Thursday, October 27, 2011

Canyons, Waterfalls and Sand Dunes

Death Valley/Mt Whitney Trip – 9/12/11 – Black Point Canyon/Darwin Falls/Panamint Dunes – 15.5 Miles

So what is your first thought at the mention of “Death Valley”?  (Go ahead, take a minute, I’ll wait…)

Well, there is more to it than that.  Today’s adventures took us from rock canyons to waterfalls to sand dunes, all within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park.  

We “slept in” until 7:00 a.m. because all our treks were located on “our” side of the park.  By now we don’t know how to eat breakfast unless we’re in a moving car, so soon we were on our way to the first hike of the day, Black Point Canyon, another trail-less gem from Jeff’s GPS.  By now I understood canyons a little better.  First you walk gently uphill, then you turn around and walk gently downhill, following the path carved by flowing water.  It is possible to get lost if you take too many side turns, but generally that’s it. 

Close to the road we found artifacts, formerly known as trash.

Rock formations are like clouds, you can see all kinds of figures and shapes.  What do you see here?

Getting interesting

Desert foliage makes intriguing graphic design

A “dry fall” means the end of the hike for us, but not for Jeff.  He climbed up and explored a little further.

Breccia rock

A ghostlike plant

There is green in the desert – you just have to look for it

Next hike on the list:  Darwin Falls, a unique diversion from all the bare rock and dry dust.  Darwin Stream is the only permanent water source in Death Valley and it supplies water to the little settlement of Panamint Springs via an above-ground pipeline.  Directions to the trailhead say,“drive 1.1 miles past Panamint Springs to the first dirt road on the left.”  Dirt road is an optimistic description for the rutted washboard surface.  Sensitized by our recent tire woes, we crept to the trailhead.  Note to everyone:  it takes a long time to get anywhere in Death Valley. 

Starting out, this looked like any other canyon wash, not the oasis promised in the guide- book.  But very soon green began to appear and we crossed an actual stream of flowing water. 

Vegetation becomes taller and denser

A lizard friend as long as my forearm (just guessing, I didn’t check for real)

Check out the balancing rock in the upper left

We followed the sound of trickling water into the narrowing canyon, hugging the walls, crossing the stream several times on rocks and logs.  Hold up…is that…shade?  After only one mile we reached the lower falls, a 25-foot drop.

At one point on the hike out Dolores gasped and grabbed my arm as a large black/brown snake slithered away past Carolyn’s feet.  I didn’t see it so I could pretend it didn’t exist. 

Pipeline to Panamint Springs

A nice little two-mile hike with green stuff, water and shade.  Cool?  Well, cool is relative.  It was still hot…and about to get hotter.

Hike number 3:  Panamint Dunes.  There are several areas of sand dunes in Death Valley NP and Panamint Dunes are the largest and therefore the biggest challenge for Jeff aka “the peakbagger.”  They rise several hundred feet high, making them appear closer than they are (like lots of things in the desert.) 

There is no real trail to Panamint Dunes, but the closest you can get to them by car is via a dirt road called Lake Hill Road (no sign) off Highway 190.  We missed it the first time we passed it, but I spotted it on the second try.  As soon as I said, “There it is,” I felt a pang of regret.  If we had not been able to locate the road, we could have gone to explore Mesquite Dunes, much more accessible and easier to climb.  But here we were once again, creeping along a six-mile gravel road to “where the road begins to deteriorate” and we could park the car.  We passed Lake Hill (2,030 feet), a small mountain in the middle of the flat desert.  This hump was important as a landmark for our return hike.

The dunes sit at the northern end of the North Panamint Dry Lake bed.  Surround- ed by mountains on three sides like a bowl, they look like little sand piles going up the mountainside.  Here they are four miles from our car. 

At 3:30 p.m. we struck out across the desert floor on our 9-mile out-and-back hike.  After the gurgling waters of Darwin Falls, all I saw ahead of me was a flat hot walk similar to the salt flats. 

Dolores – the bump to the middle right is Lake Hill (Jeff's photo)

But unlike the salt flats, the desert floor here was alive with flora and fauna.  The surface began as hard packed sand, with pockets of softness around scrub brush where animals had dug tunnels near the roots.  Tiny lizards darted constantly in all directions.  Tracks were everywhere in the sand, but I couldn’t identify any.  In some places I saw the wind moving branches back and forth, creating patterns in the sand. 

As we drew closer we realized that there were actually hills before the sand dunes, big hills, softer sand.  I worked hard to get up the first one, then at the top I saw another one.  Did I mention it was HOT?  I was not so enamored of Death Valley on this section of the hike. 

Finally we crested the last hill and saw the dunes – they were enormous.  Jeff’s goal was to summit the tallest one.  My goal was to summit the first one I got to. 

Carolyn and I walked up the first dune and agreed we had a front row seat for everything, including the highest dune.  Dolores joined us and we took the requisite photos of each other. 

Carolyn photographing her footprints

Tiny Jeff

We sat down to watch Jeff as he worked his way up the spines of the dunes towards the highest point.  It was a breath- taking experience to watch his progress – definitely worth the effort to get there.  

Jeff's photo looking down at us - can you see us?

More of Jeff's photos:

The wind kicked up and began to erase our footprints.  I hurried to put my camera away but not soon enough.  Carolyn’s camera slipped from her pocket into the sand too.  We both had camera problems for the rest of the trip. 

We started the long hike back to the car, sighting on Lake Hill and trying to walk a straight line.  Four miles will always be four miles and the heat did not relent.  Carolyn jumped at the sight of a snake, but again I missed seeing it.  Eventually we picked up our earlier footprints and followed them back to the gravel road.  We reached the car around 7:00 p.m. just as dark settled in.

Once again we had to conquer the six-mile gravel road out to pavement, half an hour of tedious bumping, and we needed gas and water.  Who knows how early things shut down in Panamint Springs?  Luck was with us, the gas station was open and so was the one restaurant.  There was a large group of German tourists seated just before us, and Michael the bartender said if I would write down our orders we’d get our food faster.  I played waitress - very surreal.  We were extremely tired, thirsty, a little goofy, and I remember the pizza was delicious. 

Michael told Jeff there were scorpions everywhere on the property, including the bathrooms, so watch our step.  We filled up all our water containers, a now-familiar chore.  We found a shortcut road back to Thorndike Campground, but it was still after 10:00 p.m. when I slipped into my sleeping bag. 

So far I’ve done seven hikes in Death Valley and each one has been amazing.  What’s up tomorrow?  Us!  Heading to Telescope Peak!

It is easier to go down a hill than up, but the view is best from the top.  ~Arnold Bennett

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