Monday, October 10, 2016

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
3 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; no defined trail, so this hike can be as easy or hard as you want to make it!
Access: Paved road to trailhead; Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are some of the most accessible desert dunes in the country, located off a paved road just a mile out of Death Valley National Park's Stovepipe Wells Village. Although this accessibility makes the dunes an extremely popular destination, the almost cinematic landscape makes this a spot that can't be missed in North America's hottest, driest, and lowest place.

There isn't a trail in the dunes; the hike that I will describe is essentially just a visit to the top of the tallest dune in the complex. Although there's no defined path to follow, only basic navigation ability is required; footprints of other visitors lead the way and there is almost constantly a clear line of sight towards the destination both going towards and coming back from the dunes. There are a few dangers to take note of: be sure to pack sufficient water to prevent dehydration in the dunes, to avoid hiking in excessive heat, and to ensure sufficient sunlight for your trip out to the dunes and back unless you have a light for night hiking.

I visited the dunes in March of 2016 to catch the rare superbloom occurring in Death Valley that spring. El Nino rains has brought an unusually high amount of precipitation to the desert that year, germinating the seeds of many desert flowers that had laid dormant through drier years. My friends and I arrived a little too late to catch the peak of the bloom in the Badwater area of the park but did get to see an impressive bloom of desert gold at the Beatty Cut-off in the northern reaches of the valley.

Death Valley superbloom
The dunes are about a mile east of the Stovepipe Wells Village; the approach from the campground and motel at Stovepipe Wells is simply to follow California Highway 190 east for a mile to the parking area for the dunes to the left (north) of the road. This hike description has a certain impermanence: sand dunes are constantly shaped by the wind and the dunes described here may be altered by natural forces by the time you visit.

Sand Dunes and the Amargosa Range from the trailhead
The sand starts at the edge of the parking lot. We headed into the dunes barefoot, a decision I came to regret later in the day when my feet seemed almost about to blister from the sand. I'm not sure hiking with shoes through the sand is subsantially better though; you might want to assess as you go on. From the trailhead, the tallest dunes were dwarfed by the peaks of the Amargosa Range that rose to the northeast.

Vegetation was interspersed with the dunes near the trailhead. The most notable plant here was creosote: the desert bush was displaying its yellow flowers at that time of year. In the presence of moisture, creosote leaves give off a distinctive smell: to catch it, you can cup your hands around a branch of creosote, breath on the leaves, and then smell those leaves. When it rains, creosote bushes across the desert fill the smellscape with that particular aroma.

Creosote blooms
We started out by making a beeline for the tallest dune, walking directly up and down the small dunes near the southern end of the dunes. As we walked further into the dunes, the amplitude of each individual dune grew, from just a few few height to tens of feet for each dune. Footsteeps in the sand also decreased as we progressed further into the field of dunes, with occasional stretches of fairly untouched sand decorated by wind-blown ripples.

Sand patterns
After a number of small ascents and descents through the rolling dunes, we finally climbed up a fairly large dune that was connected by a long sandy ridge to the tallest dunes of the complex. These largest dunes, which appeared small from far away, seemed to rival the Amargosa Range from up close, even though the tallest were only just over a hundred feet tall.

View towards the tallest dunes
We followed the ridgeline of the dune up to progressively higher viewpoints of the vast sea of sand. Death Valley National Park has many areas of dunes, including many of the most impressive dune fields in the country. The park's Panamint and Eureka Dunes are both taller than the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Sand reaches over 400 feet tall at Eureka Dunes; however, neither is as easily accessible as the Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Upon reaching the summit of the tallest dunes, we found a panorama of sand all around us: dunes stretched out in most directions, for up to a mile in some directions, before fading back to the creosote-bush desert that filled much of the rest of the valley. The Amargosa Range rose to the east and the Panamint Range was prominent to the west. The late afternoon sun cast beautiful shadows on both the dunes and the etched faces of the peaks in the Amargosa Range.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the Amargosa Range
One of the most striking vertical reliefs on the continent occurs between the bottom of Death Valley, at more than 280 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, and the top of Telescope Peak, the high point of the Panamint Range at over 11,000 feet above sea level. This tremendous difference in elevation is due to Death Valley's unique geology: the valley is simply the lowest and most extreme example of a graben in the extensional horst-graben landscape of the West's Basin and Range region. Subduction of the Farallon Plate beneath the North American Plate is responsible for both the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Although mountain ranges were pushed up by compression during the process of subduction, the North American Plate has been in extension- stretching out- since the Farallon Plate fully subducted beneath North America off the California coast. As the crust is getting pulled apart, faulting is creating higher mountain blocks separated by deep basins. While most of these basins are filled to a high elevation with sediment, some basins, such as Death Valley, either accumulate sediment slowly enough or experience extension quickly enough that their valley bottoms are still below sea level.

The most extreme vertical relief is not visible from the dunes, but even here it's clear that the mountains tower over the low terrain of Death Valley itself.

Mesquite Sand Dunes and the Panamint Range
Returning to the trailhead from the top of the tallest dunes, we attempted to roll or glissade down the dunes. These efforts were mostly unsuccessful, but we had an enjoyable time frolicking in the dunes and getting sand everywhere on our clothes and ourselves. We returned to the trailhead just before sunset and retreated to Stovepipe Wells for an evening by the campfire.

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