Podcast Episodes

“Goodbye, Death Valley”

In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California and people from all over the United States packed their belongings and began to travel by wagon to what they hoped would be a new and better life. Since most of these pioneers began their exodus to California in 1849, they are referred to as the ’49ers — yep, that’s where the NFL team’s name comes from. One of the supply points along the trail was Salt Lake City, where pioneers prepared for the long journey across the Great Basin desert before climbing over the Sierra Nevada to the gold fields of California. It was important to leave Salt Lake City and cross the desert before snow began to fall on the Sierra Nevada, making them impassible. Only a couple of years before, a group of pioneers called the Donner Party was trapped by a storm, an event that became one of the greatest human disasters of that day and age. The stories of the Donner Party were still fresh on everyone’s mind when a group of wagons began their journey in October of 1849. It was much too late to try to cross the Sierra Nevada safely, and it looked like the wagons were going to have to wait out the winter in Salt Lake. It was then that they heard about the Old Spanish Trail, a route that went around the south end of the Sierra Nevada and was safe to travel in the winter. But no pioneer wagon trains had traversed this route, and they could only find one person in town who knew where to go and would agree to lead them. As they started their journey, no one knew that this wagon train—the San Joaquin Company—would have a harrowing adventure that nearly killed them all.

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, the place that these prospectors would come to call Death Valley.

The going was slower than most of the travelers wanted, but the San Joaquin Company’s guide, Captain Jefferson Hunt, would only go as fast as the slowest wagon in the group. Just as the people were about to voice their dissent, a young man rode into camp with a hand-sketched map that showed a “short cut” across the desert to a place called Walker Pass. Most agreed that this would cut off 500 miles from their journey so a majority of the 107 wagons decided to follow it while the other wagons continued along the Old Spanish Trail with Captain Hunt. The point where these wagons left the Old Spanish Trail is near the present day town of Enterprise, Utah where a Jefferson Hunt Monument commemorates this historic event. Almost as soon as they began their journey, they found themselves confronted with an obstacle, a gaping canyon on the present day Utah-Nevada state line. Most of the people became discouraged and turned back to join Captian Hunt, but more than 20 wagons decided to continue on. It was a tedious chore getting the wagons around the canyon and took several days. Despite the fact that the group didn’t have a reliable map, they decided to continue on thinking that all they had to do was go west and they would eventually find the pass.

The group continued over summits and across barren valleys to Groom Lake, near the present-day town of Rachel. At Groom Lake they got into a dispute on which way to go. One group—the Bennett-Arcan party—wanted to head south toward the distant, snow-clad Mt. Charleston in hopes of finding a good water source. The other group—the Jayhawkers—wanted to stay with the original plan of traveling west. The group eventually split and went their separate ways, but they both were to have two things in common. They were saved from dying of thirst by a snowstorm and both ended up in present-day Death Valley Junction, where, together, they journeyed into a vast valley and found water in what would become known as Furnace Creek.

The lost ’49ers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail. Their oxen were weak from lack of forage and their wagons were battered and in poor shape. They too were weary and discouraged but their biggest problem was not the valley that lay before them. It was the towering Panamint Mountains that stood like an impenetrable wall as far as could be seen.

From Furnace Creek, the routes of the two groups diverged again. The Jayhawkers went north toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where they decided they would have to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk. They slaughtered several oxen and used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky. After crossing the Panamint Mountains via Towne Pass and dropping down into Panamint Valley, most of them turned south, making their way into Indian Wells Valley near the present day city of Ridgecrest. There they follow a prominent Indian trail heading south and eventually leading them to civilization.

Meanwhile, the Bennett-Arcan party struggled across the salt flats and attempted to pass over the Panamint Mountain via Warm Springs Canyon, but were unable to do so. They retreated to the valley floor and sent two young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, over the mountain to get supplies. Thinking the Panamint was the Sierra Nevada, some expected a speedy return. Instead, nearly a month went by as the men walked more than 300 miles to Mission San Fernando, got supplies at a ranch and trecked back with three horses and a one-eyed mule. Along the way, one of the horses was ridden to death and the other two had to be abandoned. When Manly and Rogers finally arrived to the camp of the Bennett-Arcan party they found many of the group had left to find their own way out of the valley. Two families with children had patiently remained, trusting the men to save them. Only one man had perished during their long wait, but as they made their way west over the mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving the valley its morbid name.

They may have escaped the Death Valley, but it took another 23 days to cross the Mojave Desert and reach the safety of Ranch San Francisco in Santa Clarita Valley. The so-called “short cut” that had lured the Lost ’49ers away from Captian Hunt’s wagon train had proved to take four months and cost the lives of many.

In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.

Death Valley is the largest U.S. National Park outside Alaska at 3.4 million acres. Nearly 1000 miles of paved and dirt roads provide access to locations both popular and remote. Even so, 91% of the park is protected as officially designated Wilderness. That wild country includes low valley floors crusted with barren salt flats, rugged mountains rising as much as 11,000 feet, deep and winding canyons, rolling sand dunes, and spring-fed oases.

Autumn arrives in late October, with warm but pleasant temperatures and generally clear skies. Winter has cool days, chilly nights and rarely, rainstorms. With snow capping the high peaks and low angled winter light, this season is especially beautiful for exploring the valley. Springtime is the most popular time to visit Death Valley. Besides warm and sunny days, the possibility of spring wildflowers is a big attraction. Summer starts early—by May the valley is too hot for most visitors, average highs are over 110 degrees.

The text for this episode was provided largely by Death Valley National Park, and the National Park Service.

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Podcast Episodes

Hell, with the Fires Out

It’s that time of year. You’re getting pelted with the supernatural from every direction – on TV, at the Movie Theater, in the grocery store. Far be it from us to miss an opportunity for a themed episode. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks – Three stories of the supernatural. Myths from the distant past. Ancient gods of Mount Rainier, the evil Queen of Death Valley, and the banshee that haunts Badlands National Park to this day. 


Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.


The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at findyourpark.com.

It’s that time of year. You’re getting pelted with the supernatural from every direction – on TV, at the Movie Theater, in the grocery store. Far be it from us to miss an opportunity for a themed episode.

I’m Jason Epperson, and on today’s episode of America’s National Parks – Stories of the supernatural. Myths from the distant past. In fact, all of these stories come from one source. In 1896, Charles M. Skinner published a massive, 9 volume collection of eerie legends from coast to coast, many of which happened in national parks. Not surprisingly, stories of the unexplained tend to draw from the heritage of indigenous people, and it should be said right up front, that native American people take their legends seriously, almost as if they happened yesterday. By no means are we attempting to make light of any particular tale, or to set them aside as spooky Halloween fodder. Many are creation stories, explaining the very existence of some of our nation’s treasures, or parables that help us learn more about ourselves.

We begin at Mount Ranier National Park. We’ve talked in the past of Ranier’s capacity to wipe out thousands of people if it were to erupt. But another tale talks of how Tacoma, Ranier’s original name, is the place where the tamanous, or a divine being, teaches lessons to those who brave its climb.

Here’s Abigail Trabue


Mount Tacoma has always been a place of superstitious regard among the native people of the Northwest. In their stories, it was the place of refuge for the last man when the sound was so swollen after long rain, that its waters covered the earth. All other men were drowned. The waves pursued the one man as he climbed, rising higher and higher until they came to his knees, his waist, his breast. Hope was almost gone, and he felt that the next wave would launch him into the black ocean that raged about him, when one of the tamanous of the peak, taking pity on him, turned his feet to stone. The storm ceased, and the waters fell away. The man still stood there, his feet a part of the peak, and he mourned that he could not descend to where the air was balmy and the flowers were opening. The Spirit of all Things came and bade him sleep, and, after his eyes were closed, tore out one of his ribs and changed it to a woman. When lifted out of the rock the man awoke, and, turning with delight to the woman, he led her to the sea-shore, and there in a forest they made their home. There the human race was recreated.

