Tag Archives: Travel

Mojave Desert to See The Stars

It’s been a while since my partner took out the telescope and helped me see some celestial places up close. This weekend the moon was a late-rising crescent and the forecast called for clear skies and no wind so a last minute trip was floated this week and Saturday morning we headed out. No waking up early, just a leisurely drive to the desert, a northwestern part of the Mojave just west of Death Valley, where I knew it was remote (few people) and high elevation (5,500 feet) and open views for all but the lowest horizons.

I figured we’d break up the long summer day by stopping at a few places along the way I’d “discovered” in my exploration off the familiar roads these past couple years. First we had to get out of SoCal, fairly easy and event free (normal traffic stressors) and onto my beloved 395, gateway to the eastern Sierra Nevada. A few breaks here and there, it was nice late morning car ride – except the temperatures were climbing!

Veering north at Red Mountain, we eventually made it to Trona Pinnacles – remnant tufa towers from when the place was underwater ages ago. We mostly drove, getting out of the car into an oppressive 104F only to read a few signs, for a bathroom break, and to get close to one tufa to examine the interesting geology. I like the views from here, too, rolling mountains all around the Searles Lake basin – a big flat area.

Trona Pinnacles tufa spires as we drive around.
Trona Pinnacles tufa spires landscape view.

We continued north, over a lovely pass providing excellent views of Panamint Valley before descending into it and visited the Ballarat “ghost town” where my guy got to see one of the wild burros walking around in the now 116F heat (why? I figured they’d all be up higher in the nearby mountains already). We did not exit the car because I thought I’d die in temps this high so I only drove close to building remnants and we read signs from the car. The Panamint Mountains to the east, which break off the valley we were in from Death Valley proper, are very eye catching with bands of color. There are great mountains to summit in there: Telescope and Wildrose – this last I have done (in winter and in some snow) and it’s absolutely stunning atop its wide top with excellent views.

The southwest Death Valley National Park sign along Panamint Valley Road with bands of color visible on the Panamint Mountains behind.
View from Father Crowley Overlook back down at Panamint Valley and the winding road that we just drove up.

We pass a park sign and turned left, west, onto the 190 away from Death Valley proper and gain elevation, happy to watch the temperature drop below 100F. A break at Father Crowley Overlook into the canyon where top gun pilots train at low elevation in the tight space and more valley and mountain views – plus a lot of sign reading and a bathroom break, of course. We continued our drive west and past another Death Valley National Park sign before reaching my goal: a flat, if very bumpy, dirt road into Saline Valley – specifically Lee Flat. We found a turnout, parked out of the way, set up camp, and waited for the sun to set (hours away still). It was 91F, mostly calm, with vague clouds, just as the forecast predicted.

There are so many joshua trees here – the cover the high desert (5,500′ elevation) and all the surrounding mountains – they do not seem to end and some are giant.
Car, tent, telescope, sunset: not one other car or person at all the entire time.

My partner set up the telescope as the sun set the small storm cloud we were pondering to the west didn’t move but just dissipated. A few coyotes howled. Some squeaks were heard. There were signs of wild burro. Maybe a small bird flew. Then nothing – except for a few small insects, it was utterly silent and we were alone in this place. Nap time! Around 11pm my car made weird noises so I had to get up to start it and “fix” it, whatever “it” was. It was time to wake up anyhow: the stars were OUT!

The Milky Way was so bright and streaked over head, west to east and curving a bit south. It was awe-inspiring. My astronomer queued up Saturn with clear rings and rain shade. Magical! Then the Andromeda galaxy. Neat! Some nebular. Baby stars! Jupiter finally rose, very bright, and we looked at some of its moons. Cool! It was now in the high 60sF and I was kinda chilly. We didn’t bring warm clothes or much of anything for a single night. I kept returning to the tent and a light bag between viewings. Anyhow, it was rad and I fell asleep dreaming of Saturn’s rings.

A couple of bird tweets as the sun light started but not yet over the mountains woke me early (also, natured called strongly) so we quickly packed up before it was hot. When the light was direct the temps rose quickly. A long, bumpy ride out was broken only by a quick detour to Boxcar Cabin, weird place (as most desert “stuff” seems to me to be). We noticed some small birds that landed atop the spines on a joshua tree and worried about running over some sizable lizards. Eventually we were on the paved 190 again, who-hoo, and continued west.

Morning sun at Lee Flat with brush and joshua trees casting long shadows.
Boxcar Cabin

Two more stops I wanted to share with my man. One was the U2 album plant, “THE Joshua Tree” which is dead and covered with noted of love. I think you actually get emotional in places these even if I don’t really care about the band too much because all the fans that did visit seem to imprint the strong emotions there. Also, the views from away, instead of right underneath, of the southeastern Sierra Nevada are lovely. A different perspective is always welcome.

Note of “One Love” in rocks
Plaque asking “Have you found what you are looking for?”
The now dead tree with the Sierra Nevada west across the sandy place.

The second stop was a quick one: Dirty Socks Springs. It’s a couple pools of vaguely warm water (about 90F) lightly bubbling and smelling of sulfur – which was not bad this day, on a prior visit it was rather awful. I guess some people get into the dark, algae covered water, but not us! Used to be some sort of organized park but now in a bit of ruin. Well, that’s it then, time to get back onto the 395 and drive a few hours to get home. We made it alive, no thanks to a lot of poor drivers. Put gear away, rest, eat, muck about, shower, home stuff!

Dirty Socks Sprints views.
Dirty Socks Spring bubbles a bit with the Sierra Nevada to the west.

4 states in 3 days

I really thought I’d be farther along my quest to hike in all 50 US states by now. I awoke to a new year and realized I had only crossed off 12 states – at this rate I’d never finish! So, after a costly move to a weekend without thunderstorms, flooding, and tornado warnings, I flew into Dallas and headed off in my rental car (which was a lower model of the same car I own, so this was going to be easy).

I needed to keep the driving to a minimum so I’d have time to hike. There aren’t mountains or a lot of national parks or forests, so my plans were all state parks. I hit up Tyler SP for a short hike in the woods near a lake – not many people around at all, then Martin Creek Lake SP for a small hike around the island I camped on for the night. Texas State Parks are well maintained with friendly, accessible staff. The premises are clean and I felt safe. I saw new-to-me butterflies and my first glow bugs twinkling as the sun went down and brilliant red cardinals singing sweetly the next morning and armadillos… as roadkill, sadly. The camp was oddly near a large industrial plant that made noise all night, but otherwise it was only my noisy neighbors that kept me up. I was in the middle of a cold, so I was blowing my nose raw the entire time and pretty tired.

Day 2 was driving to Louisiana to hike and walk around Lake Bistineau State Park. This lake had a decidedly “bayou” feel with quiet waters made into a maze by trees with their thick trunks and roots hiding the views. There was no staff and the trails were seemingly unused: overgrown tick factories. I still managed to have a good time, though not a single other person seemed to hike despite a full campground on Memorial Day weekend. I did see tadpoles and wee frogs in wet divots and a lot of dragonflies. Have I mentioned it’s upper 80s to low 90s with high humidity the entire trip? I am pretty sweaty!

I then drove to Arkansas where I stopped at the stunning Cossatot SP: rushing waters, hilly forests, world-class visitors center with staff reciprocating my excitement for things found… I did a few miles on the fantastic Harris Creek Trail, again with NO ONE even in the parking lot and all campgrounds full to bursting. What was everyone doing? I have realized by now that all parks and recreation areas revolve around fishing or boating, but… really? No one is hiking? Anyhow, after a great opening in a dark shale pit (mined for road material) where there was quite the flower display above the black shard, the trail wound up under a forest canopy to various lovely views of rivers below winding through green hills. I found a legless lizard, more butterflies, more flowers, and, for the first time this trip, my joy of hiking. This was the trip highlight! After returning to the vistors center just before closing to use the toilet & ask about things seen, then did a small hike down the hill to the waterfront and back. Since campsites were totally full, and only Texas had online reservations, I found a hotel in dumpy De Queen.

