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.
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.