There is no plant life higher than the microscopic level on the salt pan, but salt-tolerant Pickleweed, Saltgrass and rushes are scattered around the springs and marshes at its edges. Tamarisks offer shade around some of the springs and in the inhabited areas at Furnace Creek.
As elevation increases, so too does moisture. On the higher mountains slopes, Juniper, Mountain Mahogany, Pinyon and other pine forests are prevalent, surrounded by peaks covered with snow.
Native Americans, most recently the Timbisha Shoshone, found ways to adapt to the more recent and forbidding desert conditions that exist here now. Rock art and artifacts indicate a human presence dating back at least 9,000 years.
From 1883 to 1889, wagon teams hauled powdery white borax from mines since fallen to ruin, an enterprise that spread word of Death Valley's striking landscapes, deep solitude, and crystalline air.
As night falls, Death Valley's elusive populations of bobcats, kit foxes, and rodents venture out. Far above on steep mountain slopes, desert bighorn sheep forage among Joshua trees, scrubby junipers, and pines, while hawks soar on thermals rising into vivid blue, cloudless skies. Lizards are numerous, but snakes comparatively rare. Several forms of desert Pupfish live in Salt Creek near the Visitor Center, Saratoga Spring in the southeast corner and other permanent bodies of water in the valley. Rabbits and several types of rodents, including Antelope Squirrels, Kangaroo Rats and Desert Wood Rats, are preyed upon by Coyotes, Kit Foxes and Bobcats.
The highest mountain in the park, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, lies only 15 miles from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S. The vertical drop from the peak to Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
Death Valley has been inhabited gold prospectors, including slaves; Chinese immigrants mining for silver and borax; Basque immigrants who settled here at the turn of the 20th century; and Japanese Americans temporarily interned here during World War II.
Death Valley contains salt pans. At various times during the middle of the Pleistocene era, inland lakes (collectively Lake Manly) formed in Death Valley. Lake Manly received water overflowing from a chain of other Pleistocene lakes, most of which are now also dry lakebeds. As the area turned to desert, the water evaporated, leaving the abundance of salts such as common sodium salts and borax, which were later exploited during the modern history of the region, primarily 1883 to 1907.
As a general rule, lower altitudes tend to have higher temperatures. When the sun heats the ground, that heat is then radiated upward, but the dense below-sea-level air acts as a blanket and reflects the heat back. In addition, the high valley walls trap rising hot air and recycle it back down to the valley floor, where it is heated by compression.
This process is especially important in Death Valley, as it provides its specific climate and geography. The valley is surrounded by mountains, while its surface is mostly flat and devoid of plants, so much of the sun's heat can reach the ground, absorbed by soil and rock. When air at ground level is heated, it begins to rise, moving up past steep, high mountain ranges, which then cools slightly, sinking back down towards the valley more compressed. This air is then reheated by the sun to a higher temperature, moving up the mountain again, whereby the air moves up and down in a circular motion in cycles, similar to how a convection oven works. This heated air increases ground temperature markedly, forming the hot wind currents that are trapped by atmospheric pressure and mountains, thus stays mostly within the valley. Such hot wind currents contribute to perpetual drought-like conditions in Death Valley and prevent much cloud formation from passing through the confines of the valley, where precipitation is often in the form of a virga. Death Valley holds temperature records because it has an unusually high number of factors that lead to high atmospheric temperatures.
In spite of the overwhelming heat and sparse rainfall, Death Valley exhibits considerable biodiversity. Wildflowers, watered by snowmelt, carpet the desert floor each spring, continuing into June. Bighorn sheep, red-tailed hawks, and wild burros may be seen. Death Valley has over 600 springs and ponds. Salt Creek, a mile-long shallow depression in the center of the valley, supports pupfish.
Darwin Falls, on the western edge of Death Valley Monument, falls 100 feet (30 m) into a large pond surrounded by willows and cottonwood trees. Over 80 species of birds have been spotted around the pond.