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 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.

Testing our equipment on the road

Before I received the Lilly grant, we had a family vacation planned for Spring Break 2014.  Our plan was to head to St. Louis to visit the City Museum, then to find geocaches (see below) in Arkansas and Texas to add to our list of states in which we’ve found caches.  Then we were going to spend a few days in and around New Orleans, LA, then Mobile, AL.  At the end of the trip, we planned to head to Gatlinburg, TN for a night before heading home.  We already had reservations for all the hotels and the rental home in Algiers Point, LA and most were paid for.  So when we got the news about the grant, we made a slight adjustment to the itinerary (dropped TX, since we’ll get caches there this summer), but decided to continue pretty much as planned.  We decided this would be a good chance to see how a really big trip with lots of camera equipment would work out.  Below are some links to things we’ve seen on this “little” trip.

First, if you aren’t familiar with geocaching, you should check out the short video at this link:

Also, if you are interested in the City Museum, here is our oldest son, Evan in the outdoor section of it.  This was taken with our new GoPro.  The City Museum is an amazing place that is really hard to explain.  If you can imagine what Dr. Seuss would do if he were a welder and had access to tons of discarded structural materials, you might get a sense of what this place is.  It is the most creative, imaginative place on earth!  The outdoor area is not my favorite part, but we learned a few hard lessons in my favorite part.  First of all, time lapse is not good in dark places.  Second, video is better than time lapse with a little guy Kieran, age 6) as the camera man.  Third, with time lapse, there’s a lot of editing required to throw out the pictures that are blurry or looking the wrong way.  Fourth, these things take forever to upload!  Bottom line, I have tons of pictures that are going to require some time to get through.  I’ll post more of them one day.  Here’s one timelapse:  My favorite part of the museum is indoors and is just a variety of places to climb, slither, crawl, and slide.  The City Museum’s motto should be something like this: May I climb through this?  YES.  Can I climb through this? MAYBE.  Should I climb through this?  MAYBE NOT.  There are no rules at the City Museum.  You have free reign to climb in, on, through just about everything.  Some spaces are too small for normal-sized adults, but most of them can be accessed by most people willing to try it out.  I would advise anyone to go there, wear knee pads and sturdy shoes, and have fun.  Don’t sit on the benches with the boring parents.  Get in there and have fun with the kids!

I’ll post about our experiences in NOLA and Mobile soon.  It has been amazing and we have learned much about using our cameras well.  Besides the new GoPro, we bought a regular video camera, (a Sony HDR-PJ540) and brought along our older cameras: an Olympus E-Volt 300 DSLR and a Sony Cybershot DSC-WX9.  Travel is always an educational experience for us, so throwing the video equipment into the mix has just added to the adventure.