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Living and Writing in the Natural World

High and Low: Mt. Whitney and Death Valley

A hiker under the Natural Bridge of a canyon in the Funeral Range (!) of Death Valley

After two spring trips to Monterey Bay and the coast, it was back to the hot continental interior in mid-June, Ash and Lou summiting 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney (highest place in the Lower 48) while I camped out in minus 150-foot Death Valley (lowest place in North America). I guess we’re a family of extremes.

Ash is doing the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, and missed her bro. So I drove Lou and his buddies Liam, Chris, and Alden to Kennedy Meadows where the southern Sierra foothills emerge from the Mojave desert, to meet her at a re-supply point. This was mile 702 on Ash’s trek north from the Mexican border, and there was a festive mood on the deck of the middle-of-nowhere scrubland general store where all the hikers congregated, gorging on the hamburgers, fries, and beer that are the sure signs of civilization.

This was Lou and my second trip to Kennedy Meadows; eight years ago we had met my oldest daughter Heather here as she was doing the PCT. The wood deck seemed less packed with hikers on that occasion, tho the beer was just as cold.

With Lou and his buddies joining Ash for the 85-mile trek north to Mt. Whitney, I was free to point my Subaru Forester towards nearby Death Valley, which I had somehow missed in my 38 years in California. My sculptor friend Scott had highly recommended Wildrose Canyon in the southern part of the national park, and I was quickly faced with my first desert-in-summer decision.

Coming up from Panamint Valley’s Mojave desert region to the south, with Joshua trees standing sentinel to either side, the little side road I wanted for direct access to Wildrose Canyon was blocked with a large “Road Closed” sign. Darn! I quickly shoved out of my mind the temptation to ignore the sign. This was a desert, and my Subaru indicated the outside temperature was 108 degrees F. Even with the filled 5-gallon water jug my buddy Al had insisted I take, ignoring road-closed signs didn’t seem too smart.

Then, as from a mirage, a shiny black Lexus appeared behind the “Road Closed” sign—coming from Wildrose Canyon’s direction—circled the sign, and pulled up beside me, the driver’s window descending. “Excuse me, please,” said a young, decidedly-Chinese-looking-and-sounding fellow. His wife was on the front seat beside him, and an anxious-looking older couple occupied the back seat, parents no doubt. “Is there gasoline station where you have come from? How far?”
While I consulted my map and indicated the nearest gas station, a big Chevy truck also emerged from the supposedly closed road and roared past us.

As the Chinese quartet pulled away, my mind was made up. If a fancy Lexus could navigate the road to Wildrose Cannyon, I was pretty darn sure my all-wheel-drive, relatively-high-clearance Subaru could also. With only mild misgivings, I drove around the sign and began the nine-mile drive. Indeed, the road was washed out in several places, but either enough of the raised bed was left to snake across, or the creek-bed surface to the side permitted me to jounce along it until the road was regained. No big problem—tho I was glad I wasn’t driving a Lexus.

After a windy night in the deserted 4,000-foot Wildrose Canyon campground, with an Empidonax flycatcher and white-crowned sparrows for company, I crossed over the Panamint mountains and descended into Death Valley proper, scattering black-tailed jackrabbits frequently. This Northern Mojave region has geologic history both ancient and recent. In the pre-Cambrian and Paleozoic eras this was the western edge of North America; the landforms we think of as California didn’t exist yet. Vast salt-water swamps supported coral reefs for hundreds of millions of years, depositing thick layers of carbonate rocks, such as the 700-million-year-old white dolomite in Mosaic Canyon.

In the Mesozoic, with the Pacific tectonic plate diving under this edge of the Northern American plate, the immense temperatures the subducting material encountered deep in the mantle produced huge plutons of igneous material, including the granite that would become the Sierra Nevada mountains. The molten material worked its way to the surface in numerous volcanoes. Halfway through the succeeding Cenozoic era, the Pacific plate began to pull away from the North American plate, stretching the base geologic formations in an east-west direction, and ultimately breaking them apart into today’s north-south-running mountain blocks (the Panament, Inyo, White, and other ranges) with great blocks dropping down between the high ones into the low basins such as Owens Valley, Panamint Valley—and Death Valley.

