Sunday, February 28, 2016

More Fun in the California Desert

Early morning rainbow at Culp Valley Campground. The rain never made it into the valley.
Our friends, Liz and Jack, told us that we should visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California. Since we wanted to continue west to El Cajon, California and meet up with a friend I've known since childhood and the park was on the way we decided to make it our next destination. The route we chose to depart Death Valley took us west on state route 190 to the Panamint Valley and then state route 178 south. We hit a stretch of resurfacing on this road that presented us with four miles of the worst washboard we have yet to experience. The fastest we could travel was seven or eight miles per hour.

Since it was Super Bowl weekend we wanted to be in a town with a good sports bar. We decided to boondock on BLM Off Highway Recreational Vehicle Area just 15 minutes from Ridgecrest, CA. Ridgecrest is at the gate to the U.S. Navy's China Lake  Weapons Testing Grounds. My research told me that the Navy put a lot of effort into attracting highly educated and skilled scientists and technicians to such an isolated and harsh place. The efforts apparently paid off because the town is rather charming with nice restaurants and shopping. Unlike most "military towns", the main street leading to the base was not a series of pawn shops, predatory lenders and "gentleman's clubs". Rather their were nice restaurants and shops.
Off Highway Vehicle recreation site, southeast of Ridgecrest, CA
We watched the superbowl at Schooners Patio Grille where the walls were lined with large televisions providing excellent viewing for everyone. Sitting beside us were two British Airmen who appreciated our assistance understanding the rules of the game. The crowd was about evenly split about whom they were cheering for. And, despite several patrons who had obviously not paced themselves in the amount of alcohol they were consuming, the crowd was generally well behaved.

Sarah and I celebrated Fat Tuesday at a fine French Restaurant, Mon Reve. The restaurant is small and unpretentious offering a small menu of French country cuisine by a very charming owner, Herve. Hevre waits on the tables and his wife does the cooking. Unfortunately, we didn't get to meet the chef.

Our next stop along the way to Anza-Borrego was at the Applewood Campground in the San Bernadino National Forest just north of San Bernadino. We were saddened to see that this campground is inhabited by homeless people, some of whom had automobiles and others that did not. The campground is rundown, ill-kept with vandalism to the park buildings and grounds. At other campgrounds near metropolitan areas we have experienced the occasional camper we suspected was homeless. The clues are not so subtle, they often have older rundown cars and makeshift camping equipment and they avoid even the simplest social contact. We stayed the night and moved on to Dripping Springs State Park. Being that it was Washington's Birthday and thus a long holiday weekend, we were lucky to get a campsite on a Thursday afternoon before the park filled up. We stayed four nights and enjoyed the hikes that led us high into the hills overlooking Temeculah, California. Temeculah is just a 20 minute drive from the campground. It is an upscale small city with good shopping available, Sarah found a Trader Joe's, and a beautiful library that we took advantage of for good internet connectivity. A drive through Old Town confirmed for us that we were in Southern California. On the warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, everyone in the county seemed to have descended on the small shopping and dining district.

With the weekend crowds thinned out, we headed for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This is a huge park surrounding the town of Borrego Springs. The weather was exceptionally warm, upper 80s to lower 90s in the valley, so we chose to stay at the Culp Valley Primitive campground that is 3,000 feet higher and 10-15 degrees cooler. The campground is primitive in that there are a few rutted roads meandering through a relatively level open area among the huge gneis boulders with haphazardly situated places where one could get off the road and place a tent or RV. Other than a vault toilet, there are no services. Our campsite backed up to a level area among the boulders with a commanding view of the valley to the east where we ritually watched the colors change each evening at sunset.
Looking east from Culp Valley near sunset.
Our neighbors watching the moon rise from Culp Valley

