Into the Valley of Death (Part 3): Canyon Combing
No tour of Death Valley would be complete without a peek into the myriad of mysterious canyons that slice abruptly into the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. When rain does bless Death Valley, it often arrives quickly and in large quantities, which can quickly turn a storm from a blessing into a nightmare. With little soil and few plants to soak up the water, most precipitation ends up rapidly draining into creeks and streams. Canyons that are bone dry 99% of the year can almost instantaneously find themselves channeling deadly flash floods, mudflows, and debris flows. Each time this happens, the canyons get slightly deeper (and the mountains slightly smaller) as the water picks up and transports bits of rock down to the valley floor where it dumps them in large piles known as alluvial fans. If the mountains weren’t continually being uplifted by tectonic forces (which most of the ranges in Death Valley are), this process would quickly erase the mountains from the landscape.
In October 2015 (just a few months before our visit), portions of Death Valley received several inches of rain in just a few hours, a nearly unprecedented storm for such a dry environment. Many roads were damaged or wiped out completely by floods and debris flows and portions of the park remained closed even several months later.
One of the most interesting canyons in Death Valley is Gower Gulch, located just south of Furnace Creek. Until recently, Gower Gulch was a small, run-of-the-mill canyon carved into the soft, buff-colored badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation. Things took a dramatic turn in the 1940s when the waters of the nearby (and much larger) Furnace Creek Wash were deliberately diverted into Gower Gulch in an attempt to prevent them from flooding populated areas downstream. With the drainage area of Gower Gulch enlarged by over 16,000%, periodic floods began to incise Gower Gulch at an alarming rate. The Gulch has deepened by more than 20 feet in just the last several decades, an erosion rate nearly unheard of in the geological world. The rapid erosion rate has caused some unintended consequences to overlooks, roads, and other park infrastructure but has simultaneously provided geologists with a fascinating window into what happens when you make a stream too big for its own britches.
Gower Gulch had experience once of these erosive floods just a few months prior to our visit. The lower walls of the canyon were still coated in a thin layer of tan mud left behind by the October 2015 floods. In many cases, the mud line was 10-15 feet high. Little imagination was needed to realize that Gower Gulch would be a terrifying place to be during such an event!
An hour north of Gower Gulch is Mosaic Canyon. Cut into the Panamint Mountains the rise to the west of Death Valley, Mosaic Canyon also experiences mudflows and debris flows during intense rains. The bedrock of the canyon is ancient dolomites, limestones, and marbles; in many places, these rocks have been polished to a shine by floodwaters roaring through the canyon.
The highlight and namesake of the canyon though are the spectacular deposits of breccia (a sedimentary rock made of coarse-grained, angular rock chunks cemented together by a finer-grained matrix) that have been pasted onto the canyon walls by repeated debris flows. The high carbonate content of the rocks allows percolating water to quickly cement the debris flow deposits together into a solid layer that can adhere to the canyon walls. The fragments of rock within the breccia are a representative sample of those that comprise the Panamint Mountains, and thus vary widely in color making the breccia appear like a complex fresco created by a powerful force of nature.
One can hike up Mosaic Canyon (some moderate scrambling required) for about a mile and a half, admiring the rock formations, before coming to a ~50 high cliff (a waterfall during wet periods) that inhibits further upstream travel. Hiking up Mosaic Canyon is truly spectacular, each bend reveals a new assortment of geological treasures, only some of which are pictured here.