Geology of the National Parks

History of Death Valley

Death Valley night sky NPS /  Dan Duriscoe 

The exposed geology of the Death Valley area, which straddles the CaliforniaNevada border east of the Sierra Nevada, presents a diverse and complex set of at least 23 formations of sedimentary units, two major gaps in the geologic record called unconformities, and at least one distinct set of related formations geologists call a group.  [The park has] a diverse rock record stretching throughout most of geologic time. From 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rocks exposed in the Black mountains, to recent playa sediments deposited in the valley basins.  There are two major valleys in the parkDeath Valley and Panamint Valley. Both of these valleys were formed within the last few million years and both are bounded by north–south-trending mountain ranges.  These and adjacent valleys follow the general trend of Basin and Range topography with one modification: there are parallel strike-slip faults that perpendicularly bound the central extent of Death Valley. The result of this shearing action is additional extension in the central part of Death Valley which causes a slight widening and more subsidence there.

Along with its stunning natural splendor, Death Valley can lay claim to a rich and colorful human tale that begins at least 10,000 years ago. A series of Native American groups inhabited the area from as early as 7000 BC...European-Americans, trapped in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California, gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there. Several short-lived boom towns sprang up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to mine gold and silver. The only long-term profitable ore to be mined was borax, which was transported out of the valley with twenty-mule teams. The valley later became the subject of books, radio programs, television series, and movies. Tourism expanded in the 1920s when resorts were built around Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek.

[The most recent Native America inhabitants are] the Timbisha [Shoshone people who] have lived in Death Valley for over a thousand years. In 1933 President Herbert Hoover created Death Valley National Monument, an action that subsumed the tribe's homeland within park boundaries. Despite their long-time presence in the region, the proclamation failed to provide a homeland for the Timbisha people...With the help of the California Indian Legal Services, the tribe's reservation, the Death Valley Indian Community, was established in 1982.  [Later] the park was substantially expanded and became a national park in 1994 during the Clinton administration.  In 2013, Death Valley National Park was designated as a dark sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association.

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