Category Archives: Deserts

Coachella Valley & Joshua Tree National Park, California ~ October 29 – November 1, 2014

Always looking to take advantage of good deals on accommodations, we were lured into Coachella Valley by an email received a month prior. The promotional offer was from a lavish golf resort in the town of Rancho Mirage:  four nights in a luxury villa at an on-budget rate if we listened to their one-hour sales pitch.

Westin Mission Hills Pool
Source: Westin Mission Hills Resort

Situated between the desert havens of Palm Springs and Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage was not on our bucket list, but Joshua Tree National Park was and lies 40 miles away. No brainer!

For the first time since Seattle (almost two months back), we had a kitchen.

Cooking dinner followed by lively conversations with other guests in the hot tub became our nightly routine.

Dinner, Rancho Mirage

Our stay in Rancho Mirage was an extravagant gift that we appreciated fully…

Trey played a round of golf while I spent the afternoon at the spa.

Gary Player Signature Course, Rancho Mirage CA
Gary Player Signature Course – Source: Westin Mission Hills

We basked fully in luxury’s lap while we could.

Mt. San Jacinto

The two excursions we made outside of the resort was to drive through old school celebrities’ neighborhoods north of downtown Palm Springs, and to travel up the side of San Jacinto Mountain via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. (Trey also spent an evening at a local casino, but doesn’t want to talk about it.)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The rotating tram travels 2.5 miles up the mountain, dropping you off at the edge of a massive wilderness.

View of Coachella Valley from Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
View from Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The views across the valley to the Little San Bernardino Mountains are stunning.

View from atop Palm Springs Aerial Tramway 1
View from atop Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Along with restaurants, a gift shop and other amenities, the top offers access to loads of hiking trails. We hiked only about a mile down from the mountain station because it was late in the afternoon (tram ticket prices are lower), quite chilly, and the climb back up was steep. Yet, we ventured far enough to sense the wild vastness ahead. We hoped to see wildlife, but I think the cold and late hour kept them away.

Tram Map

If we had planned better, we would have gotten an early start and hiked to San Jacinto Peak, which is a 5.5 mile one-way trail that connects up with the Pacific Coast Trail. But alas, darkness was approaching so we dangled back down Mt. San Jacinto and drove to Rancho Mirage where we spent the remaining evening plotting our course for the next two weeks.

Rancho Miraco Lizard
Lizard Outside Our Villa

Joshua Tree National Park

We were heading eastward toward Texas, to our home. Joshua Tree was on the way, so we waited until we were leaving California to visit it.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 3

Best I can tell, the park’s 794,000 acres encompass five mountain ranges (Coxcomb, Eagle, Cottonwood, Hexie, & Little San Bernardino) and two deserts (Mojave & Colorado).

We entered from the south off Interstate 10 and through the Cottonwood Mountains.

Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree NP
Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

A ranger at the Cottonwood Visitor Center helped us to strategically plan our time. He suggested continuing our drive north through the heart of the park and hiking the Barker Dam Loop Trail.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 2

The drive alone is a great way to experience the joshua trees… they’re everywhere!

Cholla Cactus, Joshua Tree NP
Cholla Cactus, Joshua Tree Nat;l Park

Scattered among them are mojave yuccas and cholla cacti.

The Joshua Tree cactus gets its branches through a unique process. It grows straight upwards until it blooms…. no blossoms, no branches. Once it blooms and the blossoms die and fall off, a new branch will leaf out from residual scar and grows until it blooms and restarts the process.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Mature Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree NP CA

On the drive to Barker Dam, there are several places to pull over and enjoy the scenery.

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree NP
Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

We particularly enjoyed the Cholla Cactus Garden…

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree NP
Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

and the “jumbo rocks” along Park Boulevard.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 4

The Barker Dam loop is perfect if you’re crunched for time.

Trey, Joshua Tree Nat'l Park
Trey on the Barker Dam Loop Trail

It’s just over a mile long, and wends through giant rock formations on a pathway lined with impressive and playful joshua trees.

