Visiting Lake Manly, the deepest space in North America
It was getting close to 10 PM on Friday, August 30th, 2021. My wife Pam and I were in the last mile of the drive to Lake Manly from Tucson, Arizona. We had gotten off late, then had a tire go flat as we traversed the Valley of the Sun, the Phoenix metro area. Fortunately I had purchased a full sized spare the week before to supplant the inadequate doughnut spare that now comes with Toyota RAV4 SUVs. We swapped in the full sized spare and forged ahead instead of having to limp to a tire store on the doughnut, which was now the spare spare tire. This was our first trip since the beginning of the pandemic, and our first road trip with the RAV4, which we hope will let us explore places we couldn’t go in the Prius we traded in.
Pam had seen forecasts of flash floods, but we were still suprised when we started to encounter rocky debris flows where Furnace Creek crisscrossed the road. Our 2020 RAV4 Hybrid is like a bulked up Prius with ground clearance, so nothing hit the undercarriage. I still slowed down a lot. We’ve been to Lake Manly many times, but traversing debris flows in the dark was a new experience. So was being told at the front desk of the The Ranch at Death Valley that all guests were being put in upstairs rooms due to flooding. At our building we saw sandbags blocking the water entry points for the ground floor. This in a place that averages a bit over 2 inches of rain per year.
Lake Manly is our favorite place to visit in a long list of interesting places, mostly national parks or monuments, in the U.S. and Mexico that are within a day’s drive of Tucson. People know it by the name of the space the lake occupies when it’s full, Death Valley. Death Valley has filled with water to varying depths up to 600 feet repeatedly over geologic time, most recently in the last glacial period, which started to recede 12,000 years ago. Death Valley is the deepest wrinkle of the Basin and Range province of the western United States. Most of the basins, like the Tucson Basin, have exits that eventually drain into the ocean, mostly via the Colorado River system in the southern portion of the province. However, some are closed drainages. Playas, the dry lake beds left in those closed drainages when the water evaporates, are a common feature of the region. Death Valley is arguably the most famous of those closed drainages. Much closer to Tucson, the largest one in Arizona is the Willcox Playa. Pam, a physician turned professional photographer, often goes to the playa to make interesting images. We also visit the sandhill cranes that winter there. When she and I started visiting Death Valley in the mid 1990s, the scale and scope of the vistas drew us back. We ended up splitting our honeymoon between Death Valley and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. When we could both still run decently (she still can…), we liked to revisit the Canyon as well, where we’ve done double crossings from the South Rim to the North Rim and back. At the Canyon, one starts at the top, but eventually must climb back out. On one of my 10 double crossings, I didn’t make it out until the following day after getting dehydrated. I had underestimated the heat load at the bottom in early October, weeks earlier than the optimum Fall crossing window when it’s cooler at the bottom, but before the snow starts on upper elevations of the North Rim. In Death Valley, we start at the bottom. When we biked up to Dante’s View and back down, gravity helped a lot on the return. Likewise when we ran the Death Valley Marathon from outside the valley down through Titus Canyon. Both places can be dangerous but fewer people get in trouble in and around Death Valley since fewer people visit, and it’s harder to fall off a huge drop off or get stuck in the bottom of a huge hole. That said, people misjudge the potential heat risk, and there are many remote areas in Death Valley National Park without help nearby. In spring of 2021, a Tucson couple exploring back roads had two flat tires. They ended up trying to get back to a main road via a canyon with dangerous drops. Both fell. One perished, the other was hurt. Hearing about that reinforced my plan to have a real spare tire, plus the doughnut, for off-pavement travel.
We slept in on Saturday, then went to the Last Kind Words Saloon for a late breakfast. The effects of the pandemic were very apparent. In summer, the Furnace Creek Ranch lodgings at the are normally booked solid months in advance, mostly with visitors from Europe. As mentioned, no one was on the ground floor of our motel. No staff went into rooms during guests’ stay. The 1849 Restaurant, which was the normal cafeteria breakfast place, was closed. In Last Kind Words, the bartender took orders. A couple of servers brought out food and drink to the handful of mostly American patrons. Similarly at dinner.
Remarkably, the forecast for Saturday was overcast, with a high of 103 F, well below the normal 118 or so. At DV National Park Visitor’s Center at Furnace Creek, the ranger at the information desk told us the road to the pup fish at Salt Creek was closed. She suggested this might be an opportunity for a safer hike in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the dunes near Stovepipe Wells.
Rather than trek to the top of the highest dune, as we’ve done in cooler months, we wandered through the more vegetated part of the dune field looking at plants trying to survive, with tracks of small creatures tracing from one bush to another.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are likely created by sand from the Cottonwood Mountains blowing to the south and southeast, then depositing at the foot of Tucki Mountain, the northernmost peak of the Panamint Range. The 49ers who named Death Valley had to traverse the canyons of Tucki to escape the valley on their way to the California gold fields.
