VALLEY OF FIRE
About 55 mile northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, is the Valley of Fire, a vivid land of bold cliffs amidst the grandeur of the Mojave Desert. Birth of the Valley is a story recorded in the pages of geological history, a story I shall briefly recount.
Beneath The Sea: Far to the north, in what today is northwestern Utah, are the oldest rocks in the region, more than two billion years old. At the time our story begins, however, they were near the southern edge of the North American continent, and today’s Valley of Fire was part of the sea floor.
As the sea floor moved northward, islands, mountain ranges in the sea floor, and perhaps even pieces of other continents were carried along on this giant conveyor belt and crushed against the southern part of the North American continent. Then, sometime around a billion years ago, heat from deep within the Earth caused a north-south ridge to develop through the newly sutured continent. This ridge ruptured to the east of the Valley of Fire and the continent ripped apart in a northerly direction. The western fragment drifted slowly away from North America and is probably lodged, as a portion of central Siberia, in what is now Asia.
The rift between the remaining continent and the drifting western fragment filled with dark, heavy, molten rock from below the Earth’s crust. The thermal swelling along the continent’s edge slowly contracted as the heat began to subside. About 6OO million years ago, as the continental margin gradually sank, sea waters flooded the low-lying heavy rock and a new ocean was born over the Valley.
The ocean’s shimmering waters were hundreds of feet deep and extended as far as the eye could see in all directions. Myriad plants and animals thrived in the warm waters, and life evolved in complexity during the 3OO million years the ocean covered the Valley, as simple jellyfish and worms gave way to clams and complex fishes.
Life evolved explosively in this fertile environment, and virtually every niche was occupied by living beings. The ocean occasionally retreated, leaving piles of shells and vast limy mud flats to dry, crack, and harden under the Summer sun. But for most of the 3OO million years, the Valley was a watery world in which thick piles of lime mud and shells were deposited, layer upon layer.
Each change in the water’s condition—temperature, chemistry, or depth—left its mark as a distinct limestone bed that formed as accumulations of plant and animal remains sank to the ocean floor. These accumulated deposits ultimately buried the Valley under several miles of ocean sediments.
The Land Rises: About 225 million years ago, the sea floor began rising slowly in response to thermal nudges from the large swirling currents in the molten lake deep below the Earth’s crust. As these slow-moving currents pushed against the thin skin of the hard surface crust, it yielded to the gargantuan pressures. As the crust shifted, large pieces, called “plates,” moved en masse.
Some plates, composed of light-weight, silica-rich rock, floated to the surface during the earliest days of the Earth’s history. This light-colored silicate scum formed the continents and contains the oldest rocks on Earth. The plates of the sea floor, on the other hand, are dark and heavy. When the plates move toward one another, the heavy plates of the sea floor are forced under the lighter-weight continental plates. This causes the surface of the land to buckle and be forced upward, which happened when the oceanic plate to the west of North America moved obliquely against the continent. These powerful forces lifted the land west of the Valley.
As the land rose and the water became progressively shallower, fine mud was washed in from the emerging areas of land. The ocean floor, formerly blanketed by shells and deposits of lime, became more muddy and sandy. As the water became shallower, it became increasingly susceptible to rapid changes in temperature and salinity. Waves and currents often roiled the shallow bottom, which caused those plants and animals adapted to deeper water to give way to worms and clams that favored the growing sandy conditions.
Once There Was A Forest: About 15O million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs, a forest of primitive evergreen trees called “Araucarian pines” grew several miles outside the Valley along the edge of the sea. Several species of Araucaria, the best known of which are the Norfolk Island Pine and the monkey puzzle tree, can still be found growing in Australia, South America, and other places south of the equator.
Storms and floods carried branches and whole stems of these trees into the ocean. As trees became waterlogged and sank to the ocean floor, where they were buried by hundreds to thousands of feet of mud and sand. Here, in secret, the woody materials were slowly altered, molecule by molecule, and replaced by silica, quartz, and other minerals until the trees had turned to stone in an almost-exact replica of their original design.
