Death Valley’s Ghostly Lake Manly

April 01, 2024

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Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

You may think the top photo is an April Fools' joke, but it's not. Death Valley National Park — the driest, hottest and lowest place in North America — has witnessed a rare re-appearance of prehistoric Lake Manly, as the valley’s lowest basins have been fed rainwater by two major weather events, according to the National Park Service: Hurricane Hillary, in August 2023, and storms in February 2024 powered by atmospheric rivers sweeping into the state of California from the Pacific Ocean.

Death Valley receives under 2 in of precipitation during a typical year. But the official gauge at Furnace Creek recorded almost 5 in within a six-month span, the Park Service reported. As a result, and as shown in the first photograph here, taken on February 23, 2024, vast but shallow ponds formed on what are usually barren salt flats in and near Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. As a result, park visitors were doffing their socks and shoes to wade into the brackish, muddy shallows — and a few kayakers also set off on explorations (one is visible in the image’s upper left) … until the park closed the lake to boating.

A second photograph, taken the same day from Dantes View, a high overlook (at 5,575 ft, or 2,699 m, above sea level) in the Black Mountains on the park’s east side, offers a panoramic perspective of Death Valley and the resurgent lake. The snow-topped Panamint Range and Telescope Peak (11,043 ft/3,366 m above sea level) rise on the valley’s western side. At its largest recent extent, the lake was about 7 mi (11.3 km) long and 4 mi (6.4 km) wide, but only 2 ft (0.6 m) deep, according to the Park Service.

Named for William Lewis Manly, who helped rescue pioneer immigrants stranded in Death Valley in 1849, prehistoric Lake Manly was at its most extensive during the Pleistocene ice ages, about 128,000-185,000 years ago. The lake’s levels varied greatly over time, and it dried and vanished about 10,000 years ago — becoming a smaller, ephemeral lake only during times of unusually high precipitation, as on this occasion.

Death Valley, California Coordinates: 36.5323, -116.9325

Related Links:
New Life in Death Valley
Death Valley's Zabriskie Point
Extremely rare event:' Satellite images show lake formed in famously dry Death Valley