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What Is Death Valley National Park?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated: May 17, 2024

Death Valley National Park is an American national park located in the Great Basin between California and Nevada. This park is one of the driest and hottest in the United States but is nonetheless host to many plant and animal species that have adapted to the environment. It is also one of the largest, covering an area of approximately 5,270 square miles (13,649 square kilometers). Originally inhabited by a series of Native American cultures dating back seven millennia BCE, the area that is now Death Valley National Park was mined before becoming part of the protected parks system. Many visitors are attracted to the park’s varied scenery, ranging from fields of wildflowers to mudstone badlands and salt flats.

This national park is east of the Sierra Nevada and encompasses the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert. Most of the land is within the state of California, but a small section is inside Nevada. The park was initially declared a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1933. During the Great Depression and throughout the 1940s, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps graded roads, built buildings and barracks, and installed telephone and water lines. It was redesignated a national park in 1994 under the Desert Protection Act.

There are approximately four Native American cultures that have lived in the area that is now Death Valley National Park. The first were the Nevares Spring People, who hunted and gathered in the region around 9,000 years ago when there were still small lakes there. About 5,000 years ago, this group was displaced by the Mesquite Flat People, who were then themselves displaced 2,000 years ago by the Saratoga Spring People. This group included skilled craftsmen who left stone patterns throughout Death and Panamint Valleys.

The most recent group to reside in this area was the Timbisha or Shoshone. They moved into the region approximately a thousand years ago and survived by hunting and gathering beans and pine nuts. They moved as the seasons changed, staying near water in the valleys before moving progressively up into higher altitudes as the weather warmed and plant food sources become more abundant. Part of the Timbisha tribal reservation is located within Death Valley National Park at Furnace Creek.

People of European descent first came to the region during the California Gold Rush. In 1849, a group of around 100 wagons got lost and made their way into Death Valley. After wandering for several weeks, eating several oxen, and burning many of their wagons, many were able to hike out of the valley. Survivor William Lewis Manley chronicled this experience in his autobiography Death Valley in ’49.

Mining was established in the area by the end of the 19th century. Borax, salt, and talc were mined, and boom towns sprang up around the mines. Mining continued even after Death Valley was declared a national monument and strip and open pit mining techniques changed the landscape. Open pit mining and new mining claims were banned after 1976, and the last mine in the park closed in 2005.

Although Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest and driest places in the United States, there are many different species of plants and wildlife. More than a thousand types of plants live within the park. Many on the valley floor have very deep roots, while high peaks host woodlands of pine trees. Most of the plant species are cacti or wildflowers.

Most of the smaller wildlife is nocturnal, while larger animals like desert bighorn sheep prefer cooler higher elevations. Wildlife in the park ranges from the reptilian desert tortoise to mammals, including bats, horses, and deer. Some wildlife is unique to Death Valley National Park, like the Devils Hole pupfish, a small fish with iridescent blue coloring that lives only in Devils Hole. There are also many species of butterflies, amphibians, and birds.

The natural features and ecosystems of Death Valley National Park are varied and attract many visitors. There are many geographical formations, including granite, salt, and alluvial fan deposits. Canyons and mountains contrast with salt flats and sand dunes. There are also creeks and springs throughout the park.

Most visitors come to Death Valley National Park in the winter, but it is open all year. The heat is usually too intense for many people by May, but visitors can still tour many points of interest by car. Visitors can reserve camping space in one of the park’s nine campgrounds and explore the park at their leisure. There are contact stations, museums, and visitors centers near Furnace Creek as well as in the north section of Death Valley.

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.
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