I stumbled on a really great blog on places in and around Death Valley by a guy named Steve Hall, aptly named “Death Valley Adventures”. His blog is particularly great because there are few maps and/or information on most of the area surrounding Death Valley. It encouraged me to do a little exploring on my own. I decided to drive home from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the Fourth of July through the Searles Valley, Panamint Valley, Death Valley to Furnace Creek Inn and then on home. These valleys are between the Argus, Slate, and Panamint Ranges which are oriented north-south, or toward the north-northwest. The El Paso Mountains, Spangler Hills, Straw Peak in the Slate Range, and Quail Mountains are oriented east-west, and the Owlshead Mountains are arranged in a semi-circular pattern south of the valleys. Aside from the geology, there are some interesting places to see along this little drive and of course some of our beautiful desert flora. Admittedly it extended the trip home by a few hours but the scenery was worth the lost time.
If you visit Little Petroglyph Canyon, you will inevitably ask who created these petroglyphs. The short answer is, nobody knows who made them or in fact, how old they are. The Coso people were inhabiting the Coso area when the Europeans first arrived but there were only about 150–250 Coso people in the area and they claimed to know nothing about the petroglyphs. Over the past 100 years significant effort by anthropologists and archeologists have worked on clues from the past to explain the entrance of humans into the Americas and what they did once they were there. Since it was a long time ago, many things have been washed away by time. However, looking at stone tools, pollen counts from pack rat middens, linguistics and retained native customs we have a hotly debated but reasonable idea of how things changed over time for the Coso people and humans all over the Americas. This post is an overview of this work and while it will not tell you the who and when the petroglyphs were made, it will give you context to decide for yourself. I think you will be surprised at the ultimate influence this tiny, out of the way place, had on the entire southwest.
On our way back from Darwin Falls we decided to stop in Panamint Springs for what my friend Steve said was the best steak in Death Valley. While it is a small place it actually is a small family run restaurant, campground and resort with fabulous views of Death Valley. Panamint Springs Resort is a rustic, western-style, resort located in beautiful Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park that provides lodging, camping and RV services, a restaurant and bar, and a gas station with a well stocked general store. Marvelous views of distant sand dunes and the soaring 11,000 foot high Panamint Mountains complete the setting for leisure dining and relaxation. The resort is located at the western end of Death Valley National Park.
For many years I have heard of a miracle in the desert, Darwin Falls, a spring-fed waterfall flows year-round in a narrow gorge in the driest place on earth, Death Valley. This year I decided to visit. Its lush streamside thickets of willows ring with the song of migrating birds in springtime. The falls are located just west of Panamint Springs via a 2.5 mile unpaved road. Although there is no formal trail, the mostly level, two mile walk to the falls involves rock scrambling and several stream crossings. Darwin Creek is one of the four perennial streams in three million-acre (12,000 km²) Death Valley National Park. Darwin Falls and Creek are fed by the Darwin Wash, which is in turn fed by the volcanic tableland of the Darwin Bench between the Inyo Mountains and the Argus Range. The small, narrow valley where the creek and falls are located features a rare collection of greenery in the vast desert and is home to indigenous fauna such as quail. Darwin Falls, the Darwin Falls Wilderness, the nearby town of Darwin, California, and all other areas named “Darwin” in the vicinity are named after Dr. Darwin French (1822–1902), a local rancher, miner, and explorer.
The Furnace Creek Inn was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company of Twenty Mule Team fame as a means to save their newly built Death Valley Railroad. Mines had closed and shipping transportation was no longer needed, but mining tourist pockets seemed a sure way to keep the narrow-gauge line active. The borax company realized travelers by train would need a place to stay and wealthy visitors accustomed to comfort would be attracted to a luxury hotel. First opened for business in 1927, the Furnace Creek Inn was an immediate success. Unfortunately for the mining company, their railroad closed forever in 1930 when it became apparent tourists preferred the freedom of arriving to Death Valley in their own cars. Nonetheless, the Inn remained popular and construction continued for the next ten years. Designed by prominent Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin and landscape architect Daniel Hull, the 66 room Inn sprawls across a low hill at the mouth of Furnace Creek Wash. With views over Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains to the west, the Inn’s location was well chosen and blends into the landscape. Most of the lodging is closed in the summer, when temperatures can surpass 125 °F (52 °C), but the golf course remains open.
I decided to take another trip to Death Valley to document the smaller flowers of the super bloom. The bloom changes over time, different species claim their place in the hierarchy. Although the photographs show many of the same plants at the same size, some are quite small. This year (2016) is an amazing year for Death Valley flowers since a super bloom is in progress. As a result, I am planning multiple visits to Death Valley to photograph the bloom in progress. The bloom is definitely moving north and higher in altitude. Although there are still expansive fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) along the Badwater Road, as well as carpets of Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa) from Mile Marker 42 to the end of the road, many of the other flowers in this area are past their peak. Blooms will migrate up canyons and climb mountains as the air rapidly warms through spring. “When I first came to work here in the early 1990s, I kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing,” says National Park Service employee Alan Van Valkenburg. “I saw several impressive displays of wildflowers over the years and always wondered how anything could beat them, until I saw my first super bloom in 1998. Then I understood.”
I am attracted to blank spaces on the map. Increasingly, these “end of the world” places are harder to find but nonetheless real, you know them when you see them. Machu Picchu, Hasankeyf, Göbekli Tepe, the Fiords of New Zealand, Tasmania and Death Valley are just a few of the places that transport us to the past, the future, the possibilities of life. Sometimes these places are far away, frequently they are just across the street, in my case two hours from Las Vegas. Many potential visitors ignore Death Valley due to the misconception that it is simply a lifeless, empty landscape, but this 3.4 million acre (14,000 km2) park is not only the largest national park in the contiguous 48 States of the USA but also arguably one of the most striking specimens of Mother Earth. Nearly every major geological era is elegantly exposed here in what sometimes appears to be one of her greatest tapestries, gloriously presenting her full spectrum.
Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but those are the exception, not the rule. Only under perfect conditions does the desert fill with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. Although there are years where blossoms are few, they are never totally absent. Most of the showy desert wildflowers are annuals, also referred to as ephemerals because they are short-lived. Oddly enough, this limited lifespan ensures survival here. Rather than struggle to stay alive during the desert’s most extreme conditions, annual wildflowers lie dormant as seeds. When enough rain finally does fall, the seeds quickly sprout, grow, bloom and go back to seed again before the dryness and heat returns. The majority of these blooms are produced by Desert Gold (Geraea canescens). The Badwater Road along the side of Death Valley is still the go-to destination for those huge expanses of endless flowers. Fortunately for me, Death Valley is only about two hours from Las Vegas.