Category Archives: Deserts

Mojave Desert: Hoover Dam, Valley of Fire State Park & Death Valley National Park ~ October 12 – 17, 2014

Upon exiting Sequoia National Park we’d entered the Mojave Desert and the portion of this “great looping quest” in which I was most apprehensive… the desert. 

01 Approaching Las Vegas
West of Las Vegas

I had preconceived notions about desert existence, mostly negative because my perceptions weren’t based on actual experience. So, I’d anticipated a colorless, desolate environment… unfriendly and uninhabitable. After all, the Mojave has a valley named “Death!”

What I discovered was just the opposite, a welcoming beauty, thriving and very much alive. For me, establishing a sense of grounding in the desert required no conscious effort – the desert rose up firmly beneath my feet.

10 East of Las Vegas
East of Las Vegas, NV

Within Mojave’s arid landscape, where odd and varied creatures flourished, I felt my own belonging.

13 Valley of Fire Lizard

The desert’s embrace forever changed my perspective, it corrected it and taught me a lesson about the ridiculous power we give to our perceptions.

~~~

A cheap (because it was undergoing a noisy renovation) Las Vegas casino/hotel served as our basecamp while we explored what lies beyond the city’s fringes… the even more wild and wonderful. First up…

Hoover Dam

02 Inside Hoover Dam

05.5 Hoover Dam

For a hundred years the Hoover Dam has risen 726 feet from the floor of the Colorado River.

09 Hoover Dam

It is an unyielding concrete monster, a sight to behold that attracts some seven million people a year… by car, boat, and helicopter.

07 Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, Hoover Dam NV

Its proximity to Las Vegas—40 minutes southeast—enables this constant flow of people. Unfortunately, the flow of water for which the dam was built is not as reliable and, as in California, the effect of prolonged drought was visible through the river’s receding waterline.

06 Receding Colorado River from Hoover Dam
Receding Colorado River Water Level

We purchased tickets to tour the dam’s power plant… $15 in 2014, and well worth it.

Inside, 30 foot pipes snake through tunnels and rows of enormous generators churn out 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually for the good folks of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam’s structure also serves to control flooding and reserve water for California’s fruitful valleys and its southern cities.

Valley of Fire State Park

11 Valley of Fire State ParkNevada’s Valley of Fire State Park is located about 50 miles (an hour’s drive) northeast of Las Vegas. Its sculpted red rocks are stacked and scattered throughout the park’s 40,000 acres.

12 Valley of Fire landscape
Valley of Fire Landscape

Only one road cuts through the park, just above its southern border. The road provides access to loads of popular hikes and fun formations, more than enough to keep one occupied for a day.

17 Valley of Fire SP Map

The rest of the park, the vast majority of its wilderness, is a sprawling preservation area, seemingly inaccessible except by foot.

Our arrival in the late afternoon limited our hiking options, but we had the park to ourselves.

18 Mouse Tank Road, Valley of Fire SP
Mouse Tank Road, Valley of Fire State Park, NV

Also, the sun’s low stance illuminated the red rocks and danced through canyons making our walks even more magical.

16 Valley of Fire SP, NV

The half-mile trail to Mouse Tank led us down a canyon marked with hundreds of petroglyphs.

19 Mouse Tank Trail, Valley of Fire SP
Mouse Tank Trail Valley of Fire State Park, NV

These uninterpretable messages hovered just above us, holding steadfast onto the secrets of an ancient civilization.

26 Sunset heading to Las Vegas

Only the sunset, spectacular and fleeting, could force us out of the Valley of Fire and back toward the maddening lights of Las Vegas.

Death Valley National Park

We traveled northwest for 140+ miles to enter Death Valley National Park where my attitude and apprehensions about deserts were permanently altered. Death Valley’s mystique and it’s rolling, constantly changing landscapes captivated me.

26.8 Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
View from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

We stopped often, awestruck by its colors and geology.

Near the center of Death Valley is Badwater Basin, a massive flat of salt exposed by rain runoff from the surrounding mountains.

27 Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley NP

The basin sits 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.

29.5 Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley NP
Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley National Park, CA

Its limited drainage results in artsy, salty shapes forming through heat induced evaporation. The salt configurations cover the basin creating an eerie, alien terrain.

28 Salt Formations, Badwater Basin, Death Valley NP

We traversed over the salt and out into the basin and became mesmerized by the patterns. Before we realized it, we were about a mile in, which is nowhere near the basin’s center.

30.5 Badwater Basin

As intense heat began pulsing around us, we sensed our own vulnerability and soon turned back toward the parking area.

37 Artists' Drive, Death Valley NP
Artists’ Drive, Death Valley National Park, CA

Wending through a painted canyon on Artists’ Drive was like bounding through a rainbow. The one-way nine-mile road is narrow with rocky hillsides rolling up, out, and along both sides.

36 Artists' Drive, Death Valley NP

The palette effect is from minerals (including hematite and chlorite) altered by volcanic eruptions five million years ago. Elements aluminum, iron, magnesium and titanium also add to the mountainous canvas.

Our other hike in Death Valley, was the Natural Bridge Trail, accessible about a mile and half down a dirt road that breaks off from Badwater Road.

31 Trey heading down Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley NP2
Trey heading down Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley National Park

It’s an easy one-mile round-trip trail into a narrow, high-walled canyon.

35 Natural Bridge, Death Valley NP

The trail crosses under the bridge formation and continues into a box canyon.

34 Natural Bridge, Death Valley NP
Natural Bridge, Death Valley National Park, CA

We had the trail to ourselves, or at least it was devoid of other humans. This gal, a Swainson’s Thrush, accompanied us from the rock bridge to the trail’s end.

32 Swainson's Thrush, Trail Escort
Death Valley Swainson’s Thrush

As we neared the bird, it would take flight, landing 20 or so feet up trail where it waited for us to approach again. Over and over it repeated this routine, escorting us all the way into the rocky boxed area…

33 Trail End, Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley NP

and then safely back to the bridge.

We also spied a reddish fox, the Desert Kit Fox, strolling alongside Hwy 190 as we left the park, but missed photographing him.

More Pics

23 Petroglyph Canyon, Valley of Fire SP

 

Up next…  Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks