DEATH VALLEY GEOLOGY
A FIELD GUIDE AND VIRTUAL TOUR OF THE
GEOLOGY OF DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
AND ENVIRONS, CALIFORNIA AND NEVADA
Steven G. Spear, Ph.D.
Geology Program, Department of Earth, Space and Aviation Sciences, Palomar College
Geology: Steve Spear
Photography: Steve Spear, Eric Fishell, Randy Cook
Image Processing: Forest Fortescue, Steve Spear
GPS Data: Steve Spear, Randy Cook, Eric Fishell
Website Input: Steve Spear, Cathy Jain, Wing Cheung, Terry Gray
Satellite Map: Wing Cheung
Geologic Maps: From Workman, et. Al. (2002)
SE2. Sperry Wash
FC1. Echo Canyon
CD5. Boundary Canyon Detachment Fault
GF2. Titus Canyon
b. Red Pass/Thimble Peak
NP4. Cottonwood Canyon
PS2. Darwin Canyon
CM2. Racetrack Playa (Includes Bonnie Claire Bonus)
O1. Devil’s Hole
Death Valley is perhaps the most geologically diverse region in the world. In terms of petrology, landforms, geologic structures, stratigraphy and tectonic history, the region has geologic variety matched only by its geographic extremes of topography and climate. As such, the Death Valley area has been a popular destination for geology field trips for many years. There are many geologic guides available for the Death Valley region that range from extremely technical refereed journal articles to pamphlets written for the general public. This guide summarizes much of this information and includes some information not always found in other guides. Each location described is given the latitude and longitude in degrees and minutes, road directions, best time of day and year to visit, an explanation of what is there, a photograph of the site and a few pertinent references.
The references cited for each are not meant to be exhaustive. The references should generally be obtainable at any university library. For a general overview of the geology of Death Valley, I recommend Wright and Miller (2004), Miller and Wright (2004), the Death Valley National Park website, and Sharp and Glasner (1997). For more detail on each selected site, please refer to the references cited for many of the locations.
The organization of the site descriptions generally starts in the far south of the national park and then proceeds north. I have provided mileages to each site from major, easily locatable landmarks such as towns and major road intersections. Latitude and longitude locations are given in degrees, minutes and decimals of minutes rather than seconds because that is the system that seems to be used by most people navigating in their vehicles using GPS. Speaking of vehicles, some of these sites are quite remote from pavement and thus if any high clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed, it is so noted in the description.
To best use this guide in the field, one will need a good map. The Automobile Club’s Death Valley National Park Map and the Death Valley National Park Recreation Map by Tom Harrison Maps are quite good and the Trails Illustrated and other topography-based general maps are also very useful. While most of the locations are obvious once you are within a few hundred yards, the GPS coordinates will help you find the location more precisely if you are unsure of what you’re looking for. Of course, with the GPS coordinates, one can input the data into a good mapping program and obtain an exact location. Many will prefer this method. The GPS coordinates given were obtained using two early-generation handheld units so the accuracy may be a bit suspect in canyons. Use both the GPS and Map directions to find a site. The National Park Service’s Death Valley Website contains some good information on geology (there is a joint USGS field trip available) and this site is most useful for current road information. We have included a very general satellite map with the site locations at the end of the website after the references.
Special thanks are due to the following people who pointed things out to me in the field or otherwise: Tom Clements, Bill Fischer, Carl Hansen, Robert Pease, Bob Reynolds, Larry Spear, Zeke Snow, Dick Stone, Alan Swarm, Bennie Troxel, Brian Wernicke, and Lauren Wright. Also both the Geological Society of America and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers have sponsored many field trips in Death Valley over the years and my participation in them and their subsequent guidebooks have been invaluable.
- Steve Spear, May 2, 2011
The sites lie in the extreme southern part of Death Valley National Park immediately west of California Highway 127 which provides the best access from Baker and I-15 or from Furnace Creek or southern Nevada. A visit to all four should be avoided in the heat of mid-summer because they are 6 to 43 miles off the pavement. Except following infrequent rains (usually in winter) which may make the roads impassable for several weeks, access to sites 1 and 2 can be accomplished in most any vehicle. Site 3 requires high clearance if the road has been maintained by a four-wheel group on a recent visit but usually four-wheel drive is required because of a severe washout about a mile and half east of the site. Site 4 is a very long trip westward along a road for which high clearance is needed and four-wheel-drive would be best.
Location/Access: (35o 39.123’N, 116o 23.618’W) From the junction of CA 127 and the Harry Wade Road, 30 miles north of I-15 at Baker (there is a large stone monument at this intersection near the extreme southeast corner of Death Valley National Park), go west on the Harry Wade Road 5.8 miles. This road is usually well-graded gravel. At 5.8 miles, you will come to the junction to Saratoga Springs. Turn right (north) and continue for approximately 0.5 miles. You will cross several channels of the normally dry riverbed of the Amargosa River. Stop anywhere convenient as you approach the hills to the north.
Best Time: The lighting is best in the early morning in the cool half of the year. The river may be flowing a few inches deep between December and April for weeks at a time but it is usually easily crossed with a high clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Geology: The view of the near hills to the northwest includes the various members of the middle Proterozoic Crystal Spring formation, the oldest sedimentary rock in California. Although it first appears to be folded into anticlines and synclines, the rock is actually striking north and dipping towards you. Differential erosion is only giving the impression of folding. The formation contains sandstone, shale and some carbonate layers all of marine origin and all are often slightly metamorphosed. Also, you will notice dark zones which are diabase sills. These sills are also apparent to the northeast as you look beyond the Saratoga (Ibex) Dune field where a few mines are visible. These are talc mines that were last active in the 1950’s. This mining activity is better seen at Sites FS-2 and FS-3. The dunes are transverse dunes composed mostly of sand blown east from the floodplain of the Amargosa River. At this point the Amargosa River flows west just before it turns north to flow to the bottom of Death Valley and has just come south from the Amargosa Desert to the northeast. For more detail on the history of the river’s course see Butler (1982), for the talc mining and general geology see Wright (1950) and data on the dunes can be found in Garrett (1966). See Appendix, Map #1.
Location/Access: (35o 40.868’N, 116o 25.310’W) Saratoga Springs is located about 3½ miles northwest of Site FS1 (the crossing of the Amargosa River) or about 4 miles northwest of the Saratoga Springs turnoff from the Harry Wade Road. As you head north from the Harry Wade Road, you will cross several small dry channels of the Amargosa River. The northerly track of the excellent gravel road ends at a T-type intersection. The left fork is signed and heads to Saratoga Springs. This section of road may be muddy after rain.
Best Time: Late morning in the cool half of the year.
Geology: Saratoga Springs is probably the best spring in Death Valley. The large pools are partially the result of talc miners adding a berm (probably in the 1950’s) but all of the buildings and non-native vegetation were removed by the early 1970’s. The flow of the springs was once measured to be 48,000 liters per day (Robinson, 1957). The flow of underground water in the Death Valley-southwest Nevada region is very complex, but with the large quantities of fractured limestone, faults and gravel-filled basins, long distance migration of groundwater is quite possible. As Death Valley is the lowest land around and Saratoga Springs is at the bottom of the southern end of the valley with the geologic requisites mentioned above, its existence should not be a surprise. The ponds are the home of a species of pupfish, Cyprinodon saratogensis (Miller, 1950). The existence of these small fish (Brown, 1971) in diverse localities throughout the Death Valley region establishes both dramatic recent climate change and the existence of a significant system of desert lakes and rivers that were present as recently as the most recent glacial maximum approximately 18,000 years ago. However, the fish found here and in Salt Creek and Devil's Hole have speciated since their respective isolation. Recent data (Knott, et. al., 2008) establishes that divergence of the species may have begun in the mid-Pliocene and at that time Death Valley was not connected to either the Mojave or Amargosa Rivers. The springs were a major locus of talc mining after World War Two (Wright, 1950). This is one of the best places to closely examine the 1.08 billion-year-old diabase sills (Heamon & Grotzinger, 1992) and the Crystal Spring formation. The best access is just northeast of the large ponds, a very short hike from the parking area. See Appendix, Map #1.
Location/Access: (35o 46.244’N, 116o 24.638’W) This site is located approximately 9.8 miles north of Saratoga Springs and 5.3 miles west of Highway 127. Coming from Saratoga Springs, one needs to keep left at the junction of the main road back to the Harry Wade Road. This road is very sandy and four-wheel-drive is a must. This route gives you the closest access to the Saratoga (Ibex) Dune Field (see Site FS1). The other road, westerly from highway 127 near the microwave tower is shorter and of better surface. However, west of the junction of these two routes, there are several severe washouts which have at times been repaired by four-wheel-drive- clubs to a passable state for such vehicles.
Best Time: Any time of day in the cool half of the year.
Geology: There are a few old buildings left from this camp’s high point as a talc mining center in the 1950’s. You may even notice a few patches of asphalt left as roadbed on the way in. If you continue up the road, keeping the camp on your right, one can gain access to several talc mines further up the canyon. If you proceed up the road east of the camp, one can gain access to the diabase sills that are near vertical due to post-injection folding and faulting. A fair amount of non-native vegetation is still around the springs at the head of the wash near the camp. Geologically, the area is nearly identical to Saratoga Springs (Site FS2) (Wright, 1968). See Appendix, Map #1.
These sites are all outside of Death Valley National Park and can be reached easily from Shoshone.
Location/Access: (35o 41.296’N, 116o 13.803’W). The dunes can be reached by traveling 4 miles north of the Harry Wade Road junction with CA 127 and turning east for 2.7 miles. After this, there is a junction and the main road curves to the right over the Amargosa River and the GPS coordinates are located 1.8 miles past the river on the mesa upon which the dunes sit. Any vehicle can make it but good traction may be needed because of the sand and water crossing. The area is currently experiencing an explosion of off-road vehicle use. Be careful. Access to the dunes themselves will cost you. As of early 2008, the charge was $30 for a pass to access the dunes by vehicle. This can be avoided if you park before the entrance shed and hike south up the hill.
Best Time: Late afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Dumont dunes are about 400ft high and extend for nearly 12 miles. They have been estimated to contain 6.8 billion cubic feet of sand (MacDonald, 1970). Most every dune type exists here in the dune field including barchans, transverse, star and longitudinal dunes. The source of the sand is predominantly from the west and south probably derived from alluvial fans and the floodplain of the Amargosa River. The dunes most likely postdate the last high stand of Lake Manly, probably about 18,000 years ago. The Dumont Dunes are one of several dozen dune fields in that that are classified as "booming sand dunes". While the best sounds in the California desert can be heard at the Kelso Dunes some distance south of here, these and the Eureka Dunes offer some noise under favorable conditions. The noise in generated when sand grains slide against one another during a sand cascade or rarely during sand storms. The frequency seems to be controlled by the depth and thickness of the sliding dry sand layer (Vriend, et. al, 2007). The surface upon which the dunes sit is a remnant bajada surface that has been dissected by the Amargosa River beginning in latest Pleistocene time. There are many good ventifacts on this surface where it outcrops on the north side of the access road several hundred yards before the road crosses the Amargosa River as you are heading towards the dunes. See Appendix, Map #1.
Location/Access: (35o 42.080’N, 116o 14.681’W) Just north of the Dumont Dunes. Take the left fork 2.7 miles in from CA 127 and travel 0.5 miles up the Amargosa River, keeping to the left at first and then heading to the right bank. You will probably need four-wheel-drive. Or you could walk as it isn’t very far.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: In the cliff face on the south side of the canyon, the Precambrian metamorphic complex is thrust over the Crystal Spring formation and on the hillside on the north side of the canyon; the Noonday Dolomite sits in an angular unconformity over the Crystal Spring formation. The canyon itself was cut by the Amargosa River in late middle Pleistocene time (ca. 200-140ka) through a breached, actively uplifting paleodivide between the Tecopa basin and Death valley (Menges, 2008). See Appendix, Map #1.
Location/Access: (35o 42.412’N, 116o 14.503’W) This site is on the north side of Sperry Wash just 0.3 miles past the previous stop. You are still driving up the riverbed so you will probably need four-wheel-drive.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: This is a basalt porphyry of Pliocene (?) age. The white crystals are plagioclase that were apparently distorted during the early phases of crystallization while the basalt was still slowly flowing. See Appendix, Map #1.
Location/Access: (35o 59.810’N, 116o 13.164’W) This spectacular road cut is on CA 178 3.7 miles east of the junction with CA 127 which is just south of Shoshone. There is a very large parking area on the right.
Best Time: Anytime except early morning.
Geology: This is a very popular site for geology field trips and classes. Most of the rocks visible in the road cut are Neogene and volcanic. The exceptions are the small blackish mass just to the right of the main fault at road level and the rock on the right skyline. The former rock is a mass wasting deposit composed mostly of Cambrian Bonanza King formation fragments and the skyline thin layer is a tuffaceous sandstone conglomerate. The rest of the rocks are volcanic. The dark black band is a vitrophyre and the rocks above and below it are welded rhyolite tuffs. The layers further above and below the black band are also rhyolite tuff but are not welded. The source area is probably from the late Miocene-Pliocene Timber Mountain caldera complex just northeast of here in Nevada. The main fault and its parallel and smaller sympathetic faults are all normal that strike northeast and show just a few tens of feet of displacement (Troxel and Heydari, 1982).
Location/Access: (35o 53.063’N, 116o 03.865’W) From the CA 127-178 junction near Shoshone, go 5.1 miles south. Turn east towards Tecopa and through the Hot Springs to the junction in Tecopa (now 4.3 miles from CA 127). Turn east and go 1.4 miles to the Old Spanish Trail/Furnace Creek Road junction (the main road actually curves to the left). Continue 8.6 miles towards Nevada on the Old Spanish Trail Road and stop before the summit of the pass on the right shoulder.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: The GPS coordinates are set on a small outcrop of the Cambrian Carrara formation. You can find some decent trilobites here (at least 6 species of Olenellus and several others). There is a good detachment fault visible to the northwest (see photo) and algal laminated bodies (Girvanella) can be found in the Zabriskie quartzite 0.4 miles back down the hill (Licari, 1999), other workers disagree on assigning these bodies to the Zabriskie. See Appendix, Map #3.
Location/Access: (35o 48.750’N, 116o 05.020’W) From the junction of Furnace Creek Road and the Old Spanish Trail Road, 1.4 miles east of Tecopa, turn right on Furnace Creek Road and go a total of 8.0 miles. You will pass the turnoff to China Ranch and the road will slowly deteriorate as you head towards the Noonday Mine area. Just after passing the Western Talc Road, you will cross a cattle guard (this is at the 8.0 mile mark). Turn left up the deteriorating paved road and go 0.9 miles to reach the GPS coordinates.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: These “peculiar tubular features up to several feet long, parallel to the bedding” (Wright, 1974) (see photo) in the lower member of the Noonday dolomite have variously been explained as filled worm tubes or organic degassing vents. If indeed, they are worm tubes, they are the oldest metazoan fossils in California. Just up the road is the War Eagle Mine. The dump has been prospected indicating it was a silver mine. The mine was still open last time we were there (2007) and you can see some good malachite on the walls and ceilings several hundred feet in. It is a very large mine but its safety is suspect. Lastly, from near the worm tubes, you can walk over to the saddle and get a good view of the Crystal Spring Canyon area of the Kingston Range, the type locality of the Pahrump Group formations which are all visible from this location. See Appendix, Map #3.
Location/Access: It must clarified that these footprints are on private land, a short walk from "downtown" Shoshone. Therefore, the GPS coordinates are not given. Permission can be obtained at the Shoshone Museum (which has great copies of various prints) or sometimes from the main office next to the store across the street from the Museum.
Best Time: Any time, all year.
Geology: The surface shown is an volcanic ash bed of Pliocene age on the floor of a quarry (Chesterman, 1973; Hillhouse, 1987). The prints shown in the photo are horse prints but other species, such as those from the elephant family are a few feet away. There are other examples of mammal tracks in the vicinity (e.g.: Reynolds, 2001).
Pliocene Horse Tracks
Sites SC1-8 can be found in the southern part of Death Valley and in the area immediately west in the southern portion of the Panamint Mountains. Site SC1, Ashford Mill and Shoreline Butte is well marked, on the main paved road and thus serves as a good point of geographic reference from which to calculate distances and locations. Site SC2 is also on the main southern road and thus also easily accessible (but may be the most geologically complex and confusing part of Death Valley). Site SC3 is visible from the highway and is accessible by most vehicles as long as the Amargosa River isn’t running. Site SC4 is quite a few miles up Warm Springs Canyon but is accessible with a high clearance vehicle. Site SC5, a truly lovely mountain valley, is quite remote and a portion of the road beyond Site SC4 has been extremely rough for many years. Thus four-wheel-drive is required for access to Site SC5. These sites offer a great variety of geology from mining to Pleistocene features to current and past tectonic processes.
Location/Access: (35o 55.135’N, 116o 40.995’W) Ashford Mill, which also has a good view of Shoreline Butte is just west of the main eastside paved road in southern Death Valley. It is about 27 miles west of Shoshone and about 45 miles south of Furnace Creek. It is clearly marked on nearly all maps of Death Valley.
Best Time: All year. The shorelines are best viewed in the late afternoon.
