Archive for December 2012

Death Valley VI: A Cute Fish   2 comments

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

This is the last of three posts on the geology and ecology of Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them.  Remember for my images, click on them to be taken to the website, where purchase for download or prints (framed or unframed) is very simple.  These photos will be up in their full-sized glory soon, but if you are interested now, please contact me.  These versions are too small to do anything with, so please enjoy them without attempting to download from the blog.  Thanks.

One of Death Valley's many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

One of Death Valley’s many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

ICE AGES

Death Valley was influenced by the Pleistocene Ice Ages that started a couple million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.  No, glaciers did not descend into the valley; it never got that cold. But the large ice sheets to the north led to a much wetter climate throughout most of the ice-free parts of the continent.  So as you might imagine, large basins like Death Valley filled with large lakes.  At one time there were lakes hundreds of miles long.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manly, at one time 80 miles long.  Where did the water go?  Underground of course.  You see the top of this great aquifer at Badwater, and in wet years (2004) a shallow lake reappears atop the normally dry salt flats.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of, yes, the road.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of (you guessed it) the road.

 The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest remnant of the paradise for water birds that the West was during the Ice Age.  This world of wetlands supported a healthy early Native American population.  As the lakes shrank and dried up some 10,000 years ago, the native groups migrated north and east, the evaporite minerals accumulated in great quantities, and desert pup fish evolved.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

 PUP FISH

Can fish be cute?  Sure they can!  The cute little pup fish that make Death Valley their home are small remnants of once-huge schools that swam the huge lakes of Ice Age times.  If you know about the great Rift Valley lakes of Africa (Tanganyika, Malawi, etc.), you might know of the beautiful little aquarium fish that make those lakes their homes.  The same was true in North America during the wetter times of the Ice Age.  When the lakes dried up and separated into smaller, shallower and saltier bodies of water, those fish were forced to adapt to progressively warmer and saltier water.

 This is exactly the sort of crisis that drives accelerated rates of evolution.  It’s a changing environment that separates breeding populations into smaller and smaller parts that most easily leads to very specialized life forms, adapted to a specific environment.  In the case of the pup fish, this story has reached an extreme point in modern times at Devil’s Hole, a separate section of the National Park located not far east in Nevada.  Here live one of the world’s rarest species, the Devil’s Hole pup fish.  These small fish hide in the deep crevices of an extensive spring system.  The water, a remnant itself of a much bigger body, is incredibly salty.

Pup fish are super-specialized creatures, a testament to how difficult it is for nature to kill off one of its own.  They can withstand high salt concentrations and very warm water.  They are most likely doomed, however, as the climate of the American West continues to become warmer and more arid.   But they will continue their fight so long as we don’t do something stupid like pump nearby groundwater dry.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

I hope this little tour of one of my favorite playgrounds has made you want to visit, has given you a good knowledge background, and spurred you to do some additional research.  There is plenty of good information on the Web, and not all of it on Wikipedia!  I also hope this has given you an appreciation for how the geology of a region influences almost everything else about it.  It’s even true where you live!

I apologize for not writing quite so much on desert ecology.  Hmm…maybe I should do just one more post!

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

Death Valley V: Geologic History   Leave a comment

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

This is the second of three posts on the natural history background for a visit to Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope it sparks some interest in these subjects, because if you visit this desert park, you will be hard-pressed to ignore its stunning geology and arid ecology.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

The rocks exposed in Death Valley go back nearly two billion years.  As you walk through canyons like Titus or Marble, you will see layer upon layer of a dark gray sedimentary rock (often weathering red to orange).  A great thing to do on a hot day in a canyon is to go into the shade of these walls and lean your whole body against the cool gray rock.  This is limestone, and it tells of a time when this area was covered in a warm subtropical sea.

The famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

The famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

Back in Paleozoic time (250-600 million years ago), there was a quiet coastline not far east of here one very similar to the modern Atlantic coast of North America.  Marine algae and other small creatures pulled CO2 and calcium out of the seawater to form their shells. These lime muds accumulated layer upon layer, eventually to become limestone.  Sand, silt and mud covered the shallow marine shelf at times, leading to sandstone, siltstone and shale.

