Geology lessons in Death Valley.
It's like sitting on A ledge - in space. From the top of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, the floor of Death Valley spreads out almost 2 miles below. Practically straight down. Salt pans feather and streak the valley north of Badwater - at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America - looking like clouds, not minerals.
A sense of relief at the completion of a 7-mile, 3,000-foot climb is to be expected. But this sense of geological relief is almost beyond imagining. Across the valley, a mere 20 miles away; the 6,000-foot-plus Black Mountains barely stop the eye as the view extends east into Nevada. To the northwest rises the jagged ridge of 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.
You don't have to be a rock hound to wonder what created a land of such dramatic opposites. For that matter, you don't have to climb a mountain to appreciate it. As you walk through this valley of death, look up at the snow-capped Panamints and consider that their rise is one of the steepest of any range in North America.
Something is definitely up at Death Valley, one of two new national parks created last fall by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. It's also down and folded, twisted, and broken. Indeed, Death Valley is full of opposites and extremes. It may also be the best place in the West to appreciate geology, not as an abstract science, but as a primal, living force.
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
There is the notion of following your bliss. In Death Valley, the idea is to follow the rock. The journey can take you to billion-year-old formations in Marble Canyon, or hundred-year-old mining sites up in the Panamints.
Color and form offer hints of the valley's animated geology. The greens here are not the dark shades of leafy plants but the pastels of oxidizing irons. Hidden within canyons are rocks that don't just tilt, they swirl - geology on the spin cycle. Gigantic alluvial fans, comprised of countless flows of gravel that pour out of the mountains with rains, deceptively appear frozen, seemingly in midooze.
In part, it is this ooze that has made Death Valley what it is - and, for that matter, what it isn't. As impressive as the drop from Telescope Peak to Bad-water may seem, it pales in comparison to the fact that it's another 9,000 feet from the valley floor to bedrock. Everything in between is fill, brought here on those alluvial highways, as well as by rivers that once flowed into the valley.
With so much of the place moving so much of the time, it's no wonder that after a hike in one of Death Valley's canyons, your legs will probably feel as if you had taken a walk on the beach. From afar, the alluvial fans look solid, but hike up one and you'll soon search with longing, then desperation, for a route where the rocks aren't constantly shifting beneath your feet.
One of the best hiking canyons in Death Valley is Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells. Like many canyons in the park, this one is wide at first but becomes more labyrinthine farther up. Walls climb to hundreds of feet, and in spots where the harder rock resists the erosiveness of rushing floodwaters, the canyon narrows, forcing you to scale small dry waterfalls. Most are gradual, but a few rise almost straight up, 10 or 15 feet to terraces, separate worlds that promise new discoveries.
The marbles at Mosaic Canyon, polished by flooding, have origins in the Proterozoic era, which began nearly 1.5 billion years ago. But the Death Valley we know took form more recently.
THE BIG BANG
About 27 million years ago, Death Valley received the geological equivalent of a fresh start. Over millions of years, a series of volcanic flows buried billions of years of topography and rock. As Michael Collier puts it in his helpful guide An Introduction to the Geology of Death Valley, "Looking east from Death Valley twenty million years ago, you would have seen virtually a single seared plain stretching hundreds of miles across Nevada."
After the flows, the forces of geology went about their business in a more patient manner. Some 14 million years ago, two strike-slip faults - similar and roughly parallel to each other and to the famous San Andreas fault - began pushing up the Funeral and Black Mountains on the east side of the valley and the Panamint Range on the west. Then around four million years ago, the valley itself emerged as a fault basin, as the dueling faults literally pulled the place apart.
Still, it's difficult to visualize the movement of whole mountain ranges over millions of years. More obvious evidence that Death Valley is a work in progress can be found at Ubehebe Crater, at the park's north end. Along the road to the crater is a large debris field of dark rock. As recently as a thousand years ago, that rock filled the 750-foot-deep, 1/2-mile-wide crater that is Ubehebe. Hiking to the bottom is like trekking into the earth's history. Bands along the crater's soaring walls paint a picture of millions of years of change, in brush strokes of sedimentary and volcanic rock. It's an impressive sight, and a welcome distraction on the gravelly way back up.
MINING THE STORE
Compared even to this most recent example of its geologic history, though, Death Valley's human history represents little more than a blink of Mother Nature's eye. Even so, the stories about the miners and prospectors who followed the rock here, especially gold and silver-bearing quartz, have a mythical quality, and firsthand reports from the era have an almost ancient cast. Distant, indeed, sounds the voice of one prospector, who compared the area to "Hades with the lid off...You have not seen an animal, not a reptile, not an insect, not a bird. Not a living creature of any kind. No flies to bother you...the heat is so intense you can almost hear it sizzle - that tingle in the air is the only sound perceptible."
It's cooler up above 5,000 feet at Skidoo, an old gold-mining town in the Panamints. Skidoo, built during the second great era of gold and silver mining in California, had everything you might expect in a boomtown, including a famous lynching. And unlike a lot of mining areas in Death Valley, Skidoo even made money.
Mining sites such as Skidoo and Keane Wonder, across the valley, fire our contemporary imaginations. But it was borax, a chalky mineral worth 50 cents a pound in its heyday, that paid most of the bills and is responsible for Death Valley's most enduring legends.
Borax, the geological equivalent of clarified butter, accumulated on what is now Death Valley's floor as the lakes that filled the area in wetter periods dried up. The mineral deposits that remained, including borates, sat there for tens of thousands of years, until the 1870s. William Coleman of San Francisco devised the famous 20-mule teams that could transport as much as 46,000 pounds of the stuff at a time out of Death Valley to the railroad junction at Mojave, 165 miles away. Coleman's Harmony Borax Works still stands, and there's a canyon near Zabriskie Point named after the teams. Ironically, 20-mule teams may never have visited this canyon. Then again, the teams actually consisted of 18 mules and two horses, so who's to quibble over details.