On the shore of the sound in later years lived an Indian miser who dried salmon and dried the meat that he did not use, selling it to his fellow men for shells. The more of this treasure he got, the more he wanted. One day, while hunting on the slopes of Mount Tacoma, he looked along its snow-fields, climbing to the sky, and, instead of doing homage to the tamanous, or divinity of the mountain, he only sighed, “If I could only get more shells!”

Sounded a voice in his ear: “Dare you go to my treasure caves?”

“I dare!” cried the miser.

The rocks and snows and woods roared back the words so quick in echoes that the noise was like that of a mountain laughing. The wind came up again to whisper the secret in the man’s ear, and with an elk-horn for pick and spade he began the ascent of the peak. Next morning he had reached the crater’s rim, and, hurrying down into it, he passed a rock shaped like a salmon, next, one in the form of a kamas-root, and presently a third in likeness of an elk’s head. “‘Tis a tamanous has spoken!” he exclaimed, as he looked at them.

At the foot of the elk’s head he began to dig. Under the snow he came to crusts of rock that gave a hollow sound, and presently he lifted a scale of stone that covered a cavity brimful of shells more beautiful, more precious, more abundant than his wildest hopes had pictured. He plunged his arms among them to the shoulder—he laughed and fondled them, winding the strings of them about his arms and waist and neck and filling his hands. Then, heavily burdened, he started homeward.

In his eagerness to take away his treasure he made no offerings of shell strings to the stone tamanous in the crater, and hardly had he begun the descent of the mountain’s western face before he began to be buffeted with winds. The angry god wrapped himself in a whirling tower of cloud and fell upon him, drawing darkness after. Hands seemed to clutch at him out of the storm: they tore at his treasure, and, in despair, he cast away a cord of it in sacrifice. The storm paused for a moment, and when it returned upon him with scream and flash and roar he parted with another. So, going down in the lulls, he reached timber just as the last handful of his wealth was wrenched from his grasp and flung upon the winds. Sick in heart and body, he fell upon a moss-heap, senseless. He awoke and arose stiffly, after a time, and resumed his journey.

In his sleep a change had come to the man. His hair was matted and reached to his knees; his joints creaked; his food supply was gone; but he picked kamas bulbs and broke his fast, and the world seemed fresh and good to him. He looked back at Tacoma and admired the splendor of its snows and the beauty of its form, and had never a care for the riches in its crater. The wood was strange to him as he descended, but at sunset he reached his home, where an aged woman was cooking salmon. Wife and husband recognized each other, though he had been asleep and she a-sorrowing for years. In his joy to be at home the miser dug up all his treasure that he had secreted and gave of his wealth and wisdom to who so needed them. Life, love, and nature were enough, he found, and he never braved the tamanous again.


Jason: Special places on earth often get special origin stories that explain why they were formed the way they were. One of our most curious National Parks is no different.


In the southern part of California, near the Arizona line, is the famous Death Valley—a tract of arid, alkaline plain hemmed in by steep mountains and lying below the level of the sea. For years it was believed that no human being could cross that desert and live, for horses sink to their knees in drifts of soda dust; there is no water, though the traveller requires much drink; and the heat is terrific. Animals that die in the neighborhood mummify, but do not decay, and it is surmised that the remains of many a thoughtless or ignorant prospector lie bleached in the plain. On the east side of Dead Mountain are points of whitened rock that at a distance look like sheeted figures, and these, the Indians say, are the ghosts of their brethren.

In the heart of this desert is said to be the ruin of a pueblo, or village, though the shape and size of it suggest that it was made for a few persons rather than for a tribe or family. Long ago, the tale runs, this place of horrors was a fair and fertile kingdom, ruled by a beautiful but capricious queen. She ordered her subjects to build her a mansion that should surpass those of her neighbors, the Aztecs, and they worked for years to make one worthy of her, dragging the stones and timbers for miles. Fearing lest age, accident, or illness should forbid her to see the ending of her dream, she ordered so many of her subjects to assist that her tribe was reduced to practical slavery.

