Brian & Nancy Morganti

Death Valley Sojourn - 2010

March 7, 2010  -  March 17, 2010

Mar 7, 2010:    Sun - Travel Day - Green River, UT: 

Other than stopping to sleep the previous two nights; Nancy and I had driven continuously for nearly 2,100 miles and for the first time felt compelled to stop and take some photographs.  We were a little west of Green River Utah, and the sun was just poking through the late morning clouds to reveal some spectacular vistas!  The last vestiges of snow dotted the landscape, which added to the overall scene of contrasting rocks shapes and colors.  We stopped a few times to enjoy the landscape views before continuing on to St. George, UT for the night. 


Mar 8, 2010:    Mon AM - Valley of Fire State Park, NV: 

This would be our first day visiting Death Valley National Park, but first there was another place that I had read about and wished to visit---The Valley of Fire State Park.  The park is located in far southern Nevada about halfway between St. George, UT and Las Vegas, NV.  It's name is derived from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of the dinosaurs. These features, which are the centerpiece of the park's attractions, often appear to be on fire when reflecting the sun's rays. Well, we were in luck!  We would be visiting the park during the first few hours of daylight and it had just rained the night before, further enhancing the rich red hues of the sandstone formations!  Please click on the thumbnail photo below for a slide show journey through the park.


Valley of Fire - Photo Gallery

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Mar 8, 2010:    Mon PM - Entry into Southern Death Valley: 

After leaving Valley of Fire S.P. we continued south on I-15 to Baker, CA where we would meet our friend Bill Reid for lunch.  Bill had convinced me that the best way to first experience Death Valley would be by entering the park from the south via an unpaved road that exits Highway 127 near Renoville.  Just before we exited 127 we could see the expansive Dumont Dunes to our north, but we were more interested in visiting the remote Ibex Dunes and the Saratoga Springs area.  We stopped briefly before arriving at Saratoga Springs to sample a nearly white desert floor contrasting stark black hills in the distance.  The silence was deafening!  I walked off with my camera in hand towards a small stream and felt like I was the only one left on the planet.  What a contrast to the heavily populated east coast!   We spent the next few glorious hours filming in and around the Saratoga Springs and Ibex Dunes area before continuing our descent northwest into southern Death Valley.  We stopped several times along the way to photograph the wonderful terrain that kept unfolding before us.  We eventually made it as far north as Mormon Point where we lost the final rays of sunlight, but not our final photo ops!  As the sun continued to dip below the mountains to our west a few interesting standing wave clouds began to form overhead...some looking like small "flying saucers"!  Knowing we were under some of the darkest skies on Earth, Bill suggested we get to a high spot and try to film these clouds under the stars.  We headed back south a bit to Jubilee Pass, which cuts east to the town of Shoshone where Nancy and I would be staying for the night.  We set up our cameras a short distance up the pass and I immediately noticed an obvious glow to my west---the Zodiacal Light!  I had almost forgotten about this phenomenon and that it occurs in the hours after sunset each Spring and before sunrise each Fall.  I had filmed it before here in PA, but I had never really seen it.  To see it you need truly dark skies with no light pollution and a moonless night---both of which we had!  This light is caused by meteoric dust rotating around the sun on the same plane as the planets and only becomes visible twice a year when in alignment with the Earth and the sun.  We had fun filming this light for about an hour and then moved farther east to Salsberry Pass at elevation 3315',  From there the night sky view was simply breathtaking!  The late winter Milky Way stretched fully overhead and the Zodiacal Light could still be seen poking above the western horizon.  The wind and cold were brutal at this elevation for taking photographs,  but the dazzling star-studded night sky made the effort worthwhile.  The thumbnail photo below will take you to a slide show journey of this wonderful day!