Although our time was limited, we gained an appreciation for, and were inspired by, the plant-life, mountains, and deserts that make up Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

Next stop…  Tucson, Arizona

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Leaving Joshua Tree National Park

More pics…

Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree NP 1
Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park
Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree NP 2
Old Water Tank Along the Barker Dam Trail

Montezuma Castle National Monument & Sonoran Desert, Arizona ~ October 24 – 25, 2014

Leaving Tusayan before breakfast, we headed southeast toward Flagstaff. The Escape Mobile had traveled 5,037 miles since leaving Seattle, so it was time for her fourth servicing.

Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ
Route 66, Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff was on the way to Phoenix, where we’d planned to spend the night, and it had a dealership that honored our maintenance purchase agreement. While waiting on our vehicle, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast at the Grand Canyon Café on Historic Route 66 in the quaint heart of Flagstaff.

Grand Canyon Cafe, Flagstaff AZ

Stepping into the café we’d entered a time warp… booths with mint-green Formica tabletops and individual jukeboxes, and a soda bar that spanned the length of the café. The owner told us they’d been continuously open  for nearly 75 years. Sadly, the Grand Canyon Café has since permanently closed.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ
Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ

Fifty-six miles down Interstate 17 we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument, the former hillside condo-like dwelling of the ancient Southern Sinagua people. The Sinagua were farmers and hunter-gatherers that thrived in the Verde Valley from the 1100’s through the 1300’s.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ 2

For unknown reasons, in the early 1400’s they abandoned their homes and the Verde Valley.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ 3
Pathway to Montezuma Castle

The visitor center is just off the interstate and the walk to the cliffside remnants is short and quick. Music of flutist Harry Seavey, who was on site, filled the air and added an authentic and surreal feel to our experience.

Harry Seavey

 

 

“There is a message in our hearts, a truth we all know. We feel it as we walk in a forest or sit in the desert. It is the message in the cry of a hawk and in the voice of a flute. It is our connection to life; the message that we are one with Spirit.”
~ Harry Seavey

 

 

Factoid: The monument bears the name “Montezuma” because it was originally mistaken to be built by Spanish Explorers.

Montezuma Castle National Monument 2

Regrets:  For some reason we felt pressed for time and did not venture the 23 miles to Tuzigoot National Monument, another Sinagua village located atop a ridge 40 minutes northwest of Montezuma Castle.

Map

Nor did we detour from I-17 onto Hwy 89A to visit nearby Sedona, a funky, spirited community that I would have loved, I’m sure.

Sonoran Desert

As we navigated around Phoenix’s maze of highways to a hotel near Arizona State University, the sun still shone from fairly high. We entertained ourselves by strolling the campus and chowing down on some chain Chinese food before vegging in front of the television for the night.

The most interesting part of the remaining 355-mile drive to our next destination, San Diego, was the shortcut to Interstate-8.

AZ Hwy 238 to San Diego

Arizona Hwy 238 cuts across the Sonoran Desert between Maricopa and Gila Bend. It was originally built to serve a hazardous waste facility that I don’t think was ever built. It appeared to solely serve as a desolate cut-thru that provides a genuine desert experience.

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ
Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238, Southwest of Phoenix

Saguaro cacti tower just off the roadway, which resembles concrete waves flowing through a sea of white sand.

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ 3

Blowing sand was accumulating across the road’s lower points, and it seemed like the desert was determined to conquer the road.

Interstate to San Diego
Interstate 8 to San Diego

 

After an initial hotel snafu in San Diego, we settled into a Four Points Sheraton using points and began planning the next two day’s adventures.

More Pics…

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ 2
Sonoran Desert from Hwy 238, Arizona
Arizona Sky
Arizona Sky

Grand Canyon’s South Rim ~ October 22-24, 2014

We’d first visited the Grand Canyon in 1992, when our daughters were six and nine. With only a half-day, we spent most that time on the Bright Angel Trail for a three-mile roundtrip hike. Quite a feat for kiddos!

Tusayan, Arizona

With this trip, our second, we’d hoped to hike into the canyon once again, but didn’t know if we’d be able to work in a full day’s hike.

