In a ridiculous contrast to our two previous solitary nights in Death Valley, we spent a night in Las Vegas on our way to further desert adventures. One night in Vegas is enough!
The Racetrack is a mysterious and fascinating location in Death Valley National Park – a flat dry lakebed playa in a remote desert valley where large rocks seem to have moved around by their own volition, leaving random tracks in the dry mud revealing their path. How did these rocks move?
The theory is that given just the right conditions, rain will flood the playa, then freeze, and then once the ice starts melting a little, strong winds will blow the ice-bound rocks around on the slick mud underneath. It’s hard to believe, but the tracks are there – something made these rocks slide all around the playa!
These particular tracks – illuminated by the setting moon – are especially interesting. At first glance I assumed that they were car tracks – that some idiot had driven his car out there. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that no car in the world could make tracks like this! Even more mysterious is that about a hundred feet away from these tracks are an almost exactly identical pattern, but aligned facing a different orientation. It boggles the mind!
After leaving Bishop, we headed to Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park. These dunes are just about as tall as the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, but are basically one single big dune, instead of an endless repetition of them. Another striking characteristic of the Eureka dunes is their absolute pristine remoteness – there is nothing out there in that valley! No lights, no distant towns, just one dirt road and absolute silence. Very cool.
Any regrets about leaving the cold and snowy Sierras vanished as we enjoyed a perfectly calm and warm desert evening atop the highest dune, with our bottle of wine and my camera of course.
For a little field trip from Bishop one evening in late October, we drove up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, a high and dry mountain range on the east side of the Owens Valley. It’s a special feeling to walk amongst these statuesque trees, knowing that they have been standing there in this barren landscape longer than any living being on Earth!
Next up, we headed to the town of Bishop, in the shadow of the mighty Eastern Sierra, to visit some friends who recently moved there from Colorado. We spent the better part of a week there, relaxing and checking out the area, and enjoying our friends’ generous hospitality.
When I was a kid growing up in San Diego, my dad used to take me on fishing trips around Bishop, but I don’t remember much about the mountains from then, except for the memories of the things we did. Back then, mountains were just mountains to me; I didn’t have the appreciation of different ranges that I do now, and I cared more about shooting my BB gun and throwing rocks into the lakes (which pissed off the fishermen to be sure!). Anyhow, when I see the Sierras now, I can’t help but be impressed, especially with fresh early season snows dusting the rugged peaks!
The mountains were calling my name loudly and I was dying to do some “serious” mountain photography while we were there, but we didn’t have winter hiking or camping gear with us, and besides it was windy as hell in the mountains and would have been admittedly miserable camping up there. So we just took it easy, went on a snowy day hike up the Rock Creek valley, and soaked in one of the wild hot springs near Mammoth.
We’ll be back for sure in another season for some summer trekking through the range. The Sierras are not only calling my name, but Claudia’s now too!
If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted here in a while, it’s because we just got back from a 3-week desert road trip! Our main reason for the trip was to visit my grandma in California on her 100th birthday! And the late October timing was perfect for extending the journey into a long road trip to some desert locations between here and there. Over the next days I will post a bunch of photos from each adventure.
Our first little adventure was a quick hike through the popular Little Wildhorse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell in Utah just off I-70 on our way towards California. This is a great little canyon hike with some really interesting, fairly sustained narrows and slot sections.
I thought this hike was kind of popular when I first did it a couple years ago. But that was nothing compared to the crowds we encountered this time! I’ve never ever seen this many people on one hike in the desert, except maybe in Zion NP. We happened to time our hike the same as seemingly every boy scout group in the state of Utah, and there were hundreds of boys running up and down the narrow canyon. Kind of annoying at first, but also pretty neat to see all the kids enjoying the awesome canyon.
Because we still had to hit the road for another long drive that day, we turned around after the most interesting narrows and backtracked to the trailhead, instead of doing the usual longer loop hike. We soon realized that this was probably a bad idea, since we were then going against the flow of the mobs of hikers through the narrow slots! This meant lots of waiting while we let group after group pass us by.
Anyhow, despite the crowds, this canyon is always a fun one for a quick dayhike. And, thank you Claudia for your patience posing for all my pictures!
Excited by forecasts of a brief but intense snowstorm, on Friday I headed up into Ice Lakes Basin for a couple nights of camping with hopes of catching some photos of the fresh snowfall around the not-yet-frozen lakes once the storm broke. I set up camp amongst the trees in the lower basin, since I could see that the weather was hellish up in the upper basin, with big plumes of snow swirling around the tundra. Turns out the first night of camping was fairly pointless, since the storm was howling all night Friday and all day Saturday. I spent most of my time those days either reading in the tent, or wandering around aimlessly in the windy weather, bundled up in all my down clothes.
On Sunday morning I awoke to calm wind and starry skies, and eagerly hiked in the dark up to the lakes in the upper basin, where I watched the dawn grow brighter and brighter, finally painting the peaks in brilliant orange sunlight. After two cold, dreary, stormy days in the mountains, the storm had vanished completely and the crystal clear bluebird skies had me feeling ecstatic!
This was the second time I’ve camped up there in early winter conditions; see photos from Ice Lakes in November 2009 here.
Yesterday we hiked up to Columbine Lake, a relatively seldom visited lake north of the famous Ice Lakes. I’ve gotta say, of any lake I’ve ever seen, this one has the most incredible colors! There are so many luminescent shades of blue and turquoise… and no, the color is not photoshopped!
(Thanks to Will Gadd on Facebook for pointing out the video).
On Saturday I was feeling antsy for an adventure, so we went out camping up on the “Bridge of Hayden”, a high ridgeline overlooking Ouray and the Sneffels Range. Early in the night we were laying in the tent when we heard some booming sounds echoing in the valley below. Was it mining operations up valley? No. A plane crash? No, it’s fireworks!!! We quickly scrambled out of the tent and ran to the overlook.
Stupid me, I had no idea of the Octoberfest party happening down in Ouray! I felt like the Grinch up on the mountain, looking down on Whoville. Apparently Ouray still had fireworks left over from 4th of July show, which was cancelled due to the drought conditions, and so they set them off for Octoberfest instead. It’s so funny that we just happened to be camping on one of the highest Ouray overlooks on the night of a fireworks show below!
I love watching fireworks in Ouray more than anywhere else – the booms echoing through the deep mountain valleys are as impressive as the fireworks themselves! And it was pretty cool to see them from almost 4,000 feet above!