Later, during the time of dinosaurs (the Mesozoic), the whole region was the focus of mountain building, thus emerging from the sea.  And mountain building means plate tectonics.  At that time, the ancestral Pacific Plate (called the Farallon Plate by geologists) pushed underneath the western edge of North America – a subduction zone.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

The incredible pressures generated along this subduction zone made the limestone and other rocks pay dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  These sedimentary rocks were originally deposited in horizontal layers, and as you can easily see in the naked mountains of Death Valley, they have been folded, faulted, and otherwise tortured.  Masses of granitic magma, melted crustal rocks from below, pushed up into the sedimentary rocks.  This granite is best exposed to the south, in Joshua Tree and other parts of southern California.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist's Palette shows the playa with its salt pan.  A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist’s Palette shows the playa with its salt pan. A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

The spectacular results of this ultra slow-motion collision can be seen on any canyon hike in Death Valley.  In addition, many of the rocks have been changed – metamorphosed – into a wholly different kind of rock.  The uplifted area was slowly worn down by erosion over a long, long time, eventually forming a low plain.  In other words, there were no rocks formed, in this case from the Jurassic to the Eocene, a period of 130 million years!  The missing time interval shows up as an ancient erosional surface in the rocks, what is called an unconformity.

 Unconformities are important horizons in any rock sequence, and this one shows itself in various places across Death Valley.  You can see a textbook example of an angular unconformity (the most obvious kind) in Darwin Canyon.  This canyon is about 19 miles from Panamint Springs (where you’ll ask for directions and road conditions).  It shows as a line in the rocks (surface in 3 dimensions) where layers below are at a completely different angle than those above.  In the same area is some fantastic folding.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

THE BIG RIP

Long after the dinosaurs had disappeared, starting several million years ago, this area began to be torn apart by rifting at the edge of North America.  It’s a process that continues today.  By this time the subduction zone off the west coast had shrunk northward, where it still grinds away off the coast of Oregon and Washington.  It was replaced by the San Andreas Fault, which still marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.

The lateral sliding movement of the enormous Pacific Plate moving north past the western margin of North America is essentially torquing the entire western part of North America.  It’s caused a clockwise rotation and the crust has broken into large fault block mountain ranges bounded by normal faults.  This rifting (as rifting typically does) opened pathways for lava to rise and erupt.  Throughout Death Valley you will see areas of volcanic rocks – mostly tuff (rock made from volcanic ash) and basalt (dark lava rock).  Ubehebe Crater in the north past Scotty’s Castle is just one example.

The skies above Death Valley are the playground of Navy pilots from nearby China Lake.

One of the only times you’ll look up from the stunning landscape of Death Valley is when a deep boom makes you notice the Navy jet pilots from nearby China Lake, who make the skies their playground.

 The fault-block mountains caused by rifting are Death Valley’s most obvious geological structure.  But in this far southern part of the Basin and Range, you are looking at a deeper level of rifting.  So there are not only the steep normal faults, but also low-angle “detachment” faults.  Think about the steep normal faults that border the mountain fronts curving and taking on more shallow angles as you mentally travel down their surfaces, and you have a great idea of a detachment.

Incidentally, remember the granite formed during the Mesozoic?  Go south, to Joshua Tree and other places in Southern California, and you’ll see the masses of granite all around.  This means you are seeing much deeper levels of the rifting of North America than you see in the northern Basin and Range.  Keep going and you’ll come to the Gulf of California, where the Sea of Cortez has already invaded the rift.  It’s as if a giant zipper was slowly opening, south to north along the western edge of the continent.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley's sand dunes.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes.

 Back to detachment faults: they can cause whole mountain ranges to literally slide down a sort of shallow ramp, ending up miles from where they started.  Tucki Peak may have slid in this manner.  They really are the most efficient way to rip apart a continent!  You can see these large, low-angled surfaces where they help to form the geographic features called turtle-backs.  One such site is about 16 miles south of Badwater, where if you stop at Mormon Point and look north into the Black Mountains, you’ll notice one of these ramp-like detachment faults.

One more post coming to finish up with Death Valley, this one on the Ice Ages and the pup fish.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

Baja Interlude   2 comments

The sun goes down on a December Saturday evening along the waterfront in Ensenada, Mexico.

The sun goes down on a December Saturday evening along the waterfront in Ensenada, Mexico.