Next we headed down to Badwater Basin, the playa floor at -282 feet. We have ventured out on the playa in 120 degree temperatures, but it was a nice change to walk out about a mile with cooler conditions, albeit heating up some as the sky cleared. Although we’re pretty heat tolerant, we’ve never considered crossing Badwater in summer, as a hiker attempted recently with fatal consequences. The remnants of the lake are just below the surface of the salt flat. We always pass holes people have dug down to the water. Here’s a photo I took in 2018 from Dante’s View, 5758 feet above Badwater.
The white line in the center of the photo is the track visitors have made from the parking area out into the salt flat. The hazy mountains in the distance are the Panamints. The high point, Telescope Peak (11043 feet) has some Bristlecone Pines near the top. From the peak you can look down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, then look over your left shoulder at Mt. Whitney, highest point in the continental U.S. The Badwater 135 (mile) footrace, which starts at the Badwater parking area and finishes at Whitney Portal, was held the week before our 2021 visit. The run used to go to Whitney Peak before a permit system was instituted there.
A National Park Service display at Dante’s View gives a good sense of the region. The white line in the background above the display is the channel of the “Hidden” Amargosa River discussed in the text. Most of the time any flow is underground, keeping the salt flat moist. We have seen it flowing at least once in past visits, briefly creating a remnant of the lake. The display helps explain why Death Valley gets so dry and hot. DV is part of the Mojave Desert, which gets most of its precipitation in winter rainy season, when fronts come east off the Pacific Ocean. On the far left is the Sierra Nevada, the Range of Light. It gets huge amounts of snow and rain, drawing off much of the Pacific moisture to support plants like my favorite trees, the Giant Sequoias. The next range, the White-Inyos, get much less moisture, but still have forests, most notably the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The Panamints on the west flank of Death Valley have distinctly sparser plant cover, but still some decent forests near the top, including some Bristlecone pines on Telescope Peak. The mountains of the Amargosa Range, on the east side of the Valley are pretty stark, with little tree cover. We’ve seen this first hand in all four ranges. The air over Death Valley is normally very, very dry. Dry air heats up and cools off remarkably well. The higher air pressure of the lower layers of air at the bottom of the valley facilitates the heating effect. At our home in Tucson, which is much higher at 2690 feet elevation, it’s not usual to have daily temperature swings of well over 40 degrees when it’s dry. A few times we’ve had 50 degree swings (40s to 90s, most notably). In the summer, Death Valley has had the hottest temperatures recorded reliably in the world. In the winter, it’s often colder when we visit than in Tucson.
The Panamints rise abruptly to over 11,000 feet on the west side of the valley, with enormous debris fans, bajadas, spilling out onto the valley floor. Those sediments have filled the valley as much as 9,000 feet above the underlying rock. As we walked back, the view of the much lower Amargosa Range (Grapevine Peak is 8738 ft.) was still striking. Notice the flat area at the top almost directly above the white patch. That’s Dante’s View. Also note the smaller, but still impressive debris fans at the base of the Black Mountains.
On Sunday, we had planned to drive up to Dante’s View, but I had a probable migraine. While I laid still avoiding light in our room, Pam explored parts of the Furnace Creek area that we hadn’t covered in our many trips. To both our surprise she found two nice lakes, one with a sign labelling it a bird sanctuary. Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch were built because of the remarkable supply of good water from the upstream aquifer, emerging just above the valley floor. I was feeling much better, so we loaded up our bottles with ice water and went back in the hottest part of the day (114 as it turned out). We traversed a tunnel of tamarisk trees on the way.
Here’s are photos of one of the lakes and the limpkins, birds we had never seen before. At first Pam thought they were pelicans, but too small. They limped when they walked, hence the name.
We also found North America’s lowest Coke machine.
We had dinner that night in the largely empty Last Kind Words Saloon. On Monday morning as we went to breakfast, I found the RAV4’s 12 volt battery mysteriously completely drained. Some process in the vehicle’s computers had probably run away. After breakfast, I attached a Cat jump starter, which allowed the vehicle to wake up and shift to the big battery. I left the car on until we reached Tucson. It’s been fine since. As a fitting end to the weekend, a microburst hit our neighborhood as we unloaded at home that evening. 1.2 inches of rain fell in the 30 minutes. The winds knocked down saguaros. Our power went out for 7 hours.
We’re thinking about our next trip to Lake Manly and nearby. Assuming we don’t lose a tire on the way there again, there are many back roads we want to explore. A reporter Facebook friend who knows the region well, Henry Brean, recommended Ibex Dunes when he saw my post for this trip.
Visiting Death Valley National Park is relatively easy. It’s under appreciated. Book a place to stay and figure out how to get there. We’ve seen people from all over the world. For Americans, the peak season is the cooler months when the campgrounds are open. The closest big airport is in Las Vegas. Lodging in the park is available at the Oasis at Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs Resort over Towne Pass, but still in the park. There’s lodging close to the park in Beatty, Nevada. People often make Death Valley a day trip on a vacation to Las Vegas, which is about 90 minutes away. I may publish more articles on other places and experiences there. We’ve explored a fair amount, but there’s much, much more. I wonder how much rain it would take for Lake Manly to begin filling again.