest point in the U.S., but in all of North America. The basin is known for its sprawling salt flats. The question is: How did they get there?
Geologists believe that, in ancient times, an inland lake existed where the basin lies today. Since this lake had no access to other bodies of water, salt deposits accumulated which explains those salt flats.
While the lake disappeared, it left behind these amazing salt crystals which are definitely worth seeing.
4. Death Valley Is The Largest National Park In The Contiguous U.S.
The Park is 3.4 million acres (or 5,270 square miles). This makes it the largest national park in the Continental US.
There are several National Parks in Alaska that are larger, however, including Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic.
Death Valley is part of the Mojave Desert. It includes five sets of sand dunes, two mountain ranges, one XL volcano crater and one XXL salt basin.
5. Death Valley Has One of the Tallest Dunes in North America
Speaking of deserts, Death Valley National Park has the tallest sand dune in California. Eureka Dunes are acclaimed as California’s tallest sand dune.
You will find these amazing sand dunes located in the northernmost corner of Death Valley They rise over 680 feet from base to summit. These amazing dunes stretch about 3 miles long and 1 mile wide.
6. Death Valley Is The Hottest Place on the Planet
Death Valley holds the record as being the hottest place on earth. On July 10, 1913, a temperature of 134°F (57°C) was measured at Furnace Creek. Summer temperatures are regularly high, often exceeding 120°F (49°C).
What’s even more amazing is that this was the same year Death Valley recorded its lowest temperature. The temperature dipped to 15°F (-10°C) at Furnace Creek on January 8, 1913.
7. Death Valley Was Featured In The First Star Wars Film
The force was with them when George Lucas & Co. rewrote the rules of science fiction storytelling. Star Wars was the most successful science fiction film series of all time. It was second most successful film series of all time.
If you’re wondering which series is number one, it’s the Marvel Comics Superheroes franchise. As Jim Croce once reminded us, “you don’t tug on superman’s cape,” but don’t feel too sorry for George Lucas.
Stars Wars actually began with A New Hope, which was the fourth installment in this highly successful film series. Why begin with episode four you might ask? When this film originally released to theaters in 1977, it was simply called Star Wars.
It wasn’t until the film’s theatrical re-release in 1981 that it received the Episode IV marking and the subtitle: A New Hope. As Lucas explained at a Tribeca Film Conference in 2015, he didn’t think the film would be a success so he wasn’t anticipating a film series. Think again!
The Stars Wars film which launched the entire series introduces us to Luke Skywalker in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley was selected to replicate the rugged landscape of the desert planet Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker. If you remember, this is where Luke was taken as an infant to live with his aunt and uncle.
Scenes from episode six, Return of the Jedi, were also be filmed in Death Valley too as well as Redwood National Park where the forest moon of Endor was based. With its desert landscape and stunning sand dunes, Death Valley is one place that truly does appear to be out of this world.
Now Here’s A Fun Fact
Long before animatronics, Muppeteer Frank Oz originally planned to dress up a real monkey in a Yoda costume and mask.
It turns out that a crew member had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He pointed out that the apes they used in that movie’s opening were a huge headache.
This was enough to convince George Lucas to get rid of the Yoda monkey. Much to learn they still had.
Death Valley Has Been Used As A Backdrop In Countless Other Films
Stars Wars was not the only film to make use of the magnificent scenery of Death Valley. Countless other films and television series have filmed there too.
I have tried counting the number of films and quit when I got to fifty. And, I hadn’t even gotten to the middle of the alphabet yet.
Some of the more memorable films to have been made there include: Greatest Story Ever Told, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, King Solomon’s Mines, One Eyed Jacks, Return of the Jedi (not to mention the original Star Wars film–A New Hope), Robinson Crusoe On Mars, Spartacus, Tarzan, and Zabriskie Point.
If you haven’t heard of any of these films then you don’t watch enough movies! Might I recommend Turner Classic Movies?
If you prefer television to movies then you should know that, in addition to Death Valley Days, the iconic science fiction television series The Twilight Zone filmed portions of two of its episodes in Death Valley.
If you’re a fan of this amazing series, the two episodes in question were “The Lonely” (1959) and “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” (1960). Both were filmed at Zabriskie Point and Desolation Canyon.
9. Death Valley Has 52 Different Types Of Wildlife
You would think that Death Valley doesn’t support wildlife. And you would be wrong.
There are actually fifty-two different types of wildlife in the valley. These include smaller species such as squirrels, bats, chipmunks, mice, rats, gophers, rabbits and foxes.
They also include larger species as well. You can find bighorn sheep, bobcat, burro, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and mule deer.
10. Death Valley Has Wildflowers Which Actually Bloom There | Death Valley Facts
Believe it or not, one of the driest places on the planet has wildflowers. Not only that, but there’s actually a superbloom, which occurs once every ten years. During this phenomenon, the desert landscape is painted with yellow, pink, and purple flowers.
You can also see sunflowers, phacelia, desert gold, gravel ghost, Bigelow monkeyflower, desert thorn, desert sage, poppies, and other wildflowers which flourish in this desert climate.
The Blooming Season
The blooming season typically lasts from mid-February through June or mid-July, reaching its zenith in March and April.
If you’re looking to see them, between late February and early April, you can spot flowers on lower elevations, including Badwater Road, Green Valley Road, Death Valley Road, and Titus Canyon Road.
From early April to early May, flowers can be seen on the higher elevations which include: Jubilee Pass, Zabriskie Point, Furnace Creek, and Daylight Pass.
More About Death Valley
RELATED: To learn more about one of America’s most fascinating national parks, check out our guide to Death Valley National Park.
Ten Fascinating Facts About Death Valley National Park
- Death Valley got its name from a group of lost goldminers
- Death Valley featured its own television series
- Death Valley is the lowest point in North America
- Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S.
- Death Valley has the tallest sand dune in California
- Death Valley is typically the hottest place in America
- Death Valley was featured in the first Stars Wars film
- Death Valley has been used as a backdrop in countless other films
- Death Valley has 52 different types of mammals
- Death Valley has wildflowers which actually bloom there