I don’t recall where exactly we stayed that night – some random hotel between Yosemite & Death Valley. I do recall a late-night stop at a McDonald’s on the way out of Yosemite for coffee and to use their WiFi to find a hotel. We had a late flight out of Las Vegas (10:30) so we had a pretty full day available.
Our last stop on the journey was Death Valley, the lowest, hottest, possibly most hellish places I the world. Given that description, we didn’t plan on doing any super huge hikes, mostly just a drive through to hit a few of the points of interest. We drove in the west entrance to the park and progressed east with a diversion to go south as far as Badwater Basin in the middle. I think this allowed us to see most all the aspects that the park had to offer.
We started with the dunes, which are much different (shorter and more wind driven) than dunes in Michigan. It was 97F when we hit the visitor center, so we loitered there a bit in the AC before heading down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the US. There’s a fun little placard on the cliff side above pointing out where sea-level is and a lot of salt. Continue reading
We could only afford the $200/night yurt for one night, so we checked out in the morning and drove out to the “end” of the valley near the Upper Pines campground. The goal was to hike one or both of Vernal and Nevada falls, an area of the park we had not explored at all on the last visit.
The day almost got derailed when I dragged the car across a rather large but inconspicuous rock in the parking lot. I didn’t see any oil leaks, but it is possible that the life of the oil pan was reduced slightly by the mishap.
Vernal falls is the first falls heading up the Merced river out of Yosemite Valley. It’s steep, but paved up to a bridge where you can view the falls, so it gets a lot of foot traffic. The trail to the falls itself was a bit more rugged, but there were still a lot of people, particularly as things slowed down right around the falls. The slower moving also meant it was going to be nearly impossible to get through without getting pretty wet from the falls. We both had raincoat options with us, and it was a relatively warm day so it wasn’t really an issue. Continue reading
We knew that Yosemite was going to be busy even though it was early in the season, every information website we found told us so. But, they have first-come camping at Camp 4 that we thought we’d get in line for when they opened as we had done at the Grand Canyon. So, we got up early, dumped the tent in the car and headed up to Yosemite.
We pulled in just before 9:00 when they opened only to discover that the line had apparently started some time before. We got in line anyway. The story from the others in line was that there were 69 spots and numbers had been given out up to 65. Counting, we were somewhere in the low 70’s in line. It appeared they were assigning spots as people checked out for the day, so we would have had to wait until 11:00 or so just to see if we could get a spot. This forced the big splurge of the trip in booking one of the Yurts in Half Dome Village for the night at almost $200 / night.
There is no way the Yurts or staying in the village was worth $200, and honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it. The biggest benefit was access to the showers (also accessible for $5 regardless of campsite), which was admittedly nice since we had camped the two nights prior. The benefits to having established a place to stay was that we weren’t going to have to drive an hour or more out of the park to find somewhere to sleep that night and we were free to actually make use of the day rather than stand in line to play the odds on getting a camp site. Continue reading
We planned to stay a couple nights in King’s Canyon with one day of hiking, so after making coffee and breakfast we went to register the site and hit up the visitor center and figure out what trails to hike. Our first hike was to be a quick loop of Big Stump Trail. We did the loop, and found some stumps, but we never found the one that looked like the pictures or that was labeled big stump (the pictures showed a staircase up it, so it should have been obvious).
Second stop was back near camp and the village – the General Grant Tree loop (it’s maybe a mile loop from the parking lot, and I think fully paved). This is King’s Canyon’s competition to the General Sherman Tree and is second largest in volume, but largest by diameter if I recall. There’s also a fallen tree around that’s hollowed out as a tunnel and makes up a portion of the path.
Third was driving down into Kings Canyon via the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. We were intending to do a hike at the end (some loop of the Copper Creek Trail) but it started lightly raining less than ¼ mile into the hike and we turned back. It continued to rain for much of the afternoon, so not being on a 6 mile hike was probably good. We drove back up the byway poking out at a few viewpoints. There’s a good number of trails and hike-in campgrounds at the end of the drive, so it could definitely be an interesting one to revisit in the future with a bit more planning for overnights. Continue reading
It took a while to drive up into Sequoia National Park. We stopped at the Foothills Visitor Center to get a map. I don’t exactly remember what information they gave us – maybe that all the campsites were all full.
