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Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


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Golden Canyon stop 2

Panamint alluvial apron
Boulders litter the narrow mouth of Golden Canyon after a flash flood. Photo by Gerry Wolfe, NPS.

An Abrasive Situation

Not long ago, a paved road wound through Golden Canyon. What happened to the pavement here? In February 1976, a four-day storm dropped 2.3 inches (5.7cm) of rain at Furnace Creek. On the morning of the fourth day, a violent downpour sent a tremendous surge of water, rock, and mud to flow through these narrows. Such sediment-laden floods work like sandpaper, cutting away and undermining the rocky canyon walls as they speed through the canyon. Pitted against the force of Death Valley's flash floods, Golden Canyon's paved road didn't stand a chance.

At this spot, the canyon is especially narrow, so flood waters are constricted and the speed increases. This increase in force is similar to the effect of placing your thumb over the mouth of a garden hose to constrict the flow of water. If you look closely at the walls of the canyon, you will see a coating of mud that indicates the depth of the water that once moved through these narrows. Nearly all of the rock debris that you observed near the mouth of the canyon has been transported by flash floods.

The narrow, deep shape of the side canyons of Death Valley indicate that the uplift of the mountains is relatively recent, consistent with other evidence that the landscape of Death Valley is quite young. These relatively rare flood events are so dramatic that their effects can even be noticed within the brief span of a human lifetime. Such geologic forces have been carving the canyons of Death Valley for millions of years, constantly sculpting and changing this desert landscape.

Continue hiking up Golden Canyon

Furnace Creek Formation in time
geologic time scale
Continue up canyon... On to next stop If you're going... Golden Canyon image gallery
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