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An oasis at Furnace Creek within Death Valley National Park.
An oasis at Furnace Creek within Death Valley National Park.

In surprising irony, Death Valley is especially vibrant

While at the visitor center at Death Valley National Park’s Furnace Creek Ranch, a guest posed an interesting question. “Why is this park called Death Valley?  It sounds so — final.”

Many people wonder if the name does justice to this unique display of geological and environmental features. What is your vision of Death Valley? What name would you offer as a more descriptive and accurate view of this national park?

When this valley was encountered by some of the first non-native RVers traveling toward the 1849 gold rush in their horse drawn or oxen drawn wagons it presented a severe obstacle and challenge to survival. The daytime heat, lack of potable water, cold nights without adequate firewood and the barriers of the mountain in every direction led to death of many travelers and hence, the name, Death Valley.

Today, seeing the landscape from air-conditioned comfort we are less likely to have a vision of death and more likely to enjoy the diversity, beauty and even the surprisingly verdant foliage of the oasis at Furnace Creek Ranch.

Entering the park from the west, people may stop at the visitor center at Lone Pine and then proceed along Route 136 to intersect Highway 190 and enter the park.

A friend who had never seen Death Valley was startled, perplexed and overjoyed to see the fantastic colors of the geological features as we descended into the valley of death. But death was not the main signature for the park. Especially when we arrived at the Furnace Creek Ranch oasis.

Death Valley 2

The greenery contrasted significantly with the various shades of brown, red, tan, black and other colors in the mosaic of the geological features seen throughout the park.

We had a much different and unusual experience as we approached the intersection of the primary roads in the valley. A deluge of a totally unexpected and unprecedented 2.5 inches of rainfall had invaded Death Valley National Park a few days before our arrival. That rainfall surpassed the one year average of rainfall in just 24 hours.

The 2.5 inches of rainfall resulted in mudslides, roadside ponds, mud in Scotty’s Castle and road closures everywhere. Several days after the record rainfall the road to Badwater and a few of the other areas were impassable. Scotty’s Castle was closed for the duration of several weeks.

My travel companion is the daughter of a Baptist minister. Prior to her first view of Death Valley, she compared in her mind Death Valley with the Valley of Death mentioned in the 23rd Psalm.

Her vision of the valley of death was of nothing living within a relatively narrow valley or canyon where death would abound. Imagine her surprise to see that Death Valley was not really the valley of death, but that there are multiple aspects of beauty and awesome scenic views in this unique national park.

Certainly geological features of Death Valley National Park were different than usual because of the immense amount of rain that had fallen and caused changes in the park. She was especially gratified and surprised to see the Furnace Creek Ranch oasis and the greenery of trees, grass and shrubs that are outstanding in an otherwise desolate desert area.

From an ecological viewpoint, the fantastic array of diverse color of geological features is surprising and rewarding as people travel via RV or automobile through the park.

Some may see Death Valley as simply a very hot, extremely dry and desolate location. Others will recognize the beauty, the diversity and the wonders of this national park. There are, of course, dozens of unique geological, ecological and historical features found in this unique park which emphasizes extreme climatic changes throughout the year.

Subsequent to our trip through Death Valley National Park, I have been reading a novel by Zane Grey entitled Wanderer of the Wasteland (1923). In his book, he describes the philosophical, ecological and emotional aspects of a man who spent a lifetime wandering in the desert and living in Death Valley.

The growth and development of this man as described by the author reveals the effects of living alone in the desert and especially in Death Valley. Whether or not the remoteness and desolation of Death Valley and nearby desert regions would have this effect on anyone else Zane Grey has certainly well described the maturation of an individual who lived for many years in the unique environment of Death Valley.

For me this book has added a depth of learning about Death Valley, about human behavior and a little bit about myself as I have compared the similar aspects of living, boondocking and traveling in an RV with the life of the wanderer featured in this book.

What name would you give to Death Valley National Park, based on your knowledge of the environmental features of the park? What is a proper tribute to this expanse of unique and varied habitats which ranges from mountain peaks to the lowest point in the USA, about 205 feet below sea level.

How might this National Park be honored as one of the finest examples of nature in the western United States?

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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