DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
ZABRISKIE POINT A MAZE OF ANCIENT SEDIMENTS Zabriskie Point was named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, vice president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company which mined the Furnace Creek area heavily for Borax starting in 1890. The rolling yellow hills and ridges that make up the badlands near Furnace Creek are actually sediments laid down at the bottom of a lake that formed around 9 million years ago and dried up over 5 million years ago. After the lake dried, it was buried by thousands of feet of sediment and volcanic ash. Millions of years of pressure turned the ancient lake sediments into mudstone and it was uplifted when the Amargosa Mountain Range formed. Once exposed, thousands of years of flash floods have cut into the mudstone and sculpted the landscape we see today.
Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular spots within Death Valley National Park to photograph sunrise. Photographers often arrive an hour before first light to pick the perfect spot and set up their tripods and compose their photographs. The reason this spot so desirable is because the golden glow of the morning light transforms the barren landscape minute by minute as the sun rises over the eastern horizon.
As the sun begins to rise behind your left shoulder as you face the badlands, the sky in front of you glows with delicate magentas and oranges. The first light of the rising sun strikes the 10,000 ft tall peaks of the Panamint range 5 to 10 miles across the badlands and valley in front of you. As the sun continues to rise and light moves down the Panamints keep a close eye on the large stone outcrop in front of you known as Manly Beacon. As the sun finally comes up over the eastern horizon the rich, intense light illuminates the beacon and quickly works its way down to the surprisingly colorful badlands that lay before you. The play of light and shadow changes by the minute creating a cacophony of textures in the weathered landscape, intensified by its colorful bands of yellows, browns and ochres. As you shoot it seems that anywhere you point your camera in the sculpted landscape you can make a beautiful striking image. Zoom in and you can focus on the abstraction created by the play of light and shadow. Zoom out and focus on the whole of this ancient landscape that looks like it should be on another planet.
FIRST LIGHT ON MANLY BEACON
Manly Beacon was named in honor of William L. Manly. Manly was part of a group of prospectors that set out from Salt Lake City, Utah to find gold in California in 1848. The group became lost in the desert and wandered into what is now called Death Valley. The harsh desert climate there took its toll on the group and Manly and another man set out to find help near Los Angeles, CA and ultimately saved his group. Manly returned to Death Valley and became an asset to prospectors during the California gold rush, saving several families from the harsh conditions by leading them to safety. For this reason several landmarks are named for him. Not only Manly Beacon, but the 7,196 foot Manly Peak and the ancient dried lake that once filled Death Valley, Lake Manly, were all named for William Manly.
Zabriskie Point The sediments that were deposited here millions of years ago were laid down horizontally on the bottom of a lake like layers on a cake. However, when the Black Mountains formed millions of years ago the layers of rock were pushed up and tiled. It just takes a quick look over Zabriskie Point to see these angled striations showing how the earth has lifted up and tilted.
Death Valley only gets, on average, less then 2 inches of rain per year, but when it does rain it often creates flash floods that, over the centuries, have scoured the landscape. As the water rushes down to lower elevations it carries materials that range in size from fine grains of sand to large boulders through canyons which act like sandpaper, carving long narrow canyons as the water flows to the deep valley below.
Formation of the Badlands How did these barren rolling hills and deep valleys form? The mudstone that makes up this landscape is very dense and impenetrable by water so when it rains the runoff does the only thing it can do, rush down the slopes while making its way to the deep valley below. This fast moving water and debris cuts into the soft mudstone creating this unique landscape.
20 MULE CANYON
A DRIVE THROUGH THE BADLANDS 20 Mule Team Canyon derives it name from the mule led wagons that hulled borax from the mines at Furnace Creek to the rail head in Mojave, CA over 165 miles away. This unpaved, one way road winds through the mud stone badlands where some of the openings to the borax mines can still be seen. The 2.7 road can be traveled in a few minutes but there are numerous pull outs which allow you to get out and explore a bit. There are hundreds of miles of unpaved roads in Death Valley National Park but they usually have to be traversed by a 4X4. 20 Mule Team Canyon Road, though, is one of the few that can be traveled even in a small car.
Badlands of 20 Mule Team Canyon
20 Mule Team Canyon Because of the other-worldly appearance of this landscape, scenes from several movies have been filmed here. Several scenes from the movie "Star Wars" were shot in the badlands of 20 Mule and Golden Canyon.
