Wind gets far more credit for shaping the surface of the Earth than it should. Contrary to popular belief, wind is a relatively poor sculptor of landscapes, especially when compared to water in its many forms.
Remove water from the equation though, and the influence of wind becomes magnified. The planet Mars is a great example. Dry for billions of years, with no streams or ocean waves to shape its landscape, Mars has become a barren land of sand dunes and sandblasted rocks.
If you want to experience a Mars-like landscape without the inconvenience of a long flight, Death Valley just might be your best bet. Here, water is so sparse that the effects of wind are more prominent and striking than anywhere I’ve ever visited.
My personal favorite wind-driven geologic phenomenon are what are geologists call “ventifacts.” Ventifacts are rocks (usually boulder-sized) that have essentially been sandblasted by wind-blown sand particles for extended periods of time. Ventifacts are consequently pockmarked with an array of pits, grooves, gouges, striations, and etchings that betray their uncomfortable past. Near Badwater in southern Death Valley, a low, linear ridge covered in boulders of dark black volcanic rock juts out into the valley, intercepting the strong winds that often blow along the valley’s length. Nearly every rock on this ridge shows these telltale signs of sandblasting. Combined with the lack of vegetation, photos from here resemble many of those taken by the Mars rovers more than just about anywhere else on Earth.
Larger ventifacts like the one below often take on an exceptionally strange shape. This is because wind (even very strong wind) is incapable of picking up anything bigger than a large grain of sand, and even then it can’t lift it more than a few feet off the ground. The result is that the bottom two or three feet of the bounder gets abraded away, while the top remains relatively intact, leading to the classic “hourglass” shape of large ventifacts.
All of the sand blown along the valley has to go somewhere. In several locations around Death Valley National Park, mountain ranges act as obstacles to wind, and where the wind stops or slows, the sand is deposited in large dune fields.
Death Valley has not shortage of dunes but the most accessible are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Unfortunately, the proximity of these dunes to paved highways means that they are also one of the most visited locations in the park. Upon arrival at the dunes a bit before sunset, we were immediately greeted by the high-pitched insectile buzz of an amateur drone (currently prohibited in national parks) hovering overhead. Fortunately, such devices have a limited range and we were soon free of the annoyance. Even though the Sun was getting low, our plan was to stay awhile. Before long, the Sun set, the stars came out and we had the dunes almost entirely to ourselves as the nearly full Moon illuminated our path:
One unique feature of the these dunes is the presence of large patches of dried & cracked mud between the dune crests. Having been to dozens of different sand dunes, seeing anything other than sand (and the occasional hardy bush) in a field of sand dunes in a strange sight. The origin of the mud is connected to the fact that the dunes lie nestled against the base of the Panamint Mountains. Periodically, mudflows and debris flows burst forth from the canyons at the foot of these mountains, migrating their way into the low spots between the dunes. The mud dries quickly in the arid climate, forming the large mudcracks. The sand dunes, constantly in a state of motion, eventually bury most of the mudflow deposits, leaving only portions peeking through.
Coming up in part three, we leave the valley behind and explore the myriad of canyons cut into the mountains ringing Death Valley. Then it’s on to Joshua Tree!
Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest (and hottest) point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, has long been on my list of places to visit in person. In part because of the superlative involved but also because Death Valley on the whole is a geological Mecca of sorts. A few weeks ago, I finally got to make my pilgrimage, but not without a few surprises. First of all, I never expected to be wearing four layers (including thermal underwear) and a winter hat when taking my picture next to the famous Badwater sign. I also didn’t expect visiting Badwater to be one of the least interesting things that I saw in Death Valley. This is not a knock against Badwater, but rather a testament to the fact that even after visiting 32 of the 59 national parks in the US, I can honestly say that Death Valley was one of the most spectacular and diverse I have been fortunate enough to spend time in.
With a week off before Christmas, we were looking for someplace “warm” to camp. We had originally planned to head to southern New Mexico and Texas to check out the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains area. However, in the days leading up to our departure, the forecast lows plunged into the low 20s. It wouldn’t kill us, but we figured we could do better. Heading to Death Valley turned out to be a good audible as the lows were only in the low to mid 40s, quite pleasant by December standards. Oddly enough it was a bad experience during the depths of winter in 1849-50 that gave Death Valley its foreboding name. One member of a lost and ragged group of prospectors is said to have quipped “goodbye Death Valley” as they finally departed the basin that had given them such torment. Today though, armed with an automobile and several large water jugs, winter is an ideal time to take in the spectacular sights of Death Valley. After several days in the park, saying “goodbye” was the last thing I wanted to do.
