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15 Creepy Reasons Why Death Valley Lives Up To Its Name

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15 Creepy Reasons Why Death Valley Lives Up To Its Name

During the winter of 1849-1850, a group of pioneers got lost while traveling through the desert towards the gold fields of California. Only one man lost his life, but the tedious trip and the dangers they encountered determined one of the pioneers to call it Death Valley. Many have died or disappeared since. But that was a long time ago. They didn’t have access to modern day technology and resources. It’s true, there are still people who lose their lives in the valley, but in many cases, it’s because they are unprepared. You’re not going to climb Mount Everest without taking all necessary precautions, so why would you head to Death Valley without doing some research, getting accustomed with possible dangers, preparing all the supplies necessary to survive in case things don’t go as planned.

The 3,000-square-mile desert is the source of many fascinating and mysterious stories. It is a land of beautiful, yet dangerous extremes: abandoned mines, rugged roads, extreme temperatures, and even have dangers you’d least expect, like fast-driving cars who don’t follow the rules of the road. If you love a good mystery and have a strong spirit of adventure, you’re definitely going to want to check this place out. Here’s what you need to expect:

15. Manson family hideout

Barker Ranch, located inside the park, has gained its notoriety due to its association with Charles Manson and his cult “family”. The remote location, only accessible by bumpy and primitive roads, made Manson chose it as a hiding place. In spite of the bad conditions of the road, Manson somehow was able to get to the ranch using a school bus. Manson and his followers started spending time at the ranch in 1968 and that is where he planned the Tate-LaBianca murders before he was arrested in 1969. One of the police officers was using the bathroom and noticed Manson’s hair sticking out from the vanity under the sink.

For years, there were rumors about other possible victims: hitchhikers and other people who stopped by the farm and then disappeared without a trace. One of the girls living at the ranch didn’t get along with Manson and one day he took for a walk and she was never seen again. While no other bodies associated with him were ever found in the area, it is possible that they are buried somewhere around the park.

14. The Secret City underneath Death Valley

One Paiute Indian legend talks about an ancient race who used to live in an underground city in Death Valley, named Shin-au-av (“God’s land” or “Ghost land”). In the 1920s a trapper named White fell through the floor of an abandoned mine and claimed he ran into underground tunnels and rooms, and hundreds of mummified bodies, wearing leather clothing. In 1931, Dr. Bruce Russell and Dr. Daniel Bovee claimed to have found an underground cave with giant, 9-feet mummies, and also carvings and artifacts, which resembled the ones in the ancient Egypt. The three weren’t the only ones to have found the underground city, but no one was able to find it for a second time and many of the explorers have mysteriously disappeared while trying to relocate the tunnels.

Apparently, Charles Manson believed in the existence of an underground town himself and was planning to locate it and use it as a shelter while waiting for the coming of the Apocalypse.

13. Death by GPS

Even though we live in an era of ultramodern technology, there are many times when you shouldn’t rely on it. I’m sure it happened to most of us at least once to have no GPS signal when you most needed it. You are out of town, trying to find your way around and your GPS suddenly tells you: “try going outdoors”!?! When you travel through the Death Valley, GPS devices are not enough and sometimes are very unreliable. As in, they can lead you to death.

In the park, people are sometimes led by their GPS onto dangerous and non-existent roads. And that is due to very poor cell reception in many places around the valley. Many people end up stranded in 120+ degree heat and with no cell phone signal and no other cars driving by, they are often doomed. In 2009, a woman and her six-year-old got lost in the desert, while trying to follow the GPS’s directions. By the time they were found, days later, the little boy was already dead.

12. Hantavirus

It is a virus that individuals can get through contact with the urine, saliva or feces of infected wild mice. Some strains can be fatal to humans. Most people get sick by breathing small particles of mouse urine or droppings found in the air. The first symptoms start showing one to six weeks after exposure: fever, headache, and muscle ache and later on severe difficulty in breathing and, in some cases, death.

Although no cases of Hantavirus have been reported in the Death Valley, if you stay overnight in the park’s backcountry cabins, there is a chance you could be getting in contact with the virus. The park has been posting warning signs on the cabins, but unfortunately, many times they go missing.

In 2012, Yosemite National Park had a hantavirus outbreak and several tourists died. Backcountry cabins are not the only way to get in contact with the virus. A man camping on the floor of the Grand Canyon contracted the virus after a mouse ran across his face (there are no details whether the mouse stopped for a restroom break while crossing his face). I think that’s a pretty horrifying image, whether you get the virus or not!

11. Haboobs

If this made you think of kebabs, it’s because they are both Arabic words, the first meaning “strong wind”. If it made you think of boobs, well… you got a dirty mind. A haboob is an intense dust storm carried on an atmospheric gravity current, that occurs in arid regions all over the world. The dust clouds can be thousands of feet high and visibility will be significantly reduced. These storms strike with very little warning and even though they only last a few minutes, drivers should be prepared and take measures. One of the first steps would be to pull off the roadway, if possible. Roll your windows up and close all the air conditioning vents to prevent dust from getting in. And even though one might be tempted to leave their emergency lights on, tourists are advised to turn them off! Apparently, vehicles approaching from behind can use your vehicle’s lights as a guide and end up colliding with it.

