Notes from the Desert

Death Valley National Park


March 2019

Death Valley National Park, a place of silent beauty, a starkly stunning natural medley of mud and salt flats, sand and towering mountains and dangerous extremes.  Daily temperatures easily top 100° in the summer, and if you are a desert dweller, it gets uncomfortably cold in winter.  The gravel and loose dirt at sudden drop-offs from the lofty mountain crests threaten to send you downward thousands of vertical feet in the quickest way, without warning.  Not enough water occurs here naturally to keep most species alive even though mountain storms produce sudden flooding on the valley floor.

We love this place.

Death Valley can get violent.  Ancient volcanoes have caused huge explosions leaving giant craters.  Evidence of one of these explosions is a gouge in the Earth called Ubehebe Crater.

Ubehebe is 600 feet deep.  That’s deeper than the Washington Monument is tall.  You could fit two Great Pyramids of Giza in this hole, if that’s your idea of a good time.

Ubehebe is accompanied by several smaller craters, possibly all formed at the same time.  It would be easy to believe these holes came from crashing meteorites tens of thousands of years ago.  That’s the usual origin story for Earth craters.  But no, nuh-uh.  These depressions are only a few thousand years old, or maybe as young as 300 years, and not caused by anything that fell from the sky.  Ubehebe and its brethren are known as “maar” volcanos.  

Let’s say you want to make a regular volcano.  Find some underground magma and bubble it up toward the surface.  It can then erupt and form a cinder cone.  Ta-da.  Volcano.

But let’s say that above the rising subterranean magma is a groundwater pool.  When the hot magma makes contact with the water, it superheats it so suddenly that it flashes into super pressurized steam and literally blows the top off, creating a giant hole in the ground.  Behold:  Ubuhebe.

Half a mile across with a vast cinder field up to 150 feet thick, rocks and sediment line the crater walls in various colors.  These colorful layers are called “fanglomerates,” but you knew that.

from top to bottom of the photograph is about 300 feet

The name?  Ubehebe.  Pronounce it like it looks:  “You Bee HEE Bee.”  According to the local Timbisha Shoshone, Ubehebe means “Coyote’s Burden Basket,” interpreted as the place from which humans emerged to spread in four directions across the land.

The Great Basin indigenous peoples had a different interpretation, a much more fun one I dare say.  Hanging out at the Crater, they took one look to the east at the Wahguyhe peaks and they saw…  breasts!  They promptly called the area “Ubehebe” which means…  breasts.

Richard E Lingenfelter, who wrote about the history of Death Valley, claims that miners who established the Ubehebe Mining District said the name was inspired by a Native American princess.  He says nothing about whether it was the princess herself, or her breasts that were inspiring.

Our hike takes us around Ubehebe as well as Little Hebe Crater, which if you aren’t careful, could sound anti-semitic.

Lisa and I decide also to climb down into the crater.  It is a 1/4-mile trail that drops you 600 feet to the bottom.  One must give attention to footfall as this kind of steep can lead to a very bad day.  Carefully, we hike down.

“Help!  Help!”

We are a third of the way to the bottom when we hear this small voice.  Over there, maybe 500 feet away, a 12-year-old is trying to climb up and out on all fours.  “Help!  I can’t get out.”

We know this kid.  Half an hour ago, Lisa and I were snacking on a comfortable sitting rock at the parking area adjacent to the crater rim.  We saw this youngster and his father get out of their van and walk over to the edge of the crater to look.  Dad began to talk to a young woman while the kid was exploring.  We weren’t paying much attention, and apparently neither was Dad, because the kid disappeared.  No one seemed alarmed.

We didn’t think twice about where he had gone, but now, trying to keep our balance on the steep slope with this youngster 500 feet away, we realize that he has gone rogue, going over the edge and now trying to climb back out.  And panicking.

He crawls up two steps and stops.  “Help!”  A few moments later, “My leg hurts.”

Lisa and I look at each other.  What the heck can we do?  There is no way we can get to him, the slope and the talus make a horizontal traverse too treacherous.

