Stop 11: Monterey Bay

On June 25th, we woke up early and headed off to the Fisherman’s Wharf. We had scheduled a morning whale watching trip. Once we got checked in, we walked around a bit taking pictures of the sea lions sunning themselves all over the docks. When it was time, we got on the boat and found a seat inside. Once the boat was headed out of the harbor, the naturalist and crew members came around introducing themselves and giving the safety lecture. The naturalist didn’t waste time before telling us about the wildlife. Not three minutes into the cruise he pointed out a mother sea otter and her baby floating in the harbor.

Momma and baby

She let us get pretty close before she decided she had been the subject of enough photos, flipped over on her belly while hugging her baby to her chest, and dove under the water. At this point I felt like we had gotten our money’s worth, but there was more to see! Out along the breakwater, we saw a cormorant rookery where hundreds of these large black seabirds were raising their young amid lots of sea lions, seals, and pelicans. It appeared to be a very busy place to raise babies!


Once we got out of the harbor, things seemed to slow down a bit. We did not see any animals for a while, but it wasn’t too long before we noticed a huge group of birds sitting on top of the water. A fellow passenger who had a huge telephoto lens wrapped in camouflage tape that seemed to say “I’m a professional nature photographer” explained to us that they were sooty shearwaters. At first I was unimpressed, but he explained that these birds really have an interesting life history! They spend summer off the coast of California, and when it begins to get cool they seek out another summer in the southern hemisphere, off the coast of New Zealand. They spend all of their lives either in the air or floating on the water (or diving for fish, I suppose). They never come on land, and they don’t need to drink freshwater!

Sooty Shearwaters

I never really got a chance to talk to the photographer again, but I wonder if he has a website or something. I’m sure his pictures are better than mine.

The farther we got from shore, the more we seemed to be enshrouded by fog. I began to worry that we might not have ideal whale watching conditions. How would we see whales when we could only see a short distance? The fog made it difficult to tell how far we had gotten from shore and where exactly we were going. Fortunately, David had thought to bring the GPS and we enjoyed tracking the boat into the bay. Below is a Google maps screenshot that will give you an idea of why Monterey Bay is such a great place to go whale watching:

Google Maps view of Monterey Bay

As you can see from the picture above, Monterey Bay contains some VERY deep water VERY close to shore. Of course, humpback whales don’t normally like to be in shallow water where they might get beached. There is another reason this area is great for whales: the upwelling. Astute environmental science students will remember that the trade winds blow from the northeast in the northern hemisphere and from the southeast in the southern hemisphere. This causes a warm upper layer of water to be pushed to the west in most years (except in an El Niño year). As a result, cool water gets pulled up from the ocean depths on the west coast of the US. This water has nutrients from the ocean sediments that get pulled up with it and holds a great deal of dissolved oxygen due to the cool temperatures (remember, gases dissolve better in cool water than in warm). The ultimate result of this upwelling of nutrient-rich, cool water is that phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and zooplankton (small, free-floating animals) can live in very high concentration here. These are the base of the marine food chain. If the plankton population is healthy, so are the sardine, squid, tuna, krill, dolphin and whale populations! I’ll come back to the squid later. For now, I’ll answer the question you might be asking: did you see any whales? YES!

WHALES!! (two humpbacks here)

I may have mentioned before that I went whale watching off the coast of Maine with my parents and siblings when I was 18. At the time I had just graduated from high school and was about to head to Purdue to become a veterinarian. I decided against applying to vet school about a year and a half later for various reasons, but my whale watching experience probably had an impact on my career choice. I remember being so impressed with the naturalist on that boat. He could tell us which whale was which based on the shape and markings of the tail flukes (most adult humpbacks have had run-ins with boat propellers, so they have markings). I was absolutely smitten with biology and ecology. During my senior year of college I remember writing a paper on why I was interested in becoming a biology teacher for my Methods of Teaching Science course. Quite a bit of that paper was about my whale watching experience. Since then, I had not been whale watching and taking David and the boys on a similar trip was at the top of my list of things to do in California. What does this have to do with geology? Maybe nothing. But, look at the whales!

Humpback tail fluke

Actually, when I got home (I’m only about a month behind on my blogging at this point – only) there was another little splinter in my mind. Maybe Monterey Bay was the perfect place to consider geology. In fact, the area is really unusual. Not only is there an extremely rich feeding ground because of the upwelling, but the deep water so close to shore gives the humpbacks a place to find lots of krill and tiny fish in an area that they can really dive deeply to come up far and make a big catch. So why does Monterey Bay contain such a deep underwater canyon? Well, after some research, it seems that this is one of those times scientists use that much-hated phrase, “we don’t know”. Mind you, “we don’t know” and “we have no idea” are not the same thing. Scientists do have some good ideas about how the canyon formed. Although it seems like a straight forward question, there is a compounding issue that people in Indiana (like me) might not think about. In California, you must always take into consideration the fact that you are at the edge of a tectonic plate or two. Because the Pacific plate has moved north relative to the North American plate, the canyon is probably not currently adjacent to the river responsible for carving it. Some geologists believe that the canyon was carved when it was an outlet for the Colorado River, before the Gulf of California opened up. Others believe that it was carved when California’s Central Valley was drained and the canyon was near present-day Santa Barbara. The canyon is about a mile deep and it starts about a mile below the surface, so it is astounding to me how deep the water is so close to shore! OK, enough geology, back to the whales!

Humpback whales feeding

Humpback whales (like several other species of large whales) are baleen whales. They take huge mouthfuls of water into an expandable pouch in their throats, then push the water out through their baleen to filter the krill and small fish from the water. What is baleen? Baleen is made of keratin, and similar to fingernails. Whales have many rows of these baleen plates along their mouths that allow them to strain out their tiny prey. Here is Kieran with a piece of baleen that’s longer than he is tall. David and Evan are looking at pictures and listening to the naturalist explain how humpbacks use the baleen. In this video, Kieran narrates and makes up a joke. Ah six year-olds!

Kieran posing with baleen

It is pretty astounding that the largest animals on the planet hunt some of the smallest animals as their prey! Of course, humpback whales are not the only ones that were enjoying the seafood buffet that day. The cute little (comparatively) sea lions looked like they were playing, but I am sure they would take offense to such a suggestion. I’m sure they were feeding just like the whales were.

Sea lion

We also saw about 100 Risso’s dolphins. They are not a species I was familiar with, and I found them interesting. These guys were really fast. Every time I tried to take a picture, I ended up with their left over splashes. I did get a few shots that came out OK.

Risso's dolphin

These guys really don’t hold still for the camera. Here’s another one:

Another Risso's dolphin

And here’s another one:

Risso's dolphin #3

Not all cetaceans use baleen to catch their meals. The other whales are called “toothed whales”. This group includes orcas and dolphins. Risso’s dolphins eat a variety of fish, but they prefer to eat squid. Their coloring is usually grey with white scarring. These scars come from the hooks on the ends of the tentacles of their prey and from bites from other Risso’s dolphins. They actually start life uniformly grey and their skin becomes whiter as they age and accumulate scars. I almost forgot! David caught some good video of these guys! Check it out!

Not long after seeing these guys, we found another pod of humpbacks. Our naturalist counted seven as our total for the trip.

I took a lot of humpback pictures.


How about one more for good measure?

Diving down

As we came back to the wharf, the sky began to clear. I’m certainly no travel expert, but I might advise someone going whale watching in Monterey Bay to consider an afternoon tour, rather than a morning one to avoid the fog. Of course, that day’s weather may not be the normal weather pattern. As we returned, we were welcomed back by our old friends, the sea lions.

Fishermen's Wharf Welcoming Committee

After we left the boat we checked out the wharf which has lots of seafood restaurants and trinket shops. We tried fresh raw oysters, which was a first for all of us. Kieran was the only one who didn’t approve. Then we ran across a few new arrivals to the wharf.

Baby seagulls on the roof

Our afternoon was spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I think that’s going to require another post.

Stop 10: Point Reyes

We left Yosemite on June 24th and headed to Merced, CA. We had heard good things about a particularly yummy taco truck from Ranger Erik (see previous post). He told us that Ramone’s truck would be found in Planada, just before we got to Merced. As we drove through, we did find the truck, but it was closed up and no one was there. Bummer! We all had our hearts set on a good burrito, so we planned to catch some Mexican food later on. We did end up having the craving satisfied in San Francisco. More on that later.

When we arrived in Merced, we enjoyed a little pool time and had a relaxing evening. The next day’s drive was set to be a big one!

In the morning, we rolled out early to head to Point Reyes National Seashore. As we drove, we could not believe the number of distinct ecosystems we went through! High desert, chaparral, grassland, pine forest. We arrived at the Point Reyes Visitor Center and got a little information about a good place to drive and see some wildlife. We drove along the San Andreas Fault and talked about how strange it was that an earthquake could happen here at any time.

The road from Yosemite to Merced

We decided to go out to the sea lion overlook off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. The road ran along a ridge of a peninsula that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean. This was the first time any of us had seen the Pacific, and it seemed surreal to see it from this vantage point. The Pacific coast is nothing like the Atlantic, where the water meets the gentle slope of a sandy beach. The rugged, rocky beaches here and high cliffs upon which the roads were built were quite beautiful.

Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

The road also took us past several cattle ranches, some of which allowed the cattle to roam free. We were a little taken aback by how rural and agrarian the area seemed. So this is California?

We've got cows.

When we arrived at the Sea Lion overlook, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the cliffs, rocks, flowers, and mist. I think I took more pictures of flowers than of sea lions!

Flowers at Point Reyes

We even saw a deer.


But we had come here to see some marine wildlife. We stood there quite a while and another couple was lamenting that there was “nothing to see”. I had not given up on it yet. Evan went back to the truck to grab binoculars because he and I thought we heard some sea lions. When he got back, it didn’t take him long to find what we were looking for. This video is one of my favorites, because I think it is hilarious. David is doing the camera work and can’t really see the little screen because of the glare. He zooms in on the sea lions, but thinks he’s just looking at rocks, until Evan explains what we see in the binoculars! Lots of excited chatter in English and German(?) in this one!

California sea lions

We left Point Reyes and took US Highway 1 south toward San Francisco. The road hugged the coast, high above the shoreline, and instead of building bridges each time a river dumped into the sea and cut back into the cliffs, the engineers of this road just made the road go back into the cut. This road is as far from “as the crow flies” as a road can possibly be, curving left, then right around hairpin turns on the edge of the continent. The views were magnificent, but we didn’t stop often to capture pictures. I tried to take a few from the passenger seat, but most of these are marred by a terribly blurry foreground. Anyway, we ended up with a few good shots.

Lighthouse along US 1

Many places along US 1 made us think of the Amalfi Coast in Italy, only foggier.

As we arrived in San Francisco, we were fairly surprised that we went from forested rural land, then suddenly into the suburbs. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but only saw part of it, as it was shrouded in thick fog.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog

As he was driving, David kept messing with his phone and the mapping software he uses. I thought this was weird, but he didn’t seem to be having trouble with the driving. He kept making turns through the city that I thought couldn’t be the most direct route to follow US 1 further south. When he turned into an urban neighborhood and into the parking lot of a machine shop, I started asking him what was going on, until I saw it… A taco truck! Not just any taco truck, it turns out, but the second best rated one in San Francisco! The sneaky man had been researching our lunch options on Urban Spoon at every stop light. We hopped out, went to find an ATM to get cash, and went back to order. Evan had lengua, Kieran had carne asada, David had al pastor, and I got the veggie one. While we waited, Kieran and I went to the park across the street and he played on the playground. English was the second most common language spoken here, but he fit right in with the other kids.

We enjoyed driving up the crazy steep hills, and admiring the architecture while eating some fantastic Mexican food. San Francisco seemed like a very culturally rich city, and I definitely want to come back and spend some more time there.

Obligatory steep road photo

But we were just passing through. It was not long before we were back on US 1 and hugging the coast again headed to our destination for the next three days: Monterey Bay, where we would leave the geology discussion at the door and talk about animals and environmental issues instead. It was about time for a break from looking at rocks.

Sunset near Monterey Bay


Stop 9: Yosemite, Part 3

Updated 9/18/2014. I just realized that I had linked to the part 1 video and then the part 1 again.  Oops! The link is updated now and it should make a lot more sense!

Oh my, a three-part post about just one place?! Yes, Yosemite is a huge park with lots to see, and in our three days there, I feel like we only scratched the surface. At least we saw enough to know that there is much to do there, and we need to return.

On the morning of June 24th, we woke early, broke camp in Tuolumne Meadows and headed West and South toward Yosemite Valley. The drive was filled with ooohs and aaahs. We drove past El Capitan, then Half Dome. Yosemite Falls was flowing beautifully.

Yosemite falls

Having not been in Yosemite Valley before, I was a little surprised how many people (and cars!) were packed into the relatively narrow valley. The place bustled almost like a city. Between the valley walls were packed two roads (one Eastbound, one Westbound), some bike paths (a great way to relieve some of the road congestion), campgrounds (for those who book nearly a year in advance), lots of buses, the Merced River, Visitor Centers, in some areas a wide meadow, and lots of people. We knew Yosemite was a very popular summer destination, but driving and parking were a bit more complicated than I had planned. Still, the place seemed to run smoothly and we got to the Visitor Center almost on time. We had been given permission to park near the Visitor Center in an area designated for employees, which was nice. When we arrived we gathered our gear and headed right past the mule deer munching grass on the lawn of a chapel toward our meeting place.

Ranger Erik Westerlund was there to meet us. He said that he thought he’d walk us through his usual geology talk which he regularly presents to groups of visitors. We didn’t catch the beginning of the talk on video, so it starts off a little bit into the discussion. Ranger Erik is a biologist and always thought geology was boring, until two events changed his mind. I’ll let him tell the story. I will say it’s interesting to get two biologists together to talk about geology. He and I both kept interrupting the geologic story with “hey look, a Steller’s Jay!” and “is that milkweed?” and “how is the health of your monarch butterfly population?” I edited most of that out, but I might put together another video at the end with all the extraneous plant and animal talk. There are some really interesting stories in there! And besides, geology is Boring. Right?

Hey look, a Steller's Jay! (photo by Evan Kern)

And this is one of my favorite pics from the trip:

Showy milkweed and a bee (photo by Evan Kern)

I split the videos up in two so that they weren’t so hard to upload. Here is the first video. In this video, Ranger Erik explains how subduction of the Pacific oceanic plate under the North American plate along the coast of California caused the Sierra Nevada range to be uplifted. The Merced River cut the V-shaped Yosemite Valley. Then, much later, glaciers carved the valley. Since then, it has filled in with sediment to a very great thickness!

Before Erik explains why he finds geology interesting now, although he thought it was boring before, I think I should explain a few things.

Firstly, Erik talks about endemic species and endemism. I doubt my new students will know those words yet. Endemic species are species that only live in a certain area. We discussed the fact that California has a high degree of endemism, which means that there are many species that only live in California.

Secondly, I think a refresher on evolution is probably a good idea now. Erik finds geology interesting because in California, as in many places, geology has been a direct driver of evolution. There are several things people misunderstand about evolution, so let’s clear those up. First of all, individuals do not evolve; populations evolve. Secondly,evolution is simply a change in how common each genetic trait is in a population over time.For speciation (one population splitting into two species) to happen, there are certain criteria that must be met. Here is how a new species is formed: 1) The population must have some genetic diversity within it. If all the individuals within the population were the same, the population could not evolve. 2) Some members of the population have to be separated from other members for a long period of time (this is where the geology comes in). 3) In one of the two populations’ ecosystems (or in both), there has to be some environmental difference from the original populations’ ecosystem. It could be a climatic difference, it could be a different predator, or it could be a difference in vegetation. It could also be a social or behavioral difference. 4) In this new environment, some members of the population may have genetic differences that result in them being more successful at competing for resources (we call this “better adapted”) than other members. 5) As a result of this difference, the more successful ones will either have more offspring, or have more that survive. 6) The offspring will have the more successful traits passed on to them, so the more successful genes become more common within the population in the next generation. 7) Eventually, one population becomes so different from the other that they no longer can interbreed. They are now two different species.

So now, see if nunataks make sense as drivers of the evolution of the Lyell salamander!  (<– This is the link I messed up before.) I find it so interesting that California is a biodiversity hotspot, in part due to glaciers! Indiana had glaciers, too. Anyone want to guess why Indiana doesn’t have a high degree of endemism?


Black-headed Grosbeak (photo by Evan Kern)

Upon finishing the geology talk, we asked Erik for a recommendation on a trail. He suggested a hike up to Vernal Falls. We also got on the subject of food and he suggested Ramone’s Taco Truck. That is the beginning of another story that I will tell in the next post.

Bear trap

On the way to Vernal Falls, we saw some interesting things, including this bear trap in the campgrounds. I wondered how often it became a curious kid trap! Shortly after passing the bear trap, this little thing walked right past us along the sidewalk:

Young mule deer

At the trailhead, we enjoyed the view of the river:

The Merced River, below Vernal Falls

The trail to the falls is paved, popular, and a fairly steep up, up, up. There were lots of squirrels who were looking for some easy lunches in the form of handouts from hikers. They didn’t mind being petted at all. We didn’t pet or feed them for a couple of reasons… one because it is not good for them to become dependent on summer handouts, then have difficulty finding food for the winter, also because the little guys can carry fleas and diseases. Lots of other people enjoyed playing with them, though. I just enjoyed the fact that they seemed happy to model for my camera.

Not shy

Along the trail, there were a few places to stop and take some family portraits. One of my favorite things that happens along populated trails is the little interactions with other hikers. We offered to take a picture for a Japanese couple and their two little kids and they took a picture for us. This is one of the few “all four of us” pictures we got on the trip:

All four, near Vernal Falls

It wasn’t long before we were at the halfway point. We were tired and had a bit of a drive to Merced, CA that afternoon, so we decided not to go to the top. Here is the view of the falls from the bridge at the halfway point:

Vernal Falls

Once back in the valley, we hopped in the truck and headed off toward Merced, with visions of delicious taco truck burritos dancing in our heads.

Stop 9: Yosemite, part 2

On June 22nd, we got up and checked out a few places along the Tioga Road. After seeing giant sequoias in Tuolumne Grove, we went to find a couple of Earthcaches. If you’re not familiar with geocaching, check out this video. Geocaching involves finding hidden containers using a GPS, then signing the logbook inside and logging your find on the website. There is a special type of geocache designed to teach people about geology. These are called Earthcaches. The first was at Pothole Dome. Ranger Erik is going to explain the geology of Yosemite in the next video, but a short explanation would be useful here. The main rock you see in Yosemite is granite. Granite is an intrusive igneous rock, so it was pushed up under the overlying rock. The overlying rock has been eroded away since. After that, Yosemite had many glaciers which further sculpted the rock.The Pothole Dome Earthcache would teach us about how glaciers leave their mark on granite.

Getting there

To get to Pothole Dome, we followed the trail along the edge of Tuolumne Meadow.

Stay on the trail!

When we got to the bottom of the dome, we realized we needed to climb up. Luckily the granite is great to climb, and parts of the dome aren’t steep. We had a nice little walk up.

Walking up Pothole Dome

Partway up I stopped to snap some pictures of the incredible view:

The Meadow from the Dome

We finally stopped at the location of the cache. We were asked to find evidence of glaciers. I’m not going to give away the answers to the cache, but I’ll tell you what we learned. First, we learned to find “glacial polish”. Just as it sounds, glacial polish is parts of rock that have been polished by a glacier sliding over the top of the rock. I took a few pictures of this phenomenon, but this one is my favorite:

Glacial Polish

Within the polish, it is possible to see striations where rocks were embedded in the glacier and scraped into the granite. This shows which direction the glacier was moving!

We also looked at “glacial erratics”, which are large rocks that were carried by the glacier from a different area, then dropped as the glacier melted and receded. You can tell these boulders (below) do not have the same composition as Pothole Dome by comparing their colors to those shown above.


The boys thought the erratics were good for climbing, not just for educating us about where the glaciers came from.

Erratics are fun

We also noticed that you could even see that the glaciers were up pretty high (but not all the way up) on the mountains.

Can you tell where the glaciers stopped?

We also noticed lines of different material in the dome. Ranger Erik later explained that this is called a dike. It happened when the granite cooled and cracked, then another mineral with a lower freezing point oozed into the cracks and filled them.

A dike

We noticed in some places that plants found the dikes useful. The rock that filled this crack must have been softer than the surrounding rock. This is why I love earthcaches… I just heard from the cacher who owns this one. He is a geologist, and suggested that I was mistaken here. His explanation for the trees growing here is a joint, not a dike. Dikes (including the one we saw above) are generally made of harder minerals than the surrounding rock and erode more slowly, so they tend to stick up from the rock. Obviously, the one below is a low spot. It makes more sense that this is a joint that has been filled in with loose sediment, making enough of a soil for the trees to be able to exploit this spot! (For the record, I’m leaving my previous comments because I think the learning process is interesting here. I’m enjoying the willingness of so many people to help me get a better understanding of all this!)

Trees growing in a joint.

After finding the answers to our cache questions, we headed back down. Evan and Kieran jumped or climbed on just about every erratic they encountered and I took pictures of rocks and flowers. Here is a video David took from the top of Pothole Dome.

These flowers grew along roadsides and on the dome.

We decided to go back to camp for a little while to catch our breath, then drove out to find another earthcache near sunset. This was another one that teaches about glacial geology… potholes this time. We had seen some potholes on Pothole Dome, but they weren’t as prominent as the ones we saw near the Tuolumne River.

Tuolumne River

Potholes are formed when a rock falls into a small depression where water is washing over it. The rock gets pushed around in the depression, and scrapes rock out of the walls. Here is the best example of a pothole we saw:

A pothole

After finding the cache, we stopped along the river in another place and found even more potholes!

More potholes!

We loved being near the river and got lots of great pictures as the sun was setting. Here is a video David took of the river.

Tuolumne River

I love pictures of trails. They always make me want to get out there and have a new adventure.

The trail beckons

After our lovely little walk by the river, we went back to camp and enjoyed a cool evening around the fire. We had to be up early the next morning to meet with a ranger in Yosemite Valley, and it was an hour drive away. Between that and having to pack up the campsite in the morning, you would think we would have gone to bed early. But the stars were so beautiful and the fire was so warm, we stayed up longer than we should have. We had no intention of missing any of the beauty of Yosemite that night.

Stop 9: Yosemite

Before we left the Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest, we asked Ranger Dave about the road that went mostly straight west and back toward Bishop. We had seen the road on a map the night before, but the rangers at the station in Bishop had suggested we might have trouble with it due to the size of our truck. They had nearly talked David out of trying this 4-wheel-drive-high-clearance-vehicle-only gravel road, but he wanted a second opinion. David operates heavy equipment for a living and is fairly comfortable with driving on tricky roads. Ranger Dave told him that the road was built for the power company to bring their trucks up to fix the power lines that run through this area. He said that they drive big bucket trucks up and down the road all the time, and he had driven it often himself. He said it was a fun drive with lots of great views. Well, that settled it. We were going to go “check it out” and maybe turn around if it looked too bad. When we got to the top of the steep part, David said he thought it looked fine, so down we went! Here is a GoPro video we made of the drive. It doesn’t look nearly as terrifying as it was!

Silver Canyon Road

We saw lots of uplifted rock strata, some interesting plants and two four-wheelers that came out of nowhere!

Prickly pear cactus in bloom


We got back to Bishop safely and turned north to head to Yosemite. It turns out we missed some interesting geology at Mono Lake and the Devil’s Postpile along the way, so anyone thinking about doing a similar trip, check those two out! We’ll hit them next time!

Mono Lake. We didn't stop, but should have.

When we got into Yosemite, we set up camp, made sure our bear locker would hold all the food we brought, then relaxed around the campfire and made dinner.

A visitor to our campsite (Steller's Jay)

I took a picture of what we had accumulated at the half-way point in the trip.

The half-way point of our trip

And as the sun went down, the boys got creative. We didn’t get any fantastic long-exposure photos of the night sky like I had hoped we would… but we did get this. Evan made the sun; Kieran made the waves.

Other uses for head lamps

The next day we went for a couple of hikes along the Tioga Road. This road is not open year-round, due to snow. I happened to fall into a campsite here because I follow all the national parks we were scheduled to visit (and all the ones I’ve been to before… they post awesome pictures) on Facebook and Twitter. About two weeks before we left Indiana, they posted that Tuolumne Meadows campground was open for the summer. I had booked a campsite a lot farther south and farther from Yosemite Valley, so I quickly scrambled to switch the sites. I’m glad we did. The Tioga Road area is at pretty high elevation and has beautiful scenery! It was different from the Yosemite Valley area, so we really enjoyed the diversity of ecosystems. Our first stop along the road was Tuolumne Grove, one of several giant sequoia groves in the park. We thought, since we had just seen some of the oldest trees on Earth, maybe we needed to check out some of the tallest ones! I had always wanted to see the sequoias and finally had the chance. As usual at places like this, it is difficult to convey the scale of this place.

A giant

Just how big is this one?

There was much eye-rolling when I requested the picture above. But when we got to walk through a tree stump, and then crawl through a fallen tree, Kieran loved that!

That's right, I'm gonna walk through!

And then…

Hey Mom, we're going in!

The giant sequoias were every bit as impressive as I had hoped they’d be, and the interpretive signs around the grove were really well done. We learned that this grove was near last summer’s forest fire. In order to keep the fire from spreading to them, the rangers intentionally started a small fire ahead of the wildfire to clear out the underbrush, leaving less fuel for the wildfire.




This post is getting too long, so I’ll write about Pothole Dome and our Ranger interview in part 2 (and maybe 3). Yosemite was the first place we stayed more than a day, so I guess I shouldn’t expect to be able to summarize our visit in one post!

Stop 8: Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest

On June 21st we woke up at our hotel in Bishop, California, well-rested and ready to head out for an interview. This one would be a little different. This time we were going someplace that was not chosen due to its geology, but due to the unusual plants that live there. Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest is part of the Inyo National Forest. It contains some of the oldest trees alive, and has a dendrochronology record that goes back almost 10,000 years. This time, we were not going back millions of years, but thousands of years.


We drove south, then east, then north out of Bishop to get there. It was a long, twisty, up and down road with great views. When we arrived at the beautiful, brand-new Visitors Center, we met Dave Hardin. Dave is a retired middle school science teacher from Bishop, who now works as a Ranger at Ancient Bristlecone Pines. In talking to all these park rangers, I’ve become rather jealous of their jobs, but Dave’s job in retirement gave me a great idea. If you need to find me after I’ve retired from teaching, start looking at national parks out west!


Dave started off by introducing us to a few Bristlecone Pine trees. He explained the life history of the trees, and why they live in this area. It turns out this stop was about geology afterall! The bristlecones grow very slowly, and I mean VERY slowly! He showed us a couple of trees that were under a foot tall. I would have guessed they were 1-2 years old. They were 15 or more years old! The problem with growing very slowly is that almost everything is taller than you for a long time. These trees can’t even compete with the sagebrush that grows only to about 18 inches tall. So, if you can’t compete, you better be able to live where no one else can! That’s exactly what bristlecones do. They grow in the dolomitic rock, which is basic, or alkaline. They don’t particularly love basic soil, but the sages can’t grow there. In fact, almost no plants can grow there, so they avoid competition. They also grow pretty far apart from each other for the same reason. Being too close together leads to competition.

Bristlecones on the left, sagebrush on the right

In fact, when a bristlecone finds a good place to grow, it will grow there, very slowly for thousands of years, using up the mineral resources in the soil around it. Eventually, it will exhaust the minerals in the soil its roots can reach, and it will start to die back. The oldest bristlecone pines have tall branches that have died off and lost their bark. Many have only a small section of green needles left. But they still produce cones in their old age. Bristlecones even reproduce slowly. They have a two year reproduction cycle and don’t reach reproductive maturity until their 30s. As Dave said, if you want to live a long time like the bristlecones, you should rest often, and live slowly. Somehow I don’t think I’ll live to see 4000 years, even if I take lots of naps!

Here is the video of Dave explaining everything about the Bristlecones, and then part of our hike.

When we left the Visitors Center, we took a short trail into the Path of the Ancients. The trail wound around among the trees and there were lots of squirrels and wildflowers to see. The trees individual ages are not indicated in any way, because in the past people have broken off parts of the trees as souvenirs when they knew which tree was the oldest. Now people are less likely to take parts, since they don’t know which tree is oldest. Still, we knew what to look for and could identify the very old trees, as opposed to the several hundred year-old youngsters. I have been around rocks and fossils the last few weeks with ages in the millions of years old, but I felt a kinship with these 4000 year-old trees. They are alive. It was awe-inspiring to think about what human history they had been witness to. They were standing here before the Egyptians built the pyramids, when the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean, and while the Mayans were contemplating how to measure time.

This tree is in the three to four thousand year old range!

The oldest trees may be approaching the ends of their lives because they have used up all of their resources, but the younger trees, maybe 1000 years old, are still growing strong. While I was thinking about the history of the trees, I began to think about their future. As the climate warms, they will not survive at lower elevation. They will not be able to compete with the piñon pines that currently cannot live at such high, cool elevations, but will soon be able to. It is sad to think that the next generation will live at higher elevation, and the one after that at higher elevation still. The mountains only go up so far. If the climate warms too much (and too quickly), the population of these ancient organisms may not survive. The bristlecones have made their stand by growing and changing very slowly. In a quickly changing climate, the population may not be able to adapt. I suppose it is possible that they will find a way; nature often does, but it is not just the polar bears whose extinction I worry about. Maybe the bristlecones don’t make such a good poster child for environmental awareness, but you can’t deny the wisdom of the ancients. I hope we can learn from them and find a way to slow down our pace so our society can reach an old age along with our elders, the bristlecone pines.

An ancient

Stop 7: Death Valley

On June 19th we woke up in our 28 degree teepee and drove to Zion National Park for an interview and a hike. It was a beautiful day, but we hadn’t slept well the night before. We decided after the hike, that we should go ahead and get to our next destination, Las Vegas. We drove the scenic route, suggested by Dave Sharrow (see Stop 6), past a one million year-old lava flow and along Lake Mead.

Lake Mead is looking low!

We stopped by the Hoover Dam and walked out to see it. When we arrived in Vegas, we checked in to the Cancun Resort and went right to the swimming pool to try out the slides, which closed at 6pm. When the slides closed, we went up and made dinner in our room and then went for a drive to check out the Strip. Maybe we’re not normal Vegas visitors. We didn’t have any interest in gambling or seeing shows, but we did get a kick out of the lights and people-watching on the drive! We also really enjoyed the luxury of the hotel (for a reasonable price, no less).

After a very restful night, we got up and went to breakfast at Hash House A Go Go. It specializes in “twisted farm food” and has a water tower in the dining room with “Milford, IN” painted on it. The food was great and the portions were enormous, but it wasn’t anything people from Milford would consider a typical breakfast. David and Evan had a sage fried chicken benedict that was about eight inches tall and had a huge sprig of rosemary sticking out of it. I had a blueberry pancake that was about 18 inches across. Anyway, after a couple of Nevada geocaches, we headed back on the road. Death Valley National Park, the largest National Park in the contiguous United States, was our next destination. We fueled up with both gas and water and headed in.

Death Valley is a basin formed between the Amargosa and Panamint mountain ranges. Most of Nevada and a good portion of Utah displays the Basin-and-Range topography that shows up in all geology textbooks, and this place is a great example. This area is composed of mountain ranges that all run north-south. They were formed when the North American continent was stretching. As the crust stretched east-west, it was divided up into long rectangular blocks with faults that ran north-south. Since the blocks of crust were sitting on magma, they could move and ended up tilting over each other. The corners at the top formed the mountain ranges. The deep valleys at the bottom later filled in with sediment from the runoff of the mountains.

Death Valley National Park

We stopped first to check in at Stovepipe Wells, a cute little motel and campground. It was definitely too hot to sit around camp, so we went to the Visitors Center and checked the official temperature: 118 degrees F! We walked through the exhibits and learned a great deal about who lived here long before the park existed: the native people, the European miners looking for gold, silver, and minerals (Borax, for example), the Chinese people who came to work in the mines, and the plants and animals who have always been at home in the hottest, lowest, driest place on Earth.

It's hot in Death Valley.

We decided to spend our daylight hours in the truck, with the A/C on. We found a couple of places we could drive and see some great views. One was called Artists’ Palette. It was a gravel road (the first of several that would make David wish he lived out West), and it winded in and out of the alluvial fans that held the sediment washed out from the Amargosa mountain range. Every color of rock was here: chocolate brown, mint green, salmon, mustard yellow, black, blue, white, sparkly and dull. We stopped and hiked up for a better view, but didn’t dare get too far from the truck.

Artists' Palette

Next, we drove to Zabriskie Point. It was another short, uphill hike to the viewpoint, but it was worth it. We could see for miles, and the sun was starting to set. In Death Valley, that means the weather is approaching “comfortable”. We took some pictures and then headed back to camp to get set up.

From Zabriskie Point

We had decided to sleep in the truck, since we had our ice chest air conditioner and we could turn on the truck’s A/C, if needed. We wanted to camp here because we knew Death Valley was an International Dark Sky Park. Not many places have this designation, and we wanted to make the best of it. After getting things arranged for sleeping, we grabbed our swim suits, and the boys and I headed to the pool. We thought the water might be really warm, but it was cool and refreshing. Hard to imagine, considering the normal daytime temperatures! I figure they probably lose enough due to evaporation, that they have to add water often. We swam until the sunset became a beautiful red. Then I got the boys out of the pool and walked back to camp to snap some pictures. I couldn’t help myself.

Sunset over Stovepipe Wells


Back at the pool, we swam until it was dark, and then went into the changing rooms to get our pajamas on. I came out of the changing room and there was no one in the pool, even though it was open a few more hours. I noticed an odd sound right away, and realized that bats were drinking from the pool. Each time they hit the surface, you could hear it! They were so thirsty; they hardly noticed me and got very close to me at times. When the boys came out, they got to see a few bats. Then a couple of women came to swim and I thought the bats would leave. They didn’t. They kept drinking at whichever end of the pool was available, keeping their distance from the women who never seemed to notice them.

Back at camp, we finished our left-overs from breakfast and noticed a nice cool breeze was setting in. We decided to do a little star-gazing. I think we saw 6 meteors that night, the Milky Way, Mars, and lots and lots of stars! I took a bunch of long exposure shots, but never really got any pictures that captured what we were seeing. Still, I’ll never forget sitting at the end of the road, in the middle of the desert, in complete silence, punctuated by the occasional “ooh, I saw one over there!” with my boys.

I did not have a ranger interview scheduled at Death Valley, so when we woke up, we headed out before the sun started baking us in the truck/oven. On our way out, we decided to take a little excursion: a 4×4-high-clearance-vehicle-only dirt road. We went up into the mountains and past quite a few old, abandoned mines. The area was obviously used often by people with off-road vehicles, as there were trails all over the place. We didn’t think anything about it until we had driven about an hour, were completely out of cell phone range, didn’t have this road on our GPS, and the road forked with no indication of which way we should go. I whipped out the good, old-fashioned compass I had brought for times like this, and decided the right fork was the one we wanted. David was not so sure, and we were both getting concerned about what a wrong turn out here could mean. It did not increase my confidence that we were on the road to civilization when three wild donkeys ran across the road in front of us.

The locals, near Darwin, CA

We decided to go a little further, but were discussing how we might mark the forks in the road if we had to try and go back. We had enough food and water, and a tarp for shade if we needed to stay out in the desert for a few days, but that was certainly not part of the original plan! A few minutes later, we saw a trailer and a few old cars. They appeared to be inhabited, so at least we might have found a local who would know the area. Turns out the owners of the trailer lived on the outskirts of Darwin, California. One more turn of a corner and we were in town. I think people live there, but the Post Office is boarded up and we didn’t see anyone.

Post Office, Darwin, CA

It was a sad looking little town and not at all like I would have pictured any place in California to be, but it was on my map so we were quite happy to be there! Soon we were back on the main highway and headed toward the Sierra Nevada range, saying an early morning “Goodbye Death Valley”.

We drove through another hot, dry, low valley and then toward Bishop, CA. We had reservations there, but arrived a few hours before check-in. We hadn’t slept well in the truck the night before (surprise, surprise), so we tried to get our room early. It wasn’t ready, but the hotel manager gave us lots of information about the area and gave us access to the laundry facilities and pool early. Before we even got to our room, we had two loads of laundry done and the boys had gone swimming for a couple of hours. We thought about going up into the Inyo National Forest that evening, but talked to a ranger at the station in Bishop and decided against the idea when we realized it was an hour away, no matter which roads we took. David had noticed a road on the map that looked intriguing: all switchbacks and elevation changes. He asked the ranger about it, and his response was that even though it was the “shortcut”, it wouldn’t get us there faster. He said he’d recommend taking the road on the way down from the forest, not up, for our first time driving it. He also said that it might be tricky for our long wheel-base Expedition.  We decided to relax at the hotel for the evening and go up as planned (using the boring route) in the morning. We spent the night uploading pictures, blogging, charging devices, and recharging ourselves.

Here are a couple of video clips David took from Zabriskie Point.

Edited to add: I am saddened to learn that someone died while hiking near Zabriskie Point shortly after we were there. Harry Potter fans might be familiar with David Legeno. He was apparently hiking alone here and probably had heat stroke. He was found a few days later by some other hikers. This is not a place to go alone and unprepared.

Stop 6: Zion

When we left Capitol Reef, we drove to Bryce Canyon. I feel like we short-changed this park, because we only spent about two hours there. But I must say, two hours at Bryce allows you to see quite a bit. We drove through and stopped at a few overlooks. Bryce has the youngest rocks in the Grand Staircase. These limestone rocks weathered in much the same way as Arches’ rocks did. After years of ice wedging and water erosion, the sandstone has been carved into many tall fins and hoodoos (tall, thin towers that look like people or spirits rising from the ground).

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce also has an impressive amount of biodiversity, including species typical of the high desert, bristlecone pines, pronghorns (is there anything cuter than a prancing pair of pronghorns? No, there is not), and at least one friendly raven.

Young pronghorn antelope prancing in the meadow

A raven surveys his domain

Once we had finished up at Bryce, we were all exhausted from what we had seen and all the hiking we had done! We drove to our campsite just outside the park. We had reserved our spot very early in the year, so we got the best site! We had a teepee that was located on a little peninsula of land near a lake, all by itself. It was such a nice area that people hiked back to the lake to check it out. One German couple even stopped to congratulate us on our “house” and asked if we could build a fire inside it like the Native Americans used to do. Of course, we built our fire outside. We had an early departure planned for the morning, so we threw our stuff in the teepee and made dinner (brats and instant mashed potatoes over the campfire). As night fell, we watched the stars come out and saw a meteor, the Milky Way, and several satellites. It’s amazing the difference light pollution makes! You definitely don’t see things like this in Indianapolis! Evan insisted on getting the telescope out, so we did. But Kieran went to bed early. Apparently the novelty of sleeping in a teepee combined with the exhaustion from the day’s activities were too much for him. When it was time for the rest of us to retire, we crawled into our sleeping bags. Evan and Kieran have nice 20 degree mummy bags and they slept fine. David and I had 40 degree, old sleeping bags. The forecast for the night was 38 degrees for the low. When David and I woke up with the first rays of morning sun, we were shivering! We started packing up the site and noticed that a pillow we had left out to dry (apparently our car-top carrier is water-resistant, not water-proof) had frozen to the table! Turns out it had dropped to 26 degrees that night. We got the boys up and headed out to find coffee and get to Zion National Park.

Our house on the lake near Bryce

When we got to Zion on 6/19/14, we stopped at a few pullouts to take pictures, but pretty soon we were in the valley ready for our interview. We met Dave Sharrow at the Human History Museum and then drove to a bridge that crossed the Virgin River. Dave had been really helpful when I was in the planning phase of this trip, suggesting books to read and asking questions that helped me think about the logistics of the interviews. He thought this location would make for a nice video, and he was right! What a beautiful place! Dave is a hydrologist, but works to manage all the natural resources of the park, not just the water resources.

Stream in Zion National Park

The geologic story of Zion National Park is a story of sand dunes. The park is mostly composed of Navajo Sandstone which forms the highest sandstone cliffs in the world (2,000 feet high)! These cliffs have been carved out of a very thick layer of rock formed in the Jurassic period when Utah was covered with the largest sand dune desert ever known to have existed on Earth. Because these dunes were filled with grains of sand that had been smoothed and rounded as they were blown across the desert, these rocks have small gaps between the grains that can hold water. As a result, the former desert dunes now contain a great deal of water which seeps out as springs. I was quite surprised to learn that the Virgin River we were standing over was not fed by runoff or snowmelt, but by springs!

Zion Canyon Sandstone Cliffs

All of this water leaking out of the rock is responsible for the erosion that has carved Zion Canyon. Dave explained that the rate of erosion here is incredibly fast. Each 1000 years, 1.3 feet of depth is eroded from the canyon. This may seem slow, but the Mississippi River in contrast, only erodes at a rate of 0.11 feet per year!  Almost all of this erosion takes place during the major flash flood events that happen several times a year.

After our interview, Dave and I had a conversation that any teacher might find interesting. I asked what things a visitor might miss when they come to Zion. He said that what a visitor takes away from the experience depends very much on what they knew when they arrived. Later on I got to thinking that we teachers often complain that we have diverse classes which can be a challenge. For example, my students range from highly motivated students who have taken AP science and math courses and gotten As in them, to highly motivated students with limited English proficiency, to unmotivated students who hate science and just want to graduate, to students with a variety of learning disabilities, and everything in between. But at a national park, the expectation is to educate all of those people, plus very young children, much older adults, all without knowing their past education. Of course the point of education should always be to meet the learner where they are and increase their knowledge from that point. Unfortunately, this is the problem with reliance on standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness. Students don’t start off with standardized knowledge, attitudes, and skills; so an end-of-year assessment does not necessarily measure student growth. True student growth is multifaceted and very difficult to measure. But I digress. At any rate, this conversation really made me appreciate the efforts of the National Park Service to educate visitors no matter what prior knowledge they possess.

Before we left him, we asked Dave for a few suggestions for trails to hike. We finally chose to hike up the canyon along the Canyon Overlook trail. We saw lots of lizards and hundreds of tadpoles! It was odd but nice to be in a desert, and to hear and see so much flowing water! I really enjoyed seeing the tracks left in the sand by all the passing animals. It reminds me of the “nature of science” activity many teachers do with pictures of animal prints and questions about what you can infer from what you see. I will leave it to the reader to interpret the interactions between the animals that made these tracks.

Tracks made by someone at Zion

I’m sure this guy had something to do with some of it!

Hey lizard, you have something on your head.

We also found this kind:

More tracks at Zion...Awwwww!

We saw a huge amount of biodiversity here, probably due to the park being on the edge of the Colorado plateau and having both desert climate and lots of water.

Kieran checking out the tadpoles

We are currently having some technical difficulties with the videos. I’m going to post this now, and hope the video problem gets fixed soon. I’ll update the blog when that’s done!  The problem has been resolved, mostly, I think. Thank you, David!! Here is the link to the video of my interview with Dave Sharrow.

Next up: Las Vegas and then Death Valley.