Our final morning at Death Valley National Park dawned with the sun pushing away the shadows from this vast place. It was Tuesday morning, February 28, and we’d have to start back to San Diego by noon at the latest. The following afternoon, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
The previous night as we found our campsite, everything was a rich black. In the morning as we looked out of our tents into the sunrise, we found the foothills of the Cottonwood mountains, where our camp was nestled, gloriously lit up. As were the quickly departing clouds. Although other parts of the valley had felt the drop of rain overnight, our tiny corner of it hadn’t.
Mosaic Canyon follows a fault almost two miles into Tucki Mountain. Actually, the canyon continues farther into the mountain, but at 1.8 miles, an insurmountable fifty-foot dry fall marks the end of a really great hike. Mosaic Canyon is a testament to the power of water written in beautiful stone.
Andrew, Sean, and I arrived at the parking area for Mosaic Canyon at about a quarter to four on February 27. We had traveled some eighty miles from our campsite on Harry Wade Road far near the southern end of Death Valley. Now in the foothills of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells, we were ready for our final adventure of our final full day in Death Valley National Park.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on North America and among the lowest on the planet. The basin is covered in a crust of salt, ninety-five percent of which is table salt (sodium chloride). With nowhere lower to go, the Amargosa River ends its one-hundred eighty-five-mile journey here. Runoff from the eastern side of the Panamint Range and the western side of the Amargosa Range also ends up here. Once, Death Valley was filled by Lake Manley, eighty miles long and six-hundred feet deep. But the lake slowly dried up after the last Ice Age, leaving a bed of salt replenished by salts and minerals carried by water trapped here before evaporating.
After our twilight drive down Death Valley the previous evening, we were ready to spend Monday, February 27 making our way slowly back up the valley to the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells. The plan for the day was to take our time exploring some canyons and visiting Badwater Basin. We’d walked down to the Amargosa River after breakfast. Now, having struck our camp along Harry Wade Road, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep headed to Room Canyon not far to the north.
Room Canyon, hidden in the foothills of the Black Mountains south of Mormon Point, features sheer reddish walls opening to a large room (for which the canyon is named) beneath a dry fall. The room is a 1.3-mile hike from Badwater Road. Side canyons add some distance, making exploring Room Canyon a 3.6-mile total out-and-back hike from the road.
By 5pm on Sunday, February 26, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep and driving south through the northern part of Death Valley. The task at hand: finding a place to rest our heads for the night. The immensity of Death Valley was more apparent for us on this drive than it had been throughout the rest of our time in the Park. It was fifty-seven miles from Ubehebe Crater to the Park Headquarters at Furnace Creek. And our intention was to continue south well beyond Furnace Creek.
After saying goodbye to the Racetrack on Sunday, February 26, Andrew, Sean, and I climbed into the Jeep for the return drive to our campsite in Hidden Valley. After breakfast, we’d make the drive all the way back to central Death Valley, with a stopover at the Ubehebe Crater complex of maar, or steam, volcanoes.
So here’s the thing about North America: we haven’t been here that long. We really haven’t. Likely Native Americans have been here longer than history and science have traditionally thought. The thirteen-thousand-year-old bones found at Channel Islands National Park hint at that. But in particular, we who descend from peoples who didn’t cross the Bering Land Bridge have been on this continent hardly any time at all. And so there are still mysteries here. There are still things we don’t understand about how this place we call home works. How just the right barometric pressure and just the right wind velocity and just the right thin skein of ice or frost on just a flat enough surface like a dried lake can cause solid rock to skid across the land and leave a trail like a snail, a long footprint like a snake that twists and spirals and doubles back on itself. Because there are mysteries left on this continent.
And one of those mysteries is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, a mysterious that place exists in 2017 is a testament to the legacy of a century and a half of conservation in North America. And so we went, three Catholic boys as if to church, on the morning of Sunday, February 26, to a place full of magic.