Edge of the Ubehebe Crater
October 25th, 2020
What a trip! If you’ve been following for the past few weeks, you know that J and I just returned from a spectacular tour of the southwest United States. We started in Death Valley, moved on to the Grand Canyon where we hiked to the bottom and back up in a day, and followed that with stops at Lake Powell, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Park City, Jackson, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. The trip was an extravagance of nature, wildlife, geology and vistas.
After 3,000 miles by car, we’re happy to be home (although would have kept going were it not for life’s obligations). I posted daily from the road — on my phone, often late at night, sometimes laying in the tent! But in the coming days and weeks I’ll be going back over our destinations in more depth with additional photos and videos… starting today with our journey to Death Valley’s Ubehebe (Oo-bee-hee-bee) Crater.
Departing from Lake Tahoe, our first day on the road takes us south on Highway 95 through Tonopah and Goldfield. In addition to lithium mines in development nearby, Tonopah is home of The Clown Motel — a surprising and creepy landmark on the way to Death Valley. We find the next town, Goldfield, a little more welcoming with its signs, memorabilia, desert cacti and antique subway station entryways leading to nowhere.
We arrive in Death Valley in the early afternoon as the temperature is reaching 100 F/38 C. The road opens to a void of rock and desert where life looks impossible or, at a minimum, very difficult. Who or what could possibly live here?
Death Valley is the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, as noted on the sign at the entrance to the national park. The Timbisha Shoshone have lived in the region for more than 1,000 years but when Death Valley became a national monument in 1933, there was no acknowledgement that anyone inhabited the area’s two million acres (later increased to 3.3 million acres). It was easy to believe this with such extreme temperatures, lack of water and little wildlife. But the Timbisha Shoshone have always called this region home, moving in and out of the valley based on the seasons.
Death Valley’s national monument designation greatly affected the tribe, as members were “relocated” to a 40-acre parcel with adobe homes. It wasn’t until 1983, when the Timbisha Shoshone finally received federal recognition as a tribe, that things began to change. Through activism by elders of the tribe, they began the battle to reclaim their homeland. After decades of struggle, the tribe was given 7,753 acres through the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act signed in 2000.
The tribe continues to live in Death Valley today, preferring to call it Timbisha (red ochre, a prized clay pigment found in the earth here) because for them, the region has never been about death. The Timbisha Shoshone have continually sustained their livelihood through practices including hunting, mesquite bean harvesting and foraging for pine nuts.
Driving past beautifully layered landscapes, we arrive at the Ubehebe Crater. The Timbisha Shoshone call this Wosa, or Coyote’s Burden Basket. As noted at the trailhead, Wosa is “the place where people emerged to spread in four directions across the land.” We walk along the crater’s edge — a slough of sand and gravel. The high point looms ahead of us while a look back provides good reference for scale.
The Ubehebe Crater looks as though it was formed on impact by an asteroid from outer space, but it was earth’s own inner fire that created the depression. About 2,000 years ago, magma under the surface caused a massive explosion of steam and rock covering six square miles/15 square kms. The crater is what remains of the blast site. Its perimeter wall has eroded ever since, revealing the sedimentary layers of the underlying geology.
It’s very windy on the crater’s edge and a sign warns us of the danger of getting too close. Trails continue on to smaller craters but standing here is a great vantage point on Death Valley’s relatively recent geologic activity.
After months at home, our first stop in Death Valley breathes new life into our quest for travel. New places create new questions create new opportunities to learn. This bleak moonscape of rock and sand is not so lifeless as it seems. Looking beneath the surface reveals layers of time and history, and a story still being written of the Timbisha Shoshone.
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.