Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Natural Bridge Canyon

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The final adventure of my first day in Death Valley National Park was a short, 1.3-mile round trip hike up Natural Bridge Canyon to see a bridge formed by erosion processes. Though the primary purpose of the trip was to see the spring wildflower bloom and I did see a few flowers during the hike, the hike itself was a nice canyon hike.

During the drive from my previous stop at the Badwater Basin salt flats, I stopped to enjoy some notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) by the side of the road.

image of notch-leaf phacelia

Notch-leaf phacelia

A gravel road leading to Natural Bridge Canyon is on Badwater Road about 13 miles south of CA-190 or 4 miles north of the Badwater Basin salt flats. The gravel road is 1.5 miles long and climbs up an alluvial fan to the trailhead at 350 feet elevation at the base of the Amargosa Range.

image of Amargosa Range near the Natural Bridge Canyon trailhead

Amargosa Range near the Natural Bridge Canyon trailhead

The trailhead at the mouth of the canyon is obvious, with prominent signage. The hike itself was a bit less than 1.4 miles round trip: a bit fortunate, since I started hiking at 4:20pm and, as I would discover, sunset happened shortly after 5:00pm. The GPS track shows the route, with the orange dot denoting the trailhead parking.

GPS track

GPS track

In the very short distance between the signage at the parking area and the actual mouth of Natural Bridge Canyon there were several types of wildflower. The first I found was desert five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia). The flower seemed to be closing up at the end of the day, with buds on the plant getting ready to bloom.

image of desert five-spot

Desert five-spot

Nearby there were a couple gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) plants with blooms.

image of gravel ghost

Gravel ghost

And there was lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora) and caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) right next to each other.

image of lesser mojavea and caltha-leaved phacelia near the mouth of Natural Bridge Canyon

Lesser mojavea and caltha-leaved phacelia near the mouth of Natural Bridge Canyon

After a fairly brief pause to appreciate these wildflowers I proceeded into the canyon. As seems to be the case with many canyons into the mountains around Death Valley, the canyon floor climbs steadily. In this case the grade was just about 10%.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The distance to Natural Bridge from the mouth of the canyon is only about 1/3 mile. The canyon floor is relatively flat and the walls are vertical. In this view of the bridge, two people walking down the canyon set the scale. The bridge was formed by thousands of years of erosion following infrequent but intense rainstorms and flash floods flowing down the forming canyon.

image of Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge

There are other signs of erosion in the canyon side walls. Here it appears that streams broke through from the higher area and ran down the side of the canyon wall.

image of erosion feature in a canyon side wall

Erosion feature in a canyon side wall

The obvious, easy trail up the canyon ends about 0.6 mile from the mouth at a dryfall, or dry waterfall. In some canyons there is a path around a dryfall to continue exploration. Here the dryfall is fairly short, less than 8 feet or so. Since my remaining daylight time was limited, I simply turned around and retraced my steps down the canyon.

image of dryfall at the upper end of the canyon trail

Dryfall at the upper end of the canyon trail

Along the way I noticed some more lesser mojavea and was able to get a good close-up picture of one of the blossoms, showing the dark spots on the upper petals and at the throat. This was a nice find, since I was discovering that there were relatively few wildflowers within the canyons themselves.

image of lesser mojavea

Lesser mojavea

This view of Natural Bridge on my return trip shows the top of the bridge and the taller canyon walls. I estimate that the bridge is about 40 feet high.

image of Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge

As I got closer to the bridge, I was a bit surprised to discover that there was a nice view of the floor of Death Valley through the arch and over canyon walls of the lower canyon. This unique view was made possible by the slope of the canyon floor and the configuration of the side walls.

image of Death Valley floor viewed through Natural Bridge

Death Valley floor viewed through Natural Bridge

A bit downhill from the arch the canyon appears to become narrower as it meanders around vertical structures in the side walls. There are also occasional mini-caves in the side walls.

image of Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon

By the time I exited the canyon it was already past sunset, and dusk was settling over the valley floor.

image of Death Valley at dusk

Death Valley at dusk

My home base for the next three nights was in Beatty, Nevada, still about 54 miles away. I hadn’t been able to get a last-minute hotel room inside the park, and basically the price I paid was an extra daily 80-mile round trip drive (and corresponding lost time). Fortunately I was able to do the evening drives after dusk, taking full advantage of daylight within the valley. The drive to Beatty brought my day’s driving mileage to almost 195 miles, but I was already looking forward to further adventures the next day.

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