Anza-Borrego is home to a small and threatened herd of Bighorn Sheep, Borrego in Spanish, and nearly limitless places to hike and explore the washes, canyons and peaks of the park. The rangers and volunteers offer a surprising variety of guided hikes educating visitors about the geology, ecology and history of the area. Sarah and I especially enjoyed hiking trails that led to seasonal springs and the oasis they provide in this desert. Unlike Death Valley, the El Nino rains had missed Anza-Borrego so the wildflowers were not as magnificent. Here we had to slow down and look closely to see the beauty and diversity of each section of this desert. It reinforced, for us, that from the window of a speeding automobile it is impossible to appreciate the full beauty of a desert. We were told that a small flock of sheep had been seen regularly just a mile or  so from the campground at Palm Canyon. Indeed, they we were easy to find. The five sheep seemed completely indifferent to the dozen or so people who quietly watched and took photos of these beautiful creatures.
This ram didn't seem to mind having his picture taken.
Hiking in the Slot. A deep narrow canyon.
Entrance to The Slot

The town of Borrego-Springs has several restaurants, hotels, RV parks and shops. Once again we took advantage of the public library that provided nice benches with electrical outlets for those of us who needed internet connectivity.
Sculpture Garden in Borrego Springs

The Agave blooms once, then dies.

The bees love Agave
Discovering water in the desert is magical. The presence of water creates oasis where the flora changes dramatically in just a few yards. The heat of the desert vanishes as cool breezes envelope you. A hike in the desert that culminates with a waterfall is a magical experience.
The presence of broad leaf deciduous trees as well as the palm trees told us that water was ahead.
Maidenhead Falls in Hellhole Canyon.

Among those who tow campers there is an ongoing debate about the necessity of 4WD for one's tow vehicle (TV).  Sarah and I have concluded that 4WD is a wonderful luxury, if not a requirement for our purposes. While I can only think of three times in the thousands of miles we have traveled that we needed 4WD capability to tow the trailer, having the option has allowed us to explore many places we simply could not have without it. The drive into Coyote and Sheep Canyon cemented that belief in our minds. The drive into Coyote Canyon to Sheep Canyon involved driving through soft and deep sand, crossing a stream three times, and climbing up narrow rock strewn washes. Even still, we could not go where the short wheel bed vehicles could go, forcing us to hike eight miles round trip find the oasis in Sheep Canyon.
We enjoyed the cool water in Sheep Canyon

After eight days at Culp Valley we made short drive to Cleveland National Forest. Our intention was to stay at Cuyamaca State Park's southernmost campground. However, the information I received from the ReserveAmerica person I spoke with that the Green Valley campground was open and reservations were not required was incorrect. The campground was closed until April 1. However, we found the Oakzanita Springs Thousand Trails campground just a couple miles away. Despite our preference to stay in State or National Parks we pulled in and signed up for two nights because our purpose for being in this area was to visit a lifelong friend and his wife who live in El Cajon. We were warmly welcomed to the campground by the gate attendant. He cheerfully drove us around the park helping us pick which site we wanted. While most of the sites are small, and not all have full hookups, we found a nice spot big enough to fit our 31' trailer and still have room to park the TV in front. Like so many other commercial parks we have visited, this one seems to have significant population of people who are living in travel trailers. Clearly, many of the motorhomes and trailers, though well maintained, haven't moved in a long time. But it is quiet and would serve our purposes. Sarah took advantage of the clean laundry facilities and we  enjoyed having the large hot tub that evening completely to ourselves in the full moon's light.  The town of Alpine, just 20 minutes away, has good grocery stores, restaurants and shopping.

We returned to Anza-Borrego two days later. This time we camped at Mountain Desert Springs primitive campground about 25 miles south of Culp Valley. This campground easily accommodates trailers and motor homes. It is located on large, flat and open land at the entrance to a canyon with several springs and groups of the California Fan Palms. From here we were able to explore the Vallecito Badlands and enjoy the refreshing hot springs and swimming pools at Aqua Caliente that is just eight miles to the west. From Agua Caliente there is a nice loop trail into Moonlight Canyon that ascends from the springs to the head of the canyon then drops down into a canyon to the east before circling around and returning to Agua Caliente. There are two attractive side canyons begging to be explored, but they were closed due to a mountain lion having recently made a kill in the area.
Understanding the meaning of "Badlands"
From a distance it appears to be flat, but up close, BAD.

