Category Archives: Mountains

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

Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks ~ October 11, 2014

With our bicycles snug on their sparkling new rack, we motored south, then east, to Kings Canyon National Park. Our ultimate destination was Las Vegas, and the plan was to wend through Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on the way… a tree-tour-detour.

14 Kings Canyon NP

I’ve written previously, ad nauseam really, about the awe we’ve experienced walking among and connecting with these earthly giants. So, I’ll spare you from more adjectives and let the photos speak for themselves…

13 Kings Canyon NP

I’m sure all of our photos from this odyssey have been most capable of speaking for themselves all along. (Sigh)

04 Fallen Monarch Tree, Kings Canyon NP
Fallen Monarch Tree, Kings Canyon NP

08 Inside Fallen Sequoia, Kings Canyon NP

Yet, I write on.

15 General's Hwy, Seqouia NP

In honor of our last hours with the giants, here are some factoids that Trey recorded:

17 General Sherman Tree, Sequoia NP
General Sherman Tree, Sequoia NP
  • The General Sherman Sequoia is considered the world’s largest living tree by volume; it towers approximately 275 feet; and its base circumference is just shy of 103 feet
  • Redwood bark can get up to 12 inches thick, while sequoias’ bark can expand outwards 31 inches
  • Redwoods typically grow taller, but sequoias weigh more due to the girth of their trunks and branches

Sequoia Branches

  • The base of sequoia branches can be 40 feet in diameter stretching out to 8 feet in diameter… sequoia’s main branches look more like trees!
  • Sequoias tend to live longer than redwoods, about 3,500 vs 3,000 years
20 Heading down Hwy 198
Heading down Generals Highway (Hwy 198)

Highway 198, also known as Generals Highway, led us away from the giants and out of Sequoia National Park.

Like the Beartooth Highway in Montana/Wyoming and the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia, the drive down Generals Highway from Sequoia NP to Three Rivers is an adventure.

A must do whenever the opportunity presents itself, or even when it doesn’t. The twists are numerous, turns dizzying, and the scenery is gorgeous.

19 View from Hwy 198

22 Tunnel Rock, Hwy 198
Tunnel Rock, Hwy 198

A perfect transition to where the trajectory of our “great looping quest” was taking us…

…into the desert.

By the time we pulled into Bakersfield, California, the landscape was more reminiscent of West Texas…

25 Arriving in Bakersfield, CA

More Pics…

Sequoia Branches

Lake Tahoe & Reno ~ September 24 – 28, 2014

Beginning in Red Lodge MT, and continuing for the preceding 45 days, we’d followed the first appearances of fall colors across the west and down the Washington and Oregon coastlines. Random wisps of cool air and pronounced temperature differentials had been nipping at our backsides, nudging us forward just ahead of autumn’s arrival.

With the unanticipated deluge that forced us out of the Redwood Forest, fall had officially won the race and taken over. Its conquest coincided with a planned eastward turn into the mountains toward Nevada…

 

the first of several detours that had us zig-zagging across, in and out, and down the state of California for the next month and a half. (See our California path on our “About” page.)

From Arcata, we followed the Trinity River via State Highway 299.

Trinity River, Hwy 299 toward Redding
Trinity River, Hwy 299 toward Redding

The river, changing leaves, grazing elk, along with a mix of rain and mist enhanced the gorgeous drive across northern California to Redding.

 

Still soaked and with an extra day, we stopped in Redding and checked into a hotel. After showering, we hauled our camping gear into the room, sorted and dried everything including our tent, which we pitched atop the spare bed.

Yelp and a hankering for comfort food led us to Nello’s Place for a cozy Italian dinner – one of our most memorable dining experiences in quality, service, and for being exactly what we needed when we needed it.

Dungeness Crab Cake, Nello's Place, Redding, CA
Dungeness Crab Cake, Nello’s Place, Redding, CA

Funny how what first appears to be a mishap ends up being a beautiful gift. These magic-of-the-Universe moments occurred often on our trip, just as they do in life.

In frustration, we tread through life’s darkness and around its rough edges as best possible only to end up somewhere completely unexpected, almost like an award for making it that far. It is only then that you recognize the past’s challenges as beautiful puzzle pieces laid out behind you, perfectly placed together.

One only needs to take the time to notice.

Elk buck along the Trinity River, Northern California
Elk buck along the Trinity River, Northern California

Over the last shared bites of Nello’s cherries jubilee, our favorite dessert experience on the trip, we expressed our deep gratitude for simply being in that moment, and for the obstacles that had led us there.

North Lake Tahoe, California

To avoid driving around Lassen Peak’s mountainous roads in a thunderstorm, we headed south from Redding along the Sacramento River and into the Central Valley. The sun and blue skies soon appeared highlighting the valley’s olive and pistachio orchards…

Orchard in California's Central Valley

Barely an hour into our drive, the geography had completely changed. We found this to be true in most areas of California — if you don’t like the scenery, just drive an hour in any direction.

Heading into the Sierra Nevada Mts
Heading into the Sierra Nevada Mts

The clouds and rain returned after steering eastbound again into the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Heading to North Lake Taho

But, the weather was forgotten upon setting eyes on Lake Tahoe’s vibrant blue hues. We were captivated and regretted having less than 24-hours to enjoy them.

North Lake Tahoe, CA

That is until frigid air blew in with a storm foiling our plans to bike, and keeping us inside our small rented cabin for the evening.

Public Beach, Tahoe Vista, North Lake Tahoe
Public Beach, Tahoe Vista, North Lake Tahoe

All was good as our rustic cottage was comfy and adorable, and looked out onto Lake Tahoe.

 

Mart in front of our cabin

We watched from the warmth of our cabin as wind gusts and waves knocked around boats docked along the shoreline.

View of choppy Lake Tahoe from Rustic Cottage

Driving across the Mount Rose Highway the next morning, we were stunned to find a light snow had dusted the mountain and roadsides. Snow in September, another first!

Snow dusting Mt. Rose in September 2014
Snow dusting Mt. Rose in September 2014

Family Reunion – Reno, Nevada

Reno, Nevada Panorama
Reno, Nevada

Because Reno is the home of my brother and most of his family, a visit to the biggest little city in the world had been on our must-do list since our trip’s onset  We loved catching up with our family! And touring Reno…

 

a progressive, beautiful city surrounded by mountain vistas, and not at all similar to what Hollywood tends to project.

We spent an afternoon with my brother exploring the terrain and historical sites along State Highway 341, also referred to as the Virginia City Scenic Drive. We climbed along mountain edges, passing wild horses, and into the infamous silver-mining town of Virginia City.

Virginia City's main street
Virginia City’s main street

Take away the paved highway cutting through town, along with all the cars and motorcycles, and Virginia City appears closely to what I imagine it did in the 1800’s. With its redbrick buildings, colorful storefronts and covered wooden walkways, Virginia City offers visitors a taste of living on the outer edge of law & order in the old west.

Virginia City, Street Vibrations Rally
Virginia City, Street Vibrations Rally

Our visit happen to overlap the Street Vibrations motorcycle rally. Like in the Black Hills during the Sturgis rally, new and classic Harley’s lined Virginia City’s main street, augmenting the fun outlaw vibe.

Reno is a lovely city, and our visit with family was too short.

 

It was difficult to say good-bye; this was the last of many reunions on our trek and we still had two months of travel ahead.

Up Next… back to California, the Wine Country

More Pics…

View of North Lake Tahoe heading up Mt Rose Hwy
View of North Lake Tahoe heading up Mt Rose Hwy