Day 3 - Valley of Fire

Las Vegas - Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire is our first stop on the Red Rock tour. On the 3rd day of our arrival in the US we get up early and hit the road to this amazing national park in Nevada. Last night we stayed up late chatting with our kind hosts and I didn’t catch up with sleep since we left Sofia, so I am a bit sleepy while trying to get out of Vegas with our rental. 

Everybody is leaving for work and the traffic jam is significant. We wait on a small ring road for almost half an hour, so our plans to arrive early at the Valley of Fire are a bit behind schedule. Nevertheless it is obviously too early as upon arrival we wait for another half an hour for the Visitors’ center to open. The rocky area starts right behind the building, so I use the time to take some photos of the magnificent red rocks,dotted with the so-called “honeycomb” and other cavernous weathering of the rocks. The sun is still not too high on the horizon, but is far from the sunrise golden hour, so we work with what we have. 

Arrival in the Valley of Fire. Fire Wave Trail

Wildlife is abundant in the Valley of Fire – when entering the park a Desert bighorn sheep crosses our path and while I am looking for good spots behind the Visitors’ center I stumble upon a flock of Gambel’s quail, searching for food and twittering cheerfully. 

At last we pay our tickets, take our map and are ready to enjoy the Valley of Fire. We decide to start at the North end of the park and gradually move towards the Southeast exit from where we will ride on to our next stay for the night – Bryce Way Motel in Panguitch, a mere 206 miles from here.

Most of the Valley of Fire National park can be seen by driving along the Mouse’s Tank Road, which crosses the park from end to end. There are convenient parking lots near most of the hiking trails, except for the Pastel Canyon hike, where you need to improvise a little bit. 

Our first hike for the day – the Fire Wave. While not so big and curvy as the more famous Wave in Arizona, this one is also spectacular, a real wonder of geology. And while in order to see the big Wave you need to participate in a lottery as there are too many eyes willing to observe it, this one is accessible without any complications. The surrounding area is also remarkable – giant rock formations, undulating striated rocks, enormous “ice cream” hills – the landscape is almost surreal. It is around noon, but not too hot as it is October now. A very pleasant wind is gently blowing on top of one of the nearby rocky hills and for the first time since my arrival I start to understand what a vast place North America is, while looking across the rocky landscape towards the endless horizon. Krassimir succeeds in slipping, while climbing down one steep rock, but luckily only my brand new hiking water bottle is bruised, while he and his camera are unscathed. 

Getting lost, almost. White Domes Trail.

We take our time as there is plenty to be shot and the weather is totally on our side – intermittent puffy clouds which turn the place around us in a constant kaleidoscope of shadows and light. The clouds diffuse the sun just enough to turn the surrounding rocks into an excellent photographic opportunity. I mostly do the clicking, while Krassimir takes the opportunity to speak to some other tourists. During our trip I come to realize that my friend is the most talkative and extroverted person I know. He doesn’t miss a chance to talk to absolutely ANY person we meet when the circumstances allow for it. 

On our way back to the car we decide to take the longer route directly through the wilderness, along a dry river bed, but at last our senses come back, after we realize there is no trail in this direction and the possibility of getting lost and being catched by heavy rain will definitely ruin the rest of the day. And the movie “Gerry” with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck is so vivid in my mind, that actually it is not hard for me to give up the plan without too much hesitation. 

Just across the road is another great hike from the Valley of Fire – the White Domes trail. We agree to skip it and just take some photos from the start of the trail towards the valley below. We cannot possibly cover everything in this amazing place in just one day. I am sure this trail is also worth it, judging by the view from the rock platform we are sitting on, but Pastel Canyon awaits us.

Pastel Canyon

As I mentioned earlier it is a bit hard to find a good spot and park the car safely on this part of Mouse’s Tank Road, but somehow we manage. At the time of our travel there wasn’t a trail sign at the start of the trail (perhaps not to encourage people to park dangerously here), but anyhow we find it, judging by another car, which is stopped nearby and with the help of the GPS I have brought with us. 

Pastel Canyon is truly amazing. When I made the routes for this trip I was pretty excited about the opportunity to visit Antelope Canyon (we booked several weeks in advance our guided walk there) as it is really famous among photographers. But Pastel Canyon for me is a truly underestimated place. The colors even on a cloudy day as it was that day are so vivid and extraordinary. You don’t expect to have to stop literally after every turn of this small canyon and just shoot, shoot, shoot. I climb on top of the walls where I can, take the low viewpoint and all the time I am sorry I didn’t take the tripod from the car. We quit at one point and go back to the car, as the clock is ticking and we still have a lot of ground to cover, but I am really glad we have stopped here. 

