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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Badwater Basin and why is it significant?
Badwater Basin is a remarkable natural feature located in Death Valley National Park, California. It holds the distinction of being the lowest point in North America, sitting at 282 feet below sea level. This endorheic basin is famous for its vast salt flats, which cover nearly 200 square miles, creating a surreal and otherworldly landscape. The site attracts scientists, photographers, and tourists intrigued by its extreme environment and unique geological characteristics.
How did Badwater Basin get its name?
The name "Badwater Basin" originated from an early surveyor's observation when his mule refused to drink the water from the pool, due to its high salinity. The water contains significant amounts of dissolved minerals, making it undrinkable or "bad" for consumption. This small spring-fed pool is a rare source of water in the arid valley, and the presence of accumulated salts around its edges is a testament to the basin's high mineral content.
Can you visit Badwater Basin, and what can you do there?
Yes, Badwater Basin is accessible to visitors year-round. Tourists can walk on the salt flats, experience the unique acoustics of the basin, and observe the polygonal patterns of salt crystals that form on the ground. Photography is a popular activity due to the dramatic landscapes, especially at sunrise or sunset when the light accentuates the textures and shadows. Hiking and stargazing are also favored due to the clear skies and isolation of Death Valley National Park.
What kind of wildlife can be found in Badwater Basin?
Despite the extreme conditions, some wildlife has adapted to survive in Badwater Basin. Species such as the Badwater snail are endemic to the area, thriving in the saline waters. Visitors might also spot the resilient pupfish in nearby springs, along with various birds that frequent the basin. The surrounding desert is home to animals like bighorn sheep, coyotes, and numerous reptiles and insects that have evolved to cope with the harsh environment.
What are the environmental conditions like in Badwater Basin?
Badwater Basin is characterized by its extreme environmental conditions. It is one of the hottest places on Earth, with summer temperatures often exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The area receives less than two inches of rainfall annually, making it one of the driest spots in North America. The combination of scorching heat, aridity, and high salinity makes it a challenging habitat for life and an intriguing study area for understanding extreme ecosystems.