After viewing wildflowers during the 65-mile drive from Beatty, Nevada, I arrived at Ubehebe Crater for the first of three mini-hikes on day 3 of my visit to Death Valley National Park to view the spring wildflower bloom. Ubehebe Crater is at about 2600 feet elevation in the northern part of the park, 50 miles or so up Death Valley Wash from Furnace Creek, the main park Visitor Center.
The paved road essentially dead ends at the parking area for the crater, although an unpaved road continues another 27 miles to a remote area known as The Racetrack, an exceptionally flat valley floor where large rocks appear to have been gradually moving for hundreds of years, leaving visible tracks on the valley floor. This is an example of the unusual and, in some ways, strange phenomena that exist in Death Valley.
Ubehebe Crater is an example of a geological phenomenon known as an explosion crater: hot magma heats water and converts it to steam, which builds up pressure underground until it literally explodes upward, creating a crater and spewing rock over an area of up to several square miles. Ubehebe Crater is about 2000 years old, very young by geological standards. The surrounding area is stark and barren-looking, with the half-mile-diameter crater as well as several smaller ones nearby the products of the magma event and associated explosions.
I should note that it was actually rather difficult to do photographic justice to Ubehebe Crater, because you are so close to it that it more than fills the field of view in photographs. This is a view from the parking area, which is barely 100 feet from the rim. The colorful side walls of the crater show different types of rock.
A trail goes all the way around the rim of the crater, as shown in the GPS track. The orange dot shows the location of the parking area. About 1/3 of the way around, going counter-clockwise, a short signed side trail leads to a smaller crater called Little Hebe.
After circumnavigating Ubehebe I walked down a trail that leads to the bottom of the crater, about 400 feet lower than the rim. The rim itself rises and then falls about 200 feet around the circumference.
In addition to Big Hebe and Little Hebe there are smaller explosion craters in the area. Here is a view to the west, toward the Last Chance Mountains, with smaller, incomplete craters in the foreground.
There are widely dispersed small tufts of drought-tolerant grass and similar plants, but the overall sense is that this is a desolate landscape. However, I did find a very few wildflowers, including this desert gold poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma). The blossom, no bigger than a normal poppy blossom, was broader than the basal leaves.
About 0.6 mile from the parking area I arrived at the sign for the short trail leading to and around the rim of Little Hebe. Little Hebe is about 0.1 mile in diameter and 0.3 mile in circumference. This view of Little Hebe was at the cusp in the Big Hebe trail, which was at the highest elevation of the hike.
As I continued a bit farther around the rim of Ubehebe I had a great view to the northwest of the side of the crater below the parking area; you can barely see a school bus in the parking area. Cascading down the side wall are a couple of trails that lead to the crater floor.
I was planning to hike down to the bottom when I got around to where the trail began. I could even see a group of people at the bottom. I’m sure I was thinking that, if they could do it, so could I!
A little farther along I noticed some more of the interesting striped rock layers off to my right and took a short detour to get a closer look, thinking it might be another satellite crater. It turned out to be a wash, with nearly vertical walls and a flat bottom. It was a nice close-up view of the rock layers.
Just as I returned to the main trail around Ubehebe Crater a couple of young guys ran past, clearly using the rim trail as a short exercise route. Although I’d seen numerous cyclists on the roads near the heart of the valley, it was unexpected to see people out for a run in such a remote part of the park, nearly at mid-day.
When I got to the first trail leading to the bottom of the crater I headed down. I had previously checked out the trails, clearly visible from the opposite side of the crater, and chosen the one I wanted to hike down. I was sure that it was the least steep, though the elevation profile shows that the grade was 24%!
Once I arrived at the bottom I could see how relatively flat it was. It was quite interesting to just stand in one place and turn slowly around, viewing the crater walls in all directions. It was my first time to hike down to the bottom of any kind of crater.
There were clusters of scrub here and there. Once I’d enjoyed the new perspective of the crater, it was time to hike back up that 24% grade trail. This is what it looked like from the bottom. Other visitors were struggling a bit with the slope, but I found that if I just took my time and kept going, I made good progress.
On my way up I stopped to check out a few wildflowers I’d noted on the way down; I’d mentally bookmarked the stops for the return trip. There were a few broad-flowered gilia, a bit of cryptantha, and even a few brown-eyed evening primroses.
When I got back to the rim trail I continued to the parking area barely 0.1 mile further. The students who had come on the school bus were having a geology lesson at the rim overlooking the crater. What a fantastic field trip!
When I reached my car I did yet another cleaning of my camera following my “close encounter” with some fine desert dust earlier in the morning; then I began my return down Ubehebe Crater Rd and south on Scotty’s Castle Rd. Shortly after turning onto Scotty’s Castle Rd I re-encountered a large cluster of pink wildflowers; I’d noticed it on the way to Ubehebe but decided not to stop at that time. When I stopped to look more closely I could see that they were broad-flowered gilia (Gilia latiflora). It looks like there is a bit of desert plantain (Plantago ovata) in the center foreground.
After a brief stop I continued south on Scotty’s Castle Rd toward my next planned mini-hike at Titus Canyon.