I spent a nice evening in Ensenada, on the way down the Baja Peninsula.  A big Saturday evening it was, what with a live Christmas orchestra, a flaming sunset, and (later) a huge boxing match.  In Mexico, boxing is still very big.  And what a fight!  The favorite was probably the Fillipino boxer, Pacquiao, and he had the Mexican, Marquez down in the 5th round.  In the 6th, he was landing heavy blows on the Mexican, but got careless as he came in for the kill near the end of the round.  Marquez landed a vicious right hook that flattened Pacquiao and knocked him out cold for a full two minutes.  The roar that I heard on the streets (I was watching it at a streetside bar) of Ensenada was the biggest I’ve heard for a long, long time.

Okay, that’s it. Back to the Death Valley series after this post. Adios Amigos!

The good citizens of Ensenada, Mexico listen to a Christmas orchestra as the sun goes down over the Pacific.

The good citizens of Ensenada, Mexico listen to a Christmas orchestra as the sun goes down over the Pacific.

Posted December 9, 2012 by MJF Images in Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Death Valley IV: Geologic Features   Leave a comment

This is the first of three posts on the geology and ecology of Death Valley National Park in California.  Death Valley is Disney Land for geologists, and for anybody interested in earth science.  What isn’t as well appreciated is it’s also a very special place for desert ecologists and botanists.  But first the geology:

A colorful dawn breaks over Death Valley National Park in California.

A colorful dawn breaks over Death Valley National Park in California.

Since it is the driest place in North America, vegetation does not cover geologic features at Death Valley.  And since it lies in a place where there’s been a lot of geological action for an awfully long time, there exist a great variety of rock types and structures.  Regarding the latter, the whole region has been first smashed by mountain building and more recently torn apart by rifting.  Death Valley’s structure (meaning twisted and folded rocks, fault zones, etc.) shows this in dramatic fashion and is one of the major draws for geo-types.

I first visited Death Valley with my first year geology class.  We came down on Spring Break from drippy Oregon and boy was it nice to be in warm sunshine for a week.  We all got 3 credits for it, but it was a lark!  Since my professor was a biologist and avid birder as well as a geologist, he mixed ecology and raptor-spotting in with rocks for a really complete picture of this amazing place.

The soaring dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

The soaring dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE

Death Valley is an enormous trench.  The vertical relief from Badwater at -283 feet elevation to the top of Telescope Peak is about 11,300 feet (almost 3500 meters)!  This giant steep-walled valley is called by geologists a graben (German for grave).  Steep fault zones, called “normal” faults, force the bordering mountain ranges up while the valley drops and fills with sediments.  This sort of faulting is repeated across the Basin and Range Province of Nevada and bordering states.

The steep mountains left by the normal faults to stand high above valley floors block moisture coming in from the Pacific and cause an extreme form of the “rainshadow effect”.  The Sierra Mountain Range, which tops out at over 14,000 feet at Mount Whitney, gets most of the rain and snow.  The Panamint Range, which borders Death Valley to the west, also gets its share.  This leaves almost no moisture for Death Valley.  That is why years can pass without any rainfall.  It is extremely arid, and this of course causes the plant and animal life to be sparse.  But the fascinating adaptations that have evolved in the life forms at Death Valley more than makes up for the paucity of biomass.

Basin and Range structure has led to two types of features.  These features, both of which are displayed at Death Valley, determine much of what goes on geographically, ecologically and even with human history here.

The extensive salt flats near Badwater in Death Valley National Park, California.

The extensive salt flats near Badwater in Death Valley National Park, California.

PLAYAS

 First thing you’ll notice are the playas (or pans), which are dried up lake beds.  These flat surfaces, which can be floored in white salts or a tan clay surface, are caused by internal drainage.  Because of the normal faulting described above, water that washes from the ranges into the basins of the Basin and Range often never makes it out along a river course. Instead, the water collects in large, shallow lakes.

When the water evaporates, salts (chlorides and sulfates of sodium, calcium, phosphorous, etc.) are left behind in the lakes.  These so-called evaporites are too heavy to be lifted into the air with the water vapor.  (This is why rainwater is fresh and why the oceans are salty.)  The salts come from weathering of the minerals in rocks of the surrounding mountains.

The full moon sets just as morning light hits the cracked salt flats near Badwater, North America's lowest point, in Death Valley, California.

The full moon sets just as morning light hits the cracked salt flats near Badwater, North America’s lowest point, in Death Valley, California.

