A SPECTACULAR DRIVE—High on the Blue Ridge Parkway

It was too much to hope for .  .  .  but I just couldn’t help it.  It would be close, but the calendar was telling me it was just too soon.  It was one of those things where timing would make all the difference—in this case, the difference between early buds to full-blown blooms.  It was hope against hope that the latter would be true, but past experience said it needed a couple more weeks.  So, as we were approaching the parkway, I forced myself to sit back, take deep breaths, and repeat the mantra “What will be, will be.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway is an incredible drive in any season, but there are a couple times of the year when it really comes alive.  In the fall this is one of our country’s most outstanding roads for experiencing the change of foliage.  The eastern hardwood forests simply can’t be beat for the brilliant colors that cloak the mountainsides.  The road is a Technicolor tunnel, resplendent in dozens of shades of scarlet, rose, burgundy, orange, yellow and bronze.  And those that turn out for the show know it—the leaf peepers (as they’re known) can become glutted with the sensational color.  We should know—we were one of them just a couple years ago.

But there is another season on the Parkway that is fast catching on with the sight-seekers .  .  .  fortunately, not quite as well-known.  Yet.  Spring comes late to the high elevations, and while most of the country is feeling the first heat of summer weather, the days are still pleasantly cool in the mountains.  And the nights can be downright chilly.  The first delicate greens of the forest have begun to turn to their deeper emerald shades, but by May you’ll find showy blooms popping out in the landscape . . . all shades of pinks, magentas and oranges.  And that was what I was so hoping for.

Late April through June offers the best opportunity to see the most blooms appearing at one time.  One of the wonderful things about the Parkway is that the elevation varies by several thousand feet, constantly changing the blooms that you see.  In general (and counter intuitively), the farther south you drive on the Parkway, the earlier the season becomes.  The parkway gains altitude the farther south you go.  If you missed the azalea bloom in Virginia, just take a day trip towards Asheville to catch them just coming on.

So here it was—early June.  Not too early for blooms in the lower elevations, but that wasn’t where we’d be headed.  Coming from the east our route would take us through Sylva, North Carolina, accessing the Parkway just a few miles north of town.  With our destination near the Pisgah Inn, we’d find ourselves in the highest elevations of the road.  And hence my doubts as to catching the blooming shrubs this first week in June.

Flowers or not, the views were certainly arresting.  We couldn’t have selected a better day to take that high ridgeline road.  Sunny skies and clear conditions, the views were incredibly expansive.  It wasn’t long before I was asking Chris to pull off at the next overlook.  It would be the first of many.

A scenic drive doesn’t begin to describe what this parkway is like!

The first sighting of flowers almost escaped my attention, so caught up in the views we were.  (Actually, Chris was more caught up in the driving, maneuvering curves and defensively driving).  They didn’t begin with a bang, but more like a teaser.  A few blossoms here, a scattering there .  .  .  an isolated bush would show up ever so often.  But it was enough to open my eyes with anticipation.

Interestingly, the farther we drove and the higher we went, the more flowers seemed to be showing.  How’s that happening?  But forget about trying to figure it out, I just sat back and kept enjoying the show.

And miracles of miracles, it just kept getting better.  Welcome to Spring Bloom on the Blue Ridge Parkway!

A labyrinth of cross ranges and gentle peaks make up the Blue Ridge Mountains as they extend from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  As part of the Appalachian chain, the time-worn Blue Ridge is one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, having summits reaching in excess of 6,000 feet.  (Some geologists will say that eons ago the mountains in this range were higher than the Himalayas are today).

The Blue Ridge Parkway was the longest federally planned roadway in the United States when construction began in 1935, and today it is America’s longest linear park, running for 469 miles through 29 counties.  Traversing mostly along the spine of the Blue Ridge, it links Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  And this is a fact you don’t want to forget—this Parkway has been the most visited unit of our National Park System EVERY YEAR since 1946 (except for 1949 and 2013).  In 2016 the parkway had 15.2 million visitors.

The Parkway is featured on the 2015 America the Beautiful Commemorative quarters series for North Carolina .

Begun during FDR’s administration, construction began in the fall of 1935.  Most construction was done by private contactors under federal contracts.  In June of 1936, Congress formally authorized the project as the Blue Ridge Parkway and placed it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  Work was done by the WPA, the CCC and crews from the Emergency Relief Administration.  During WWII, conscientious objectors had a hand in its construction.  The parkway is built across streams, railway ravines and cross roads by 168 bridges and six viaducts.  There are 26 tunnels (1 in Virginia and 25 in North Carolina) boring through rock.

To travel on the Parkway is to know firsthand what a jewel of the NPS this masterpiece of construction truly is.  You can’t help but to be incredibly impressed.  We have visited segments of it many times, coming up to hike some rugged trails, to take in the popular locations, even to dine at the mountaintop Pisgah Inn.  We’ve been witness to its many looks and fickle moods.  It’s simply a place we have never become tired of seeing.

But we’ve never done an overnight stay for even one night, much less 3 or 4.  Until this trip, that is.  But here we were, Airstream and all, relatively speaking in the neighborhood.  And so we pulled into the Pisgah Campground, where we’d already reserved a site.

Mt. Pisgah Campground is ideally located along the parkway, situated in the high elevations of the Pisgah National Forest and within striking distance of some great mountaintop trails as well as the delicious fare of The Pisgah Inn.  Both RV and tent sites are available—52 for advanced reservation and 74 on a first-come, first-served basis.  For a national forest campground, this one is a notch above the average.  Paved roads and pads, many pull-thrus as well as back-ins, bathhouses with running water and tiled showers.  While RV sites are on the smallish size, some of the pull-thrus are quite long.  But it helps to arrive during the week, because this place is really hopping come the weekends.  Reserving a site or coming mid-week is the best advice I can give!

Our reserved site turned out to be way too short for our 40+feet total length.  Fortunately we pulled in early afternoon on a Wednesday and had plenty of non-reserveable sites to choose from.  After several attempts to get us level—my hubby epitomizes the patient albeit long-suffering male—we settled in to our fragrant, flower-lined site.  Everything we could ask for in a campsite and the liberal (8am-9pm) generator hours took the worry out of living off the grid.  Now if we only had a water hookup . . . .

 . . . oh well, this is the joy of back-to-nature camping!

We woke up in the clouds our first morning.  And I’m not talking just a mist or a little foggy.   I’m talking a full-blown, complete white-out.  No visibility more than a few dozen yards.  Coooool.  And probably pretty typical at this 4,000’ elevation.  No sunrise photo on this morning, but a great day to hunt down some wildflower photo ops.  Go with the flow and play the cards you’re dealt when you’re dealing with Mother Nature!

Flowering shrubs and wildflowers dominate the parkway this time of the year, bringing out the first high tide of tourists.  Redbuds and dogwoods begin the show as the tender greens of trees leaf out.  Wildflowers on the forest floor are the next harbingers of spring, and then comes the flowering shrubs.

Known as the “Big Three Bloom” in Blue Ridge Parkway jargon,  it refers to a trio of flowering shrubs, three of the showiest of parkway wildflowers. that bloom here in early summer and are the subject of many a photographer, be he an amateur or pro.  It’s a time to go searching for that ideal calendar-worthy composition.  Or try your hand at some close up, macro shots.

As it turned out, we were very, very fortunate in our timing.  To catch the Big Three Bloom is the hope of every flower-seeker fan.  An occurrence that doesn’t happen every year . . . Azaleas being the earliest bloomers in late April, followed by the Mountain Laurel in May, and then one of the Parkway’s icons, the wild magenta Catawba Rhododendrons coming along in mid-June cap off the three outstanding flowering shrubs.  AND I SCOOPED ALL THREE!!!  Oh happy day!

The Catawba rhododendron could also be known as the show-stopper of the Parkway.  With its masses of blossoms ranging in shades from pink to magenta, to violet and purple, it’s easy to see why people pull over to snap a few pictures, especially when found growing in masses.  Contrasting so vividly against their dark emerald evergreen foliage, it’s easy to see why this is also a popular landscape plant, especially in the South.

Also contrasting sharply within their own dark green foliage, at first the mountain laurel might be mistaken for the Catawba rhododendron, but closer scrutiny will show how different they are.  The flowers of the laurel are slightly smaller, made up of clusters of tiny, cup-shaped flowers, their color ranging from white to deep pink or peach.  Growing sometimes to heights of a small tree, they can form a nearly impenetrable thicket that even large animals have difficulty getting through, much less the cross-country hikers.

In comparison to the mountain laurel and rhododendrons, the flame azalea has a very delicate appearance.  What they lack in fragrance (as opposed to the two others), they make up for in a wider range of colors.  From palest yellows and apricot to brilliant oranges and scarlet reds, these shrubs can grow as tall as 10 feet.

Both flowers and waterfalls make ideal subjects for photographing on overcast days, and today certainly qualified as such.   I returned home with quite a collection of flower photos.  Only then did I come down from a day-long adrenaline high. The sun broke out the following morning, and even before breakfast we were headed down the parkway.  Fresh mountain air does wonders for stimulating appetites and tendrils of  early morning mist still draped the valleys and coves.  It’s as invigorating as it is scenic.

After our hearty and quite sufficient feast of a breakfast we were ready to hit the long trails.  Actually, one doesn’t even need to drive to a trailhead if camping here at Mt. Pisgah.  A trail map posted at the camp’s entry showed several choices we could make.  Pilot Rock Trail looked promising, so we headed out.

Sometimes you must earn those mountain views with a steep climb and some good hard sucking in of air.  Burning those calories off while we’re at it!

 

 

 

 

 

And yes, the effort was worth it.  You’ll find incomparable views on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

When you feel you’re deserving of a respite from the trails, then you can take a leisurely drive along the Parkway.  With plenty of overlooks and picture postcard views to offer, windshield touring has rewards of its own.

Rising to just over 6,000 feet, Cold Mountain (made famous by the movie of the same name) is one of the more noteworthy peaks you’ll see from the parkway.  Since it’s part of the Pisgah National Forest, the mountain is still (most fortunately) in its natural state.  There’s an extremely strenuous 10-mile trail to its summit (something Chris has added to his bucket list–but not Melinda).

Looking Glass Rock is another outstanding landmark along the Parkway.  Named for the way its granite face reflects the sunlight, it rises from the valley floor to an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet.  It is as popular of a photo op as it is a hiking trail.  Yes! A 6-mile round trip hike will climb 1,700’ to some pretty phenomenal views of the parkway and the iconic mountain ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountain.  Next trip (bodies willing) we’ll do it!

Speaking of hiking trails, we took a noteworthy one on our last day on the parkway; one that we didn’t even know about but certainly should have!  It was just dumb luck that the blooming rhodies made this a spectacular trail at this particular time of the year.  We headed out after another hearty breakfast, unsuspecting of what waited up the trail.

The Black Balsam area includes some of the most spectacular mountain balds in the Southern Appalachians, including Black Balsam Knob, Sam Knob and Tennent Mountain.  These treeless mountaintops offer sweeping views and provide an invigorating sense of accomplishment.  You have the option of just hiking up to Black Balsam Knob, or you can make a 5-mile circuit and bag all three of these mountain balds.  Once you get going, I’m betting you won’t be calling it quits at the first summit . . . it’s just too tempting not to continue on.  We sure did!

Once I saw the profusion of wild rhododendrons, there was no doubt that we’d continue.  A few detours were thrown in as I made my way off-trail in order to snag a few photo ops along the way.  What glorious flowers!

From a flower-strewn pathway the final bald, Sam Knob, lies up ahead.

But finally, all good things have an ending.  Chris was the first to head down .  .  .

. . . but when flowers are involved, I have a tendency to linger.

I suppose by now (if you’ve read through this post) you’ll know that our stay on the Parkway was fulfilling.  Whether camping or just day-tripping, any traveler should have this Parkway on his/her bucket list.  Whether choosing to drive its full 469-mile length or just a section at a time, you’ll find it to be a rewarding experience—I have no doubt!  And that is all you can hope for when you are seeking new places to go.

From the Southern Appalachians,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

–heading on to other peaks (after a brief interlude in Indiana).

Coming soon!

Posted in Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina | Leave a comment

A JAUNT IN EARLY JUNE—Headed for the Southern Appalachians

Not to be misconstrued with one of our more involved trips, this particular excursion was what might be referred to as a little “getaway”.  Actually, when Airstream acquaintances Teresa and Randy Cook informed us that their summer itinerary would have them passing near to our home base in Indiana, we arranged a rendezvous of sorts.  Once learning that they had yet to see a nearby national park, we suggested that Mammoth Cave would be a good place to meet up and to enjoy their company for a few days.  Reservations were made months in advance, with them headed on to Michigan and eventually the West Coast. Adding a few extra stops of our own, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky would be our first destination, but not our last.  Inveterate travelers as we are, why not tack on a few more places?  Early summer in the Appalachians really can’t be beat.  We’d retrace a trip we made in reverse just a couple years ago . . . albeit in the last days of a spectacular autumn.  Seen in reverse and dressed in a totally different look, it should be as if a first-time event.  We hit the road with high expectations.

Our acquaintance with Teresa and Randy was a recent one, coming together at last May’s annual Airstream Rally, the Alumnapalooza, in Ohio.  As fate would have it, we were assigned adjacent sites, and remarkably we both pulled up in Limited Edition Pendleton Airstreams!  And that was just the start of all we had in common.  After several fun-filled and informative days, we parted company.  Our travels would take us in different directions, but we were determined to reconnect.  As thus we came to Cave Country RV Park in late May of 2017.

