The Great Basin

America’s Great Basin encompasses over 200,000 square miles of our country – most of Nevada, half of Utah, portions of Oregon and California, and small parts of Wyoming and Idaho. We’re talking a HUGE area! All the water in the region is retained – none of it drains to the ocean, and the landscape is a series of alternating mountain ranges and flat valleys that are called “basin and range” topography, formed over the last 30 million years. All of this terrain is a high desert – even the valleys are at altitude.

We drove from Salt Lake City (the eastern edge of the Great Basin) into eastern Nevada to visit Great Basin National Park. Along the way we traveled on US 50, known as “America’s Loneliest Road” – a pretty accurate description.

We stopped along the way to fly the drone – it’s a great way to get a sense of the mountains and flat valleys in between. The white material on the ground isn’t snow – it’s salt crust.

We spotted mule deer, pronghorn antelope…

Pronghorn antelope

…wild turkeys….

…and even a tiny horned lizard hiding in the brush.

As we neared the national park we found a display about the ranching history of the area, as well as early car travel.

Our main objective, though, was to explore Great Basin National Park.

The fall foliage was past its peak in the high desert, though the rabbitbrush was still vibrant…

…and a few aspens still had color.

We hiked around some different parts of the park in the Snake Mountains, admiring the sweeping views of the flat valley below. Although Great Basin National Park is a bit out of the way, it’s a shame that more people don’t visit it – it’s very beautiful and it has some hidden gems. The mountains have limestone under them, and limestone can mean caves. Lehman Cave is just one of the caves in the park, though it’s the only one open for public viewing. We took the 90 minute tour, admiring the formations and learning about the bats that live inside.

Unfortunately, Lehman Cave has been exploited for tourism going back to the 1880s, and at that time visitors were encouraged to break off small stalactites or the formation-building “soda straws”. Evidence of this damage was everywhere – so very sad, though we’re glad the cave is now protected and can resume it’s slooooooooow process of building new formations. Maybe in another million years or so, the old damage will have been erased.

Damaged “soda straws” that form stalactites

In addition to the cave, the other special treasure we found were the Great Basin bristlecone pine trees. The trees live high up along the tree line, and they are some of the longest living things on our planet. Pinus longaeva live 4000-5000 years!

Although we had been hiking at altitude for a couple of weeks already, we had to take it slow on the trailhead that started at 10,000′.

Bristlecone pine grove

I have to say that we were awed by these trees – living in and adapting to harsh conditions for THOUSANDS of years. Just imagine the history that has occurred in the lifetime of these trees. Of all the natural marvels we’ve seen in our travels, I think these trees rank among the most wondrous.

In addition to the hidden world underground and the amazing bristlecone pines, we also lucked out and happened to catch a stargazing event at the park. Great Basin is one of the “dark sky” National Parks, and they offer an astronomy talk and a chance to look through telescopes on Saturday nights. We were at the tail end of the season, and it was COLD sitting outside, but the talk was great and we viewed Saturn (rings!) and Andromeda and two other star clusters. Magical! Our timing was bad – the moon was nearly full so it washed out the Milky Way, but if that’s our biggest “complaint”…

Great Basin National Park is a little gem, lightly visited because it’s off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.

Fall Color in Salt Lake

Autumn has always been my favorite season – the crunch of leaves underfoot, cooler temps and trees sporting beautiful color. We saw some nice color in Salt Lake – a consolation prize for cutting our Yellowstone/Grand Teton trip short.

We lived in Salt Lake for two years when we were in grad school at the U of Utah in the early 90s, and we loved spending our rare free time in nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was a no-brainer to head back up there to do a little hiking and to see our favorite ski area before the snow flies… and to savor a little fall color.

Hidden Falls wasn’t all that hidden!

The higher you go up the canyon the color is less splashy since the landscape is mostly evergeens and quaking aspen… but it’s still beautiful.

Silver Lake is a cross-country ski area in the winter, but the rest of the year it’s a big pond surrounded by meadow and forest.

We took the chance to drive up Guardsman Pass – closed in the winter since it’s covered in deep snow. At an altitude of 9700′, we could see far and wide towards the Park City side of the mountains…. though it’s too high for much color.

We had a blast checking out our stomping grounds at Brighton Ski Resort at the top of the canyon – it looked so funny all green. We put the drone in the air partway up the canyon, and again up at Brighton… enjoy.

Coming back down the canyon the splashy fall color returned… so pretty.

Now we’re off to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. And to get there, we’ll drive across a big chunk of America’s great basin!

Mitkof Island – We Live Here

Cruising around interesting places all over the Alexander Archipelago (also known as southeast Alaska), sometimes we forget how good we have it right at home. Mitkof Island is pear-shaped, about 10 miles wide at its widest by 17 miles long, with Petersburg located on the northwest tip.

Most of Mitkof is part of the massive Tongass National Forest, and some parts of the island were logged in the 1960s and early 70s. Logging roads are still maintained by the Forest Service to provide access for recreation – such as the Three Lakes area and one of my favorite easy hikes on the island – Ohmer Creek.

After cruising all summer, returning to the hustle and bustle of town was a little overwhelming so I took advantage of a beautiful day to head Out the Road with cameras and drone for some hiking, flying, and berry picking.

My first stop was to the middle of the Three Lakes – named Sand, Hill and Crane. The lakes are connected by trails, and Hill Lake also has a spur trail that runs down to Ideal Cove. Moose, black and brown bears, porcupines, grouse and deer are the most common animals on the island, though I didn’t encounter any this particular day. (Usually we see more deer in town than Out the Road.)

Hill Lake

The Forest Service built a little dock complete with a rowboat and a picnic table at each lake, and in the video below you can see some of the boardwalk where the connecting trail traverses the squishy muskeg. The video starts at Hill Lake, flies south to Crane Lake, then north to Sand Lake. As the drone gains altitude you can see the panorama of the Coastal Mountain range as well as the entrance to the Le Conte Glacier inlet.

After flying and a picnic lunch, I spent a little time picking red huckleberries and high-bush cranberries. A friend makes a delicious homemade ketchup from the high-bush cranberries, so I wanted to get enough to try making some of my own.

High-bush cranberries

The drive along the logging roads is so beautiful, coming around a bend and seeing a distant snow-capped mountain framed by trees, or savoring the sunlight dappling the forest understory.

Before heading back to town I decided to hike part of a favorite trail – Ohmer Creek (marked on the map at the top).

Venturing along the creek in one direction I found some humpy (also called pink) salmon trying to make their way upstream in the shallow water. You can just see the humps on their backs sticking above the water.

I was surprised that I didn’t see any bears – I must have just missed them because these fish were easy pickings. After hanging with the salmon for a while I headed in the other direction, into the thicker forest.

The bunchberries (also called dwarf dogwood) were ripe all over the place – they’re edible, though they’re not tasty to eat.

I launched the drone and got a terrific bird’s eye view of the creek, the muskeg, the mountains and the endless forest. The drone offers such a different look at familiar things, and makes me fall in love with this place even more. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we get to live here.

Tebenkof Bay – Beautiful Skies

Named after a Governor of Russian-America in the mid-19th century, Tebenkof Bay has been a home and hunting/gathering area for Tlingit people from Kake and Klawock for hundreds of years. It’s a big bay, with lots of islands and narrow passages, mountain lakes that drain into marshy meadows, and a number of neat places to anchor. The cruise from our anchorage in Explorer Basin to Shelter Cove in the back of the bay took over and hour – it’s a surprisingly big area.

As soon as we got the anchor down I grabbed the drone and flew around the cove to get the lay of the land before I ventured out in the kayak. If you follow around the perimeter of all the nooks and crannies, it’s about 5 miles of paddling. I was particularly hopeful about the shallow streams in the back meadow – good bear territory since there were plenty of salmon in the water, but no joy. Regardless, it always amazes me how rocks-trees-water can be arranged in so many beautiful ways.

Today’s post is primarily about the sky. Dramatic by day…

…but really jaw-dropping by night!

The light at the bottom of the photo is our boat, and I hope you can see the Big Dipper – it stands out a bit more brightly just to the left of center. Our daylight is shrinking fast now, by 5 minutes a day, but the optimist in me likes being able to see the stars without having to stay up half the night!

In the daylight I found a good spot on shore that faced north to practice my star photography, and I used the kayak to get there once it got dark. I had a radio so I could talk with Jim, bear spray, tripod, camera, star tracker and head lamp – quite a load of stuff. As luck would have it, the tide was rising in the evening. I set the tripod high up on the beach and pulled the kayak up as far as I could, but by the time I wrapped things up I was standing in the incoming tide.

I spotted a funny glow on the NE horizon while I was trying to shoot stars, and sure enough… it was an aurora!

You can still see the glow of our boat low in the frame, and the Big Dipper above it. The white band shifted and danced a bit, and reflected in the mirror-smooth water. Yowza!

As it got darker I could see the Milky Way, though that white aurora band crossed the sky and bisected the Milky Way for a while. It’s a great problem to have when your Milky Way shots are spoiled by the aurora. Eventually the white band disappeared and I could get a few images.

I planned to go out the next evening and find a better position to shoot the entire Milky Way across the sky with a wider angle lens. The night was clear and pleasant, I got my gear set up farther up the beach (it didn’t help – the tide still caught up to me), and I was all set for stars when this happened…

It danced, it undulated like a curtain in a breeze, it shot colors into the sky. We had a show for almost two hours! It was so exciting that I completely forgot about the Milky Way. The tide finally chased me off the shrinking beach and we sat up on the boat deck just watching the light show. Magical.

We don’t get to see the aurora down here in Alaska’s “panhandle” as often – sometimes the aurora just isn’t visible this far south, and our frequently overcast weather hides it when it is. As fall turns to winter the aurora tends to show up later (after midnight) and it’s not as much fun waiting in the cold, so these autumn gifts of pleasant evenings and earlier light shows are treasures to savor.