He takes two steps and then stops, frozen on the slope.  He’s not moving, clinging desperately to the ground and rocks.  “I’m thirsty.  I don’t have any water.  Help me.”  A moment later, “Call my mom.”

We watch as he takes another step.  As he takes baby steps and continues to add on complaints, I become more convinced that he is able to climb out.  He is more scared than anything else.  He whimpers.

Lisa yells over to him, “You’re almost there.  You can do it.”

I yell over, “Just take one step up.   Good.  Now take another step.”

He screams, “I can’t.  Call my mother.  I can’t get up.”

Lisa yells, “Yes, you can.”

I yell over, “Take one more step.”

He actually makes progress when he uses his hands…

Lisa yells over, “You’re doing it.  Keep going.”

“Help me!” he cries.

“We can’t get to you.  You need to keep moving.”

hikers ascending from the bottom of the crater

He crawls up half a dozen steps but then he stands straight up and teeters, windmilling his arms, firing up my apprehension.  “Don’t stand up!  Use your hands!”

We keep yelling instructions and encouragement until finally, just before he reaches the rim, a backpacker comes along and takes his hand to help him over the lip.  He’s safe.

And that’s that for our crater hike.  “I’m exhausted.”  “Me, too.”

We agree that we will someday come back and do this climb.

“Yes, yes.”

In the parking lot on our way back to our car, we come upon the kid’s family.  Junior is sitting in the passenger seat, Mom cleaning his feet with baby wipes, Dad fuming in the driver’s seat.  As we approach, I hear Mom say, “You’re all right.  You’re okay.”

We ignore Mom and Dad because we don’t like that Mom is really repeating that he’s okay more for herself and she isn’t paying attention to what her son is saying, and Dad, for some reason unbeknownst to us and we don’t care, has a stick up his ass and is sulking.

Lisa leans in and asks, just to make sure, “Hey buddy.  Are you okay?  You’re with your mom and dad?”

He nods his head.  Mom answers for him, “You’re okay.”

She turns to us and says, “Thank you.  I had no idea.”

Yeah, obviously.  That much is clear.

Junior says, plaintively, “Everybody keeps telling me I’m okay.  I’m not okay.”

Lisa says, “We saw you but we couldn’t get to you.  You did great, even if you were scared.”

I say, “Kid, you’re the bravest kid I know.  Good on you for getting yourself out.”

Adventure over, we wonder how this experience will affect this wild child.  Will he be frightened fo the rest of his life?  Will he take this as a challenging adventure and yearn for more?  How much will Mom and Dad’s attitude affect his future mountain climbing days?

Good luck, young daredevil.

Take a few breaths.  Now drive south twenty-seven miles from Ubehebe Crater on the long Racetrack Valley Road through a Joshua Tree forest between Tin Mountain and Dry Mountain, past Teakettle Junction (its wooden direction sign laden with dozens of teakettles) and you arrive at Racetrack Playa, a place that holds a great mystery.  The most challenging part however, is just getting there.

In some places, getting off Racetrack Valley road presents smoother and safer driving than the road itself, but officials don’t want you to do that.  The washboard road surface is rough gravel, heavily pitted, subject to flash floods and nearly impossible to traverse when wet or muddy.  You need rugged tires and a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance.  You’d better be packing at least one spare as you can expect to get a flat.  When we finish our hike around Ubehebe, there are two — count ‘em — two high clearance Jeeps in the parking lot putting air in their monster tires.  Both have just made their return trip from the Racetrack. 

Bravely traverse this road and finally, after bouncing and jostling your kidneys around for two hours, you arrive at Racetrack Playa, the dry lake bed where the mystery occurs.

Did you ever kick a flat rock on the dirt and watch it leave a smooth track?  Yeah, not too often.  Now imagine a cleared track trailing the rock, but you didn’t kick it.  In fact, nothing kicked it.  Nothing kicked it, pushed it or propelled it in any way.  But there it goes.  A mystery!  It looks like comets on the floor of Racetrack Playa.

theory:  people move the rocks

If it were people, there would be some disturbance — footprints or such — along with the rock slide path.  Score:  zero.

theory:  animals move the rocks

As with people, If it were animals, there would be footprints or scuff marks in the ground along with the slide path.  Besides, why the heck would an animal move a rock like this!  Score:  zero.

theory:  wind moves the rocks

Possible but unlikely.  Wind gusts might get the rocks moving but some of these rocks weigh several hundred pounds and you would need ridiculously strong winds to produce rock slides.  Score:  1/4 point.

theory:  ice moves the rocks

Hmm…  At night during the winter, it actually gets cold enough in Death Valley for a thin layer of ice to form on the shallow lake that occasionally covers Racetrack Playa.  Perhaps the rocks simply slide along the ice and a track is left once the ice melts.  Score:  3/4 point.

theory:  ice in combination with the wind moves the rocks

Now you’re talking!  Researchers studied this phenomenon for 70 years and then, finally, in late 2013 they solved the mystery.  It is the ice and the wind.  Score:   ding!  ding!  ding!

How did they come to this conclusion?  In the playa, as anywhere else, rocks can sit for decades, centuries, without moving.  In fact — think about it — that’s the norm.

In order to answer this question, researchers set up their monitoring equipment and…  Have you heard the phrase, “watching the grass grow”?  Ever hear, “watching paint dry?”  Now we have, “waiting for the rock to roll.”  This is fun science.  For seven decades, scientists tried to figure out the mystery of the sliding rocks in what one scientist called, “the most boring experiment ever.”

But here it is.  Ice forms after a rainfall or snowfall.  (Yes, snow in Death Valley.)  As they melt, strong wind drives the water across the mud, taking some of the rocks with it.  Also, propelled by the wind, ice sheets shove rocks in front of them.  Everything melts and the mud, silt, salt and clay ground surface reveal tracks where the rocks slid.


Sunrise at Zabriskie Point

what we are looking at
who’s doing the looking

Death Valley National Park.  Interesting place.  It’s larger than the state of Connecticut.  It was recognized as a national monument in 1933 but has been inhabited by the Timbisha Shoshone for thousands of years.  The lowest point in North America is here at Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level.

Lisa pointing to the sign indicating sea level

Resident animals who could potentially kill you, not including other humans, are rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, bees, wasps, burros, coyotes and mountain lions.  Death Valley gets just over two and a quarter inches of precipitation a year.

Death Valley gets hot.  On my first visit in 2009, the temperature one afternoon was 115°.  I had to do it.  I picked a two-mile hike through a canyon and experienced what it is like to hike in your oven.  Had this been July 10 of 1913, I might not have done this hike.  That’s the day the Earth caught fire.  It hit 134° in the central part of Death Valley, the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet.

Then there is Desolation Canyon.  Relatively few people visit Desolation Canyon.


We bounce along on the dirt road for half a mile from the main road to trailhead parking.  The hike parallels the western edge of the Black Mountains, winding between soaring rock walls sometimes close enough that we can touch both sides at the same time.  Many side canyons would make it easy to spend days, months, exploring.  To stay un-lost, we mostly follow the wash keeping the taller mountains on our left.  We make a few false turns and hit some dead ends, and I remain amused by the advice given by one description of the hike:  “This canyon has been shaped by flowing water, so generally downhill is the way back to safety.”


One fun feature, or I should say, two fun features are a couple of places where the trail goes straight up.  Literally.  One is an eight-foot high wall and the other is a six-footer.  Mix in a little rock climbing.

From the start, the entire trail slopes upward.  It’s not like hiking to our highpoints where we are climbing at a steep pitch, but rather it is a continuous shallow slope, tiring without us realizing it.

Until the end.  The last 1/4 mile steepens upward, the kind of tilt that depending on your mood, you either say, “Wow!  Let’s do this thing!” or you say, “Oh, shit.”

We, of course, do this thing.

At the top of this climb, the turnaround point of our hike, we are up on a ridgeline that reveals a sweeping view of the Park, from nearby immense rock mountains like the ones we just threaded through, to the wide monotony of the salt flats.  Just south is a peek of the paved roadway of Artist’s Drive, a route designed to be driven, showing off unexpected colors and patterns that we don’t often see in rock.  Drivers motor past colors that are the same as the walls of our hike, smooth swaths, spots, jagged points, lumps of thicker color:  a geological witch’s brew of minerals.  We get to touch them and appreciate the colors close up:  the red/orange hematite, the purple hematite, the yellow limonite, the green/blue sparkly nontronite.

A small section of Death Valley National Park lies just to the east of the state line in Nevada.  Part of this parcel is the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a place that boasts the protection of no fewer than 30 species of animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth.  We are drawn to Devils Hole;  the name makes it irresistible to us.

Entering the refuge with a turn off the main highway, we bounce along on yet another rugged dirt road, flooded in places, to a fenced in walkway.  Our caged path leads us, essentially, to a view of a hole in the ground partially filled with water.  What’s the big deal?

Two big deals.  First, in this dry desert, Devils Hole is an oasis of ancient groundwater connected to a vast, deep and extensive underground aquifer.  The cave system is especially complex.  In fact professional divers have explored the water-filled cave to a depth of 436 feet and still have not found the bottom.  It has never been mapped.

The result of these vast interconnected water channels?  The surface water level in this system responds not to the rare rainfall but rather, because of its extent, to seismic events around the world.  It’s weird when you think that tectonic shifting events in Mexico, Japan, Indonesia and Chile have produced six foot high waves in this little hole in the ground in Nevada.

Some time ago four teenagers decided to explore the hole.  Three of them dove in.  Two returned.  The two went back in to find the third and one of these guys never resurfaced.  Lost, gone, no trace, never found.  Devils Hole.

The second big deal about Devils Hole is the pupfish, possibly the world’s rarest fish, supposedly with fewer than 200 surviving individuals.  They live right here in Devils Hole, Death Valley, and nowhere else in the world.  Some fishologists believe that the pupfish species and the hole are the same age, about 60 000 years, plus or minus twenty minutes.

There are lots of cool stories and myths involving Devils Hole.  Timbisha children were warned not to spend too much time in this water because “water babies” would surface and swallow them up.  Another legend had it that the giant Tso’apittse, no doubt Bigfoot’s cousin, lived in the neighborhood, and would capture and dine on unwary victims.

Curiously, there are no stories featuring the devil.

Lisa and I take a walk along Crystal Spring, the pride of Ash Meadows, and we behold the bluest water we’ve ever seen.

Death Valley?  Why this name?  I mean, what the hell kind of place would you name Death!

In a mid-1800s winter, a group of pioneers came to this area and promptly got lost.  Given the harsh conditions, one of the group died.  All the rest of these Eeyores assumed they too would die here.  They didn’t.  As they left the area, supposedly one of the Bozos turned around and looked over the scary hot waterless place they had just left and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”  The name stuck.  Good thing he didn’t say, “What a shit-forsaken territory.”

Lisa and I experience one of the Death Valley extremes when we visit Badwater, the lowest point on the continent.  In this deepest part of the Park are the salt flats, an area so wide and flat we can almost see the curvature of the Earth.  We go out half an hour or so to the middle of the expanse where there is nothing but a tract of endless, flat, white salt, a layer of mud beneath.  It is 6:15 in the morning, the sun not quite up over the stone Black Mountains that bound the eastern edge of the salt flat behind us.  We are the only two people within miles of where we stand.

It is quiet.  There are no opinions, no discussions, no talking, not even bird sounds or wind.  It is as peaceful and exquisite and desolate a place as I have ever been.  My heart is full.  We stand in that place for some time, waiting for nothing, expecting nothing…  Feeling…  everything.

In due time…

John Muir wrote to his sister in 1873, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

Here is Lisa and me, on the Badwater Basin salt flats, literally within miles of no one.  In communing with nature, I perform a very natural act.  Lisa paraphrases Mr Muir, “The desert is calling and I must go.”