Another day in California, another impeccably beautiful, sunny morning. With my phone having some sort of hardware issues that caused it to constantly turn itself on and off, I was driving with the aid of some hand-written directions in my journal to get to this park. When I arrived, I was dismayed to see a “PARK FULL” sign at the gate. At 10 am. On a Friday. This wasn’t an option, I had no backup plan!
I talked to the booth attendant, and he said I could park in the 10-minute staff lot and see if someone cleared out in the next 10 minutes. “Is this normal?” I asked. Apparently there was a large school group and some other event taking place, plus the normal amount of hikers, runners, equestrians and mountain bike riders. I slouched back in my car seat, waiting patiently for someone to exit the park.
After 10 minutes or so I walked back to the booth and the attendant waved me in. Yay! I’d get my nature time this morning.
I was handed a map with some trails highlighted on it. Presumably those trails had the best wildflower blooms today, so that’s where I headed. With a couple of hours to kill I picked a short loop to walk and set out on my way.
The trails were packed dirt and gravel, very well-traveled and baked in the hot sun. They cut through a heavily vegetated environment, with shade trees, grasses, shrubs, wildflowers, and blooming yucca plants. I’m not sure how to classify the yucca, nor am I sure how to pronounce it (YUCK-a or YOU-ka?). But the plants, with their alien-looking leaves and tall, flowering stalks, reminded me that I wasn’t in Oregon anymore.
Several people were out recreating today. One man warned me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. I kept both eyes out, to be sure, but I was disappointed to find not one single snake in the park. They must have been way out in the meadows.
The park was lovely in so many other ways. There were canyons, ridgelines, vistas, flat trails, steep trails, creek crossings, shady spots and sunny spots. Cactus grew alongside flowering shrubs and huge shade trees. I enjoyed the variety of landscapes and plants there. As I circled back towards the entrance, I was greeted by shrieks and screams from the various school groups. At least I knew I was heading in the right direction. In the parking lot, I paused to take a photo of a fun sign and then proceeded to make myself lunch.
As I sat in the car, munching on a sandwich and dreaming about picking those oranges, I wondered where my travels would take me next…
After just one day at the Free Movement Festival, I was ready for some nature time. I took some time off in the morning and headed for a county park.
The Upper Newport Bay Wildlife Preserve was just what my body needed. I had irritated my left knee in one of the workshops and wanted to take a casual stroll to get things loosened up. Dirt paths led through this oasis of nature, squeezed in between busy streets, dense neighborhoods and all manner of urban development. I enjoyed the strong sunshine warming my skin. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Some reminded me of food crops: radishes and mustard greens, while others looked like sunflowers.
Animals were everywhere. Butterflies dipped in and out of the flower fields. Bunnies hopped across the trail in search of shade. Squirrels played in the meadows. Lizards sunned themselves on the boulders. Land snails left tell-tale trails of slime across the dirt path. It was the total opposite of being in the city.
The park had several sitting areas with large boulders and a view of the bay. I sat and wrote in my journal, soaking up the sunshine, feeling the cool breeze coming off the water, and watched various people pass by on the trail. After a long, cold and snowy winter in Bend, I was thrilled to be basking in sunny Southern California. There I was surrounded by yellow blooms, smelling the salty air and walking around comfortably in a tank top. It was the medicine I needed to snap out of the winter doldrums.
My first experience with Orange County Parks was a positive one. The park was clean, well-signed, well-maintained, and obviously well-loved by the locals. I was ready to dive back into city life for day two of the festival.
I rolled out of my tent to a splendid view of the Sierra behind me. The wind had died down enough for me to get a fire going, eat breakfast and plan out my day. I had 270 miles of driving to do in order to get to my destination, and there were a few stops I’d planned along the way.
Whitney Portal Arch
In the weeks before my roadtrip, I borrowed a couple of California hiking books from the local library. While most of the epic hikes were located high in the Sierra, there were a few interesting, short hikes that were low enough for me to access this time of year. One of these was a 1 mile scramble to Whitney Portal Arch.
I’d put a post-it note with rough directions to the trail head in my map book and took a photo of the route with my phone. Between these two pieces of beta I was able to find the unmarked parking area and set off in the right direction. Just a short walk along a trail brought me to a view of the arch, then I ambled cross-country to get over to it.
The nearby hills cast long shadows over the desert so I stayed bundled up in my down jacket as I trekked through the desert sand, avoiding snagging my pants legs on the cactus. I hiked up to the arch and then all around it, looking for the perfect perspective. In my mind, I had envisioned the arch framing Mt. Whitney inside from just the right angle. It was, after all, called Whitney Portal. But without ropes or a step ladder there was just no way for me to capture the image in my head. Nonetheless, it was beautiful and quiet. I enjoyed the morning sunshine and then picked my way back across the desert.
I backtracked away from the mountains and pulled into the maze of roads surrounding the Alabama Hills. This place was surely no secret. Cars and RVs were everywhere. Miraculously I ended up at another unmarked parking lot that would be the start of my second hike: the Arch Loop Trail.
The trail wound up, down, over and through undulating sandy and rocky terrain. Wildflowers were just beginning to come in, and carpets of tiny flowers turned the ground yellow. The Arch Trail connected with another unmarked trail that I followed to a parking lot. Another trail branched off in another direction, and on and on. This would be an incredible playground to explore with many more days to hang out here. I didn’t have that luxury, so I retreated back to the loop. There were lots of people scrambling around the biggest arch. I took a quick look and finished up the hike.
Back on 395, there was one more quick and easy stop: Fossil Falls. I drove down a gravel road that took me to a parking area with a picnic table and pit toilet. I would have sat and eaten my lunch here but the winds had picked up again and it was brutal just being outside.
I took the short walk to the overlook above the dry waterfall. It looked familiar. Blocky basalt columns and water-worn potholes sprung out of the desert cinder, seemingly from nowhere. I noticed some pretty, delicate flowers struggling to stay upright in the wind. I took one photo and when I reached for my phone again, it had turned itself off. Weird. I powered it on, waited, and it started to reboot again. This cycle continued several times before I got frustrated and sat down out of the wind. I relaxed in the sunshine, phone tucked away in my bag, annoyed that I couldn’t document this place. Before I left, my phone came on temporarily and I hastily took a few pictures before it died. Time to hit the road again, and there was no way to find directions to any other parks…
Without a phone, I thought. What do I lose? My camera. My navigation system. My address book and phone numbers. My email, text and social media. My calendar. I couldn’t just buy a new one. It was under warranty, and they’d ship a new one to me…at my home address. But I’d be on the road for nearly two weeks. So that meant I needed to think on my feet. Fortunately I had all my hiking information in my journal and on paper maps. When I could get my phone to work I scribbled down any addresses I needed and drew maps of driving directions to get from place to place.
The one thing I couldn’t live without: a camera. I bought one at Best Buy the next day, so that I could continue to document my travel in photos. Lucky for you, I’ve got lots more pictures to share along with my ranting and carrying on.
Somewhere in California, I rolled out of my tent and discovered a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. It was freezing cold, and even my tough constitution was rattled so much that I just made hot water for tea and ate my breakfast in the car. It was day 2 of a 2-week roadtrip and I was just getting started.
I drove straight through the morning to my first hiking stop at Mono Lake. The Visitor’s Center was closed for the season but a tourist info place in town was open and I picked up a map from the lady working there. She recommended backtracking to the county park before visiting the more popular stops, so I did.
Mono County Park
It was probably a few weeks too early to get much excitement from this little park. Everything was still dead and it was very windy. I strolled down the boardwalk, stopping every few feet to note the historical depths of the lake, which were printed on signs. Modern Mono Lake is recovering from an aggressive water diversion program by the LA Department of Water and Power starting in the 1940’s. The lake’s level dropped significantly, losing half its volume and raising its salinity by double. This rapid change in conditions threatened the fragile ecosystem as well as the local water and air quality. In 1978 the Mono Lake Committee has fought to bring back the health of the lake and restore the volume of the lake to a sustainable level. Today it is well on the way to recovery, and serves as an example of how to balance the needs of the growing urban population with the needs of the surrounding environment.
At the end of the boardwalk I pondered all this as I watched the sun reflect off the white-capped surface of the lake. Tall, alien rock structures called tufa rose from the area surrounding the lake and broke the surface of the lake itself. The only reason we can see these incredible formations is because the water level is so low. Tufa towers form when calcium-rich mineral water from lake bottom springs react with the carbonate in the lake water itself, forming calcium carbonate: limestone. The limestone creates tower-like shapes around the spring, and when the lake level drops, the tufa towers are revealed.
