Desert Survivors Backpack
Death Valley National Park, California
(Saline/Salt Tram alternate trip)
By Lynne Buckner
Four Desert Survivors (Bob Ellis, Bruce Loeb, Kambiz Kahali, and Lynne Buckner) weathered the warnings of thunderstorms, freezing temperatures, and poor road conditions to rendezvous at Panamint Springs Resort for a 3-day backpack trip to view the Salt Tram ruins in the Inyo Mountains. Trip leader, Bob Ellis decided that the weather would be too cold and wet in the Inyos so we headed for the lower elevations of Death Valley and the canyons of the west slope of the Grapevine Mountains. It was here in 1999 that Bob and Ingrid discovered the largest known Maurandya petrophila (Rock Lady) population growing on the limestone walls of a canyon that is unnamed on map (christened "First North (of Fall) Canyon" by our expedition). It was our plan to check out the state of these rare plants and search for more in an adjacent canyon.
We started at the Titus Canyon trailhead parking lot and headed north across the Fall Canyon wash and some striking mud hills badlands to the mouth of the next large canyon heading northeast into the Grapevine Mountains. We headed up the dramatic canyon that soon became tall, narrow and winding limestone. After a mile or so and a couple small dryfalls, the canyon opened up to a broad wash with a dramatic arch. Recalling warnings by park officials of avoiding washes when there were thunderclouds present, we decided to camp here where we could pitch tents on a relatively flat alluvial shoulder opposite the arch.
After setting up the tents, we headed up the main wash to another colorful part of the canyon with tall limestone cliffs. About a mile up-canyon, high on the north wall of reddish Pogonip limestone (unexpected habitat) were the first group of small cluster-like bright green plants (some were brown), growing on an overhang and adjacent wall. Bob counted 40 plants with his binoculars growing on what we dubbed "Maurandya Overhang" and 5 on the adjacent wall. We crossed the canyon and walked up about 100 yards. There, growing on expected habitat of bonanza king limestone, were 47+ bright green Maurandya. Some were so low that we could get a close up look. They were similar to the rock nettle that was growing nearby but naturally much more delicate and not at all grasping. After oohing and awing, counting and photographing, we walked a little further up the canyon and were stopped by a 40+ foot dryfall. As we headed back to camp, it started to rain. It cleared when we got back to camp and we were able to cook dinner and enjoy the sunset and dramatic clouds to the west over the Cottonwoods. Shortly after getting in our tents, we were treated to an hour of continuous flashing lightening and booming thunder.
Despite rainfall during the night, the ground appeared dry in the morning with only a few clouds in the sky. After breakfast and an informal lecture and discussion about current desert issues from Bob, we headed out to explore "Second North (of Fall) Canyon". Since this canyon is blocked by a high dry fall near the entrance it can only be approached cross-country from adjacent ridges. We had a lesson in map reading and GPS use on our way over several ridges including the aptly named by Bob "Penis Ridge" (see if you can find this on the topo). From here we found a drop-off into the yet un-surveyed and little visited canyon. We walked down the canyon looking up at the walls to see if perhaps Maurandya had extended its known range to yet another canyon. After dropping down one dry fall we came to the end, a 20-foot drop in a narrow gorge we weren't prepared to tackle. We found rock nettle but no Maurandya.
We decided to hike up the canyon and look for an exit to the NE so we could walk over to the upper reaches to "First North" and our camp at Arch Rock. We encountered several dry falls in the upper canyon that required some minor rock climbing/scrambling and dramatic Utah-like narrows. When we came upon a steep dry fall that involved significant exposure.
We contemplated it for a while and decided that we would give it a try if there was an exit from the canyon ahead. We sent Kambiz up with a few foothold assists. He scouted the route and reported that it "probably" opened up with an exit ahead. With blind faith and a few foothold assists for those under 6', we climbed the dry fall and shortly entered the most dramatic narrows yet. Traversing a recent rock fall and rounding a bend, the canyon did indeed open up. We climbed out, traversed a few more ridges, ending the day completing the circle with views into the red-cliffed canyon from the day before. It sprinkled a bit and as we arrived at camp, a rainbow was arching over the canyon and the rugged cliffs of the Grapevine Mountains.
The recent rains had started some plants, but most annuals had not emerged. We saw blooming death valley sage, ephedra, desert trumpet, globe mallow, and a single Mimulus rupicola. Common in the canyon were napkin ring buckwheat, rock nettle, and arrow leaf. Cottontop and mammilaria cactus were spotted as well. Bighorn sheep sign was common; we did see a zebra lizard, a horny toad, and some cliff swallows in "Second North". What struck Bob as most significant about our revisit of the Maurandya populations was that almost all of the same plants he and Ingrid recorded in 1999 were still here four years later. This species is classified as a perennial and was thought to be short-lived. Bob's now thinking that most of these same individual plants will be here when we revisit in 2007. Sign up now.
After a rainy night and sprinkles in the morning, we had a Milton reading by Bruce, and some health and training tips from Kambiz and Bob. We took our time packing up, reluctant to leave the peaceful desert where the only booming and flashing was from thunder and lightening. At the cars we looked back and saw Mt. Palmer and Grapevine peak shimmering in the snow.
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(click on each picture for a larger version)
Arch Rock in "First North" canyon
Bruce surveys the Upper Narrows of "Second North" canyon
Kambiz gets a close look at Rock Lady
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