Three USA Deserts travel blog

Our farthest distance from Furnace Creek today was 17 miles

The sea level mark is the small white sign halfway up the...

The Salt "Flats" are actually quite bumpy

Ancient aquifer water seeps out of fault lines along the base of...

Badwater and the Panamint Mtns from Natural Bridge Canyon Trail

The Natural Bridge formation

Cairns marked the end of the mile-long trail

An interesting waterfall erosion formation

Returning to the car under the Natural Bridge

Erosion formed an alluvial fan seen from the Artists Drive Overlook

Looking southwest towards Badwater and the Panamint Mtns

At the Artist's Palette the colourful hills indicate the presence of minerals...

Golden Canyon is a good place to see the results of ancient...

Red Cathedral towers at the end of the 1.25 mile hike into...

Don't these shelf hoodoos look like Ancient Puebloan Cliff Dwellings?

The passageway into the final "room" in the Red Cathedral

A single primrose was showing off to us in the shady room...

The soft yellow mudstone for which Golden Canyon was named was from...

Sunset lighting up the mountains to the east of Furnace Creek

A glorious blast of sunset colours in the western sky

Wednesday, March 11: Death Valley NP, California

Route: CA-190 East → Badwater Road

Weather: 60F in the morning, cloudy and cool with a few rain drops; warming to 81F eventually.

Trip Average Gas Mileage: 27.0mpg with the mostly flat, slow roads in Death Valley


- Walking out onto the Badwater Salt Flats, the lowest point in North America

- hiking and rock scrambling up a canyon past the Natural Bridge

- colourful views of rock formations along the Artist's Drive one-way loop road

- hiking and rock scrambling up Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral

- finding an inexpensive public laundry in the Furnace Creek Ranch complex

It was so overcast this morning that we slept until 6:45. In fact it seemed that the whole campground was asleep until then. We made up the time by multi-tasking the breakfast and sandwich-making tasks with the personal hygiene and dressing activities, so that we still arrived at Badwater by 8:15. Our plan was to start here first, then stop at every point of interest on the 27-mile return drive to the campground. We were very fortunate to have such a cool, cloudy day to walk out onto the Badwater Salt Flats. We wondered how early explorers and settlers would have even considered travelling across this basin full of muck and salt heaves. We read that even the mules refused to drink the salty water.

Until today our knowledge of Death Valley focused on the harsh desert conditions. Here at Badwater we learned that there is a geologic fault line at the base of the Black Mountains to the southeast of the basin. At the fault line the basin is dropping and the mountain ridge is being pushed up. Similarly, on the northwest edge of the basin the Panamint Mountains are also being pushed up along a fault line. Even though there is some erosion from the mountains into the valley, the basin dropped as much as 2000' during one earthquake event – much more than the eroded rocks can fill.

As if to reinforce today's focus on the amazing geology of this valley, we next hiked 1/2 mile into Natural Bridge Canyon to see a natural bridge formation, As we hiked the next 1/2 mile up several rocky cascades and deeper into the canyon we also saw cave and turtleback faults as well as waterfall and drip erosion. If there ever was water flowing down this wash the cascades would have been quite impressive. Instead of the rocks being worn smooth, the cascades had many rough hand and foot holds, leading us to believe there had not been much water flowing over them during the past century.

On our return we chatted for a time with a couple who were waiting at the first cascade to see how we would get back down the rocks. They had already visited 42 National Parks and gave us a recommendation about Granite Chalet in Glacier NP as a beautiful backpack destination. We could have compared travel notes with these world travellers for the whole afternoon over tea, but we were only halfway on our journey of geologic discovery so we hurried back down the gravel wash and steep gravel road. No wonder the hike was not too hot – we were well above sea level here with a wind from the north blowing up the canyon.

The next geologic attraction was Artist's Drive, a paved one-way, dippy and winding loop road from which there are views of volcanic rock coloured with mineral infusions – red from hematite and iron, green from chlorite, purple from manganese and whites from titanium and aluminum. This drive is a must-see for park visitors. We almost passed it by thinking it was just a short loop with only one viewpoint, but we are very happy we decided to drive along it.

Our final stop was to hike Golden Canyon. Geologists from all over the world come to study this canyon, interpreting the history of this area by reading the rocks. On the park map this appears to be a short interpretive trail at the end of a gravel road. In fact, it is a 1.25-mile hike uphill along a gravel wash.

TIP: Be sure to download the Interpretive Trail Guide before arriving -- there were no paper copies at the trailhead.

At the 1-mile point the trail continues another .25 miles to Red Cathedral or diverts to the right to become the 3-mile Gower Gulch Loop Trail. We had eaten our peanut butter and banana sandwiches during the first mile and I had not changed to clean socks and dry shoes for this hike so we chose the shorter option. It was a fun scramble and squeeze through rock tumbles to the bottom of towering red sandstone walls called Red Cathedral. There in the cool shade we found the most beautiful primrose blooming, apparently. just for us. We climbed up a mound for a view down the canyon before returning to the car. The overall yellow mudstone colours of this canyon give it its name but we also saw some chlorite-green rocks, some white crystals and some slabs of white that felt like porcelain. Some of the mud surfaces coating the rocks had eroded to look like brain coral and on a high rock ledge was a mini hoodoo grouping that looked like an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling.

During the entire morning we had been watching the clouds over the Panamint Mountains to the west. It looked like they were getting either snow or rain there. On the drive back, one short section of road was wet as if it had been rained on. At the Visitor Center we had two or three drops of rain fall on us. Lucky us! We were rained on in Death Valley! Combining all our hikes for the past two days we had more than earned enough points to receive a (limited edition) park decal. We took advantage of the Visitor Center's modern bathrooms, water refill station and picnic bench before driving to the General Store inside the Furnace Creek Ranch Complex. Perhaps they had a public laundromat? We were very surprised at all the activities available to the public on the ranch property. Not only was there a laundromat, there was a below-sea-level golf course, a small museum, a restaurant, the General Store and a children's playground in addition to the small bungalows for ranch guests. The store items and fuel were so expensive we were delighted to find the laundromat was only $1.00 per front loading wash and $1.00 for 25 minutes of drying. We hurried back to the campsite, gathered up the sheets (now on their 11th day of service) and other dirty hiking clothes and spent the next two hours waiting for clean clothes.

At 16:30 we were back at the campsite. There were more annoying little gnat bugs tonight but no bat to be seen. While the beef jerky was soaking we discussed the route we would take to Mojave Desert National Monument on Saturday, hoping to find a store along the route where we could reprovision. We didn't want to drive too far out of our way because the Mojave Desert campground is first-come-first-serve and we will probably only arrive at noon. There are no major towns along the way so we may have to backtrack, probably after we snag a campsite. After discussing the activities we still want to do here, we are considering leaving a day earlier to arrive in Mojave Desert Preserve on Friday instead of Saturday. Unless we make the 60-mile round trip drive to the Panamint Springs section of Death Valley NP we will have done everything we wanted to do by tomorrow.

We were just finished the yam and jerky stew and starting on the yogurt with chocolate when the sunset display started, first as a red light on the eastern mountains, then as a pink glow over the western mountains and finally as a fiery red/orange/pink explosion in the western sky that turned all the clouds into puffs of pink cotton candy. The show lasted for at least 30 minutes. Our camp was secured for the night by the time darkness set in; we only had to use flashlights to complete our bedtime routine. As usual, the coyotes yipped and howled their greetings to each other as they started their night-time hunting at about 22:00. Hubby said he thought they had come into the campground last night. They would not have found any food or water left out for them at our site.

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