I’m back again and in this post I will cover our day in Death Valley! However I just wanted to say my birthday was yesterday so happy birthday to me I guess? Turning 22 isn’t very exciting in my opinion.  I didn’t do anything really “special” for it though a lot of people wished me happy bday on Facebook so thanks to all those people! After high school, I stopped caring about making my birthday a huge production.  The past couple of years I haven’t blown out a cake with candles or gotten that many presents and honestly I am okay with that.  The most meaningful happy birthdays are the ones that come from my family members–Mom likes to point out it’s the day she became a mother for the first time (I’m the oldest).
I think the most exciting thing that happened on my birthday this year was that I got to pie my freshman seminar professor in the face with whipped cream.  Let’s just say that class was definitely not one of my favorites.  And then Megan decided to do it in honor of me so he technically got pied twice on my behalf.  (This whole pieing a professor in the face business was my sorority’s way of raising money for Relay for Life)
I may go out later tonight with some people to celebrate but there wasn’t that much time to do so this week with Networking Day (which was today), Relay for Life, Pints with Profs, Mr. Dickinson… I’ll cover all those other events in another post when I bother updating you people about my current college life.  However telling you about spring break is way more exciting!

On Sunday, March 14th we drove out to Death Valley, about a two hour drive from Las Vegas.  We got up very early and when we went down to “Restaurant Row” in our Manhattan sized hotel, only Starbucks was open and there was hardly a soul walking around.  Though I think there were some people at the slot machines in the hotel’s casino…

So we drove in our rented car to Death Valley and the whole drive there we admired the landscape.  Since we are from the green and hilly Northeast, everything about the Mojave desert amazed us.  We are not used to seeing rocky, red mountains with jagged summits or dry looking desert shrubs.  Not to mention all the badlands we kept driving through, which are large mounds of sediment and clay that rise out of the earth.  (Not quite on the same scale as the mountains)

We don’t really know when we crossed into California since we never saw a sign welcoming us.  I’m not even sure when we officially entered Death Valley, but we knew we were there when we stopped at a Visitor’s Center.  After a quick stop at some touristy looking ranch for food in Furnace Creek, we went in the Visitor’s Center and briefly visited the museum recounting Death Valley’s history and how it was discovered.

Death Valley was first discovered by non-Native Americans in 1849 by settlers trying to find a way to California during the California Gold Rush:
The California Gold Rush brought the first people of European descent known to visit the immediate area. In December 1849 two groups of California Gold Country-bound white travelers with perhaps 100 wagons total stumbled into Death Valley after getting lost on what they thought was a shortcut off the Old Spanish Trail.[16] Called the Bennett-Arcane Party, they were unable to find a pass out of the valley for weeks; they were able to find fresh water at various springs in the area, but were forced to eat several of their oxen to survive. They used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky. The place where they did this is today referred to as “Burned Wagons Camp” and is located near the sand dunes.
After abandoning their wagons, they eventually were able to hike out of the valley. Just after leaving the valley, one of the women in the group turned and said, “Goodbye Death Valley,” giving the valley they endured its name.[16][note 3] Included in the party was William Lewis Manly whose autobiographical book Death Valley in ’49 detailed this trek and popularized the area (geologists later named the prehistoric lake that once filled the valley after him).

Indeed Death Valley’s landscape is very intimidating and barren in a mesmerizing sort of way.  I can’t imagine stumbling into the place back in 1849 when none of the valley had been mapped yet.  It is like a maze in there and there are signs all over the place indicating different points of interest.  Without those signs, you’d easily get lost in the dry lake beds and badlands and mountains and other geological features that don’t exist in the Northeast.

Our first stop in Death Valley was Zabriskie Point, a lookout over a bunch of what look like to be sand dunes to the naked eye.  This mountain range is actually composed of sandstone and sediments where Furnace Creek Lake used to exist a couple of million years ago.  So in fact these wavy looking sandstone mountains used to be composed of sand but hardened into rock due to erosion and other geological factors I don’t really understand.  Or maybe they are badlands… They aren’t high enough to be mountains so I guess they are sandstone badlands.  Anyways, this curious looking formation is something you need to experience in person if you ever visit Death Valley.  It also introduced us to the harsh and unforgiving landscape, clearly showing us that the park is not a place in which human civilization can survive for extended periods of time.  To learn more about Zabriskie Point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zabriskie_Point

After that, we did some hiking through some rocky badlands ravines towards the “Cathedral,” a bunch of steep red cliffs.  We didn’t actually hike all the way there.  At some point, the wide ravine trail narrowed as we hiked farther and farther into the badlands.  At one point, the trail seemed to end but it actually continued through the badlands, though it definitely looked like a tight squeeze.  We didn’t follow it up all the way since we wanted to see more of Death Valley and we only had a day to visit as much as we could.

