Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells are among the roadside outposts inside Death Valley National Park, while Dante’s View attracts sunset tourists and Hell’s Gate welcomes visitors arriving from the East.
In summer, it’s so hot here, along California’s southeastern spine, that some of the roughly 800 residents — almost all park employees — bake brownies in their cars. In recent years, a large unofficial thermometer has reached 130 degrees, making it a destination for travelers, and the park has endured some of the highest temperatures ever recorded on Earth.
But none of that made Lata Kini, 59, and her husband, Ramanand, 61, pack their bags and drive about seven hours to get here on a whim this month. Rather, they were drawn to the mystique of another natural force.
“I’m here because of the water,” Ms. Kini said at Zabriskie Point, a popular viewpoint, as she watched the rising sun paint the undulating stone peaks in shades of pink and deep purple.
In the distance shone the white salt pans of the Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America, nearly 300 feet below sea level. It was there, in the middle of salt-covered lands, that a vast lake appeared almost overnight, highlighting how climate change is altering life in one of the country’s most remote landscapes.
On August 20, cities across Southern California prepared for the deluge of Tropical Storm Hilary, whose arrival in California was an exceptional event. Many regions escaped with little damage. Not Death Valley.
Throughout the park, rangers found that water rushing down the mountains had damaged all the roads, making many of them impassable. That day, the park recorded 2.2 inches of rain, more than a year’s worth and the most ever in a single day in Death Valley. The previous record was set just over a year earlier, when flooding stranded 1,000 people in the park.
Subsequently, the park experienced its longest closure – lasting almost two months – and reopened to visitors on October 15.
In the West, many national and state parks are of a magnitude that can be difficult to understand without visiting them. Death Valley is the size of Connecticut and is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. It became a national monument in 1933 under President Herbert Hoover, in part to protect two million acres from mining. (The park is dotted with sites tracing the history of borax mining in the area, as well as mostly unsuccessful efforts to extract gold and silver.) The land has not been designated national park only in 1994 and today encompasses 3.4 million inhabitants. acres.
The park now attracts more than a million visitors a year, many of whom stop off from Las Vegas to visit other, perhaps more photogenic, national parks like Yosemite. Yet Death Valley may seem familiar to newcomers; sand dunes and rock formations served as the landscape of Tatooine in the original “Star Wars” film.
Park officials said the recent multi-week closure underscored the need to adapt to a future in which weather conditions are increasingly extreme and less predictable.
“All climate change models indicate that this region of the country is expected to experience more frequent and larger storms,” said Abby Wines, a park ranger who manages security and public affairs.
Although few people associate the park with water, flash floods have always shaped Death Valley’s terrain, with debris flowing from the mouths of the canyons to create fan-shaped accumulations of sediment . But today, flooding is causing even more damage to residents and visitors to the region, as roads damaged in an instant by water can take months to repair.
The Badwater Basin is normally packed earth covered in what is essentially table salt, left behind by water that flowed from adjacent mountains and hills over millennia and evaporated in the searing heat. But when Death Valley reopened this fall, visitors were greeted by a miraculous sight: a body of mirror-smooth water.
It was the first time a lake had formed here in almost 20 years – the last time was in the winter of 2005 – and this one is significantly larger.
On the Badwater Basin boardwalk, where busloads of tourists normally arrive to see the salt flats, families posed for selfies in November with their feet submerged in the salt water. A lone kayaker passed us by. The sun warmed the air, creating an unearthly dissonance with the crunch of salt underfoot, which sounded like weeks-old snow.
“The Earth is constantly changing,” said Katharina Riedl, 50, as she gazed at the bare hills, streaked with minerals, reflected on the water.
“It’s a little overwhelming and a little strange,” she said with a laugh.
Ms. Riedl and her husband had come from Austria in part to see the starting point of a 135-mile ultramarathon that takes place every July in Death Valley.
The lake was a particularly welcome sight for Mandi Campbell, historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, which has called the valley home for centuries. Its appearance marked a respite for the land, parched by prolonged periods without rain.
But the lake was also a reminder of what his community has lost.
She stopped to chat in front of the small, unoccupied adobe house where she lived with her grandmother decades ago.
The adobe homes were built in 1930, when tribal members were forced to move about a mile and a half from the land that now houses the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in the national park. This is one of many times the federal government has displaced the Timbisha Shoshone tribe over the years.
Today, the village is home to a few dozen people, mostly elders, who live in worn-out trailers spread across a barren stretch of land off the highway. Their swamp coolers are increasingly overwhelmed by rising summer temperatures.
When Ms. Campbell, 49, was a child, the mesquite bushes that dot the desert absorbed groundwater and sporadic rain, producing an abundance of beans. She remembers using the bushes as shade huts during the hot summers. She played in the dunes, digging her bare toes into the sand to cool them.
Now, when the rains come, they submerge the parched earth. The thirsty, invasive tamarisk trees, which were planted in the village by the federal government, are green, while the honey mesquites have become thorny and barren. Many die.
Ms. Campbell said that while she has a good relationship with park officials today, the park’s closure served as a respite — a window into the valley’s past.
“I think Mother Nature needed a break. The valley needed a break,” she said. “Every time there’s flooding, the roads deteriorate, you know, and it’s quiet. It’s peaceful.