Thursday, March 27, 2014

Death Valley in Spring: Authentic and Eccentric

Death Valley National Park is so like a human. It has dramatic high points and low depressions.  Oh, the unfathomable distance between the two! It is imbued with deep deep shadows that accentuate variegated hues of light. It can be squeezingly constricted and uncontainably vast.  It is permanent, as much as anything can be on this planet. But it is also as ephemeral and vulnerable as a spring flower.  It is bedazzlingly colorful. It is ordinary and outlandishly bizarre. It broods, pines, and rejoices.

I've rolled through Death Valley more than a few times going from here to there. I dismissed the park as boring and searing. Two years ago I stayed long enough to get acquainted and fell in love. I'm still in the infatuation stage. As with all great love, it deepens with knowledge. For Death Valley is magnificently complicated and alluring.

High and Low
You anticipate a valley, right? In this sunup image taken from the Texas Creek Campground, the high point in the Panamint Range is over two miles off the valley floor.

There are actually four valleys in the park, Death being the largest and the lowest. Constricting the valley on its east side is the Amargosa Range, embracing the Grapevine, Funeral, and Black Mountains. Towering to the west are the Panamint, Last Chance, Saline and Nelson Ranges. It goes on and on some more. For just west of the park is the Panamint Valley and the mighty Inyo Mountains with a lineup of peaks over 11,000 feet. Twice we glimpsed Mt. Whitney rising over the Inyo crest. Nevada is defined by basin and range; Death Valley carries the landscape sequence into California.

Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, the driest land in America, and likely the hottest place on earth. This sign signifies the proper elevation of sea level at Badwater.

Telescope Peak, 11,049', is the highest summit in the park with a prominence from Badwater of 11,331 feet, making this the deepest depression in the lower 48.

Telescope and the salt flats of Badwater Basin.

While there was too much snow to climb Telescope in March, we were able to visit its companion, Wildrose Peak, 9,064'. The wind chill turned an easy hike into a freeze fest. It was in the low 90's in Furnace Creek, seen from 9,254 feet above. We were so high we felt like we were flying! Summits are exhilarating.

Constricted and Unbounded
Feeling narrow minded? Park at MM 19 on the Scotty's Castle Road and walk up the alluvial fan to Red Wall Canyon, a corridor into the interior of the Grapevine Mountains. Enter a colorful world of carmine, paprika, cayenne, henna, and terra cotta. 

Alas, in less than a mile, a barrier fall will block those without a rope and climbing shoes. If you can nimbly scale the ten foot slippery chute and slither around the chockstone, the best of the canyon awaits (THW photo).

Frustrated by rejection, we probed the multicolored strata, the mangled, buckled, faulted and twisted dolomite of Fall Canyon to the immediate south of Red Wall (THW).

A significant pouroff abruptly halts progress in 3.4 miles.  A few paces back is a bypass, upcanyon-right. Exercise caution.

 Do carry on for just above the obstruction are sets of captivating greyrock narrows.

Other than thin, washout cracks at the base of mountains, Death Valley is as spacious and immense as morning sky.

Eccentric and Outlandish
Death Valley is strange and startling. In an ever increasingly homogeneous world, a rigorously authentic landscape is refreshing and prized. Fill your fuel tank and head to the races. The Racetrack is a gargantuan, perfectly flat dry lakebed, its tiled floor comprised of polygons, all quite similar yet each unique.

In the center of the playa is The Grandstand, an island of spheroidal, almost black granite. The stone is laced with two inch dark and glassy othoclase crystals. This image was captured while climbing Ubehebe Peak, 5,678', at the southern end of the Last Chance Range. Death Valley has few trails which makes this one all the more exceptional. It is only three miles to the top. When the path dissipates, there are cairns and social trail fragments. From the summit, the land drops steeply away into the Saline Valley. Further off in the west is Mt. Whitney.

After clamoring upon the black island's pinnacle, we drove to the southern end of the Racetrack and took a polygonal stroll searching for unlikely tracks. In 2014, the mystery of traveling rocks was solved by scientists at Scripps. It rains on slippery mud. Thin sheets of ice form on the playa surface. The sun comes up and jagged panes of melting ice are propelled by a steady wind. Fleets of boulders are sent slithering across the desert. 

Some of the rocks are hefty.

Death Valley is a colorful character. Paints on the Artist's Palette are mixed from titanium, manganese, iron salts, and mica.

Light and Shadow
I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams. Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes live and breathe light and shadow to create tawny satin laced with rubies.

Scenes in several Star Wars films were shot in these dunes. Today, it is still and peaceful as my hiking companion makes first tracks to the highpoint.

In narrow canyons, colorful walls glow in bounce light. Visit the gorgeous declivity at the second dip on Artists Drive to walk in pink light. It is .45 mile to an impassible fall, the canyon bottom studded with blue boulders (THW).

 Low angle sunlight enters the mouth of Fall Canyon.

Last light floods the foothills of the Grapevine Mountains.

Permanent and Ephemeral
Roughly 1,000 plant species live in Death Valley in a spectrum of biozones determined by altitude and climate. It rained just before our visit and within a mere week, wildflowers were profuse throughout the park. While this phacelia was thriving at 2,100 feet, even areas that average 1.86 inches of annual precipitation were carpeted. Flowers must bloom and set seed quickly. On July 10, 1913, Furnace Creek recorded a high temperature of 134 degrees.

Although the climate is the definition of dry, it does rain and flash, eroding even the seemingly permanent.

My favorite people are uncompromising in their authenticity. They courageously live in sync with their unique proclivities. Death Valley pulls this off effortlessly. To be and live like this landscape!

If you go.
Furnace Creek Campground. If you like to party, or you must have reservations, this one is for you.
Texas Creek Campground. Best views in a premiere location. Sites are cramped and packed in but campers are friendly and quiet. Showers at Furnace Creek Ranch.

Mesquite Flat Campground. Positions you to explore the north end of the park. Relatively spacious. Fill up with fuel before arriving.
Stovepipe Wells Campground. Primarily an RV haven but there are tent sites all around the periphery on the edge of the desert. Close to Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. Showers at the lodge.

Fuel. Fill up before you arrive. Stovepipe Wells was $1.30/gal above the norm, Furnace Creek, $2.20 above.

Road Biking. Riding is a fabulous way to experience the park. Traffic is light and roads are smooth. Three classic rides:
Texas Creek CG to Dante's View. 52.4 miles; 5,800 total climbing; final 3 miles, 10% grade; last .3 mile, 18%. Stats include the essential spur to Zabriskie Point. The view from Dante's is worth every standup crank of the pedal.
Texas Creek CG to Badwater, return via Artists Drive. 42 miles; 2,850' total climbing. On Artists Drive, a 3 mile hill starts at 8%; last mile is 15%. Second hill past Artists Palette is 10-14% for one mile.  Only in Death Valley can you ride to 282 feet below sea level and then be dazzled by color at the Palette.
Stovepipe Wells CG to Daylight Pass. Ride on Hwy 190 towards Furnace Creek to Beatty Cutoff Road, climb to Daylight Pass, and take the direct route back to Stovepipe. 51.5 miles; 5,239 feet climbing; max grade is 12.5%. The ride from Texas Creek CG to Daylight Pass is 58 miles.

The definitive guide to Death Valley's history, weather, 4WD roads, trails, geology, flora and fauna, is a pleasure to read: Michel Digonnet, Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past, 2007. Available at the Visitor Center.

For a contemplative rendering of Death Valley, please find in Earthline, "Death Valley In Winter: Land of Eternal Thirst."