Monday, February 20, 2017

WI to Arizona 2016, Part 3

Malheur to Boyce
Our intention heading to Arizona this year was to include visiting parks on the west side of Utah we’d missed in previous years. Specifically Zion and Bryce in Utah. Unfortunately, difficulties finding RV sites without having reservations far in advance continued to haunt us.

lots and lots of open space
Since we had already positioned ourselves to be in the southeast corner of Oregon, getting to Utah was simply a matter of scooting through the northeast corner of Nevada. And as long we were were doing that, it would behoove us to visit Great Basin National park, another park on our bucket list. As an added incentive to visit Great basin, we’d heard from other volunteers at Kartchner Caverns, that it would be worth our time to visit Lehman’s Caves.

California quail - not only in CA
With some effort, while we were still in Oregon, we secured an RV site in Baker, NV at the Whispering Elms RV Park (gosh, don’t some of these park names sound sooooo inviting?).
Driving to Baker all in one shot was far too many miles so we broke the drive up with a couple of overnights. The first was in Winnemucca, NV, so named for the 19th-century Chief Winnemucca of the local Northern Paiute tribe. Winnemucca has an annual Basque Festival honoring the Basque immigrants. And a bit of trivia, in September of 1900, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed the First National Bank of Winnemucca and got away clean with the princely sum of $32,640.

We learned from the proprietor of the Winnemucca RV Park that most of the park’s long-term residents were miners working area silver mines. After Alaska, Nevada is the largest producer of silver. We’d envisioned a loud and raucous evening of drunken miners so often depicted by Hollywood movies (example: Paint Your Wagons) but the owner assured us, “Not to worry. These worker put in long hours and when they return from a 12-hour shift in the mines, all they want to do is eat and get some shut-eye.” Many of these highly skilled miners, the owner said, were pulling down around $50/hour. Sadly, since it was just an overnight, we wouldn’t have any time for visiting the Buckaroo Hall of Fame.

Angel lake
Our second overnight was at the Angel Lake RV Park in Wells, NV. The city of Wells started out as Humboldt Wells in 1869, a stopover along the original Transcontinental Railroad. Between 1877 and 1900, Humboldt Wells suffered three major fires which collectively, burned most of the town down. After it was rebuilt, the town simply became known as “Wells”.
Upon arriving at the RV park, and not seeing any sign of a lake, we inquired as to where it might be. “We get asked that a lot,” replied the manager.

views along Angel Lake Scenic Drive
Angel Lake is a glacial tarn located at the base of a steep cirque surrounded by high cliffs. To get to the lake involved driving a few miles out of town then taking the 11-mile long paved, steep and twisty Angel Lake Scenic Drive which terminated at Angel Lake and the Angel Lake Campground, all part of the Angel Lake Recreation Area.
Since we had time that afternoon, we ventured up to the lake. Not long after leaving Wells, the road, entirely in the open for the first half of the drive, started to sharply gain in elevation. The lake itself is at 8,500 feet elevation with panoramic views of the Humboldt Mountains. Grey’s Peak (10,674 ft) was high to the west, and to the south, a group of pinnacles known as Chimney Rock. Far below and to the east was Clover Valley (with a distant view of Wells). Most travelers dash through Wells on I-80 without a giving the place a second glance which probably accounted for what little traffic we encountered on the scenic drive. But that was just fine with us.
On the drive to Baker down Hwy 95, we were flanked by the Ruby Mountains off to our west. Visions of Himalayan Snowcocks danced in our heads before we turned off onto Hwy 50 east that skirted the north end of Great Basin National Park. Arriving early that afternoon at the Whispering Elms Campground, we found it to be a scruffy looking park with gravel roads and not a whole lot of demarcation between sites (we wound up initially parking by mistake in the wrong site). More importantly, the location put us within five miles of the park’s visitor center and Lehman Caves.