GOLDEN CANYON TRAIL Golden Canyon trailhead is located off Badwater Road 2 miles from Furnace Creek. It is one of Death Valley's most popular trails because the trailhead lies only several hundred feet from the road and, if only hiking to Red Cathedral, is relatively flat and short, only about a 2 mile round trip.
Red Cathedral Red Cathedral is a rock feature that rises straight up from the rolling yellow hills of the badlands. The reason for the stark contrast in color is because of the difference in the composition of the rocks. The rolling yellow hills are made of soft mudstone which erodes quickly and the red rocks are composed of a hard conglomerate that is much more resistant to erosion. The red color is the result of oxidation of iron that is contained in the rock.
WALKING ON THE BACK OF MANLY BEACON
Manly Beacon is a feature that is prominent when seen from Zabriskie Point. It is possible to walk alongside this feature by hiking the Golden Canyon Trail and cutting over to Gower Gulch. The narrow trail can only accommodate hikers walking single file on the side of a steep slope but the payoff is a breathtaking view of the badlands and the Panamint Range behind it.
Death Valley Stats:
RAINFALL PER YEAR
HIGHEST TEMPERTURE RECORDED
VISITORS PER YEAR
3.37 MILLION ACRES (LARGEST PARK IN THE LOWER 48 STATES) LESS THEN 2 INCHS BADWATER BASIN, 282 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL TELESCOPE PEAK, 11,049 FEET 134 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT (7/10/1913) 980,000
AN ANCIENT, COLORFUL LANDSCAPE
The Artist Drive Formation, made up of cemented gravel, playa deposits, and volcanic debris, is nearly 5,000 feet thick. The mixture of these deposits along with chemical weathering and hydrothermal activity are responsible for the variety of colors that are seen. Reds and pinks are due to the presence of the iron-rich mineral hematite. The golden and pale yellow shades also result from varying amounts of different types of iron oxides. The greens are altered volcanic ash deposits. Visitors to Death Valley National Park can easily get a good view of these colors by taking a drive on Artist Drive off Badwater Road.
Artist Drive The one lane Artist Drive curves and dips its way through the desert landscape for 9 miles along a alluvial fan on the edge of the Black Mountains.
Basaltic rock shows a hint of the volcanic past of the Furnace Creek area.
HARMONY BORAX WORKS
Borax is a compound that has many uses. Detergents, cosmetics and fire retardants are just a few of its many applications. In the mid to late 19th century Borax was discovered to be plentiful in the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley. The Harmony Borax Works was founded in 1881 and at its height employed around 40 men who produced three tons of borax a day. A unique method was devised to haul the borax from the harsh climate of Death Valley to the nearest railroad, 165 miles away. Large wagons were pulled by a twenty-mule team that consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses. These twenty-mule teams pulled some of the largest loads, up to 9 metric tons, ever pulled by draft animals.
THE DEVIL'S CORNFIELD
The Devil's Cornfield The Devil's Cornfield gets its name from a species of arrowweed that grows in the loose desert soil near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. Over the years the ground around the plants has subsided exposing the roots.
The Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes loom in the back of arrowweed that makes up the Devil's Cornfield.
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
DEATH VALLEYâ€™S SAND DUNES SHIFTING MOUNTAINS OF SAND
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the most popular dunes in Death Valley due to their easy access from Rt. 190, one of the main roads though the national park. They are, however, not the only or biggest dunes. There are 5 more dune fields in Death Valley National Park, the Panamint, Eureka, Ibex, Saline Valley and Hidden. These other dunes are much more difficult to reach but the payoff for the extra effort can be great. Many of the others boast much taller dunes and because much fewer people visit them there are less tracks spoiling the view, a great treat for photographers who otherwise have to walk in the Mesquite Flat dunes for up to 2 miles to see sand unspoiled by human footprints.
The Mesquite Flat Dunes lay at a point where 3 valleys come together and are surrounded on all sides by mountains. The winds that blow through these valleys carry tiny particles of debris and when they converge at this point and become trapped by the mountains and slow down it causes them to drop their load. Less the one percent of the Mojave Desert is covered in sand. Only when wind and topographic conditions are right does sand collect in amounts needed to create these towering dunes. The Mesquite Flat Dune field is about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide as seen here from Mosaic Canyon.
