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Death Valley National Park

When folks hear the name "Death Valley" they conjure up the thought that who would want to visit a place with a name like that? But the fact of the matter is, that everyone I have had the pleasure to introduce this most amazing landscape to was simply delighted with the place after a few days of exploration. It is a land of contrasts and paradoxes. The subtle colors and unique lighting of the landscape turns out to be a place of solitude and beauty for all those who take the time out to explore this most beautiful and unique National Park.

Death Valley still has it's harsh side, however. Eight months out of the year Death Valley records triple digit temperatures. No place in the western hemisphere comes close to this type of heat. And with only 1/2 inch of average rainfall this only adds to the harshness. Most water from the few passing clouds evaporates before it even hits the ground. We hope that you will find that this series on Death Valley in Timberline Trails will be a good guide to introduce you to both the harshness and beauty of Death Valley.

Marble Canyon Many popular trails in Death Valley National Park follow side canyons, often quite narrow, and surrounded pretty, multi-colored, layered rocks. To the left, Above, you see a photo of the lower end of Mosaic Canyon located on the west side of Death Valley close to Stovepipe Wells. Just west of the village is a dirt road the extends about 2.5 miles leading to the foothills of the Tucki Mountain. At the end you will come to a parking area just below the opening of the marble canyon.

As you can see in the photo to the left, above, the narrow passageways have beautiful marbelised rock, polished smooth and quite variable in color. Hiking the canyon is great fun, and during the late afternoon, the lighting is quite spectacular in the canyon. It is also a great place to take kids. The smooth rock provides little slides and interesting climbing challenges for the young ones (not to say that us older folks won't get plenty of enjoyment out of the little slides and stepping stones)

Mosaic Canyon derives its name from the polished rock breccias that curve through its narrows. The term breccia means fragments in Italian and refers to pieces of rock held together in a natural cement. The rock has since been polished smooth by water into intricate and beautiful patterns. The narrows as seen to the left stretch out for about a half a mile before the canyon opens up into an airy amphitheater. After walking about 2 miles from the parking lot, the terrain turns much more difficult, and most people stop there.

Devils Golf Course To the right, Above, is a photo of Devils Golf Course. Well named, because it would certainly be a golfers nightmare to play on. Usually salt pans are flat and dry. But here in Death Valley, saline groundwater continually seeps to the surface, and evaporates to form incredible deposits of salt crystals. Walking across a landscape like this is a real ankle buster. The salt flat sprawl out over hundreds of acres of flatland near "Bad Water" which is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Beneath the uppermost salt crust are alternating layers of old lakebed sediments and salt that continue down at least 1500 feet. You will find that each year Devils Golf Course is a place of constant change.

20 Mule Team Canyon In the photo you can see our truck navigating through "Twenty Mule Team Canyon." A road was put in place in this mudstone badlands area in the late 1920's.

The canyon was most likely never used by the mule team, but the hills contain millions of tons of ore.

But mining never took off here, because of its remote location. Nevertheless, the Mule Team Canyon contains at least 26 different borate minerals.

Late afternoon is a great time to drive the canyon because the low angle of lighting will bring out the beautiful colors of the area. It is also a fun drive, and when my kids were young, I used to let them steer the truck through the narrows. It was great fun for them!!

Scotty's Castle Scotty's Castle as shown in the image to the right above is a wonderful place to visit if you have the time to drive to its remote location. The structures were built in the 1920's when the Mojave was better known for its ramshackle miners dwellings. Scotty was a colorful character, and was known for his knack for telling tall tales.

Scotty never amounted to much as a prospector, but he was great at mining gold out of other peoples pockets. And many wealthy men ended up investing in his fictitious gold mine supposedly located in Death Valley.

Albert Johnson ended up in the end being Scotty's best investor. But Johnson, much to Scotty's surprise, wanted to see the mine and it was not long before Johnson realized that the mine was a hoax.

