Archive for the ‘adventure travel’ Tag

Lost Coast, California   5 comments

Eel River Sunrise

Northern California’s Lost Coast is located in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, north of San Francisco.  Steep mountains plunge down to a rocky shore.  Lonely beaches with waterfalls and good abalone hunting face out on great surfing breaks.  Just inland, wildlife abounds in the forest and small communities are separated by majestic redwood groves.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The Lost Coast includes the King Range, a rugged, steeply uplifted piece of geology with many valleys oriented parallel to the coast – a very unique situation.  California’s  western-most headland, Cape Mendocino, occupies much of the Lost Coast.  These two geographic facts give the place its isolated character.  And as usual, the geology of the region is the underlying factor driving everything.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter's sunset.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter’s sunset.

Geology

The famous San Andreas Fault, which parallels the coastline all the way north from San Francisco, leaves the coast here and merges with the offshore Cape Mendocino Fault (which runs perpendicular to the coast and out to sea).  This is where three of the Earth’s tectonic plates come together.  The North American Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the small Gorda Plate join in what geologists call a triple junction.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The slip-sliding characterized by the San Andreas to the south gives way to a subduction zone to the north.  The Gorda Plate is slipping beneath the North American Plate.  This means that a line of volcanoes lies inland.  The Cascades begin at Mount Lassen and extend north past the Canadian border.  But much closer to the coast, an enormous torquing action occurs, which is why the uplift is extreme here.  The rocks are heavily buckled and folded, forming the rugged King Range.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The coast’s spectacular scenery owes its existence to this triple junction.  Rapid uplift of a coastline is marked by frequent earthquakes and landslides, and this area is no exception.  Offshore sea stacks, for e.g., are often the result of enormous landslides in the past.  And of course landslides are often precipitated by earthquakes.  All the while erosion is taking place,  from constant wave action.  And the uplift of the coastal margin gives the waves a constant source of new rocks to erode all the time.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

I stopped in the little town of Garberville, just off Hwy. 101.  It is a typical northern California town, filled with real characters.  Not all of these people, believe it or not, are old burnt-out hippies.  For the first time during this trip, I didn’t feel out of place in my VW camper.  Now if I only had a dreadlocks wig as big as one of those giant octopuses that live in the nearby ocean, I would have fit in perfectly.  Actually the town is peaceful, with a magnificent stand of redwoods nearby in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

Then I headed over the extremely curvy and hilly two-lane that leads from Garberville out to the coast at Shelter Cove.  What a road!  The last hill descending off the King Range to the coast is extremely steep, granny gear both ways.  The little settlement of Shelter Cove is spread out, and seems to be populated by people who enjoy their isolation.  I wouldn’t necessarily call them anti-social loners, but there is a reason why they live  here.  Almost 1000 people live here, but I am sure many of the spectacularly-located houses are 2nd homes.

A beach house on the coast of California.

A beach house on the coast of California.

I experienced a nice sunset, getting there early enough to explore the rocky shore below the little park.  This park is easy to find if you turn left at the first T-junction after the big downhill.  The grassy park, set up on a terrace above the sea, is centered around the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse (see below).  It’s a simple walk down to the rocky shore from this park, and you can continue south past the boat ramp around Shelter Cove itself.  The rock is black, and forms dramatic silhouettes with the numerous tide pools.  Be careful though, and consider rubber boots if you’re planning on exploring and/or photographing.  It’s slippery and there are sneaker waves.  It’s wise to remember the venerable warning to never turn your back on the ocean.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California's Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California’s Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

This stubby structure, which dates from 1868, did not need to be tall since it was originally placed atop a 422-foot (129 meters) cliff on Cape Mendocino.  It was shipped to the site and hauled up the steep mountainside.  The first ship sent to start construction at the site ran aground, and all supplies were lost (everyone survived though).  Over the years, the light saved many lives, and in more ways than the obvious.  For one thing it was a great lookout.  On one occasion a keeper spotted a ship that was on fire.  He brought help just in time to save all aboard.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

But the frequent earthquakes and landslides were a constant hazard, and the lighthouse was eventually abandoned in the early 1960s.  The lighthouse was later saved when a local group had it moved and restored.  For the last 12 years it has shone at Shelter Cove not far south of the Cape.  But its business end seems a bit empty without its original Fresnel lens (which was replaced years ago while it was in service).

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

I also enjoyed some time in the redwoods at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  There is a 2-lane road (appropriately called “Avenue of the Giants”) that parallels Hwy. 101, allowing you to stop and walk through the big trees, or enjoy the beautiful Eel River (which winds its way through here on its way to the sea).

