Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National ParkGreat Basin National Park is one of many of the national parks we had never heard of when we started planning our Out There adventure to visit all of our nation’s parks several years ago.  One of the first things I did at that time was to make a list of all 59 of the parks and start to get to know where they all are so I could develop a rough plan for visiting them all in some sort of order that made logistical and geographical sense.  This park is far from everything on a long road from nowhere and not on the way to anywhere else — a destination park, to be sure.  That is probably the reason that we haven’t visited Great Basin NP before now.  But visit it, we now have — our 49th park.

The long road to get to GBNP
The long and fairly straight road to get to Great Basin National Park — it’s some 200 miles from the nearest city.

Great Basin NPThe isolation of Great Basin makes this a not-oft-visited park; in fact Grand Canyon NP gets more visitors in a busy week than this one gets in the entire year!  But the diversity of what can be found in the area, as well as an understanding of what Great Basin represents and protects was a nice surprise — well worth the trek to get to it.  Our visit here had us hiking in snow fields, touring a limestone cave, marveling at 3,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees, enjoying a veritable cornucopia of colorful wildflowers, and looking up from the basin at mountain peaks that tower over 10,000 feet; the tallest, Wheeler Peak, tops out at over 13,000 feet.

Great Basin NPAs the park brochure illustration depicts, what is known as the Great Basin is very large and stretches across multiple states.   There is not just one basin here, but many.  They are separated by mountain ranges that are roughly parallel, north to south, with basins and ranges alternating.  Great Basin National Park preserves and protects just one of the many mountain ranges — a mere 77,000 acres — but it represents the entire Great Basin which is some 200,000 square miles in size.  Hot, dry summers.  Cold, snowy winters.  Mountains in a sea of sagebrush.  These all describe Great Basin National Park.

Great Basin was given its name by a mid-19th century explorer, John C. Fremont, who described it like this:  “It is a singular feature, a basin of some five hundred miles in diameter in every way, between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea, shut in all around by mountains, with its own system of lakes and rivers, and having no connexion whatever with the sea.”  Indeed, the basin consists of valleys and mountain ranges that keep all of the streams and rivers in the region contained.  This results in water collecting in shallow salt lakes (playas), marshes, and mud flats which then evaporate in the dry desert air; there is no outlet for this water to reach the sea.

Over 90% of the basin is public land, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a couple of state agencies, each having its own mission and management purpose.  The movie in the Visitor Center gave us an overview of the park, but once again, NPS Rangers Mike in the Visitor Center, and Mark who gave us a tour of Lehman Caves really make the park come to life for us so we could understand and appreciate it better.

Here’s a look at what I enjoyed during our three-day visit to Great Basin National Park:

Snow-capped mountains — I enjoyed the scenery but not the snow; I’m done with cold and snow for the season!

Mather Point at GBNP
Mather Point, named after Stephen Tyng Mather, who laid the foundation for the National Park Service. As the plaque inscription states, “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

 Snow-capped mountains in GBNP

Lehman Caves — although it’s only one single cavern, contrary to the name


Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees — this one near the Visitor Center is a baby compared to some of the other old beauties in the park


Abundant Colorful Wildflowers — several I know the names for now because we’ve seen them throughout this region

Fred’s Death Valley National Park

This was a good time to visit Death Valley National Park. Instead of having to deal with the 100 degree plus days and warm nights during the summer, we were moving comfortably around the park in sunshine and temps in the 70’s and 80’s. This was not by accident as we had researched when the weather is most accommodating and planned our visit accordingly. We also planned our trip to coincide with the spring flower bloom, and were not disappointed. As a matter of fact, we happened to visit the park in a year and at a time that a once every decade event occurred: a super bloom. This is what occurs when the valley experiences above-average rainfall coupled with warm temperatures. While this term is somewhat relative as it applies to a spring bloom in a place like Death Valley (it wasn’t quite as robust as one might see at say, Mount Rainier NP), it was still pretty spectacular to see entire areas exhibiting a yellow tint from Desert Gold wildflowers. But the beautiful wildflowers were not the only color on display in the park. In my view, the spectacular multi-colored mountains and rock formations that make up the park were the real stars of the show.

Images from our visit to Death Valley NP are below.    

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.





Death Valley National Park

Death Valley NPWe spent nearly a month here this past week!  That’s an old joke, I know, but it is rather fitting in this circumstance.  Actually Death Valley National Park isn’t such a bad place to spend a week, but I’ll confess Fred was a lot more into it than I was.  The name gives it a bad rap, to be sure, but it is the largest national park outside of Alaska, and in spite of the forbidding name there are many parts of this big place to enjoy.

