Lots of Sand, No Beach

From Las Vegas we headed into Utah to make an extensive exploration of “color country” – a swath of state and national parks that spans the southern part of Utah from west to east.  We started with a little gem of a state park – Coral Pink Sand Dunes not far from the town of Kanab.We were surprised to see large sand dunes in Death Valley, and were equally surprised to find an area with nearly 6 square miles of dunes here.  Pink colored Navajo sandstone, eroded by wind, is concentrated in this area by a pinch between two mountains, producing natural sand dunes that are between 10,000 and 15,000 years old.Wind is constantly funneling, blowing and moving the sand, erasing traces of man-made tracks within minutes.  Desert animals, lizards and insects make their home near the edges of the dunes where grasses and other plants create some shade, leaving odd tracks and trails as evidence of their movements.We didn’t see the endemic Coral Pink Tiger Beetle, but we did spot a funny little beetle near the top of a tall dune, clinging to the sand despite the strong wind.The dunes made a wonderful playground for children and families, as well as bigger kids like us…  climbing up and down the dunes……exploring the patterns in the extremely fine, soft sand.The other big attraction at the dunes is the chance to run around in various types of motorized vehicles – ATVs and OHVs (off highway vehicles).  It looked like great fun!We checked out the campground for a future visit, and we enjoyed talking with the ranger and seeing the huge collection of clear bottles with sand from all over the world… showing how very fine this park’s coral pink sand really is.  You can also borrow a sand board (like a snow board) from the ranger station, and surf the dunes… but it’s a long, hard slog back up the dune.

Viva Las Vegas

Driving east out of Death Valley we crossed into Nevada, keeping an eye out for wild burros as the road signs warned.  Sure enough, we spotted several on our way to Las Vegas.  Las Vegas is not my kind of place so I was dubious when Jim suggested adding it to our road trip plans, but he assured me that there were interesting things to see (the Hoover Dam) and wilderness places to explore (Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire).  I never knew there were such neat places to see just outside the city, though I confess that we set foot in a casino on one evening – but only to meet a friend for dinner. 

Hoover Dam is really quite interesting, and we spent most of a day there thinking nerdly thoughts and appreciating the feats of engineering required to build this massive dam in the 1930s.We took the full tour of the dam, getting inside the structure to learn about power generation……and even walking hunched over to a ventilation grate in the middle of the dam to shoot a few photos from an unusual location.The most interesting thing we learned in our big dam day was that the dam is strictly there to control the flow of water downstream (to agriculture and population centers primarily in southern California).  We thought power generation was important, but it’s entirely secondary to the water control.  If there’s a need for water downstream then power will be produced, otherwise most of the generators remain offline.In the photo above you can see the light colored mud line on the shores of Lake Mead – it’s 142′ above the current lake level.  The annual draw on the lake level is about 16′ and the average increase in lake level is 11′, so the dam has been running a 5′ deficit per year.  Sobering.

On a lighter note, we spent two days hiking and exploring the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – a splash of red and tan “calico” rock formations less than 30 minutes from downtown Las Vegas.There’s a superb visitor center with excellent displays and views, a 13 mile scenic drive, hiking trails and petroglyphs.  With glorious 80 degree weather the canyon was very popular, even on weekdays, but we enjoyed the hiking and the striking colorful scenery.The season was still a little early for the desert tortoises to appear, but we saw a number of lizards and a kit fox – a nice surprise.While we thought the dam and Red Rock were really neat, Valley of Fire State Park was the most impressive.  It’s smaller than Red Rock Canyon, more compact, but we liked that there were a number of shorter hikes on a variety of terrain so we could sample different things in just one day.  Oh, the colors!Pinks, yellows, reds… sand as fine as powdered sugar… sweeping vistas…We kept an eye out for desert bighorn sheep that are known to be in the area though we didn’t see any.  But we did share a picnic table with a young family, and the husband turned out to be the #6 Opposing Solo pilot on the Air Force’s Thunderbirds!  Jim enjoyed talking airplanes with him, and it was just a very cool thing.  (He’s much cuter in person than in his official photo.)

