Category Archives: National Monuments

White Sands National Monument & Alamogordo, New Mexico ~ November 6 – 9, 2014

White Sands National Monument

We fell in love with White Sands National Monument (now a national park). Best we could tell, we had the dunes to ourselves.

Drive into White Sands National Monument
Drive into White Sands National Monument

Hiking the 2-mile Backcountry Camping Trail was great for gaining a sense of the parks’ magnitude and beauty. It also provided us with the surreal experience of exploring an alien-like environment.

White Sands NM 1
Backcountry Camping Area, White Sands NP, New Mexico

The San Andres Mountains rise up along the park’s western border. Their size and contrast against the white gypsum give the allusion that they’re closer than they are… White Sands encompasses 228 square miles! No, you can’t walk across it.

Trey, White Sands National Monument
Trey, White Sands National Monument

Treading across the vast whiteness, amongst the ever flowing and shifting dunes, one can easily lose their bearings. It’s both exuberant and eerie, but always having a trail marker within sight was reassuring.

Trail Markers, White Sands National Monument
Trail Markers, White Sands National Monument

November was perfect timing for our visit… cool and gorgeous weather, perfect sky, and no people.

We played like kids and appreciated the experience fully.

White Sands NB 3
Backcountry Camping Area, White Sands NP

Once again, the visitor center was looping an informative film on the park’s history, geology and ecology.

At 10,000 years, White Sands is a relatively young environment. The expanding (even onto surrounding highways) sandy tract was formed by gypsum deposits in the nearby mountains.

White Sands NM 2
White Sands National Monument

Northeasterly winds break off gypsum pieces and grind them into fine bits, dusting the basin continuously.

White Sands NM 4

We’d already decided to return after dark for star gazing but learned that the park’s gates close at 6pm – no entry or exit after that time.

Escape Mobile, White Sands NM
Escape Mobile Alone in the Parking Lot

Alamogordo, New Mexico

We’d chosen Alamogordo as a base due to its proximity to White Sands and only became aware of all it has to offer upon our arrival. First up…

New Mexico Space History Museum

Tularosa Basin has been an epicenter for military research and testing since the U.S. entered World War II. It is home to Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, both innovators in technology and aeronautical aviation.

As a Smithsonian affiliate, the Space History Museum preserves New Mexico’s role in space flight and tells the larger story of the U.S. space program, from the space race with the then Soviet Union to NASA’s ongoing mars program.

Not only are there numerous exhibits from each progressing stage of the U.S. space program, there are several educational videos and interactive displays.

You can even test your skill at landing a space shuttle using a simulator. Trey managed to crash, while I ranked “flown where no man has gone before.” I don’t recall if that was a good or bad thing.

The Museum and it’s International Hall of Fame where Ham, the first space chimpanzee is honored, kept us fascinated for hours.

Then there is the John P. Stapp Air and Space Park that surrounds the museum building. A lunar module capsule, land-speed vehicle, launching track, and rockets of all sorts cover the grounds overlooking the City of Alamogordo.

Wine & Pistachios

We didn’t realize we were back in wine country until we passed a billboard on the way to the space museum. The billboard advertised a winery further up the main road, White Sands Boulevard, but several other vineyards surround the area.

Tularosa Basin’s soil composition, altitude, and temperatures make it ideal for grape production. Spanish settlers and missionaries knew this and were the initiators of New Mexico’s wine tradition.

We sampled wines at Heart of the Desert and Arena Blanca wineries and bought a couple of bottles.

Arena Blanca is associated with the Pistachio Tree Ranch, or Pistachio Land, a 90-acre orchard and home to the world’s largest pistachio.

Pistachio trees benefit from the same natural conditions that make this basin ideal for grapes. A bag of roasted and shelled pistachios sustained us through the remainder of our trip. Very fresh and yummy!

