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What is Badwater Basin?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Badwater Basin is a stretch of salt flats at the lowest point in North America. It can be difficult to pinpoint the lowest point in Badwater Basin, because it moves around, but it hovers around 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. For convenience, the spring for which the salt flats are named is labeled as the lowest point, in part because the actual lowest point is often dangerous to access.

This area is located in Death Valley in the state of California. Along with the rest of Death Valley, Badwater Basin is very hostile to visitors. It gets extremely hot and dry, and there is limited available shade and no fresh water. Visitors are at risk of heat stroke and other heat-related conditions, and it can also simply be uncomfortable to visit, thanks to the high heat. However, some organisms do make a living in the area, including extremophilic bacteria, some plants, and the Badwater Snail, a very rare mollusk.

Death Valley was formed millions of years ago, and Badwater Basin is all that remains of what was once a large inland sea. Over time, the dissolved salts in the water became highly concentrated, thanks to repeated evaporation and rain cycles, and eventually all of the water evaporated away, leaving a salt crust. Winter rains often form a shallow lake in Badwater Basin which inevitably evaporates in the spring and summer months, and the ground of the basin is covered in a honeycombed network created by repeated soaking and drying, with a light crust of salt.

The salt crust in Badwater Basin can be deceptive, as it makes it seem like it is safe to walk. In fact, parts of the basin are covered in dense mud, which can be dangerous for walkers. For this reason, visitors to Badwater Basin are encouraged to stay on ramps constructed by the Parks Service, and while they can visit the mineral-rich spring, they cannot walk in the basic itself.

This location is the starting point for the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling footrace in which people run from Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Originally, runners had to not only complete the marathon, but also climb the mountain, and few people managed to successfully complete the challenge. Because permits are now required to summit Mount Whitney, the race ends at the foot of the mountain, but it is still a challenge to run 135 miles (215 kilometers) through the extreme heat of the area.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By TreeMan — On Nov 02, 2011

I find it quite interesting that the hottest and most unforgiving spot on Earth is a major tourist attraction and the site of a national park.

I have never been to Death Valley or badwater basin, but I have heard that it is as bad as people say it is and that if you are to visit there to go in the early morning and not stay there for a very long time.

By Emilski — On Nov 01, 2011

@JimmyT - I think that they simply followed their crazy leader Charles Manson around and did whatever he said. He was so charismatic and they were such diluted minded people that they were willing to follow him anywhere and do his bidding.

Charles Manson probably thought that they would be secluded in the area of Death Valley and no one would possibly bother them because of the remoteness. Maybe he thought he could stand the heat so his followers simply thought they could too.

I will have to say though I do not see how anyone could tolerate such harsh and extreme conditions and how he was able to keep his followers united while they were living in such horrible conditions. It probably goes to show the amount of power he had and his ability to manipulate people. I would actually like to know more about people that settled in the area and see why they decided to stay and live in such a desolate place.

By JimmyT — On Oct 31, 2011

I remember once hearing that the Manson family stayed in houses in Death Valley and heard rumors that they made some treks to the badwater basin. I know that they were a cult but I find that amazingly odd that they would set their base of operations out in the middle of Death Valley.

I know they may have wanted to keep their activities a secret but I would, as well as common sense would dictate that it is in the middle of the desert and it is literally the hottest place on Earth. Could they have simply stayed in some remote area that was not one hundred and twenty degrees on a consistent basis or were they obsessed with death enough that they thought they had to stay and live in such a harsh area?

By kentuckycat — On Oct 31, 2011

I have heard of badwater salt flats and heard of its infamy for the extreme heat. I have also heard that the area holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, somewhere around the one hundred and forty degree range.

Despite all these brutal conditions I find it absolutely amazing that there is in fact life that can grow. This place is very hot and gets very little rain, yet the plant life in the area has adapted to the harsh and extreme temperatures and is able to sustain itself in some way.

I have never been to the badwater basin, but if I do I have to say that I will not be in what some people consider the pits of hell for long.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Oct 30, 2011

The badwater basin ultramarathon sounds absolutely crazy! How could anyone run that far in those kinds of conditions? I have heard about some pretty crazy foot races in the past but nothing like this. I don't know how they wouldn't just collapse like a prune in the middle of the desert.

By truman12 — On Oct 30, 2011

I have actually been to badwater basin. I went because I have always thought it would be cool to stand on the lowest point in the country. It is kind of like getting to the very bottom of things.

I had never been to death valley but I did a lot of research and drove out there with my girlfriend. We made it to the basin, took a bunch of pictures, ate a quick lunch and then got out of there fast. The place lives up to its name. Death valley is pretty brutal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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