In 2012, a 2,000-foot-tall haboob covered the whole city of Phoenix, Arizona, cutting power to 9,000 homes.

10. California’s last lynching

On April 19th, 1908, Joseph L. Simpson ambushed and shot James Arnold, a local businessman, in broad daylight. Simpson was portrayed by many as a scoundrel, an alcoholic, the town’s pimp and a regular client himself, which left him not only with a bad reputation but also with syphilis. But what makes Simpson’s story special is the fact that he was the last person to be lynched in the state of California. Three days after the crime, Simpson was hanged by a telephone pole in the Death Valley camp of Skidoo. Popular legend says that he was buried, but exhumed a few days later when L. A. Times reporters showed up for photos. So the locals did what they had to and hanged him up again. But digging him out wasn’t weird enough, so a local doctor suggested they tested him for syphilis (even though, according to some sources he was already under treatment with another doctor) and thus revealing a possible cause for his madness. Instead of just taking a blood sample, the creepy doctor decided to remove his head and test it. After all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that twice-hanged, headless Joe Simpson still wanders around town at night, probably seeking revenge.

9. Deadly creatures

This is no Amazon Rainforest, but don’t let it fool you, it has its own share of dangers:  the sidewinder rattlesnake, scorpions, black widow spiders, bobcats, mountain lions are just some of the creatures that could cause you problems or even kill you.

A 64-year-old woman was attacked by a bobcat and suffered scratches and bites on her hands, face, and scalp, but there are no details about how and why it happened. It appears that many tourists continue to feed wild animals, in spite of numerous warnings from park authorities.

The valley is home to a creature made famous by old cartoons, the road runner. Your children might be very anxious and excited to see one in its natural habitat, but this can sometimes be a traumatizing experience. At the park’s visitor center, tourists can see the bird through big glass windows. These funny looking birds, though, are smarter than they look: they figured out that by hanging out by the windows, they can catch birds who accidentally fly into them. And while the little bird, still dizzy, is trying to regain balance, the roadrunner snatches it and rips it apart right in front of your terrified children’s eyes.

8. Very high temperatures

This vast desert is one of the hottest places in the world, and one of the highest temperatures in the world was recorded here, in 1913 – 134°F. This is one of the first things people learn about this place, yet hundreds of thousands of people chose it as a travel destination every year without being prepared enough.

Many tourists die from the heat every year, but this doesn’t seem to keep people away. This summer, people drove to Death Valley for this very reason: to experience the extreme temperature, after hearing about the record heat of 130°F. Surprisingly, most deaths occur when temperatures are lower than that, usually between 105 and 115 degrees. In 2016, a motorcyclist’s GoPro video showed him pull over to the side of the road, becoming wobbly and then collapsing.

In 2013, the park posted a tutorial video of how eggs can be fried under the sun, to make a point about how powerful the sun is. Instead of scaring tourists away, it created a whole frenzy, and lots of people showed up determined to fry their own eggs. Except that they forgot to clean the mess and left behind egg cartons, shells and eggs fried directly on the sidewalk.

In 2014, Harry Potter actor Dave Legeno, who played the werewolf Fenrir Greyback, and was visiting the valley, died from heatstroke. His partially decomposed body was found in a remote area of the park.

7. Ancient volcanoes

A study from 2011 found that a volcano in Death Valley National Park might be more dangerous than it was thought. For years, scientists were convinced that the volcano was formed a very long time ago, but the study came to a different conclusion. It turns out that the mile and a half wide and 600 feet deep Ubehebe Crater is a pretty young one. Young as in formed about 800 years ago, as opposed to 10,000 years ago, as they originally thought. On top of that, all the data shows that the volcano has the potential of becoming active again.

While significant volcanic eruptions are very scarce in the United States, nature can be unpredictable and full of surprises. The Mount St. Helens volcano from Washington State was dormant from the 1850s until March 1980, when several earthquakes preceded a major eruption that killed 57 people.

But have no fear. A team of British researchers has found a way to predict eruptions decades in advance, which can save lives by giving people enough time to evacuate. Or could create an opportunity for many tourists to watch a spectacular event… granted they are not too close to the volcano.

6. Mysterious vanishings

On July 22, 1996, 33-year-old Egbert Rimkus from Germany, his 10-year-old son, his girlfriend, and her 4-year-old little boy, decided to venture into the desert completely unprepared, in a rental Plymouth minivan. This is hardly an ideal place to take your kids on a trip, especially during the hot summer months, with temperatures of up to 120 degrees. After spending a night in the park, the four tourists took a dirt road to an unknown direction. An entry in German saying “we are going through the pass” (suspected to be Mengel Pass, one of the most difficult roads in the park, with 45-degree grades and boulders) was left in a guest book in an abandoned mining camp. And then they were gone.