South Tufa and Navy Beach
To get a really cool view of these mineral deposits I headed next to the South Tufa day use area. A short trail dotted with interpretive signs taught me even more about the lake’s unique geology as well as the local bird and plant life. The wind blew frothy foam at the edges of the lake, adding to the layers of interesting textures at the water’s edge. I meandered along the trail as it passed by the tufa and played around a little with taking handstand selfie pictures. These were not easy to do, since my handstand skills were a little lacking. But with some patience and luck I nailed at least one of them, and then continued along my merry way.
As the trail looped back towards the parking lot I saw a sign pointing to Navy Beach. I decided to detour along this connector trail and ended up on a secluded beach with even more interesting geological formations: sand tufa. These extremely delicate structures looked like a stiff gust of wind could blow them into oblivion. But there they stood, far from the edge of the lake, sand castles created by nature. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a treasure, as there was no one else on this little beach.
I had time for one more stop so I drove to the trailhead for Panum Crater. There were two trails here: the Plug Trail and Rim trail. I began on the Plug trail, which was well-marked until it suddenly wasn’t. After several dead-ends in the crumbly lava I backtracked to the rim. I hiked halfway around to a lovely panoramic viewpoint of the lake and took a snack break. A couple came up behind me and decided to go back the way they came, but I wanted to see if the trail went all the way around (it did). There was a steep little climb on the other side but I still got back ahead of them.
To camp, perchance to dream
I had a lot more driving to do so I set a course for Bishop and looked for a suitable campground. It was windy as hell everywhere I went, so I just settled on the Tinnemaha Campground. No one was there. I chose a spot adjacent to a little stream with some trees and a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. I parked my car on the windward side of the tent to try and act as a bit of a windbreak. On the bright side, the ripping winds dried out my soaking wet tent in about 10 minutes, so I had a cozy shelter to retire to after cooking up dinner.
Tomorrow’s journeys will take me all the way to Santa Ana, with some hiking stops on the way…
The Eureka Dunes are the second largest sand dunes in North America. We arrived under a full moon around midnight. Getting out of the car was a shock; the air temperature was about 50 degrees. Time for the puffy coat.
We set up camp at the first campground we saw. Three other sites were occupied. This was the most remote campground we’d found at the park. After quietly setting up our camp, we packed our bags and started walking towards the dunes.
Hiking under a full moon was an eerie yet beautiful experience. Here we were, in a place we’d never been, exploring it for the first time with no map and a vague impression of hills and shadows. We knew the highest dune was 700 feet tall, and that’s where we were headed. As we walked along the base of the dunes, we tried our best to sidestep the small desert plants growing there. Keeping our eyes on the highest visible point, we turned around occasionally to track our progress and relative direction from camp.
Walking up the gentle ridges and slopes made of sand was arduous work. The sand slid beneath our feet, making every step feel like three. It was difficult to judge steepness and distance with the dim light. I quickly warmed up and shed layers as we proceeded up the hills. Although my core was warm, the sand was ice cold so I had to keep moving to heat up my feet.
Atop the grandest sand dune, we stopped to look all around us. There was a ridge leading out towards the opposite side of the dunes that looked like it might be a little taller, so we ventured out there. Several bumps later we arrived at the end of the ridge, which dropped down to the dry lake basin several hundred feet below. Here we determined our turnaround point, where we sat for a long time. The adjectives needed to describe how I felt in those long moments have yet to be invented. It was at once surreal, mysterious, serene and blissful. We snacked on gummy dinosaurs as we tried to express to each other just how awesome it was to be there, in the moonlight, together. I’d say this was one of the most unusual and memorable hikes I’d ever had.
Eventually we figured we had to get back to camp, so we walked back, trying to avoid any unnecessary hill climbs as we did so. We investigated several clumps of plants and noticed the funny illusions the moon shadows made as we walked. Back in camp, I fell quickly into a deep and satisfying sleep.
Seeing the Dunes for the First Time
The next morning we woke up to bright sun reflecting off the mounds of sand outside camp. We reluctantly got up after only a couple hours of shut-eye, and I promptly made a huge breakfast. We dallied a bit around camp before going for a short daytime hike in the dunes.
The highest point? Been there, done that. Instead we took time inspecting the vegetation, looking carefully for endemic plants and unique flowers. We noticed lots of animal tracks from birds, mammals and reptiles. Instead of heading for the large dune like everyone else, we explored some of the smaller sand piles–arguably more tiring during the morning heat. It was a pleasant way to kill time in the morning. I was astounded by the views in all directions. I could see the single dirt road leading into Eureka Valley, as well as the rippling striations in the surrounding mountains. Footprints led in several different tracks up the sand dunes, with many people walking along the tracks we made last night.
Take a look at the wide open spaces at the Eureka Dunes:
Hiking around Eureka Dunes was the exclamation point that punctuated our trip to Death Valley. We headed out before noon and mentally prepared for the long stretch of driving ahead. We made a quick stop at Scotty’s Castle, which turned out to be a great place to sit and eat a picnic lunch.
Beyond that, we drove almost nonstop through stunning Central Nevada, where we stopped at Mill Creek Recreation Area to camp. This free, tent-only camp was one of the loveliest I’d ever seen. A thin stream babbled along behind our campsite. There were clean pit toilets available, nice fire rings and picnic tables. Plus there were mountain views in every direction. We were the only ones there that night.
I was utterly inspired by Death Valley. This beautiful and desolate place should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you do go, make an effort to get at least a little off the beaten path. Just be sure to bring a gas can with a few spare gallons.
I know, if you look at a map it’s pretty random which things we connected in a day. But we headed to Death Valley with just a rough plan and plenty of wiggle-room to make last minute decisions. This way we were able to get a feel for the place without feeling stuck to a rigid to-do-list. Today felt like the most random of them all.
We began on a hunt for Fall Canyon, which failed miserably due to a poor guidebook description and associated map. So, we settled instead on Titus Canyon since it began from the same parking lot. A one-way dirt road runs through Titus Canyon, which is open to car traffic–although we didn’t know it at the time.
We began walking past the gate, which led into a wide canyon with steep walls on either side. The guidebook we had described this as a “slot canyon,” but I’d say that was a very loose application of the definition. While the walls were sheer and dramatic, the canyon floor was broad and gaping. A well-graded, nicely manicured gravel road led us along the way.
The canyon was pretty, with imposing walls made of interesting rock types. Parts of the wall looked like it had been sprayed liberally with clay. There were wildflowers, birds, and the occasional vehicle blazing down the road. That was the worst part of all. Cars, trucks, and SUV’s came ripping around corners, forcing us to get off the road/trail to let them pass. How obnoxious. What surprised me the most was how fast most people were traveling. Considering the number of hikers on the road–including several older people with walking sticks, children, etc., the drivers were not proceeding with much caution.
Once the canyon opened up a bit and we got sick of cars, we turned around and headed back. This is a canyon to be skipped if you are traveling on foot. There are much better options for hiking. The park should close this down to hikers if they are going to permit vehicles to travel the road.
Darwin Falls: An Oasis in the Desert
Darwin Creek is one of only a few permanent water sources in Death Valley National Park. We drove to the other side of the park to check out this highly recommended destination. The hike is only 2 miles round trip, which gave us ample time to poke around and take a look at the diverse array of plants and animals.
And poke around we did! As soon as we left the parking lot, we noticed something was different. There were lush green shrubs and flowers aplenty. A trickle of algae-packed water ran down the canyon. Birds sang joyously, as if to say, “look what we found!” We walked ahead slowly as I stopped to photograph every unique wildflower that was there. Frogs sat lazily in a small pool formed by the ever enlarging stream. As we continued up the canyon we occasionally got our feet wet as we hopped across the narrowest parts of the water. What a drastic change from the past few days!
There were a bunch of people milling about near the base of the falls, including one large group who were downclimbing some slabby, exposed rock just above the pool. I knew there was a way to get to an upper viewpoint, but surely that was not the way. For the first time, the book had a reasonably good description of where to look so we backtracked a bit and began scrambling up some rock and gravel, getting away from the crowds. This was the first time I had to swap trail shoes for Crocs, since I didn’t quite trust them on the steep rock.
The upper viewpoint was killer. We ended up on a rocky platform with an excellent view of the main falls, a thin stream of water dropping eighty feet down to the water-carved rock below. No one was here. We savored this moment for as long as we could, taking pictures, noticing all the cactus growing straight out of the rock on the opposite side of the canyon, and watching the sun drop lower in the sky. Upon leaving, we noticed some huge raptor nests in the cliffs just over our heads. This was a very special place.
The walk out was probably no faster than the walk in. This time, I was distracted by cactus. See, in wet, Western Oregon, cactus is like a thing that only exists in cartoons. I never get to see real, live cactus–the potted plants from the grocery store don’t count. Here, cactus grew wildly. The more I looked, the more I found. It was like a spiny Easter egg hunt, and it was really fun.
We decided to treat ourself to dinner tonight since we had a long drive ahead to Eureka Dunes. So we took another one of Joel’s recommendations and went to the restaurant at Panamint Springs Resort. The place was packed, and there were only two people working the entire bar and restaurant. Once we ordered beverages and food, however, the service was very friendly, prompt and accommodating. They had an incredible beer selection and I was happy to drink down a local, private label Hefeweisen that was distinctive and delicious. The BBQ burger that followed was also very satisfying. We left with full bellies and some tips on getting out to the dunes.
Long story short, we didn’t arrive at Eureka Dunes until nearly midnight so I’ll leave that part of the story for the next blog post.
Today we’d planned to visit the lowest place in North America–Badwater. Here, temperatures can soar well over 100 degrees in the middle of the day, so we chose to arrive bright and early.
It was cool enough to wear long sleeves, and there was only one other car in the parking lot when we arrived. The small, saline pool at Badwater housed tiny, endangered snails and other aquatic life. Beyond the pool, salt flats stretched out across the valley floor to the base of the tallest peaks in the park, including Telescope Peak. We looked with admiration towards the summit of the mountain we’d stood atop just yesterday. How different life was down here.
Here’s a panoramic look at the area:
We walked out past the smooth bit of the salt flat that had been packed down by hundreds of thousands of visitors, and continued onto less frequently traveled territory. The salt here was heaved up in places, sculpted into unusual shapes, and punctuated by large holes. Some of the salt formed fragile, threadlike structures that looked like hairs. Looking back towards the parking lot we noticed more people had started to arrive, so we headed back to drive to our next destination.
Just up the road, there are several canyons to explore. Taking Joel’s advice, we headed for Sidewinder Canyon. The hike was described in the Desert Hiking book I’d brought along, but we proceeded to head at once for the wrong canyon. None of these things are signed, of course. Aaron astutely noted a giant “X” made out of rocks and an arrow pointing right (also made out of rocks) at the mouth of the canyon we were about to enter. Heeding these subtle warnings, we headed right into the mouth of the next canyon.
It all began as a wide, gravelly expanse, with steep but short cliffs marking either edge of the canyon. I had sustained an impressively large and painful blister from the Telescope Peak hike and found it very challenging to walk with pressure against my heel, coming from my trail shoes. I decided to try out wearing my ugly purple Crocs instead, since the heel strap could be folded up and away from my pulsing blister.
I can now barely express my joy at having Crocs with me, as they saved the rest of my trip to Death Valley. Even with a large, painful blister on my foot, I was able to walk comfortably over sharp rock, gravel, dirt, sand, and everything else this park had to throw at me. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…
We walked through the wide canyon, wondering what all the fuss was about. It was pretty, but there was nothing all too special about it. Soon, we noticed a small passageway on our right that seemed to venture out of the main canyon. The hike we planned was only about 4 miles, so we had time to explore, right?
We entered the side canyon and instantly our experience changed. The walls were tall and narrow. They appeared to be held loosely together by mud. Rocks of all shapes, colors, sizes and textures were glued together in an amalgam of debris. While Aaron was busy taking pictures and looking for living things, I stumbled across my prize–a dead chuckwalla. I was really excited to see chuckwallas in the wild at the start of this trip, but I was hoping for a more animated version than this.
With that behind us, we continued in a labyrinthine passageway that twisted and turned so much I completely lost my sense of direction. The walls varied from narrow to more narrow, and chockstones sat wedged in the smallest parts rising up above our heads. Take a walk with us by watching this video:
We scrambled up and over boulders as far as we could go until the canyon died out, then turned around.
