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Artist’s Drive, Death Valley: Millennia Immortalised in Color

15 September 2016

If you’ve found the spot we dubbed Arizona Bay and soaked yourself back to full vigor there, you should be ready for more beauty of the scenic kind, the sort that takes your breath away at every turn of your steering wheel. Welcome to the nine-mile stretch known as Artist’s Drive.

Photo by Paxson Woelber

Don’t let me stop you there.

Thought you might perk up there. So this is the most magical scenic drive through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary layers of rock. The riot of colors is the result of millions of years of oxidation. The row of rocks is especially photogenic in late afternoon light. The nine-mile road is only driveable with vehicles less than 25 feet in length is and one-way. It begins from Badwater Road.

Okay…Well, I wasn’t expecting anything like this to exist in Death Valley.

Yes, say Death Valley, and most people will see images of a desolate, rugged, monochromatic landscape of sun-baked mountains and arid, blistering valleys in their mind’s eye. But Artist’s Drive is a winding road running along the face of the Black Mountains which rivals even the canyons in splendor, easy.

It begins from Badwater Road, you say.

It does. Artist’s Drive is a south-to-north loop that branches off Badwater Road and then up through an alluvial fan which formed during the Miocene, between 23 million and 5.3 million years ago.

Was that when dinosaurs roamed the Earth?

Nope, they’d gone extinct by then. The Miocene was like a kind of first draft era for mammals, something like this. Then, a few million years later, towards the end of the epoch, apes, chimps, early humanoid ancestors, and all that jazz began cropping up.

Running around with all that oil under their hooves and toes and whatnot.

And they didn’t have a clue. Crazy, huh? Anyway, so here in the Wild West, the Earth had a busy time with all-drenching flash floods that roared down the deep valleys and exposed buried – we’re talking five thousand feet buried – deposits of mica, iron, and manganese, amongst other minerals. These then duly oxidized in the bone-dry air, creating the cavalcade of colors that you see here today.

Do you know which mineral turned which color?

I looked it up not long ago. Iron combusted in red, pink, and yellow; mica gradually turned in green hues; and manganese produced shades of purple. And voila! Behold the brilliant rainbow of colors before you today.


Bucket list item.

Thought it would be. Roughly midway through the drive, you’ll come to the formation known as Artist’s Palette, which you’ve got to see to believe, that’s all I’ll say for now. But the whole nine miles of the ride through Artist’s Drive, dipping through the ancient mountain range will dazzle you with an orgy of colors on one side and breathtaking views of the salt flat below on the other. And all this bathed in the afternoon sun, and miles-thick quiet all around, minus the purr of your engine.

When’s your next rally there?

Next Wild West Challenge? Spring 2017. Click the banner above to see.

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