Monday, May 14, 2007

Water in the Valley of Death

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Today my plans revolve around water. First I want to visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and then go for a swim in the spring-fed pool at Furnace Creek Ranch. So, grab your sunscreen, we're on our way...

It has been getting warmer lately in the Mojave, and today (April 3) the temperature rises to 99 degrees here in Death Valley. (Later I checked the weather data, and it was actually hotter here than at any other place in the country that day.) Driving along under the blazing sun I'm thinking to myself, "Why is it so hot here?" Well, this is what I learned from the National Park Service on that topic:

The depth (200+ feet below sea level) and shape of the valley (long and narrow--yet walled in by steep mountain ranges) have a lot to do with it. Clear, dry air and sparse plant cover allow the desert surface to continuously heat up. The heat radiates from the rocks and soil (the ground temperature can be 80°F hotter than the air!) At night, the heated air rises, but is trapped by the high valley walls and comes back down, only slightly cooler than the surrounding hot valley air. Commpression by the low elevation air pressure creates even more heat, so the valley experiences blowing winds of super-heated air.

I reach for the AC.

After traversing Salsberry Pass (3,315ft) and Jubilee Pass (1,290ft), the descent from the southeast into Death Valley proper begins. Signs mark the descent at regular intervals. 600 feet. 200 feet. Sea Level. 100 feet BELOW sea level. It feels like I'm in one of those war movies where the disabled submarine sinks further and further, with gauges moving into red zones and rivets starting to fly from the intense pressure on the hull. My craft finally hits bottom at around 250 feet below the waves. "Status report!" "No damage, sir!" "Restart the engines, maintain 50mph, heading zero degrees!" "Aye aye, captain."

The Panamint Mountains are on my left and the Amargosa Range is to my right. It is very hot. The desert sun is obviously affecting my mind. That last paragraph proves it.

Ahead I see what looks like... snow??

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Of course it is not snow; it is salt: sodium chloride, nearly 100% pure. More than 2,000 years ago this area was a lake some 30 feet deep. The water has evaporated, leaving the salt behind in depths of one to five feet.

A briny pond here contains more open water than I have seen anywhere else in Death Valley, but it is four times saltier than the ocean--unfit for man or beast. Hence the name Badwater. But it is not devoid of life. A rare species of snail lives under the salt crust at the edge of the pond, feeding on algae.

Immediately behind the pond rises the steep rock face of the Black Mountains. Estimated to be 1,700 million years old, these Precambrian relics are, I believe, the oldest exposed rocks in the United States. They are remnants of a volcanic mountain belt ancient beyond comprehension, almost twice as old as the surface of the moon.

All very interesting. But I have some less salty water on my mind... I can't wait to make it up to Furnace Creek Ranch, 18 miles to the north, so that I can take a swim in their crystal clear spring-fed pool. I stayed at Furnace Creek Ranch on my previous visit to Death Valley, and it is quite a place! For those of you who might not have read about it, here is the link to my earlier post.

The place to be at the hottest spot in the United States

I spend an hour or so enjoying the cool water and shade of the palm trees. Then I return to the car, looking forward to the next item on my agenda. Now I will drive west out of Death Valley National Park and run smack into the most impressive line of mountains you can see in the Lower 48...the great cordillera of the Sierra Nevada.

"Death Valley is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to buy gas there."
The price of gas in Death Valley on April 3, 2007 was $4.23, 58% above the nationwide average of $2.67

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