As many of my friends know, near and dear to my heart is the otherworldly, spectacular Death Valley National Park here in California. Death Valley is truly a wondrous, bewitching location – a dream spot for photographers and desert lovers alike – rife with a diverse array of simply out-of-this-world photographic opportunities. Visiting Death Valley gives you the sensation of being on another planet entirely. In fact, movies from Star Wars to Robinson Crusoe on Mars were filmed in Death Valley. The amazing colorful geology, wide open spaces, clean air, incredible cloud formations, dark night skies and sometimes deafening silence are only some of the reasons why I love this place.
With diverse geologic and topographic features, Death Valley is a land of extremes, ranging from the nation’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, at –282 feet below sea level, to the snow-capped Panamint Mountains which crest 11,000 feet above the valley floor. Death Valley is the hottest place in the world and the driest and lowest spot in all of North America. From sand dunes and salt pans to snow-covered mountain peaks, badlands bursting in colors, rugged canyons, old ghost towns and mines, a millionaire’s private castle in a desert oasis, and playas with sailing stones, Death Valley has it all.
During a trip last year with a photographer friend, we took a late afternoon excursion through the seeming alien outpost that is Twenty Mule Team Canyon. In continuing my series on Death Valley National Park, this post focuses on this amazing canyon, a less visited but must-see companion to its more well-known neighbor, Zabriskie Point.
Like Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon is known for its otherworldly erosional landscapes, colorful sediments, and badlands formations. Here you can finally get truly close-up views of fantastical alienscapes not possible from Zabriskie Point. In addition, there are many wonderful places to hike deep into Twenty Mule Team Canyon.
Located directly off Highway 190 just a few miles southeast of Zabriskie Point, this one-way (mostly north to south) scenic loop drive winds it way through an alien world for 2.7 glorious miles. The drive mostly consists of an unpaved wash, but is easily accessible in dry weather to most standard automobiles and SUVs. RVs, trailers and buses are not recommended due to the sometimes steep, narrow and curving terrain towards the end of the drive. This canyon should be avoided when rain falls, as the surface of the wash quickly turns claylike, becoming a real hazard.
At first the drive is rather straight and flat as it heads south, with ample pull-outs from where you can begin hikes into ravines and badlands in a multitude of directions. Near the end, there is a winding, steep climb and then abrupt drop off as you veer east and approach the exit to Highway 190. The colorful sediments are simply fantastic, similar to Artist’s Palette Drive. Due to the rich mineral deposits, the bright hues change throughout the day. The soil is very dry and alkaline, thus there is little vegetation in the canyon.
Just how did Twenty Mule Team Canyon get its name? Twenty-mule teams were hardworking teams of eighteen mules and two horses attached to large wagons that ferried borax out of Death Valley from 1883 to 1889. They traveled from mines across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad spur, 165 miles away in Mojave, California. The wagons were amongst the largest ever pulled by draft animals, designed to carry 9 metric tons of borax ore at a time. Although the canyon is named after the famed twenty mule teams, it is believed that those teams did not operate in the canyon named in their honor.
And just what is borax and how is it used? If you grew up in the 1960s or earlier, you may remember the popular laundry product 20 Mule Team Borax, a detergent booster which is still sold today. Borax is well known as an ingredient in high efficiency laundry detergents, but its most important modern use is in the production of fiberglass and borosilicate glass. The chemical element Boron has powerful abilities to strengthen, toughen and make fire-resistant glasses, metals, wood and fibers. It is used in approximately three hundred high-tech products.
If you visit Death Valley National Park, I highly recommend a trip into the otherworldly Twenty Mule Team Canyon. The scenic loop drive and hikes are a delight. Below is a Google Earth map showing the Twenty Mule Team Canyon loop drive off Highway 190 and its proximity to Zabriskie Point. Please visit this link for a more detailed map on Google.
All images were taken with my Nikon D800 full-frame DSLR and are Camera RAW shots processed mainly in Lightroom and Photoshop – some with onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite and Nik (now Google) Software. A few of the images are HDR (high dynamic range) photographs comprised of bracketed Camera RAW shots additionally processed in Photomatix Pro. For more information on Death Valley and The Racetrack Playa, as well as the nearby Rhyolite Ghost Town, please see my prior posts.
As those of you know who read my original 2013 post, Pismo Beach Stairway to Nowhere, earlier this year I received conflicting information as to whether a vintage spiral staircase – long since abandoned – had indeed been demolished. This decaying gem, which once transported happy beachcombers safely down the steep rugged cliffs to a picturesque cove, is a source of fond memories to locals. I am happy to finally report that, as of April 2015, the staircase still stands in all its glory, although plans have been proposed for its partial demolition and restoration. In honor of one of my favorite James Bond movies, I titled the image You Only Live Twice, as it seemed rather appropriate.
According to newspaper articles, Noreen Martin, owner of Martin Resorts, has applied for a coastal development permit to repair and reconstruct the staircase, which can only be accessed via kayak or brave souls who dare swim to the beach. At one time the staircase was connected to the coastal bluffs by a bridge that has long since rotted away, leaving the now disconnected stairway alone and decaying from the salty ocean air. Martin’s plans include preserving the existing staircase core and constructing a new spiral staircase around it.
In addition, the existing seawall would be restored and a new pedestrian bridge would be built from the Ventana Grill – located on hotel row just above the staircase – down to the stairs. For those of you who are interested in viewing or photographing the original staircase, I would recommend a timely visit to the Ventana Grill in Pismo Beach before the restoration work commences. And have a lovely James Bond Vesper martini – shaken not stirred – in the lounge. A heap of thanks to Richard Bryant for sending me the newspaper article.