Geology: The Ashford Mill processed gold for a very brief time in the early 1900’s. The source was a mine in the southern Black Mountains to the east of the site. There is a road that ascends the alluvial fan east of the main road but it soon stops and access to the mine itself requires a steep hike of several miles. From the mill site, one can look east and view the Pahrump group of Precambrian rocks well exposed on the mountain front. Farther north, one can see the Black Mountain metamorphic complex which makes up the bulk of the Black Mountains and are the oldest rocks in California. The view to the west is Shoreline Butte. Shoreline Butte is a badly eroded basaltic cinder cone that has been shaped by wave erosion from Pleistocene Lake Manly. These shorelines (wave benches) are clearly visible from the parking area at the mill site. Depending on the time of day and shadow angles, the shoreline may actually be clearer if viewed from about 1.3 miles north of the Ashford Mill. The elevation of Shoreline Butte is 663ft and the most obvious high strandline is at an elevation of 285ft (Sharp & Glasner, 1997). Thus from this location, since the floor of Death Valley at Badwater is 282ft below sea level, Pleistocene Lake Manly must have been at least 567ft deep. For a good comparison of age and level assessments over the years, please see Machette, et. Al. (2001, p. G146). Lake Manly was fed primarily by local runoff. It was probably connected to the Owens River via the Panamint, Searles and Indian Wells Valley in the Illinoisan but probably not in the Wisconsin Ice ages (Adams and Redwine, 2007). Phillips (2008) states that there may have only been one or two connections of Lake Manly with the Owens Valley system at about 70ka or 150ka. Between the parking area and Shoreline Butte lies the floodplain of the Amargosa River which on rare occasions flows this far downstream. See Appendix, Map #4.
Location/Access: (35o 55.409’N, 116o 38.255’W) Approximately 3.5 miles east of Ashford Mill. Stop anywhere directly along the main highway and look to the north. Direct access to the rocks will require a moderate hike north across the alluvial fan to the mountain front.
Best Time: All year in the morning.
Geology: For professional geologists, this is a very famous geologic location. Although completely obscure to lay people and confusing for many years to all but a few insightful geologists, this area is a type locality for understanding extensional tectonics. Building on the work of other geologists, Wright and Troxel (1984, and many other prior and later publications) conclusively demonstrated that the southern portion of the Great Basin has undergone profound extension, perhaps as much as 100%, in relatively recent (Miocene) times. In this area, the Precambrian rocks mentioned at previous sites have been faulted, rotated, attenuated and in some places completely turned upside down by forces related to extension. It is a highly confusing site and when visiting the area one should have a copy of Wright & Troxel’s 1984 map as well as a copy of the diagram on page 721 of Wright & Miller (2004) and a copy of page 71 of Miller & Wright (2004). Good luck. See Appendix, Map #4.
Location/Access: (35o 56.399’N, 116o 49.950’W) Split Cinder Cone is a low, reddish hill located 3.5 miles northwest of Ashford Mill and 1.7 miles west of the main paved road in southern Death Valley. It requires a very short hike south from the West Side Road. There may be rare occasions in winter when the Amargosa River is flowing and thus cuts off the road. However, considering that it is not that far, one could walk in from the main highway.
Best Time: Anytime.
Geology: Split Cinder Cone composed of middle Pleistocene basalt that has been eroded. The fact that it has obviously been offset right-laterally several tens of feet by the Death Valley fault zone since its formation provides strong evidence that the nature of tectonic activity in Death Valley may be quite different now than in the Neogene. The Death Valley fault zone extends up the entire length of Death Valley and on north into the Fish Lake Valley of Nevada except for a pull-apart segment between Mormon Point and Furnace Creek. This is the best place in the southern part of the valley to see the fault. Features in the far north of Death Valley are much more numerous. Earthquake activity along the Death Valley fault zone is minor and sporadic. Earthquake activity along the extensional faults in Death Valley is virtually non-existent. Death Valley is a classic region of tectonic transtension. That is, some of the tectonic movement in the area is right-lateral and some is normal thus pulling apart Death Valley and the rest of region from Death Valley westward to the Sierra Nevada in a northwesterly direction. This whole area, the northern part of the Eastern California Shear Zone, probably accounts for 20% of the movement between the North American and Pacific plates (Oldow, 2005) See site FN1 for amounts of right lateral slip north of this location. Due to this site’s central location in center of Death Valley’s south end, this is a good place to view both the Panamint and Black Mountains from a distance and to get a sense of the “pull-apart” tectonic origin of Death Valley itself. See Appendix, Map #4.
Location/Access: (35o 58.099’N, 116o 55.746’W) The talc mines are located along the Warm Springs/Butte Valley road 10.8 miles up the canyon from the West Side Road, or 13.6 miles from the main paved highway just north of Ashford Mill. This site is the entrance to the largest mine in the area. You will actually pass the first mines at 8.7 miles up from the Westside Road. The Warm Springs/Butte Valley Road was in excellent condition until the mines closed in the 1980’s. Since then, a high clearance vehicle would be best and four-wheel-drive is needed for travel up canyon from the mines.
Best Time: Any time in the cool half of the year.
Geology: The Warm Springs talc mines are the most recently active talc mines in the area and were a major U.S. supplier of talc until the mines closed. The mines closed not due a lack of talc but the fact that a form of asbestos was found in the talc (Van Gosen, et. Al., 2004), although apparently not a form that is injurious to health. Wright (1968) contains an excellent geologic map of the Warm Springs area showing the relationship between the Precambrian diabase sills and the intruded Crystal Spring formation (see Sites FS1-3). In this area, the total thickness of the formation is in excess of 4200ft (including the diabase, 2800ft without) (Wright, 1968). For a more up-to-date map with some good cross sections incorporating extensional tectonic interpretations, please see Wrucke et. al. (2008). This newer map gives a broader overview of geology of Warm Springs Canyon. Although there are many mines in the area, the main adit at the GPS coordinates makes it clear that these were very extensive operations. Just up canyon from the main adit is Warm Spring itself, with several buildings that were constructed a few years before the mines closed. See Appendix, Map #5.
Location/Access: (35o 56.583’N, 117o 04.383’W) Approximately 7 miles further up the Warm Springs Canyon Road from Warm Springs. After crossing the washouts immediately up canyon from Warm Springs and the talc mines, the road improves and is a track passable to high clearance vehicles. The washouts however require four-wheel-drive. One can also get to Butte Valley from the west via Goler Wash and Mengel Pass. This route, although scenic and historic, requires four-wheel-drive much of the way and is sometimes impassable.
Best Time: Anytime in the cool half of the year.
Geology: Butte Valley is one of the more isolated parts of Death Valley National Park. There are several isolated cabins in around the valley (Including the infamous Barker Ranch, used by the Manson Family, which lies just over the hills to the south) which are used by back country park rangers and visitors. The bedrock geology of the Precambrian rocks of the Warm Springs area gives way to Jurassic quartz monzonite (a granitic rock) in the southwest part of the valley and Miocene volcanic rocks to the south. The east side of the valley is composed of Jurassic volcanics and Triassic marine sedimentary rocks. The rocks of the mountains forming the northern margin of the valley are uppermost Proterozoic in age. The dramatic butte in the center of the valley is composed of up-tilted beds of the Permian Butte Valley formation which are of marine origin. A large fault runs down the trend of the valley behind the butte (Walker, et. al., 2002). Some of these rocks outcrop nowhere else in Death Valley. The Jurassic volcanic rocks are common south of the national park but the Butte Valley formation and the Triassic sediments occur nowhere else. Butte Valley is a wonderful place, especially in mid-week to enjoy the peaceful nature of this isolated desert landscape. See Appendix, Map #5.
Location/Access: (36o 01.119'N, 116o 36.987'W) The coordinates given are at the top of the pass just before one descends into Gold Valley. The route starts at the junction of the Greenwater Valley and Badwater Roads (CA 178) 5.8 miles west of CA 127 northwest of Shoshone. From CA 178, travel 10.6 miles north on the Greenwater Valley Road. Then turn west for 7.5 miles to the top of the pass and the coordinates given above. From here, the road descends 0.4 miles to the first junction. Keep right and the road continues for another 1.5 miles to a junction. The right fork leads 2.3 miles to the end of this spur road at a GPS tectonic monitoring station and the left road continues another 1.5 miles to another junction. At this fork, one could go left and return to the pass or continue downhill another 1.7 miles to the end of the road at Willow Spring (which is your ultimate goal here).
Best Time: Any time but not in summer as this is rather remote.
Geology: In the last few miles before reaching the pass and the coordinates listed above, you are traveling through the Shoshone volcanic series of rocks which are Pliocene to Miocene basalt flows and most of the rocks are late Miocene (8-11.5Ma) andesite to rhyolite lavas, tuffs and some hypabyssal intrusive rocks (Workman, et. Al., 2002) This latter rock suite dominates around the pass summit. At Willow Spring the Willow Spring pluton outcrops. It is a gabbro (and diabase) to diorite Miocene (11.6Ma) pluton that has been significantly fractured by detachment-style faulting related to the Mormon Point detachment system which is structurally just above you at this point. The spur road mentioned above that heads north delivers you right into the Shoshone volcanics but also includes some Miocene granitic rocks. The ridges southwest and northwest of the valley are composed mostly of the Precambrian Black Mountain metamorphic complex and there is a small outcrop of Cambrian Bonanza King formation northeast of the end of the spur road. There is an excellent view of Telescope Peak from the pass. See Appendix, Map #6.
Overview of Gold Valley, looking west from the pass.
Sites BW1-8 are all very easily accessible, generally close to the village of Furnace Creek and are thus quite popular with tourists and geologists alike. Sites BW1-3 are directly on the main paved road. Site BW4 is a short walk from the end of a steep dirt access road. Site BW5 is accessible from a well-graded, virtually level gravel road. Site BW6 is off a paved loop accessible to all but the largest of vehicles. Site BW7 is also directly adjacent to the paved road but the more fascinating features require a steep several hundred yard hike up from the pavement. These sites can be visited while in transit between Furnace Creek and Shoshone or are all within a short easy drive from Furnace Creek. Most of the sites contain features of tectonic, topographic or geomorphic significance.
Location/Access: (36o 02.757’N, 116o 45.636’W) 10.2 miles north of Ashford Mill and 16.5 miles south of Badwater. Although this site is located within yards of the main highway, there are no signs, parking areas or other hints of its location. There is a yellow “curve” sign northbound on the highway just north of this location. The detachment fault is in a very small side canyon out of which comes a very small faulted alluvial fan. This is just north of a place where the highway practically reaches the near-vertical front of the Black Mountains.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: This small, west-dipping fault is probably not a major detachment surface but is more likely a small sympathetic fault sub-parallel or listric to a major detachment surface related to the Mormon Point turtleback. Once in the canyon, the low angle of the fault, slickensided surfaces and contrasting rock types in the upper and lower plate make it obvious that a detachment-style of motion created the fault. Neither of the rocks exposed above or below the surface represents bedrock in the area and they both appear to be Quaternary deposits that have been offset along this small fault. For over 20 years there has been a debate as to whether these small and the large detachments (such as visible at Site BW2) are active or not; or whether or not these angles represent the angle at the time of motion (Hayman, et. al., 2003). Many have suggested that as the Black Mountain front rose, the inactive fault surfaces rolled back from more vertical active faults located more towards the mountain front. This last hypothesis seems tenable from the data at this location because as you return to the canyon mouth, you will notice that there is a vertical fault scarp in very recent gravel deposits striking parallel to the mountain front as one descends to the highway. If one could excavate the fan gravels to see the cross-cutting relationship between the two faults, this relationship would be clearer. When visiting this area in the late afternoon, as one looks west across the valley, on can see Pleistocene lake shorelines on the bajada surfaces coming down from the Warm Springs Canyon area. The oldest fan surfaces on the Warm Springs Canyon alluvial fan were likely deposited between 860,000 and 390,000 years ago and the youngest deposits are probably between 60,000 and 240,000 years ago (Duhnforth, et.al., 2007). This is also a good location to view the southern end of the Death Valley playa. See Appendix, Map #6.
Location/Access: (36o 03.509’N, 116o 45.882'W) Located 15.7 miles south of Badwater directly on the main road, there is a small sign that denotes Mormon Point although the best place to stop is slightly around the corner north of the actual sign and point.
Best Time: Mid- to late afternoon all year.
Geology: The most striking thing about Mormon Point is the view to the northeast into the Black Mountains (see photo). In the foreground is a small spring at the corner of the Death Valley playa. Most of the mountain mass in the distance is the Black Mountain metamorphic complex. The sloping skyline is the actual (but eroded) detachment surface of the Copper Canyon turtleback. The multi-colored rock that makes up the mountains on the left is the upper plate that has moved relative to the lower plate which is the metamorphic complex on the right. Thus the top edge of the complex which descends down to the left marks the rough trace of the Copper Mountain turtleback (detachment) fault as viewed in cross section. Mormon Point itself is the nose of another northwest plunging turtleback. The lake sediments and gravel which cover the hillside to the south rest in detachment contact with the metamorphic rocks underneath and visible higher on the hill. There are some Pleistocene lake shorelines visible in these rocks and a faint shoreline marked by tufa is noticeable above the playa on the metamorphic rocks making up the lower plate of the of the Copper Canyon turtleback. Notice also the pegmatite dikes cutting these same metamorphic rocks. There are also several small faults in the fan gravels between here and Site BW1 (Sharp & Glasner, 1997). See Appendix, Map #6.
Location/Access: (36o 13.800’N, 116o 46.056’W) 17.4 miles south of Furnace Creek and 30 miles north of Ashford Mill. Badwater is located on all maps, has a wide parking area and is one of the most popular locations in Death Valley.
Best Time: Morning all year.
Geology: Badwater is one of the most important geographic and geologic places in the world. It is the lowest land in North America (282 feet below sea level). It is also the driest place in the United States, receiving just over one inch of average precipitation per year. It is probably the world’s most continuously hot place in the summer with maximum temperatures over 134oF (Spear, 1992). The actual spot with lowest elevation is some yards west of the parking area out on the playa surface. It actually moves around a bit with new sedimentation, precipitation and salt expansion and contraction. To get any lower, one would have to go the Dead Sea or the Qattara Depression in Egypt. Rainfall has only been measured here sporadically over the years but it is definitely less than that measured 17 miles north at Furnace Creek which has received more precipitation during those years when it has also been measured at Badwater. Also, since Badwater is about 100ft lower than Furnace Creek, the temperature under most conditions should always be slightly warmer. Telescope Peak (at 11,049ft) is just across the playa thus producing a dramatic topographic rise. Badwater and all of Death Valley is dry because of the mountain barriers of the Panamints, Inyo Range and Sierra Nevada which block the westerly flow of moisture from the west. It is interesting that Badwater and Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the contiguous United Sates) are only 80 miles apart and it the same county! Badwater is especially warm because all air moving into Badwater must move downhill and therefore heat adiabatically. That, added to clear skies and a relatively high angle of incidence of sunlight, produce the very high temperatures. The pond at Badwater is there all year and is partially fault controlled. Being the lowest land around, both surface and groundwater naturally head for this general region of the valley. This is a good place to view the playa, the bajadas that make up the west margin of the valley and the Black Mountain front with the oldest rocks in the state. An important thing to remember about Death Valley’s climate, topography, exposed rock types and geomorphology is that all of these aspects of the region have been directly caused by faulting as the dominant control. See Appendix, Map #7.
Location/Access: (36o 17.103’N, 116o 45.936’W) Natural Bridge is located about 5 miles north of Badwater and 15.4 miles south of Furnace Creek. The last several miles is a steep gravel road that can be negotiated by most vehicles. If the road is in severe condition, the gate at the bottom of the hill at the turn-off from the pavement may be closed. After you reach the parking area, it is about a 1/3 mile moderate hike to the natural bridge.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: Unlike the natural bridges of the Colorado Plateau which are carved out of hard sandstone, the natural bridge in this canyon is eroded in poorly indurated Pleistocene alluvial fan deposits. Thus, it is probably not long for this world and could collapse with any significant earthquake. It has noticeably eroded over the past 40 years. The bridge has been cut within an alluvial fan channel. This probably occurred as water seeped through the fan gravels under the canyon bottom, sapped the finer grained and precipitated materials and eventually opened a small passageway through which infrequent rain water could travel. As time passed, this passage enlarged and became the main channel bottom. At the mouth of the canyon, there is a good view of the Badwater turtleback surface and remains of the upper plate sediments are “schmeered” over the metamorphic complex. The actual contact can be accessed in the next small canyon south (Sharp & Glasner, 1997). There are also numerous small faults in the lower canyon wall gravels which reveal a down-to-the-west sense of motion. See Appendix, Map #7.
Location/Access: (36o 17.150’N, 116o 49.574’W) The Devil’s Golf Course is located in the center of the Death Valley playa 13.1 miles south of Furnace Creek. The last 1.3 miles is over a level well-graded gravel road. On rare occasions, the road may be closed if the playa is flooded.
Best Time: Late afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Devil’s Golf Course is the best place to examine the salt pan or playa surface that makes up the floor of Death Valley. The floor of the valley is not truly flat and is actually composed of three very shallow basins. The lowest and southernmost area of the valley floor is the Badwater Basin. This site is at the northern edge of this basin. Any playa, or desert dry lake bed, is composed of the material that have weathered out of and washed down from the surrounding mountains. If the surrounding mountains are composed of granite or other rocks that breakdown by chemical and physical weathering into quartz, clays and other materials, the playa is usually covered with a hardened mud (clay). If the surrounding area is composed of material that weather chemically by solution, then the playa is covered with halite (rock salt) and other evaporates. The playa in Death Valley is a mixture of both. At this particular location, the evaporate materials dominate because the Pliocene Furnace Creek formation (the yellow rocks to the northwest) are a major source of borates and other evaporate minerals. Many studies have attempted to determine over the years exactly how thick these playa deposits are. As Death Valley has dropped over the past 20 million years, various basins have formed and filled with sediment. The current valley in this area has at least 2,000ft of sedimentary deposits composed of fan gravels, silt, mud and evaporate minerals (Hunt, 1976 and others). Since this area is lowest land around, it serves as a local base level for all water. Thus it is no surprise that a large variety of fine materials ends up mixed on the playa. Erosion of these deposits by wind and wind mixed with rain has produced some wonderful small-scale erosional towers and surfaces. See Appendix, Map #7.
Location/Access: (36o 21.674’N, 116o 47.922’W) Located south of Furnace Creek on a one-way loop road east of the main east side paved highway. Go 8.4 miles south of CA 190 on the Badwater Road and turn left onto Artist’s Drive. Continue for 3.7 more miles. The actual site located above is before the small turn-in for parking because the overall view of the Artist’s Palette is better and the fault zone is more obvious.
