Winter Sunshine

Winter Sunshine
Winter Sunshine in the Desert

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Oh What to DO?

Current Location: Tulare, CA, sunny and 96 degrees F

Tioga Pass Crossing-2Settled down for the evening in hot, dry, sunny Tulare, California. We began our day in Lee Vining, on the east side of the Sierras, and treated ourselves to an early dawn crossing of Tioga Pass, through Yosemite and down the mountain to the Great Central Valley.

Tioga Pass Crossing-10A family event called Mo to this area and Abby and I are comfortable in the MoHo at Sun and Fun RV Park, with our Passport America discount, air conditioner going full blast.  Ahh…yes…time to process photos and write. Trying to come up with something to do in Tulare, California isn’t very high on the agenda, at least not on my agenda.  I am looking forward to our journey back north tomorrow morning.

Tioga Pass Crossing-28In the mean time, I’ll go back and think of all the things to do in Great Basin National Park.  We barely touched the surface in our four days we spent this week, but we did manage the highlights.

Visit Lehman Caves

From what I have read, it seems that the Lehman Caves are the major draw to this area for people who are not avid hikers.  There are two cave tours, a 45 minute tour and the full Grand Palace Tour that lasts approximately 90 minutes.  With our senior passes we only paid $5.00 each for the grand tour. 

1-Lehman Caves developed copiesDid I mention that there is no park entry fee at GBNP?  We had our passes ready, but never used them except for the cave tour and to gain half price discounts for our campsite.  With the pass, we only paid $6.00 per night for our site.

Lehman caves-20Lehman Caves are actually only one cave, known for centuries by local tribes but “discovered” by Absolom Lehman in 1885.  There are interesting old photographs of the original ladder entrance, and large groups of people in dresses and shirts and ties lounging around on the formations.  Needless to say, there is not of that today.  Visitors are screened for any possibility of carrying disease fatal to the bats, and are told to not touch anything.

Lehman caves-28I visited Carlsbad Caverns a few years ago, and was awed by the formations, but felt very uncomfortable in that cave.  It felt like a place below the earth that was not for human visitation.  I felt no such esoteric weirdness at Lehman Caves, enjoying especially the narrow walkways, and the subdued natural lighting in some areas. 

Lehman caves-30The cave has some rare formations called “shields” that occur rarely in other caverns.  Our guide was from Tennessee, and it was obvious that she loved the cave.  The groups are limited to 20 people and on this day there were sixteen attending the tour.  The constant 50 degree temperature inside the caves made our light jackets feel good.  The caves are open year round, so I can imagine it would be a delight to visit on a cold winter day.

Explore the night sky

moon hike and campfire-4As mentioned in a previous post, we secured our passes for the Full Moon Hike previously.  Many years ago I read an interesting book that suggested walking in the dark of night, or by the light of the moon.  It has been at least a couple of decades since I tried it consciously.  I looked forward to this walk, thankful that we would be in the presence of a ranger and some other folks as well.

moon hike and campfire-5Mo wasn’t as enamored of the night hiking as I was.  I enjoyed every single moment.  We left from the Summit Trailhead at twilight as the moon was rising over Wheeler Peak, but as we hiked toward Stella Lake, the moon was again obscured by the mountain. I decided to skip carrying the heavy camera, in favor of keeping my balance on the trail in the dark and not having to fiddle with settings and such.

moon hike and campfire-8Later, as we sat at Stella Lake waiting for the moon to again appear over the crest of the peak, I was sorry I hadn’t taken the good camera.  I have only these fuzzy iPhone photos to remind me of that magical moment.

moon hike and campfire-14The hike was an easy 2.2 miles through aspen groves and open meadows.  The trail was a bit rocky, with roots here and there, but in the moonlight, it was easy to navigate.  I was still quite happy to have two walking sticks, one to share with Mo for the trip.  I kept thinking how happy I was that there were no bears in this park as we walked through the night forest!

Take a back country drive up Snake Creek

Snake Creek-8Mo and I both decided that this remote section of the park was our favorite.  Snake Creek flows from the high peaks down to the tiny ranching community of Gunnison and beyond.  The road is graveled for several miles and then turns to rocky dirt, but is never extremely difficult. 

