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Monday, April 14, 2014

Muddy Footprints: Death Valley's Copper Canyon

I've been working my way through my grandfather's photographic slides and found a whole series from Copper Canyon, located in Death Valley.

The entrance to Copper Canyon (1954)

I did some research on the canyon because I got curious; I thought I knew most of the popular places, having crawled around Death Valley quite a bit in the last twenty years. I soon found out why I hadn't been there; Copper Canyon has been closed to the general public since the 1940s to preserve the multitude of fossilized tracks and artifacts residing there. It's an important find: Mary Leakey herself, among others, visited the area and helped with some of the identifications. My grandparents must have had an "in" with the rangers somehow because there were a lot of photographs of that area.

Copper Canyon from afar. (1954)

Entrance to Copper Canyon nowadays is pretty limited. The park service offers three guided hiking tours a year consisting of 15 people each. You can imagine how competitive those slots are, so they've set up a lottery system for the lucky 45 people. The dates are announced at the beginning of each year, and you can enter your name and number of people in your party by phone about 30 days before the scheduled hike. Needless to say, Mark and I have bookmarked that site and will be calling next year (this year's dates have already passed.)

(You can read about the lottery here.)

The interesting formations in Copper Canyon. (1954)

I'm sure there were much looser restrictions back in the 50's when most of these photos were taken. It was probably less regulated, partly because they weren't fully aware of how extensive the site was. The rules (and fines) have only become more harsh as the black market price for archeological artifacts has gone up. Sadly, the park service has had to resort to removal and collection of some of the fossils found due to "ongoing threats of theft and vandalism" that have occurred there. Actually, people aren't the only threat to the site; the occasional flash flood and the ever advancing erosion are constantly wearing the rock down. Of course, that same action occasionally uncovers some new specimens, so I suppose you could say it's a "wash." (Sorry about that. Desert humor.)

A massive upturned wall of fossilized muddy ground dubbed "The Barnyard" Among the impressions in the "mud" are tracks made by Two-toed camels, horses, big cats, various bird species and mastodon. (1954)
Prehistoric Two-toed Camel and big Cat tracks (1954)
Cat track enlarged

In any case, I'm pretty sure my relatives weren't up to anything nefarious in the canyon. Not only do I not recall any evidence of ancient artifacts lying around their house, I have not been the recipient of vast sums of questionable inheritance money earmarked from shady artifact dealers. All I've got are these old pictures to prove not only that the place exists, but that my grandfather was there doing his best to document these amazing things.

That will have to do until we can win that lottery and go see it for ourselves. I just hope the thieves and vandals leave a little something for us to see.

More muddy footprints. (1954)
Once again, all photos included in this post were taken by my grandfather, Wesley D. Temple.

(Much of the information for this post came from this published survey:
It's very informative and contains much more than I can convey here--and why should I? It's all there if you're interested.)

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