Best Time: Very late afternoon, all year.
Geology: This is one of the most colorful sites in Death Valley. The rocks exposed here belong to the Miocene Artist’s Drive formation. The formation consists of a lower sedimentary member with volcanic tuffs dated to approximately 13Ma and an upper member composed of pyroclastic deposits, sedimentary deposits and basalt flows. The whole formation exceeds 4,000 feet in thickness (Wright, et. Al., 1991; McAllister, 1970). The lower pyroclastic member and the upper sedimentary layers are the most colorful throughout the formation’s outcrop extent. The varied colors are due to trace elements within this predominantly volcanic formation, especially those associated with the more felsic rocks. At the GPS coordinates location, one can get a good view of the Black Mountains frontal fault which is oblique (right lateral and normal) slip. At this point, you are standing within a small north-south oriented graben (Miller & Wright, 2004). See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 23.207’N, 116o 51.092’W) Located approximately 5.6 miles south of Furnace Creek just north of the exit of the one-way Artist’s Drive. Parking is best just south of the site and north of the junction if you are northbound as the parking area which was located at Mushroom Rock for many years has been removed.
Best Time: Morning, all year although the hike up to the Lake Manly terrace is very steep and should probably be avoided in mid-summer heat.
Geology: The origin of Mushroom Rock has been debated for many years. Generally, most people thought it was a ventifact as these are quite common on the low hill on the west side of the main highway across from the exit of the Artist’s Drive. However, as pointed out by Meek and Dorn (2000), and obvious to anyone standing there, there are no other ventifacts in the immediate vicinity. Thus more recent researchers have ascribed its origin to weathering either by salt expansion or other weathering processes. If you look carefully, you will notice that it has been repaired after vandals damaged it some years back. If you climb the hill directly behind (east) Mushroom Rock, you will ascend quite a few wave benches before you arrive at a rather broad mesa which is a large terrace built by shoreline processes of Pleistocene Lake Manly. These smaller benches you cross on the way up are quite obvious once you have reached the top. This is one of the two largest shoreline features created during the existence of Lake Manly (see Site CD3) and it would be interesting to know the exact elevation difference between the two to help to determine Quaternary uplift rate differences between the two sites. Using GPS, we have determined the elevation of this terrace to be 25 feet below sea level, plus or minus 4 feet (-25ft +/-4ft). If you look down below to the playa surface just northwest of Mushroom Rock, you will notice man-made scratching and lines of small piles on the playa surface. These are raking marks from when the playa was mined for borax. There is also a great view of the Panamint Range and its bajadas from this vantage point. Note that the gravels of the bajadas have about four distinct colors with the younger gravels being the lightest gray and the oldest being darker brown. Notice also that the lightest (youngest) gravels are within the washes indicating that the bajadas and alluvial fans in Death Valley are being eroded. This may be due to the relatively recent drop in base level due to the evaporation of Lake Manly. In any case, the major fan and bajada surfaces in Death Valley are generally inactive. See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 13.119’N, 116o 53.574’W) From the Badwater Road, take the West Side Road south 10.5 miles and turn up the Hanaupah Canyon road and proceed 0.8 miles up the fan to the bluffs where the road turns south.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: This bluff marks the trace of the Hanaupah Canyon fault. At this point it is trending N 17o E but it swings more northerly just north of here. You are near the southern end of the scarp. The fault offsets all but the most recent gravel deposits. In addition to tectonic disruption of the fan surface, many alluvial fans and bajadas on the west side of the valley have been studied in terms of their erosional and depositional history (see for example, Duhnforth, 2007). Email us for directions to something really interesting in terms of history that lies within feet of here.
Sites FC1-5 are located just southeast of the central headquarters and village area of Furnace Creek. Sites FC2, 4 and 5 are all very readily accessible on paved or level, well-graded dirt roads. Sites FC1 and 3 can be reached by rougher gravel roads that require high clearance and often four-wheel-drive depending upon conditions.
Location/Access: (36o 27.820’N; 116o 45.916’W) The turn-off to Echo Canyon is located 2.1 miles southeast of the junction of CA 190 and the Badwater Road. Turn left, northeast, on the gravel road and continue up the alluvial fan surface. The first arch is located at the GPS coordinates stated above, 4.2 miles from Highway 190. The first portion of this road has deep gravel so four-wheel-drive is advisable. The second, and much larger arch is located 0.5 miles further up the canyon (a total of 4.7 miles from the highway)(at 36o 28.037’N; 116o 45.605’W). A better view of the larger arch can be seen by continuing a short distance up the road as the canyon bends around behind the arch. A much smaller, third arch is located at 0.6 miles past the larger one (5.3 miles from the highway) at 36o 28.242' N; 116o 45.190' W.
Best Time: Any time of day, avoid mid-summer.
Geology: The first portion of this trip is mapped on McAllister (1970), a useful map for most of the sites in the Furnace Creek Wash area. The route travels over Quaternary fan gravels and then enters Echo Canyon proper. There are some Ordovician rocks and then a long traverse through the Cambrian Bonanza King formation. The arches have been weathered out of the Bonanza King limestone; the larger one at a bend in the wash in the hour-glass portion of the canyon and the smaller ones along sharp ridge crests. Like most desert canyons, Echo Canyon has a dendritic drainage pattern above this narrow section of the drainage and a distributary pattern below, hence the name hour-glass. In the immediate vicinity, check for stromatolites within the limestone and you will notice there are several very small caves high up on the cliffs on the north side of the canyon 0.4 miles past the arch. Other fossils have been reported in the immediate vicinity including trilobite cephalons and oncolites on the north wall within the tan shale underlying the dark gray limestone of the lower Bonanza King Formation. There are also some marvelous dendrites in the shale. This locality is just above the hourglass portion of the canyon and is quite obvious as the canyon opens up here and the tan shale on the north side is markedly different than the dark limestone through which you have been traveling. On our last visit, in October, 2007, we found a rock hammer at this location (36o 28.284' N; 116o 45.190' W). This is a NO-NO. Never collect fossils in a national park. Continue up the canyon to Site FC1b. After 1.2 miles past the third arch, there is a large debris flow on the right. See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 29.723’N; 116o 42.831’W) The thrust fault is located 4.2 miles up the canyon from the biggest arch at stop FC1a. This is 8.7 miles from Highway 190. The fault can be seen on the southeast wall of the canyon.
Best Time: Late afternoon but avoid summer.
Geology: The thrust faults in the Funeral Mountains are mostly of Paleozoic Age and have been used to demonstrate the amount of tectonic motion laterally along the Death Valley Fault Zone by matching these thrusts with those in the Cottonwood Mountains northwest of Stovepipe Wells (Snow & Wernicke, 1989, and others following). For example, the Schwaub Peak thrust (in the upper Echo Canyon area) (Wright and Troxel, 1993) can be matched with the Marble Canyon thrust. Both thrusts have in excess of 3km of throw (Wernicke, et. Al., 1993). The total amount of displacement between these two localities is a matter of great debate among geologists working in the region because some of the motion is taken up by lateral movement along the Death Valley fault zone and probably much more by northwest-southeast Tertiary extension. The amount of displacement along the Furnace Creek-Death Valley fault zone has been calculated by many authors to be between about 15 and 65 km, however Cemen & Baucke (2005) measured offsets of the Clery thrust in Furnace Creek Wash just southeast of here to be about 35km. The actual mining camp of Schwaub, where you are now located is long gone, but by continuing a short distance further up the canyon, you arrive at the Inyo Mine which has several old buildings left from the early 1900’s. The road ends just past the mine area but there is a terrible jeep road that leaves from the vicinity of the fault and heads towards Nevada.
Location/Access: (36o 25.206’N; 116o 48.745’W) Zabriskie Point is located just off Highway 190, 3.6 miles southeast of the CA 190 junction with the Badwater Road. This is a very popular location and very well marked.
Best Time: Early morning, all year.
Geology: Zabriskie Point and nearby 20 Mule Team Canyon are the best places to see the upper Miocene-lower Pliocene Furnace Creek formation. The yellow rocks in the foreground as one looks west from the viewing area at the GPS coordinates compose part of the over 5,000ft of lake sediments and underlying other rocks of this formation. The formation is dominantly composed of mudstone and sandstone with minor amounts of volcanic ash and other rocks and is the major source of borax minerals in the central Death Valley region. Lower members include gypsum, conglomerate and volcanic rocks (McAllister, 1970). The rock unit below this is the Artist’s Drive formation (Site BW6) which forms the near skyline to the south. The unit above is the Pliocene/Pleistocene Funeral formation which forms the near skyline to the northwest. This is a classic example of “badland topography” wherein the landscape shows a densely spaced dendritic drainage pattern, intricately eroded hills and practically no vegetation. The lack of vegetation is due both to the alkaline chemistry of the rock and its high clay concentration which inhibits the infiltration of infrequent rain. Although rain is infrequent here, major floods in 1939, 1941, 1985 and 2004 have caused the highway to be re-aligned and diversion dams to be built (Troxel, 1974; Snyder & Kammer, 2008). After the first flood, Furnace Creek Wash was diverted away from Highway 190 and sent down Gower Gulch to the main valley floor. This drop in base-level has caused a dramatic up-canyon migration of a nickpoint to 20 Mule Team Canyon. In addition to significant channel deepening due to the relative base level drop, numerous other changes to the channels have occurred (Snyder & Kammer, 2008). Spectacular distance views to the west include Telescope Peak and the northern Panamint Range with descending bajadas and the playa floor. To the east the Funeral Mountains are quite dramatic. Nearby 20 Mule Team Canyon offers an opportunity to closely examine the upper portion of the Furnace Creek formation. See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 24.902’N; 116o 43.536’W) The road to Hole-in-the-Wall is located 1.8 miles past the turnoff to Zabriskie Point or 5.4 miles up Highway 190 from the Badwater Road turnoff. The turnoff lies between the entrance and exit of 20 Mule Team Canyon. The GPS coordinates are 3.6 miles up the wash from Highway 190. The road is gravel and travels up the wash. High clearance is needed and four-wheel-drive may be required if it has not been beaten down by enough vehicles traversing the route since the last washout.
Best Time: Afternoon, except mid-summer.
Geology: This site affords a spectacular view of Quaternary tectonics as the upper members of the Furnace Creek formation have been tilted to a near vertical dip since the Pliocene along the Wall Fault (see cross sections D and E in McAllister, 1970). This uplifted rock has been eroded by water and debris flows thus producing the “Hole-in-the-Wall”. The exact sequence of erosion and tectonics is not clear. If you continue through the gap, you will enter a small valley which forms a graben-like structure between the Wall Fault and the main trace of the Furnace Creek fault zone just beyond at the base of the Funeral Mountains. See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 20.043’N; 116o 41.335’W) This site is directly on the Dante’s View Road 2.4 miles southeast of Highway 190. There is a long gravel shoulder on the east side of the road on which one can park.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: This site is located in the center of the main borate mining district of Death Valley. The actual national park boundary is directly along the road at this point so both the abandoned mining town of Ryan and the Billie mine visible in the near distance to the north are outside of the national park. Most of the borax minerals mined in Death Valley come from the Pliocene Furnace Creek formation. Here at the Billie mine, and previously at Ryan, these minerals are mined from shafts within this formation. West of the highway you can see a poor job of reclamation attempted to return the area to a natural condition after open pit mining was undertaken here in the 1970’s. Specific minerals mined here include mostly proberite, ulexite and colemanite. One of the main reasons the Billie Mine was allowed to tunnel under the national park at this location is because of the relatively rare form of ulexite found in these deposits. The origin of the minerals is thought to be from hydrothermal fluids circulating through the Furnace Creek formation. As you look towards the abandoned mining camp of Ryan, the rocks to the left of the camp are the Artist’s Drive formation, to the right, the sediments of the Furnace Creek formation and on top, the basalt flows of the Funeral formation. Looking beyond the Billie Mine to the Funeral Mountains, one can see a sequence of upper Precambrian to lower Paleozoic strata tilting eastward. See Appendix, Map #8.
Location/Access: (36o 13.582’N, 116o 43.545’W) Located at the end of the Dante’s View paved road, 13.2 miles south of Highway 190 or 24 miles southeast of the Highway 190/Badwater Road junction. The actual GPS coordinates are a short hike north of the parking lot (1/3 mile) which affords a better view, especially to the north. The road is rarely closed by ice or snow.
Best Time: Early morning, all year but best in the winter.
Geology: Dante’s view is one of four relatively accessible high points that offer truly amazing views of Death Valley (see also Sites GF1, NP6 and CM3). Of the four, Dante’s view is the most accessible and most popular. After leaving the area of the Billie Mine and Ryan (Site FC4), the road travels over Quaternary fan gravels and then through volcanic rocks of the Miocene Greenwater formation which intertongues between the lower and upper units of the Furnace Creek formation (Greene, 1997). En route and near the viewpoint, most of the rocks are felsic tuffs and volcanic breccias. Near Dante’s view, these rocks form the upper plate of the Badwater Turtleback. From Dante’s View at approximately 5,500ft elevation, one has a terrific view of the floor of Death Valley over one mile in elevation below you. Looking past the Black Mountains metamorphic complex forming the cliffs below, one can see the playa surface near Badwater. The light areas of the playa are evaporates such as salt and borate while the dark areas are silts and clays washed down from the surrounding mountains or brought in by the Amargosa River whose small delta is sometimes visible. Note that the east side of Death Valley has alluvial fans while the west side is bordered by a large bajada draping down from the Panamint Mountains. Telescope Peak dominates the horizon to the west. Looking a little farther northwest, the high crest of the Sierra Nevada can be seen peeking over the Inyo Range beyond the Panamints. Although one cannot see the exact lowest point at Badwater because of the slope, one can see the highest and lowest areas in the 48 contiguous states at the same time! When looking northward up the axis of Death Valley, the Artist’s Drive area, Furnace Creek and the Cottonwood and Grapevine mountains are all visible. From the vantage point of the GPS site north of the parking area, there is also a good view of the Funeral Mountains and the Billie Mine/Ryan area. To the east one can see the Spring Mountains which lie just west of Las Vegas. Southward, especially if one walks to the point at the end of the trail leaving the parking area, there is a good view towards Mormon Point and the southern reaches of the valley. The elevation at the parking lot is 5,475ft and the elevation on the hill top at the GPS coordinates is 5,703ft. See Appendix, Map #7.
Sites CD1-5 are generally located between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells and all are easily accessible by most any vehicle and with one exception, very easy to locate. Sites CD1, 3 and 5 are immediately adjacent to paved roads. Site CD2 is at the end of a short, flat well-graded gravel road. Site CD4 is at the end of a slightly rougher and steeper gravel road that is accessible to most vehicles with a modicum of clearance. The sites emphasize mining history, evidence of climate change since the Pleistocene and Neogene extensional tectonics.
Location/Access: (36o 28.801’N, 116o 51.398’W) The site is located on the west side of CA 190 just a mile north of the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center, it is well marked and very popular as it is an easy walk or bike ride from Furnace Creek.
Best Time: Morning, all year.
Geology: For a few years in the early 1880’s, borax minerals were removed by hand from the playa surface and brought to this location for separation and processing. The borax was then loaded on to 20 mule team wagons and hauled south down the length of Death Valley, out through Wingate Wash and then across the northern Mojave Desert to the railhead in the town of Mojave. This quite inefficient operation stopped after only a few years because richer deposits were found near Barstow which was much closer to the railhead. Borax mining returned to the Furnace Creek area in the 1920’s (Site FC4). The borax minerals on the playa have been derived from weathering of the Pliocene age Furnace Creek formation which comprises the gravel-capped low hills east of the site. The gravel capping the formation is a lag deposit. There are some faint Lake Manly shorelines on the low hill southwest of the Borax Works and raking marks and piles on the playa surface just beyond. The National Park Service’s Museum and Visitor Center is just south of here and is a must-see stop for anyone interested in the geology of Death Valley. Also, on the grounds of the Furnace Creek Ranch there is borax museum which is also worth a visit.
Location/Access: (36o 35.436’N, 116o 59.444’W) The turnoff to Salt Creek is located on the west side of CA 190, 13.5 miles north of Furnace Creek or 11.5 miles southeast of Stovepipe Wells. The dirt road leading from the turnoff to the parking area is 1.2 miles long, flat, and well-graded gravel. On occasion it is closed due to flooding.
Best Time: Anytime, all year. However, the pupfish can best be seen in the spring.
Geology: Salt Creek is a small, short permanent stream with highly variable discharge that has its origin in springs upstream from the parking area but south of the sand dunes and Devil’s Cornfield east of Stovepipe Wells (Miller & Wright, 2004). The hills form a small anticline that has been cut by a fault on the northwest side (Wright & Troxel, 1993). This fault no doubt plays a role in controlling the location of the springs and may be related to the main trace of the Death Valley-Furnace Creek fault zone which lies just east of here. Salt Creek is the home of another species of pupfish, Cyprinodon salinus which has speciated since the Pleistocene from the pupfish at Saratoga Springs (Site FS2), Devil’s Hole (Site O1) and other locations throughout the Great Basin. Their common ancestor must have been swimming about in Lake Manly thus establishing the connection not only to sites in Death Valley but many of the other connected lakes within the Great Basin, Mojave Desert, Salton Trough and even the Sonoran Desert of southwest Arizona. See Snyder, et. Al. (1964) for the classic map of these Pleistocene Lakes. See Appendix, Map #15.
