Archive for the ‘road trip’ Tag

Rural America: Desert SW Road-trips ~ Death Valley to Zion   11 comments

The morning sun hits Death Valley’s salt flats.

The series on rural America continues.  The goal is to give you ideas for how to make your trips into the various regions of this huge country about more than ticking off scenic wonders and tourist hot spots.  Although America’s rich rural character has been in many areas replaced by suburban sprawl, it remains in more places than you might expect.

This and one or two succeeding posts begins a look at select road trips in the amazing region of the U.S. called the desert southwest (DSW).  Check out the last post for an introduction to the DSW.  Each time I travel here I find new detours and variations.  Some lead to interesting but relatively unknown scenic splendors.  But the best thing about these routes is they all reveal rural charms that are easy to miss if you stick to the main highways.  So let’s dive right in, starting in the west and moving east.

Death Valley to Zion

Of course any trip through the Desert SW is going to focus at least as much on nature as it does on rural areas.  This one is no exception.  For the obvious reason of its harshly dry climate, ranching is more important than farming in most areas along this route.  Cattle ranching in Nevada and SW Utah takes place largely on public lands.  Once in SW Utah you are in an area of the state called Dixie.  The town of St. George is large and bustling, but there are plenty of scenic small towns in the area to explore.

Scotty’s Castle is at the center of many of Death Valley’s best stories.

Ghost Towns of Death Valley

Start by traveling (if you fly in, from Los Angeles or Las Vegas) to Death Valley National Park in California.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Here you can alternate rambles across sand dunes at sunrise and hikes through stunning canyons with a visit to a ghost town or two.  They are what remains of the gold mining that took place here in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The best known example is Rhyolite, which is not in the park but very accessible just across the Nevada border.  Beatty, the town nearby, will give you a glimpse of small-town life in the Great Basin of Nevada.  If you’d visited Rhyolite in the 1990s you would have seen an operating mine, and you will see the remnants of this more modern open-pit gold mine in the Bullfrog Hills above the ghost town.

Feral burros, left over from the days of gold and silver prospecting, roam the Mojave Desert of Death Valley National Park.

A spectacular pair of ghost towns lie on the opposite, western side of Death Valley, in the Panamint Valley.  You can drive right to the first, Ballarat.  But if you’re in hiking shape I highly recommend heading up nearby Surprise Canyon, parking at the obvious end of the passable part of the dirt road and continuing on foot.

While it is a spectacular area, realize you will be trekking 10 fairly rugged canyon miles roundtrip.  But if you bring a water filter you can carry much less weight in water than usual in these parts.  You might even see waterfalls along the way depending on recent storms.  Be prepared for thick brush in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at Panamint City with its scenic brick smokestack, you’ll experience the real deal.  It has a true lonely ghost-town feel.

One of the surviving buildings of Ballarat Ghost Town, the snow-capped Panamint Range soaring beyond.

One more cool “ghost town” to visit in the Death Valley area is Gold Point, Nevada.  It is actually north of the park, but if you’re up there to visit Scotty’s Castle anyway, it’s not all that much further.  I put ghost town in quotations because a half dozen or so souls live there with the ghosts year-round.  You can not only see a historic old-west saloon, you can go in and have a beer!

The Great Basin of Southern Nevada.

Rural Southern Nevada

Traveling east across southern Nevada you’ll pass the glitz of Las Vegas.  If you stay on the freeway it is a relatively short high-speed cruise along Interstate 15 to St. George, Utah.  But consider a short detour north into the rural southern Great Basin.  So turn north on U.S. Highway 93 toward the little town of Caliente.  Turn south on State Hwy. 317 to make a loop back to Hwy. 93.

Take your time and you’re sure to see a sparsely populated part of Nevada that will make you forget all about the neon phenomenon of Las Vegas.  It’s what the Great Basin is all about, what nobody speeding along I-15 could imagine.  You can extend your detour north to Cathedral Gorge State Park, an area of badlands with cool little slot canyons.  Some of the valleys where cattle roam are surprisingly green and grassy.  Others are arid, treeless expanses, with the Great Basin’s characteristic long ranges shimmering in the distance.

On a detour through rural southern Nevada, some areas don’t look very desert-like.

And others do: badlands of Cathedral Gorge, NV.

Dixie in Utah

Not long after crossing out of Nevada you arrive in bustling St. George, southern Utah’s largest town.  St. George is still dominated by its founders the Mormons, but nowadays it’s perhaps best known as a retirement haven.  For outsiders, the town is most notable as gateway to southern Utah’s world-famous scenic wonders.  Of course you can’t miss Zion National Park once you’re this close.  But a destination much nearer to town is the compact but stunning Snow Canyon State Park.  In this part of America it’s impossible to miss nature.  But remember this series is about where the people of rural America live.

Small-scale farming & ranching survives in small towns along the Virgin River bottom: Rockdale, Utah.

There are several towns surrounding St. George that retain the rural character of Dixie.  A drive north to Pine Valley features lovely scenery and the rural charm of this part of Utah.   And even in towns just off Interstate 15, places like Leeds and Toquerville, rural character remains.  If you get off at Leeds, wander over to the west side of the freeway and up the hill to historic Silver Reef, an old mining town.  Also nearby is spectacular Red Cliffs Recreation Area.  A very worthwhile canyon hike with a pretty little campground at the trailhead. If you drive to Toquerville, turn north on Spring Rd. to visit Toquerville Falls.

On the way to Zion most visitors race in eager anticipation past the scenic little towns of Virgin and Rockdale.  The roadside scenery between Rockdale and Springdale is lovely, especially in autumn (image below).  But once in Springdale you’ve entered the chaos of a uniquely American phenomenon: the National Park gateway town.

Valley of the Virgin River near Zion National Park, Utah.

Polygamy & Canyon Hiking

You can see where some of the Mormon Church’s most devout families live if you drive south of Hurricane (on the way to Zion) on Hwy. 59 to Colorado City on the Arizona border.  Keep going and this is an excellent way to travel to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Kanab, Utah.  Drive around the small town, which is called Hilldale on the Utah side, and you’ll see women in very traditional dress.  Polygamy is still widely practiced in these parts.  And as Forest Gump said, “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

If you want to stretch your legs while you’re in the Hilldale/Colo. City area, there is a great canyon hike nearby.  Are you detecting a pattern?  A nice canyon hike is never far away when you’re traveling in these parts.  Drive north of town to the Water Canyon Trailhead.  You can get directions on Google Maps, but don’t think that means this is a popular place.  It’s more of a local’s hike.  The road becomes quite sandy and rutted, but you should be able to make it in a sedan if you go slow.

Water Canyon lies south of Zion Park, Utah.

After parking continue hiking up-canyon to pretty narrows and a small falls, where as the name suggests water usually flows (image above). A short scramble up the left side of the stream takes you past the apparent blockage and on up the canyon.  The trail eventually ascends steeply out of the canyon and up onto the mesa above.  Looking north you can see the southernmost temples of Zion.  Extending the hike this far is for lovers of longer, more rugged hikes.

Thanks for reading this rather long post!  This road-trip is definitely one I highly recommend.  Plan about two weeks to do it.  I’ve met people who have raced through in one week, and that’s including Bryce Canyon!  I have trouble getting out of Death Valley in less than a week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting everyone!

The desert mountains along Death Valley’s eastern Nevada boundary light up at sunset.

 

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The Palouse IV: Travel Tips   3 comments

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The Palouse in southeastern Washington is one of those areas of the Pacific Northwest that does not receive many visitors.  It is out of the way and not nearly as spectacular as the Cascades or the Coast.  But if you are into photography you really can’t do much better.  It is a slice of rural life in the drier eastern parts of the Pacific NW.  Perhaps it doesn’t belong at the top of your list during a first visit to the region, but it should definitely be considered on a second trip.