The evaporite minerals are inevitably concentrated into the shrinking pools of water, where they crystallize into fascinating patterns.  This happens during most seasons (winters are wet and summers very dry), and so salt layers build up.  Gypsum and borax are also formed in this way.  Death Valley’s human history includes the charismatic 20 Mule Team borax story.  Near Badwater in Death Valley proper, a huge salt pan is spectacularly developed.  Take the West Side road for the best access.

 Go over to Panamint Valley in the western part of the park to see and walk on a great playa.  It was formed when fine sediment was deposited instead of pure salt.  Certainly Death Valley’s best-known example of this is Racetrack Playa, where stones appear to have skated across the playa, leaving behind their tracks.  It’s still uncertain how they move, but winds and a thin layer of ice probably have something to do with it.  Note that to visit the Racetrack in the far northern part of the park requires driving a long, long washboard gravel road.  And to make things worse, the road bed is made of especially sharp gravel, so you’ll need very good tires (and two spares).

A close view of the ridges that form the salt polygons at the Badwater salt flats, Death Valley N.P., CA.

A close view of the ridges that form the salt polygons at the Badwater salt flats, Death Valley N.P., CA.

ALLUVIAL FANS

But mostly what you’ll see in Death Valley are the other feature that result from Basin and Range faulting.  As you drive through the park, one thing you’ll notice is that this is a rocky desert, not so much a sandy one.  As you look across the valley, you’ll notice large semi-circular (fan-shaped) gravel features that narrow to a point at the canyon mouths.  These are alluvial fans, and they form everywhere that rapid uplift of mountains overwhelms the ability of rivers to transport the debris out of there.

Try walking up an alluvial fan and you will get a feel for their deceptive steepness and difficult, loose surface of cobbles.  But it’s a great education on how they form.  You’ll also see desert varnish, a dark, sort of rust that forms on the rocks when they sit undisturbed for a long time.  I rarely link to Wikipedia, but heck, go ahead and check out desert varnish.  It’s an  interesting, part living feature of the Mojave.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley's sand dunes.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes.

When alluvial fans merge into a wedge of debris that flanks the entire range of mountains, it is called a bajada.  Eventually the mountains disappear and all that’s left is a gravel plain.  Namibia has extensive ancient gravel plains, but the American West is really much younger.  Large outcrops that stick up island-like out of alluvial fans or bajadas are called inselbergs.  Great words in geology!

I’ll get to the “rest of the story” in my next post.  I miss Paul Harvey!

The pre-dawn hours in Death Valley's sand dunes promises a beautiful sunrise.

The pre-dawn hours in Death Valley’s sand dunes promises a beautiful sunrise.

Death Valley III: Hiking the Silent Desert   2 comments

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

I think Death Valley National Park – by virtue of its size alone is worth more than a couple days – offers some of the best desert hiking in the West.  The last post highlighted some great ‘starter’ options.  But if you are an avid hiker like me you’ll want to go beyond the “standards” that any ranger will steer you towards.  And this goes double if you visit during a busy time like March/April, or to a lesser extent October.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

I don’t want to give the impression that you should avoid springtime in Death Valley.  With perfect temperatures, blooming cactus, and a fresh look to the sparse but fascinating plant life of the desert, there are reasons aplenty to come here at that time.  And since this is a huge and still little-visited park, we aren’t talking Yosemite- (or even Yellowstone-) crowded here.

I prefer November through February.  But this last visit was my seventh time to the park, and each time for a solid week.  So as they say, it’s all relative.  If I were coming for the first time, I would consider a week in March/April, but one without Spring Break happening in any of the West Coast states (this is somewhat important!).

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Here are a couple strenuous and less crowded (but still well known) options:

  • Marble Canyon is accessed from a dirt road that takes off from the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells.  It is normally okay for a 2wd with decent clearance.  You’ll be able to drive further up into the mouth of the canyon if you have a good 4wd vehicle, but not really all that much further.  It is a big and bold canyon, and you can make this as long a hike as you want by turning around at the place of your choice.  The adjoining Cottonwood Canyon is also accessible.  If you’re a scrambler you could spend a week in this area.
  • Telescope Peak: The climb from Mahogany Flats to the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak at 11,050 feet (3370 meters), gives you an experience that is completely different from that on the valley floor.  You can spend a truly wintry day up here and then sleep in the dunes under the stars at 80 degrees!  The first time I climbed Telescope, we snow-camped at Mahogany, got up at 1st light for melted-snow oatmeal and Death Valley Dates, then proceeded to plow through hip-deep snow drifts to the summit.  We got back near dark, feeling very played out.  We were young bucks too!  And this was late March!  The next time I did Telescope, in April, it was a hike of 5-6 hours. Completely different.
The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

