Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Death Valley Adventures

It is known for searing hot temperatures (a record 134F in 1913 although average summer temperatures are 120F), the driest weather (an average of less than 2 inches or 5 cm of rainfall per year) and the lowest elevation (-282 feet below sea level) in North America.  Death Valley is truly a unique landscape.  Bordered on the east by the Amargosa Mountains and on the west by the Panamint Mountains (Telescope Peak is the highest at 11,049 feet), the valley in between is home to places like Badwater and the Devil's Golf Course, so named because of the salt crystal deposits left behind by water that has no escape.  In the summer, the valley floor is as inhospitable as Venus.  In January, daytime temps are about 65F (14C) and at night the temp drops to about 40F or 5C (thank goodness).  It's about the warmest we've experienced so far with the exception of L.A.

Again, since the park is so large, we section it into three pieces.  First, Furnace Creek (elevation -190 feet), the most popular area by far and almost in the centre of the park.  Here there are even two resorts, one of which charges over $300/night for a room.  We will not stay there.  We camp for $12/night (for no services mind you, just a spot in a big parking lot!).  From here, we spend two days visiting Badwater, Natural Bridge (a hike), the Devil's Golf Course, Artist's Drive, Zabriski Point and Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch (a combined hiking trail).  All are along Badwater Road, within 20 miles of each other and our campsite.

Badwater, Death Valley
Badwater, so named because water does tend to sit on the salt flats after heavy rains - as it is now - and is very briny.  There has been a lot of rain lately; two significant rainfalls in the past couple of weeks, and the salt flats are flooded here.  Which is great for photography as we can capture the snow-capped mountains reflected in the large pool of water.  Where the rains haven't flooded are small mounds of mud topped with spiked layers of salt.  From a distance, you might think it was snow. 
Brad and Marilyn at the Devil's Golf Course
At the Devil's Golf Course, this is what the entire plain resembles.  Here, nothing is flooded and serrated spires on the entire valley floor stretch 5 miles across and almost as long down the valley.  The salt peaks look soft, but they are sharp.  If you were to fall on one, you would cut yourself badly.  We walk across the "golf course" very carefully.

The two hikes are impressive.  Natural Bridge is a short 1 mile hike but as usual, Brad and I find a way to stretch it.  The hike follows the path of a wash - where water runs off during a flood.  No floods today; everything is nice and dry.  The Natural Bridge is pretty big and we watch as a German tourist scales it freehand.  The walls of the canyon are a soft sandstone conglomerate - more like mud compressed with other stones in it.  The park hiking guide says that the trail ends at a dry waterfall.  Huh!  Well, we can get up there!  So we climb up the rock waterfall; actually, there are about 4 dry waterfalls as the canyon narrows.  Here, the colours of the canyon walls change; they are now red, orange, green and yellow, and are more of a granite type of rock.  We also find a silver sparkle in some of the rocks, but it's flaky so likely a mica and not actual silver.  Darn!  We do finally come to a waterfall that would be a climb straight up about 20 feet, so we have to turn around, but it's always fun going where few others go.

View from Red Cathedral in Golden Canyon, Death Valley
The Golden Canyon hike is also stunning.  It also follows a wash up through a sedimentary canyon that is an "alluvial fan" - a fan-shaped deposit of eroded sediments (silt, sand, gravel and cobbles) dumped by floods.  The formations here look like yellow cone-shaped mud piles 100 feet high with a million tiny cracks where rivulets have flowed down the sides in all directions.  This trail ends at a red cliff wall that is some 400-500 feet high and is flat on top: Red Cathedral.  By scaling up the side of Red Cathedral a bit, the view back of Golden Canyon with its gold cones, the valley floor below and the snow-capped mountains on the far west side is magnificent.  A quarter mile back, another trail branches off and up a steep incline into the "badlands" and to Gower Gulch, a three mile loop trail.  The view from the top of this trail is brilliant - the colours of the badlands, which is really Golden Canyon - the yellows and golds and browns, the red of Red Cathedral, and the Panamint Mountains across the valley to the west; it's so breathtaking.  We can see for miles in every direction and again, we are alone up here.  The silence is deafening.  All I can hear is my own pulse, my breath passing through my lungs and a ringing in my ears.  The rest of this trail, after hiking down from the peak isn't as stunning, but interesting just the same as we hike through the wash again - a very wide wash (can't imagine the amount of water that flows through here during a flood!), and we have to scamble down some dry waterfalls until we come to the final dry waterfall - a 25 foot drop straight down!  Well, I'm not scaling that.  Fortunately, there is a trail around it and back to the parking lot.  Since we're now both thoroughly exhausted, we drive the 9-mile loop drive that is Artist's Drive.  There are a few colourful hillsides, but nothing much better than we saw on our hikes, so it is rather disappointing.  Zabriski Point is a lookout that we drive to; it looks west toward the badlands that we hiked in Gower Gulch.  This morning, with the sun shining on the hills, the valley and the mountains, the effect of the colours and the textures are magnificent.  But the wind is very cold this morning even though the sun is shining brightly and we don't stay up on this point long.

