USGS - science for a changing world

Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


Death Valley field trip buttonDeath Valley geology field trip

Golden Canyon stop 7

Golden Canyon badlands
Golden Canyon badlands. Photo by Ray Nordeen, NPS.


In the Golden Canyon and Zabriskie Point area, these fine-grained sedimentary rocks have been intricately sculpted to form one of Death Valley's many spectacular landscapes. Plants are very rare here and are usually found only in the canyon washes.

Why are these hills so barren? The extreme climate is not the only answer. The story of these ‘badlands' begins and ends with water. The ancient lake deposits through which you are walking are quite impermeable because of the clay and mud that they contain. Instead of soaking into the ground, rain quickly runs downhill, washes away any topsoil, and prevents plants from taking root. The combination of impermeable rocks, steep and barren slopes, and sporadic but sometimes intense rainfall leads to high surface run-off. The formation of the numerous gullies and ravines that characterize the badlands is simply Nature's way of efficiently removing so much excess water.

It's All Downhill

In addition to water, the force of gravity is working to carry rock material down to lower elevations. The first step in this process is the fracturing of the rock that occurs mainly because of regional stresses that are affecting the area. Physical and chemical weathering then attack the rock along these zones of weakness. Because of mild winters in Death Valley, freezing and thawing of water is less important here than in colder climates. However, deposits of salt concentrated within the cracks will grow and expand and can further break the rock apart. As the rock is broken down into smaller pieces, water and gravity are able to transport them more easily.

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
| Death Valley Geology Home | | Virtual Field Trip | | Geologic History |
| Image gallery | | Geologist's page | | Death Valley National Park

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: G & G Webmasters
Page Last Modified: 13-Dec-2016@16:40