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Old 04-12-2009, 08:01 AM   #41
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Eleven
Stovepipe Wells to Mesquite Springs Ė Hiking the Dunes

We are up an hour before dawn, but I notice that several of the tenters, including Adriaan, are already gone. Those are dedicated photographers! I start up the van and try not to wake the rest of the campground with the sound of the cold diesel, and drive over to the Stovepipe Store. The expedition photographer fills our thermos up with good coffee and buys a couple of muffins to add for breakfast, and we are off to the dunes.




After parking, we trudge into the central dunes just a few minutes before sunrise. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of people out here although I can see a few photographers walking back and forth with the tripods. In previous dune sunrise trips, thereís always been a sunrise gathering on the highest eastern dune but thereís no such thing today.




The clear blue sky against the Grapevine Mountains makes for more boring photos, and I can see Adriaanís point about storms adding interest to his images. Still itís great out be out at dawn in the desert, a time most people just sleep through. We munch on the muffins, and try to keep sand out of the hard boiled eggs as we peel them for breakfast.




Back in the Sporty, driving north toward Mesquite Springs, we immediately start to see more roadside wildflowers, more than in any other place in the park so far. The bajadas even have a tinge of green on them when viewed at a distance, something we havenít seen since we drove through the country to the east of Joshua Tree National Park on Day Three of the trip.

Slowing down to check out the roadside plants, a light green Sportsmobile passes us headed south toward the Titus Canyon Road, where we will drive to tomorrow. I turn down the Mesquite Springs and we find a nice place next to the dry wash.



I like Mesquite Springs because there is a lot to do just around the campground, not to speak of within a short drive to Ubehebe Crater, the Race Track or Scottyís Castle. As one park ranger described the surrounding area, ďthe Wild Side of Death ValleyĒ in contrast to the touristy southern half of the park.

The expedition photographer decides to wander north up the wash after lunch. The stark Grapevine Mountains provide a scenic background to many views here.



The scoured rock pavement in the wash can teach you a lot about geology.



A Dune Primrose wilts in the afternoon heat in the wash.



Closer to camp, a butterfly sits on a Yellow Cup, trying to get at its pollen.



With the afternoon desert wind picking up, the expedition photographer tries her hand at kite flying.



Soon the light green Sportsmbobile returns and camps next to us. It is a 2WD RB owned by Lois and Jack from the Bay Area. We have a an afternoon conflab of Sportys, joined by the other SMB in the campground, who turns out to be Philrod on SportsmobileForum, who is from Nevada. Our conflab attracts other visitors, and pretty soon Iím doing another Sportsmobile tour. If I got paid for these, I would be retired already.

Hereís Philrod and his rig, along with Orange the cat.




Later in the afternoon, I grill the last of the London Broil over an open fire for steak fajitas, served with a chilled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

After dark, I wander up to Philrodís campsite, where he has his Celestron telescope set up for stargazing. Itís a clear, slightly chilly night, and we can make out the rings of Saturn quite clearly through the Celestron. More amazingly, Philrod zeros in on a couple of deep space objects, the Andromeda galaxy and itís sister M32. They appear as hazy white ovals in the telescopeís eyepiece, pretty impressive being two million light years away from Mesquite Springs Campground.

But itís early to bed for me, in order to get rested up for our big hike tomorrow in Fall Canyon.
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Old 04-12-2009, 05:37 PM   #42
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Twelve
Hiking Fall Canyon

Itís another early morning start before dawn, slurping instant oatmeal and coffee for breakfast at Mesquite Springs, before taking down the penthouse and driving south downhill to the trailhead, which we reach just before 8AM. Last year, my friend and fellow desert rat Kevin, started out closer to 11AM, and had to suffer through much of the heat of the afternoon.

