Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Escaping the traffic tie-up in Las Vegas, we traveled about 40 minutes northeast and found ourselves in a very flat plain, with little vegetation and some rock outcroppings on the horizon. We thought we had gotten the wrong directions as this place looked nothing like a park. But, as we drove into the rocks as our ‘Garmin Girl’ told us to do, we were treated to the most glorious sight. Up close, the red rocks were the most amazing shapes and they were turning an intense salmon/terracotta color as the sun was setting. It almost looked as though the hand of a giant sculptor had just put down mounds of red clay in preparation for casting pottery. We were in the Valley of Fire, Nevada’s oldest state park dedicated in 1935. The temperature cooled down with a lovely dry breeze and we slept with all the windows open –it was so restful! I would have liked to have stayed a little longer, but as the sun rose the next morning, you could tell the heat was going to be intense and we thought it best to get a move on.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Traveling through Death Valley, you quickly understand how it came by its name. It is desert that is below sea level in many places and there is no escape from the constant sun. Even in September, it was a scorching 95 degrees as we drove through the park. I couldn’t even persuade myself to exit the car to go into the visitor’s center. Still, it was interesting to view this terrain which has a stark beauty about it. Not surprisingly, there were heat warnings posted everywhere. It is simply amazing to think that any animal can live in this harsh environment, but there are several that do, including the rare desert tortoise, kangaroo rat, the Sidewinder and several species of lizards and birds. David and I got out of the air-conditioned truck only to take a few pictures and then quickly returned to our comfortable surroundings. Just as we were about to drive out of the park, we saw in the opposite lane, a familiar Airstream trailer. Lo and behold, it was the Canadian couple! We pulled around and came up behind them just as they stopped and we all hopped out and had a great laugh together! Pierre and Micheline greeted us warmly and told us they had just visited a wonderful park outside of Las Vegas called the Valley of Fire and we should go if we could. They were planning on spending the night in Death Valley ( I didn’t envy them one bit!) before traveling on. We exchanged e-mail addresses, wished them ‘pleasant traveling’ and told them if they wanted to stop in Fayetteville on their way home, we would be thrilled to see them again. Pierre and Micheline said farewell, kissing us on both cheeks in the proper French/Canadian way and waved good bye. What a delight they were and a testament to the fact that it is indeed “a small world!”
We had a number of people tell us Yosemite was TOO crowded and they didn’t like it. We arrived at the East side at Lee Vining, CA and entered the Park after a huge pull up the mountains that was quite spectacular. I was worried about getting a spot to camp as it was close to 5:00 in the evening when we got there. However, there were spots and pretty soon we had the trailer parked at the Meadows Campground for $10 a night. Of course no electricity but still a nice place to put the trailer. We were on the opposite side of the Park to Yosemite Valley and it’s trademark sites such as El Capitan, Half Dome and the Falls. We were at about 8000 feet and the valley floor was close to 3000 so temperatures could be vastly different. On the first mornings we took of to Yosemite Valley and left our campground with temperatures close to 40. We entered the Valley some 1 ½ hours later and believe it or not temperatures in the 90’s that afternoon. I had to buy Beth shorts as she had not planned on this. We basically looked around and tried to see all of the historic hotels, sites, etc. the valley had to offer. It was in fact crowded and I have to say the crowds, fast food, etc. took away from the incredible natural beauty of this place. We both noticed a different feel to the service we received at Yosemite than other parks. It was far more indifferent and the very worst case were outhouses that basically were unfit for use. This condition I intend to write the head of the Park Service about as simply unacceptable at such a national treasure. We also noticed the percentage of foreign visitors was quite high particularly in this park. We did several hikes in the Meadows area and really quite beautiful with a wonderful mountain stream running through both or campground and the meadows. The John Muir Trail went along side the steam and we walked a good ways on it. We spent four nights in the park and the last morning it was 28 degrees with frost on the meadows. Unfortunately, the battery in the trailer had begun to fail and by morning we were unable to turn on the heater. By the way, I did replace the battery the next day but it was disappointing that the one that came with the trailer only had two months of life in it. So bottom line on Yosemite, extremely pretty with huge, and I mean huge granite rocks everywhere. El Capitan goes from the valley floor 3500 feet pretty much straight up. The attitude of Park employees, and maintenance were simply not good. It’s a conundrum in that you want people to use the parks but on the other hand you don’t go to a national park for a Disneyland-type experience.
Everyone had told us to visit Lassen and I found it quite strange in that I had never heard of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen is about 275 miles Southeast of Redwoods National Park in the middle of very,, very rural Northern California. In 1914, Lassen exploded and a man named Loomis was lucky enough to document the eruption on film and this brought great national attention to the area. So much so, that in 1916 it was made a national park. Lassen Peak is one of the largest of what are known as a plugged dome volcanoes in the world. It is always amazing the power of nature and this was no exception as massive lava rocks are to be found five miles or more from the eruption site. The park was not crowded at all and parking the trailer and getting a camp site was no problem except almost all places were on an incline. You defeat this by putting one side of the trailer up on wooden blocks and every trailer or camper there was done that way. The drive from one side of the park to the other is about 25 miles and goes up to around 8000 feet and from there you can climb the rest of the way up Lassen Volcano another 2000 feet plus. However, just prior to our visit, a young man had been killed when a rock gave way so that had the top part restricted. Beth and I visited a place called Bumpass Hell and it was a cauldron of gas vents, hot mud, sulphur vents and other things one would associate with an active volcanic area. The hike was about three miles and a good bit of climb so it was not easy. A man named Bumpass had discovered this area and unfortunately fell while showing people through the area and lost his leg as a result of severe burns, thus the name, Bumpass Hell. Next stop the next day was a cinder cone which is an actual volcano but smaller. We hiked to the top of one of the larger cinder cones in the U.S. and the climb up was very difficult but once there the view quite amazing. There were huge lava beds around the cinder dome which erupted some 300 years ago and they made a perfect dome shape just steep enough that the cinders don’t come rolling down the hill. (Also just steep enough to make the hike up very, very difficult.) This park also had a number of very pretty lakes and Beth and I did our best to catch a trout on one, but to no avail. The high points were not many people, the evidence of the power of a volcano everywhere and the stark beauty of it all. Like all of these parks, one really could spend several months there and not see it all or hike it all so our three days there was short, but interesting.
Friday, September 18, 2009
While in Glacier National Park, we ran across a couple who told us we just couldn’t go home without seeing the Redwoods. We left Crater Lake and headed south and westward to the California coast to view the tallest members of the tree family. (Giant Sequoias are bigger around, but the Redwoods have the height.) We arrived to chilly, windy weather and a fog was rolling in off the water. The fog, we found out, helps provide additional moisture for these trees during the summer months, which probably aids in their growth. It’s so amazing to be in a heavily wooded forest and then to drive into a clearing and see the Pacific Ocean—talk about the best of both worlds! Because we had heard it was difficult to stay in Redwoods National Park, we opted to stay in the nearby national forest at Panther Flats Campground, along the beautiful Smith River. It was the busy Labor Day weekend and nearly every site was full. Unfortunately, we had some rather loud-mouthed neighbors, so it was noisier than we’d have liked and I did have to sleep in my trusty earplugs. The next day we got up and drove through the park, but it was still rainy and chilly, so we didn’t hike much. The absolute grandeur of these trees as they stand in their velvety green groves takes your breath the first time you see them. You almost can’t imagine that these trees were growing in this very place when man still believed the earth was flat. David and I were spellbound by the incredible beauty of this park. The gigantic ferns carpeted the forest floor and there were lovely foot bridges along the winding pathways—I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to catch a glimpse of fairies playing nearby. Elk frequent the park and there were numerous signs posted to warn motorists. We were fortunate to see a grazing herd one day and later saw a lone elk helping himself to some green apples in someone’s front yard! We saw many RV’s especially clustered near the lagoons and rivers. We later found out they were fishing for salmon. We hoped to buy some fresh fish but couldn’t find any, so we opted to stop at a shop which sold smoked salmon and salmon jerky. The shop was run by a native American family and they smoked their fish in the traditional way over Alder wood with simple salt and pepper. It was delicious! Naturally, we wanted enjoy the ocean, so we hiked down to the beach one day. Our path was lined with ripening blackberries and several native wildflowers, including wild pink roses. The tide was in, so we didn’t get to stroll on the beach, but viewed the pulsating water from the safety of a high rock. Another day, we took a drive to Eureka, CA which was quite a drive out of the park, but we were so very glad we made the journey. Eureka is a charming Victorian town that was quite prosperous during the height of the timber industry. There were beautiful turn-of-the-century homes and shops downtown, including a lovely renovated theatre. In addition, there’s a pleasant waterfront with a public marina and you can watch the boats come and go. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and as we were heading out, we happened across a Canadian couple we’d met at Crater Lake. They had stopped to take a photo of a glorious Victorian home and we recognized them. We waved them over and laughed at ‘how small the world actually is!’ Pierre and Micheline were pulling a lovely airstream trailer that we had admired when we were all touring Crater Lake. They told us they were heading to Joshua Tree National Park so we said our goodbyes and wished them a safe journey. Again, we were struck by the idea that you meet such interesting and charming people when you travel.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
When you first come upon Crater Lake in southern Oregon, the intensity of the colors is what immediately pulls you in. Then, you marvel at the sheer size of this body of water formed when a volcano exploded and left nothing but a crater. Inside the lake lies a smaller cinder cone called Wizard’s Island because its shape was thought to resemble a wizard’s hat. The intense blue lake seems to magically appear, a welcome relief from traveling through dusty, hot badlands –type terrain. There are glorious yellow wildflowers lining the roadsides and numerous evergreen forests surrounding the lake, but there are also desolate pumice fields that are devoid of much vegetation. It is an interesting contrast. We were delighted to find that our campground had electricity—a first for us since staying in the national parks and our site was very spacious. As we generally do, we try and get a feel for the parks by driving through them first then deciding what points of interest to focus on during subsequent days. We did this with Crater Lake. We went to the park’s two visitor centers, talked to the staff and decided what hikes we wanted to do, etc. We also visited the lodge at Crater Lake. It was charming. Built in the early 1900’s, it had been paneled in crosscut timber and whole trees had been used for supporting beams. There was a lovely, but physically challenging hike from the lodge so we did that and climbed up to the rim of the caldera for a breathtaking view of the lake. I also got some great pictures of the little chipmunks which were everywhere. We also took a guided hike with park ranger Don Clark, a delightful man who taught us much about the area as we hiked up to an old fire lookout post for a spectacular view of the sunset. Of course, he and David laughed about their last names, and the photo we took that evening on the trail with “Lewis & Clark.” The next day we boarded one of the boats for a lake tour. It was a good way to get a different perspective on the formation of this lake and see the variety of volcanic creations. Unfortunately, the day was windy, the waves fairly large and several of the passengers got very wet! The hike down to the boat dock was not bad and took us maybe 15-20 minutes, coming back up was a different matter altogether. It probably took an hour and 15 minutes and it was straight up hill—it was not for the ‘faint of heart’ and I mean that literally! Happily, we had laundry facilities at the general store so I was able to catch up on laundry, since the volcanic dust seemed to cling to everything. While temperatures were warm in the upper 70’s during the day they fell at night and we definitely enjoyed our campfires. Mornings were quite chilly, but the day warmed quickly as the sun came up. Layering your clothing is very much the way to go when you are in higher elevations as I have now learned by experience. We stayed in Crater Lake for four days and David and I both felt this was one of our favorite parks (of course it seems like we’ve said this no matter where we go!) Crater Lake is a very different park experience, but I found it to have raw beauty that is absolutely captivating and makes me want to plan a return visit in the near future.
