Great Basin Love

Current Location: Lee Vining, CA cloudy and 67 degrees F

Snake Creek-39In crazy love.  Remember that feeling? Somehow that crazy feeling of youth has been replaced with a crazy ecstasy at what the Earth can do. I have spent the last few days catching my breath in wonder at the view around the bend, the next flower I never knew before this week. 

1-Snake Creek developed copies

I am completely enamored, entranced, and fascinated with the Great Basin, the entire thing.  Although describing the “entire thing” takes a bit of learning. At the moment, I think I am most in love with the brilliant scarlet firecracker penstemon that lines the roads along Snake Creek in the Great Basin NP. This flower was completely new to me on this trip, as well as the incredibly fragrant pale pink scented penstemon.

Snake Creek-16Traveling is so great, there is always something new out there, and the Great Basin visitor center in Baker finally showed with elegant visual displays what the term “Great Basin” actually meant. I had an idea, but the boundaries were sketchy in my mind.  I learned why.

Snake Creek-17The term was first coined by John C Fremont in the mid 1800’s for the vast sink of the American West between the Sierra Nevada Range of California to the west, the Wasatch Range of Utah to the east, the Mojave Desert to the south, and the Snake River Plain of Idaho to the north.

Great BasinGreat Basin-47 I know it is hard to see in these photos I took of maps in the visitor center, but in person, these maps and descriptions helped me to at last understood the Great Basin that I knew from John McPhee’s great book, “Basin and Range”.

I learned that this vague thing called the Great Basin, has a few different boundaries, depending on which aspect of the landscape one is viewing. 

There is the hydrographic view, based on water, and the boundary where all water within the basin stays in the basin, with none escaping to any ocean.  The rivers grow and die quietly in the desert, in the giant sink.

There is the Great Basin as defined by the plant and animal communities, being the largest of the four great American Deserts. Bounded on the south by the Mojave, the Great Basin desert has been called “the sagebrush ocean”.Snake Creek drive

This last definition of the Great Basin is based on the geomorphology and landscape itself, defined by the folding and faulting that created between 150 to 300 mountain ranges (depending on how you define a separate mountain range) that lie within the great sink, high above the desert basins below. Great Basin-49

If you look closely at this map, you will see that my home in Klamath Falls, at Rocky Point, is at the western and northern edge of this great basin of the west.  This close up view also shows the northeast/southwest alignment of the great ranges, like stretch marks in the skin of the earth, created from the extension of continental plates.

Snake Creek driveNo matter how it is defined, no matter where you might draw an arbitrary boundary, the Great Basin is a great American treasure.  More than 2,000 individual species of flowering plants occur within this often dry and barren landscape, and the elevation includes some of the highest peaks in the country, rivaled only by the “fourteener’s” in Colorado and California on the eastern and western edges of the basin.

Snake Creek driveI don’t believe there is another part of our country that is as isolated, as empty, as vast. At first glance, it seems so empty, so daunting.  But a few days in one of the magnificent island arc mountain ranges high above the desert changes everything.  I love the vistas, the ups and the downs, the mountains and the desert, and the way you can see one from the other.

Snake Creek driveThe geology of the place alone is enough to create endless searches into what exactly happened here?  Great seas of sediments converted to limestone, uplifted and folded, and then covered with every form of volcanic activity, and a few meteor craters thrown in for interest.  Then there are the hot creeks, the hot springs, the cold springs, the rivers that flow underground and emerge somewhere else. 

There are two ways to view this land, it goes forever, it can be daunting to cross the hundreds of miles between towns and civilization. The better way is to take the time to delve into its secrets, to explore the hidden places, to go slowly enough to find the treasures.  We didn’t really go as slow as I might have liked, but then we can always go back for more.  I am sure that we will.

Next:  Lehman Caves and a Full Moon Hike to Stella Lake


A Day at Hart Mountain

Currently we are in Summer Lake Oregon Cloudy High 64 low 32 currently 48 We are heading back to Rocky Point this afternoon

Saturday May 25 Mostly Sunny High 58 Low 37

interesting cabin near plushWhen the animal alarms went off at 5:30 this morning I looked outside to see crystal clear skies and a sun already nearly over the eastern face of the mountain.  The magic hour, morning light.  Rather than dawdle around, we got up and dressed, had our morning coffee and breakfast and were on the road east to Hart Mountain by 7am. 

waterfowl on Hart LakeThe road to Hart Mountain follows a track east from Plush, past old homesteads and hay ground, through the Warner Wetlands and along the northern edge of Hart Lake before turning to gravel.  I am a sign junkie, so was tickled to find the wetland interpretive sign I had seen somewhere in a brochure.  I didn’t realize that the Visitor Information Center was simply a series of kiosks and some shade shelters with signs.

Area of Critical Concern Warner WetlandsI discovered once again why I need a fast! and much better telephoto for my Nikon 5100 than the cheapie one that I have.  Those birds just refuse to come into proper focus no matter how many shots I try.  No tripod probably doesn’t help, but I think it has something to do with the autofocus as well.  When I manual focus it isn’t any better.  Ah well, an Erin I will never be.  Still, I included some of the photos just for fun to remember who was hanging around the wetlands.

Mom, Dad, and the teenagers on Hart LakeWe continued north along the road, coming to the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge entrance sign, with a small campground just inside the boundary called Camp Hart Mountain.  Surprisingly, this nice little camp is just a step up from boondocking, and still free. 

free! camping at Campt Hart Mountain  boondocking with benefitsThe host couple told us that the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t figure out what to charge, so they left it free.  There is potable water at the main shelter with picnic tables inside, very large open sites, and as I mentioned, a camp host.  Nice for those long days when you leave your rig to go exploring on roads you might not want to take the big shiny RV.

Flagstaff Lake from the road to Hart MountainContinuing up the road as it passes along the east side of the Warner Wetlands, we saw a few other boondocking opportunities on some BLM land along the lakes, but the east side of the road is all refuge and not open to parking.  As we started up the steep hill east into the refuge, we saw a small sign, “Warner Overlook”.  Perfect place for a short hike to the viewpoint on a gorgeous morning.

Abby checking out the Warner Valley OverlookThe desert stretches to the west, and the complexity of the Warner Wetlands follows the base of the ridge as far north as we could see.  An interesting phenomena was the “bathtub ring” left along Poker Jim Ridge left behind when the huge Miocene lake receded as the climate went from moist tropical to dry desert over a few million years. There were lots of flowers blooming on the ridge, mostly varieties of Indian Paintbrush and buckwheats.  It was a delightful walk.

Warner Valley Overlook trail flowersContinuing east into the refuge, the road is still gravel, but very steep until it tops over the uplifted ridge and the eastern desert stretches to the distant Steens.  The Scenic Backway continues along this gravel and dirt road for many miles, all the way to French Glen at the base of the Steens.  It  is a beautiful drive.  I have a friend from Rocky Point who said she and her husband towed their fifth wheel all the way to French Glen across this road, nearly 100 miles,  but they would probably never do it again.  I have no desire to ever take the MoHo even as far as the Refuge Headquarters just 20 miles or so from the valley!

The Steens from Hart Mountain Blue Sky Road Lookout PointWe decided to drive the Blue Sky road along the eastern edge of the refuge early in the day in order to see more wildlife and catch the early light.  We hoped that this time we would be able to continue all the way around and connect up with the Hot Springs Campground in a full loop.  We were a bit too early for many of the side roads which were still gated closed, including Skyline Drive, Black Canyon Road, and Old Military Road. 

the pronghorn are fawning, so most moms are hiddenIt was on the southernmost edge of our drive that we saw the most wildlife.  Pronghorn are not technically an antelope, although the refuge is actually called an antelope refuge.  This time of year the herds are fawning and so are more dispersed than usual when hundreds of individuals can be seen racing across the hills.  Pronghorn actually developed their incredible speed during a time when there were two species of cats similar to cheetahs that were their main predators. They can run up to 45 miles per hour. Combined with keen vision and speed, they are usually only subject to predation when very young or ill.

and two months too early to make the full loop back to Hot Springs CampgroundThe other wildlife species that is especially important on this refuge are the sage grouse, with a drumming chest and elaborate spring strut that is a renowned spectacle in the high desert springtime.  We were a bit late for the courtship rituals, which occur in March and April.  We didn’t see any sage grouse, but what we did see was gorgeous desert habitat thick with abundant grasses, healthy because no livestock grazing has been allowed in this refuge since 1994. We also saw areas that had been burned, as part of the habitat management to encourage more grasses and to stop sage from encroaching on the lush meadows, so important for the pronghorn.

the ancient bathtub ring on Poker Jim Ridge at the edge of the Warner ValleyContinuing west toward the base of Hart Mountain’s east slope, we saw only 2 other people, a couple of guys on 4 wheelers.  There are stern rules about not going off road, and it appeared that these guys were obeying the rules.  The rest of the morning we had to ourselves.  Keep in mind that this was Memorial Day Weekend, and people were few and far between.  The last time we camped at this refuge was Labor Day in 2004, and back then it was just as quiet, with just a few campers in the Hot Springs campground.

Hot Springs Campground at Hart Mountain Antelope RefugeAt the turn to what is called Blue Sky Camp and the road to Warner Peak, we were again stopped by road closed signs, and most disappointing of all, the road to Hot Springs was closed as well.  Seems as though the only time of year to make this loop in a vehicle would be after August and before the fall snows.  We had hiked the road from the campground end when we were here before, but this was just a day trip, and that hike wasn’t on the agenda for us.

We returned the way we had come, stopping to try out another side road that was open and on the map appeared to continue across the ridge.  Instead it stopped at a small rather nondescript little meadow at a place called Robinson Draw Day Use Area.  Ok then.  We used the day use area to have our snacks in the car and then drove back out to the main road and headed back toward the turn to Hot Springs Campground.

developed hot springs at the campgroundThe road into the campground was as we remembered, more decently maintained gravel for a few miles before you rise over a ridge and see the campground and meadow hot springs spread out beautifully below the snowy mountain above.  I was excited about the hot springs, with wonderful memories of the white sandy bottom of the natural spring out in the meadow.

We drove around the campground a bit, checking out the camp sites, including the one we used so many years ago.  With the recent burning of sagebrush, it didn’t look very appealing, and another area had been opened up along another draw that seems a bit claustrophobic along the brushy creek.

see the bubbles on the left?Finally we parked at the beautiful hot spring, surrounded by a stone wall erected many years ago by the Order of the Antelope.  The spring itself is about a 8 x 10 foot rocky hole in the ground and the water is only about 97 degrees F at this time of year.  It didn’t look particularly inviting at the moment, although I do remember great soaks there when we were here before.  Instead, I wanted to wander out into the meadow to find my favorite little spring.  There is was, a bit bigger than it used to be and a lot siltier.  I ran back to the car to get a suit on and by the time I got back to the spring there was a bather already settled into the little pool.

natural hot spring at Hart Mountain Refuge near Hot Springs CampgroundHot Spring culture is often dominated by natural sorts of folks who really like to soak sans clothing and this was no exception. The nice guy floated in the water and was very friendly and conversational with me while his parts floated conveniently just below the surface.  I wasn’t too anxious to jump in with him, but I sat on the edge of the grass and dangled my legs while we talked for some time about the springs and he pointed out the next small spring up the meadow.

103 degrees F but only 2.5 feet deepI wandered off to check out the spring, but it was incredibly small, with three different streams entering of different temperatures, and the only hot clean spot was about 2 feet wide and surrounded by saturated deep grass.  Nah, maybe not.  Then, as I turned around to walk back, I saw that the single bather at the first pool was leaving.  Mo had been walking around with Abby, (she isn’t much of a hot springer), and I called her to bring the camera.  I was getting in that pool and wanted the photo to prove it!  Sure enough, it was warm, about 103 or 104, and while the silt on the bottom made it seem a bit murky, just under the silt was that nice hard sand I remembered.

UhOh.  Jumped in and can't get back out.  she did finally make it with a little extra pull on her collarAbby decided that the pool was a little bit strange, with all that warm water, and I got her in, but not for long. It was wonderful to be in the hot water, with great minerals and no smell at all.  There wasn’t a sign of sulfur in the water. and after it settled a bit, the water was crystal clear.  My friendly bather had stirred up all the silt, I guess just to get a mud bath or something, but by the time I finished soaking the water had cleared beautifully.  ahhh.

view from the developed springWe drove back out of the campground road, stopped at the refuge headquarters to talk about antelope and weather, and found that it had been 11 degrees F the morning before.  Sure am glad we didn’t try to camp there then!  It can be cold in these deserts!  I picked up some brochures about the local birds and wildlife, and found a nice little brochure that lists 12 different day hikes that are available.  There are also more than 200 bird species that have been recorded in the refuge and another brochure has a handy bird checklist.

up a very steep side road we find Warner PondWe decided to take the road north to Petroglyph Lake with a short 4 mile hike that leads to petroglyphs on the basalt walls on the north side of the lake.  Instead, we found that the rough basalt rocks in the road were too much to try to do with a patched spare tire, and with several cars parked just beyond where we could drive, we decided that it wasn’t worth it.  There were a bunch of hikers getting ready to do the trip with packs and walking sticks and it wasn’t exciting enough for us to deal with the people.  I guess we are getting spoiled with all this alone time and space and people seem like a jarring intrusion somehow.

reflections at Warner PondWe drove back down the steep gravel road with the gorgeous vistas of the Warner Wetlands and the desert, overlooking the distant sunstone digging area where we were yesterday, the white trailers just tiny dots on the horizon.  On the way down, we saw a little sign to Warner Pond Day Use Area, and flipped a quick turn to follow a steep dirt road back up the face of the mountain slope.  This road was really steep, and even in 4 wheel drive, the little Tracker did a bit of slipping and sliding.  At the end of the road, however, was a precious jewel of a tiny fishing pond, even with a dock to launch a boat!  We wondered just how anyone would haul a boat up that road unless it was on the top of their pickup.

road down from Warner PondOur hiking on this trip has been limited for reasons not mentioned until now.  When cleaning house before we left, I was rushing around the kitchen and slipped on the wet floor and slammed my foot into something or other, who knows.  Mo was gone, I laid on the floor for a few minutes feeling sorry for myself, and my foot turned blue half way up the midstep.  I think I broke my big toe.  Not particularly fun, and not particularly conducive to any kind of lengthy hiking trips.  At least I can still walk, but thought I might mention why we haven’t been doing much hiking on this trip.

mapWe traveled back home along the same route to our lovely boondock site, still empty and quiet and cool enough for Jeremy.  The weather had cooled quite a bit and it looked like rain, so we settled in to relax, read, and nap till dinnertime.  It would be Jeremy’s last day of desert freedom since our next stop will be in Summer Lake at an RV park, not likely a place where we can just let Jeremy out to play so easily.  By late afternoon a few pickups and 4 wheelers drove past our campsite, waving to us, but no one attempted to infringe on our nice open boondock site.  The site is big enough to easily accommodate several rigs, so I am glad no one decided to bother us.

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

Bison, Burros, and a Beautiful Place

We drove the wildlife loop in Custer State Park on August 1

wildlife loop Custer State ParkThe history of the Black Hills, as with many other places in the west, is marked by the discovery of gold.  As a sacred place to the Sioux, prior to the white man, its unwritten history extends far into the past.  The pivotal shift, however, was in the summer of 1874 when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold near the present day town of Custer City.  Even though the land belonged to the Plains Indians, under the Treaty of 1868, thousands of gold seekers poured into the area and illegally occupied the newly discovered mountains of gold.  But that is another story. Sad, controversial, and horrendous. 

buffalo on the wildlife loop Custer State ParkBy 1897, when Custer State Park was first established as South Dakota’s first state park, Congress granted sections sixteen and thirty-six of each South Dakota township to be used for schools and other public purposes. The parcels, scattered throughout the Black Hills timberlands, were difficult to manage and in 1906, the state began negotiations to exchange the scattered parcels for a solid block of land. In 1910, South Dakota relinquished all rights to 60,000 acres of land within the Black Hills Forest Reserve in exchange for 50,000 acres in Custer County and 12,000 acres in Harding County. In 1912, these two parcels of land were designated as Custer State Forest, and later became Custer State Park.

wildlife loop Custer State ParkNow, with more than 71,000 acres of protected land, the park is the second largest state park in the country. Now the park is home to a healthy herd of more than 1,300 buffalo, but in 1900 it was estimated that less than 1,000 bison remained on the entire continent.  Peter Norbeck, “The Father of Custer State Park”, saw the seriousness of the issue and took action by purchasing 36 bison to start the herd at the park.  By the 1940’s, the herd had swelled to more than 2,500 and the parks rangelands were beginning to show the effects of overgrazing.

Now there is an annual roundup, held in late September, where the bison are herded into the Buffalo Corrals and the size and structure of the herd are adjusted according to the predicted availability of grassland forage. Although much of the park is forested, and the day before we had traveled through the winding roads of the Needles area, the southern portion of the park, with its wide open gorgeous rangeland truly caught my heart.  Ungrazed by cattle, the native grasses are still dominant, punctuated by islands of forested hills and drainages lined with cottonwoods and elms. 

Nancy and Roger at Custer State ParkWe started our day before 8am, hoping that we would see more wildlife by leaving a bit earlier.  The wildlife loop that leads south from 16A is only 18 miles long, but I could have happily spent the entire day just wandering the narrow roads looking at the buffalo, laughing at the burros, taking photos of wildflowers and enjoying open rangeland that seemed to look much as it might have looked before that fateful day in 1874.

Sue and Mo, with stampeding buffalo behind us!We encountered our first group of animals even before we left the main highway, and the fuzzy photo of Mo and I is due to the complexity of trying to get a shot while a motorcyclist sped through the intersection, spooking the buffalo into a charge across the pavement.  They can move amazingly fast!  Crazy tourists!

Once south on the wildlife loop, however, the landscape opened up, and we encountered several different groups along the roadway.  They are amazing animals.  Relatively docile by nature, they can also be unpredictable and there are numerous warnings in the park to this effect.  Most of the calves are born in May, with most cows having a single calf.  Buffalo can live to 40 years, with an average lifespan of 25.  They need little care, with instincts for survival that cattle seem to lack.  They can survive brutal winter storms and at times care for their young in sub-zero blizzards.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer CityA few miles south on the wildlife loop is a beautiful small visitor center, another lovely building crafted by the men of the CCC.  A large group of buffalo were grazing around the center and the volunteer inside laughed with me and said, “Please don’t ask where the buffalo are!”.  I guess that is the most often asked question and much of the time the buffalo.

The buffalo aren’t the only treasure along the route, however, with pronghorns, mule deer, whitetail deer, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, many birds, and burros calling the park home.  The burros aren’t native in the Black Hills but were used to haul visitors to the top of Harney Peak in the early days of the park.  The rides were discontinued and the burrow were released into the park where they have become an undeniable well loved visitors attraction.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City1We were tickled to find the burros along the southern portion of the loop, and of course have the requisite photos of sweet and silly burro faces reaching into our car windows looking for treats.  We didn’t give them any, so they eventually ambled on.  I especially enjoyed a young colt who laid his ears back and pointed his back end toward the car.  Mo was a bit worried that we might end up with a scar on the Tracker!  I noticed that the young ones were a lot more wary of the cars and people than the older tourist- adults.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City2In addition to the animals, we found several areas of summer wildflowers, including the bush morning glory which has an amazing taproot that can be as much as eighteen inches! in diameter and four feet long. We also saw a beautiful bluestem pricklypoppy, an plant that animals carefully avoid because of its harsh spines and unpalatable juices.  Leadplant, found throughout the prairie, is nutritious for livestock and prairie Indians made a delicious tea from the leaves.

time for a swim break at Stockade Lake on Highway 16AFinally returning to Highway 16 via HWY 87, we continued west to the town of Custer.  Reading the brochures, we thought the Woodworking Museum might be an interesting “attraction” to try out. With Roger and Nancy in their own car with Jackson and us in the Tracker with Abby, it worked out well for visiting areas that didn’t allow dogs, since we could take turns watching our pets.  The Woodworking Museum was nice, interesting, and something you don’t see every day, but I’m not sure it was something I would chose to do again. 

we are all happy to eat outside togetherWe drove back into the town of Custer and found a great little spot for lunch where the food was really great, the service was wonderful, and the dogs were welcome.  The Cattleman’s restaurant is touted in the tour books but when I saw the patio I swerved into the Frontier Grill, a place that looked a bit more like a biker bar than a restaurant.  Jackson isn't so sure about this oneWhat a great choice!  We then walked around town with the dogs, enjoyed more dog friendly art galleries and shops, took photos of the wonderful art buffalos around town, and topped off the afternoon with ice cream from the Purple Pie Palace, in spite of the long lines.

I wanted to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, and it was a top choice on my list, but by the time we drove north to the memorial, the two hour time commitment and $10 dollar per person fee, and the worry about the dogs again was just too much and the group consensus was to view the memorial from a distance.  I took some distant photos, felt sad that it worked out this way, but realized that sometimes I just have to adjust.

Crazy Horse memorial from the highwaySince I didn’t get there, here is the website for something that other bloggers have called the best thing to see in the Black Hills, and here is the mission statement of the foundation:

The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians. The Foundation demonstrates its commitment to this endeavor by continuing the progress on the world’s largest sculptural undertaking by carving a memorial of Lakota leader Crazy Horse; by providing educational and cultural programming; by acting as a repository for American Indian artifacts, arts and crafts through the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center; and by establishing and operating the Indian University of North America and, when practical, a medical training center for American Indians.

Map Custer SP Wildlife Loop

Pahrump, Shoshone, and the China Ranch

no more saguaros, now Joshua trees and smell the sage! The drive from Laughlin up the hill to Highway 95 toward Vegas is steep, but not really very long and we rolled up the hill in the morning sunlight.  Another possible stop on our route was Boulder City, where a soil scientist friend had promised a cold drink and a copy of his presentation on the Spirit Mountains.  Again, it was not to be.  I only heard about the RV search at Hoover Dam after we had already decided to re-route around Las Vegas traffic as much as possible and skip the drive across the new bridge at the dam.

toward Las Vegas The drive to Pahrump was short, just under 160 miles, and the road was great.  We managed to skirt the worst of the Las Vegas traffic on the south side of the city, staring in awe at the miles and miles of low brown stucco homes covering the desert.  Highway 160, west from Las Vegas, is part of the Old Spanish Trail and winds through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and crosses the beautiful Spirit Mountains at Mountain Springs.  Once through the pass, the wide desert vista of the Pahrump Valley opens up to the west. As Mo drove the smooth, even highway, I started checking out the Streets and Trips listings of Camp Club USA parks in Pahrump.  We called a couple of places, discovering that once again, no one had cable, but the Charleston Peak Winery RV Park was on our list, and had an opening for our club, 1/2 price at 20 bucks once more.

Laughlin to Pahrump (30) There are many RV parks in the area, and we toured around town checking them out the next day, but still were happy with our choice, especially at the price.  Once settled in on the high fan above town, with an unbroken view of Charleston Peak to the east, we were especially tickled.  The swimming pool was closed for the evening, but it was just a few hundred yards to the tasting room at the “only” or “first” winery in Nevada.  I am still not sure which, but I suppose I could look that up eventually.  The winery said one thing and the chamber said another, so which is true?.

sunset on Charleston Peak Seven tastings are offered for free, and even though they no longer grow their own grapes except for a very small vineyard, they made some award winning cabernet from Sonoma grapes. The original vineyards planted were destroyed a few years ago by wild horses.  Mo stayed with Abby and I enjoyed sitting in the unpretentious, intimate little tasting room with award winning wine while Mo settled for a glass of chardonnay in the MoHo. 

Laughlin to Pahrump (50) The evening was much cooler than any we have experienced in a couple of weeks, with a wild, blustery wind blowing across the desert.  I’m not quite sure why, but even in that wind our slide topper didn’t seem to flap too much.  Maybe it’s a different kind of construction than some.  So  far it hasn’t been a problem. Charleston Peak was brilliant snowy white against the dark cloudy skies to the east, with the western skies clear enough for a gorgeous sunset.

today's explorations Sunday was our day to relax and explore more of the area south and west of Pahrump.  When we traveled to Death Valley in 2004, we had a rented car, (pre MoHo days!) and spent a lot of time exploring the park.  It was time for something different, and with the help of the excellent Discover Pahrump brochure, we mapped out a route.

West of Pahrump, Highway 372 changes to 178 when you cross into California, crossing a small range of mountains and opening up to another valley.  The tiny community of Shoshone lies in the heart of the valley, a pleasant stop for folks traveling farther west or north into Death Valley.  It was a nice stop for us as well, and with the price of gas, we were glad we had filled up the tracker back in Nevada and a mere 3.69 per gallon.  Shoshone is full of crusty characters, and has a history of fascinating people.  The museum there is tiny, but wonderful, with a special section devoted to Death Valley Women, with photos, newspaper articles, and stories.  In the back of the museum are the collection of bones once thought to be mammoth bones, but later identified as several different animals probably washed into the Pleistocene lake from several different areas.

remnants of a different era in Shoshone, CAShoshone lies at the edge of the ancient lake, and the area is riddled with soft sediments from the old lake bed, then uplifted and eroded into washes and gorges and mesas, surrounded by more wild volcanics, ash flow tuffs, and even obsidian. Suddenly in the cliffs, we saw caves that were obviously man made, and got out to explore.  Later, the museum volunteer pointed me up a  dirt road west of Shoshone to view more of these man made caves.  Near town, in addition to a very strange and wacky looking cemetery, we found what was left of hand carved homes inhabited by desert dwellers in the 20’s and 30’s.  They looked ever so much like homes carved out of the volcanic tuffs in the Cappadocia region in Turkey.  Certainly not as old, and not as artistic, but the idea was the same.  Carve out a safe home, warm in winter, cool in summer, using what is available.

apartments in the desert Apartments carved in stone in the desert near Shoshone, maybe a little over 80 years old?

click here for many more photos of the area around Shoshone and the cave homes.

DSCN8382 Apartments carved in stone in Cappadocia, maybe over 1200 years old? 

Click here for more photos of the fantastic home in the Cappadoccia region of Turkey

After exploring the cave apartments, we continued up the wash toward the volcanic hills.  The road ended after a few miles, but yielded a wonderful array of blooming wildflowers.

Yes, Mo and I did plenty of tent camping before we got the first MoHo in 2005

P1010019 Back on the highway, we continued south toward the small community of Tecopa, site of several hot springs resorts.  I say “resort” with tongue in cheek, because these places were not fancy in the least, just dusty campgrounds with faded signs that said “hot mineral baths” or “massage”. The springs are known for their healing properties, and have been used by humans for centuries, but they didn’t look all that tempting to me.  My favorite spring is still up in the mountains of eastern Oregon, in the middle of a meadow at Hart Mountain.  But that’s another story, prior to MoHo days, when Mo and I tent camped up there.

Road to China Date Farm Beyond Tecopa to the south and east on the Spanish Trail, is the desert oasis of China Ranch. The road into the valley is twisting and winds between fantastical apparitions of the badlands.  Once through the tiny canyon, the small valley opens up, green and lush with date palms and irrigation.  It wasn’t very clear about where to go, and we followed a dirt road and a sign that pointed to the gift shop.  The parking lot was almost full, but the gift shop was very small and didn’t seem to be near the date palms at all.  There were a few signs pointing to the river, but we really had no idea where to go, and of course with Abby, we needed to check on the dog friendly areas, if they existed.

nice walk on a hot day I went into the tiny, crowded gift shop, where one person was busy making date shakes, and no one else seemed to be around.  I finally asked a customer if they had any idea of what you were supposed to do in this place and she gave me the 50 cent trail brochure.  Ahha!!  No restrictions on dogs!  We didn’t even see a leash sign, but kept Abby on her leash anyway.  The maps on the brochure were fairly primitive, and even as a map maker I had a hard time figuring out where to go.  We ambled up the lane toward the date palms, trying to find a circular route which eluded us, and trying to avoid the hot badlands which didn’t sound all that great on this hot mid afternoon.

Shoshone and Tecopa (79) The palms were beautiful, graceful and gentle in the desert.  Each variety had an informative sign explaining it’s origin, something we had seen at the Oasis in Indio, but of course here everything was much more rustic and casual.  After hiking an hour or so, we walked back to the shop for a cold drink.  I kept thinking I wanted a date shake, but every time I would slip inside the line was too long, and the poor guy was still doing everything by himself.  Mo and I settled for a cold diet pepsi and some time on the shady bench outside the store.

Our trip home followed the original path of the Old Spanish Trail back to Highway 160 south of Pahrump.  There are great signs about the trail in two places, but each of them comes up suddenly with no warning, so you have to be ready to whip in or turn around to read them. It was sobering to stand in that wide open, hot, dry desert basin, with range after range of rugged mountains in every direction and envision hardy travelers following this path from Abiquiu, New Mexico to Los Angeles in 1829.   John C Fremont, another hero of mine, passed on this trail in 1844.  In 2002 it was designated by Congress as a National Historic Trail.  Our circular route back to Pahrump followed much of this path, and even I-15 follows along the historic trail for some distance in Nevada.

Charleston Peak east of Pahrump in the distanceOnce home again in the late afternoon, we settled in to reading and relaxing before our planned outing to the Pahrump Nugget Steakhouse for their highly touted best steaks around.  Sometimes Mo and I skip lunch entirely and eat a very early supper, but again, this time we were considering Abby and our opportunity to eat out required dark night skies. The casino was fairly quiet on a Sunday night, but the restaurant was full to the brim with a big bunch of bikers who were staying in a nearby hotel.  At first we though the whole idea might have been a mistake when the waitress said there would be an hour wait.  The restaurant didn’t even look full, but all the wait staff was in the back room with the bikers.  We said we would be happy to sit in the bar, actually just a couple of tables next to the restaurant, and settled in to watch all the frustration of the employees trying to deal with a lot of people with not a lot of staff.  Finally we managed to get a couple glasses of wine and then a sweet young man, who turned out to be the off duty chef, came over and took our order.  Once they figured out that someone needed to wait on us, everything went great.  My steak was perfect, and I have 3/4 of it left for our dinner tonight..  Once back home, we felt like it was a perfectly lovely day and we were ready to settle in to the slight evening breeze. 

Apr 3 Shoshone and Tecopa Our trip is coming to a close.  As I was writing this entry, the wild crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains opened up to the west, and the snow capped ranges of western Nevada are framing my view to the north as we approach Walker Lake.  Not sure yet where we will stop tonight, but I do hope it is on a big alluvial fan somewhere in the Nevada desert, with a view for miles and no lights to be seen.