Yes, Death Valley was hot, but did it set a record?

Randy Thomas of Vacaville, left, with Andreas Kinnen of Germany, brought his own thermometer to Badwater Basin in Death Valley.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

DEATH VALLEY — Blame it on dueling thermometers.

The National Weather Service’s mercury thermometer recorded a peak of 128 degrees Sunday at 4 p.m in Death Valley National Park, tying the record for the hottest June day anywhere in the U.S.

The National Park Service thermometer — about 200 yards away — recorded a temperature of 129.9, shattering that record. But the weather service has the final say, and its official readings won’t be available until Monday morning.

PHOTOS: Heat wave heats the Southland

“There’s only one thermometer that counts,” said Charlie Callagan, the park’s wilderness coordinator and former head of its weather station.

Dozens of visitors gathered at the park’s headquarters here expecting to learn that they had sweated through a historic high. Late Sunday afternoon, they still didn’t know the outcome. And they were still sweating.


Some meteorologists had expected the mercury to soar to about 130 degrees for the first time anywhere in the country in nearly a century. The highest temperature ever recorded on the planet was in Death Valley on July 10, 1913 — 134 degrees.

The park’s headquarters in Furnace Creek is 190 feet below sea level. Nearby Badwater, at 280 feet below sea level, is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. On Sunday, visitors cracked eggs there just to watch them fry in the heat. A few added strips of bacon.

Throughout Southern California, temperatures Sunday broke decades-old records. Lancaster reached an all-time high of 115 degrees, breaking a 1950 record of 110.

The heat reached into the three digits across the region, with Woodland Hills and Riverside reaching a high of 105.

Downtown L.A. topped out at 94 degrees. In Pasadena, six runners who braved a half-marathon were hospitalized for heat-related conditions. The heat was of particular concern to firefighters because of record dry conditions that have already figured in several major brush fires. Fireworks also went on sale Friday in some areas, adding another fire danger.

Since January, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to about 2,900 fires, many more than in other years, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said. Current weather conditions are more typical of late August or early September, he said.

In Death Valley, a large digital thermometer prominently displayed at the park headquarters entrance showed temperatures above 130 degrees for much of the afternoon, attracting hundreds of visitors who posed for snapshots. Park rangers, however, sheepishly apologized later for what they described as errant figures on a thermometer they acknowledged was no more than “a photo op for tourists.”

The National Weather Service’s official thermometer sits inside a small metal box, protected behind a 5-foot fence just behind park headquarters.

Ravens huddled in the shadows of desert scrub, panting with their beaks open wide. The desert pupfish in Salt Creek swam for cover in the deeper, cooler pools near the stream’s headwaters. A sign posted at the entrance to the Furnace Creek Golf Course said, “Closed at 12:30 p.m. due to extreme heat.”

“Our main concern is safety,” said Carole Wendler, interpretive park ranger. “We’re advising visitors that this is not the weekend to go hiking.”

But Jon Rice, 42, of Longmont, Colo., decided to run a mile in a heat-absorbing black Darth Vader costume replete with a large plastic black helmet. He was hoping to record the “hottest verified run” for Guinness World Records. Rice ran on the center white line of Highway 190 in the heart of Death Valley so his shoes wouldn’t melt on the asphalt.

He described the experience as “abject pain. The first hundred yards are fine. The second hundred yards are all about ‘Gosh. What the heck was I thinking?” Finishing, he said, took “grim determination.”

PHOTOS: Heat wave heats the Southland

As the sun set in Death Valley on Sunday, Pelle Uvebrant, a tourist from Las Vegas, looked up at one of the thermometers. It read 132 degrees.

“I came out here to experience a world record broken,” he said. “That didn’t happen. But I’ll be coming out here every time a record might be broken.”

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.