Friday, May 24, 2024

Death Valley Adventure - Day 2 - Sidewinder Canyon

[Composed 11/22/2023]

I was excited to complete the first proper hike of our trip: Sidewinder Canyon. The hike, as the name suggests, follows Sidewinder Canyon as it narrows from hundreds of feet wide to being impassable. The hike is an out and back, and sort of unusual for us in that you hike until you can't. There's no overlook to arrive at or loop to complete. What might be our turn-around point might be your snack break before tackling the next obstacle.

After miles of slogging uphill, I announced to Shira that we were near a side trail. She wasn't excited to add a mini-hike, but I was relentless. What we found in this side trail was a magical slot canyon: a sort of natural playground carved from rock that made the long uphill more than worth it. Whatever you do, don't skip the side hikes on Sidewinder canyon.

There is an element of this hike, especially on the way in, that hints at being monotonous. At times, it felt like we were on an endless slog through featureless rock, a sort of brown-tunnel like the green tunnel of AT fame. Because of the desert conditions, there's not only little wildlife, but there's little life in general. Once you get near the end of the hike the terrain gets interesting, and on the way out, you're treated to views of the basin below. However, if you know what to look for, that hike in is anything but bland.

Take this section of canyon wall:

These embedded rocks are a conglomerate rock formation. This scene requires a multi-step recipe to take shape. First, the rocks embedded in the walls needed to form. Then an event, possibly a very violent one, needs to break up and disperse these rocks. Then, the area needs to be covered in sediment and harded into rock. Finally, the rock needs to be worn away revealing the original rocks, not to mention the canyon that we were trekking in. The process surely took millions of years to occur, and is both elementary and mind-bending. This article tries to put this geological pheonomena into perspective:

Just look at this [conglomerate rock]! Just like any good clastic sedimentary rock, it consists of particles of older rock–but with conglomerate, you can easily see those particles. Each of those particles opens a different door to experiencing deep geologic time.

Or consider this large leafy shrub we hiked past. What's the big deal with it?

The big deal is that it's growing in a frigging desolate canyon. How? The good people at /r/whatisthisplant identified this plant as Eucnide urens, aka, Desert Stingbush. As for why it's thriving, here's one guess:

I’m guessing (though it’s only a guess) that what happened here is a combination of two things. One is that [it out competed its neighbors]. The other is that this plant has probably found the best growing spot — the only decent growing spot — in an otherwise inhospitable patch; think of it like the only crack in an otherwise solid asphalt slab.

It might even be creating a good spot, if (for example) it has a really deep taproot that gives it unusual access to water. Maybe this spot was more hospitable in a previous year, and this was one of several plants growing there; it got established and grew a long taproot, which let it persist when the surface water dried up and killed off the other plants.

The fact that it has nasty stingers on its leaves to keep predators and curious hikers at bay, is no doubt also contributing to its success. Sidewinder canyon is filled with wonders like these.

This photo shows the deepest point we hiked into the canyon. I managed to scale a rock face that Shira didn't have quite have my height advantage to pull off.

From here, we reversed course and headed down the canyon. Sections of the trail were filled with rocky scree, so that added an element of difficulty to the downhill hiking. Still, the hike out wasn't too tricky and before we knew it we were at the car and planning the next site we'd explore. This place is awesome! Here's the details of our hike: