Death Valley National Park is known for being the hottest place on Earth and the driest place in North America, and despite its seemingly-inhospitable climate, the region holds many secrets for the curious traveler. Come with us on a journey to discover the beauty of this rugged region and see for yourself how Death Valley comes to life with color.
What is Death Valley?
Geologically speaking, Death Valley is a rift valley or a graben. This describes a valley that’s nestled between mountain ranges. Death Valley sits between the Amargosa Range to the east and the Panamint Range to the west; the northern end of the valley is bordered by the Grapevine Mountains, while the Owlshead Mountains create the southern boundary.
These mountains contain spectacular vistas, but perhaps the most beautiful can be found in the Black Mountains that make up the southern part of the Amargosa Range. Here you can find the Artists Palette, a dreamy rockscape in a rainbow of natural hues. These stunning colors, captured in Pastel Palette and Colorswirl, are created by oxidized metals in the rocks and make this part of Death Valley National Park unique.
Death Valley’s Highs and Lows
The Death Valley temperatures are what most people think of when they think of the Death Valley National Park. The verified record for the highest recorded temperature on Earth was set in Death Valley in 2021 when the air temperature reached 130°F. (An unverified record of 134° F exists from 1913.)
The extreme heat in Death Valley enhances the valley’s extreme dryness, but this wasn’t always the case. Thousands of years ago, Death Valley hosted an enormous inland lake, known as Lake Manly. As the lake evaporated, it created massive salt flats and deep mud cracks, like those you can see in Salt of the Earth and What Lies Beneath.
Smaller mud cracks are created by the roughly 2 inches of precipitation the valley sees each year and by any water that runs down the mountains into the valley. These mud cracks give the landscape a primeval, prehistoric look; it’s not hard to imagine the valley’s tumultuous volcanic past and seismic formation.
In addition to the valley’s famous highs, Death Valley National Park also hosts a famous low: the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is a spring-fed pool of extremely salty water in the middle of a drainage basin that has become a massive salt flat. This is just one example of the numerous geographical features that the park hosts.
Even though there is some permanent water in Death Valley, the lack of precipitation is what defines it as a desert. The classic image of a desert is an arid landscape covered with swirling sand dunes, but in Death Valley, only about 1% of the total land area is actually covered in sand.
The largest section of sand dunes in the Death Valley National Park is called the Mesquite Flats. Sinuous dunes rise up to 100 feet above the cracked clay of the ancient lakebed that forms the floor, while mesquite trees anchor the dunes and create large hummocks that provide stable habitat for wildlife like the desert iguana, red racer snake, desert cottontail, and even coyotes.
The dunes of Death Valley come in numerous shapes, the three most common being linear, star-shaped, and crescentic dunes. Linear dunes, like some of those seen in Ripple Effect, are long dunes that stretch out across the desert, creating the illusion of an eternal ocean of sand. Star-shaped dunes are tall, pyramid-shaped dunes that are imposing mountains of sand, as seen in the midground of Relentless.
Crescentic dunes, also known as barchans, are the most common type of dune both on Earth and on Mars, which contributes to the otherworldly feel that Death Valley has. This type of dune is the subject of the image Magic Carpet, where the serpentine shape of the dunes creates a hypnotic pattern in the sand.
No Other Place Like It
Death Valley National Park is a truly singular landscape. Nowhere else in the world looks anything like it; in fact, sometimes the landscape looks almost unearthly. In Alien Landscape, you can get a sense of how the unique geography creates a sense that you’re looking at somewhere else, somewhere unlike anything you know.
When you look at the ancient landscape that you can see in Forces of Nature, deep mud cracks racing towards layered mountains, it’s easy to forget that it’s Death Valley, California, and not somewhere on Mars. This distinctive, one-of-a-kind character is why professional landscape photographer Max Foster loves shooting in Death Valley so much.
We hope that this short introduction to Death Valley National Park has shown you how such incredible beauty can be found in some of the most inhospitable places.