Death Valley is a land of extremes. Not only is the National Park one of the lowest and hottest locations on the planet, but it’s also home to some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. Great views are often accompanied by great roads, something I can attest to thanks to a drive through Death Valley in a BMW M2 Competition several years back as part of Automobile magazine’s All-Star Awards program.
Driving out of Mojave, California, ribbons of smooth pavement race into Death Valley through the tiny towns of Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells. I remember these roads fondly; when I passed over the mountains back in 2018, I saw valleys full of clouds, powdery snow at the peaks, and striking terrain that spilled all the way to the horizon. When given the chance to drive our long-term 2023 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, my first thought was to repeat this road trip for the first time in five years. Unfortunately, the environment had something different in mind.
The Best Laid Plans Often Go Awry
When it came time to plan my dream drive, it only took a matter of minutes to realize Death Valley’s roads were completely shut down. A quick Google search revealed why: The fallout from the tropical storm created by Hurricane Hilary flooded much of Death Valley, rendering the National Park inaccessible to the public. Not to be dissuaded from taking the 670-hp Corvette on the adventure of a lifetime, I set out to see just how much of our favorite roads were still accessible. Covering 5,270 square miles (a little larger than the state of Connecticut), Death Valley is the largest National Park in the contiguous United States, so the implications of the closures are significant for would-be tourists like me. MotorTrend photographer Renz Dimaandal and I set out from our home base in El Segundo, California, and headed up through the desert town of Ridgecrest before exploring the surrounding region. As a touring car for two, the mid-engine Chevy offered plenty of room for our luggage and camera gear.
Checking into a Best Western, the Corvette Z06’s excess wasn’t lost on us. Outside of the megalopolis sprawl of the greater Los Angeles area, the Amplify Orange supercar can’t help but stand out. When it fires up from a cold start, the bark emanating from the quad exhaust tips demands attention. Its fuel economy and emissions figures are as extreme as its $164,190 price tag. Rated at 12/19/14 mpg city/highway/combined, the Z06 will cost owners $11,500 more in fuel costs over five years than the average new vehicle. Tailpipe emissions are scored at just 2 out of 10. The new Corvette E-Ray hybrid, by way of comparison, nets 16/24/19 mpg, will cost owners $8,000 more, and ekes out a 4 out of 10 emissions score.
The following morning, we embarked on our quest to find the end of the road. Howling up I-395 toward Death Valley, the sense of California’s scale east of Sequoia National Forest was all encompassing. After about 50 miles of driving north of Ridgecrest, we finally crossed through the town of Olancha, the last major outpost before the road forked off toward the national park. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first dead end, miles outside of the park proper.
As we toured Death Valley’s perimeter, we felt its immensity from the outside. The closures shut off 3.4 million acres of land and 1,400 miles of roads to the public. We checked out two would-be entrances near Furnace Creek and Trona, which are separated by nearly 100 miles, but neither was passable. Unfortunately, none of the roads we traversed came close to the stunning ribbons of pavement located just within the park’s boundries that I remembered from my drive in the M2 Competition.
How Bad Was the Damage?
We spoke with park ranger Matthew Lamar about the extent of the closures, and he reported that Death Valley received 2.2 inches of rain in 24 hours, which is a year’s worth of rain over the span of a day for one of the driest places in the world. The park is surrounded by mountains which drain water into the valley floor; this caused widespread flooding of the park. “The first inch of rain definitely caused some damage,” Lamar said. “It really set the stage and got everything saturated.”
As night fell, the true severity of the storm was realized. Hundreds of miles of road were damaged, with debris measuring inches or even feet piling up over the pavement. In some instances, the pavement was destroyed altogether. Roads weren’t the only victims of the storm; sewer and water lines were also broken during the deluge.
Even if Death Valley can fully recover from the flood damages, ongoing climate change concerns threaten repeats in the future. “We [Death Valley] already are one of the most extreme environments on Earth, and so many of the plants and animals that live here are living on the edge of survival, under even current normal conditions,” Lamar said. “As we start to see temperatures increase and as we start to see frequent storms, we can certainly see many of these plants and animals potentially being pushed too far into the extremes.”
How Much Are Cars to Blame?
Can we blame the cars we love to drive for shutting down one of the most epic places on the planet? To learn more about what causes storms like Hurricane Hillary, we spoke with meteorologist Daniel Berc of the National Weather Service. “We really can’t attribute the particular weather event to climate change or global warming,” he said. “However, I can say that with climate change, what we’re seeing is an increase in frequency in these types of storms.”
In short, global warming wasn’t necessarily the direct cause of Hurricane Hillary, but it is the reason more storms of its size and intensity have occurred. At the end of the day, all weather comes from the sun, and rising global temperatures contributed to a hotter Earth. As temperatures rise, the extra heat is redistributed throughout the planet. As that heat circulates, storms result from the movement.
Climate change is a man-made problem, as heat from the sun is trapped within the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, many of which are emissions produced by the vehicles on our roads. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions.” Not only are vehicles the greatest source of greenhouse gases, but they’ve also contributed at an increasing rate over the past three decades. From the EPA: “Between 1990 and 2021, GHG emissions in the transportation sector increased more in absolute terms than any other sector.” That won’t change unless we make a significant change in the way we commute and transport goods.
While sports cars comprise a mere 1.5 percent of the American new car market, these models tend to be some of the least efficient and are thereby some of the worst emitters of greenhouse gases, even if they typically aren’t driven often. According to the EPA, eight-, 12-, and 16-cylinder models dominate the EPA’s 2023 list of least efficient cars. While the Corvette Z06 was outdone by the Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport as the worst offender in the two-seater class, one of its siblings from the GM family made the list. The supercharged Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing, which returns slightly better fuel economy than the Z06 at 15 mpg combined, is the least efficient model in the EPA’s midsize class. Gas-powered sports cars aren’t the root cause of the issue, but they also haven’t been the harbingers of a lower-emissions future.
The Road Ahead
Since our trip around Death Valley, the park has partially reopened, though some roads remain closed as repairs continue. This presents a continued issue for would-be tourists and adventure seekers, as cars are essential in giving the general public access to our country’s national parks. Death Valley’s Matthew Lamar encourages people to use their cars to visit but suggests that taking a gas guzzler may not be the best way to go. “There’s no better way to fall in love with them, to want to protect [national parks], than to experience them,” Lamar said. “When possible, it’s always great when visitors can look to drive more efficient vehicles to the parks, especially when they’re traveling.”
Research supports the pivot of EVs as an overall more efficient alternative to gasoline-powered cars. Not only do EVs send more of their energy to the wheels than cars outfitted with internal combustion engines, but the entire process of building and driving electric vehicles also produces fewer greenhouse gases. Death Valley itself is leading by example. “Many of the vehicles here in Death Valley have moved to hybrids or plug-in hybrids.” Lamar said. “Once we have better infrastructure here, maybe we’ll even move to a more electric field.”
While it was disappointing to discover that I wouldn’t be able to relive some of my favorite automotive memories in Death Valley, I’m planning on visiting the park in MotorTrend‘s new Polestar 2 yearlong test car. It certainly won’t be the same without a flat-plane-crank V-8 purring over my shoulders, but at least I’ll have the opportunity to put what I’ve learned about climate change into practice.
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