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A view from Zabriskie Point.
Places of interest in the Death Valley area are mostly located within Death Valley National Parkmarker in eastern Californiamarker.

Amargosa Chaos

Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral viewed from Zabriskie Point.

Levi Noble, a pioneering Death Valley geologist, studied the jumbled rocks of the Virgin Spring area in the Black Mountains in the 1930s. He found this region so complexly faulted and folded, that he named this part of Death Valley the 'Amargosa chaos'. Later researchers found this area equally perplexing. It was not until geologists learned that this region had suffered from extraordinary tension that pulled great blocks of crust apart, that the background was laid to understand the intricate structure of the Amargosa Chaos.

Modern geologists have documented four major events (deformational events) that faulted and folded the Amargosa Chaos. The first event metamorphosed Death Valley's Precambrian basement rocks and was quite ancient, possibly occurring as long as 1,700 million years ago.

The second event began while layered younger Precambrian sediments were being deposited on top of the beveled surface of older metamorphic basement rocks. This deformational event shifted the crust vertically, creating thinning and thickening of some sedimentary layers as they were being deposited.

The two events responsible for the chaotic appearance of the Amargosa Chaos didn't occur until over half a billion years later, during Mesozoic or Early Tertiary time. This third event folded the layered Precambrian and Cambrian sedimentary rocks.

The fourth and final event occurred quite recently, geologically speaking. This phase of deformation coincided with severe crustal stretching that created the deep valleys and high mountains of this part of the Basin and Range province. In just a few million years, during Late Miocene to Pliocene time, older rocks were intensely faulted and sheared. In some areas all that remains of some thick rock layers are lens-shaped pods of rock bounded on all sides by faults. Other layers have been sliced out of their original sequence altogether.

Artist's Drive and Palette

Artist's Palette
Artist's Drive
Artist's Drive rises up to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains. Artist's Palette is on the face of the Black Mountains and is noted for having various colors of rock. These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals (red, pink and yellow is from iron salts, green is from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and manganese produces the purple).

Called the Artist Drive Formation, the rock unit provides evidence for one of the Death Valley area's most violently explosive volcanic periods. The Miocene-aged formation is made up of cemented gravel, playa deposits, and much volcanic debris, perhaps 5,000 feet (1500 m) thick. Chemical weathering and hydrothermal alteration are also responsible for the variety of colors displayed in the Artist Drive Formation and nearby exposures of the Furnace Creek Formation

Badwater Basin

This picture shows hexagonal saucers in Badwater Basin that are approximately 2 - 2.5 metres in diameter.
These are part of larger-scale features that are also hexagonally-shaped and can be seen from Dante's View nearly 6000 feet (1800 m) above.
The saucers are formed after the salty pan begins to dry and the salt crystals expand.
Badwater is a salt flat that is beneath the face of the Black Mountains that contains the lowest elevation in North America at 86 meters (282 ft) below sea level. (It is often mistakenly described as the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere, but that is actually Laguna del Carbonmarker in Argentina at -105 meters (-344 feet)). The massive expanse of white is made up of almost pure table salt.

This pan was first created by the drying-up of 30-foot (10 m) deep Recent Lake 2000 to 3000 years ago. Unlike at the Devils Golf Course, significant rainstorms flood Badwater, covering the salt pan with a thin sheet of standing water. Each newly-formed lake doesn't last long though, because the 1.9 inch (48 mm) average rainfall is overwhelmed by a 150-inch (3800 mm) annual evaporation rate. This, the nation's greatest evaporation potential, means that even a 12-foot (3.7 m) deep, 30 mile (50 km) long lake would dry up in a single year. While flooded, some of the salt is dissolved, then is redeposited as clean, sparkling crystals when the water evaporates.

Charcoal Kilns

Charcoal kilns, Death Valley NP
The Charcoal Kilns were built in 1867 and were used to reduce pinyon pine and juniper trees to charcoal in a process of slow burning in low oxygen. This fuel was then transported to mines in Death Valley to feed smelting and ore extraction operations.

The kilns were abandoned three years after they were built but were restored in 1971 by Navajo Indians from Arizonamarker.

Pinion Pine and Juniper trees dominate the landscape here with bushes of Mormon Tea in between.

Dante's View

Dante's View with Badwater Basin in the background
From Dante's View one can see the central part of Death Valley from a vantage point 5,500 feet (1,700 m) above sea level. From here Badwater Basinmarker can be seen, whichcontains the lowest dry point in North America. Telescope Peakmarker can also be seen from here which is 11,331 feet (3455 m) above sea level. This is the greatest topographic relief in the conterminous U.S.

The mountain that Dante's View is on is part of the Black Mountainsmarker which along with the parallel Panamint Rangemarker across the valley form what geologists call a horst and the valley that is called a graben. These structures are created when the surface of the earth is under extensional, or a pulling force. The crust responds to this force by sending a large and long roughly v-shaped block of crust down which forms the bedrock of the valley floor (see Basin and Range).

Devil's Golf Course

Devil's Golf Course
The Devil's Golf Course is a large salt pan in Death Valley National Parkmarker, with a rough surface formed of large salt crystals. It was named after a line in a 1934 National Park Service guide book to Death Valley, which stated that "only the devil could play golf" on its surface.

A lake once covered the valley to a depth of ; the salt in Devil's Golf Course consists of the minerals that were dissolved in the lake water and left behind as the lake evaporated. With an elevation several feet above the valley floor in Badwater, the Devil's Golf Course remains dry, allowing weathering processes to sculpt the salt there into complicated forms. Through exploratory holes drilled by the Pacific Coast Borax Co. prior to Death Valley becoming a national monument in 1934, it was discovered that the salt and gravel beds of the Devil's Golf Course extend to a depth of more than , and later studies suggest that in places the depth ranges up to .[98546]

Devil's Golf Course can be reached from Badwater Road via a gravel drive, closed in wet weather. It should not be confused with the actual golf course in Furnace Creek, also in Death Valley.

Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is a spring, oasis, and village that sits on top of a remarkably symmetrical alluvial fan. The main visitor center of the park is located here as well as the Furnace Creek Inn and resort complex. Controversy surrounds the use of Furnace Creek water to support the resort (complete with a swimming pool) and nearby facilities, including a golf course. The scarce springs and surrounding lush oases support thriving plant communities and attract a wide variety of animals. As the resort grew, the marshes and wetlands around it shrank.

The highest temperature in North America was recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch (134 °F or 57 °C).

The Furnace Creek Fault runs through this part of Death Valley.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Mesquite Dunes
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are at the northern end of the valley floor and are nearly surrounded by mountains on all sides. Due to their easy access from the road and the overall proximity of Death Valley to Hollywoodmarker, these dunes have been used to film sand dune scenes for several movies including films in the Star Wars series. The largest dune is called Star Dune and is relatively stable and stationary because it is at a point where the various winds that shape the dunes converge. The depth of the sand at its crest is 130-140 feet (40-43 m) but this is small compared to other dunes in the area that have sand depths of up to 600-700 feet (180-210 m) deep.

The primary source of the dune sands is probably the Cottonwood Mountains which lie to the north and northwest. The tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that form the sinuous sculptures that make up this dune field began as much larger pieces of solid rock.

In between many of the dunes are stands of creosote bush and some mesquite on the sand and on dried mud, which used to cover this part of the valley before the dunes intruded (mesquite was the dominant plant here before the sand dunes but creosote does much better in the sand dune conditions).

Mesquite Springs

Mesquite Springs is located in the northernmost part of Death Valley. This part of the valley has numerous cotton top cactus, blister beetles and cholla cactus. On the alluvial fan above the springs there are 2-3 thousand year old petroglyphs from the extinct Mesquite Springs culture.

The petroglyphs here are made possible because many of the rocks in these arid conditions have desert varnish on them. This particular form of desert varnish takes10,000 years to make 1/100th of an inch of varnish and is deposited by a certain type of bacteria that collects the iron, manganese and clay needed to make the varnish.

