Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

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You could say that a desert visit would not be compete without a hike in some sand dunes. I began my fourth and final day in Death Valley National Park with just that: a hike in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. While there are several dune fields in the park, this one is the easiest one to access – I think the others all require 4-wheel drive, which I do not have – and therefore receives the most visitors.

My day began, as the others in my spring wildflower visit had, essentially at dawn. I’d been staying in Beatty, NV at a motel with an atomic energy related theme. I presume the name is associated with the nearby Nevada Test and Training Range, which includes a National Security Site. In any case, it was the Atomic Motel, with the “o” a symbol representing an atom. Outside the small buildings with rooms were several space creatures, and the pictures in my room carried through on the theme.

image of one of the exterior decorations at my motel

One of the exterior decorations at my motel

Since this was to be my last day in the park, I checked out and began my drive to and through the park for the last time, passing the now-familiar sights of Daylight Pass, the Death Valley Buttes, Hells Gate, and aptly named Corkscrew Peak, shown here in the morning light.

image of Corkscrew Peak

Corkscrew Peak

From Hells Gate I continued down Daylight Pass Rd through Mud Canyon, where the wildflowers carpeted the landscape next to the road. In one area where I stopped for a closer look I found brown-eyed evening primrose (Chylismia claviformis), golden evening primrose (Chylismia brevipes), notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), cryptantha, lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora), and hybrid evening primroses within a few square feet of area. I also found – or perhaps noticed – a new one: spiny-herb (Chorizanthe rigida), also sometimes called devil’s spineflower or rigid spineflower. This one was getting ready to bud, but the identification was mainly accomplished by the distinctive spiny cluster with an array of basal leaves that almost look like another plant type entirely.

image of spiny-herb in Mud Canyon on Daylight Pass Rd

Spiny-herb in Mud Canyon on Daylight Pass Rd

After reaching CA-190 at the bottom of Daylight Pass Rd, I made the small jog over to CA-190 and headed west, toward Stovepipe Wells. This area is known as the Devil’s Cornfield, where at least some of the bushes may be arrowweed (Pluchea sericea, I think). Now in Death Valley proper, the ground is quite sandy and mostly flat. A notable exception is Tucki Mountain, in the background of the picture.

image of Devil’s Cornfield with Tucki Mountain in the background

Devil’s Cornfield with Tucki Mountain in the background

Near Stovepipe Wells Village is the parking area for Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. In addition to my hiking boots I decided to wear gaiters in an attempt to reduce the amount of sand I would later find inside my shoes. Of course there are no real trails in the sand dunes, though near the parking area the sand had almost continuous footprints and there was a smooth “trail” where I suppose someone had dragged a sandboard. (Sandboarding is prohibited at most of the dune fields, but not at Mesquite Flat.)

image of “trail” through the sand near the parking area

“Trail” through the sand near the parking area

My hike plan was not very well formulated: basically I thought I would just explore, and hopefully I would identify a suitable destination and be able to get there and back within a reasonable amount of time. The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot at the parking area. I did choose a destination, but varied my route somewhat for the return hike.

GPS track

GPS track

My hike was about 3.2 miles total, with a little over 500 feet of climbing. I should note that climbing – and walking!! – on sand is more difficult than on firm ground. Think of the last time you were at a beach and found that it required a surprising amount of effort just to climb a 10-foot dune. Here, my greatest continuous ascent was about 100 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

One of my first tasks, since there aren’t any named landmarks within the dune field, was to choose a proposed destination. I was kind of fascinated by the crescent-shaped dune in the center of the dune skyline in this picture.

image of my destination: the crescent-shaped dune

My destination: the crescent-shaped dune

The next challenge was to figure out, or guess, a path that would minimize the amount of up-and-down required to get there. It’s clear from the picture that there are rows and waves of dunes, so there is no such thing as a route with a monotonic incline (e.g. no descents during the ascent). As my first time hiking in sand dunes, it would be an adventure!

As I was climbing up a row of dunes I stopped to take a closer look at a creosote bush (Larrea tridentate) that had a couple of blossoms (shown in the lower right as an inset). Creosote bush is fairly common in Death Valley, but this was the first time I stopped to look closely and try to make an identification.

image of creosote bush

Creosote bush

Once I got to the top of the row of dunes I paused to look around me and found the dune field to be beautiful and stark, as well as relatively empty. Almost a mile from the trailhead, there were fewer other visitors in view.

image of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Not far away I had an interesting view-perspective looking along a row of dunes.

image of row of sand dunes

Row of sand dunes

I continued toward the crescent-shaped dune crest I had identified early in the hike. About 1.4 miles from the parking area, I arrived and walked around the crescent on the crest. Of course there were more dunes after that, but I decided to turn around and continue exploring elsewhere. An interesting dune closer to the edge of the dune field is in the center of this picture; I think this is called a star dune.

image of star dune near the edge of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dune field

Star dune near the edge of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dune field

Looking more to the west I could see a pointy dune, taller than where I currently was, and decided to go that way. I’m not sure what difference in sand content causes the patches of darker color, but here the color sharply defined a ridge in the direct path.

image of my next destination: a pointy dune

My next destination: a pointy dune

I retraced my path along the crescent-shaped ridge-top first. Especially near the dune crests the wind smooths out visitors’ footprints; these are mostly, but not all, mine.

image of view along the crest of the crescent-shaped dune

View along the crest of the crescent-shaped dune

In other areas the wind creates small fields of ripple patterns in the sand.

I did make it to the top of the pointy dune, at an elevation of about 85 feet, compared to the base elevation of about -35 feet at the parking area. I guess I felt a little like Queen of the Mountain at the top of the dune, and there was a wonderful view of surrounding dunes, all lower.

image of view from the top of the pointy dune

View from the top of the pointy dune

On my return trip I did as much sight-line navigation as possible, but it was a little tricky to see the parking area behind the rows of intervening dunes. So I did make use of my GPS track to help me go generally in the correct direction, while again attempting to navigate a path that – somewhat – minimized going up and over extra rows of dunes. The path on my GPS track shows that I did a pretty good job of that.

When I was about 3/4 mile from the parking area I realized that I was approaching two people who had apparently stopped for a rest or to enjoy the view. When I got closer I could see that one was actually an artist working on a painting. It was an unexpected, but pleasant, find.

image of artist at work

Artist at work

After reaching the parking area I went through a ritual that I saw other visitors doing upon reaching their vehicles: I sat down, removed my hiking boots, and dumped out the accumulated sand. All things considered, I thought I’d done well to have only about a tablespoon of sand in each boot. So I do think my gaiters helped reduce the amount!

My next adventure for the day was a hike in nearby Mosaic Canyon.

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