Author: The Great Courses Staff
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A new bill adds over a million acres to wilderness and conservation areas. It also protects expanded regions of Death Valley National Park. What’s there and what makes it so special?
Congress recently passed a landmark 662-page bill expanding federally protected national parks by a tremendous amount—over a million acres in all. Preserved areas of Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park will see a significant increase. However, Death Valley regularly falls victim to bad publicity. Its name and extreme temperatures don’t help its reputation. Although visitors should be cautious with the weather, Death Valley remains one of our most misunderstood national parks.
Geological Wonders Abound in Death Valley
Death Valley stretches over 5,000 square miles and is the country’s biggest national park, surpassing Yellowstone. It also boasts the lowest point of land in the country at 282 feet below sea level. “Death Valley is also the epitome of America’s Basin and Range province, a land rifting apart, torn asunder, where giant blocks of continental crust are sinking between tall mountain belts,” Professor Ford Cochran, Director of Programming for National Geographic Expeditions, said. Professor Cochran explains that as plate tectonics separate, they cause the land between them to stretch thin. It’s similar to the cheese that gets caught between two slices of pizza as you pull them apart. In this analogy, the pizza crust takes the place of the tectonic plates and the cheese is the surface-level terrain.
Death Valley’s native minerals and its arid environment also contribute to some of its geological phenomena. Racetrack Valley, one of the basins of the park, hosts one such curiosity—rocks that slowly travel across a flat surface. According to Professor Cochran, the ground that makes up Racetrack Valley is actually a “playa,” meaning the floor of an evaporated lake. A very fine mud covers the valley and rocks have left trails a quarter of a mile long in it. The culprit is ice.
“Yes, ice in Death Valley,” Professor Cochran said. “A paleobiologist from Scrips […] filmed thin sheets of ice that had formed on Racetrack Valley, gliding across the mud and dragging along embedded rocks, making new tracks. The ice evidently makes the friction with the mud so slight that the sheets can glide across the mud with the slightest bit of wind, or in response to the slightest change in elevation. Gentlemen, start your pebbles.”
How Death Valley Birthed the National Park Service
Another reason Congress might have expanded Death Valley National Park is its relationship with the federal government. The volcanic rock rhyolite flourished in Death Valley, and hot springs flowing through it caused a chemical reaction that would change the federal government forever. The hot springs concentrated boron in the earth and created sodium-boric acid salts known as borax. A miner named Francis Marion Smith successfully mined the borax in Death Valley and sold it nationwide.
One of Smith’s employees, a marketing agent who helped promote Smith’s business, eventually made so much money that he started his own borax mining company. “His name was Stephen Mather and he would become the crusader and patron who promoted the idea of a national park service to manage America’s parks,” Professor Cochran said. “After the U.S. National Park Service was created in 1916, he became its first director. So the money earned by borax mined in Death Valley helped to create the National Park Service and it paid the salaries of its earliest employees, which Mather covered from his own pocket.”
Amid the extremely dry air and the brutal heat, Death Valley boasts a long and fascinating history. It features multicolored landscapes, ghost towns, and beautiful rock formations. Many people prefer the lush forests and verdant hills of Yellowstone or the depths of the Grand Canyon, but Death Valley remains a sight to be seen—and with the recent conservation bill, it will be.
Professor Ford Cochran contributed to this article.
Professor Cochran is Director of Programming for National Geographic Expeditions. He earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Geology at Yale University, where he was awarded competitive Global Change fellowships from both NASA and the Department of Energy.