Also, since varnish is created at a predictable rate, it is possible to date petroglyphs based on the amount of re-varnishing that has taken place since the marks were made. Varnish does not normally form on carbonate rocks because their surfaces weather too easily.

In a wash near some of the petroglyphs there is a fault scarp that exposes some fanglomerate which is a type of sedimentary rock which looks like concrete with large rocks intermixed. In fact it is lithified alluvial sediment.

Mosaic Canyon

Cut and fill at the mouth of Mosaic Canyon
Hikers walk through the narrows of Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon is a canyon in the north western mountain face of the valley which is named after a stream-derived breccia sediment with angular blocks of dolomite in a pebbly matrix. The entrance to Mosaic Canyon appears deceptively ordinary, but just a 1/4 mile (400m) walk up the canyon narrows dramatically to a deep slot cut into the face of Tucki Mountain. Smooth, polished marble walls enclose the trail as it follows the canyon's sinuous curves. The canyon follows faults that formed when the rocky crust of the Death Valley region began stretching just a few million years ago. Running water scoured away at the fault-weakened rock, gradually carving Mosaic canyon.

Periodic flash floods carry rocky debris (sediment) eroded from Mosaic Canyon and the surrounding hillsides toward the valley below. At the canyon mouth water spreads out and deposits its sediment load, gradually building up a large wedge-shaped alluvial fan that extends down toward Stovepipe Wells. This canyon was formed through a process of cut and fill which included periodic erosive floods followed by long periods of deposition and uplift. But due to the uplift when the next flood hit the area it would deeply cut the streambed which forms stair step-shaped banks.

Mosaic Canyon's polished marble walls are carved from the Noonday Dolomite and other Precambrian carbonate rocks. These rock formation began as limestone deposited during Late Precambrian (about 850-700 million years ago) when the area was covered by a warm sea. Later addition of magnesium changed the limestone, a rock made of calcium carbonate, to dolomite, a calcium-magnesium carbonate. The dolomite was later deeply buried by younger sediment. Far below the surface, high pressure and temperature altered the dolomite into the metamorphic rock, marble. The Noonday Dolomite has since been tilted from uplift.

Mosaic Canyon was named for a rock formation known as the Mosaic Breccia. Breccia is an Italian word meaning gravel. This formation is composed of angular fragments of many different kinds of parent rock, and it can be seen on the floor of the canyon just south of the parking area.

Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon
Natural Bridge Canyon is found on the east side of the park and is one of the few canyons with an official trailhead. Located four miles (6 km) south of the Artist's Drive scenic loop, the canyon contains a natural stone bridge, accessible after a fifteen-minute walk from the parking area.

Red Cathedral seen from the Golden Canyon trail.

Red Cathedral

Red Cathedral is a geological formation located between highways 178 and 190. Formed of steep cliffs, it is composed of red colored oxidized rocks and is visible from Zabriskie point and the Golden Canyon trail.

Racetrack Playa

Rocks on Racetrack Playa
Racetrack Playa is a seasonally dry lake (playa) located in the northern part of the Panamint Mountains that is famous for rocks that mysteriously move across its surface. During periods of heavy rain, water washes down from nearby mountain slopes onto the playa, forming a shallow, short-lived lake. Most of the so-called 'sailing stones' are from a nearby high hillside of dark dolomite on the south end of the playa. Similar rock travel patterns have been recorded in several other playas in the region but the number and length of travel grooves on The Racetrack are notable. Racetrack stones only move once every two or three years and most tracks last for just three or four years.

Saratoga Springs

The bubbling waters of Saratoga Springs rise near the southern boundary of Death Valley National Park. Several springs feed three large open water ponds measuring 6.6 acres (2.7 ha) in size, the third largest marsh habitat in the park behind the Saline Valley marsh in the western portion of the park and Cottonball Marsh in central Death Valley.

This rare desert wetland supports a rich community of plants and animals. Common reeds, bulrush, and saltgrass provide food and shelter for many of the animals living here. Some of the species present, such as the Saratoga Springs Pupfish, are found nowhere else in the world. Five rare invertebrate species also occur at Saratoga Springs and include the Amargosa Tryonia Snail, the Amargosa Spring Snail, the Saratoga Springs Belostoma Bug, the Amargosa Naucorid Bug, and the Death Valley June Beetle.

Salt Creek

Much of Salt Creek is usually dry at the surface and covered by a bright layer of salt which was created by many flooding and subsequent evaporation of water thatperiodically flows at the surface. Over time the small amount of solutes in the water accumulate to form this linear salt pan. Another part of salt creek runs with brackish water year-round. It is here that the last survivor of Lake Manly resides; the Death Valley pupfish.

Shoreline Butte

Shoreline Butte
This desert butte was once an island in a lake that filled Death Valley several times during the Pleistocene ice ages. Scientists call all manifestations of this large body of water Lake Manlymarker. There are different horizontal linear features on northeast flank of the butte that are ancient shorelines from this lake.

It takes some time for waves to gnaw away terraces like the ones seen on Shoreline Butte, so these benches provide records of times when the lake level stabilized long enough for waves to leave their mark on the rock. The highest strandline is one of the principal clues that geologists use to estimate the depth of the lake that once filled Death Valley. Shorelines of ancient Lake Manly are preserved in several parts of Death Valley, but nowhere is the record as clear as at Shoreline Butte. Several lakes have occupied Death Valley since the close of the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 years ago, but these younger lakes were quite shallow compared to Lake Manly (See Badwater and Devils Golf Course above).

Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon
Titus Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge cut into the steep face of the Grapevine Mountains. Although the mountain range was uplifted quite recently, geologically-speaking, most of the rocks that make up the range are over half a billion years old. The gray rocks lining the walls of the western end of Titus Canyon are Cambrian age (570-505 million years old) limestones. These ancient Paleozoic rocks formed at a time when the Death Valley area was submerged beneath tropical seas. By the end of the Precambrian, the continental edge of North America had been planed off by erosion to a gently rounded surface of low relief. The rise and fall of the Cambrian seas periodically shifted the shoreline eastward, flooding the continent, then regressed westward, exposing the limestone layers to erosion. The sediments have since been upturned, upfolded (forming anticlines), downfolded (forming synclines) and folded back onto itself (forming recumbent folds).

Although some of the limestone exposed in the walls of Titus Canyon originated from thick mats of algae (stromatolites) that thrived in the warm, shallow Death Valley seas, most of the gray limestone shows little structure. Thousands of feet (hundreds of meters) of this limey goo were deposited in the Death Valley region. You'll see similar limestone layers if you visit Lake Mead National Recreation Areamarker or hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyonmarker.

Native Americans wrote petroglyphs on some of the rock faces, especially at springs or other points of interest. Leadfieldmarker is a ghost town near Titus Canyon where in the 1920s prospectors mined for ore after hearing exaggerated claims that ore would be easy to find and the living conditions in the area would be easy to endure.

At one of the bends in the canyon mega breccia can be seen and several different types of flowers including the sacred datura inhabit the area.

Ubehebe Crater

Ventifact Ridge

Ventifact at Ventifact Ridge
Ventifact Ridge is a part of a basaltic lava flow. The rocks on its exposed and barren ridge are famous for being shaped by wind erosion and are called ventifacts. Sharp edges of ventifacts called Kanters are formed when two or more facets (planar surfaces) intersect. Open grooves in the ventifacts are called flutes. Most of the holes in the basalt are vesicles that were formed when gas escaped from the cooling lava. Some of these have been expanded or even merged by sandblasting.

Non-stop winds on this ridge are concentrated and compressed at the top of the hill and are very fast as a result. These strong winds pick-up dust and sand (mostly from the two closest alluvial fans), which literally sand-blast exposed surfaces. Winds strong enough for sandblasting come from the north and the south.

Other places in the park


  • Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley, Sharp, Glazner (Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula; 1997) ISBN 0-87842-362-1
  • USGS: Death Valley National Park Virtual Geology Field Trip

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