Snake Creek-29We did drop the Tracker into 4-wheel drive, but could have managed without it.  High clearance was needed, however, for some stretches, especially toward the Johnson Peak trailhead at the end of the road.

Snake Creek-3Part of the route traverses the boundary between BLM land and National Park land, following Snake Creek up the canyon.  There are several campsites located along the road, several of them are on BLM land, and an additional 4 camps are in the park before the road ends at the trailhead.

hike great basinWe thought about hiking the Johnson Peak trail, knowing full well that 7.5 miles round trip and the extreme elevation gain of that particular trail was more than we wanted to tackle that afternoon.  Instead, we decided to attempt to reach Dead Lake, another obscure trail just south of the main Johnson Peak trail.

Snake Creek-17We enjoyed ourselves, in spite of the fact that we were hiking without benefit of GPS, telephone, or even a paper map in our possession.  I was navigating from the memory of the sign at the Johnson Peak trailhead.  Pretty dumb, but geez, there are no bears here so what did we have to fear?!

Snake Creek-18The trail we chose went up and up and up, without benefit of ridge or landing to break the climb.  There was a bit of a view back down the canyon, and then looking at a particularly steep section ahead of us we looked at each other, and said, “Why?”.  It was a great point to turn around.

Snake Creek-49Back to the Tracker, we followed Snake Creek to an incredible campsite along some natural swimming holes where Abby jumped in to cool herself and we enjoyed lunch at the picnic table.  For once, we actually remembered to pack a lunch before we took off exploring and the tuna sandwiches and corn chips tasted wonderful.

Snake Creek-58Johnson Lake is the location of an old mining camp, and we did find an old dredge down along the creek.  The other fascinating thing about the creek is that it disappears completely underground for a considerable distance.  I was watching the dry creek bed as Mo drove, and then suddenly heard a roaring sound.  The water emerges from this pipe at least a mile east of where it disappears underground.  Would love to know the story behind this.

Snake Creek-59I did find out that Snake Creek Cave is a “wild cave”, undeveloped, that is in the vicinity of where we had lunch.  With an entrance high on the slope above us, my theory of an underground cave sucking up the water, doesn’t hold water.

Hike to a Bristlecone grove

Can you believe we didn’t manage this one?  Our hike up at the end of Snake Creek Canyon wore us out. We had planned to drive the long steep road to the trailhead in late afternoon, hoping to leave Abby in the rig while we hiked.  I wrote a bit while Mo napped, and the winds started rising once again as time for our departure came close.  Looking at each other once again, we said, “Nope”.  The bristlecone grove will have to wait for another visit.

Hike the many trails

Hiking trails in Great Basin National Park

Snake Creek-47There are more than a dozen hikes listed in the park brochure, with difficulty, distance and other information.  I would have loved to hike the alpine lakes loop, a moderate 3 mile hike.  Not so much the summit hike to Wheeler Peak, with rock scrambles at the top over 13,000 feet elevation.  The brochure insists this should be an early morning start to miss the winds and thunderstorms that often rise in late afternoon.

The trail to Lexington Arch, a magnificent limestone  arch that was probably at one time a cave room that has been uplifted, is the only dog friendly trail in the park.  We weren’t able to hike this trail due to a recent fire and the resultant road closure.  We won’t tell anyone that we took Abby on our unmarked Dead Lake trail.  It was actually an old road where they say dogs are allowed, and as I mentioned before, there wasn’t a soul around to know or care.  Abby did well, without huffing and puffing any more than we did.

Camp and relax in a beautiful spot with gorgeous views, fresh air, no crowds and dark night skies

moon hike and campfire-20It is good to know that there are places to go and roads to explore in this beautiful park that we have yet to find.  I am sure we will return.


Great Basin Love

Current Location: Lee Vining, CA cloudy and 67 degrees F

Snake Creek-39In crazy love.  Remember that feeling? Somehow that crazy feeling of youth has been replaced with a crazy ecstasy at what the Earth can do. I have spent the last few days catching my breath in wonder at the view around the bend, the next flower I never knew before this week. 

1-Snake Creek developed copies

I am completely enamored, entranced, and fascinated with the Great Basin, the entire thing.  Although describing the “entire thing” takes a bit of learning. At the moment, I think I am most in love with the brilliant scarlet firecracker penstemon that lines the roads along Snake Creek in the Great Basin NP. This flower was completely new to me on this trip, as well as the incredibly fragrant pale pink scented penstemon.

Snake Creek-16Traveling is so great, there is always something new out there, and the Great Basin visitor center in Baker finally showed with elegant visual displays what the term “Great Basin” actually meant. I had an idea, but the boundaries were sketchy in my mind.  I learned why.

Snake Creek-17The term was first coined by John C Fremont in the mid 1800’s for the vast sink of the American West between the Sierra Nevada Range of California to the west, the Wasatch Range of Utah to the east, the Mojave Desert to the south, and the Snake River Plain of Idaho to the north.

Great BasinGreat Basin-47 I know it is hard to see in these photos I took of maps in the visitor center, but in person, these maps and descriptions helped me to at last understood the Great Basin that I knew from John McPhee’s great book, “Basin and Range”.

I learned that this vague thing called the Great Basin, has a few different boundaries, depending on which aspect of the landscape one is viewing. 

There is the hydrographic view, based on water, and the boundary where all water within the basin stays in the basin, with none escaping to any ocean.  The rivers grow and die quietly in the desert, in the giant sink.

There is the Great Basin as defined by the plant and animal communities, being the largest of the four great American Deserts. Bounded on the south by the Mojave, the Great Basin desert has been called “the sagebrush ocean”.Snake Creek drive

This last definition of the Great Basin is based on the geomorphology and landscape itself, defined by the folding and faulting that created between 150 to 300 mountain ranges (depending on how you define a separate mountain range) that lie within the great sink, high above the desert basins below. Great Basin-49

If you look closely at this map, you will see that my home in Klamath Falls, at Rocky Point, is at the western and northern edge of this great basin of the west.  This close up view also shows the northeast/southwest alignment of the great ranges, like stretch marks in the skin of the earth, created from the extension of continental plates.

Snake Creek driveNo matter how it is defined, no matter where you might draw an arbitrary boundary, the Great Basin is a great American treasure.  More than 2,000 individual species of flowering plants occur within this often dry and barren landscape, and the elevation includes some of the highest peaks in the country, rivaled only by the “fourteener’s” in Colorado and California on the eastern and western edges of the basin.

Snake Creek driveI don’t believe there is another part of our country that is as isolated, as empty, as vast. At first glance, it seems so empty, so daunting.  But a few days in one of the magnificent island arc mountain ranges high above the desert changes everything.  I love the vistas, the ups and the downs, the mountains and the desert, and the way you can see one from the other.

Snake Creek driveThe geology of the place alone is enough to create endless searches into what exactly happened here?  Great seas of sediments converted to limestone, uplifted and folded, and then covered with every form of volcanic activity, and a few meteor craters thrown in for interest.  Then there are the hot creeks, the hot springs, the cold springs, the rivers that flow underground and emerge somewhere else. 

There are two ways to view this land, it goes forever, it can be daunting to cross the hundreds of miles between towns and civilization. The better way is to take the time to delve into its secrets, to explore the hidden places, to go slowly enough to find the treasures.  We didn’t really go as slow as I might have liked, but then we can always go back for more.  I am sure that we will.

Next:  Lehman Caves and a Full Moon Hike to Stella Lake


Friday, June 13, 2014

No Bears! Great Basin National Park

Current Location: Lower Lehman Creek Campground GBNP sunny and 78F predicted high today

Great Basin-36I worked in the mountains of the west for a bazillion years.  I lived in the mountains of the west for a bazillion years.  Mountains and bears seem synonymous to me.  Imagine my surprise when we arrived at Great Basin National Park and there are shabby tin garbage cans, and not a bear warning anywhere.  There are no bears here!  I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time.  I came up with all sorts of reasons, maybe they were hunted out and the great deserts that lie between the mountain islands kept them from coming back.

Great Basin-85Well, the last bear was here about 30,000 years ago, and not only are there no bears in Great Basin National Park, there are no bears anywhere in the Great Basin!  Looking at a map of black bear distribution in the US, even the historic range of the black bear leaves a giant conspicuous hole in the map of the US encompassing almost all of Nevada and all of the Great Basin. 

great basin routeWhen our June calendar showed no plans for a camping trip, we knew something must be done.  Where to go.  June is often full of mosquitos in our local mountains, and our home place is so convenient to kayaking and hiking, but we wanted to be sure to get somewhere new.  That is getting more and more difficult it seems.

Great Basin-23Great Basin National Park came to mind.  We have traveled in the vicinity several times, looking up at the great mountains of the Snake Range and thinking, “We need to get there someday”.  We came really close on our way home last March from our three month trip east, but storms and wind and snow convinced us to reroute south toward the Mojave instead of north into the wilds of Nevada.

Great Basin-5The trip to Great Basin NP requires commitment.  It isn’t near anything or on the way to anywhere.  We traveled a gorgeous route down 395 taking an easy day and spending our first night out at the Desert Rose RV Park in Fernley.  It is a nice little Passport America park, clean and tidy, with “the best TV east of the Mississippi”.  All that has changed, however, with the advent of Charter Cable requirements for individual receiver boxes for each site, and the owner said, Nope, no more TV here.  We had our little satellite, but TV wasn’t high on the agenda for only one night, so we didn’t bother to set it up.Great Basin-11

The next morning we headed west on Highway 50, and once beyond Fallon, the route lived up to its reputation as the “Loneliest Road in America”.  That title was a bit more apt when it was first declared a few decades ago, but it still is one of the few places in the country where you can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle.  Actually, the stretch between Alturas and Susanville on 395 was almost as empty of traffic.  Daughter Deanna warned me when we left that school was out, vacationers were on the road, and traffic was completely crazy.  Not in the world we have traveled this week.  Lucky us.

Great Basin-19We decided to take the old Route 50 between White Rock Springs and Austin, a beautiful route with some serious curves and climbs but nothing too difficult, and again, no traffic. 

By the time we reached the park, it was mid afternoon, early enough to hopefully find a campsite in the first come/first serve campgrounds.  There are four listed campgrounds in the park, and another couple of locations for what they call “overflow camping”, with picnic tables and fire grills but no water.  The camp at the lowest elevation, just a couple of miles from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, is Lower Lehman Creek, with a few pull-through sites, water in the campground, and pit toilets.  Great Basin-42

With most sites filled, we opted for the remaining pull through site #3, in spite of the fact that it was listed on the camp information sign as ‘extremely unlevel’.  Most sites were listed as ‘unlevel’ except for the one accessible site at the entrance to the campground.  No biggy, at least I thought so until I tried to sleep that first night with my head down from my feet in spite of all our work at leveling as much as possible.Great Basin-32

We spent the first evening enjoying the sound of the creek, and I took a walk up the trail toward the Upper Lehman Creek campground to check things out.  I got a serious reality check trying to hike up the steep trail at 7500 feet elevation.  I have obviously been sitting around too much for the last couple of months.  My lungs were aching after just a mile or so.  sheesh!  I am glad we gave ourselves a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation before trying the main park hikes that all start at the Wheeler Peak campground at about 10,000 feet elevation.

Great Basin-5The next morning we decided to seek out a lead on a young woman who might watch Abby for us while hiking, but as we were leaving, site 3 came open, and we nixed all plans and moved across the road to a lovely, almost level site right by the creek,  with an open sky for the satellite.  Perfect.  With a bit of jockeying, I had the rig leveled, Mo had the solar panel out and the TV hooked up.  We can run the inverter for the TV, satellite, and Direct TV box without taxing our batteries too much.  Each day we do run the generator for a couple of hours to charge things up, but so far all is good.Great Basin

Did I mention no bears?  It just seems crazy to be in the mountains and not have to worry about critters getting into your stuff.  There aren’t even raccoons or skunks around here either.

Great Basin-55Once we settled into the new spot, we decided to go to the visitor centers.  There are two of them for this park, the Lehman Caves center is within the park boundary, and the Great Basin visitor center is down in Baker.  We wanted to tour Lehman Caves, and the tours do sell out, so getting tickets was first on our agenda.  Later we found Rachel in the T and D Café in Baker, who agreed to watch Abby for us so we could do the tour together.  Lucky find, if a bit expensive at $10. per hour.  Rachel’s husband is the IT person for the park, and heard us at the visitor center asking about dog care in the vicinity.  Rachel was a sweetheart and Abby enjoyed her two hour stay at her home with her two dogs.

Great Basin-61A slogan for Great Basin NP is that “half the park is after dark”.  They have great night sky programs, and as one of the ten darkest night sky locations in the US, there is much to see.  It would be great to be here during the dark of the moon, with views of the Milky Way that many of us only remember from childhood. 

Great Basin-67Instead, we were here during the full moon, another perfect time, because the park has ranger guided full moon hikes each month during the season unless weather interferes. Free tickets for the hike are passed out only on the day of the full moon, beginning at 8 in the morning.  The location of the hike is kept secret, and you are requested to bring your hiking shoes for inspection when signing up.  In spite of the hard core rules about tough boots with ankle support, we saw several folks in tennis shoes, and Mo’s Keen sandals passed without a problem.  We were afraid she might be denied a ticket at first, but it seems that the only real problem would be open toed sandals or flip flops.

Great Basin-79Both our Cave Tour and Full Moon hike were scheduled for Thursday, so we spent Wednesday exploring the area a bit in the Tracker.  We explored the Baker Creek Road, and the other campgrounds in the vicinity of Pole Creek and the Grey Cliffs.  The road was steep, graveled, but without a serious washboard problem at least, so in a pinch, we could have managed a campsite along Baker Creek at a few locations.

Great Basin-8By the time we visited the Great Basin Visitor Center, the sun was high and hot and Mo and I took turns going inside.   As is usually the case, the visitor center was wonderful, with beautiful exhibits and I learned not only about Great Basin National Park, but the Great Basin in general. The term “Great Basin” was coined by one of my favorite guys, John C Fremont, the Pathfinder, back in the mid 1800’s. I’ll write more about that in my next post. 

Great Basin-19We also traveled back through Baker and north to the Baker Archaeological Site. Although there isn’t a lot to see at the site, there are great interpretive signs explaining about the major dig here in the mid 90’s that discovered a complex community of what is now called the Fremont Culture, estimated to have been around 1300 AD.  The best part about the site is the vastness of the view, and the gorgeous skyline in the west dominated by the Snake Range and Wheeler Peak.

Great Basin-23There are several dirt roads leading into the park, but the most traveled route is the paved Wheeler Peak Scenic Route that leads to the Summit Trailhead, and the trailheads for the Bristlecone Forest Hike, and several other high mountain hikes in that vicinity.  The Wheeler Peak campground is gorgeous, but at 10,000 feet elevation, the weather up there was COLD.  We saw folks in down coats and wool caps in the afternoon in their beautiful fir and aspen campsites.  The campground was gorgeous, but the length limit for driving the road is 24 feet and we are 26.  The level paved pads for camping were amazing, just too bad you can’t take a bigger rig up that road! Even so, it was nice to come back down the mountain to our warm campground.Great Basin-27

Clouds were thick around Wheeler Peak on that first visit, but even with the cloud cover, the magnificence of the limestone mountains were evident.  With more than 13 peaks over 11,000 feet high in the Snake Range that dominates most of the Great Basin National Park, there is no shortage of hiking opportunities for the hardy souls who can manage high elevation hiking. Great Basin-34

I do actually have a Verizon signal here at the campground, not always fast, but it is much better than the weak “out of area” signal that I get on my ATT iPhone. Between TV and occasional internet, we haven’t been too far out of touch while camping here.  More to come in the next post but it is time to go explore Snake Creek and the Johnson Lake trail.