Friday, September 11, 2009
We had hoped to visit Cascades and Olympia National Parks but had heard weather reports that it might not be the best and with time starting to be a factor (I had to be in Kansas City by Sept. 24 for a college reunion) we decided to head south. David had done some work for projects associated with the electricity produced by dams on the Columbia River, so he was interested in traveling through the gorge. It was quite spectacular to see this powerful river, the same one that Lewis and Clark traveled on their way to the Pacific. We came across the Bonneville Dam with its huge turbines generating thousands of gallons of water per minute. We found a campground near Beacon Rock, a massive boulder that sits in the river and is a local landmark. The campground was quite small, but very pretty and it had a lovely hiking trail that wound around to a good view of Beacon Rock. That evening, we caught our first glimpse of a pika, a relative of the rabbit which lives in rocky areas. They are small and reminded me of a guinea pig, but they have a funny little squeak like a prairie dog. There were several pikas living in the rocks that our camp site backed up against. We were up early the next morning as we had a long drive, but we did take the time to stop and pick up some beautiful peaches and red pears at a local fruit market in one of the valleys. In fact, the valley was lined with similar markets. We found out from a girl who worked in her family’s market, that about 80-percent of the crops grown in the valley were pears. She recommended the Star Crimson Pears and were they ever good—the sweetest we’d ever eaten! We also picked up some white peaches and wonder of wonders….huckleberries… at a much better price than we had paid in Glacier. To me, there’s just nothing better than tree-ripened fruit that’s fresh picked---it’s nature’s bounty at its best. When you’re on a journey like this, you just never know what treats await you ‘just around the bend.’
Monday, September 7, 2009
Your first views of Mount Rainier are awe-inspiring, to say the least. You can see it from the forest-lined road towering on the horizon. David and I thought the drive was one of the prettiest we’d been on thus far. We came in to the park on the east side, like we did at Glacier National Park, and had picked out a campground at White River. It was already pretty filled on a Thursday, but we found a site next to the community campfire ring. The only downside to that is you’re asked to attend the nightly lectures given by the park rangers, because you’re in close proximity. (We did do this the first night and found it quite interesting…)We had terrific “neighbors” at the site next door—two sisters who try and get together for an annual campout. Barbara and Betty Lou were charming and very helpful in providing good advice on the parks we were planning to visit. This “insider information” is like mining for gold. We have found the camaraderie that exists among fellow campers can impart wisdom on so many levels, David and I strike up conversations with strangers as frequently as we can. Hiking is the premier activity and we jumped right in on our first morning there. David was what I call affectionately the “trail boss,” so he chose the trail. What a mistake (And I might add it was a short-lived title) after I found myself huffing and puffing up a steep mountainside. I lamented the fact that it seemed the trail should have been labeled strenuous not moderate and David turned to me and said “Oh, didn’t I tell you? It is!” Of course when you’re 6,000-plus feet up, it’s difficult to throw too much of a tantrum…However, it was a breathtaking view and well worth it, so I didn’t stay mad for long. We climbed all the way to a ranger fire lookout built sometime in the 1920’s. On our way down we came across an amazing sight. A herd of mountain goats were frolicking in a valley just below us. I laughed and told David “that there was something wrong with this picture—usually WE are looking up at the goats, not the other way around!” The next day was rainy and we were pretty tired from our climb so we opted to drive around the park and do sightseeing. Many of the buildings are very well-maintained and a few were part of the original settlement before the land became a park. We did get a chance to do a short hike through an old growth forest that was spectacular. I found it very spiritual; as I walked into this grove of tall majestic trees, it seemed as though they were transformed into the pillars of an outdoor temple, pillars that prompted you to look heavenward. Pictures just don’t seem to do this park justice, unfortunately. After seeing various sights, hiking and getting much-needed gas, we returned to the campground and socialized with “the girls” as David called them. Barbara and Betty Lou were just delightful and continued to add to our growing conviction that you do indeed meet the nicest people when you’re camping in the national park system.
Mt. Rainier was far more majestic than I had expected. After having been at Glacier I was surprised that the largest glaciers are in fact on Mt. Rainier . At 14,000 + feet it’s one of the three largest in the lower 48 with the others being Shasta in Northern California and Whitney in Southern California, both also somewhat over 14,000 feet. The forests around the mountain were absolutely beautiful. Again, every time we go to a new park, the experience is quite amazing as each one seems to somehow top the last. I could have stayed at Rainier for several weeks and never been bored with the beauty and grandeur of this place. I think one could live going from one park to the next and spending the 14 days allowed and then moving on. My cost as a senior is half-price, so Mt Rainier was $8 a day to park in one of the most unique and beautiful spots on earth. I would say not a bad deal!
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Dry Falls, sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? So of course you’re driving along the road, see the sign and ‘take the bait.’ David wanted to see the Grand Coulee Dam which was on our way from Idaho to Washington. However, when we got to the road to the dam, we found a major traffic back-up for construction so we decided to drive on until we saw the sign. We pulled into the traffic overlook and got out. What an amazing sight to see the actual coulee for which the dam is named. (A coulee is a French word to describe a section of land that has been carved out by a natural force and then becomes a receptacle for water.) The Grand Coulee is the largest of these, hence, its name. Geologists say that at one time there were massive waterfalls that carved out this coulee amid catastrophic flooding and glaciations. Obviously the climate was greatly different in those prehistoric times. Today, the terrain is very much like the badlands and it was hot, dry and windy. The sheer size of the coulee was certainly worth the stop and a quick visit to the nearby visitor’s center was very helpful in better explaining this amazing landmark.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
After two weeks in Glacier National Park, we decided to pick up and continue our westward trek, but staying on a northern route. David had always heard about beautiful Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, but had never been there, so we decided to make that our next destination. We were determined to stay in national forest campgrounds because to us they seem more scenic. We found a lovely spot near Beauty Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene-- a location that definitely lived up to its name! The lake is much larger than you might expect and on the day we arrived was quite busy with water skiers, knee-boarders and tubers. Where there were quiet coves, the deep blue water reflected the images of the pine and fir forests encircling the lake. The city exuded the charm of an old tourist ‘hot spot’ blended with a more progressive and upscale feel to the lakefront locations downtown. The city park is one of the neatest I’ve seen with a fountain and steps leading to the lake, public beach and a large green space which includes a fantastic wood-constructed play area. Of course our visit wasn’t complete, without a scenic tour of the 25-mile long lake and we had a pleasant late afternoon cruise on the top deck of one of the “Fun Fleet’s” best. We learned the name Coeur d’Alene is French and it means “heart of the awl. It was given to the Indians by early French traders because of their sharp trading practices. We finished our day with a visit to the local farmer’s market and bought some fresh picked green beans and tomatoes. Unfortunately, the tomatoes didn’t have much flavor. We did pick up a bottle of huckleberry syrup, so we’ll just turn our palates toward sweeter rewards. Another delight for us was finding a great hiking trail near our camp site which took us through the forest and up along a ridge which overlooked the lake. This hike was not for the ‘faint of heart’ as we climbed a quick 600 feet in little over a mile! The views were worth the climb as most are out here and were very glad we did it. We thought we might be in Coeur d’ Alene for just a couple of days, but we ended up staying twice as long. I guess that says something about this picturesque city of the Idaho Panhandle.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Glacier Park was a favorite spot for numerous reasons, one of which was our introduction to the huckleberry. This highly sought-after northwestern fruit is a cousin to the blueberry, but it is smaller and more purple in color with a taste that is a little more tart (I likened it to a black raspberry). They only grow in higher elevations, so are found in abundance in the Rockies. Indeed, along most of our hikes we spotted huckleberries, a few remaining red raspberries and an abundance of serviceberries. The native Americans used serviceberries mixed with dried meat to form pemmican. Because our campsite was in a grove of serviceberry bushes, I couldn't resist the chance to try them. So one morning I picked a pint and made Serviceberry smoothies. They were pretty in color, but the taste is a little "greener" than a blueberry and definitely seedier. I decided to leave the rest of the berrries to the bears and that was definitely the case as we saw evidence one morning that one had visited our bushes! Bears also favor huckleberries and it may be because of this or the fact that you have to climb mountains to get them...whatever the reason, they are expensive--About $11 a quart. After sampling the delicious huckleberry struedel and ice cream at one of the lodges, we decided we wanted our own berries. We found some fresh picked in a small town near the park and I made fresh huckleberry pancakes. (I think David thought he had 'died and gone to heaven')We have since found berries here and there and I'm keeping a stash in my freezer when we have a craving for this northwestern delicacy.