In 1994, Death Valley National Monument became Death Valley National Park. The '49ers, whose suffering gave the valley its name, would've howled at the notion. To them, several four-letter words other than park would have come to mind, including -- but not limited to -- gold, mine, lost, and dead.
Americans looking for gold in California's mountains in the winter of 1849-50 got lost in the parched desert here while trying to avoid severe snowstorms in the nearby Sierra Nevada. One person perished along the way, and the land became known as Death Valley. Little about the valley's essence has changed since. Its mountains stand naked, unadorned. The bitter waters of saline lakes evaporate into odd, thornlike crystal formations. Jagged canyons jab deep into the earth. The ovenlike heat, the frigid cold, and the driest air imaginable combine to make this one of the world's most inhospitable locations.
Death Valley is raw, bare earth, the way things must've looked before life began. Here, Earth's forces are exposed with dramatic clarity; just looking out on the landscape, you'll find it impossible to know what year, or century, it is. It's no coincidence that many of Death Valley's topographical features are associated with hellish images: Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Dante's View, Coffin Peak, and Devil's Golf Course. But the valley can be a place of serenity as well.
Human nature being what it is, it's not surprising that people have long been drawn here to challenge the power of Mother Nature. The area's first foray into tourism was in 1926, a scant 77 years after the '49ers' harrowing experiences. It probably would have begun sooner, but the valley had been consumed by lucrative borax mining since the late 1880s, when teamsters drove 20-mule-team wagons filled with the mineral through the dusty landscape. This white compound is used as a cleaning agent, preservative, and flux; in fireproofing; and as a water softener.
In one of his last official acts, President Herbert Hoover designated Death Valley a national monument in February 1933. With the stroke of a pen, he not only authorized the protection of a vast and wondrous land, but also helped to transform one of the earth's least habitable spots into a tourist destination.
The naming of Death Valley National Monument came at a time when Americans were discovering the romance of the desert. Land that had previously been considered devoid of life was being celebrated for its spare beauty; places that had once been feared for their harshness were being admired for their uniqueness.
In 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, Death Valley National Park became the largest national park outside Alaska, with more than 3.3 million acres. Though remote, it attracts upwards of a million visitors a year, from all over the world.