I think that going to wild places like Valley of Fire is most fun if you unleash your sense of wonder – imagining things in the odd rock shapes, marveling at the colors, pondering the forces of wind and water and uplift that created this beautiful desert landscape.Petroglyphs were scrawled like ancient graffiti in some sections of the park, and although we couldn’t decipher many of them, the bighorn sheep were easy to see.I know some people love the glittering lights and action in the city of Las Vegas, but we think we found the best that Vegas has to offer.

Rocks that Move and other Death Valley Wonders

Up towards the north end of Death Valley National Park is the massive 600′ deep Ubehebe Crater created by steam and gas exploding beneath the surface about 300 years ago.The colors on the far side, 1/2 mile away, are deposits from an ancient alluvial fan that were exposed by the explosion.  Cinders create a moonscape all around the crater – stark but beautiful.Starting from the crater we headed out the 27 mile long road to the Racetrack to see the famous moving rocks.  But the Racetrack road is not for the faint of heart – it’s a very rough, rocky dirt road in a remote part of the park.  Jeeps could bounce along a little faster than we could, but any vehicle risks a breakdown or a tire shredded by sharp rocks.  While our truck is perfect for towing the camper, its long wheelbase and stiff springs made the ride pretty brutal, keeping us at 10 miles per hour for much of the trip.  I was happy to walk around for a few minutes when we paused at Teakettle Junction, appropriately decorated.The Racetrack is a playa – a dry lake bed, light tan in color among darker surrounding rocks.  There’s an “island” of dark rock at the north end called the Grandstand where we could climb for a better view of the former lake.  A roadrunner was walking on the playa recently, leaving footprints in the mud softened by recent rain.  Rain (and possibly ice) is the secret to the magic of the Racetrack, where rocks that tumble from the mountains move across the playa, aided by strong winds.With only 2″ of rainfall annually, the rocks don’t have a lot of opportunities to move, but when they do they leave trails that snake across the playa, crossing other trails, and sometimes taking strange turns.We spent a couple of hours exploring and photographing the playa and the moving rocks – it was well worth the bone-shaking ride out there.As the sun dropped lower and the light grew warmer we stopped to enjoy the Joshua trees at the higher elevations……and the barrel cactus lower down, with pink tops hinting at new spring growth.To cap another amazing day, I enjoyed seeing so many stars in the clear, dark sky.  Orion’s Belt and the Seven Sisters were a welcome sight on a warm night.The following morning we hiked into Desolation Canyon to get away from the more popular trails on a weekend.  It lived up to its billing as a quiet place, but we were not prepared for the range of soft pastel colors.The hike was a lot of fun, but it included two big rockfalls that we had to climb.  Thankfully Jim is a better climber than me so with his help I felt less scared about making it, though the climb down was tougher than going up.  It looks easier than it was!Our favorite!, we declared.  So dramatic and colorful!Then we spent the afternoon hiking Mosaic Canyon for something quite different.  Another favorite!  Mosaic was full of dolomite, softly shining, striped, captured in aggregates and trapped in layers in the canyon walls.I could bore you with endless photographs – but nothing beats seeing it for yourself.  It was quiet and serene, cool and intimate as the sun dropped lower.  Each place we explored was so different from the last – I think that’s one of the things that struck us most about Death Valley.

We wrapped up our exploration with a visit to Salt Creek on the valley floor to see the rare and unusual pupfish that live in this harsh, salty environment – water that can be 4 times saltier than the ocean, and can range in temperature from freezing to over 100 degrees.  The white in the photo is salt, not snow – it was 80 degrees.In addition to sodium chloride salt, borax is also found in quantity on the surface of the valley floor as well as buried underground.  Borax collection and mining were the most profitable pursuits in the area, and the “20 Mule Team” borax brand was representative of the effort it took to transport the borax out of the valley.It’s mind-boggling to think about how much human activity – how much life – has occurred in such an unwelcoming place like Death Valley.  A surprising variety of wildlife and plant life thrive in the harsh driest and lowest place in the U.S., but it’s adaptable and hardy – the secret to survival.  We definitely plan to return to explore the park further (in the cooler months!)

