Ramble On

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Death Valley: Natural Bridge and Devil’s Golf Course

These were my next two stops during my drive through Death Valley. There is a hike in the Best Easy Day Hikes book for the Natural Bridge stop; for Devil’s Golf Course, it’s simply a two mile drive out into the Salt Flats where you can look across a landscape like no other I’ve ever seen: desolate and treacherous, totally uninviting.

The book describes the hike to Natural Bridge as a walk through a gently sloped canyon with a climb totaling 520 feet. It’s listed as a two mile hike round trip, but I probably only did half of that, and I certainly didn’t partake of the whole climb. The bridge appears early in the canyon; there are quite a few other geologic features here to explore, culminating in a “dryfall,” which marks an area that turns into a waterfall when it rains enough.

The kiosk at the trailhead explains all of the geologic phenomena that hikers encounter here, including different kinds of faults and arches, and mud drips. The view over the salt flats from the parking lot is awesome and intimidating at the same time…I found that I was amazed enough at the view and experience that I was more exuberant than some of the other tourists could take. I wonder whether they would enjoy a hike with me on my home turf in Shenandoah National Park.

These mud drips were particularly interesting. Bigger flash floods have done the bulk of the work carving out the canyon and the natural bridge, but the mud drips emphasize the ceaseless erosion that is happening here. When there is enough rain above, it drains from the higher surfaces into the canyon, leaving tracks of sediment on the walls as the water evaporates to a trickle – and frequently doesn’t even reach the canyon floor. I took a close look and touched one of them – the mud tracings are like wax, shiny and translucent – and then stepping back, you see that the whole canyon wall is etched with them. Beautiful.

Getting back to the car, I took a break for some refreshment and then headed to Devil’s Golf Course. That involves a drive along a gravel road out to a cul de sac, where there are some interpretive signs about the landscape, which begins abruptly off the shoulders of the road. Thankfully, few people walk out into the area here, so the landscape is close enough to natural for all to enjoy.

The salt flats periodically fill with water after heavier rains, so the runoff pools in basins and then soaks into an ancient lake bed. It becomes a solution with the residual mineral salts, carrying them to the surface when the water evaporates. There the minerals adhere to sand and rocks, crystallize, and then build rough, irregular formations.

It would be difficult to walk very far here because the structures are fragile and would quickly take their toll on ankles and knees. A fall would leave you bruised and bleeding, stinging from the salt that would grind into the scrape wounds.

Yet, wildlife flourishes here, with specially adapted species (1,000 of them, according to the NPS handout) living here and elsewhere. I figured that was another good reason not to venture far out into this area. Taking a look from the safety of that little cul de sac in the desert was enough for me!

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