Two cave tours later and many enjoyable evening hours around the “campfire”, our visit once again came to an end.  The Airstream connection might have been the catalyst, but an active lifestyle and a yearning to keep traveling was the bond that has us determined to reconnect our full lives.  Mammoth Cave was just the beginning.  We’ll stay in close touch and look forward to our next rendezvous—undoubtedly somewhere our Airstreams take us!

From the rolling hills of central Kentucky, we took the highway south.  Once in Tennessee, those hills took on a decidedly more rugged character.  The highway got curvier too.  Near the end of our nearly 200-mile drive we were making a serious climb up the flanks of the Cumberland Plateau.

Located in central Tennessee midway between Nashville and Knoxville and just a short drive south of I-40, Fall Creek Falls is one of the state’s most popular state parks.  And with good reason.  Centered in an area known for its unique geological formations, this 26,000-acre park is found in the upper Cane Creek Gorge, where just to get there is an adventure in driving, not to mention when you’re towing.  Part of the Cumberland Plateau—that huge dissected upland that lies just west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Cane Creek Gorge is a large gash cutting into the western edge of the plateau.  With its headwaters in the eastern highlands of the Plateau, Cane Creek slowly gains strength as it absorbs several smaller streams.  Entering the gorge, it drops several hundred feet in less than a mile, first creating cascades and then separating to create two waterfalls dropping into the same plunge pool.  Over the next half-mile, Cane Creek absorbs Fall Creek and Piney Creek, both of which enter from smaller gorges, having each created their own impressive falls.

In 1937, the U.S. Government began purchasing the badly eroded land around Fall Creek Falls.  The following year, the WPA and the CCC began the work of restoring the forest and constructing park facilities.  In 1944, the NPS transferred ownership of this park to the State of Tennessee.  Today, Fall Creek Falls is the state’s largest and most visited state park

There is a 145-room lodge and 30 cabins.  The campground has 222 sites with water and electricity (70 of which have sewer hookups!).  Very popular on the weekends, the campground is laid out in several loops.  With paved roads and campsite pads, it’s pretty darn decent for any state park!  Make reservations ahead of time if coming in the summer and fall months. There are more than 34 miles of trails as well as two long-distance overnight trails.

Three days later had us pulling away from a satisfying visit, but looking ahead to even higher elevations with great expectations.  Another cross-country drive along rural state highways . . . a stop for provisions in the college town of Athens, and then deeper into the backcountry highlands of far eastern Tennessee.

Ever heard of the Cherohala Skyway?  If not, you’re in good company with lots of people—even those that live a lot closer to where it’s located.  I learned about it years ago, written up in a travel magazine article.  Piquing my interest, I filed the article away under my Scenic American Roads travel folder, waiting for the right opportunity to come along.  And here we were—in a convenient location at a perfect time.  It was an easy half-day drive from Fall Creek Falls.

Winding up and over 5,400-foot mountains for 23 miles in the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee and descending another 18 miles in North Carolina, the Skyway gains over 4,000 feet in elevation.  Crossing through both the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, its name is thus derived—“Chero…hala”.  Well known in motorcycling and sports car circles, it has gained a reputation for long, sweeping turns, scenic views and cool summer breezes.  Once passing through the verdant gateway, there is little evidence of civilization from views that rival any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

During the 1950s the people living in the foothills and mountains of eastern Tennessee felt isolated from virtually the rest of our country.  They had roads running west, miles of rough driving to reach a town of any consequence.  What they were needing was a route to the east, to the progressive towns of western North Carolina.  A passage in the book Wagon Train:  Thirty Years Across the Far Blue Mountains written by Jim Thompson summed it up succinctly.

“A highway that would enable their youngsters to search for the reality inside the dreams of their parents. A highway that would allow bright young men and women to expand their horizons beyond the noble mountains of their birth. They would travel to places beyond the horizon, then bring the lessons they learned home to the mountains. Rural villages would grow in knowledge and education, while retaining the values of the past.”

The history of the road is a long winding story that began in 1958. In the spring of that year the Tellico Plains, Tennessee Kiwanis Club members were talking about the need for a road connecting the people of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Charles Hall was one of the men at that Kiwanis Club meeting and remained a driving force behind the push for the road, until the dedication of the Cherohala Skyway in 1996.

During a Kiwanis meeting in April 1958, Sam Williams suggested they organize a wagon train to draw attention to the need for a road, “Since our roads are only fit for covered wagons.” “We laughed at Sam a little while, then got serious,” said Hall. On July 4, 1958, 67 covered wagons and 325 horseback riders made the 42-mile trek to Murphy, N.C. Surprisingly, this event caught on, becoming an annual event. During its 30-year history, this wagon train was chronicled by local and national media, eventually attracting the attention the men and media that it intended to.

It was on the 1960 wagon train, that then Robbinsville Mayor Smith Howell made the first announcement that the road connecting the two states would run from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC. Coincidentally, the 1960 wagon train remained the largest ever with 105 wagons and 776 horseback riders.

In 1962 Hall and several other men went before Congress to ask for money for the project. They had discovered the road could be built entirely on federal land, with it traveling through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Later that year the Federal Highway Administration made the first appropriation for the road, but it was still a long way from becoming a reality. “After we got the first appropriation, it fell back to us to keep the wagon train going and the money coming in,” Hall said. By 1967, the 10th anniversary of the Wagon Train, the road was finally under construction. As the Wagon Train ventured out on its annual journey in 1982, more contracts were being let for construction of the road and the Cherohala Commission had been appointed to promote and plan the new highway. Hall said construction was delayed for about 13 years while they worked with 21 environmental groups which had concerns about the road. But finally on Oct. 12, 1996, the road was dedicated and is now designated a National Scenic Byway. Hall’s wife, Billie Nell, said her husband was like the “little engine that could” in his efforts to draw attention to the need for the road and seeing it through to completion. Hall said what is important to him is “the satisfaction of knowing it is done and is going to be enjoyed by so many people.”

And we would be one of them.  Starting in Tellico Plains, TN., we entered the Cherokee National Forest, the state’s only national forest.  Once devastated by logging, but protected since 1911, the woodland is pristine—no signs of civilization.  Surrounded by every conceivable nuance of green, we passed into an entirely natural and seemingly untouched world.  My kind of place.

At the very start of the drive, the Tellico River parallels the road.  Popular with trout fishermen and white-water enthusiasts, its appearance completes the picture of this primordial setting.

Only one campground is located along the drive—but it’s a real doozie.  Taking the turnoff on Forest Road 345, only 14 miles from the Tennessee terminus of the drive, you’ll find an hidden beauty of a campground canopied by large, looming hardwoods and pine forests.  Indian Boundary Recreation Area is easily the crown jewel of the south zone of the Cherokee National Forest.  It didn’t take long for us to set up camp . . . ahhhhh—now THIS was OUR KIND OF CAMPING!

Situated deep in a forested setting at a modest elevation of about 1,600 feet, the sites are decently spaced, extremely deep,  neatly delineated and nicely leveled.  While the road is paved, the sites are graded with fine gravel, and each site has electrical hookups.  Water faucets abound, making filling tanks very convenient.  Modern bathhouses are spotless and provide showers as well.  All this from a national forest campground??? National park campgrounds can’t hold a candle to this ideal campground!  You’ll find 87 reserveable sites in this popular place—make reservations well ahead!

Just 2 miles from the Cherohala Skyway, this is the perfect place to use as a base camp.  But don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to leave this pastoral setting . . . you might find everything here you’ll need for a satisfying getaway.  The 96-acre lake completes the picture—having a swim beach, small boat launch and accessible fishing pier.  The finishing touch is provided by a nicely graded 3.6-mile hike/bike trail that encircles the entire lake.  You’ll find it easy to understand why it’s such a popular family destination. And a real beauty for nature lovers!

It was difficult to pull ourselves away from that idyllic place come the next morning.  It would require a tantalizing lure to pull me away . . . and an exceptionally picturesque waterfall was just that kind of temptation

Turning off the Skyway, a narrow forest road skirts along the edge of the upper Tellico River through a steep-sided rocky gorge.  Sheer canyon walls rise above the forest canopy; the whitewaters of the river cascade over boulders and rocks. A setting that’s truly a balm for city-worn spirits.

And then, a few short miles up the river gorge is the big payoff for this side trip.  Bald River Falls is arguably the most beautiful and impressive waterfall in the entire state.  No argument or contradiction from me.

The Cherohala isn’t just about driving through dense forest scenery where trees hem in the road, their branches creating an emerald tunnel.  Soon enough the twisting road ascends to the highest ridges, gaining over 4,000 feet from the start of the drive, where it leads to arresting panoramas. It is from these high overlooks where little evidence of civilization can be seen and the views can rival—or surpass—any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This 43-mile, twisting ribbon of asphalt corkscrewing through mountain ridges is North Carolina’s most expensive highway.  Having a final price tag of $100,000,000, the cost averages out to about $3 million a mile.  For a scenic drive that is little known and rarely publicized, we found the statistics quite astounding.  You won’t find gas stations, restaurants, billboards or other facilities along its route, just the occasional restrooms and picnic tables at most pull-offs.  But for those of us who have made the discovery, there’s more enjoyment to be found on this high mountain road so little traveled.

Take hiking trails, for instance.  We tried out a couple and never passed another soul.  We were on our own to climb the pathways, selecting those that led to unique Appalachian anomalies—the mountain balds.

Found in the Appalachian Mountains, balds are mountain summits or crests covered primarily by thick vegetation of native grasses, shrubs and dwarfed trees.  With more than 80 of these balds found in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, their origins are speculative to both geologists and the native Indians.  Unlike the alpine summits where the climate is too cold to support tree growth, the climate found on balds is warm enough for trees.  Why a summit develops into a grassy bald is an ecological enigma, but there are some speculations.  Forest fires once sweeping through is an explanation.  Or cleared by early native tribes for ceremonial or hunting grounds could be the reason.  It is known that early settlers herded livestock to the mountaintops, providing summer grazing ground.  But those days are long gone.  Once shrubs and grasses become established, their deep and tightly bound root systems tend to prevent other vegetation from taking root.  Yet the mystery still is unanswered—why do forests exist on some of the summits, while others remain primarily grassy balds?  In this informed age of ours, I like to think that nature can still have her secrets.

Among the listing of more prominent balds, you’d find the two we chose to hike that day on the Cherohala.  Following the ridge of the Unicoi Mountain Crest, one of the most undeveloped areas in the eastern U.S., one can actually hike three successive mountain balds.  Hooper Bald, the second of the three, was where we chose to start.  Known for its wildflowers and plantings of wild and native azaleas by a local conservation group, it has an interesting history.

In 1908, George Moore started a 1500-acre hunting preserve on Hooper Bald where wealthy clients could come to shoot exotic and native game.  (In those days, activities such as this seemed to be very popular among certain groups—fortunately, not so much in current times).  In an effort to contain the wildlife, 25 tons of wire were hauled over rough roads for the 10-foot high fence to keep out the indigenous bear population.  However, those bears soon learned to climb the fence and would repeatedly raid the lodge in search of food (much to the dismay of guests). Among the animals shipped to this preserve were 14 European wild boars, 4 bison, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 25 black bears and 9 Russian brown bears. (I find it interesting that George Moore thought more bears were needed).  It took 3 days and 6 wagons to haul just the boars up 25 miles through the mountains.  Those same boars, incidentally, easily rooted out of their enclosure once on Hooper Bald and escaped.  Today it is a certainty that their progeny still roam these mountain ridges.

A stream of wild buttercups lined our pathway to Hooper Bald.

The end result makes all the huffing and puffing exertion worthwhile. Standing on that mountain bald opens up the far-off views.  Standing in a sea of high grasses, you’ll have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains, coves and deep valleys.

And there it is before you . . . that view of undulating ridge lines that the Blue Ridge is famous for.  You’d find this a memorable hike.  And we had it aaaaaall to ourselves!

It was just dumb luck that we saved the best for the last.  With a unremarkable start to Huckleberry Knob, we followed an overgrown forest road up a gradual slope through a thicket of dwarfed trees, shrubs and grasses, giving no hint of the scenery that was to come.  The call of songbirds was the highlight, with images of being alone here in bear country to give us a touch of apprehension.

Nearly a mile later the forest began opening up .  .  .  soon enough we were breaking through to sunshine as the undergrowth fell away.  Before us lay a breathtaking expanse.

This bald was crowned with a field of buttercups.  Not just a smattering, mind you, but a solid carpet of those yellow flowers.  Absolutely amazing as unexpected delights often are.  Even Chris was standing in awe.

Once again, the benefits of an open summit pay out in dividends with the far-off views.  Now here is a spot that you’d never tire of . . . and once again we were the only ones to be there!!  You won’t find that kind of privacy on most mountaintops.

Soon enough we were turning to go as heavy dark clouds were rolling in.  But I’m here to tell you—the trail back down was as spectacular as the start.  Lingering for a few last shots, I was still on an adrenaline high.

Ending our stay here on such a high note couldn’t help but influence our interlude here.  The flowers might have been one of the last memories, but we took away plenty of other good ones to add to it.  The scenic drive, the great campsite, a fabulous waterfall, the picturesque lake and its well-worn perimeter trail.  Somehow, we hope to return. Isn’t that the way a great stay should end?

Streaming on to the Blue Ridge Mountains,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

Posted in Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee | 2 Comments

PRESCOTT & FLAGSTAFF, Part 2—Wrapping It All Up

It had never been a primary destination, not a town where we’d spend a lot of time.  It was a place to pass through on our way to somewhere else . . .  on our route to the Grand Canyon  . . . returning home from Zion and Bryce.  Until now, with the conditions so perfect, with us attempting to delay our journey home, with average temperatures exceeding their normals, why not pull in and linger awhile?  When we learned new Airstream friends we’d met in Prescott, Lynette and Dan, were planning some days camping here, the decision was easy to make.  For the coming few days we’d be seeing what Flagstaff had to offer.

First, find a place to camp—not as easy as it sounds.  Lynette did her search while we did ours.  Seemingly plenty of campgrounds to choose from, with a mix of all kinds of ratings, the trick was to locate a place up and running this second week in March.  Interestingly, we both came up with the same selection—they’d be leaving Prescott a day before us and send back a report about Woody’s—Woody Mountain Campground & RV Park, that is.

With a total of 196 sites, it turned out to be a very good choice, at least when nearly empty.  Located in a forest of tall pines, the ambiance was perfect albeit the sites were extremely close to one another.  Not a desirable place when nearly full, on this first week that they were open it ended up being an ideal place.  Additionally, it was very close to town—just a couple miles to the west.  Perfect for getting around.  Good times, new friends, perfect weather—who could ask for anything more?

Located at the base of an extinct volcano, Flagstaff (simply known as ‘Flag’ to the locals) held quite the allure for us.  Positioned on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, the gorgeous, snowcapped San Francisco Peaks are the town’s backdrop.  Easily seen from the high points we had hiked while in Prescott, those peaks continued to tempt us to come closer.  With mountains always having been a huge draw for both of us, like a siren’s call we were powerless to resist.

It’s the highest mountain range in Arizona, the tallest peak soaring to 12,633’.  Named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by the Spanish friars that settled here in the 1620s, these scenic mountains are referred to as the Peaks by those who live here.  They are a huge attraction for the thousands who come here throughout the year, being a place for great hiking, skiing, camping, wildlife viewing and wilderness solitude.  They are a refreshing change from the desert areas that surround them.

The Peaks are made up of 6 summits that circle a caldera of a now quiet volcano.  Unusual for eruptions to occur on this dry arid plateau so far from the edge of a tectonic plate, these mountains were formed between 500,000 to a million years ago by the most dramatic of those eruptions.  The inner basin has been quiet ever since.

So many hikes .  .  .  so little time .  .  .  that’s what I was realizing once I began investigating possible trails.  Since Flagstaff was an addendum to this trip, I hadn’t researched all the possible trails.  Consequently, a cursory check on a few websites revealed a head-spinning pot load of possibilities.  The conundrum was in selecting just a few.  Actually, I don’t think we could’ve gone wrong with any one of them . . . in an area such as Flagstaff there just can’t be a bad trail around.

The Old Caves Crater Trail was a great starting point.  Winding through a forest of towering Ponderosa Pines, we were hit with a startling revelation.  Having just spent the past two months primarily in desert regions, this one particularly verdant trail accentuated a landscape we’d been missing.  Ahhhh, back to the pine-scented air! The emerald green colors!  The soft, cushiony, needle-strewn ground.  What delights!  What freshness!  What a difference!

Flagstaff might have many superlatives, but here in this particular spot we were to learn that the town is smack-dab within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest IN THE WORLDYes, you heard it here and it is true, pure documented fact.  The ecosystems that surround Flagstaff span from pinon-juniper woodland to alpine tundra, but it is the pine forest in between that dominates the area.  Growing only at elevations between 6,000’ and 8,000’, Flagstaff’s 7,000’ elevation makes for the Ponderosa pine’s perfect home.

The trail eventually begins to climb, first through a volcanic cinder field and then switchbacking up the side of an old volcano.  Several hundred feet of elevation later we’re up on top where the views open to impressive vistas. The trail’s namesake ‘caves’ are actually lava-formed chambers called “bubbles”.  The indigenous Sinagua Indians built their village above these bubbles, using them as rooms, then carved out storage alcoves.  The pueblo walls have long since crumbled, but the chambers remain.  It’s not uncommon to find sherds of pottery still scattered among the caves.

Perhaps the most rewarding payoff of this hike were the views of the San Francisco Peaks . . . through the seemingly unending span of Ponderosa pines.

Who would’ve known just 7 miles east of Flagstaff and a couple miles south of I-40 was a little-known national monument?  Not us, to be sure.  How many times had we driven right by, little suspecting what we were missing?  But anxious to bag yet another unit of our national park system, our first afternoon was spent exploring Walnut Canyon.

In the densely-wooded plateau country the small seasonal stream, Walnut Creek, has carved a 600’ deep canyon as it flows east to eventually join with the Little Colorado River, and then on to the Grand Canyon.  The exposed limestone that forms the upper third of the canyon walls is made up of different layers of hardness.  Some layers, eroding more rapidly than others, have formed shallow alcoves within these steep cliffs.  Eight to nine hundred years ago, the native Sinagua Indians constructed cave-like dwellings along these ledges, high above the canyon floor.  Today, the appearance of the canyon with the ruins is quite similar to the more well known Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, just on a smaller scale.

The park has a good visitor center.  Perched on the cliff edge, it has panoramic views both to the east and west.  Many of the ancient dwellings were built around a U-shaped meander in the canyon, where the creek circles around three sides of a high rocky plateau.  Almost creating an ‘island’, this is the central attraction of the monument.

There are many other ruins within a 10×20 mile area, but no others except those on the Island are accessible to the public.  As many as 600 people probably lived in this area, divided into many family groups.

The dramatic location of the structures and their good state of preservation gives Walnut Canyon the reputation for being the most interesting of the NPS historical sites in Arizona.

The Island Trail is very steep as it descends part way into the canyon.  For those with good lung capacity, it provides a good feeling of what it would have been like to live in this environment.  Circling around the ‘island’, the pathway passes alongside the remains of about 20 separate dwellings.  Looking down the steep incline to the streambed below, it was the route taken when more water was required. Looking out over the span of the canyon, you can see other dwellings built on opposing cliff walls.  Their ‘neighbors’ were just a loud call away.

The Rim Trail is a much easier walk, following the edge of the cliff for a short distance.  With two scenic viewpoints you can look out over another segment of the rock walls leading down into the canyon.

In the summer we learned that staff personnel lead the Ledges Hike to cliff dwellings off the main trail, as well as a moonlight/starlight walk in the area.

Our last hike in Flagstaff turned out to also be our last hike of this trip, and it was shared with now good friends Dan and Lynette.  Having spent time together around the campfire as well as a couple of fun dinners out on the town, we had come to realize we shared several common interests—hiking being one of the more significant ones.  It seemed only fitting that our last day together would find us all trekking together along a good scenic trail.

The Sandy Canyon Trail leads down one of the side canyons of Walnut Canyon. After a short descent to the canyon base, you can hook up with the Arizona Trail leading through a segment of Walnut Canyon.  Once down in the valley the going gets easy, along a flat, even pathway surrounded by wide grassy fields and flanked by towering stone walls. A beautiful day for a beautiful trail!

The highlight of the trail is Fisher Point. We saw it from below, and then we earned the view from up on top.

From the top of Fisher Point across another vast Ponderosa pine forest, once again we have views of the snowy summits of the Peaks.

So ends another good visit here in Flagstaff.  And the wrap up of another good trip.

With the mountains fading behind us,

Airstream Travelers,

Chris & Melinda

heading home.

 

OTHER PERTAINING LINKS:

  • More background on Flagstaff, click HERE
  • Other campground listings, click HERE and HERE
  • More hiking trails, click HERE
Posted in Arizona, Flagstaff | Leave a comment

PRESCOTT & FLAGSTAFF–Wrapping It All Up

Ever since leaving San Diego, our route had basically taken a turn toward the east.  No big jumps, mind you, and certainly not a direct easterly course, just small incremental moves that gradually had shifted eastward, to terminate ultimately at our home base in Indiana.  There would come the time when longer, more undeviating stretches would be required, but for now just some slight eastward movements were all we could manage.  If you’ve followed our posts in the past, you’ll know that being homeward bound is usually not a direction we eagerly embrace.

With that in mind, we checked the map for someplace in a general eastward direction that seemed appealing . . . a place not yet seen  . . . somewhere to hold our interest for just a few days at least.  Nothing too far from our current location, but at least somewhat to the east of where we were.  That was when the town of Prescott caught our attention, right there on Google Maps.  A place we had once come close to in past travels, a town recommended by fellow RVers we’d met, it was one of the few remaining Arizona cities we had never had the chance to visit.  Until now.  So we set our course.

Once again, a big chunk of desert scenery needed to be covered.  What else was new—as far as this whole trip was concerned?  Nearly 300 miles of mostly desolate, unchanging scenery . . . with scarce signs of civilization or towns of any small size.  One of our more unremarkable drives of the past two months.

Perhaps knowing that, you’ll understand the joy, the downright elation we experienced when the unceasingly bland horizon finally gave way to undulating ridges of mountains ahead.  Now that was something to take note of!  Our anticipation was barely contained.  Soon the flatlands would be a place of the past.

Long weeks spent in a basically unchanging environment seems to have a way of altering one’s frame of reference.  At least that’s where we seemed to be coming from when finding  ourselves suddenly surrounded by a totally different landscape.  Dark, lush, heavily-forested hillsides was a sight unfamiliar to our eyes.  Wow!  In what seemed the blink of an eye we found ourselves in a totally different life zone.  One thing was for certain—this had ceased to be a monotonous drive.

Although the Sonoran Desert was merely one mountain ridge below, the town of Prescott sits at a mile-high elevation.  In an entirely different ecosystem than where we had just come from, there was a cool crispness to the air and a scent of pine wafting on the breeze.  We were back in the mountains again  . . . a place we had too long been gone from.  And it was very welcoming indeed.

Sitting on the flanks of the Bradshaw Mountains, Prescott is an old town that has its roots as being the first capital of the newly formed Arizona Territory, back in the mid-1800s.  Many downtown buildings were built from that time, and around the courthouse square there are many historic landmarks.  Although several fires swept through town, the buildings were rebuilt (of bricks, second time around) and now have been converted to boutiques, art galleries, bookstores and restaurants.  All in all, it is a downtown worth strolling and enjoying, both by visitors and locals alike.  It was a big drawing card for the town we soon discovered.

Thumb Butte, a local landmark, towers above Prescott, easily seen from most locations. (photo credit: 55Places.com)

Another aspect of Prescott’s downtown is their Courthouse Square.  Bordered by tall old elm trees hemming in  the walkways, the plaza is quite an attractive asset.  We later learned it is a popular gathering place, a location for cultural events and performances many nights in the summer.  Its wide encircling sidewalks, shaded by the canopy of tree branches, makes for very pleasant ambling.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Prescott likes to show off its western style and portrays a cowboy feel, it  actually has a distinctive Americana look about it.  The early settlers and residents of Prescott built their homes and businesses with a character clearly reflecting their Midwestern and Eastern roots.  The town plaza, with its courthouse surrounded by landscaped lawns shows an influence of the larger American culture rather than that of the Southwest, contrary to many Arizona towns.  Nevertheless, that same town plaza has been enhanced with the addition of excellent sculptures that clearly reflect the Western influence.  It is a town that can simply combine the best of both worlds.  And therein lies the essence of its character.

Prescott’s town center isn’t the only draw to this attractive town—there are many natural assets yet to note.  Topping the list might be the most distinctive one of all, that being the Granite Dells.  Known locally as simply ‘The Dells’, just north of town is one big area of spectacular piles of boulders.  Formed over a billion years ago by the cooling and stressing of buried molten rock, weathering eventually uncovered them.  Through eons of erosion, these rocks were transformed into the rounded weathered shapes and other unusual formations that characterize the Dells today.  It’s a feast for the eyes as well as a natural outdoor playground.  Hiking trails abound—paths wind through, around and over these gigantic piles.  Whether photographing or exploring, they offer a temptation impossible to resist.

Two very scenic artificial reservoirs—Watson and Willow Lakes—lie within the Dells.  Both are very scenic, offering trails that encircle and wrap around the waters’ edge.  The rounded and colorful boulders make up the shoreline, as well as creating semi-submerged tiny islands and narrow promontories.  The honey-colored rock, combined with water mirroring the sky as well as the emerald green foliage of trees and bushes managing to somehow sprout from solid rock, all comes together to present a multitude of photographic possibilities.  And endless hours of exploring—both on and off the trails.

Perhaps the best part of all was finding a campground in the perfect setting—nestled within these fabulous rocks!  Point of Rocks RV Park, with nearly 100 full service sites, is all about location.

From the campground you have views of rock formations or long extended views over the Prescott area.  What’s more, the park is a short drive to the heart of town.  This is a place that gives you the best of both worlds for sure.  We liked it so much, we extended our stay an extra couple days.  (Having wonderfully warm, above-normal temps probably played into that choice.)

When camping amongst the scenic locations there’s an added bonus besides the convenience.  When access to photographic opportunities is a short walk or drive from your door, it’s much easier to catch those fleeting moments when the golden hours of day seem to transform the natural features.  That’s when you and a camera need to be Johnny-on-the-spot.

Late afternoon light can illuminate the otherwise lumps of plain rock.  They can burn with a golden glow for mere short minutes at the end of day.

In moments after sunset, a featureless sky is painted in pastel shades.  The soft twilight colors bring a subtle look to the often ordinary rock, accentuating patterns and shades.  A moment later and the effect can be gone.

When you have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with your surroundings, and there’s scenic potential just outside your door, then all you might require is the right timing and SHAZAM!! you might be rewarded with a full moon rising.  It’s all about location and good luck.