South Rim Selfie, Grand Canyon

Since leaving Carmel, we’d been traveling in “we will figure it out” mode, so had no camping or hotel reservations when we rolled into Tusayan, a town just a few miles from the park’s south entrance.

When the Holiday Inn Express offered a particularly low rate, we figured it out quickly… “Oh, can we actually have the room for three nights, please?”

Tusayan is a walkable town catering to tourists… it’s primarily hotels and restaurants aligning each side of Highway 64. A quick look at Gmaps showed that we were just a block from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. We rode over after breakfast the next morning.

As we’d done at most national parks, we first watched the informational movie. This one, Grand Canyon, The Hidden Secrets, is quite different.

IMAX Tixs

It’s more of an over-dramatization of folklore involving cougars, hostile natives, and John Wesley Powell; not the historical account of the area’s geology and indigenous people we were expecting. We left a bit disappointed.

The Greenway Trail, a 6.6 mile pathway to the south rim, is accessible from the visitor center’s parking lot.

Young Elk, Grand Canyon SR
Young Elk, Grand Canyon SR

We were excited to ride our bikes through the pine forest to Grand Canyon Village, where we planned to peel off onto the South Rim Trail. At the time though, the Greenway Trail wasn’t paved. This wasn’t a problem until the path turned into gravel piled 2-3 inches deep. Our tires dug in and we went nowhere. Unsure as to whether the gravel lasted another half-mile or for the entire remaining 6 miles, we turned around and loaded our bikes onto the back of the Escape Mobile. (Note… current photos show the pathway to be paved, but I can’t find whether or not it’s paved for the full length.)

Greenway Trail, Tusayan AZ
Source: hikingproject.com

South Rim Trail

Cycling the 13-mile Rim Trail was exhilarating.

Riding the S. Rim Trail, Grand Canyon

On the east side there are sections where the trial is only feet from the canyon’s edge, and the views are amazing.

South Rim, Grand Canyon 3

We rode until we ran into the South Kiabab Trailhead and agreed it would be the trail we’d tackle the next day.

Around Rim Trail, Grand Canyon SR
Trey on the South Rim Trail, Grand Canyon

The Rim Trail’s west side is also a peaceful, worthwhile ride. It’s mostly wooded and snakes around lodges and campgrounds setback from the rim.

Back at the hotel we did some research to plan for the next day’s hike…  in the morning, after purchasing snacks and sandwiches, we’d fill our backpacks’ water bladders, pack some extra water, catch a shuttle from the village visitor center to Yaki Point, and hike 3-miles down to Skeleton Point – the deepest turnaround spot advised for a one-day down and up hike.

South Kaibab Trail

All the prepping took time so it was early afternoon before we reached the South Kiabab Trailhead.

White Shorts - Grand Canyon SR
White Shorts?

Although warm for October, it was a gorgeous day and we headed down the canyon’s wall with an excitement-induced quick step. The entire trail is steep, that should go without saying but I’m saying it anyway. It’s easy to get distracted by the surrounding beauty, lose a sense of your downhill pace, and over-estimate just how far you’re capable of hiking in a day. The Rangers’ motto, which they repeat often, is “What goes down, must come up!”

Heading down Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon SR
Heading down South Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon

One of the trail’s steepest points is just below the trailhead… a dizzying series of short switchbacks that lead down to Ooh Aah Point, about a mile in. A half-mile farther is Cedar Ridge, the halfway mark to Skeleton Point and a great place for a snack, bathroom break, and photos.

Mule Train at Cedar Ridge, Grand Canyon SR
Mule Team at Cedar Ridge, Grand Canyon SR
Cedar Ridge View, GCSR
Cedar Ridge View, Grand Canyon South Rim

It’s recommended that Cedar Ridge be your turnaround point if hiking during the summer months.

Although warm, we continued downward passing two couples at separate points that had Trey and me raising our eyebrows. They were heading back up, about our ages but not fitness levels, and as Trey noted, “They weren’t looking good!” We ended up passing both couples on the way back up. Not boasting, just noting that one should undertake only what their lungs, legs, and heart can handle.

