Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hiking in Death Valley is very different than hiking in Arches. In Arches, you want to walk everywhere but you can't; you're restricted to well maintained trails. This is necessary to protect the delicate microbial life that lives in a crust on the desert soil and makes plant life possible. Your wanderings are restricted to areas connected to trails or accessible over a path of bare sandstone. Death Valley has no such restrictions, you can hike anywhere you please. Hikers are free to make their own trails, and trails that have been made are very subtle and seem to disappear completely at some points. The majority of hiking in Death Valley takes place in canyons cut into the sides of the mountain ranges running through the valley. The valley floor appears almost as a vast inaccessible ocean that you cruise through in your car on the way to another canyon trail. Arches has its areas like this too; the petrified dunes are begging for a trail that would let hikers explore the vast field of navaho sandstone swells.

This leads me to one of the problems I encountered with an extended stay in Death Valley. Hiking in the park, for all its vastness, lacks variety. The geology of the area has led to the creation of a number of canyons acting as conduits for rivers of gravel being slowly pulverized to dust as they flow. The majority of the trails follow these usually dry gravel gulches into the canyons at a slight uphill grade. Marching uphill on gravel is an experience akin to trying to walk up a sand dune. For every two steps taken forward, one step worth of forward progress will result. Gravel of fine in consistency slows you down further, while stones too large will quickly wear out your ankles. I found myself searching for a path of perfectly sized gravel to ease my passage. This also results in a constant crunching noise that will echo in your ears long after you leave the trail.

Where does all this gravel come from? It comes from the conglomerate rock canyon walls that replace the slick red sandstone you would find in Arches. Conglomerate rocks are those that consist of rock fragments that have been trapped in a cementing matrix of finer grained sediment. As a cat owner, my first reaction to these giant boulders of conglomerate was that they looked like giant clumps of kitty-litter strewn about a massive litter-box.

That's not to say that Death Valley doesn't possess spectacular beauty. On entering mosaic canyon as the canyon narrows and the walls begin to rise, the conglomerate gives way to a smooth white marble that glows with reflected sunlight. Combined with the sudden relief from the sun provided by the high walls of the slot canyon, one can't help but feel that they've discovered some kind of spring, with glowing marble flowing through the walls from some inclusion deep below. Another is the contrast of red and black and yellow stone that flows in every direction from Manly Beacon. As you climb out of Golden Canyon towards Manly Beacon, you'll have to stop each time you turn around, thinking that you've found the most beautiful spot from which to admire these ridges of stone that are so sharp they look like folded paper; but it only gets better as you continue. On a windy day, the mesquite sand dunes will shed plumes of windblown sand that reach almost as high as the mountains and carry far along through the valley. From a high vantage point you can watch entire storms pass over part of the valley while watching the sun shine at the same time in another area. As you leave the village at Furnace Creek and get your first glimpse of the vastness of the valley, with the road ahead trailing off to the vanishing point, its hard to comprehend the scale of what you're viewing.

For me Death Valley wasn't about exploration along trails, it was more about the experience of trying to comprehend what I was looking at when I first saw the valley floor stretching as far as I could see in either direction and being able to see the shadow of a cloud as it moved towards me.

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