Back in the main canyon, we were newly invigorated. Maybe this was a Transformers hike–more than meets the eye. We walked through the main canyon until it broadened substantially, stopping to investigate each slot that came in on the right. At the turnaround point, we scrambled up a steep game trail that led us to a gorgeous view atop the canyon walls. Temperatures up there flirted with 100 degrees, so we soaked in the views and then dashed back down into the shade.
We pretty much had this hike to ourselves, minus the one couple we saw heading out just as we were heading in. Considering this trailhead was right off the main road in a National Park, we felt pretty pleased with ourselves that we were able to find solitude in this cool little place.
Ugh, Natural Bridge. This stood in stark contrast to our last hike. We parked at the end of the short gravel road leading to the trail and began walking up towards the aforementioned bridge. On our way, we passed hordes of tourists heading to and fro. Many were dressed as if they were heading to the club later, and several were making weird kissy faces posing for Facebook pictures or something. Why do people do that?
Anyways, at the bridge, a bunch of lazy tourists were milling around taking pictures that marked their grand 1/4 mile adventure from the car. Most people obviously turn around here. That was our cue to keep going.
The canyon continues only another quarter mile longer, but the second half is much more impressive and beautiful than the first. At the end, we scrambled up a short little dryfall that had one steep, smooth section in the middle. Then the canyon dead-ends at a much taller dryfall that can’t be climbed by casual dayhikers. The rock here was streaked with green. We turned to look behind us and saw no one. This was awesome.
On the way down, Aaron descended the dryfall first with his long legs reaching all the nice little footholds. I ended up taking the more adventurous route down by pressing my Crocs firmly into the smooth rock and sliding down quickly on my feet and hands. Apparently I gave some passing tourists a bit of a scare. Ha!
Devil’s Golf Course
On to another salt flat: Devil’s Golf Course. A short drive brought us here. The terrain is rugged immediately after stepping out of the car. This ground sees far less foot traffic than Badwater. In fact, of the several cars that pulled up while we were there, only a handful of people even opened their doors to get out of the car. It’s no wonder there’s an obesity epidemic in America.
We carefully negotiated the sharp spines and bumps, checking out the new and unique structures made by salt and other minerals. The contrast between the tall, dark mountains and the low, white valley was made even more beautiful by the afternoon light.
We topped off our day with a scenic jaunt down Artist’s Drive, where we stopped at several pullouts to take photos in the setting sun. The rock walls streaked with lots of colors looked amazing in the soft, warm glow of the evening. From there we drove north towards tomorrow’s destination and again found a gravelly spot far enough from the road to make our camp. We enjoyed another night of quiet solitude under the stars.
We woke up with the sun on this cool, Monday morning, with mixed thoughts about what to pack for our summit hike. According to the NPS website, winter ascents of Telescope Peak may require ice axes and crampons. Looking at pictures of the mountain from the week prior, it hardly seemed there was much snow left. Our camp neighbor reported, however, that he noticed “a lot” of snow on the north side of the mountain on his Rogers Peak hike the previous day. He also mentioned cold and windy conditions on Rogers, which was a full 2000' lower than our hike today. Therefore, I packed lots of warm layers, including my big down jacket, to prepare for the wind on the exposed ridge. Doubting very much this would be a winter climb, I decided to leave crampons and axe behind.
Climbing Telescope Peak
Aaron and I started our hike from the far end of the campground and signed in at the summit register. There was one other hiker ahead of us in the log book. Almost immediately I could feel the effects of being at elevation. We walked slowly and methodically, and I warmed up quickly. Based on the predicted cold temperatures I had long underwear on beneath my pants, which I regretted badly. I quickly shed upper layers as we ascended but stubbornly refused to hassle with the bottoms yet. The air was cool but still; perfect hiking weather.
We immediately found expansive views of the entire valley as well as a preview of the rolling ridge walk ahead. It looked like it was going to be a great day. It was totally quiet out here, far from any large towns and well out of sight of roads and buildings in the valley.
The trail up Telescope was well graded. Although it was a full 7 miles to the summit, the miles drifted away with each step. Once I finally broke down and removed the long underwear, I was much more comfortable and moved along more easily. As we ascended, we began seeing scattered patches of snow. I guess “a lot” of snow to someone in Southern California is much different than to someone who regularly plays in the Oregon Cascades. I was really glad we left the snow gear behind.
