Death Valley Memories - March 2017 Field Trip Dazzled with Beauty & Fun!
Trip Report by Kate McCarthy
A winter storm sweeping over the Sierras marked the beginning of our journey to Death Valley. Those that left early made it through before the swirling snows closed Interstate 80, while the rest took the southern routes down Interstate 5 and SR-99 grateful for the advice on alternate routes given at the planning parties. All of us were bound for six to eight days of glorious sunrises, sunsets, and moonlit nights. Each of us hoped to fill our camera bucket lists with spectacular scenery. We were not disappointed.
As we entered Death Valley we were struck by the shallow pools of standing water by the sides of the road left by the passing storms, and even more amazed as they disappeared over the span of a few days seeping into the porous sand or evaporating on the salt encrusted desert surface.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest of our National Parks. It is a land of contrasts. The 156-mile long valley runs in a north/south trough between the block-faulted Amargosa Range on the east dusted with winter snow while Panamint Range towers on the west. The highest point of the park is Telescope Peak which rises 11,049 feet above sea level, only 15 miles from the lowest point in Badwater Basin which measures 282 feet below sea level.
Formed by an ancient sea, the valley was transformed over time by geological forces that ranged from the plate compression forces that gradually warped, folded, and fractured the brittle crust. Volcanic activity punctuated the topography with molten material, cinder, and ash while water and wind slowly eroded the rocks into gravel, sand, and silt eventually washing down the mountains during flash floods to form alluvial fans on the valley floor.
A surprising array of desert plant and animal life is found through the park with a concentration near natural springs and seeps. This combination created a rich wonderland of amazing sights for our adventurous group of photographers.
We were a ragtag gypsy group, some caravanning through the desert in their RVs searching out a proper campsite, some staying in the vintage cabins of Furnace Creek, others journeyed to the comforts of Beatty and Stovepipe Wells, while Charlie Schuman (who was instrumental in organizing the trip), an intrepid soul stayed at the Amargosa Hotel with an eye to meeting the resident ghost.
We gathered outside the Borax Museum on Monday night for a celebration of birthdays, shared the stories of our journeys into the Valley including one of jets from China Lake careening through the twisting passes at blistering speeds. Charlie entertained us with stories from his research on the history of Death Valley.
On Tuesday afternoon we met again for a lecture by Ranger Bob Greenburg on the geological forces of the area and a stern warning on the perils of traveling too quickly on rough roads lined with razor sharp chert. In the evening author Robin Flinchum delighted and informed us of the stories of the gutsy women who carved out their fortunes in the gold fields as madams entertaining the miners of the day.
A strong willed group of us in Jeeps and big SUVs following Truman’s “Wonder Wagon” began the slow, tortuous and rough journey to the Racetrack Playa nestled in a remote valley between the Cottonwood and Last Chance Ranges. We wound around the Ubehebe Crater, which was formed when magma migrated close to the groundwater creating a steam eruption pulverizing the rock. We continued down the road through the creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite at the lower elevation, stopping to photograph the silver cholla, cotton top barrel, and beavertail cactus on the way.
We paused to photograph a Joshua tree forest before reaching Teapot Junction where we gleefully placed our decorated and autographed teapot with those left behind by fellow travelers, and dedicated it to Kathy Houston and Charlie who were not able to make the trip.
Racetrack Playa is a place of stunning beauty and mystery best known for its strange moving rocks. A large “island” of quartz monzonite called the Grandstand sits in the north side while the moving rocks are best seen in the southeast corner of the playa. Forces of water, wind, and ice cause the rocks from the surrounding mountains to tumble to the playa where the rocks move across its surface leaving trails. Some of the rocks are large and have traveled as far as 1500 feet.
Truman positioned his skeleton for a gag shot, and later the group scattered looking for the best shot of the rock paths that became clearer as the sun dropped in the sky. As the sun set we left Truman and Larry camped by the playa and began the slow journey back as the stars came out one by one followed by the moon. Stephanie and Phil Harmon along with Patrick and Susan Jewell stopped for one last star shot by the crater.
While we were often scattered in search of the perfect sunrise, sunset, or galaxy shot, we often found time to gather in the evening by the fire pits of Furnace Creek. We spent those evenings swapping stories of special spots with speculation on where the best sunrise would appear and the discussions about the best settings used to shoot it.
Golden Canyon and Mosaic Canyon were narrow slot canyons and the colors were best captured midday. Salt Creek was not only good for viewing the rare pupfish, but was also a great place for Brad to catch a sunset reflecting in the water, while Heather Brown captured the reflection of mountains during sunrise at Bad Water Basin.
The gentle curves of the Mesquite Flat Dunes sparkled early in the early dawn while the twisting layers of sandstone at Zabriskie Point seemed to shift as the sun lowered in the sky. Dante’s Point and Father Crowley Point provided sweeping panoramic views while ground shots of Devil’s Golf Course were a study in the texture of salt crystals.
Traces of early settlers were found in the ruins in abandoned mining town of Rhyolite, the Harmony Borax Works, and the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. If you closed your eyes you could almost hear the laughter of long lost miners mixed with harmonica in the wind. A museum in Shoshone created from an old Chevron Station displayed a mammoth skeleton from a local dig along with historical artifacts of the Indians and settlers in the area.
A cultural highpoint of the trip was the Amargosa Opera House. In 1967 Marta Becket, a dancer, discovered the old borax mining town during a tour and decided to make it her home. She rented the recreation hall with a stage, and created a theatre by painting murals on all the walls and ceilings with an audience of kings and queens, monks and nuns, knights, ladies, merchants, farmers, and clowns.
Marta created ballets and performed for visitors from all over the world, and as she aged passed her artist spirit to the next generation. The town still mourns her passing this past January, but performances continue.
There were some areas of the Park that were closed and must be saved for another trip. Scotty’s Castle had been damaged by a flash flood, the road through Artist Palette was closed for repair, and wild flowers were scarce due to the scouring flash floods of winter.
However as we slowly began to disperse, we shared the wealth of our experiences and bid farewell. The weather was warm and clear for the journey back home. Patrick and Susan Jewell left early in the direction of the Trona Buttes, while some chose the desert route through Tonopah, and some returned through the farmlands and cities of the Central Valley.
Others journeyed up 395 leaving the desert to journey through the snows of the Eastern Sierra, and back to the welcoming cherry, plum, and pear blossoms of Lincoln Hills. All came back with images and memories of this wild and wonderful land we call Death Valley.