Death Valley National Park


So a few weeks ago I was complaining about the cold and rain – no more!  Here was the temp the day we visited Death Valley and the warning at the Visitor Center.


Even with the extreme heat, we really enjoyed Death Valley.  It is beautiful – there are so many colors in the desert.  These pictures don’t do it justice.


The sands were all colors of beiges and reds with blues and greens thrown in.  The sky was an incredible bright blue and the sun was white hot.

We weren’t able to go to the Racetrack where the rocks mysteriously move in the sand.  It’s about a four hour trip from Furnace Creek where we entered the park plus the NPS recommends that you only enter if you have spare tires (plural!).  And there’s at least a half mile walk to get to the boulders.  That didn’t sound like a trip two women should make in 117 degree weather!  Ditto for Scotty’s Castle.  It had been damaged by flooding and was closed.  Apparently severe weather is pretty common in Death Valley.  The electricity was out at the Visitor Center the day we visited as a result of a thunderstorm the night before.  A few days later we saw tweets from Joshua Tree saying that all electricity was out at Death Valley and they were turning away folks who had hotel reservations.

We did visit Badwater Basin which is the lowest point in North America – 282 feet below sea level.  See that small white sign on the hill behind my car?  That’s sea level.


Joshua Tree National Park


Our plans got a little derailed at this point in the trip.  We had been camping for over a week (counting the tent cabins in Yosemite) and planned to pamper ourselves by staying in a hotel in Palm Springs.  It’s off season so rooms were really reasonable.  We thought we’d break camp in Visalia the morning after visiting Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, cruise to Joshua Tree and visit it, spend the evening in a hotel and get up early the next day to head to Death Valley.  Just as we were about to make the turn to Joshua Tree, the warning system on my car said we needed to add oil and service the car as soon as possible.  We bypassed Joshua Tree and hightailed it to the BMW dealer in Palm Springs.  Bless their hearts – we arrived at 3:30 on the Friday of the three day July 4th weekend and they serviced the car on the spot even though they’d already sent half their technicians home.   We were so lucky!  We could’ve been stuck there till the following Tuesday waiting for them to re-open.  Of course, when we checked into our hotel and saw this from the balcony of our room, we thought it might be okay to be stuck for a few days.

DSC_2320Because of the great customer service at the BMW dealer, we were able to hit the road again the next day and make the Joshua Tree stop.  Joshua Tree, as with Sequoia, is set aside primarily to protect and educate about a particular tree.  The Joshua Tree is unique to this area and the vistas are enhanced by the boulder fields.  This particular boulder is known as Skull Rock.


This trip has really made me appreciate how a few hundred miles and/or a few hundred or thousand feet elevation can result in a totally different landscape.  I think that’s why I like road trips so much.


Oh, did I mention that it’s hot here?  Nothing like being blunt – “don’t die today”!


Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

These two parks are operated as one system and we visited them both in one day.  I found it interesting that these parks were designated in 1890 – the second and third national parks.  Actually, only a part of Kings Canyon was one of the original triad.  A small part of it was designated the General Grant National Park.  General Grant refers to a giant sequoia tree.  I’d never given it much thought as to what the early national parks were but I sure would have guessed something like Yosemite, Glacier, Crater Lake or the Smokies would have received designation before these parks.  On the other hand, one thing I’ve come to appreciate as we’ve traveled through the national parks is that some parks are designated solely to protect and preserve a particular natural feature – some geologic, some a type of tree.  In this case, the parks protect sequoias which grow naturally only on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada and only at a specific elevation.

So these parks were designated in 1890 and the National Park Service itself was established in 1916.  The NPS recognized the significance of the sequoias by including a sequoia tree on their shield.  The pinecones on the Park Rangers’ belts and hatbands are sequoia pinecones.


Kings Canyon National Park

The General Grant sequoia in Kings Canyon is 268 feet tall, 40 feet wide and 1700 years old.


Sequoia National Park

Sequoia is home to the General Sherman tree (notice a naming trend?).  It’s the largest tree in the world – as measured by volume of total wood.  It’s estimated to be 2,000 years old, is 275 feet tall with a ground circumference of 103 feet.

