Friday, July 12, 2024

Death Valley Day 4 - Mosaic Canyon, Mesquite Flat Dunes and Luxurious Las Vegas

[Composed 11/24/2023]

Our hike of Golden Canyon earlier in the day left me with a sense that surely we had just experienced the best Death Valley had to offer. And yet, as we started our hike in Mosaic Canyon, I felt myself once again slipping into that now familiar state of awe.

Mosaic Canyon is located a stone's throw from Stovepipe Wells, a tiny town located in Death Valley. This would be the last area we explored before hitting the road and making our way to Vegas for the last night of our travels.

Mosaic Canyon gets its name from the embedded rock tiles that form a sort of natural mosaic. While this feature is impressive, it's only one of a handful of qualities that make this hike so memorable. There are also polished walls to admire, dry falls to scale, conglomerate rock to ponder, and both narrow and expansive spaces to negotiate. After every hike we've taken in Death Valley, I feel like I want to announce that it's The One. That it's the quintessential Death Valley hike and a must-do. Sure enough, after we finished Mosaic Canyon I was ready to make this same pronouncement.

After the canyon, we drove a short distance to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The dunes are remarkable not just in their appearance, but also for their accessibility. You pull into a parking lot, walk a few yards, and poof, you're transported to another world; perhaps Arrakis or Tatooine.

I'm a firm believer in the photography advice offered by Jim Richardson: If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of better stuff. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is that better stuff. It's hard to take a bad picture when the setting is so effortlessly perfect.

Calling Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Death Valley in general otherworldly isn't just poetic. It's also technically accurate. Time and again, the area has been used by scientists as a test bed for Martian tech.

"It’s a rite of passage for people who work on Mars to find your way out to Death Valley for some reason," he explained. "Whether it’s scientists who work on rocks or whether it’s more on the engineering side or if you’re someone like me who worries about landing things, once you get past those phases, it’s about getting out there and doing hardcore testing to prove to yourself that it will actually work when you land on Mars."
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"Here in Death Valley, we have a unique ability to help understand other worlds," he said. The topography of the below-sea-level basin provides an excellent canvas for researchers, scientists and other groups. "Because it is so hot and so dry, we lack things like vegetation. When you come here, you see that geology exposed. That rocky terrain is in a lot of areas. Because of the volcanic activity here in Death Valley, it can be compared to the surface of Mars."

Here's a video of NASA's Curiosity Rover being tested on Death Valley sand dunes. The video doesn't say which dunes these were, but they could have easily been the ones we played on earlier in the day.

Or consider this enticingly titled paper, The Case for Extant Life on Mars and Its Possible Detection by the Viking Labeled Release Experiment . The experiment was made possible, in part, by Death Valley:

The [Viking labeled release experiment] technique was first developed in 1956 for the rapid detection of microorganisms (Levin et al., 1956) before its selection in 1970 as one of the Viking life-detection experiments. ... Field tests were also made in which working models of the instrument were taken to extreme environments, for example, Antarctica, White Mountain above the timberline, Salton Sea flats, Death Valley sands, all of which responded positively.

It's no surprise that scientists would find their way to Death Valley. Even as a casual observer, you can tell there's much to learn from this unique landscape.

From the dunes, we finally said goodbye to the park and made our way to Las Vegas. We checked into the MGM Signature, a hotel we'd stayed at before. In the past, we liked this hotel because it was located away from the main action, yet had an indoor walkway to the MGM Grand. This gave us effortless access to casino chaos. We also liked that all the rooms were suites and the hotel was non-smoking.

This time, however, after staying at the nebbish accommodations in Furnace Creek, the Signature felt like absolute luxury. I was bummed to be away from the magic of Death Valley, but I could get on board with the 5-star accommodations.