Then Came the Sand: The sea eventually retreated totally from the area and was replaced by sluggish streams that deposited veneers of coarser sand on the mud flats. Occasional torrential rains, which caused flooding in the stream channels, washed coarser gravels from distant highlands onto the mud flats.
Beginning about 14O million years ago, mud and sand took over from the sea and reigned nearly 75 million years, during which time the Valley’s limestone was covered to a depth of about 4,5OO feet. Carried by winds from the erosion of distant highlands, masses of lofty, shifting dunes—sometimes thousands of feet high—piled up in the Valley. Over time, the grains of sand became cemented together with iron to form “fossil” dunes (called Aztec Sandstone) almost a half-mile thick.
And The Mountains Rose: Then, about 1OO million years ago, the sea-floor plate that lay beneath the Pacific Ocean to the west of the North American continent moved directly against the continent. As the heavy oceanic plate was forced below North America, it created titanic forces in its resistance to being push under the continent. Despite its resistance, the sea-floor plate moved beneath the continental plate, where it melted and injected its lighter-weight components upward into the continent.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains thus began to form as gigantic intrusions of molten rock forced their way up into the Earth’s crust, shoving aside the existing continental rock. The rise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California not only began to trap moisture on the mountains’ western slopes, which caused the region east of the mountains to become increasingly dry, but also closed southern Nevada’s outlet to the sea some 25 million years ago. Since then, erosion has been the dominant geological activity in the Valley.
While Time Created The Rocks Of Today: The magnificent rock formations in the Valley today have been created largely by the fracturing of the Aztec Sandstone. Although some fractures are a result of movement within the Earth, others in the old, brittle sand dunes are not. Instead, the vertical faces in many of the cliffs result from the collapse of sandstone blocks along vertical cracks as that last grain of sand gave way to the pull of gravity.
Chemical erosion has altered the original materials and has created brilliant colors. The rusting of iron has created deep red sandstone, some of which became white as the iron leached out. In addition, the palette of chemical change has created bands of pink, lavender, burgundy, purple, gray, yellow, and green.
The surfaces of some rock faces are coated with a black substance called “desert varnish,” which is a result of chemical action. Leached from the rock, iron and manganese are deposited on the rock’s surface as water emerges and evaporates over thousands of years, and is perhaps modified by microscopic plants. These blackened surfaces were favored by the Valley’s first inhabitants as ideal sites to carve picture writing.
Both groundwater and rainwater are constantly dissolving the cement from among the grains of sand that compose the Aztec Sandstone. Due to differences in permeability, the original process of cementing the grains together was discontinuous and irregular. As a consequence, some parts of the sandstone are more loosely packed and more readily eroded by water than others, which created the domes, arches, and rock chimneys, in addition to potholes and hollows in the stone that are used as refuge by birds, mice, and desert woodrats.
Because the sandstone was cemented together one grain at a time, it’s not surprising that it is dissolving the same way. Today, grains of sand, released from their millennial bondage, once again blow across the desert, forming little dunes.
Water dissolves minerals and redistributes them; it freezes and thaws with its wedging effect that causes cracks in the rocks to grow. Raindrops pound the rock and soil, and the awesome power of flash floods give water more importance than wind as a force of erosion.
Nevertheless, sand, blown by the wind, changes the Valley as it polishes stones and is distributed and redistributed to form small dunes on the lee sides of vegetation and ridges. Other surfaces are swept clean of sand, leaving them covered with a coating of gravel known as “desert pavement.”
Somewhere In Time The Indigenous Peoples: Lost in the eons of the past is the moment when the first humans entered the Valley during the latter part of the great ice age, some eleven thousand years ago. Although the great ice sheets did not reach the Valley, cool, moisture-laden winds from the melting glaciers blew southward into the Valley, which was a profusion of vegetation and flowing streams of cool water. Herds of deer, elk, and antelope grazed in the Valley along with horses, camels, and a close relative of the present-day mountain goat. And there were ground sloths along the streams’ margins and giant beavers within their waters. One of the main predators was a large, dog-like animal call a dire wolf.
Other humans existed in the Valley four thousand years ago, during a time when the climate was cooler and wetter then today and bighorn sheep were abundant. From 4,OOO years ago to 2,3OO years ago, the Valley was occupied by people organized into small groups called nuclear families, each consisting of two to four men who, with their wives and children, wandered amongst their favorite hunting areas.