The other cool thing at Sequoia is the walk to the top of Moro Rock.  It’s 400 steps but was a lot easier than the 600 steps to Vernal Falls because these were actual steps.  The payoff was standing on top of a sliver of a dome with 360 degree views.




Yosemite National Park

It’s really hard to think of anything profound to write about Yosemite.  It is truly an awe-inspiring place.  I’m mostly going to let the pictures speak for themselves and instead publish some hints if you’re planning a trip here.

First, though, this scene.  We visited at a not-so-good time for the sun on three of the primary attractions:  El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls.  But, still.  Isn’t this amazing?


We stayed in Half Dome Village in a tent cabin.  This was previously known as Curry Village until some type of trademark dispute in 2015 stripped it and the historic Ahwahnee Hotel of their names.  What a shame.  Curry Village has existed since 1899 and was so named because of the family that originally started the tourist camp.  My folks stayed at this same place in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

We were returning to our tent cabin at dusk the first night.  One of the residents on our “street” was apparently sorting their food or prepping for the next day.  They had their tent cabin door open and the bear box right next to their door open too.  As we walked by, a big raccoon jumped out of their bear box.  Apparently the masked bandit had been lurking in the shadows waiting for this opportunity.  This was the day after our raccoon encounter in Pinnacles.  Sarah is not a fan of raccoons!

In the “small world” category – we were approached by an off-duty shuttle driver who saw our Missouri license plate.  She has a place in Ellington, Missouri.  Summers she drives the Yosemite shuttle.  Winters she “draws California unemployment” and hangs out with old Navy friends in Ellington.  I’m not sure I’d pick Ellington as my winter retreat but it sounds like she has a nice semi-retirement plan!

Half Dome


Yosemite Falls

El Capitan


Vernal Falls

Whatever you do, don’t stop at the footbridge overlook at Vernal Falls.  Just look at these pictures!  Yes, it’s 600 steps up to the top but look at these pictures!  It was one of the most amazing waterfalls I’ve encountered and certainly the best of this trip (so far).  I have to admit that I didn’t go all the way up although we did go up past the stairs in this picture.  Not included in the stair count are lots of rock ledges you have to scramble up.  Going up wasn’t that bad but coming down is hard – particularly with no depth perception.  I had trouble seeing where there was an actual difference in elevation so I bailed short of the top.  The hike to Vernal Falls is all uphill.  It was already pushing 90 degrees the morning we hiked.  On the way back down, we encountered an elderly man walking with two canes up the trail to the falls.  His t-shirt – “still perfect after all these years.”  I quit complaining after I saw him.



Mirror Lake Hike


Vernal and Nevada Falls

Nevada is the upper falls in the photo.  No, we didn’t hike to it!


Trip tips:

Stay in the park.  It’s a long way into the park and you don’t want to waste precious hours driving in and out each day.  It’s a good two hour drive from Mariposa.  Even within the park, it’s an hour plus to drive the 35 miles from Wawona to the valley floor.  Plus parking is awful in Yosemite Valley.  If you’re staying there, you can pretty much just leave your car the whole time and use the free shuttle.

Unless you have specific plans for hikes or other activities in other areas of the park, stay in the valley.  This is where Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite, Bridalveil, Vernal and other falls are located.  This is also where the majority of the food and other services are located.

The only reliable internet (unless you’re staying at one of the hotels) is at Degnan’s Deli and Loft.  Also it’s the only place that has made-to-order sandwiches.

Bring a power strip, especially if you’re not staying in a hotel room.  The tent cabin has one outlet with just one plug-in.  If you leave your car for a couple of days like we did, you’ll need more than one plug to recharge camera batteries, phones, etc.  We actually made a Target run our first night of this trip for a power cord even though we have a power block in the car.

The Park Service is serious about using bear boxes.  It’s a $5,000 fine and expulsion from your campsite or soft-side tent cabin if you’re caught not using one.  And, it’s not just about food.  You have to put all of your toiletries in the bear box each night and cannot leave anything in your car.