In about 3.5 hours, we stepped on to the summit. We shared our victory with a solo hiker from Nevada, who had tons of great advice to share about what sights to see in Death Valley. We ended up taking many of his suggestions later in the trip and not one of them let us down. If you’re reading this, thanks Joel!
He took off and we stuck around for a bit, eating some lunch, reading the summit register entries and savoring the quiet solitude on this high peak. The weather was comfortably warm and practically windless. There was no sound, no distraction, just peaceful calm. Here’s a panoramic video shot from the summit:
After our extended break we packed back up and headed down the mountain. The rolling ridge was also pleasant in reverse. We passed a handful of people on their way up at various points along the trail. I don’t think we saw more than 10 people all day.
We were back in camp at 2:30. Now what? There was still half a day left! We changed into camp clothes and napped the afternoon away before deciding to head out.
Mesquite Dunes Night Hike
How about another hike? I thought. The moon would be close to full, and the sky was reasonably clear. We’d spotted some sand dunes right near the main road on our way to Mahogany Flat last night. So we drove back to the dunes, where there was a conveniently located large parking area with access to the sand. People were milling about in the lot. A few were actually out for a walk, and one group had set up camp not 10 yards from the parking lot. Nice work, guys.
I packed a small backpack with snacks, water and a long-sleeved shirt and we both set out under headlamp towards the dunes. I remembered spotting one dune in the distance as being the tallest of them all, and had set on hiking to that point. Aaron, not yet able to read my thoughts, had figured we were heading out for a short, aimless stroll. Once we were well out amidst the dunes I let him in on my plan. He reluctantly agreed, but was sure happy once we made it to our destination.
We walked under moonlit skies along ridges and dips in the sand, always keeping an eye on that ever distant high point. There were interesting salt formations and random plants along the way that offered up a distraction from the grueling act of walking through shifting sands. Once we got away from the road, the air was quiet. It was much warmer here than it was at our high camp, so it took some time to adjust to this new temperature.
The last stretch included cresting over two false summits before reaching the apex of the highest dune. It dropped off in nearly a vertical sand cliff on the other side; it was really cool!
I was dying to take my shoes off and run down the giant sand dune. My excitement was met by more reluctance from Aaron, who questioned the safety of my plan. Fortunately, he couldn’t stop me, and ultimately gave in. We both ran gleefully down the side of the sand dune, shoes strapped to our backs. It was oh so much fun.
After returning to the car, we decided to camp on a gravel road for the night. Most of the campgrounds in the park look like unpaved Walmart parking lots. People camp right on top of each other and often there are far more RVs than tents, so it really feels like a parking lot. I’d never want to camp again if that was my introduction to camping. Lucky for us, dispersed camping is allowed in the park as long as you are 2 miles from pavement or a developed area. So we ticked off the necessary 2 miles of gravel road driving, pulled off into a flat, rocky pullout and set up camp. It was quiet and peaceful, just like our summit of Telescope earlier in the day.
Yesterday we embarked on a major Spring Break adventure: a road trip from Oregon to Death Valley. Most of the previous day was spent driving, but today we’d stop to see a couple of sites along the way to our destination.
Goldwell Open Air Museum
Eight hundred miles of driving brought us to our first stop: Rhyolite. This was a quick diversion from our main route, and I was dying to get out of the car. Just before we reached the town proper, we were distracted by the Goldwell Open Air Museum: a bunch of outdoor sculptures and random pieces of art outside a little information building. We parked here and wandered around, looking at the eclectic collection of artwork. We examined a giant pink lady seemingly built out of lego blocks, a ghostly representation of The Last Supper, and other oddities. The desert air felt warm and inviting. Plus, it felt amazing just to stretch out my legs.
Rhyolite, Nevada: a Ghost Town
From there, we ambled along the dirt road towards a bunch of dilapidated wood and stone buildings. This was the partly preserved town of Rhyolite. Rhyolite went through a fast boom-and-bust cycle in the early twentieth century after prospectors identified some promising mine sites. Shells of crumbling old buildings remain, including the bank, the schoolhouse, several shops and the jail. We stopped to admire each of these on foot, giggling at the stream of cars driving up the road and back, hardly ever stopping to let a passenger out to explore.