Of the three big canyons lacing the Grapevine Mountains (Titus, Fall and Redwall), Fall Canyon may be the most spectacular according to the Hiking Death Valley guidebook. The six mile-long Fall Canyon hike, only moderately strenuous, has gotten more popular in recent years. According to one account I have read, former First Lady Laura Bush hiked it several years ago, increasing interest in the hike. Unlike her husband, who was known for his long mountain bike rides, the former First Lady would get together with several friends once a year for a week of day hiking in the national parks and forests. Somehow this love of the of parks didnít rub off much on her husband, for whatever reason.

The trailhead starts at the west (downstream) entrance to the drivable Titus Canyon, and the trail heads north at the foot of the mountains from behind the strategically placed outhouse. Several other parties are already on the trail, and it will only get more crowded as the day wears on. A woman at Philrodís stargazing last night told me to watch for Desert Five Spot wildflowers at the start of the trail, and I see some plants that look like them, but the flowers are stilled closed for the night. I will have to check them out more closely on the return leg.

After half a mile of skirting the base of the mountains, the trail drops steeply into the gravel of the Fall Canyon Wash.





Looking back at this point, there are sweeping views to the west toward the Cottonwood Mountains on the other side of upper Death Valley.



In a few hundred yards, we come across this odd plant.



Checking out my wild flower guides later, it is probably Death Valley Sage, an endemic wild flower only found in this area. Closeup, you can see its delicate deep-blue flowers, surrounded by small silver leaves.



The hike is a slow slog uphill in the loose gravel, and we are passed by a group of people on a guided hike out of Las Vegas.



Soon we reach impressive the first narrows of Fall Canyon.





Two miles up canyon, we come across a short side canyon coming in from the north, that features a small grotto with an eight foot high dryfall.



Past this side canyon, the main canyon broadens quite a bit, exposing the route to the direct sun and providing views of the twisted rock strata on the canyon walls.



For some reason, this formation reminds me of a large cinnamon roll.



Finally, slightly more than three uphill miles and three hours from the parking lot, we reach the big twelve foot high dryfall in the main canyon. A group of younger guys have already climbed around it and are looking downstream toward us.



The climb around the dryfall on the canyonís south wall has one easy move going up, which looks much harder coming down, so we decide to skip it for today. One of the hikers leaving the dryfall encourages us to go and feel how cold the blue-gray rock is. Placing my palm against the wall, I find it is really cold, just the proper temperature for a cold beer at this point.

One hiker offers to take our picture below the dryfall.



Itís a beautiful spot, and exploring the slot canyon above the fall will have to wait for another trip.



Itís a much faster hike going downhill back to the Sportsmobile and we encounter more hikers as we near the parking lot. As I suspected, several of the diminutive plants I examined in the morning with closed flowers have opened up in the early afternoon, and turn out to be the showy Desert Five Spot, the signature flower of Death Valley National Park.



Unfortunately, the afternoon desert wind has started, and I have to hold my broad-brimmed hat close to the flower to allow the expedition photographer to get a good shot.



At this point, more than a dozen hikers pass us and ask what the flower is, and I am forced to keep my hat next to it as each one takes a picture. Walking the last few feet, I discover that some of the showiest of the Five Spots are blooming right behind the outhouse at the trailhead. We drive the Sporty back to Mesquite Springs Campground and wash up before dinner.

Before I attempt to grill the Cornish game hens for dinner I walk over to talk to Philrod and some other campers we met stargazing last night. Unfortunately, a change of weather is moving in, and it is too cloudy to stargaze with Philrodís telescope this evening.

I limp back to camp, and end up splitting the game hens in half and slow cooking them in wine on the propane stove inside. We both sleep well after todayís hike.
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Old 04-19-2009, 07:09 PM   #43
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Great report Ed...more to come? I sure wish we had some flower bloom when we visited DV in March but we really didn't expect much this year. You guys got some great pics, thanks.
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Old 04-19-2009, 07:27 PM   #44
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Oh yeah Dave, there's still a bit more. Work has gotten in the way of my blogging, so it will be another day or two before I can finally finish this overly long trip report.