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

It’s a beautiful and remote stretch of coast, one I can highly recommend visiting.  The coast both to the south (as far as Point Reyes) and to the north (the Oregon border and beyond) is also beautiful.  I didn’t get the opportunity this time to explore the Lost Coast fully.  There are hiking and mountain biking options, plus several fire roads that take off from the Shelter Cove Road.  I encourage you to go further than I did in exploring this rugged part of the California Coast.  I know I’ll do so when I return.

The Pacific Ocean and the day's last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Pacific Ocean and the day’s last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

Stuck on the California Coast   2 comments

An early winter's morning on the California Coast near Big Sur brings clearing after an overnight storm.

An early winter’s morning on the California Coast near Big Sur brings clearing after an overnight storm.

 

I made yet another left turn on this long trip.  I had planned on only going to the Rocky Mountains for a little fall photo tour.  But it has turned into a giant loop of the American West.  After leaving Mexico I planned to try getting back to Oregon by Christmas, but that plan was unrealistic.  Interstate 5 soon became boring, so I turned off and headed for a piece of the California Coast that I’ve never seen before: Big Sur.

The rolling hills of the coast ranges in California undulate below a winter sky.

The rolling hills of the coast ranges in California undulate below a winter sky.

Making my way over the mountains to the coast, I noticed a sign saying Hwy. 1, the road that hugs the California Coast, was closed.  But I kept going and now I am happy I did.  There is a landslide just south of Big Sur, and so all today I have been stuck in a gorgeous and wild place.  The little cafe at Lucia Lodge has been my home for the past few hours.  From its porch I can see hundreds of sea otters and elephant seals playing amongst the kelp beds.  They are too far to photograph, sad to say.

The rocks along the California Coast include turbidites, which originally formed when giant underwater landslides traveled down the continental slope.

The rocks along the California Coast include turbidites, which originally formed when giant underwater landslides traveled down the continental slope.

Last night a storm swept in.  I love parking my van right on the edge of precipitous drop-offs which occur along the Oregon Coast, and this was an identical situation.  So I found a place where nothing stood between me and oblivion, and enjoyed the cozy confines of my van.  The storm tapered off overnight, and sunrise brought clearing, and a morning rainbow!

A morning rainbow appears over the Pacific Ocean off the California Coast near Big Sur.

A morning rainbow appears over the Pacific off the California Coast near Big Sur.

The adventure continues.  I will try to make it through to Big Sur tonight after the workers leave the site of the landslide, and perhaps a classic Pacific Coast sunset will be my reward.  I’ll post a report.

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

Ensenada City Guide I   Leave a comment

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

I feel after being here a week (my second visit) that I can safely recommend some things for anyone planning a short visit to Ensenada, which is on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico a couple hour’s drive south of San Diego.  For someone planning to come for longer than a few days, perhaps I would need to stay longer, maybe a month.  That’s the way it works, at least for me.  I need to be in a place for awhile in order to speak intelligently about it, and then my thoughts are only good for a shorter visit than I had.  It’s something I recently discovered about travel.  Note that I don’t cover many of the standard attractions; do a quick internet search (e.g. Trip Adviser) for the standard sort of advice.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

I’m finally posting some people pictures, though my last post actually talked about the people more.  Sort of a mismatch I realize, but it probably only bothers me, and not all that much at that.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.  Note the pay phone, a disappearing sight.

Ensenada, like so many places, grows on you.  Many people from San Diego or elsewhere in SoCal maintain a house down here.  And many of those end up retiring down here.  So it is slowly becoming more popular.  Sure, Loreto to the south on the Peninsula, along with other places in Mexico, are more popular retirement destinations.  Ensenada, after all, has a seedy side.  And there are not really any good beaches nearby.  But it is a superb place to have a boat, and the fishing is excellent.  It is also a very safe place to be in Mexico, which is pretty important these days.  And for an American, being so close to U.S. soil is downright convenient.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

There is one little piece of Ensenada that I was missing, that is until I found one last night; that is, a brewpub.  On a recent walk near sunset (my favorite time to take a walk), I ran into a great microcerveceria, or microbrewery.  It’s called the Old Mission.  I was skeptical about the quality of their brew, but they proved me dead wrong on that score.  It is the first in Ensenada.  La Paz, Tijuana, Mexicali, they all have several brewpubs.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A good brewpub is something we take for granted now in the Pacific Northwest.  But in Mexico you cannot buy microbrews in the stores.  Tecate is like Budweiser, and that company even manages to keep out competitors like Pacifico (which is my favorite mass-produced beer in Mexico).  You can find Pacifico in cans, but the best kind, that is, in thick-glass returnable bottles, is rare indeed.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico's fishing harbor.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico’s fishing harbor.

The microcerveceria, which has only been open about a year, is a very well built place, with soaring ceilings made of good ol’ Oregon Doug fir beams.  It cost the owners a bundle to import them.  They serve good pizza, and a variety of very good Mexican dishes and pasta.  They serve a couple great IPAs, plus a few ales, including a brown and a red.  And unlike in the U.S. (at least the ones I’ve been to) this brewpub sells mixed drinks.  Prices are quite reasonable, what with the good exchange rate between American dollars and pesos.  A margarita goes for about $2.50, while pints are in the $3.00+ neighborhood.  Sadly, $1 beers are pretty much gone in most of Mexico.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

This post has two parts.  Tune into the second of these tomorrow!

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico's Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

Baja California II   9 comments

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Still in Baja.  This was to be a short 1-week dip into Baja California Norte.  I’m a bit over that now, but this is the day for saying Adios to Mexico.  Several years ago I came down here with a friend and we went all the way down to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.  Actually I liked San Jose del Cabo more than the famous tourist center.  It is to the east of Cabo San Lucas and is more of a local’s town.  The beaches all face south, are uncrowded, and (this is crucial) in December the sun shines warmly on them.

The desert in Mexico's Baja California Norte has some surprises, including the rare California Palm, which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The desert in Mexico’s Baja California Norte has some surprises, including a variety of palms which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The other great thing about the southern part of Baja, in my opinion, is the canyon hiking.  About halfway between La Paz and Cabo, just south of the windsurfing mecca of Los Barrilles, you’ll find Agua Caliente.  There are dirt roads leading west away from the highway and towards the mountains.  A great camping site awaits you, and a short walk from your camp brings you to a riverside hot spring.  But if you keep hiking upriver, you enter a granite canyon that is sublime.  I don’t like using that word much, but it fits here.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

There are waterfalls and plunge pools galore, and even a few boulder fields where you can run across the perfectly-placed rocks.  I love doing this, though I can’t seem to generate the speed that I once did.  The trick is to start slowly and to concentrate on the exact spot where your next foot will land.  As you pick up speed, you begin to look for that next spot well before your front foot lands on the rock before.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

Soon you are on the edge of wiping out, which will happen immediately if you lose concentration.  You go until the boulder field ends or your legs give out.  We did it often while climbing in Alaska.  It was a way to break up the monotony of traversing truly enormous boulder fields.  Here in southern Baja, the rounded granite boulders are perfect for it.  And after you get all hot and sweaty you can hit the next freshwater plunge pool.  Excellent!

The plants of Baja California's desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

Plants of Baja California’s desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

This was the first road trip for my beloved VW Westy.  I had just purchased it the summer before, and it really needed an inaugural trip.  I slept above while my buddy slept below.  He continued through Mexico by taking the ferry from La Paz, while I returned north with the van.

Aloe and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

Yucca and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

I also loved a little place called Aqua Verde.  This is a little-known coastal settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula just south of Loreto.  You take a dirt road from the highway just before it cuts inland.  When we took this road it got bad, narrow and with extreme drop-offs.  But this was because a tropical storm had hit the area just a month before.  The road should be better now.

An aloe plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

A yucca plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

It’s worth braving the death-defying road though.  It leads down to an extremely scenic embayment, complete with offshore islands and sandy coves.  And the water is indeed colored a beautiful greenish turquoise.  When we visited, there was only a single family living down there.  The matriarch will serve meals if you ask.  Otherwise you can camp just about anywhere near or on the beach.  But watch yourself or you will end up doing a lot of digging and cursing getting unstuck.  I recommend bringing a shovel.  There was one American guy down there.  From San Diego, he comes here every year to dive and spearfish.  He says the water off Southern California is just too polluted now.  He loves the family, and this is his time to commune with his beloved sea.  All he requires is his little dinghy and a wetsuit, and he’s happy.  I hope Agua Verde hasn’t changed!

A desert plant on Mexico's Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

A desert plant on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

Not all went well on that trip.  In Loreto on the return north, I had my van side-swiped by a drunk driver while it was parked.  Of course it was a hit and run.  But a small piece of the pickup that hit me was left at the scene, enough to identify the color and even the make of the truck.   Also, I interviewed every business owner on that street and sure enough, it was a swerving, speeding black Toyota pickup that hit me.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

So I spent a couple days wandering the entire city looking for that pickup.  It was sort of fun playing detective, though getting the police to help was frustrating.  When I found a pickup which matched, I actually got a Mexican policeman to follow him, with me in the passenger seat.  When we pulled him over it turned out to not have any damage.  Then the next morning while walking I saw a nearly identical truck with the right damage, parked on the roadside.  But when I returned with a cop, the truck was gone.  I never saw it again.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

On this current trip I did not make it down there, but I did spend some quality time in the desert.  I also hung about in Ensenada for a few days, getting some (cheap) body work done on my van.  Staying away from the Chiquitas has been key to my saving money doing it here instead of at home, where labor rates are much higher.  But I am feeling a little road weary, after almost 3 months.  It’s time to head home.  I can feel it.  But one more post on Baja to come, this time focusing, as I promised last post, on the people I met down here.

