Monday, February 3, 2014

Hike lake bed in one of world’s hottest spots

Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park.
Trail map courtesy of Death Valley NPS.

Canyon trail
snakes across
Death Valley

Believe it or not, a lake once covered one of the driest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park. The Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail allows children to read the rocks that tell the tale of how this lake vanished all while enjoying among the planet’s most forbidding places.

Among the world’s hottest places, you’ll need to limit hikes on the trail to October through April. Even then, never hike on the salt flats or below sea level when temperatures get hot.

To reach the trail, take Calif. Hwy. 190 into the park. Near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, turn onto Badwater Road. Travel two miles to the Golden Canyon parking area. The trailhead is off the parking area.

Though the trail heads uphill and can be rocky and uneven, it is easy to traverse. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, however.

Ancient Lake Manly
The entrance to Golden Canyon is an alluvial fan, or the remains of sand, silt, gravel and even boulders washed here by flashfloods. The mud on the canyon walls shows how high the water rose during the last flashflood in 1976.

Upon passing the third numbered marker, you’ve entered the fossil remains of ancient Lake Manly that sat here 5 million years ago. Ripple marks along the canyon walls indicate the shoreline. Above each ripple line, look for tiny crystals; they were created as the water, thick with minerals, evaporated.

The lake dried out as the western edge of the North American tectonic plate rose while sliding against the Pacific tectonic plate to the west. Coastal mountains from this collision prevented rain from falling across a vast desert region, and evaporation sucked the lake dry. The slanted layers of the canyon walls show how the desert floor has been pushed upward; at one time, those layers were level.

Death Valley is so inhospitable that the lack of plants – even compared to most other American desert regions – is striking. Only a few cacti and succulents grow in the rocky washes and banks. But small mammals and certainly lizards are more numerous than visitors might think.

Red Cathedral
About a quarter mile after passing the final numbered marker, the canyon’s yellow slopes give way to fluted iron-oxidized rock. Called the Red Cathedral, the rock here is more resistant to erosion than the yellow mudstone.

After reaching the Red Cathedral, turn around and hike back to the trailhead. A round trip covers two miles.

Always carry at least two liters of water person for a winter day hike. If thirsty, definitely take a drink. You can dehydrate quickly in Death Valley.

In addition, if rain clouds appear overhead and drops begin falling – a rare sight indeed – immediately leave. Flashfloods can occur rapidly, and rain often loosens rocks from the cliff sides. Both can be deadly.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.