Our second stage of Death Valley takes us to Stovepipe Wells, elevation 5 feet above sea level!  It's only about 30 miles north of Furnace Creek.  From this location, we hike into Mosaic Canyon and the Titus Canyon Narrows and also drive up to Hell's Gate which provides us with a great view of the entire valley looking south.  The two hikes are rather disappointing, perhaps because we expected more or perhaps because we enjoyed Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch so much more.  Mosaic Canyon is a hike up (they're always up!) a narrow, polished, marble rock canyon.  The golden, brown rock has been smoothed by the water and gravel that rushed here during floods and when it was a stream millions of years ago.  After the first 1/2 mile, the canyon widens out into a wide wash, and the canyon walls on both sides are a dull brown.  So we turn around.  In the Titus Canyon Narrows, the canyon we hike up (up again!) is really a gravel road that can be driven down but is closed now from the other end because of snow.  While the canyon walls are high, perhaps 200 feet or more, they are only a dull brown made of some composite rock.  The drive towards the parking lot was actually more exciting as the patterns of rock compression on the mountains was more interesting.  But that's another geology lesson that I'm not qualified to give.  On the way back to our trailer, we get some late afternoon photos of the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes which are only about 2 miles away from where we're camped.

Poor Grady.  During the first day of our stay at Stovepipe Wells, he is sick.  Since it is so cloudy, and I mean dark, overcast skies, we decide to pay for the RV Park which has full RV hookups - electricity, water and sewer.  This will allow us to recharge our batteries fully which lately are dead in the morning thanks to our furnace fan.  So, since we have electricity, we can also hook up our satellite dish and watch TV.  Hooray!  Brad doesn't like taking photos on cloudy days because they look "flat", devoid of highs and lows, so on our first day at this location, we take a day off and relax.  Grady sits on my lap as I watch the tube, and he sneezes continually.  He sneezed yesterday too - right in Brad's face!  Not pleasant for Brad!  He, Grady, has been off his food a bit for the past couple of days too, and now the sneezing.  He hasn't been as playful in the mornings, which is usually his all-out crazy time.  We play fetch with him before we get out of bed.  He has this little, spongy, purple ball that he loves to play fetch with.  It's about one inch in diameter and has silver, fuzzy fibres that protrude off it.  He loves that ball because he can catch it with his claws or teeth and throw it around.  We flick it with our finger and he chases after it, plays hockey with it for a few minutes and then brings it back to us to do it all over again.  When he's really in the game, he'll play for 15 to 30 minutes, but these last couple of days, he's only chased the ball once or twice and then given up.  So he obviously hasn't been feeling well for a day or two.  On this first day at Stovepipe Wells (our TV day) he just sleeps (and sneezes) all day.  But on the following day he seems to feel a lot better.  We don't think of our pets getting sick like we do, but I guess they do!

So Brad was a sick with a very minor cold almost two weeks ago while we were in the Mojave National Preserve.  Can a human pass a virus to a feline or even vise versa?  I don't think so.  I think I heard that the Avian Flu was the first virus that was transmitted from an animal to a human.  Comment to me if you know differently.  Anyway, kitty is fine now.  Brad got over his cold within three days, and so far (knock on wood) I've been fine.

The final stage of this desert valley tour takes us west across the Panamint Mountains; the climb is 5,000 feet.  Then we descend 3,000 feet into the Panamint Valley which we cross, and then start the climb into the Inyo Mountain Range to the Father Crowley Vista at 4,000 feet looking back into the Panamint Valley.  The Panamint Mountains are snow-capped - they are quite high with peaks at 9,000 to 11,000 feet.  The Inyo Mountains are just as high, although the highest peaks are only visible as we descend the Panamint Range from the east.  And yes, there's a lot of snow up there.  But not where we are, and the sun is shining today with only a few hazy clouds.  The view is magical.  There are small peaks on the sides of the range we descended.  There are so many peaks and valleys, they look like rumpled tin foil that someone has tried to smooth, unsuccessfully.  The lines in the higher, granite mountains are also awe inspiring.  There are white, horizontal stripes in the dark gray granite that suddenly swirl in a circular pattern.  If you have a Ph.D. Geologist as a best friend as I do, then you know there were major forces at work in the earth millions of years ago to form that mountain range and to create those twisted layers in the rock, but she would have to explain that, I cannot.  I can only gaze and partake of the beauty in the patterns.  There are also a few small sand dunes on the valley floor, and a feature that looks like it might be a pressure crater which is created by deep, underground streams that are super heated by the earth's core or underground lava, which then turns the water to steam and this eventually explodes causing a crater, so there is no flow of lava, or ash debris on the surface.  However, from the distance we're at, it's hard to tell.

