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Death Valley

Death Valley is a unique geological marvel located in southeastern California. It holds the distinction of being the hottest and driest national park in the United States and is known for its extreme temperatures and striking desert landscapes. In July 2023 parts of the park reached 130oF over several days.

Basin and Range Region

Death Valley is situated within the Basin and Range Province, as is Pinal County. This area is characterized by a series of alternating mountain ranges and valleys that have formed due to tectonic stretching and faulting.

Tectonic Activity

The geological landscape of Death Valley has been shaped by the movement of the Earth’s crust along fault lines. The valley itself is a result of the downward movement of blocks of crust between two parallel mountain ranges formed by fault lines: the Black Mountains to the east and the Panamint Range to the west.

Tectonic forces have led to both uplift and subsidence in Death Valley. While the surrounding mountain ranges have risen due to tectonic activity, the valley floor has subsided, creating a low point in the landscape.

Salt Flats and Playa Lakes

One of the most distinctive features of Death Valley is its vast salt flats, such as Badwater Basin. These salt flats are remnants of ancient lakes that once covered the valley. As water evaporated, it left behind mineral deposits, creating the salt-crusted (halite) surface seen today.

Playas are temporary lakes that form after rainfall and collect in low-lying areas. These lakes are ephemeral and can evaporate quickly in the desert heat. Occasionally Badwater and other shallow basins within the valley fill with water. The only way water can get out of the deep valley is through evaporation.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, sitting at an elevation of about 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.

Ancient Lake

During the last ice age, Death Valley was covered by a vast inland lake. About 70,000 years ago, the lake evaporated leaving behind the salt and minerals that now form the salt flats.

As water from the ancient lake evaporated, it concentrated the minerals dissolved in it. This led to the precipitation of various salts, including common table salt (halite, sodium chloride) and other minerals like gypsum and borax.

The salt flats, particularly at Badwater Basin often display hexagonal patterns formed by the natural crystalline structure of the salt. These patterns are particularly visible when the salt surface is dry and free of footprints.

The salt polygons seen across the flats are created by the continual expansion and contraction of the salt crust due to temperature changes. As the salt crust expands, it cracks into polygonal shapes.

Racetrack Playa

The Racetrack Playa is a particularly fascinating feature in Death Valley. It is known for its “sailing stones” that appear to move across the playa surface, leaving tracks behind. The movement is attributed to a combination of ice, wind, and a slippery mud layer.

Erosional Features

Death Valley’s landscape has been shaped by erosion from wind, water, and occasional flash floods. Canyons, alluvial fans, and erosional patterns contribute to the diverse topography of the region surrounding the valley, and on the valley floor itself.

Geological Diversity

Death Valley showcases a variety of rock formations, including sedimentary, volcanic, and metamorphic rocks. The geology reflects the complex history of the region, spanning millions of years.

Elevational Range

Death Valley exhibits an impressive range of elevations, from the low Badwater Basin at about 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level to the towering Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, which rises to over 11,000 feet (3,353 meters).

Visiting

Death Valley is worth a visit for its geological wonders. It is easily accessible from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. When visiting Death Valley and the surrounding area, please pay attention to the precautions advised regarding the weather and dealing with it. In summer, cars and bodies overheat, air conditioners fail, and even sweat stops working if you become dehydrated. At times flash floods can sweep parts of the valley area, begun by far-off rain in the surrounding mountains. Visitors die within the park most years. Just be careful.