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Late Winter / Early Spring


The view of snow-covered Telescope Peak (elevation 11,049 feet)

from the Badwater salt flats, which at 282 feet elevation below sea level

is the lowest point in the United States.

Spring fling in Death Valley

(Published March 20, 2009)


  Although the calendar was still proclaiming winter for another week, the weather in Death Valley was definitely spring-like. This was a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip yet so scenic and enjoyable that John and I vowed to make it an annual March tradition.
   This time of year is nearing peak season for Death Valley, meaning that the park is busy. But the park is so large — at 3.3 million acres, it’s the largest national park in the Lower 48 — that only the developed areas are crowded.
   The daytime highs during this late-winter weekend were in the low 80s and at night the temperature dropped to a comfortable 60 degrees. The waning full moon was late-rising, giving us plenty of time for desert stargazing before it cast a ghostly glow over the golden hills surrounding Texas Springs Campground in the Furnace Creek area.
   Death Valley is the place to go for pristine night-sky-watching as the Park Service here is committed to preserving the night sky. In the campground, there are no lights glaring all night long from the CCC-built restrooms, so one doesn’t need to venture farther than their campsite to view constellations or falling stars.

  Late March to mid April is also the time to visit the valley for wildflower viewing. We encountered some early-bloomers while there, but there is always a possibility of fields of flowers if all the natural conditions align.
   The driving distance to our Death Valley campsite from Three Rivers was 315 miles, yet as the crow flies the area is less than 100 miles due east from home. It’s that forbidding Sierra escarpment that must be detoured around by first driving south.
   While touring the area, we saw coyotes, roadrunners, and a rock beneath a cliff shaped like an Acme anvil. During our all-too-short weekend in the park, we were able to fit in three short day hikes, which revealed spectacular desert scenery, complex geology, primeval wilderness, and historic sites.
   With place names consisting of words such as death, bad, hell, dead, devil, blood, funeral, and jackass, it’s best not to be one and forget to carry enough water. Also pay heed to the temperature, which can soar to more than 120 degrees in the summer.

Natural Bridge in Death Valley National Park.

   NATURAL BRIDGE CANYON— Much of Death Valley’s geological phenomena are highlighted on the short hike to Natural Bridge and beyond. The trailhead is located off Badwater Road (Highway 178), 14 miles south of the junction of highways 190 and 178.
   Turn left (east) off the highway and travel 1.5 miles on a dirt road to reach the parking lot and trailhead. There are pit toilets here, but no water. Always carry your own.
   Before heading into the canyon narrows, read the information kiosk at the trailhead. It explains the various formations that will be encountered — slip faulting, alluvial fans, chutes, dryfalls, differential erosion, bedding, fault caves, mud drips.
   After walking through a narrow, picturesque, and shady canyon on a gentle upslope for less than a half-mile, the natural arch comes into view. Continue beyond this high bridge and the trail is now a streambed, which is what created the formation by eroding this rocky hillside from below.
   It’s evident that not many people venture beyond Natural Bridge, but it is worth it to continue another half-mile or so until the canyon dead-ends at a dry waterfall. There are two short dryfalls that require some easy scrambling before the sheer 20-foot fall that blocks travel is reached.

   BADWATER SALT FLATS— It’s a vast bed of salt in the hottest, lowest spot in the United States. Sounds daunting, but it’s the most popular visitor attraction in the park as it is the ultimate Death Valley experience.
   The site is just off Highway 178, about 17 miles south of the junction of highways 190 and 178.
   There is a well-trodden pathway that’s as wide as a highway and about a half-mile in length, which takes tourists to the edge of the salt pan. Then there is a narrow trail that continues another one-tenth of a mile.
   We ventured another mile onto the vast salt flats, which are about five miles across. Here we escaped the sounds of the highway and the hordes of tourists. While we were out there, no one else ventured beyond the beaten path.
   On each of these hikes, we made a point to stop and listen to the extreme silence. The desert’s immense quiet is something not often experienced, and the constant noise of everyday life is not realized until it is no longer heard. The silence caused a pressure on the ears not unlike what is felt when diving deep underwater.
   Being on this expansive bed of salt is an experience similar to being on a snowfield in the Sierra. It’s blindingly white and the sun’s rays are intense and reflective.
   But this groundcover doesn’t melt away under the sun’s heat. In fact, it is only inches thick but firm when walking on it.
It has miniature pinnacles that are sharp to the touch and if one were to fall onto the sharp, jagged surface, there would certainly be broken skin and blood.
   The human history in Death Valley is fascinating; so many tried to tame the elements while eking out a living off the land. This fortitude is appreciated when on the salt flats and while viewing the vast, perilous expanse of the valley floor.
   Upon returning to the parking lot, don’t forget to glance up at the vertical mountainside on the opposite side of the highway for the “SEA LEVEL” sign. This provides perspective of how low the basin is and the wide range of environments in close proximity.
   For instance, consider that Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. at 14,495 feet elevation — 14,777 feet higher than Badwater, the lowest point — is less than 85 air miles to the west.