Our last morning at Mountain Desert Springs, we took one final hike into the canyon, past the springs and over a ridge to the west. On this south facing slope we discovered a few Beavertail cacti in bloom. We had been watching the buds on these cacti growing bigger by the day and we were delighted to have finally seen them in bloom. Just as we finished enjoying these flowers I noticed movement high up the steep slope. Here we watched a solitary ram come down towards us. He stopped and pondered us for a while then slowly passed us just 25 yards away. While not as majestic a creature, we also enjoyed seeing another desert dweller whose existence was evident everywhere, but we had never seen before, the desert packrat. He quickly skittered away up the slope, seemingly much more nervous than the the ram. What a perfect ending to our stay at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Some of the barrel cacti are blooming
Beavertail finally in bloom

Worth the wait
I think this ram was posing for me

After almost three months on the road, it is time to begin our meander back to Massachusetts. We have set a goal of being home by April first.

Stay tuned

Friday, February 5, 2016

Off to the Racetrack

Racetrack Playa 

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley is home to one of the world's most perplexing and intriguing phenomenon. This perfectly flat dry lake bottom has stones the size of bowling balls that move across the lake bed leaving trails of their movement in the dried mud.

Many theories have been postulated as to how the stones move. But, no person has ever seen them move. The Playa is a three hour drive from Furnace Creek, Death Valley, the hub of the national park. Half of that time is spent driving 27 miles on a washboarded gravel road that will jar the fillings or crowns from one's teeth. And the gravel is not just any rock, it is chirt. Chirt is the rock Native Americans used to make arrow and spear heads. When broken, it is sharp as a razor and can shred a tire quicker than you can say "flat".

While our Ford F250 is off road and 4x4 capable, we decided to rent a Jeep. Tearing up just one tire would cost more than the rental fee. Also, I had no problem driving the Jeep's shock absorbers into oblivion. Had I been driving my Ford the trip would have taken three times as long.

We added an extra fifty miles to the trip by driving out of Death Valley towards the town of Beatty then driving back into the park through Titus Canyon. The road is a steep and narrow gravel road with hellish drop offs. But, the views were spectacular as we traversed the pass above the snowline. Along the way we encountered the old ghost mining town of Leadfield and some questionable petroglyphs.
Switch back road climbing from Beaty to Titusd Canyon
At the pass, heading down into Titus Canyon
Leadfield, a boom and bust town in 1926
Old mine shaft in Leadfield

Questionable petroglyphs. 
Once through Titus Canyon, we drove another hour to Ubehebe Crater where the pavement ended and the 27 miles of harsh gravel road would lead us to Teakettle Junction and on to Racetrack Playa.
Teakettle Junction, wish we had known to bring a pot

The road rises continually from below sea level in Death Valley to 4,000 feet before beginning the descent to the Racetrack 200 feet below. From a bluff about 3 miles away, we caught our first glimpse of the expansive dry lake bed. The mud at the lake bed is said to be over 1,000 feet thick.

Passing the Grandstand, a large outcropping of quartz monzonite rising from the center of the "lake", we drove on to the Racetrack. We were happy to see that the water from the rain of the previous week had finally evaporated and we were able to walk out onto the perfectly flat lake bed and observe the eerie tracks left by the movement of the rocks across the muddy bottom. I was especially happy to see that previous visitors had refrained from walking on the Playa while the mud was still wet.

