Keeping with the theme of “art” (as in Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette of the day before), we opted to hike the Mosaic Canyon Trail. The surrounds on this hike are quite stunning. Mosaic Canyon “Breccia” (the Italian word meaning “fragments”) are rock formations in which tiny broken shards, the jagged offspring of an assortment of parent rocks, have been imbedded in the canyon walls and floor over the eons and this amalgamation has been fused by nature’s superglue. The mosaic conglomerates and smooth marbleized rocks are quite the spectacular duo and yet another example of the geological variability and complexity of Death Valley National Park (DVNP).
Mosaics can be found through history ranging from todays pixelated computer “mosaic” images and on back to the famous mosaics of the Byzantine Empire and the religious images in elephantine Roman Catholic Cathedrals. They are awe inspiring but, honestly, I gravitate much more towards these modern word mosaics such as those created in the pothole images in midst of urban road decay by Jim Bachor in such cities as Chicago, New York, ND Washington D.C. or the work of Isaiah Zagar who brings mosaic art to store fronts and building walls on the streets of his hometown of Philadelphia. Like the walls and bed of Mosaic Canyon where the mosaics can be walked on and touched, these modern world mosaics are much more akin to the natural world.
After driving through a “blinding” dust storm getting to the trailhead, this hike did not disappoint. This trail should never be about a race to the finish, an out-and-back, but be enjoyed and appreciated for the beauty that surrounds and the geological museum that it is. First, the artful striations and variegated veins in the rock and the variety of geometrics, textures, and multitude of colors are evidence early upon approaching the canyon and will delight an observant wanderer. Secondly, once you enter the canyon the marble walls of Noonday Dolomite, at points, make for an accordion like passageway, having been expanded and contracted by the force of erosion. This resulted in a narrowing and widening of the canyon walls and a slick rock experience for you to enjoy and is another example of Mother natures incredible handiwork.
After entering the canyon via a rocky wash, we are greeted almost immediately by these mosaic conglomerates and smooth marbleized walls and slick chutes in this winding narrows. Mosaic Canyon has been/is the site of frequent flash floods polishing the walls smooth, having been scoured often by debris-laden flood water. I found this section quit stunning.
Next we encounter a slick marble slab residing at an angle that was just steep enough and slick enough to disallow one walking straight up, thus needing to scramble by finding minute hand and food holds to negotiate it.The flip side of this was that upon the return trip one can slide right down it.
Soon the canyon opened into a large wash marking the end of the lower canyon and a very gradual uphill followed as we wound our way through a massive gravelly wash with a butte rising in the middle of it. As there was no specific defined trail, we gravitated towards the edges and walls viewing many of the rock formations at close range. These formations were beauteous…many of deeply rich color, streaked, opalescent, crystalline conglomerates. Eventually the massive wash narrowed again until we reached a boulder jam at approximately 1.3 mi into the canyon. This jam marked the end of the hike for me (and many other trekkers) as hiking further up canyon involved significant scrambling to get beyond the jam. The return trip was equally enjoyable marveling at the geology of the area, rambling between towering, sun-splashed walls.
Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
We did not anticipate that our next adventure would be quite the change of pace going from the desert canyon warmth to snow on the mountains. Leaving Mosaic Canyon, we stopped in Stovepipe Wells before heading up to the Charcoal Kilns. A delightful discovery was that the General Store there had much better merchandise than at the Furnace Creek General Store. So I decided to be generous with myself and get a hoodie and a T. Now the downside was that this purchase set off a potential fraud alert by my bank and when I tried to purchase gas later the card was refused. Normally this would not be a big deal but we were in an area where there is no cell service so to get it removed and be able to get gas. Same thing happened to Tasia’s card as she was also generous earlier with herself. So we had to find a wi-fi connection. That is one kind of adventure I could do without. The shop keeper did share that it happens quite frequently there!
But that definitely was not the real adventure. We headed west on Highway 190 (33.56 miles from Furnace Creek) to Emigrant Canyon Road adding another 28.2 miles to Wildrose and the Charcoal Kilns. The drive itself was quite exciting, though I am sure some might not consider it so. The road was described as winding “past steep grassy slopes and low rocky cliffs, across the Harrisburg Flats, climbing to a high point of 5,318 feet at the summit.” Once there, the sign stating that this would be a “rough, narrow, winding road and vehicles longer than 25 feet not allowed” should have been a clue about the true personality of this road. It would be more realistic to state that the road is a challenge to drive. It is a narrow two lane road which has no shoulders. The higher we got the more the road slithered like a snake, inclined and declined, was rockingly uneven with steep drop-offs, tight turns, very few guardrails, hairpin turns and blind corners. I was quite relieved that at the hair raising spots, we met no traffic. Needless to say I did not get any pictures of this driving adventure. There are also sections where the landscape is much more open with views over wide plains and of the mountains on both sides of this valley.
