Friday, April 3, 2015

Death Valley: Corridor Canyon

Essence: Friendly, gravel-bottom canyon walking in stratified stoney chaos. Two Class 3 limestone falls, one Class 3 crack and three short narrows. Mile-long, ruler-straight Corridor with sleek and velvety 90 degree walls transect a flat floor. Way more than one day's worth of delights.

The main hall of the mysterious Corridor is almost a mile long. (THW, photo)

Travel: Fuel-up at Stovepipe Wells. (It'll cost you.) Carry all the water you will need. Drive east on CA 190 for 9.0 miles to Scotty's Castle Road. Turn left/north and drive 33 miles to the Grapevine Entrance Station. Turn left toward Ubehebe Crater. Ascend the one-way loop around the crater. In 5.7 miles, turn right toward the Racetrack. 4WD high clearance is recommended but 2WD vehicles with sturdy tires and moderate clearance can make it to the trailhead turn-off. The road is a mix of dirt and gravel with washboard. Climb to a broad pass between Tin Mountain and Dry Mountain. A Joshua tree forest precedes the pass. The downhill is gradual on a better road. Reach Teakettle Junction after 20.0 miles of dirt. Enjoy the cluttered kettle whimsey with Ubehebe Peak in the background. From here is it another 2.2 miles to the turnoff for the Ubehebe Mining Camp trailhead. Take the middle spur to the right. High clearance is necessary for this 0.7 mile stretch. Park at the end of the road in a mass of mining ruins and wreckage. It is 70.6 miles from Stovepipe Wells to the trailhead. (THW, photo)

Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.4 miles; 1,600 feet of climbing
Time: Allow a minimum of six hours; better yet, wander all day
Difficulty: Canyon walking, no trail, no cairns; navigation moderate; Three Class 3 scrambles with moderate exposure; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Teakettle Junction; Ubehebe Peak, CA 7.5 Quads, or Trails Illustrated: Death Valley National Park, #221
Reference: For information on mining operations, geology, fossils, and a hike into Round Valley, consult: Hiking Death Valley: A guide to its natural wonders and mining past, Michel Digonnet, 2007.
Date Hiked: April 3, 2015
Quote: You may find yourself so distracted that it will take you several visits to make it to the mouth, on the bright crisp edge of Saline Valley. But it doesn't matter much--in this canyon full of secrets, every step is a destination. Michel Digonnet
Route: From the Ubehebe Mining Camp at the upper end of Racetrack Valley in the Last Chance Range, go west down a side canyon for three miles to Corridor Canyon. Walk to the north end of the Corridor, turn around and go almost a mile to the south end. Continue downcanyon to a major barrier fall and turn around, only a couple of miles up from the canyon's mouth in the Saline Valley. 

Mining operations extracted copper, silver, and lead from 1906 to 1968. From the trailhead at 3,870 feet, walk down canyon heading generally west. Gravel-bottomed, unencumbered by water, obstacles, or brush, this is a friendly and welcoming wash. The descent is gentle and pleasant while the canyon does its work cutting through uplifted, almost vertical stratified layers. Desert pricklepoppy is an extravagance in this desert. (THW, photo)

Pass three side canyons, watching for fossils everywhere. They decorate a mid-stream boulder. Rosy veins enliven limestone. (THW, photo)

The canyon squeezes through short and enchanting limestone narrows at 1.5 miles. (THW, photo)

Our thin drainage converges with another Corridor tributary at 1.6 miles. It is a wide and sandy gathering place. Pause and memorize your exit route. (THW, photo)

Water-scoured stone bands stretch across the channel. (THW, photo)

In this bold landscape, walls fold, linear lines whip around, and cap rocks pierce the sky. (THW, photo)

Limestone and siltstones are laminated. Try to parse this wondrous scene. (THW, photo)

The canyon narrows up again at 2.3 miles. Enter the second set of narrows at 3.0 miles. Walk on a water-blasted trench to a polished limestone 12 foot pouroff. Located in a slot with vertical walls, there is no bypass. A few features on the face grant hand and foot holds. There are just enough good solid anchors. Below, my hiking companion has scrambled down six feet to a platform and is considering the final drop.

The narrows constrict to four feet, white streaks crisscross limestone. Blast out into Corridor Canyon at 3.2 miles. The hallway runs north and south. Turn right and walk up the Corridor to its end in 0.3 mile. (THW, photo)

Geological Note: In the vicinity of the Corridor, the Keeler Canyon Formation is upturned, so that its distinct strata stand almost vertically. Erosion has dug along a weaker plane in the stratification, leaving behind this long corridor trapped between vertical walls mostly less than 30 feet apart. Michel Digonnet

The canyon splits, the main drainage swings sharply left/west at a high barrier fall.  For a bypass suggestion and notes on continuing up canyon to Round Valley, consult Digonnet.  It is a simple matter to climb the talus blocks straight ahead to the birthing place of the ever-lengthening Corridor. (THW, photo)

Turn around and go south, passing the entrance canyon, image left. Of course, this is also the one and only exit canyon so mark it in your mind. (THW, photo)