Location/Access: (36o 36.852’N; 116o 56.825’W) This feature cuts directly across the Beatty Cut-Off road 1.8 miles north of CA 190.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: The fact that the road crews that built the paved road through here and cut directly through the gravel bar indicates that its geologic significance was not known at that time. Although it is regrettable that this geologic feature was damaged by road construction, there is a benefit in that one can now get a good cross-sectional look at the gravel deposit itself. The gravel bar was built by waves on the shoreline of Lake Manly at one of the later stands of the lake. This is likely because the gravel is very light in color and thus younger than the fan gravels upon which its sits which are darker, indicating more desert varnish and thus greater age (Miller and Wright, 2004). Warnke (2005) estimates the age of the bar, which is about 16 ft thick, to be about 153 Ka. The bar is about 1600 ft long and between 160 and 325 ft wide (Larson, et. al., 2007). Recent Paleontologic data (Forester, et. Al, 2005) suggests a high stand of lake Manly at 154.5 Ka at 143.2 m that may have persisted for nearly 5,000 years. A following high stand at about 121 Ka had a depth of 112 m. Looking at the road cut you will notice that the gravels are both graded and imbricated. Also, if you hike a little west along the crest of the gravel bar you will notice that the surface is composed of desert pavement: The surface has a cobblestone effect wherein surficial particles of sand and finer grains are not present either because they have been washed or blown away or clays have been blown or washed in, carried down by percolating rainwater and then due to shrink/swell have lifted the gravel particles to the surface. These two competing hypotheses for the origin of desert pavement each have their adherents. This bar has an elevation of about 150 feet. This is different from the most obvious high strandline at Shoreline Butte (Site SC1). It would be informative to have a comparison between this feature, Shoreline Butte and the terrace above Mushroom Rock (Site BW7). The elevation of the major terrace above Mushroom Rock is (-25ft) thus the apparent approximate difference is about 175ft. This is considerable and needs explaining. There is a second, less well-formed gravel bar parallel to the main one a few yards south, lying mostly on the east side of the highway. This is more obvious viewed from on top of the hill to the west. Death Valley actually has very few Pleistocene lake features when compared to many other Great Basin valleys. One could thus deduce that water filled this valley less frequently than others. Thus stream flow through the lake system from the Sierra Nevada must have been sporadic and/or the smaller amounts of local rainfall (then as now) were insufficient to maintain a large lake for long. The Amargosa River probably only regularly drained into Death Valley only towards the end of the Pleistocene (Butler, 1982) and obviously sporadically since. See Appendix, Map #9.
Location/Access: (36o 40.150’N; 116o 54.561’W) The turn-off is 5.5 miles north of CA 190 on the Beatty Cut-Off Road. The dirt road to the right leads 2.7 miles to the parking area of the Keane Wonder Mill. The actual mine is a very long steep climb up towards Chloride Cliff (Site GF1) and is probably better accessed from there. Please note that since late 2008, the Park Service closed the Keane Wonder Mine area due to safety concerns.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Keane Wonder Mine produced about a million dollars of gold in the early 1900’s. Much of the Death Valley region was prospected and mined for gold during this period but only a few areas such as Rhyolite to the east, Skidoo to the west and this site produced much gold. The mill sits on high grade metamorphic rock derived from the lower member of the Crystal Spring formation (Wright and Troxel, 1993). These rocks make up a significant portion of the lower plate of the Boundary Canyon detachment fault (Sites CD5a and b, and GF1). Included amphibolite was probably derived from the diabase sills (Sites FS1-3) and the marble from the limestone within the Crystal Spring formation. These rocks were probably metamorphosed twice: First and most strongly in the Cretaceous and less so during the Tertiary formation of the detachment (Labotka & Albee, 1988; Miller and Wright, 2004). From the mill site, there is a very good view of central Death Valley. See Appendix, Map #9.
Location/Access: (36o 44.678’N, 116o 57.252’W) Site CD5a is located on the southeast side of the main paved highway to Beatty, Nevada, 2.0 miles northeast of the junction of the Beatty Cut-Off Road and Mud Canyon Road.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Boundary Canyon detachment fault outcrops on both sides of the paved road but is not everywhere obvious. Like most low angle faults, its location swings wildly with the topography. Generally, below the fault plane are greenish rocks of very late Precambrian (Proterozoic) Johnnie formation and above the fault are even later Precambrian rocks of the Stirling and Wood Canyon formations (Wright & Troxel, 1993 – see especially cross section AA’; Miller and Wright, 2004). The Chloride Cliff fault is also a detachment surface lying just beneath the Boundary Canyon fault. The site here is a very accessible site as it lies only a few yards off the highway on the hillside. Motion along this fault zone, as in the ones along the Black Mountains, was down to the northwest with subsequent up-arching or denudation of the lower plate. See Appendix, Map #9.
Location/Access: (36o 45.002’N, 116o 56.200’W) This site is located an additional 1.2 miles east of Site CD5a. It is just before you reach the turnoff to Monarch Canyon (the shortest, although roughest, route to Chloride Cliff, Site GF1).
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: These are rocks of the upper plate of the Boundary Canyon detachment fault: The latest Precambrian Stirling formation and the Wood Canyon formation which straddles the Cambrian-Precambrian boundary, one of the few rocks to do so in the world. Normally this age boundary is marked by an unconformity, as seen in the Grand Canyon and many places in the Rocky Mountains. In Death Valley, however, there is a relatively unbroken sequence of deposition from the late Precambrian well into the Paleozoic. At this location and further up the hill, one can get a good look at these rocks even if they are deformed and metamorphosed a bit. This style of deformation is typical of upper plate rocks above detachment fault zones. Lower plate rocks are frequently mylonitized or otherwise ductily deformed.
Sites GF1-2 can both be accessed off the paved highway from Death Valley to Beatty, Nevada. Chloride Cliff provides what is probably the best high vantage point (without hiking far) from which to view Death Valley and is a good place to see a branch of the Boundary Canyon detachment system. Titus Canyon is probably the best geologic side trip in the world. In this guide there are 10 stops listed of geologic interest in this canyon and they include a wide variety of features. The two roads to Chloride Cliff require four-wheel-drive (at least in one spot) and the long one-way road through Titus Canyon requires high clearance. Before visiting either locality, one should obtain Wright and Troxel (1993) and Miller and Wright (2004) for Chloride Cliff and Miller and Wright (2004) for Titus Canyon. Also, for Titus Canyon, Brandt (1992) is less technical. One should allow a full morning for the trip to Chloride Cliff and the better part of a day for Titus Canyon. Sites GF-3 and GF-4 can be reached directly by paved road and any vehicle all year.
Location/Access: (36o 41.692’N, 116o 52.807’W) Chloride Cliff can be accessed one of two ways off of the Beatty Road. The shortest (but far rougher) way leaves from Site CD5b. A dirt road leads up the canyon 5.2 miles to a junction. The first half of this stretch can be done with high clearance but the second half requires four-wheel-drive. At the junction, turn right and continue up the hill. It is during this steep climb that you will need four-wheel-drive again but after the crest, you will not. Continue past the junction for about 2 more miles, keeping left each time you have a choice. You will pass through the abandoned mining camp of Chloride City, which contains the remains of a few buildings and the remains of a miner in a grave near the building fronting one of the main mines. Just before you reach the top, you will have to bear right around a low hill and you will probably have to stop just before the last 100 feet or so because the road is too steep. The longer (but far easier) way, requires that you continue on the Beatty Road after you leave Site CD5b for an additional 7.1 miles (or a total distance of 10.5 miles from the Beatty Cut-Off Road and the Mud Canyon Road. At this point, you will be at the national park boundary in Nevada. Turn right and head southeast for 6.8 miles until you reach a junction coming in from the left and behind you. To this point, the road is often rough, but relatively flat. At this junction, the road becomes much smoother. Continue for 4.1 miles to the junction mentioned above for the short route. Again, you will need four-wheel-drive only for this one rough climb. Continue on, generally keeping left, until you reach the top.
Best Time: Early to mid-morning, all year, but winter is best because the air is clearer.
Geology: For a description of the geology en-route on the first half of the shorter, rougher road, please see Miller and Wright (2004, p. 90). On our trips, we always come in the longer way because it is easier on vehicles and the additional dozen miles does not add any time to the trip. The longer route brings you over alluvial fan and wash gravels until just before you reach the junction of the two routes. Within the canyon prior to the junction, you are traveling through the late Proterozoic Stirling quartzite. At the junction (10.9 miles from the highway), you cross the Boundary Canyon detachment and the steep climb up the hill is through the Johnnie formation, across the Chloride Cliff fault then over the Pahrump Group (mostly Kingston Peak formation) to the top (mostly Beck Spring and Crystal Spring). At this point, you are on the footwall of the Boundary Canyon-Chloride fault detachment system. The Chloride fault is visible in the hillside to the east. The view from the top is spectacular and to most people who have visited all four major view points (Sites GF1, NP6, CM3, FC4) on our trips, this is usually the favorite. Southward there is a view down the valley along the Furnace Creek fault zone. The area around Badwater is visible in the distance. The northernmost basin of the Death Valley playa is also clearly visible as are the Panamint Mountains to the west of the village of Furnace Creek. The western view from the summit provides a view of the dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Tucki Mountain, and the ranges to west including the Cottonwoods, Inyos and Sierras. The Lake Manly gravel bar (Site CD3) and the mines in around the Keane Wonder Mine (Site CD4) are in the near foreground. To the north, the folding in the southern Grapevine Mountains is apparent and to the east, the view across western Nevada reveals classic Basin and Range topography as well as a glimpse of the volcanic rocks near Rhyolite, Nevada and the Paleozoic sediments and Tertiary volcanic rocks south and east of Beatty. See Appendix, Map #9.
Location/Access: (36o 49.609’N; 117o 00.041’W) The turnoff to begin the 26-mile, one-way road through Titus Canyon is 13.2 miles northeast of the junction of the Beatty Cut-Off Road and the Mud Canyon Road. This is a total of 23.2 miles from CA 190 if coming from Furnace Creek and only 5.8 miles from Beatty, Nevada. After making the turn, it is an additional 9.5 miles to a parking area at the summit of White Pass (also called Volcanic Pass).
Best Time: Morning, all year.
Geology: En-route, you have driven over alluvial fan deposits of Quaternary age and once you entered the wash and low hills, you were traveling through Neogene volcanic rocks. At this point, a large outcrop of this Miocene volcanic rock (here a latite sitting above the Titus Canyon formation) including volcanic plugs and ash and breccia deposits are directly north of you (Lengner & Troxel, 2008). Neogene bimodal volcanism is very common in the Death Valley region. In the distance, looking down the road ahead of you, Cambrian sediments, mostly shale and limestone, form the distant ridges on the left. In the right, in the distance are dipping sedimentary rocks, mostly the Titus Canyon formation composed of shale, sandstone and conglomerate deposited in a continental environment, probably a lake during the Oligocene epoch. Lastly, the best reference available to date for Titus Canyon for all but geologic experts is Death Valley's Titus Canyon & Leadfield Ghost Town (Lengner & Troxel, 2008). See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.733’N; 117o 01.953’W) Red Pass is an additional 2.7 miles from Volcanic Pass or a total distance of 12.2 miles from the pavement. The road from the last stop plunges down into the upper reaches of Titantothere Canyon and then climbs steeply up to the summit at Red Pass. It is downhill from here all the way to the main paved road (Scotty’s Castle Road) on the floor of Death Valley.
Best Time: Morning, all year.
Geology: At the bottom of the upper reaches of Titantothere Canyon which you passed just before the long ascent to Red Pass, a skull of a Titantothere was found. There is a cast of this skull in the Visitor Center museum at Furnace Creek. Once at the top of the pass there is a spectacular view to the north. The multi-colored rocks exposed here at the pass and in the walls of the valley below belong to the Oligocene Titus Canyon formation. They are composed mostly of volcanic tuff with some conglomerate and sandstone. Looking towards the bottom of the canyon, the banded gray rocks on the left are mostly Cambrian limestones of the Bonanza King formation. The Bonanza King formation is one of the most easily recognizable rock units in southeastern California, especially when seen from a distance because of its distinctive banded nature. To the right and beyond are the volcanic rocks. You are looking down into the upper drainage of Titus Canyon. All of the water that falls as rain and snow in this broad topographic basin must drain through the narrows of Titus Canyon (hourglass) just before its exit. See Appendix, Map #12.
For an excellent view of upper Titus Canyon and all of central Death Valley, one can hike from here up to Thimble Peak. The hike is about a mile and a half but is VERY steep. The easiest approach is to head up the ridge line from the south side of the road at Red Pass. There is a faint trail from the many people who do this trip. To limit the superfluous up and down, when you get far enough up the ridge to see Thimble appear to the southwest, head cross country, keeping your same elevation. This eliminates the un-needed climb up the intermediate peak. The view from the top of Death Valley is a little better than from Chloride Cliff and the view of upper Titus Canyon is better than that from Red Pass. One last note: Bring gloves; the last 100 yards is a steep scramble over sharp limestone.
Location/Access: (36o 50.907’N; 117o 03.556’W) The abandoned mining camp of Leadfield is located on the floor of the valley seen from Red Pass 3.0 miles beyond Site GF2b or a total of 15.2 miles from the pavement.
Best Time: Anytime.
Geology: Leadfield was built on a land swindle in the late 1920’s as speculators promoted lead mining. The road you came in on was built at that time. There are indeed deposits of lead in the immediate vicinity but they are not of commercial concentration. So mines were dug and soon abandoned. There are a few buildings left. One of the greatest secrets in Death Valley lies behind the building on the right as you face the limestone cliffs to the southwest: Titus Canyon Cave. There is a mine directly behind this building which is closed and locked. However, if you gain entrance (as we did with park service personnel in 1978) you will find that the miners broke into a small cave system. Ropes are needed to descend into the main room of the cave but once therein one can see a good variety of speleothems and some rather rare secondary carbonate cave minerals (huntite and magnesite). The climate in the cave is nearly unbearable being well over 90oF and with extremely high humidity. Access to the general public is prohibited. The view up to the surrounding hillsides reveals the same rocks visible from Site GF2b. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 51.180’N; 117o 03.790’W) The “syncline” is located a very short distance (0.4 miles) down the canyon from Leadfield or 15.6 miles from the pavement.
Best Time: Anytime.
Geology: What appears to be an asymmetric syncline within the Bonanza King formation is actually an optical illusion. The rocks are all dipping rather uniformly but erosion by water formed a sharply turning canyon wall producing the illusion (see p. 23, Stop 5 in Brandt, 1992). This is also a good place to examine nearly all of the rocks that form the valley walls of upper Titus Canyon because they can all be found as eroded cobbles and boulders on the floor of the wash. Especially notable are the boulders of water-worn conglomerate from the Titus Canyon formation. From this point on, the road will travel along the canyon bottom and the canyon becomes increasingly narrow and a roofless vehicle offers a spectacular ride to the end of the canyon. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 50.472’N; 117o 05.442’W) Klare Spring is located 2.1 miles down canyon from the “syncline” or 2.5 miles down canyon from Leadfield for a total distance from the highway of 17.7 miles.
Best Time: Anytime.
Geology: Note the petroglyphs (and vandal graffiti) on the large limestone boulder on the north side of the road. Like many springs in Death Valley, this one issues towards the surface here because of a fault. The springs have also produced the travertine around and especially above the spring and petroglyph boulder. Because of the spring, there is a fair amount of vegetation growing here and for some years, a wild date palm was growing until it was removed. Often, bighorn sheep visit this spring. The fault is the Titus Canyon fault which is normal and places rocks younger than the Zabriskie quartzite on the right hanging wall against rocks older than that on the left footwall (Miller and Wright, 2004). A short walk down the road reveals strongly deformed rocks of the Wood Canyon formation in the bluffs on the right. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.705’N; 117o 06.477’W) This site is located 1.2 miles down canyon from Klare Spring or 18.9 miles from the paved highway. Park at a wide spot in the road and climb the lower edge of the south side of the canyon to the GPS coordinates. Then look back across and up the canyon.
Best Time: Any time.
Geology: By looking across the canyon and up to the ridgeline and back up the canyon from which you have come, the broad overturned nature of the folding can be seen. This is the Titus Canyon anticline. The fossiliferous shale near the coordinates is the Cambrian Carrara formation. Since things are overturned here, the younger Bonanza King, which was seen back in Leadfield, is now on the left and dipping back up canyon and the older Zabriskie quartzite is up canyon. From this point to the end of the canyon, all of the sedimentary rocks you will see are then upside down. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.664’N; 117o 07.106’W) The ripple marks are located 0.6 miles down canyon from the previous site, 19.5 miles from the highway. They are on the left side of the canyon, right at eye level, on the surface of the limestone which is dipping towards you and down to the left. The road at this point is making a broad turn to the right.
Best Time: Anytime.
Geology: While ripple marks are common in sandstone and shale, they are less common in limestone. Oscillation ripples are symmetric and are generated by water moving back and forth over loose sediment. Current ripples are asymmetric and are generated by water moving in one direction over the loose sediment. The steeper side of the ripple is down-current. These are current ripples and the current obviously came from the upper right. However, everything thing here is upside down! Thus to interpret from which direction the current actually came, one has to reconstruct the original position of the layer before folding. Then one must also consider that the whole region has been faulted and rotated by extensional tectonics. This would be a tremendous task. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.686’N; 117o 07.302’W) Site GF2h is located a very short distance (0.2 miles) down the canyon from the ripple marks around the bend of canyon bottom to the left on the hillside. This is 19.7 miles in from the paved highway.
Best Time: Anytime other than mid-day as you will be looking into the sun.
Geology: The big double fold is apparent in the south canyon wall above you to the left. Remember that everything you are looking at is upside down because of the overturned nature of the entire stratigraphic section in this part of Titus Canyon (see p. 97 of Miller & Wright, 2004). Thus the anticline on the left and the syncline on the right are actually better called “antiform” and “synform” because while they appear as anticline and syncline they are actually the opposite. And more specifically, they are secondary folds within a major limb of the Titus Canyon overfold. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.298’N, 117o 09.908’W) Site GF2i is located 2.9 miles down the canyon from the previous stop and 22.6 miles from the highway. It is best visible on the south canyon wall at eye level.
Best Time: Anytime as this wall is usually in shadow.
