I am a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park, but my blog represents my own musings and enjoyment of the NPS.
It’s a fact that some of the best teachers can be your co-workers. I got to join fellow Ranger Lee on one of my days off and learn a little more about the forces of nature here inDeath Valley.
The geology of this park has been studied and written about over and over. Truth is the experts are still fighting over the actual geologic history ofDeath Valley. It’s a very complex park, but this makes it interesting and creates the perfect backdrop for critical discussion or, in our case, a very engaging ranger led program. The group that would join in on my adventure was full of wonderful questions and highly intrigued to find out how powerful Mother Nature can be. It was noted immediately that the path we were walking on appeared to be broken asphalt (as noted in the picture above). A road had been built in the 1920’s and 30’s to take people closer to the red wall called Red Cathedral. Improving nature … always a questionable endeavor. As many of you know, either from experience or from your knowledge of even the most basic weather history, nature will win in the long run. This road was washed away in 1976 by a massive 4-day rain storm. Here in the desert, the fine, silty sand (aka dirt) is much like, well, let’s say, a duck. The ground is more like oil and the water just rolls right off instead of being absorbed. And there is very little vegetation to suck up water either. So, a canyon such as this becomes the outlet for water coming down the hills. It’s been carved out over years as the softer rock erodes away more quickly. And, well, the powerful wall of water that comes down a canyon like this, can, indeed, rip up a road and carry it away. Mother Nature didn’t like it, so, she got rid of it. With this type of power firmly embedded in your mind, remember not to hike into a canyon if there is any threat of rain. We were granted a beautiful day and as we went about ¾ of a mile up the trail, we studied the rocks. The bleached out (golden) rocks were indicators of the inland sea that used to exist here.
Known asLakeManley, it was gone long before any modern humans came toDeath Valley. The rocks are mostly sandstones and limestones, easily eroded and the presence of a slip-fault in the area explains the extreme angles that these rocks sit at. And then you see the conglomerates, where rain storms have pushed various size rocks together and they’ve been cemented in “mud.” What about those massive red rocks that don’t fit in. Just look up and you’ll see the iron oxide rocks that were above the lake level and you’ll see how this puzzle fits together. At some point in history, that rock fell from up there. You can even see the borates in the rock layers, either in “root” like cracks in the rocks where the water seeped in and evaporated, leaving the white mineral substance, or in crystals formed between two layers of the ancient lakebed.
The geology is remarkable and I think the visitors would have spent all day with Ranger Lee. Alas, he had other duties to attend to, and we were left to explore at will. I had planned to make a lengthy trip out of this program, so I continued on.
Next stop, Red Cathedral and you can get right up to this drywall. A magnificent structure and it’s no wonder it got the name it did.
After reaching the wall, I turned around and headed back to the trail junction what would take me across the Badlands (no, I didn’t walk all the way to South Dakota) to Zabriskie Point. This hike kicked my little butt as it had been awhile since I did anything quite so strenuous. The elevation change for my whole trip was 960 feet and most of it was in this next mile. I stopped below Manly Beacon
to drink some water and discuss, briefly, Tim Wakefield’s retirement with my boyfriend. Wakefield started his career in my hometown and for those of you familiar in any way withWatertown,NYorWakefield’s minor league career, let’s just say this was when they were still a Pirates affiliate. (As a side note, to this tangent, I watched most games after the Pirates pulled out and they became an Indians farm club and for the last 10 years or so, they haven’t had a team at all. My point is thatWakefieldhas been around a while.) Anyway, I pondered his lengthy career while I regained my energy and finished my trek to Zabriskie Point.
Once I reached the parking lot at Zabriskie Point, I stopped for lunch and enjoyed the thought that the rest of my journey would be down hill. I headed back down the wash to Gower Gulch and eventually down to the valley floor and back to the parking area. It was a 6.5-mile loop and well worth it. What a fun trip, but if you plan on taking this hike, keep an eye on the weather and be sure to have plenty of water, some food, sunscreen and a hat. You could also position a car at Zabriskie Point and only hike one way. It’s a beautiful journey through a geologic puzzle. As you enjoy the scenery, feel free to explore and discover your own geologic theory.