Food…

Blake’s Lotaburger, a family owned chain, is a New Mexico tradition much like Texas’ Whataburger. Its fame expanded beyond New Mexico when it was featured in the AMC’s series Breaking Bad. We hadn’t yet watched Breaking Bad but were lured to Blake’s simply by its authentic and nostalgic burger joint vibe. It did not disappoint; the green chilies burger was nothing less than phenomenal!

We thought our last family visit had taken place in Reno with my brother and his family. No, one more Alamogordo surprise awaited.

Trey’s nephew lives in El Paso, which wasn’t on our path of travel. Happily, Jim contacted us and proposed meeting for lunch in between El Paso and Alamogordo. He suggested La Posta’s in Messila (Old Town Los Cruces).

Best Mexican food of the entire trip! And if anyone has read through these blog posts, they know we love Mexican food and ate it whenever we could… from Montreal, Quebec to the Redwood Forest.

It was wonderful catching up with Jim and we were so grateful for the opportunity to add one last reunion to this six-month trek.

Next Stop…

Mescalero Apache Reservation, New Mexico (via Cloudcroft and the Lincoln National Forest)

Lincoln National Forest

More Pics…

Tombstone, AZ & Gila National Monument, NM ~ November 4 – 5, 2014

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone, AZ 1
Tombstone, Arizona

Between I-10 and the Mexican border lies the infamous town of Tombstone, Arizona. It’s an easy drive from Tucson —about 75 miles—and the cutoff (Hwy 80) was on the way to New Mexico.

Tombstone, AZ 2
Tombstone, Arizona

Like Virginia City, Nevada, Tombstone’s classic western scape is preserved and attracts tourists now rather than cowboys, miners, and outlaws.

OK Corral, Tombstone AZ

Since we weren’t interested in souvenirs or saloons, there wasn’t much to do except walk around, bask in the nostalgia, and read historical markers.

In 1877, and after being told he was foolish and would only discover his own tombstone, Edward Schieffelin found silver in the surrounding hills. By the mid-1880’s, his small encampment had grown into the town of Tombstone with a population upwards of 15,000.

Yet, Tombstone is worth the detour whether you love the lore of the American West or are simply curious. In fact, it enticed us longer than we’d meant to stay.

Heading East on I-10

The detour to Tombstone added 50 miles to the 200-mile drive to southwestern New Mexico, and it was already late afternoon. By the time we were again heading east on I-10, the sun was setting.

Waxing Moon, I-10 east of Tucson
Waxing Moon, I-10 heading toward New Mexico

Cookies, it’s what’s for dinner!

After the deluge in Redwoods National Forest, we had no more camping plans. We also knew there’d be no kitchen access for the remaining eleven days of this adventure, so there was no need to tote food, other than a few snacks. Plus, we’d filled our bellies with a hearty breakfast at Cross Roads Restaurant in Tucson and felt satisfied enough to get through to evening. But, the long day and drive had us arriving in Silver City, NM just after restaurants had closed. Luckily Petit Écolier cookies, leftover from making s’mores, sustained us to morning. This wasn’t the first time we had cookies for dinner.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (Pronounced Hee-la)

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 9
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The remnant cliff dwellings lay deep within Gila National Forest. After turning off Silver City’s main road onto Hwy 15, we started climbing and signs of civilization soon succumbed to a verdant wilderness.

GNF Map

The road mostly follows the Gila River while twisting around, over, and atop the ridges of mountains for 40 miles.

Atop Ridge, Hwy 15, New Mexico
Atop Ridge, Hwy 15, New Mexico

At the visitor center we watched a brief and informative video. The cliffside homes are believed to have been constructed by Mogollon (Mo-go-yone) Puebloans beginning in the 1270’s. But these original inhabitants had moved on by 1300, perhaps due to drought.

The Chiricahua Apache settled there in the 1500’s and remained in the area until the U.S. government forced their removal between 1870 and 1886. The last Apache to sadly leave this ancestral land were led by a defeated Geronimo (Goyahkla).

Gila Canyon, Cliff Dwellings Nat'l Monument
Gila Canyon, Cliff Dwellings Nat’l Monument

The Gila National Forest is spotted with ancient pueblo ruins, yet none as unique and Eden-like as the cliff-dwellings… seven caves high on a canyon cliff topped with fertile soil for growing corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”).

Gila Cliff Dwellings
Caves 2, 4 and 5 (Cave 3 is between 2 & 4 but its entrance is set back and not visible from this angle)

The middle fork of the Gila River runs below the caves and in early November appeared more creek-like.

1-Mile Loop Trail to Gila Cliff Dwellings
1-Mile Loop Trail to Gila Cliff Dwellings

Only five of the caves were used as living quarters. Cave number 6 appeared to be used for rituals while hard-to-reach cave 7 had no trace of human occupancy.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 4
Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico

Unlike Montezuma’s castle, visitors are allowed into the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Being a weekday in November, the forest ranger and a volunteer were the only other persons inside the caves.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 1
Inside Cave 3, Gila National Monument, NM

The ranger pointed out unique architectural details including a structure believed to be used for food storage, like a pantry.

Storage Pantry, Gila Cliff Dwellings
Storage Pantry, Gila Cliff Dwellings

We particularly enjoyed cave 3, the largest and coolest (as in temperature), and its view was fabulous.

Meditating, Cave 3, Gila Cliff Dwellings
Meditating in Cave 3, Gila Cliff Dwellings

Having the dwellings to ourselves was special and a memorable experience.

We were able to spend amble time inside the caves to fully appreciate the area’s beauty, sense of safety, and peace.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 8

For the return trip to Silver Springs we opted to continue looping the scenic byway—the Trail of the Mountain Spirits—into San Lorenzo then back west to Silver Springs.

Trail of the Mountain Spirts Byway

This only added thirty miles to our trip, but Trey and I both agreed the more picturesque route was Hwy 15.

View from Hwy 15 New Mexico
View from Hwy 15 New Mexico

Silver City, New Mexico

Silver City is a friendly mining town nestled aside a mountain and a tad east of the Continental Divide. More modern than expected (not rustic) yet it retains a quaint, small town quality. We savored an authentic Mexican dinner at La Cocina and a hearty breakfast at the artsy Adobe Café. Highly recommend both!

Next Stop…

Alamogordo & White Sands National Park, New Mexico (via quirky Hatch New Mexico…)

More pics…

Lizard, Gila Nat'l Monument, NM
Gila National Forest Lizard 🙂
Casting Shadows, Gila Natl Monument, NM
Casting Shadows, Gila National Monument

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

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

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

San Francisco, California ~ October 1 – 5, 2014

View of Golden Gate and San Francisco from Conzelman Rd

Like in Chicago and Portland, staying in or near San Francisco’s city center was cost prohibitive, so we again used points and stayed at an airport hotel. The commute into San Francisco was about 25 minutes but ran aside the beautiful San Francisco Bay. Finding parking was never a problem as there are plenty of public, but pricey, garages.

Alcatraz – Messages of Freedom and Justice

Alcatraz, SF

Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A ferry operated by a private company from Pier 33 is the only means to access the island. They run about every 30 minutes and you have to purchase fares for a specific departure time, but you can return whenever you’re ready.

That was a good thing as Trey and I became captivated by the island… its history and stories, and all the once hardened but now deteriorating skeletal structures juxtaposed amid beauty. (One only needs to look.)

We spent most of the day touring the former military outpost-then military prison-then federal penitentiary-now national treasure.

During our visit, Alcatraz was also serving as an art exhibit space.  We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.

Weiwei @Large in Alcatraz

The installation exhibit filled two work rooms, and began with the wonderful, welcoming face of a giant, intricate paper dragon, its body comprising the full length of the room.

The contrast of vibrant colors against decaying prison walls was surreal. As were the Lego portraits and brave words of individuals imprisoned for voicing or acting upon their truths…

Weiwei @Large in Alcatraz 5

including Mr. Weiwei himself who at the time was being detained by the Chinese government.

The entire island is open for exploring and we spent as much time outside as we did inside the various cell blocks, industry/labor buildings, and administrative offices.

The NPS has done a great job (as always!) in telling and preserving Alcatraz’s stories, from its notorious prisoners and attempted breakouts to those of the families and children of guards that were also Alcatraz residents.

We learned about the Native American 19-month (Nov 1969 – Jun 1971) occupation of the island. The cross-tribe participants (including the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller) claimed the island as their own citing an 1860’s treaty.

Evidence of Indian Occupation 2

In reality, the takeover was an act of rebellion for past and ongoing injustices carried out by the U.S. Government against its native people. The civil disobedience effort was successful at calling attention to those injustices and their continued effects. We were happy to find that signs of the occupation are well preserved and protected as part of Alcatraz’s rich history. 

San Francisco by Boat, Car, Bike, & Foot

BOAT
Just before leaving Austin for this trek around the U.S., Trey and I struck up a conversation with a businessman at the downtown PF Chang’s bar. He was from San Francisco, so we quizzed him on what his #1 must-do-in-San Francisco recommendation was. “That’s simple!” he said. “You have to see San Francisco from the vantage point of its bay – sail out into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.”

On the Privateer, SF Bay

That’s exactly what we did on the “Privateer” through the San Francisco Sailing Company. The day was gorgeous, perfect for sailing! Plus, the unique views and perspectives we experienced were well worth the $60 ticket price.

View of SF Skyline from Sailboat

We struck up a conversation with a couple sitting adjacent to us on the cozy sailboat and soon after regretted doing so. They were weirdly interested in us and toward the end of the trip, a bit too touchy and invading our personal spaces. We politely declined their invitation to join them at their home thinking that the boat’s sails were not the only thing they wanted to experience swinging that day. California!

The Ebarcadero, SF 2

The bay was beautiful though, and like our no-strings-attached friend at PF Chang’s, we highly recommend sailing around it to fully enjoy the San Francisco skyline and surrounding bridges and hills.

CAR
Beginning in the late 1800’s and through World War II, the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean was deemed militarily vulnerable.

DSC05444

As such, a series of defense “batteries” were constructed along both the northern and southern shores. The remnants of these fortifications remain for intrigued tourists to explore. We selected the northern shore route because it allowed us to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, a new experience for Trey.

Driving Across the Golden Gate

Once across the bridge, we followed Conzelman Road that curved around the hills’ edges and offered amazing views of the bay, bridge, and city.

From Conzelman Rd 2

Stopping at Kirby Battery gave us a feel for what guarding America’s western gateway was like during World War II.

Kirby Battery

It’s easy to imagine diligent soldiers scouring the ocean’s horizon for enemy vessels and the skies for foreign aircraft while bunkered behind sixteen-inch barrel guns. The never used guns are long-gone, but the bunkers and other structures are open to climb about, picnic on, or find a peaceful moment while taking in the serene beauty.

Trey in Kirby Battery Tunnel
Trey posing in a Kirby Battery tunnel

Continuing on Conzelman Road until it dead ended, we turned left onto Field Road which leads to the steep ledge of Bonita Point. The tiny Bonita Point Lighthouse sits atop a rugged crag and is accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – a good challenge for those wanting to confront a fear of heights.

Bonita Point Light House

The ocean and bay views are spectacular, but we enjoyed the scenes below the most… sunbathing seals and ocean spray rising from waves crashing upon black rocky ledges.

Heading inland on Field Road, we made our final stop back in time at Nike Missile Site SF-88…

Nike Missile Site SF-88
Greely & Norton greeted us upon our arrival and kept careful watch over things

where we walked above ground among retired missiles and below ground where missiles were stored and readied for launch.

The site closed in the 1970’s and is well maintained by the NPS. Just as the old battery sites had done, this retired missile site provided a good sense of life at a cold war defense site.

BIKE
From The Embarcadero’s Pier 39, it is about a 5.5 mile ride (one-way) across the Golden Gate. The route takes you along the beach, by gorgeous waterfront homes, and through Presidio to the Battery East Trail.

Bike path from Presido with Palace of the Arts

The climb up to the bridge is steep, but there are plenty of overlooks to stop, rest, and take in the changing scenery… another great way to enjoy the cityscape.

As we climbed we noticed a thick fog rolling in at a fury’s pace. It quickly engulfed the bridge and we wondered whether we’d be able to ride across the bridge, and if so… would we be able to see anything?  By the time we huffed our way to bridge level and emerged from the trees there was no trace of fog, not a single remnant.

East Battery Bike Trail

I understand that is how fog is in the bay area… it is an entity in itself, choosing to come and go, disrupt and displease at will.

The ride across the Golden Gate was thrilling. The rails are high enough and the path wide enough that we felt perfectly safe and comfortable crossing over and back on the 1.7 mile bridge.

Along with sailing around the bay, I consider bicycling across the Golden Gate as a San Francisco must-do!

FOOT
We fell in love with San Francisco. It’s a very walkable city if you don’t mind hills. If you’d prefer to avoid hills then stick to the shoreline areas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero.

With loads of fabulous restaurants, shopping, boats, nightlife and wildlife, they contain essential elements of the quintessential San Francisco experience.

Pier 39, SF

The Ebarcadero, SF

We also loved walking through Pacific Heights, China Town, and Telegraph Hill.

Lombard St, SF
Lombard Street, San Francisco

Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, SF
Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower

Golden Gate Park was on our itinerary, but the streets surrounding it were impassable due to an annual bluegrass festival. Next time!

San Francisco Food

Breakfast – To offset the expense of eating out, we started most days with a cheap but hearty breakfast from Ed’s Diner in South San Francisco.

Ed's Diner, South SF

They served an excellent version of Trey’s favorite, the traditional American breakfast. We would fill ourselves enough to skip lunch and then carry a snack bar and piece of fruit to make it to dinner.

Our one breakfast exception was Mama’s On Washington Square, a recommendation by my sister-in-law who grew up in San Francisco.

Mama's, SF

We were warned that it is small and there is always a crowd, so we arrived twenty minutes before its 8:00 a.m. opening time. That wasn’t early enough to keep us from waiting in line, but the owner-operated café knows their business and has perfected a system of getting people in the door, through an ordering line, seated, served, and back out the door with a full stomach and happy heart.

The freshness and quality of the food is tops! The menu is extensive so I felt a bit overwhelmed with being pressured to order quickly and not hold up the line. We also completely forgot to record or photograph what we ordered.

Dinner – This is it! My absolute favorite dish from our trip around the United States…

Crab Enchiladas, The Crab House, SF
Crab Enchiladas, Crab House – Pier 39

Crab Enchiladas from the Crab House at Pier 39. They were what I imagine eating in Heaven will be like. A melt in your mouth unique flavor, yet still enchilada tasting enough to be called an enchilada. The above photo is not an exaggeration, together the two enchiladas were the size of a Texas big-as-your-face burrito and I finished off each one then wiped the skillet clean.

Even Trey, who is not a shell food person, enjoyed the small bite I shared. He opted for the Fish & Chips, a very generous portion of perfectly fried and fluffy cod, served just as it should be.

rg-lounge-chinatown-sf.jpg

R & G Lounge in Chinatown – Authentic, traditional Chinese. We Texans felt a little out of place and lost at first, but the servers were kind and helpful, and the food was excellent.

McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks, Ghirardelli Square – we failed to take a photo of our meals and neither of us recall the meal. We do, however, vividly remember the gorgeous bay views.

Sunset View, SF Bay

We watched swimmers doing their evening laps while the sun set behind the hills and turned sailboats into silhouettes.

ghirardelli-square.jpg

Dessert was a Caramel Sea Salt Hot Fudge Sundae that we split from Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.

More pics…

From Conzelman Rd 3

Alcatraz Artsy pics…

DSC05298

Next Stop… Carmel By The Sea

 

Astoria, Oregon & US Hwy 101 Coastline Drive, Part 2 ~ September 15-17, 2014

Quaint Astoria sits on a peninsula barely east of where the Columbia River clashes with the Pacific Ocean. Outlined by Young’s Bay and River on its southern shoreline, with the mighty Columbia River comprising its north border.

astoria-columbia-and-young-rivers.jpg
Above Astoria, looking west: Views of the Pacific and Columbia, Young, and Lewis & Clark Rivers.

Yes, water is the heart, soul, and breath of the community. Its sustenance, and existence.

Accessing Astoria from Washington State requires either a boat or crossing the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge, a cantilever through-truss design. As we drove the 4.1 miles across to Oregon, my thoughts turned to my sister. Many times, she had relayed her dizzying experience bicycling over the Columbia River while water rushed in one direction below and crisscrossing cars whizzed past her side. I was grateful to be inside the Escape Mobile.

Welcome Party
Astoria’s Welcome Party

Checking into our riverfront hotel just before sunset, we were greeted with an unrecognizable noise permeating throughout the lobby. Curiosity led us down a corridor and out a back door where the now recognizable barks overwhelmed our senses. Seals, hundreds of them, had taken over docks and landings sitting 150-ish yards away. Gladly, the barking did not disrupt our sleep.

With one full day to explore Astoria, we made the most of our time. First order was a must-visit to the Goondocks…

Gonnies House
The Goonies House

a row of Victorian houses made famous in the 1985 Goonies movie. While we easily found parking and walked up to the primary “Goonies’ House” to snap photos, increased tourist traffic and mishaps have since halted such practices.

Next, a walk around and up into the Astoria Column provided both a historical accounting and scenic overview of the area.

Styled after Rome’s Trajan Column (which Trey has since visited), its spiraling pictorials tell of the “discovery” of the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and the arrival of John Jacob Astor’s merchant ship which was instrumental in establishing Astoria as a key outpost in North America’s fur trade, helping Astor to control much of that trade. How ironic, or perhaps “offensive’ is more fitting, that Astor’s descendants later dedicated the column as a memorial to the Chinook Indians.

The remainder of Astoria was explorable by bicycle via The Riverwalk…

Astoria Bikepath, Trey
Trey on The Riverwalk near base of Astoria-Megler Bridge

a roughly 5-mile pathway following the Columbia River bank from the peninsula’s westernmost point, and turning into forested hills at the eastern end.

Astoria Bikepath
Eastern end of Astoria’s Riverwalk bike path

Along the way, The Riverwalk provides easy access to downtown shops and restaurants. Note, a trolley line follows much of the pathway.

During our bike ride, we enjoyed eating wild blackberries growing aside the pathway, watching the day’s catch being unloaded, the ever-present wildlife, and being entertained by Coast Guard drills while eating pizza.

Astoria gulls

Astoria is charming with a laid-back, fun vibe that balances well with the hard work and challenges that I imagine accompany living at the convergence of three rivers and an ocean. Also apparent was Astoria’s reliance on tourism.

Downtown Astoria

Astoria Food experiences…

A bit of a foodie city, there were several on-budget options. Five stars to T Paul’s Supper Club for dinner, Street 14 Café for coffee and lunch, and the chain restaurant Pig N’ Pancake was a breakfast favorite for locals and tourists.

Fort Clatsop – Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

Fort Clatsop is just south of Astoria so we saved this historical site for the morning of our departure. The fort sits where the Lewis and Clark expedition settled in for winter, awaiting and planning for their return east.

All structures are replicas based on surviving journal entries. A footpath leads to the Lewis and Clark River and follows the shore 1-1/2 miles to Netul Landing (Netul is the river’s original name).

Fort Clatsop View
View of Lewis & Clark River from footpath to Netul Landing

US Hwy 101 Coastline Drive – Part Two

Astoria to Lincoln City

Mesmerized with our first Oregon coast drive, we stretched the 2 hour and forty minute trip to Lincoln City into most of the day; stopping at numerous overlooks…

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City 6

touring Tillamook Cheese Factory…

and traipsing between homes to access a public beach…

Lovely day best expressed through photographs:

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City 5

We arrived in Lincoln City at sunset, without hotel reservations, and famished. Trey had spotted Puerto Vallarta Mexican Restaurant as we entered town — best Tex-Mex fix since Pittsburgh, margaritas included of course.