Geology: A very interesting rock. The term “megabreccia” implies a rock composed of very large angular fragments. The large gray fragments are composed of limestone and the white material between the fragments is also a form of limestone: Travertine. As the gray blocks moved apart, the white travertine, probably deposited by groundwater, filled in the spaces. A little further down the canyon, you can see the layered growth pattern of the travertine more clearly. This rock’s origin is obviously tectonically controlled by folding or perhaps faulting at some distance. There is another example of this type of rock across Death Valley at Site NP4c in Cottonwood Canyon. You are getting close to the end of Titus Canyon. In fact, people often walk to this site from the parking area at the mouth of the canyon. At this point and on down to the canyon bottom, you are in the classic hourglass narrows of a desert canyon where all the water and mudflow/debris flow materials have come together from the broad, more open canyon above and have scoured the limestone walls of the canyon into the smooth sides you see here. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 49.318’N, 117o 10.443’W) The mouth of the canyon and the end of the one-way road is 0.6 miles down canyon from the megabreccia. This is 23.2 miles since the beginning of the road at the paved Nevada Highway 374. It is an additional 2.5 miles to the pavement from here but the road is two-way.
Best Time: Anytime before late afternoon.
Geology: You are now at the end of the one-way road and there is a broad view of the north-central area of Death Valley beyond. One has a good view of Tucki Mountain and the area around the dune field near Stovepipe Wells to the south. There is also a good view of the Cottonwood Mountains to the west. Looking back towards the lower entrance to Titus Canyon, you will notice that it is not particularly obvious. This becomes truer as you drive towards the paved highway below. In fact, from the highway or across the valley, the lower entrance can barely been seen. This is due to two facts. First, the lower portion of the canyon twists and turns so that there is no obvious view directly up the axis of the canyon. Secondly, the large alluvial fan just north of Titus Canyon’s fan is at a higher elevation and thus appears more significant. This is a good place to note that the size of an alluvial fan depends primarily upon the square miles of drainage basin above the hourglass narrows. See Appendix, Map #12.
Location/Access: (36o 54.051’N, 116o 49.749’W) The ghost town of Rhyolite is easy to find. From the east boundary of Death Valley National Park, travel 4.7 miles on Nevada Highway 374, turn left and continue to 1.5 miles to the center of town. Rhyolite is on all maps and is clearly marked.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: Rhyolite, named for the Miocene/Pliocene volcanic rock that dominates the surrounding hills, was a booming mining camp in the early 1900’s. Gold was discovered in 1904 and active mining continued until just past World War I. Total production in this early period approached $3,000,000. The large abandoned mine at the junction operated from the late1980’s into the 1990’s. The heap leaching pile across the highway has only been inactive for a few years. The gold in these hills occurs in fissures and veins associated with calcite, quartz and pyrite in rhyolite tuff related to steep normal faults (Cornwall, 1972). A small amount of silver was found with the gold.
Location/Access: (36o 55.014' N; 117o 17.885' W). This outcrop is immediately west of the trace of the Scotty's Castle Road, 10.8 miles north of the junction of the Titus Canyon exit road or 6.7 miles south of the junction of the road to the Mesquite Spring campground. There are several pressure ridges that parallel the west side of the highway in this area but this location shows the best offset.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: From this point all the way through the north end of Death Valley, a series of pressure ridges along the fault zone occur at widely spaced intervals. The Death Valley Fault zone is right lateral and here demonstrates approximately 175 feet of right lateral offset. The gully in the image below is oriented along the strike of the fault. The drainage enters westbound from the right of the picture and exits to the left. View is to the northeast. See Appendix, Map #13.
Sites NP1-10 are all located in the northern Panamint Mountains or within an easy drive of the village of Stovepipe Wells. Therefore all locations are described in terms of their distance from Stovepipe Wells or road junctions easily accessible from Stovepipe Wells. Sites NP1, 7, 9 and 10 are all accessible directly via paved roads. Sites NP3, 5, 6 and 8 are accessible via well-graded dirt roads passable by vehicles with at least a little clearance. Sites NP2 and 4 require high clearance and usually four-wheel-drive. Since there are a great number of locations in this region, there is a great geologic variety to be seen at the sites. There is also a tremendous variety of climate at these sites and sites NP5-8 are quite pleasant even in summer.
Location/Access: (36o 36.292’N, 117o 06.436’W) Located a mile or so east of the village of Stovepipe Wells. Park anywhere directly along CA 190.
Best Time: Early morning or late afternoon, the air is clearer in winter.
Geology: This is the largest sand dune field in Death Valley National Park. It is also called the Death Valley dune field and Mesquite Dunes. There are other dune fields located near Saratoga Springs (Site FS1), Eureka Valley (Site FN4) and in the northern Panamint Valley. These dunes are generally transverse dunes with maximum heights of about 180 feet and with axes trending roughly southeast-northwest (Spear, 1986). Since the steep face of the dunes is on the south side of most of the ridges, the prevailing dune-shaping winds must come from the north. However, the local wind pattern is obviously more complex because just east of the dunes is the Devil’s Cornfield, an area of deflation with arrow-weed shocks holding sand and clay within exposed upper root structures. Thus the wind is both eroding and depositing within a very short distance. Since the wind obviously blows from the north most of the time and the huge mass of Tucki Mountain lies directly south, one can infer that Tucki Mountain blocks the flow of wind and as the north wind sloughs off to the east as it heads southward past the east slopes of Tucki Mountain, increased velocity causes erosion just east of the dune field in the Devil’s Cornfield. The source of the sand is both local fan and bajada surfaces as well as from Death Valley Wash, the main drainage of northern Death Valley which terminates (except during very high runoff) just north of the dune field. The dunes are estimated to be only about 2,000 years old and the alluvial fill upon which they sit is the deepest in Death Valley, nearly 5-7km thick (Klinger and Sarna-Wojcicki, 2001). While many people often think of deserts as being full of sand, dunes only cover about 2.3% of the land area of Death Valley (Spear, 1986), which is not inconsistent with data for the American deserts as a whole. For more on the dunes, please see Sharp and Glasner (1997). From the dunes, one can look southward toward Tucki Mountain and see a rather dramatic sequence of tilted of generally east-dipping sedimentary rocks. On the left flank are mid-Paleozoic rocks and as you look towards the west the sequence goes to Ordovician, Cambrian, upper Proterozoic (Precambrian including the Noonday formation) and then the Pahrump group. The exposure and the domal shape of Tucki Mountain are due to movement along the Tucki Mountain detachment which lies on the west side of the mountain (Wernicke, et. Al., 1993, especially the map on p. 459). See Appendix, Map #15.
Location/Access: (36o 35.126’N; 117o 05.928’W) Site NP2 can be reached by turning south on a dirt road that leaves the dune field 2.4 miles east of Stovepipe Wells. The gravel road ascends the alluvial fan for 1.9 miles whereupon it terminates at a dry fall. The road requires high clearance but four-wheel-drive would be best because the last portion of the route is in very loose stream bed gravels.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: There are several things worth noting at the end of the road. Just before the end, at the GPS coordinates, there are some wonderful slickensides exposed on the east wall of the canyon. Slickensides are caused by fault motion and as is obvious, these are oriented roughly horizontally but with a slight dip down to the north. There is a fault mapped near this location in Wernicke, et. Al. (1993) but that fault is mapped as high angle with dip-slip motion. However, east of here a few miles lies the trace of the Death Valley-Furnace Creek fault zone which is dominantly lateral. Also, the main detachment surface on the other side of Tucki Mountain does not have this orientation either. So the explanation of these slickensides and their orientation awaits further study. Just beyond the end of the road there is a dry fall. These are quite common in smaller desert canyons near the hourglass constriction especially if there is also a change in bedrock over which the water flows. See Appendix, Map #15.
Location/Access: (36o 34.308’N, 117o 08.660’W) Mosaic Canyon’s parking area is located 2.4 miles south of Stovepipe Wells. The gravel road is rather steep but is well-maintained.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: The lower reaches of Mosaic Canyon have been cut through older alluvial fan deposits and the late Proterozoic Noonday formation (mostly dolomite). The term Mosaic is used because fragments of the Noonday and other materials have been cemented to form a breccia. The rocks have subsequently been smoothed off by the action of running water and chemical weathering. Sharp and Glasner (1997, p. 139-151) provide and excellent explanation of the very recent geologic history of this site. We use their detailed explanation on our field trips. Briefly, as climates and stream flow dynamics have changed since the later Pleistocene, the lower canyon has seen alternating periods of cut and fill. Thus an overall pattern of graded bedding has been produced in the gravels. These gravel deposits and the bedrock dolomite have been at times incised and then filled with debris only to have the water cut a new channel in a slightly different position as time goes by. Further, the cementation of the gravel pebbles, cobbles and boulders (often composed of angular dolomite) that have filled in certain places have been cemented together by precipitated carbonate and then worn smooth by the action of running water thus producing the smooth mosaic. A little farther up the canyon the tan smooth dolomite bedrock has been directly worn smooth in the hourglass. See Appendix, Map #15.
Location/Access: (36o 38.552’N; 117o 16.217’W) Cottonwood Canyon is accessed by a dirt road that starts by the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells. The first 8 miles or so are very sandy as the road travels over the western margin of the Stovepipe Wells dune field. After this point, the road ascends a gentle alluvial fan and it becomes very rough. Because of this, four-wheel-drive is recommended for this route. At 8.4 miles from the store at Stovepipe Wells, you will arrive at the mouth of the canyon where there is a large flat area used for camping and a steep drop-off into the main wash of the canyon.
Best Time: Afternoon in the cool part of the year. As this is a more remote area with poor roads and a low elevation, it is best to avoid it in summer.
Geology: In the late afternoon, there are great views towards the Grapevine Mountains, Stovepipe Wells dune field and Tucki Mountain. The lighting would probably be better if you stopped here on your way out of the canyon after visiting the other sites in the canyon. The folding of the sedimentary rocks at the south end of the Grapevine Mountains is more obvious from here than along the mountain front or even in much of Titus Canyon (Site GF2). The dunes, although somewhat distant, are beautiful nonetheless. Looking towards Tucki Mountain, the general trace of the Tucki Mountain detachment is visible on the lower right flank where the domal shape gives way to outcrops of the Nova Formation which are younger, and have different color and topography. The fault trends away from you and upwards away from the dome shape of the mountain. Site NP4a is where Cottonwood Canyon actually begins. The limestone layers exposed here are mid- to late Paleozoic. This is typical of most of the rocks in the Cottonwood Mountains, whereas in the mountain ranges on the east side of Death Valley, and to a lesser extent, the sedimentary rocks in the Panamints are late Precambrian and lower Paleozoic. As you travel up the canyon, you will also find (and drive over and around) a great many granitic boulders. These have washed down from the Hunter Mountain pluton (Site CM4) which is mostly of Jurassic age. See Appendix, Map #10.
Location/Access: (36o 34.802’N; 117o 18.697’W) The cave is located 6.2 miles past the canyon mouth and a total of 14.6 miles from Stovepipe Wells. Past the mouth of the canyon, the road has been in terrible shape for many years and for the first few miles, you will have to drive up the bottom of the wash dodging boulders as you go. Fortunately, the road is neither steep nor sandy. The cave is not very visible when you are traveling up the canyon as it will be behind you and to the left. It will be very obvious upon your return from the end of the canyon.
Best Time: Anytime in the cool half of the year.
Geology: This is a quite
unusual cave as it does not have a karst origin, i.e.: it wasn’t created
by groundwater dissolution of limestone or similar rock. The cave is in
poorly indurated Pleistocene alluvial fanglomerate. Although groundwater
must have played a role in its origin, that role was limited to removal of
cementing agents between fan gravel particles. Further, mass wasting has
obviously played a role in its development because of the piles of debris at
the entrance and center of the cave that have fallen from the ceiling.
There are a few small faults with slickensides and water seeps visible on the
higher walls and ceiling. This probably explains why the seeping
groundwater did its sapping at this location. The rock deposit in which
the cave can be found probably filled most of the wide portion of the canyon
between this point and the narrows above the canyon mouth. The canyon is
wide in this area because this rock unit is far easier to erode than the
bedrock immediately up canyon from here. As to why this rock unit was
deposited here to begin with requires more research but it seems probable that
this site was once the apex area of a large fan system that has since been
eroded. From this point, the canyon becomes narrower and Paleozoic
carbonates dominate as you ascend.
See Appendix, Map #10.
Location/Access: (36o 34.214’N; 117o 19.405’W) Site NP4c is located 1.4 miles beyond the cave and 16.0 miles from Stovepipe Wells. The megabreccia is at eye level on the right canyon wall.
Best Time: Anytime in the cool half of the year.
Geology: This site is very similar to Site GF2i in Titus Canyon except that this site is smaller and the breccia fragments are smaller and rounder. One would assume that the origin is similar: The limestone was being pulled apart as groundwater precipitated travertine around the fragments as they moved apart. Again, the movement is assumed to be of tectonic origin. Notice here, in comparison to Titus Canyon, that there is a very well-defined precipitate rim around some of the particles. Groundwater was and is obviously very active here in Cottonwood Canyon as all of the sties in Cottonwood Canyon have groundwater components to their explanation. See Appendix, Map #10.
Location/Access: (36o 34.000’N; 117o 19.648’W) Site NP4d is located 0.6 miles up canyon from the megabreccia or a total of 16.6 miles from Stovepipe Wells. In the spring, this portion of the canyon may have flowing water. This will definitely be true at some point between here and the end of the canyon. However, for travel beyond here to the end of the canyon to see the cottonwood trees, there will be deep sand, flowing water and if you wish to visit the trees, it may be best to walk. The road is blocked and ends at the trees.
Best Time: Anytime in the cool half of the year.
Geology: At this location, there is a great deal of white travertine on the north canyon wall precipitated by spring action along several faults. One of these faults, a high angle dip slip fault can be seen several hundred yards up the canyon from this spot on the left side. Just below the travertine is a large thrust fault on the north side wall of the canyon. Note also the smooth rivulet in the canyon wall carved by flowing water just to the left of the travertine and thrust. Travel from here to the end of the canyon is problematical at best. There is very deep sand, huge boulders and lots of vegetation on the canyon bottom. It is about a mile to the end of the canyon to the cottonwood grove. See Appendix, Map #10.
Location/Access: (36o 26.189’N; 117o 09.292’W) The ghost town of Skidoo is located 26 miles south of Stovepipe Wells. From its junction off the Wildrose Road, just under 19 miles south of Stovepipe Wells, a good gravel road leads 7.0 miles to the townsite. The road can be navigated by any vehicle with at least a little clearance. There is nothing left at the townsite itself. However, if one keeps to the left at the explanatory sign and continues towards the GPS coordinates (0.8 miles), one will come to the mill. You will have to park below the top of the hill at the gate and then walk 200 yards over the crest to the GPS coordinates. There are other small roads that can also lead you to the mill by keeping right at the explanatory sign.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: The gold mining of district of Skidoo, so named because it was 23 miles to the spring from which water was piped in, was active in the early 1900’s. The majority of rock that makes up the hill that the mill and most of the mines are on is composed of the Skidoo granite, a Mesozoic pluton. There are several separate plutons of this age in Death Valley and all are outliers of the huge Sierra Nevada Batholith to the west. Gold in the Death Valley region is usually found associated with Neogene volcanic rocks (such as at Rhyolite, Nevada) or within gold-bearing quartz veins of Mesozoic age such as here at Skidoo. The hills to the northeast are composed of the Proterozoic Pahrump group. From the mill area, there is a good view west across Emigrant Canyon to the Pliocene-Pleistocene sediments that make up those hills. These rocks are the Nova formation and form the hanging wall of the Tucki Mountain detachment (Wernicke, et. Al., 1993).
Location/Access: (36o 21.543’N, 117o 02.797’W). This site is located 6.3 miles east of the Wildrose Road. The junction of the access road is 21 miles south of Stovepipe Wells. The road is generally well-maintained gravel, although often washboardy. There is one narrow section which may sometimes be rough. After rain or snow, the road may be muddy. High clearance is recommended.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year. In winter the air is clearer and the view better.
Geology: Augerberry Point is one of the four high vantage points that are accessible by vehicle listed in this guide (see also Sites GF1, CM3, FC4). En route from the pavement, you will travel over Quaternary gravels, past outcrops of the Mesozoic Skidoo granite and then through upper Proterozoic sediments of the Noonday and Johnnie formations. There are small outcrops of other lower and upper formations as well. At the summit, you will be on Cambrian Zabriskie quartzite. Not too far after leaving the pavement, you will also have passed the Eureka Mine which is more obvious on the way back. Just before the top, you will reach the ridgeline, and then the road turns left and climbs the last few hundred feet to the summit. From the parking area, walk northeast along the trail for the best view. The afternoon view of Death Valley from the point is great and forms a good compliment to the view from Dante’s View (Site FC5) which is visible across the valley on the summit of the Black Mountains. The view to Badwater is obscured by the ridge in the foreground. Looking down to the northeast, the east-dipping layers of Cambrian and Ordovician sediments can be seen. Note that the much of the Cambrian section is missing. A few Neogene volcanic rocks are also visible. The Furnace Creek area is across the valley and the alluvial fan upon which the village is build is quite obvious. Outcrops of the yellow Furnace Creek formation, multi-colored Artist’s Drive formation and the Furnace Creek fault zone are all plainly apparent. The Funeral Mountains lie just beyond the village. Beyond the Funerals, one can see most of the way across southern Nevada. To the south, one can see down the valley past Mormon Point and all the way to the Avawatz Mountains. To the north, the Skidoo Hills and the Grapevine Mountains form the view. To the west, the higher peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada are visible on the skyline. See Appendix, Map #11.