While the bear boxes are bear and raccoon-proof (as long as they’re closed), they aren’t bug proof.  We packed our clothes in plastic tubs so we emptied one out and used it to put all of our food and toiletries in and then put that in the bear box.  Ziplocs are also good for corralling all of the small stuff like lip balm and suntan lotion that you want to get back in the backpack each day.

Plan your trip far in advance.  We were extremely lucky to get reservations for three consecutive days only a week before our visit.   Most guidebooks recommend making reservations 6 months to a year in advance.  I think we must have searched for the reservations immediately after someone else cancelled.  We talked to people who were moving from one site to another just to get the number of days they wanted in the park.  That’s a hassle.

The season is important too.  I was surprised to read that Yosemite Falls is often dry by August.  It seems impossible given the volume of water we saw the last days of June.  On the other hand, Mirror Lake was almost dry when we did that hike – which leads me to another tip – invest in bug spray or wristbands.  And take them with you – believe me.  Voice of experience.

Happy Independence Day!

We’ve been celebrating the National Park Service’s centennial for a month traveling through the western US.  Tonight we celebrate the United States of America at a free concert and fireworks in St. George, Utah.  Featured performer:  Sawyer Brown.  Happy 4th!


After the Volcanic Legacy Parks, we decided to take a National Park break and hit the winery trail in Napa.  No high heels but we did get (relatively) dressed up.  Neither of us are very savvy about wines so we chose to spend our tasting time at V. Sattui, solely based on the fact that they have a gourmet deli at the winery.  Lame, I know.  But we had such a nice time.  Did two tastings and had a picnic of apples, cheeses, bread and some awesome dipping sauce under the trees adjacent to the vineyard.  It was a very pleasant day.  There are so many wineries along highway 29 and even more on the Silverado trail that you could spend weeks visiting them all.

It was tough travel heading out of Napa because of road construction.  We got out of the road construction only to hit the NASCAR traffic at Sonoma.  We had reservations for the night in San Francisco and the Napa construction traffic that turned into NASCAR traffic turned into San Francisco Friday night traffic.  Perhaps the traffic jaded our San Francisco experience but neither Sarah nor I were interested in spending much time there.  We did see and travel across the Golden Gate bridge (one of my objectives) but didn’t stick around to do the cable car or any other sight-seeing.  Maybe we just weren’t in the mood for a city trip.  Another time.

We planned to travel a portion of Highway 1 after leaving San Francisco and we did drive the famous coastal highway from Monterrey to Cambria.  It took us twice as long as we had expected to get from San Francisco to Monterrey.  Traffic was horrible.  It wasn’t that bad on Highway 1 – just getting there was a pain.  That was exacerbated by a necessary supply stop in Mountain View, CA where we went to what must have been the world’s oldest Target and had to make four stops before we found a place that sold ice.  (such first world problems!)

The scenery along Highway 1 was very pretty – particularly the different colors of blue in the ocean.  I am glad we made the drive but guess my expectations were too high.  I think part of it is that it’s beautiful but, in most cases, inaccessible.  We drove into Carmel by the Sea where there is a public beach and the town was crazy busy.  You literally would have had to park a mile away to access the beach.  One of the best stops along our drive was this pretty waterfall, McWay Falls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which falls directly into the ocean.


Since we weren’t anticipating the traffic, we over-planned our day.  Our destination for the night was Pinnacles National Park near King City, CA.    We stopped in Paso Robles for dinner.  What a pretty downtown!  Pretty park with restored buildings surrounding it.  Lots of folks walking around.  We actually liked it better than our experience in downtown San Francisco.

We ended up driving the last leg of our day at dusk, arriving at Pinnacles after dark.  We were tent camping so we put up the tent in the dark – thank goodness we have an “up in a minute” tent.  Pinnacles is a dark sky park – meaning that they have very few lights in the park (none in the restrooms!) and there is virtually no light pollution from surrounding activities.  Really great for stargazing – not so great for setting up a tent.  There was also a burn ban because of extreme fire hazard so no one had campfires.  The site we reserved (one of the few open when we made the reservation) was tucked back behind some bushes and bordered by a small ravine. We didn’t know about the ravine till morning.  We got the tent up and were getting some things out of the car when a really fat raccoon walked right beside us and about scared us to death!  Neither of us slept well that night!


