Travel Topics: Death Valley

STOVEPIPE WELLS, Calif., Aug. 8 — People come here on purpose in August, about 20,000 of them. Death Valley at midsummer is a cultivated taste. It is hard to see the grandeur for the heat ripples in the air.

One recent night there was a “cold snap,” a low of 93 about 4 a.m.

By late July it hadn’t even reached 125 yet this summer. July had a high of 124, with seven days offering no more than 128.

You can keep up with the temperature and humidity at the visitors’ center (altitude 192 feet below sea level), and there it’s cool. Superintendent Robert Murphy of Death Valley National Monument tries to put things in perspective there for a curious visitor.

“We had 23,000 visitors in July,” he says. “Most of them drove across the valley or down its length. It’s a big thing with some of them to do Death Valley in midsummer. For others, it’s just their only chance to see the place.”

About 30 motel rooms are airconditioned in the bleak village of Stovepipe Wells and are open to summer guests. Another 16 summer units at Furnace Creek Ranch have air conditioning. The Furnace Creek Inn still shuts down completely in summer.

Some visitors shun air conditioning and camp overnight at Furnace Creek Ranch, where shade trees help a bit. Mostly they come into the valley at sundown and leave the next morning.

Bravado is discouraged. Summer hiking has been restricted to main roads and is allowed only if hikers have mechanized support parties. Five hiking parties had permits for the month of August.

Death Valley is consistently the hottest place on earth. Azizia in Libya once recorded 136, and the record high of Death Valley was 134 in 1913 — but no other place on earth has such consistent summer highs.

Heat increases 5 1/2 degrees for each 1,000-foot drop in elevation. The valley is deep and its cool air, settling to the desert floor, is heated rapidly by compression as well as by radiation.

This is not the place of noontime highs. The heat piles up as the day wears on, the high does not usually come before 4:30 or 5. The heat is trapped and simply builds up under the piercing sun.

Humidity is so low it’s no fun to count, even at the air-conditioned visitors’ center. If two inches of rain falls during a year it’s a rainy year. So far, 1971 is a dry year.

The peak visitors’ months are March and April, with as many as 60,000 a month coming here by chartered bus from Southern California, by car from Las Vegas, and on side trips from all over the nation.

In that season nighttime low temperatures are in the 40s and daytime’ highs seldom exceed 80.

“Midwinter is very rewarding,” says Murphy, who has lived in Death Valley with his wife for three years. “Christmas is a happy season in Death Valley. The desert grows on you.”

Murphy’s idea, of a summer holiday is to take his wife camping at the 7,500-foot level in the cooler mountains on the rim of Death Valley. At those altitudes there are pinon pines and the air is brisk.

In summer, when Death Valley becomes largely a day-use area, many of the visitors are foreign. Japanese make up the greatest number, with French, German, English, Italian and Spanish next.

“They’ve heard of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Death Valley,” Murphy says, “and they have this one chance to see them, so they come whatever the temperature.”

One vital summer warning for any visitor is to be sure that his automobile is in good condition. This is not a cozy or intimate place.

The scale of Death Valley is almost impossible to grasp. More than 100 miles long but seldom as much as 20 miles across, the valley is walled in by precipitous mountains that soar from below sea level to more than 11,000 feet. The horizon is askew, for both the valley and its mountains are folded, broken and tipped on end by natural forces.

“You must treat the desert with respect,” Murphy says, “and it can be kind to you. But no one can afford to forget to think in Death Valley, for the desert can be hard, too.”

As he talked, rangers were conducting a search for a girl missing for a week without food or water.

Death Valley drew its name from a party of Western settlers seeking a shortcut from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, Calif., in the winter of 1849-50. They endured a terrible camp here, but most sources agree that only one member of that first group died in Death Valley.

Yet terror of the name has become part of the fun for modern visitors. Despite its geographic phenomena, Death Valley would have tended without its name to merge into the almost equally prodigious wastes of the Mojave Desert to its south and the Great Basin to its north.

As it is, visitors sense some exhilaration in their visits to Badwater, four miles from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level), where they look high up on a cliff to see a sea level sign.

The same fun is there in a visit to Devil’s Golf Course, a valley floor covered with yard-high salt extrusions, or to such heights as Funeral Peak and Dante’s View in the Black Mountains on the east valley wall.

If they seek more modern terror, visitors may remember that the Charles Manson family operated within and just outside Death Valley boundaries, storing their stolen vehicles in the valley at Willow Springs.

Superintendent Murphy’s rangers are understandably suspicious of hippie visitors. No known hippie families now reside in Death Valley.

By NEIL MORGAN

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