Why Death Valley's Hottest Time of Year Is Also One of Its Most Popular
For most people, cycling through Death Valley in 114 degree heat does not sound like a good time.
Jacob Marek is not most people. The founder of the travel company IntroverTravels visited the California national park in September 2011 and started his bike ride early, when it was 100 degrees, but temperatures quickly climbed.
"I decided to go through Death Valley precisely because of its extreme temperature and dryness," Marek said. "We rented bikes from a gear shop; we went 11 miles and took some photos, but didn't want to push our luck. There isn't much vehicle traffic out that way and we ‘only' packed 3 liters of water each."
He said he wanted to experience Death Valley's "otherworldly, almost Martian-like" setting.
"We didn't want to get too far off-road, again, for safety reasons, but we walked a bit into the desert to get some photos of the eerie landscape," he said. "With sufficient water and sunscreen, it was a great way to spend a morning."
Dmitri Oster also has been to the park and said he specifically sought out the hot weather.
"I have always preferred warmer climates than any other type of weather for as much as I can remember, and I have always been drawn towards mountainous and other challenging regions," he said. "Death Valley certainly has both of those features, and there was something about being on and exploring land on the last western frontier of the USA that held a magical appeal for me. Plus, it was good training for being able to tolerate other hot climate zones."
And Travis McGee has been to the park 20 times, often in July and August with his dad.
"We've been there when it's 130 degrees," he said.
McGee said the summertime trips started when he was a kid because that's the time of year his family could go.
"I remember that first visit being, as you'd expect, the hottest temperatures I'd ever experienced," he said. "The wind provided no relief from the heat — in fact, it made it worse, like a giant hair dryer blowing in my face. I didn't sweat — the heat and aridity were such that any sweat evaporated immediately into salt crystals on my skin."
At first, McGee wasn't a fan, but his dad loved it and so the family returned for many summers.
"At some point, I was also hooked, and the heat itself specifically became part of the draw," McGee said. "Maybe we're a family of masochists, but as long as steps are taken to stay safe and hydrated, I find that extreme heat to be quite therapeutic. When you're standing in 130-degree weather, you simply don't have the energy to spend on anything other than being in the present."
Apparently, lots of people go to the national park specifically to experience hot weather.
Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, said July and August are their second busiest times of the year after the spring when wildflowers bloom. She said they usually have around 100,000 visitors a month in the hot summer months, when the average high temperatures are around 115 degrees.
She also had plenty of visitors last month, when a heat wave pushed temperatures to 127 degrees.
"Some come in the summer just because that's when they have vacation," Wines said. "But some come then because it's hot, and that's the part that sounds crazy."
Yes, it does.
Wines said a lot of those tourists are from other countries.
"Imagine you live in Northern Europe, in a cold damp environment, and what you want to see when you're on vacation is something extremely different from where you live," she said. "They come to see the dramatic landscapes and to experience the heat."
She said a thermometer outside the park's visitor center is a very popular spot for selfies.
But while tourists want to see what it feels like to be in weather that hot, "they don't really experience it for very long."
"When it's this ridiculously hot, they get out of their cars, experience the heat for five minutes and then get back in the AC and guzzle water," she said.
And what does that hot weather feel like?
"It feels literally like opening up the oven and sticking your head in it," Wines said. "It's an overwhelming dry, attacking, smothering heat."
Part of Wines's job, and the job of other staff at Death Valley, is to keep visitors safe in extreme heat. She said it's more of a problem when the temperatures are slightly cooler — say 110 degrees — and it's dry, because people don't sweat and so don't realize it's still dangerous to be outside.
"Then people are motivated to go for long hikes," she said. "All we can do is educate them. We put signs up at the park entrance saying extreme heat warning, give them advice when they come to the visitor center, to drink lots water, eat snacks, don't do lots of exercise, and stay close paved roads."
"Don't spend a lot of time outside," she added. "If you are outside, wear a hat, loose-fitting, light colored clothing, drink lots of water, and remember to eat."
The craziest thing to Wines is people who try to camp in the summer months. During last month's heat wave, that meant sleeping outside when it was 109 degrees at midnight and the coolest point of the day was at 5:40 a.m. when it was 97 degrees.
"Camping down here is miserable," Wines said.
Fred Ackerman runs the travel company Black Sheep Adventures and brings adventure and educational tours to Death Valley every year.
He said he doesn't mind the heat because the park has special significance to him and his family.
"My dad was a National Park Ranger who lived there with our family for four years in the early 1970s," he said. "I was born there. OK, technically I was born 105 miles away in Lone Pine, California at what was the closest hospital at the time, but the park housing near Furnace Creek was home for me for the first two years of my life."
Ackerman said while his father is now in his 70s, he still joins some of the Death Valley trips to tell people about the park's history.
It's important to be conservative while visiting the park, even if you're in good shape, he says. He reminded visitors to avoid activity at the peak heat of the day, wear lightweight, long-sleeved and long-legged, loose-fitting clothing, and a sun hat and "drink water early and often."
"You will go through liters of water in the desert especially if you are being active," he said.
He also advised visiting higher elevations, because for every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation the temperature drops 3 to 5 degrees.
Ackerman is more sane than some visitors, however — he plans most of his company's tours in March.