Feb 22 2008

Living it up, down in Death Valley

Death Valley is known for its highs and lows: the highest temperature recorded on the planet and the lowest elevation in North America. It’s also known for its once bustling mining towns and strange geology. We felt it was worth checking out.

Christine, Sam, Rece, and I — we really should make up a name for our group, since we travel all over the place together — set out on a 3-day, 2-night journey to view Death Valley National Park. With a rented 4WD SUV, and a few bags and cameras in hand, we made our trek across the desert.

As usual we brought along our GPS receivers, loaded with geocache coordinates along the way. The first of them was at the oddly named Zzyzx exit, followed by Baker and its oh-so-many sights.

The last 3 trips we’ve made out to the desert have given Christine reason to get excited about the prospect of visiting (and eating at) the Mad Greek in Baker, CA. Unfortunately for her, it has always been too far out of the way to justify the long detour. This time our route took us right to Baker, home of the Worlds Tallest Thermometer and also the Mad Greek restaurant (one of their many locations – but she had to go to THIS one).

Having filled our bellies with decent enough Greek-style food, I pointed the 4runner north, towards Death Valley. We stopped quite a few times along the way, either after spotting a point of interest (we stop for almost all historical markers on all of our trips) or to hunt for a geocache.

We’ve come to learn from our past trips that travel time is usually at least double of what it would be if the distance was covered without stopping. So it was already a known variable in our plans that we probably wouldn’t be entering Death Valley on the first day. This proved to be true and drove on to our first night’s stay in Pahrump, NV. I’ll admit that this was probably due a good part to the name of the town, but it was also the closest lodging that probably didn’t have a Norman Bates type of person running it.

Our hopes for word-play were dashed after discovering that we could not stay at Terrible’s Casino (they didn’t have a hotel at this one). Here’s a short list of some possible fun phrases we were unable to use:

  • We stayed at a terrible hotel in Pahrump, NV.
  • The hotel was terrible — and so was the casino!
  • After a terrible night’s stay, we awoke and enjoyed a terrible breakfast.

Then another catastrophe: the Nugget Hotel & Casino was more expensive than other places in town and had no more non-smoking rooms available. So we couldn’t say we stayed in “Pa’s rump nugget” or anything silly like that. We had to settle for the Saddle West Hotel & Casino, which wasn’t a bad place to stay — it just had a boring name, comparatively.

Day 2 began about as planned and we filled up at the buffet breakfast at our hotel. After backtracking to Shoshone, CA, then turning north we reached the southern most entrance to Death Valley. We thought areas of California state highway 395 were remote and desolate, but they seemed pretty crowded compared to Death Valley. Sparse desert hills for miles and miles — the only living creatures were a few crows.

We arrived at Badwater Basin, one of the lowest points in Death Valley (there are a few other points a few feet lower, but they’re difficult to get to) and found one of the largest groups of people we’d see for the rest of the trip. (As introverts, Christine & I enjoyed the lack of people.)

Continuing on our northern route through the park, we stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Palette, and Furnace Creek Visitor Center (central hub for the park).

Our primary destination for Day 2 was the Devil’s Racetrack (also known as Racetrack Playa) , which is located in a remote part of the park far up in the northern area. The Racetrack is a natural oddity that I just couldn’t miss. You can read more about it here. The road was 27-miles long and washboard gravel/dirt which added to the adventure. I think I took about as many pictures here as I did all at the other areas we visited in Death Valley combined.

With sunlight soon to be gone, we departed the Racetrack and made much better time on the way out than we did on the way in, having discovered that the bumps smoothed out more the faster I drove. How fun is that?

Driving into the night, we again had to modify our very flexible plans and change the town where we’d be sleeping. Beatty, NV turned out to be the closest option. Apparently it was better that we arrived at night when we drove through and decided to stay at the local Motel 6 — daylight revealed a different mood. The town seems to be in a slow, but steady decline. It had obviously seen better days when tourism brought more people through. But now it seems a little sad — or at least I felt a little sad for the town.

A nice fellow in the motel parking lot pointed out that our back tire looked a bit low on air and he told us where we could get it fixed in town. Coincidentally, the tire shop was next door to the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant we had decided to patronize the night before. Some yummy food and a $20 tire patch later we were headed back towards Death Valley.

A sign along the highway pointed to Rhyolite, NV, a ghost town we had read about while planning for the trip. This was another of our impromptu stops and an interesting discovery. Not only had the town been occupied and thriving a mere 100 years ago, but we also found an open air museum with some bizarre sculptures.

Just a few miles after getting back on the highway we detoured onto Titus Canyon Road. Another 27-mile washboard dirt/gravel road, but this time one-way and through, well, a canyon. Aside from one pickup truck and a mountain biker, we were completely alone. The road brought us by some mines and another old mining (ghost) town called Leadfield. Beyond the ghost town the canyon drive became quite narrow, which made us feel as though we were in an old Western film or an Indiana Jones flick.

With the canyon drive behind us, we made it back to California highway 190 and westward through the park. A few minor points of interest later and we again found ourselves on another dirt road in a desolate area on our way to see the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. These beehive-looking structures were quite remarkable.

Finally, after leaving Death Valley, our last stop was at yet another ghost town named Ballarat. The caretaker was an interesting fellow with a friendly and playful dog. He pointed out a rusty old truck on display and told us it used to be owned by Charles Manson. We didn’t really believe him until we looked it up for ourselves.

The drive home was uneventful, aside from learning that Carl Kartcher had passed away a month earlier when we went into Carl’s Jr. for a potty break and ended up buying a Captain Crunch Shake – it was the first day they started selling them (and they’re actually quite tasty).

As usual we took pictures. Lots of pictures. You can view them at:

Gabe’s photos

Christine’s photos

Sam’s photos

This entry still feels a little dehydrated.

Aug 26 2007

Yosemite Camping Trip

Last week Christine, Sam, Rece and I went to Yosemite. We camped out 4 nights and enjoyed getting away from the rat race for a spell. As usual, I took a bunch of pictures, though not quite as many as on other trips. For those who want to check them out, you can find the Flickr set here.

Here’s how the trip went (warning — this is a very long story):

Day 1: Tuesday

We took off in our rented minivan after work. Our goal was to get through the traffic of SoCal and stay in a motel somewhere up in the high desert. The traffic was awful, so we opted for the (longer) scenic route over the San Bernardino mountains. The timing of it would bring us to Crestline in time for dinner. The original plan was to visit Cappelletti’s Pizza, but they were closed (which was unusual), so we settled for Billy Bear’s Restaurant instead. The food wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t Cappelletti’s Pizza.

Following dinner was a scenic drive down the backside of the mountain, down to the high desert. We drove by Silverwood Lake, which brought back memories of a bike riding adventure my friends and I had more than 22 years before. Our drive ended at the SpringHill Suites Victorville Hesperia (our motel), where we were happy to find air conditioning.

Day 2: Wednesday

After filling up on a delicious breakfast at the motel, we began our long desert drive up highway 395. For those of you who don’t already know; this stretch of road goes through the very heart of BFE. The high desert does have its charms, but how much sand, dirt, rocks, scrub brush does one need to see?

It wasn’t until we were at the base of the Sierra mountains before the towns we passed through became quaint and interesting. Of note were Lone Pine, Big Pine, and Bishop, where we stopped for lunch. We drove by a place named Bar B-Q Bill’s-Oney’s (I’m tickled that they have a website), and it just called out to our adventurous food nature. The place is an old-style BBQ place with (real) wagon wheels and old west paraphernalia decorating the place. With our bellies full of shredded BBQ beef sandwiches and fixins, we continued on our journey north.

Along the way we were reminded of an episode of California’s Gold when Huell Howser visited Mono Lake. We spotted signs for the lake and noted on our map that it was at the base of the mountain where we’d be camping. There was no way we were passing up a chance at checking it out for ourselves. I just realized how big of a dork that made me seem. Hmm. Spotting Mono Lake to our right and highway 120 leading up to the Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park, it was a no-brainer for us to decide that Mono Lake would have to wait … and so it did.

Driving into Yosemite National Park I was in awe; the rugged granite mountains and glacier-cut cliffs — the Sierra Nevada mountains are a sight to behold. Even this late in the summer one can still see areas of ice/snow in the high peaks. We had to laugh at ourselves as we realized we had all gasped aloud as we rounded a corner of the road and came into view of Ellery Lake, at an elevation of 9538′. The views just kept on coming, too.

We arrived at the park entrance just short of 4:00 in the afternoon. I was a bit worried that we’d be stuck with a bad campsite, since the reservation I had was for an unspecified campsite at Tuolumne Meadows — they assign you one upon arrival. As luck would have it, there were only a few sites still open, but it didn’t make much of a difference; our campsite seemed just as good as any other.

We quickly set up camp and stowed our food items away in the bear proof food locker provided by the park at each campsite. We then went about the business of making dinner (delicious fillet mignon!) and getting settled in. Rece and Sam went to the campfire circle to join other campers in whatever it was they decided to do around a campfire.

After dark, we all walked to Lembert Dome in order to participate in a star gazing session with one of the park rangers. It started with a short walk in near-total darkness up a path through the woods (we weren’t allowed to use our flashlights), up to a huge slab of rock where we could sit or lay down and take in the star-filled sky. We learned about some of the stars and constellations and where to find Polaris (the North Star), among other things. Having had quite a full day, we turned in right after the star gazing.

Day 3: Thursday

As I type this, I’m realizing how incredibly long this story is — and I still have 3 more days to go! Believe me, I’m doing my best to keep it brief while providing enough detail to go over all the main points of the trip. Anywho …

Thursday was a day for something different, and not at all within Yosemite. We decided to pay a visit to Mono Lake and the old, abandoned mining town of Bodie. The Mono Lake museum and visitor center was a very nice facility and provided some fascinating information of the lake and other local history. From the museum we drove around to the South Tufa, where we viewed the odd tufa formations.

After a short visit (but longer than we anticipated — it really was more interesting than we had originally thought), we drove up to Bodie. The signs warning that snow was not removed beyond a certain point didn’t deter us one bit, we braved the paved road, which eventually became a well-graded dirt road a few miles away from the town.

The town of Bodie is a very interesting place to visit. Not only is it fairly remote, but the idea that people traveled to it on foot, horse, and wagon more than 100 years ago is simply amazing. The other thing that boggled my mind was that the population got as high as 10,000 people! We did the self-tour and took some pictures of the place. It was a warm day and we were still feeling the effects of being at a much higher altitude, so we weren’t as motivated to check out every little detail as we might have, but it was a very cool experience, nonetheless.

The amount of gas in the rental by the time we arrived at Bodie gave us reason to be concerned a little. So we made for the nearest town, hoping that it would have a gas station. Lucky for us, Bridgeport, the seat of Mono County, had all we needed. We took a short nap in the minivan at a park, then went out to Pop’s Galley for a bite to eat. This was a nice little establishment with the owner(s) working the counter and grill themselves. The burgers were pretty good (and the fried clams — mmm!) and I just felt at home there.

After lunch, we decided to head back to Yosemite and drive into the park further. About half-way between Tuolumne and Yosemite Valley, we turned around to go back. Along a straight, open stretch of road I dark form lumbered into the road, about 100 yards ahead. I stopped the car and it dawned on me that we were looking at a bear; not quite a cub, but definitely not an adult. “That’s a bear!” I marveled, which got the attention of everybody. We didn’t have much time to look at it, let alone grab our cameras, before it saw us and took off into the woods. We cautiously drove by the area it crossed and managed to spot it running between the trees. It was a very cute little fella! Having had such a late lunch, we ended up skipping dinner and turned in to bed early.

Day 4: Friday:

Friday morning was pretty damned cold — even I was cold, and that’s saying quite a bit! This helped motivate us to get up and off to a pretty early start. Today our goal was to check out the Yosemite Valley and see the main attractions of the park.

The drive there was beautiful, as one might expect. We noted at how quickly the temperature rose as we descended in from Tuolumne. Upon arriving in the valley, we also noted at how many tourists there were. I was a bit surprised, as our campgrounds, despite the fact that they were full, was not so crowded. These also turned out to be many of the same type of people I enjoy getting away from in the city. Accepting our fate, we made the most of it and checked out the local store — buying t-shirts and post cards and such.

On the way down, we had checked out the various hikes that were down in the valley and opted to try hiking to Mirror Lake. After finding a place to park in the over-crowded parking lot, we made our way to the trail head. We had a nice wander through the forest on the edge of the valley campgrounds. We inquired with a family of hikers about the lake, to which the husband replied, “It’s more a mirage than a mirror at this point,” and went on to explain that the lake was all but dry right now. Not seeing a reason to continue on with the hike in the heat without the reward of a cooling lake to dip our feet into, we went back to the car and promptly drove back to our campsite.

It might seem as though our trip to the Yosemite Valley was a total bust, but it really wasn’t. The looming glacier-cut cliffs and scenery is a marvel. Had it not been so hot and muggy, we might have tried a different hike. The biggest issue that we introverts had was the fact that there were too many people!

Later that afternoon, Christine and I left Sam and Rece to entertain themselves while we took a quiet hike along the Tuolumne River. Almost immediately we happened upon a mother deer and her two fawns foraging for food along side the river. Our walk was restoring our spirits and I could feel a sense of peace come over me.

Day 5: Saturday

Another cold morning and we busied ourselves with the daily routine of coffee (!!), campfire, and breakfast. We were preparing for our upcoming hike to Elizabeth Lake that we finally felt up to taking on as we had acclimated to the higher altitude.

Strapping on our water bottle slings and backpacks, with cameras in-hand, we made our way to the trail head to Elizabeth Lake. The trail was easy to find and we began our ascent. The first part of the trail wasn’t very difficult, until around a quarter mile in, where the grade increased. Our being a little out of shape and trying to hike uphill in thinner air made it so we had to make quite a few stops to catch our breath. Part way up we swapped the backpacks with those who were only carrying water bottles. This balanced things out, allowing us all to enjoy the trail up more.

After a little over a mile, the trail leveled out more and we no longer needed the breaks to breathe. The terrain was less rocky and we spotted Unicorn Creek that flowed out of the lake, when water levels are higher. The ground was almost as green as the canopy above, with a clear blue sky and plenty of shade. When we came out of the forest to a clearing, I knew the lake must be close.

My intuition proved to be correct and we spotted the lake beyond the clearing after a little more walking. I could sense Sam and Rece’s mood change to excitement as the deep blue water came into view, our pace quickened. As we sat on some rocks along the lake, enjoying the cool breeze, we quickly put down our bags and started removing our shoes. I was the first to venture out and soothe my feet in the cold mountain waters. Christine remained on the shore, taking pictures.

We took a moment to grab a quick snack and recharge our batteries, then started off along the trail that went around the lake. We spotted some bear prints at the water’s edge, renewing our hope (and hope against) catching sight of a bear again. The entire time we spent at the lake was peaceful. We only encountered about a dozen other people total at the lake, each seeming to be as at rest as we were, enjoying the views.

Lunch was an interesting venture. We stopped at an outcropping of rocks at the base of Unicorn Peak to take a cat nap in the sun. The rest was short, but reviving, and we pulled out the things we brought along for food. This consisted of beef jerky, dried apricots, trail mix, and 4 MREs. The type of MRE we had brought was spaghetti and meat with sauce. These were warmed using chemical hot packs that were activated with water. Bracing against something disgusting, we each took a bite and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they weren’t half bad: almost the same as Chef Boyardee, but with a more mature flavor. It’s good to know that our military forces have some basic, but decent fare when out in the field.

Rece took the lead of our hike back down, followed closely by Sam. Christine and I took a more relaxed pace going downhill. It was surprising to see so many people hiking up the trail in the warm midday sun, going towards the lake. I was thankful that we had started out much earlier for this reason. After our return to the campsite, we rewarded ourselves by walking over to the Tuolumne River Grill for an ice cream cone. I then turned in for a nap.

After a restful (and long) nap, I felt great! We prepared our dinner of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and camp stove biscuits. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but Christine volunteered to be in charge of food for our camping trip. I think she did an amazing job and came up with some creative and delicious ideas to keep us fed.

After eating our fill and cleaning up, Christine, Rece, and I went out for our last walk in nature to watch the sunset over the Tuolumne Meadows.

Later that night, as Sam & Christine slept, I sat by our little campfire, I was waiting for Rece to return from the campfire circle activities, warming my hands at our dwindling campfire. I looked up, feeling the presence of something, and saw a deer standing 10 feet away, within the glow of our lantern. It looked at me in that pause, then moved off, back into the shadow of night.

Day 6: Sunday

Sunday turned out to be the coldest morning of the trip. It was just the motivation we needed to get our camp packed away and ourselves into the car. I was impressed that it took less than 45 minutes for us to all wake up and pack the minivan.

Oh, did I mention that there were no showers at near our campsite? Because of the low water levels, they were turned off. So our entire trip was without showers. I think we all smelled so bad that we didn’t notice how bad the rest smelled.

Our first order of business, after coffee (!!), on the road was to find a shower, then eat breakfast. We ended up stopping in Big Pine for the showers and breakfast. Feeling much better having cleaned ourselves, we stopped at a little restaurant (I forget the name) that looked like a cute little local family-owned business (the types I like to go to when I’m out on the road). Sadly, the staff wasn’t really friendly (but not rude), the service was horribly slow, but the food was decent enough. I just know that I won’t be going there if I find myself in the area again.

The trip home was rather uneventful, as we were all tired and cranky. We didn’t stop any place, aside from potty breaks, getting gas and once more for lunch/dinner at Pepe’s Finest Mexican Food in Fullerton.


All in all, I’d definitely rate this trip to be on par with our journey to Arizona earlier in the year. Christine and Sam are great travel companions. I’m looking forward to our next adventure!

This entry can’t believe that it took an entire week to finally write, edit, and publish this story.

Oct 10 2006

The Bridge to Nowhere

This weekend’s bungee jumping excursion took place in the Los Angeles National Forest, above Azuza, CA. We met up with the folks from Bungee America in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket and then drove up the mountain to the trail we’d be hiking. Our destination was The Bridge to Nowhere.

As soon as I can get hold of the footage taken by others from our hiking/jumping group, I’ll be putting together a video of the actual bungee jumping. I have only about 4 minutes of unedited video of myself and a few others jumping off the bridge. But in the meantime, check out the picture gallery I uploaded to Flickr…

Hike to and from the Bridge to Nowhere

This entry is still a little sore from the hike!

Oct 9 2006

I’m still alive!

I just realized that I mentioned that I was going bungee jumping this weekend, then failed to post again afterwards. Sorry about that!

This is just a quick note to say that I had a FANTASTIC time hiking 5 miles up to the “Bridge to Nowhere” (and then back down) where I jumped off it attached to a large rubber band. I’ve got a little bit of video footage (battery problems) and a lot of pictures to put together into something. I’m also trying to get in contact with some of the others that were filming video and taking pictures so I can incorporate their stuff into a video.

Okie dokes, back to work!

This entry is still sore from the hike!