The men, using spears and atlatls (throwing sticks), hunted bighorn sheep, the most important source of food. The women and children caught rabbits, hares, tortoises, and other reptiles and collected and prepared plants to supplement their diet of sheep. When the bighorn population declined from over-hunting or became wary of the hunters, the families abandoned their camps only to return as the sheep once again repopulated the area. During times of good hunting and leisure, these people created elaborate artistic designs (called petroglyphs) on some of the rock faces by carefully pecking into the black desert varnish on the surface of the sandstone.
As the population of humans increased, the climate became warmer and drier, gradually forcing the culture to adapt to the changing conditions. Between 2,3OO years ago and 1,3OO years ago, food was too scarce in the Valley to permit long periods of occupancy, so the people settled along the Virgin and Muddy rivers outside the Valley of Fire. Even here, hunters, formerly dependent mainly on bighorn sheep, had to pursue such small game as rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, lizards, snakes, and birds to augment their kill of desert bighorn sheep and mule deer. The atlatal, still in use during the early part of this period, was eventually replaced with the bow and arrow, which was easier to carry, more accurate, and allowed repeated shots within a short time.
Gathering seeds, tubers, and berries became increasingly important in maintaining subsistence as did the peoples’ reliance on the streamside areas, where the plants grew. With increasing dependence on plant food, risks of survival lessened, the population grew, and placed ever-increasing pressure on the fragile environment, which forced people to move to less productive areas.
At some point during this period, people migrating northward from Mexico brought farming to the area. These migrants were called the Anasazi (Ah-nah-SAH-zee), a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.” Early Anasazi people, often referred to as the Basket Makers, not only began to cultivate corn, squash, and beans near their villages along the riparian bottom lands of the Virgin and Muddy rivers but also began to store food in the event of lean times.
Around 1,7OO years ago, the Anasazi learned how to use clay to make sun-dried cookware, a technique that was gradually refined into the making of pottery. The art of making pottery played an important role in transforming the growing Anasazi population into a more highly organized, ritualized society.
Somewhere around 1,3OO years ago, the Anasazi discovered they were not alone; the Lower Colorado Yuman people had migrated into the area from the south, and about 1,1OO years ago, the Paiutes also migrated into the area. As economic competition grew among these diverse peoples, the climatic conditions became even hotter and drier. The Anasazi abandoned the region around 85O years ago, which left the area, including the Valley of Fire, to the Southern Paiute culture.
The Paiutes had already adapted to the desert, and unfettered by the ties of extensive farming and village life, lived in close ecological balance with their surroundings. The Paiute’s population was low because small family groups lived a nomadic life of hunting and gathering by following the seasonal harvests from one place to another.
The Valley, with its wide altitudinal range, was ideally suited for the seasonal use of the Paiutes. The season of greatest use was probably in the Spring, when water would gather and remain in depressions in the rocks and edible plants would be in their greatest abundance.
The Paiutes believed that the land would supply their needs, and with their simple but effective technology and hard work, the land did indeed grant them an adequate lifestyle. They were conscious of and dependent on Nature’s cycles. They didn’t seek to conquer the desert, for they neither considered that they owned it or that Nature was their enemy. Their way of life was thus harmonious with their environment, and they asked from the land only that which it could supply. So in the end it was the Paiutes that the European invaders found living in the Valley when they first entered the area.
Then European Invaders Arrive: The first European to reach what is now southern Nevada was Francisco Garces in 1776. Few followed until half a century later when Jedediah Smith, the famous mountain man, led the first party of fur trappers along the Virgin River in 1826. During the 183Os and 184Os traders and travelers from Santa Fe, New Mexico, followed Smith’s route along the Virgin River, known by then as the “Spanish Trail.”
The number of travelers increased greatly in the late 184Os. The old Spanish Trail, which had been use mostly by pack trains, gave way to new immigrants coming via Salt Lake City, Utah, on their way to California. The trail from Salt Lake City became known as the “Mormon Road” and was used mostly by wagon trains. It remained the primary route through the region until the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad replaced it in 19O5.
