Night-hike to the Panamint Dunes

There was no Chuck Wendig Challenge this week, which fit nicely with my intention to do a little creative non-fiction, with photos. We spent Tues-Sunday last week visiting Death Valley and the environs in search of stunning desert landscapes and spring wildflowers. We found both. The Panamint Dunes are located in the far north end of the Panamint Valley, which is the next valley west of Death Valley proper and part of the National Park.

Night Hike to the Panamint Dunes

Six miles of rough dirt road behind us, and a hasty dinner prepared and eaten, we hoist loaded packs as the last of the evening light fades away. The sun set early behind the Inyo Mountains, and at 8 p.m. the full moon isn't up. Even so, we can see our goal: the Panamint Dunes are pale in contrast to the surrounding mountains and the scrub-covered alluvial fans that surrounded them. Headlamps, even though I forgot to replace the dying batteries, are enough to show us the footing and avoid injuries as we pick our way over rocky ground near the parking area. Bits of the mountains  have washed down the slope toward the dry lake bed in the bottom of the valley. The poor footing for the first quarter mile worries me. If it's like this all the way, it will be a very long hike indeed.

Happily, we soon pass the rocky portion of the fan, and the rest of the 3-mile approach provides fairly smooth footing. We pick up the pace, dodging around bushes and following sandy washes where they angle off in more or less the right direction, abandoning them when they move too far upslope. There are footprints in places, telling us less that we are on the right route than that pretty much any route will do, as long as we keep pointing at the dunes.

The full moon should have risen as the sun set, but the ring of mountains means that the early sunset is followed by a delayed moonrise. We hike for 20 or 30 minutes before it tops the ridge to the east. Light hits the dunes first, giving them a ghostly beauty. When it reaches us, headlamps become a silly waste. The moon is brighter. We turn our lamps off and let our eyes adapt to the night. A deep shadow lies between us and the dunes, but though our pace is fast, the moon rises faster. We never catch the darkness, and move with greater confidence.

Just over an hour sees us over three miles in, 700-odd feet higher, and starting to sink into the sand. Vegetation is thinning and it's time to make camp. The moon allows us to do that still without lights, so that though we realize that others are camped a few hundred yards off (mysteriously, they keep their lights on, even while sitting and presumably enjoying the night) they probably don't know we are there. The night is calm, and the view well worth savoring. When it grows too chilly for comfort, we crawl into our bags, knowing we'll be up well before sunrise.

Morning on the Dunes
Our early start means that we have eaten breakfast and are well up the dunes (which rise only a couple of hundred feet beyond our camp) before the sun hits. The morning is best told in photos.

 Dawn breaks on the Panamint Valley.

Desert mornings can be chilly. We are well-bundled to eat our cold cereal.
 As the sun rises, the moon sets over the Inyo Mountains (we really only see the foothills here).

 Dune fields yield endless patterns of light and shadow and texture.
Curves and shadows and contrast with the eroded hills beyond.

 Even footprints add to the textures.

 Low sun turns footprints along the ridge into a braided piping for the edge of a dune.

If you think a dune is a dead place, look more closely. More like Grand Central Station!
Beetle tracks
There were also some kind of ground-dwelling bees, busily digging their holes.
Not the best photo. The bees wouldn't hold still.

Seems like every dune field we visit has a characteristic species. In this case, it was the prickly poppy.

When the sun grew hot, we returned to our tent, broke camp, and hiked the hour back to the car. Just for fun, here's our rather low-clearance Prius trying to cope with one of dozens of small gullies/washes that crossed the road. You can drive a lot of "4wheel drive" roads in a small sedan, if you go very slowly...and can muster a certain indifference to the sounds of the car depreciating beneath you.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!


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