Although stern signs warned of the dangers of rattlesnakes, we didn’t see any. There were some cactus plants and rusty, metal cans, but nothing particularly dangerous around. After touring the town we sat in the shade to eat lunch and relax.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Just outside Death Valley National Park lays Ash Meadows. This refuge, on the Nevada/California border, is a unique desert oasis. Its spring-fed pools, streams and wetlands provide an environment for many plants and animals to thrive. Almost 30 species here live nowhere else in the world. There are birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, plants and shrubs all adapted for life in the desert. In addition, the refuge provides food and shelter for migratory birds in the spring and fall.
The refuge is well developed for people to visit without endangering this precious natural resource. Well-marked trails and boardwalks guided us throughout the diverse landscape. We admired mesquite trees, vast salt flats, meandering streams, grassy outcrops and marshy flats on our walks in the park. We stopped at Crystal Spring, Point of Rocks, and Devil’s Hole.
Devil’s Hole was what initially drew my attention to this place; and it was the most disappointing stop on the trip. I’d advise looking at the picture online, but skip driving out there. It’s so heavily guarded by fences and gates, you can’t really get a good look at it. Just imagine it’s a bottomless hole filled with pristine spring water and teeming with endangered pupfish. The actual hole is not much to look at.
The other stops were amazing. Interpretive signs dotted the trail, explaining the forces of nature that built this place. Descriptions and pictures of native wildlife were there to help us identify the critters we were seeing. Although I didn’t see any roadrunners or chuckwallas, as I’d hoped, we saw a bird totally new to me: the Phainopepla. Sadly, we had to leave–there was still another 2 1/2 hours of driving to get to our campground in Death Valley.
Entering Death Valley
The drive into Death Valley was predictably spectacular. The scenery was grand and vast. We stopped briefly at Zabriskie Point to take the required photo of the badlands, then cruised over to the visitor center at Furnace Creek just before closing time. From there, we drove on paved and gravel roads, past the charcoal kilns and up to the highest campground in the park: Mahogany Flat. At 8133′ high, the campground was markedly cooler than the desert floor. We layered up, got a fire going, and watched the sun go down over Badwater, nearly 10,000 vertical feet below us. Tomorrow we’d wake up early to hike to the top of Telescope Peak.
View all the photos for this trip on Google Plus. More pictures will be added over the week.
After a quick foot soak in the very cold river, I packed up and made the non-interesting drive into Northern California. I stopped at the Madrona Day Use Area on Rt. 199 where I accessed yet another river, this one lined with blackberry bushes. About a handful were ripe enough to eat, which was good enough for me.
But my goal for the day was a visit to the Redwood Forest. I arrived at the Stout Grove trailhead a little before noon. The parking area at this popular hike, in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, was already full. I sneaked my little car into a small space on the side of the pavement and walked to the trail. During this 0.5 mile loop I saw lots of people, enormous trees, ferns, and tiny flowers. The redwood bark formed unusual patterns, making every tree a unique discovery. The tree cuts on the sides of the trail and fallen trees helped me grasp the scale a little bit easier. The last time I visited the redwoods I thought, “Big trees. Wow. I get it…who cares?” But for some reason, now the trees seemed much more impressive. Small sprouts branching low on the tree gave a clue as to what the redwood leaves look like. Most of them are so far up the tree that I bet the average person would not be able to ID a redwood’s leaves (myself included)!
The ground was fabulously soft, making the walk rather pleasant. Also, it was cold here; I had a thermal shirt on and others were in heavy coats. I was loving it.
When I returned to my car, I found the lot was overrun with cars parked in every imaginable configuration, plus the entire road back to the South Fork Road had cars parked on either side of it. Nasty. I was glad that I arrived when I did, otherwise I would have missed out on this amazing little hike.
Wanting to give my knee a rest, I made only two more stops: lunch and campsite. I had a cold bowl of so-so chili at the Hiouchi Cafe, then continued to Winchuck Road to look for a tent spot. I drove towards Ludlum House until I noticed fire rings and cleared spots on the right side of the road. An RV occupied one and I claimed the next one. I had a picnic table, lots of flat ground, and river access. The cool, beautiful river lay past a short, steep, and barely-accessible trail. I had to drop my crutches at one point and slide down on my good foot to get past the worst spot. But it was worth it to enjoy another bath and foot soak in the water.
My friends, the mosquitoes, were back in moderate quantity. I decided to make a fire so I could stay and enjoy the outdoors all evening. I dived back into my book, cooked dinner, and rested my legs.