Road trip through the Southwestern US, March 2015

In early March 2015, I did a road trip around the deserts of the Southwestern US. I started in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is nicely surrounded by mountains. I took a short walk up to Ensign Peak, where I found a nice view of downtown SLC.

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To the western side one can see the railroad and some industry.

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I had been in SLC a couple of times for conferences, and I always keep coming back to the State Capitol as one of the main sights.

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As last year, I rented a car in SLC and drove south on Hwy89. My first stop was in Bryce Canyon. It was pretty cold at that elevation (approx. 2500m above sea level) and the ground away from the road was still covered in snow. The hoodoos, the characteristic rock formations of that area, only had a bit of snow left, and I saw some pieces of rock detach from them while I was walking around there. Nowadays, freezing and melting water is one of the dominant forms of erosion there.

 

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The red rock and snow together make for a magical combination.

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I continued by drive to the Vermillion Cliffs area.  Despite the fact that the famous Wave rock formation is found there, the Paria plateau is not a place where you find lots of tourists. It is therefore a good area to seek solitude. First I spent some time along House Rock Valley Road and got interested in the various plants inhabiting the Great Basin desert.

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Along the stretch of US 89 passing north of the Paria plateau there is a short trail going north into the terrain of the Grand Staircase National Monument. The trail is marked with `toadstools’ and leads you to a nice terrace where you are surrounded by very beautiful rock formations, some of them having a somewhat loose rock sitting on top (hence the name). Three images from there:

 

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I went for a hike around Buckskin Gulch. The whole Paria area is very big and there would be lots of opportunities for multi-day hikes to interesting places. Not this time since I was alone and didn’t have any camping gear. Even though it was spring and not extremely hot, I found the dry climate and lack of shade to be pretty tough conditions to hike in. You have to carry a lot of water (3-4 liters) to be safe for the entire day. I didn’t do much photography, but just absorbed the place. I made it to the beginning of the slot canyon of Buckskin Gulch. This is about 6km one-way from the Buckskin trailhead. I didn’t continue further into the slot canyon because the water was roughly 25cm deep and there was a fair amount of quicksand. You do not want to get stuck with both feet in quicksand when you’re hiking on your own. So I turned back. It’s good to know your limits. But I decided that I wanted to come back to this place sometime.

 

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The trip proceeded through Page, Horseshoe Bend (of which I don’t have any pictures worth sharing) to Grand Canyon. As anyone might imagine, this canyon is almost too big to take in, at least the first time. For anyone making a trip to this area, I suggest flying out of Las Vegas towards the East. My flight, which was headed to Newark, flew over the Grand Canyon immediately after leaving Las Vegas. The flight over the Canyon takes something like 30 minutes, which speaks to the sheer size of the thing. The view from the plane allows you to get a better understanding of the Grand Canyon.

Anyway, I will still share a few from the ground (South Rim). The first few minutes after sunrise are interesting because the light starts to expose layer after layer of the landscape.

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After Grand Canyon I drove to Southern California where I visited Joshua Tree National Park. This is a truly alien landscape that is named after the Joshua tree (a species of Yucca):

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Next to the Joshua tree, an equally intriguing and ubiquitous feature of the landscape are the granite boulder formations, pictured here after sunset…

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and a bit later, they show their ghostly appearance under the moon light:

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The next morning, I decided to spend some more time amidst the rocks. They make for a lot of scrambling fun, even with a camera and tripod.

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But let’s not forget the multitude of other plants that exist in this place:

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All of these plants have to get by on a yearly rainfall of only a few millimeters. It is hard to grasp how scarse the water supply really is until you visit a natural oasis, where geological faults lead to an accumulation of water. One of these oases is easily accessible, the 49 palms oasis. The water was not visible, but the abundance of palm trees betrays its presence:

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The Western part of the park features a viewpoint from which one can see the Little San Bernardino Mountains (which look quite unlike the mountains around the so named mountain pass in my home country) and down towards Palm Springs. In the distance we see the Salton Sea, a ‘small’ irrigation accident.

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After Joshua Tree, my trip led me to Death Valley. On the way there I came across this stretch of desert bloom. Little flowers are appearing in this barren landscape from seeds that have been waiting for several years for some rain to activate them.

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The drive from Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley (Panamint Springs) was quite surreal – that is the road 178 through Trona. Lots of mines and some naval weapons ranges, and some stretches of unpaved road – it seemed like I was the only guy with a car there, but there were plenty of trucks. Since it was a fairly gray day, as it was getting dark the whole scenery turned into an impenetrable shade of gray (the rocks are also gray in color).

Death Valley was definitely the highlight of my trip. I find this place very fascinating.

Driving into Death Valley before sunrise made me aware of the sheer size of this National Park, after all it is the largest one in the US apart from the ones in Alaska. Within the park, I first visited the Mesquite Sand Dunes. The light was a bit more diffuse than I liked it to be, and therefore the sunrise did not make a big impression.

In the background of the last shot you see the Tucki Mountain, which is one of the reasons the Mesquite Dunes exist in the first place. Wind blows from the North and is slowed by the mountain, depositing and shaping the sand.

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When I came back to my car from the dunes at 10am, it was already pretty hot (32 degrees Celsius or 90 degrees Fahrenheit), which in Death Valley is slighly above average for March. You might have heard that this place is scorchingly hot. I had already encountered 35 degrees C in Joshua Tree, but the hottest in Death Valley on my trip was 39. For general interest, the hottest officially recorded temperature in Death Valley ever is 56.7 degrees C. But even at the moderate Spring temperatures, it is a very tough place to be in: a hot and very strong wind that blows relentlessly, the sun hitting you from above with no shade to take short rests.

The valley floor is a salt flat with little puddles of water that are only there to stay for a few days.

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The badwater basin is the floor of Death Valley, it’s lowest elevation is 282 feet / 86 meters below sea level. All the minerals that are washed from the surrounding enormous mountain ranges into the valley are trapped there, so understandably the floor is incredibly salty. Despite the name of the valley, there are still plants which have adapted to this extreme environment. Here, a lot of interesting subjects are found by looking at the ground, which is being resculpted completely when flash floods dissolve existing patterns before the sun and fierce hot wind rapidly makes all the water evaporate. The contracting soil forms cracks and then deforms as to form bowl-like shapes. This was named the Devil’s golf course: a crunchy web of porous soil and salt deposits which covers an enormous area.

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Also the water that flows down from the mountain ranges that enclose the valley ends up evaporating. In certain spots, there seems to be an above-average humidity and this allows some grass to grow.

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But otherwise, it is just salt and rock.

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I had the fortune to witness a rainstorm of sorts. It was far away and most of the rain drops never reached the ground. But it looked quite impressive.

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