23. May 2015
The next morning we were woken up by a couple of people going on climbing tours inside the canyon and passing our bedside, but we were too sleepy to get up yet. Only after the third group, a lonely French guy who chatted with Cyprien for a bit, had passed, we finally got up. It was already past 10.
Still annoyed by my surrender the night before, I wanted to see the reason for my defeat in daylight. It was a relief, however, to see that there was really no sane way to get up that large step at night. Six meters of polished, slippery rock, with no reasonably safe area at the bottom for a second person (Cyprien) to support (give a step-up to) a mediocre climber (me). Worse, there really was no safe way down, either, the only people I have seen descend at that spot used ropes.
On the way back to our tent we kept our eyes open for an easy route up the canyon wall, and when we found one, we did not hesitate a second to climb it. It was a steep scree slope; the canyon walls consisted of quite soft sedimentary rock that had a very strong tendency to crumble away under your fingers. It required some care to climb that loose rock, but it was not particularly difficult. I was a bit worried about the descent, especially about starting to slide on the scree on one of the the steeper slopes and ending up rolling over an edge, but then again, I am always afraid of descending. The view was great, we could see along the mouth of the canyon, across the Death Valley and all the way to Telescope Peak. We were thinking about climbing even higher, but then we decided that this was supposed to be only a little morning climb, and we had more interesting places to visit. The climb did show one thing though: there were no camping spots up there, and we would have only wasted our time trying to ascend the walls at night.
Back down on the valley floor, we collected our stuff and made our way back to the car. The ground was very flat at times and easy to walk, but at two or three locations we encountered more polished marble rock that would have made for a nice slide. Those rocks must have been polished by countless flashfloods down this canyon.
When we turned a corner we suddenly found ourselves in a cauldron with dozens of people who had come to see the Natural Bridge. Surprised by this unexpectedly large crowd, we quickly passed the Bridge that looked a lot less spectacular during the day anyway. It is made of the same poorly indurated deposits as the canyon walls and consequently looks very crumbly and won’t be around for much longer, geologically speaking. To me, the abundant, long vertical chutes up to approximately 20 m high, were more interesting. Relics of water falls, they formed when the lower canyon eroded much faster than the river bed upstream. I tried to imagine what this part of the canyon must look like after fresh rainfall, with dozens of strong, super-narrow waterfalls that feed into the stream emanating from the winding canyon upstream.
Back at the parking lot, we had a more extended and filling breakfast, or rather lunch, with view over the vast Death Valley. We were located roughly in the middle between the North and South end of the Valley, the sky was blue, and the vision clear. A part of me wanted to stay a bit longer, but the place beside the parking lot was rather noisy and we wanted to see more of the valley. Before leaving the parking lot however, we enjoyed the luxury of a housed dump toilet, including seat and toilet paper!
Our first stop for the day was Bad Water Basin. For the first time since we had left the San Francicso area, I managed to pry the car keys out of Cyprien’s hands and drive us there, only a few miles. The place was crowded. At the sign “Badwater Basin, 85.5m below sea level” we got in line for a photo. Definitely one of the most touristic photos I have ever had taken of me.
We first admired the meagre remainder of the pool that had given this area its name: A surveyor mapping the area tried to make his mule drink from the water, and since the mule refused, he concluded that the pond contained “bad water”. The water is indeed bad for drinking, as it is extremely salty. The rare local Badwater snail, however, likes the salty water, and, being a snail, has been unable to flee from the masses of tourists pouring into Death Valley and trampling the salty crusts of the area. Today, the visitor gets to see the Badwater Pool, which is little more than a puddle now, from a boardwalk, specifically designed to keep the ignorant masses off the “shore” and off the snails. I would have loved to look out for one of those snails, but I’m probably not less clumsy than the average ignorant mass.
Instead, we walked towards the west along an intially well-trodden path. Many people set out to walk a few dozen meters in that direction, feeling the special structure of the ground under their feet. The well-trodden path, however, is about as representative of the salt flats of Badwater Basin as a compacted sand path is of a sand castle. Continuing on less trampled paths that eventually tapered off and led to the undestructed salt plain, we got to walk on partially hollow ground, with large flat salt plates resting only on a few supports. Sometimes, when we stepped on a new plate, we broke in a few centimeters. Not broken by the march of thousands of feet, the salt plates away from the paths were surrounded by shin-high ridges, where the initially intact salt layer has cracked, and some of the broken pieces have been pushed upward by the growing salt crystals. The walking was more a stepping and jumping over these ridges, followed by a few steps on the flat, and sometimes halted by a hollow crunching.
