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  • Sarah

Discovering Death Valley

NOTE: For anyone looking to learn about Death Valley, I recommend Michel Digonnet's book, Hiking Death Valley: Guide to Its Natural Wonders and Mining Past. This is a very readable, incredibly informative and accurate book with detailed historic, geologic, and trail/hike information.

This view looks north up the park's main valley - Death Valley.


I’ve been living in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nearly two years now and I’ve grown to love the desert. In August I moved from Tennessee, which was in full summer swing, where trees grow so lush and dense that you only see darkness when peering into the woods. As I drove to Las Cruces, I watched the thick, green forests thin out and eventually disappear, replaced by bald mountains and vast, grassless expanses. My eyes and mind had to adjust to the change.

After a few months and several geology field trips out into the desert hills, I began to understand and really feel the desert. I remember stopping for lunch on a mountainside during a geology mapping project and just thinking how *expletive* amazing my surroundings were – we were completely alone, in an area only ranchers and cows ever roamed, and it was an absolutely stunning place. Sweeping mountain views, plateaus, cacti, wildflowers, critters, and mines were scattered across the landscape.

The colors during the day are as denuded as the old mountains themselves, but EVERY morning and evening the light is so beautiful I get teary thinking about it. You literally can see the sun rise and fall, every step of the way. That’s nearly every day we’re talking. Needless to say, my life improved beyond my expectations when I moved to the desert.


I visited Death Valley for the first time last week. This National Park is HUGE, vast, open, and breathtaking. To get an idea of how big it is, take a look at this map.

In visiting Death Valley I expected to encounter a new type of desert, where extremes were the norm and remoteness meant something. After experiencing a full six months in the Chihuahuan desert, taking weekend trips with my geology mapping class to desolate, remote, and worn down mountain ranges, I was ready to see what the Mojave Desert had in store for me.

When Dad asked if I’d like to join him and a photography guide and friend, Michael, out in Death Valley, I jumped at the chance. Why not see some SERIOUS desert! We decided on February for the perfect temperatures – average highs in Death Valley in February are 74° F and the average low is 46° F, just right for exploring. I booked my flight for Las Vegas and eagerly awaited February’s arrival.

As this was my first time to Death Valley, I’m going to outline my favorite spots from this trip (they’re all my favorites): Mesquite Flat Dunes at sunrise, Marble Canyon, Ubehebe Crater, and Titus Canyon. I imagine this will be the first of many times I make my way here, so I’m excited to keep populating this list.


Mesquite Dunes are very accessible and completely worth the early morning sunrise visit. The sun is working on rising in this shot. Just a few minutes after this moment, the magic begins to happen.

Visiting Mesquite Flat Dunes might feel like a touristy move – any time of day you can drive by and see lots of cars along the road and dozens of people peppering the super accessible dune field. However, this spot opened my eyes to the hallucinatory effects of a rising sun. Hear me out and take it from me: check this place out!

Here’s how you truly enjoy Mesquite Dunes: wake up before sunrise (be sure to check the forecast the night before to make sure you’ll have at least some sun - the visitor center and check-in area of Stovepipe Wells post current forecasts). If you’re staying in Stovepipe Wells or the Stovepipe Wells campground, the trip to Mesquite is super quick (just 4 minutes by car). If you're staying at the Ranch at Death Valley (previously called the Ranch at Furnace Creek), the Inn at Death Valley (previously the Inn at Furnace Creek), or the Furnace Creek campground, it's about a 30 minute car ride. I suggest getting out to a dune before the sun comes up, having some coffee and a camera ready, and waiting. The sun will slowly greet you at the horizon and quickly blow your mind.

Michael and Dad gear up and take advantage of the fleeting light show at Mesquite Flat Dunes.

The color available for your eyes to devour in such early morning light was, until that moment, unknown to me. The rich golds, yellows, and oranges reflected from the dunes and contrasted against some deathly black shadows had me feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience. Just check the photos out to try to understand what I’m saying. The experience is fairly short-lived – after the sun rises enough to blast out the shadows and lighten up those golds, the trip is over. Those moments in the perfect light, though fleeting, felt suspended in time. After seeing the magic out in the dunes, I couldn’t wait to see what else this park had in store for me.


After Mesquite Dunes, we hit the road for Marble Canyon. Marble Canyon is tucked back in the Panamint Range, on the western edge of Death Valley. The canyon access road is very close (nearly across the street from) to Stovepipe Wells Village, and aside from being sandy at the beginning and a bit rocky toward the canyon mouth, the ride is manageable with a higher clearance car (4x4 not necessary unless you go after a big rain).

Marble Canyon boasts some truly immense walls with endless successions of limestones and metamorphosed limestone (i.e., marble), just stacked on top of one another. This hike begins with towering, yet broad canyon vistas and ends in the narrows of Marble Canyon. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting the park - its accessibility and dramatic views are irresistible.

