Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells are among the roadside outposts within Death Valley National Park, while Dante’s View attracts tourists at sunset and Hell’s Gate welcomes visitors arriving from the east.
In the summer, it’s so hot here, along California’s southeastern spine, that some of the roughly 800 residents (almost all of them park employees) bake brownies in their cars. In recent years, a large unofficial thermometer has read as high as 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 was what prompted Lata Kini, 59, and her husband, Ramanand, 61, to pack their bags and drive about seven hours to get here on a whim this month. Instead, they were drawn to the mystique of another natural force.
“I’m here for the water,” Kini said at Zabriskie Point, a popular view, as he watched the rising sun paint the rolling stone peaks in shades of pink and deep purple.
In the distance gleamed the white salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America, nearly 300 feet below sea level. It was there, in the middle of salt-covered land, that a large lake appeared almost overnight, highlighting the ways in which a changing climate is altering life in one of the country’s most remote landscapes.
On August 20, cities in Southern California braced for a deluge from Tropical Storm Hilary, whose landfall in California was a rare event. Many regions escaped with little damage. Not Death Valley.
Throughout the park, rangers discovered that water coming down from 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 to fall in a single day in Death Valley. The previous record was set just over a year earlier, when floods stranded 1,000 people in the park.
The park subsequently had the longest closure in its history, lasting nearly two months, and reopened to visitors on October 15.
In the West, many state and national parks are on a scale that can be difficult to understand without visiting them. Death Valley is the size of Connecticut and the largest national park in the contiguous United States. It became a national monument in 1933 during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, in part to protect two million acres from mining. (The park is filled with sites that trace the boom-and-bust history of borax mining in the area, as well as mostly unsuccessful efforts to mine gold and silver.) The land was not designated a national park until 1994 and today encompasses 3.4 million residents. hectares.
The park now attracts more than a million visitors a year, many of whom stop on their way from Las Vegas to see other, perhaps more conventionally photogenic, national parks, such as Yosemite. Still, Death Valley may look 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 weeklong closure underscored the need to adapt to a future in which weather is increasingly extreme and less predictable.
“All the climate change models say this area of the country is expected to have larger, more frequent 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 billowing from canyon mouths to create fan-shaped accumulations of sediment. But today, floods wreak more havoc on residents and visitors to the region, because roads damaged in an instant by water can take many months to repair.
The Badwater Basin typically consists of hard soil covered in what is essentially table salt, left behind by water that came down from the adjacent mountains and slopes over millennia and evaporated in the scorching heat. But when Death Valley reopened this fall, visitors were greeted by a miraculous sight: a mirror-smooth body of water.
It was the first time a lake had formed here in almost 20 years (the last time was during the winter of 2005) and this one is substantially larger.
On the Badwater Basin boardwalk, where busloads of tourists typically arrive to see the salt flats, families posed for selfies with their feet submerged in the salt water in November. A lone kayaker glided past. The sun warmed the air, creating an unearthly dissonance with the crunch of salt underfoot that felt like weeks-old snow.
“The Earth is constantly changing,” said Katharina Riedl, 50, as she looked at the bare hills, dotted with minerals, reflected in the water.
“It’s a little overwhelming and a little strange,” he said, laughing.
Ms. Riedl and her husband had traveled here from Austria in part to see the starting point of a 135-mile ultramarathon held each July in Death Valley.
The lake was a particularly welcome sight for Mandi Campbell, historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, which has made the valley their home for centuries. Its appearance was a respite for the land, desiccated by prolonged periods without rain.
But the lake was also a reminder of what their community has lost.
He paused to chat outside the small, unoccupied adobe house where he lived with his grandmother decades ago.
The adobe houses 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. It was one of multiple times the federal government displaced the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe over the years.
Now, the town is home to a few dozen people, mostly elderly, who live in worn-out trailers scattered across a barren stretch of land set back from the road. Their swamp coolers are increasingly overwhelmed by rising summer temperatures.
When Campbell, 49, was a child, the mesquite bushes that dotted the desert absorbed groundwater and sporadic rains, producing a bounty of beans. She recalled using the bushes as shade cabins during hot summers. She would play in the dunes and sink her bare toes into the sand to cool them.
Now, when the rains come, they overwhelm the parched land. The thirsty, invasive tamarisk trees, which were planted in town by the federal government, are green, while the honey mesquits have become thorny and fruitless. Many are dying.
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 it floods, the roads get worse, you know, and everything is quiet. “It’s peaceful.”