To add one more element of suspense there were signs warning about burros on the road. It seems that the wild invasive burros frequenting the area are remnants of the burros brought in by early prospectors. I would like to think perhaps they are the distant cousins of the “20 mule team” burros but the sad part is that they are destructive to the fragile desert ecosystem and harm native species.
Driving towards Wildrose we could see that there appeared to be snow up on the mountain peaks. As the road climbed to a higher altitude the surrounding landscape became much different. What an anomaly when starting out in the Valley that brags about the hottest temps on record to be heading toward snowy peaks. Soon we found ourselves in a Pinyon Pine and Juniper forest as we arrived at the kilns. The welcoming committee served gusting wind, snow and an ambient temperature of 33 degrees. What was being considered was hiking towards Telescope peak was now NOT being considered. I was by no means dressed cozily enough to consider that option as I have on several occasions while hiking flirted with hypothermia and said “no thank you very much. Not on my dance card today! “
So, it was to be a short tour of the kilns and then head back down . These Charcoal Kilns are ten beehive shaped masonry structures about 25 feet high. I found them strange enough looking that I am surprised that they did not make a guest appearance in a Star Wars Episodes as so many other spots in DVNP have. These kilns produced a source of fuel (charcoal) suitable for use in two smelters near the lead-silver mines 25 miles distant. Charcoal was transported to the smelters by jackass pack-trains. I would like to think that the 20 mule team hauling borax in the Mojave desert had flexible working conditions and garnered the occasional trip up to the cool mountain air to transport charcoal. The kilns were giant airtight ovens pyroltizing pine to charcoal. That charcoal is not the modern briquette used in our “old fashioned barbecue grills” but a much more porous form of carbon prepared by charring wood in a kiln from which air is extruded. In the 19th century and earlier, charcoal was used for a furnace fuel because it burned with the greater heat that was needed for the refining of ores. Guess back then environmental pollution wasn’t an issue. Now rarely is it fuel for either homes or barbecue grills which now often rely on natural gas. No longer is your char-grilled steak charred by charcoal.
Thinking about leaving, I eagerly eyed the road that would take us up to Mahogany Fat Campground at 8200 ft. The sign indicated that this dirt road access needed high-clearance vehicles, 4×4 required. Not wanting to miss what would be most likely great views, I decided that my all wheel drive Crosstrek would love the challenge. Tasia was a bit skeptical but she knew enough that once my mind is set on a destination, I was unlikely to alter course. I reassured her that we could always turn round need be. My hunch paid off and though it was a bit rutty, muddy, rocky and snowy we made it up and back down and didn’t bottom out or rip up the undercarriage. We only slithered a bit. And we were rewarded with exceptional views.
On our final morning in DVNP before we bade farewell, we cruised the Borax Museum. If you have a keen interest in the Borax Mining Operation in Death Valley in the 1800’s you will be fascinated. Now I am not a big museum fan but cruised the exhibits and of the 66 items I would put on a menu would be the 20 Mule team Wagon Train, Panamint Valley Stage Coaches, Old Dinah… what is most fascinating is seeing what could be accomplished with basically iron and wood and methods we would definitely think of as pre-historic today.
We skipped Zabriskie point at the outset of the trip (saw a very crowed parking lot) but chose it as our farewell stop on our Death valley tour. Probably the most iconic photo shoot spot in Death Valley is from the landing at Zabriskie Point. At 710 feet elevation it provides an elevated vista which affords breathtaking views to gaze, gape, be amazed, wonder, marvel, and be awed by the splendor of the yellow sand brown hills of the badlands below and beyond the salt flats covering the floor of Death Valley. The most prominent feature on this landscape, viewed from Zabriskie Point, is Manly Beacon. This view is so filed with the rich colorful shades of toffee, wheat, honey, caramel , butter, chocolate, almond, baked potato, dijon mustard, baked bread , bitter chocolate, ginger ale, maple syrup, coffee, brown sugar, brownie, cocoa, mocha … Perhaps you think I am in a grocery store as I am describing the vista or even that I am incredibly hungry as I write, so I will spare you any more food images, but hopefully I have aptly described some of the hundreds of shades of rich colors of these eroded hills! They are absolutely gorgeous! The dark, colorful mountains of the Amargosa Range contrast with the hills of the golden badlands below and Manly Beacon; with the cliffs of Red Cathedral; and, with the white mirage-like salt flats beyond.
It seemed to me especially imposing and magnificent (and alien) after hiking the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Trail which skirt this massive structure of manly Beacon. Of keen interest to me, while up there, was pinpointing the spot at the tip of the Badlands Loop Trail where we stood peering up at Zabriskie Point (1st picture below) and viewing the land beyond that I had both laboriously and enjoyably hiked.