The sudden, intrusive arrival of the European culture was traumatic to the Paiutes. Although there were occasional hostilities between the invaders and the Paiutes, often over the ownership of animals, the most devastating effect on the Paiutes was the invaders’ believe in private property.
Beginning in 1864, Mormons, who settled along the Muddy and Virgin rivers, simply evicted the Paiutes from their ancestral land. The Mormons took away from the Paiutes their most productive riparian environments and then diverted water from the rivers and springs for intensive irrigation of agricultural crops, and in so doing, destroyed the Paiute’s way of life.
In addition, the Mormons felled, for fuel and timbers for mining operations, the piñon pine forests on which the Paiutes relied for food. And the Mormons introduced vast numbers of grazing livestock and European diseases. The former destroyed the Paiute’s food and medicinal plants, and the latter all but decimated the Paiutes themselves.
Once again, a resident human culture, having evolved a sense of place over many centuries, was immediately condemned and struck as valueless by an invading one, which considering itself superior. Thus, in 1872, their culture destroyed, the Paiutes were forced onto the Moapa Indian Reservation, which consists of about 72,OOO acres along the Muddy River. Little of the Paiute’s material culture survives, but they still take pride in their indigenous philosophies and attitudes.
The Valley of Fire was established as Nevada’s first state park in 1935, and is still its largest.
Zane and I Enter The Valley: Zane, my beautiful wife, and I first see the Valley of Fire in May 199O, and we are instantly captivated by some mystical sense that seems to emanate from the rocks, an ancient remembering hanging like a cloak in the air. Is it the endlessness of forgotten time or that the spirits of olden days still wander the Valley, their voices whispering in the desert wind? It’s nothing we can explain or define, but over the next two years we are drawn repeatedly to the Valley. And always the Valley offers us a sense of ancient spirits gathered to share our little secretive fires amidst the boulders fallen from the long red mountain of Aztec Sandstone, which looks like a dinosaur’s naked spine protruding above the surrounding desert’s floor.
Each time we go to the Valley, we see a different snapshot in the march of millennia. A moment earlier the scene was different in some tiny hidden way, and in the next instant it will be different again. The only constant is change, and for an instant in forever we are part of it.
We share the Valley with desert woodrats whose collections of sticks and old bones fill special crevices in the rocks. We visit with tarantulas, white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, and black-tailed jackrabbits. We talk to lizards sunning themselves and those scampering at our approach. Canyon wrens and desert sparrows sing for us, and ravens call as they fly overhead. We find exposed on the desert floor multicolored petrified wood, including whole trunks of the Araucarian pines, whose sides have little troves of minute crystals sparkling in the sun. And we see rocks whose rough gray bodies guard fossil seashells, corals, sponges, and sea lilies from the time when the Valley was a vast ocean teeming with marine life.
The winds of Winter blow cold as we walk bundled up amidst ever-changing stream channels, exploring the nooks and crannies of giant boulders with their ghostly sculpted faces, and poke around the edges of the Dinosaur’s Backbone. We find snug hollows amidst the boulders, where we collect the faded stalks of last Spring’s grasses and the long-dead wood of creosote bush, cat’s claw, and Mormon tea to feed our little fires.
Here, protected by boulder sentinels and warmed by dancing flames, we lose ourselves in the wispy plumes of whirling smoke that tell stories of other fires warming other people in a far and distant time. Here, far from the noise, greed, and pollution of Las Vegas, we eat our lunch, doze peacefully in the sun, and for a moment renew our bond with the Earth and with those who went before us into the Valley. In so doing, we add the whisper of our voices, if only for a moment, to the Valley’s ever-restless wind.
With the birth of Spring comes the bright green of new grasses and the delicate hues of desert flowers that smile at us briefly and are gone: the yellows of mustard, desert gold, and evening primrose; the lavender and pink of sego lilies; the whites and blues of desert poppy and astragalus; the oranges of desert mallow and California poppy; and the hot-pink of beaver-tailed cactus. Everywhere life is bursting—from the songs of birds and the whining and buzzing of insects to the seemingly timeless miniature gardens of gray, lavender, orange, yellow, and chartreuse lichens that grow almost imperceptibly over the centuries to cover the rocks with a splendid array of brilliant color.