The Racetrack is an area of dry lake bed onto which rocks from the eroding hills surrounding it have fallen. These rocks move across the lake bed leaving tracks in the soft mud. Their movement has been the subject of great speculation. Some said that hurricane force winds following a rain was the force, others said it was the ice that moved them, still others claimed there was an alien force behind the movement. In the end, it was those who believed the ice caused the movement who were proven correct. Researches attached GPS units to rocks and placed them on the Playa. They showed that after a substantial rain in the winter ice would form entrapping the rocks. As the daytime temperature increased the ice cracked. And, as it typically happens following a cold front, high winds would develop pushing the broken ice sheets along the playa carrying with it the stones leaving trails in the soft mud.
This bowling ball sized rock has moved over 600 feet

Bigger than a basketball.

We drove back to Furnace Springs after clocking 200 miles on the rental Jeep and enjoyed a fine dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Panamint Mountains reflected in Death Valley
Because of the exceptional rain five days earlier and the warm weather that followed, the desert burst into a bloom of colors. They were especially profuse at the southern end of the valley. We drove 45 miles south of Furnace creek to Ashford Canyon where we were excited to find Sarah's favorite flower, Lupines, in bloom.

Arizona Lupine
The predominant flower is Desert Gold. A brilliant yellow, daisy shaped flower. It's subtle fragrance permeated the air.

The Desert Five Spot is sparsely interspersed among the Desert Gold 

Brown-eyed Evening Primrose

Lining the canyon washes are natural rock gardens featuring Notch Leaf Phacelia (purple) and Lesser Mojavea (yellow)

Stay tuned

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Death Valley National Park

Pass between Pahrump, Nevada and Death Valley
To appreciate the desert, one must slow down. Traveling in a car at 55+ miles per hour does not allow one to see the intricate beauty or understand how each rock, plant and lizard relate to one another. So it is in Death Valley that many of my preconceived ideas of what one of the hottest and most barren deserts on earth would be like has been shattered. Yes, there is rock, lots of rock. So much rock that you are forced to think about it, how it formed, how old it is, how hard or soft it is and how it came to be shaped the way it is.

It happened that we arrived at the Texas Springs campground in Furnace Creek within minutes of our friends Jack and Liz. The campground sits on a hillside overlooking Furnace Creek. We chose it for the view, because it is close to Furnace Creek which has a gas station, general store and two restaurants. Also, Texas Springs is quiet owing to generators being prohibited.
Our campground
Looking west across Death Valley from Furnace Creek
Hiking in Death Valley is mostly ascending from the valley floor up into any of the hundreds of canyons that drain water into this lowest place in North America. Some of the canyons end with impassable steep walls while others offer a climb up to the many ridges that ring the canyons. Each canyon has its own character because of the different types and ages of rock exposed by the torrents of water that have eroded the soft stone for millions of years.
Liz and Jack, our hiking buddies approaching Zabrisky point
Sunrise and sunset accentuate the multi-colored rocks that enclose the valley and form the deep canyons.
Artist's Palette at Sunset
Silliness at Artist's Palette
As forecast, the weather was cooler than normal with daytime high temperatures ranging from the low to mid 50s to the mid 60s for most of the time we were there. But, that was just right for the hiking we did on the many trails that took us into deep canyons or to the top of grand ridges overlooking the valley and giving us marvelous vistas of the distant snow capped mountains. Due to el Nino, we were treated to an uncommon event, a soaking rain that produced nearly one half inch over much of the valley that brought forth a profusion of flowers. The park rangers told us that such a bloom happens only about every thirty years.
The cold front is approaching

Rain is coming
After the rain

The rain has come through, the flowers are blooming
Clearing skies

Cactus in Fall Canyon

A permanent waterfall. There's water in Death Valley, you just have to know where to find it.
A 20 mule team wagon. Carried Borax from Death Valley to the rail terminal.

Surrounded by snow covered mountains

We have another day left in Death Valley so stay tuned (it may be a while though, internet can be sketchy in the desert).