Dawn at the Dunes May 4

Current Location: home in Rocky Point with thunderstorms, sun and rain.  It is good to be home.

dawn at the dunes Escaping the heat isn’t the only reason for rising at dawn when visiting Death Valley.  Reading Galen Rowell’s book, “Mountain Light”, reminds me again and again about that “magic hour” when taking a photo worth remembering is possible.  He said, “I almost never set out to photograph a landscape.  My first thought is always of light”.  In spite of the fact that I am still photographing landscapes, and sometimes photographing in forgettable light because I want to remember where I have been, reading his words has reminded me to at least think of the light more than the “thing” I am trying to photograph.  With that in mind, I set the alarm for 5:30 am, even though I am usually awake by then, I didn’t want to miss the sunrise over the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

dawn at the dunesWe even skipped a morning beverage, running a quick brush through our hair, and putting on shorts and tank tops to fit the 70 plus degrees outside in the thin light.  The dunes are just a mile from where we were camped, so getting there wasn’t an issue.  The parking lot is big, and in the comparative coolness and lack of sunshine, it was OK to let Abby wait for us while we wandered into the dunes.  The hardest part about visiting a National Park is the lack of dog friendly space. There isn’t anyplace at all where a dog can walk except on the hot barren gravel around the parking lots.  Obviously heat is an issue as well, which is part of the reason we didn’t hike much in Death Valley.  We couldn’t leave Abby in the rig because she would bark and we couldn’t take her on the trails because of the rules, and we couldn’t leave her in the car because of the heat.  A problem. But on this sort of cool morning, she was fine, and although we could hear her barking from the distant dunes, there weren’t enough people yet around for it to be a big problem.

dawn at the dunes  The last time Mo and I climbed these dunes in 2004 it was in the middle of the night to the light of a full moon.  Today we read the interpretive signs warning of sidewinders, and wondered if we had even thought of that danger when we hiked out there in the dark.  The sun wasn’t to rise until just after 7, but there were other folks out there who had also read the memo.  Just about every single brochure about Death Valley talks about getting the best photos at dawn and sunset.  We saw more people on the dunes than we had seen anywhere in the park so far, except for the check-in office in Stovepipe Wells.

dawn at the dunes Another delight of early morning dune walking is discovering all the little tracks of the night animals that live in this amazing environment. We found trails of the kangaroo rat and some other interesting little tracks that I never managed to figure out.  At first we thought they were sidewinder trails, but when we saw photos of the real thing, we knew better.  Hiking in the dunes is a bit like walking on a sandy beach, times ten.  I wouldn’t want to spend a long day trying to go anywhere very distant in this sand.  We laughed a lot just trying to get up on a crest so I could wait for the coming light.  We saw a few hardy souls out on the highest dune, all of 140 feet high.

dawn at the dunes Comparatively, the remote Eureka Sand Dunes rise nearly 700′ from their base and the Panamint Dunes rise 340 feet.  We didn’t manage to get to either of these sand dune fields on this trip, but next time around we plan to drive in from Big Pine on a long northern route that will lead us to the Saline Valley and the Eureka Dunes. I can’t quite imagine climbing a 700 foot sand dune, since I didn’t even manage to get out to the 140 foot dune at Mesquite!  Still, the light was wonderful, and watching the shadows shift and change was beautiful.  Our morning was a quiet one, with no wind and a bit of softness to the light from the filtered haze and smoke sifting into the valley from the Southern California fires.

dawn at the dunes When the sun was high enough to flatten out most of the shadows, we made our way back to the car and Abby.  Just west of Stovepipe Wells is a short  road leading 2.5 miles to a beautiful treasure called Mosaic Canyon.  At the head of the canyon is a day use area, and we knew that Abby couldn’t go there, so we hadn’t made it a priority.  With the cool morning light, however, we thought we should at least go look at it.  There were already a couple of rental RV’s parked there, but signs everywhere saying “no camping”.  Mo said go ahead, and she stayed with Abby while I wandered up the canyon trail for a look at the narrows just 1/4 mile distant. 

Mosaic Canyon in early morning I am so glad I did.  I am a hiker of Utah’s slot canyons, and a lover of slickrock.  Instead of sandstone, though, this canyon is a study in metamorphic rock that has been polished and smoothed by wind and water in much the same way as the red sandstones of Utah.  The canyon narrowed nicely, but not so much that it required moving sideways to get through.  Still, it felt magical and I meandered along climbing slickrock here and there in spite of the silly Keen flip flops I had worn to hike the sand dunes.  They didn’t work quite as well on the polished dolomite stone. 

Mosaic Canyon in early morning After my foray into the canyon, we headed back to camp for a nice breakfast and a bit of reading and photo management before our required 11am departure from the campground.  When we walked outside to disconnect and hook up the Tracker, it was breathtakingly hot.  Maybe only in the high 90’s, but at 10:30 in the morning, believe me, that is breathtaking!

Our move was a short 27 miles south to the Furnace Creek Ranch RV Park where we had made a reservation a few days previous.  The national park campground at Furnace Creek now has 21 hookup sites with electricity and water, but the campground was closed on April 16 for repairs.  Furnace Creek Ranch is quite the establishment, with a gift shop, a general store, a post office, a borax museum, a golf course, palm trees, grass, and water.  And yes, a swimming pool.

By the time we were settled into our site, it was 102 degrees, and the walk to the pool was just long enough to make that water feel fantastic.  The pool at Furnace Creek is fabulous, fed by warm spring water, crystalline and fresh and clear.  Most of the chaises were taken, but we found one to share because I had no desire to come out of the water at all.  It was a perfect way to end a hot afternoon in the hottest place on the planet.  A tidbit: It used to be thought that there was a site in Libya hotter than Death Valley, but it was recently determined that the 136 F temperature recorded there was in error, and the 134 degrees F recorded on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek in Death Valley is the hottest recorded temperature on earth.  You might not want to visit in July, although last week we heard the hottest temperature was 110 degrees F and That was in April.