Reach the south end of the Corridor at 4.4 miles. The wash makes a sharp right and runs headlong towards a startling wall of sedimentary layers standing on end. The alternating bands of harder and softer stone looks like another corridor in the making. Vertical layering hallmarks the entire hike and makes me feel as if my world is turned on its side. (THW, photo)

Buckled beauty. (THW, photo)

Enter the third set of narrows and arrive at The Slide at 5.0 miles. After a fair amount of running around and consideration, we agreed on a plan. We'd commit to a one-way trip down The Slide. Whee! (THW, photo)

The ride was too slippery to scale. So on our return we scrambled up The Crack just north of The Slide. Holds are small but generous and reliable. Both obstacles are Class 3 provided you go down The Slide and up The Crack. Below, I am nearing the top. (THW, photo)

The canyon broadens below The Slide. The formation suddenly looks inebriated. The landscape is downright dizzying. (THW, photo)

Pass three enticing side canyons. The walls inexplicably constrict and at 5.8 miles come to a commanding halt at a barrier fall, high and massive. Back up and climb a short slope downcanyon-right to achieve a viewing perch above the pouroff. It looks like the obstacle may be circumvented in the next side drainage. However, I did not check this out for we turned around here at 6.0 miles. It is about two miles to the canyon mouth but much further to the nearest road.
(THW, photo)

Return as you came. The canyon is even more appealing walking upstream; rock runners spanning the floor are more clearly delineated. Back in the Corridor, this amazing creosote bush is anchored to a vertical face of rock rippled with the sea. (THW, photo)

Reach the narrow exit canyon and go right. At the base of the 12 foot pouroff, sharpen your eyes, pause, and search out fading petroglyphs. (THW, photo)

Break out into the wide, sandy tributary and set your eyes on the proper exit canyon. At the entrance to the defile be watchful for petroglyphs and more obvious historic inscriptions. This significant location is honored with bighorn sheep going in different directions, a long atlatl, and anthropomorphs. (THW, photo)

We hiked Corridor Canyon at the end of an extended visit in Death Valley National Park. We ventured into remote and wild places. Death Valley is a pristine and perfect landscape, just as it is. It is a raw desert experience. This is as real as life contrast with that other world to which we reluctantly returned. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Death Valley: Hidden Dunes and Eureka Dunes

Essence: Two sets of dunes in the remote, northwest quadrant of the park. Eureka Dunes is accessible from the road and campground. Almost too perfect for nature, the otherworldly, stand alone dunes look like frozen fluid forms. Climb the ephemeral peak, mesmerized by booming sand. Walk three miles across desert pavement just to reach pristine Hidden Dunes. An elegant dune walk rewards those with a penchant for solitude. A lovely loop hike is described but amble at will in an unrestricted landscape where dunes abut mountains.

Eureka Dune's 650 foot sand mountain contrasts with the banded Last Chance Range. (THW, photo)

Travel: Fuel-up at Stovepipe Wells. (It'll cost you.) Carry all the water you will need. Drive east on CA 190 for 9.0 miles to Scotty's Castle Road. Turn left/north and drive 33 miles to the Grapevine Entrance Station. Turn left toward Ubehebe Crater. At 2.6 miles, turn right onto Big Pine Road, dirt, and drive through the northern end of Death Valley for 21.3 miles to Crankshaft Junction. The signpost is made from a hefty crankshaft. Stay left. Climb to the top of the Last Chance Range on a windy, steep road with washboard. In 7.4 miles, asphalt assists the curvy downhill through brightly colored Hanging Rock Canyon for 5.0 miles to South Eureka Road. Turn left/south. The dirt track narrows and the washboard is hideous. It is 10.0 miles to Eureka Dunes and the dry campground at its base. To reach the trailhead for Hidden Dunes, drive south on South Eureka Road for 3.5 miles. Look carefully for a track on the right that punches over a berm before becoming defined. This is the only obstacle that will likely stop a 2WD vehicle. (You won't get this far without sturdy tires and moderate clearance.) Drive west across the raw desert for 2.4 miles, mostly smooth and flat, with a few whoop-de-dos and shallow washes. Park at a wellhead beside a whitish mound. At the end of this hike, drive back to South Eureka Road and turn right/south. The Eureka Dunes campground is another 6.5 jarring miles away. It is 88.3 miles from Stovepipe Wells to Eureka Dunes without the Hidden Dunes spur.
Hidden Dunes
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.5 miles; 1,300 feet of climbing (Your stats will vary.)
Time: 4:00 to 6:00 (You can wander for days.)
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate (but critical!); no exposure; carry all the water you will need; no refuge from the sun so avoid during the hottest months; wear protective clothing on windy, sandblast days
Maps: Hanging Rock Canyon; East of Joshua Flats; Last Chance Range SW, CA 7.5 Quads, or Trails Illustrated: Death Valley National Park, #221
Reference: For a poetic rendering of the dunes, more hiking suggestions, and lessons in geology and natural history, consult: Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline, and Eureka Valleys, Michel Digonnet, 2009.
Date Hiked: April 2, 2015
Quote: 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. Antione De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Route: Hike southwest for three miles to The Gap in the Saline Range. Hidden Dunes is on the west side of The Gap. A loop hike to Pt 3,960' is suggested but you may wander freely. However, you must come back through The Gap to return to your vehicle.

