Archive for the ‘Mojave Desert’ Tag

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.

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