Being a regular Death Valley visitor – and probably a Death Valley return visitor in the next month or two – I like to keep up with the conditions in the park. If you aren’t familiar with the place you might envision static, hot, dry desert conditions in all seasons. You would be very wrong! I’ve most often visited around the beginning of April and I’ve seen everything from hot (upper 90 degree range) to snow (more than once!) and on several occasions rain and a few memorable dust storms. When rains do occur it isn’t unusual for there to be floods, some of epic proportions. (Within the last decade there have been several very serious floods than have led to major damage and deaths.)
I’ve been thinking about this during the past week’s huge storms in the Southwest – storms that have brought record low pressure systems to much of the area, created tornadoes, dropped snow to low elevations across several states, and dropped a lot of precipitation. Recently, photographer Bob Young shared with me the web address of a great resource for current conditions in the Death Valley area. (Thanks, Bob!)
From the report I read there today, it sounds like the storms hit DV fairly hard. Many (most?) back-country routes have been closed by rain, mud, and/or snow – including some of the popular locations such as Titus Canyon and the Racetrack. I get the impression that some of the low lying areas that can become flooded during wet years may indeed be flooding. While I don’t know the full extent of the conditions, I’m wondering if we might see some interesting and unusual water “events” this year and whether this might produce another exceptional wildflower bloom in a month or two.
Since school is out (yes, teachers look forward to that, too!) and I have a major pack trip coming up later this summer (more about that later) it is time to get serious about whacking the old body back into some sort of shape. Although I’ve always felt that the best conditioning for backpacking is the first three days of the trip, as I get older I find that I’d rather start those first three days from a little better position if possible.
So, today I decided on a “conditioning” hike that pushed me both in terms of dealing with heat/sun and climbing. I started at the New Almaden entrance to the Almaden Quicksilver County Park and ascended past English Camp by way of the Deep Gulch trail. Deep Gulch is a less-used route that has the disadvantage (or, for my purposes today, the advantage) of being rather steep but on a hot day like this the fact that it is in a, uh, deep gulch means that it is also very shady. After English Camp I continued on past the site of the old mill on the ridge via the Castillero trail to join up with the Mine Hill trail, which I followed back down to the parking lot.
I certainly do not recommend this route in these conditions to anyone out for a pleasant little stroll. It was 90 degrees when I returned to my car and portions of the hike near the highest point are directly in the sun – and I was there right around noon. On the other hand, it seemed like I had the entire park almost to myself. During the several hours I was there I saw exactly five other people.
Yesterday I drove toward the Monterey Bay area planning to visit Point Lobos for a half day of morning photography. As I passed through Castroville I heard a report on the radio: Highway 1 was closed south of Carmel for the Big Sur Marathon. Yikes! Point Lobos is about five minutes south of the road closure.
For a moment I debated whether to turn around and head back or try to pick a different destination, but the report went on to say that they were convoying vehicles past the runners, though there would be a delay – so I figured I stick with my plan and see what would happen. When I arrived at the start of the race – the shopping center south of Carmel – the road was completely blocked, there were hundreds of runners, and traffic was shunted to the left into the almost completely full shopping center parking lot. I saw a sign for “convoy parking” so I drove over an inquired. There was a two hour interval between convoys, but one was scheduled to leave in a half hour or so… so I picked up a coffee nearby and before taking my place in the line.
When I finally arrived at Point Lobos I was initially taken aback by a huge stream of runners/walkers who were apparently taking a route through the park, but it turned out that they had apparently just started near the south end of the reserve and come through more or less in one group. They soon passed, and it turned out that I was one of only two cars that had gotten into the park during/before the passing of the first convoy. On a spring morning I was almost alone at Point Lobos!
For the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon I met no other hikers, photographers, or other park visitors whatsoever. I saw one other person on a distant rock at one point, but that was it. Anyone who has visited Point Lobos knows that on a typical Sunday in spring the place if full of cars and there are people everywhere. I took advantage of this unusual situation to photograph a family of harbor seals who were very close to the shoreline and later to hike a trail through the pine forested hills that I’ve meant to visit for years.
I think I need to find out when this marathon is scheduled for next spring and plan to do this again!
Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.
There is a post today at Two-Heel Drive about the possibility of cleaning up the summit of Santa Clara Valley’s (or Santa Cruz County’s, if you live on the other side of the hill) Mt. Umunhum so that the stunning views from this ridgetop location can become available to hikers and others. (And, no, Tom, I’ve never heard anyone call this place “Mt. Um.”)
When I was a kid growing up in Santa Clara Valley, Mt. Umunhum housed a military base of some sort – we all understood it to be some sort of radar station guarding the west coast. On “Armed Forces Day” the base opened to the public, and on at least one occasion my father took me and one or more of my siblings up there for the open house. I recall going inside the concrete block building on the summit and watching – with the awe that children can have about such things – the technicians sitting in front of screens watching radar. I also remember being very impressed by a low-level fly-over by some military jets as part of the festivities.
I did get back up there once some years later. For a few years early in college I played in a band – who didn’t right? – and we were once hired to play in some sort of club on the base. As a result we were authorized to drive up there, play for the very small number of folks looking for something to do on the base on a weekend night, and then drive down after dark.
There are other stories about that area. Apparently the road to the top of the peak was not actually owned by the military. If I understand correctly, they got an easement of some sort from a landowner up there who supposedly owned a very large tract. After the base closed, there were many who felt that the road should be public – quite a few of them treated it that way, especially certain bicyclists. Some of them told stories of being met by this landowner and/or his hired hands with guns and being arrested for trespassing.
In more recent years areas around the peak became accessible. You can now drive the road to a very high point though not all the way to the summit, and there are trails in the area. Finally opening the whole ridge and peak for public use would be a wonderful thing, and the sort of development that future residents of the valley will regard as evidence that we made at least a few good decisions “back in the day.”
Over the past few years I have made it a habit to head to Death Valley to do photography during the spring break. As a faculty member at an institution that is on the quarter system, my break is always right around the first week of April and just a week or so into spring.
I have such a plan this year. Right now I’m finishing up the end-of-winter-quarter business at school, and at the same time starting to think through my plans for this little trip. Odds are I’ll be there for 4 or 5 days, but I like to stay a bit flexible so that I can respond to interesting changes in conditions – weather, word of a wildflower bloom, etc.
To my mind, this is pretty much the tail end of the Death Valley “high season.” By early April it isn’t unusual to already start to encounter days where the temperature rises into the 90 degree range. I’m of the opinion that only crazy people (and, apparently, European tourists) would want to go to the Valley in the middle of summer – but they do. From what I hear some folks want to face the challenge of experiencing the truly extreme conditions of the hot season there. To be honest, there is a part of me that understands this, but my preference is to go during the “cool” season that extends from late fall up until right about now.
This afternoon I headed over to Big Basin for a few hours of hiking and photography. (This evening it occurred to me that I’m, well, lucky to be able to drive a bit more than an hour and hike among coastal redwoods.) I arrived at the park in the early afternoon to find that a) it was quite crowded, and b) it was quite cold. Although the rest of the Bay Area is experiencing unusual (and record) warmth, in the bottom of the “basin” it was cold enough that gloves and a hat were called for.
I parked and headed up the trail through the “creeping forest,” where I stopped a few times to photograph various sights in the forest. After hiking in the outbound direction for about an hour and a half, I reversed course and headed back to the trailhead and then home.
Winter Solstice at Muir Woods. Muir Woods National Monument, California. December 21, 2007. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
Last December I first found out about this wonderful annual event at Muir Woods – a winter solstice festival. Although the event starts in the afternoon (officially at 3:00 p.m.), the real fun at sunset and after dark when the trails are lined with luminaria. (Or “candles in paper bags” to those who don’t speak Latin.)
Depending upon the weather, this could be a good day for SF Bay Area photographers to combine winter photography at Muir Woods with a bit of night photography.
The following information is summarized from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy events listing:
Celebrate the longest night of the year with the tallest trees on earth!
Sunday, December 21, 2008, 3 PM – 8 PM, Muir Woods. Cost: Free
This outdoor program is suitable for all ages and will begin at the Visitor Center…rain or shine. Activities and events include the making of solstice crowns, a stage performance of songs, stories, and puppetry, and walking the trails of Muir Woods lit by luminaria. No reservations required.
This evening can be dark and chilly; we ask visitors to bring a flashlight, dress warmly (layers/blankets), and bring a mug for warm drinks. For details, please call the hotline at (415) 388-2596 as the date approaches.
Unless the weather is really, really awful I plan to be there.
SFGate has posted a Tom Stienstra piece about Castle Rock State Park in the hills above Saratoga. This has been one of my favorite locale parks for years – OK, decades – and winter is perhaps the nicest time to visit.
Photo: © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
From a West Coast Imaging blog report:
Tuolumne Gas Station Closed For Upgrades Beginning Monday, 9/8, the Tuolumne Gas Station will be temporarily closed for vapor recovery and dispenser upgrades. Fuel will not be available from 9/8 until 9/29. The sport shop will remain open for business and propane will still be available through 9/21, daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. Fuel is still available at Crane Flat Station 24 hrs/day. (NPS Press Release)
I virtually never buy gas there anyway, but this is good to keep in mind if you aren’t one to watch the gas gauge carefully. Since I most often come in from the west side I usually tank up in Oakdale or possibly near Groveland on the way up – prices are a lot lower there than inside the park. If I’m coming up from the east side I usually try to get gas in Bishop – again, considerably lower prices here – or possibly Mammoth if I have a reason to go up there.
The gas prices in Lee Vining are notoriously high – generally among the very worst prices in the eastern Sierra – so I avoid purchasing gas there if at all possible. (Though a stop at the Mobil station at the junction of Tioga Pass Road and Highway 395 is worth it for the food. Really. Get the fish tacos. That’s all I’ll say.)
These posts are interesting, and a bit different from the typical blog trip reports. Those tend to be heavy on photos (and Gambolin’ Man includes a bunch) but somewhat shorter on narrative – and there is a lot of narrative in this one. A short excerpt:
“Kicked back in the shade of a horseshoe hollow, framed by a 100 ft. high flower-draped and dripping springs cliff face carved out by unique erosive forces, I stare in mindless contemplation at the great pelagic expanse, spellbound by its overwhelming raw power, trying to contextualize and reconcile a puny human lifetime within the infinite and eternal rhythms. The ocean will roar for a billion years more, and our lives are only the time it takes a single wave to wash ashore. . .beautiful and powerful, yet so transient and ephemeral.” – [Gambolin’ Man]
- Black and White
- Castle Rock
- Death Valley
- Gear Reviews
- Green World
- Mission Peak
- Mono Lake
- Mount Shasta Area
- Owens Valley
- Pacific Northwest
- Point Lobos
- Quicksilver Historical
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Santa Teresa
- Sierra Nevada
- Site News
- White Mountains