On October 21st, a ranger spotted their van in a ravine in Anvil Spring Canyon, a location usually avoided by tourists because of the high elevation and the lack of an actual road. The ranger was surprised to see that a minivan had made it that far into the canyon since that was definitely a four-wheel drive job. The tires were shredded and some of their stuff was still in the van, but no passport or any other personal belongings were found. The bones of Egbert and his son were eventually found and identified, about 13 years later, but his girlfriend’s and her son’s remains were never found.

5. Mine hazards

The abandoned mines and ruins of the Keane Wonder Mine area have always been one of the park’s most popular destinations, but the park’s management decided to close them a few years ago for safety reasons. In 1984, a tourist died after falling down a mine shaft and that is not an isolated incident. People are not aware of the dangers and even allow their children to walk in and play when roofs could collapse at any moment.

There are more than 3,000 abandoned mine sites all over the park. They are indeed fascinating, considering their history: mining in Death Valley started in the 1880s and people from all over the country came to look for salt, talc, and later for gold, silver, and copper. They created all these amazing tunnels, shafts, and structures, that might still be standing, but don’t offer any guarantees. We’ve all heard many horror stories of workers or tourists trapped underground, in mines, so keep that in mind when you get tempted to go exploring.

4. Survival story

Donna Cooper lived in a small town about 60 miles away from the entrance to Death Valley National Park and had driven through the park many times. In 2010, the 62-year-old woman, along with her 17-year-old daughter and her 19-year-old friend visiting from Hong Kong, decided to visit Scotty’s Castle, located in an area she wasn’t familiar with. Everything was going well, until, on their way out, they saw a sign for Racetrack Playa and decided to check it out, except that the signs were misleading and their map of the park only showed main roads. Their GPS was no help either. It took them on different roads for what felt like an eternity until they ended up on a dead-end road. They eventually discovered a trail and kept driving up into the mountains. They had only one bottle of water left and it was getting dark. By the time their tank was almost empty, it was 10 PM and the odometer showed they had driven more than 200 miles since leaving the castle. With no other options, they had to spend the night in the desert. The next day, they tried to build a fire, without much luck, wrote HELP with stones and when an airplane flew by, they used a yellow blanket to draw attention and a CD as a signal mirror, but nothing helped. But the three women weren’t going to give up that easy. Donna started looking for cacti varieties with drinkable liquid and collected pine needles for moisture and nutrients. With the little gas they had left, they managed to drive to a gated place they had seen on the way there. Their excitement ended quickly when they realized there was no one there and only enough food for a few days. They did though find enough beer to last them about two weeks. In the meantime, their family was starting to get worried, so they alerted the authorities. After 3 days in the desert, the 3 women, who were resourceful enough to stay alive and away from dangers, were rescued and Donna declared: “Never for a second did I doubt that we would make it out of there.”

3. Very low temperatures

Death Valley is one of few places where you can die from extreme heat but also from very low temperatures. Both the highest temperature and the lowest ever recorded in the park occurred in 1913. While the hottest temperature ever was 134 degrees, the lowest was 15 degrees. But that’s not even close to the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth (-135.8F in August 2010, in Antarctica) or to winter temperatures in Oymyakon, Russia, where -60F is considered normal.

Getting lost in the park can be just as dangerous in winter as in summer. Even with proper clothing, under low temperatures, the human body can’t resist for a very long time. Fingers, toes, ear lobes, or the tip of the nose are the areas most susceptible to frostbite. Besides, hypothermia can occur at any temperature lower than normal body temperature.

2. Vehicle accidents

In a place that has many hidden dangers, it might come as a surprise to hear that more people die in single-car accidents than by any other means. There are many reasons, but one of the common causes are people not following rules. Sure, it might be a desert, but driving rules still apply. The highway from east to west that goes through the park is a two lane undivided road where it is easy to have a head-on collision. People rent muscle cars, like Mustangs and Camaros, and then decide to test their limits. Drivers tend to speed and pass on solid lines and many blame the scenery for it. You glance at the sunset and before you know it, you are going 80 miles per hour, when the road is meant for about 40.

1. Mysterious rocks

One of the fascinating mysteries of this place are the sliding rocks at Racetrack Playa (a “playa” is a dry lake bed). You can find many of these rocks on the playa, with long trails behind them, as if someone has been dragging them around, which doesn’t seem possible since they can weigh as much as a few hundred pounds. So what exactly is happening? There have been many theories and speculations over the decades, like the rocks being moved by hurricane-strong winds, or by ice rafts formed after rain, or even by UFOs. Geologists have been studying this phenomenon for over 50 years, but the rocks’ movements are very sporadic, and sometimes years go by without them sliding. In December 2013, two scientists finally figured out the mystery and witnessed it. First, comes rain, which creates a shallow water layer on the dry terrain, it freezes overnight and in the morning the ice breaks into thin pieces. The wind pushes the floating ice against the boulders, which makes the rocks slide over the muddy terrain. And they slide really, really slow, at about 15 feet per minute. So if you are brave enough to venture out there in the low winter temperatures, keep your eyes out for these amazing rocks.

Sources:,,, , 

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