We stopped in the Visitor Center the next morning to get oriented and found out that Pinnacles is a climbing and hiking only park.   You cannot see the Pinnacles without taking a fairly lengthy hike.  Poor planning on my part since we were planning on this just being a drive-through experience.  Then the Ranger told us it was going to be 105 on the trails.  Time to move on!

One other note on Pinnacles, this was the worst maintained and managed National Park campground I have experienced.  I left a comment card and plan to send my comments to the Park Service.  Of the three restroom buildings, one was closed completely and the other two had stalls which were closed.  The showers were so bad even I wouldn’t shower there and quiet hours weren’t enforced.  So – not my favorite park.  As with every park, the restrooms and store were operated by a concessionaire.  Obviously a lowest but not best bid.  Time to hit the road again!


Volcanic Legacy Trail and Northeastern California

One of the things I like best about road trips is discovering something really interesting just by choosing one particular route over another.  We left Klamath Falls, Oregon bound for Lassen Volcanic National Park.  We made a spur of the moment decision to take a route through Tulelake, California and Lava Beds National Monument.  It also passed through the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge.  On our way to Klamath Falls, we had skirted around Upper Klamath Lake.   Broad valleys surrounded a large lake.  Leading up to and following the lake were huge wetlands with shallow creeks or rivers winding through the grasses.  The dry land was filled with enormous cattle herds. It was a very peaceful drive.  This area is an important bird habitat and is a stop for migrating bald eagles.  Very enjoyable drive.


Also on this drive, we were treated to views of Mount Shasta along the way.

As we were driving to Lava Beds, we saw a sign for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Tulelake so stopped to see what it was.  This is one of several sites that was a Japanese segregation center  (War Relocation Camp) during World War II.  The small Ranger Station located at the County Fairgrounds had really good interpretive information.  The two associated sites, the large segregation center and the prison, are only accessible on Ranger-led tours but we drove out to the prison facility which was closest to the Ranger Station.  It was built as a WPA camp, then used as a prison for Japanese families who refused to sign a pledge that they would fight for the US under any circumstances, then used as a POW camp for Italian prisoners who worked on the surrounding farms.


Lava Beds National Monument was such a great surprise!  It’s weird – literally beds of lava that landed here miles from the Medicine Lake volcano from eruptions over the last, oh, half million years or so.  This was one of the parks where the north entrance wasn’t staffed and the visitor center was all the way on the south end.  What also didn’t make sense was the it was relatively easily accessible from the north but was miles on a forest service road on the south.  What’s up with that, NPS?  So we had to rely on the interpretive signs along the way (Fodor only covers National Parks – not National Monuments).  As you can see, some of them were really minimalist.


The coolest thing about Lava Beds is that there are a bunch of caves that were created when the lava rocks cooled.  You can explore these caves but, of course, need to be prepared with headlamps, proper clothes and, in some cases, knee pads.  Since we hadn’t been to the visitor center and weren’t really prepared, Sarah and I just checked out some of the entrances.  This is a way cool park!

Continuing on our Volcanic Legacy tour, we arrived at Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Cool history.  Lassen erupted in 1914 and 1915 and one of the eruptions was captured in a series of still photographs.  Pretty amazing considering it was 100 years ago.  I’d never really thought about just how far lava could be “thrown out” of a volcano until I visited Lava Beds and Lassen.  It’s humbling to see the volcano miles away while standing in front of some of its spent lava.

The Visitor Center has a seismograph and an exhibit that displays recent seismic activity.  When we were there, there had been a 1.0 tremor within the last 24 hours and numerous similarly sized tremors that week.    There are also a few mudpots/boiling springs and sulphur vents in the area – one right along the main scenic drive.  The biggest concentration is at Bumpass Hell.  I really wanted to go there just because of the name but the trail was closed because of icy conditions.

As you can see, there was quite a bit of snow still at Lassen.  Check out the snow still covering the top of the toilets!


