Saturday, September 13, 2014

Life After Death

  What do 545 miles, 117 degrees, and 16 hours have in common? My trip to Death Valley. Click HERE for ALL my photos from the trip. This article only contains a couple of boring sign pics.
  First of all, don't be like me. I did a number of foolish things on this whirlwind trip to the lowest, hottest point in the United States. My methods certainly aren't for everyone. Surprisingly, Death Valley National Park is a MUCH bigger place than I thought.
  Friday morning, I left Palmdale for the easternmost portion of Death Valley- a five hour drive. I had my routes and stops all planned out meticulously, and had packed plenty of water, provisions, and yes, sunscreen. It was a long drive, as is usually the case with the beginnings of trips. The excitement of actually GETTING THERE tends to make me really impatient.
  Finally, just before noon, I crossed the border with Nevada, and found the beginning of the Titus Canyon trailhead. The trail climbs for several miles before descending down into one of the park's most spectacular canyons. The road is pretty rough and washboardy in the beginning, and then becomes a high-clearance only 4x4 road. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but I certainly wouldn't try taking a car over it.

  After those first few miles, the scenery becomes quite amazing. Huge towers of rock jut out of the landscape amidst soils of every color of the rainbow. I'm not exaggerating here- there was red, brown, tan, white, yellow, green, and blue. It was a very vivid and fantastic landscape.
  At the highest point on the trail, the long-ago abandoned town of Leadfield rusts and decays in the sun. It was a mining boom town that only lasted from 1926-1927. I can't imagine living out in that Godforsaken place. Those people must have been pretty tough. There was a sign here warning about open mines, and all the dangers therein. "Stay Out, Stay Alive," was the slogan. Naturally, I hunted down one of these mines and checked it out for myself.
  It's after that, though, that the trail REALLY becomes amazing. It drops down and follows a very deep and very narrow canyon that photos just don't do justice. It simply has to be seen to be believed. If you undertake a trip to Death Valley, and you have a 4x4, I highly recommend it.
  I made my way down to Furnace Creek next to pay the entrance fee to the park, gas up, and replenish my ice supply. The thermometer outside the ranger station displayed a balmy 117 degrees. The hottest temp I've ever experienced was 120, so I didn't break my record. Once things get up in this range, it's really pretty difficult to feel any distinction from 110 and up.
  Badwater Basin was my next stop. It's probably the most visited site in the park, and there were about forty tourists there. Amazingly, I didn't hear one word of English. Could it be that only foreigners are crazy enough to come here in the summer? Possibly. This is the lowest point in the park, and in the United States, at 282 feet below sea level. They were even kind enough to post a huge sign on the side of the mountain that simply read "Sea Level." Surreal. The ground in the basin is a chunky collage of shapes that resemble dirty snow. As with most other stops, it didn't pay to be outside your vehicle for very long, but I did walk out there quite a fair distance.
  I took three short side trips next. The first was Natural Bridge. I was the only one there, and there was a huge red stop sign posted warning of "Extreme Heat Danger." It said that hiking this trail was not advised after 10am. My watch read 2:45. Close enough.

  I won't kid you. Although the incline wasn't that severe, it was difficult hiking in those extremes. The terrain was amazing, though, and I snapped quite a few pictures. The arch was just okay. Maybe the far more beautiful arches of Utah have me spoiled. Regardless, it was worth the hike, and coming back was substantially easier.
Next up was the Devil's Golf Course. This area is basically a rougher section of Badwater Basin. Here, the ground is even more torn up and chunky, and the large dirty snowballs are about the size of beanbag chairs. The most amazing thing is how this unique landscape seems to stretch on forever under the unrelenting sun.
  Next, I hit Artist's Drive. This is basically a small one-way road that takes the driver into some of the foothills. Here, there are even more concentrated sections of colored sand and stone. One such area is called, appropriately, Artist's Palette. It's amazing that nature would squeeze all those colors in together and yet have them clearly separated. Wonders and more wonders.
  It was, by this time, quite late in the day, and I was holding to my schedule quite well. It was exhausting constantly being on the move, and battling the heat. This is what I meant earlier when I said, "Don't be like me." I fairly RUSHED through the park, and although I was there all day, I still skipped a lot. Do yourself a favor: see less, or stay longer.
  My sunset destination was the dunes at Mesquite Flat. I figured that the low angle of the sun would accentuate the dunes and their ripples, and boy was I right. I packed extra beverages, and hiked quite far out into the neverending sand slopes. As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, the dunes took on a golden hue, and the surrounding hills, a bright pinkish-purple. It was the perfect ending to an amazing day.
   Although I saw everything I set out to, I drastically underestimated the beauty and absolute individuality of this place. It was like being on another planet. Because of this, and because it was a full 16 hour day by the time I made it home, I was a little disoriented. I felt like it couldn't have all happened in one day. I felt like I'd been away for a week at least. Despite my constant chugging of water and other beverages, I still came home dehydrated. The shower I had late that night was one of the best ever, I think, and I slept like I was in a coma.
  If you can stand the heat, I highly recommend a visit to Death Valley National Park.

  Oh, and don't forget to go look at all my pics!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ocean Adventures

  For the second weekend in a row now, I've been lucky enough to get some much needed down time! This time, instead of desert, it was ocean waves, sea air, and boats.
  Friday, we were supposed to catch a boat out of Marina Del Rey to do some whale watching. Due to horrible (read: pretty standard) LA traffic, we missed our boat. It was a rough start to the day, and incredibly disappointing. We decided to drive out to the PCH anyway, and just see what kind of trouble we could drum up.
  Around Malibu, I remembered years ago going to a really scenic part of the beach called Point Dume. Actually, I remembered only that it was "Point something" or "something Point." With a little good fortune, we actually found it, and hiked down the moderately tall seaside cliffs to the rocky shore.
  We spent a good couple hours here, taking pictures of the surfers, the waves, and the gorgeous scenery before moving on. The remainder of the day was spent eating tasty seafood, cruising the PCH up to Ventura, and just enjoying.
  Saturday morning, we were able to make our re-booked boat out of Marina Del Rey. The weather was beautiful, and the water was fairly calm. It was really nice just being out on the ocean, and feeling the sea spray on our faces as the Matt Walsh bounced through the surf.
  We were informed that the chance of seeing whales is pretty random, and some days there just aren't any around.
  Soon, though, we ran into our first sea life of the day- a pod of dolphins! They were leaping out of the water, crossing in front of our boat, and just generally being playful. It was incredible to see them in such large numbers. About fifteen minutes later, we saw a big group of sea lions, and they seemed equally happy to be out frolicking in the ocean. No whales, though. For a good long while after that, in fact, there was nothing but water.
  When we hit about the halfway point on our trip out, I knew we'd be heading back soon, and I began to worry that we wouldn't get a glimpse of any of the large sea beasts.
  Just then, the captain of the boat called out that they had spotted a whale almost directly ahead. Everybody was naturally very excited, and crowded to the bow.
  What at first seemed disappointingly far away soon got much, much closer. The back of the first blue whale breached the surface, and mist sprayed out of the blowhole. It was the first time I'd ever seen a whale in person, and it was thrilling. Within minutes, our boat was surrounded by about five blue whales, who had come to this particular area to feed.
  After hanging out silently with the whales for a good fifteen minutes, we headed back to port. Along the way, our dolphin friends returned, this time in even greater numbers, jumping and splashing all around the boat. The crew was pretty thrilled, and told us that we had been extremely fortunate to see that many whales in one place, and that it was very rare for these tours. I guess our bad-luck traffic from the day before hadn't been so bad after all?
  All in all, it was a great weekend, and something I would highly recommend if you find yourself presented with the opportunity.

You can click HERE to see all of the weekend's pictures.