Occasional Spring rains fill the long-empty stream channels with rushing torrents that are here and gone in a wink and in their passing soften the soil with moisture. Despite the water’s hurry, potholes in the channels’ rocks hold water for a time in quiet pools, a reprieve from the drying winds of a thirsty land. Here, in the magic of the moment, we cool our feet after a long day’s walk over sand and rock. Here, too, are strange little flies resting on the water’s surface only to be blown hither and yon by playful breezes that murmur of days gone by, of today, and of days yet to come as they waltz over the desert floor creating swirls of dust in their passing.
By early May, the sun’s intensity increases appreciably and our view of the Valley becomes surrealistic, shimmering in the day’s growing heat. Now the name, “Valley of Fire,” takes on a meaning apart from the red of the Aztec Sandstone, and our visitations ceased until late Autumn.
We are drawn again and again to the private little alcoves created and protected by the giant boulders’ massive arms at the base of the sheer cliffs along the flank of the Dinosaur’s Backbone. The area’s grip is irresistibly. So it isn’t until the Spring of 1992 that we venture into a vastly different part of the Valley.
The area we find this Spring is a gentler terrain of sweeping vistas that encompass meandering stream channels and low flat beds of sandstone with streaks of lavender, pink, gray, yellow, and purple coursing through them only to vanish in the distance towards the Colorado River. In other directions are tilted beds of red and white sandstone with intermittent hills and ridges of red, white, lavender, gray, pink, and purple. And everywhere butterflies minister blooming flowers.
Here, we enjoy sands of various colors—sands millions of years old. As I look at grain after grain under a magnifying glass, I see the whole kaleidoscopic tumble of history reflected in each grain from the beginning of the world ’til now. And here we rest under a lone cottonwood tree growing out of a dry streambed of apricot-colored sand flowing toward a larger streambed in which two deep pothole pools act as aquatic nurseries for the tadpoles of the red-spotted desert toad.
Although we don’t spend as much time in this part of the Valley because we discovered it so late, this land of rainbow sandstone and open space is somehow gentler, softer, and more feminine than that of the Dinosaur’s Backbone, and it has a powerful effect on us. We share it with the large desert iguana and desert horned lizard, as well the gridiron-tailed lizard, canyon wrens, ravens, swallows, swifts, black-tailed jackrabbits, and coyotes. And it’s only here that we see the distinctive tracks of the sidewinder, a small rattlesnake living in the sandy areas.
On the 13th of May 1992, we go to the Valley for the last time to say farewell to the spirits of rock and land, of plant and animal, and of those aboriginal peoples who went before us into the Valley. We reach the Valley early in the morning and are greeted by four creatures new to us: a red racer, which is a very fast, slender snake; a deadly poisonous Mojave rattlesnake; a Gila monster, one of only two poisonous lizards in the world; and two desert bighorn sheep, direct ancestors of those hunted in the days of old by a people long since in the land of spirits. In addition, we see a desert horned lizard and a raven or two, and from the rocky knobs comes the liquid, laughing song of the canyon wren.
So, as we bid farewell to the Valley of Fire, we thank it for being our spiritual sanctuary, where Nature’s truth enfolded us during our stay in Las Vegas, the hub of human excesses and corruption. The Valley in turn gives us a gift of memorable splendor. It shares with us encounters with some of its denizens we had not before seen and sends us away with the lilting laugh of the canyon wren echoing forever in our hearts. What more can we ask?
Beaver-tailed cactus in bloom.
It has now been a decade since last we were in the Valley of Fire, and we miss it terribly. But during those times when the Valley seems farthest away, the desert winds blow once again through the corridors of memory and into our hearts—winds bearing the gift of ancient voices whispering softly, gently through trackless sands of time, voices speaking of Cosmic Unity lest we in the rush of today’s modern world forget our place in the great cycle of life of which we are all an inseparable part.
The Valley’s history, prior to our seeing it, is based, in part, on: G.W. Fiero. 1988. Nevada’s Valley of Fire. KC Publications, Las Vegas, NV. 46 pp.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2002. All rights reserved.