WHEN TO GO

The Palouse is best in spring and fall.  It is quite windy and cold in winter, and in high summer it’s a dry and often dusty place.  When I say summer I mean from July through early September.  June is really late spring in these parts.  The flowers, which are only found in certain areas, begin to bloom in mid- to late-April.  The bloom continues through May or early June.  The splashy yellow sunflower-like balsamroot peaks around early May.  Spring is a very green season, with the rolling fields taking on an almost electric hue.  Fall offers superb golden wave-like fields of wheat.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

WHERE TO STAY

Despite its lack of big towns and parks, it is fairly easy to find a good base from which to explore the Palouse.  You can stay in the small town of Palouse, which is very central, but there are only a few motels.  You’ll find more choice in Pullman or Moscow, Idaho.  Realize that, depending on where you intend to photograph at sunrise, this will involve getting up VERY early.  Tekoa in the north is also a good base, with several places to stay.  Throughout the Palouse lie scattered  B&Bs to choose from, so google this.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

For campers there are several options.  Towards the western end of the Palouse, you’ll find Palouse Falls State Park.  This compact little park has a big advantage in that you can photograph the stunning waterfall here at any time when the light is good.  Near the eastern end of the Palouse, there is a beautiful campground at Kamiak Butte.  This county park has a great hiking loop that takes you over the top of the butte, with flower-fields and views of the rolling fields below.  The problem with Kamiak is that the gates are closed at dusk, ruling it out as a base from which to make forays for sunset photos.

You can also camp at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds 20 miles north of Pullman.  The Boyer Park RV camp 22 miles SW of Pullman is a good choice if you have a camper/RV.  They have showers and laundry there.  Wherever you stay, note that the region is fairly spread out, so prepare for some driving.  The great news is that the roads are pleasantly rural with little traffic.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

WHAT TO DO/PHOTOGRAPH

There are not many traditional tourist sights in the Palouse.  There are a number of small, quirky museums and plenty of great barns and farms to see and photograph.  Check out Palouse Scenic Byway and Visit Palouse, and of course Trip Advisor’s Forums.  For photographers, you’ll notice almost immediately that it helps to get up in elevation a bit.  The easy approach is to head up Steptoe Butte or Kamiak Butte (the latter which you’ll have to hike to access the summit).  Tekoa Mountain south of Pullman is also a great choice.  But since you don’t actually need to be that high for good photographic compositions, you’ll find hills when you’re driving around which will get you high enough.  I’ve got a secret little hill that sticks up, but I’m going to keep that to myself for now, sorry.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Some ideas:

      • Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway and turn off at random dirt roads that strike your fancy.  Many of them loop back to the pavement.  Take along a good atlas (such as Delorme’s).
      • Visit Steptoe Butte.  This isolated hill lies in the heart of the Palouse.  The great thing about it is that you can stop on the road that winds its way up the butte at whatever elevation you wish.  This will allow you to pick your perspective for photography.  Or simply drive to the top for 360 degree views.
      • Visit Kamiak Butte.  To photograph at sunset and/or sunrise, you’ll need to camp here, because they close the gates at dusk.  Make the short hike to the top of the butte for both sunset and sunrise.  If its springtime the flowers are as fantastic as the views.
      • Visit Palouse Falls.  This is an amazing waterfall with a spectacular plunge pool.  You can hike to the bottom or do a short loop around the top.  There is a state park here which requires a Washington Discovery Pass ($10/day).
      • Walk around a couple of the small towns with your camera.  Try Garfield, Lacrosse & Rosalia.  Uniontown has a fence made of wagon wheels.  In addition, during your driving explorations, keep on the lookout for beautifully situated barns.
      • If you are in the Colfax area and want a nice quiet picnic spot, check out Klemgard County Park.  From Hwy. 195 heading south of Colfax, turn right (west) on Hamilton Hill Road, then right on Upper Union Flat Rd.  There are signs.  A short trail loops up through the small forest and there is plenty of open grassy space in this peaceful little park.
      • Drive along the major watercourses in nice light for great photo opportunities.  The Palouse River meanders through the countryside and is a lovely stream.  Even where it flows out of the town of Palouse it is picturesque (see image below). The Snake River is accessible in several places, but for me its size clashes with the more intimate nature of the Palouse landscapes.  The Pataha Creek valley west of Pomeroy along U.S. Hwy. 12 is beautiful.  Wind turbines add some interest.  Often in the Palouse you will be starved for subjects, the landscape is so spare, so windmills, barns, etc. are worth keeping an eye out for.
The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse is an understated yet beautiful and peaceful place to visit.  If you’re looking for action or adrenaline sports, look elsewhere.  But for history and photography enthusiasts, and for those who wish to spend time being transported back to America’s simpler times, the Palouse is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest.

Please note that the images here are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry ’bout that.  But if you’re interested in one of them you can either click the image or contact me with questions and requests.  Thanks for your interest!

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

Friday Foto Talk: the Palouse II (Photo Trip Planning/Approach)   7 comments

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I’ve been thinking about how I make my decisions on where to go and what to photograph while on the road.  I’m returning now from the Palouse, a spread-out region in southeastern Washington state that is quite popular with landscape photographers.  I did as much planning as I ever do before any trip; that is, not very much.  I identified a few spots that I wanted to visit, both there and in the channeled scablands to the west of the Palouse.  Then I drove out there, knowing that most of my time would be spent winging it.  This is the way I prefer to do things, but I’m getting a little more structured as time goes on.

There are obvious benefits to each approach, and also obvious drawbacks.  An itinerary, complete with expected driving time between the spots and a planned amount of time for each location, is completely beyond me, at least to this point.  But some sort of plan, with a general routing lined out, is a good way to cover an area.  Adherence to some sort of time schedule can help avoid what I sometimes deal with: a mad scramble to get somewhere photogenic while the light is quickly approaching its peak quality.  Having an itinerary and planned place to be for golden hour (the time preceding sunset) allows you to drop a stop or two as you go, in order to make it to your sunset spot in plenty of time.

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But too strict an itinerary and you end up in what I consider to be the wrong frame of mind to capture images that are not over-photographed, images that surprise you.  And it’s more free and fun.  The amount of time you spend just wandering where your impulses take you is rarely a waste of time, so long as you don’t allow yourself to be caught down in some hole when the light turns golden.  At this point, you will wish you had skipped that side-road and instead been already set up to take advantage of that great light.

Having a bit more wanderlust and less adherence to an itinerary makes more sense when you are visiting an area for the first time.  Even on a second visit, there are bound to be whole areas that need some exploring.  On this trip to the Palouse, for example, I was fully in scouting mode.  Although I had been there once before, it was only for a day and night.  It is a large area, with near-countless roads looping through the rolling countryside.

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So this is the approach I take on any first real visit to a place for landscape and/or nature photography:

PLANNING:

      • I look at tourist-related websites devoted to the area.  I also check out sites that are devoted to special interest topics.  In the case of the Palouse/Channeled Scablands, there are several websites devoted to the region’s interesting geologic origin.  The Missoula floods moved through here during the latter part of the Ice Age, greatly shaping what you see.  These topical websites will often give you ideas for places that are both interesting and beautiful to photograph.
      • What I don’t do a lot of is check other photographers’ websites & images, or images on stock photo websites.  I do just enough to figure out where the “go-to” photo spots are, and decide whether or not it’s worth visiting (or avoiding) them.  This can also be easily accomplished once you arrive at towns in the area, by looking over the postcard racks.  I find this to be a more interesting way to do it, in fact.  You can ask people in the shop about places pictured in the postcards and often get very valuable local information that way.
      • If it is a very unfamiliar place, or overseas, I might get in touch with tour agencies and guides by email.  Even if you, like me, prefer to choose a guide once you are on the ground, it is worth getting an idea what is offered and at what price before you travel.
      • If I am going it alone, either the whole time or for the most part, I will purchase maps of the area.  It’s good to have a regional (driving) map and also an atlas that will show much more detail.  These maps can be electronic of course, but I prefer ones I can hold in my hand and read in bright sunshine.  In the case of the Palouse, I have a good Washington-state highway map, along with the Gazetteer.  Published by Delorme and others, these are oversize booklets with dozens of large-scale maps.  They show all the roads, down to dirt tracks, for any state in the U.S.  They show parks, wildlife preserves, and even a general topographic overlay.  For other countries, do some research and find a good map resource.
      • I take my Gazetteer and mark those few primary photo destinations I have planned.  Then on the computer I look at the Photographer’s Ephemeris  (which I highly recommend downloading) to see the directions and times of sunset & sunrise for the approximate date of my visit.  If the moon could be a target for photos (say at full or as a sliver crescent), I also note the moonrise and/or moonset direction and time.  For each of my marked locations, I sketch in pencil these directions as lines, writing along each line the time of sunrise/sunset.  Even if I end up not going to a precise location, I know both the times and directions are going to be very similar for any nearby location.  I don’t overdo this; a few locations per map sheet are enough.

Palouse Abstract I

ON THE ROAD

      • I check the weather forecasts just before heading out and then I take off, often traveling late to avoid traffic.  I can always stop along the way anyplace that has internet and get weather updates.  But I’ve found that photographers often mistakenly believe that they benefit by having constant weather updates.  Weather is anything but predictable of course, but more than that, I believe your attitude should be such that you will work with what you have at the time.  You can photograph in nearly any conditions and get good images.
      • More on weather: as I go along, I like to keep an eye on the sky.  If I crest a rise, I’ll stop and get out to observe the weather.  Maybe it’s just me, but I believe the more you do this, the better at weather prediction you will become, at least short-term weather prediction.  Of course I have some background knowledge on meteorology, but in general I find it much more useful to have my eyes on the sky than on some small screen.
      • While I do try to hit popular spots to photograph, I also never ever expect (or even hope) to get my best images there.  I think this is a bit different from the average novice landscape photographer’s approach.  I don’t know what the pros do, but I believe there are just too many variables at work to expect any great photo from anywhere.
      • More on popular spots: taking the Palouse as an example, there is a rather prominent hill called Steptoe Butte in the heart of the region.  Standing well above the countryside and having a 360-degree view, it is popular as both a sunrise and sunset spot, drawing loads of tripod-toters.  I knew I would go there, but my Gazetteer also showed me other high points in the area.  One of these is Kamiak Butte, which I will discuss in another post.  But there are others that are not as high as Steptoe.  The top of Steptoe is almost too high for the best landscape images in the Palouse, and there is a lack of good foreground elements.  That’s just my opinion of course.

But I didn’t ignore the place.  I went up there for star shots toward 3 a.m. one sleep-deprived night.  The Milky Way was amazing!  After an hour’s sleep, I joined several other photogs. at sunrise.  The light was average at best.  But instead of going back up there when the light was much better the next day, I chose a different place.  Guess the upshot is that I don’t really want images that are too similar to those of other photographers as much as I want my own compositions.

      • I will take most impulse-driven tangents, indulging my natural desire to explore.  This is easy and natural during mid-day when the light is normally not good.  If there are a lot of clouds, I try to find interesting subjects to shoot that don’t require much sky to be included.  I also will indulge in macro photography, so seek out meadows and wetlands during mid-day.
      • But come late-day, I try to get somewhere that is either somewhat elevated or has a very interesting, photogenic subject (ideally both).  I try to arrive by at least 45 minutes prior to sunset.  For sunrise, I try to camp very near to the spot where I think sunrise will be good.  Often the sunset spot is the same or very near to the following morning’s sunrise spot.
      • I like to do night photography from time to time, so I seek open skies with interesting subjects in the foreground (old buildings, rock formations, etc.).
      • So between sunset, sunrise, the stars and scouting/exploring, when do I sleep?  If it is winter, I sleep as normal, getting up at sunrise and staying up.  During spring and summer’s longer days, I will often sleep in two shifts.  I get roughly half my sleep between a late dinner and sunrise, then the other half immediately following the sunrise shoot.  This is easy to do when camping in remote spots.  When traveling overseas, on travel days it’s tough.  It’s a good reason to plan more than one night in each place.