Location/Access: (36o 18.633’N, 117o 09.036’W) This outcrop is located directly on the Wildrose Road just past Nemo Crest, 3.9 miles south of the Wildrose Road’s junction with the Augerberry Point road or 5.2 miles past the Wildrose Road junction with the road to the Charcoal Kilns. Parking is a problem so you may have to park either uphill or downhill from the site itself. Watch for traffic on the curves as you examine the outcrop.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: This outcrop is mapped by Walker, et. Al. (2002) as part of the Proterozoic Kingston Peak formation. By the way, this is an excellent recent geologic map for exploring the southwestern part of Death Valley National Park. Because of Mesozoic plutonic intrusions, Neogene extension and related igneous intrusions, and mid- and late Paleozoic compression, etc., many of the sedimentary rocks in Death Valley have been metamorphosed. This rock was once a sedimentary conglomerate composed of cemented pebble-size fragments. During middle-grade metamorphism, perhaps during ductile deformation related to detachment faulting, the particles were thinned and stretched into what you see here. See Appendix, Map #11.
Location/Access: (36o 14.796’N; 117o 04.795’W) The charcoal kilns are located 7.0 miles east of the Wildrose ranger station and campground which are near the junction of the Wildrose Road and the Charcoal Kilns Road. This junction is 30.5 miles from Stovepipe Wells or 9.7 miles from the Wildrose Road’s junction with the Trona-Panamint Springs Road. The junction to the Charcoal Kilns and Mahogany Flat is well-marked; but because of vegetation, a tight turn and poor road conditions below the junction, it is not always obvious if one is not paying close attention. The road from the ranger station to the charcoal kilns is paved most of the way and then gives way to well-graded but steep gravel. Beyond the charcoal kilns, the road becomes steeper, narrower and is composed of loose gravel. Most vehicles can make it to the charcoal kilns but travel to Mahogany Flat requires high clearance and often four-wheel-drive. It is not unusual for the road beyond the kilns to be closed by snow in winter. Mahogany Flat lies 1.5 miles beyond the kilns.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: With the exception of a few outcrops of Mesozoic granite outcropping on the left side of the valley as you ascend the alluvium, the rocks of the mountainsides are all within the Proterozoic Pahrump Group (mostly Kingston Peak) and then the late Proterozoic Noonday formation near the top (Walker, et. Al., 2002). The charcoal kilns were built in the late 1800’s to convert the local pinyon-juniper forest into charcoal for use as fuel in mines across the Panamint Valley to the west. From here there is a good view west to the crest of the High Sierra. At Mahogany Flat (8,133ft) is the trailhead to Telescope Peak (11,049ft), truly a worthwhile 14-mile round trip hike (there is no water). Mahogany Flat is the highest elevation one can drive to in Death Valley National Park and Telescope Peak is the highest point in the park. The view from the top is worth it. The best time to make the hike would be in late fall before the first snow falls and the air is clear. The trail makes a nice summer hike but the atmosphere is often hazy. If you walk several hundred yards up the trail, there is a very good view of central Death Valley below.
Location/Access: (36o 15.620’N, 117o 13.025’W) The Wildrose Townsite is located 1.5 miles down canyon from the junction near the Wildrose ranger station and 7.8 miles up the hill from the junction of the Wildrose and Trona-Panamint Springs Road.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: The very small village of Wildrose was here until it washed away in a flash flood in 1969. There was a small store, gas station, and café. Many times since then, the road has been successively washed out and repaired. The same fate befell Panamint City several canyons south of here in the late 1800’s. The rocks that dominate the canyon between here and the up-canyon ranger station are formations of the Proterozoic Pahrump Group (mostly Kingston Peak with a little Crystal Spring near the townsite)(Walker, et. Al., 2002). The lower reaches of the canyon walls are Pliocene and Miocene(?) non-marine sediments. At the GPS coordinates there is a wonderful recumbent fold within the Precambrian rocks on the south wall of the canyon just above eye level (check behind the tamarisk bush if it’s regrown). Looking at the north wall of the canyon, the deformed rocks indicate the nearby presence of a major thrust or detachment fault. This is further evidenced by the larger scale folding on the south wall of the canyon a few hundred yards east up the road.
Location/Access: (36o 13.732’N, 117o 15.138’W) Wildrose graben is a shallow valley located near the western national park boundary 2.9 miles down canyon from the Wildrose townsite and 4.9 miles up the hill from the Wildrose-Panamint Valley Road junction. The Wildrose Road travels directly across it.
Best Time: Late afternoon, all year.
Geology: This very well known graben (down-dropped fault block) is about ¼ mile wide and about four miles long. The GPS coordinates are along the paved road about in the middle of the graben. There is a high angle normal fault that runs along the base of the bluffs to the west and another that runs along the base of the bluffs to the east. The bluffs to the west are composed of Pleistocene fan gravels and the lowest bluffs to the east are composed of the same but the main trace of the Panamint Mountains frontal fault lies just beyond to the east and uplifts the Miocene (?) continental deposits and the whole mass of the Panamint Mountains which here are composed mostly of the Proterozoic Pahrump Group. From these relationships, the graben is most likely of late Pleistocene age, probably a few hundred thousand years old. Looking down the graben in the distance, one can see a flat surface extending westward from the Panamints and lying distinctly above the valley floor. This is a Pleistocene age delta formed when sediments were being deposited into the Pleistocene lake that filled the Panamint Valley during the ice ages. This lake was deeper but not as long as Lake Manly that filled Death Valley at the same time.
Stops PS1 and PS2 are just west of the Panamint Springs Resort. This whole region was added to Death Valley National Park in 1994 when Death Valley was converted from the smaller (but still large) national monument to its present status as a national park. Site PS1 is easy to get to with most any vehicle and the 4 places listed under Site PS2 are best accessed with high clearance. The shorter, back way to Panamint Springs from Site PS2 requires four-wheel-drive. Most people will access Site PS2 through the semi-ghost town of Darwin. The mines and mineral relationships of the Darwin area can be found on two classic reports: Hall and MacKevett (1958) and Hall and Stevens (1963). Much of the latter work includes portions of Death Valley National Park.
Location/Access: (36o 21.280’N, 117o 32.479’W) The viewpoint is located 8.3 miles west of Panamint Springs, just off of CA 190. After making the turn at the Father Crowley Monument, continue east along the dirt road for about 0.5 miles.
Best Time: Mid- to late afternoon, all year.
Geology: This is a good place to view the northern Panamint Valley, the west side of the Cottonwood and northern Panamint Mountains and the local rocks of the Santa Rosa Plateau area. The transverse Panamint Dunes (built by southerly winds) can be seen at the north end of the valley floor. The Panamint Valley has two playas. The northerly one is cut by CA 190 and is traversed when one travels between Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells. Playa scrapers (Site CM2) have also been reported from this playa surface. Beyond the dunes lies Hunter Mountain (Site CM4) which is composed of the Jurassic Hunter Mountain pluton. To the right of Hunter Mountain lies Panamint Butte and it is composed of folded and faulted late Paleozoic rocks which are covered by Pliocene age basalt. Directly north in the foreground is Rainbow Canyon where the late Pliocene basalts overlie folded Paleozoic rocks. A little farther down the canyon (2.6 miles) from this point, these relationships are much clearer (Miller & Wright, 2004, p. 103).
Location/Access: (36o 17.644’N, 117o 32.126’W). Darwin Canyon can be easily (but not quickly) reached by traveling west from Panamint Springs on CA 190 to the paved turn-off to the town of Darwin. This turnoff is about 18.5 miles west of Panamint Springs. 5.8 miles after the turn, you will arrive in “downtown” Darwin. A left turn (east) in the center of town and then generally keeping left up the hill will bring you to a summit on a semi-paved road. This will continue down a very steep hill into Darwin Canyon whereupon the road will turn to gravel. After 4.0 miles from the center of Darwin you will come to a pump house (Miller’s Spring). The next several miles have numerous geologic features that are very closely spaced. Any vehicle with high clearance can get to these locations and then back out through Darwin. To continue on this road back to Panamint Springs is much shorter but is much steeper, rockier and requires four-wheel-drive. The folds are located on both sides of the road 0.9 miles past the pump house.
Best Time: Anytime, all year but probably avoid mid-summer as there is no easy way out of here in case of mechanical problems.
Geology: These highly folded rocks are severely weathered and in some places the folding is not obvious. The folds are better on the south canyon wall. At the GPS coordinates given, look to the right and behind your direction of travel to see the best folding. These rocks are lower Permian in age and belong to the Darwin Canyon formation (Stone and Stevens, 1988). This folding probably occurred prior to the creation of the angular unconformity less than ½ mile farther down-canyon. The folds are within a limb of a much broader series of folds that strike roughly north-south and are probably the result of incompetent beds giving way during the major compression that created the larger folds.
Location/Access: (36o 18.034’N, 117o 32.140’W) The angular unconformity is obvious on the north (left) side of the canyon 0.4 miles down canyon from the folds at Site PS2a.
Best Time: Anytime except mid-summer.
Geology: This remarkably clear textbook example of an angular unconformity is described in detail by Stone and Stevens (1988). The layers below the unconformity are the lower Permian Darwin Canyon formation seen at the folds up-canyon. The layers on top are Triassic marine deposits (and may correlate to similar age strata in Butte Valley) (Site SC5). The angular discordance of the unconformity is about 20o. The age of this unconformity has been quite well dated. The youngest fossils in the beds from under the unconformity are Wolfcampian fusilinids of the Panamint Springs member of the Darwin Canyon formation. The oldest fossils from the layers above the unconformity are Guadelupian (Capitanian) brachiopods and mollusks. This and other evidence indicates a late Leonardian age for the unconformity (Stone and Stevens, 1988), or an age of about 258 Ma in the uppermost lower Permian. Looking above and to the right of the unconformity, there are some faults within the sedimentary rocks. If you continue down the canyon to site PS2c, several hundred yards farther, these faults are more obvious.
Location/Access: (36o 18.073’N, 117o 31.893’W) The best fault is located 0.2 miles further down the canyon from the unconformity. It is in the sediments in the left wall of the canyon.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year except mid-summer.
Geology: There are many faults that cut through the rocks in Darwin Canyon. Some are reverse and thrust faults probably related to the folding and uplift that produced the angular unconformity seen up the canyon from here. This large fault is normal and most likely related to Neogene extensional tectonics and not the compressional events manifested in the two previous stops. Note the folding of the layers along the fault zone indicating the motion of both the hanging wall and the footwall. These rocks are those that lay above the angular unconformity at the last stop.
Location/Access: (36o 18.930’N, 117o 31.649’W) From the faults (Site PS2c), continue down the canyon for 1.1 more miles. You will come to a junction. Keep left down the wash for 0.6 miles to China Garden Spring. Park near here and continue walking down the canyon for about 1/3 mile more, past the gate.
Best Time: Anytime except mid-summer.
Geology: China Garden Spring is only one of numerous outflows of groundwater in Darwin Canyon. There is water at the pump house up-canyon and just below this location Darwin Falls can be quite dramatic. Darwin Falls can be reached by hiking down the canyon from the dike/sill or up from a parking area accessed off a dirt road off of CA 190 just west of Panamint Springs. At China Garden Spring, human activity has built up ponds, a berm and the ruins of several buildings can be seen. On the hike to the dike/sill note a large outcrop of epidote on the left canyon wall. This is related to the Mesozoic granitic intrusions which are common in the mountains surrounding the northern Panamint Valley. At the GPS coordinates, you will notice a dark basalt injection that cuts across the grain of the sedimentary rocks, then follows the bedding for awhile and then cuts across the grain again. The basalt is most likely a Pliocene age injection as these are common just north of here. The sedimentary rocks are those seen at the previous sites up the canyon.
These two sites are very easy to access. The roads are gravel but they are level and well graded.
Location/Access: (36o 02.818’N, 117o 13.530’W) These GPS coordinates are in downtown Ballarat. The delta is the huge mesa just south and slightly east of town. The road to Ballarat turns east of the Trona Road 22.7 miles north of Trona and 22.9 miles south of CA 190. The road into town is 3.4 miles from the paved highway.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: This mesa is actually a Pleistocene delta built into the lake that filled the Panamint Valley during the last ice ages. Panamint Valley was alternately covered by lakes, marshlands and playas during the Pleistocene. The last lake, which may have been 650 feet deep probably persisted until about 16,000 years ago and was followed by wet marshlands which lasted until about 10,500 years ago when the basin became a playa as it remains today (Jayko, et. al, 2008).
Location/Access: (35o 57.105’N, 117o 12.187’W) The Briggs mine is 7.7 miles south of Ballarat on a level, winding but good surfaced road maintained by the mining company.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Briggs Mine is a newly active gold mine. The company claimed that there are 21.4 million tons of mineable ore and 509,000 ounces of recoverable gold at an average grade of 0.03 ounces per ton. As of 2005, they are actively mining and heap-leach cyanide processing this ore. The ore is found within a metamorphic complex dated at 1.72Ga that is composed of a dark amphibolite gneiss and a light meta-granodiorite. This has been intruded by a Mesozoic quartz monzonite (Canyon Resources, 1994).
Sites CM1-7 offer some of the most unusual and visually rewarding locations within Death Valley National Park. Site CM1 is easily accessible by paved road but Sites CM2-6 are some of the most remote that are described in this guide. A high clearance vehicle is always required to get to these three sites and often four-wheel-drive is needed. Sometimes Sites CM3 and 4 are inaccessible due to snow. As these sites are about 30 miles from the nearest paved road, extra precautions should be taken.
Location/Access: (37o 00.661’N, 117o 27.283'W) Ubehebe Crater is a very popular site with easy paved access from the east and south. It is 56.5 miles north of Furnace Creek, 45.5 miles north of Stovepipe Wells, and 8.2 miles west of Scotty’s Castle. It is located on all maps and is well marked. It is at the northern end of the paved road system in Death Valley.
Best Time: Anytime, all year. Expect wind.
Geology: Ubehebe Crater is the largest of several maar craters in the immediate area. A small quantity of basaltic magma encountered underground water producing a series of phreatic eruptions that are recorded in the black layers of pyroclastic ejecta seen across the crater from the parking lot. The next largest crater, Little Hebe, can be reached by a short, steep walk up to the right (south). Ubehebe itself is about ½ mile across, 500 feet deep, and is early Holocene in age (Sharp and Glazner, 1997). The colorful rocks that make up the crater walls below the basaltic ejecta are sedimentary deposits of fluvial and/or lacustrine origin belonging to the Navadu formation and range from 6.2 to 12.1ma (Klinger, 2001). Note that the banded orange layers across the crater are in fault contact with the yellow rocks on the left. Ubehebe Crater and its sister craters sit near the junction of several fault zones. The Tin Mountain fault extends southward from here forming the right hand slope of Tin Mountain. The valley extending south from the craters towards the Racetrack (Site CM2) is a graben and the Tin Mountain fault forms the east boundary of that structure. The main trace of the Death Valley Fault zone, which trends north-south, lies just to the east of the craters and is quite visible as a chain of pressure ridges as one drives north towards Ubehebe from the south. It may have last moved within the past 300 years (Klinger, 2001). South of the craters lies the Oligocene-Miocene Ubehebe Crater fault (which is normal) and the Ubehebe thrust (Wernicke, et. Al., 1993). These faults lie between the craters and the base of Tin Mountain and be reached by a moderate hike from the Racetrack Road about 4 miles south of Ubehebe Crater. Just north of the crater area are the Pleistocene "Lake" Rogers deposits. These light colored silt and sand deposits were probably laid down about 15,000 years ago and most likely represent a marsh or meadow (Klinger, R. E., 2007). See Appendix, Map #13.
Location/Access: (36o 39.883’N, 117o 33.350’W) The Racetrack Playa lies 28 miles south of Ubehebe Crater. The best way to view the rocks is to park at the far south end of the playa and walk across the playa surface towards the dark rocks that approach the lake bed across the southern end of the playa. The road to the Racetrack requires high clearance and at times after storms, four-wheel-drive. We have never taken a field trip up here without at least one flat tire. The route is well-marked. It starts from just below Ubehebe Crater and the gravel road climbs an alluvial fan which is often quite rough. At the top, the road smoothes out somewhat to Teakettle Junction, 19.7 miles from the pavement. Keep right at this junction and follow the main road to the playa. This last section may be washboardy.
Best Time: Late afternoon, all year. Low sun angles bring out the tracks.
Geology: The Racetrack Playa is one of the most enigmatic geologic features in the world. Rocks slide across the playa surface and leave tracks. The rocks have been called “playa scrapers”, “sliding stones” and other terms. There has been a great deal of research done on these rocks over the years (see especially Sharp and Carey, 1976; Messina and Stoffer, 2001) but no one has ever seen them move. Five Palomar students even spent the entire winter in the area and every time the weather turned bad, they stopped by to see if anything happened. Nothing did. This phenomenon has been reported from other playas including the Bonnie Claire, north Panamint, and Superior lake beds in California and one in Utah and one in Tunisia (Di Cesare and Pratelli, 1967). In no case has movement ever been witnessed. General consensus is that the playa must be wet (and therefore slick) and winds give the impetus. The role of ice (or lack thereof) has been hotly debated. Yearly visits between 1969 and 2009 have led to the following hypothesis from Palomar College: Rain occurs and wets the playa. The water on the playa does not remain too long (hours?) otherwise the clay layers will soften to too great a depth and instead of supplying a low friction surface; the softened layers provide no support for the rocks. Then freezing conditions occur and the water freezes from the top down but not all the way to the playa otherwise a locking phenomena would occur. After freezing the top part of the standing water, but before the entire water column freezes, wind comes and using a sail effect on the ice, moves the rocks. Movement will stop when the water column completely freezes or the playa becomes soft enough so the bull-dozing rocks pile up too much silt and clay ahead of them. We have had many discussions about the need for a brief freezing episode prior to the sequence stated above. However, until someone actually observes the movement, no one can be sure. We have noted not only rocks with trails behind them but sticks, piles of mud and wild burro droppings; all with trails behind them. One can camp south of here near the abandoned Lippencott lead mine several miles further south. There is also a horrible road from there down to the Saline Valley to the west. Besides the sliding stones, there are other interesting geologic features in the valley. You will notice that there is a large outcrop of granitic rock sticking out of the playa at its north end. This outcrop, called the Grandstand, is a source for a few of the sliding stones. Bedrock protruding from a playa is quite unusual. So too, is the nearness of the approach of the dolomite ridge at the southeast edge of the playa here where most of the sliding stones occur. The obvious conclusion is that mass wasting from these two sites initially supplies the stones that later slide across the playa. The dolomite rocks break into quite rectangular chunks which no doubt helps their sliding under the conditions required. On the east side of the playa, several hundred feet up, there is a small copper mine. See Appendix, Map #10.