Whispering Elms RV site
Baker is an unincorporated community with a population hovering right around 70. Not a lot of night life. Or day life, for that mater. The Border Inn provided housing for seasonal park rangers but is unique in that being on the Utah/Nevada border, the motel rooms are in Utah (Mountain Time) while the office, restaurant and attached casino are in Nevada (Pacific Time).

drive up to Wheeler Peak
After setting up the RV we drove into the park to make a reservation for a tour of Lehman Caves (scheduled for the next day), pickup park maps, and generally get the lay of the land by driving up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to Wheeler Peak.
Lehman Caves, like Kartchner Caverns, may only be entered via a guided tour. Of the two tours available, we had opted for the longer, 90-minute Grand Palace Tour which promised to take us through the Gothic Palace, Music Room, Lodge Room (pretty much the shorter tour itinerary) plus the Inscription Room, and the Grand Palace.

Discovered in the 1880’s, the caves suffered years of abuse while in private hands and open to the public with little or no protections. Early visitors were encouraged to take out souvenir pieces of formations but eventually the owners figured out that at some point there would be nothing left to see if the practice was allowed to continue. As for the tour itself, it was interesting to note that cameras are welcome as are flashlights, two big no-no’s at Kartchner.

a drab cave compared to Kartchner - but lots of shield formations
Lots of graffiti (now considered historic - how old does graffiti have to be before it’s “historic”?), we could only image what the caves might look like today had they been given the same protections that the discoverers at Kartchner (a much more recent discovery) been given in the beginning. As cave tour leaders ourselves, many of the formations were familiar. Overall? An interesting tour but one we need not repeat.

Alpine lakes and Bristlecone pines
Since our site was available, we decided to stay an extra day to hike the park’s 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop (Stella Lake, Teresa Lake with views of Wheeler Peak), and the 2.8 mile Bristlecone Trail through a subalpine pine grove where 5,000 year-old Great basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) grew. Both trails were at about 9,800 feet so there was a bit of huffing and puffing on our part.

WillowWind RV site
While in Baker, we managed to secure an RV site for a week in the WillowWind RV Park in Hurricane, UT (near Zion NP). We were lucky as it was the last site available with a one week occupancy.

part of the drive to Zion from our site in Hurricane
Both Zion and Bryce Canyon had been on our radar for years so to finally have the opportunity of visiting was exciting. However, once we got to looking more closely at doing both parks - plus our desire to try for Joshua Tree NP - we eventually had to eliminate Bryce Canyon. In part due to the distances involved. And in part due to not being able to find a convenient (or any, for that matter) place to park near Bryce. Unfortunate, yes, but we did learn of an alternative, a “mini Bryce Canyon”, Cedar Breaks National Monument, easily doable in a day’s drive from Hurricane. Always have that plan B.

Zion NP
Options for things to do while at Zion National Park were enormous. We could have easily spent another week or two longer. Looking at the park map, there were no less than 18 options for hiking (some easily combined). Hikes ranged from easy to strenuous and varied in lengths from a half hour to over eight hours. There were also parts of the park best toured by car, plus, there were some areas outside the park we had wanted to visit.
In 1997, Zion established a shuttle system to eliminate severe parking issues within the park during peak times of the year (during a few winter months private autos are allowed to drive the entire Canyon Scenic Drive but parking is limited).  Additional parking is available in the nearby town of Springdale where free buses provide pickup and drop offs at nine locations (a boon to local businesses).

Zion NP
From the RV park to Zion’s visitor center was a 30 minute drive. It only took our first visit to realize that parking in the park’s lot was filled by mid-morning. Best to get there just after sunrise - the natural light is beautiful and you’ll have no problem parking.

Zion NP
Park shuttles continuously run up and down the Canyon Scenic Drive making stops at nine prearranged points associated with various trail heads. The ride up the canyon included recorded narration about the park’s features. Shuttle drivers often provided personal commentary on the way back down. The shuttles run frequently enough and it’s rare not to get a seat. Just make sure you have all you need once you leave the parking lot (water, snacks, adequate clothing, etc.).