In a sense, the salt crystals that we saw were like snowflakes,they all looked different.. After a while, we started to recognize the typical crystals shapes, some delicate, some sturdy and hard to break. Maybe I should say “I” instead of “we”, though, since Cyprien seemed more interested in looking for bacteria (biologists, pfff) and was rather amused by my excitement over every single salt crystal. Later in the day, he would also react with a shrug to my pointing out some geologic features to him. Dust and rocks, so what.
Speaking of dust – when we were there, the salt plain was covered in brownish-gray dust, although apparently it may be shiny white after rain and strong winds have washed it clean. I found a few clean salt stalagtites inside one of the hollow ridges, though, and can confirm that the salt plain mostly consists of table salt.
We considered crossing the whole valley (about 6miles), but turned around somewhere in the middle for the benefit of seeing other places in the National Park. Our next stop was the Devil’s Golf Course, named after its serrated salt lumps on which only the devil could play golf – because golf is apparently the first thing some people think of when they see a jagged surface. I would have preferred something like “Bed of Nails” or “Shoekiller”, because my hiking boots had quite some cuts in their soles after walking around the area. The ground consisted of ball-sized salt lumps, from which solid spikes emanated upwards. Balancing was a bit tricky, and one slip could mean badly cut hands.
The sun was about to set again, and so we rushed off to our next destination: Golden Canyon. We could choose between the shorter Golden Canyon Trail or the 4-mile Gower Gulch Loop. We took off at sunset, so we figured we had about another hour of daylight, enough for a brisk 4-mile hike. Just in case, we took our headlamps.
We entered a strikingly yellow canyon, with impressive (well, for me) rotated strata, changing deposits of debris, and signs of more or less recent flash floods and erosion by wind and sand. We had made it a few hundred meters into the canyon when we started to climb up the canyon walls. It happened almost accidentally. Okay, I persuaded Cyprien, but he didn’t show much resistance.
After enjoying the view from one of the slopes, we headed back down to the canyon floor to continue following the trail, only to end up climbing another slope just around the corner. Up, down, up, some sliding over gravel, the canyon was much more interesting off the trail, different colors everywhere. Too bad that the light was fading.
When the fading contrasts made it difficult to follow the small paths along the ridges, we finally decided to return to and stay on the official trail. Also, now I wasn’t slowed down by every little rock, simply because I couldn’t even see it anymore. The moon was almost full, so there was enough light to walk with our headlamps off, at least as long as we were still scrampling on the silt slopes. When the trail descended back into another canyon (the Gulch), it became so dark that at least I had to turn on my headlight. We followed an increasingly narrow, winding gulch back toward the road. A few times we had to climb down small and easy, dry waterfalls. After the final, most spectacular fall, we suddenly emerged into the open, and then followed the trail along the road for about a kilometer back to the parking lot.
By now I was quite tired and hungry, and we still needed to find a place to sleep. I was still hoping to find a place where we could overlook the valley from our tent, after that plan had failed in the previous night. Our first try was a small side road towards Salt Creek that turned out to be closed. If I had known that Salt Creek is home to a rare pupfish, Cyprinodon(!) salinus, I might have insisted on walking the two kilometers to get there (then again, they’re dormant in the winter). On our second try, we parked our car on the shoulder close to the Sand Dunes, and marched off towards the south. I was heading for a slight rise that seemed to have been washed down from the nearby mountains, only to find out there was a higher one behind it blocking our view across the valley. I finally settled for the third rise, not really satisfied but also unwilling to test Cyprien’s patience any longer, who grew more and more annoyed with me for being overly picky.
We ended up on an exposed ridgeback overlooking a vast section of Death Valley – not the part that I had wanted, but the view was still superb. We huddled up against the side of the tent out of the ever-blowing cold wind, enjoyed the clear night, and filled our stomachs with the leftovers of the previous days. When we started to feel cold, we sought refuge inside the tent, soon falling asleep. The following day would hold the grand – and strenuous – finale for us.