Archive for the ‘adventures’ Tag

Adventuring Baja, Mexico   9 comments

Cardon cactus are reflected in a pool of water left by a precious desert rainstorm in northern interior Baja, Mexico.

Ever since the first time I decided to see what was south of California I’ve had a bit of a thing for this appendage on the west coast of North America.  Officially called Baja California, this Mexican state that occupies a long peninsula jutting south into the Pacific is commonly shortened to Baja.  You’ll hear Mexicans call it B.C, but this beautiful stretch of rugged desert country will never be confused with the Canadian province.

Although it is hardly Mexico’s only desert region, Baja bears a similar relationship to the rest of Mexico as the desert southwest does to the rest of the U.S.  And despite Baja’s hot dry climate it also bears similarities to Alaska.  Like America’s 49th state, Baja is separate from the rest of Mexico both geographically and culturally.  Americans who don’t quite fit in head to Alaska.  By the same token, if you’re a Mexican misfit you head to Baja.

I’ve written about Baja before on this blog, in travel-pictorial style geared to those considering a visit.  This little series highlights adventures I’ve had there, in hopes it will pique your interest and let you know just enough to have yourself an adventure down there.

Desert wash with palms, Baja California Norte, Mexico.

But first let’s deal with the elephant in the room.  Being nervous about travel to Mexico is completely understandable.  But painting the whole country with the same broad brush is unfair.  Unfair to Mexicans yes, but mostly unfair to you.  There are certainly places to avoid because of drug-related gang violence.  And it’s a sad truth that in recent years these areas have expanded and become more risky.  For example they include large chunks of beautiful states like Michoacan, and even those places that were once fun and safe to explore when based in tourist centers like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.  And yet in places like Baja and the Yucatan you can confidently go pretty much anywhere, having a grand old time on the cheap.

Rains in any desert can result in amazing color, and Baja is no exception.

A Slice of Paradise on the Sea of Cortez 

I’ll start with two mini-adventures I had in Baja on the first trip down there.  I went with a friend in my VW camper-van, which I’d recently purchased.  We camped our way down the peninsula in early wintertime, taking two full weeks to get from Oregon down the California coast and all the way to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.

We traveled the unpaved route down the eastern (Gulf of California) side from San Felipe, following the route of the famous off-road race, the Baja 500.  I had my mountain bike and rode part of it while my buddy drove.  A disclaimer:  I was shooting film at the time and ended up losing most of the images, including those from both this and the next adventure.

At the rustic-hip community of Mulege we heard about an idyllic place called Agua Verde.   When we started the steep descent to the Sea of Cortez, bouncing down that rocky little road that clung to the mountainside, things got a little hairy.  I thought my van was going to topple into the abyss on a few occasions.  There’d been a hurricane not long before and the road had just become (borderline) navigable a week before.

But when we arrived we immediately knew it was worth the rough detour.  A lovely pristine cove of blue-green water, lined with a white-sand beach, sparkled between rocky cactus-studded promontories.  Just one family lived down there, and they cooked us a nice meal one evening.  We camped right out on the beach, lounging and hiking, fishing, then lounging some more.  I had my telescope and the night skies were like jewels on velvet.  There was even a meteor shower, the Orionids!  The coast of the Sea of Cortez is a kayaker’s paradise, and Agua Verde wasn’t the only place that blew me away with its rugged beauty.  But its pristine nature sticks out in my mind.

Typical Baja landscape just inland of the Sea of Cortez.

A Cool, Revealing Swim

When you arrive in the southernmost bulge of the Baja Peninsula after the long dusty drive, the gateway city of La Paz, sitting next to its protected harbor, is a welcome pause.  But continuing south from there, the landscape changes.  More rain falls, not much but enough to water the central range, a spectacular jumble of granitic peaks.  Streams run off the mountains through steep gorges.  There are waterfalls up high and hot springs lower down.

Near the little town of Miraflores we camped near a beautiful streamside hot spring at the mouth of one of the canyons.  On arrival I left my friend to set camp and hiked far up into the gorge.  Very soon the cool crystal-clear water was too much temptation.  I found a remote spot and skinny dipped into a plunge pool at the base of a falls.  I had not seen a single soul the entire time.  But while paddling on my back I looked up and got a shock.  Standing on a giant granite boulder was a young woman in cutoffs and long dark hair.  She grinned down at me.

This is not the girl from the story – I lost the film shots of her. This senorita spoke not a word of English.

After getting over my embarrassment I asked her to look away while I got out and put my shorts back on.  I got ready to embarrass myself further with my Spanish, but she spoke excellent English.  We enjoyed a hike back down the canyon, jumping into another pool on the way.   Alas she was traveling with her boyfriend, who was waiting near the canyon mouth.  Believe it or not that was not the only time I was caught in a “vulnerable” position.  And the next time nearly got me arrested.  But that’s for the next post, sorry!  Thanks very much for reading, and have a great weekend.

Bidding adios to another beautiful Baja day along the Pacific.

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Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

Things get interesting when a storm moves into Death Valley National Park, California.

The fun continues in a place that, at first glance, does not appear to offer much.  Let’s face it.  Death Valley, although it’s very dramatic when you first drive in, is a dry and desolate place at first glance.  Because of this, a lot of people drive through without spending the night, just to check it off their bucket lists.  They may stop to check out the sand dunes or go to Badwater, the lowest spot in North America.  But little else.  What a waste!

My last two stories were about adventures from early trips, before it became a national park, and when I was just falling in love with the place.  Looking back at those times I seem to have been more than a little reckless at times.  But that’s the way it is when you’re young and capable of getting into trouble without paying too high a price.  Alas, those days are gone.  We all need to slow down a bit when we get older.  Knowing our limits let’s us return in one piece from an adventure, to tell the tale.  Occasionally I hear about an older person who gets themselves into trouble in the outdoors by biting off more than he can chew.  Nowadays I try to avoid being so foolish.

That said, in my opinion the opposite situation is far more prevalent.  Too many people are far too careful.  We hear about it when things go south for would-be adventurers.  But when have you ever read in the news about someone who missed out on a fun adventure because they were over-cautious?  In general the older the wiser.  But one way we aren’t so wise is that, as we grow into later middle age, we underestimate our abilities in order to avoid risks altogether.  We confuse staying comfortable with staying alive, and that results in ‘roads not taken.’

 

Old mine ruins in Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park.

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

This little adventure took place just last year.  Although no where near death-defying, it was just the kind of adventure most of us can do without risking it all.  It happened in an area of Death Valley that does not receive much (if any) attention.  The kind of place where one can hike all day without seeing anyone.  It lies along the Grapevine Mountains range-front, off the Scotty’s Castle Road.  Not far north of this road’s junction with Hwy. 190 is the turnoff for Titus Canyon, a scenic and popular Death Valley destination.

The gravel road to Titus’ mouth ascends an alluvial fan to a small parking area, where you must stop and continue on foot.  Although the road continues into the canyon, it is one-way only, from the other direction.  Titus is often closed to vehicles, and then it makes a fine hike from this parking area.  When it’s open I recommend driving in from the other direction.  But Titus isn’t the only canyon-hike from here.  Two others, Fall and Red Wall Canyions, are worthwhile treks as well.

From a previous hike up Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley N.P.

I started early in the morning, meaning to hike as far up Red Wall Canyon as I could reach in a day.  I hoped to refill with water at a spring in Red Wall, but I didn’t need to carry the usual heavy load of water anyway.  Since it was very early in the year, the weather was cool enough.  Also skies were mostly cloudy.  I headed north along the trail, passing the mouth of the shorter & more popular Fall Canyon along the way.  It was my second trip up Red Wall, and I looked forward to getting good images of the colorful cliff walls in late-day light on the way out.

After several hours hiking up-canyon, where I found some early-blooming flowers (it’d been an unusually wet winter), I decided to turn around earlier than expected.  There were a couple springs along the way, one of them with lush growth around it where I stopped and watched a hummingbird for awhile.  I exited the canyon, and since I had a few hours until dark I decided to do some exploring.  I trekked north along the range-front, looking for more interesting stuff.  Alluvial fans may look flat, but if you hike one without a trail be prepared for rugged, exhausting walking.

Blooming globe mallow in Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley, CA.

A sight you don’t expect in Death Valley: a hummingbird!

This sort of random wandering is one of my favorite things to do.  It probably accounts for the frequency with which I seem to end up in different places than originally planned.  I found another canyon further north, but could not access it the standard way.  That is, by heading up the wash and straight in.  The wash was deeply incised into the alluvial fan, leaving a sheer rock face at the mouth of the canyon.  Also, the wash itself had equally sheer cliffs of coarse gravel bordering it.

I climbed up above the mouth trying to access it that way, and nearly succeeded.  But a crux couple of moves on a scary traverse, something that would’ve presented little problem as a younger man, reminded me that the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” is particularly apt when you’re hiking alone and getting up there in years.

Retreating to the alluvial fan, I kept heading north and west, away from the range-front.  I made for an inselberg, which is a geologic term of German origin that refers to an island of bedrock in a sea of loose (normally gravelly) sediment.  Look around Death Valley and you’ll see them poking darkly out of the alluvial fans.  I found a cool little slot canyon that wound its way into the inselberg.  Smoothed limestone, little pour-offs that were “jumpable”, and plenty of chimney-like alcoves made it a fun maze to explore.

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

The weather, which had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon, started to get interesting.  The wind blew harder and dark clouds built over the Panamint Range to the west.  I had the conversation with myself that I’ve had so many times before.  How long to get back to my van?  How much do I want a sunset shot in this area?  Will the light cooperate, thus making a hike back in the dark worthwhile?

Alluvial fans are one of Death Valley’s most iconic features, but one a casual visitor might not appreciate until it’s pointed out.  Just the kind of thing I like to photograph well.  So I decided to stay and try for the kind of shot that had been in the back of my mind for quite awhile; that is, looking down from the top (head) of the fan.  Imagine a bird’s-eye view looking straight down on an alluvial fan and the second part of that name becomes obvious.  The head, or top, of the fan is the sharp point, where it emerges from its source canyon.  From there the fan shape is not as clear.

I climbed up out of the slot canyon and onto the fan.  The wind was blowing a lot harder up there,.  Out on the valley floor it was picking up sand and dust from the dunes at Mesquite Flat and blowing it north, making things even more dramatic.  Wandering around I found a few blooming prickly pear cactus: wonderful little splashes of contrasting color (1st image below).  I wound up perched high above the head of the fan, looking straight down its wash and across to the Panamints.  The sun broke dramatically through the clouds and I shot some images (2nd image below).  Great storm light!

Storm light and blooming prickly pear high on a Death Valley alluvial fan.

The viewpoint I’d been seeking, from the head of one of Death Valley’s iconic alluvial fans.

By the time I finished it was near sunset and the storm was bearing down.  The walk back in gathering darkness was one of those you just want to be over.  Pushing straight upwind, stinging rain in the face, I was getting wet and cold.  That’s not a sensation one often experiences in Death Valley.  My camera backpack had a rain-cover so the gear was fine, but I didn’t have a rain parka.  Although nobody would think it possible in the continent’s hottest place, one could go hypothermic in those conditions.  I pushed the pace to generate heat.

It turned out to be a memorable outing, not just because I got some unusual and nice images of an area very few people visit let alone photograph, but because of the effort and discomfort involved.  As I already mentioned, avoiding discomfort is not always a wise choice.  My life was never really in danger after all.  And hiking back too early, while it seemed smart because of the storm, in the end would have only resulted in lesser images, and a lesser adventure to boot.

Darkness follows the storm, with Tucki Peak rising in the distance:  Death Valley!

 

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