In her haste and heartlessness she commanded her own daughter to join the bearers of burdens, and when the toilers flagged in step in the noonday heat she strode among them and lashed their naked backs. As royalty was sacred, they did not complain, but when she struck her daughter the girl turned, threw down her load of stone, and solemnly cursed her mother and her kingdom; then, overcome by heat and weariness, she sank to the earth and died. Vain the regrets and lamentations of the queen. The sun came out with blinding heat and light, vegetation withered, animals disappeared, streams and wells dried up, and at last the wretched woman gave up her life on a bed of fever, with no hand to soothe her dying moments, for her people, too, were dead. The palace, half-completed, stands in the midst of this desolation, and sometimes it seems to lift into view of those at a distance in the shifting mirage that plays along the horizon.


There’s another story from Death Valley, a place with more ghost towns than actual towns. In one of the rough, Old West mining settlements, a saloon owner named Joe “Hootch” Simpson gunned down a banker in a drunken rage in 1908 to settle a $20 debt. The townspeople formed a lynch mob and hanged Simpson, then buried him, exhumed him and re-hanged him for the benefit of a visiting reporter. Finally, the town doctor beheaded him. Legend says that Simpson’s headless ghost continues to haunt the area to this day.

South Dakota’s Badlands National Park is another place with an ominous name, but it isn’t really bad at all. In fact, it’s a striking world of rugged formations that appear almost out of nowhere in the middle of a massive grassland. It was named the Badlands because it was deemed useless for farming. But there is one very frightening tale. Our final story tells of a banshee that is said to haunt the cliffs.


“Hell, with the fires out,” is what the Bad Lands of Dakota have been called. The fearless Western nomenclature fits the place. It is an ancient sea-bottom, with its clay strata worn by frost and flood into forms like pagodas, pyramids, and terraced cities. Labyrinthine canyons wind among these fantastic peaks, which are brilliant in color, but bleak, savage, and oppressive. Game courses over the castellated hills, rattlesnakes bask at the edge of the crater above burning coal seams, and wild men have made despairing stand here against advancing civilization. It may have been the white victim of a red man’s jealousy that haunts the region of the butte called “Watch Dog,” or it may have been an Indian woman who was killed there, but there is a banshee in the desert whose cries have chilled the blood that would not have cooled at the sight of a bear or panther. By moonlight, when the scenery is most suggestive and unearthly, and the noises of wolves and owls inspire uneasy feelings, the ghost is seen on a hill a mile south of the Watch Dog, her hair blowing, her arms tossing in strange gestures.

If war parties, emigrants, cowboys, hunters, any who for good or ill are going through this country, pass the haunted butte at night, the rocks are lighted with phosphor flashes and the banshee sweeps upon them. As if wishing to speak, or as if waiting a question that it has occurred to none to ask, she stands beside them in an attitude of appeal, but if asked what she wants she flings her arms aloft and with a shriek that echoes through the blasted gulches for a mile she disappears and an instant later is seen wringing her hands on her hill-top. Cattle will not graze near the haunted butte and the cowboys keep aloof from it, for the word has never been spoken that will solve the mystery of the region or quiet the unhappy banshee.

The creature has a companion, sometimes, in an unfleshed skeleton that trudges about the ash and clay and haunts the camps in a search for music. If he hears it he will sit outside the door and nod in time to it, while a violin left within his reach is eagerly seized and will be played on through half the night. The music is wondrous: now as soft as the stir of wind in the sage, anon as harsh as the cry of a wolf or startling as the stir of a rattler. As the east begins to brighten the music grows fainter, and when it is fairly light it has ceased altogether. But he who listens to it must on no account follow the player if the skeleton moves away, for not only will it lead him into rocky pitfalls, whence escape is hopeless, but when there the music will intoxicate, madden, and will finally charm his soul from his body.


Stories like this surround most of our National Parks, next time you’re heading to one, take some time to learn about the legends of places and people that surround it. You’ll be glad you did.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.