And here are a few hikes where with one exception I’ve never seen another hiker.  Not all are strenuous:

  • Mesquite Flat Walks: The dunes at Mesquite Flat touch the highway at one place, and it’s here where almost everyone walks into them.  If you want to climb the highest dune here, this is the place.  But I’ve been to Namibia and even the highest one here is but a dimple.  Better is to pick a different access point, especially if you want footprint-free pictures.  Also, you can commune with the inter-dune ecology in complete solitude.  Here are two options:
  1. Park along the Marble Canyon road just past the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells. If you look to the right you’ll see a line of low dunes.  Walk toward them.  There might be someone else doing this, since if you camp at Stovepipe it’s easy to just hike out here from your campsite.  Amazingly few people do this though.
  2. Park at the site of the historic Stovepipe Well (get directions to it from somebody at the village of Stovepipe).  From here you can walk out into the valley towards the dunes.  It will take about a half-hour minimum to get into the dunes.  You can easily do a sort of triangular loop from your car, with the far end of the triangle being empty and beautiful sand dunes.  The only tracks you’ll see are those of the critters that prowled about on the previous night.  If your sense of direction is not the best, have a GPS so you can get back to your starting point.  Or you could just wander in the dark until you find your car.
  • Lamoigne Canyon: This is a fascinating side-canyon hike on the opposite side of the valley from the highway, between Stovepipe Wells and the junction with the road to Wildrose.  If you have a 4wd you can drive a rough jeep trail most of the way across the valley to the canyon’s mouth.  If not, you’ll need to walk it.  The latter is the way I did it, and it turned into an all-day hike.

When you get to the canyon mouth, go up the left fork, which is easy to distinguish for its striking white volcanic tuff rocks. This is the only canyon in Death Valley that is cut into volcanic tuff.  At the top of this canyon, you can climb up and over to the main Lamoigne Canyon t o the north.  Then descend this to make an adventurous loop.  Or do this in reverse.

Get directions and advice from the ranger at Stovepipe, and have a good map and plenty of water.  I actually saw people on this hike, which was odd until I caught up with them and discovered they were botanists from the USGS and University of Nevada.  We talked about the different plants growing on the volcanic tuff.

  • Panamint City:  This is a small ghost town located way up a gorgeous canyon on the Panamint Valley side of the park.  From Ballarat (another ghost town) drive as far up the Surprise Canyon road as you can and park.  Work your way up the canyon bottom, switching sides as needed to avoid brush and other obstacles.  You will pass waterfalls as the canyon narrows, and some truly enormous barrel cactus.  It takes some perseverance to make it all the way to the ghost town.  This is a real ghost town, with nobody but the former residents around.  If you can talk to ghosts, ask them why in the world they named this place a “City”.  This is one great hike!
An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

Just a further point on the western Panamint side of the park. Make it a point to come over here, and not just to hike Surprise Canyon or Darwin Falls.  It’s quieter and its side canyons contain abundant water in the spring – very different from the main valley.  You’ll probably see wild burros and also you can walk out on the pancake-flat playa – a great experience.  There is also a little-visited (even by me) dune field on the north end of Panamint Valley.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

You can do a loop, driving the Wildrose road into the Panamint Range to visit Mahogany Flat (with its photogenic charcoal kilns). You can camp at Wildrose.  Then go down into Panamint Valley and drive back up to Panamint Springs (near where the Darwin Falls hike is located).

Next up is a geology primer for D.V., with some sights I haven’t covered yet.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

Death Valley II: Hiking Starter Pack   5 comments

The view at dawn northward up Death Valley Wash from the edge of the dunes at Mesquite Flat.

The view at dawn northward up Death Valley Wash from the edge of the dunes at Mesquite Flat.

It’s funny, but many times in National Parks I notice people who don’t seem quite sure what to do (other than stop and gawk, which gets old after awhile).  Some will see me parked at some random spot, stop and try to figure out what I’m doing hiking away from the road.  They’re tempted to follow, but that almost never happens.  Of course they don’t know about my photography passion and frequent odd impulses to walk off into the hills.