We then moved on to Artists’ Drive, a scenic drive that took us by some rock faces covered in light blue, pink, purple, red, and white sediment.  These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals (red, pink and yellow is from iron salts, green is from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and manganese produces the purple).  The main area with the most color is called Artists’ Palette and it is really strange to see a bunch of vivid colors splashed on the usually dull, dirt covered rocks.  The drive took us right through the canyon and at one point we were literally driving right through the rock, the road so narrow it barely accommodated our car.

After this natural artwork, we did a mini hike to see the Natural Bridge.  The hike was very short, about 15 minutes, but the drive to get to the parking lot for this point of interest was rough.  The dirt road was riddled with pot holes and the car jostled all over the place, kicking up dust in its wake.  We finally got to the Natural Bridge and admired the way the rock formed a natural looking bridge connecting the two sides of the canyon.  I didn’t try to stand underneath the Bridge for too long since I could see a number of very wide cracks on the rock surface.  Can’t imagine the sound that is going to make when the Bridge eventually collapses due to erosion.  If you are having a hard time imagining what it looks like, think of a natural rock arch connecting two sides of a trail flanked by high rock walls.

Our last official Death Valley point of interest was Badwater Basin.  Throughout the day as we drove around, we could see a far off strip of white land in the middle of the valley.  We really weren’t sure what it was.  Sand? Water? As we learned more about Death Valley’s history, we found out most of the valley used to be a giant lake (or a few different lakes, it seemed everywhere we stopped signs were explaining that we were standing on the site of a dry lake bed) And it’s true, driving around Death Valley you get the sense there should be water in the middle of valley, the side of the road looks like some kind of weird desert beach.  There are a lot of dry washes throughout the badlands that look like they once used to contain water: lakes, streams, some kind of body of water.

So we got to Badwater Basin and discovered that it is apparently the lowest point in the continental US: 282 feet below sea level! There was a sign attached to the rocky mountain on the side of the road marked “Sea Level” giving tourists a sense how low they were in comparison.  Well I certainly didn’t feel like I was super low… my ears didn’t plug up like they tend to when I go too deep in the water! And we learned what all the white stuff was: salt!
The site itself consists of a small spring-fed pool of “bad water” next to the road; the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name. The pool does have animal and plant life, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the Badwater snail.
Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes.

You can actually walk out to where most of the water sits in the middle of the valley.  The spring is not very deep (more like a thin layer of water), it barely covered my feet since I opted to go barefoot and walk around in the salt flats.  It was also very warm considering it was only the middle of March.  In fact, during the day temperatures rose to about high seventies, low eighties.  Death Valley IS the hottest place in the US.  During the summers temperatures can rise to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.  My roomie Mimi actually visited Death Valley in August.  She definitely recommended avoiding to visit during that month.

The salt flats/Badwater Basin really impressed me just because the phenomenon is so strange but very breathtaking all at once.  I also got to take my shoes off which felt great after walking all over the place in my hiking boots.  Unfortunately my parents and I got salt all over our rented car… oops!
Apparently, Badwater Basin also has the highest evaporation rate.  Even if flash floods tend to occur during the summer, the lakebed dries up really fast, leaving behind the thin layer of water and the salt flats.  In most places, the salt isn’t as concentrated and thick as it is right at the Basin.  Most of the salt flats look like jagged, cracked mud with a thin layer of white salt sprinkled on top.  Definitely not conducive to walking around on.

After Badwater Basin, we took the scenic drive out of Death Valley and enjoyed more weird landscape and scenery.  Death Valley is definitely one of the weirdest places I’ve been to, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the geology of the place makes it look like it belongs on some other planet.  The valley looked out of this world as the sun began to set and as the shadows began to lengthen.
We actually thought we were lost when we left Death Valley since the GPS we had was being less than helpful as we tried to make our way back to Las Vegas.  Most of the time we were in Death Valley, our GPS lost its signal since the area we were in was very remote.  We eventually made it back to Las Vegas in the dark, passing Red Rock Canyon, the park we had visited the previous day.

And that was Death Valley! A huge barren wasteland with interesting geological features that reminded me of some other planet.  I would like to go back and visit because there were plenty of places we didn’t get to go since we only had a day to visit.  The park is very big and the one thing I had been dying to see were the moving rocks at Racetrack Playa.
Basically a bunch of random little rocks on a dry lake bed that move around.  You can tell they move around due to the tracks made in the rocks’ “wake” on the dry lake bed.  Nobody knows why these rocks move since they have never been seen moving at the naked eye.  Something I plan to go see next time I go!
We also missed the desert being in bloom by about a week.  At the end of March, the flowers bloom and Mom had been hoping to witness this.  We definitely could tell the plants looked ready to bloom but we unfortunately couldn’t wait around for it to happen.

So I definitely want to go back there someday.  Maybe when I finally get around to visiting the Grand Canyon, I can do it in the same trip.  There’s so much to see in the American southwest though, I’ll probably get distracted by something else…

Next up: Zion National Park!

Signing off for now.

Amelie