Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Las Vegas

After experiencing nearly a week of solitude in the desert, I broke the silence on Christmas Eve by spending a day on the strip in Las Vegas.  All of my assumptions about the strip, based mainly on old Hollywood films, were completely unfounded.  Las Vegas has transformed this area into something akin to Disneyland with a twist, the twist being gambling (okay, and strippers).  If one can manage to ignore the street peddlers advertising various forms of adult entertainment (and their peddling is not even that overt, mainly just clicking together baseball-like cards with pictures of naked women on the front), there is really no sign of anything shady or sinister about this 4.2 mile long strip of casinos.  It has become a family friendly mecca of entertainment, dinning, and shopping.

A night stroll through the neon lights is worthy of a visit in its own right.  The strip is alive, vibrant, and full of energy, both literally and metaphorically.  I can’t find any official statistics on the amount of electricity consumed on the strip, but unofficial estimates put Las Vegas as a whole on the order of thousands of MW per day during the summer, with 20% of that being consumed on the strip.  This is opulence on a grand scale, not to mention it is occurring in an extremely arid environment where severe demands on limited water resources are present.  Though Las Vegas and Nevada are making strides toward greater reliance on renewable energy sources and water conservation, the question I kept asking myself was how long can we sustain this desert resort and countless other communities scattered across the drought stricken west, and if we do sustain them, what will be the long term costs?  Is it worth depleting the Colorado River to a trickle?

The fountains of Bellagio.
Planet Hollywood and Paris Las Vegas.
Thousands of tourists pack the sidewalks along Las Vegas Boulevard on any given night.

The Strip viewed from the Paris Las Vegas Eiffel Tower.
Hoover Dam and the Colorado River, sustaining a way of life for much of the desert southwest.

Death Valley

I left rainy southeastern Alaska during the middle of December for the sun soaked Great Basin.  Denise Carl joined me in Vegas via Tacoma, WA, and we headed north across vast desert valleys surrounded by scorched mountain slopes, then made a brief jaunt west from Beatty, NV, up over a mountain pass, and descended into Death Valley.  This valley is a land of big extremes.  The elevation ranges from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, to 11,043 feet above sea level at the summit of Telescope Peak.  The highest air temperature in the world, 134 F, was recorded on July 10, 1913 at Furnace Creek.  The average annual precipitation ranges from 1-3 inches, with an extremely wet year being 6 inches.  Our trip in December was characterized by temperatures in the 30s and 40s during the morning, and mid 70s during the afternoon in the middle of the valley.  In addition, rain and snow showers occurred as I drove west from Beatty during the night of Christmas Eve.

Mornings and evenings were dedicated to photography…the light was too good to pass up.  During the afternoon, we explored the geologic wonders of the valley.  A full day was dedicated to Sidewinder Canyon, which is embedded in an alluvial fan located ~15 miles south of Badwater Basin.  I forgot the notes I took for this canyon, and we ended up hiking up each individual gully, searching for a popular slot canyon, which we eventually found late in the afternoon.  For what it’s worth, this canyon is located in the far right wash (when viewed from the parking area).  The next day, we drove out to Rhyolite, NV, which is a ghost town located a few miles west of Beatty.  The site is full of crumbling buildings that pay testament to the brief gold rush that occurred in the area during the early 1900s.  We then drove north through Death Valley and explored Uebehebe Crater, which formed as volcanically heated water and gas violently exploded several thousand years ago.  We felt obliged to descend into the 500 foot deep crater, no sweat, but the climb back up was grueling…I can only imagine what it would be like during a hot summer day.

I booked a hotel room at Stovepipe Wells, which is located roughly in the middle of the National Park, very close to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  The accommodations were simple, but we weren’t looking for luxury, just a base camp to explore the park.  The Stovepipe Wells restaurant provided decent food and friendly service.

Sunset during the descent into Death Valley.
Starry sky above a weathered bush and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Light painting at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Rhyolite, NV, a gold mining ghost town.
Rhyolite, NV.
Uhebebe Crater
Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.
Evening shadows in Death Valley.

Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire State Park is located about an hour north of Las Vegas.  It derives its name from the brilliant red sandstone that prevails throughout the park.  Erosion has carved the sandstone into complex grotesque shapes.  In some ways, these formations are similar to Arches National Park in Utah, though perhaps at a less grand scale.  In addition, there is a formation located near the end of White Domes Road, called the “Fire Wave,” that is very similar to “The Wave” in northern Arizona, though not as colorful, intricate, and expansive as its Arizona counterpart.  I spent two days in the park, but didn’t get a chance to photograph the sandstone landscape during the best light of morning and evening.  Short trails are located throughout the park, the most popular being White Domes, and the Mouse Tank, where hundreds of Anasazi petroglyphs can be viewed.

"Seven Sisters" sandstone formations in Valley of Fire State Park.
The "Seven Sisters"
"Seven Sisters"
"Seven Sisters"
"Seven Sisters"
Sunrise viewed south of Valley of Fire State Park.
Sunrise viewed north of Valley of Fire State Park.
Sunrise landscape north of Valley of Fire State Park.
The "Fire Wave."