We spent the night at Shingletown KOA outside of Lassen and, for the first time, I saw emergency evacuation plans posted prominently in the laundry and bathhouse.  They enumerated wildfires, lightning strikes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as potential reasons to evacuate.  Naively, I thought this was a little bit of overkill until a few days later when a wildfire swept through Kern County, California.  We had considered staying at Lake Isabella KOA as we were pondering our route.   That campground was evacuated because of the wildfire.

Just as our spontaneous routing change brought pleasant surprises, our evening in Shingletown was also a quiet pleasure.  It was laundry time.  The KOA had big Adirondack chairs outside the laundry room and Sarah and I sat out in the cool evening, eating pizza from the only restaurant in town before turning in for the night.


Crater Lake National Park


We entered Crater Lake National Park from the north and, if I have to complain about the National Park Service during its centennial year, it’s that they have assumed that all visitors to the Volcanic Legacy Parks (Rainier, Crater, Lava Beds, Lassen) will enter from the south.  The visitor centers are all oriented south and, in most cases, the north entrance gates/ranger stations weren’t staffed so we couldn’t get a map till we were almost through the park.  Cell service was universally bad so I couldn’t access the NPS website.  I was very happy that I had Fodor’s National Parks of the West.  It’s a great book – has park maps, information on hikes, scenic drives, etc.  We would have been lost without it.

Even if you’ve seen the pictures, nothing quite prepares you for Crater Lake.  It is such a deep blue and just incredibly scenic.  Here are the stats:  1,943 feet deep surrounded by 2,000 foot cliffs.  Sunlight penetrates to a depth of 400 feet.  It’s the deepest and cleanest lake in the US and 9th deepest in the world.  It was created when Mount Mazama erupted and then the mountain collapsed.  The resulting caldera filled with rainwater and snowmelt and those are still the only sources.  No creeks run into Crater Lake.

The lake is rimmed by a scenic drive but the east rim hadn’t been cleared yet.  You can see from the pictures that there was still quite a bit of snow in places.  Once the road opens, there’s an opportunity to take a Ranger – guided boat tour of the lake to Wizard Island but we were too early in the season for it.


It’s really beautiful – you should go see it yourself!

Columbia Gorge

We left the Oregon coast and headed back east to explore the Columbia Gorge.  Quick stop in Portland to exchange a defective camp pad at REI and to pick up VooDoo Donuts.  My understanding is VooDoo started the whole cereal-topped and weird topping donut craze so it was a touristy must-do.  VooDoo is not far from a mission and we were met by a panhandler standing square in the door as we exited.  Savvy guy – good way to guilt-trip someone who’s just purchased designer donuts.  Despite the hype, I think our hometown Hurts Donuts are better.


We had a lot on our plate so we didn’t linger in Portland.  Some other trip.  We headed out to the Columbia Gorge.  It’s a beautiful drive with several waterfalls virtually next to the road.  We hiked up past the bridge at Multnomah Falls.   The drive through the Gorge is a testament to a sensitive engineer who made sure the natural attractions were easily accessible but didn’t destroy the surroundings in the process.


We had dinner and spent some down time in Hood River.  This has been my favorite city/town so far.  Beautiful setting on the Columbia River, nicely renovated downtown with boutique shops and good restaurants.  We had one of our best meals of the trip at Full Sail Brew Pub.  The highlight, though, was watching the kite boarders and wind surfers on the river.  This area is supposed to be one of the best places in the nation for these activities and it was amazing to watch them.

We ended the drive by stopping at Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood.  This is where the exterior scenes for The Shining were filmed.  I always thought that was in Colorado but I was wrong.  Believe it or not, at least one of the ski lifts was still taking skiers and snowboarders up the mountain to ski and board!  I believe this may have been one of the days Springfield got close to 100 degrees!

A couple of random things about Oregon:

No sales tax.  At all.  Guess their property taxes are high?

They pump your gas.  After I tried to do it myself, I was told it’s the law and “it was probably to create more jobs”.  But all they do is pump – you still have to clean your own windshield.