Geography Facts About Death Valley

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Death Valley is a place of extremes. With record-breaking heat, low rainfall, and one of the lowest places on Earth, Death Valley has a very harsh environment.

Located mostly in Inyo County in eastern California, Death Valley spans an area of 3,000 square miles (7,800 km2). The largest national park south of Alaska, Death Valley National Park has three million acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of backcountry roads.

Death Valley is a 156-mile-long north/south-trending trough bordered by the the Amargosa Mountain Range to the east and the Panamint Mountain Range to the west.

Map of Death Valley.  Map: National Park Service.
Map of Death Valley. Map: National Park Service.

Learn some interesting geography facts in this article about Death Valley.

Hottest Recorded Temperature on Earth

The confluence of several topographical and geographic factors have resulted in some of Earth’s highest air temperatures. Solar heating of the desert floor, the movement of warm air from adjacent areas (known as advection), adiabatic heating as air descends the ranges west of Death Valley, and the trapping of air in the valley all contribute to scorching temperatures.

Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California.  Photo: Keystone View Company, c. July 16, 1928 via Library of Congress.
Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California. Photo: Keystone View Company, c. July 16, 1928 via Library of Congress.

On July 10, 1913, Furnace Creek Ranch recorded the highest officially registered air temperature on Earth with a reading of 56.7 °C (134.1 °F). More recently, an air temperature of 54.4 °C (129.9 °F), was recorded at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek on August 16, 2020 by the National Park Service.

A ranger stands next to the thermometer at Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The Celsius reading should display 54 degrees. Photo: NPS, public domain.
A ranger stands next to the thermometer at Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The Celsius reading should display 54 degrees. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Death Valley is the Lowest Point in the United States

The lowest point on land in the United States can be found in Death Valley in California. Badwater Basin is an  endorheic basin with a depth of 282 ft (86 m) below sea level.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Death Valley is One of the Driest Places in the United States

Moist air from the Pacific Ocean has to pass over four mountain ranges as it moves east. Most of the precipitation from this air is released on the western side of those mountains.

Very little moisture reaches Death Valley, making it one of the driest locations in the United States and the driest national park. The average rainfall in Death Valley is less than 2 inches (5 cm).

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  Photo: Death Valley NPS.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Photo: Death Valley NPS.

When enough rainfall has been received in Death Valley, spring brings a burst of color as wildflowers bloom. When deep soaking rains happen, superblooms will occur with many areas of Death Valley carpeted by wildflowers that bring pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Plentiful rains leads to superblooms where the desert becomes blanketed with wildflowers.  Photo: Death Valley, NPS, spring 2005.
Plentiful rains leads to superblooms where the desert becomes blanketed with wildflowers. Photo: Death Valley, NPS, spring 2005.

Despite the Lack of Rain, Death Valley Has Fish

Six species of fish make their homes in the various spring fed pools, caverns, and other aquatic environments in Death Valley.

One of the world’s rarest fish, the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) is found in the top 80 feet of the 93 degree cavern waters Devils Hole in Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nye County, Nevada, a detached unit of Death Valley National Park.

The 40 acre (16 ha) habitat of the Devils Hole pupfish is one of the smallest in the world for a vertebrate.

Devils Hole pupfish.  Photo: USFWS
Devils Hole pupfish. Photo: USFWS

Tsunamis in Devils Hole

The tidal effects of large magnitude earthquakes can impact the water at Devils Hole from as far away as Japan, Indonesia, Chile, and Mexico.

Sailing Stones

The Racktrack is a dry lake bed, known as a playa, that has moving rocks. The playa gets its name from the race-like tracks caused by boulders of dolomite and syenite slowly moving across the lake bed over time.

For a long time, people didn’t know how the rocks were able to move seemingly on their own. In 2013, researchers discovered that a combination of melting ice on the floor of the lake bed with light winds provided the force to move these rocks.

A boulder moving along the dry lake bed.  Racetrack, Death Valley.  Photo: NPS.
A boulder moving along the dry lake bed. Racetrack, Death Valley. Photo: NPS.

Ubehebe Crater

Created by steam and gas explosions from magma reaching groundwater, Ubehebe Crater is a large volcanic crater 600 feet deep and half a mile across.

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley. Photo: Death Valley NPS
Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley. Photo: Death Valley NPS

Tallest Sand Dunes in California

The Eureka Sand Dunes in northern Death Valley are the tallest sand dunes in California. The dunes occupy an area only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide but rise 680 feet.

Eureka sand dunes.  Photo: Dan Kish, NPS.
Eureka sand dunes. Photo: Dan Kish, NPS.

Eureka Dunes are home to rare and endangered species of plants and animals like the Eureka Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera californica ssp. eurekensis).

The range of two other plant species is restricted to these dunes: Eureka Dunegrass (Swallenia alexandrae) and Shining Milkvetch (Astragalus lentiginosus micans).

Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose.  Photo: Death Valley NPS
Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose. Photo: Death Valley NPS

Watch: Geography Facts ~ Death Valley

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