Death Valley National Park – Part 1

We’re finally using the RV the way it was intended – to go someplace and sit still long enough to do some in-depth exploring.  First on our big wish list in the western states was Death Valley National Park located in California, along the Nevada border.The park is 156 miles long and boasts that it’s the hottest, lowest, and driest place in the U.S.  The hottest temperature in the world was measured in Death Valley – 134 degrees.  Telescope peak, part of the Panamint Mountains on the western side of the valley is over 11,000′ tall, and it sits a mere 15 miles from the lowest point: Badwater Basin at 282′ below sea level.  Average rainfall in the valley is about 2″ a year; contrast that with an average of 110″ a year in Petersburg.  Fortunately we had more temperate weather when we visited, though we noticed that the thermometer was set up to display three digits.There is so much to see and do in Death Valley that it will take at least two postings to just show you a little bit.  We started with a hike up Golden Canyon where the rocks live up to their nickname, with yellow dominating other pastel shades of pale green and rose.Life in the canyon was sparse – a few scrubby bushes and some lizards, and hiking over the rock rubble required a little attention to avoid turning an ankle. 

The Mesquite Sand Dunes – one of several sand dune formations in the park – were only a mile from our camp site, and I loved how the dunes looked in the early morning light…

…as well as the beauty of the setting sun on the sand and the mountains in the distance.We always see people taking “selfies”, so we decided the dunes were a nice spot to take one too.The park received almost an inch of rain about 10 days before we arrived – that’s half of their annual average!  All that rain in a short time caused flooding and damage to some of the park’s roads, so we had to walk down dirt roads to see some things.  I love stark and dramatic landscapes, so I had to see the Devil’s Golf Course on the valley floor.  It was a long, hot walk but it was worth it to see the craggy pock-marked rock dusted in white salts (sodium chloride and borax) that looked like snow.Located below sea level, the valley floor has such a wide variety of terrain – the dunes, the low pitted rocks of the “golf course”, borax flats, and the 200 square mile salt flats at Badwater Basin – the lowest point in North America.You might notice some water on the flats from the recent and unusual rain, and as the water evaporated new salt crystals were forming before our eyes.To get a better view of the entire valley, we drove up to Dante’s View for sunset.  It was a good thing we had fleece jackets in the truck because it was quite chilly up at 5400′.  Our jaws dropped as we took in the view of the entire valley, watching the line of blue shadow move up the mountainside as the sun dipped lower.The big white patch on the left is Badwater Basin (which we left an hour earlier), and you can see the dark trail made by humans walking out to the water’s edge.  Watching the sun set from this vantage point was a perfect way to end our first full day in the park. 

Scenery Changes – A Road Trip

While it’s too windy and cold for boating in southeast Alaska, we’re going to explore some of the western states with the new-to-us 5th wheel RV.  We’re used to moving around and exploring most of the time – we can’t sit still for too long.

Heading south we had to negotiate some snowy mountain passes on I-5 at the bottom of Oregon, and finally found warmer and drier weather in California.  The Sacramento/Davis area was home base for a few days to meet up with old friends from the computer security community and to meet their adorable children – they didn’t have any mini-me people when we last saw them… it has been too long.

We spent a great day hiking in Muir Woods National Monument just northwest of San Francisco… hanging out with the big redwoods.There’s just something soothing and healing about a walk in the woods, though we’re used to more solitude in Alaska.  The crowd was surprising to us for a weekday but it’s good to see so many people outside, beyond the reach of cell towers.  We found some side trails that were more isolated, to listen to the birds and the rustling of the wind in the trees.Winter hasn’t given up its grip just yet, but a few tiny flowers were hinting at the changing season.I first visited these woods over 30 years ago, and was excited to return.  Despite more paved paths and more people, the trees did not disappoint.

