Why Is it Called Death Valley? What Makes it So Hot?

(Last Updated On: August 31, 2020)

Why Is it Called Death Valley?

If you don’t live near there you’ve probably still heard of the environmental extreme Death Valley. Besides being really hot, Death Valley seems to have hit a new record in high temperatures–almost 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius) just this year on August 16th 2020. This temperature could very well be a new world record, given that the previous 1913 record set by Furnace Creek (134 F, 56.7 C) was of questionable accuracy. So about California’s super heated valley. Why is it named Death Valley? While we’re at it, what exactly makes it so hot?

Deathly Heat

Perhaps one of Death Valley’s most notable features is its nigh unbeatable heat. Heck, if the record we just outlined above is any indication, that heat literally is unbeatable. Well, it’s unbeatable until the unyielding march of climate change pushes even more heat records to the forefront. 

No really, if you don’t follow Australian bushfires, they had to add more colors to their heat maps in 2013. Seems like Australia might be running out of colors soon too with more shenanigans in 2019.

But that’s besides the point. Why is Death Valley so special? It’s really a perfect storm of a handful of factors. 

For starters, Death Valley gets very little rain. It receives an average of 2.4 inches of rain yearly. That’s not a lot, especially considering how other deserts are able to pull in 10 inches on average. 

Death Valley is also super low, going from 4000 feet above sea level surrounding its lowest point–around 280 feet below sea level. Hot air is less dense than cold air, so it rises. The problem is the mountain ranges surrounding Death Valley, which basically trap all the hot air. Even though it rises a bit, it doesn’t rise quite enough; it cools down just a bit and finds itself being heated back up. If you made the connection, yes that’s how a lot of ovens work.

Here’s where the lack of rain hits even harder. Because Death Valley gets so little rain, there’s very little plant life–meaning its land is primarily rock and sand. Both of which are really good at radiating heat they get from the sun. So the air near the ground gets even hotter

Death Valley: Origins

You’d think that Death Valley is named so because people either die there or have many near-death experiences with the valley. Which is not entirely untrue, Death Valley owes its name to the Lost 49-ers. Named so because they were the American pioneers who named the place Death Valley in, you guessed it, between 1849 and 1850. 

If you checked your dates, yes, they were traveling to California as a direct result of the California Gold Rush. Their guide was named Jefferson Hunt, and the plan was to make it from Utah to California. Unfortunately, it turns out Hunt may not have been the greatest guide, as they group split up.

Though that subsidiary probably didn’t have a great guide either, because some members of that group turned around to try making it back to Hunt. 

Unfortunately, Hunt had already taken the remaining group forwards, so this sub-sub-group ended up kind of lost. Figuring they would only have to go west to eventually find people again, they stumbled across what we now call Death Valley. 

The group was saved from death-by-thirst by a lucky snowstorm, waiting for the rest of Hunt and crew. During the wait it’s said that one person died, and upon their departure declared “goodbye, Death Valley.”

Perhaps ironically, another ~13 people wouldn’t make it to their final destination after the Lost 49-ers were reunited.

The Rocks Aren’t Dead

Here’s a neat fact, there are rocks in Death Valley that seemingly move on their own. A mystery for some time, we’ve since cracked the code and now know the rocks aren’t alive. Lame.

You can see the rocks in Racetrack Playa, so named in 1933 after the rocks. You can see the trails they leave behind, because moving rocks are not very subtle. Some of these trails are around 1,500 feet, suggesting that the rocks have probably traveled farther.

If you were wondering how the rocks got around, you can thank the very few inches of rainfall Death Valley gets. The rain froze over into a very thin ice sheet, and since it gets quite windy in Death Valley, the rocks were just kind of pushed. 

So there you go. Undead rocks. 

While we’re on the topic of hot things, see if you know some rhymes with heat here.



About Kyler 685 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.