Sunday, June 4, 2017

Exploring the West Side

The west side of Death Valley is ripe with opportunity. Only a half dozen roads penetrate this immense wild-land, and this difficulty of access makes for unspoiled silence, pristine areas, and opportunities for discovering new things where little documentation exists. The area is laced with ancient game and native trails, and while in some areas they are clear and easy to follow, other times they seem to dead-end or cliff out on a side slope. 
Panorama from atop the alluvial fan above Johnson Canyon's wash.
It was this crisp winter day, one of the shortest of the year, that we set out in search of that which few have seen. Very little has been written about this part of the park just north of Johnson Canyon, where a large blob of rhyolite tuff has emerged in the alluvial fans and created a wonderland of rock seemingly straight out of the labyrinth of myth. 
Tinajas in the bottom of a nameless canyon.
The ancient footpath we followed wound around the highs and lows of the alluvial plain between washes and canyons, and dropped us down into a shallow canyon which was lined in the wash entirely with this blob of rhyolite tuff that underlies the area. The action of millennia of floods and running water gouged out the bottom of this gully into a long series of tinajas, or natural water tanks. Due to the cold weather, many of these had ice in them.

Our footpath had disappeared, so we scrambled to the top of the next ridge, where the path reemerged and guided us to the canyon we sought. All the way along this hike, we had been passing fresh tracks and droppings of bighorn sheep, though we never did see any. I've since heard from others who were in the area as well that there were a number of sheep nearby that they had seen, yet eluded us.

As we crested the next rise, the wonderland of rock appeared before us, forbidding and dramatic. We knew it held what it was we sought; adventure and evidence of ancient camels trapped in mud. The footprints of the past were thought to be somewhere in this vast area, and we were determined to find them.

Our ancient footpath had once again disappeared as we clambered into the bottom of the canyon. Loose talus and rock led to a precarious descent with slipping and sliding, stepping and climbing, and finally making it safely to the bottom. To one side lay a series of dramatic, but shallow, narrows, and to the downstream side lay a series of small waterfalls with water flowing over them! The canyon retained a trickle of water since the last rainstorm and snowmelt, and made it all the more atmospheric. Two of us set off upstream to scout, and we began to see interesting things. Fresh bootprints in the water's path, two sets, heading upstream. We began to see more and more of the rock formation that would hold the footprints, until we rounded a corner and were greeted with two friendly faces. They were looking for the same thing we were, and after exchanging greetings, we found out that our new partners were the curators of the lovely Ski3pin blog. We were both familiar with each other's work, which made for quite the coincidence. After exchanging notes, we returned to the rest of my party and continued downstream.
Looking upstream into shallow narrows.

We now numbered six, all searching for any evidence of lakebed sediment or fossil tracks. Each bend in the canyon revealed new, largely undocumented scenery, but still no sign of the elusive camels. As the day moved on, we repeatedly grew excited, and then found our hopes dashed. The shadows grew long as we skirted the tops of twisting narrows carved into the rock, until we were past our pre-determined turn around time of three PM, when the shadows of the Panamint crest began approach rapidly.

Long after the Ski3pin party departed, and my family grew antsy for the coming darkness. We had found no fossils, and with the grandest of the rockland behind us, we accepted defeat from the fossils. The vast expanse of this undocumented wilderness would have to wait for another time. I made one final solo push down the canyon in a vain hope that they were "just around the next corner," and the occasional lakebed strata appeared and gave me hope, only to have it dashed shortly thereafter.

By the time we made it back to the car, darkness was upon us, and the long drive back north to Lemoigne Canyon awaited. Adventure, discovery, and frustration had marked this hike, and it was only the beginning of a wondrous trip.

As always, click to enlarge photos. More from this trip and my other photographic ventures on my Flickr!

Above the narrows, much of this lakebed sediment was cropping out.

More lakebed sediment, said to be Miocene (~5Ma in age)

Interesting sandstone pattern. My thought was maybe a result of earthquake liquefaction.


Rhyolite tuff on right, Sedimentary and other on left.

Downstream of where we entered the canyon, we found more shallow narrows.

These are about 20 feet deep, and about a meter wide. Evening made for difficult  picture conditions.


It was unfortunate that we didn't have time to drop in and explore these narrows.

I spotted some cross-bedding in this lump of sandstone. Evidence of flowing water from two hundred million years ago.

Looking up on the way back. We took a different path back than we came in on.

Final glance at the dramatic rhyolite wonderland.

West Side


Ski3pin said...

It was so much fun meeting you and your family in such a special place!

Death Valley Dazed said...

Great batch of photos and I appreciate your geologist explanations. My favorite was the one shadow of you taking the shot. Amazing to meet up with some folks your were acquainted with in such a remote location. I've been astounded to see fresh human footprints in some far out locations in the park but have yet to run into anyone. Thanks for another cool trip report. Keep 'em coming!