We continued on down the road through central California – an agricultural bonanza with blossoming fruit and nut trees for countless miles.  We stopped in a campground in the midst of an orange grove, and we could pick a bag of sweet navel oranges – what a treat!  But there’s no time to dawdle – we’re heading into the desert.  First stop: Death Valley National Park.

Zooming Across the Country

We’re calling this “From Sea to Shining Sea Tour”, since we departed with the camper from the shores of Chesapeake Bay, bound for the shores of Puget Sound in Washington.

Our only break from a brisk pace across the country was the stop in Great Smoky Mountains and Chattanooga, and though we were captivated by all the sandhill cranes we were also reminded of an important historical event – the Indian Removal Act of 1830 where President Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee and other native tribes to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River.  The Cherokee Nation’s people were marched westward via two different routes to what is now part of Oklahoma in 1838-1839, enduring tremendous hardship as well as thousands of needless deaths, on top of the injustice of being forced from their ancestral lands.  The Trail of Tears is the name given by the Cherokee people to the horror of this forced migration, and it’s one of many important examples of discrimination that should never be forgotten or repeated in any form.  There’s a small memorial and museum dedicated to remembering the Cherokee Removal near Chattanooga, and we made a stop there to learn more and to appreciate the historical significance of the path we would be taking as we headed west.The memorial has the names of the heads of each household and number of family members to be forcibly removed, organized by state.  It was very sobering to see so many families… innocents persecuted for the color of their skin and their beliefs.

As we drove west into Arkansas and Oklahoma we saw many signs highlighting points of significance along the Trail of Tears, and it meant more to us after spending time at the memorial.

We’re used to waiting for weather when traveling by boat, but didn’t think we’d have much trouble taking a southern route with the camper… until a huge weather front bringing snow to the mid-western states also brought high winds to the south-central and southwestern states.  We had to wait an extra day in Oklahoma City since it wouldn’t have been safe to drive with 50 mph winds, and we couldn’t help but notice the tornado storm shelters at the campground.We’ve been through hurricanes, but tornadoes scare us much more so we were glad to keep moving westward… through Texas and into New Mexico where we had our first night below freezing – a not-too-gentle reminder that winter is on the way.  I was amazed at the number of hawks we spotted along the road, though many types are very hard to identify without some time to study details… not easily done zooming at highway speeds.  Windmills to generate electricity were more prevalent as we moved westward, and stereotypical tumbleweeds bounced across the highway in an odd juxtaposition of the modern and something we think of from old cowboy movies.

The colors of the land became more interesting once we got to New Mexico, and it’s easy to forget that the relatively flat sections of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah are really high plateaus several thousand feet up. It reminds me of hiking on the high plateaus of Utah years ago, looking down and finding thousands of small sea shells on the ground – this whole section of the country was once part of a vast inland sea!

We paused at the Navajo Bridge in northern Arizona, crossing the narrow Marble Canyon section of the Colorado River, and savored the beautiful colors and shapes of the rocks.We spent a lot of time on the road driving up and down mountains, some with pretty scary grades!  We don’t often think of the desert as mountainous.  There’s no better way to learn about geography and history than to travel the paths of those who came before us, to see the land up close and imagine what life must have been like in the past.

Sadly our timing didn’t allow for much savoring this trip, but it gave us a taste of places we’d like to return to.  Southern Utah, known as “Color Country” didn’t disappoint, and we just about wept as we zoomed past Zion National Park and a few other favorites from when we lived there in the early 90s.  We paused for Thanksgiving with friends in Walla Walla, WA and for a visit to one of my cousins in Oregon, then completed our “From Sea to Shining Sea Tour” arriving in the Seattle area.  We started this trip on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia……and ended up on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington.  It was a good road trip, despite the fact that we had no time to stop and smell too many roses.  In all we covered over 5000 miles (not all towing the camper), traveling through 23 states and (counting the trip to see polar bears) 3 Canadian provinces.  It was a long time to be away from home, but we spent some time with people we needed to visit, and we missed a lot of people we wanted to visit.