Death Valley Day 1 - Southern Region - Photo Gallery

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Mar 9, 2010:    Tue - Badwater Road - Death Valley: 

We arose early from our night's stay in Shoshone anxious to get started on our first full day in Death Valley.  It was cold and raining as we left our motel, but the skies began to clear as we ascended westward along highway 178.  The higher terrain from Salsberry Pass to Jubilee Pass had a fresh covering of snow which added a nice contrast to the rugged terrain.  West of Jubilee Pass we took in the sweeping vistas of Death Valley as we descended quickly in elevation from around 1200' to near sea-level.  We then cut north on Badwater Road where we would be spending a good part of the day.  At this juncture Shore Line Butte could be seen just to our west.  Of interest here were the lines cut horizontally into the side of a volcanic butte revealing the various shore-line levels during several periods of glacial melting that at times filled the lake to a depth of 600'.  The salt flats that are "Death Valley" are all that remains of this once pristine glacial lake, but even today Lake Manly returns when the rains come, even if only to a depth of a few inches.  Our next stop was at the ruins of Ashford Mill, which once housed 50 men and a 40-ton roller used to process the high-grade ore from a nearby gold mine circa 1910.  Next up was Cinder Hill, a red volcanic cinder cone that upon closer inspection is actually "two cones".  It was split in two as a fault-line directly beneath the cone gradually shifted along a north-south line.  We then re-visited the Mormon Point area which had a whole new look in the morning light from that of the evening before.  By noontime we were walking on the salt-flats of Badwater, which at its lowest point is -282 below sea-level, the lowest elevation in North America as well as one of the hottest places on the planet.  However, the temperature on this day was a very comfortable 71F.  Next up were the amazing colors along Artists Drive and Artists Palette that are produced by colorful volcanic and sedimentary rocks.  Unfortunately, the midday lighting was a little flat to fully appreciate these colors. After exiting Artist Drive we found an interesting rock formation known as Mushroom Rock...a must-see before it erodes away!  We then visited the Visitor Center and proceeded to the Harmony Borax Works for a look back into the history when Borax was king before the arrival of tourism.  As the sun got lower on the horizon, we drove south along Furnace Creek Wash before making the climb to Dante's View, 5475' in elevation.  From here you have a superb view that gives you the immensity of Death Valley!  Our last stop of the day before heading into Stovepipe Wells for the night was at what is known as the "Devil's Cornfield", a bizarre "cornfield" in a saline marsh with hundreds of clumps of Arrowweed, whose straight stems were sometimes used by Indians for arrow shafts.  

Death Valley Day 2 - Badwater Road - Photo Gallery

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Mar 10, 2010:    Wed - Central Death Valley Scenes & Nearby Ghost Towns: 

Nancy and I wanted to visit Zabriskie Point at sunrise, but we became briefly side-tracked along the way as the early morning sun began to light up the Mesquite Sand Dunes, it was worth it!  The dunes lie just northeast of Stovepipe Wells and rise to a height of about 140' above their base level which is located near sea-level. We didn't linger too long since we were planning to hike these dunes the following morning.  We then spent the next hour or so enjoying the colorful furrowed hills and washes from Zabriskie Point.  From there we traveled a mile or so south to the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road.  This one-way 2.9 mile dirt road offers numerous close-up views of colorful soils and rock similar to that seen from Zabriskie Point.  We then had about an hour's drive north via the Beatty Cutoff Road and highway 374 to the town of Beatty and the ghost towns of Rhyolite and Bullfrog.  Along the way we stopped to marvel at Corkscrew Peak, a mountain peak that spirals cyclonically 5804' above sea-level.  We reached Rhyolite by late morning and spent the next couple of hours roaming around the town's remaining concrete structures.  Rhyolite's population briefly spiked as high as 10,000 very early in the 20th century.  It had a rail station with three rail lines, two banks, and even a jailhouse!  At an elevation of 3678', we found ourselves braving the cold wind and snow showers before finishing up our visit to the nearby Bottle House, which was built with nearly 30,000 bottles in the early 1900's.  Right across the street is the neighboring "town" of Bullfrog, which is nothing more than a couple of old wood-frame structures.  After having a late lunch in Beatty, NV we headed back south for an afternoon hike in the Mosaic Canyon just south of Stovepipe Wells.  The first part of the canyon offers an array of highly polished rock breccias and white marble that curve through the narrows. The smooth rock canyon walls found here were polished by rushing water and beg to be touched. The canyon then opens up into a large amphitheater after about a 45-minute hike. This is about as far as we got, but for someone having a whole day to explore the canyon, the narrows start again beyond the amphitheater and then open up one more time before becoming very narrow for the final leg of the canyon, about a 9-mile hike in total. Our last stop was at Stovepipe Well, an actual well that was marked by a stovepipe and gave the town its name.  The sun had set and the sand was blowing across the Mesquite Sand Dunes giving us just enough time for a quick photo-op before calling it a day.

