Mojave Desert Adventure Part II
We awoke on the morning of January 10th and began our drive northwest through the Amagrosa Valley. The road snaked aimlessly through the treeless plain and anticlimactically crossed the California border. The bleak landscape was barely illuminated by an even bleaker sky. The first landmark we reached was Death Valley Junction, a town which appeared to be void of any inhabitants. However, the town name hinted that we may be closing in on our goal destination – Death Valley National Park. We reached the entrance of the park on State Highway 190 and realized that we had forgotten our America The Beautiful Pass, so we purchased a week pass at a lonely kiosk in the middle of the desert. I jumped out of the car to take my first steps in the countries hottest national park, only to find that it was a cool 58 degrees which was made even cooler with a slight drizzle and an 18 mph wind out of the SSE.
The first destination on our list was Zabriskie Point, where Apryle had planned a running loop through the Badlands of Death Valley. In less than 500 meters from the trailhead we crested a hill that opened up into a labyrinth of yellow domes that resembled a landscape from the fictional world of Dr Suess. The landscape was quite similar to Badlands National Park of South Dakota but had a unique personality of its own. Underfoot the ground felt like a course sponge and the surrounding mounds felt like they would permanently wash away after a strong rain. The wind swept through the shallow trenches that we were running through and kicked up pebbles into my clothes and hair. The sparse raindrops seemed to do little to dampen the surrounding soil, which hosted only the occasional scraggly Desert Holly plant. The narrow trail took unexpected twists and turns, ascending to passes, plunging into dry washes, and skirting along cliffsides.
Our first deviation from the loop was an out and back trip to Red Cathedral, which was a red colored rock formation that formed a steep wall that towered over the landscape. We marveled at the geological wonder and then descended back to the second leg of the loop – Golden Canyon. This trail passed through a narrow canyon which was surrounded by golden rock walls streaked with red and grey converging lines. The trail terminated in a parking area off of Badwater Road, which mildly detracted from our wilderness experience. The determined sun broke through the clouds for a few moments as we made our way across the plain to Gower Gulch. We realized that we were quite lucky to see the landscape under cloudy skies because it allowed us to fully appreciate the colors and personality of the rock formations without the intense glare of the sun. Before entering the Gower Gulch we peered off to the Panamint Mountains to the west (our destination for the next day). A cloud hung over the highest peaks, which was followed by a layer of snow, which gave way to alluvial fans skirting the base of the range.
Gower Gulch looked just like a river bed carving through towering cliffs, but there was no river. Loose rock formed a winding path with sandy banks marking the shore of the pseudo-riverbed. The sun again became overwhelmed by the clouds and raindrops tried desperately to fill the gulch. We closed out our 9.5 mile (1683 vertical feet) loop with a quick out and back to Zabriskie Point and reflected on one of the most unique places we had ever been.
Our next stop was the Furnace Creek visitor center where we perused the interpretive stations and gathered important beta for the rest of our trip. We took a short walk through the golf course because we were told that it was the best place for birding, but we realized how ridiculous it was to be walking through a wasteful human made structure in a national park and continued on our way. The fourth stop of the day was Artist Palette, which features an array of hues splattered across the striated mountainside. The volcanic deposits containing iron oxides and chlorite produce golden brown hills accented by deep burgundy, gold, coral, and amber splotches. These earth tones are contrasted by maroon, magenta, and emerald swaths that come together to resemble the name sake – artist’s palette.
As we continued southbound through Badwater Basin we stopped at our fifth site – Devils Golf Course. Devils Golf Course is far more interesting and cheaper to maintain than the Furnace Creek Golf Course. This area includes jagged spires of rock salt which has been eroded by wind and rain. We engaged all of our senses as we marveled at the spectacle, listened to the crackling of the bursting salt crystals, touched the surface of the rocks, and even tasted the salt.
The Natural Bridge was our sixth stop and this geologic feature included an 11 meter tall and 11 meter thick bridge engineered by alluvial deposit. Rock, gravel, and sediment was naturally cemented together at the base of the mountain over many years. Which was then eroded away by cycles of flash flooding and changing stream course leading to the creation of the bridge.
Our seventh and final stop for the day in Death Valley National Park was Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. We took a walk out to the salt flats, which was interesting because of its starkness but ultimately it was just long runway passing through a basin. We tried to search for the vulnerable Badwater Snail by scanning the salt marsh but we were unable to locate the small mollusk.
After a full day in the park we continued south along Badwater Road to Ashford Junction. From here we headed east along Jubilee Pass Road which was nearly impassible in some areas due to large rock deposits over the road from earlier rain showers. We managed to make our way back to Pahrump in time for some late afternoon birding at Discovery Park. Before the sun set we managed to pick out a couple of Red-tailed Hawks, Song Sparrows, Mallards, American Coots, American Wigeons, Canada Geese, a pair of Swan Geese, a lone Snow Goose, and Greater White-fronted Goose. After turning in for the evening, it was very hard to believe just how much we packed into one day in the desert!