EXTRA ADDED BONUS!!!
In 1969, Tom Clements, then emeritus professor of geology at the University of Southern California, informed me that there had been similar sliding stones noted on the Bonnie Claire playa which is a few miles east of Scotty's Castle on the north side of the highway just across the Nevada state line. Therefore, every few years, we have stopped by for a look. We never saw anything. Then, on October 20, 2007, some trails were noted (see below). Perseverance pays off. There are some distinct differences that can be noted on the Bonnie Claire playa: The tracks all trend west, the tracks are fainter, the mud cracks are larger and are concave rather than convex. Similar phenomena such as clustering occur here as on Racetrack but we noted no mud piles or sticks with trails. There are also innumerable vehicle tracks because the land is open to such travel under BLM rules.
Tracks of sliding stones on Bonnie Claire playa, Nevada, 10/20/07.
Location/Access: (36o 48.250’N; 117o 24.350’W) White Cap Mountain, also called White Top Mountain is located 33 miles south of Ubehebe Crater via a series of gravel roads that require high clearance and usually four-wheel-drive. From Ubehebe Crater, continue south to Teakettle Junction as if you were going to the Racetrack. However, at Teakettle Junction, turn left and continue through Lost Burro gap. At 3.2 miles you will come to a four-way junction. The road to the right leads to the Lost Burro gold mine (worth a visit) and the road ahead leads to Hunter Mountain (Site CM4) and the road to the left leads 9.8 miles to a spectacular viewpoint just north of White Cap Mountain. This last stretch of road is usually quite passable and smooth as it is above the fan gravels. Once near the pinyon woodland, there may be a few rough spots. The very last few hundred yards is very steep, very rough and requires four-wheel-drive. We often walk this last little stretch. Much of this road may be blocked by snow in mid-winter. The viewpoint is actually some distance north of White Cap Mountain proper.
Best Time: Mid- to late afternoon.
Geology: This is one of four places in this guide that offer a great view of Death Valley. When you make the left turn at Lost Burro Junction, you are at the north end of Hidden Valley which is a bolson. The view on the way up from here includes views of the Stovepipe Wells area. At the top, the view towards the Grapevine Mountains is very impressive. The massive folding, the colorful Paleozoic sediments and the fans and bajadas of northern Death Valley are all visible. The view to the west is blocked by higher mountains. En route to the summit you will pass through Ordovician, Devonian and Mississippian age sedimentary rocks, mostly shale and limestone. These rocks are much younger than the pre-Tertiary rocks that dominate in the central and southern parts of Death Valley. At the summit some unusual Mesozoic plutonic rocks with beautiful feldspar crystals form the road cuts near the point. Many of the formations seen en route are quite fossiliferous. In Lost Burro Gap, we have found articulated brachiopods in the brown beds at road level on the northeast canyon wall and just when you enter the canyon en route to Rest Spring and the summit, there are ammonites, graptolites and crinoids in the limestone layers above the tan layers in the north wall. Remember that fossils may NOT be removed from the national park. At the summit (at our last visit in 2007 anyhow), there is a remote seismic sensing station and a continuous GPS remote station as well.
Location/Access: (36o 33.241’N, 117o 29.948’W) Hunter Mountain can be reached from the Ubehebe area via 37 miles of gravel road or it can be accessed from CA 190 via 20 miles of semi-paved and gravel road. The route in from CA 190 is far easier and in winter may be the only route as the north slopes are often covered in snow. The location coordinates given above are just east of the summit coming in from South Pass (CM7) and is a good camp/picnic/rest spot.
Best Time: Any time, all year.
Geology: The broad summit of Hunter Mountain is probably an uplifted late Neogene erosion surface cut into the Jurassic pluton that makes up the mass of the mountain. For details on related surfaces such as this in the trans-Sierra region, please see Jayko (2009). The rolling upland surface is dotted with pinyon-juniper woodland and weathered boulders. While most of the pluton is granitic, there are some rocks from the contact aureole on the northeast side of the pluton which are visually unique leucomonzogabbro. Boulders from this part of the pluton can be found in northern Chicago Valley east of Shoshone. Even allowing for significant fluvial/mudflow transport, much of this current separation must have been accomplished by Neogene extension. Places of interest on the upland area include an old abandoned log cabin located off a side road 5.2 miles from South Pass to the south just east of the western summit and a great view of central Death Valley and the isolated Sand Flat bolson can be seen from a hill at 7.3 miles from South Pass. This is just where the road drops off steeply down to Goldbelt. There is a truly spectacular view of all of the nearby valleys (Racetrack, Ulida and Sand Flats, Hidden Valley) with views of all the surrounding mountains about 5 miles north of the main Hunter Mountain road (see 2nd photo). This spur road is on most maps and takes off just west of the cattle guard where the old National Monument Boundary used to be, which is at the northeast edge of the Hunter Mountain surface. It is a rough 4x4 track. Keep to the right at any junction you come to and walk up the low rise to the north when you get 5 miles in. See Appendix, Map #10.
View Towards Hidden Valley & Racetrack Area from North Edge of Hunter Mountain.
Location/Access: (36o 43.411’N, 117o 31.226’W). The Lost Burro Mine can be reached from Tea Kettle Junction on the Racetrack road by traveling 3.2 miles south through Lost Burro Gap. At the junction where one could go left to Whitecap Mountain, one can go 1.1 miles west (right) up to the Lost Burro Mine. The road is very rough, and requires high clearance and often four-wheel-drive. On our last visit (2006) the road was in pretty good shape.
Best Time: Any time, all year.
Geology: The cyanide dump deposits indicate that this was a gold mine. The one remaining building is rapidly falling into disrepair. Most of the tilted rock is the Lower Mississippian Lost Burro Formation. The Tin Mountain limestone lies above that and the Devonian Hidden Valley dolomite lies below. The Lost Burro Mine was operated in the early 1900’s when most of the gold mines the Death Valley area were active and it was again operated in the 1930’s up to World War II. Only a small amount of gold was extracted from near the contact zone between the limestone and injected Mesozoic plutonics.
Location/Access: (36o 35.881’N, 117o 26.888’W). Goldbelt Spring and its decayed mining camp can be reached by traveling 10.6 miles south from the Lost Burro Mine/Whitecap Mountain Junction. Then at a junction, keep left for 0.2 miles and then at the next junction, keep left again for 0.8 miles to the site. Heading south from the Lost Burro/Whitecap junction, you travel through Hidden Valley and around the west edge of its small playa. The black rocks immediately west at this point are granite (!) covered with a very thick desert varnish. Further on, you will travel through Ulida Flat with numerous small roads to abandoned mines in the area. Just before you get to the first junction to Goldbelt, there is a small road which leads you the back way to the Quakenbush mine or to the vicinity of Sand Flat. Unfortunately, there is no road all the way to Sand Flat. At the last junction is the Calmet Talc Mine, one of many in the area. High clearance is all that is needed if coming from the north. The road up to Hunter Mountain from here is steep, rocky, narrow, and often covered with snow in winter. It is about 3.7 miles to the Hunter Mountain plateau. Just keep left at every junction on your way out.
Best Time: Any time but winter may be cold and snow may block access to Hunter Mountain. Summer is actually quite pleasant up here.
Geology: There are only flattened buildings now left when only a few years ago there were several. As this is the only reliable spring in the area, it was used by local miners (mostly talc and chrysotile asbestos) as a base camp. None of the local mines was particularly productive and none were major operations. According to Fife (1984), the chrysotile occurs just north of Goldbelt on the east side of Ulida Flat (there’s a small road to this deposit) in a zone of serpentinized dolomite which was altered in contact with quartz monzonite, probably of the Hunter Mountain Pluton. See Appendix, Map #10.
Location/Access: (36o 31.623’N, 117o 32.795’W). South Pass can be most easily reached by driving 15.2 miles north of CA 190 on the Saline Valley Road. The first 8 miles is paved but deteriorating. At the 8 mile mark in Santa Rosa Flat, among the Joshua Trees, there is a junction. Keep right for the remaining 7.2 miles. From this point on you are traveling through Pliocene basalt and just before the site, you enter the Jurassic Hunter Mountain Batholith. South Pass is also a junction where one can go north into the Saline Valley or continue east up to Hunter Mountain.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year but summer may give you a hazy view to the south (see photo).
Geology: The Hunter Mountain-Panamint Valley Fault Zone passes through here and has accommodated about 2.4mm/yr of lateral motion within the Eastern California Shear Zone (LaFemina, et. Al., 2005). [See Site FN1]. You will notice immediately south that the granitic rock is highly fractured due to motion along the fault. Note the mud and debris flow deposits just up the road to Hunter Mountain. There is also a great view down to the Panamint Dunes below.
One needs to be in a particular mood to visit the Saline Valley. The access is long, often rough, sometimes washed out by flash floods and the best route in from the north is often blocked by winter snow. Summer temperatures on the valley floor can be nearly as brutal as Death Valley itself. The road in from the north is usually the easiest. Waucoba Spring lies about 16 miles south of the paved Eureka Valley Road and Warm Spring is an additional 24 miles south and over slightly worse gravel. If coming from the south, Warm Spring is about 36 miles north of the Hunter Mountain road and the route is often severely washboarded. Waucoba Spring lies an additional 24 miles north of Warm Spring. One can also access the valley via Steele Pass from Eureka Valley or down a road from the Racetrack Valley. Both of these latter routes require a narrow wheel base, short vehicle and low range four-wheel-drive. But after all the work, these spots are definitely worth a visit. If you wish to view the valley without actually driving down to it, I recommend a visit to stop SV4, Saline Valley View, a relatively easy drive north from CA 190.
Location/Access: (37o 00.168’N, 117o 56.554’W). These coordinates mark the junction of the barricaded short road to Waucoba Spring on the main Saline Valley road where it exits the canyon coming from the north. Access is definitely best from the north. From Big Pine and US 395, head east on CA 168 to the Eureka-Death Valley Road (which is well marked) and continue up the hill until you reach the Saline Valley road. Head south, downhill for about 7 miles and you will reach the National Park boundary. An additional mile will bring you to an abandoned mine camp and then the road climbs over a summit and then down to the mouth of the canyon and the Waucoba Spring area. A vehicle with moderate clearance is adequate if coming from the north. Coming from the south is a bit rougher and high clearance would be better.
Best Time: Any time in fall or spring. Summer can be hot and the road may be blocked by snow in winter.
Geology: This is the type locality of the Waucoban or lower Cambrian for North America. The photo was taken about 0.4 miles further south along the main road from the location cited above. It is looking east at the various members of the lower Cambrian Poleta Formation. The ridge to the far left is part of the Campito formation, the lowest formation of the Cambrian as mapped by Nelson (1971). This site is most famous for its preservation of the fossil record of the early Cambrian. This area preserves the Cambrian bloom wherein the sparse simple fossils of the Precambrian are relatively rapidly replaced by the complex variety of fossils from the lower Cambrian. Here occur archeocyatha, brachiopods, trilobites and many others (Seiple, 1984). There is a lot of data available on this site on the internet. The best place to see these rocks is on the east side of the road from the coordinates above to about a half-mile south. Further south, along the west side of the road, the section is folded and faulted but the rocks themselves are less covered by vegetation. Fossils may NOT be removed from the national park.
Location/Access: (36o 48.353’N, 117o 46.420’W). If coming from Waucoba Spring, continue south along the Saline Valley road for 17 miles. Turn east and travel 6.7 miles to the spring. If coming from the south, which would be required in winter and would be more direct from CA 190, turn north at South Pass (CM7) and head down the canyon. The first five miles, one is traveling down the canyon along the Hunter Mountain fault zone and crushed granitic rock is obvious at many places. For the next nine miles, the road is descending a broad bajada which is often very rocky. At about the 10-mile point, there is a large pile of rocks denoting the back road up to the Racetrack. At 21 miles into the ordeal, one sees the abandoned tramway that was once used to haul salt up and over the Inyo Mountains to the Owens Valley. The economic viability of this activity has always escaped us. At 29.7 miles, turn right and travel the 6.7 miles to the spring.
Best Time: Any time of day but avoid summer.
Geology: That there is a warm spring here is not surprising as you can see the obvious Neogene and Pleistocene basalt outcrops both just north and south of the spring area. Also, you will notice a chain of smaller springs heading south from the main developed spring. This is the trace of a fault zone. Mase, et. Al. (1979) report that the average heat flow in the area is consistent with heat flows from surrounding areas of the Great Basin. Thus one must conclude the fault is the dominant cause for the location of the warm spring. According to the previous reference, the spring discharges about 20 liters per minute at an average temperature of 40oC. Most of the white spring deposits in the immediate vicinity are calcite. Since much of the surrounding mountains contain limestone, circulating groundwater with dissolved calcite is not surprising. Most of the mountains surrounding the valley are highly folded Paleozoic sedimentary rocks and some Jurassic plutonic rocks. A second spring lies about 1/2 mile up the Steele Pass road. Restoration at Warm Spring has been remarkably slow considering it has been in the national park since 1994.
Location/Access: (36o 55.237' N; 117o 40.74`1W) The photo was taken at the coordinates listed which is about 10 miles up the Steele Pass road north of Warm Spring. The view can be seen from just past 8 miles from the spring to about this point. This is a very rough road and requires high clearance four-wheel-drive. One can also access the area from the Eureka Valley Dunes area via Steele Pass but this is an even rougher road that requires a narrow vehicle to navigate the narrow spot just beyond the debris flow (FN7). The total distance from the Eureka dunes to this viewpoint would be about 18.6 miles. This view is about 5 miles south of the Steele Pass/Marble Bath area..
Best Time: Late afternoon in Fall or Spring. Avoid summer as this is one of the most remote areas in the Death Valley region.
Geology: There is an obvious turtleback detachment surface on the left which shows down-to-the-northwest movement (which is typical in the Death Valley region) and an incredible overturned fold on the mountainside in the right distance. The rocks in the footwall of the detachment are the Silurian-Devonian Hidden Valley Dolomite and the Devonian Lost Burro formation, farther south the footwall is composed of Mississippian Rest Spring shale and Jurassic Hunter Mountain plutonic rocks (Burchfiel, 1969; Streitz and Stinson, 1974; Strand, 1967). The overfold is within the Pennsylvanian Keeler Canyon formation and can be clearly seen on cross section DD' of Burchfiel (1969). This deformation probably took place during the Sonoma Orogeny. Some of the smaller thrusts mapped on this reference may indeed be detachment surfaces, especially those that nearly parallel the main detachment surface visible in the photograph.
Turtleback detachment surface & over-fold
Location/Access: (36o 34.488' N, 117o 39.913' W) This spectacular view is about 5 miles northeast of the main Lee Flat Road. Access is best from CA 190 via the Saline Valley Road and then the Lee Flat Road. From Highway 190, go north 8.2 miles to the junction of the Saline Valley and Lee Flat roads. Keep left on the Lee Flat Road for 3.5 miles. There is a small road to the right, go past it for another 1/10 of a mile and turn right on this second road. Continue 3.3 miles past a faint junction to the right (may be washed out). Keep left for another 2/10 of a mile to another road to the right. Keep left again and foloow the main track for another 1.4 miles and then walk up the low ridge to the right.
Best Time: Mid-day all year but summer may be hazy.
Geology: This is a VERY impressive view up the length of the Saline Valley to the west, one can get a glimpse of the Inyo Range and its impressive sequence of Paleozoic sediments. But the view to the east is one of my favorites. You get a glimpse of the Racetrack playa, the Hunter Mountain pluton and fault zone, basalt volcanics and the folding and faulting in the small ranges between this location and the main ridges of the Cottonwood Mountains.
Racetrack Valley from Saline Valley View
Sites FN1-7 can be reached off the main road between Big Pine, California and the Ubehebe Crater area. Most of the northern portion of this route is paved and only rarely blocked by snow. Thus coming in from Big Pine is easier. The road north from the Ubehebe area is well graded but long and often has serious washboards. Also, much of the side route to the Eureka Dunes is often very washboardy. Most of the features relate to neotectonics and geomorphology.
Location/Access: (37o 11.277’N, 117o 33.155’W) Big Sand Spring is located just east of the main Big Pine road 15.0 miles north of the Ubehebe Crater Road. There is a small dirt access road that leads to the spring (0.3 miles to the east).
Best Time: Any time, all year.
Geology: Big Sand Spring was a cattle watering hole until this area was included within Death Valley National Park in 1994. As such, it suffered a bit of environmental degradation but is slowly returning to its natural state. The spring rises along the trace of the main Death Valley-Furnace Creek fault zone and the low hills that parallel the main road along this part of northern Death Valley are pressure ridges that trend about 15o west of the main strike of the fault. Small scarps near here cut Pleistocene deposits but have been eroded implying that movement has been Quaternary (Brogan, et. Al., 1991). The northern Death Valley-Furnace Creek fault zone moves right laterally approximately 4.2mm/yr, the Hunter Mountain-Panamint Valley fault zone moves about 2.4mm/yr (see site CM7 above), and the Owens Valley fault zone moves about 4.0 mm/yr thus the entire Southeastern California shear zone moves about 10.6 mm/yr in the central and northern Death Valley region (LaFemina, et. Al., 2005). Hussein gives a rate of 12mm/yr for the Death Valley Fault zone with 10mm/yr extension (Hussein, 2007). Klinger and Sarna-Wojcicki (2001b) cite movements in this portion of the fault zone as about 2-9mm/yr depending on the site. There are other pressure ridges along the fault zone that continue south for about a mile to Little Sand Spring and further south along the fault zone near Ubehebe Crater and the Mesquite Spring campground there are many more including one that offsets a stream channel by more than 400m (Klinger and Sarna-Wojcicki, 2001). You are now near the farthest north point within Death Valley proper. The main road north of here cuts up and over the Last Chance Range and then into Eureka Valley and a less traveled road goes northeast out through Tule Canyon to Nevada. The fault zone continues north out of the park into the Cucomongo canyon area where the fault has created some dramatic geologic relationships. This area can be reached northeastward out of Eureka Valley if the road is not washed out. See Appendix, Map #14.