Race Track Albert Johnson enjoyed his gold seeking travels with Scotty so much, that he ended up building the above agnificent mansion in the middle of no where in Death Valley. Although the so-called castle was built entirely with the Johnson's money, they encouraged Scotty's tall tale about building it with the treasure from his gold mine. That way Scotty received all the public attention which he craved, and the Johnson's enjoyed their privacy at their retreat.

to the left, above, you see a photo of Death Valley's Racetrack Playa. The movingrocks of the Racetrack are the Northern Mojave's most famous geologic puzzle. The Racetrack involves a detour of many miles on a washboard type dirt road.

What makes this playa so unusual is the tracks that the moving rocks leave behind. Skidding boulders that can weigh up to several hundred pounds have moved as far as 660 feet or more across the smooth surface. The surrounding clay pan stretches off in all directions, cracked into two to three inch wide polygons. fern-like impressions left behind by winter ice crystals decorate the mud. Ans if you look across the playa, you will be able to see a nice little sheen if the lighting is right. So if you can take the bone rattling ride across the washboard, it is well worth a visit to the Race Track.

Eureka Dunes To the right, Above, you see a hiker rounding the beautiful contours of "Eureka Dunes." Rising 700 feet above the desert floor below, Eureka Dunes are among the tallest sand dunes in the western hemisphere. In the background, you see the blue-grey mountains known as the "Last Chance Range.

As you can see to the right, the dunes are especially dramatic on windy days. Grains of sand and dried seedpods are swept along the ridges forming beautiful vistas. Got to look out for you camera though. Not a good place to change lenses on your SLR. Sand gets into everything, so if you have delicate equipment, take special care to protect it. The dunes were made part of Death Valley National Park in 1983.

Death Valley High Country Death Valley as mentioned in the beginning is a land of beautiful contrast. To the left, Above, you see Joshua trees growing at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet. Death Valley is also home to Telescope Peak that towers above the below sea level planes at an elevation of 11,049 feet. It is one of the greatest drop offs in North America.

Incredible differences in temperature throughout Death Valley. From blazingly hot temperatures on the floor to freezing temperatures and snow in the upper elevations. A rough rule of thumb for dry air is that temperatures drop 3-4 degrees F for each 1,000 feet of increased altitude. Higher elevations also sport more moisture that is required for the Joshua trees to flourish.

Mining Equipment Death Valley is also home to many mining relics that have been left behind over the years. To the right Above you see just one of these structures. It is located in the Ibex dunes area. There are many underground caves and mining shafts too. It is ill advised, however, to explore these underground caverns and structures. Many can be unstable and a cave in could very well be deadly.

But they do make for great subjects for photographs and add much to the feeling of by-gone days. I am always amazed at how man will go to the most remote areas on earth and put in an incredible of work just for the long shot of getting rich. In the end most dreams ended up being just that a dream, and many a prospector came away with only a hand full of dirt and a sore back.

Even though gold and silver were certainly found in the area, the greater treasures ended up being minerals such as gypsum, sulfur, lead, salt, talc, borax, and clay. Large scale extraction of these substances proved to be far more profitable then the glitter of gold and silver in the long run.

Ubehebe Crater When you think of Death Valley, one thinks of sand dunes, salt flats, desert brush and such, but who would think of a volcanic crater. But in the image to the left above you see an example of volcanic activity in the form of Ubehebe Crater. It is located 10 miles from Scotty's Castle. Geologists classify Ubehebe Crater as an explosion pit. During the initial eruption that occurred more than 2000 years ago, ash and cinders spewed out over 6 square miles and formed a hole nearly 700 feet deep and a half mile across.

There is a trail to the bottom of the crater, and it is worth taking to get a different perspective of the area if you have the energy to make the climb back up. The erosion-cut gullies on the crater's outer west side reveal alternating light and dark layers of ash deposit that create a unique beauty.

