June 4 Escape to Howard Prairie Lake

Just a reminder, words that are in bold print are links that might interest you.  If you click on the photos, you will be redirected to the smugmug gallery where that photo resides.

Escaping is easy, it just requires a moment and a bit of planning and the commitment to put it on the calendar.  Somehow if it’s on the calendar, we manage to do it.  The original plan was for a trip to the desert, to the east side of Oregon, basking in the high dry gorgeousness of the Steens Mountains. I can’t believe it has been so many years since we were there.  It seemed like a lovely thing to do in early June.

Company gone, chores caught up, we put a week of escape days into the calendar.  I mapped the route, looked at Page Campground near French Glen, checked the weather, read the blog about our last trip to the Steens over Labor Day one year.  Then something happened.  Seven hours of driving, no water to play on, gorgeous high desert that is known for gnats in June at the campground, hiking the main entertainment.  Off grid.  For no reason I can explain, I said to Mo, “Why don’t we go to Howard Prairie instead?  We can kayak and have a campfire and enjoy the forest again.”  That is how a long trip to the high desert turned into a short trip into the western slope of the nearby Cascades.

On the map, you can see Rocky Point on the upper right corner, where we used to live, on the left, our home in Grants Pass.  It somewhat explains why we never managed to get to Howard Prairie again, even though Mo and her family used to have family camping and boating get togethers there many years ago, before I knew them. Living in Rocky Point, we were so close to so many outdoor options, lakes, rivers, the refuges, that we forgot about Howard Prairie.

Now that we live in town, on the west side, we have to be a bit more creative in finding good places to kayak, and that most often leads us back to the mountains east of Grants Pass.

Time surely does have a way of disappearing.  We had good memories of a camping trip to Grizzly Campground at Howard Prairie, but when was that?  Not in the blog?  Oh no!  It was before I started blogging. No journal of the trip?  Oh my!  I finally found the photos, from the summer of 2006, the first year I moved  from Klamath Falls Oregon to Sonora California for my work.  I drove the truck back to Oregon and Mo met me at Howard Prairie with our baby MoHo.  I wish I had written about the trip then, because we spent a lot of the time trying to remember which site we were in, and where we had kayaked. 

What we did remember, however, was that we went to the Britt Music Festival in Ashland, and then drove back up to the mountain lake to spend the rest of the weekend.  That first night we were all alone in the campground, and as we drove in the pitch darkness was a bit disconcerting.  The campground isn’t terribly small, 19 sites, and is located right next to the main road.  It was one of the few times in our RVing experience where we were definitely a bit spooked.

That year we had a lovely day on the lake, with water flowers, pelicans, gorgeous views of the mountains, but this time when we got out in our boats, nothing looked familiar.  Howard Prairie Lake is actually a reservoir, and is currently at less than 60 percent of capacity due to the low snow pack from the previous winter.  The shoreline is so far down that the lake is significantly smaller. 

The only factor that wasn’t particularly nice about that low water was the mucky bottom along the shoreline.  Our site was adjacent to the water, and we carried the boats down, hunting for a place to launch.  Mo chose the rocky lower bottom of the closed boat launch, and I chose the mucky bottom.  Still, once we were on the water, everything felt wonderful.

Our morning kayak on the lovely lake was filled with birds, especially the Canada geese with literally hundreds of babies.  The American white pelicans were around, not more than half a dozen at a time, but they entertained us perfectly with their F15 type flying maneuvers low over the water.  I filmed one of them feeding, and he basically ignored me as he dumped over and over into the water in search of goodies.

We saw eagles and ospreys, too high to photograph well from the rocking kayak, and what I later discovered was a spotted sandpiper.  We heard kingfishers, and killdeer.  It is what we love best about our Oregon waterways, all the amazing birdlife.

Once again we had the entire campground almost entirely to ourselves.  The first night a lone camper drifted in and the next morning we met him after his morning yoga on the beach.  He and a friend had just graduated from Berkeley and they were celebrating by driving around the Pacific Northwest.  He rushed over when we saw us approaching the landing area, offering to help us if needed. I guess maybe he was worried because we looked too old to get out of the kayaks alone?  Ha!  It might be funny to watch, but we can still manage it.

The second night we were joined late in the evening by a lone camper in a white truck who quietly set up his hammock and disappeared early the next morning.  On Wednesday night, during a sunny pleasant week in June, we had the entire campground completely to ourselves.  Totally dark and totally silent and totally alone.  For some reason, it wasn’t the least bit spooky this time. 

We woke in the mornings with the eastern sunshine pouring in through the forest and the lake mists, to chilly temperatures.  Waiting an hour or so for the sun to warm up the air a bit, we launched the kayaks for time on the water before the winds came up.  Still, the paddles back home were more challenging because even by 10 or 11 on the lake, the breezes made for choppy water.

We would return from our boating forays before noon and cook a nice breakfast, which served as a great lunch as well.  Two meals a day is perfect when camping it seems. Although one afternoon we did supplement our home cooking with some ice cream from the resort grocery store.

In the afternoons we explored the other campgrounds around Howard Prairie, checked out the resort, with its big campground with hookups, a store, and a marina.  Even the fancy campgrounds were not even close to full, with lots of space.

Another afternoon we drove south to Hyatt Lake, a smaller reservoir nearby, with water that was even lower than that at Howard Prairie.  Hyatt is a lovely little lake, and unlike the Jackson County campgrounds that are around Howard Prairie, the Hyatt campgrounds are administered by the BLM, and are reservation only sites.  On each campsite is a number to call to get a reservation, which you can do on the same day.  Although cell service is basically unavailable, so we decided that if we ever wanted to camp at Hyatt, we would have to really plan ahead.

Sometimes we just say “no” even with 4 wheel drive

I didn’t realize that the infamous Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument boundary actually included the eastern and southern shoreline of both of these lakes.  We started up the rough dirt road, crossing the Pacific Crest Trail, toward the Yew Springs Road, but without maps, the forests looked all the same and we had no idea how far the road went through the same kind of landscape.  Later I did some research and discovered an entirely new world of amazing places to hike and explore right here in our own back yard Cascades Monument.  The hike to Hobart Bluff is definitely on our list of things to do.

The monument is only infamous if you are among my friends who have tracked some of the issues surrounding National Monuments in our country at this time.  This is one slated for reduction, and is the subject of much controversy in the area, some pro, some against, but everyone has a strong opinion.  Much to say here, but I’ll save that for private conversations.

Another lovely feature at Howard Prairie is the beautiful trail that encircles the entire lake, with several sections that are accessible from different points.  We walked part of the trail between our Grizzly Campground and the main Howard Prairie Resort, and another part of the trail that surrounded the upper part of what was once lake but now is only meadow.  The nice thing about the low water was that at this time of year, the exposed banks were covered with thick green vegetation and tons of wildflowers, including huge drifts of yellow monkeyflower.  It was breathtaking.

Wandering through the woods, I was tickled inside to find so many little forbs and flowers familiar from my soil mapping days in Northern Idaho.  Similar species, and even some that are the same, and many that are indicators of moist soils from which they spring. Recognizing some, remembering their names, and seeing others that I had no clue about reminded me that it has been awhile since identifying all those little forbs and flowers was part of my job.

Mo made a great campfire every single night, with well seasoned wood from trees we had taken down on the Grants Pass property a few years ago.  We sat outside by the fire for our supper, without a single pesty mosquito or fly or any kind of bug to bother us.  Still can’t quite figure that one out, but there are very few bugs around the upper end of Howard Prairie, even down by the water.  When we were out in the boats, on the larger portion of the lake, we did encounter a few bugs, but nothing like what we have experienced in the Klamath Basin.

Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis, the Western Fairy Slipper

During our entire respite, we had no cell service to speak of, except a few notifications that would pop up now and then.  I couldn’t actually see them, so unless I was trying to use the maps, I turned off the pesky phone with it’s irritating notification noises.  No internet of course, no email, nothing.  I love that time for completely shutting off the electronic world, and while it can be a bit of a withdrawal, it has wonderful rewards.  I found myself a bit reluctant to move back into the connected world which seems so full of “stuff”.  It is easy to simply hide away in your own little bubble in the mountains and pay no attention whatsoever to the dramas ensuing in the outside world.

Anemone Piperi, Piper’s Windflower

Delphineum menziesii Larkspur

We ran the generator each morning to keep the batteries charged up, paid attention to our water use and did all the dry camping things that one does for saving water, knowing that we only had a few days back to long hot showers at home  It’s easy to do for a short time, but of course a longer stay would require a bit more care.  Our rig is small, without the huge holding tanks that the big guys have, so boondocking for us is limited to about 5 days reasonably.  We could do more, but so far haven’t really needed to.

We returned to Grants Pass by way of a circular route back east to Lake of the Woods.  I wanted to see if that campground was as empty as the camps around Howard Prairie and Hyatt Lake.  Sunset Campground, where we have spent July 4th and have never been able to get a reservation to camp, no matter when I try, was half empty.  However all the sites were reserved for the weekend.  In the past, people usually reserve sites for two full weeks before the 4th in order to have them for that day.  Crazy stuff. 

We enjoyed our short camping trip thoroughly, driving a bit reluctantly back to civilization and regular life. It was great to get back to our sweet comfy home, but it is all the sweeter when we know that magical escapes like this one are so nearby.



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