Location/Access: (37o 12.704’N; 117o 41.450’W) The Crater Mine is directly on the Big Pine Road 27.9 miles north of the paved Ubehebe Road, 12.9 miles north of Big Sand Spring and 7.3 miles north of Crankshaft Junction. The mine itself lies within a large in-holding almost completely surrounded by national park lands. The GPS coordinates are at the top of the hill along the main road just south of the beginning (or end) of the pavement.
Best Time: Any time, all year.
Geology: The Crater Mine has been mined for sulfur although significant amounts of gypsum and sinter are also present. The source of the sulfur is from hydrothermal alteration related to the vapor phase of a hot spring system feeding up through limestones and dolomites. Most of the bedrock in the immediate area is the Cambrian Bonanza King formation to the east and south with Cambrian Zabriskie quartzite to the west and Mississippian Perdido formation and Rest Spring Shale in fault contact in between. These relationships are dramatic as you continue north down the fault controlled Hanging Rock Canyon. There is a pull-out at 1.6 miles north of the summit. The outcrops are nearly all related to fault zones (Taylor and Joseph, 1993). This area may have been mineralized twice: Once during the Cretaceous intrusive episode and then again in the Neogene extensional time frame. See page 34 of Taylor and Joseph (1993) for a good geologic cartoon of the geology of the site. This reference also has a good provisional geologic map. See Appendix, Map #14.
Location/Access: (37o 11.600’N; 117o 42.649’W) The viewpoint lies a very short distance southwest of the mine. The turnoff is just before the end of the pavement (0.2 miles). Turn south off the pavement and then quickly (0.1 miles) to the right on a dirt track climbing the shoulder of the small ridge. After you cross the rise, the road turns left and travels up a wash for 1.0 miles. Keep to the left when choices in route appear. At a total distance from the pavement of 1.4 miles you will be on a ridge line with the best view of the Eureka Dunes (site FN4). At a total distance of 1.7 miles you will be at the end of the road. Hike about 1/3 mile along the jagged ridgeline to a high point at the GPS coordinates to get the best overall view of the valley.
Best Time: Morning, all year.
Geology: The road to the overlook area crosses several faults within the Mississippian Rest Spring and Perdido formations. Below lies the Eureka Valley with its dunes (Site FN4) . The west side of the valley is composed of many rocks including many different Jurassic plutonic rocks. The Last Chance Range, upon which you are standing, is composed of highly faulted and folded Paleozoic sedimentary rocks. The Eureka Valley itself is an entirely enclosed basin much like the Saline Valley to the southwest and the Deep Springs Valley to the northwest. These bolsons have probably been formed by detachment or listric style faulting. This region may be topographically and structurally (but not climatically) like Neogene age Death Valley. The view to south past the dunes reveals a good debris flow deposit and mountainsides of the Cambrian Bonanza King formation. To the southwest lies the Pliocene basalt flows that separate the Eureka from the Saline Valleys. One can also see Mt. Whitney in the high Sierras beyond. To the west, beyond the Inyo Range, one can see the Striped Mountain roof pendant in the Sierras above Big Pine. To the northwest lie the high peaks of the White Mountains and then to the east all of the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks mentioned above. The rocks at the viewpoint are the Cambrian Zabriskie Quartzite. In 2007, there was a continuous GPS monitor station on the crest. See Appendix, Map #14.
Location/Access: (37o 06.741’N, 117o 40.858’W) The Eureka Dunes can be reached by a side road heading south 11 miles from the Big Pine Road. The road in from Big Pine is paved until it reaches the valley floor whereupon it becomes gravel. The main gravel road is usually in excellent shape but the side route down to the dunes often has severe washboards.
Best Time: Afternoon, all year.
Geology: The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are the highest in the state at about 676 feet (Berkstresser, 1974). The dunes are either longitudinal or transverse as can be seen from higher vantage points such as near Site FN3. They have characteristics of both types. The sand is mostly derived from local washes such as those draining down from the granitic rocks to the west. The northerly winds then blow the sand south towards the dunes. As the wind rises over the mountains, it lifts off the ground and looses its saltating ability and the sand is dropped and dunes form. These dunes are also “booming sands”. That is, under proper circumstances, they make noise. Although the Kelso Dunes south of Death Valley and Sand Mountain near Fallon, Nevada produce better noise, one can get the dunes to make the vibrating booming noise here at Eureka Dunes by climbing the highest dune and then jumping down the northwest face and causing a sand cascade. Booming sands are produced when the sand grains are all about the same size (about .7mm), polished and pitted and made of quartz. The resulting vibration of one grain against another produces the sound. On these dunes, since the sound is not too obvious, it will help if there is no wind and you listen closely as you start a cascade near the top. See Appendix, Map #14.
Location/Access: (37o 20.930’N; 117o 46.862’W) This view down the strike of the northern Death Valley Fault zone can be reached from the Eureka Valley by traveling 7.8 miles northeast from the main Death Valley-Big Pine Road on the Eureka Valley Road to the Cucomongo Wash junction. Then go 1.4 miles north towards Fish Lake Valley, stop and look behind you (south) up Cucomongo Wash. This is also accessible from the north by traveling 36 miles east from Big Pine on CA 168 to the Mono County line and then going 11.4 miles south on a very good gravel road to this point.
Best Time: Early afternoon, all year.
Geology: The is the best place to view the northern Death Valley Fault zone (NDVFZ) as you are looking directly down a strike canyon and there are numerous shutter ridges and severely eroded rocks within the fault zone. Traveling up Cucomongo Wash about a half mile from the junction (to about 37o 20.490’N; 117o 45.602W) will put you close to many ridges and crush zones within the NDVFZ. The rocks on the east side of the fault zone are the Jurassic Bear Creek quartz monzonite pluton and the rocks on the west are a complex of Cambrian formations (Bonanza King, Polito, Harkless and Saline Valley) (Joseph & Taylor, 1987, Plate 1A). Offset rates along this portion of the fault zone ( about 3 mm/yr) are less than slip rates (4 to 5 mm/yr) farther south (Frankel, et. al., 2007).
Location/Access: (37o 21.276’N; 117o 47.317’W). This site is 0.4 miles north of the previous site and is an obvious thrust fault on the west cliff along the road.
Best Time: Morning.
Geology: Is this a western limit of the Roberts Mountain thrust? It certainly is impressive to look at. According to Joseph and Taylor (1987), the rocks above the thrust are Cambrian Bonanza King and the rocks below are the older Cambrian Polito formation. This makes little structural sense to us. However, remember that the Amargosa and Tucki Mountain detachment systems were once thought of as thrusts. Considering the current tectonics of the area and the structural relations, this fault may be mis-mapped.
O1. Devil’s Hole
Location/Access: (36o 25.509’N; 116o 17.485’W) Devil’s Hole is located within a separate unit of Death Valley National Park in Nevada just east of the California state line northeast of Death Valley junction. To get there from Furnace Creek, go east on CA 190 30 miles to Death Valley Junction (with CA 127).Turn south on CA 127 for 0.1 miles and then turn east on State Line Road. After 7.1 miles, turn left (north) on a gravel road. Go 4.3 miles and then turn right and go another 1.3 miles. Devil’s Hole lies against the base of the small hill and is well marked and fenced in.
Best Time: Anytime, all year.
Geology: Devil’s Hole is one of the more famous sites within Death Valley National Park, especially among environmentalists. Devil’s Hole is a solution pit within the Cambrian Bonanza King limestone (Cornwall, 1972; this is a good geologic map of the Nevada sections of Death Valley National Park). The hole itself is about 70 feet long and 35 feet wide. The water surface is about 50 feet down and the depth to the bottom of the cave is at least 365 feet. The location of the hole seems structurally controlled by a fault that strikes about N 40o E and is nearly vertical (Winograd and Thordarson, 1975). The water level fluctuates with precipitation, evaporation, barometric pressure, tidal forces and pumping from farms to the northwest (Dudley and Larson, 1976). This concern for the water levels was triggered in the 1970’s by a concern for the continued viability of the Cyprinodon diabolis, the species of pupfish that lives in this most restrictive environment. As of 2006, the fish are perilously close to extinction despite stabilized water levels. After nearby Yucca Mountain was proposed for a major nuclear waste site, Devil’s Hole became even more significant as groundwater contamination from such a waste disposal site might leak through to here and other significant groundwater resources throughout the Death Valley region. There have been innumerable research papers on the potential effect of this activity. Nearby, Point of Rock Spring and Crystal Reservoir are also worth a visit. There has been a great deal of reclamation of this area (especially the removal of non-native vegetation) as Devil’s Hole is now surrounded by the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. As a result, natural groundwater flow is returning to the area, especially at Point of Rocks Spring.
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[Locations: a = 35/58.217N-116/16.557W; b = 35/58.187N-116/16.558W]
DEATH VALLEY AREA SATELLITE SITE MAP
These geologic maps have been taken from Workman, et. Al. (2002). This map covers the eastern 2/3 of Death Valley National Park and the selected excerpts below cover a majority of the locations discussed in this website.
Description of Map Units
Qc Holocene unweathered channel alluvium.
Qp Holocene playa deposits.
Qay Holocene to latest Pleistocene (?) alluvium.
Qayf Holocene to latest Pleistocene (?) fine grained alluvium mostly on alluvial plains.
Qayfe Evaporite crusts over Qayf.
Qayo Intermediate age alluvium (mid-Holocene to latest Pleistocene?).
Qe Holocene to mid-Pleistocene eolian deposits of dunes and sheets.
Qau Holocene to Pleistocene undifferentiated alluvium.
QTau Holocene to latest Neogene undifferentiated alluvium.
QTd Holocene to latest Neogene groundwater deposits.
QTls Holocene to late Neogene landslide deposits.
QTsf Pleistocene to late Neogene alluvial, paludal or lacustrine sediments.
Qao Late to mid-Pleistocene alluvium with distinct varnish.
Qlc Late to mid-Pleistocene lacustrine deposits.
QTa Mid-Pleistocene to late Neogene strongly weathered alluvium.
Qa Pleistocene intermediate lava flows and interbedded pyroclastics and sediments.
Qb Holocene to Pleistocene basalt flows.
Qtb Pleistocene to Miocene basalt flows.
Tb Pliocene to Miocene basalt flows.
Tv Pliocene to Oligocene undivided volcanic rocks.
Tr Pliocene to Oligocene felsic lava flows and tuffs.
Ta4 Pliocene and Miocene intermediate flows and breccia (5-17 Ma).
Tt4 Pliocene and Miocene ash flow and air fall tuffs (5-17 Ma).
Tvg Miocene Greenwater volcanics, rhyodacite flows and tuffs (54.-6.0 Ma).
Tar Miocene intermediate to felsic flows and tuffs along the east side of DV (8-12 Ma).
Tas Intermediate to felsic flows in southern DV area (11-14 Ma).
Tst Miocene Stonewall Flat tuff east of DV (9.15-9.4 Ma).
Tmt Miocene Timber Mountain ash flow tuffs (11.4-11.6 Ma).
Tpt Miocene Paintbrush tuffs (12.7-12.8 Ma).
Tw Miocene intermediate flows and breccias.
Tct Miocene Crater Flat tuffs (13.1-13.5 Ma).
Tbt Miocene Belted Range tuff (13.5-13.85 Ma).
Tlt Miocene Lithic Ridge tuffs and related felsic rocks (14.0-14.3 Ma).
Tqv Miocene Quartz Mountain felsic flows and tuffs (14.2-14.9 Ma).
Tuv Miocene felsic lava flows east of DV (14.9-16 Ma)
Tkv Miocene lava flows of the Belted Range east of DV
Ta3 Miocene to Oligocene intermediate lava flows northeast of DV (19-26 Ma).
Tt3 Miocene to Oligocene ash flow and air fall felsic tuffs east of DV (18-27 Ma).
Ta2 Oligocene intermediate lava flows (27-32 Ma).
Tt2 Oligocene ash flow and air fall tuffs east of DV (27-32 Ma).
Tgy Miocene granitic rocks (8.5-12.5 Ma).
Tai Miocene to Oligocene intermediate intrusive rocks, especially south and west (12.5 Ma).
Tws Miocene Willow Spring gabbro & diorite (11.6 Ma).
Tgo Miocene (?) to Oligocene granitic rocks northeast of DV.
TKi Oligocene to Cretaceous intermediate intrusive rocks.
TKd Oligocene to Cretaceous mafic intrusive rocks north of DV.
TTRg Paleogene (?) to Triassic granitic rocks.
JTRqm Early Jurassic to late Triassic quartz monzonite (180-220 Ma).
Sedimentary and Metamorphic Rocks
Ts Pliocene to Eocene sedimentary rocks, undivided.
Ts4 Pliocene and Miocene sedimentary rocks including the Funeral and Furnace Creek formations (5-17 Ma).
Tls Miocene to Oligocene landslide and mega breccia deposits.
Ts3 Miocene to Oligocene sedimentary rocks younger than the Titus Canyon formation (18-26 Ma).
Tso Miocene to Eocene (?) sedimentary rocks including the Titus Canyon formation.
Ts1 Eocene and Paleocene sedimentary rocks east of DV.
Mzsv Mesozoic undivided sedimentary and volcanic rocks including the Butte Valley formation.
Klw Cretaceous sedimentary rocks east of DV.
Ja Jurassic Aztec sandstone east and southeast of DV.
TRc Triassic Chinle formation east and southeast of DV.
TRm Triassic Moenkopi formation east and south east of DV.
Pzu Undivided Paleozoic sedimentary rocks in the Cottonwood and Grapevine Mountains.
Pkt Permian Kaibab and Toroweap formations east of DV.
Pr Permian redbeds east of DV.
Pov Permian Owens Valley Group, includes Darwin Canyon formation in the Panamint and Cottonwood Mountains and north.
PSu Permian to Silurian sedimentary rocks, undivided.
PPPMb Permian and Pennsylvanian Bird Spring formation east of DV.
PPPt Permian and Pennsylvanian Tippipah limestone east of DV.
PPPkc Permian to Pennsylvanian Keeler Canyon formation.
Mu Undivided Mississippian sedimentary rocks, includes Rest Spring shale, Perdido group, Tin Mountain limestone.
Msc Mississippian Scotty Wash shale and Chainman shale east of DV.
Mm Mississippian Monte Cristo group just east of DV.
MDe Mississippian to Devonian Eleana formation east of DV.
Mj Mississippian Joana limestone east of DV.
MDu Mississippian to Devonian undivided sedimentary rocks just east of DV.
Dlb Devonian Lost Burro formation
Dsf Devonian slope facies carbonate rocks just east of DV.
Ds Devonian Simonson dolomite correlates to Nevada formation just east of DV.
DSu Devonian and Silurian undivided sedimentary rocks east of DV.
to Cambrian Nopah formation and Mountain Springs formation.
DSlm Devonian to Silurian Lone Mountain dolomite.
DShv Devonian to Silurian Hidden Valley dolomite.
Sr Silurian Roberts Mountain formation.
Opa Ordovician Palmetto formation north of DV.
Ordovician and Cambrian undivided sedimentary rocks includes next three
Oee Ordovician Ely Springs dolomite and Eureka quartzite.
Oes Ordovician Ely Springs dolomite.
Oe Ordovician Eureka quartzite.
Ordovician and Cambrian Pogonip group and Nopah formation.
Ordovician and Cambrian Pogonip group.
Cambrian Emigrant formation north of
Cambrian undivided sedimentary rocks,
includes all the Cambrian formations below as well as others especially in the
Cambrian Nopah and Bonanza
Cambrian Nopah formation.
Cambrian Nopah, Bonanza King and
Cambrian Bonanza King formation.
Cambrian Carrara formation.
Cambrian Mule Spring limestone north of
Cambrian Harkless formation north of DV.
Cambrian Zabriskie quartzite.
Cambrian to Proterozoic Wood Canyon
formation and Stirling quartzite undivided.
Cambrian to Proterozoic Wood Canyon formation.
Cambrian Poleta formation
especially north of DV.
Cambrian Campito formation,
Cambrian to late Proterozoic Campito formation, Andrews Mountain member.
Zs Proterozoic Stirling quartzite.
Zj Proterozoic Johnnie formation and Noonday dolomite.
ZYp Proterozoic Pahrump group including the Kingston Peak, Beck Spring and Crystal Spring formations.
Xmi Early Proterozoic metamorphic and igneous rocks.
Geologic Map #1; Saratoga Springs and Dumont Dunes Area
Geologic Map #2. Owlshead Mountains
Geologic Map #3. Tecopa Area
Geologic Map #4. Ashford Mill Area
Geologic Map #5. Butte Valley & Warm Springs Canyon
Geologic Map #6. Mormon Point and Gold Valley
Geologic Map #7. Badwater & Dante's View
Geologic Map #8. Furnace Creek Wash
Geologic Map #9. Keane Wonder Mine Area
Geologic Map #10. Cottonwood Canyon to Racetrack Valley
Geologic Map #11. Northern Panamint Mountains
Geologic Map #12. Titus Canyon Area
Geologic Map #13. Southeast of Ubehebe Crater.
Geologic Map #14. Eastern Eureka Valley and Northern Death Valley.
Geologic Map #15. Stovepipe Wells Area.