Lunch break among the "Layer Cake" of Rainbow Vista

Next we make a little detour from Mouse’s Tank Road and take Fire Canyon Road towards a promising viewpoint (at least on the map). When we reach it there are too many people, so we change plans and move a little back down the road, where we stop the car and just walk half a mile towards the rocky formations on the horizon, where we have our lunch of canned beans near a very interesting rocky hive. From here to the south and east the view is very rewarding and I succeed in taking quite a prolific series of photos. The geologic forces were so productive here that the different types of rock are mixing with each other like a layered cake. It is no accident that the Rainbow Vista trail starts here. But again we don’t have time for this trail either. 

Short Geology Lesson - Valley of Fire signature rock formations

Valley of Fire is a great place for geologists and geology buffs alike. Being part of the second group I really enjoyed the variety of processes and the resulting formations, which can be observed here. If you are interested read on, if not skip this part as it can be quite scientific.

The most interesting geo formations you can observe in the Valley of Fire are:

Desert Varnish

Desert varnish forms only on physically stable rock surfaces that are no longer subject to frequent precipitation, fracturing or wind abrasion. The varnish is primarily composed of particles of clay along with iron and manganese oxides.[2] There is also a host of trace elements and almost always some organic matter. The color of the varnish varies from shades of brown to black.[3]

Originally scientists thought that the varnish was made from substances drawn out of the rocks it coats.[7] Microscopic and microchemical observations, however, show that a major part of varnish is clay, which could only arrive by wind.[8] Clay, then, acts as a substrate to catch additional substances that chemically react together when the rock reaches high temperatures in the desert sun. Wetting by dew is also important in the process.[3]

However, a 2008 microscopy study posited that desert varnish has already been reproduced with chemistry not involving life in the lab, and that the main component is actually silica and not clay as previously thought. The study notes that desert varnish is an excellent fossilizer for microbes and an indicator of water. Desert varnish appears to have been observed by rovers on Mars,if examined may contain fossilized life from Mars’s wet period.

An important characteristic of black desert varnish is that it has an unusually high concentration of manganese. Manganese is relatively rare in the Earth’s crust, making up only 0.12% of its weight. In black desert varnish, however, manganese is 50 to 60 times more abundant. One proposal[9] for a mechanism of desert varnish formation is that it is caused by manganese-oxidizing microbes (mixotrophs) which are common in environments poor in organic nutrients.

Even though it contains high concentrations of iron and manganese, there are no significant modern uses of desert varnish. However, some Native American peoples created petroglyphs by scraping or chipping away the dark varnish to expose the lighter rock beneath. (source: Wikipedia)

Honeycomb weathering

Honeycomb weathering, also known as fretting, cavernous weathering, alveoli/alveolar weathering, stone lattice, stone lace or miniature tafoni weathering (Mustoe, 1982) is a form of salt weathering common on coastal and semi-arid granites, sandstones and limestones (Mustoe 1982). Honeycomb weathering is not limited to natural settings and can be seen to develop on buildings where a rate of development can be established. This rate can be as fast as several centimeters in 100 years (Mustoe 1982). Honeycomb weathering occurs throughout the world from the polar regions (French and Guglielmin 1999) to the equator. It produces pits in the weathered material, resembling a honeycombed structure. There are two distinct types of coastal honeycomb weathering: intertidal and supratidal.

For honeycomb weathering to occur, some research indicates that a source of salt is needed because the basic mechanism for this kind of weathering is salt heaving. Salt is deposited on the surface of the rock by saltwater spray or by wind. Moisture must be present to allow for the salt to settle on the rocks so that as the salt solution evaporates the salt begins to crystallize within the pore-spaces of the rock. Permeable rock is also needed so that there are pore-spaces for the salt to crystallize within. These salt crystals pry apart the mineral grains, leaving them vulnerable to other forms of weathering. It takes prolonged periods for this weathering to become visible, as the rock goes through cycles of wetting and drying. However, in some arid and hyper-arid environments (i.e. Southern Jordan), it has been found that the differential weathering that produces tafoni initiation and development may also be linked to freeze-thaw and wetting-drying cycles, in addition to lithologic and micro-climatic variations affecting moisture availability, residency, and source as the primary influence, as compared to salt factors (Paradise 2011).

