Archive for the ‘sand dunes’ Tag

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.

The Namib   2 comments

Namibia is a desert country in southern Africa.  That does not mean all of it is dunes & sand with no vegetation.  Most is in fact semi-arid country of the Kalahari “Desert”, and in the north it even starts to resemble standard African bush with a pronounced rainy season.  But the heart of Namibia is its desert, the spectacular Namib, with the largest and oldest sand dunes in the world.

The Namib Desert near Sossusvlei, Namibia.

 

Culturally the country is similar to South Africa in that it retains significant white influence.  This cultural flavor takes German form; it was occupied by them during colonial times, and there are many German natives of the country.  This means that the architecture, food and customs will often make you think you took a left turn on the way to Africa and landed in Frankfurt.  The country gained independence from South Africa after a prolonged war in 1989.  But Namibia is different than its southern neighbor in that there is not the same sort of acrimony between the races that still exists in today’s South Africa.  The country is so young that most people seem to have family members who fought in the war of independence.

This country is clean and safe, and perhaps in that lies its major drawback.  It’s terrain is not the only thing that makes it stand out from most African countries.  As in South Africa, Namibia does not create the feeling of being in “true Africa”.  The tribal towns in the north might be an exception to this.  So if you visit Namibia and have time for one other country, do not make it South Africa – too similar.  Choose a country like Zambia instead.

A rare rainbow appears over the dry grasslands of southern Namibia.

I’d been dreaming of coming to Namibia for years.  I knew as a geologist and lover of big empty landscapes that I would feel right at home.  I was not disappointed.  I saved Namibia for last on my recent 3-month trip to Africa, and (predictably) ran out of time before I was finished exploring.  Flying from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia’s ultra-clean, compact little capital city, I watched hundreds of miles of empty plains, canyons and lonely coast glide by underneath the wings.  The plane was full of Namibian roller-hockey players returning from their championship run in Singapore.

The weather was actually a bit rainy when we hit the ground, which is unusual for this part of the world.  But I was firmly into the rainy season, so it wasn’t too surprising.  After a night in Windhoek (the cleanest, most walkable city I’ve been to in a long long time), I headed south toward the Namib in my rental car.  One can easily get around Namibia in a regular sedan.  There are many gravel roads but they are well maintained.  If you want to go deep into northern Namibia, however, or off the beaten track anywhere, a 4×4 is necessary.

It was still drizzling, and I was hoping for great light in the desert because of the clouds.  Although it is only a 4-5 hour drive SW from Windhoek to the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park at Sesriem, I left late and took the long way, swinging south and approaching from the south.  The landscape was some of the emptiest I had seen in Africa.  It reminded me of the empty areas in Nevada and a few other areas of the interior western U.S.  I experienced some dazzlingly beautiful light at sunset (image left), then spent the night at a funky little place run by a talkative Frenchwoman.  The town, called Maltahohe, was no more than a wide spot in the road, and the surrounding   countryside was as unpopulated as places get in this world.

The Namib’s dunes began to appear in the intense sunshine of the next morning (the storm had abruptly broken the previous evening).  At first I thought I was looking at mountains.  Then as I drew closer I noticed their smooth, reddish color.  Can that really be sand dunes?  Wow, I was amazed (and, sadly, I’m not easily amazed anymore).  At the little village of Sesriem, there is an excellent campsite that sits right at the gateway to the National Park.  The onsite restaurant is fine, and the views even better.  From there, I drove the paved road down the long valley to Sossusvlei, towering dunes on either side.

The animals of the Namib are one of its unique characteristics.  Stopping at one of the bigger dunes on the way to Sossusvlei, I hiked around and spotted a cute little lizard with a shovel on top of his head (image left), obviously for burrowing into the sand.From beetles to birds, reptiles to mammals, the creatures have fascinating adaptations to the extreme aridity.  This desert gets most of its moisture not from infrequent downpours as in other deserts, but from a moist fog that rolls in from the cold South Atlantic only a few miles away.  A decade or more can pass between rains, but when they do come, it can pour buckets.  Then small ponds and even lakes can appear in the ‘vleis’.

 

Note that these images are available for licensing or purchase as prints (framed or unframed) from my website, and if you click on an image you will be taken there.  If you do click an image and it does not take you to my website, that means you can copy the image, but for personal use only.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks so much for your interest and cooperation on this.

A shovelnosed lizard prowls his sandy home in the Namib Desert of Namibia.

There are numerous dried lake beds throughout the area, and these are called vleis.  Sossusvlei is one, and nearby Dead Vlei, with its stunning dead camelthorn trees, is another.  You may have seen pictures of Dead Vlei; it is the target of serious photographers from around the world.  I visited both.  Note you cannot drive there without a 4×4.  There are jeeps that will take you from the car park, but they don’t run all day.  So needing to stretch my legs anyway, I hiked in toward sunset.  This is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction, but I saw only two other visitors there.

The light was not perfect for pictures, but I did get an expansive view of the dunes (image at top).  The dunes in the background are over 3000 feet high.  I rushed back to camp but it was still well after dark when I arrived.  Fortunately it was a simple matter of contacting the guard at his nearby house, and the gate was opened for me without any hassle.

Next morning I was out early.  A thin fog had swept inland overnight, and was laying over the dunes.  As the sun rose, so did the fog, and I grabbed a shot I doubted would turn out well.  The contrast was high, with washed out color.  But I was surprised when I looked at the picture later.  It makes, I think, for a starkly beautiful black and white image (below).  The dead camelthorn trees in the picture follow a now-abandoned water-course.

 

A thin fog lifts over the huge dunes of the Namib Desert as the sun rises.

 

I hiked up a moderately high dune, but after reaching the first peak, I realized that I didn’t have enough water to push on to the far summits.  It was tougher than I thought, humbling for an outdoors hiker guy like me.  But after stowing my shoes, I ran and skied/skipped down the dune yipping and yahooing all the way.  I rolled to a stop at the bottom laughing like a kid.  Exploring further, I loved how the dune grasses contrasted with the deep reds of the sand (image bottom).

I very much hope I can make it back here to this heart of the Namib, and with more time.  Perhaps it will be as a pro photographer, or even running a tour/workshop.  One thing I missed is doing some serious night sky observing.  I was simply too worn out to stay up late.  But there is at least one lodge near Sossusvlei with its own telescope.  So next time, I’ll make stargazing and night sky photography a priority.  I left Sossusvlei too soon, but I wanted to check out the Naukluft Mountains nearby.  So next post up: the spectacular Naukluft!

In the Namib Desert, a clump of dune grass takes root in a slightly more stable part of a red dune.

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