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.
Otherworldly. Alien. Magical. Surreal. Mystical. Ghostly. Supernatural. Goblins. Hobgoblins. Extraterrestrials. Mysterious. Eerie. Sinister. Forgotten Planet. Mars. Beautiful. Vast. Stark. Out of This World. The Hills Have Eyes. Alluring. Captivating.
These are but some of the many adjectives that aptly describe the feeling one encounters upon visiting the spectacular Trona Pinnacles in the stunning California Mojave Desert. The otherworldly Trona Pinnacles – located about 20 miles east of Ridgecrest in the middle of absolutely nowhere – are truly one of those unique places that must be seen and experienced. Many travelers unknowingly pass by the Trona Pinnacles upon exiting Death Valley National Park, as they are situated off Highway 178 (Trona-Wildrose Road) on a dirt road, just past the town of Trona and the Searles Dry Lake bed.
A visit to the alien Trona Pinnacles is a profound journey into one of the most unusual geologic wonders of the California desert. This inspiring landscape consists of more than 500 tufa pinnacles rising from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin. These tufa spires, some as high as 140 feet, were formed underwater 10,000 to 100,000 years ago when Searles Lake formed a link in an interconnected chain of Pleistocene lakes, stretching from Mono Lake in the north to Death Valley in the south. The pinnacles vary in size and shape from short and squat to tall and thin, and are composed primarily of calcium carbonate (tufa). Many take on the appearance of goblins, religious statues, people, animals, faces and ghostly formations. Truly the Rorschach Test of the desert.
These spires are porous rock formed as a deposit when springs interact with other bodies of water. They now sit isolated and slowly crumbling away near the south end of the valley, surrounded by many square miles of flat, dried mud and with stark rugged mountain ranges at either side. Truly a stunning landscape like no other. The Trona Pinnacles were designated by the Department of the Interior as a National Natural Landmark in 1968 to protect one of the nation’s best examples of tufa formation. The Trona Pinnacles are a designated California Desert Conservation Area.
The Pinnacles are recognizable in more than a dozen hit movies. Over thirty film projects a year are shot among the tufa pinnacles, including backdrops for car commercials, sci-fi movies and television series such as Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Disney’s Dinosaur, The Gate II, Lost in Space, and Planet of the Apes. These images were taken during my trip to Death Valley last year with a good photographer friend. I processed the images in a variety of ways to give them the look and feel of the ghostly, otherworldly landscape they rightly deserve. The photographs were taken with my Nikon D800 and processed in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite and Nik Software’s (now Google) Silver Efex Pro.