Friday, March 31, 2017

Stepping From a Valley Floor into a Mountain Range: Travels in Death Valley

To me, one of the most stunning things about exploring Death Valley is the abruptness of the landscape. There are no gentle transitions. You are either on the valley floor, or you are on a mountain. There is no in-between. I'm hard put to think of another place in the world where you can stand on a valley floor and place your hand on a mountain slope. It's just usually not the way of things.
But Death Valley is like that. The main valley is more than a hundred miles long, and 10 or 15 miles across. It's a place of wide open vistas that extend for miles. But if you approach a mountain range like the Black Mountains between Badwater and Furnace Creek, you walk up the gentle slope of an alluvial fan, and then you are stopped by the mountain. Because of the active fault scarp, it rises like a wall straight up out of the ground.
We had come down onto the floor of Death Valley after looking at the diversion of Furnace Creek into Gower Gulch, hoping to get some insight into the effects of flooding a small canyon with the debris and mudflows from a drainage area of 170 square miles. It was pretty awe-inspiring. In the 70 years since the diversion, Gower Gulch had scoured its channel through the Black Mountains, and eroded a deep channel into the surface of the Gower Gulch fan. There's a 25 foot high dry waterfall at the entrance to the canyon, but a trail clings to a narrow terrace of the old alluvial fan to the left (above). It's not hard to explore the narrow canyon above.
There was still a thin stream of water flowing through the canyon, a small remnant of the flash flood that had thundered through the canyon the previous night (Death Valley had just experienced a night of record rainfall for the date, 0.62 inches; of course we were camped out in the open). The debris had covered the highway just downstream.
It's a steep and rugged canyon, one of many that begs exploration by curious people. Treasures are to be found in these canyons...old mines, colorful rock exposures, fossils, and elusive life: Bighorn Sheep maybe, or a Kit Fox. Who knows?
In the end, it's all about the landscape itself. Naked rock exposures and faults. Alluvial gravels. Stepping from a valley floor into a mountain range in one step. There's no place in the world like this...

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