Badwater Basin is a stretch of salt flats at the lowest point in North America. It can be difficult to pinpoint the lowest point in Badwater Basin, because it moves around, but it hovers around 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. For convenience, the spring for which the salt flats are named is labeled as the lowest point, in part because the actual lowest point is often dangerous to access.
This area is located in Death Valley in the state of California. Along with the rest of Death Valley, Badwater Basin is very hostile to visitors. It gets extremely hot and dry, and there is limited available shade and no fresh water. Visitors are at risk of heat stroke and other heat-related conditions, and it can also simply be uncomfortable to visit, thanks to the high heat. However, some organisms do make a living in the area, including extremophilic bacteria, some plants, and the Badwater Snail, a very rare mollusk.
Death Valley was formed millions of years ago, and Badwater Basin is all that remains of what was once a large inland sea. Over time, the dissolved salts in the water became highly concentrated, thanks to repeated evaporation and rain cycles, and eventually all of the water evaporated away, leaving a salt crust. Winter rains often form a shallow lake in Badwater Basin which inevitably evaporates in the spring and summer months, and the ground of the basin is covered in a honeycombed network created by repeated soaking and drying, with a light crust of salt.
The salt crust in Badwater Basin can be deceptive, as it makes it seem like it is safe to walk. In fact, parts of the basin are covered in dense mud, which can be dangerous for walkers. For this reason, visitors to Badwater Basin are encouraged to stay on ramps constructed by the Parks Service, and while they can visit the mineral-rich spring, they cannot walk in the basic itself.
This location is the starting point for the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling footrace in which people run from Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Originally, runners had to not only complete the marathon, but also climb the mountain, and few people managed to successfully complete the challenge. Because permits are now required to summit Mount Whitney, the race ends at the foot of the mountain, but it is still a challenge to run 135 miles (215 kilometers) through the extreme heat of the area.