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Visiting America’s largest park – Death Valley

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Rick Metcalf, Special to The Explorer

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes cover 14 square miles near Stovepipe Wells with beautifully shaped and colored deep, soft sand.

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Should the reader regard Death Valley National Park a vast land of scorched earth with barren and bland vistas, visiting this southeastern California park along the Nevada border could result in a dramatic change in perception, as one did recently for me.

Outside Alaska, Death Valley is the largest park in the United States, covering 3.4 million acres.  Much larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, the park’s land also wouldn’t fit into Connecticut.

Probably the most noted feature, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, claims the lowest elevation in the Northern Hemisphere.  Death Valley National Park is bisected north to south by mountain ranges.  To the west, Panamint Range reaches heights well over 11,000 feet.  The east side Amargosa Range tops out on Coffin Peak’s 5503 foot elevation.  Numerous other mountain ranges define the park as a land of low valleys and high, often snowcapped, mountains. Nearby in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the highest point in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney reaches an elevation of 14,494 feet.

Decades after a proclamation assigning it national monument status in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover, Congress added 1.3 million acres in 1994 and designated it a national park.  Over 90 percent of the land is wilderness, providing vast areas of undeveloped terrain for visitors’ exploration.

In the late 1800’s, gold, silver and borax mining operations sought riches in Death Valley, activity that proved to be mostly unsuccessful.  Today ghost towns and decaying mining structures can be investigated.

The extraordinary geology and erosion of that geology define Death Valley.  Rocks date back to the Precambian Era, almost 1.8 billion years ago.  Other rock groups date to the Preozoic Era, 500 million through 225 million years past.  Continuing chronologically to 65 million years ago, evidence of dinosaurs can be found here.  A product of a shallow sea of that period, sedimentary rocks such as shale and limestone were created.

Most recently volcanos have had an impact on Death Valley.  Much older volcanic activity, close to 27 million years ago, left ash blanketing hundreds of miles.  The brilliant colors at Artist’s Palette come from the minerals in that ash, typically iron, aluminum, manganese and magnesium.

It’s true Death Valley is just that, a valley.  However, it differs dramatically in its creation.

Where most valleys are forged by erosion, as rivers wash away material, this valley was fashioned by geologic activity.  It is known as a graben.  A graben develops as two of Earth’s Tectonic Plates interact, causing the Earth’s surface to sink along the fault line.  Though the low spot in this valley is 282 feet below sea level, the actual bottom of the graben is far deeper, possibly as much as 10,000 feet lower.  Over millions of years since these plates collided, the deep trough has filled with sediment deposited from the eroding mountains surrounding this region.

Entering Death Valley National Park from the east on California State Highway 190, in less than 10 miles brilliant yellow, gold, tan, brown and red colors appear on badlands formations.  Iron minerals from volcanic ash and lava contribute green and gray tones.

At Zabrinskie Point the hike to observe these multi-colored mud, sand and gravel deposits is a short climb up a hill to a viewpoint overlooking not only the deposits in the foreground, but the vast low valley and high Panamint Mountains in the distance.

Following a brief stop at Furnace Creek Ranger Station, in one of the few developed districts in the park, 26 miles south my wife and exploration companion, Kris, and I would stand at an elevation of 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin.

The boardwalk leading into the flats is white with a thin layer of salt.  Basically the same salt found on your dinner table.  From the end of the boardwalk, those seeking more adventure can follow a well traveled path leading a mile into the basin.  Small pools of salt tasting water reflect  hills of the Black Mountains.  High on a jagged slope across the road, a sign posted designates the actual location of sea level.

Returning north, a side road leads east to the trailhead for Natural Bridge where hikers head up a steep, narrow and winding canyon.  At a half mile, hikers pass under a 50 foot high arch crossing over the sand and gravel drainage.

The erosion of Death Valley played a part in creating the arch, and also to the mud drips decorating the steep canyon walls, fault caves and dry falls along the gorge.  Dry falls, quite unique, are more like a chute, passing virtually straight down to the canyon floor.  Standing in one of these half tubes the walls are easily reached extending both arms.

Continuing up canyon, the wash widens.  Soon a fall of much harder stone is reached, quite unlike the sediment that primarily describes this drainage.  Not far beyond this point, the journey is abruptly halted as a 75 foot dry fall cancels further advance.

Motoring north, a nine mile loop on Artist’s Drive beckons.  To the right an excellent example of an alluvial fan is observed.  With so little vegetation in this extremely dry locale, water washing off the mountains has little ground cover to slow progress.  Sediment carried in the runoff spreads wide in open fan formations.  Alluvial fans, from small to massive in size, are observed throughout Death Valley National Park, clearly establishing the erosion characteristics found here.