A saguaro basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A cardon cactus basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios (or boojum) on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Baja California I   Leave a comment

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

This is my second trip to the Baja Peninsula, and sadly this time I could not travel all the way down to the southern tip.  But that is definitely something I’ll do again with more time.  On the bright side, on this trip I spent more time in the northern desert, specifically the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir.  There are two sections to this park, the northern (which I posted on last time) and the southern (which is bisected by Highway 1 and so is more accessible).

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants often take the place of trees.

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants (including these yuccas) often take the place of trees.

I drove down to the little town of El Rosario, which is where the highway turns inland from the Pacific Coast.  There I met a couple friendly American expats, one of which let me park and camp on his property.  The other guy has a restaurant, and since he’s a commercial fisherman this meant some excellent fish that night for dinner.  El Rosario is nothing special, but for this reason it is sleepy and traditional.  Other towns further down the Peninsula, such as Mulege and especially Loreto, have more going for them.  But predictably, this results in their also being touristy.  Loreto’s development as a retirement haven has completely transformed that formerly pleasant seaside town.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Striking inland, the highway heads down the granite spine of the Peninsula, and soon you find yourself in a beautiful desert.  It is floored with giant boulders of granite, and features an enormous variety of desert flora.  This is the unique Baja California Desert.  The endangered California Fan Palm grows here, as do the fascinating cirios (or boojum tree) and the amazing elephant tree.  You will also notice a wide variety of cactus species, as well as some species of the Sonoran Desert.  The Sonoran borders this desert to the east, and runs up along the Sea of Cortez into Arizona.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

I camped and hiked in the area for a few nights, enjoying the desert under some very nice light.  This was courtesy of the weather, which turned stormy for a couple days.  The desert received significant rainfall while I was there, which made for happy plants and colorful skies.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The highway does run through here, and there are precious few tracks heading off into the hills.  And these are mostly 4wd only, especially when things are wet.  So with the loud Mexican truckers rumbling through here during the night, it’s important to find a track that will take you at least a quarter mile from the highway.  Then you can walk as far as you want in order to lose the sound of the highway.  With all the granite monoliths sticking up out of the desert, and the shallow canyons heading in all directions, you will soon lose the sound of  the truckers’ “jake brakes”.

Granite and towering cirios characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

Granite and towering cirios (boojum) characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

This place is a desert botanist’s dream.  What diversity!

This species of fan palm is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

This species, the California fan palm (left), is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

Make sure you are not like the 99.9% of people who rush down the peninsula headed for the warmth of Baja California Sur.  I do understand.  Mostly Canadian, but plenty of American snowbirds as well, they all have their favorite places to land, and they’re in a hurry to get there.  But it’s a long long drive (well over 1000 miles one-way from San Diego to Cabo), so make it a point to stop and stretch your legs in some of the fine desert you’ll pass.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A big cardon cactus soars into the Baja skies.

And this stretch in the north, where the highway crosses Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir, is some of the most beautiful on the entire peninsula.  If you like stars, do more than stop and take a walk.  Camp here at elevation.  Although the stars are nice and bright on the beach as well, they have an extra sparkle up here.  Next up is a bit more on the people and culture here.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and cardon cactus of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Baja’s Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park   3 comments

The granite moiuntains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico catch the low December sunlight.

The granite mountains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico catch the low sunlight of a December afternoon.

I have visited this out-of-the-way park on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula before.  I had my telescope then, and the night sky of Baja was what drew me up to this 2500-meter high park of granite mountains and meadows.  It’s a forested and beautiful place that sits high up on the mountainous spine of the northern Baja Peninsula.

 This is also the site of Mexico’s National astronomical observatory.  There are two large telescopes sitting up on the high granite ridge.  The meadows below this ridge are a fantastic place to stargaze and do some telescope observing or astrophotography.  That is, if you are an astro-nerd like I am.

A beautiful December morning dawns in Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro San Martir, in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A beautiful morning dawns in Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro San Martir, in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

 

The park is located 50 miles or so up a side road from Mexico Highway 1, which runs down the long Baja California Peninsula.  The turnoff is about two hours south of Ensenada, which is itself about an hour south of the border at Tijuana.  The road is a good one, but watch out for the dips (where arroyos send floodwaters across during infrequent rains).  If you are traveling south toward the beaches of southern Baja, it is a nice side-trip.

A big ponderosa pine pierces the blue skies above Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, Mexico.

A big ponderosa pine pierces the blue skies above Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, Mexico.

 

The delightful, open forest is largely ponderosa pine, and the mountains are made up of a very pretty white granite, speckled with black crystals like salt and pepper.  The granite makes for superb scrambling, and the meadows and open forest are perfect for hiking and/or mountain biking.  Perhaps the best part is that it’s not a very popular park.  When I visited for the first time, in 2003, there were no facilities, no gate, no rangers.  I simply drove out into the meadows along sandy tracks and camped.

Climbing the rugged granite peaks of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Climbing the rugged granite peaks of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

When I visited this time, however, I came on an official entrance, with a building housing your typical friendly, mellow and bored Mexican park rangers.  It cost actual money to enter now, but only 54 pesos (about $4) per day.  This covers camping at the nearby official campsite.  It is no longer okay to pull off and camp anywhere in the park.  There is also a museum, a newish and beautiful building.  Official trails exist, and there are picnic areas scattered about in the pines.

A ponderosa pine cone has fallen in the forest, in Baja Mexico.

A ponderosa pine cone has fallen in the forest, in Baja Mexico.

The astronomical observatory is undoubtedly the main reason the road is paved and in good condition.  It’s possible to arrange a visit, by day of course.  The development of the park over the past several years probably means they were having issues with people just showing up at the observatory at night, headlights blazing.  Also, dispersed camping is a serious fire hazard, because many people cannot seem to be responsible with campfires.  The telescopes could easily burn down in a big forest fire.

The Mexican astronomical observatory sits atop a high forested mountain on the Baja Peninsula.

The Mexican astronomical observatory sits atop a high, forested mountain on the Baja Peninsula.

 

Signs urge visitors to care for the plants and animals of the park (“cuidada la flora y fauna”).  But there are cattle grazing in this national park, so how serious can they be?  Some areas have been hit pretty hard by the stock.  If you’re lucky, you might see deer or bighorn sheep here; maybe even a mountain lion (puma).

 As I mentioned, scrambles are fun and challenging.  I took a hike one afternoon and spied a granite peak that looked to be easy to get to.  But when I tried to hike there, things got difficult in a hurry.  It was challenging finding a route to the summit amongst enormous granite boulders.  I had to squirm through cavities and caves, friction-hike up granite slabs, and use some climbing moves to finally make it.  And though the view was expansive, the sun was dropping rapidly.  I made it back to the track I had been following just at dark – cutting it close yet again!  The nights grow very cold up here, so you don’t want to spend the night in the open.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, Baja Norte, Mexico.

 

This is a gorgeous park that is a world away from dusty and busy Ensenada.  If you’re a stargazer, and have a small telescope (which you should bring if you drive to Baja), it is the perfect place for peering into the heavens.  For those from northern latitudes, this is a good chance to see more southerly deep space objects.  It’s easy to spend 2-3 nights here, hiking or biking the trails by day and camping under the stars.  So as a Baja side-trip, Sierra de San Pedro Martir is definitely worth considering.

One last look back at the surprisingly difficult granite peak I climbed in Baja Mexico's Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park.

One last look back at the surprisingly difficult granite peak I climbed in Baja Mexico’s Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park.

Death Valley III: Hiking the Silent Desert   2 comments

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

I think Death Valley National Park – by virtue of its size alone is worth more than a couple days – offers some of the best desert hiking in the West.  The last post highlighted some great ‘starter’ options.  But if you are an avid hiker like me you’ll want to go beyond the “standards” that any ranger will steer you towards.  And this goes double if you visit during a busy time like March/April, or to a lesser extent October.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

I don’t want to give the impression that you should avoid springtime in Death Valley.  With perfect temperatures, blooming cactus, and a fresh look to the sparse but fascinating plant life of the desert, there are reasons aplenty to come here at that time.  And since this is a huge and still little-visited park, we aren’t talking Yosemite- (or even Yellowstone-) crowded here.

I prefer November through February.  But this last visit was my seventh time to the park, and each time for a solid week.  So as they say, it’s all relative.  If I were coming for the first time, I would consider a week in March/April, but one without Spring Break happening in any of the West Coast states (this is somewhat important!).

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Here are a couple strenuous and less crowded (but still well known) options:

  • Marble Canyon is accessed from a dirt road that takes off from the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells.  It is normally okay for a 2wd with decent clearance.  You’ll be able to drive further up into the mouth of the canyon if you have a good 4wd vehicle, but not really all that much further.  It is a big and bold canyon, and you can make this as long a hike as you want by turning around at the place of your choice.  The adjoining Cottonwood Canyon is also accessible.  If you’re a scrambler you could spend a week in this area.
  • Telescope Peak: The climb from Mahogany Flats to the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak at 11,050 feet (3370 meters), gives you an experience that is completely different from that on the valley floor.  You can spend a truly wintry day up here and then sleep in the dunes under the stars at 80 degrees!  The first time I climbed Telescope, we snow-camped at Mahogany, got up at 1st light for melted-snow oatmeal and Death Valley Dates, then proceeded to plow through hip-deep snow drifts to the summit.  We got back near dark, feeling very played out.  We were young bucks too!  And this was late March!  The next time I did Telescope, in April, it was a hike of 5-6 hours. Completely different.
The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

And here are a few hikes where with one exception I’ve never seen another hiker.  Not all are strenuous:

  • Mesquite Flat Walks: The dunes at Mesquite Flat touch the highway at one place, and it’s here where almost everyone walks into them.  If you want to climb the highest dune here, this is the place.  But I’ve been to Namibia and even the highest one here is but a dimple.  Better is to pick a different access point, especially if you want footprint-free pictures.  Also, you can commune with the inter-dune ecology in complete solitude.  Here are two options:
  1. Park along the Marble Canyon road just past the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells. If you look to the right you’ll see a line of low dunes.  Walk toward them.  There might be someone else doing this, since if you camp at Stovepipe it’s easy to just hike out here from your campsite.  Amazingly few people do this though.
  2. Park at the site of the historic Stovepipe Well (get directions to it from somebody at the village of Stovepipe).  From here you can walk out into the valley towards the dunes.  It will take about a half-hour minimum to get into the dunes.  You can easily do a sort of triangular loop from your car, with the far end of the triangle being empty and beautiful sand dunes.  The only tracks you’ll see are those of the critters that prowled about on the previous night.  If your sense of direction is not the best, have a GPS so you can get back to your starting point.  Or you could just wander in the dark until you find your car.
  • Lamoigne Canyon: This is a fascinating side-canyon hike on the opposite side of the valley from the highway, between Stovepipe Wells and the junction with the road to Wildrose.  If you have a 4wd you can drive a rough jeep trail most of the way across the valley to the canyon’s mouth.  If not, you’ll need to walk it.  The latter is the way I did it, and it turned into an all-day hike.

When you get to the canyon mouth, go up the left fork, which is easy to distinguish for its striking white volcanic tuff rocks. This is the only canyon in Death Valley that is cut into volcanic tuff.  At the top of this canyon, you can climb up and over to the main Lamoigne Canyon t o the north.  Then descend this to make an adventurous loop.  Or do this in reverse.

Get directions and advice from the ranger at Stovepipe, and have a good map and plenty of water.  I actually saw people on this hike, which was odd until I caught up with them and discovered they were botanists from the USGS and University of Nevada.  We talked about the different plants growing on the volcanic tuff.

  • Panamint City:  This is a small ghost town located way up a gorgeous canyon on the Panamint Valley side of the park.  From Ballarat (another ghost town) drive as far up the Surprise Canyon road as you can and park.  Work your way up the canyon bottom, switching sides as needed to avoid brush and other obstacles.  You will pass waterfalls as the canyon narrows, and some truly enormous barrel cactus.  It takes some perseverance to make it all the way to the ghost town.  This is a real ghost town, with nobody but the former residents around.  If you can talk to ghosts, ask them why in the world they named this place a “City”.  This is one great hike!
An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

Just a further point on the western Panamint side of the park. Make it a point to come over here, and not just to hike Surprise Canyon or Darwin Falls.  It’s quieter and its side canyons contain abundant water in the spring – very different from the main valley.  You’ll probably see wild burros and also you can walk out on the pancake-flat playa – a great experience.  There is also a little-visited (even by me) dune field on the north end of Panamint Valley.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

You can do a loop, driving the Wildrose road into the Panamint Range to visit Mahogany Flat (with its photogenic charcoal kilns). You can camp at Wildrose.  Then go down into Panamint Valley and drive back up to Panamint Springs (near where the Darwin Falls hike is located).

Next up is a geology primer for D.V., with some sights I haven’t covered yet.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

Death Valley II: Hiking Starter Pack   5 comments

The view at dawn northward up Death Valley Wash from the edge of the dunes at Mesquite Flat.

The view at dawn northward up Death Valley Wash from the edge of the dunes at Mesquite Flat.

It’s funny, but many times in National Parks I notice people who don’t seem quite sure what to do (other than stop and gawk, which gets old after awhile).  Some will see me parked at some random spot, stop and try to figure out what I’m doing hiking away from the road.  They’re tempted to follow, but that almost never happens.  Of course they don’t know about my photography passion and frequent odd impulses to walk off into the hills.

This is the first of two hiking posts for Death Valley National Park in California’s Mojave Desert.  It covers some basics and lists a few of my favorites amongst the park’s more popular hikes.  Next post will highlight some of the less well-known and more adventurous hiking options.

The valley floor of Death Valley in California is characterized by features formed by repeated cycles of wet and dry.

The valley floor of Death Valley in California is characterized by features formed by repeated cycles of wet and dry.

Most would-be hikers check out the park’s visitor center and are told by the rangers where to hike.  I wonder if I was a ranger, would I feel good about directing one person after the other to the same few hikes?  I don’t think so.  Some rangers will ask more questions of hikers and try to steer them towards hikes that match their abilities and interests.  But most often what happens is that a relative few hikes are popular, while most other options are uncrowded, the domain of the so-called adventurous.

One of Death Valley's many canyon hikes, Redwall Canyon, basks in the late-day sun.

One of Death Valley’s many canyon hikes, Redwall Canyon, basks in the late-day sun.

Instead of always following a ranger’s recommendations, I strongly believe you need to come up with your own ideas.  This is especially true in areas like Death Valley where trails are not really required. You will avoid the crowds, make discoveries, and gain confidence.  Of course many hikes are popular for a good reason.

Both a good map and good sense of direction are important if you plan to head off according to your impulses.  A little experience helps too.   But you will at some point need to push your limits if you are to gain experience in the first place.   So I recommend being prepared and pushing ever outward.  Just remember where you parked!

Death Valley is arid.  Nevertheless springs are not uncommon.  Having some knowledge as to what springs are running (and which are potable) can mean carrying less water.  Check with the rangers at the wilderness desk in the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek.  Carry at least a half-gallon per person on a typical day hike.  More if it’s hot, less only if you are sure of a spring.  Note that late winter and early spring is normally the only time of year that you should expect flowing springs.  Carry iodine tablets or a purifier.

The winding one-way scenic road called Artist's Drive snakes through the golden hills of Death Valley National Park, California.

The winding one-way scenic road called Artist’s Drive snakes through the golden hills of Death Valley National Park, California.

HIKES

I’ll start with a few hikes that rangers will recommend to first-time visitors, but which I happen to think are well worth it.  If you’re visiting in late March, expect to have company.

  • Mosaic Canyon: This hike near Stovepipe Wells is a good “starter” canyon hike.  It also shows off some of the park’s fascinating geology.  You can climb up the sides of the canyon to lose many of the people who stay in the bottom.
  • Titus Canyon: When Titus Canyon (one of the park’s most spectacular canyons) is closed to vehicles, it is an excellent up and back day hike. Even better, hike up to the ghost town of Leadfield, camp there, and return. Nearby Redwall Canyon is a more adventurous option when Titus is either too crowded or open to vehicles.
  • Darwin Falls in the western part of the park is a shortish hike.  The falls are not the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, but in this driest region of the continent, it is amazing to walk up a cool little canyon to see a waterfall.
  • Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes: The standard access point to the famous dunes near Stovepipe Wells can be very popular. But if you head off into the dunes at dawn, or under a full moon, it is sublime.  If you’re into photography, pick a different access point unless the wind has blown hard and steady overnight.  Too many footprints can ruin your foreground.
The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California are a canvas upon which the animal activity of the previous night is recorded.

These are a few of the standard hikes at Death Valley, perfect for your first visit.  Golden Canyon near Furnace Creek is perhaps the park’s most popular hike.  But unless you have plenty of time or are visiting in winter, I would give it a skip and walk the hills and canyons around Artist’s Palette instead.  The hike along Salt Creek, to see the pup fish, is fun because of the cute little guys darting around.  So this short walk I can heartily recommend.  You can also visit Devil’s Hole to see one of the world’s rarest species, its namesake pup fish.  Stay tuned for more Death Valley…

A colorful sunset floods into Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunset floods into Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park, California.

Death Valley I: Intro. & Travel Tips   2 comments

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as dawn approaches.

Sorry for the long break in blogging; I’ve been out of touch in Death Valley, California.  This is my favorite place in the Golden State.  That’s saying something, since I believe California is one of the nation’s top 5 most beautiful states.  Most people seem to believe California is L.A. and the Bay Area.  Perhaps they think of Yosemite as well.  But it is a huge state and includes beautiful coastline, mountains and (especially) deserts.  Southern California’s once-beautiful, now-sullied coast is not what I’m talking about here.  Those are areas I avoid at all costs.  Instead, I tend to hang out in northern Sonoma County, the Mendocino Coast, the northern Sierra, and the Mojave Desert.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley's many many side canyons.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley’s many many side canyons.

Death Valley is the heart of the Mojave Desert.  It’s an enormous national park, and is difficult to see in a brief visit.  My recommendation is for a full week the first time you come. At least spend three nights.  Most people, however, do not give the park enough time.  It is “on the way” between Las Vegas and the coast, and so normally gets short shrift.  That’s too bad.  It is a stunning desert destination.

In the years since President Clinton turned Death Valley from National Monument to a National Park, it has become much, much more popular than it was in the “good old days”.  Twenty five years ago I hiked through the dunes and up canyons here.  I not only never saw another hiker, but never expected to see anyone else.  You were on your own, with cliffs often turning you back with no rope and gear.  Now many canyon hikes have plenty of hikers along with wood ladders and ropes as aids.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

But Death Valley is still a fantastic place to visit.  Since it is so large, it is pretty easy to leave others behind.  I know this sounds like I am too conscious of other visitors.  But I really feel that in a desert environment, solitude is an important part of the experience.  Also, in a desert like Death Valley, you have no trees to block views.  Everything is wide open, and this makes even relatively few people seem like a crowd.  Stay tuned for a post that will highlight some of the less-popular but still beautiful areas of the park.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent's lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent’s lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

You really should hike Death Valley to get a good feel for the place.  The canyons leading into Death Valley (really a huge canyon itself) represent some of the best canyon hiking in the western USA.  There are plenty of broad washes, narrow canyons, technical slots, and so on.  The variety is incredible.  The geology is ultra-cool, and for a long  time the park has been the site of many a college field trip (that is exactly how I first visited, in fact).

That said, there are plenty of sights to see without doing much hiking.  Many visitors are happy to come stay in the lodge at Furnace Creek, and spend their time golfing and playing by the pool.  Furnace Creek is really the center of the park.  It is centrally located, the Visitor Center is here, and there are two lodging options.  In addition, there are two campgrounds here.  Texas Springs is geared toward tents, while Sunset is set up for Rvs.  Lodging and camping is also available at Stovepipe Wells, which is only a half-hour drive from Furnace Creek.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley's salt flats.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley’s salt flats.

WHEN TO VISIT

I assume you will not come during summer, but if you do, bring a gallon and a half of water for any day hike, and be careful about being too ambitious.  Europeans on their summer vacations will plunge right in to the Southwest’s hotter parks, including this, the hottest one.  North America’s highest recorded temperature (134 degrees Farenheit, or 57 Celsius!) was recorded in Death Valley during summer.  If you’re smarter than this and come during the late fall to spring period, you can be more adventurous in terms of hiking.

Spring often features blooming cactus, and the weather is near perfect.  But March and April are also some of the most crowded times at Death Valley.  It seems strange for me to use the word crowded in the same sentence as Death Valley.  But the fact is that this formerly off-the-beaten-track destination is now firmly on the American Southwest tourist track.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The autumn months (October and November), are popular but not as much Spring is.  Winter months (December through February) can often be the best time to visit.  Nights will be chilly, and there is always the possibility of snow in the higher elevations of the park.  But it is uncrowded and for photographers this time of year features better light, in general, than do the warmer months when the sun is high and harsh.  In February the days are getting longer and warmth usually trumps the fading cold of winter.

In my opinion March is the perfect time to visit, but again it is also the most popular.  If you time your visit for early March, before any of the West Coast’s Spring Breaks occur (when schools take a week off), you should be just fine.  Spring Break normally happens in mid-March to mid-April.

A different view of the famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

A different view of the famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

Whatever time of year you come, be as self-sufficient as you can possibly be.  Have plenty of drinking and radiator water in the car, and consider bringing extra gasoline as well (gas is available but expensive). Do not take your car (rental or not) on to tracks that it is not built to handle.  Even if you have a 4WD, remember the old saying, that a 4WD vehicle only allows you to get stuck worse, and further from civilization than does a regular car.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

Death Valley is a wild landscape, one that does not suffer fools lightly.  Keep your ambitions in line with your abilities, turn around before you get your vehicle in over its head, drink plenty of water, and you should have yourself a grand (and safe) time.  Stay tuned for more posts on Death Valley.

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