Friday, June 19, 2009

Death Valley

I was expecting Death Valley National Park to be all flat desert and sand dunes, and so I was surprised to find much more variety of terrain throughout the park. There were salt flats below sea level next to 11,000 ft mountains, sand dunes, and hilly regions with interesting desert colors in the rock formations.

Online photos posted: HERE

The first day as I entered the park I stopped mid-day at Zabriskie Point where a short trail to an overlook gave a view of magnificent desert hills with the salt-flats behind. Then I drove into the visitor center, passing below sea level. Interesting how there are 11,000ft mountains rising from the valley floor. Campsites were filling up, so I had to take the first available which was in the middle of a big RV parking lot.

I drove out and took a look at the Badwater salt-flats up close. At 282 ft below sea level, it is the lowest point in the US. Then I drove through the Artists loop which allowed some upclose views of the desert hills and the colors in the rocks. Finally I ended the day by driving up to the Dante’s View Point, (5700 feet) overlooking Badwater Basin (between 3 and 5 miles away, and almost 6000ft below) for sunset pictures.

Red line indicates Sea-level as seen from Badwater.

In the morning I got up before sunrise and went back to Zabriskie point for pictures. There were quite a few photographers gathered and so I staked my place for the sunrise pictures. As the sun rose, gradually illuminating the hills with the reddish early morning light, it was hard to tell if the lighting had peaked, or would get better, so I took a few too many pictures here.

Afterwards, I went for a run from Zabriskie point around the Gower Gulch loop trails, which followed mostly dry river beds weaving through the hills I had just photographed. The trail went 3 miles across to the edge of the basin on the other side, and then came back a different route. Some of the hillsides had holes from old abandoned mines. Much of the trail wasn’t marked and followed dry creek beds, leaving me wondering at times if I was on the right path. I saw occasional footsteps in the dirt indicating others had come through so I figured I must be on track. By the time I was done around 10:30, it was starting to get sunny and hot.

For the second night, I moved my tent up to Stovepipe Wells campground 20 miles away. On the way there, I stopped at the Salt Creek Interpretive trail, which had some boardwalks to allow a short hike observing a shallow creek where tiny pupfish had evolved into a unique species. After reading and informational post on pupfish mating practices, I looked down and realized there were pupfish mating all over the place. Males would stake out prime spawning territory and drive off other males while trying to swim next to any female that came near to shake their stuff as the female laid eggs. Successful males were mating with two or three females within a few minutes. After spending a few minutes photographing this orgy, I walked through the rest of the loop trail. The vegetation in this area soaks up a lot of salt, and then old growth slowly dies turning a crisp white salty color. When I came back to the spawning grounds, all the activity seems to have stopped. It was as if I would have missed the mating season if I was 20 minutes later. Or maybe the little fishes got a room somewhere else.

When I got to Stovepipe Wells, I got one of the last tent-only sites on the edge of the campground that was a bit more secluded than the night before. I drove north up to Scotty’s castle, but missed the tour so I started back so I could be in position near the sand dunes for late afternoon pictures when the sun was low enough for interesting shadows. On the way, I stopped to get a picture of a coyote near the road. The coyote walked into the middle of the road and laid down. It did not get up when I wandered a little too close for pictures. It picked a spot in the road, just over a hill, where it was a bit dangerous because drivers would not see it until they were right up on it. It ignored every car that drove past, and everyone was stopping for a couple of pictures. At first I thought maybe it was wounded or sick, but it eventually got up and wandered off the road. I suspect someone might have fed this animal before, and now it was posing for pictures in the hopes of getting some food.

I went to the dunes near my campsite and walked out a ways. Clouds were obscuring the afternoon sun, so the light was not good for pictures. I scouted out some paces to be for the next morning’s sunrise before heading back for a shower and early sleep. Back at the campsite, someone had taken my receipt off the camp post and replaced it with their own, despite my tent being up. The tent site boundaries were not well defined, and there was plenty of room and the other couple had pitched their tent more than 40 feet from me so after chatting with them a bit, I didn’t make an issue of it.

In the morning, I got up before sunrise and hiked into the dunes in the dark to be ready for the sunrise. There were a couple of other photographers on other hills, and we all did a fairly good job of hiding behind dunes to staying out of each other’s pictures.

After breakfast, I decided to get my trail run in at higher altitude as part of my training for Jemez, so I drove from sea level up to the Willow Peak trailhead at 7000ft. This would place me on the opposite side of Death Valley from my sunset vantage point of a couple of days before. I couldn’t hike to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,000ft, due to snow, so I picked the next highest peak in the area. At the trail head, there were a bunch of large stone kilns build 100+ years before as a charcoal factory. The Sierra Nevada Mountains were visible in the distance. I ran up 4 miles to the peak near 9700ft. On the way up, I kept hearing what I thought was a nearby airplane flying near, but instead it was the sound of the wind blowing through the mountain passes. The wind had blown up a lot of sand from the valley below and obscured much of the views. The last mile has several patches of snow where I had to rely on previous hikers footsteps to figure out the path. I finally got to the top, but the wind was strong so I turned around quickly and descended to a saddle between mountains to take a quick lunch before running the rest of the way down. By the time I got down, the dust had obscured the Sierra Nevada’s in the distance.

The altitude effect of spending the night sea level and heading up to 10,000ft really started to hit as I drove away from the trail head. I did not realize it at the time, but this was a bit of training for my next trip to Hawaii. On the climb to the mountain top I had noticed a mild altitude headache, which is a little normal for me. Then on the drive down the mountain the pressure as my ears popped leaved me a little light headed. I stopped at one point to rest a few minutes and let the effects subside and drink some water. To leave the park, I had to drive down below sea level, and then back up over another 8000ft pass. By the time I got to Las Vegas, I was feeling rather fatigued from the headache that had come from these altitude changes. Stopping for food helped. And then I found a $23 hotel special at the Sands Casino on Vegas strip and crashed there early to sleep off the altitude sickness before moving on toward Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks the next day.

More photos posted: HERE

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  1. awesome photos! thanks for sharing!

  2. Beautiful pics, John! Sounds like a good trip.

  3. A lot of people have that same initial impression of Death Valley, must be from all the spaghetti Westerns of our youth. You take such gorgeous photos and then back them up with great descriptions.


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