Death Valley National Park is often called a land of extremes. The 3-million-acre park is the hottest, driest and lowest point in North America, and the varied terrain includes mountains, sand dunes and salt flats.
"It is probably the most dynamic, most diverse national park we have in the system. It's like a big, beautiful painting, and you could sit there and stare for hours picking out all the different pieces that the artist snuck all these little objects into," Death Valley National Park ranger Terry Baldino says.
Visitors are amazed with the vibrant shades of blues, reds, browns and blacks in the park's signature mountains and mudstone hills. Iron and other minerals give the mountains their dramatic hues.
The area was dubbed Death Valley during the early years of the California Gold Rush by a band of prospectors who got stuck while trying to find a shortcut to the San Francisco area. The name caught on, and today it still captures the imaginations of visitors to the region.
But for people who make their home in Death Valley, they consider the area to be anything but dead.
"It's full of living and breathing animals, wildflowers and people. It's not barren," says resident Barbara Durham, a member of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, which has lived in the area for hundreds of years.
Most notable among the park's unique features are the expansive salt flats that cover nearly 200 square miles of the valley floor. The area, called Badwater Basin, is the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere.
Thousands of years ago, this area was a lake. Over time, the water evaporated, leaving behind a thick, crunchy layer of salt that resembles snow. Visitors are free to take an easy hike across the otherworldly landscape.
Majestic sand dunes are another fixture of this desert landscape. The Mesquite Flat sand dunes sit in a small area nearly surrounded by mountains. The dunes stand as tall as 150 feet high, and shadows on the rolling hills make them a great place to watch sunrises; sunsets create shadows on the sandy peaks.
Death Valley Is 'Nature at Its Best'
The mountains around the valley floor have little vegetation to slow rain and debris, so even a light sprinkle can cause a flash flood, creating fresh paths through the mountains and canyons. Since this unique topography doesn't lend itself to many traditional trails, hikers have the freedom to explore at will.
"You can go up a canyon that more than likely someone's been up, but with the last flood, all those tracks are gone. So for some folks, it's like exploring something for the very first time," Death Valley National Park ranger Baldino says.
These unique features are part of what makes Baldino so proud to call Death Valley his office.
"I say that I have a picnic lunch every day because I can look out my window or go out and sit in one of the most beautiful places in the world," he says.
For Durham, the calm, stunning beauty of the landscape is nature at its best.
"I love it because it's in the open here. A lot of people when they come here say it's very healing," she says. "And to me, that's true. A lot of times people can't get over the fact that it's so quiet here, because you can hear almost your heartbeat sometimes."
Visitors are invited to see Death Valley for themselves and have their own adventures because it's accessible to everyone and costs so little to visit.
"There are secrets around every corner," Durham says. "For anyone willing to get out of the car and take some water with them, and do some exploring, they will find their own little secret, their own little treasures."