Friday, March 5, 2010

Death Valley Excursion - 2/26-28/10

So, where did Death Valley's name come from? According to the pamphlet that is given out at its Visitor Centers, back in 1849, during the California Gold Rush, the below-sea-level valley was tried as a short cut to California gold. Only one wagon made it out the other side and one 49er died in the process. "In their account, a member of the party turned and said 'Goodbye Death Valley.' The name stuck. For more interesting history, visit the museum located inside the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

The Around the Bend Friends Hiking Club made its first trip to Death Valley in a few years on February 26th through 28th. Club members stayed in hotels in and out of the park and came together for several hikes over a rainy weekend. Yes, a Death Valley rainy weekend! Although Saturday was a wash out, the club members separated into several small groups and hiked Titus Canyon, the Sand Dunes of Stovepipe Wells and visited Scotty's Castle. To the left, you can see a few of the hikers in Titus Canyon where, because the road was closed, they had the entire canyon to themselves. We would like to welcome a new guest photographer named Cindy Wilson who offered a few of her photos from the weekend.

An honorable mention should be made to the four club members who travelled up to Panamint Springs and hiked the Darwin Falls trail on Friday, the day before. It was not reported exactly why but apparently Guy provided comic relief for this outing. You'll have to ask Guy, "What up?" It was reported, however, that the falls were beautiful.

After the outings were finished on Saturday, club members gathered at one of the hotels and partied all afternoon. What else was there to do?! The time was well spent as relaxation techniques took over ... well, conversation, game playing, etc., of course.

The rain came down all day with few breaks. Death Valley isn't used to much rain but this past month has been quite a wet one. The dirt becomes a sticky gooey mess of mud when wet. Photos of the surrounding scenery were interesting even with the rain and the one to the right was taken up near the Texas Spring campground where the water flowed heavily through the arroyo.

Views of the mountains rising from the playa or "Salt Pan" were obstructed by clouds filled with rain and snow. The good news is that all of this rain should bring a very nice crop of wildflowers to Death Valley in the next 3 weeks or so. We were warned that the flowers will only be spectacular if it doesn't warm up too quickly. But, right now, there is a lot of "fuzz" growing everywhere. First hand examination revealed a two leaf sprout about 1.5 inches in diameter.

The next morning, Sunday, there were many pairs of eyes that were delighted to see the sun rising over the horizon. Warmth came quickly and aside from the remaining abundance of mud, all signs of rain from the day before had disappeared. The first order of business was to do a small hike into Mosaic Canyon; the hike that had officially been slated for Saturday. Cindy has shown us a smidgen of the interesting slot canyon in the photo to the left.

Next, the group drove from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek for the hike that was slated for Sunday. Arriving at the trailhead for Golden Canyon one hour later than planned, the large group began the uphill climb into a beautiful gold colored canyon of the Amargosa Mountain Range. Cindy shows us one of the points of beauty to the left, the Red Cathedral.

Around 2.5 miles into the hike, they arrived at Manly Beacon which is a landmark in the area of Furnace Creek off the entrance road. Cindy's photo clearly shows the immensity of the peak which is situated among "frozen" eroded sand dunes. Zabriskie Point, which this area is called was named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie according to Wikipedia. He was the "vice-president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 20th century. The company's famous, iconic twenty-mule teams were used to transport borax from its mining operations in Death Valley."

Wikipedia has made this entry on the web about the Zabriskie Point and Furnace Creek area.

"Millions of years prior to the actual sinking and widening of Death Valley and the existence of Lake Manly (the lake which once filled Death Valley), another lake covered a large portion of Death Valley including the area around Zabriskie Point. This ancient lake began forming approximately nine million years ago. During several million years of the lake's existence, sediments were collecting at the bottom in the form of saline muds, gravels from nearby mountains, and ashfalls from the then-active Black Mountain volcanic field. These sediments combined to form what we today call the Furnace Creek Formation."

"The climate along Furnace Creek Lake was dry, but not nearly as dry as in the present. Camels, mastodons, horses, carnivores, and birds left tracks in the lakeshore muds along with fossilized grass and reeds. Borate which made up a large portion of Death Valley's historical past were concentrated in the lakebeds from hot spring waters and alteration of rhyolite in the nearby volcanic field. Weathering and alteration by thermal waters are also responsible for the variety of colors represented there."

"Regional mountains building to the west influenced the climate to become more and more arid, causing the lake to dry up, and creating a dry lake. Subsequent widening and sinking of Death Valley and the additional uplift of today's Black Mountains (panorama seen at top of entry) tilted the area. This provided the necessary relief to accomplish the erosion that produced the badlands we see today. The dark-colored material capping the badland ridges (to the left in the panoramic photograph at the bottom of this entry) is lava from eruptions that occurred three to five million years ago. This hard lava cap has retarded erosion in many places and possibly explains why Manly Beacon, the high outcrop to the right, is much higher than other portion of the badlands. Manly Beacon was named in honor of William L. Manly, who along with John Rogers, guided members of the ill-fated Forty-niners out of Death Valley during the gold rush of 1849.

The primary source of borate minerals gathered from Death Valley's playas is Furnace Creek Formation. The Formation is made up of over 5000 feet of mudstone, siltstone, and conglomerate. The borates were concentrated in these lakebeds from hot spring waters and altered rhyolite from nearby volcanic fields."

These photographs of the Badwater Basin and Artist's Drive were taken on Tuesday in the morning. With the newly flooded basin and rain-washed mountains, the views were spectacular. Wikipedia again informs us:

"Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin in Death Valley (within Death Valley National Park), Inyo County, California, noted as the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 ft below sea level. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, is only 76 miles to the west.

The site itself consists of a small spring-fed pool of "bad water" next to the road; the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name. The pool does have animal and plant life, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the Badwater snail.

Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes.

The pool itself is not actually the lowest point of the basin: the lowest point (which is only slightly lower) is several miles to the west and varies in position. However, the salt flats are hazardous to traverse (in many cases being only a thin white crust over mud), and so the sign is at the pool. It is often mistakenly described as the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere, but that is actually Laguna del Carb√≥n in Argentina at −344 feet."

"At Badwater, significant rainstorms flood the valley bottom periodically, covering the salt pan with a thin sheet of standing water. Each newly-formed lake does not last long though, because the 1.9 inches of average rainfall is overwhelmed by a 150-inch annual evaporation rate. This, the United States' greatest evaporation potential, means that even a 12-foot-deep, 30-mile-long lake would dry up in a single year. While the basin is flooded, some of the salt is dissolved; it is redeposited as clean crystals when the water evaporates."

"During the Holocene, when the regional climate was less dry, streams running from nearby mountains gradually filled Death Valley to a depth of almost 30 feet, and together with Cotton Bail Marsh and Middle Basin, made up the 80 mile long, Lake Manly. Some of the minerals left behind by earlier Death Valley lakes dissolved in the shallow water, creating a briny solution."

"The wet times did not last as the climate warmed and rainfall declined. The lake began to dry up and minerals dissolved in the lake became increasingly concentrated as water evaporated. Eventually, only a briny soup remained, forming salty pools on the lowest parts of Death Valley's floor. Salts (95% table salt - NaCl) began to crystallize, coating the surface with a thick crust from three inches to five feet thick."

Zabriskie Point panorama taken from the Wikipedia file.

Thank you Guy for putting together a wildly successful expedition to Death Valley. Any comments by participants are graciously invited.

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