DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — Amid one of the hottest, driest and lowest-elevation places on the surface of the earth is a surprising, yet puzzling, reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon Point is one of the key, signed locations within the south end of Death Valley National Park, a place famous for its high temperatures (120 degrees-plus is common in the summer, and an all-time high of 134 degrees was recorded on July 10, 1913).
About 16 miles south of Badwater (the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level) and on the east side of Death Valley, the words "Mormon Point" appear on a sign along the Badwater Highway through the national park.
Where did the Mormon name originate from?
Most sources say it is unknown, but "Chronology and Names of the Death Valley Region in California, 1849-1949," by T.S. Palmer, published in 1989, does claim a beginning.
"So named from the early Mormon explorers," the book reads.
Since early Death Valley history is full of references to Mormon explorers/travelers, that seems very likely. Also, travelers into the early part of the 20th century did not follow today's I-15 route into California, traveling more northward seeking water sources. This route took some toward the southern edge of Death Valley.
The first map reference to Mormon Point was in 1910.
Into the 1990s, the prominent road sign was misspelled "Morman Point" for many years until the Park Service finally got it corrected.
Wildflowers in spring are very prominent in the Mormon Point area. Desert bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted nearby.
Only Death Valley visitors who enter or leave the national park via Jubilee Pass and the town of Shoshone are likely to ever see Mormon Point. Most visitors to Death Valley never travel south of Badwater.
Mormon Point is actually a large promontory, or cape, of the Black Mountain Range, where there are ash beds, mudstone and conglomerate rocks formed some 12,000 to 2.5 million years ago during the early and middle Pleistocene geological epoch (covering the world's recent period of repeated glacial cycles). The area is located at about sea level.
Various geological websites also refer to the Mormon Point "turtleback," a term used to describe range front features created by undulations (wave motions) along exposed surfaces of large, young fault escarpments.
Because precipitation is extra low in Death Valley, erosion has not completely eroded the turtleback formation.
Lane Manly, an ancient freshwater lake that was up to 800 feet deep in its heyday, used to exist southeast of Mormon Point, inside Death Valley.
Gold Valley is just east of Mormon Point. Colorfully named Funeral Peak (elevation 6,384), Coffin Peak (5,503) and Deadman Pass (3,263) are all found just northeast of Mormon Point, too.
(-Originally published in the Deseret News, May 13, 2010, by Lynn Arave.)