The next morning I realized I was ahead of schedule… I was supposed to hike one state per day and now it’s day 3 and I still had 2 days to go and only 1 state left. So I wasted some time in the morning going to Pond Creek National Nature Refuge. I am not sure what I expected… probably better organization. I got lonely gravel roads and no maps (I had a GPS unit), though eventually happened upon a planked walkway (the roads are lined with waterways) that led to a couple signs (map included!) in an overgrown crossroads. Nearby were two “nature walks” – I tried the wee 1/4 mile one first thinking to try the longer one next but these trails are COMPLETELY overgrown, nearly non-existent. I was only able to follow the small trek because there were white signs visible between some barely discernible worn areas. At the trailhead sign, in 2 foot grasses, I decided to walk back to the car for deet application due to biting horseflies and swarms of mosquitoes. I head back in and I swear within 20 paces I felt in total isolation: the forest is DENSE and I had barely noticed the slow, brown waters nearby when an alligator noisy jumped back in from the opposite bank. Yikes! I told myself “it’s only a quarter mile, suck it up” and continued to find the next white marker, each telling about beavers, alligators, bobcats, and plants, all the while waving my arms frantically to keep bugs off my face and trying to keep an eye on the water for ‘gaters I apparently cannot even see in the murky water. I am not taking many photos of the spooky place, with tree roots jutting out like stalagmites from the still water and sounds I cannot place. I rush past snake holes though tall grasses and am glad when there is sun ahead meaning I am nearly out of this dark, lonely, frightening pit. LOL! Later I’d found a female lone star tick attached to me, but I still decided to drive around a bit more: many large white birds flew away at my approach, once with a fish or something in it’s beak; deer ran across the roads, quickly disappearing into the dark forest; the ‘campgrounds’ I found were nothing more than parking areas near water, so they are clearly meant for RVs, not tents. I saw NO people and only a couple cars. Weird place!

For a totally different story, I arrived at Beavers Bend SP (after driving around the Broken Bow/Hochatown area a while) and I am in a tourist zoo. I cannot believe how many people there are. I do find some pleasant hikes here: after a walk along the campsites that line the milky blue waters of Mountain Fork River where multi-colored kayaks lazily enjoyed the day, layered shale rising from the opposite wall, I found a small, nearly unused (again) trail where a large black snake moved up and looked at me, more new-to-me butterflies, and generally a pleasant walk. Later I find a proper trail. Well, it started out as a walk near families playing in the gentle waters of a stream that fell over more broken shale, until I just kept going. I haven’t mentioned this, but I NEVER used my backpack in this trip. I didn’t even carry water – these treks were just not long enough for me, despite the heat, to carry anything but my camera and a bunch of tissues for my raw nose. I questioned my judgement to leave the easy blue trail markers for the red ones that went up hill, but I had also learned I would be hard pressed to find a trail that was longer than 3 miles in this part of the US. So up I went, and it felt a trial proper – a mild climb under a green canopy. It found a the creek again before a final climb then popping out down the road for a short walk back to the car. Nice day! Everyone else was on the water, but there were some hikers on this trail for a change.

That’s it! 4 states hiked in 3 days – that is 16 so a shocking 34 states left. ug! Anyhow, I found a hotel for the night then drove to Dallas for the final day where I did absolutely nothing. I even had pizza delivered instead of going out. My flight was at 6am and that meant a very early rise and I was to head straight to work upon the 10a arrival… by pacific time standards that meant I woke up at 1:45a and got into work at 11a already exhausted to the point of alternating between crying and delirious laughter. I was on some OTC drugs by this point, trying to keep my nasal passages manageable, but they flight was doable despite ear pain on descent and I was home and done with quite the adventure. (-:


First, a heartfelt thank you to the peoples of the Havasupai Tribe and village of Supai: they were gracious and friendly and provide way too much trash services (visitors do not pack out what they bring, sometimes just leaving trash at the stunning campsite – people can be the worst).

Pack weight start (had to carry water): ~32 lbs including camera, felt like 28. Pack weight end: ~25.2 lbs, felt like 35. lol! Food was only down about 1 lb, water down 5.5 lbs. So my base weight was a tad heavy: extra shoes, extra bottles, a day pack, 3x change of clothes, and too much tech will do that.

The bad stuff:

I certainly ignored advice to bring medical tape and use it preemptively and now have 6 toes that seem to be nearly all blister (it’s impressive, and scary – and two pops within my shoes on the way out).

On the way down, my right hip started to hurt. Standing up straight certainly helped, but walking on flat trails was rather painful, especially with weight. This really came to a head on the way out since I needed frequent breaks to calm down the pain and wasn’t moving very fast (still, with breaks was just less than 2mi/hour, which isn’t terrible). This lead to being passed by 6 people who left 2 – 2.5 hours after me – sure, they are super fast, but it still felt demoralizing.

Finding a camping spot was very difficult – the mile long area was full to bursting. The full moon often shined right into my hammock (love my Hennessy hyperlite zip!) – which I found odd because the bright, hot sun didn’t seem to make it through the trees often.

I wasn’t thinking well and packed only a Rumple down blanket, expecting overnight temps of 60F… which it was, just not by the water, which I was 1 foot from. The nights were a bit chilly for me, especially when a breeze kicked up.

The funny stuff:

I really chewed up my hands, especially fingertips, gripping onto rocks and chains and general roughness with handling gear (typical small scratches), but my index finger no longer unlocks my phone – I have worn too much of it off. Does… does it come back?

The great stuff:

Man, that canyon is stunning. Red, sheer walls towering overhead; teal waters cascading over rounded terraces for miles and miles; giant waterfalls; lush, green hills and forests all along the Havasu “creek.”

My trip:

I snag a cancellation date that fits my schedule with plans (that I never did) to have time to train since I’d been pretty immobile after 3 months of back issues. Screw lottos or mad rushes to buy permits on the first day released: when I am a single I just pick up cancels, it usually works out.

It’s over 7 hours to drive from the OC to “hilltop” – a trip I did Thursday, late morning. Very little stopping, other than gas for Cutie (who drives so fun! Hurray, Hyundai Kona!) and bathroom visits. I manage a spot right up front and, after a sandwich dinner and next-day planning and sunset admiring, I break out the mattress and sleeping bag and squeeze into the back (okay, Cutie does NOT have rear room: maybe 4.5 feet long, and I am 6’1″+). I… didn’t sleep great. There is a light in the parking lot, it was a full moon, and most others who were also sleeping at the trail head were NOT quiet.

Day 1: Anyhow, I arise with the noise and hit the trail at 5am. There are switchback carved along the sheer canyon walls for less than a mile, then some traveling out to a plateau – eventually turning at the two mile marker and descending into basically a slot canyon for the next 5 miles or so – it’s all basically downhill. For the last mile you make it to the creek – a stunner of white and teal rushing by under a green canopy – and the village of Supai. On the way, I decided these people hiking out when the sun was now roasting the canyon were nuts.

Trains of horses and mules went by, the leaders wishing me welcome and telling me “you’re almost there!” I get to the tourist stop for my wristband and tag before 8:30: ~8 miles, less than 3.5 hours. It was great until then… 2 miles down to the start of the campground and I was limping – my right hip is a mess, probably posture related + the weight. I had to add another mile + some meandering to find a campsite that was both available and had trees appropriate for a hammock, and it was WAY at the end right near Mooney Falls. In theory, this is only 10.5 miles, but based on my time + GPS, it’s closer to 12 (verified on the way out – actually said 12.5 but some of the canyon slots were narrow so there is bouncing / inaccuracies). I was settling in by 10:30, 5.5 hours from the start.

It’s quite warm now. After some snacks, I walk back up a mile to visit Havasu Falls – quite the stunner. Then generally muck about – taking photos and filling water bottles at Fern Spring. I force a good amount of food down – made all the easier by the fantastic tasting Mary Jane’s Farm dehydrated meals: this time, Eat Your Veggies pasta. I had some bull crap Mountain House meal the next night which reminded me of why people hate dehydrated backpacking meals. Never again. What I have left of other brands will remain in my emergency pack, until 6mos to expiration – then I’ll donate, I guess.

I end the day by reading (via Kindle) in my beloved Hennessy hammock and, though I didn’t sleep well and had to do the small hike to the composting toilets twice, managed some rest…

Day 2: I am up and moving, heading to the (to me) petrifyingly scary decent to the base of Mooney Falls at 6am. This consists of steeeeeeep steps in tunnels and right out on the cliff face, assisted by metal chains and a couple worn, wooden ladders: all of it slick use and spray from the waterfall. yikes. My man said to use common sense before I left. I have to admit I put that aside on this hike. The goal is the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon proper where the muddy waters mix with the blue of Havasu creek: the confluence. This is a 16 mile round trip hike according to online sources: my GPS wouldn’t know as the canyon walls are too tall and close together so the map looked like Spider-man tracks.

It’s slow going – I mean, I’m not terribly fast anyhow, but there are water crossings (stunning! but I was often taking off shoes/socks in exchange for water sandals) and class II scrambles straight up (and down) to get around Beaver Falls and none of these had chains, though some sketchy-ass ladders were involved. The canyon is shaded most of way and then there is happily cloud cover, and all 8 miles are bright teal pools and the sound of rushing water – I mean, it just kept getting more amazing. I am at the confluence by 11:30, so that’s 5.5 hours. I hang out, jump round the natural steps, wave “hello” at the Colorado and the extra tall canyon walls (I haven’t been in years), admire the mix of brown/green with the clear teal, and stare at a bunch of fish in the area. Some rafters were around, and I got a ‘you made it’ from other hikers who passed me earlier. Some hikers climbed down to the river and waded into Havasu Creek in what has got to be it’s thinnest point, many getting their Instagram moment.

The hike out was terrible and amazing in reverse: the sun was out for less than half the hike back, so I was hissing at it and cowering under my hat, but this made the blue waters every more vibrant – and everything I climbed up or down had to be done again in reverse which I hated and just glad I could lift myself up where my feet could find no hold. Pictures, smiles, effort… eventually I notice I am really developing some interesting toe blisters and my pinky toes are missing the pink polish entirely. I feel like other than some core trail areas, there is a maze along the banks of the water and often I find I took a different way back than in. One of these led to just downstream of tall Mooney Falls, where water was coming off a cliff, the deposits forming a cave of rocky growth and ferns, and I climb up some small terraces – making my way pool to pool until I am once again at Mooney Falls. The climb up was terrifying – worse than down for me… but I live and I’m back in camp about 5pm for a giant 11 hour hiking day. I felt pretty good (disclaimer: I was taking prescription strength pain medication that I have for my back but in this case helped my hips and knees) and though my toes look a blistered mess I don’t really feel it. I have enough time to clean up and organize before eating a shitty meal in the dark (woe is me who didn’t bring something from Mary Jane’s Farm both nights!).

