After saying goodbye to the Racetrack on Sunday, February 26, Andrew, Sean, and I climbed into the Jeep for the return drive to our campsite in Hidden Valley. After breakfast, we’d make the drive all the way back to central Death Valley, with a stopover at the Ubehebe Crater complex of maar, or steam, volcanoes.
Back we went through Lost Burro Gap between Racetrack Valley and Hidden Valley. In the valley, Andrew drove us a little way past our campsite to some mud puddles he’d seen in the road. He wanted to splash through them in the Jeep, which was a mini-adventure unto itself.
In camp, we made breakfast or Sunday brunch, rather, since it was getting on toward noon. It was still pretty cold in Hidden Valley, and the boys used the dehydrated food bags full of boiling water to keep their hands warm while the food rehydrated.
On this clear winter morning, Hidden Valley was harsh and starkly empty.
I wandered off to do my business and happened upon a geological marker…
…and the femur of a Kangaroo Rat (or perhaps a Kangaroo Mouse).
After brunch, we struck camp, and by 1:30, we were back in the Jeep. As we departed Hidden Valley, another vehicle entered it, which sort-of blew our minds since we’d seen no one in Hidden Valley at all. It felt like we were turning it over to the next guest.
We stopped in Lost Burro Gap on the way out to grab some photos of its jumble of rocks and striations.
Not far from Lost Burro Gap, we stopped at Tea Kettle Junction, where it is supposedly hot enough to brew tea (at least in the summer). Visitors from all over had hung tea kettles from the signpost.
We turned north, and headed back up Racetrack Road between the Cottonwood Mountains and the Last Chance Range.
We bumped along for an hour past Joshua Tree forests and the occasional little red rental Jeep.
Near the northern end of the Cottonwoods, Andrew pulled over so we could take in northern Death Valley and the black smudge of the Ubehebe cinder field below us.
It was not quite 3pm when we arrived at Ubehebe, parked the Jeep in the parking area, and stepped out to gape at the huge crater before us.
Some three hundred years ago, magma rose from deep in the earth here. Instead of breaking through and forming a classic volcano, it super-heated the groundwater into steam, which exploded creating this crater, six-hundred feet deep and half a mile wide. The explosion showered cinder ash as much as one-hundred fifty feet deep over six square miles of desert.
Since then, the crater has gradually eroded into slopes and little alluvial fans terminating on that Sunday in an ephemeral lake orange with sediment.
We braced ourselves into the powerful winds and set off on the mile and a half long trail looping through the Ubehebe complex.
Ubehebe Crater is the largest of a couple dozen craters of varying age that comprise the complex. Some of these spill into others, and Ubehebe must have obliterated other, smaller craters when it exploded.
There was very little vegetation in the cinder field save for hardy creosote, which clung to the slopes.
Like much of Death Valley in late February, the Ubehebe complex was unusually wet with standing water in short-lived ponds at multiple spots.
We reached a point near the upper edge of Ubehebe’s rim where the cinder field had eroded away exposing the bedrock turned to a light pumice by the heat and power of the explosion.
The elegant curves of the craters and the clearly carved channels of water on this relatively newborn landscape were entrancing.
In some sense, the cinder fields were able to show us the very beginning of erosion and ecosystem building on the landscape, not unlike the glacier-scoured bedrock of Glacier Bay National Park.
The trail wound around to Little Hebe Crater, barely one-hundred fifty years old, judging from how little erosion had worn away its circular rim.
Video: Sean M. Santos
The trail turned north and led us down and back toward Ubehebe. Between the vertigo-inducing wind and the blind corner, I opted out of the section of trail in the image above and cut across the top of the rise on a social trail that, judging from its wear, was often used by other visitors cautious around heights.
Andrew, on the other hand, made a beeline for the rim.
There had been a few folks in the parking area, but now we had the entire complex to ourselves as the Sunday afternoon advanced.
Like everywhere in Death Valley National Park, the scale was immense. Can you spot Andrew in the image above?
We often hear mistakenly that “Ubehebe” means “big basket”, but the Paiute name Ubehebe was first applied to the 5,678 ft. Ubehebe Peak, 24 miles southwest of the crater. How the name Ubehebe became associated with the crater is not known. To the Timbisha Shoshone Indians, the crater has been known as “Tem-pin-tta- Wo’sah”, meaning Coyote’s Basket. Although applying this translation to the word Ubehebe has produced a great deal of confusion, but comparing the crater to a basket is appropriate.
In October 2017, vandals wrote huge graffiti letters at the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, which the Park Service managed to remove in November.
The wind was even stronger now, holding Andrew up as he leaned his weight into it.
Having circumnavigated Ubehebe, we decided to hike into the crater, half a mile and six-hundred feet down.
There were multiple social trails, but the main trail was the least steep.
We arrived at the bottom into a shadowy world on the edge of the little orange pond.
The white ridge above us looked like nothing so much as the tuff clay deposits caused by volcanoes we’d seen in other National Parks from the localized deposits of Tuff Canyon in Big Bend to the immense deposits of the White River Badlands in Badlands National Park.
The only company we had were Ravens, soaring above and wondering what we were doing.
The hike out of the crater on the loose cinder gravel was rough. Andrew and Sean were in better shape than I, and they pressed on toward the top, leading us onto one of the steeper social trails. I was too far up in to go back when I realized we weren’t on the main trail. So on I trudged. Near the top, it was so steep, that I barely dared to turn around for fear of feeling dizzy.
We emerged from the crater at about twenty to five as the setting sun lit the eastern wall into a rich orange. The creeping shadows meant that it was time for us to find a place to rest our head for the night, and our plan was to find that place far to the south in Death Valley proper.