Soon, Artist’s Palette, the park’s most impressive and colorful display, appears.  Oxidizing mineral deposits produce the stunning pastel colors.  Iron forms the reds, pinks and yellows while mica and manganese create the green and purple hues.  Paths depart the parking area, allowing visitors to observe this park highlight up close.  Trails wander up various washes and across the low hills to other nearby examples of nature’s handiwork.

Two miles outside Furnace Creek a trail leading into Golden Canyon begins just off the park road.  As with almost every other trail in Death Valley National Park, this is also a walk in a dry riverbed.  Uniquely, this one begins at an elevation of three feet.

As the wash meanders east, a massive red wall dominates the horizon.  Cream, gold and tan colored hills against this sunlit deep red background creates a remarkable scene.

At one mile up the canyon, elevation gain is slight, less than 300 feet.  Trails leading toward Zabrinskie Point and Gower Gulch exit to the southeast.  Gower Gulch is another two miles back to the trailhead, wandering further through these beautifully colored hills.

Continuing east another half mile, the path ends at the very base of Red Cathedral, steep cliffs rising toward deep blue skies.  Oxidation of iron creates the red color.  Slightly south of this wall, Manly Beacon juts into the sky.

Turning west, wispy white clouds are scattered across the sky.  The Panamint Mountains will soon hide the setting sun.  As this short hike draws to a close, those light clouds begin to pick up a hint of pink  My pace quickens anticipating a beautiful sunset.  Exiting the mouth of Golden Canyon, a black mountain outline is silhouetted against a dark blue sky.  Clouds have turned to a brilliant deep pink.  Hard to imagine a better ending to a great day on the trail.

Easing into the next morning, visiting the Borax Outdoor Museum Exhibits proves informative, detailing the mining and railroad history.  Numerous historic vehicles and equipment from the mining era are displayed.  Also displayed are wagons from the 20 mule team borax mining operation.

Twenty-five miles north, outside the small development of Stovepipe Wells, the Mesquite Flats Dune Field is the day’s next experience.  Covering nearly 14 square miles, the dunes are accessed by a small parking area off Highway 190.  Wander into the dunes for adventure, a distance of your choosing.

Standing close to sea level, of the five dune fields in the park, this one is the largest and most visited.  Though the highest dune is only a bit over 100 feet and but a mile from the parking area, the overall acreage allows adventurous hikers to explore remote sites.

Formed about 10,000 years ago, sand grains are quartz and feldspar, rocks formed perhaps 1 billion years ago.  This location receives lots of wind, erasing human tracks from the previous day’s sightseers, leaving undisturbed ripples of sand and clear views of the three dune types found here, crescent, linear and star-shaped.

Surrounded by Trucki Mountain, Panamint, Grapevine and Funeral Ranges, the dunes change little from year to year.  The graceful curves and shadowing from sunlight is a draw photographers will be unable to resist.  The beautiful shapes, colors, and ripples, juxtaposed against the brilliantly colored mountains is remarkable. 

Traveling to the final area of exploration, a mile and a half dirt road west of Stovepipe Wells ends at Mosaic Canyon trailhead.  Leading south, this wash leads into a rapidly narrowing canyon. Conglomerates of rocks suggest flooding of various degrees, from small to massive flows.  Resembling a mosaic of tiles, rock fragments are imbedded in the steep walls.

Hikers soon encounter an area of pure marble.  Glistening in the bright sunlight, this confined section is a geologic wonder.  Perhaps only four to six feet wide, forces of flooding have polished this stone to a shiny smooth texture.

Before long the canyon widens to more than a couple hundred yards, the riverbed a jumble of colorful rocks of all shapes and sizes.  Imagining a flash flood pouring through here, it’s easy to see how the effects of this material would carve and sculpt the marble walls downstream.  Also apparent is how unyielding the marble stone is, resisting being washed away over eons of time.

Returning the way we came, slides down the slick and polished stone are enjoyed.  Soon the vehicle is reached, day packs are stowed, digital cameras are set to off, boots removed and a truly magnificent adventure draws to a close.  

Death Valley National Park is not to be trifled with.  Use caution when visiting this immense park.  Rattlesnakes call this home.  The hot and dry climate, receiving barely two  inches of rain annually, demands continual hydration, especially, but not strictly, during summer.  Avoid the narrow canyons when rain threatens.  Travel in reliable vehicles.  A visit will demand exploration of this geologic wonder and the extensive erosion of that geology.  Simply do it safely.

8 images

Rick Metcalf, Special to The Explorer

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes cover 14 square miles near Stovepipe Wells with beautifully shaped and colored deep, soft sand.

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