Death Valley Day 3 - Zabriskie Point Area to Rhylolite Ghost Town - Photo Gallery

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Mar 11, 2010:    Thu - Northern Death Valley - Mesquite Sand Dunes - Ubehebe Crater - The Racetrack - Lost Burro Mine: 

We departed our motel at 6:30am and headed directly to the Mesquite Sand Dunes for an early morning hike.  Nancy and I decided not to enter via the already crowded main parking lot, but instead from a remote point farther west.  A sandstorm the night before had swept the dunes free of footprints and it was nice to have part of the dunes to ourselves for the first hour of daylight. Our next stop would be at the Ubehebe Crater about 35 miles to our north.  Road construction had closed off the viewpoint, but a friendly flagman gave us permission to park nearby so that we could hike the half-mile or so up to the crater's rim.  From there we had a great view of the crater and the surrounding terrain and a trail led uphill to another series of craters including the "Little Hebe".  Ubehebe resembles an impact crater created by a  meteorite, but was actually formed by volcanic activity when superheated water flashed to steam and blasted out the half-mile wide, 600-foot deep crater. We then continued south towards the "The Racetrack" via the scenic, but rocky and wash-boarded Racetrack Valley Road.  Along the way we stopped briefly at Teakettle Junction which is marked by an ever growing collection of teakettles left there by passing visitors.  After leaving Teakettle Junction the Racetrack Playa soon comes into view, a large flat lakebed nestled below rocky mountains.  What makes this remote playa so unusual is the presence of tire-sized tracks etched into its surface by skidding rocks that can weigh up to several hundred pounds. One theory of how this occurs is that strong winds push the rocks across a moisture-slickened lakebed.  Another theory suggests that the rocks travel across the lakebed after the playa partially freezes after a winter rain making it easier for the winds to push the rocks around.  This curiosity alone makes a visit worthwhile, but the scenery here can hold its own without the geological enigma!  Unfortunately we were visiting at mid-day when everything was awash in the harsh sunlight.  Our last exploration of the day was at the Lost Burro Mine, a collection of old wooden frame structures along with a mine accessible via a treacherous 1.1 mile jeep trail that exits the main dirt road not too far from Teakettle Junction.  We walked the last half-mile of the trail after coming close to being a permanent part of the scenery.   After having a late dinner back in Stovepipe Wells, I decided to head about 25 miles north of town to enjoy the pristine nighttime sky from an elevation of about 1,000'.  After setting up my camera for a series of 8-minute exposures to capture star trails revolving around the North Star, I spent the next hour or so marveling at the amazingly bright Milky Way overhead as the Zodiacal Light began to fade in the west.  A very nice way to end the day!

Death Valley Day 4 - Northern Region - Photo Gallery

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Mar 12, 2010:    Fri - Western Death Valley & Nearby Panamint Valley: 

