California Rains Resurrect a Long-dead Lake in Dry Death Valley

Bridget Bennett for The Washington Post
A kayaker on Lake Manly at sunset in California’s Death Valley National Park on Tuesday.

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – If it weren’t for all the floating, the paddling, the sloshing around, the lake smack in the middle of this desert might be mistaken for a mirage.

This is the driest place in America, a place famous for sweltering 120-degree summers, a place whose very name suggests inhospitableness. It is perhaps the last corner of the continent one might expect to stumble upon miles of water.

But Lake Manly is no illusion. Instead, it’s more like a ghost from Death Valley’s prehistoric past, temporarily resurrected by the fast-changing, climate-churning present.

Thanks to the record-setting rain that has washed over California during the last six months, Lake Manly – which dried up thousands of years ago – has reformed on the floor of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. This unlikely and exceedingly rare comeback is a message from the warming climate, which baked the region in a years-long megadrought and has now flooded it with rain.

At the same time, it is delighting visitors, park rangers and the scientists who have devoted their careers to studying Death Valley and have called the lake’s reappearance one of the most spectacular natural phenomena they have ever witnessed. But perhaps most profoundly, it shows that the desert is a dynamic place, home to complex and vibrant ecosystems – not the desolate and barren expanse of popular imagination.

Like an uncommon desert super bloom, the return of Lake Manly serves as a powerful declaration: Death Valley is alive.

“This is the desert announcing its vitality,” said Mason Voehl, the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the Amargosa River, which historically fed into Lake Manly.

For weeks, since the latest rainstorm in early February, crowds have flocked to this park near California’s border with Nevada, setting new high marks for attendance. On a recent day, cars lined the preserve’s roads and overflowed a parking lot near the lake’s entrance. Sightseers cruised on kayaks, clambered onto paddleboards and waded in up to their knees.

The lake itself was placid and shallow, tranquil and still. The water, steeping in a millennia’s-worth of minerals, was some five times saltier than the ocean and about 20 inches deep. In it were reflected the towering Panamint Mountains, with Telescope Peak – more than 11,000 feet above – capped in snow. The scene was a study in the contrasts of Death Valley, a land of extremes.

Lake Manly also appeared in 2005, but experts believe it came back even bigger after the recent rains. The ephemeral lake, so named because it will last for only a short time, is already shrinking. It may be deep enough to paddle for just another couple weeks and will dry up entirely when the weather warms.

The fleetingness has fed something of a frenzy at a park that is not typically among the country’s most visited, stirring a run on kayaks at the nearest sporting goods stores and attracting visitors from thousands of miles away.

“It’s amazing, it’s inspiring,” said Inta Malis, who traveled to the park with her husband Derick from Arlington, Va. The couple, both in their 70s, formed their first impression of the place while watching “Death Valley Days,” a long-running TV show hosted for a couple seasons by Ronald Reagan.

“When I thought of Death Valley as a kid, I thought it was just a big sandbox that went really deep and was really hot,” Malis said. “A lake was not part of that concept.”

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An ancient lake

Back in the Pleistocene, however, the water would have been unavoidable.

Some 15,000 years ago, near the end of the last Ice Age, the climate in this region was far different – wetter, more temperate. And lakes dotted the landscape.

“The Mojave may now look like a desert, but back then it looked like Minnesota,” said Char Miller, an environmental historian at Pomona College who co-wrote a history of Death Valley National Park.

Lake Manly was particularly impressive. At 600 feet deep, 11 miles wide and 90 miles long, the lake covered a large part of Death Valley, according to some estimates. Over the following thousands of years, conditions slowly changed and the lake disappeared. But even in the increasingly harsh climate, flora, fauna and the people of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe learned to adapt and thrive.

By the time the lake’s eventual namesake, explorer William Manly, arrived in Death Valley and rescued stranded pioneers during the gold rush of 1849, the water in Badwater Basin was long gone. In its place were vast salt flats that shone in the sun and crunched underfoot.

Despite the land’s ethereal beauty, the National Park Service was not initially interested in Death Valley, Miller said, because desert preserves didn’t fit the archetypical idea of a national park, with towering pines and grand mountain vistas.

“They weren’t beautiful under a certain cultural construct,” Miller said. “The perception of deserts – especially one called Death Valley – was that nothing lived there.”

But in 1933, President Herbert Hoover declared the area a national monument, and 60 years later it was designated a full-fledged national park and was expanded to its current size of nearly 3.5 million acres, the largest park in the contiguous United States. And in 2000, after a long struggle with the federal government, the Timbisha finally won a designated tribal homeland inside the preserve.

While Death Valley eventually became widely accepted as one of the country’s true natural wonders, there is now a sense among those who revere the park that Lake Manly’s encore performance is reintroducing the place to a new generation of visitors.

“Lake Manly is the hook,” said Nichole Andler, a veteran park ranger who delights in busting the myth that Death Valley is just a bunch of sand. “People are coming because they know this is rare. But they are probably going to see things they didn’t expect and they’re going to want to come back and see more of Death Valley.”

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‘The best nourishment’

Bridget Bennett for The Washington Post
Visitors walk in the water at Badwater Basin.

Even for a place that always exists in extremis, the last few years have been intense.

In early 2022, Death Valley was in the middle of one of the worst megadroughts in recent history. It was so bad that the park’s creosote bushes – some of the most drought-tolerant plants in the world – began dying.

Fast forward to August, when Hurricane Hilary inundated Death Valley on its wettest day ever. The unusual storm brought over 2 inches of rain, more than the area averages in an entire year. The water washed out roads and shut down the park for months.

It also revived Lake Manly, but the park’s closure prevented visitors and others from enjoying it. By the time the park reopened in October, the lake had receded. Then, weeks ago, a powerful atmospheric river hit the state, further soaking Death Valley’s already saturated soil, and the lake returned once again.

For scientists like Naomi Fraga, the director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden 30 miles east of Los Angeles, this sudden swing has felt like whiplash. She remembers gazing at the acres of dead creosote just a couple years ago, while researching plants in the area. Earlier this month, she went kayaking for the first time – in Lake Manly.

“To see the lake reform, I just had no words,” said Fraga, who often conducts field work in the region during the summer months. “It’s pretty much the most extreme place you can go to in July. It’s otherworldly to see it in this other condition.”

The southern route into the park, along the winding two-lane Badwater Road, cuts through rugged, dramatic topography, shaped by eons of erosion. At first, Lake Manly is difficult to distinguish from the miles of shimmering salt flats before it. Then it is undeniable.

On a recent expedition, Voehl, of the Amargosa Conservancy, pumped up three inflatable kayaks and led a pair of visitors into the lake. As he floated in the shallow water, Voehl grappled with a competing sense of awe and unease. Climate change, which is increasing the frequency and intensity of atmospheric rivers, made Lake Manly possible.

He wondered: how should we react when a catastrophic trend conjures mind-bending beauty? For Voehl, an environmental ethicist who has battled climate despair, Lake Manly is a reminder of the transcendent power of the natural world. The memory of this moment will help buoy him during the drumbeat of bad news to come, he said.

“There’s going to be a lot of firsts in our lifetime. The majority are going to be kind of terrifying, and a handful of them – like this – are going to be pretty extraordinary,” Voehl said, slowly drifting across the fleeting lake. “I feel we have an obligation to revel in them as deeply, as often and in as many places as we can when we get these opportunities. Frankly, that’s the best nourishment.”

After the group paddled to shore and the visitors packed up, Voehl pushed his kayak back in the water, taking a little more time to cherish the ephemeral.