Skeleton Point, Kaibab Trail -Grand Canyon SR

Successfully arriving at Skeleton Point, we were glad to exhale and slow down to rest, eat…

Lunch Break at Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

take in the scenery, pose for photos…

Skeleton Point View, GCSR
Skeleton Point View, Grand Canyon SR

Posing at Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

and imagine hiking the remaining four miles to the Colorado River, which we could now see.

InkedColorado River from Skeleton Point, GCSR_LI
Colorado River from Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

Yet with our late start, we didn’t linger too long as we knew it would take us double the time to climb back out of the canyon. We kept a decent pace, and were grateful when we returned to Cedar Ridge for a break, more snacks, and photos.

Cedar Ridge Overlook, GCSR
Cedar Ridge Overlook, Grand Canyon SR

It was nearing the hottest part of the day when we headed up the final steep mile. We took our time and stopped often to enjoy the scenes that we’d scrambled by earlier.

Cedar Ridge Overlook, GCSR 2

Bird, Grand Canyon SR

Back at the trailhead we were dusty messes, but thrilled with the day’s challenge, and humbled by Grand Canyon’s grace and ruggedness.

Back at the top, Grand Canyon South Rim
Back at the top, Grand Canyon South Rim

 

Food:

Yippi-Ei-O Steakhouse in Tusayan is a fun and tasty choice to carb and protein-up the night before hiking into the canyon.

Yippee-Ei-O! Steakhouse, Tusayan AZ
Yippee-Ei-O! Steakhouse, Tusayan AZ

Reminiscence of the Texas steakhouses from our childhoods, Trey and I thoroughly enjoyed the food, great service, and cowboy ambiance. Oh, and the pecan pie was phenomenal!

More Pics…

Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon SR
South Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon
Yoga on the South Rim, Grand Canyon
Yoga on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

Last Sunset, Grand Canyon SR

Last Sunset, Grand Canyon South Rim

 

 

 

Utah / Arizona Border – October 20-21, 2014

Missteps: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & The Wave

I don’t remember what prevented us from researching our next steps, which were to explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and hopefully hike Coyote Buttes in the Vermillion Cliffs, also known as “The Wave.” It was either our full schedule and lack of regular cell service or laziness and naivety.

02 Looking North Along Highway 89A

Either way, upon leaving Mount Carmel Junction we meandered along Highway 89 for 60 miles until we ran into a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) station and stopped to ask where in the heck we could find the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.

We found out that we were already in it and had been for a while. At that time the Grand Staircase – a series of massive geological steps – sprawled out across 3,000 square miles of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Grand_Staircase-big Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

The downward steps stretched from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon’s northern rim. In 2017 the protected area was sadly cut almost in half.

We were also informed that there’s a lottery process for hiking “The Wave.” The sign-up and drawings take place in Kanab, Utah – a town we’d passed through forty miles back. Backtracking to the Kanab BLM Station we learned that only 10 hikers per day are allowed into the buttes, and that the “lotteries” take place each morning for the next day’s hike.

Should we stay or should we go? We contemplated this question over lunch at Escobar’s Mexican Food (authentic enough) and opted to try our luck and checked into a nearby hotel.

01 Sunrise, Kanab UT
Sunrise in Kanab, Utah

The next morning, we rose with the sun and walked back to the BLM office to stand in line. We were 7th out of 64 to register for the lottery, which was pretty good odds on a relative basis as the average day has well over a hundred registrants. But #7 was not lucky that day, so we checked out of the hotel, and after a breakfast at Nedra’s Too, we checked out of Kanab via Highway 89A South.

Route Map
The Day’s Route

The ranger who on the previous day clarified Grand Staircase’s massiveness had recommended we stop at Le Fevre Overlook, a rest stop along Highway 89A about 25 miles into Arizona. It’s unassuming and easy to miss but worth the stop.

03 Grande Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Le Fevre Overlook
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Le Fevre Overlook

From the overlook you can make out the distant cascading landscapes that inspired the monument’s name, gaining senses of both its beauty and magnitude.

Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim

Continuing south for just over eleven miles we cut down State Route 67 (also called the Kaibab Plateau Parkway) for the 43-mile drive to Grand Canyon’s northern rim.  Being late October, the north rim’s lodges and campgrounds were closed so we had the drive mostly to ourselves.

Along the way, I spied a California Condor perched on the limb of a dead pine and we were reluctantly received by a herd of buffalo on the return trip.

06 Buffalo Along SR 62, North Rim

A nip of winter was embedded into the breeze, but the clear sky and sun helped warm us as we strolled along the various paths and vantage points below the lodge cabins…

07 North Rim Cabins
North Rim Cabins – Grand Canyon Lodge

an environment and scenes that contrasted with what we would experience in the coming days on the canyon’s other side.

19 Bright Angel Point Trail 4

08 Grand Canyon, North Rim 2

Drive from Grand Canyon’s North to South Rim

Leaving the north rim we had a four hour drive ahead of us… plenty of time to circle around the east end of the canyon and make it to the south rim before sunset.

23 Arizona Highway 89A

But the drive, curving around and between the Vermillion Cliffs and Colorado River, is spectacular.

25 Colorado River Fork, East of Grand Canyon
Fork of the Colorado River, East of Grand Canyon

We stopped several times including at the unexpected site of abandoned rock dwellings sitting just yards off the road and scattered among mushroom shaped formations.

26 Abandoned Rock Houses Along Highway 89A 1

The legend is that a woman by the name of Blanche Russell was stranded there when her car broke down sometime in the 1930’s. She liked the area so much she settled there for a time.

Ten minutes down the road we stopped again to stroll across the historic Navajo Bridge that spans the Colorado River for 834 feet and parallels it’s replacement… a seemingly identical bridge that is actually wider and longer.

31 Navajo Bridges (Historic & New)
Navajo Bridges – Historic and Current

The “new” bridge was completed in 1995 to support larger vehicles while providing a safe alternative (the historic bridge) for those of us who want to walk over for the views.

33 Navajo Bridge Over Colorado River
Navajo Bridge Over Colorado River

With all the stops we lost our race with the sun.

35 Arriving at the South Rim
Arriving at the South Rim

It had set by the time we reached the south rim’s first overlook, the Desert View Watchtower…

36 Desert View Watchtower Overlook
Desert View Watchtower Overlook – Grand Canyon South Rim

but enough light shone over the horizon to paint the sky and reflect muted rays across the canyon.

37 South Rim at Dusk
South Rim at Dusk

A perfect welcoming gift to our stay on the Grand Canyon’s south rim.

 

More Pics…

09 Lookout at the North Rim
Lookout at the North Rim
20 North Rim 4
Window View of the North Rim, Grand Canyon
29 Mushroom Rock Along Highway 89A
Mushroom Rock Along Highway 89A, Arizona
32 Colorado River from Navajo Bridge
Colorado River from Navajo Bridge

Bryce Canyon National Park ~ October 19, 2014

The sun was setting when Highway 9 dead-ended into Highway 89. The intersection was labeled on the map as “Mount Carmel Junction.” We found the junction to be a quaint town with an awesome motel.

Thunderbird Motel, Mount Carmel Junction

The Thunderbird Lodge was a welcoming site after the previous night’s cheap Bates-like motel in Springdale. Even though the Thunderbird was more than 62 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, we checked in for two nights recognizing our fatigue and yearning for a comfortable respite. Those two conditions had us sleeping in the next day and not arriving at Bryce Canyon until 1 p.m.

Bryce Canyon from Inpsiration Point 1

The gorgeous canyon is sprawling and includes some long looping trails on the northern and southern ends.

Map 1

But with only a half-day to immerse ourselves, we chose to stick to the heart of the canyon and the short, but steep, series of connecting trails near and below the visitor center.

The half-mile trek along Rim Trail from Sunset to Sunrise Point provides amazing photo opportunities.

Thor's Hammer from Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon NP
Thor’s Hammer from Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP 1

From Sunrise Point we cut down onto Queen’s Garden Trail which had us winding closely around and through the hoodoos and natural bridges.

Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP 11

Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP 4

The vibrant orange shades changed and gleamed as we passed through the hoodoo forest down into the canyon floor. Strolling along the pine-lined path was shaded and peaceful,  a great place to rest before ascending back up and out of the canyon.