It was a weird wildflower bloom in the Mojave and Colorado deserts this Spring. Anza Borrego peaked in the second week of March and we didn't get there until the beginning of the third week. The Death Valley bloom peaked in the last week of March-first week of April, and we left at the middle of the last week of March. Obviously, the best plan is to take the entire month of March off and then some to catch the peak blooms everywhere in the Southwest. Dang, that may have to wait until retirement.

Thank you for the advice on camping east of Furnace Creek. It was great to escape the crowds by just driving up those washs.
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Old 04-20-2009, 06:30 AM   #45
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Thirteen Ė Morning
Mesquite Springs

Iím up at 6:30AM and walk outside to see a clear blue sky and absolutely no wind. It had been cloudy and breezy last night, which put the kaboosh on stargazing, but this morning light is perfect for photographing some wildflowers. Mesquite Springs campground is mostly full as I wander up the small dry wash paralleling the entrance road in the morning light.





Thereís a lot of flowers blooming here, such as this differently colored Desert Chicory. Chicory is a weak-stemmed plant that usually grows up into other plants for support, so it is odd to see this one alone.






The Brown-Eyed Evening Primrose is a great find.





Nearby is a Golden Primrose.






Notch-Leafed Phacelia is everywhere, along with the very common Yellow Cups.






Then there is a lone tiny white flower, which I havenít seen before, and isnít in my popular flower guides.



The entrance wash is an amazing place, but within twenty minutes of getting up out of bed, the desert wind begins to pick up, and flower photography is over for the day.

After breakfast, we drive up to Ubehebe Crater and consider doing the short hike around the rim. Itís not too hot yet today, but the wind has picked up considerably, and Iím still sore from yesterdayís six mile trudge through the loose gravel in Fall Canyon. We decide to bail on the hike and drive up to visit Scottyís Castle.



As we have a picnic lunch next to the castle parking lot, I realize that the wind has picked up quite a lot, and dust storm has started to blot out the blue sky with yellow sand. Driving back down hill to Mesquite Springs, we decide to pack up camp and hit the road for home, rather than spend the afternoon holed up in the van out of the dust. We had planned to head home the next morning anyway, and we can probably make some miles to Ely, Nevada before the day is out. Itís time to say goodbye to Death Valley and the Mojave Desert for another year.
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Old 04-20-2009, 08:04 PM   #46
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Great trip report Ed. Excellent photos too. Even including the one with the old dude & the cat. I ran into quite a headwind leaving the campground Thursday morning. I stopped at Scotty's junction to check the awning and almost got knocked on my butt. The SMB handled fine, but got lousy gas mileage going north on 95. I was glad to see that the UP station at Kelso has been restored. The last time I was there it was a mess. I may return to Mesquite Springs in the fall with the telescope, but can't deal with that summer heat.

Enjoyed our visit.
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Old 04-21-2009, 06:03 AM   #47
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Thanks Philroad! I'm finally getting around to finishing the trip report and writing about that awful wind on US 95.
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Old 04-21-2009, 06:28 AM   #48
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Thirteen - Afternoon
Mesquite Springs CA to Ely, NV.

We are packed up and headed out at 1PM, doing the long uphill grind east toward US95 at Scottyís Junction. Once in the open, the wind from the north starts to really howl, and I have to basically tack toward the northeast with my hands locked on the steering wheel to keep the Sporty on the road. Huge clouds of dust are coming off the dry lake bed adjacent to the highway.

The dust clears when we reach Scottyís Junction and turn north on US 95 toward Tonopah. Now we are headed directly into this 30-50mph wind, and itís hard to get the vehicle up to speed at 60-65mph. The traffic picks up and itís a real challenge to pass any slower vehicles, which I do with great care in this wind. The first is one of the worst, a Class C RV with a Toad thatís fishtailing across the road in the sudden gusts. In between gusts and fishtails, we power past them with overdrive off.

Iím trying to hold the speed to 60-65mph, but thereís an unloaded tractor trailer riding my bumper on most of this stretch. US95 begins the climb into Tonopah, and the Sporty simply has no extra power to pass uphill in this severe headwind. A couple of guys in an old Ford van are crawling uphill at 55mph, and as the road curves, there is no way I can see far enough ahead to pass them safely. But this doesnít stop two idiots from roaring blindly pass us uphill, as I keep an eye open for bailout options in the borrow pit to the right. At least the tractor trailer driver is smart enough not to try to pass in these conditions.

I pull into the gas station at Tonopah and have to pry my fingers off of the steering wheel, after this rotten stretch of driving. The mpg for the Sporty is the worst for the entire trip, a little over 12 miles per gallon into that head wind.

The expedition photographer takes over the driving duties and we turn east toward Ely clear across Nevada on the eastern side of the state. Luckily, the side wind abates as we drive east on this deserted lonely road. We see less than half a dozen vehicles in the next two hundred miles. I have always wanted to camp at Lunar Crater just south of the highway, but we are too tired and the temperature is dropping sharply as we approach Ely, so we head toward a warm motel room.

Itís below freezing as we reach Ely and check into a local motel, right next to a great Mexican Restaurant. What a relief to be out of the cold and the wind.
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Old 04-21-2009, 06:36 AM   #49
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Fourteen
Ely NV to Dillon MT

Itís a very cold 17 degrees this morning, as we load up the van with all the freezables we had offloaded the night before. Itís a long but uneventful drive north up US 95, crossing I-80 at Wells, Nevada, and passing through the tourist trap casino slum of Jackpot just south of the Idaho border.

I pull into a Flying J Truck stop north of the Interstate in Idaho Falls to fuel up. Itís a big place and only one vehicle is ahead of me at the diesel pump, a black pickup truck with British Columbia plates. The guy, who is dressed like a younger version of Crocodile Dundee, is crouched in the back open bed of the pickup on top of a huge auxiliary tank. After about ten minutes in this position, he begins jumping up and down on the tank while still holding the pump in the tank. Finally finished, he does an elegant leap from the top of the tank directly onto the pavement with the pump handle held high, a move that would have broken both of my ankles. When we pull up, I find that he has pumped $354 dollars of diesel, nearly 170 gallons. He wonít run out of gas before reaching British Columbia, thatís for sure.

Several hours later, we pull into the visitor center at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. This huge quarter million acre monument stretches from the base of the central Idaho mountains all the way south to the Snake River, encompassing mostly lava flows with the occasional kipuku, or grassy island. But thereís not much to see today, since the park roads are still closed by snow.

It is still clear and partly sunny as we reach I-15 at Dubois, Idaho and turn north toward Monida Pass on the ID-MT border. According to the weather report, we are racing just ahead of a late winter storm, so we head up and over this long pass in the early evening and pull into the Comfort Inn in Dillon at 7PM. Even in bad weather, itís just a short easy drive to Helena from this side of the pass.
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Old 04-21-2009, 06:38 AM   #50
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Re: Desert Parks Tour Trip Report

Day Fifteen
Dillon MT to Helena MT

Having breakfast at the motel, we notice a large bull moose galloping back and forth through the field to the north. After a few moments, a jogger comes by on the path next to the field with a dog off leash, obviously startling the moose. We are definitely back in Montana.

Most of the RVs that the motel allows to boondock in their parking lot are already gone by 7:30AM. Some of the Canadians in the crowd have long drives still ahead of them to their farms and ranches in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

We drive north to Butte America (as it is called) and make a quick stop at the Front Street Italian market for homemade ravioli and jalapeno stuffed chardonnay marinated olives, among other things before completing the last sixty miles to Montanaís capital city.

I decide to top of the tank before driving to our house in order to close the books on the fuel expenditures for the trip, so I drive up to a Town Pump as we leave I-15. No lines or screaming people thankfully. I swipe the credit card through the credit card reader at the pump several times, but get no response. Finally a voice bellows that credit cards are not working today, and I must pay ahead of time inside. Great. As I shell out the last of my cash to the guy at the register, he says ďNice van! What is it?Ē
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