Intertidal honeycomb weathering is found on horizontal planes in rock within the tidal zone. This type of honeycomb weathering is limited in its growth by the rate of evaporation from the sun. Once the depressions have grown large enough that the sun can not evaporate all of the water left in the gap by the retreating wave, the holes are as large as they will get, because the salt can not dry out and wedge grains apart any longer.

Compaction (cataclastic) bands

I struggled a lot to find some more normal language explanation online about these formations and luckily finally stumbled upon a fellow photographer’s blog –, who is also into geology. Here it is:

One particular geologic feature of note is what are known as “shear-enhanced compaction bands,” thin brittle fins of rock that rise almost vertically out of the ground and often run continuously for dozens to hundreds of yards. At first glance, these features look like mineral veins, but upon closer examination they are composed of the same material as the surrounding sandstone, but are obviously slightly harder than the host rock. In many places there are two perpendicular sets of the bands, forming a checkerboard like pattern superimposed on the sandstone.

The bands are the result not of stretching, but of compressional forces that predate the formation of the Basin and Range. Stresses associated with an earlier mountain building episode (known as the Sevier orogeny) created these funky bands by essentially “squeezing” together (and even breaking) the sand grains that make up the rock, eliminating much of the empty space between the grains and forming a miniature layer of tougher, harder, and more compact sandstone that is slightly more resistant to weathering and erosion. As a result, the bands tend to just out from the surrounding slickrock by several inches, and even several feet in some locations. For such a seemingly obscure feature, many papers have been written about these compaction bands (and similar ones in a few other locations in the region). However my understanding of the structural processes behind their formation is limited and the most recent articles about them appear to be behind a paywall. If anyone reading this has more insight into these things, I would love to hear from you.

As mentioned before, these bands are quite thin, in most less than a centimeter thick and thus, sadly, quite brittle. They are easily broken by an errant boot step so if you find yourself among them, tread carefully so that future visitors will be able to experience this unique and colorful landscape.”

If you are still not satisfied and need more science I can recommend you a very thorough coverage of the topic in Deformation bands and fractures in porous rocks


Petroglyph Canyon

But enough about geology. Let’s continue our hike through the Valley of Fire.

With the sun already starting to descend we speed up to cover the Petroglyph canyon. The clouds are not helping much and the area is rather dim rather than brightly lit, so the photos from this part of the Valley of Fire are not as bright as I wish, but anyway they convey the mysticism of the place. The red sandstone is covered in desert varnish and we observe evrywhere honeycomb weathering of the rocks. 

The Arch Rock

Seriously into the golden hour we leave for the Arch rock and finally for Elephant rock. Arch rock is situated in the southwest part of VOF Park and is best presented during sunset. We are quite lucky with the clouds that day and I am very happy with my photos of the Arch. The surface of the rock seems almost like wood with all the wrinkles and abrasions. Maybe we violated some of the rules of the park by climbing the Arch in order to take better photos, so I really don’t recommend you do it. (the same goes for climbing the Elephant rock, where we saw the NO CLIMBING sign already on our way down from this rock formation).  

The Elephant Rock

The Atlatl rock we observe only as passers by, not stopping to climb the ladder, which gives opportunity for a closer look at the famous petroglyphes on the rock surface. We definitely risk not to be able to take any photos of Elephant rock as the sun is obscured by clouds and almost hidden behind the hills. We also need to take in consideration the 20 minutes hiking towards the Elephant rock, which is just above the road, but one cannot park in the vicinity and needs to continue to the designated parking, which is a bit down the road. Anyway, again we are struck by luck that day – just when we reach the Elephant rock, the Sun brakes through the clouds and gifts us with the most amazing panorama to the East. The vista bathes in the golden light from the dying sun, generating a rainbow in some distant rain pouring down, while the hazy mountain tops and the dark grey clouds on the horizon almost melt in each other, not allowing the eye to make the difference – what is a cloud and what is an actual mountain.

Fully realizing how late we will arrive in our motel, we intentionally staye till the last light died out and took the best from this unexpected photo opportunity. The driving to Panguitch was tiresome, but was not able to erase the pleasure of this first day on the road. Valley of Fire is a great National park, which I heartily recommend to anyone. I am really surprised that it is seldom mentioned in the tour guides for this part of the States as a must see. And it is really close to Vegas, just some 50 miles, so don’t think too much before you go. Just grab your camera and some water, especially in the summer and give it a try. 

Before you go you can check our Behind the Scenes video from the Valley of Fire.