Anatomy of a sand dune
Every sand dune has a windward (stoss) slope which is oriented crossways to the wind; a crest, the ridge line at the top of the dune; a slipface, the steep part directly under the crest on the side opposite the wind direction; and leeward slope, the more gradual slope on the side opposite the wind. There are 3 basic types of sand dunes. Crescent dunes (or transverse dunes) are the most common type, linear dunes are long straight ridges and star dunes are pyramid shaped and have 3 or more sides. All of these basic types of dunes are represented at Mesquite Flat.
Photographing the Dunes Along with Zabriskie Point the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes are probably the most photographed locations in Death Valley especially during sunset and sunrise. The golden light created by the sun being close to the horizon enhances the color of the sand and the angular light creates beautiful abstract lines and curves that enhance the space and shape of the dunes. Many prefer shooting the dunes in the morning as opposed to the evening because often times the overnight winds can erase the tracks that riddle the sand, left by the hundreds of people that hike the dunes every day. Also, if you have a sharp eye, you can see the tracks of many of the small nocturnal animals that make the dunes their home.
ABOVE Sunrise lights the Mesquite Flats Dunes with the Grapevine Mountains, part of the Amargosa Range, in the background. LEFT During brief rains in the valley water collects in the basins between the sand dunes and clay forms which then hardens and cracks in the intense desert heat.
Hiking the Dunes The dunes are a popular place to hike but there are no marked trails. The best way to hike the dunes is to pick a point in the distance and walk that way. There are no areas that are off limits so you can walk through troughs along the bottoms of the dunes or, for a better view, walk along their crests.
THE DUNES HERE ARE MOSTLY COMPOSED OF QUARTZ AND FELDSPAR THAT ORIGINATES PRIMARILY FROM THE COTTONWOOD MOUNTAINS TO THE NORTHWEST OF DEATH VALLEY. AS THE MOUNTAINS BREAK DOWN BY EROSION AND WINDS, GRAINS OF SANDS ARE PUT INTO MOTION. AT A CERTAIN POINT, THE WIND IS SLOWED BY THE MOUNTAINS THAT SURROUND THE STOVE PIPE WELLS AREA AND THE SAND BECOMES TRAPPED, FORMING THE DUNES.
Star Dune The largest of the dunes here is called "Star Dune" which rises around 140 ft. from the valley floor. This dune is relatively stable because it is at the point where the winds that create the dune field converge.
Mesquite Flats Dunes Sunrise lights the Mesquite Flats Dunes with the Grapevine Mountains in the background.
MESQUITE TREES THE TREE OF LIFE The Mesquite Tree are found throughout the deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is a very hardy plant that can survive in a harsh dry environment because of its long taproot that can reach far below the surface to the water table. The native peoples that lived in the Death Valley area for thousands of years survived in part by the beans that the Mesquite trees produce. The beans were dried and ground into flour. The beans are also a staple for much of the wildlife in Death Valley.
Mesquite Flats Dunes Sunrise lights the Mesquite Flats Dunes with the Grapevine Mountains in the background.
Sunrise at the Mesquite Flat dunes Because of the easy access to the Mesquite Flat Dunes they have been used as a backdrop for many Hollywood productions that seek a desert environment. Perhaps the most famous movies to film here were the Star Wars films.
Death Valley MOSAIC CANYON
Mosaic Canyon Mosaic Canyon formed along a series of faults along Tucki Mountain in the Panamint Range on the western side of Death Valley. Over millions of years, periodic flash floods scoured out the natural cracks in the rocks along the faults and carved a deep channel that is now responsible for draining most of the water that falls on the northern slope of Tucki Mountain during rainy periods.
Mosaic Canyon gets its name from a rock formation known as Mosaic Breccia. Breccia is a rock that is composed of broken fragments of rock cemented together with a fine-grained mixture of sand and clay. The Mosaic Breccia is easily observed near the entrance to the canyon.
Noonday Dolomite Between 750 and 900 million years ago, the area that is now Death Valley was still part of the Pacific Ocean. Algae and carbonates were deposited here for millions of years and later became buried deep underground where intense heat and pressure changed the rock to what is now called Noonday Dolomite. As the Panamint Mountains rose and water carved out what would become Mosaic Canyon, the ancient 1000-foot-thick layer of Noonday Dolomite was exposed. The water and sediment that washes through the canyon during flash floods scours the surface of the Dolomite making a polished, smooth surface.
The Canyon Trail Once out of the narrow polished walls of Noonday Dolomite, the trail widens considerably and continues about another 1.5 miles.