The first thing to know about Death Valley: it’s big. Nearly 3,000 square miles big. The national park that protects it and the surrounding mountains covers upwards of 3.3 million acres—about the size of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—making it the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. It takes awhile to get around and the character of the valley varies wildly along its 100+ mile length. All parts of the valley share some common characteristics though: heat (average July high: 116.5 F), aridity (2.3 inches in a good year), and low elevation (over 500 square miles of the valley lie below sea level).
Death Valley has been low for a long time but the dryness is a comparatively recent development. During the last glacial maximum (geologist-speak for “ice age”) 12,000-30,000 years ago, the surrounding mountains received so much precipitation that Death Valley turned into an 100 mile-long lake known as Lake Manly. Since Death Valley is bordered on all sides by mountains, streams draining out of the mountains had no easy way out. Over time, as the climate dried and the lake evaporated, thick layers of salt were deposited on the valley bottom. This is why most of the valley floor appears white. With the encouragement of the rangers, I tasted it and can confirm that it is indeed salt!
In many locations (in particular a spot known as “Devil’s Golf Course”), the salt grows into some fantastical yet potentially dangerous formations. The valley here is a wonderland of 1-2 foot high irregular mounds of salt & mud, all encrusted with razor sharp blades and daggers made of salt crystals (see photos below). While the salt is relatively brittle, falls are still to be avoided at all cost. Walking around Devil’s Golf Course reminded me of the time I completed shredded a brand new pair of leather hiking boots in one week of doing geology field work on fresh, sharp a’a lava flows in Hawaii. The only difference was the a fall here would quite literally rub salt in your wound, not a pleasant thought at all.
Near Badwater Basin are some spectacular and very colorful badlands sculpted out of young, soft, clay-rich sedimentary rocks. We arrived in Death Valley our first day just in time to catch sunset over the badlands (photo at top of page) and then hiked through them the next day after we started to desiccate from walking around on the salt flats too much.
If salt daggers, ancient lakes, and badlands aren’t enough excitement for one day, you’ll be happy to know that the northern end of Death Valley has experienced some volcanic activity within the past few thousand years. In a stark contrast to the bleak white salt flats of the southern valley, the valley landscape here is shrouded in dark black cinders and volcanic cones. The centerpiece is a large hole known as Ubehebe Crater, a type of volcanic feature known as a “maar.” Maars are the result of “phreatomagmatic eruptions” (your new scrabble word for the day; it will just take you a few turns and some incredibly good luck to be able to play it…), which occur when magma beneath the Earth’s surface comes into contact with groundwater. The heat from the magma causes the groundwater to flash into steam, creating a violent explosion, and, as so often happens with violent explosions, a large hole in the ground. The red and white sedimentary rocks that existed prior to the eruption still appear beneath the volcanic cinders in places creating a beautiful palette of colors.
More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!
I’ve always thought that it would be one of the few large cities where I could actually stand to live. Never mind the fact that my current and projected foreseeable future income levels will not permit me to live in any of the parts of the city to which the above statement applies. Or the fact that the next major rupture of the San Andreas or Hayward faults is going to make things look…shall we say…”less attractive”. Ignore those minor details for now. All I mean to say is that it seems like a nice place to live, which is a thought that perplexes me, given that in general, the idea of living in the same metropolitan area as several million other human beings makes me want to look up job listings for “hermit” and run away into the hills screaming. San Francisco though seems to have a charm and a combination of positive attributes though that most other cities do not.
