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10+ (FASCINATING) Death Valley National Park Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

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Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest | Death Valley Facts
Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest | Death Valley National Park

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.

“This was the desert, everything all at once, whether it was needed or not.

What survived had learned to save, live carefully, and keep a low profile, even appear to be dead for long periods. Perseverance and patience.”

-James Anderson

Death Valley Facts

1. Death Valley Got Its Name From A Group Of Lost Goldminers

The park got its name from an unlucky group of gold prospectors | Death Valley Facts
Death Valley got its name from a group of unlucky gold miners on their way to the California Gold Rush (above). (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: DEATH VALLEY National Park: The Ultimate Guide (Photos + Video)

“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.

Some perished in Death Valley while others were fortunate to escape its wrath. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

2. Death Valley Featured Its Own Television Series

Death Valley actually inspired a successful and long-running television show | Death Valley Facts
Death Valley National Park inspired a television series titled, “Death Valley Days.” Pictured above are three of the actors who appeared in that series including a very young James Caan on the left. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: Look Familiar? 10+ CLASSIC Television Shows Filmed In The National Parks

Stanley Andrews was the original host of Death Valley Days. He played a character known as the “Old Ranger.” All subsequent hosts played themselves on the show. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: Meet The Real Life Batman & Robin Of The National Parks

Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park System, played a role in the story of Death Valley | Death Valley Facts
Stephen Mather was an advertising manager for the company which sponsored Death Valley Days before becoming the first director of the National Park Service.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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

Ronald Reagan played a role in the story of Death Valley as one of the hosts of Death Valley Days | Death Valley Facts
A future President of the United States was one of the hosts on Death Valley Days. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

Death Valley Days was as popular in its day as Law & Order is today. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening. You coast for a while. You have a hell of a closing.”

-Ronald Reagan

3. Death Valley Is The Lowest Point In America

badwater basin death valley national park
Death Valley’s Badwater Basin 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.

mesquite dunes death valley national park
Death Valley is part of the Mojave Desert | Death Valley Facts

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.

RELATED: 21+ (STUNNING) Things To Do In Death Valley National Park

5. Death Valley Has One of the Tallest Dunes in North America

eureka dunes death valley national park
One of the most amazing features at Death Valley are the Eureka Dunes | Death Valley Facts

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 in summer
Panamint Dunes | Death Valley National Park Facts

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

Death Valley is where the first Star Wars movie was filmed | Death Valley Facts
The first film in the epic Star Wars series included scenes filmed in Death Valley National Park.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: Look Familiar? 25+ CLASSIC Movies Filmed In The National Parks

Star Wars creator George Lucas revealed that the original film did not include an episode number until it was re-released in1981. Lucas didn’t think it would be a success–think again! (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

badwater basin sunset death valley national park california
Death Valley is one place that truly does appear to be from another planet | Death Valley Facts

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

Imagine a monkey playing the role of Yoda in Star Wars. It almost happened.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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

The classic Kirk Douglas film Spartacus had scenes filmed in Death Valley.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

If you haven’t heard of any of the films made in Death Valley then you don’t watch enough movies! Might I recommend Turner Classic Movies? (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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?

RELATED: Look Familiar? 10+ CLASSIC Television Shows Filmed In The National Parks

One of televisions most iconic science fiction series, The Twilight Zone, filmed portions of two episodes in Death Valley. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: Look Familiar? 10+ CLASSIC Television Shows Filmed In The National Parks

9. Death Valley Has 52 Different Types Of Wildlife

bighorn sheep barker dam joshua tree national park
Bighorn sheep are among 52 different wildlife species that can be found in Death Valley National Park.

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

death valley national park pattiz
More Than Just Parks co-founder Will Pattiz pictured here with his wife, at Death Valley National Park.

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

  1. Death Valley got its name from a group of lost goldminers
  2. Death Valley featured its own television series
  3. Death Valley is the lowest point in North America
  4. Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S.
  5. Death Valley has the tallest sand dune in California
  6. Death Valley is typically the hottest place in America
  7. Death Valley was featured in the first Stars Wars film
  8. Death Valley has been used as a backdrop in countless other films
  9. Death Valley has 52 different types of mammals
  10. Death Valley has wildflowers which actually bloom there
Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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