Road Trip to Denver – Part 1

Just last month, I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of some good friends of mine in Denver. Instead of just flying in, I decided to make a road trip out of the journey in order to check off some more national parks and sites from my bucket list. I had been fiddling around with a southwest trip itinerary on my computer for about a year and decided to incorporate these plans into this trip, one that would take me to five national parks, a couple of national monuments, and one notable art community.

I started out early on a Sunday morning and headed east on I-10. Interstate 10 is the southernmost east/west Interstate Highway that reaches coast to coast. It has always had a special significance in my life as I grew up near the eastern terminus of I-10 and am now currently living near the western terminus. I stopped for gas just east of Palm Springs and the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park at a small stop called Chiriaco Summit and discovered a hidden treasure next to the gas stations, the General Patton Memorial Museum. I did not have time to actually visit the museum beyond taking pictures of the statue and memorials outside the front, but it added somewhat to the significance of traveling I-10. It was the ease that General Patton had in moving US tanks across Germany on the Autobahn system at the end of World War II that convinced Eisenhower to champion the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency. I contemplated this as I headed east towards Arizona.

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

My goal that first day was to reach Tucson and Saguaro National Park by mid-afternoon. Saguaro National Park is somewhat unique in that it preserves two separate sections of the Sonoran Desert on either side of Tucson. During an earlier road trip around Arizona a few years back, I had visited the eastern section next to the Rincon Mountains, but had arrived after the visitor center had closed and had to be content with taking pictures in the late afternoon before the gates closed at sunset. This time I wanted an opportunity to check for playing cards at the visitor center, and it made sense to use this return trip to see the western section next to the Tucson Mountains. I was not disappointed. The saguaro forests seemed more plentiful and photogenic in this western section. There was also a special treat along the loop drive at a spot called Signal Hill. A quick walk to the top of Signal Hill revealed a small section of petroglyphs, symbols marked into the rocks by early Native American cultures, basically an archeological treasure.

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

After spending the night in Tucson, it was back onto I-10 eastbound to El Paso on the way to the next national park. At El Paso, I left I-10 and headed directly east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park protects a section of the Guadalupe Mountains as they extend into Texas from the New Mexico border. These mountains were formed from a horseshoe reef that grew in a tropical sea that covered this section of Texas and New Mexico hundreds of millions of years ago. As the sea disappeared, the land uplifted and exposed the now fossilized reef as the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8750 feet along this Capitan Reef. However, this park did not have any roadways into the mountains, only hiking trails for dedicated campers, so I was limited to taking photos from a small hiking trail around the visitor center.

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After I finished exploring the little trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I realized I had time to make a quick stop at the star highlight of this road trip, the much more recognized sister park just north on the New Mexico side of the state border, and find out when the star attraction would be opened in the morning. I got to the visitor center as the park rangers were lowering the flag for the day and got my answers, so I took exterior photos on my way back down to the nearby motel where I had reservations and had a relaxing night’s sleep in preparation of entering Carlsbad Caverns at eight-thirty in the morning.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 3

In just two days, I had headed north from Los Angeles, visited the newest national park, Pinnacles, checked out the interesting Winchester House in San Jose, and explored the hydrothermal elements of Lassen Volcanic National Park at the southern end of the Cascades. Now, it was time to head back around towards Los Angeles. But I had a few small stops planned for the way back.

I headed east from the Chester Best Western early to connect with US 395, which runs north-south through the eastern Sierras. Going south, I slid into Nevada, driving through the heart of Reno and Carson City, where I found some bright autumn colors along the Sierra foothills to capture in a few pictures. US 395 crossed back into California, climbing into a high pass through the Sierras. As the noon hour approached, I came upon the turn onto the road spur to my next stop, the historic ghost town of Bodie.

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

The first ten miles of Bodie Road is smooth black asphalt, lending a false sense of security to the visiting traffic until it comes upon the tortuous last three miles of rocky rills into the town. At 7000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, Bodie lies in stark contrast to the high desert landscape around it. Only five percent of the buildings remain of the town that arose after its founder, Waterman (William) Body, discovered gold in 1859. By 1879, its reputation for lawlessness was unmatched in the West, leading one young girl, whose family was moving to Bodie, to write in her diary, “Goodbye, God. I’m going to Bodie.” The gold and the town hung on long enough into the next century for the automobile and electricity to make an appearance, but as the gold output shrank, the town lost its population. As I walked along the streets, taking pictures of the homes, church, schoolhouse and firehouse, I thought about how the former residents survived within this isolated location. In a way, the town has become a homage to man’s persistence at civilization in the harshest environments, and how modern man is now able to turn these periods of persistence into museum stops.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