By 7:30am we were on the road for another day of adventure.  Our first stop was at the ghost town of Skidoo (of 23 Skidoo fame) but there wasn't much to see.  All that was left of the town was a flat empty lot where the town once stood.  There were some old mines nearby, but we instead elected to continue on to the Charcoal Kilns which is a row of 10 large stone structures that look like giant beehives.  The road leading to the Kilns had just been opened and there was still nearly two-feet of snow on the ground surrounding the Kilns. These Kilns were once used to produce charcoal for silver mine smelters.   From there we headed south into the Panamint valley and visited the ghost town of Ballarat which features a few crumbling structures from an old mining supply center.  After that it was time for us to rejoin with our friend Bill Reid and have lunch in the dry and dusty town of Trona.  From there we drove out onto the parched bed of Searles Lake for a tour of the Trona Pinnacles.  These are strangely shaped towers that are clustered together and stand starkly against the distant hills.  Also of interest is that these pinnacles (made of an unusual "rock" called tufa) once protruded from springs at the bottom of a deep lake between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.  After we had our fill of the Pinnacles, we headed back north through the Panamint Valley which in itself offers magnificent desolation!  We took a few photo ops of the Panamint Sand Dunes and then headed for a cooler spot---Darwin Falls.  A hike through a narrow and sometimes wet canyon leads to the falls which offer quite a contrast to the nearby desert scenery.  After our hike to the falls it was nearing sunset and time to head for the scenic overlook of Father Crowley Point.  While we were there a few standing wave clouds began to form and our attention turned to filming these while we were on our way to Lone Pine for the night.  Our final photo-op came well after sunset and was from a high point above the town of Keeler looking west at the Zodiacal Light. 

Death Valley Day 5 - Western Region - Photo Gallery

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Mar 13, 2010:    Sat - Mount Whitney - Alabama Hills & Saline Valley Road: 

Once again we were up early and departed our hotel in Lone Pine by 6:25am.  At least we didn't have to go far for our first photo-op, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills were located just a few miles to our west.  Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States at an elevation of 14,505.  Interestingly it is located just 76 miles west of the lowest elevation in North America at Badwater in Death Valley which is 282 feet below sea-level.  We spent the first few hours photographing Mt. Whitney, the Sierra Nevada and the rugged Alabama Hills.  After having lunch in Lone Pine Bill guided us along the remote and sometimes treacherous Saline Valley Road.  We first stopped at an old box car which was converted into a rest stop of sorts for folks traveling through the area.  We next traveled through a vast Joshua Tree forest that stretched from horizon to horizon.  We then continued north circumnavigating the occasional boulders that had fallen onto the road over the winter to the site of the old Salt Tram ruins near Warm Springs.  An electric-powered tram was built in that region circa 1913 by the Saline Valley Salt Company to carry salt in 286 rust-resistant buckets from the Saline Valley playa 13.5 miles over the Inyo Mountains to the neighboring Owens Valley.  After photographing the remnants of this tram we decided to check out the Warm Springs, a true oasis in the middle of the desert.  To get to the Springs we first had to drive several miles on unmarked sand pathways though the Saline Valley Sand Dunes.  Upon arriving at the dunes we discovered what best could be described as a hamlet for left-over hippies from the 60's!  There were several military-style vehicles, partially covered with mesh netting that appeared to serve as seasonal "campers" for their owners.  I walked around and took a few photos of the unoccupied natural hot-tubs before we headed back to Saline Valley Road.  By this time it was after sunset and we were 46 miles (about a two hour drive) from where we first entered the Saline Valley.  The other end of the road was more or less equally distant, but was reported to be closed by deep snow.  I wasn't too thrilled with navigating this road again, especially in the dark, but would be looking forward to the pristine night skies views from the Lee Flat area.  As expected, the sky was spectacular from that high elevation and Bill and I both managed to capture a few great nightscapes before heading back to Lone Pine for the night.

Death Valley Day 6 - Mt Whitney - Alabama Hills - Saline & Owens Valley Region - Photo Gallery

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Mar 14, 2010:    Sun - Keeler - Cerro Gordo & Eureka Sand Dunes: 

Our first stop was to the largely abandoned town of Keeler, CA which is located on the eastern shore of Owens Lake.  During the 1920's water was diverted from Owens Lake to Los Angeles causing the lake to dry up, resulting in alkali dust storms blasting through Keeler and eventually driving the residents away.  It is quite apparent this town has seen better days!  From Keeler we climbed high into the Inyo mountains to visit the old mining town of Cerro Gordo which looks down on the Owens Valley from an elevation of 9,000'.  A small fee was required for a guided tour of all the old ruins and buildings, but learning all about the history of Cerro Gordo was well worth the price.  We finished our day in a remote section of northern Death Valley N.P at the Eureka Sand Dunes which are located in the Eureka Valley.  Although these dunes only cover about 3 square miles, they rise to a height of 680' above the surrounding valley floor, making them one of the highest dune fields in North America.  What makes these dunes even more special is that they are dwarfed by the impressive limestone walls of the Last Chance Mountains which rise another 4,000' above the valley floor.  As the sun dipped below the horizon we found a high point near the dunes from which to enjoy the pristine night sky.  Bill set up his telescope and I set up my cameras to capture some night sky images and star trails---an almost perfect day except for the flat tire on Bill's X-Terra. 

