Death Valley National Park
Text & Photos by Curtis Von Fange
California 190 heading toward Death Valley rolled over another ridge. Far beyond was another ridge and in between, way, way, down was an awesome valley. Of course, from the mountain saddle I was on, all I could see was a smidgen of valley floor, or what I thought was valley floor. From my distant perch it looked like a mere brown haze that stretched laterally across the base of the skyrocketing mountains.
As the black asphalt ribbon descended steeper and deeper into the expanding valley, my idea of what I thought was valley floor expanded. The brown haze turned into alluvial fans that graced their way from a canyon apex to blend with other fans to their left and right. Sagebrush dotted the landscape like nubs from a missed razor. The rugged mountain walls eroded into smoother, more gradual slopes and descended like the sides of an English garden pond toward the low spot of the valley.
The low spot of the valley -- that's what caught my eye. Instead of the same brownish hues dotted with sage I was astounded to see a gleaming white dot that reflected the sunlight like a misplaced snow bank. Here was one of the great icons of desert travel, a dried salt lake.
One would think that dried salt lakes are probably as the name implies, the end result of a lake that dried up. But logic would imply that a dried lake bed would simply be hard mud, like the playa flats of the Racetrack to the north and west. But the salt flats are different. They make up a spectacular collection of chlorides, sulfates and carbonates that seem to be living and breathing and changing their way of revealing themselves on a daily basis.
Granted, the collection of minerals was leftovers, if you will, from the ancient Lake Manly that used to ply the valley. And that millennial collection of salty compounds has been concentrated at these low spots on the valley floor. But that, in no way, means that the salt pan doesn’t continue growing. The continual supply of surface and ground water percolating through the sands and gravels of the alluvial fans brings down additional salts and minerals and further adds to the salty deposits. It is indeed an ongoing process that brings unusual results in the salt flat itself.
Examples of this ongoing growth in the salt flats are the strange patterns that emerge. On one visit to Badwater, I walked way out onto the flat just to experience it. I noticed that the ground had strange ridges made out of salt that protruded upwards for a number of inches from the level. In between these ridges was a perfectly flat and white crust of salt. These occurred in polygonal patterns that defied my understanding.
Actually, though, the ranger at the Visitor Center explained that underneath the flats is a mud/salt mixture. As the summer heat dries the surface, cracks form in the saltpan. This permits water to further evaporate from the mud/salt matrix. The precipitating salt swells up in the mud cracks creating the border. The unusual effect reminded me of looking at a pizza with the raised crust along the edges with relative flatness in between. The strange thing was that these snow white pizzas appeared to extend to the horizon!
Another strange effect can be found in the Devil's Golfcourse. Here one finds a type of playa, or lake mud deposit, that is actually considered part of the salt pan because of the excessive sodium chloride deposits found in the unusual pinnacles. Surface water from the infrequent rainstorms, or runoff from the surrounding mountains, collects in this area during the rainy season. As the water evaporates the dissolved dirt and clay are left with a coating of salt. These dirty pinnacles, some up to a foot high, create a crusty, almost impossible barrier to even the surest of foot. It is no guess why it is called the Devil's Golfcourse.
The remoteness and harsh environment of the salt pans does not mean that life is void in them. At Badwater, the lowest place in Death Valley accessible by car, the permanent springs provide for an unusual collection of life. Although the water is not poisonous it is saturated with salts that create an extremely bitter taste. Beetles and soldier fly larvae share the water with a soft bodied snail unique to Death Valley.
The salt pans also hide a wealth of minerals for the mining industry. Outside the park boundaries, the rich borax, chloride, sulfate, and related mineral deposits are mined and refined for our on-the-move society. It is refreshing to note that, at least in Death Valley, the richness of these deposits will be limited to our scenic and biological enjoyment.
My car finally reached the bottom of the valley. All around me was the white expanse of the salt flat. I got out and walked a short distance out onto the billiard table surface. A small wind off to my left swirled a small whitish cloud high into the blue sky and made a swooshing sound accentuating its presence. In the distance, the mountains on all sides reached for the sky, leaving me behind in the quiet solitude of the basin. I squatted down, rubbed my finger on the ground and tasted it. Yup, it tasted like salt alright ... and, boy, was it flat. Guess that's why they call it a salt flat.
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