June 6, 2006 > Desert of legends and ghosts
Desert of legends and ghosts
by Bao Nguyen and Cassie Crosby
Nestled between the Mojave Desert and the Nevada-California border, Death Valley is one of California's most unique sites. It was the original home for a Native American tribe, the Timbisha Shoshone, before it was populated with mining the towns, because it was so full of rich minerals, such as borates, silver and gold.
The students of Alsion Montessori of Fremont, ranging from ages 12 to 15, were lucky enough to take a trip into the depths of this amazing desert to learn about its extensive scientific and historical significance. Needless to say, on arrival, the entire class was enthralled, and ready to experience what Death Valley had to offer, in terms of historical and geological importance. We were ready to be amazed, because none of us have even seen Death Valley before. At first, we had our doubts about how the trip would go. One unidentified source said, as the plane landed in Las Vegas, "I want to go home. This trip is going to suck," but we persevered. Although complaints and tensions were high, the trip ended on a high note.
On the first day, we took a connecting flight to Las Vegas, and drove to California-Nevada border to visit a ghost town, the small town of Rhyolite. The guide explained that Rhyolite was originally a thriving mining town, but was quickly abandoned in the 1920s when no more ore could be found. What made Rhyolite stand out from the other desolate towns of Death Valley was that one of its houses was made entirely of glass bottles cemented together with mud. The house itself was perfectly preserved, and was the most interesting part of the brief excursion to Rhyolite. We continued to drive until we reached Furnace Creek Ranch, a comfortable and very popular tourist and trip lodging. We anticipated more adventures for the next day
On Tuesday we commenced a hike into the depths of Golden Canyon, a majestic chasm, known as the entrance into the Panamint Mountains, one of the two central mountain ranges in Death Valley. We divided into groups, and many reached Zabriskie Point, the zenith of a large hill. The apex of this hill offered a spectacular outlook upon the salt flats of Death Valley. Some stragglers did not reach the summit of the hill, but they managed to enjoy the captivating scenery that surrounded Golden Canyon. We took a quick drive to visit the former site of Harmony Borax Works, which was a processing center for the precious mineral, borax, which is used for detergents, soaps, disinfectants, and pesticides. The former processing factory was well preserved, and displayed the past quite exquisitely.
There was a well-preserved cart that used to be operated by a twenty-mule team, which carried the borates to the processing center, during the late 1800s. We were in awe that the teams could traverse over a distance of 165 miles to the nearest railroad with a 37-ton cart full of borax behind them. Our van proceeded to drive through a narrow, windy canyon, Mustard Canyon, which was on the mule-train's former route.
Wednesday was easily the most noteworthy day. We drove for a few hours, and arrived at our first destination in Death Valley, Ubehebe Crater We were stunned at the depth of the volcanic crater, which was over 700 feet and had exploded thousands of years ago and coated the surrounding landscape with black ash. A large group of us hiked down the steep walls of the crater, while a smaller group decided to hike up a hill and find Little Hebe Crater, a smaller crater. We were in awe at both, and did not want to leave.
Our vans eventually left with us on board and we progressed to Titus Canyon, near the crater, a spectacular ravine situated within the Amargosa mountain range. We were allowed to separate and go on a solitary hike. Separated from the rest of the group, we were able to enjoy the placid atmosphere of the canyon. Following our excursion into Titus Canyon, we promptly returned to Furnace Creek Ranch, anticipating an astronomy lesson that night. We drove along winding roads, and reached a wide, open area, where we gazed into the deep, night sky. We spied numerous constellations and planets, and learned how to properly use complex telescopes.
On Thursday, we arrived at Badwater Basin, approximately 50 miles from the ranch. An enthusiastic ranger named Joe greeted us and explained how salt on Badwater formed; a 300-foot-deep lake evaporated and left behind massive quantities of salt. Badwater retains its salt as a result of the infrequent rain Death Valley receives and that moisture's immediate evaporation. Joe also explained the dangers of dehydration, and recounted the tale of one hiker who made it across Badwater Basin, once, but failed the second time; a result of inadequate water.
After our hike out to Badwater, we went to the Devils Golf Course, another nearby saltpan with peculiar, rock-like salt formations. Again, we were escorted by Joe who showed us a water hole in the middle of the saltpan. The water was so salty that a visitor floated on the surface like a cork. Our hands, once wet with the water, dried quickly into salty gloves.
Alsion had a schedule to keep, so off we went to visit Artist's Palette, a series of multi-colored mountains. Pinks, greens, and purples created a colorful foreground against light brown mountains in the distance. A small group went on a quick hike, while many stayed back and relaxed. Artist's Palette did not disappoint but was not as beguiling as we had hoped, possibly because we simply gazed at it from one view; we did not have enough time to venture deeper into the area.
Our caravan was next scheduled to head up to Dante's View, a very high mountain point. A couple students began to feel ill, so we stopped at Furnace Creek Ranch to let them stay behind. Our smaller group then went on. The peak offered an astounding panorama of the entire valley, from Badwater to Ubehebe Crater. A few of us were still anxious to head into the sand dunes but it was getting dark so we decided to head back to the resort.
The last day, Friday, March 31st, our flight left Las Vegas around 2 p.m. and most of the class slept through the hour-and-a-half direct flight. Anxious parents in the San Jose International Airport baggage claim terminal greeted us. Overall, the trip to Death Valley was a lot of fun and very educational. Many of us want to return and experience the wonders of Death Valley again.