Around every desolate curve of road in Death Valley national park, official signs warn of peril.
“Heat kills!” cautioned one flyer at popular Zabriskie Point, as tourists streamed by on Thursday afternoon to marvel at a dramatic vista beyond. A photo of a red tombstone completed the dire message: “Don’t become a Death Valley victim.”
Death Valley is hardly a stranger to elemental extremes and has long attracted those drawn to the edge. The park bills itself as the “hottest, driest and lowest” – the hottest place on Earth, the driest place in the United States and the lowest point in North America. Visitors make the trek there from around the world to experience its surreal, lunar-looking landscapes and dramatic temperature swings. A famously difficult ultramarathon, the Badwater 135, sees runners race across the cracked salt flat of the park each July.
But even by Death Valley standards, this has been a remarkable summer. The park, which set the world record for the hottest air temperature (a withering 134F, or 56.7C) more than a century ago, approached modern heat records this week. An excessive heat warning, involving daytime temperatures “well over” 120F and night-time averages still hovering around the triple digits, remains in effect until Sunday.
The grim weather warnings come at a critical time. Two people have died in Death Valley amid the recent heatwave, including a 71-year-old man who collapsed this Tuesday after hiking near Golden Canyon, where a sign reminded visitors that in a heat-related emergency, “rescue in time is not a guarantee”. Earlier this month, a 65-year-old was found dead in his car from “apparent heat illness”.
The temperature in Death Valley will also probably become even more intense in the era of climate crisis; nine of the park’s 10 hottest summers have been in the last 15 years, the visitor center reports. “With global warming, such temperatures are becoming more and more likely to occur,” Randy Ceverny, of the World Meteorological Organization, told the Guardian this week.
Still, many Death Valley visitors have been undeterred by the blistering heat this month – and some are even choosing to visit for that exact reason.
This week, tourists congregated around a display thermometer in front of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, posing for photos as the temperature ticked from 123F to 124F. The impenetrable wall of desert heat, a shock to the system after being inside a chilled car, forced each group into the shelter of the visitor center after only a minute or two.
Paul Blum and his family, who were visiting the park from France, said they planned their trip months ago to take advantage of summer holidays. But the night before their drive to Death Valley from Las Vegas, Blum had a brief moment of hesitation.
“I thought, ‘Is it reasonable to drive through Death Valley with two kids?’” he said. “But it’s a new car, so I hope so. With an old car I wouldn’t try.”
Tourism heats up with temperatures
At Last Kind Words Saloon, one of the only watering holes in the national park’s central hub of Furnace Creek, the stiff air conditioning offers a reprieve from the sun. As the day’s heat rested around 120F on Thursday afternoon, visitors began to trickle in for steaks and cold drinks.
A server at the saloon, Alan California (“Alan from California,” he said, explaining the name displayed on his name tag), said that earlier this summer, business seemed to be slower.
“But since the heat has picked up drastically lately, we’ve actually gotten busier,” he said of the past week. “For some reason, people want to be out here for the heat.”
Alan, who stays in Furnace Creek for part of the week and commutes back to his home an hour away the rest of the time, said he makes sure to stay indoors during midday. “People just don’t know how the heat can affect you if you’re not used to it,” he said.
While it may seem ill-advised to experience the hottest place on Earth during the hottest season of the year, Abby Wines, a Death Valley spokesperson and park ranger, said that March, April, July and August are Death Valley’s busiest times, with roughly 100,000 visitors each month.
But those who choose to visit this time of year do so for several different reasons, she said. The first category of visitors is made up of tourists from other countries, like the Blum family from France, who are merely planning a summer vacation and wind up in Death Valley during a heatwave.
“They’ve planned their vacation months in advance, so they couldn’t say, ‘Oh, [the park] might break a heat record on this particular weekend, let’s go then,’” Wines said.
And then there are the heat-seekers.
“Some people do come intentionally when the news says, ‘Death Valley might break a record,’” she said. This past week, for instance, a 52-year-old man wearing a Darth Vader costume embarked on a one-mile run through the park, an almost annual feat that he saves for the hottest day of the year, at the hottest time of the day.
Although Wines said she wouldn’t tell visitors to stay away entirely, she warns tourists to “take the heat seriously” and take many precautions, such as staying close to a cool shelter and avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.
“Rescue is impossible when it’s extremely hot,” she said. If a visitor chooses to hike far away from a trailhead and ends up collapsing, she added, that puts the park’s employees, who would need to hike after them, in danger. Rescue helicopters also can’t fly in extreme heat because of how it changes air density, as was the case with the 71-year-old hiker who died this week, officials said.
“A number one rule of safety,” Wines said of rescue missions, “is to make sure it’s safe enough before you put other people at risk.”
Braving the heat
Back at the visitor center, Zhebeau Beasley from Ohio landed more firmly in the category of visitor who booked their trip earlier and then ended up in a heatwave.
“People [told me], ‘Good luck out there man, it’s supposed to be record heat,’” he said. “It kind of caught us off guard the first day we stepped out into it.”
Certain activities, like hiking, are off the table for Beasley while he’s visiting the national park.
“Who in their right mind would hike this time of the year? Other than David Goggins, I don’t know who else would do it,” he said, referencing a runner who has completed the Badwater 135 several times.
And despite the near record-breaking temperatures, the national park buzzed with activity late into the day on Thursday. Families bought T-shirts and bottles of water at the visitor center and couples braved the heat long enough to get out of their cars at designated overlooks.
After all, for many people the trip was months, or years, in the making. Visitor Abdul Munifi said he and a handful of his family members had flown about 16 hours from the Arabian Peninsula to be there.
“Feels like home,” Munifi joked, looking out from Zabriskie Point, which required walking up a dauntingly steep path into the afternoon sun. Visible heat waves rippled the air. “I think we’re used to it.”