This is the first of two hiking posts for Death Valley National Park in California’s Mojave Desert.  It covers some basics and lists a few of my favorites amongst the park’s more popular hikes.  Next post will highlight some of the less well-known and more adventurous hiking options.

The valley floor of Death Valley in California is characterized by features formed by repeated cycles of wet and dry.

The valley floor of Death Valley in California is characterized by features formed by repeated cycles of wet and dry.

Most would-be hikers check out the park’s visitor center and are told by the rangers where to hike.  I wonder if I was a ranger, would I feel good about directing one person after the other to the same few hikes?  I don’t think so.  Some rangers will ask more questions of hikers and try to steer them towards hikes that match their abilities and interests.  But most often what happens is that a relative few hikes are popular, while most other options are uncrowded, the domain of the so-called adventurous.

One of Death Valley's many canyon hikes, Redwall Canyon, basks in the late-day sun.

One of Death Valley’s many canyon hikes, Redwall Canyon, basks in the late-day sun.

Instead of always following a ranger’s recommendations, I strongly believe you need to come up with your own ideas.  This is especially true in areas like Death Valley where trails are not really required. You will avoid the crowds, make discoveries, and gain confidence.  Of course many hikes are popular for a good reason.

Both a good map and good sense of direction are important if you plan to head off according to your impulses.  A little experience helps too.   But you will at some point need to push your limits if you are to gain experience in the first place.   So I recommend being prepared and pushing ever outward.  Just remember where you parked!

Death Valley is arid.  Nevertheless springs are not uncommon.  Having some knowledge as to what springs are running (and which are potable) can mean carrying less water.  Check with the rangers at the wilderness desk in the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek.  Carry at least a half-gallon per person on a typical day hike.  More if it’s hot, less only if you are sure of a spring.  Note that late winter and early spring is normally the only time of year that you should expect flowing springs.  Carry iodine tablets or a purifier.

The winding one-way scenic road called Artist's Drive snakes through the golden hills of Death Valley National Park, California.

The winding one-way scenic road called Artist’s Drive snakes through the golden hills of Death Valley National Park, California.

HIKES

I’ll start with a few hikes that rangers will recommend to first-time visitors, but which I happen to think are well worth it.  If you’re visiting in late March, expect to have company.

  • Mosaic Canyon: This hike near Stovepipe Wells is a good “starter” canyon hike.  It also shows off some of the park’s fascinating geology.  You can climb up the sides of the canyon to lose many of the people who stay in the bottom.
  • Titus Canyon: When Titus Canyon (one of the park’s most spectacular canyons) is closed to vehicles, it is an excellent up and back day hike. Even better, hike up to the ghost town of Leadfield, camp there, and return. Nearby Redwall Canyon is a more adventurous option when Titus is either too crowded or open to vehicles.
  • Darwin Falls in the western part of the park is a shortish hike.  The falls are not the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, but in this driest region of the continent, it is amazing to walk up a cool little canyon to see a waterfall.
  • Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes: The standard access point to the famous dunes near Stovepipe Wells can be very popular. But if you head off into the dunes at dawn, or under a full moon, it is sublime.  If you’re into photography, pick a different access point unless the wind has blown hard and steady overnight.  Too many footprints can ruin your foreground.
The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California are a canvas upon which the animal activity of the previous night is recorded.

These are a few of the standard hikes at Death Valley, perfect for your first visit.  Golden Canyon near Furnace Creek is perhaps the park’s most popular hike.  But unless you have plenty of time or are visiting in winter, I would give it a skip and walk the hills and canyons around Artist’s Palette instead.  The hike along Salt Creek, to see the pup fish, is fun because of the cute little guys darting around.  So this short walk I can heartily recommend.  You can also visit Devil’s Hole to see one of the world’s rarest species, its namesake pup fish.  Stay tuned for more Death Valley…

A colorful sunset floods into Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunset floods into Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park, California.

Death Valley I: Intro. & Travel Tips   2 comments

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as dawn approaches.

Sorry for the long break in blogging; I’ve been out of touch in Death Valley, California.  This is my favorite place in the Golden State.  That’s saying something, since I believe California is one of the nation’s top 5 most beautiful states.  Most people seem to believe California is L.A. and the Bay Area.  Perhaps they think of Yosemite as well.  But it is a huge state and includes beautiful coastline, mountains and (especially) deserts.  Southern California’s once-beautiful, now-sullied coast is not what I’m talking about here.  Those are areas I avoid at all costs.  Instead, I tend to hang out in northern Sonoma County, the Mendocino Coast, the northern Sierra, and the Mojave Desert.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley's many many side canyons.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley’s many many side canyons.