Sailor Jack Inn, Lincoln City
Trey checking in

Lincoln City’s Sailor Jack Inn stands out as one of our more memorable sleeping experiences; notable in a unique, funny, and lets-not-do-that-again way. It was a cheap motel with a million dollar view.

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City 4

Slinking carefully into bed, we drifted to sleep easily to the sound of crashing waves. I’m sure the margaritas were helpful, too!

Woke the next morning to clear skies, and another Pig N’ Pancake breakfast fueled our bodies for the drive inland to Portland.

More pics…

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City 2

Oregon Coast - Drive to Lincoln City 3

Lewis & Clark Routes

 

Devil’s Tower and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monuments ~ August 9, 2014

 

We departed Black Hills National Forest with the sunrise and via the infamous community of Deadwood, South Dakota.

Deadwood SD
Deadwood, South Dakota

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

After breakfast wraps and coffee at Wild West Espresso in the also infamous ranching community of Sundance, Wyoming, we detoured 27 miles from Interstate 90 to Devil’s Tower, our nation’s first national monument under the Antiquities Act.

Wyoming
Beautiful Wyoming

We were greeted by grazing buffalo and longhorns – sights we had not seen since leaving Texas.

Wyoming Buffalo Longhorns

We were officially in “The West” and it was exhilarating! That feeling was amplified at our first glance of the massive igneous rock protruding from the horizon – Devil’s Tower, or Bear Lodge, one of its many native names.

Devils Tower Horizon Shot

The tribes of the northern plains consider Devil’s Tower sacred and regularly conduct ceremonies or leave prayer clothes and offerings at its base. Visitors are reminded to respect and honor these traditions. As we strolled around the tower’s base on the Tower Trail, we sensed a hallowedness among the rocks and colorful cloths tied around tree limbs and branches. The feeling was no less, and perhaps greater, than the feelings we experienced within the great ornate basilicas we had visited.

Devil's Tower 2

This church however was formed from and by the earth, rises 867 feet above it, and hosts a diverse group of plant and animal species. Its great columns cling tightly together in their battle against the elements and gravity. That’s what it looked like to me anyway. Kiowa legend states that the rock had been sculpted by the claws of a great bear – it’s easy to see that, too.

0503171454b

We had heard from a ranger that golden eagles were in the area and we spotted one fly over and around the tower’s top a couple of times, but the eagle was too quick for us to snap a photo.

Climber on Devil's Tower
Climbing is allowed only by permit

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana

We arrived at the Little Bighorn battlefield as a park ranger began recounting the story of the U.S. Army’s 1876 effort to end the centuries old independence, cultures and customs of the northern plains’ native people.

Indian Memorial at Little Bigfield Battlefield

Thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had joined forces in a valley east of the Little Bighorn River where they outnumbered and overwhelmed General George Custer’s regiment of 262 men.  It was one of the northern plains Indians last successful  battles in preserving their identity. We had been starkly reminded of their eventual defeat while driving through the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations on our way to the battlefield.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
The Battlefield of Little Bighorn

The young ranger confidently relayed the battle scene while pointing out specific hills and slopes that laid out before him and the crowd that had gathered. He was Crow and a U.S. government employee.

Lacking the time for a guided tour, we walked along Battlefield Road and walking paths surrounded by tombstones that had been placed where bodies had been found.

Path through Little Bighorn Battlefield

Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial are easy walks from the visitor’s center.

Little Bighorn Battlefield

We left the monument feeling somber and wishing we had been able to spend more time there.

Markers in Little Bighorn Battlefield

As it was, we had two more hours left of the seven and half hour drive to Red Lodge, Montana.

More pics…

View of Montana from the Tower Trail

Buffalo and Bird

Devils Tower Columns