After enjoying a few hours exploring Bodie, I braved my way back over the road to US 395 and headed south to my next planned stop. I passed by Mono Lake, stopping for a few vista shots, and within an hour was turning off into the Mammoth Mountain resort area. On the western side of Mammoth, I reached the entrance to the small protected stretch of canyon with a wall of volcanic columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument.  It was amazing viewing how nature could create the nearly straight and symmetrical columns, rivaling some of the best man-made constructs in the world.

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

I drove back past the Mammoth Ski Resort, which was still waiting its first major snow of the year, and stayed in a nice little bed and breakfast in Mammoth Lakes. When I left the next morning, I turned north on US 395, instead of south, in order to experience another route I had missed during the grand California tour of 2006. During that tour, the plan was to get to Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Pass, but the heavy snows over that winter had kept the pass closed well into June, forcing me to use the farther north I-80 pass to reach Yosemite Valley. Now I had the chance to experience the high elevation views along the pass within Yosemite National Park. The views were amazing, but the highlight was Olmsted Point where I could almost look down on Half Dome. While I was at Olmsted Point, a Korean War vet and his wife drove in to the parking area in a uniquely-designed remodeled 1927 Model A truck, instantly attracting the attention of the Australian and Austrian tourists whose tour buses had made their scheduled stops. It was an interesting contrast between human and natural creativity.

From Yosemite, it was a direct shot home to Los Angeles. I had set aside four days to explore three national parks, a national monument and two historical sites and had accomplished it efficiently and economically. The keys were to do the necessary research, avoid over-planning, and maintain flexibility during the actual trip. Not a bad four days.

A California Mini-Tour – Part 2

The first day of my four day mini-tour had gone well, exploring both Pinnacles National Park and the Winchester Mystery House. My plan for the second day was to focus on exploring only one stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. I got an early start from the San Jose Motel 6 and headed north.

I had already checked Lassen Volcanic off my national park bucket list, but the check mark had an asterisk next to it that I wanted to clear. In late May of 2006, I had visited Lassen as part of grand Californian road trip I had planned for my mother and her friend. However, the previous winter had been a very wet season, leaving a very heavy snow coverage at the higher elevations that extended deep into spring. The resulting road closures kept us from being able to circle the northern side of Crater Lake, to enter Yosemite over the scenic Tioga Pass and to only go two miles within the southern entrance of Lassen Volcanic. We were able to experience the steam vents of the Sulphur Works which had powered their way through the heavy snow drifts, but this was only like putting a foot within the door of the wonders of Lassen. To fully check Lassen off my bucket list, I felt I needed to revisit and explore deeper within the park.

I got to the southern park entrance shortly before noon and discovered a four year old visitor center just beyond the gate, which was sorely lacking during the 2006 grand tour. Unfortunately, because of the time of year, the main gift shop was not open during the week and the rest of the center was lightly staffed. I shot some landscape views from the rear viewing area, then I ate my packed lunch in a small open-air lecture arena next to the center. I could envision park rangers giving nature lectures to visitors in this arena during the busy summer months. After lunch, I drove north along the park road and made my first stop at the Sulphur Works, revisiting the only location I had explored on the first tour. It was interesting seeing the steam vents without the snow. Then, I drove on to discover the full experience of Lassen.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

It didn’t take long before I caught my first sight of Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug volcanoes in the world and the high point of the caldera rim of an ancient composite volcano. Lassen is not dormant. It last erupted over a three year period from 1914 to 1917, prompting Congress to create a national park around it. I knew I did not have time to hike up to the 10,415 foot peak, but I did have time to hike from the Lake Helen parking area to one of Lassen’s most notable hydrothermal spots, Bumpass Hell. Even though it is 8,000 feet in altitude and wraps around a sharp drop-off into Little Hot Springs Valley, the Bumpass Hell Trail is even and easy to walk, providing magnificent vista views into the caldera, and the elevated walkways at Bumpass Hell allows park visitors a safe, close-up view of the scalding hot springs and bubbling mud pools. After exploring Bumpass Hell and hiking back to the car, I drove on to Summit Lake, the halfway point of the road through the park and my planned turnaround point. Enjoying the alpine lake with just a handful of fellow visitors was amazingly restful, but it was now time to turn this tour back toward home. I retraced my route south back out of the park, then turned east to the small mountain town of Chester, where I had my second night motel reservation at the local Best Western.

