In America, one of the least appreciated National Parks is Death Valley National Park. Part of that is the public perception of the park, which is based upon the opinion that the park has nothing at all except flat hot sand. The other reason many Americans do not like Death Valley is because it is hot from June to September. However, if you talk to anyone who is not from America, or you talk to real outdoors enthusiasts from America, you will quickly learn that Death Valley is one of their favorite – if not the favorite park in the National Park system. The reason behind this is because Death Valley is not just a flat hot place with lots of sand; it is actually a location with a great variety of terrain, microclimates, and human history, just to name a few things. Most of all though, if you like rocks, Death Valley is a great place to visit, because it features some of the most stunning – and rare geology in North America.
Death Valley is a great place for rock aficionados, and one of the most unique places in the park to see the forces of nature at work is in Mosaic Canyon. Mosaic Canyon also happens to be one of the best hikes to experience Death Valley on a first – or any subsequent visit, as it is place where you can almost hear rocks talking about how and when they were formed by the passage of time. In terms of rocks, the main attraction in Mosaic Canyon is what is known as the “Mosaic Breccia”. Breccia is the Italian word meaning "fragments"; and the fragments that are visible are many pieces of parent rock located just up the trail from the parking area. While the pieces of mosaic breccia along the trail are interesting, the most spectacular and the most common rock formation in the canyon is the Noonday Dolomite. Noonday Dolomite is limestone that was formed 750 million years ago when Death Valley was part of the Pacific Ocean, before being buried, heated, and exposed to enormous amounts of pressure. The end result of these forces was the formation of marble that was smoothed over thousands of years by wind and water. This formation alone makes the hike a worthwhile experience.
While Death Valley is a large place, Mosaic Canyon is located next to one of the few areas of human habitation in the park, Stovepipe Wells. From Stovepipe Wells, it is a quarter mile drive to the turnoff for Mosaic Canyon, which is well-signed on both the East and West sides of the road. From the road, visitors should be aware that it is an uphill drive on a gravel/graded road to the trailhead. While 4WD/AWD vehicles are not required, or needed on this road, it can be a bumpy ride in a standard transmission car. On the last occasion I drove the road, the road to me seemed to be a much smoother drive than it had been on my initial visit. The road ends at the base of the canyon, and from there, the hike begins.
Once I arrive at the parking area, I always like to take a moment to look around. While it is not reported in any guidebook, the view from the base of Mosaic Canyon provides one of the best 180 degree views of the entirety of Death Valley. From this point, the Panamint Range of mountains rises up behind you (to your South; including the entrance to Mosaic Canyon). To the North, South, and East, the valley stretches out in impossible distances, which makes one appreciate the size and scope of the park. Finally, in the immediate foreground (although still distant), one can see the huge Mesquite Flat Dunes, some 2,000 feet below the canyon.
The other interesting thing about Mosaic Canyon is that it provides some – but not all of its stunning terrain within the first quarter mile of trail (“lower Mosaic Canyon”). During my last hike of Mosaic Canyon I arrived near the end of the day, and as the sun was setting, it cast some of its last rays onto the smooth marble sculpted walls of the lower canyon portions, making them appear golden. This portion of the trail passes through a series of twists and turns of marble sculpted walls which are also inlaid with a number of other types of rock (the “mosaic” of geology). This portion of the hike is always popular, especially so with local geology classes. On occasion, if you are fortunate, you can tag along behind the class, and learn more about the geology of the area than I can relate here. On other occasions, as I found on my last hike, even the lower portions of the trail will be empty, and you will be left to marvel – and wonder about how the canyon was carved; and how the different types of rock were formed – and uplifted.
After a series of turns, the tight “slot” nature of Mosaic Canyon changes to a broad, wide canyon with high, steep rock walls. This area is known as “Upper Mosaic Canyon”, and on days where the trail is busy, this is where you will find solitude. While the upper portion of the canyon does not feature the smooth carved marble of the lower portion, it does feature many unique geologic items. From the end of lower Mosaic Canyon, it is a relatively level two mile hike to a smooth carved dry marble waterfall. This is an area that does feature some flow during or after winter storms; and is also an area where rock climbers practice their trade during the dry months. If you have the gear, and the skills, it is a great climb, but if you do not have the gear, or the skills, this dry fall is an area best left alone, as it is quite high. If nothing else, the dry fall provides a convenient point to turn around to descend back down the canyon, while noticing things you did not see along the way for a great introductory four mile hike of Death Valley.