Inarguable is the stark beauty of Twenty Mule Team Canyon, whose barren hills look golden and almost metallic in the late-afternoon sun. In contrast, entrances to prospectors' mines are inky, resembling small dark windows into the hills. You might say Death Valley's canyons are windows, too, although the views they afford are not always the same twice.
On a recent trip to the canyon, 30 minutes of cross-country hiking was about to end in a dead end at a steep wall beneath a ridge. This was not new. But to the east, the alluvial flow that marked a gravel path to this place opened to an unforgettable sight. A bright light, the very top of the rising full moon, emerged from behind a pointed peak in the Funeral Mountains. The moon's ascent was actually visible as it slowly crested, then balanced for a moment on the purple summit.
Follow the rock, and sometimes you do find bliss.
UP & DOWN IN THE VALLEY
Despite its notorious reputation, Death Valley is actually very comfortable in winter and spring. During the next couple of months, temperatures should range from the 70s by day to the 40s at night. Be sure to carry plenty of water (this is still a dry place), and make sure your car is in good shape. Many of the park's unpaved roads are suitable for cars without four-wheel-drive, but always check on road conditions before heading out.
The visitor center, just off State Highway 190 at Furnace Creek. is a must stop. It offers an orientation slide show roughly every 30 minutes, and its museum provides a good overview of the park. The center, open 8 to 7. offers nightly programs as well as information about daily interpretive walks that explore the park's natural and human history.
At the center, pick up interpretive guides for such popular geological destinations as Golden Canyon, Titus Canyon, and the road to Badwater, which includes stops at the mottled terrain of Devil's Golf Course. Especially if you've never been to the park, you should make a point of seeing such major attractions as Sand Dunes, Ubehebe Crater, and the route along the multicolored. oxidized hills of Artists Drive.
For introductory reading on Death Valley's geology, try Michael Collier's An Introduction to the Geology of Death Valley (Natural History Association, 1990; $7.95), available at the visitor center. For more information, or to check on road conditions, call (619) 786-2331.
WHERE TO STAY
At this time of year, campers can choose from six campgrounds (fees range from none to $10). For reservations at Furnace Creek campground only, call (800) 365-2267. All others are first-come, first-served. For non-campers, the park has three hotels. Winter and spring accommodations can be tight, especially around Easter, so plan ahead. The Furnace Creek Inn is the most opulent option ($175 to $375; some packages include breakfast and dinner for two), while the Furnace Creek Ranch has cabins and motel-style rooms ($70 to $120); call (619) 786-2345 for both. Stovepipe Wells Village ($53 to $76) is another good choice; call 786-2387.
Desolation Canyon. The colors of the iron oxides in this canyon of mud hills (used as an alien backdrop in Star Wars) are subtle but memorable: greens, pinks, and lavenders. Lightly visited by tourists, the canyon winds through hills, with a few small falls to climb up. Look for an unmarked road 3.7 miles off Badwater Road south of State 190. Follow the dirt road to a parking area, then head up the main wash.
Fall Canyon. A good alternative to Titus Canyon is Fall Canyon, which offers similar water-carved scenery. After about 3 miles, the canyon narrows to a usually dry waterfall that most people won't want to scale (watch for flash floods). Along the way, you'll see some amazingly twisted and swirling rock. Park at the Titus Canyon Mouth parking area, which is 3 miles east on rough road from State 190 at the northern end of the valley. Walk along the base of the mountains 0.6 mile to the large wash and Fall Canyon.
Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch. A 5-mile loop trail starts at an interpretive trail through the water-eroded mud hills of Golden Canyon. It then passes along Manly Beacon, one of the prominent features of the legendary sunrise views from Zabriskie Point, before dropping into Gower Gulch. The gulch is drab at the beginning but gets more interesting as it narrows toward its mouth. A handout on this hike is available at the visitor center.
Mosaic Canyon. Just west of Stovepipe Wells, a graded road leads to a beautiful canyon of polished marble walls and breccia. You can reach areas of mosaiclike rock within 1/2 mile of the parking area, or extend the hike up the canyon.
Red Wall Canyon. The early stretches of this 6-mile round-trip walk provide more of an introduction to the rocky complexity of alluvial fans than you might like. Inviting from a distance, the fan makes for tough walking before you reach the canyon, with its patches of red volcanic rock mixed in with darker granites. The canyon ends about a mile in at a dry waterfall, although it is possible to push on, especially since someone put in a climbing rope. Park 3.7 miles north of the Titus Canyon turnoff. Look to the mountains on the east for a meeting of the red and dark rock. Aim toward that spot. The easiest walking is on the dark, packed gravel, not in the lighter-colored drainages.
The highest concentration of gold-mining sites is off Emigrant Canyon Road. Skidoo is accessible via a 7-mile dirt road (narrow in spots). Most of the town is gone, but the hills are pockmarked with tunnels and the stamp mill still stands (past the road's locked gate). The view from the 5,700-foot elevation is memorable.
About 2.3 miles past the Skidoo turnoff on Emigrant Canyon is the road for Harrisburg, a gold-mining site developed by two of Death Valley's most famous mining figures, Shorty Harris and Pete Aguereberry.
A site easy to reach from the valley is the Keane Wonder Mine. Gold was first discovered around here in 1903. You can follow the impressive tramway up to the mine site, although it's quite steep. From State 190, take the Beatty Cutoff north, then turn right at a dirt road and follow it 3 miles.
For a look at the history of borax operations, visit the remains of the 1882 Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek. At Furnace Creek Ranch, the Borax Museum has old equipment, including some of the 20-mule-team wagons.