Death Valley Day 7 - Keeler - Cerro Gordo - Eureka Dunes in Evening - Photo Gallery

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Mar 15, 2010:    Mon - Eureka Sand Dunes - Olancha Dunes - Fossil Falls & Red Rock Canyon:

After enjoying the alpenglow illuminating the Sierra Nevada we again headed to the Eureka Dunes where we had finished-up the evening before.  The early morning light gave an entirely different look to the dunes and we spent the next couple of hours taking advantage of this lighting.  From the Eureka Dunes we headed south along highway 395 stopping on occasion to photograph the lava fields or alluvial fans spilling out of the Sierra Nevada range.  Farther south we stopped at the Olancha Dunes, but these paled in comparison to the other dunes we had visited previously.  By late afternoon we were roaming around the "Fossil Falls" in Rose Valley.  About 10,000 years ago the ice-age Owens River cut a deep, narrow swath through the lava beds before it eventually dried up leaving behind a bizarre "fossilized waterfall".  Rising to the immediate north of the falls is the 630' high Red Hill, a rusty-red cinder cone composed of porous volcanic rock.  We then headed south to the Red Rock Canyon State Park and hung out there until well after sunset.  After dinner Bill headed back to Los Angeles and Nancy and I headed for our hotel in Mojave.


Death Valley Day 8 - Eureka Dunes in Morning - Photo Gallery

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Mar 16, 2010:    Tue - Red Rock Canyon - Garlock - Randsburg & Mojave National Preserve:

Our first visit of the day was back at Red Rock Canyon S.P. in order to take advantage of the early morning light.  From there we briefly visited the old mining supply town of Garlock which still features a few dilapidated wooden structures.  Nancy and I then searched for the Burro Schmidt Mine but came up short on our "short-cut" approach via a very rugged 4x4 road.  However, I did come away with some very nice wildflowers images and Nancy came away with a twisted and swollen foot resulting from a fall while helping me back out of a precarious road.  After a brief tour of the almost ghost town of Randsburg we proceeded east on old Route 66 that included a visit to the nostalgic "Roy's" gas station. The remainder of our day was spent exploring a few of the wonders of the Mojave National Preserve including the Granite Mountains, the Kelso Sand Dunes, and the ghost town of Cima. This Preserve is a great place to visit and deserves at least a couple of days to fully explore. Our final photo-op occurred along Cima Road as the Ivanpah Mountains to our east were turned fiery red by the setting sun. 

Death Valley Day 9 - Red Rock Canyon to Ivanpah Mountains - Photo Gallery

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Mar 17, 2010:    Wed - Zion National Park - Coral Pink Sand Dunes - Utah Canyons:

Nancy and I left St. George, UT by 7:30am and headed straight for Zion National Park.  We hadn't been to Zion in many years and it would be nice to visit the park again, especially at a time of the year that draws less visitors.  We spent most of the morning photographing the park and then headed to another favorite place of ours---the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.   The dunes aren't as spectacular as some of the other dunes we had visited, but their coral pink color is rather unique, especially since they were partially covered with a fresh blanket of pure white snow.  From there we were basically on our way home but we still had one more special photo opportunity ahead of us---the Utah canyonlands west of the Green River Area.  We lingered in this area until well after sunset enjoying the ever changing shadows and colors of the setting sun filtering through the rugged mesas, buttes, and canyons.  A great ending to a fantastic 10 days!

Zion - Coral Pink Sand Dunes - Utah Canyons - Photo Gallery

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