Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: The Largest National Park in the Lower 48

The travelers who were the Strangers in a Strange Land had reached the end of the day, and had crossed the boundary into Death Valley National Park quite a few miles ago. We were looking at an astounding desert valley, with high snow-capped mountains in the distance, vast fault scarps, wide desert playas, and deeply carved desert canyons.
In the geologic sense, Death Valley may very well be the most diverse national park in our country. It has some very old rocks, possibly dating back as far as 2.5 billion years, and rocks that formed in just the last few hundred years (at Ubehebe Craters and on the Badwater salt flats). More extraordinary than the range of ages is the completeness of the rock record. The park has Archean and Proterozoic rocks, it has some of the thickest Cambrian rocks to be found anywhere, it has rocks from every period of the Paleozoic era, and though not as widespread, it has rocks from the Mesozoic era as well. Paleogene and Neogene periods of the Cenozoic era are represented by beautiful sequences of terrestrial sediments, especially in Titus Canyon and near Furnace Creek. Just the one picture above includes Neogene basalts, Jurassic-Cretaceous granites, Paleozoic carbonate rocks, and Holocene sediments.
Death Valley also packs in some big extremes. The relief of the park (the difference between the highest and lowest point) is about extreme as it gets, more than 11,000 feet. There are some seasons in the year when one can be baking in 100 degree plus heat on the valley floor, and find relief by standing in the snow on the flanks of Telescope Peak (above).
The Late Proterozoic-Paleozoic rocks, such as those seen in the Cottonwood Mountains above, have a total aggregate thickness of more than four miles! And for desert landscapes, Death Valley is unrivaled. Not the stereotypical saguaro cactus type of desert, but evidence of erosion and deposition in an extremely dry landscape. Sand dunes, alluvial fans, bajadas, playas, and pediments are well-represented. And tectonic activity: faults, folds and unconformities are found all over, starkly exposed in the vegetation-challenged landscape (that's not saying "no plants", as the park also hosts a huge number of plant species; they just don't cover everything).

Did I mention that the park is big? It's really big, covering more than 3 million acres, making it the largest national park in the lower 48 states (and also Hawaii). Just how big is that? Death Valley itself is more than 100 miles long and 15-20 miles wide. But it is just a part of Death Valley National Park.
All the pictures that I took of this long impressive valley were taken in Death Valley National Park. But you haven't even seen Death Valley yet. This is the Panamint Valley, a spectacular desert valley in its own right, which was added to the national park in 1994. Those are the Panamint Dunes in the picture above.
We had another major pass to traverse before we could enter Death Valley itself. By the time we arrived at Furnace Creek, the sun was down. We would continue our exploration the next morning...
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