Badwater Basin - 282 feet below sea level
Badwater Basin — the lowest spot in North America, it’s 282 feet below sea level

One intriguing aspect of this park is the extremes.  Death Valley is officially the hottest place on earth, holding the world record for the hottest air temperature of 134°F.   It is the driest place on earth, with average rain amounts of just two inches.  It is also the lowest place in North America.  Badwater Basin, in the heart of the park, lies 282 feet below sea level!

The rugged mountains in Death Valley
Panoramic view from Zabriskie Point, one of the most popular venues within Death Valley

As we drove into one of the southern entrances to the park we came upon Zabriskie Point.  It’s one of the most popular spots to pull off, park, and walk up a little pathway to get incredible views of the erosional Amargosa Range, The Valley, and Panamint Range in the background.  This area was once ancient lake beds deposited five to ten million years ago that have been tilted and pushed upward by earth forces and eroded by wind and water.

Zabriskie Point Trailhead
Walking up to Zabriskie Point
View from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley
Twenty Mule Team Canyon as seen from Zabriskie Point
Manly Beacon – the lighter rock point on the left – as seen from Zabriskie Point

Another very popular place in the park is Badwater Basin.  It takes its name from the spring-fed pool of “bad water” next to the road.  Salt accumulates in the surrounding basin making the water undrinkable.  Visitors to this area can walk out into a section of the nearly 200 square miles of dried salt flats.  As mentioned above, this is the lowest point in North America — we’re pictured next to the sign showing 282 feet below sea level.  Interestingly enough, Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. is just 84.6 miles away.  Yet another ‘extreme’ in the park.

Another iconic place in the park is Artist’s Palette.  It’s an area on the face of the Black Mountains known for a variety of rock colors.  Pastel purple, pink, yellow and green all show up thanks to the oxidation of different metals in the rocks.  

Artist's Palette
Artist’s Palette — rock colors are a result of oxidation of various metals in the rocks

While I was pleased with what we saw, we did miss two areas of the park that would have been cool to see.  One area, Racetrack Playa, is a seasonally dry lake located in the northern part of the Panamint Mountains.  It is famous for rocks that mysteriously move across the ground, making notable grooves and patterns in the ‘racetrack.’  While I’m sorry we didn’t get to see this iconic site, getting to the remote playa requires 25+ miles of travel on a rough road that warns of needing heavy-duty tires.  We had flashbacks of our flat tire in Toad 25 miles away from nowhere, New Mexico, and Death Valley didn’t seem like a good place to experience another so we skipped The Racetrack.  The other famous feature in the park that we were planning to see is Scotty’s Castle, an improbably ornate Spanish Mission villa built in a nearly-impossible location.  Unfortunately heavy rains back in October completely washed out the road leading here and caused flood damage to the property as well, so this area was out, as well.

But all was far from lost with our visit.  As fortuitous timing would have it, we were here during the happens-once-every-decade “super-bloom” of wildflowers.  The punch of yellow gave the park some nice life; I can’t imagine what it would be like without that color!

Fred went into the park several times without me which was fine — he’s training for his big Rim-to-Rim hike at the Grand Canyon coming up in two months, so he enjoyed a couple of strenuous hikes on his own.  Me, I spent my month, I mean week, reading a couple of books as our campground had no Verizon signal and no TV signal.  Did I mention it was a long week?!?  Seriously, Death Valley National Park is a great park and I have a feeling we’ll come visit again to see more of this unique beauty.

Lake Tahoe and Tufas

Lake Tahoe
Stunningly beautiful, this is Lake Tahoe, California

Just when I think I’m nearly caught up sharing stories here on our travel blog about our exciting life on the road as full-timers, we go and pack more fun and adventure into a short amount of time, giving me more to share.  I get so caught up in experiencing new and wonderful things, but anything but caught up in writing about them.  So such it is, a week has now gone by and I’m getting further behind.  I either need to slow my pace down or write faster!

Carson Valley, Nevada
Carson Valley on the California / Nevada border

So last Sunday, the 24th, when we left friends, Mark and Simone, they had suggested a drive we might enjoy taking us through more of California — go further north and east from their place in Grass Valley, cut south down to Lake Tahoe on the Nevada border, then come down through the back (east) side of the mountains – that’s over Kingsbury Pass where a spectacular view of Carson Valley opens up, then down U.S. 395 where California is on the west side of the road and Nevada is on the east side of the road.  Well what terrific advice that was!  This drive was SOOOOO beautiful!!  If you’ve been on it, you know what I’m talking about; it is stunning!  We followed US-395 down to a little town named Lee Vining, California, where we planned to spend the night. 

Lee Vining was selected for two reasons: 1) it’s the eastern terminus of Yosemite’s Tioga Pass over which we wanted to travel and approach Yosemite National Park from the east, and 2) Mark showed us his photos of tufas in nearby Mono Lake and we knew we just had to see these geological gems.

Mono Lake
Tufas in Mono Lake (with a rain storm approaching)

Tufas in Mono LakeWhat is a tufa, you ask?  A tufa is formed when calcium-rich springs flow up through the bottom of a lake.  The calcium bonds with carbonates in the lake water, forming calcium carbonate, a type of limestone.  The solid material builds up on itself, gradually forming a tufa tower.  When the lake level drops, the exposed tufa stops growing.  

While Mono Lake appears to be a really lovely body of water out of which these limestone towers protrude, the story about the lake isn’t a happy one, and the lake is a far cry from what it used to be.  Fresh water streams that had once fed this lake began to be diverted by the city of Los Angeles beginning in 1941 for the city’s increasing water needs.  The volume of the lake dropped in half while its salinity doubled.  Unable to adapt to these changing conditions fast enough, the ecosystem began to collapse.  Through the efforts of tens of thousands of concerned citizens, litigation, and legislation, awareness was raised about the value of this lake, and efforts to reverse the damage caused in the past are now well underway.  Meanwhile, visitors to these natural wonders pay a nominal fee to visit them, and all proceeds go to furthering recovery plans for this oasis in the otherwise arid Great Basin area.

Tufas on the shoreline at Mono Lake
Tufas along the banks of the lake – these used to be beneath the water

Mono Lake

Lake Mead NRA and the Hoover Dam

Lake Mead National Recreation AreaWednesday, May 6th — After a long day of driving, much longer than we expected because we decided to push on and drive an additional 100 miles, we arrived in Boulder City, Nevada.  Boulder City is about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, and is home to the Visitor Center for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and to the world-famous Hoover Dam.  By pushing on (kudos to my chauffeur), we could spend two nights in this one spot rather than set up and break down twice in two nights – preferred by both of us and worth the sacrifice of a long driving day.

~ Lake Mead, the largest manmade lake and part of the oldest National Recreation Area in the U.S. ~ Lake Mead











~The Hoover Dam as seen from the Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge ~ The Hoover Dam

After a short visit at the Visitor Center for our requisite informational movie watching and souvenir magnet purchasing, we drove out to the nearby Hoover Dam which is responsible for this area being what it is today.  In spite of the fact that the road on top of the dam is the site of a great scene from Albert Brooks' RV movie, Lost In America, we chose to view it from the newly-completed Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.  [Incidentally, Lost in America is the favorite in our RV-themed movie trilogy which also includes Robin Williams' RV, and Lucy and Desi's 1953 classic, The Long, Long Trailer.  If you've seen any of these movies, you'll understand why we have them in our movie collection these days.]

Back to the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge… it's a massive arch bridge which stands just 1,500 feet south of the Hoover Dam.  Finished in 2010 as part of the Hoover Dam Bypass Project, it now takes most of the traffic off the roadway atop the dam, which had been deemed too crowded and dangerous for the amount of traffic using it.  This new bridge crosses the Colorado River that the Hoover Dam tames some 880 feet below, and is part of a new highway connecting Arizona and Nevada.  We walked out onto the bridge and got a much better view and perspective of the dam than was possible in the past.  This engineering marvel was a really cool structure to see!

~ Marina on Lake Mead; note how low the water is these days! ~

Lake MeadNow hungry, we returned to Lake Mead for lunch at a marina on the southwestern edge of the lake.  Lake Mead was created when the dam, then called Boulder Dam, was finished in 1935.  Waters of the Colorado River, now backed up, spread into valleys and basins, flooding the lowlands and turning the surrounding dry cliffs into lake shores.  The recreation area created by this new lake has been managed by the National Park Service since 1936.  When Boulder Dam was renamed Hoover Dam in 1947, the area of Lake Mojave, stretching 67 miles southward from Hoover Dam [all the way down to Davis Dam] was added to the recreation area.

Lake Mead and Lake Mojave are the two centerpieces of what was, in 1964, designated the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  The lives of some 20 million people have been built around this water, and trillions of gallons flow through the area.  It irrigates more than one million acres in the U.S. and Mexico, and the power created from it supplies the neighboring big cities of Las Vegas, San Diego, and Los Angeles.  For years now, the long drought cycles occurring in this part of the country and the over-commitment of this water have created a maelstrom of controversy for the area.  It remains to be seen what this national recreation area will look like in the next several years, but for now, it's an oasis in what is otherwise the desert Southwest.