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Death Valley Draws International Heat Seekers - 2002-11-23

Death Valley National Park in California is the hottest spot in North America. While many Americans avoid Death Valley during the warmest months, thousands of other visitors from around the world come to take in the dramatic scenery.

The stark beauty of Death Valley National Park is riveting - rugged mountains, colorful canyons, and enormous valleys formed millions of years ago. Most days during the hottest months the skies are clear, the desert heat scorching. One million tourists visit the park every year, many from outside the United States.

"The land, the colors, the sun, the heat all very impressive," said Jerome Salomon, who is from Paris, France. "It's a very romantic place."

The rocks in the canyons can get too hot to touch. A deep river that flowed through one valley, dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind a saltbed. In one section of the park, strong winds have pushed sand into large, pyramid-shaped dunes.

Anita Curley from England went horseback riding in Death Valley. She was amazed at how hot it gets.

"It's just unbelievable," she said. "We don't get these temperatures in England, and it's never blue sky without any clouds. We've always got clouds and breezes in England so it's completely different here."

Yasuko Furuta from Japan came to visit the national park with her family. After looking at pictures of Death Valley in books and magazines, she wanted to see it for herself.

"I want to experience hot days," she said. "It's not like Japan. Not humid. It's dry but hot. I want to experience it."

Park Ranger Charlie Calligan, who works at the visitors center, says people often ask him the same question.

"How hot is it? We have a recording inside that shows the temperature and we're showing people, 'look behind me here,' you know, its 122 degrees, it's 50 degrees celsius," he said. "That's in the shade. It's so hot in the direct sunlight that it's just deadly in Death Valley in the middle of summer."

About three-quarters of the international tourists are from Europe where they've never experienced such extreme heat.

"When they walk into the front desk, they walk in [and say] 'it's hot,' and we say 'but that's why you're here.' And they say 'yah, yah, that's why we're here,'" said Toni Gepson, manager of a historic inn located in the park. "They want to feel the desert at its most harsh, yet at its most fascinating time."

Fitness trainer Miro Gregor, 55, from the Czech Republic is bike riding through Death Valley with a Czech friend who lives in the United States. He says he knows he's a little crazy and jokes about the heat.

"What he is saying is that the hot weather here is really good for him because he is an older man and his bones need a little more heat to start moving and this is really good for him," Mr. Gregor's friend said, translating for him. "In this heat he can perform even better."

Besides being the hottest place in North America, Death Valley is the driest. It also contains the lowest elevation in the western hemisphere 86 meters below sea level where there is a natural spring. Kumiko Sudo from Tokyo, Japan couldn't believe it when she saw the small pool of water.

"Yes, I was really surprised a hot place like this," she said. "I was really surprised why the water remained like this."

Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental United States. And despite the large number of visitors, it never seems crowded. Myriam Piacentini from Italy says the wide open spaces and heat give her a sense of freedom she's never felt before.

"There is much space without any people, you can be yourself," she said. "I like the hot on my skin. A good feeling."

The geology of Death Valley is still changing, the rocks shifting. And as they do, the waves of tourists from around the world will continue to admire the beauty of the park and feel the waves of heat traveling from the desert floor.