Canyon Floor, Bryce Canyon NP
Canyon Floor, Queen’s Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

At the intersection of Navajo Loop Trail, we chose to take the outer section of the trail through “Wall Street,” so named, I assume, because of the towering slot canyon walls.

Wall Street 1, Bryce Canyon NP
“Wall Street” – Bryce Canyon National Park

In total, the 3-mile loop took us about two and half hours and that included many stops to bask in the geological phenomenon in which we were hiking, and to take photos of course.

We cooled our heals over a late lunch in nearby Bryson City before driving through the park’s northern border to Mossy Cave.

bryce-canyon-national-park-map
Source: National Parks Service

The cave, which we failed to capture, is what I would call a grotto and would have been more exciting, or at least worth the drive, if we had been visiting in the spring rather than a very dry October.

We did learn that the arroyo the trail follows was hand dug over a century ago by a community of Mormons. They’d dug the 15-mile trench to tap into the Sevier River as a water source for their town, Tropic.

Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point 1=4
Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point

With sunset nearing we backtracked past the visitor center to Inspiration Point. We’d been told that at dusk, spectacular colors cast across the hoodoos and canyon.

Bryce Canyon from Inpsiration Point 2
Inspiration Point View, Bryce Canyon National Park

Upon arriving, clouds rolled over the western skyline and blocked what I imagine would have been stunning views.

Bryce Canyon from Inpsiration Point 3
Getting inspired at Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

Our disappointment didn’t last long though. As we walked along the platform in awe of the canyon’s magnitude and beauty, the sun dipped below the horizon and the clouds rose slightly, alighting the distant hilltops ablaze with color.

Sunset from Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon NP 1
Sunset from Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

A perfect send off to a perfect day in Bryce National Park.

More Pics…

Trey on Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP

Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP 6

DSC06311

Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon NP 5

Mojave Desert: Hoover Dam, Valley of Fire State Park & Death Valley National Park ~ October 12 – 17, 2014

Upon exiting Sequoia National Park we’d entered the Mojave Desert and the portion of this “great looping quest” in which I was most apprehensive… the desert. 

01 Approaching Las Vegas
West of Las Vegas

I had preconceived notions about desert existence, mostly negative because my perceptions weren’t based on actual experience. So, I’d anticipated a colorless, desolate environment… unfriendly and uninhabitable. After all, the Mojave has a valley named “Death!”

What I discovered was just the opposite, a welcoming beauty, thriving and very much alive. For me, establishing a sense of grounding in the desert required no conscious effort – the desert rose up firmly beneath my feet.

10 East of Las Vegas
East of Las Vegas, NV

Within Mojave’s arid landscape, where odd and varied creatures flourished, I felt my own belonging.

13 Valley of Fire Lizard

The desert’s embrace forever changed my perspective, it corrected it and taught me a lesson about the ridiculous power we give to our perceptions.

~~~

A cheap (because it was undergoing a noisy renovation) Las Vegas casino/hotel served as our basecamp while we explored what lies beyond the city’s fringes… the even more wild and wonderful. First up…

Hoover Dam

02 Inside Hoover Dam

05.5 Hoover Dam

For a hundred years the Hoover Dam has risen 726 feet from the floor of the Colorado River.

09 Hoover Dam

It is an unyielding concrete monster, a sight to behold that attracts some seven million people a year… by car, boat, and helicopter.

07 Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, Hoover Dam NV

Its proximity to Las Vegas—40 minutes southeast—enables this constant flow of people. Unfortunately, the flow of water for which the dam was built is not as reliable and, as in California, the effect of prolonged drought was visible through the river’s receding waterline.

06 Receding Colorado River from Hoover Dam
Receding Colorado River Water Level

We purchased tickets to tour the dam’s power plant… $15 in 2014, and well worth it.

Inside, 30 foot pipes snake through tunnels and rows of enormous generators churn out 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually for the good folks of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam’s structure also serves to control flooding and reserve water for California’s fruitful valleys and its southern cities.

Valley of Fire State Park

11 Valley of Fire State ParkNevada’s Valley of Fire State Park is located about 50 miles (an hour’s drive) northeast of Las Vegas. Its sculpted red rocks are stacked and scattered throughout the park’s 40,000 acres.

12 Valley of Fire landscape
Valley of Fire Landscape

Only one road cuts through the park, just above its southern border. The road provides access to loads of popular hikes and fun formations, more than enough to keep one occupied for a day.

17 Valley of Fire SP Map

The rest of the park, the vast majority of its wilderness, is a sprawling preservation area, seemingly inaccessible except by foot.

Our arrival in the late afternoon limited our hiking options, but we had the park to ourselves.

18 Mouse Tank Road, Valley of Fire SP
Mouse Tank Road, Valley of Fire State Park, NV

Also, the sun’s low stance illuminated the red rocks and danced through canyons making our walks even more magical.

16 Valley of Fire SP, NV

The half-mile trail to Mouse Tank led us down a canyon marked with hundreds of petroglyphs.

19 Mouse Tank Trail, Valley of Fire SP
Mouse Tank Trail Valley of Fire State Park, NV

These uninterpretable messages hovered just above us, holding steadfast onto the secrets of an ancient civilization.

26 Sunset heading to Las Vegas

Only the sunset, spectacular and fleeting, could force us out of the Valley of Fire and back toward the maddening lights of Las Vegas.

Death Valley National Park

We traveled northwest for 140+ miles to enter Death Valley National Park where my attitude and apprehensions about deserts were permanently altered. Death Valley’s mystique and it’s rolling, constantly changing landscapes captivated me.

26.8 Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
View from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

We stopped often, awestruck by its colors and geology.

Near the center of Death Valley is Badwater Basin, a massive flat of salt exposed by rain runoff from the surrounding mountains.

27 Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley NP

The basin sits 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.

29.5 Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley NP
Badwater Basin Salt Flat, Death Valley National Park, CA

Its limited drainage results in artsy, salty shapes forming through heat induced evaporation. The salt configurations cover the basin creating an eerie, alien terrain.

28 Salt Formations, Badwater Basin, Death Valley NP

We traversed over the salt and out into the basin and became mesmerized by the patterns. Before we realized it, we were about a mile in, which is nowhere near the basin’s center.

30.5 Badwater Basin

As intense heat began pulsing around us, we sensed our own vulnerability and soon turned back toward the parking area.

37 Artists' Drive, Death Valley NP
Artists’ Drive, Death Valley National Park, CA

Wending through a painted canyon on Artists’ Drive was like bounding through a rainbow. The one-way nine-mile road is narrow with rocky hillsides rolling up, out, and along both sides.

36 Artists' Drive, Death Valley NP

The palette effect is from minerals (including hematite and chlorite) altered by volcanic eruptions five million years ago. Elements aluminum, iron, magnesium and titanium also add to the mountainous canvas.

Our other hike in Death Valley, was the Natural Bridge Trail, accessible about a mile and half down a dirt road that breaks off from Badwater Road.

31 Trey heading down Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley NP2
Trey heading down Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley National Park

It’s an easy one-mile round-trip trail into a narrow, high-walled canyon.

35 Natural Bridge, Death Valley NP

The trail crosses under the bridge formation and continues into a box canyon.

34 Natural Bridge, Death Valley NP
Natural Bridge, Death Valley National Park, CA

We had the trail to ourselves, or at least it was devoid of other humans. This gal, a Swainson’s Thrush, accompanied us from the rock bridge to the trail’s end.

32 Swainson's Thrush, Trail Escort
Death Valley Swainson’s Thrush

As we neared the bird, it would take flight, landing 20 or so feet up trail where it waited for us to approach again. Over and over it repeated this routine, escorting us all the way into the rocky boxed area…

33 Trail End, Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley NP

and then safely back to the bridge.

We also spied a reddish fox, the Desert Kit Fox, strolling alongside Hwy 190 as we left the park, but missed photographing him.

More Pics

23 Petroglyph Canyon, Valley of Fire SP

 

Up next…  Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks