Stop 13: Joshua Tree

Updated 1/18/2016 to add this video: Joshua Tree Interview and Hike

In late June of 2014, on our big Lilly Grant journey out west, we left the Salton Sea, a place we thought we’d hate but kind of loved, for Joshua Tree National Park. For some reason, I thought I would be totally in love with the place based on my research. The last few days had showered us with surprises, though, so I began to fear I might not fall for Joshua Tree after all. As we drove through the desert, we got another quick glimpse of Palm Springs, then Yucca Valley, the town of Joshua Tree, then the city of Twentynine Palms, before we turned off the main road and into the National Park. We were kind of surprised at how big of a population this section of desert seemed to support. Again, this trip challenged my preconceived notions.

When we arrived, we went straight to the Visitors Center for my interview. In retrospect, it might be better to spend a day exploring and learning about a park before conducting an interview. I feel like I would have more interesting questions if I did that. I’ll keep it in mind the next time someone hands me $10,000 and tells me to go learn stuff.

Cactus garden outside the Visitors Center

The woman who greeted us was not Carey Goldstein, the Ranger we had scheduled to meet with, but she went to get him for us. Then she talked to Kieran for a while about the Junior Ranger program, as Carey and I discussed how we’d conduct the interview. I don’t know how we missed out on this as we went through all these National Parks, since they all have a Jr. Ranger program, but we never took the time to try it out. She gave Kieran a book and he spent the next two days using it to explore the park and learn. It was fabulous! We all learned a lot from the program and Kieran really felt proud the next morning when we returned to the Visitors Center, and Ranger Carey swore him in as a Junior Ranger, giving him his brass shield and a book about Joshua Trees.

Cactus garden, again

We decided to conduct the interview out on the patio in the shade, but it was still quite hot there! Ranger Carey gave me a quick history of the geology of Joshua Tree, which isn’t as complex as some parks we’ve visited, but includes some of the oldest rock in the American west! Despite the lack of complexity, I still was momentarily confused about it because I’m used to Indiana’s geology, and am still a novice to the subject in general. Joshua Tree National Park has only two major types of rocks. A mottled, dark-colored rock called Pinto Gneiss, which is very very old (on the order of 1.7 billion years!) and a younger pale pink or yellow rock called monzogranite. The gneiss is on top, which means it should be younger, if these were sedimentary rock. Carey reminded me that the granite was igneous and resulted from magma intruding upward into this very old gneiss and folding it into mountains. Over the last 1.7 billion years, the gneiss has cracked and been eroded to expose the young granite beneath.

Ancient pinto gneiss

Carey also explained that the many fault lines that run through California are responsible for more than just earthquakes. As Rocio had explained at La Brea, the faults squeezed pockets of oil and tar up toward the surface, leading to the demise of many dire wolves and other large animals. Carey described the same process. The faults had pushed and diverted deep aquifers to the surface, resulting in desert oases around the Joshua Tree area.

Younger Monzogranite

When we asked Carey what we should do with our time at Joshua Tree (again… if you ask a ranger about a good hike, you won’t be disappointed), he challenged us a bit. He explained that Joshua Tree is not just about geology or the absolutely fascinating Joshua trees, themselves. It also exists to preserve the human history of the area. He said that since we were there to study geology, we should seek out the human history aspect instead. I hadn’t really thought to do that, but I’m glad we took him up on the challenge. He suggested several places to hikes to check out, but we finally decided on the Barker Dam trail. He also gave us some suggestions about choosing a campsite, which we followed and were quite glad we did. We talked about the wildlife at Joshua Tree and the problem of invasive plants, the history of humans in the area, the current land use around the park, and much more. I took a lot of Carey’s time, and I felt like I could have asked many more questions, but we really wanted to get out there and explore, so we concluded the interview.

We had left LA early in the day, cruised through Palm Springs to the Salton Sea and back, and conducted an interview, but we still had things planned for the day. We needed to make camp, take a hike, and make dinner before we could get some rest. The next day was set to be a long drive, so we needed to leave at a reasonable time, and we wanted to drive the Geology Route as well before we left Joshua Tree! Carey suggested we camp at Hidden Valley campground. It wasn’t where I had planned to stay, because I didn’t consider any place that didn’t have water. Of course, we were carrying plenty of water with us, I just have never camped in a place that didn’t have water (not an issue in Indiana). Actually, I had been very concerned about getting a campsite at this park, because they don’t do reservations. Some Yosemite sites are booked nearly a year in advance, so I was a bit worried about not getting a site. But of course, it wasn’t an issue at all. We got to the campgrounds, put our money ($15 for the night) in an envelope in the box, and picked our own site. Granite rock gets its name because it is made of grains. When you touch this monzogranite, it quickly becomes clear that the name makes sense, and so does the sport that draws so many people to Joshua Tree: rock climbing!

This guy loves to climb!

The site we chose had a huge granite wall that would block the morning sun (see we aren’t rookies on that aspect of camping, just the water thing!), and had a large flat area to put the tent. Anytime the boys weren’t actively helping set up camp, they were climbing in, on, and around the granite boulders. We set up camp quickly, grabbed our water bottles and cameras, and jumped back in the truck to head out for our hike. We didn’t have a long drive before we arrived at the trail head.

The boys at our campsite.

Our Hidden Valley campsite

We hit the trail just before sunset, and took headlamps along, just in case. We didn’t need them, but I must say, this sunset hike was one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever taken. It’s right up there with Colob Canyon at Capitol Reef NP, Devil’s Backbone/Lucifer’s Spine at Pine Hills in Shades State Park, or Trail #3 at Turkey Run State Park (Indiana friends will understand those last two). The trail was a loop and we went left at first. I think I snapped a photo of every Joshua tree for the first 15 minutes we walked. Kieran was busy checking off the plants and animals on the list in his Junior Ranger book. The Joshua “trees” are really relatives of yucca plants, which we have in Indiana (are they native to Indiana… must look this up later). This species of yucca just grows very tall! They are really hard to describe, but I hope the pictures will suffice. I think each Joshua tree is unique in a way that makes them seem more like people than like plants. I can’t really think of any other plant that has such an individualistic style, except maybe the oldest of the bristlecone pines.

One of many Joshua tree photos

Lots of Joshua trees

Seriously, I love these trees!

Tree of Life

I was totally geeking out trying to catch every Joshua tree with the sunset in the background, or sunlight streaming past the leaves when we reached a small cave-like indention in a rock wall. There was an interpretive sign that explained that the symbols drawn on the walls were made by ancient people who lived in the area. It was amazing to have such a connection to people who used this land to supply all their needs so long ago. As I read further, I found that the symbols had been painted over by some early Hollywood filmmakers who used them in a movie, but the original carvings didn’t show up well enough for their liking. This happened before the National Park Service was around to provide protection for the cultural heritage of this area. What a shame, and restoration of an artifact like that is really difficult, if not impossible.

Ancient drawings

We continued from the cave through a low basin in which we saw some lizards and a jackrabbit. Here is some video of our jackrabbit friend.


We checked several species of cactus and a couple of birds off the list in this area as well. The trail began an ascent and there was a French-speaking family coming the opposite direction. As we went up, we noticed some desert bighorn sheep high above us on a ridge. We could only see their outline against the fading red sky. We pointed them out to the French family who told us the sheep had just been at the dam. The family showed us some fantastic pictures they had taken of the sheep up close! We got some good shots of them as well before we went up to the dam itself.

Bighorn sheep

Three, or so sheep

The dam had been built by some people of European descent who used this area to graze their cattle. The cows needed water, so they built a couple of dams to capture the little rainwater that falls on this area. We climbed around the boulders in this area for a while before following the trail through the little slot canyon where we finally realized what scrub oaks were, thanks to Kieran and his Junior Ranger book (they’re the trees with the tiny oak leaves that are all over the place, but we couldn’t seem to recognize them for the longest time)! It’s times like this that I think my degree in biology should have been in wildlife biology instead. I was trained to work in a lab, but that’s never been my job. I wish I knew more about plant identification!

So those are scrub oaks!

We followed the trail up and down over boulders, pretending to be sure-footed sheep, snapping ever richer sunset pictures along the way. When we were back near the trail head, we stopped to try to capture some bats on film. They were flying all over the place, snacking on various flying insects. It seemed like they were teasing us, coming in close, then turning sharply to go another way. We got a few blurs in some pictures, but not much more than that. It still makes a great memory, though I can’t share it with you.

This is where we saw the bats.

Back at camp, we slapped together a quick meal (smoked pork sandwiches and oranges, as usual), cracked a couple of cold drinks, and found a place to watch the sunset finish up. Here again, the rocks and Joshua trees made for some pretty spectacular pictures!

Back at camp

A little sliver of moon shined through the crook of a Joshua tree branch and reflected the light off the earth, making me think of the Rush song Earthshine.

Moon with Earthshine

There were people who had camped far enough away from us that we couldn’t really hear them, but we could see they had climbed up into the boulders and made a fire in a cave. It was surreal to see them moving around the fire up on the cliff with their shadows dancing against the stone.

Fire in the cave

All the while, we sat on one of our big boulders watching the sky. It was a quiet night and there were almost no man-made light sources to be seen. I tried taking some long exposure shots, but they weren’t capturing what I was seeing, so I put the equipment away and just enjoyed the view. David fell asleep on the picnic bench, but the boys and I laid on our backs on our boulder, about ten feet above camp and watched the occasional meteor. I don’t think we talked much that night, but it was a night I won’t soon forget.

Stop 13: Salton Sea

It’s about time I get back to this blogging thing. I’ve had one of the busiest years ever, this year. So I really didn’t put any effort into my blog since the fall. This year, I’ve taught three different types of classes, one of which I hadn’t taught in several years, and one that was entirely new to our school, so I spent a great deal of time writing curriculum for that class. Aside from that, I had two part-time jobs, and our oldest graduated from high school. I wish someone had told me to expect to spend about $1000 on all the odds and ends that come with being a senior… SAT test, college applications, housing application, buying a cap and gown, etc. etc. etc. And more than the money, the time… honors nights, band awards nights, all the “last times he’ll be doing this and that.” I guess I knew all of these things were coming, but I wasn’t really ready for it. It’s definitely been a bittersweet and busy year. BUT I am determined to get all of our experiences from what has come to be known as the BIG TRIP down before the memories fade too much. We’ll see how that goes!

After we left the California coast, we drove a little way inland to Ontario, California. We spent the night at a hotel near the airport. When we got up in the morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed to visit a place I had been curious about for many years. The Salton Sea is not known for its geologic history or its beauty, but I just HAD to see it. I had learned about it because I teach Environmental Science. Living east of the Mississippi, I think of agriculture and irrigation differently than people out west do. In the eastern part of the US, farmers can generally use rivers, reservoirs, or aquifers to water their crops when needed, but they can also count on some rain during the growing season as well. Farmers in California can’t just turn to abundant natural (or man-made in the case of reservoirs) fresh water sources. They have to work a little harder. Diversion of the Colorado River has been the primary source of water for California’s growers for a long time now. It continues to be a concern because the cities at the mouth of the river frequently get no water from upstream. This also means there is also no sediment replenishment, which is a concern at the north end of the Gulf of California (APES students will want to review this later on).

The story of the Salton Sea goes something like this: In the early 1900’s, a water diversion project mistake caused the Colorado to be completely diverted into a large, low, desert Basin, that had previously been filled with water, but had evaporated, leaving behind a layer of salt about fifteen feet deep. By the time the flow was stopped and the Colorado returned to its banks, the basin was filled to a great depth, and it became known as the Salton Sea. It quickly attracted a large population of people who built homes on the seashore and enjoyed the desert sun and beautiful water. People stocked the sea with tilapia and other sport fish. The water allowed for lots of agriculture, so fruit growing became a booming business. But the basin didn’t have great soil, so lots of fertilizer had to be used. And in the early to mid-1900’s, there were few public concerns about pesticide use, so those were used in high concentration as well. The Salton Sea being a basin, had no outlet so all the agricultural runoff from the area ran into it. The hot desert sun evaporated the water, but not the dissolved chemicals (as you will remember from discussions of distillation in chemistry class). There were also no natural tributaries that would bring fresh water into the Sea. Over the years, the fertilizers and pesticide concentrations in the Sea rose to levels that killed off fish and caused algal blooms, which tend to cause dissolved oxygen levels to drop when aerobic bacteria decompose them. Low dissolved oxygen levels also kill fish. (AP Environmental Science students should stop reading and go review “cultural eutrophication” now.) At this point, the Sea began to have a characteristic stench of dead fish. This problem didn’t go away, in fact, the Sea continued to evaporate and the shoreline receded to reveal new beaches, not of sand, but of barnacle shells and fish bones. The property values declined drastically, and the population fled.

When we were leaving Ontario, CA (basically an eastern suburb of LA), and heading toward the Salton Sea, I tried to explain to David and the boys why I wanted to go see this place. I warned them that it would probably smell awful, and might not be too pretty. They grumbled that it seemed like something we could skip, but I insisted we go. We drove through Palm Springs, which reminded me a bit of Las Vegas… lots of glitz and excess in the middle of the desert. Seemed like a big waste of resources to me, but I was intrigued by the MANY MANY MANY windmills and solar panels. At least they are getting some of their energy in a renewable manner. We pretty much blew through town without the opportunity to get to know the city better, so maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.

Near Palm Springs, CA

As we continued south, we began to see plantations of orange trees and palm trees, which I later realized were date palms. The fruiting parts of the tree were wrapped with netting to keep the dates from falling on the ground (or is it to keep critters from eating them??). When we arrived at the Salton Sea, we drove to the sign that cheerfully said “Welcome to Salton City” and turned down the main street.

Welcome to Salton CIty

The community looked like the homes were built in the 50’s or 60’s. They were moderately-sized ranch houses, some well-kept, and others slightly disheveled. But many lots either never had houses built on them, or the homes were torn down. Only about two-thirds of the lots had homes on them, and there didn’t seem to be a pattern to explain which did and which did not. A small K-12 school building appeared to serve the community. We drove to the marina and beach, which appeared to be placed in the wrong spot. It was obvious that the shoreline had been higher in the past, and the marina was far too shallow. There were no boats at the docks. We parked in the middle of the beach (there was no parking lot) and got out. The smell was overwhelming. We walked toward the beach and tried to avoid stepping on the fish skulls.

Hazy view of the Salton Sea

The water was beautiful and had a haze over it that made me think the sunsets there were probably gorgeous. Normally when we go to a beach, we toss off our shoes and run to put our toes in the water. I didn’t even feel the need to tell the boys not to do it here.

Guess which scout camp song this place brings to mind.

At the water line, there were thick mats of bacteria that reminded me of small versions of the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia, which gave scientists clues about the first life on Earth. There were some long-legged shore birds that kept flying too close to us and screeching. I finally realized they were probably trying to scare us away from their nest. It didn’t take long before I found a few well camouflaged eggs sitting out in the open among the fish bones and shells.

Black-necked stilts (I think)

Eggs among vertebrae and barnacles

We took some pictures, but didn’t stay long. In all, we were probably in Salton City for 45 minutes, but I didn’t see a single soul there. For those who are interested, for $99 a month, you can own a lot there in seven years. It almost seems like a good deal.

When traveling with your children, it is impossible to predict which locations will make lasting memories for them. David took a picture of Evan staring out over the water, looking very pensive. Months later, I found the picture and thought it was a really good one. A little while later, Evan was writing his college application essay and what he wrote came as a bit of a shock to me. I’ll share it here with his permission:

Evan at the Salton Sea, photo by David Kern

As surprising as it may be, the place in which I experience the most contentment I have only been to once. The Salton Sea in California is my destination of choice for any vacation. The Salton Sea is surrounded by ghost towns composed of broken down buildings, the scent of dead fish, and an overarching air of complete, deathly silence, aside from the crunching of fish bones as you walk atop the “sand”. All of this would normally act as a deterrent, but it draws me in. Just like a good horror novel, the back-story behind this place sets the mood for visitors.

The Salton Sea was the result of an awful mistake in the diversion of the Colorado River. The men working on the project did not expect the massive amount of flooding that came their way in the spring of 1905. Via miscalculation of the vast quantity of water, this flooding overwhelmed the gates designed to keep the water from escaping, leaving the mighty Colorado to flow wherever she pleased. When they finally had stemmed the flow of this beast, the Salton Sea had already been born. Because of the generally high temperatures and low elevation, the Salton Sea became a massive hit among vacationers. This prosperity was very short-lived because the sea had no influx of fresh water. After about fifty years, the quality of water and life in the area declined and the vacationers began leaving. The sea’s salinity levels began rising thus making it harder for fish to survive. The water began to evaporate leaving the remains of fish bones as a sort of pseudo-sand. This is what is seen by passers-bye to this day.

I find the story of the Salton Sea from “birth” to “death” to be a horrific tale, but despite the grotesqueness, there is something beautiful hiding in those briny waters. Maybe it is the stagnant air. Perhaps even the backdrop of desert. Maybe the sheer idea of a boomtown that once was intrigues me. What it is about the Salton Sea that I find so remarkable, I cannot quite say. However, what I can say is this: it changed my viewpoint on life. The Salton Sea serves as a window into a possible future. Could it be showing a world after us? What we decide to do with the planet now is the only thing that creates a defined line between a prosperous world and a world like that of this environmental anomaly. Seeing the consequences of these actions made me realize that I should use this example as a reminder that the decisions I make in life can have a profound effect on not just my personal life, but on the world around me.

Also, I think this short video about the place is interesting and very well done. It is probably the biggest reason I wanted to see the Salton Sea with my own eyes. I didn’t quite see the desolation this video shows, but I have no doubt that some communities around the Sea are even more economically depressed than the one we visited. The man at the end who built/painted the “God is Love” monument died several months before our trip. I might have considered visiting that part of the Seashore had he still been alive, but it was farther out of our way, and we had plans to meet with a park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park that afternoon. So I’ll leave Ransom Riggs to share his bleak, but beautiful view of the Salton Sea with you.

The end.

Stop 12: La Brea

On June 28, we left Monterey and drove south following the California coast as much as we could. It was a beautiful drive!

CA coast, south of Monterey

After driving along the coast, we headed in toward Los Angeles. Fortunately, David doesn’t mind driving in big cities like Chicago and Paris. So he didn’t have any trouble here, but we were all impressed with the size of the highways… 10 lanes wide, one way! A bit more than we’re used to in Indianapolis. The city is large and sprawling, but not quite as overwhelming as New York. Our first stop was at the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum where we would experience the Ice Age of 30,000 years ago. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we certainly didn’t realize that the Tar Pits are smack in the middle of downtown LA. We found a place to park across from Hancock Park and walked across the wide street. The park is surrounded by apartment buildings and a few high rises. Sirens could be heard in the distance. It was quite a contrast to the far-from-civilization places we had seen, and not where we would have guessed an interesting bit of natural history would be found. California continued to show us that our preconceived notions of the state were all wrong.

Here’s a little video I put together with a stop along the coast, followed by the walk through Hancock Park up to the Page Museum. It’s not really geologically relevant, but I think anyone who hasn’t been here will appreciate the atmosphere of the park and its location within the city.

The contact I had found at the Page Museum set me up with a tour guide named Rocio Santoyo. We were scheduled to arrive in time for her last tour of the day, then have a chance to interview her afterwards. We were running a little late, so we didn’t get a chance to check out the exhibits until later. We were able to jump into the tour group and make introductions right before she began the tour.

The tour started in front of the lab. As a science teacher, it was really neat to see another place (like at Ashfall and Dinosaur) where paleontology research is an ongoing activity. We watched researchers sorting microfossils under microscopes. They were seated along a glass wall, so we could watch them work, without being able to interfere. A few of them would post notes to tell us what they were working on, and they had little displays of the tiny mammal jaws and teeth they had found. In the middle of the lab, and labeled boldly, there was a HUGE skull partially encased in plaster and cloth. This belongs to the Colombian Mammoth, Zed.

Here Rocio is introducing us to the museum and lab…

The tour group walked outside to the Observation Pit. It was designed to give visitors an idea of what researchers would have seen when they first opened a pit years ago.

Inside the Observation Pit

This pit was opened, each fossil taken out, recorded, then put back in place for visitors to see. Here is our view of the pit…  and here is a link to an article written about the re-opening of the pit. It was actually published on the day we visited!

Tar pit, obscured by leaves

We walked further to a pit that had been completely excavated to a depth of about 30 feet. It has since filled in with oil that seeped in. It became obvious how these animals could have stepped into the oil without noticing it was there. Rocio explained further: 

Then we walked to see and learn about Project 23. 

When we were done with the tour, I got a chance to ask Rocio some questions myself…
It was nice to talk to another female scientist, since most of the people I interviewed on this trip were male. I think it’s really good to be able to show my students that science is done by a diverse group of people. One of my colleagues who teaches chemistry is always frustrated that the History of Atomic Theory might as well be called the Old Dead White Guy unit. She and I are glad to see that science is changing and the field is closer to reflecting the population now. Rocio is an excellent example of a woman who is passionately curious about the world around her, and that is what science needs! Yay for women scientists!

When we left Rocio, we went into the museum to see some of the exhibits that we had missed earlier. The museum was close to closing, so we saw a few things before heading out.

Sabre-toothed Cat skeleton

I thought this display was particularly cool. You look into a window and see a skeleton, but if you glance away and look back, it has changed!

Sabre-toothed cat!

We also enjoyed seeing the skulls of the most common fossil they have found… Dire wolves!

Many dire wolves and a Kieran

I didn’t use a tripod here, but I should have. My photos didn’t come out that great in the low light of the museum, which was a bit disappointing. Here is one more that I liked. It’s through a window of a storeroom. This gives you a bit of an idea how HUGE the collection of fossils is at the Page Museum.

Part of the fossil collection

This is one of many places I wish I could have spent more time. It is really unique!

When the museum closed, we left to do the normal tourist things in LA. We drove up to see the Hollywood sign, went up Mulholland Drive, then went toward the shore one last time for dinner.

Proof we went to LA

I enjoyed posting pictures of all the mansions to Facebook. I labeled them with 80s star’s names, although we really had no idea who lived there. I guess I was getting a little loopy from the hours on the road! We had not picked out a place to eat, but thought LA would be a good place to get some food that didn’t come out of our cooler. We let Evan use Urbanspoon and/or Yelp to pick a spot. He suggested a place a bit out of our way, but what’s an extra few miles on a 7200 mile journey? We drove to Malibu just in time for some fried seafood on the beach at sunset. It might have been my favorite meal on the trip!

K representin' Indy

Again, I failed to use my tripod and regretted it later, but I was kinda too covered in sand and grease to mess with all the gear.

Me and my sweetheart

Not the best picture of us, but let me tell you, the beach was beautiful and we had a wonderful evening. We left Malibu for a drive to Ontario, California. We got in late, but we were OK with that. We had enjoyed our little slice of LA and were ready to leave the Pacific coast for our next adventure.

Stop 11: Monterey Bay, part 3

… in which i squeeee and share pictures of massive cuteness.  Er, I mean, give a lesson on endangered species.

After a full day of whale watching and aquarium touring, we enjoyed sleeping in on the morning of June 27th. When we woke up, I spent some time working on blogging and the boys enjoyed a little TV time (which had been very rare on the trip so far). When we were done being lazy, we drove a few miles north to Moss Landing. We are big fans of kayaking and have had some really great experiences with our kayaks, but we decided against bringing them with us on this trip (too many miles and not enough space). Nonetheless, I wanted to experience some kayaking in California, so we decided to rent yaks for a few hours. After some research, we opted for the more natural Elkhorn Slough, rather than trying to navigate the harbor in Monterey.

Elkhorn Slough is a protected estuary (a National Estuarine Research Reserve) that has a large population of a threatened species, the Southern Sea Otter, as well as lots of sea lions, harbor seals and birds. We arrived and got our gear ready. We decided we would rent two tandem sea kayaks, even though that is not what we are used to paddling (we have three sit-inside kayaks and Kieran rides along with David or me). This time Kieran had a chance to assist in the paddling, which he loved, of course!  Evan and I had one boat and David and Kieran shared the other.

We got on the water and immediately noticed there were sea lions hanging around the beach where the extra kayaks were sitting. I was a bit unsure of myself with a new boat and having to share control of it with Evan, so it took me a while to get up the courage to pull the expensive camera gear out of my dry bag. Luckily David had his camera up and running right away.

Kieran, the power plant, and the entrance to Elkhorn Slough, photo by David Kern

As Evan and I got to the bridge to go into the estuary, we heard an extremely loud *crack* sound. We looked over just in time to see an otter cracking open an oyster with a rock. I still didn’t have the good camera out, so I didn’t get any shots, but it was amazing to see them doing that behavior in the wild. We watched him hold the oyster in his paws and eat it before diving down for seconds. So cool! I finally gave in and decided to get the good camera out of its safe hiding place and take my chances. But I was also trying to wrangle the GoPro as well. I was really hoping to get some action shots of the otters swimming around us, but it never happened. Once we got past the bridge we noticed a couple of otters swimming not too far away. When I got out the camera I found that it was two mothers with pups.

This pup was happy to see us. Check out those canine teeth!

Here’s another pic of the happy pup and momma.

Momma was checking us out

As we got further in, we found a beach where the sea lions and seals were sunning themselves while being supervised by a bunch of pelicans.

The beach

As we headed further into the estuary, we noticed a large group of otters who were floating together, wrapped up in the kelp. As we got closer, we realized it was more moms and pups.

Otter families

Here are a couple more. I just can’t resist adding more pictures of these guys.

Could this face be any happier??

A blondie

We were not very close to them, but at one point, they started taking notice of us, and we decided we should leave them alone. Knowing that the Southern Sea Otter is threatened in part due to its low biotic potential (slow birth rate, etc.), I found it really encouraging to see all the mothers with pups. I do hope their population can recover from the damage the fur hunters of the past have done.

Turning south, we saw a blue heron and a pelican searching the water for some food.




We were getting a little tired at this point, and we had to fight the wind on the way out, so we turned around, planning to get another glimpse of the seal beach. we enjoyed watching them interacting with each other, and they paid absolutely no attention to us.


Seals and cormorants

OK, a few looked up to check us out. And a couple of young ones seemed to be asking their parents permission to go swimming with us. The parents didn’t seem interested in getting back in the cool water though.

What's up guys?

Here is a little conversation from a youngster and his elders:

Come and swim with me, Momma!

Back under the bridge, we saw a few more otters hunting shellfish, but didn’t get a good picture. Then we went past a dock with lots of sea lions and one otter sleeping, grooming themselves, and or playing king of the hill.

Sea lion pile

I was amazed at how the dock floated up and down in the waves, submerging the sea lions’ faces intermittently. They just didn’t seem to mind! One more shot of these guys and then we’ll head south down the California coast in search of more geology.

I'm pretty sure they're sleeping and not dead!

Some day I’ll add some video from this little trip, but we had some issues with files that had to be recovered.

Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship presentation video

Today I am giving a short presentation to some of the Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellows and their guests. I am looking forward to sharing a little about the experiences I’ve had over the last year. From the planning, to the travel, to the interviews, to the photo and video editing, to the blogging I have learned many things. Not only did I learn a lot about geology but I learned about desert, marine, and alpine biology and paleontology. I learned about how to conduct interviews. I learned about the National Park Service and how they meet the challenge of balancing preservation and education with a small budget. I found many parallels between the great work they do despite a shortage of funding, and the work we educators accomplish with our minimal budgets. I learned about the human history of the west, and about the difficulty of survival under the harshest conditions.

There is still more blogging to come, but for now, here is the final draft of my video presentation. Unfortunately, some of the pictures go really fast, and I didn’t provide adequate narration for some of the locations pictured in the video. But I still feel that it gives a good overview of what I learned from the experience while showcasing some of the most beautiful parts of America.


Getting ahead of myself

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but… Kieran was Star Student of the week in school this week, so he got to spend a little time each day telling his class about our trip. He started with Monterey, then Yosemite, then the City Museum (which wasn’t on this trip, but last spring break). Tomorrow he wants to show them Joshua Tree. I haven’t finished that blog post yet, but today I put together a quick video to give the kids (and you readers) a sense of the place. This video was taken near Barker Dam which is in the western half of the park and in the Mojave Desert. I will write more about the geology of the area (and some of the oldest rocks we saw on our journey) soon!

Fun At Joshua Tree


And Kieran and I thought you should see a picture of a desert bighorn sheep, too!

Desert bighorn sheep at Joshua Tree NP

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.