Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Death Valley Adventure - Day 2 - Devils Golf Course and Artists Pallet

[Composed 11/22/2023]

After a delightful hike through Sidewinder Canyon we made our way to Devils Golf Course, a site located not far from our hike on the desolate valley floor. The 'course' features salt formations that are truly other-worldly. And to my surprise, other than a sign or two warning of injury, they seem to have no problem letting you wander among the formations.

Shira suggested we get self portraits with the contrasting salt in the foreground and mountains in the distance. I was game and suggested we do this right by mounting our DSLR on the tripod I'd brought along for night sky photography. I don't usually schlep a full sized tripod when we travel, but the dark sky reputation of the area encouraged me to do so. It was at this moment that I realized I had indeed brought the tripod, but managed to forget the baseplate that mounts the camera to it. Nooooooooooooooo!

I stood there in disbelief as I held the camera in one hand, the tripod in the other and had no way to marry the two. Images of a perfect night sky flashed before me, with no way to capture them. I was gutted. Ironically, what landed me in this predicament was preparation. I must have misplaced the baseplate when I did a night-shooting field test to practice for this trip. One thing is for certain: I'll never walk out of the house with a tripod again without triple checking to make sure it has its base plate.

I did regain my composure, and we got the shot we had hoped for:

From the Devils Golf Course we made our way to the last site of the day: Artists Palette. We started exploring the Palette by capturing the scene at the start of Artist Drive as the sun went down. 

The scenes of Artist Pallet did not disappoint, allowing us to capturing classic photos like this one:

While exploring Artist Drive, we came face to face with this unique plant:

This here is Desert Holly. And despite the name, it's unrelated to the local plant bearing the same name:

When early American explorers first traveled through the Southwest, they encountered a plant whose leaf margins formed a series of sharp points. They also noticed some of the plants produced what appeared to be red fruits. These two features resulted in the plant being named holly, “desert holly.” Never mind that the plant did not have deep green glossy leaves and that the red things were flowers, not fruits. The similarities were sufficient for homesick explorers and the common name of desert holly stuck.

To say that desert holly is adapted to live in the harsh Death Valley environment is an understatement. It has a number of impressive tricks up its sleeve, like the ability to change genders:

Another interesting attribute of the desert holly is that it can change its sex depending on the conditions. Desert holly is dimorphic, with separate male and female plants. Producing a good crop of seeds, though, may rob a plant of essential nutrients. The next season, this plant can become a male, and only need to provide pollen, much less of a drain on its resources.

The plant thrives in salty conditions that would be a hard-no for most plants. It does this by not just tolerating salt, but by putting the salt to work:

It takes a substance, salt, that is detrimental to most plant growth and turns it into an asset. Desert holly moves the salt to the tiny hairs on the outside of its leaves, where it helps to reflect excess sunlight, lowering leaf temperature 7.2⁰F.,and reducing transpiration by 14%. Desert holly is the most drought tolerant saltbush in North America.

We pulled off Artists Drive and scrambled up one of the nearby hills to watch as the valley was bathed in darkness and a billion stars made their appearance. Except, this never happened. As luck would have it, the moon was half-full and as it got later in the evening it rose, providing a gentle nightlight that one could almost read by. That was strike two against my night sky photography experiment. My dreams of the perfect star trail photographs or pictures of the milky way would have to wait for another trip.

Mind you, I still propped up my camera and took hundreds of photos of the night sky. I don't know any of them will do the scene justice, but I had to try.

Finally, we slowly wound through Artists Drive and made our way back to our hotel. We were exhausted. While I could have done without the tripod oops, the day had generally been a smashing success. Time to catch some Zzzzzz's and get back out there for day 3!

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: