1-12-2014 Last Day in Big Bend

NAS Corpus Christi: 67 F with a nice 10mph breeze and bright sunshine at 5:30PM

through the window at Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsSometimes the most difficult part about not writing blog stories right away is getting back into the “mode”. Sitting here by Corpus Christi Bay, watching the brilliant sun turn orange on the horizon and listening to shore birds makes it a bit difficult to slip back in time to our rocky world at Big Bend. 

This has been a lovely day, and there are more to come, and of course by the time I get to write about them, we will be off somewhere else, doing more lovely things and trying to remember the last lovely thing that we did.  It isn’t so much that I feel obligated to keep up with the blog, it is more that I really want to remember, for myself, what I felt when I was doing whatever.

red rocks in the Grapevine HillsSo, I open up Picasa again, and look at the photos for awhile, think about where we were and what it felt like, and sooner or later, the feelings reemerge. I am back in Big Bend, the cool morning is opening up as the sun rises, the smell of the leafless cottonwoods and desert grasses filling my nose as we get ready for our last day in the Big Bend.

When we first started looking at ideas for this day, we thought it would be nice to do the dirt back roads that are between the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.  The River Road traverses the southern portion of Big Bend and midway passes the ruins of the Marsical Mine.  Mercury was once mined here and structures are still standing.  In addition, the route has several rough dirt tracks that lead to backcountry campsites along the river that might be interesting to see.

Nice easy trail little over a mileBut it is a 51 mile trip, with at least 8 hours of rough bumping around.  We do that a lot, but on this day we thought, no…maybe something easier.  I thought it might be nice to get back to camp by 3 or so and have time to cook a decent supper, get some laundry done, and be ready for Monday morning and an early departure.  You know, that life stuff. 

Instead of an all day backcountry trip, we took a 6 mile dirt road to one of the hidden gems of the park, the Grapevine Hills.  Photos of the Balanced Rock are everywhere, and yet it seems that fewer people make it out to the hills to take the short easy hike.  We thought, hmmm…maybe no one will be there and we can take Abby.  (If you haven’t seen my last post and my comment about dogs on the trails here is another thought about that.  Our dogs can carry diseases that wild animals are not immune to.  I hadn’t really thought about that aspect when I was grumbling away about the no dog rule and trying to get around it.)

trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThe road was again, graded dirt, but with more washboards and a few ditches, but nothing that would require actual 4 wheel drive.  We drove past a couple of primitive camps, and at 6 miles arrived at the trailhead for Balanced Rock.  Lo and behold, there were six cars already there and 4 more had just arrived with big bunches of people piling out and loading up water and packs and leaving on the trail.  Way too many people for me much less an illegal dog!

We thought we would amble on down to the end of the road and check out the Grapevine Springs primitive campground, just another mile or so north.  The road got a bit rougher here, with high clearance needed for sure, but all wheel drive would have been ok as well. The campground was surrounded by brush, and didn’t have much of a view. We wandered around a bit, and finally made it through some of the thick, spiny brush to find what may have once been a spring.  There was a hint of an old cottonwood, but I am pretty sure it was no longer alive, and a hint of a view of the desert to the east, but it was hidden mostly by the brush.  Our trusty little guidebook author said it was one of his favorite primitive campgrounds in the park.  All a matter of opinion, I guess.  We wouldn’t camp there, even if we did camp in a tent.

mountain mahogany in the Grapevine HillsBy the time we got back to the trailhead, there were still a lot of cars but no one was in sight.  We talked about letting Abby wait in the car, since it was still very cool, but Mo wasn’t at all comfortable with that, so instead she encouraged me to take the hike alone to the rock and she would wait with Abby in the parking lot.

I took off on the easy rated hike, only 1.25 miles each way and well marked.  The skies were perfectly blue, the air was just the right temperature and the path was wide and easy. About 3/4 of a mile in,  I passed some hikers returning and they said there were javelinas on the trail, an excellent reason for not having Abby along.  I looked and waited, but never saw a sign of them.  I see some beautiful and healthy mountain mahogany trees, indications of a bit of a different climate back in the small valley surrounded by hills.  Stopping every so often I heard interesting bird calls, but not being a true ‘birder’, I had no idea what I was hearing.

easy trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBig Bend Day 3_008Another couple came down the trail, and said, “It is just up the hill there, and there are still a lot of people up there”.  Hmmm.  At least I wouldn’t be surprised by the crowd.  What did surprise me, however, was the trail.  This was an ‘easy’ trail, remember?  As I saw the marker for the last 1/4 mile, I also saw the trail begin to ascend, and not gradually.  The trail looked dang near vertical, a scramble up the rocks, with switchbacks, and no end in sight.

This time I was armed with both hiking poles and my good boots, so I was ready.  Or almost ready.  I started up, and kept on going and going and going.  Yeah it was only a quarter mile, but it was definitely challenging to me.  Very near the end of the hike I looked at the rock as tall as I was and thought, “I can’t do this.  How in the world will I ever get back down”.  But I could hear voices at the top out of my line of vision, and thought, “Well, if I fall someone will at least hear me”, and up I went.  It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but it still was an adrenaline rush.

all that hiking and this is what I found at the top of the trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThen when I finally made it to the top, it turned out it wasn’t the top at all.  But there were definitely a lot of people there who were all busy scribbling in tablets and talking quietly among themselves.  They seemed to think I shouldn’t be there, but when I asked where the Balanced Rock was, one guy decided to talk to me and said, “Up there, on that trail.  It isn’t far.”  Oh great.  More up and in front of all these people, whomever they were with their little tablets.  I did ask someone if they were botanists or geologists, and a guy piped up and said, “We are artists”.  Oh.  They were all actually drawing desert images with colored chalk on little thin pieces of slate, obviously they brought their own slate since the rocks surrounding us were all granite of some sort.

Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBalance Rock in the Grapevine HillsWith just a bit more effort, and a bit more adrenaline, I made it to the top of the landing below Balanced Rock, managed to take some photos without tipping over from vertigo, and climbed back down and beyond all the artists busily working on their projects.  When I had climbed the very tall, very vertical wall, I decided I needed both hands and had left my hiking poles behind.  I was happy to get down that rock and back to my poles, believe me.

love my Keens.  They stuck to the rock perfectlyIt was worth it, of course, and I am sure the next time I won’t be so jittery about it, and Mo will be with me, too.  Yes, we will come back and do this hike again.

When I returned to the trailhead, Mo and Abby were comfortable in the warm sun, hanging around and getting in a few walks along the road.  We drove back to the main highway and then turned north again to go find another dirt road to what was called Painted Gap.  Now I have to say, this road was the roughest we encountered.  There were lots of rocks and high clearance was a definite requirement.  The view from the crest of the hill near the gap was nice, with the Chisos Mountains to the south, but the road was rough enough and I was a bit tired of bouncing around so who knows what we would have found if we had continued to the end in another 1/2 mile or so.  We didn’t see any paint anywhere, though, so have no idea where the name came from.high clearance road to Painted Gap

By this time is was mid-afternoon, and it was a fine time to drive the 30 miles or so back to camp with plenty of time to have a nice supper and actually relax a bit.  Our grilled chicken breasts were great in a parmesan penne pasta with a little caesar salad on the side.  Small kitchen cooking is simple but can be really good.

Caesar Salad, grilled chicken, and a good bottle of white wine in Big BendAfter dinner we decided to go exploring around the campground, something we hadn’t done in the three days camped here.  At the store, I was shown on the map where Abby could go, and the boat ramp was on the list.  We just couldn’t take the paths and had to walk on the pavement that led to the park campground and around to the ramp.  It was a nice walk, and long enough that we all got a bit more exercise.

The river looked wide and slow, and not at all scary.  Well, maybe just a little bit.  The ramp has a drop off into thick, silty mud and the river depth drops suddenly within a foot or two.  I couldn’t quite picture trying to hold my boat against the current, keep from sinking into the mud, while trying to climb into my kayak without dumping.  Friend Jeanne just pushes her kayak off the rocks into waterfalls.  Jeanne I am not!

evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NPWe thought about trying to launch on the river in the morning before our planned departure and leave Abby in the MoHo, but common sense won out, and the lack of a permit and the country of Mexico within a few feet kept us from taking the chance.  I think this decision was made around 4 in the morning when I woke up, and could hear Mo breathing, and said, “I really don’t want to try to kayak in that river tomorrow morning”.  Her “OK” was quick and emphatic.  That trip will wait till next time as well.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

Walking back from the ramp that evening we were treated to one of the best sunsets we have seen in all our time on the road.  The skies in all directions just kept getting brighter and brighter and the colors kept shifting and changing.  What a beautiful way to end our last day in Big Bend National Park.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

Into Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells and Aguereberry Point

Current Location, Browns Millpond Campground, Bishop, CA , on our way north on 395 toward home

Current T 47 F, Hi 70 Lo 39 Cloudy and 50 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms

descent into the valleyTraveling toward Death Valley from the west is an education as to just what Basin and Range landscapes are all about.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  Lots of it.  This was the first time we have entered Death Valley from the west, traveling highway 136 from the junction at Lone Pine, following along the back side of nearly dry Owens Lake, and connecting with highway 190 into the park.  The MoHo is only 26 feet, but with the Tracker in tow it makes sense to pay attention to grades.  We knew there were grades, and the road has two serious climbs, and 2 more even more serious downhill stretches on the way to Stovepipe Wells.

descent into the valleyWe did see one big rig pulling the first big hill as we geared down for our descent, but he wasn’t pulling anything.  (Neither were we when we left the valley three days later, we unhooked!) Considering that the elevation on the east side of the Sierra along 395 ranges from 4,000 to 8,000 feet and that Death Valley is below sea level, there are bound to be some considerable grades.  I think if you enter the valley from the south, either from Ridgecrest or from Nevada and Las Vegas, you could drive just about anything without having to think about your gears and your brakes and unhooking.  The grades exceed 9 percent, but it isn’t the grade percent that is the issue as much as how long they are.  The grade from Stovepipe Wells is close to 20 miles long.

morning at Stovepipe WellsThere aren’t a lot of camping options with hookups in the valley, but we decided to stay at Stovepipe Wells initially since we wanted to see some of the area in parts of the park we hadn’t seen before.  It is hot, even in early May, and hookups are a requirement for us since we preferred not to use generator power to run the air conditioner. 

Skidoo RoadWe arrived around 5 and I was surprised to find the lodge office jam packed with folks getting rooms.  Very few of them spoke English, and I think German was the language of choice, although I did hear a bit of French from the Canadians, and some others.  The other notable thing was the number of RV rentals on the road.  The 14 sites at the gravel parking lot with hookups were filled mostly with rentals.  Some of these folks aren’t too good at understanding their holding tanks, I think, because the smells near them were not the best.  Sure would hate to travel like that!

Skidoo RoadCheck-in was easy.  I knew from the Death Valley paper that our fee would be 32 per night, but we would at least have water and sewer.  We decided to stay two nights.  The man at the desk asked if I had a Golden Age Pass, and I said, yes, of course, does that matter?  Imagine my surprise when I got a bill for $16.00.  For both nights!  I guess we are out of the season (ended on April 30th), this park is actually a concession park for the National Park, and then we got our half price discount for being old!  Best rate I think we ever paid for full hookups anywhere!

Wildrose RoadWe enjoyed the air conditioning since the temps were still in the high 90’s even after the sun set, but by 2 in the morning sometime I finally turned it off.  I stepped outside and for a moment couldn’t figure out what the bright orange triangle was over on the mountain to the east.  It was the moon! just a crescent of vermillion orange edging up over the horizon.  I woke up Mo and in minutes we watched that thin moon rise and illuminate the desert landscape. The stars were beautiful as well, with the curve of the Milky Way visible clearly.  We don’t see the Milky Way at home.

Wildrose RoadWe hadn’t quite yet figured out the pre dawn requirement for this park, so our first day here we had a normal 7 am breakfast and by 8 we were on the road back toward the Wildrose Road to find something we hadn’t seen on our last trip to Death Valley.The Wildrose Road is narrow, but completely paved all the way to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.  Along the way the road follows a broad valley, winds through some colorful canyons and is the connecting point for two dirt/gravel roads that lead to an old town site and to a view of the valley from the west.

Skidoo RoadMost visitors to the park see the sights that are close to Furnace Creek, but this drive is worth every mile.  We first wandered up to the old town site of Skidoo, wondering as we went why the town would be named for a snowmobile.  Skidoo was actually named for a slang word popular in the early 1900’s that meant to get out quickly.  Ok then! Old ghost towns are great fun, even if there isn’t a thing left.  The old dumps are fascinating, and the rusted cans and broken glass are reminders of just how ephemeral things can be in the wild west when the gold is no longer there.

old glass at SkidooWinding back down to the main road, we stopped often for photos of wildflowers.  As it turned out, this was the best wildflower viewing of our three days in the park.  They were few and far between, nothing like the sometimes brilliant spring shows that come after rainy winters.  Still a bright surprise in the desert as we rounded a bend in the road. 

Skidoo RoadWe continued south a few miles on the main road to the turn for Aguereberry Point.  Along the way are abandoned mining sites, and the hills are peppered with old mine holes and leftover buildings.  I read that there are more than 600 abandoned mine areas in Death Valley and Obama’s recovery act passed out some cash for the park to try to deal with the safety issues surrounding these old mines.  We are warned to stay out, that the air can kill you, timbers can fall in, and hanta virus is everywhere.  Gee, sounds fun! Think we will skip the mines and head for the view.

Aguereberry Point RoadThe road to the top is a bit scary, after all it is only a 4,000 foot drop or so on a narrow little dirt track up a very steep hill.  Driving is MUCH easier than being the passenger in these situations and today I was the passenger.  The view opened up before us, and even with the smoky haze generated by the southern California fires, the valley was breathtaking. We could see the oasis of Furnace Creek far below and the white hot playa of Badwater reflecting the sunlight.

Aguereberry Point RoadAnother worthy mention is that we had this entire complete trip to ourselves.  We saw one other car early on the Wildrose Road but they must have continued on the paved road and we never saw them again.  The town of Skidoo, and the viewpoint were completely our own, silent and gorgeous. 

most amazing find of the dayWe hiked around a bit, nagging Abby to stay away from the edges, when just around a rocky corner I found the most brilliant orange calochortus (Desert Mariposa Lily) I have ever seen.  There was just one on this rocky slope.  Later I read that these little flowers can wait for years for the right conditions to bloom and sometimes they cover entire hillside with orange glory.  What a sight!Aguereberry Point

The drive back down the hill seemed uneventful, until once again we rounded a curve and saw one of those wildly painted rental rv’s in the road.  It seemed to be in a weird position, and then suddenly we thought we saw smoke billowing up from beneath the rig and people bailing out.  Turned out the smoke was only dust, but scary anyway.  The big rental rig was seriously stuck with the back wheel spinning in a hole and the back sidewall of the rig firmly planted in dirt, rock. and shrubs.

uhoh on Aguereberry Point RoadWe stopped to help, thinking we would have to drive someone back to Stovepipe Wells, but the young German family was determined to get the rig out on their own. Remember that in all this time we hadn’t seen another vehicle, and none were traveling the paved road that we could see off in the distance.  In Death Valley it is a long way to nowhere, and cell phones don’t work.  We wouldn’t have left them there, of course, but neither of us were very optimistic that this wiry, small young father was going to get that thing unstuck.

yay! European family unstuck on Aguereberry Point RoadAfter more than an hour, suddenly dust billowed in the west and a big red pickup drove up with two big guys ready to help.  The one guy hollered at our little German guy, “It says cruise America in an rv, not bury it in the desert!”.  The German guy said, no, no, I think I can drive it out, and the big American guys just shrugged.  Sure enough, he has dug enough and in one hit on the accelerator he had that rig out of the hole.  The red truck drove off, and then the family was all happy and excited and we all hugged and cheered together. 

Wandering off in the desert is not something to take lightly.  Make sure you have water, a shovel would be smart of course, and none of us had one so the digging was done with hands and rocks.

Death Valley is so huge, and of course these stories are picture heavy, and we aren’t done for the day.  By the time we got back to camp it was over 100 degrees at sea level, even though the temperatures up on Wildrose Road had been in the mild mid 80’s.  We settled in for an afternoon nap under the air conditioning, and waited until 4 in the afternoon to head out on our next adventure: Titus Canyon.

map  to Aguereberry Point

Back Roads

Desert Hot Springs Sunny Clear no wind Hi 72 F Lo 48 F

There are long captions on these maps so remember to hover your mouse over the image to see them.

Berdoo Canyon starts at B, we made it to C before turning around, then back to A, E, F, and then made it to D.  Next time we will go all the way over Berdoo Canyon to the Geology Road. H to I was our drive to the Pinto Mountains where we were stopped by steep rocky rutted road. G is the south entrance to the park off I-10Nothing like a good back road to spice up a visit to the desert!  Once again we decided to try out some of the roads in Joshua Tree NP designated four-wheel drive only .  On this trip I am traveling with a nice laptop with a decent screen but I also have an iPad, and the difference between the resolution of google maps on the two devices is dramatic.  I scoped out some roads leading into the park from the south on the iPad and could barely find them on the laptop later when we returned to the MoHo. These screen shots are from the laptop, since getting iPad screen shots to the laptop is time consuming, and if you are looking at the imagery on your own device, you probably wouldn’t see any difference anyway.

From B to C is about 6 miles, we stopped at C, went all the way around to the north side of the park, and then stopped at D.  We know now that we could have made it through and will next time. It’s also helpful that the battery life on the pad is reasonably long, much longer than on the iPhone even when Google maps is up and running.  The other very helpful detail is that if I open the map and load the imagery while I have a good connection, later when the iPad says “No Service”, I can still see the maps and still see that magical little blue dot moving along the landscape letting me know exactly where we are.

Now, of course I can read a paper map.  Of course I can find myself on the ground with a paper map.  I used paper maps and USGS quadrangles and old fashioned aerial photos to map soils in rugged, often wilderness areas.  That doesn’t keep me from loving GPS and Google Maps any less.  That moving blue dot is magic!  I have used all sorts of GPS units in the last ten years to document data points, but I still love that moving blue dot on my iPad.  Love it!

how much clearance do we have in the Tracker?We found Berdoo Canyon road leading north from Dillon Road east of Desert Hot Springs.  We could see that the road meandered up the washes and squirreled around some tight turns in the depths of the canyon before emerging on the bajada and continuing to an intersection with the Geology Tour Road in the park. The first few miles the old paved road parallels a wash that is usually a better option than the caved in pavement.  At the lower reaches of the canyon, we saw people shooting and evidence that this is a pretty popular place for target practice.

squeezing through the boulders in berdoo canyonWe had a great time for the first few miles, negotiating a couple of tight turns around boulders, and a few nasty big rocks in the roadway, and continued following the washes east.  Before long we encountered a big Hummer full of people who had probably paid good money for the Hummer Desert Tours, and then a few minutes later we found another big Hummer full of people.  They were all bundled up in their big coats and hats, enjoying the wait while their tour guides fixed a big Hummer flat tire.  We wondered what they thought of two women in a little Tracker going up their expensive tour road, but we just waved and kept going.

Mt San Jacinto looking west down Berdoo CanyonAfter about 6 miles and a good 90 minutes, we came to a bad rough patch of rocky road that would have been a serious challenge to the clearance of the Tracker.  We walked it, and were pretty sure we could do it, but had no idea what was ahead of us.  I could see on the iPad (remember I had No Service!) that we were almost to the end of the difficult part of the canyon, but we also had no clue what was ahead on the big alluvial fan leading north.  It could have been completely washed out for all we knew.  Sigh. I can’t believe I didn’t take any photos of this part of the road, either.  They were big rocks!  Honest!

I loved this boulder sticking out of the smaller alluvium in Berdoo CanyonRather than taking a chance, we decided to give it up and back track out of the canyon.  On our previous day in the park, we had planned to drive the Geology Tour Road, so we made a beeline back to Desert Hot Springs, up through the Moregno Valley to Yucca Valley and the western entrance to the park.  By this time it was about 3 in the afternoon and the estimated time to drive the Geology Road is two hours, but we really wanted to see just how far we could get and how close we could come to our stopping point. We stopped at the visitor center for a geology tour map and when I talked to the ranger about Berdoo Canyon Road he pulled out some photos of how hard the road was.  Darn it if he didn’t show us a photo of the part we almost went through as the worst part of the canyon.  We could have made it!

geology road in JTNPThe tour road was interesting, and sure enough the Berdoo Canyon Road took off south across the fan.  We were excited, but the sun was against us and by the time we started up the bajada toward the canyon the sun was setting.  Sigh again.  We were within a couple of miles of our previous end point, but we both knew that we could have made it if we hadn’t chickened out. Neither of us had any desire to crawl into that canyon and try to get back through it in the dark.

As we drove back north toward Yucca Valley, I commented that in spite of the late clouds there wasn’t much of a sunset, nothing good enough to stop the car for a photo.  But then, about half an hour after the sun went down, the sky lit up with rose and purple and pink and we were treated to some breathtaking moments. You can bet I stopped the car to get the last light of the day silhouetting the fantastical shapes of the old Joshua trees.back roads_030DSC_0030

Another day in the desert, another road that we will have to come back and try again.  The night was clear and the moon was just less than full to accompany another swim in the hot springs pool this morning.  Only a couple more days and we will be heading back north.