Natural Bridge canyon Natural Bridge canyon is on the east side of Death Valley in the Amagosa Range. The Natural Bridge is located about a 15-minute walk from the trail head and parking area.
Stone Waterfalls During the brief rain storms that sometimes fall at Death Valley, water tends to move very quickly from the mountains to lower ground. Over thousands of years, deep primary channels have been cut into the rock. Secondary channels also form and water pours over the cliffs into the deeper primary channel. Once the water evaporates, it leaves an imprint of the waterfall that briefly formed.
DEATH VALLEY GEOLOGY DEATH VALLEY IS A LIVING LABORATORY SHOWCASING THE ANCIENT DYNAMIC PAST OF THE REGION. THE ROCKS LAID DOWN HERE, BEGINNING BILLIONS OF YEARS AGO DURING THE INFANCY OF THE PLANET, SHOW EVIDENCE THAT THIS LAND HAS BEEN PUSHED AND PULLED, HAS RISEN AND FALLEN, WAS ONCE A SEA FLOOR TEAMING WITH LIFE AND A VOLCANIC WASTELAND, AND HAS BEEN A HARSH DESERT AND A LUSH PLANE.
LAND OF EXTREMES
Death Valley National Park was officially established in 1994 and includes not only the valley but thousands of acres of mountains and valleys surrounding it. Death Valley itself is anywhere from 5 to 10 miles wide from the Amagosa Range to the Panamint Mountains. Most of the valley is below sea level, in fact, at Badwater Basin it is as deep as 282 below sea level. Thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age, the area that is now Death Valley was quite temperate and filled with water from several rivers and melting glaciers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. At its height, Lake Manly was roughly 80 miles long and 600 feet deep. Even today, during occasional flash floods, water collects in the ancient lake bed before it quickly evaporates due the the extreme desert heat.
Death Valley as seen from Natural Bridge Canyon trailhead People have lived in Death Valley for thousands of years. Where the whites of European decent saw desolation and death, the Timbisha Shoshone people saw a way of life that sustained their culture for years. These natives lived for centuries on Mesquite beans and mountain pinyon nuts that were plentiful in the area. In 2000, the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act was signed, setting aside land within the National Park that let the native peoples live within the park boundaries.
Death Valley as seen from Artist Drive The smooth slopes that angle downward to the valley floor from the rugged Panamint Mountains across the valley are call Alluvial Fans. They are created when water carries debris from the higher elevations down canyons and deposit it on the valley floor. The gravel, sand and silt fans out from the the canyon openings in all directions and piles up over the centuries to create the fan shaped features.
The name implies that Death Valley is a barren wasteland, but there is actually a wide variety of plants and animals that make their home in the park. Even though plants cannot grow in the lowest lying salt pans, the creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite tree can be found in much of the areas of the valley and provide food for a surprising amount of wildlife in the valley.
The mountains directly east of Badwater Basin contain some of the oldest rocks in Death Valley. These rocks were laid down as a mixture of volcanic actively, mud and sand in Precambrian times over 1.7 billion years ago. These layers of rock were then buried deep beneath the Earth's surface and millions of years of heat and pressure caused it to bend, twist and chemically change.
BADWATER BASIN SALT FLATS
Death Valley is part of the much larger Great Basin which covers most of Nevada and parts of several other states, including California, Oregon, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. There are two important characteristics of the Great Basin that work together to form the huge salt flats at Death Valley. First of all, water in the region only flows internally, meaning there is no outlet for water to get to the ocean. Secondly, most of the Great Basin has an arid climate in which water evaporates very quickly. In cooler, wetter times in Death Valley, thousands of years ago, the valley was filled with a large lake which, at its peak was 600 feet deep. When the climate eventually warmed, the lake evaporated, leaving behind the minerals that it once contained. The most prominent mineral is Sodium Chloride or, as its more commonly known, table salt.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats The area of Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the continental US so during the occasional flash flooding that occurs in the valley the water naturally flows to this low point, forming a small shallow lake. The water dissolves the salt which is deposited again after the lake evaporates, forming a new snow white surface to the salt pan.
ABOVE: Sunset at Badwater Basin with the Panamint Mountains in the background LEFT: The Black Mountains meeting Badwater Basin 282 feet below sea level.
Published on Jan 6, 2015
I put this book together to display photography that I have done at Death Valley National Park in California. To see more of my work visit...