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Valleys of Fire and Death

Welcome to the desert!

Moonrise at Furnace Creek, Death Valley

After our magnificent journeys in Utah around Zion and Bryce National Parks, we headed back down to Las Vegas to meet up with our Road Scholar trip group. The juxtaposition of the peace and solitude we experienced in the parks and the glitz and gaudiness we confronted in Sin City was almost overwhelming to our senses.

Fortunately, we met up with our friends from North Carolina in the afternoon, so we were able to visit in the hotel lobby and keep the noise and confusion at bay for the first evening.


The next morning, our group headed out to the Valley of Fire State Park, which is renowned for its centuries-old petroglyphs that were scraped onto the surface a natural black coating named "desert varnish" that forms on the brilliant, fire-red rocks in the park.

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We traversed several of the park's trails and enjoyed the gorgeous and colorful natural formations at the Valley of Fire, including slot canyons, a hidden water oasis named Mouse's Tank, swirling swaths of sandstone outcroppings, and a rock that has eroded into a replica of the Starship Enterprise!

Click on image to enlarge.


We returned to Las Vegas, where we savored the extensive dinner buffet at The Bellagio Hotel, and then allowed our eyes to feast on the light and fountain show for which the hotel is famous. Before the show started, I may even have lost $4 attempting to play a slot machine...because, you know, what you lose in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Or something like that.

Click on image to enlarge.


The next day, we left Nevada and made the two-hour drive to Death Valley National Park in California. Our group leaders decided to stop at the Shoshone Museum because--I'm not kidding--it was raining in Death Valley and we wanted to be able to hike in the park upon arrival. The museum had a terrific exhibit about women's history in the Shoshone and Death Valley area as well as a partial mastodon skeleton. The clerk was a former chef originally from New York City, who found he had some people and places in common with one of members of our group! So the stop was fortuitous to allow for chance meetings as well as a change in the weather.


The native lands of the Timbisha Shoshone who have lived in the area for generations and disdain the name "Death Valley", are actually full of life and amazing adaptations to such an extremely arid climate.

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In fact, other than my lizard friend here, I saw ants, evidence of kangaroo rats, and many plants. One plant, the creosote bush, even emits a poison from its roots so that no other plants can grow near it and steal its water supply.

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Salt Creek, a highly saline body of water within the valley, supports the endangered pupfish, which amazingly has adapted to survive in an environment that once was a huge freshwater lake that filled the valley floor, to one comprised of small waterholes that increased in salinity over time. Other animals, of course, prey on the miraculous little pupfish, and we were lucky enough to see them in their natural habitat along the Salt Creek Trail.

Click on image to enlarge. Pupfish (L) and heron prints (R)


The geologic wonderland known as Death Valley National Park was formed because the mountain ranges that surround it moved away from each other, causing the valley to drop into the gap between them. The valley actually sinks by a tenth of an inch every year because of the combined forces of continuing tectonic activity and wind erosion in the valley floor that negatively offsets the amount of fill material that flows downhill from the surrounding canyons. We certainly experienced some extremely strong winds during our visit, and even witnessed some sand storms!

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Death Valley is not only the lowest point in North America, at 283 feet below sea level, but it also has the thinnest crust on the planet at 16 feet deep. The tectonic activity in the area has exposed ancient rock above the younger rock that normally sits above it; the convergence of winds from three different directions has formed sand dunes; and the erosive power of wind and water has created canyons, enormous alluvial fans, marble that is polished smooth, and miles-wide salt pans!

Anything of ordinary size is dwarfed in this environment, and the sense of scale is lost when surrounded by earth's extremes. From Zabriskie Point, on the eastern side of the park, we could see across the below-sea-level valley to the top of Telescope Peak on the western range, which towers above the basin at an elevation of 11,043 feet. That's a vertical distance of more than two miles, but it just seemed ordinary here! It was only when we had some measure of modern reality within the landscape that the enormity of the surroundings were possible to understand.

Click on image to enlarge.


The Ubehebe Crater provided an opportunity for us to hike along the rim of a crater that was formed when groundwater came into contact with the red-hot magma below, creating a pressure cooker situation that caused a huge explosion. Those of us who were brave (or foolish) enough to hike along the crater's rim against fierce, gusting winds, were rewarded with many views of the geological history that is manifested in the strata of the exposed rocks.

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This was an amazing trip, not only because of the fun we had, new friends we made, and old friends with whom we reconnected, but also because of the sheer majesty of this mystical place of vast proportions that boggle the mind. So beautiful and peaceful, stark and alive, it is like anything but death.

I would be remiss if I didn't commend Janice Hayden, our outstanding leader from Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, who shared her extensive knowledge and love for geology with us all. Any mistakes I made in the descriptions here are mine. I also need to thank John Hayden, for his excellent organization of the trip, and our bus driver Liane Glabe, who navigated up and down a national park the size of Connecticut to allow us to see much of what this beautiful piece of geologic history on the edge of the Mojave Desert has to offer!


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