The hottest place on Earth

Greg Santen's boots crunched across the beige gravel, the broad brim of his ranger's hat protecting him from the scorching sun.

After unlocking a gate, he approached the white wooden box housing the official weather station for Death Valley National Park. Opening the front shutters, he peered at the sophisticated thermometer inside.

"I'm looking at 109," he said as he recorded the day's official high temperature for Aug. 9, 2013.

Just a few minutes earlier, inside the coolness of the nearby visitor center, Santen had been approached by a perspiring pair of Italians traveling across the American Southwest by motorcycle.

"Does it ever get any warmer than this?" one of them asked. The answer was a definite "yes." Just six weeks earlier, that thermometer reading had soared to a whopping 129, 5 degrees below the park's all-time high. It should come as no surprise that, to locals, summer is known as the "indoor season."

"There are some things you can't imagine," park spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman explained. "When you get into your car, you can't touch the steering wheel. Some people have special gloves that they wear. You have to take nearly everything out of your car because the temperatures inside get so hot they can melt your shoes, melt your cellphone."

Welcome to what officially is the planet's hottest place. The collection of salt flats, sand dunes and mountains in east-central California and southern Nevada draws visitors from around the world. And despite the unimaginable heat, the park teems with summer sightseers, many of them Europeans who have come for boasting rights back home.

"We came here to see how hot it is," said Luc Lagouche, a scientist from France. As he spoke, a blistering breeze blew past, as if the door to a blast furnace had just been thrown open.

"It's the name, Death Valley, and the weather that attracted me," he added.

At Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, Lagouche and traveling companion Mylene Thomas snapped a few pictures before returning to the comfort of their air-conditioned car.

"Do most of your sightseeing from within the car," Chipman advised. "Don't stay outside the car for more than 10 minutes at a time, and be sure to have water with you."

Chipman urges visitors to carry at least a gallon of water per person per day and to also have extra food. To play it safe, she also tells guests to stick to the paved, more heavily traveled roads. An emergency in the backcountry of this sprawling 3.4 million-acre park can quickly lead to tragedy.

"People have died here hiking or running or driving someplace and getting lost," she said. "You have to take it seriously." Ironically, the name Death Valley was coined by pioneers during a particularly harsh winter. While heat-related deaths do occur, auto accidents are the leading killer.

From the relative safety of their rental car, Lagouche and Thomas discovered the wonders of the colorful, rolling hills along Artist's Drive. Formed by ancient volcanic activity, the sights along the one-way, 9-mile loop could indeed inspire many a painter. Here, as throughout much of the park, artists would need only a couple of colors, brown and white, on their palettes to capture on canvas the natural hues, ranging from light tan to both milk and dark chocolate.

To appreciate those earth tones and the enormity of this forsaken desert, visitors should take the detour off the main highway to a mountain peak appropriately named Dante's View. Over 13 miles, the road climbs from roughly sea level to nearly 5,500 feet. From the parking lot there's a trail leading to several stunning points that overlook the salt flats far below.

"It's nice and cool up here," a woman from Germany remarked. In summer, the summit often is 15 to 25 degrees cooler than the valley floor.

Death Valley wasn't always recognized as the planet's hottest spot. Until recently, that honor — if you can call it that — went to Azizia, Libya, where the mercury supposedly had climbed to 136 in 1922.

In 2010, a World Meteorological Organization committee of 13 scientists determined that a Libyan man inadvertently had misread the thermometer by 18 degrees.

"The committee came to the conclusion that that record was not reliable," noted Chris Burt, a historian for Weather Underground and a member of the committee. "We had a unanimous decision debunking this record."

T-shirts and caps sold at the visitor center now proudly proclaim that the world record, 134 degrees, was set in Death Valley on July 10, 1913 -- good at least until the next temperature challenge.

Be warned

The visitor center at Furnace Creek, Calif., is about a 21/2-hour drive from Las Vegas, the nearest large city. In addition to stocking up on water and food before heading into the desert, motorists also would be wise to buy a cheap sun shade for their vehicle's windshield.

Even when temperatures are well into triple digits, visitors are urged to avoid shorts and T-shirts. Pants and lightweight but long-sleeved shirts offer protection from the sun and help reduce the risk of dehydration.

While in the park, follow posted road signs and ignore GPS guidance, which can lead motorists off the correct path and into trouble. Be warned that cellphone service is very spotty. Rangers also strongly urge people to stay with their vehicles in the event of a breakdown.

Finally, though many visitors want to see for themselves whether it's really hot enough to fry an egg on the ground (it is), such experiments should be conducted in a frying pan or atop some aluminum foil. "It's a fun thing to do, (but) I'm not a big fan of cleaning up the mess," said park spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman.


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