Day 3: I wake up in the middle of the night. I never find sleep again. I decide to leave. It’s 2:30am when I start. I always wanted to leave early – after the hike out (and uphill this time) I was going to immediately to the 7.5 hour drive home and going to work the day after sounded terrible… I didn’t want to take more than 3 days off. My hip really hates me, and I basically sometimes limp and keep adjusting my stance (plus resting) to be able to push through. It’s dark, and fairly scary, until well past the halfway mark. I stopped for some night photos of Havasu Falls and Lower Navajo Falls (I admit not having time to visit fifty-foot falls or spend time at stunning Navajo – I needed to spend my other full day). You cannot take night photos when there is a full moon: my 6 second exposures looked hilariously like bright daylight. I used my headlamp in red, except when the moon was on the trail and lit it just fine. Anyhow, by the time I was making in through the slot canyon, the sun was lighting the sky (thankfully not the rock walls yet) and it was getting downright chilly.

People started coming down – I assume these people left closer to 4am. There was a steady stream of incoming: all in warm gear and me in my clothes made for the warm weather of the lower canyon. I catch the 4 mile marker, than the 2. I’m going very slow, my hip very painful, but pushing through. At the mile 1 marker, with mostly just switchbacks to go, I sit, rest, stretch, eat, and drink the last of my water (I only brought 2/3 liter, having drank only 1/4 coming in despite carrying 2.75) – I knew the sun wasn’t going to be on me and I had a small ton of water in my car by way of a giant 1 gallon Hydro Flask. You know, I originally was going to take the helicopter because I thought that seemed exciting… then I thought it would save my hip… and I have nothing to prove by hiking out… and my toes are blisters. But since I left so early, this would be a pointless wait. Instead, I suffered and got to the top 5.6 hours after starting. I was passed by people, right at the end, who started way later than I, but they are fast and I had a limp and I’m actually very okay with my time in the end. A couple of these passers offered encouragement: despite some idiots, most people I actually spoke to were over friendly, which I appreciate. I returned the favor by quickly moving my car so a man, who was dropping off packs, could actually just park and get on with it.

I was going to make tea and have a poptart as my victory, but it was seriously chilly and windy at Hilltop (much colder than when I was up there just 3 nights earlier) so I drove to Peach Springs and had my feast there before the long drive home.

Havasupai is amazing. Every picture you see is accurate, but does the place no justice because how do you explain by picture than there is a dozen miles of blue pools below red walls? Europe: how many castles and churches can you really remember after a while? Oregon: it’s not long after the 20th waterfall that you start to complain when you can’t walk behind one. Canada: is it possible to fall in love with 50 different mountains at once? Same here: if I shared, or even took, that many photos would you get tired of seeing the paradise?

I am glad the tribe instituted the online system and raised the rates: sure, 300 people even in a campsite this large was a stretch, but there are bathrooms and trashcans and staff making their rounds and recording where people hike and stay the night. Better than to be overrun by any more idiots than that a night (well, there are a few more at the lodge).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower followed by a salt bath in hopes that I can loosen my leg muscles and walk like a normal person by tomorrow (I have hurts).

EDIT: scratch the bath. I did a great job keeping sun off my face (large brim on new Sunday Afternoons Latitude Hat), an okay job covering my arms and hands (they do look a tad darker, and maybe some new wrinkles/freckles), but a terrible job with my lower legs which were exposed mostly on day 2 as I rolled up my beloved Deluth pants (Flex Dry On The Fly Convertible Boot Cut Pants) for water crossings which often came up to my knees (and I am tall). The shower heat hurt, so… I am pretty thrilled to have tomorrow off work because I don’t want to wear pants due to the burn… or shoes due to the blisters… or a bra due to some sort of heat rash on my chest. I got pretty worked: my knees are bruised, my lower legs are sunburned and scratched, my toes are blisters, I have rub rash from backpack straps plus sports bra straps (had this before, but this time they look dark/blood blister-like), I have rub rash on either side of my hip (usually maybe a scratch or bruise, but not like my shoulders), my fingerprint cannot unlock my phone anymore, and now my chest is red – forget the sore muscles. Wow. I am a mess and not entirely sure why as I have hiked longer with same gear and much less damage – something to work on! I wonder if all those pretty 20-somethings hiking in bikinis had any damage – they were exposed to the sun all day plus did all the climbing I did only without protection… ??