For starters it is located in one of the most scenic environs of any city in the country. Rolling grassy hills, redwood groves, long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, rugged coastline, appealing architecture, fortified islands, all within an hours drive of the city center. Hard to match that. Seattle comes close (the view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day? ahhhhhhh) but it gets marked down because it gets, on average, 14 more inches of rain each year. Salt Lake City has gorgeous mountains but it is covered in snow for part of the year and tends to get smothered by thick layers of pollution that get rammed up against the western flanks of the Wasatch. And all cities east of the Rockies are automatically disqualified because they’re east of the Rockies. To some Phoenix might seem sort of scenic, what with the 50 foot high cacti and mountains and all, until you realize that in reality it is a sizzling hell hole with literally no sustainable water source and is totally unfit for large quantities of human habitation. At least San Francisco has Yosemite just a few hundred miles away that it can poach water from. Also, it sort of seems like everything in San Francisco is painted either white or a nice bright pastel color. Painting everything white does wonders for a city; it makes it feel larger, cleaner, less claustrophobic, and lends a nice airy, ethereal quality to everything.
San Francisco also has what in my opinion is one of the few man-made creations that actually contributes to the beauty of a place rather than besmirching it: the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you’re not familiar with the bridge, it is one of the few things in San Francisco not painted white or pastel, but rather a bright burnt orange (actually “international orange” for those of you who want to go out to your local Home Depot and pick up a gallon). The “Golden Gate” for which the bridge is named (and not vice-versa) is a narrow strait that connects the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. In a somewhat eery coincidence, U.S. Army Captain and explorer extraordinaire John C. Fremont bestowed the now famous name upon the strait in 1846, two years BEFORE the strait was used as the point of arrival for millions of millionaire wannabees seeking riches in the newly discovered gold fields east of Sacramento. Fremont had given it the name Golden Gate because he recognized the area’s potential importance in opening up trade with the Orient, completely unaware (obviously) that the discovery of real gold in California is what would cause the population of the city just to the south of the strait, San Francisco, to multiply by 18,000% in just six years, and make the Golden Gate known worldwide. In the 1920s, fed up with the 20 minute ferry ride across the strait, some folks decided it would be a bright idea to build a bridge across it, apparently thinking that sitting in traffic for more than 20 minutes waiting to cross the strait while constantly having to yell at the driver in front of you to stop futzing with their iPhone and drive would somehow be more pleasant than the leisurely ferry crossing.
An unique perspective on the 1.7 mile-long suspension bridge can be obtained by going beneath it. If you don’t have a boat, fear not, in another stunning coincidence, the U.S. Army conveniently constructed a masonry fortification, Fort Point, on the point right beneath the south end of the bridge in 1853*:
*Actually the Army did no such thing. You know, seeming as how the technology to build a massive metal suspension bridge across a deep, windy, 1.3 kilometer wide strait didn’t exactly exist in 1853. The engineers in charge of building the bridge eighty-odd years later did however build the bridge directly above the fort (they wanted to remove the Fort entirely but cooler heads prevailed), and so the Fort, being the rather inanimate object that it is, remains there to this day, providing a nice spot to stand and look out over the bay while holding on to your hat and listening to rush-hour traffic crawl past on the bridge high over your head.
Arguably the best, although not most unique, views of the bridge can be found north of town, just off of Highway 101 in the Marin Headlands where a number of overlooks along Conzelman Road provide spectacular vantage points from which to observe or photograph the bridge. These overlooks aren’t a secret though, the ones closest to Highway 101 are predictably packed with people and it can be impossible to find a parking spot. However, the bridge is also partially obscured here, head further and higher up the road for more expansive views that, while still busy, become less so the further from the highway you get. and. The number of tripods also increases steadily as you get further and further from the interstate which I interpreted as a good sign since one of my goals was to get some photos of the bridge at sunset. As you can see in the picture at the top of the page, these overlooks are often slightly above the fog that socks in the coast from time to time.
Most people seem to stop and turn around at the one-way-road/18% grade sign that appears along Conzelman Road just before it begins to wind its way back down through the headlands to the coast. If you proceed onwards though, you will be rewarded by getting to shift your car into low gear, and also by a plethora of quieter and more secluded, albeit more distant, views of the bridge. The road ultimately deposits one at the trail leading to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, located at the northern entrance to the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was built in 1853, and yet several hundred ships still managed to wreck themselves in this area during the influx associated with the California Gold Rush, a testament to the ability of the area’s trademark thick fog to obscure any sign of the coast until its too late.
More pictures of the local flora and fauna hopefully coming soon, including the biggest group o’ Grebes you’ve ever seen in one photograph.