(Ironically, this valley-creation by cataclysmic dropping of a geologic block is just what Josiah Whitney had proposed to explain the creation of Yosemite Valley. I had always thought it fanciful nonsense, but of course Whitney was an experienced geologist, and in fact the process had been at work south and east of Yosemite. My bad, as they say. Of course, Whitney had completely missed the abundant evidence of glacial creation of Yosemite Valley, which the clear-eyed John Muir saw and proclaimed, prompting Whitney to dismiss him and his explanation as the fantasies of an “ignorant shepherd.” Muir was indeed a shepherd at that time, and in fact had no college degree; but he knew enough geology to believe what his eyes told him.)

The next day I drove into the belly of the beast, enjoyed the excellent exhibits in the Visitors Center at aply-named Furnace Creek, and hiked into the beautiful Natural Bridge canyon leading from the valley floor into the Amargosa Range’s Funeral Mountains (gulp!). Though it was in the mid-90’s by late morning, I had water, a sandwich from the visitors center, and occasional human company in the canyon.

I returned to Furnace Creek in the afternoon to let the temperature moderate a bit before I hit my next canyon. Unfortunately, the air-conditioned bar there was way too cold and noisy for me, and downing alcohol for hours before embarking on another desert hike didn’t seem such a great idea, so I pulled out my camp chair, found a patch of shade from an ironwood tree, and enjoyed the antics and calls of a boat-tailed grackle in the 108 degree heat for several hours.

After an early dinner I drove to Golden Canyon. Though it was 7 pm, it was still 106 degrees. No problem. I had water, I had grown accustomed to the heat, and there were two other cars at the canyon trailhead. As with the morning’s canyon, the sheer walls and oxide-generated colors of the old rocks made for scenic hiking, highlighted by the “Red Cathedral” at which the canyon ended, a gorgeous run of red cliffs, before which numerous previous hikers had reverently erected stone cairns.

The campgrounds in Death Valley were low on shade and bore a striking resemblance to parking lots, with few tents (who in their right mind would camp in Death Valley in June?!?) and more RV’s with generators chugging in high gear. I drove to a private campground at Panamint Springs on the valley’s northwestern edge and a blessed 2,000-foot elevation, where I encountered more tent-campers than RV’s. As at Wildrose Canyon, the stars were so gorgeous that I unzipped my tent’s door to remove the mosquito mesh between me and the show.

After watching a road-runner hunt lizards early the next morning, I drove to the trailhead for Darwin Falls, a canyon that actually promised water rather than the dry rocks of my previous canyons. Sure enough, halfway up the canyon a trickle appeared, and by the time I reached the head of the canyon, I was treated to a 20-foot waterfall. Heaven.

After I refreshed myself, I enjoyed a red-spotted toad in the pool, and the antics of two flame-skimmer dragonflies having a discussion over whose territory included the falls. They would patrol around the base of the falls, then abruptly zoom to the top, tumbling and diving at each other. I decided that if the Buddhists were right and we are reincarnated, I would live pure and hope to come back as a flame-skimmer at Darwin Falls.

By evening of the next day I was out of Death Valley and waiting for Lou and his buddies to come down from Mt. Whitney, some 100 miles west of the valley. They were one tired, heavily-blistered group of guys by the time they reached the store/grill at Whitney Portal where I sat. More burgers and fries, tall tales, and evidence of great respect for Ash, who had in general hiked them into the ground. As they sat at this outpost of civilization munching real food, they knew she with her 40-pound pack was even now putting more miles under her boots, headed north toward Devil’s Postpile and, a hundred miles beyond that, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. And beyond that, Oregon and Washington and the Canada border.

Interesting world, eh?

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