From there we drove out to Moro Rock stopping at a few spots along the way. Moro Rock is a pretty high outcropping with steps carved into it, so we hiked up. The morning fog / clouds had started to move and we got a few glimpses through, but it the view was limited.
We left the car and picked a variety of trails to hike up toward Tharps Log, to McKinley Tree Trail Junction, back along Alta Trail and then up Soldiers Trail back to Moro Rock. This was a substantial hike on what were, in some case, very poorly marked trails using some cell phone pictures of map placards to guide us. It took us through the heart of Sequoia on foot – the first part on some lesser traveled trails and the later part closer to the road and the more frequented sites. It did rain a little bit about 2/3 of the way into the hike, but nothing too substantial.
In addition to lots and lots of very, very large trees we managed to see a couple small black bears on the hike. This was in the last 1/3 of the hike and we had just passed a crew of park rangers trimming back vegetation, so they were not very timid or remote. At the end of our loop we hiked up Moro Rock again to see if the view had improved. It was a little clearer, but still hazy and cloudy around some of the peaks. Continue reading
The second day of the Channel Islands was to Anacapa Island. Anacapa is much smaller, with only about two miles of trails which more or less covers the entire island end to end. I guess technically we were on East Anacapa island – it’s all labeled as one island, but there’s an east, middle and west. Maybe they are all connected at low tide – I’m not sure.
Our boat ride over started a bit later and was a smaller boat. We were on the upper deck, but not standing on the bow of the boat, so it was a bit warmer. We did see some dolphins, but not nearly as many as the morning before. The surprise sighting of the day was a mola mola, the biggest, and arguably dumbest, bony fish in the world. This one wasn’t that huge, but happened to be near the surface. Also, much further in the distance, we got to seem some whale spouts – we weren’t close enough to see the whales, but I think, mostly just playing the odds based on the log board in the harbor office, they were likely Minke whales.
As with Santa Cruz, there’s a mandatory orientation when you arrive on the island (I think this is just a National Park Islands kind of thing, they do it on the Manitous as well) where we got a quick rundown of the island and one very critical piece of information on how to ward off any gulls that might get aggressive from the air. The trick is apparently to stick your fist up in the air if you see one, but not to walk around with your fist in the air because that just instigates more attacking. This information seemed to be accurate and was used frequently on the walk around the island.
We had planned two days to visit a couple of the islands of Channel Islands National Park. Day one was the island of Santa Cruz. Island Packers is the only ferry operation to the island, and though I think their prices were high, we didn’t have much option if we wanted to go. We had an 8:00 departure to arrive on the island at 9:00 or slightly later if there was wildlife sighted – which it was.
Other than pelicans around the harbor, we didn’t see much early on. It wasn’t until we were about 2/3 of the way to the island that a large pod of common dolphins was sited. The captain stopped the boat a bit to let everyone onboard watch. Janet and I were standing up front in the bow, which was a bit chilly, but was fun and was a good vantage point for the wildlife viewing. I tried to take a few pictures, but in the end just decided to watch. Most of them were too close and there wasn’t really enough light.
Once we arrived on the island and received our orientation speech, we started with the longest section we planned to do, the hike out to Smuggler’s Cove. This took us up and over the center of the island (red dots) to a somewhat isolated cove with a few remnants of settlement. As an important part of the hike, we saw a number of island foxes which are one of the smallest fox species. They were endangered due to golden eagle predation in 2004. The recovery program put in place worked (breeding foxes, relocating the golden eagles, bringing back bald eagles and removing domesticated sheep and cows) and now the foxes seemed plentiful and relatively unconcerned with our presence. Continue reading
We went back to Keys View in the morning to see if there was any better visibility of the San Adreas Fault earlier in the morning. It was better but still pretty hazy. We stopped at Lost Horse Mine to hike out and see some of the remains of the mining operations that used to exist. It’s about a 3.5 mile round trip and pretty remote, or at least remote feeling. On the way to the mine, we came across a herd of big horn sheep that let us get pretty close for some good pictures.
After the mine, we went to the Hidden Valley area and wandered along the Hall of Horrors trail for a while before heading South toward the other end of the park. On the drive south, we made a few stops at the Cholla Cactus Garden, home of the jumping Chollas that seem to magically (and painfully) attach themselves to people, Ocotillo Patch (different kind of cactus) and the Cottonwood Visitor Center / Lost Palms Oasis before leaving the park to the South. We must have been pretty tired from the heat, because we chose not to hike the Lost Palms Oasis trail but instead to stick to the short trail near the parking lot. Continue reading
We planned to spend two days in Joshua Tree, but we didn’t know a lot about the park, so the first order of business on Thursday was stopping at the visitor center (very upper left of the map above) to get some maps, figure out what campgrounds were likely to have spaces and figure out what areas were most interesting to hike. You can somewhat see that Joshua Tree is a sizeable park with the concentration of roads, campgrounds and attractions in the Northwest corner. We entered from the Northwest and kind of drove through the most popular areas just checking out campgrounds.
The campsite was huge and remote... worth the search.
The ranger pointed us in the direction of Jumbo Rocks campground and then further on to Belle and White Tank, the latter two being campgrounds that did not take reservations and which were thus likely to have open spots. We drove through both and then circled back to Jumbo Rocks where we found a site to our liking (it was a pretty fantastic site) and set up camp. We could have saved some time by poking around Jumbo Rocks first, but we were of the impression that sites were going to be in short supply and that we’d need to find something quick so our first stop at the more distant sites seemed to be playing the odds. Turns out, Joshua Tree was not nearly as busy as Grand Canyon and there were probably open sites in all the park’s campgrounds.
Joshua Tree definitely has a unique feel to it. The Joshua trees aren’t only found in the park (we drove through some significant expanses elsewhere) but they’re definitely there in a much higher density than anywhere else. Side note – Joshua trees are not actual trees, they are a large variety of yucca. Their trunks are fibrous and they split when the bloom after the end of a branch sustains frost damage. https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm
We stuck to the 5AM plan pretty well. We didn’t really cook breakfast since the ravens stole the oats and I think we were back at the silver suspension bridge by 5:20. The only real stop we took before Indian Garden was at the River rest house. We realized that we had never actually went all the way down to the Colorado River, so we made a quick diversion to go touch the water before starting the climb out. We made one other brief stop for sunscreen, but after that it was pretty much straight through, but the early part of the trail is the less steep and strenuous portion.
As expected, the early start gained us some shade for a good chunk of the hike up. We didn’t really stop until 3 mile rest house other than a quick water fill and bathroom break at Indian Garden. Our long stop to eat, again fill water and use the bathrooms at 3 mile rest house was followed by a shorter stop at 1.5 mile rest house. The last of the significant shade ended between 3 mile and 1.5 mile and we started taking short breaks in the shady corners the rest of the way up. The stretch between 3 mile rest house and the top is the more intense portion with lots of shorter switch-backs and it’s also where we started to see most of the other hikers (enviably carrying less gear than us) as the two rest houses are common day-hike endpoints. We ended up getting to the canyon rim right around 11:00, a time of around 6 hours and getting us to the top just as the worst of the day’s heat hit. Even then, the sun combined with the climb was pretty intense.
There wasn’t anything more on the list for the day, we were plenty tired, and it was hot, so after some quick refreshments at the hotel / visitor center we headed out of the Grand Canyon driving back south. We did stop at a McDonald’s for coffee and ice cream. Our next real point of interest was Joshua Tree National Park, and we got into town just before sunset to get some good and crash at the Super 8 for the night.