Zion NP
There are numerous exhibits in the main visitor center and in the Zion Human History Museum. We’d learned while standing in front of the museum, that visible at great distance on a cliff wall an active California Condor nest site with a young bird in the nest. We set up our scope for a look and wound up attracting numerous visitors wanting to also look

young condor
Nothing like getting people excited about seeing a condor!
Apparently the young condor would fledge in about a month’s time. The male condor had died earlier due to lead poisoning. The female was doing double duty raising the youngster on her own. Sad to know that lead poisoning still remains an issue.
Over repeated visits to the park we hiked the lower and upper emerald trails, the grotto trail, the weeping rock trail, canyon overlook trail, and the riverside walking trail that lead to The Narrows trail head, the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This is a gorge, with walls a thousand feet tall and where the river at times is only twenty to thirty feet wide. A hike through The Narrows required hiking in the Virgin River (there is no trail). Walking is moderately difficult, with knee deep crossings on the slippery and uneven river bottom with frequent pools up to waist deep. Close-toed shoes and a hiking stick are recommended (bring your own or rent them locally). It’s one of the most popular hikes in the park lasting an hour or all day (to do the ten-mile round trip). Given how chilly it was and how crowded it was, we opted to take a pass on The Narrows.

driving to and from Kolb Lake and condors
We spent one day driving the Kolb Terrace Road which terminated at Kolb Lake. The highlight of this drive was the unexpected appearance of eight condors rising up out of a canyon as we sat eating our picnic lunch. So close were the condors, that Tom got photos of seven of the eight showing each bird’s numbered wing tags. A record of condor tags can be found at the Peregrine Fund website listing each bird’s history and current status. As of 2016 the total world population of the California Condor stands at 446 with 76 in AZ and UT. Of the 446, 170 are in captive population.

Kolb Canyons road and Kolb Canyons Overlook
Another day was spent visiting the Kolb Canyons section of the park which has its own visitor center. Highlight was a five mile scenic drive through the red rocks of Kolb Canyons terminating at the Kolb Canyons Viewpoint plus time for a hike on the Taylor Creek Trail.

driving to and Cedar Breaks NP
And yet another day included a drive up to Cedar Breaks National Park in the Dixie National Forest. The overlooks at Cedar Breaks were at 10,000 feet and the day we stopped, there was a considerable cold wind and frost everywhere. The views reminded us of a scaled down version of Bryce. Geologic deposition, uplift and erosion created dramatic fins, arches, and hoodos, all a rainbow of reds, oranges and purple hues.
We continued through the park on scenic highway 143 toward the ski resort area and small town of Brain Head (a much needed coffee break at Apple Annie's Country Store) plus an exploration of a campground dirt road that traced the Parowan Creek.

Parowan Gap
The ranger at the visitor center had suggested that we stop at Parowan Gap to view the over 1,000 year-old accumulation of Native American rock art (petroglyphs). The exact age of the works, and which cultural group was responsible (or even what the petroglyphs symbolize), is still the focus of an ongoing debate. But that they are so readily available for viewing along a highway was simply astounding.

Dixie Wagon pizza
margaritas at Casa de Amigos
Our time in Hurricane was drawing to a close. Locally there wasn’t much in the way of dining that attracted our tastebuds although just down the road from the RV park was a pizza place, the “Dixie Pizza Wagon” which satisfied our pizza fix. Trying to find a decent margarita, though, was about as hard as finding an RV site. We did manage to find some at Casa de Amigos in Springdale. Springdale, by the way, was a town jammed with small shops and art galleries. Pretty touristy. Perhaps had we more time, it might have made for an interesting place to explore.
Speaking of time, we found that we’d gotten ahead of ourselves. Scratching off the Canadian Rockies and the Olympic Peninsula left us with more time. Looking ahead at our stop at Joshua Tree NP, even if it meant veering a bit further west, we would still be left with more time than we’d planned on before arriving at Boyce Thompson by October 15. We’d have to give this more thought but for now we were off to try and get into Joshua Tree.
Our batting average for getting into Joshua Tree in the past was 0 for 3 tries. Either there was a fire in the park, a flood, or roads from the south entrance were closed due to landslides and/or construction. Earlier attempts to get in through the park’s Cottonwood Visitor Center southern entrance off I-10, while we were parked at one of our favorite California state parks, Anzo-Borrego Desert SP, had never worked. So this time, we tried a different tact by parking at an RV park in TwentyNine Palms, close to the park’s Oasis Visitor Center entrance on the park’s north side.
Getting to Twentynine Palms in one day wasn’t an option so we made an overnight stop at the Desert View RV Resort in Needles, CA. An interesting situation in Needles when we went to get diesel fuel. Fuel prices in Needles were around 4.45/gal. Just across the border in AZ? Diesel was 2.35/gal. Guess where we bought fuel?! Thank goodness for an iPhone app GasBuddy which lists/compares all the prices within a specific area. A free app that has saved us a lot of money in fuel prices over the years.

Amboy, CA
Leaving Needles on I-40, we veered offed at Fenner, CA onto a section of John Steinbeck’s “mother road”, historic Hwy 66 (where you can always get your kicks) now part of the National Trails Highway. The town of Amboy, CA, the “ghost town that ain’t dead yet” was like a time capsule. The unincorporated town contained a post office, the historic Roy’s Motel and Cafe (just for looks these days), and a Route 66 tourist shop/gas station. If we thought the fuel prices were high in Needles, boy howdy, they were through the roof here.
The big draw the day we stopped to get coffee in the gas station (full of Roy memorabilia) was a bus full of German tourists all stopping to pose for selfies on the highway next to a “Route 66” logo painted on the road. As I recall, I don’t think that Tod and Buzz ever stopped their corvette in Amboy.
On the drive out of Amboy we passed the Amboy Crater National Landmark (BLM property). Prominently jutting up in the desert landscape, this relatively new (10,000 years ago) cinder cone had breached at one side sending out a considerable and extensive lava flow. Due to its relative ‘newness’, the cone lacked any mature soil and significant plant life. The base was littered with “blow sand”, windblown sediments more than three feet thick with wind-faceted pebbles of basalt.

murals in TwentyNine Palms, CA
As far as getting into Joshua Tree? Our luck had turned this time. We found a site in the TwentyNine Palms RV Resort just 2 miles from Oasis Visitor center entrance. The park’s online blurb billed it as a “deluxe luxury RV resort”. The adjectives “deluxe” and “luxury” were definitely a stretch. The site we’d initially been given was too tight for us plus the prospect of being parked next to a beater RV in a site filled with ATV’s in various stages of disrepair was unappealing. However, the extremely friendly and accommodating park manager let us pick a site way down the line which backed up to a golf course. The benefit of being parked next to the golf course was having a golf ball hit the RV and ricochet down four sites and striking another RV (no damage to either). Other than that, the site was quiet with no other neighbors nearby.

Joshua Tree NP
2016 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service and to celebrate, the local 29 Palms Art Gallery was hosting a special artists exhibit plus an outdoor art fair at the nearby 29 Palms Inn. In the city of TwentyNine Palms there is a permanent collection of murals depicting local history, culture and wildlife. Definitely worth checking out if ever you’re in town.

Joshua Tree NP
But our main draw to the area was Joshua Tree National Park, a major transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The western half of the park above 3,000 feet is Mojave Desert comprised of Mojave yucca, Mojave prickly pear, pinyon pines, juniper, scrub oak and the iconic park’s namesake, the Joshua trees (not really trees but specialized yuccas). The eastern half of the park, below 3,000 feet, is Colorado Desert (part of the much larger Sonoran Desert) with palo verde, “jumping” cholla and “teddy bear” cholla, smoke trees and ironwood.

Joshua Tree NP
The park encompasses 794,000 acres and in the few days we had to explore, we barely scratched the surface. Much of the park can be seen by driving Park Boulevard which looped from the Oasis Visitor Center westward to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and back through the town of TwentyNine Palms on Hwy 62. Park Boulevard intersected with Pinto Basin Road which eventually lead to the Cottonwood Visitor Center (which was closed for repairs while we were there) down to I-10.

Joshua Tree NP
We drove the entire Park Boulevard and then part of the Pinto Basin Road as far as the Cholla Cactus Garden, a vast collection of ‘teddy bear” cholla that appeared to have been ravaged by fire. It wasn’t fire but a severe drought that had caused an abundance of discolored dead spines giving the appearance of having been burned.

Joshua Tree NP
Late on the first afternoon we arrived, we had driven into the park headed for the Keys View, a spot that rose 5,100 feet and that offered a view of the distant San Andres fault. At sunset it proved to be THE place to be as the parking area was filled to the brim. But the sunset was well worth the drive.

Chuckwala
Other trails we explored included a walk to Barker Dam (not much water, though), and a 1-mile loop through Hidden Valley where we found a desert creature we’d been hoping to see for a very long time - a Chuckwala (Sauromalus ater). They are a large, stout-bodied lizard with a long, thick tail. Second only in size to a Gila monster, they may look mean but they are simply harmless herbivores that feed on desert flowers, fruits and leaves. They’re difficult to see (we know since we’ve been searching for years) as they are well adept at dodging into cracks of rocks where, if they feel threatened, will inflate themselves making them virtually impossible to dislodge.

Joshua Tree NP
While we were at Joshua Tree we finally reached the conclusion that we had far more time left than we had plans to visit other places and we would be better off moving up our time to arrive at Boyce Thompson to Oct 1. That would extend our volunteer commitment by two weeks but based on speaking with the volunteer coordinator at the park, that would be just fine.

burrowing owl
Leaving Joshua Tree we took a bit more circuitous route, skirting the north shore of the Salton Sea with an opportunity to stop for a short visit at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. In the past this was a great place to observe burrowing owls and we were not disappointed, finding several on the road leading into the refuge. Alas, the barn owl that we usually have found roosting in a palm tree outside the visitor center must have found a different palm in which to roost as it was nowhere to be found.
We decided to spend some time recouping in the Tucson area but again, it was too far to go all in one day. We overnighted in Yuma at the luxury RV resort, The Palms. And this was truly a luxury resort. Even though we were there for only a night, we’ve never filled out so many forms and waivers (it took more than five minutes) and were given a hefty packet of literature about the park enticing us to spend a winter (which we returned the next morning on our way out).
On our way to Tucson from Yuma on I-8, we looked forward to stopping at Dateland, a small dot on the map. While it’s now just a dot on the map, during WWII it was the site of two Army desert training camps used by General Patton’s troops, and, a hastily built airbase used for training B-25 bomber crews. Apparently the airfield wasn’t constructed well enough to stand up to the pounding of B-25’s coming and going and the entire B-25 operation was moved to Deming, NM. The existing buildings built for the air crews then became part of an Italian internment camp.
Just a few miles up the road in the 1940’s and 50’s, was Aqua Caliente, an exclusive resort used by many famous Hollywood stars. But the springs had long since dried up due to pressure from surrounding agriculture. Presently, the military still trains in the area (troops for Iraq and Afghanistan). But we were interested in what Dateland had to offer now: its Medjool dates and date shakes.

if your're stuck changing a flat, Dateland Travel Center is the place
Alas, what should have been a brief stop turned out to be almost four hours. While exiting the truck at Dateland, Carol asked, “Do you hear that hissing?”. No it wasn’t a a snake…it was the hissing of air leaving the front left tire. Apparently we’d picked up a lag bolt leaving Yuma. Ugh.
While we waited for roadside assistance, we availed ourselves of snacks from the food court and gift shop (and yes, we bought some dates to go).

fun with Troy and Nancy at Saguaro Corners
Our next stop was Justin’s Diamond J RV Park in Tucson, a favorite stop as it put us within easy striking distance of the desert museum. We spent a little over a week unwinding, catching up on truck maintenance, several visits to the museum, a trip into Saguaro NP, a drive up to Mount Lemon, and a Sunday morning brunch at Saguaro Corners in Tucson to meet with Tucson friend Nancy Novak and listen to our wonderfully talented musician friend, Troy Gray (and be gifted with his latest CD, “Gypsy Nights”).

driving up to Mount Lemmon on Catalina Highway
Our tour of the PNW adventure was coming to an end. Some disappointments along the way. The worst were the nerve wracking times trying to find paces to park when we didn’t have a reservation. But overall it was another grand road trip. Lots of new scenery, visits with friends we’d not seen in ages and even a few interesting birds. The birding was far slower than we had hoped and we only managed to add 77 first of year species (5 species were new ABA ticks). We also had time to begin going over details about Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

desert museum
On the last day of September, roughly 2 1/2 months and nearly 5,000 miles after leaving Wisconsin, we closed up the RV and headed to Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park to begin our new volunteer adventure.