Brad at Darwin Falls in Death Valley
We also hike to Darwin Falls, an unexpected oasis in this desert of harsh life.  At first, the terrain is a rocky wash like other canyon hikes, but soon we can hear a bubbling creek and there is vegetation, some of which is green and some of which would be if it was summer.  We can smell the moisture and the plants, something we haven't smelled for the past 2-1/2 months!  The path becomes muddy, very muddy, and we have to cross the creek about five times, but after about one mile, we are rewarded with a little waterfall about 20 feet high; and there is actually a fair amount of water falling with a pool at the bottom.  There are tiny plants that look almost like a clover but must be some kind of lily in the stream.  The water is freezing and we wonder what the temperature would be in the middle of the summer when the desert floor is 120F.  It must be a joyously cool place to be during the scorching summer heat.

The vegetation in Death Valley is very different from what we have been used to in the rest of the desert, and especially from Joshua Tree and Mojave parks.  Here, we are hard pressed to find any cacti.  There are still what I think is Rabbit Brush, a low bush with wiry branches and tough leaves, and a very small handful of the beautiful red and yellow barrel cactus and cholla (choy-ya) if you really look in the crevices, but not much else.  It would seem the harsh summer climate is too much for them.  Cacti must be very particular as they are very specific to a climate: the saguaro grow mostly at a certain elevation near Pheonix and in Saguaro National Park in Arizona, there is the Organ Pipe Cactus which grows mostly only in southern Arizona and parts of Mexico.  Temperature, moisture and elevation must all play a part in this plant's cycle, although we all think desert equals cactus, but there are many species of cacti as I have learned.  What does grow abundantly here in Death Valley is the Silver Holly bush, and it is beautiful.  It looks like our Christmas holly, only it's a light silvery green.  And right now it's just finishing "blooming" with it's seeds which are a very deep reddish brown.

When we leave Death Valley, we visit a ghost town called Rhyolite, which claims itself to be the most photographed ghost town in the west.  Unlike Tombstone, no one still lives in Rhyolite, in fact only the train station and the Kelly Bottle House are the town's remaining complete structures.  The town was established in 1905 after two prospectors, Shorty Harris and Ed Cross, discovered gold the year before.  By 1908, the town's population had grown to 8,000, but the mines had already begun to fail in part thanks to the destruction following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco which collapsed so much of the financial district and caused panic in the east; funding for Nevada mines continued to decrease and by 1920 the population of Rhyolite was 14 - another gold rush town was dead.  The Bottle House is probably the most interesting, although apparently not unusual construction for the time.  People would build a house of anything they could lay their hands on, especially if it was free.  With about 50 saloons in town at its height, used bottles were abundant and free, so Tom Kelly build his house from used whisky, wine and soda bottles and adobe in 1906.  The house has since been carefully restored.

Right after we fuel up in the nearest town outside of Death Valley, two F16s (at least I think they're F16s but my fighter jet expert friends, Don and Sandra, would have to confirm that) fly past us barely 50 feet off the desert floor - I'm not kidding, 50 feet high and about 100 feet from the highway.  We've seen many jets flying training missions over Death Valley, but quite high, and usually we track four jets by their jet streams, not because we see first one, then another jet come barrelling towards us.  It was rather daunting.  Well, perhaps the Canadians are finally invading!  I wouldn't put it past those crazy Canucks!

In all, we spend 8 nights in Death Valley.  This is the end of our California tour.  We head east into Nevada for supplies (we have no food left and for those of you who know Brad, you know how dangerous that is!) and the Valley of Fire State Park just north of Las Vegas.  California has shown us the worst weather of our trip so far; not the coldest perhaps, but certainly the wettest and the cloudiest.  It is not what we expected of this golden state.


  1. Hope Grady, my hero, is feeling better soon. Also, go see the movie 127 Hours and make sure you can let people know where you are at all times - all that hiking in desolate canyons!!!
    It's something like 25 below zero here so California envy is setting in.

  2. Many people think that Death Valley is nothing more but just a desert. They are wrong it is home to amazing wildlife, lovely desert blooms, tremendous geologic diversity, and rich cultural history and best for an unforgettable adventurous vacation.