Geological Features of Death Valley National Park
Continuing my series on Death Valley National Park, this post focuses on the many distinct geological features of this unique desert environment. Death Valley is truly a wondrous, magical place – a desert lover’s dream – rife with photographic opportunities. One of my favorite places on earth, Death Valley emotes a sensation of being transported to an alien world. Perhaps this is part of its allure. Located in the states of California and Nevada in the northwest Mojave Desert region east of the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley is an amalgamation of heterogeneous environmental features ranging from sand dunes and salt flats, to badlands, canyons, volcanic fields, dry lake beds, craters, mountains, valleys, and much more.
Declared an International Biosphere Reserve, Death Valley is one of the hottest and driest places on earth, yet supports many species of plants and animals that have adapted to the extremely harsh desert environment crafted by geologic forces. With about 95% of the park designated as a wilderness area, Death Valley is simultaneously beckoning and dangerous. Elevations in Death Valley range from a high of 11,049 feet at Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, to 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin on the valley floor. A world-record high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit was set on July 10, 1913, at what is now the Furnace Creek Resort.
Let’s begin with a view of the super-sized Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) at the northern tip of the Cottonwood Mountains. An exquisitely colorful volcanic crater approximately 2,000 – 7,000 years old, it belongs to the Ubehebe Craters volcanic field, which contains several volcanic craters, cinder cones, and ash hills. Merely a handful of the extensive geological features in Death Valley, these craters are relics from an explosive steam eruption that occurred when rising magma blasted an underground lake. Ubehebe (a Native American word for “big basket in the rock”) is the largest Death Valley crater at 2,400 feet in diameter and 500 feet deep. It is located in the far north end of Death Valley near the infamous Scotty’s Castle, and is a very popular stop en route to The Mysterious Racetrack Playa (read my prior post).
Our next stop is the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, the best known and easiest to visit dunes in Death Valley. Located in the central region of the park near Stovepipe Wells, these dunes are surrounded by mountains on all sides. Covering a vast area, these dunes have been used to film sand dune scenes in several movies, including Star Wars. The highest dune crests at about 130 feet, a dwarf in comparison to other dunes in the area such as the Eureka Valley Dunes. This dune field includes three types of sand dunes – crescent, linear, and star shaped – and is comprised of tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that sculpt its picturesque beauty. Stands of mesquite trees on knolls and creosote bushes pepper the dunes, providing a welcoming habitat for wildlife.
Continuing on to the lowest point in North America with an ‘elevation’ of 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin consists of a massive expanse of hexagonal, honeycomb-shaped salt flats, comprised of near pure table salt. These salt pans were first created by the drying up of a lake thousands of years ago. When significant rains flood Badwater, the salt flats become covered with thin layers of standing water. Due to massive evaporation in this desert inferno, the precious water is not long for this harsh world. The initial flooding dissolves some of the salt, which is then redeposited as crystals when the liquid dissipates. The repeated freeze/thaw and rain/evaporation cycles morph the fragile salt crust into geometric salt pans. In contrast, the Dead Sea, between Israel and Jordan, is the lowest point in the world at 1,371 feet below sea level.
Badwater contains a small but beautiful spring-fed pool of ‘bad water’ adjacent to the road in a sink. Accumulated salts render the water undrinkable, thus giving rise to the name. However, both plant and animal life are present in the pool, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the so-called Badwater snail. Close by and just off Badwater Road, the Devil’s Golf Course is a large salt pan on the floor of Death Valley, named after a phrase in the 1934 National Park Service guide book which stated that “only the devil could play golf” on its surface, due to a rough texture from the large halite (rock salt or mineral form of sodium chloride) crystal formations.
At a much higher elevation sits one of the most popular places in Death Valley – Zabriskie Point – known for its other-worldly erosional landscapes, colorful sediments, and badland formations. Part of the Amargosa Range, Zabriskie Point consists of sediments from the ancient Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up millions of years prior to the birth of Death Valley. Named for Christian Zabriskie, Vice-President and General Manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, Zabriskie Point was also the setting for a 1970 film of the same name by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni about the late 1960s counterculture of the United States. The Pacific Coast Borax Company’s famed twenty-mule teams were used to transport borax out of Death Valley to nearby rail spurs.
Over the course of time, sediments collected at the lake’s bottom, including saline muds, mountain gravel, and ashfalls from volcanic fields. Borate minerals were also concentrated in the lake bed from thermal waters and rhyolite volcanic rock alterations, thus contributing to the wide variety of colors. When mountains rising to the west caused the climate to become much more arid, the lake dried up. The eventual widening and sinking of Death Valley and rise of the Black Mountains caused a tilt in the area. This tilt-shift provided the relief needed to achieve the erosion responsible for the creation of the badland formations. The visibly dark material capping the ridges is lava, which retarded erosion in places. This is evident when viewing the Manly Beacon outcrop (pictured above), which is much higher than other portions of the badlands.
Pictured above is the renowned Artist’s Palette accessible from Artist’s Drive. This nine-mile, one-way, scenic loop drive through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills rises up to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains. Artist’s Palette is on the face of the mountain and is noted for its rich varied colors caused by the oxidation of different metals such as iron salts, mica, and manganese. This area is known as the Artist Drive Formation which is very photogenic, especially in late afternoon light. The Miocene-aged rocks serve as evidence for one of Death Valley’s most violently explosive volcanic periods, and are comprised of cemented gravel, playa deposits, and volcanic debris, estimated to be 5,000 feet thick.
All these images were taken with my Nikon D800 full-frame DSLR, and are HDR (high dynamic range) photographs comprised of bracketed RAW shots processed in Photomatix Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, and with onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite. More images are currently being post-processed; I will add them to this post in the future. For more information on Death Valley National Park, please visit the official National Park Service Death Valley homepage.