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      • Weather dictates all of course.  Clouds are good, unless they completely block the sun from doing its magic.  Never allow rain to dampen your enthusiasm.  They bring rainbows for one thing!
      • The quality of light can often be quite good well into morning hours, or alternatively well before sunset.  You learn to look at the sky, for example in the morning, and be able to predict whether it’s worth sticking with it for a couple hours.  Mid-day shooting is rarely any good, at least for landscapes and nature subjects.
      • So when do I get a chance to process photos, get online, post these things?  I try to find somewhere with internet access every couple or three days.  I think it’s actually more important to journal on a daily basis than to do what I’m doing now.  I try to write down my great finds, the little things I learned about the place and how to photograph it, even the disappointments.  On my map I also trace my route and mark the nice finds (such as interesting barns in the Palouse).

Speaking of that last point, right now I’m at a Starbucks and it’s 5 p.m.  There is the push to finish this post, but the light is calling.  Thus I will post fewer pictures this time, and encourage you to stay tuned for more on the Palouse and other areas of southeastern Washington.  Thanks for reading!

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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.

North Cascades   7 comments

I’m in the Methow Valley, in Northern Washington, in bad need of a shower, having just tumbled out of the mountains of the North Cascades.  And rugged mountains they surely are!  This will be a relatively short post, as far as writing goes (I can hear the cheers already).  I’ve gone & broken my left hand, so everything is slower, especially typing.  It’s a long story how I broke it.  The short version is that I am sometimes a stupid man, and it costs me.

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of Washington is calm as the sun begins to set.

I approached from the south, camping along Baker Lake, then followed Hwy. 20 east to Ross Lake, taking a hike to Blue Lake for a sunset view of Early Winters Spires.  It is only 2 or 3 miles up to the lake.  You will likely run into rock climbers here.  The Spires are a prime challenge for rock jocks.  After this, I drove down into the tiny burg of Mazama, and then back up (way up!) to Slate Peak.

I was under the stars here, at 7400 feet elevation, and shot some night photos in the company of an astrophotographer.  He was shooting at a considerably narrower angle than I was!  He showed me my first ever view of the Heart Nebula, a beautiful object I’ve never seen before.  And I thought I was a pretty savvy stargazer.

The Big Dipper is nearly lost amongst the stars above Slate Peak Lookout in Northern Washington.

The view from Slate Peak is amazing, making the rough, steep “road” up there worth it.  If you are the type to balk at narrow dirt tracks carved out of a mountainside, with no guardrail between you and a sheer drop, get somebody else to drive it, take a pill, and keep your eyes firmly closed.  But what a view!  The jagged peaks of the North Cascades lie to the west, and the wild Pasayten country rises to the east.

The wind was blowing up there overnight, so it was downright cold!  In order to stargaze, I had to put on more clothes than I’ve had on since last March.  But next morning dawned clear & the day warmed rapidly.  This is the start of the Pacific Crest Trail’s last push northward to the Canadian border, & I hiked up a few miles, scrambling up a minor peak.  It was a good challenge though, having only one hand to rely on for the knife-edge ridge.

The sun’s last rays hit the popular climbing crags of Early Winters Spires in Washington’s North Cascades.

The larches are changing color now, making me want to keep pushing north & east to the Canadian Rockies.  But I don’t have my passport on me, alas.  Oh for those good old pre-9/11 days, when crossing into Canada was not very different than crossing a state line.  Oh well, I really should go home & get a real cast put on this hand.  But for now I’m off to enjoy the little town of Winthrop, & the gorgeous valleys here.  This country is covered in snow for most of the year, but now it’s basking in beautiful September sunshine.   Hope you enjoy the photos.

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