Panamint Valley To the right, Above, you see the Panamint Mountains reflected in a pool of water that was formed during a record winter rainfall season in 2005. The Panamint and Inyo ranges support etensive stands of limber and Great Basin bristlecone pine.

The Panamints also host Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level, which is the highest point in Death Valley.

It is interesting the tree line in the desert is much lower than in the Sierra Nevada which lies not far to the west. Tree line in the Panamints is around 6,000 to 7,000 feet, where as in the Sierra Nevada, tree line is around 12,000 feet. This is most likely due to the reduced moisture of this harsh desert environment.

Saratoga Springs Saratoga Springs to the left above is another amazing place of contrast within the borders of Death Valley. Reeds and bulrushes rustle in the breeze, breaking the silence of what would in most times of the day be a dead silence.

Also notice the pools of water in the foreground. The water comes from spring-fed pools. The springs come forth at the base of Ibex Hills. They sustain more than 15 acres of wetlands including pools that are the only home of the Saratoga Springs Pupfish.

The Saratoga Springs wetlands shelter many other animals including five rare invertebrates. At least 150 species of birds visit the area including waterfowl that rest here during long distant spring and fall migrations.

Artists Palette Artist Palette shown to the right above is an amazing display of all kinds of colors. As the rocks weather and erode, their sediments splash the hillside with an unusual array of colors, including green, purple, mustard, and orange-tan. The colors result from the mixing of red and yellow iron oxides with minerals found in volcanic ash.

There is also a great road that takes you through all this magnificent terrain called Artists Drive. Late afternoon is the time to be in this area, because the low angle lighting gives the natural colors in the rock a special glow.

Many desert artists have been inspired by this special area of Death Valley, and some of the paintings of this area are hung in the Furnace Creek Inn.

Dantes View In the 1920's when Death Valley's boosters wanted to find a scenic view-point that would attract tourists, they asked old-timer Charles Brown of Shoshone if he knew of a good spot, he said "I don't pay much attention to scenery, but I know one view that made me stop and look" He took them to a cliff that rose over a mile straight up above Badwater and showed them what is now known as "Dante's View" which is shown in the photo to the left. above.

From this viewpoint, you can see clean across Death Valley to Telescope Peak that rises more than two miles above the desert floor, to the snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west that rise nearly three miles above sea level. To the north, east, and south, range after range of mountains crest like breaking waves as far as the eye can see.

Sufficiently impressed, the promoters rounded up the funding and had Brown build a road to the spot. In keeping with Death Valley's devilish theme for place names, they named it as indicated above as Dante's View.

Dante's View is set atop the steep western escarpment of the Black Mountains, and as you can see to the left, the view is nothing short of spectacular. Believe me, no photo could ever capture the grandeur that the human eye can behold, and there is nothing that can take the place of being there in person.

I find that the scale in Death Valley is absolutely awe inspiring. It makes one feel so small. I find that the solitude that this amazing place provides helps one reflect on the more important things in life, and for me that is how awesome our creator God really is.

Bad Water 282Ft Below Sea Level In the image to the right above and the one below, you see photos of the Badwater area in Death Valley. This section is 279 feet below sea level, which makes it near the lowest point in the western hemisphere. I say near, because a few miles to the west there is actually a spot that is three feet lower at 282 feet below sea level which is the lowest point in the western hemisphere.

This low point is actually sitting on a 9,000 foot deep accumulation of sand, silt and gravel. Badwater also claims the honor of being (debatable) the hottest place in the world, for on one July day in 1913 Furnace Creek recorded a record temperature of 134 degrees F, and this led many to believe that Badwater some miles away south would have been 140 degrees.

Bad Water The 140 degrees would thus top the 136 degree F that was recorded in Al Aziziyah, Libya in 1922. The small, spring-fed pool that you see to the left originates along the fault zone at the base of the Black Mountains. The water is extremely saline, but it is not poisonous. It also provides a mirror type surface during calm days in the morning, and many a spectacular photo has been taken of the Panamints reflected in the pool.