Traveling during the off-season has many advantages in being able to avoid crowds and traffic, but it does have the occasional drawback like my discovery that most of the cafes and restaurants in Chester were closed for the season. Still, the microwave in my motel room and a packaged burrito from the nearby food mart proved to be a very cost-saving dinner. It was two wonderful days down, with two more days to go.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 1

Back in July, I posted about my travels and my bucket lists for future traveling. One of the main bucket lists I had focused on was the opportunity to visit every designated national park in the US. I mentioned that the newest national park, elevated from national monument status, was practically in my backyard. A little over a week ago, I took my chance to visit this park, Pinnacles, as well as add a few more stops in a quick four day road trip in California. Taking advantage of the off-seasonal and cooler autumn period of late October allowed me to avoid crowds and make my off-the-cuff travel planning work. I jumped in the car early on a Wednesday morning with plans to be back home that Saturday evening. I was looking forward to a very exciting trip.

The key to making this trip work was to get an early start on Wednesday, so by 6 am, I was in my car and off to the first stop, Pinnacles National Park. There are two entrances into the park, but there is no road that transverses the park, so I decided to head to the eastern entrance as park maps seem to indicate more choices of trails to explore from this side. With my gas tank down to a quarter full, I made it to the east entrance by 10:30 am, noticing that the nearest city and gas services from this exit was 30 miles away in either direction. Entry fees are collected in the visitor center, although my annual park pass precluded me from having to pay anything. After gathering the informational brochure and seasonal park paper, I drove to the day use parking at the end of the east entrance road.

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

In some ways, our national parks can be grouped into the famous parks that are identified by an iconic image or environment, like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, the massive multi-striped gorge of the Grand Canyon or even the Everglades’ extensive sea of grasses; and the less iconic, but just as informational parks. Pinnacles fits into this second category. The rough hewn rocky peaks of the Pinnacles ridge line may not be recognized or immediately bring wonder to travelers around the world; however, they do have a major story to reveal about the San Andreas Fault that lies along it eastern foothills. This is a land of coastal uplift along the grinding of two major tectonic plates, and the boulders and rock columns I passed along the two trails I hiked revealed the amazing erosion patterns on the brittle volcanic walls. I hiked up to one of the cave trails in the park, created not by underground water cutting through rock, but rather by falling boulders that fell into the gulch and formed a rough tunnel over the gulch. Even though I could have hiked through the full length of this cave to another exit, I decided to just explore the one entry, then hike back to the day use area to eat my packed lunch. After lunch, I hiked up the Condor Gulch trail to an overlook on the trail, just below the high peaks ridge, which gave me an expansive view of a southeast panorama of ridges. Pinnacles is not a high mountain range as its highest peak is just a little over 3000 feet, which makes it a very accessible park to hike in. However, based on the information in my brochure, I chose the best time to enjoy the hiking trails as temperatures in the Pinnacles can reach over 100 degrees during the summer months. I say good planning on my part.

My day wasn’t over yet, as I quickly set out, stopping once for gas, to make it to San Jose in time to catch the final tour of the Winchester Mystery House. The house is well-known for stairways to nowhere and doors into walls, as the common history states that Mrs. Sarah Winchester kept the mansion under constant construction to confuse the spirits of the victims of the guns manufactured by her husband’s family business. However, Sarah never left any written evidence for her motives behind her construction plans as the tour guide was quick to start the hour long tour with a proclamation that her motives could have been psychic beliefs or poor architectural skills. Still, the séance room with three exits, but only one entrance, and the prolific integration of 13 within the design of the rooms gives high credence to the psychic belief explanation. What is known is that after the death of her baby girl and her husband, wealthy Sarah Winchester left New Haven, Connecticut and moved across the country into a small unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clarita region of California, which she kept in a constant state of construction until she died 38 years later. The tour is interesting and amazing, but I’m not sure amazing enough for the $33 fee for the tour. What I find even more amazing is that this mansion, which was surrounded by acres of fruit groves and fields, is now engulfed within the bustling city of San Jose, which is probably doing a better job of scaring away the ghosts of the Winchester victims.

With reservations at a Motel 6 a few miles away, the day was over. It was planned as the longest day of the trip, and since it worked out perfectly, I was very confident in my plans for the next three days.

To be continued…