Monday, March 5, 2012

Sand Dunes and Volcanic Craters in Death Valley

Mesquite Sand Dunes sprawls 14 miles across the widest part of Death Valley. Of all the dune areas found in the park,  it is the one most accessible. An interpretive sign near the dunes explains that the dunes provide precious water and an escape from the extreme temperatures of the desert for many animals. Sparse rainfall does not go to waste as the grains of sand act like a sponge absorbing water in the space between the grains. We dug with our hands into the sand to check out that theory and could feel the moisture and coolness.
Another stop we made Friday was at Salt Creek. At this creek and marshland there is a boardwalk trail which crisscrosses the stream. Over time unique plants and a fish have evolved in this salt stream as Lake Manly slowly dried away. The desert pupfish were the only fish to survive the evaporation of the lake. It adapted to the change of its home from a fresh water lake to to a small salty creek. Nine types of pupfish live in the valley today. While traversing the boardwalk we took some time to look for the small fish and did see a few. We had to approach the water quietly and kneel on the boardwalk to get a good glimpse of them.
One of the reasons we returned to Death Valley this week was to see the Ubehebe Crater. It is the largest of many volcanic craters in the area, measuring about a half-mile across and 500 feet deep. Many of the geological features of the valley are measured in millions of years. This crater is 2,000 years old.
We took a trail along the edge of the crater to view a smaller crater nearby. It was a steep uphill climb over a couple of hills. We found it difficult to get a good footing because of loose rock on the trail.
Our last stop of the day on Friday was at the ghost town of Rhyolite. On our way there we saw a couple of bighorn sheep off in the distance at the bottom of some rocky hills. In the old mining town several jack rabbits scampered across the road in front of us- they and the sheep were pretty much all the wildlife we saw for all our time in Death Valley. Rhyolite's story is pretty much the same for all the mining towns of Nevada. It was founded in 1905 and boomed when samples of gold-laced rock were found in the area. Only one mine was started- and $2million in gold was taken before it closed in 1911. By 1920 the town's population went to 14.  In that period of time the town had three-story office buildings built of stone and concrete, banks, churches opera house, hotels and a school. The town even had a stock exchange. It was once known as the Chicago of the west with three railroads passing through. The ruins of one of the town's two banks is pictured below.

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