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.
By combining the explanations with the photos, the special character of these extreme places becomes clearer. Their promotion through an accumulation of scientific knowledge is certainly beneficial for the largest number of people.
I wish I had more scientific knowledge of Death Valley to share. So much can be seen in the topography and rock layers but to know how it all came to be would take a lot of study.
Amazing landscape, Kelly! 🙂 🙂
Thanks, Jo! Was fun to explore!
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I don’t know how any tribe could live there! Thanks for posting these pictures — it really is desolate. But in that emptiness I can see the bare beauty of it all.
Agreed! The bare beauty is what makes it so unique and captivating.
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I was (embarrassingly) unaware of the Timbisha Shoshone in that area and also realize now how little of Death Valley I actually covered when I was there briefly with my older parents. Just another place I need to go back to, I guess!
I was unaware as well, Lex. It wasn’t until I read the sign and saw the road to one of the tribal areas near Furnace Creek that I dove deeper and learned about the history of the Timbisha Shoshone. There’s so much US history that is never taught, and the foundation for most students (myself included) was/is that the US was empty before the European settlers arrived. It’s up to all of us to keep asking questions, learning, sharing and discussing like we are now. Thanks for reading! More on DV coming soon! And we might even go back this weekend to camp and see more.
Great pics. Looks desolate!
Thank you! We might go back this weekend to camp and see more.
It’s such an amazing landscape. It’s one of few US national parks that I’ve actually been to – way back in ’78. I remember it very well, especially since we were there (quite by chance) during wildflower season.
Lucky you to see Death Valley with wildflowers! We need to put that on our list to see. Now that we’ve driven there from here, we know we can go for a weekend — we might even go back this weekend! Thanks Alison! xo
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Visiting barren places like this always makes us wonder, what or who can live there? But in most cases, they surprise us with the fact that they actually support a good amount of life, at least more than what we expected. I’m also curious about those old subway station entryways. Do you know where they were once used? I suppose when their heyday had become a thing in the past, they were dumped in Goldfield.
Good question. I have no idea where the subway entryways came from but it would have to be a big city with underground stations… maybe New York, Chicago or possibly San Francisco although I’m not sure when SF’s system was built. And also, how did they end up in Goldfield? Middle of nowhere! A mystery. 🙂