Is it any wonder that we added extra days to our stay?  Don’t think I’m trying to gloss over what Prescott has to offer—there’s really lots of perks to this town.  From our point of view it was the scenery and the seasons (not the usual Arizona climate), a diversity of trails—through the rocks, up the mountains, around the lakes, into the pine forests, a traditional downtown center where strolling with an early morning latte makes a good start to your day.  For sure we weren’t the first to be attracted to Prescott’s charms—this town is seeing quite an influx of new blood and retirees.  It’s sure easy to understand—being a place we could see ourselves living.

For now, it was time once again to hit the road and to leave those rocks behind.  While the good weather was holding and the warm temperatures weren’t cooling down, we had our attention on one last Arizona town.

Streamin’ on down the highway,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

  • Other pertaining links:
    • More trails with maps, click HERE and HERE
    • More campground listings, click HERE
    • Historical background on Prescott, click HERE

Posted in Arizona, Prescott | Leave a comment

JOSHUA TREE (addendum)—A Tribute to the Flowers

Like the water foaming behind a speeding motorboat, the wildflowers were blooming in our wake.  In the days following our departures, the abundant winter rains that had fallen in California were producing desert super blooms.  We had observed the early days of the flowering while still in Anza Borrego, but knew that the best was yet to come.  Joshua Tree was expecting a good crop also, but sitting at much higher elevations would delay the bloom another week or more.  And we would be long gone.  Alas .  .  .  so close .  .  . and yet so far.  Another good example of timing being everything.

Instead, we would be confronted by the headlines making big stories in places we had been .  .  .  the event got great media coverage—on TV, in newspapers, on our phones.  It was the talk of the entire Southwest.

Woe is me.  Oh, the pain .  .  .  the agony I was feeling.  What might have been, but was not to be.

If any solace was to be found it was the byline to this news.  Of course, it made good sense!  I could see exactly the scenario unfolding.

And therein lies the downside.  Maybe a weak one, nevertheless an accurate one.  Memories of congo lines of people, marching like ants in single file up a mountainside trail to wildflower meadows.  Hordes of people tramping through fields of luscious flowers is not a pretty sight.  In fact, some might view it as a turn-off.  And it’s a sight I’ll willingly pass by.  Of course, in this case, I really had no choice.

Yet there was some redemption to my story.  All was not lost, it eventually turned out.  In its own small way we did have a modicum of good fortune.  It wasn’t huge, but it was wide-spread; maybe not profuse, but certainly it could hold its own.  Not a remote place, to be sure, but on our route nevertheless.  And the best part of all ,  ,  ,   without a doubt .  .  .  I had it ALL TO MYSELF!  Just the way I like it.

We were departing Joshua Tree and heading to lower elevations.  I had just settled back, switched on the radio, prepared for a drive of several hours.  It was the color in the otherwise monochrome landscape that first caught our attention, alerting us to a distinctive change of scenery.  What was that we just passed by? it wasn’t completely registering until .  .  .  just wait .  .  .  we were passing more .  .  .  both sides of the road . . . clumps of colorful flowers dispersed over the land!  Then more—stretches of flowers—fields of flowers.  No kidding—we had come upon some microcosm of a super bloom of our own!  Just outside the entrance to the park.  OH HAPPY DAY!!!

I didn’t need to exclaim “Pull over!” He already was.  Then he settled back, opened a book, turning to simply say “Have at it.”  I was already grabbing my gear.

Seventh heaven.  Complete bliss.  It wasn’t endless acres, but it was enough.  And it was mine.  All mine.  For this moment in time, I had these blooming masses to myself.  And therein lies the true rapture.

The earth laughs in flowers.    —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lupines, poppies, primrose, chia, sunflowers, desert dandelions and sunflowers.  Bursts of color in an otherwise drab and colorless landscape.  Not much to work with . . . no outstanding landmarks  . . . just dry, rocky slopes enveloping this collage of color.  Yet still, there was wonder and beauty.

Undoubtedly I missed the spectacular, popular hot spots.  Obviously I didn’t miss the crowds.  But when the day was done and this trip wrapped up, at least I can say I caught a fragment of Super Bloom 2017.  In a little corner of Joshua Tree.

Making the most of what is given,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, Joshua Tree N.P. | Leave a comment

JOSHUA TREE NAT’L PARK—When Once Just Isn’t Enough

Occasionally, you get a taste for something that seems intriguing, and then all too soon it’s gone.  Something that you received just a small dose of, and ended up wanting more.  Perhaps the full appreciation didn’t develop until after the event.  Or, in this case, the place.  So it was with Joshua Tree—at least for me.  It might have been the rainy, overcast conditions of that first visit that overshadowed the potential of this park.  It could have been our short time there—only 3 days—that didn’t provide enough time to explore its full value.  Whatever the case, I was giving Joshua Tree a second look .  .  . its location being a mere 50 miles or so from the outskirts of Palm Springs.  A short drive away, by noon we were pulling into the park’s south entrance.

RV camping in Joshua Tree isn’t ideal.  Although having just under 500 campsites spread over 8 campgrounds, the 200 sites that are reserveable are located within two campgrounds on the northern fringes of the park; one not having direct access into the park (it has its own entrance), while the other is reviewed as having terribly rutted roads.  The remaining campgrounds have sites more sized for tents and very small campers, leaving a precious few sites large enough for medium to large RVs.  Therein lies the need for early arrival time, most certainly in the prime spring months as well as all weekends.  We were among the few fortunate who were able to find an adequate site, privately tucked away among the rock formations in Jumbo Rocks Campground.  Once again proving that Airstreams come with assets not readily apparent.

The weather gods seemed to be blessing us on this second visit of ours.  Instead of dismally damp days, we arrived to sapphire skies filled with billowy clouds.  Glorious, spirit-lifting sunshine.  Okay, maybe with some blustery conditions (something more common than not here in the Southwest, we had discovered) to make the day slightly less than perfect.  Nevertheless, with high expectations we set out to reacquaint ourselves with a park we hadn’t seen in two years.

The Joshua Tree is the significant hallmark of the park (naturally).  Not the only outstanding park feature, but certainly the most iconic. Distinctive in its appearance—is there anything that compares to it?—many adjectives have been used to describe it.  Unique.  Gnarled.  Grotesque.  Something out of a Dr. Seuss book.  From my standpoint, Joshua trees have great photogenic potential in both their character and their shape.  I had big hopes for coming away with some unique pictures.  Joshua trees just don’t grow in many southwest desert locations.

They are native to the Mojave Desert.   Situated between the Great Basin Desert to the north and the Sonoran to the south, the Mojave is an arid, rain-shadow desert, the driest in North America. Elevations of the Mojave are generally between three to six thousand feet, although Death Valley (found within the Mojave boundaries) includes an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.  Joshua Trees only grow in elevations between 1,200 to 6,000 feet, the High Desert of the Mojave.

On this splendiferous day we soon discovered a rare event—the trees were in bloom!  Not a given in just any year of the Joshua trees’ life, to produce blooms require the perfect conditions:  well-timed rains and a crisp winter freeze.  So their stars must have been in perfect alignment (as were ours) and we were witnesses to this special occurrence.  Big clusters of white-green flowers were popping from the tips of their branches.  A great photo op on the first day of our visit.

Although our first trip to Joshua Tree wasn’t under such great conditions, I did come away with a few good photos.  You can find the collection as well as more information on these trees (that are actually yuccas) in my Airstream Travelers’ post of two years ago.  Without being redundant in this current post, I’ll let my photos give you the whole picture.  In contrast to our last visit, this time I had abundantly clear skies, unfortunately so.  Proving you can have too much of a good thing, a few clouds would have helped give more photographic interest.  But, be things as they were, I never missed a sunrise or evening shot.  And let the trees work their magic in the landscapes.

As much as the trees, another feature of the park is equally difficult not to notice.  The boulders.  The mountains of rocks.  Everywhere are piles.  In all sizes .  .  .  some quite overwhelming.  If you care to learn more about their origins and the appeal they provide to rock climbers, just read more in another post previously written.  Suffice it to say, on this trip we also took advantage of their scenic potential.

Driving through the backcountry to trailheads.

The trail to Barker Dam is filled with rock formations.  Literally towering above the well-worn path, crowding in on both sides along the trail.  Weaving your way through passages, it’s tempting not to go astray, to take a climb up some of those piles.  It tends to bring out the kid in you.

Back in the ranching days when cattle grazing was a way of eking out a living here, a dam was built within these rocks to contain a water supply for the cows as well as the mining operations nearby.  Bone dry as it was two years ago, this time it was a veritable lake (giving proof the California drought had taken a turn).

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the take from the mines in the Sierras petered out, miners fanned out into the deserts. Here hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging environment in which to operate a mine. But a few hardy adventurers persevered and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park—although few were.

An old windmill rises from the desert floor.  This relic of the old west is trapped in time, a rusting site in an arid landscape.

The trail to Desert Queen Mine leads to an overlook directly above the ruins of this mine.  One of the more productive mines, it produced 3,845 ounces of gold from 1894 to 1961.  Along the way you’ll see evidence of equipment left behind.

Curious Chris takes a closer look.

You might even be surprised at what you’ll find half buried in the shifting sands.

One of the most scenic spots in the whole of Joshua Tree is found on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.  With the overcast, socked-in conditions of our last trip, we didn’t even attempt to check this place out.  This time it was a different story.

The scenic road to the top leads through one of the thickest groves of Joshua trees in the entire park.

It is an awesome view.  The panorama before you takes in the glimmering water of the Salton Sea spanning west to snow-capped Mount San Jacinto rising above the town of Palm Springs.  Slashing across the valley floor is the San Andreas Fault—the whole landscape of the Coachella Valley.

After soaking in that view, one last memorable sight can be seen far to the right.  There, beyond the rolling ridges of the San Bernardino Mountains rises 11,499-foot Mount San Gorgonio, the highest point in Southern California.

Between the trees, the rocks and the all-encompassing views, how could this not have been a memorable visit?

And the hiking wasn’t too shabby either.

Hitting the high notes in Joshua Tree,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, Joshua Tree N.P. | Leave a comment

PALM SPRINGS—Who would’ve thought . . .

It wasn’t a town I had on my radar screen.  It certainly didn’t sound like our kind of place.  Palm Springs?  Really???  The image conjured in my mind was a town known for its polo matches and a plethora of golf courses.  Designer boutiques and upscale restaurants added to it.  But I kept an open mind when Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa, informed us that they’d be spending a good deal of the winter near the town and wondered if our travel plans would perhaps coincide with their location.  Lo and behold, Palm Springs was directly in line with our drive from Borrego Springs to Joshua Tree.  Literally smack in the middle of our route.  Although by then it was late in the planning (Palm Springs and environs being a hot spot for snow birds), I got to work and snagged us a spot in a conveniently-located RV resort.  Fait accompli!  Palm Springs was added on to our itinerary.

Bordering the east side of Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Route-86 is where we took a turn north, finding that it’s an easy drive of about 75 miles to the town of Palm Springs.  A very scenic drive.  First you’ll see the great Salton Sea (you’d end up IN the Salton Sea if not making that turn to the north).  It ran for miles and miles before finally disappearing in our rear-view mirror.  Connecting with I-10, we passed through the Coachella Valley, fertile farmland interspersed with countless country club golf courses.  A beautiful landscape .  .  .  it’s a different world out here in Southern California.

Locally known as “The Desert Empire” to differentiate it from the neighboring Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley is an area of fluctuating but constantly increasing population.  Having around 500,000 people living here in April, the number drops to slightly less than half that size by July, only to bounce back and hit a high of nearly 800,000 people by January.  It all goes to show that the area, including Palm Springs, is one popular winter destination.

Although the valley is an extension of the Sonoran Desert and thereby has a very arid climate, agriculture is big business here.  Having large underground aquifers left over from the last ice age (over 10,000 years ago) when this area was under a fresh water lake,  and with the help of the Coachella Canal which brings water from the Colorado River, the area is a prime date-growing region . . . providing 95% of our nation’s crop.  After passing endless miles of what we took to be palm tree nurseries, it finally dawned on us that “Hey, this is some kind of crop!”  Indeed it was.

But it doesn’t stop with dates.  A variety of fruits and vegetables are growing here.  Table grapes are big.  Citrus fruits in abundance.  Artichokes, avocados, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, figs, grains, lettuce, mangoes, nectarines and peaches—the list goes on and on.   Domesticated grasses, flowers and trees for warm-weather or desert climates are cultivated too.  Mostly they’re sold for use on the golf courses and in landscapes.  Which brings me around to one of the ubiquitous scenes you can’t help but encounter .  .  .  several times a day during your time here.

Golfing .  .  .  everywhere.  Lots of country clubs.  An abundance of courses.  Hard to believe there could be so many within such a relatively small area of land.  But golf they do.  Roughly 125 golf courses blanket the area, making it one of the world’s premier golf destinations.  It is the most popular golf vacation destination in California.    Welcome to Palm Springs!  Just as I expected.

But what I didn’t expect were the mountains .  .  .  so tall and so close.  Approaching the city limits of Palm Springs, it appeared we would be driving straight to the very base of mountains soaring up at the end of the palm-bordered street!  Now that was quite the surprising eye-opener!  A setting such as this was going to add bonus points to a town I was ready to pass by.

They are the San Jacinto Mountains, and the Coachella Valley stretches along the eastern side of the range.  Considered to be a ‘sky island’, the fauna and flora found in these mountains cannot tolerate the triple-digit temperatures found in the surrounding valleys.  While the annual precipitation on the east side of the range averages only 6 inches a year, above 5,500 feet the average can go as high as 30 inches—another factor isolating life found in the elevations.  Within eyesight of Palm Springs rises the highest point in the range, San Jacinto Peak, at a height of nearly 11,000 feet.  Interestingly, its northeast face is the steepest escarpment in the continental U.S., gaining 10,000 feet in just a few miles—no other mountain rises so high so fast, not even the Sierra Nevada or the Grand Tetons.  Wow!  It is squeezed between the San Jacinto fault on the west and the San Andreas fault system on the east, both faults being very active and very capable of producing major earthquakes.  Hmmm, that surely should give a local pause.

Happy Traveler RV Park was easy to find—it’s only a block off Palm Springs’ main drag, Palm Canyon Drive.  An interesting place, it’s biggest assets are the spectacular mountain views as well as being within walking distance of downtown Palm Springs (or a mere half a block from the local trolley stop).  But (and this might be a huge “but”), you’d best have a rig less than 40 feet long if you want to stay here.  Does ‘packed in like sardines” draw you a mental picture?  This was surely one of those myriad of times when we found ourselves deeply appreciative of being Airstream people.

credit: Happy Traveler RV

How the big rigs fit in (and there were some of those here) was a mystery to us .  .  . but fit they did.  As it was, Chris found it a challenge backing in, but after several minor adjustments, we were in like Flynn!  Ready to enjoy a 4-day visit.  Whew!

Despite being a tight fit, the saving grace about this place is giving each site nearly total privacy with 8’ high hedges encircling your space. Feel free to drape with lights for a cheerier look!.

Although settlement of this area had its roots in agriculture, it didn’t take long for the idea of a tourism industry to have its beginnings.  The early 1900s saw people with health conditions coming here for the dry heat.  When naturalist and travel writer George Wharton James’ two volume The Wonders of the Colorado Desert described Palm Springs as having “great charms and attractiveness”, the tourists began to arrive.  That was in 1910.  Another book promoting the area, published in 1920—Our Araby: Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, brought in even more travelers, necessitating more construction of hotels and luxurious resorts.  “Build it and they will come” certainly proved true—soon movie stars were making the pilgrimage, attracted by the hot, dry, sunny weather, seclusion, and proximity to where they worked.  Estates were built and country clubs sprang up.

By the 1930s Palm Springs was immensely popular with movie stars and estate building expanded into the Movie Colony neighborhoods.  Then came more clubs—The Racquet Club in 1934, the Tennis Club in ‘37 and the first golf club also opened in the 1930s.  Nightclubs were popping up as well—The Dunes in 1934 and the Chi Chi Nightclub in ’36.  Southern California’s first self-contained shopping center was built in Palm Springs in 1936.

While Palm Springs remains popular with Hollywood’s rich and famous, retirees and Canadian tourists are adding to its expanding population.  Housing capacity doubled between 1947 and 1965.  No longer just a place to visit in the winter, the town began to morph into a year-round community.  Today it has a population of about 45,000 permanent residents.  While its had its share of ups-and-downs dependent on economic swings, tourism is now a major factor in the city’s economy.  Having over 100 hotels and resorts, with just as many restaurants and dining spots, Palm Springs is open and doing good business.  Following the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, its downtown area has been revitalized, making it now a center of attraction.  It’s a pleasant place to stroll and window shop; small cafes and atmospheric eateries tempt the passer-by to stop and try their offerings.

And wouldn’t you know, we just happened to be arriving on a Thursday afternoon! Sometimes kismet does happen!

 

A great introduction to the downtown area is to take in Villagefest  held every Thursday night from 6-10pm.  Set up in the heart of town, it attracts hundreds (if not thousands) to the event each week.  Like a huge farmers market on steroids, it continues block after block. Booths offer handcrafted items, a diversity of artwork, unique food, as well as great street entertainment performing on each consecutive block.  It’s one big party atmosphere where shops along Palm Canyon Drive stay open late and the Art Museum offers free admission.  An event not to miss!

With a tour of the downtown and a taste of Villagefest under our belts, we were ready to get involved in activities offered in the Palm Springs locale.  There was one that was top on my list—Indian Canyons.

“If you are only going to hike one place while in Palm Springs, this is the one you want to make sure you don’t miss.” 

With a write-up like that, who could resist?

Traversing the east side of Coachella Canyon you’ll see the San Andreas Fault.  Because of this fault, the Valley has many hot springs.  Fault lines cause hot water springs or geysers to rise from the ground.  These natural water sources made habitation and development possible in the otherwise inhospitable desert environment around Palm Springs.

If you read my post on Anza Borrego, then you were informed that the California fan palm flourishes around water oases. Though water might not always be visible, these palms grow downstream from the hot springs source.  Often trampled by animals come to drink at the spring, coupled with requiring a great deal of water and a certain temperature range, many palms never make it to maturity. Protected oasis habitats such as are found in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Coachella Valley Preserve and here at Indian Canyons, to name just a few, ensure the survival of this state’s only native palm tree.

Centuries ago, ancestors of the Cahuilla (Kaw-we-ah) Indians settled in the Palm Springs area, developing extensive and complex communities in the canyons. They had plenty of water and hundreds of varieties of plants and species of animals to ensure stable living conditions.  They planted crops of melons, squash, beans and corn, hunted animals, and gathered plants and seeds for their food and medicines.  Fast forward to the late 1800s when this area was experiencing the establishment of settlements.  Stage coach routes were crossing Indian territory and later the railroads came through.  From that time, our federal government deeded 32,000 acres of their native land to the Agua Caliente people.  Today, this great recreational area of scenic wonder is owned and utilized by the native Indians, who generously make it accessible for public enjoyment.  We headed out for a day of hiking and exploration.

We began with a hike on the most popular trail, Palm Canyon.  Fifteen miles in length, it is billed as one of the great beauty spots in western North America.  The abundance of the California Fan Palm trees make for a breathtaking contrast to the stark, rocky gorges and barren desert lands that surround it.  It begins with a short but steep descent with multiple switchbacks to the canyon below, and then you’re pretty much home free.

Once down, you are immediately surrounded by hundreds of fan palms. You can’t help but be overwhelmed.  This might not have been our first palm oasis to encounter, but it was by far the most extensive and impressive.  Soon you are virtually engulfed by these giants .  .  .  it’s a wondrous thing to experience.

The trail leads through the canyon, slowly gaining in elevation.  Along the way you follow the course of the water, the palms bordering its banks and providing constant shade as you hike.  Occasionally you’re able to get a close-up encounter . . . soak your feet, take a dip, or just enjoy the ambiance.

Truly a jewel in the desert, the arid landscape seems far away.

Occasionally, you come back out into the open  .  .  .  it’s a chance to see the world around.  High rock canyon walls encase the oasis, unrelenting sun is once again bearing down.  Then more palms are up ahead and soon we’re shrouded back in their shade.

I gotta tell you—this is one terrific trail!

Near the end of the hike, we break through the oasis, to begin climbing up one side of the canyon’s wall.  Back comes the sun—unrelentingly so, and the trail becomes increasingly rocky.  What started out as a stroll through cool shade has turned into something quite different (and not in such a good way).  I look ahead to where this uphill travail is leading, stoically trudging on.  The end in sight, I made it up and turning around, looked back to find my reward.

And what a reward it was!

On the way back, we happened upon some workmen I assumed to be tribal members rebuilding a bridge across the flowing water.  I paused before crossing, to say how much we enjoyed taking this trail.  One of them spoke up and suggested that if we have time, we might also appreciate taking the Andreas Canyon Trail.  Having learned long ago in our travels that unsolicited recommendations generally turn out to be very much worth our while, we took off to find its trailhead.

If the view we first saw from the parking lot was any indication, the Andreas Canyon Trail was not going to disappoint.  After admiring the great height of those stately skirted palms, we started out with high expectations.

Not one of the longer trails, this one was a loop that followed another stream through groves of more California Fan Palms.  Even more verdant than the Palm Canyon Trail, the abundant vegetation growing along the water gave the feel of a jungle environment.  It was lush, and green, and heavily shaded .  .  .  a cool respite on a hot winter day.  Could there be a more enjoyable hike?

Crossing over the water at the apex of the loop, the other side was hiked from a higher perspective.  Above the oasis and looking down on it, we had a more open view of the surroundings.  Still green along the trail, the mountain views rose up behind that hidden oasis.  How incredibly scenic!

If ever you find yourself visiting Palm Springs and have any interest in nature, we would highly recommend looking up Indian Canyons.  Just on the outskirts south of town, it is really convenient and I’m here to say you won’t regret taking time for a trail (or three).  Here in these special hidden oases you might just grasp what this valley was before all the building and play grounds began.  An incredibly wonderful place.  The Cahuillas knew a good thing when they found it.  You’ll leave with a memorable  impression.

There’s another side to Palm Springs that I have yet to mention, and you can have good exercise while you explore it.  It came as somewhat of a surprise to learn that this is a very friendly biking town (more bonus points to add on here). Having an extensive system of bike paths that are mostly well-marked, you can choose to tour the downtown area, or famous celebrity homes, or go through the picturesque palm-lined residential district.  That’s my cup of tea—biking and sight-seeing rolled into one good time.

Wasting no time at the start of a new day (and fortified with a hearty breakfast), we took off to explore and follow one of the official bike routes around town. Choosing the 13-mile citywide tour that circles the town,  we’d get a sample of many Palm Spring assets.  You can access the entire Palm Springs bike routes here.

The scenic aspect of biking around town started out with quite a bang. Yep, those are the mountains just outside the gate of our RV park.

Going in a clockwise direction on the city loop, we passed places we had not yet seen.  The Art Museum, the oldest golf club in Palm Springs and the backside of some downtown shops.  A convenient coffeehouse came into view .  .  .  we stopped for a late morning latte and some sweets.  Now that’s a good start to a ride!

The best part was to come . . . biking through  unrestricted (meaning ‘ungated’) nice residential areas.  I was soon to get an introduction to the unique Palm Springs architectural style that had its beginnings several decades ago.  It would be a real eye-opening experience.

Beginning back in the 1920s, architects with a modernist vision were attracted to the desert environment.  Using the dramatic topography of the Coachella Valley as an inspiration, certain architects began to create a design style that came to be known as Desert Modernism  Noted for its use of glass, clean lines, natural and manufactured resources and indoor/outdoor spaces, this new style seemed to evoke a lifestyle of simple elegance and informality.  Influenced by the demands of desert living and the intense climate, the architects and designers employed use of inventive materials, modern construction techniques, post-war technologies and found an enthusiastic and willing clientele to build for here in Palm Springs (read: the wealthy and avant garde type).

Architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the movie stars, using the town to exemplify architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun’s glare.

Palm Springs architecture became the model for mass-produced suburban housing, especially in the Southwest. This “Desert Modern” was a high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows. Environmentalists soon condemned Desert Modern, but still its popularity caught on. Here were houses that fully merged inside and outside, providing spaces for that essential Californian style—and indeed middle-class American—life: leisure.  The style was here to stay.

After touring a few miles of these neighborhoods, we began to notice a definite change in the appearance of the residential community.  We were cruising the streets where people lived, but instead of seeing their homes, there were gates and private entrances blocking what lay beyond.  Wow, talk about security and barred entries!  Nevertheless, I found these gates did have their own character.  I called it Palm Springs Privacy.

 

Our biking day didn’t end with the house tour, we were just getting ‘warmed’ up.  After stopping for a lunch break, I was ready to hit the bikes again.  It was one of those times (however rare) when I felt I could go on biking until dark.  We almost did!

More streets to tour, more sights to see, even more mountain views to take in.  Before the ride was over I believe we had combined most of the town’s bike routes.

It was a very satisfying day (and the conditions couldn’t have been more perfect!).

Palm Springs turned out to be another one of this trip’s destinations where we wished for a lengthier stay.  In retrospect, there were many more trails yet to hike, more biking to be done and hey! there was the tramway up to the summit of the San Jacinto Mtns.  So much to do, much more to see .  .  .  I guess a return trip would be in order.  Palm Springs has a lot to offer.

From the lush oases of Palm Springs,  Airstream Travelers,   Melinda & Chris

POSTSCRIPT  .  .  As it turned out, Randy and Teresa had a change of plans that necessitated canceling their Southwestern winter plans.  We’ll never regret swinging through Palm Springs, and something tells me someday they’ll be making it here too. 

Next stop–Joshua Tree!

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ANZA BORREGO, Part 2—Desert Wonders, natural & man-made.

Park employees and locals alike were ecstatic after the day-and-night-long rain had subsided.  Already having a winter season with above average precipitation (as had all of southern California), Anza Borrego had just received over an inch of rain in the last 36 hours.  An incredible amount of rain for a single event in this desert environment.  Water filled the washes . . . ran down the streets . . . pooled outside our trailer.  What I saw from our campsite sure didn’t look much like a desert scenario—I could swear the landscape was bursting out green right before my eyes.  Park volunteers were all talking about this one rainfall could signal a banner wildflower bloom. But could it happen in the next 3 days—the length of the remainder of our stay?

Already there were good signs . . .

It was a great day to go climb a mountain . . . cool temps, clear skies, and a full day of rest behind us.  We headed out for Coyote Canyon where we would find the trailhead for Alcoholic Pass.

The fragrance began soon after I left the northern village limits of Borrego Springs . . . that’s where a large majority of the fruit orchards can be found.

Yes, you read it right—here in the environs of Anza Borrego Desert you’ll find orchards of oranges, limes and lemons, along with plenty of grapefruits.  Over two thousand acres to be exact.  Turns out that with perfect citrus-growing weather and thanks to Borrego Valley’s aquifer, the area can produce “table-quality” citrus that is shipped all over the world.  And oooooh, what a perfumed fragrance permeates the air!

Driving past the orchards, the pavement soon ends.  Once again, Chris would be applying his newly-acquired sandy wash driving skills.  Piece of cake.  A three-mile drive would take us to the trailhead.

But roadside attractions have a way of altering the best laid of plans.  No sooner had we hit the wash that I noticed the delicate blooms of desert flowers.  Clumps of color were popping up!  Could it be???  So soon after?  It was no mirage .  .  .  there were more than a few!  Holy moley!!! With some now-forgotten blurts of exclamation from my mouth, Chris got the idea he should be pulling over.

Miracle of miracles . . . wonder of wonders.  .  . I was in 7th heaven!  And yes, I’m here to tell you, with just a little searching ALL these species were found in a small area of desert along the Coyote Canyon Road.  (Later revealed to be one of the best hotspots in all of the park for early wildflower sightings—referred to as Desert Gardens, for good reason).

We were slightly delayed for our hike of the day.

The trail to Alcoholic Pass has been around for a long time—a reeeeally long time.  At least a thousand years.  Probably more like two thousand.  That’s how long ago the native Indians known as the Cahuilla called this area home.  Living on the east side of Coyote Mountain in what is now called Clark Valley, evidence of artifacts indicates that they made regular trips over the Pass in order to access the bounty growing in Coyote Canyon.  Here they would find “a veritable harvest field from the desert plants.  Moreover, the mountain itself was prime hunting ground for large game like sheep and deer.

So here we were, ready to embark on another mountain hike with an interesting story behind it.  That’s what I like about this park . . . it’s full of history too.  And just like the trail up Ghost Mountain . . . it was short, but oh so steep.  Something like 700 feet in less than a mile.  But the views would surely be worth it (so said a park ranger).

Here I stand, just starting up, with Coyote Canyon behind me and the massive San Ysidro Mtns. looming beyond.

Residents of valley settlements chose to go over the Pass into Borrego Springs, rather than take the longer route that encircled the mountain.  Although trips would be made for purchasing goods and food, probably some imbibing of drink was also involved, to the extent that they might be staggering back home.  A more probable source of the trail’s name refers to the layout of the route—full of switchbacks, twists and turns in a relatively short distance in length.

Steep, zig-zaggy and rocky—that about sizes up the trail to Alcoholic Pass.

The good part of taking a steep hiking trail is the opportunities afforded when you’re compelled to stop and breathe at certain intervals.  That’s when you look all around, take in the sights, and get a great bird’s-eye view of the landscape.

Far below, the patchwork pattern of citrus orchards with the village of Borrego Springs beyond; all backdropped by the San Ysidro Mountains.

The rewards of the hike are the views from the saddle of Coyote Mountain.  Both to the east and the west , what you’ll see makes it worth the effort expended.  Looking toward distant peaks it seems fitting to sit and reflect on wherever your mind takes you .  .  .  of lives spent here over countless generations or of your life in the here and now.  The scene spread out over miles of desert to the distant peaks beyond is a typical Anza Borrego landscape.  We take time to sit on a comfortable rock, appreciating our time spent here.

Anza Borrego is a magnificent place, encompassing more than 600,000 acres.  It is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the contiguous United States.  But, much more than just the statistics, it is a desert wonderland encompassing eons of geologic history, deep canyons and towering mountains, and enough space to find your haven of solitude.

Chris gazes out to the huge expanse of the Santa Rosa Mtns. across Clark Valley.

Along with the natural attractions of Anza Borrego Desert, there’s another equally fascinating aspect—albeit manmade.  Standing in front of the Borrego Springs Visitor Center you’ll see a statue of Juan Bautista de Anza, the partial namesake for this park.  Probably the first Anglo to pass through this desert, de Anza was commissioned by the King of Spain to discover an overland route from New Spain to California.  In 1774 with an expedition consisting of 240 people and 1,000 animals he passed through this area, continuing northward through Coyote Canyon, eventually reaching the area around San Francisco.  A big accomplishment at that time, he was suitably rewarded by being appointed first governor of what is now the state of New Mexico.

But the story that I find even more remarkable concerns the man that created this romanticized statue of de Anza—Ricardo Breceda.  While this welded scrap metal, rust red sculpture stands in a prominent location along the town’s main thoroughfare, if you drive out of town along main arteries, you’ll soon see more metal sculptures scattered across the landscape, both to the north and south of town.  Giant-sized replicas of creatures that once roamed Borrego Valley when it was once a lush forest millions of years ago—mammoths, sabertooth tigers, wild horses, ancient camels, giant sloths and battling raptors stand in the desert, compelling you to pull off for a closer look.  If you don’t already know the background story, you will surely be searching it out.  Head to the Visitor Center for more information as well as a driving guide to where they all are located.

The creator of this menagerie, spread out over three square miles of non-contiguous desert land surrounding Borrego Springs, is Ricardo Breceda, a gifted artist who ten years ago never knew that one day he would have the talent and skill to build these remarkable sculptures. His talent grew out of a devastating accident on a construction job that changed his life.

Ten years or so ago, he was selling exotic boots when he traded a pair for a welding machine and began to experiment with what he could fashion from metal.  When his 7-year-old daughter requested he try constructing a life-size dinosaur, the results gave him inspiration to go further.

From that beginning, Breceda’s sculptures are now found across the world, from Canada to Australia. The highest concentration of sculptures are found in Borrego Valley and were all commissioned by Borrego landowner, Dennis Avery, who has scattered the sculptures on lands that he has held for years in conservation. The private property, called Galleta Meadows, is open to the public for viewing.  Just pull off the road and follow tracks through the sand if you want a closer look (maybe a photo or two).

The original sculptures were inspired by animals that lived millions of years ago in the Anza-Borrego area during the Plio-Pleistocene age. Later sculptures were inspired by local history and then by pure whim and fantasy. Breceda brings his sculptures to life by portraying the creatures in motion.   There is even a full-size Willys Jeep with a driver and a passenger scaling the rocks.

But there is another person integral to this story, the man who envisioned all this in the first place..  Avery, truly a deep-pocketed philanthropist, had the original idea to create a gallery in the wilderness, thinking that if the early animals of the area could be recreated in 3-dimensional form, it would give greater understanding to visitors of what the area may have been like millions of years ago.   Consequently, he has been very generous with his support and funding of the project.

Sometimes you can’t help but get into the act!

Moreover, and maybe most significantly, Avery grants public access to his private museum.  The sign on his property indicates the visitors may hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp for up to three days on Galleta Meadows amidst the statues, for free.  How cool is that???

And the word is spreading.  People come from both here and abroad to take in the sight of these 130 full-sized metal sculptures.  It’s a big draw for Borrego Springs, so reported by the Visitor Center.

And just when you don’t think you could be more astounded, you’ll encounter Breceda’s latest creation which could easily leave you speechless.  A serpent (some call it a dragon) rising from the desert sand takes Breceda’s art to yet another level of awesomeness.

With the head of a dragon, the body of a sea serpent, and the tail of a rattlesnake, the sculpture is 350-feet long and actually stretches across the road, appearing to dive under the pavement.  With each of Breceda’s creatures becoming more complex, his serpent is made up of literally thousands of individual scales that had to be welded onto a frame, one at a time. The head itself is incredibly detailed and that is what makes it such a show-stopper.  That, and its immense size.

IS THIS AMAZING OR WHAT?!!!

It took Breceda four months to make the serpent in his studio and three months to transport and erect it in the desert with the help of 12 workers.  Between the materials, labor, and transportation costs, Avery (of the Avery Label fortune) estimates the total cost of the serpent to be about $40,000. When asked if this creature is his favorite of all, Breceda replied that it was too early to say.  “Time will tell if it holds up to the high winds that sweep across the valley floor.”  If it holds up and doesn’t give him headaches, it probably will be.

One of our last evenings in Anza Borrego found us winding up yet another mountain trail near Yaqui Pass.  Bill Kenyon Overlook was a great place to be around sunset, so I’d read.  Not exactly off the beaten route, I was amazed we had it to ourselves.  What a great place to bring this park altogether!  With a diversity of scenery spread out below us, it was Anza Borrego Desert in a microcosm.  At the end of day with twilight hues, the land was warmed in a rich palette of colors .  .  .  subtle shades on the distant mountains while shadows drifted across the bajadas.  A picture that gave even Chris pause for reflection.  I need say no more.

With a mixture of emotions .  .  . we’re leaving too soon .  .  .  the weather’s too perfect .  .  .  we did make every moment count .  .   .  but the wildflowers are soon to peak!!  we were pulling away with commitments waiting.  Anza Borrego surely deserves a return trip.

Heading back on the road and streaming away,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

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ANZA BORREGO—Not just your ordinary desert park

After nearly two months of working our way west to the Pacific Ocean, once we departed San Diego it was time to make a dramatic course change—from now on the general direction of our route would be to the east.  With several weeks of travel still ahead of us, nevertheless the writing was on the wall . . . the proverbial bullet would have to be bitten . . . we were working our way back east towards Indiana.

It was somewhat of an adventure just to get here.  Driving inland after leaving San Diego, we traded ocean views for a bucolic landscape of rolling hills and the occasional orchard.    A soothing, pleasant little country drive, it was hard to believe we were just an easy hour’s drive out of the bustling metro area of San Diego.  But the pastoral scenery didn’t last long.

A few turns in the highway later, the avenue of shade trees with their overhanging branches became a  road edged with cascading boulders.  What had been soft-curved and green-draped hills turned to mounds of rocky, arid ground.  Hard-edged and stark, this drive had taken one dramatic turn.  The prelude of scenes to come.

With two routes leading into Anza Borrego State Park, one involved great scenery but with many more miles to drive.  While the other and more recently constructed one offered the same great views but with more thrills along the way.  Would there be a doubt as to which one I would direct my husband to take?

The Montezuma Valley Road (aka—S-22) opened up access into the Borrego Valley for those people living in the San Ysidro Mountains.  Construction on the highway began in 1954 and once you drive it, you’ll soon understand why it took nearly 10 years to complete.  It would require 160,000 tons of dynamite for the prisoners from the Montezuma Honor Camp to carve a way down San Ysidro Mountain to the valley floor.  When it was completed, the mayor of Borrego Springs declared June 24th, 1964 as a holiday for all the residents.  The road was and still is a big deal .  .  . and without a doubt it is one huge adventurous drive to take.

Coming down the grade you’ll have tantalizing views as you swing around the flanks of the mountains to the Borrego Valley far below—but don’t look if you’re the driver!

Dropping more than 3,000 feet in elevation, the route passes through several different climate zones along the way.  Massive rock formations, rugged canyons, a view of the Salton Sea . . . but keep your eyes on the road as you navigate the twists and turns along the road (and engage the Jake brake if you have one!).

And then, perhaps with a sigh of relief or an unclenching of fingers, you take the one and only scenic pullout of the drive.  A time to regain your composure or perhaps to soak in the view .  .  .  the scenic overlook is THE place to capture an eagle’s view of the layout of Borrego Valley.

The little town of Borrego Springs is back-dropped by the huge expanse of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Once out of the San Ysidro Mountains, it’s clear-sailing into the park.  The S-22 will take you into the small town of Borrego Springs—think of its location as being the hole in the Anza Borrego “donut”.

With tourism and snow birding as its economic base, Borrego Springs is a quaint little village, whose heart is a grassy green commons area, appropriately named “Christmas Circle.”

Just outside the western edge of town, hang a left off the S-22 and you’ll be pulling into the main campground of Anza Borrego— Borrego Palm Canyon.  Lady Luck was surely shining down on me when months ago I was able to snag one of their full hookup sites.  You can find a couple other RV Resorts in Borrego Springs, but this is the only full hookup one you’ll find within the park.  If you’re looking to set up camp smack in the scenery and adjacent to the park’s most popular trail, then this is the one for you!  (Early reservations are a MUST).

So, maybe you’re wondering what enticed us to select this desert park jewel for our week’s stay.  Or how in the world did it ever appear on our radar screen?  Suffice it to say I had come across the park in my photo magazines, coming to learn how it was an area full of scenic potential.  Say no more!  I liked what I read.  Being in the neighborhood just sealed the deal.  Years ago, I added Anza Borrego to my bucket list of destinations.

Yet little did I know of the riches that were waiting.  Similar to our experiences with Death Valley, at first glance when surveying the big picture, one is left wondering what could possibly be of much interest .  .  .  much less a whole week of our time.  From a far-off perspective, the park appears to be just dry desert wasteland.  But wait, stay awhile, wander around and open yourself to possibilities.  At least, that was our approach.  That’s when we discovered Anza Borrego’s vastly different looks.  And so we began . . .

The park is framed by mountains, rugged and rocky pinnacles. The common denominator is the desert landscape, but within its boundaries you can find fascinating rock formations, wondrous slot canyons, remote spring oases, and—the drawing card for me—the earliest spring wildflowers in California.  And so my quest began.

A road trip to the Pumpkin Patch was a good introduction to the park.  A paved road led into the mountain flanks before turning off on a sandy wash.

Oh yes, driving down those ubiquitous washes became a common mode of travel in the coming days.  A landlubber from the Midwest, Chris soon was driving through them like a pro.

There are more than 500 miles of roads in the park, many of them dirt or sand.  There are routes up rocky hills, through deep sand, along scenic streams and down steep hills.  It’s a park that attracts OHV fanatics, but fortunately the park is big enough for everyone to share.Several palm oases exist throughout the park.  Thanks to underground springs, the state’s only native palm, the California fan palm, flourishes around these water holes.  On this first foray into the ‘back country’, an added feature would be stopping at what’s known as Seventeen Palms.  An aerial view coming into the oasis (courtesy of Chris’ drone) gives an accurate scene of how these green islands of trees stand out in such contrast to the stark and barren desert that surrounds them.

With 2,500 species of palms worldwide, only 11 are native to North America.  The largest of these and the only palm tree native to western North America, is the California fan palm.  Anza Borrego is a good place to see them.

And then it was on to the Pumpkin Patch .  .  . plowing on through those desert washes!! A 4wd trip for sure.

It is a fascinating geologic feature—a field of concretions that spread over an area the size of a city block.  This unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil and revealing globular sandstone concretions that look much like pumpkins in size and shape. The nucleus for these concretions probably formed millions of years ago by the natural cementing of sand particles to small objects such as a piece of shell, a grain of sand or even an insect.  On the nearby ridges, new pumpkin-sized concretions continue to grow and become exposed.  A really unique sight!

Yes, it’s a real attention-getter and you’ll be amazed to see them in person (but not an easy drive to get there).

There’s plenty of historical background to describe how people lived here years before it became a park.  Native Americans called this home for thousands of years, leaving evidence of their way of living.  In more recent times, there were explorers, and travelers, some coming to ranch or try their hand at farming.  Perhaps the most captivating story of human habitation occurred in more recent times and there’s even a short film at the Visitor Center describing the life of the family that lived up on Ghost Mountain in the Blair Valley area of the park.

The Anza-Borrego Desert is a beautiful place to visit, but a tough place to live. The areas inhabitants usually built homes near water, trees, and roads, but not Marshal South, who traded utility for scenery when he built a homestead in the 1930s atop Ghost Mountain (Yaquitepec to the native Indians) near Blair Valley.  From 1931 until the mid-1940s, Marshal and his poet wife, Tanya, lived atop this rock-strewn, remote mountaintop in a brutal, hostile environment.  They built an adobe cabin that they called Yaquitepec, fashioned an ingenious rainwater collection system, lived off the land (as much as they could), made their own clothing (but nudity was the preferred style), birthed three children, and tried to emulate, to one degree or another, the life of the prehistoric American Indians.  The tough life eventually caused Tanya to take the kids and file for divorce (never to speak of her life on the mountain) and for the home to be abandoned.  Marshal would die a year after leaving.

Over a period of nine of those years, South chronicled his family’s controversial primitive lifestyle through popular monthly articles written for Desert Magazine.  His writings tended to romanticize their way of living, illustrating a life in total harmony with nature (who was he kidding???).  But his writings found an enthusiastic audience, which continued throughout their stay.

Today the South’s home lies in ruins—crumbling adobe walls, the frame for an arched doorway, a rusted bed frame, and cement and barrel cisterns once used to catch seasonal rainfall. A one-mile trail at the foot of Ghost Mountain climbs 1,200 feet to the site. The Souths had named the mountain for the “thin, ghostly trails” that led to the obscure ridge where they built their home.

Cutting off the main paved road, we drove across Blair Valley on a dirt road leading to Ghost Mountain.

On a beautiful, sun-drenched morning we made a pilgrimage out to the site.  Trudging up the well-worn path was a good opportunity to imagine how many times the family traced this trail, carrying needed supplies up to their home.  For us it was a hike in the park . . . for them it was a way of life.

Lest you begin to think this was some kind of utopian life here on the mountain, let me assure you that even on a pleasant winter day, you can understand this was no easy way of living.

These were the days of the Great Depression and life wouldn’t have been easy under most ‘normal’ conditions.  People in general were more self-sufficient, so it’s not fair to hold this family’s lifestyle to ours of today.  And yet . . . it does have an extreme aspect to it.

The view from their mountaintop looks out over the Blair Valley. At least they had a room with a view, and maybe that was what they were looking for . .  . a desert view, that is.

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery and that’s something Anza Borrego can offer.  Just when you might be thinking it’s all about rocks, boulders, and dry, barren landscapes,  you need look no farther than a good hike through an amazing slot canyon.

Instead of slogging up, we headed down . . . where flash floods through the ages have carved a trench through the rocky, sedimentary terrain.

With no ‘official’ trail to guide us, Chris scans the area to find the most desirable route to take.

Simply named The Slot, you make your way down into the ravine to begin the adventure winding your way through narrow rock walls.  Why it’s not listed as an official park trail remains a mystery—but fortunately for us, we had it all to ourselves.

Once down, we soon left the bright morning sunlight behind and entered a different world—totally different.  Diffuse light brought out the warm tones of the rocky siltstone walls, sometimes reaching 40 feet high.  As the walls went higher, the passageway becomes more narrow .  .  .  this is not a trail for—er, how do I put this?—‘wide’ people!

As the walls made for a tight, circuitous route, the experience can be surreal, it not slightly claustrophic.  For us, it was a marvel and we felt like kids exploring a labyrinth.

I’m sure Chris is glad he didn’t overindulge on his breakfast!

If the experience of passing through a narrow slot canyon isn’t amazing enough .  .  .  how about finding a highlight at the end?  Although not a formal trail, somehow many a photographer has captured this sight and that’s how I managed to track it down.  Near the far end of the canyon you’ll need to look up (or easily miss it).  High above, a slanted rock slab bridges the arrow gap in the canyon.  Apparently broken off from one wall, the scepter-shaped block was caught in mid-fall and now rests between the two walls.  Lodged overhead, you wouldn’t be advised to remain long just below it.  Still, I got Chris to hang in there.

After nearly a mile of winding through the passageway, the canyon begins to widen.  Then suddenly you exit into brilliant sunlight as the rocky cliffs pull away.  The heat returns along with the world we’re more accustomed to, but wait!  There still remains the return trip.  Like most trails you’ll take, whether above or below ground level, it always looks totally different when you back track.

And the fun wasn’t over just yet.

The trip to Font’s Point isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Everyone will tell you the drive is definitely worth the effort.  Park rangers will advise you to take a shovel along (just in case). Definitely don’t try to drive it after a rain. If in doubt, caravan with others.  But do it, if you can.  The reward at the end makes you forget about the drive.

First, though, you must navigate a sandy wash—uphill.  With some soft, deep places along the route.  Keep a slow but steady speed and stay in the tire tracks of those having gone before you.

Despite some awesome scenery you’ll find along the way, pulling over for a photo op might just be your downfall—move on and shoot on the fly!

Be prepared for some sharp turns—remember not to stop—and never ever hit the gas pedal too hard.  Four miles later and with a ‘whew!’ we had made it!  Now you hoof it the last 100 yards or so.  Uphill, of course.

And then you’re standing on a high promontory overlooking the Borrego Badlands.  Before you lies a spectacular landscape of the most rugged desert landscape you’ll ever imagine.  Millennia ago the delta-marine waters of the northern Gulf of California covered this area. Local mountains were uplifted while the waters dried up, leaving sedimentary layers of rock behind.  Now, all that remains is arid rocky geography, sunken mesas and corrugated hills of dry mud. The forces of erosion gently soften contour lines through wind, rain and generations of flash flooding. Thousands of acres of sedimentary rock contain enough side canyons and dry washes for a lifetime of adventurous exploring.

With more than a 180° view, every direction has an incredible view.  Difficult to wrap your mind around, you can’t help but stand in awe.

Some might describe the scene as breathtaking; others might say there are no words for what you’re seeing.  Grasping no good words of exclamation, I just stood silently soaking in the scene.  Every report was true—Font’s Point is THE highlight of the park.   But first, you need to navigate those four miles to get to this point (or choose to hoof it in on foot).

A beautiful ending to an adventurous day, the drive back out actually went smoother—with familiarity surely comes capability.  An added asset for the drive was the sunset color illuminating our route.

A somewhat rare event was scheduled to move in.  Late that night rain was due to fall.  Blowing in from the Pacific, it was forecasted to hang around.  At least a full day.  Maybe another night.  Possibly substantial amounts.  A very welcome occurrence for the desert environment.

As it turned out, it rained cats and dogs.  Constantly.  No breaks.  With intermittent downpours. The skies opened up.  Dry washes ran wild.  Water puddled and ran like small streams through the road.  We huddled inside our camper, giving up hopes to salvage the day.

Nevertheless, the next day made up for all we had lost.  A clear blue and brilliant sky was the harbinger of a dry day.  I was out to greet its beginning, camera in my hand.  Ah freshness! Beautiful light!  Pure fragrant air.

Just down the road from the campground, a stand of fan palms glowed in the rising sun.

Another bonus to the torrential rains (besides stimulating a wildflower crop), the peaks of nearby mountains were now crowned with a blanket of snow.  Desert fauna with an alpine backdrop . . . talk about a Kodak moment!  And it’s all here at Anza Borrego—one VERY special park!

From  an oasis in the desert,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

    (stayed tuned for the coming part 2!)

Posted in Anza Borrego Desert S.P., California | Leave a comment

SAN DIEGO—Where the living is easy . . . but the rent isn’t cheap.

Ahhhh, San Diego.  A place I have imagined only in daydreams.  The epitome of all things Californian.  Endless sunshine.  Superb beaches.  Laid back and easy going.  Year-round perfection.  We had arrived and were greeted by  . . . what else? Blue skies and gentle breezes.  I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to begin soaking it all up.  Two weeks of bliss lay ahead—what was I thinking??? It should have been four!

This was our first real taste of the Golden State.  Well, not exactly.  We had a touch of California a few years back, during our Oregon Tour.  We had managed to cross into northern California just long enough to experience the redwoods, but that was rather more like a place apart.  Not what I imagined California to actually be.  Although this is a state of many looks, the San Diego scene was how I imagined a great deal of the state.  Sunny and bright.  After weeks of being immersed in a desert landscape, this would be a big switcheroo .  .  . a different world .  .  . and we were ready.  Luck upon luck . . . good fortune wasn’t being taken for granted . .  . we had found the perfect campground to bring our hopes and desires altogether.  Mission Bay RV Resort was one perfect campground . . . and we had splurged on a water view site.  Oh, wondrous day!

The “resort” itself was nothing special.  Actually it was a huge parking lot, having just a few strips of grass dividing some of the rows, with some trees scattered around to help keep the place from looking totally sterile.  Its selling point was the location—right on the shoreline of Mission Bay, with a wonderful bike trail that connected to a whole entire network of trails adjacent to the resort.  Its location also gave easy access to just about any part of San Diego, being close to (but not within earshot of) a major highway  artery.  It isn’t a cheap stay, but its assets made it assuredly worthwhile for us.  Mission Bay Park is a big asset for San Diego.

This wasn’t always so.  In fact, Mission Bay is a relatively new creation.  Back in the 1940s, the city of San Diego wanted to diversify its economic base, which was primarily based around the military.  To create more of a tourist and recreational center, they looked for land that could be developed for this purpose.  Near the outlet of the San Diego River was a tidal marsh that could be utilized with no small efforts through dredging and filling operations. The river was constrained by levees and Mission Bay took shape and became the jewel that the city planners had envisioned.

This fabulous bay lies right smack in the middle of San Diego and is the largest aquatic park of its kind in the country. It has of over 4,600 acres in roughly equal parts land and water. Mission Bay Park boasts 27 miles of shoreline, 19 of which are sandy beaches with eight locations designated as official swimming areas. Encircling it all, with arteries leading out to other high points of San Diego, is the 14-mile paved Mission Bay Bike Path.   You can bet your biker bootie that we made good use of this jewel of an  asset.  We spent many good hours taking this path to a variety of locations.  Once on the Ocean Boardwalk, you are able to bike up the coastline to La Jolla, taking in Seal Beach. And maybe a tasty pizza.

Once settled in and quite at home, it was time to hit the high points of this town.  With research in hand and options galore, the difficulty lay in the deciding.  Which of San Diego’s many assets should be first on our list?  For newcomers such as us, we made a good choice .  .  .  get a seat on the Old Town Trolley and see all the town’s attractions (learn some background too while you’re at it) all from the comfort of an open-air bus!  Let that trolley roll!     You can cover a lot of ground in one afternoon on the trolley.  What’s even greater still, at any of its many stops, you’re able to hop off and tour awhile on your own—if you have the inclination.  Or stay in your seat and spin entirely around town, all the while listening to your driver give a history presentation.  All well-worth the $$$ spent, with no stress in finding parking spaces.

Another way to get to know the many districts that make up San Diego is to take in their Farmer’s Markets.  Always set up in the heart of the district, it’s a great way to discover the different personalities of each place.  We hit them all, on different days, getting a sense of how each one was different.

Little Italy is adjacent to downtown San Diego, between the historic Gaslamp District and the high-rise buildings.  Once home to San Diego’s flourishing tuna fishing industry and generations of Italian families who made their living on the sea, Little Italy is now a lively neighborhood made up of high-rise condos and sophisticated shops.  Having an uptown feel to it, set alongside outdoor cafes and Italian trattorias, it’s the largest of the town’s farmers markets and the assortment of offerings reflects that.  With lattes in hand, we strolled the booths and soaked up the atmosphere. Pretty impressive.

Hillcrest is a small but affluent neighborhood, known for its “tolerance and acceptance”, its gender diversity, and numerous locally-owned businesses.  Just north of Balboa Park, it is one of the older districts, but its age isn’t reflected in the well-kept Craftsman homes and mid-century modern apartments.  It might be on a slightly smaller scale than Little Italy’s farmers market, but its offerings were all first class.  Plenty of organic produce, eggs included.  Artisan cheese, anyone?

And then, there’s Pacific Beach.  Now you’re talking laid back, SoCal beach town.  The atmosphere is free spirited and very casual.  Its farmers market reflects all things fresh and healthy.  With a little face-painting and tatooing thrown in.  Tie-dyes and long flowing skirts are still in style.  Handmade jewelry and artwork for sale.  You won’t find farmers markets like this in every town, and it sure was fun to walk through it.  The people-watching was a big part of it all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that we had the feel for the lay-out of the land, we thought it was only fitting that we get our bearings from the water .  .  .  water being a big part of the San Diego scene.  Down at the marina, you’ll find at least two companies offering one and two-hour cruises of the San Diego Harbor.  We opted for the longer one.

Flagship Cruises offered narrated harbor tours several times each day, even a Sunday brunch or a dinner-dance cruise.  Nothing so fancy for us . . . we were just interested in the sights.  We did, however, opt for the last afternoon cruise,  the late light would cast good color over coastline scenes.

First off, you’ll get an all-encompassing view of San Diego, a pretty impressive sight.  Who would’ve known that this is our nation’s eighth-largest city, as well as being the state’s second largest?  With a backdrop of rugged cliffs, impressive homes are built terraced up the hillsides.  On a clear afternoon day sailing on sparkling water, it’s sure something to take in.

There’s plenty to see from a water perspective; I’d highly recommend the cruise to any visitor.

We had a good look along the east side of Point Loma all the way down to Cabrillo Nat’l Monument.  We saw the Naval Air Station and Sub Base, cruised beneath the Coronado Bridge, and had close-up views of the U.S. Navy base and shipyards.  Never a boring moment!

Probably the highlight for us was an up-close and personal look at the Navy’s one-and-only stealth destroyer, the Zumwalt.  At a cost of 4 billion $$$ to build (yes, you read it right!), we assumed it was just too valuable to set out to sea.  But it’s a one-of-its-kind and state of the art and here we were within a stone’s throw.  Cool.

And so ended Day 2 of our San Diego adventure.

Now that we had the feel of the town, it was time to get down to the details   .  .  .  plenty of things were on our lists.  With many enticing activities waiting, it seemed the San Diego Zoo topped them all—so it was easily unanimous.  A bright and sunny day sealed the deal . . . we were off for a day at the zoo!

Spread out along a canyon, the San Diego Zoo has a lot of ups and downs when walking its pathways.  It is one of the largest and most famous zoos in our country, having all kinds of exotic animals and birds.  You’re in for a treat not easily forgotten, as well as a day of plenty of exercise.  It’s all happening AT THE ZOO!

 

 

 

The flamingos are the first to greet you!  They set the stage.

                                          Never a dull moment here at the zoo!

Alas, perhaps its most famous resident—easily one of its most popular—the panda was tucked away in a remote corner of his enclosure, napping the day away.  Not one of the more active animals at any given time, still we had hopes for more.

 

Another day and it was back to the Embarcadero for us.  A Spanish word meaning “landing place”, the Embarcadero is where you’ll find much more than the harbor cruise ships.  For us (specifically one of us) it held endless delights.  Where to go first . .  . what to choose . . . don’t try to do it all in one solitary day!  He selected the USS Midway to be the first—not much of a surprise to that choice!

One of the US military’s largest ships, the decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier.  For the cost of admission, you’ll have a self-guided audio tour to take, helped out along the way by former Midway crewmen (now retired) who willingly answer any questions you might have.  Talk about a great experience . . .

 

Chris takes the hot seat in the Midway’s op center.

And so another day went in San Diego.

A lot of San Diego has to do with water and things that float.  I’m not just talking about paddle-boarding either (although there were more than a few of those).  You just can’t visit this town without preparing yourself for hours aboard a variety of sailing or floating ocean-going vessels.  To Chris’ delight (how did I guess?), we partook of quite a few.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is housed in one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world.  The iconic and majestic Star of India is docked on the beautiful waterfront and it’s the main attraction at the museum.  But it doesn’t end there .  .  .

The museum’s collection includes the HMS Surprise, an authentic replica of an 18th century Royal  Navy frigate, the Rose, a 20-gun vessel built in 1757.  It was actually used in the filming of Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4.  Chris couldn’t let the opportunity to get the feel of this ship slip by.

But the two boats that truly started his juices to flow were a Soviet submarine, the B-39, which played an integral role in the Cuban missile crisis .  .  .  and an American research submarine, the USS Dolphin, the navy’s last operational diesel-electric deep-diving research and development submarine.  Once again, Chris just had to get a hold of those controls.

But before you’re allowed entrance, you must pass a little test of size and agility.

–which we did.

And then you’re allowed to roam free at will and explore every nook and cranny.  Which he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that just about topped off

another one of our days

here in San Diego.

A large statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo gazes out over the land he discovered.

Point Loma is a seaside community within the city of San Diego. Geographically, it’s a craggy, sandstone finger that stretches down and protects San Diego bay, bordered on the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, the east by the San Diego Bay, and the north by the San Diego River. In person it’s a scenic and wonderfully remote spot with stunning cliffs and open ocean views, made all the more beautiful by bright rich green vegetation and sapphire blue skies.  Together with Coronado Island, the Point Loma peninsula delineates San Diego Bay and separates it from the Pacific Ocean.

Home to the site where the Europeans first set foot on the West Coast, Point Loma is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in San Diego. The peninsula has been described as “where California began”. Today, Point Loma houses two major military bases, a national cemetery, a national monument, and a university, in addition to residential and commercial areas.  It’s split up into 5 districts: gorgeous homes in the La Playa area, the Midway or Sports Arena area, Sunset Cliffs, the harbor side and the waterfront urban village of Liberty Station.

Our destination was the southernmost tip of Point Loma, where you’ll find the Cabrillo National Monument.  Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to see San Diego Bay, the monument preserves the wild land on a windswept pinnacle with 360-degree panoramic views.

It was September 28th, 1542 when a Spanish fleet led by Cabrillo sailed into the bay.  Commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition along the Pacific Coast in search of trade opportunities, or perhaps to find a way to China or a route that connected the Pacific Ocean with Hudson Bay, Cabrillo remained just long enough to name the area San Miguel.  About one week later he was making landfall on Santa Catalina Island.  For several more weeks he would continue up the coast, reaching the Sonoma area north of San Francisco before autumn storms would force them to turn back, eventually returning to Santa Catalina Island.  Cabrillo would meet up with his fate there, dying of gangrene from an infected injury.

The best known landmark on Point Loma is the Old Lighthouse.  Perched atop the southern point that creates the entrance of the bay, the small two-story building was completed in 1854, first lit in November of 1855.  It was one of the first lighthouses operating on the west coast.  At 422 feet above sea level at the entrance of the bay, the seemingly good location for a lighthouse soon proved to be a poor choice, as fog and clouds within the marine layer often obscured the beam for ocean-going vessels. On March 23, 1891, the lighthouse ceased to be used for its original purpose, as a new lighthouse was built nearer sea level on the same southern point. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is now partially open to the public and has been refurbished to its historic 1880s interior.  And naturally, it’s listed in the National Register.

Even though much of the southern end of Point Loma is occupied by the navy, the Point is amazingly pristine.  It’s just the old lighthouse surrounded by native vegetation overlooking the ocean and the rocky shoreline below the sandy cliffs.  Exploring the tide-pools and whale watching are two very popular activities along the beach.  And then there’s the bayside view, with its magnificent panorama of San Diego and the naval vessels making for their berths at day’s end.  All-in-all, a very beautiful and serene place to savor.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery provides a peaceful and scenic spot to take in the last light of day.

Perhaps saving the best until last, Balboa Park was always on our radar screen.  Too large to ignore, too important to pass by, we took it in on several occasions.  Each time we came away all the more impressed.  It is a magnificent cultural and landscaped complex.

Often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West”, it is the largest urban cultural park in North America, even exceeding New York’s Central Park in size.  In addition to natural areas and formal gardens, the park has 17 significant museums, several theaters, one grand outdoor organ (free concerts on Sundays), and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.  There is a wide selection of restaurants (both indoors and out), several gift shops and walking trails to take advantage of.  It is at once overwhelming and very grand.

Set aside for public recreational use in 1835, little of the land was developed as a city park for many decades.  In 1892 a local botanist, Kate Sessions, initiated a project to use part of the land as a horticultural nursery to be used for the public enjoyment. She would later be known as the Mother of Balboa Park.

Then came the plans for holding an international exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, utilizing this city park as the location.  Renamed for the Spanish explore Vasco de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean, many of the buildings were constructed for the event.  Built in the Spanish Colonial-Revival Style, this highly ornamental style was the first of its kind in our country.  Scheduled to last only one year, the 1915 Expo was so popular it was extended another year.  More than 3.7 million people took it in during its run.

El Prado, a long, wide promenade and boulevard, runs through the heart of the park. Nearby are many of the park’s museums and cultural attractions.

Twenty years later, San Diego hosted the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition to boost the local economy during the depression. Additional structures and landscaping were added to the park, including the Old Globe Theatre, International Cottages, and Spanish Village, all of which are still in use today.

The Spanish Village was a delight and my fav venue of the park.  Unique, colorful and diversified, its atmosphere was a reflection of its purpose.  Unique shops painted in bright colors housed under Spanish-tile roofed buildings contain small studios and galleries that encircle a courtyard delineated with an equally colorful patchwork of flagstone blocks.  The atmosphere sets the stage for all the creative products you’ll find on display and for sale.  It’s stimulating and joyful and is something I’d highly recommend.  The assortment of crafts and fine art will amaze you.

And it’s all free (until you make a purchase or take in a museum, that is).

So ended a great day filled with sensory-overloading attractions.

I’d be remiss without mentioning two other significant San Diego locations .  .  .  places to stroll and soak up the ambiance under the gentle warmth of a typical day.  Old Town State Historic Park is the city’s Spanish-era heart.  Many preserved and restored buildings give the picture of its original appearance.  Founded around 1820 by demobilized Mexican soldiers who had done their military service at the Presidio, you’ll find old adobe homes, shops and restaurants with outdoor patios.  The stores are manned by costumed employees who speak as if you’re actually living at that time.

No wonder it is the most visited state park in California.

And then there’s Coronado (sometimes referred to as Coronado Island).  Seen from the mainland, many days it appears to be a mirage floating on the mist across the bay.  Actually, Coronado is a tied island—connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land—appropriately called the Silver Strand.  Whatever its designation, is has one of the best beaches in our country as well as one of our country’s more famous resorts, the Hotel del Coronado (known to locals as simply The Del).

From the beginning, when the land was just overgrown brush inhabited by small animals, the purchasers saw its potential for being a resort community.  By 1888 they had built the Hotel Del Coronado and the rest is history.  Streetcars connected Coronado to the mainland early in the 1900s, and that helped bring the tourists in.  Today, there’s a town of about 20,000 that relies mostly on tourism and the service industry.

The beach is one of Coronado’s strongest assets . . . consistently ranking as one of the best in our country.  Thanks to the mica, the sand is sparkling and fine.  With a terrific view of the ocean and spectacular sunsets, with classy restaurants and specialty shops, the Del is reminiscent of the Victorian era.  In fact, it is the second largest wooden structure in the U.S.–the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon is first.  It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1977.

And it hasn’t diminished in its grandeur of a bygone time when presidents and royalty, socialites and glamorous celebrities spent time and stayed here.  Fortunately for us, it’s not off-limits to the common folk.

If I haven’t lost you by now with my discourse on all the wonderful features San Diego has to offer, with all the attractions to entice you to come, then let me provide one more attribute you can expect to see .  .  .  one that can easily hold itself in comparison with the others.  It is a big part of the San Diego scene and without costing a penny, it’s available to all.  For us, it was right there at our back door.

Sunsets in San Diego are a big deal, be you a local or a visitor.  Once you’ve seen one, you’ll easily be won over.

Moreover, it doesn’t require the ocean to provide the proper venue  .  .  .  here on Mission Bay there were ample places in which to view the sun’s last rays.

Maybe it was more of a fluke than a common occurrence, but come the end of day here on Mission Bay we had the show right from our door.  It never ceased to wow us.

How’s this for a backyard view?

One late afternoon found us a few miles north, along the coast at La Jolla.  After strolling along their downtown streets (we’re talking high-end shops and galleries), we headed over to the ocean drive to experience a different sunset perspective.  Once again, the people came .  .  .  along walkways, down on the beach, perched on the coastline rocks.  Another serendipitous moment.

In point of fact, San Diego has its own dedicated, singular place set aside for specifically the sunset hour.  Just south of the free-spirited, laid back town of Ocean Beach you’ll find Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.  Stretching along the Pacific Ocean, bordering the western edge of Point Loma, the park encompasses intricately carved coastal bluffs, arches and sea caves.  With its rugged coastline and expansive panoramic ocean views, there’s plenty of room to spread out from the multitudes who all come to witness the spectacular sunset (they hope).

More often than not, I sense that they don’t walk away disappointed.  It would seem it’s an event that tends to bring people closer together.  Awesomely cool!

last night in San Diego had us strolling the Pacific Beach Boardwalk—another overwhelmingly popular spot.  The sunset hour found us at Crystal Pier where crowds had begun congregating.  Some 872 feet long, the pier has been a unique landmark of this small beach community since 1927.  (It has quaint hotel cottages atop the raised wooden structure).  One last colorful sky .  .  .  and then, too soon, it would all be just a memory.

Leaving the SoCal scene behind,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, San Diego | 3 Comments