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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Death Valley National Park, California

The hottest, driest, lowest place in the U.S. is appropriately named Death Valley, which sounds like a particularly unappealing place. But Death Valley National Park has a lot to offer and is surprisingly diverse. We stay two nights, which is the minimum required to experience all the park has to offer.

Summertime temperatures can reach more than 120 degrees F and the average annual rainfall is less than two inches, but we are here in November, with temps in the 80s, and when we leave our lodge the morning of our first full day in the park, random raindrops scatter the area. The spitting lasts two minutes or less.

We drove into the park via the southern entrance from Nevada the day before and stopped to hike at the Salt Flats, Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater. The average evaporation rate at the bottom of Death Valley is 150 inches a year. Considering the park only gets 2 inches of rainfall, you can understand that it’s pretty dry.

The Salt Flats used to be a body of salt water. Now it’s just what its name says: flat land covered with salt. From the road, the flats seem to stretch a couple miles to the mountains, all covered with salt crystals, which crunch under my shoes and leave tracks. Mark doesn’t walk out as far as I do. At not quite a mile, by my estimate, I stand still so the crystals no longer crunch. I have never experienced a silence like this: no computer hum, no traffic, no rustling leaves, no gurgling water, no chirping birds. Complete silence. Like I’m in a vacuum. It’s almost eerie.

Devil’s Golf Course is like the Salt Flats only somehow the earth clumps up under the salt.

Badwater is flat with salt and also a little water. But it’s bad water; a cowboy crossing the valley to the California Gold Rush led his horse to the rank water, but it refused to drink. That’s how this place got its name.

At Artist’s Palette, the most colorful area of the park, we drive in amongst the blue and red rocks and wait for the sun to set before a nice dinner at the restaurant at Furnace Creek, where we stay for the night.

The next morning after breakfast and the spitting of rain, we drive back south and hike the four-mile Gower Gulch loop plus the half-mile option to Red Cathedral. We hike the last couple miles along the gulch bed, and towards the end we make precarious climbs down what, if the water were running, would be waterfalls, one with a 10-foot drop or so and a couple other smaller ones.

After a rest we drive north and stop to walk the mile long Salt Creek interpretive trail with hopes of seeing pup fish, one of the few species that can survive in that briny water. We do see minnows. Or are they little pup fish? A dragonfly touches down briefly on the water’s surface, and we see a worm too, what is actually a fly larva. The plants, just green sticks branching off another, are called pickle weed. We chase tiny lizards from the trail.
Further north we hike to the Ubehebe Crater and the smaller unnamed crater Mark and I call the baby Hebe. On our way, a coyote crosses the road. Mark slows so I can get a picture. The animal walks towards our stopped car. If the door was open, he’d jump in. He is looking for a handout.

While driving along, Mark spots a tarantula in the middle of the road. We stop and get out to take pictures.

Just like we planned, we’re at the sand dunes in time for the sunset. We walk barefoot in the warm, loose sand before Mark gets stickers twice and we decide to put our shoes back on.

We sit at the top of a dune waiting for the show, but a thick cloud obscures the whole western horizon so we miss our sunset. Still, we sit more than an hour, playing tic tac toe in the sand or people-watching through the binoculars.

Our lodge tonight is just up the road. We have dinner at the place there and then enjoy the nightlife just outside: a cowboy playing the zephyr and the guitar and singing in his yodel-y voice. He’s really good.

Death Valley National Park. So full of life. Who knew?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

I thought that I had gazed upon everything beautiful in nature as I have spent many years traveling thousands of miles to view the beauty spots of the earth, but I have reached the climax. Never again can I gaze upon the beauty spots of the earth and enjoy them as being the finest thing I have ever seen. Crater Lake is far above them all. – Jack London, 1911

Mark and I are less enchanted when we arrive through the north entrance to Crater Lake National Park one late afternoon in early September.

The sky is the colorless haze it often is this time of year. Just where the north access road meets Rim Road, which circles the lake, is a pull off with a short climb to the overlook.

We know this will be the highlight of our Oregon trip. We’ve seen pictures and read accounts, and our anticipation of finally viewing the wondrous, glorious, unbelievably blue beauty of Crater Lake is almost satisfied.
Yet we’re disappointed.

“Huh.” A simple acknowledgement is our reaction to what is arguably the most beautiful natural thing on earth. Smoke from a forest fire to the west has settled in over the lake, marring our initial view, squashing our expectations, reneging on the guarantee of blow-you-away beauty the National Park Service promises visitors. Wizard Island, the small caldera formed from a volcanic “burp” is to the west,
and all the way over to the east is an island called Phantom Ship, and it is about the size of a pirate’s ship with spindly trees sticking up to pass for masts.

We can see a thicker layer of gray moving in from the west so drive east around Rim Road, trying to outrun it. We stop frequently at lookout points, but it’s all the same: smoky. But the smoke offers us a unique view of the Phantom Ship, which looks menacing, like it’s just breaking through the fog of early morning, en route to an attack.

We exit out the south and hope tomorrow gives better views.
We arrive in the park just after 8 am and drive to Rim Village, park and walk out to the rim of the lake. Indeed, the smoke has cleared and we’re rewarded with a jaw-dropping view of Wizard Island.
Driving north along the western rim, we stop to read about the fire. It started in July from a lightning strike. Since it started naturally, the Park Service is allowing it to burn out naturally, but they are monitoring it. Natural fires are worthwhile because they clean up the dense underbrush, which steels nourishment from the soil. If it had started from a campfire, the fire would have been doused.
At Cleetwood Trailhead, we park and hurry down the steep, mile-long trail to the water’s edge and are the last two admitted on the 10-am bout tour. Our captain eases through the lake, stopping at waterfalls or rock formations while another ranger gives commentary. Crater Lake has no tributaries running into or out of it, which is why it’s so clear. It holds the world record for clarity: 142 feet. The height of the water varies only a few feet per year due to snowmelt and evaporation.
Finally at Wizard Island, Mark and I disembark and hike a mile that circles the caldera to the top. We are intent on the steep trail as we only have an hour, however, we frequently look out to the lake in awe of its magnificence. The beauty of the clear, blue water brings tears to my eyes.
Finally at the caldera’s rim, we sit on some dead wood and have a picnic lunch before heading back to the dock. Several people swim, and I consider it until I dip my toes in. Too cold for me. On the return trip, the captain circles the phantom ship, which, up close and in the clear, doesn’t look so menacing. We go by an orange outcropping of rocks called Pumice Castle. I almost expect a royal figure to step out and wave.

Back at Cleetwood Trail, we all unload and make the laborious tramp up the trail. In the car, Mark and I aim east, as yesterday. This afternoon we turn back a seven-mile road to The Pinnacles. We don’t know what to expect.
Pointy, formations, which look like hardened, gray sugar, stick up from what was a river bed and is now overgrown. How did they form and what are they exactly? We don’t know, but we’re glad we made the drive back here as in all our travels, we’ve never seen anything like them.
We end the day by sitting in on a ranger program and visiting the small museum, where we see what British author Jack London said about Crater Lake (see above quote). On this day, clearer than yesterday, we both agree.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Two More Redwoods Pictures

See post below for an account of our day in Redwood National Forest--with more great pictures.

Mark is standing at the base of an upturned Redwood tree. Massive.

This lighthouse sits on the California coast at the north end of Redwood National Forest. Mark took this picture the night before our day in the park described below. We had dinner at a crowded seafood restaurant just before this was taken. By the time we got out, I thought we'd missed the good sunset, but I think the light in this picture is just amazing. This is probably my favorite picture from the whole trip.