Having spent the previous day exploring the southern reaches of Death Valley, we decided to head north for our second day in the park. Running north to south, Death Valley is about one hundred miles long. That means that there are very apparent differences between the northern and southern sections. In my last post, I wrote about the salt flats at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. In the north, we see the terrain slowly, but steadily rising. The vegetation gently shifts with the elevation, as did the wildflowers. Venturing north, for us, represented an opportunity to explore Ubehebe Crater and the Racetrack. The story behind the Ubehebe Crater is relatively unknown. Some estimations say it is just eight hundred years old, others date it back more than seven thousand years. Either way, it is a massive crater filled with reddish orange sediments that cling together in fluted erosional patterns, giving its walls an almost wake-like appearance. Beyond Ubehebe, a barely perceptible band of volcanic gravel stretches into the depths of a wide canyon. That is the beginning of the twenty-seven mile road that leads towards the Racetrack. The Racetrack is a mystical expanse of cracked earth where magical rocks leave trails as they travel across the sand. This bizarre phenomenon has drawn all kinds of publicity, so much so that some folks even stole the rocks (some are more like boulders) in order to harness their magic powers. In reality, the movement occurs when moisture in the sand freezes into a thin sheet of ice and then the persistent winds gently push the rocks along the desert floor. Even though science has figured out the magic, I would maintain that magic is still at work there. How cool is that!!!
But I digress… back to the road. The Park Service recommends that all vehicles attempting the drive bring not one, but two spare tires! Blowouts are exceedingly common, especially when the volcanic rocks bite into unsuspecting sidewalls. Feeling confident, we slowly meandered down the ominous road. My positive vibes quickly evaporated as we slipped into the deep washboarding of the sandy road. Crawling along at ten miles per hour, I realized that we were out of our element and turned tail for the paved roads. Sam has been able to handle some pretty serious terrain, but I didn’t want to push my luck in one of the most remote places in Death Valley.
Back on concrete, we started heading south once more. On our way back, we passed by the sections of road that had been washed out by flash floods in October. The floods had damaged several sections of road, but had almost taken out Scotty’s Castle. The desert villa of Albert Mussey Johnson, Scotty’s Castle is named after a famous Death Valley resident who would cheat visitors or prospectors to earn a quick buck. One of his rackets, however, came to the attention of Mr. Johnson, the Chicago investor who Scotty was attempting to swindle. Instead of tossing him to the authorities, Johnson and his wife befriended Scotty, building a mansion in Death Valley that Scotty was welcome to live in year round. In the end, the flash floods wreaked havoc on some of the outbuildings, but left the castle itself untouched, preserving that bizarre fragment of Death Valley history.
On our way back south, we stopped multiple times to wander along the roadside, marveling at the diversity of the wildflowers growing out of the barren landscape. From the car, blankets of Desert Gold seemed prevalent, but staying in the car hid many of the most vibrant blooms that Death Valley had to offer. I will happily admit that flowers have never held my attention as long as mountains or forests do. I understand their beauty and they never detract from a landscape, but I have never sought them out. The flowers in Death Valley drew my attention not for their beauty, but for their hardiness. Looking down at the tiny blooming flowers growing out of the soil (some would call it gravel, others would call it sand), I couldn’t help but applaud their mighty efforts. I wonder how long I would last if asked to survive on the floor of Death Valley. I doubt I would last very long at all. These plants, though, had built a life here, growing steadily into the epic heat in a landscape whose annual rainfall hovers around two inches. Talk about overcoming the odds!
With most of the traffic concentrated down south, we were free to explore along the highway without interruption. We stopped to photograph sand dunes, cracked patches of earth, and flowers of all colors. Later that afternoon, we made our way to Mosaic Canyon, just outside of Stovepipe Wells, another outpost of civilization in Death Valley. Mosaic Canyon is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. The basic layout is simple: a trail leading up a winding canyon. Pretty basic right? The beauty and mystery of Mosaic Canyon lies in its rock. Here, Noonday Dolomite transformed over hundreds of millions of years to marble. That marble has been polished by centuries of mudslides and flashfloods, leaving it smooth to the touch. The walls of Mosaic Canyon are an endless, tactile explanation of the canyon’s wild geologic history. Sections uplift at bizarre angles, while others fold over gracefully in curving layers of bending stone. Intrusions shoot through the bedrock like bolts of lightening. Tighter sections carved by flash floods and human traffic are as smooth as the sides of a bathtub, while other canyon walls are as rough as sandpaper. Massive boulders of every color hang weightless in a frail matrix. It is a museum of geologic confusion and the beauty that only time and pressure can create.
Marveling at the geology, our progress up the canyon was far from consistent. After ninety minutes of stopping and starting, we reached an impassable wall of water worn rock. Wondering if we had reached the end, we spun around looking for other routes. Behind us, blazed into a steep hillside, lay our answer. There was always another path. The canyons of Death Valley are never ending and often interconnected. You could hike for days out here, shimmying up one canyon only to descend through the drainage of another. Climbing up to an outlook high above the canyon floor, we stared out over the curving ridges beneath us. In the distance, the mountains shifted into a bluish haze as the sun dropped gently beneath the horizon.
On our descent, we met Bob, a retired outdoor enthusiast from Montana who spends half of his year wandering the desert southwest in his RV. From his tanned skin, obvious familiarity with the canyon, and gentle stride, it was clear that this wasn’t his first time in Death Valley. We hiked the last mile or so together, sharing stories from our respective adventures. This was his ninth time to Death Valley and he had already been here for about a month! Bob left us with a hearty handshake and a wide smile, wishing us the best on our journey. He is just another example of the random, but special connections that are hiding around every corner.
Pulling into Stovepipe Wells for the night, we cooked up a pot of vegan mac and cheese. A classic from my mom’s early camping days and a staple on many of the trips I have guided, it definitely hit the spot. Afterwards, we went out for another walk down an abandoned road for one last night of stargazing before turning in for the night.