Before leaving the wellhead trailhead at 2,974 feet, have a strategy for locating your vehicle at the end of the hike. The wellhead mound is white and can be seen from far off so it makes a reasonable navigation marker. However, it takes the sharpest eye to spot it from The Gap. I found it immensely helpful to take a visual bearing off a rise on the Last Chance ridge to the east, shown. (THW, photo)

Hidden Dunes are tucked away in a west spur off Eureka Valley, funneled between no-nonsense mountains in the Saline Range. Digonnet aptly named them for only true dune-hunters and Death Valley devotees would cypher them.

Walk southwest across the raw desert on firm, level ground. Creosote bushes are widely spaced. Aim for the obvious gap in the ridge. A dune demurely shows itself through the rift. Savor this part of the journey. It is over in a hour and the treasures are endless. (THW, photo)

At 0.7 mile, ventifacts appear everywhere. Wind with its load of grit, polishes and facets otherwise undisturbed stones. The colors vary from creamy to jet black, from red-orange to brown. We found chunks that are surely garnet. After lying around so still for a thousand years, we didn't dare move a thing. A notable feature of this hike, I would have been contented to look at rocks all day. Please consult  Digonnet for a geological explanation. I had camera failure on this day but have no substitute for this blurry image.

Stride across the shiny rock desert. The patio playa has an oddly perfect uniform rock surface. (THW, photo)

Walk through The Gap at 3.0 miles, 3,300 feet. It is a portal to another world. Perfectly pointed peaks lie atop the circular rim of a massive scooped out bowl of sand. The first dune was so in-our-face and tall, we thought surely it was the highest of them all. Not even close. We knew from reading Digonnet the dune fields went on for 2.5 miles to the south. We headed that way, walking in the transition zone between dune and mountain. At 3.4 miles, the two co-mingle and we clamored up the sand. We playfully plunged down a slope shown below and contoured on rock-covered sand heading south. (THW, photo)

Soon we spotted an appealing high dune integrated into the mountain by prevailing winds. We climbed 500 feet on a steep sandy scree slope just north of the dune's edge. At the top, 4.2 miles, the sand is covered in gold flecks. Big chunks of nearly black rock have razor-sharp edges. The sand and rock make for a strange but appealing partnership. The image below looks back at High Point 3,960', the highest dune in the most accessible northerly cluster.
(THW, photo)

We scampered down to the west. It was a breezy day and in no time at all, our footprints vanished. (THW, photo)

Circling back north toward The Gap, we hit all the high points on the main sand ridge. These dunes are so wondrous, we will return to climb the highest one, a mile south of here. This area is on the flight path for F-15 training maneuvers. Looking at the image below, the jets flew through the low point in the Saline Range, directly overhead, made a banking turn through The Gap, and then squeezed between Eureka Dunes and the Last Chance Range. (THW, photo)

Sand whips off a cornice. (THW, photo)

Patterns mimic lake ripples. (THW, photo)

Looking east through The Gap, Hidden Dunes are exceptional. In contrast with other dune domains in the park, this landscape is an integration of opposites. Immutable mountains, impermanent flowing sand. Blackish somber rock, resplendent and luminous dunes. The hardness of iron, sift-through-your-fingers soft. (THW, photo)

March is peak wildflower season. This desert prince's plume is nourishing bees. (THW, photo)

Eureka Dunes
The dunes are at the southern end of Eureka Valley, tucked into a tapering wedge between the banded Last Chance Range and the chaotic Saline Range. While dunes cover nearly seven square miles, a sand mountain dominates the northern sector. Mount the highest stand-alone dune in the park, a 650 foot effort. Round trip is about 2.5 miles from the campground. Study the topography and approach the peak from the lowest angle, likely the northwest. In the image below, I am reaching merely the first rise on my way to the summit. Some pitches are so angular we progressed slowly, sliding backwards with each determined step. Ridgelines are razor thin, falling so steeply off both sides it was almost scary. (THW, photo)

The Last Chance Range is the liaison between dune purity and bluebird sky. Walking these dunes will infuse you with euphoria. (THW, photo)

Black sand has a different density so the grains intermingle to create ripple art. (THW, photo)

Standing completely still on the crest of the sand mountain, we were startled by an inexplicable, alien sound--booming sand. The slopes lie at the angle of repose so as wind whips sand over the crest, it glides down, creating an ultra strange vibrational sound.  Plunging off the crest, sand avalanched under our feet, booming away, the ground pulsating beneath us. (THW, photo)

Eureka Dunes Campground
There are two clusters of sites, about seven total. Each has a picnic table and shares the outhouse. There is no water. Pack out your trash. Enjoy the remoteness, quietly snuggled at base of the dunes and Last Chance Range, shown. Dramatic and appealing, the dunes positively glow at twilight. (THW, photo)