Death Valley National Park: A Room Canyon of One’s Own

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After our twilight drive down Death Valley the previous evening, we were ready to spend Monday, February 27 making our way slowly back up the valley to the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells. The plan for the day was to take our time exploring some canyons and visiting Badwater Basin. We’d walked down to the Amargosa River after breakfast. Now, having struck our camp along Harry Wade Road, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep headed to Room Canyon not far to the north.

Room Canyon, hidden in the foothills of the Black Mountains south of Mormon Point, features sheer reddish walls opening to a large room (for which the canyon is named) beneath a dry fall. The room is a 1.3-mile hike from Badwater Road. Side canyons add some distance, making exploring Room Canyon a 3.6-mile total out-and-back hike from the road.

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Telescope Peak

From camp, we bounced up Harry Wade Road to the junction with paved Badwater Road. Then we continued north on Badwater as it hugged the eastern side of Death Valley. Driving along, I remarked that Death Valley would be a great Park to practice a backpack trip for Denali. The Parks, so different in climate, felt akin to each other. One road snaking through a huge wilderness. Immense mountains in the distance. Harsh conditions. All but trail-less.

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Coyote

About five minutes up the road, we spotted a Coyote going along going along, headed south parallel to the road. There were no other cars around. We’d seen no other cars. So Andrew swung around and backtracked to the Coyote and pulled over opposite. The Coyote was busy nosing under a Creosote bush, and ultimately emerged with a lizard, which it promptly ate.

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Coyote

Then the Coyote came over near the road to have a look at us before continuing along south.

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Coyote

 

Video: Sean M. Santos

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Five minutes up the road Andrew pulled over and parked the Jeep at mile marker 39, per the instructions in the hiking guide. Room Canyon doesn’t have an established route to its entrance, and it’s not even indicated on the Trails Illustrated map, let alone the NPS black-band map. The hiking guide instructed merely to walk up the gentle wash toward the hills to the east. We looked incredulously at the route to the foothills for a moment before Sean noticed an arrow of rocks on the desert pavement near the road. Aha!

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Yep. Just walk toward the hills until you find the canyon…

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Panamint Range

Behind us, beneath the road, Death Valley had widened into salt flats that still supported some shrubbery.

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Creosote

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The alien invasion of low-hanging clouds was still coming for us, slowly and inexorably.

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Desert Holly

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The slope was gradual, and it was only when we stopped to look back that we could clearly see that we were rising in elevation.

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Desert Holly

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We continued up the wash toward the hills until we noticed rusty red rock to the north.

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As we drew closer, the red rocks resolved into the entrance to Room Canyon.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The canyon was carved through a layer of conglomerate (coarse sedimentary rock) in the Black Mountains. Although primarily rusty pink, the conglomerate was comprised of multi-colored pieces of other rocks of many shapes and sizes.

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Not far from the mouth of the canyon stood some pinnacles up on the lefthand side. They had, quite obviously, been formed by the apparently violent erosion of the section of the canyon wall. We made our way up a steep wash to the pinnacles.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Looking back, we could see the layer of red conglomerate buried beneath the gray rock of the foothills.

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We returned to the canyon and continued up it as it quickly narrowed.

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Nakedstem Sunray

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A couple minutes later we came to the entrance of a narrow side canyon and started into it.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We squeezed through the narrow walls (the image at the top of this post is from this little side canyon) until we came to a narrow dry fall, which we scrambled up.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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At the top, we were afforded a view of the Black Mountains out beyond the canyon.

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We descended and continued on our way up the main canyon.

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A couple minutes later we turned right into a wide wash that led up out of the conglomerate layer and into the mountains.

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While we walked, we talked about being right-eyed versus left eyed, and Andrew taught us how to determine which you were by using your thumb to focus on an object. I am left-eyed, which didn’t surprise me in the least since I invariably use my left eye when shooting photos.

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Desert Cottontail Scat

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The wash ended at a pour off of jumbled rock layers.

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I followed Andrew partway up and positioned myself opposite on a ledge in order to grab a shot after he disappeared over the lip of the dry fall.

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Sean waited for us down below.

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After Andrew vanished, I returned to Sean and we had a desert photo shoot.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

Meanwhile Andrew explored a little way past the dry fall.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Soon Andrew returned and we made our way back down the wash to the main canyon.

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White Burrobush

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Common Raven feather

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Back in the main canyon, we reached a section where it was possible to touch both sides of the canyon walls with outstretched arms.

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The walls narrowed further, and we had to crouch under hanging boulders before we emerged into the room.

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The room felt almost-cathedral-like. In fact, the rough conglomerate, which in places looked like it had literally dripped down the walls, reminded me of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, particularly the Nativity wall, which of course itself was inspired by nature.

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The Nativity Portal of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, 2010.

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At the far end of the room was a twenty-five foot dry fall, which the hiking guide described as a class III scramble to climb. Andrew just walked right up it and disappeared.

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Sean and I remained below and had a look around the room. Up on the walls, there were sections that looked like dripping rock.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

Andrew explored a bit further up the canyon past the dry fall before returning.

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Parts of the room looked like melting wax.

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When Andrew returned we had some lunch while sitting on boulders.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Up above the dry fall to the left was a formation on the wall that looked like a penis.

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See? It looks like a penis.

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Is this someone’s house?

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We hung out in the room for about half an hour before ducking back under the boulders at its entrance and beginning the return hike down Room Canyon.

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In ten minutes we were already emerging from the canyon and walking down the wide wash. Without all the side exploration, the actual distance wasn’t far at all, but with the side adventures it was a satisfying couple of hours.

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Out on the wash we ran into two women hiking up toward Room Canyon, and we confirmed that they were headed the right direction. They were the only other people we’d seen since the previous evening.

 

Video: Sean M. Santos

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But now we were headed to Badwater Basin, where there was certain to be a crowd

 

2 thoughts on “Death Valley National Park: A Room Canyon of One’s Own

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