Another easy walk here inDeath ValleyNational Park. Did you go toBadwaterBasinyet? Well, if not, I talked about that in an earlier blog. What is my point? There are more salt flats at this location and a 1-mile paved loop with interpretive signs to familiarize you with one of the mining companies inDeath Valley. This is a great location to bring kids or anyone with accessibility issues, so keep that in mind for your family friendly trip. This site is probably one of the most famous, too. The 20-mule teams were brought here to transport the borax 165 miles across the desert.
The remains of the processing plant are available for you to view as well as a wagon just waiting for the mules. If so inclined, you can walk beyond the paved trail out onto the salt flats.
This will end up being about a 5-mile trek, so if you plan on stepping into the shoes of the many Chinese laborers that transported the borates up to the plant, take some water with you. Supposedly, our friend Scotty, up at the castle where I work, was part of the workforce here at Harmony Borax Works. Either way, today once you get hot and tired from your hard day’s labor, it’s a short 1-mile drive to Furnace Creek Ranch where you can rustle up some grub and cold beer (or any other beverage of choice). While at the Ranch, make sure to step into theBoraxMuseum.
It’s free of charge and will give you a bit more insight into the industry and there are other really neat minerals found in the area that you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with. Just a matter of minutes spent in this museum will give you a good idea of why people came out here and just how important mining was, and still is, to this part of the country.
Did someone say water?
Yes, water can be found in Death Valley. I don’t suggest it for drinking, but it does hold the key to some very important life. The pupfish (to be clear, there are a variety of sub-species) is one of the relished treasures of Death Valley. Found in this briny water at Salt Creek, the pupfish has adapted from the times of massive freshwater lakes to small outlets that all but dry up in the summer heat.
As the temperatures warm in February, these little guys come out to find that special someone and mate, because life won’t last too long, and they need to reproduce quickly so as not to become extinct as some of their cousins have. After driving down a ½ mile of dirt road, you’ll come to an accessible boardwalk trail where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of this little fish.
You may even see a blue heron if you’re lucky. This is a very short walk, great for kids, and a nice place to enjoy a late afternoon hike, or at least I thought so. After you spend a few days in the desert, hearing the sound of running water is almost surreal. You can sit and enjoy the sunset on one of the benches. Or, if you are more inclined for sunrises, keep going past the boardwalk and you can walk all the way to Stovepipe Wells via Devil’s Cornfield. If you choose to do this, I suggest parking a car on either end of your hike. Turns out Death Valley isn’t so morbid after all, and this interpretive trail is a great example.
This morning I met three of my co-workers and took my first trip to the western side of the park.
The drive across thePanamint Mountainsand throughTownePasswas beautiful. It was unusual for me to be a passenger and the curves and steepness added to the allure of my views. We pulled off CA-190 onto a pretty rough dirt road. I was glad that I had left my little car at Stovepipe Wells and was in a diesel pickup truck, but if you’re careful, any standard passenger car can traverse the road. We parked and then began our journey through the canyon.
Soon, we saw water and lush green vegetation. What a change! We splashed through the mud and climbed along some rocky areas. This is a fairly short hike, only .9 miles to the waterfall, with a few stream crossings and lots beautiful birds singing. At the waterfall you’ll find cattails and watercress growing.
If you’re adventurous, you can scramble up the rock walls to see more of the waterfall, but professionally I wouldn’t recommend it, as I don’t want to hear about any of you getting stuck up there. Just the sight of a waterfall is intriguing enough inside this desert park.
After returning to the car, we decided to go up to Father Crowley Point. It’s a wonderful vantage point overlooking the valley.
We then headed back to Panamint Springs for some burgers. I had a black bean veggie burger with Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms with a side of barley soup. It was delicious!!! The ice tea left a lot to be desired for a girl that came here fromVirginia, but a tasty meal nonetheless.
What does it mean to be 282 feet below sea level?
Well, I don’t know what it means anywhere other than inDeath Valleyand here it means salt. Lots of the good ‘ol NaCl. BadwaterBasincan sometimes fill with water, but most of the time what you’ll see on the desert floor ofDeath Valleyis the glaring whiteness.
When it’s sunny out, which it usually is, it can be blinding. This is, however, a don’t miss on your travels to the park. It’s not everyday you get to stand on the ground and look up at the cliff above to see that you are, in fact, below sea level.
Imagine what this means in almost any other place in the world. That you would, literally be under water. Actually, millions of years ago, you would have been underwater here as well. LakeManleywas the name given to the prehistoric lake that filled this basin ages ago. The two mountain ranges, Funeral Mountains and the Panamint Range, on either side rise above a basin that continues to descend further down. This subduction zone is still in flux and maybe one dayDeath Valleymay indeed be the lowest point on the entire planet.
Your walk out onto the salt flats can be as long or as short a hike as you wish. You may even be tempted to taste the salt, and you can, but I encourage you find a place off the beaten path. In fact, a fellow ranger of mine likened the salt flats to yellow snow. A fine comparison in my book. While you stand out there, looking up to sea level (I’m sorry, it’s so cool), think about what it must have been like to work or travel through here a hundred years ago in the sweltering summer heat. No wonder it’s calledDeath Valley!! Keep this in mind too … on average less than an inch of rain falls here each year, but the evaporation rate is 100 inches per year. Keep hydrated, bring sunscreen and sunglasses, and come experienceBadwaterBasin!
I almost feel like the name Death Valley is a misnomer. It makes it sound as if there is nothing to see or do in Death Valley. How very inaccurate that is! There are a multitude of things to see and do upon your visit to this beautiful National Park. Today, I hiked into Natural Bridge Canyon.
The entire hike is only about 2 miles roundtrip, but the trail is quite gravelly. Some of the outstanding geology of the park is found in this short hike. There are mud drips on the wall, stains of evaporated water.
There are rock cutouts that once were home to waterfalls.
Water, the life support of the park, can quickly become dangerous in a place like Natural Bridge Canyon. The rocks have all been cut down by this powerful force and although rain doesn’t fall very often in this desert, hiking in a canyon or wash is no place to be when a storm is brewing. Standing among the walls of the canyon, it was completely understandable how dangerous it can be and how quickly a flash flood can occur. The bridge itself is an area of rock that has withstood the elements, being more durable than the rock around it.
Going all the way to the end of the trail brought me to a magnificent iridescent green rock formation (which I believe is schist). It was almost as if the water that had come down this canyon was frozen in time.
If you come to the park and you want to do some hiking but don’t have much time or are looking for something short in length, Natural Bridge Canyon is a wonderful choice. It’s easy to get to, just a few miles north of the Badwater parking area on a dirt road. Many of the unpaved roads in Death Valley are only accessible via 4x4 high-clearance vehicles, but my little Mazda had no trouble traversing the mile of this particular dirt road. Pack your hat, sunscreen and water and enjoy winter in the desert!
My new home is inside Death Valley National Park. I’m not going to lie, when the words Death Valley first came out of my mouth I thought, “what am I in for?” Well, after my trip across the country, I’m happy to report that it was well worth it. My bank account might disagree! My first view of Scotty’s Castle, outside of reading about it, was the day before I was to report to work. I was not disappointed as I traveled through Grapevine Canyon and rounded a curve to see a Spanish style castle turret in the distance. My breath was instantly taken away as this beautiful desert oasis came into full view.
I pulled into the parking lot, grabbed my camera and headed inside the visitor center. I spent some time looking at the exhibits and the gift shop, where I purchased some postcards to send the family and show off my new digs. I decided not to take a tour, as I knew plenty of that would be in my future, but I did walk around the grounds.
Since that first day, my awe has not diminished. I’ve absorbed a lot of information in the past few weeks, and now have also had the opportunity to share that with visitors. Each facet of the home and its inhabitants has truly been interesting.
I refuse to share that story with you in the hopes that Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle will be on the itinerary for your next trip out West. I encourage you to visit before the end of May or wait until next fall, as daytime temperatures in the summer easily exceed 100˚F … in the shade! Nonetheless, don’t miss this gem of the National Park Service if your travels bring you anywhere near the metropolis of Las Vegas. It’s an easy 2 hour drive to Death Valley(3 hours to Scotty’s Castle) via US-95 and the breathtaking landscape will keep you entertained during the journey. Well, that and the ever present search for UFOs over Area 51!