Day 134 – Death Valley Sojourn, April 10, 2011
Jeff is an early riser, and I have yet to adjust to West Coast time, so we were both up around 6 a.m. We planned our morning over a cup of a coffee, or should I say, I informed him of my general plans and asked if that interested him. He was game. Since dogs aren’t allowed on the trails, I try to complete my longest walk in the morning when it is cooler outside. We found a parking spot, shaded by the mountainous terrain, though it didn’t look like the shade would last long, and picked a two mile roundtrip trail through Golden Canyon. The canyon walls, delineated in golden browns, gleamed in the morning sunlight. As we roamed over the gravel wash and in and out of the canyon’s shadows resulting in a ten degree temperature change, we arrived at a towering outcrop known as the Red Cathedral, which served as our turn around point. Retracing our steps was like taking a completely different walk. Stones and minerals that looked tan on our hike into the canyon, now appeared to be a faint shade of green and instead of hiking toward a red mesa, we proceeded toward a snow capped mountain in the distance.
The rest of the morning consisted of mostly driving, but it was to incredible view points. First we traveled about ten miles to Zabriskie Point named in honor of a pioneering borax miner. Here we met two men from Germany who were traveling around the world for nine months. They had just come from Hawaii and actually sported a nice tan! One of them was singing in a choir in San Francisco in a few weeks. The view, of course, was stunning. I’m starting to run out of words to describe each scene. Lines of creams, cinnamon, and chocolate browns traversed the nearby folding hills while snow capped red and green peaks stood across the valley.
We continued on to Twenty Mule Canyon where VANilla bumped along a rocky, dirt road for a couple of miles. We passed by visitors climbing on the hills and artists with their canvases and paints preparing to recreate the landscape before them.
Twenty more miles down the road after a harrowing drive up a twisting road with 9% grades, we finally arrived at Dantes View. Until we reached the summit, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the trip. WOW! Jeff, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt for the hot, desert floor soon wished he had pants and a jacket to keep his arms and legs from looking like chicken skin. What a land of extremes! We ascended from below sea level to over a mile high in a twenty mile drive. As we stood on the windy peak in temperatures twenty degrees cooler than the valley floor, we stared in amazement at the lowest and the highest point in the lower 48 states at the same time. Mount Whitney, a “fourteener”, while not in the park, loomed in the distance behind the Panamint Range.
Upon the conclusion of our morning outing, we stopped in the Lost Forty-Niners Café for lunch before parting ways. Jeff headed south past Badwater and Artists Drive on his way home to Los Angeles while I headed Northwest to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Devils Cornfield, Salt Creek, and Harmony Borax Works.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes sprawl 14 miles across the widest part of Death Valley. It takes three things to create sand dunes: sand, wind, and something that stops the sand…in this case Tucki Mountain. The sand dunes provide precious water and escape from the extreme temperatures as the sand acts as a sponge and absorbs water. To escape surface temperatures of nearly 200 degrees, animals dig dens in the dunes. The dune residents only come out at night to gather food and socialize.
Devils Cornfield is a plain of arrowwood plants perched atop pedestals of soil that have distant resemblance to corn stalks or so claims the reading material. Having driven through Indiana cornfields in a golf cart as a teenager, I’d have to say “distant resemblance” at best. If the sign weren’t pointing to the stubby bushes, I would have passed right by the “cornfield”.
After a brief stop to snap a photo, I continued on to Salt Creek Nature Trail, a 0.5 mile boardwalk that passes by Salt Creek. Salt Creek flows along the valley floor 200 feet below sea level and is like an oasis to desert animals. It is also home to the rare Salt Creek Pupfish. I attempted to view a different type of pupfish in West Texas in February to no avail, but the Salt Creek Pupfish were not to be missed. They were everywhere. With a lifespan of less than one year, the more colorful, territorial male, chased away other males while allowing the brown female to enter his spawning territory. The Salt Creek Pupfish is one of the toughest of all fish. As opposed to freshwater fish that absorb water through their skin, Salt Creek Pupfish must drink to survive. They live in salinity several times greater than that of seawater and in temperatures nearing freezing to more than 100 degrees. Not all pupfish live in this type of environment. In fact, the Salt Creek Pupfish ancestors lived in streams flowing into a huge freshwater lake. As the water dried up, pupfish adapted to living in water holes scattered across the desert. Today, the isolated water holes vary between freshwater springs and marshes to Salt Creek’s briny water. As such, pupfish have evolved into ten species and subspecies of which two are now extinct and three are listed as endangered. The walk along the shallow creek, not more than a few inches deep was quite interesting.
My final stop of the day before returning to camp was Harmony Borax Works. Harmony Borax Works is the site of one of the first Borax Operations in Death Valley. It began operation in 1883 and closed down five years later due to financial problems of owner William T. Coleman and borax discoveries in other parts of California. Borax, white gold of the desert, is used to make soaps, disinfectants, and food preservatives. In the late 1800s, Chinese laborers loaded borax onto wagons pulled by 20-mule teams. These teams hauled loads weighing up to 36 tons on wagons with wheels seven feet high across 165 miles of forbidding terrain. For over a century, the 20-mule team has been the symbol of the borax industry, as the teams solved the most difficult task for the borax operators…getting the product to market.
Some new campers took Jeff’s spot at the campgrounds. I said hello, but it was clear they were foreign like most visitors to the park, and a long conversation wasn’t going to be had. I climbed in VANilla, blogged a bit, and popped the top up for the first time in months to enjoy a lovely 55 degree evening. ETB