On Water in Death Valley

Water Seep on Indian Pass - photo Zach Schwing

One of the most striking impressions Death Valley leaves is how little water the human body actually needs versus how much we consume wastefully in our “civilized”daily lives. I packed a gallon and a half of water, my partner had two, we ended a two-and a-half day trek with about 2 quarts between us. The park service recommends a gallon a day in hotter weather.

Grant it that it was not the heat of summer, but the air was noticeably drier. We were also in a canyon with a spring, so we could have replenished our water if it became necessary. This is the most interesting aspect of backcountry experiences in general – the simplification of human activity. A desert forces this on you. Perhaps in more ways than a mountain, which can be completely forgiving, especially in its lower, livable altitudes.

Water does become the all consuming obsession in this valley. When you get near it, its odor is palpable.  You can feel the fractional difference in ambient moisture. And the excitement at seeing even a puddle in this environment seems almost bizarre sitting here in Salt Lake City with its ring of snow-capped mountains. Even more wonderful were the instances of cattails growing in the cool cracks and the near swamplike conditions over a whole square foot of gravel next to which spring waters ran.

Grass in gravel beside hardened conglomerate - photo Zach Schwing

So much of this valley has been formed by the relationship between its super-extreme temperatures and water.  The desert canyons here are not like those I have experienced previously in Utah, Northern Arizona or Western Colorado. They are not the red rock sandstone canyons gently carved by an ever trickling stream. No, these are hard gashes in the sides of the mountains created when the rare waters come tumbling over the hard-baked mountain rock, tearing stone and flushing gravel ahead similar to a glacier but with a pace that – to a glacier – would look faster than a lightning strike. As a result of all this force, larger rocks became instantly entrapped in mud and then this mud/rock conglomerate gets re-carved by lesser flows over time. The result is a “mosaic” of rocks embedded in hardened mud. Wherever the water flows in this valley, it does so with great force and the resulting mud dries so quickly. This top layer of rock and mud must have formed in a wetter time. Even here in these hot, dry mountains there is the memory of water.

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