We entered Death Valley National Park on the northeast side near the Nevada town
of Beatty. Upon cresting the Amargosa Mountains, One reaches Hell's Gate which
has a spectacular view of the valley. From here, the shimmer down on the valley
floor makes it appear to be filled with water. The name derives from the fact that
once you reach the valley floor you find the shimmer effect was caused by salt crystals
left behind. Any remaining water is so salty as to be undrinkable. Death Valley
is the hottest and dryest place in the United States, and the lowest (in altitude)
in the western hemisphere, although obviously not right at this point.
Just under 2 inches (5 cm) of rain fall per year in Death Valley. This leads to quite
a few interesting landscapes including the sand dunes which are found at various locations
throughout the park. These are just east of the 'town' of Stovepipe Wells.
In the distance here are the Panamint mountains which form the western boundary of the
valley at this point. The valley itself is enormous (in length)and the national park
is even bigger. The trees growing in the sand dunes here are mesquite. Various lizards
and kangaroo rats live in the dunes and their tracks can be seen near just about any clump
of mesquite trees.
An alluvial fan comes down to Stovepipe Wells from the mountains and a gravel roads leads
back up through it to a trailhead for Mosaic Canyon. The trail itself is a streambed that
has carved a narrow twisting channel through walls of white marble. At times the trail is
too narrow for two people to pass each other.
The mosaic canyon trail eventually opens up about halfway up the mountain. From here there
is no specific trail but orienteering is encouraged. We visited the park in December when
temperature were mild, but in the summer this becomes a very inhospitable desert with temperatures
reaching 110F (43C) on a regular basis. Hiking deaths from heat stroke are a definite danger.
The marble walls have been worn smooth and polished and are very slick to hike on. In fact
we found rather early on that they work nicely as slides when coming back down. Here is
Lisa descending part of the trail via sliding (and tangling herself up in her camera strap).
On our way out we actually passed a photo shoot in the canyon. It is most definately too
narrow for four hikers to pass a model, a photographer and their entourage.
Just north of the Furnace Creek visitors center is Mustard Canyon which is part of a driving
loop (there are no real hiking opportunities here). The canyon gets its name from the color
of the rocks there but perhaps more interesting is the white layer coating them. That isn't
snow, it's salt deposited by water evaporating out of the relatively porous rocks. Another
visible example of how hot and dry this valley can be.
Golden canyon is probably the most popular hike in Death Valley. It is located close
to the Furnace Creek visitor center and is a fairly easy hike a mile or so into the canyon.
Near the end of the Golden Canyon trail is a large plateau formation known as Red
Cathedral. On our hike here, everyone within 20 miles who owned a telephoto lens
had it pointed at this colorful chunk of rock. These pictures are not taken at sunset
but the Panamint Mountains across the valley block the last hour or two of direct sun
in any given day so there is a limited window for this sort of bright color.
Devil's golf course is probably the most striking landscape in the valley. These irregular
clumps are crystallized salt. Once this was an even lake bed of salt but thousands of years
of hot-cold and rain-evaporation cycles have resulted in this. The salt crystals are
surprisingly sharp in places and walking around in this desert is fairly difficult.
Badwater Basin is the official lowest (in altitude) point in the western hemisphere.
The water that collects here has a higher saline content than the ocean and is definately
not drinkable. A few insects and plants that have adapted to high salt environments do
live here though.
How low is it? That little sign up on the mountain says 'sea level'. Badwater Basin
is 282 ft (85 m) below sea level. In 1913, a temperature of 134 F (57 C) was recorded
at this spot. Our visit, in December, was suprisingly pleasant, even a little chilly in
some of the canyons.
South of Badwater Basin is off the main tourist track. Actually, most of Death Valley
outside of a small central loop is pretty desolate and sparsely visited. The Black
mountains (shown here) are only accessible by hiking, and not easily accessible at that.
The northwestern section of the park is equally remote.