The view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park

overlooks the badlands and the salt flats beyond.

On the right side of the photo is the trail that

travels through the colorful hills from Golden Canyon.

The gray wash in the foreground is the return route via Gower Gulch.

   GOLDEN CANYON AND GOWER GULCH— It is a beautiful one-mile walk up Golden Canyon. This is an interpretive trail with 10 geological points of interest along the way that correspond with a guide that’s available for 25 cents at the trailhead.
   The parking lot for the trail is just off Highway 178, two miles from the junction of highways 190 and 178.
   Until 1976, there was a paved road into Golden Canyon. But that year, a torrential cloudburst caused the area to flood and wash out the pavement.
   At one mile, the final stop of the interpretive trail is reached. Looking beyond is Red Cathedral (originally called Dripping Blood Mountain, which appropriately describes the florid formation). After taking this spur for less than a half-mile to the base of Red Cathedral, near where the parking lot for Golden Canyon used to be, backtrack to the Golden Canyon trail and its junction with the trail to Zabriskie Point/Gower Gulch.
   Here the trail begins its wanderings through the badlands. Because there are many side canyons and washes, the trail is delineated with markers from here to Zabriskie Point and well-signed at every intersection.
   The route takes hikers, of which we only saw a handful, up and around Manly Beacon, a prominent sandstone peak just south of Red Cathedral. It seemed like quite an accomplishment to climb to this high point of 440 feet on the trail after being down under in Badwater only an hour or so previously.
   Looking at these mountains from the inside of a car speeding along the highway, one may have the impression that the badlands are a bleak, achromatic place. By experiencing them on foot, a rich and dramatic landscape is revealed; the hills are alive with vivid shades of red, brown, golden, black, and green.
   It’s a miner’s dream. In fact, as we headed toward the pass below Manly Beacon we could see hillsides that were dotted with mines and prospect holes, as mining for borax occurred here until 1933 when Death Valley became a national monument.

A now-abandoned borax excavation in Gower Gulch.

WARNING: It is unsafe to enter any of Death Valley's abandoned mines.

   We had started this hike just before 2 p.m., and the temperature was about 82 degrees. When we were hiking low on the hills, the air was still and very warm; when on the ridgetops, there was a steady breeze to keep us cool.
   The trail beyond Manly Beacon descends to a wash, which is also a signed trail junction between Gower Gulch and Zabriskie Point.  We climbed up a dry creekbed/trail toward Zabriskie Point, which truth be told, can also be reached by vehicle via Highway 190, although it is only a real Death Valley adventure if you trek across the badlands to reach the scenic overlook.
   We walked through a notch in the hillside just a short way from the Zabriskie Point parking lot, then walked up to the viewpoint where we could look back at where we had hiked. A woman taking photos from the overlook commented to her husband that she could see a trail down below.
   I appreciated the opportunity to tell them that we had just been on that trail and that hiking it is an enjoyable way to get to know Death Valley.
   Zabriskie Point is named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, who first came to Death Valley in 1889 and eventually became a powerful figure in the Pacific Coast Borax operation.
   From Zabriskie Point, we backtracked down to the junction and began our return to the Golden Canyon parking lot by way of Gower Gulch. There is no trail here, but this dry riverbed is easy to follow.
   Along the way, we marveled at the rock formations and the sculpting power of water as flash floods have carved out this canyon. Although we noticed the contrast of the gray rocks that line the drainage compared to the golden sandstone cliff faces surrounding it, it wasn’t until later research on the area that we learned that Gower Gulch’s erosion has been accelerated since it serves as a diversion to Furnace Creek.
   If we would have walked a couple hundred feet up the wash we would have noticed the artificial cut made in the rock face to send flash-flood waters this way to protect the Furnace Creek developed area from these destructive deluges.
   Gower Gulch honors George Truman Gower, whose son Harrison was a superintendent for Pacific Coast Borax Company for many years.
   We continued down the wide, gray Gower Gulch, craning our necks at the picturesque canyon walls and peaking into the long-abandoned tunnels dug out of the mountainsides by early-day miners in search of borax. At the wash’s lower reaches it narrows and bends left, so much so that on our approach it looked as though we were boxed in.
   Instead it was a 90-degree turn and a short dryfall to scramble down. Then, as we followed the wash to the end of the canyon, we encountered a 30-foot dryfall. For a brief moment, we thought we would have to negotiate our way down this vertical rock face… then we saw the trail that contours down along the cliff side before heading north at the base of the mountains to the parking lot.
   This desert jaunt was about six-and-a-half miles in length, took three hours to complete, which included dozens of photo stops, and had a vertical elevation gain of about 950 feet.












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