The blue flag is the entrance to Marble Canyon. In the bottom right-hand side of this Google Maps image, you'll find Stovepipe Wells. The drive takes about an hour up to Marble Canyon. I mainly added this image so you can see how BIG the alluvial fan coming out of Marble Canyon is. That's a ton of earth moving itself...

What keeps drawing me back to the desert is quite simple – I feel more connected to our Earth when I am in the out here. Nowhere else do I truly feel like I’ve made it "away from it all.” Only here am I continually in awe of my surroundings – the scale of space you find in DV is hard to fathom, and I love that. It reminds me that we are all just an insignificant blip in the history of the Earth, which brings me some kind of comfort.

I'll let the pictures to the talking for the rest of this bit - even though I've now visited Marble Canyon, I am certain it won't be my last time here.

The canyon walls of Marble Canyon are immense.

The geology is amazing back in this canyon!

There are lots of fossil remnants floating around the canyon, like this gastropod.

Papa Mach flying by as I shoot in the narrows section. The blues and orange-golds in this part are so vibrant.

The Narrows of Marble Canyon do their thing! This enormous canyon tapers down into a really nice narrows section by the end of the hike.


Our next stop is the amazing Ubehebe Crater. Ubehebe comprises a small group of what geologists call a maar - a volcano formed when magma, flowing pretty close to the earth's surface, contacts much cooler groundwater and triggers an enormous explosion, launching any earth in the way sky-high. Ubehebe Crater is a marvel, and, at only an hour from the park's visitor center, it is a destination with limited visitors and incredibly expansive views. If you want to feel like you're on a completely different planet all together, I highly recommend this spot.

We make it to Ubehebe as the sun starts to rise.

The strata within Ubehebe Crater are striking and colorful. There is a system of trails that takes you not only completely around the crater's rim, but also down to the bottom of Ubehebe's main crater. You can spend as much or as little time as you'd like here and still come away with an amazing experience.

Looking toward the south you can see the strata through which the superheated ground water exploded just 800 years ago!

Dad, Michael, and I make our way around the rim of the crater. We're hiking with the rising sun, and similar to Mesquite Dunes, the colors play some fun games on your eyes.

The curves, colors, and textures of Ubehebe Crater are beautiful. I took this shot of a little playa sitting on top the crater's flank. We spotted this area on the hike up to Little Hebe Crater.

Dad and Michael set up their large format film cameras and take some shots.

Full morning light facing north on Ubehebe Crater!

A shot of Ubehebe's parking lot from across the crater rim - this one reminds me of how vast this park truly is.

Ubehebe Crater is a definite favorite of mine not only because of its youth (erupted only 300-800 years ago!) and beauty, but also because it is the gateway to the Racetrack Playa. The road that delivered us to the crater continues on for miles, much deeper into the park than most people go. Out there is where you (as I can only imagine) experience even truer silence and at-oneness with yourself. We didn't make it to the Racetrack this time, but I'll be dreaming about it until I make it out here again.


I wasn’t ready for what came next: Titus Canyon, the mother of all canyons. The mouth of Titus is fairly “close” to everything (like our home base Stovepipe Wells), but you can only access the mouth by foot – to experience the canyon by car, which is the best way, you drive out of the park and back in from the east (it’s a one-way road through the canyon). The road becomes dirt and you climb up pretty high to begin the descent down through Titus.

The canyon widens as you drive farther down the road. Soon after this view you'll run into the ghost town Leadfield.

I absolutely ADORE Titus Canyon, not only for the immense space within, but also for the most magnificent display of geologic torture I’ve ever seen. As you make your way down through the canyon, the canyon walls open and exhibit millions of years of twisting, folding, and breaking limestones, sandstones, shales, and igneous rocks. Prospectors found the canyon to be intriguing as well – the town of Leadfield lies about halfway into the canyon.

The ghost town of Leadfield is a reminder of the lure Death Valley's geology had for prospectors.

Reading about the town, I learned that silver tongued salesman Charles C. Julius touted Leadfield as the next big mining discovery, bringing scores of workers in to pick away at the rocks (link to Martres book and some credible website). The sales pitch brought in investors but left the town unable to sustain itself. Visiting this incredibly remote, decayed village forced me to imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been to live out here in the early 1900s, let alone travel into this remote and unforgiving canyon. I had a pretty well-maintained, but bumpy, dirt road that delivered me to this site. And I was in a 4WD SUV! Back in the day they had burros and bodies bringing gear for living, construction, and mining. They hauled in explosives in the heat of the Death Valley summer and built a whole town! The history of Death Valley is amazing, and the people who tried to tame it equally as impressive.

Nearing the mouth of Titus Canyon, the walls steepen and the rock drama intensifies!

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