The pool also supports an amazing variety of life, such as the Badwater snail, and other life forms.

I find that a trip out to Badwater is a must if you visit Death Valley. Try and go in the early morning hours when the lighting is most beautiful.

Charcoal Kilns To the right Above you see the 25 foot tall charcoal kilns the were used to convert pinyon and juniper wood (which was plentiful in the Panamints) into charcoal. The charcoal was then used to fuel the smelters in the nearby Argus Range where wood was scarce. Wildrose Canyon which hosts the charcoal kilns is accessible from Death Valley via Emigrant Canyon Road or from Panamint Valley via Trona-Wildrose Road.

The kilns were built in the spring of 1877. The kilns were able to produce 3,000 bushels of charcoal daily, which was needed by the Modoc's smelters.

I have visited the kilns a few times, and it is amazing that they still smell of wood smoke, even though they have not been used for over a hundred years.

TeaKettle Junction Death Valley also has many colorful crossroads out in the middle of no-where. Teakettle Junction shown in the photo to the left above is just one of such interesting forks in the road. This desert crossroad is marked by a sign post decorated with just about every kind of teapot, from well-worn silver plate to dented enamel.

Teakettle Junction is at the 21st mile on the Racetrack Road. It is also the intersection where you can turn off to make your way up to Lost Burro Mine and explore some other remote areas of Death Valley. They recommend 4 wheel drive vehicles, but a vehicle with good ground clearance and a locking rear axle should be fine to access Teakettle Junction. But the miles of the washboard roadbed make for a very bumpy ride.

The custom is to bring a new teakettle and where you can inscribe your message for future visitors. The superstition is that it will bring good luck to those who leave a kettle. 

I have had the privilege of traveling many of Death Valley's back roads, and I have to say that it never ceases to amaze me of the creative shenanigans that the old timers of yesterday dreamed up.

Crankcase Junction Crankcase junction shown in the photo to the right above is another interesting road marker that has old crankshafts hanging from the sign, along with old auto parts strewn around the area.

Crankshaft Crossing, also known as Crankshaft Junction, is a noteable landmark in the remote northern stretch of Death Valley and is somewhat of a sister location to the more frequently encountered Teakettle Junction. It marks the three-way junction of the routes from Big Pine/Eureka Valley, Death Vally, and Gold Point in Nevada. There is very little else in the area for miles around.

And this is only the beginning of interesting artifacts that are all around in the desert. Also, making your way around on some of the less traveled roads, you will discover all sorts of history left behind just waiting for discovery.

Devils Cornfield As shown in the image to the left above is known as the "Devil's Corn Field." The field is made up of Arroweed which grows in the alkaline soils at Death Valley.

Arrowweed is a member of the Sunflower Family. It appears as a large brushy shrub and has adopted to blowing sand and soil erosion by growing in clumps resembling corn shocks. Leaves are grayish green and narrow to 1.5 inches in length and grow all along the stems of the plant.

The plant tolerates lightly saline water. Note the sand dunes in the background. Both early morning and late afternoon are a good time for photographers to take advantage of this unique scene.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Hiking in Death Valley allows you to see so much more than those who are tied to their vehicles. But make sure you are prepared for harsh conditions if you go in the summer.

In 120 degree heat, the sun saps 3 quarts of water out of the body per hour. A man attempted to walk across the valley with 3 quarts of water. After 7 days, he dropped dead within 1/2 mile of his truck which contained 6 gallons of water. His body had lost 50 percent of its weight, his skin was hard leather, and his face appeared mummified. Eight months out of the year death valley records triple digit temperatures. No place in the western hemisphere comes close to this type of heat. And with only 1/2 inch of average rainfall this only adds to the harshness. Most water from the few passing clouds evaporates before it even hits the ground.

Well that's about it for our introduction on Death Valley. Prayerfully we will be adding much more on this most spectacular locations in the future. So stay tuned.

Dave French

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