Death Valley is the heart of the Mojave Desert.  It’s an enormous national park, and is difficult to see in a brief visit.  My recommendation is for a full week the first time you come. At least spend three nights.  Most people, however, do not give the park enough time.  It is “on the way” between Las Vegas and the coast, and so normally gets short shrift.  That’s too bad.  It is a stunning desert destination.

In the years since President Clinton turned Death Valley from National Monument to a National Park, it has become much, much more popular than it was in the “good old days”.  Twenty five years ago I hiked through the dunes and up canyons here.  I not only never saw another hiker, but never expected to see anyone else.  You were on your own, with cliffs often turning you back with no rope and gear.  Now many canyon hikes have plenty of hikers along with wood ladders and ropes as aids.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

But Death Valley is still a fantastic place to visit.  Since it is so large, it is pretty easy to leave others behind.  I know this sounds like I am too conscious of other visitors.  But I really feel that in a desert environment, solitude is an important part of the experience.  Also, in a desert like Death Valley, you have no trees to block views.  Everything is wide open, and this makes even relatively few people seem like a crowd.  Stay tuned for a post that will highlight some of the less-popular but still beautiful areas of the park.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent's lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent’s lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

You really should hike Death Valley to get a good feel for the place.  The canyons leading into Death Valley (really a huge canyon itself) represent some of the best canyon hiking in the western USA.  There are plenty of broad washes, narrow canyons, technical slots, and so on.  The variety is incredible.  The geology is ultra-cool, and for a long  time the park has been the site of many a college field trip (that is exactly how I first visited, in fact).

That said, there are plenty of sights to see without doing much hiking.  Many visitors are happy to come stay in the lodge at Furnace Creek, and spend their time golfing and playing by the pool.  Furnace Creek is really the center of the park.  It is centrally located, the Visitor Center is here, and there are two lodging options.  In addition, there are two campgrounds here.  Texas Springs is geared toward tents, while Sunset is set up for Rvs.  Lodging and camping is also available at Stovepipe Wells, which is only a half-hour drive from Furnace Creek.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley's salt flats.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley’s salt flats.

WHEN TO VISIT

I assume you will not come during summer, but if you do, bring a gallon and a half of water for any day hike, and be careful about being too ambitious.  Europeans on their summer vacations will plunge right in to the Southwest’s hotter parks, including this, the hottest one.  North America’s highest recorded temperature (134 degrees Farenheit, or 57 Celsius!) was recorded in Death Valley during summer.  If you’re smarter than this and come during the late fall to spring period, you can be more adventurous in terms of hiking.

Spring often features blooming cactus, and the weather is near perfect.  But March and April are also some of the most crowded times at Death Valley.  It seems strange for me to use the word crowded in the same sentence as Death Valley.  But the fact is that this formerly off-the-beaten-track destination is now firmly on the American Southwest tourist track.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The autumn months (October and November), are popular but not as much Spring is.  Winter months (December through February) can often be the best time to visit.  Nights will be chilly, and there is always the possibility of snow in the higher elevations of the park.  But it is uncrowded and for photographers this time of year features better light, in general, than do the warmer months when the sun is high and harsh.  In February the days are getting longer and warmth usually trumps the fading cold of winter.

In my opinion March is the perfect time to visit, but again it is also the most popular.  If you time your visit for early March, before any of the West Coast’s Spring Breaks occur (when schools take a week off), you should be just fine.  Spring Break normally happens in mid-March to mid-April.

A different view of the famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

A different view of the famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

Whatever time of year you come, be as self-sufficient as you can possibly be.  Have plenty of drinking and radiator water in the car, and consider bringing extra gasoline as well (gas is available but expensive). Do not take your car (rental or not) on to tracks that it is not built to handle.  Even if you have a 4WD, remember the old saying, that a 4WD vehicle only allows you to get stuck worse, and further from civilization than does a regular car.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

Death Valley is a wild landscape, one that does not suffer fools lightly.  Keep your ambitions in line with your abilities, turn around before you get your vehicle in over its head, drink plenty of water, and you should have yourself a grand (and safe) time.  Stay tuned for more posts on Death Valley.

%d bloggers like this: