Tourists still flock to Death Valley amid searing US heat wave

A stop sign warns tourists of extreme heat at Badwater Basin, Monday, in Death Valley National Park, Calif.

A stop sign warns tourists of extreme heat at Badwater Basin, Monday, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. (Daniel Jacobi II, Las Vegas Review-Journal )


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DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — Hundreds of Europeans touring the American West and adventurers from around the U.S. are still being drawn to Death Valley National Park, even though the desolate region known as one of the Earth's hottest places is being punished by a dangerous heat wave blamed for a motorcyclist's death over the weekend.

French, Spanish, English and Swiss tourists left their air-conditioned rental cars and motorhomes Monday to take photographs of the barren landscape so different than the snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills they know back home. American adventurers liked the novelty of it, even as officials at the park in California warned visitors to stay safe.

"I was excited it was going to be this hot," said Drew Belt, a resident of Tupelo, Mississippi, who wanted to stop in Death Valley as the place boasting the lowest elevation in the U.S. on his way to climb California's Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Kind of like walking on Mars."

Park superintendent Mike Reynolds cautioned visitors in a statement that "high heat like this can pose real threats to your health."

The searing heat wave gripping large parts of the United States also led to record daily high temperatures in Oregon, where it is suspected to have caused four deaths in the Portland area. More than 146 million people around the U.S. were under heat alerts Monday, especially in Western states.

Dozens of locations in the West and Pacific Northwest tied or broke previous heat records over the weekend and are expected to keep doing so into the week.

The early U.S. heat wave came as the global temperature in June was record warm for the 13th straight month and marked the 12th straight month that the world was 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than pre-industrial times, the European climate service Copernicus said.

Tourists take photos in front of the Furnace Creek visitor center thermometer Monday, in Death Valley National Park, Calif.
Tourists take photos in front of the Furnace Creek visitor center thermometer Monday, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. (Photo: Daniel Jacobi II, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The temperatures aren't expected to reach as high as they did during a similar heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, which killed an estimated 600 people across Oregon, Washington and western Canada. But the duration could be problematic because many homes in the region lack air conditioning.

Heat illness and injury are cumulative and can build over the course of a day or days, officials warn. In San Jose, California, a homeless man died last week from apparent heat-related causes, Mayor Matt Mahan reported on the social platform X, calling it "an avoidable tragedy."

In eastern California's sizzling desert, a high temperature of 128 Fahrenheit was recorded Saturday and Sunday at Death Valley National Park, where a visitor, who was not identified, died Saturday from heat exposure. Another person was hospitalized, officials said.

They were among six motorcyclists riding through the Badwater Basin area in scorching weather, the park said in a statement. The other four were treated at the scene. Emergency medical helicopters were unable to respond because the aircraft cannot generally fly safely over 120 Fahrenheit, officials said.

A long exposure image of the thermostat at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center after 10:00 p.m., in Death Valley National Park, Calif., Sunday. Forecasters say a heat wave could break previous records across the U.S., including in Death Valley.
A long exposure image of the thermostat at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center after 10:00 p.m., in Death Valley National Park, Calif., Sunday. Forecasters say a heat wave could break previous records across the U.S., including in Death Valley. (Photo: Ty O'Neil, Associated Press)

More extreme highs are in the near forecast with a high of possibly 130 Fahrenheit around midweek,

The largest national park outside Alaska, Death Valley is considered one of the most extreme environments in the world. The hottest temperature ever officially recorded on Earth was 134 Fahrenheit in July 1913 in Death Valley, though some experts dispute that measurement and say the real record was 130, recorded there in July 2021.

"It's impressive," Thomas Mrzliek of Basel, Switzerland, said of the triple digit heat. "It like a wave that hits when you get out of the car, but it's a very dry heat. So it's not as in Europe."

Across the desert in Nevada, Las Vegas set a record high of 120 Fahrenheit on Sunday and was forecast to hit a record high of 115 on Monday. The National Weather Service forecast a high of 117 in Phoenix.

Extreme heat and a longstanding drought in the West has also dried out vegetation that can fuel wildfires

In California, a wildfire in the mountains of Santa Barbara County grew to more than 34 square miles by Monday night. More than 1,000 firefighters were on the lines of the Lake Fire, and areas under evacuation orders included the former Neverland Ranch once owned by the late pop star Michael Jackson. The blaze was just 8% contained.

Sheik Mabrouki, of Algeria, walks through Badwater Basin, Monday in Death Valley National Park, Calif.
Sheik Mabrouki, of Algeria, walks through Badwater Basin, Monday in Death Valley National Park, Calif. (Photo: Daniel Jacobi II, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A small but smoky blaze, dubbed the Royal Fire, burned through more than 150 acres of forest west of Lake Tahoe and sent ash raining down on the tourist town of Truckee, California. There was no containment Monday night.

Rare heat advisories were extended even into higher elevations including around usually temperate Tahoe area, with the weather service in Reno, Nevada, warning of "major heat risk impacts, even in the mountains." For the third straight day, the town of South Lake Tahoe, California, hit a high of 91 Fahrenheit, beating the previous record of 89 degrees set in 2017.

And for the first time in records dating to 1888, Reno reached 105 Fahrenheit for the third consecutive day. A short time later on Monday, the city set a record high of 106 degrees, leap-frogging the previous mark of 104 set in 2017.

People flocked Monday to the beaches around Lake Tahoe, especially Sand Harbor State Park, where the record high of 92 Fahrenheit set on Sunday smashed the old record of 88 degrees set in 2014. For the fifth consecutive day, Sand Harbor closed its gates within 90 minutes of opening at 8 a.m. because it had reached capacity.

"It's definitely hotter than we are used to," Nevada State Parks spokesperson Tyler Kerver said.

Contributing: Christopher Weber, John Antczak, Janie Har and Scott Sonner

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