Category Archives: National Parks, Monuments, Etc.

Posts about our experiences in national parks, monuments. seashores, etc.

A once in a lifetime experience

Hello! My name is Graham and my brother and I recently flew into Salt Lake City from Rochester via Chicago to start our adventure in Utah. After our flight from Chicago to SLC was delayed two hours, we finally arrived back at the camper with our grandparents.

Waiting for a plane…
We found a plane!
Finally here!

One of the necessities of the camper was that there was room for grandkids to accompany on trips. As the backseat riders in Scarlet, the truck, Dean and I have only been here since Thursday the 27th. We started planning this trip over a year ago, and it is finally happening.

On our first day here we stayed in a KOA in Salt Lake City, only 10 minutes from the airport. We departed the next morning, heading for Price. In Price we discovered that there was more than we had expected there. Price had only been a short stop on the way to Moab. There we found a cool mining museum, where we met a woman who had just come back from our home, Corning! We found a lot of cool artifacts there, and an old caboose and tie-layer.

The next day we went to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, where over 15,000 bones have been found. The majority of the bones were found in a 60×40 foot area. 70% of the bones were Allosaurus. We then went to Buckhorn Wash, a really nice drive through a long canyon. We stopped at two pictograph and petroglyph panels along the way. Pictographs are painted, petroglyphs are carved or chipped into the stone. We then went to the Wedge Overlook, fittingly deemed the ‘Mini Grand Canyon’.

Dino quarry!
15000 bones! The green is Allosaurus.
Rawwwr!
Inside the canyon!
Snake!
What do you think this one is?
Sheep?
Cheese!
‘Mini Grand Canyon’

We departed Price and went to Moab, home of two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands. We headed to Susie’s Branding Iron for lunch, had delicious food, and headed off to our first day at Arches. We stopped about every two minutes to take pictures, which got old towards the end. At the end, as the boys went to investigate the Windows, Grandma went to find parking. She went to the lower loop and discovered an amazing double arch! I went climbing up under the arch and found a gap under a big rock and found a cool thing to crawl through. We went back to the camper and played a fun game, The Mind.

Skillful balancing, mother earth.
Double arch!
Big rock!

The next day, we started off to Dead Horse Point State Park, a park near the top of Canyonlands. The reason it has such an odd name is because the cowboys corralled the horses to the point of the park where they picked the best ones to sell and left the rest trapped at the end. The horses died of thirst, while looking out 2000 feet above the Colorado River. The view there is spectacular and we got some great photos. We also saw a potash evaporation facility and a nice guy told us what it was for. The way to get potash is to drill down to it and put water in the hole, then take the potash water and put it in these large pools to evaporate, leaving only the potash. Potash is mainly used for fertilizer.

Potash pools Photo credit: Graham Simons
Utah Juniper Photo credit: Graham Simons
View from Dead Horse Point Photo credit: Graham Simons
Cool Tree! Photo credit: Graham Simons

We then went for “fro yo” and went to a dinosaur amusement park , where there are giant dinosaurs that I had fun photographing. There was also a series of rooms that had a 3D aquarium. The 8th room was a shark attack, and the floor moved when the shark hit the ‘window’ or screen. We then went to get my FAVORITE food, sushi! We ordered a ‘Boat 2’ not knowing it was served on an actual boat! I also tried Octopus for the first time, and I liked it! We went back to the camper and played some of The Mind.

Watch Out! Photo credit: Graham Simons
Don’t worry, this one is a herbivore. Photo credit: Graham Simons
No one was expecting this!

The next day, we woke up super early and left for Arches, so we could do a hike while it was still relatively cool. We set out with the goal to see Landscape Arch, the widest arch in the world, 305 feet. We also saw two smaller arches, Tunnel and Pinetree. We got to the big arch, and me being me, I wanted to climb up the thin, steep, and possibly dangerous next part of the trail. I made it up pretty quickly, and went back down.

Long way down
The green backpack is me!
Only 11 feet thick at its smallest point.

We came back to Rhett having agreed to do some Ham Radio work. We have been working to get our licenses for a few months. Grandpa and Dean walked down the road a ways while Grandma and I stayed in the camper and Dean and I used their call signs to communicate. It was pretty fun and we learned a lot doing it. We finished off our day by watching Captain Marvel, and Grandma made some delicious bread pudding.

The next day, we left to our first day at Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district. We drove out to some cool viewpoints went on two short hikes, the first of which was a short and easy hike to Mesa Arch. The second hike was a bit more uphill, but was a nice hike to the first overlook for Upheaval Dome. Our personal opinion is that it was formed by a meteorite strike, while the other possibility of its formation is a salt dome. We hiked back down and returned to the RV to plan for the next few days.

That is a road!
But I thought this park was Canyonlands, not Arches… Photo credit: Dean Simons
Meteorite or salt dome? Photo credit: Dean Simons

Finally, we left the camper at about 9:00 to do some star photography at Panorama Point in Arches. We got some cool photos, and towards the end we got the whole viewpoint to ourselves! The people that were already there were mostly there for sunset. We headed back to the camper at about 11 pm.

Milky Way from Panorama Point

The first week was really fun, and I look forward to seeing the other state and national parks in Utah.

Next stop, Capitol Reef and Goblin State Park!

Millions of Years!

The RVing “Rule of Twos:”

  • About 200 miles per day,
  • Arrive by 2:00 (or at least early enough to set up by late afternoon),
  • Stay at least two nights.

We’re retired, no need to push for long driving days. So when we plan our travels, one of the tasks is “Where to stop?” When we have a longish drive between two major stops, we have to break up the drive across multiple days. So we look on the map at “around” 200 miles, and see what looks promising.

When you notice the name, “Flaming Gorge,” the decision is pretty much made! We’re really glad that we saw that. And also that we decided on three nights!

Flaming Gorge

Flaming Gorge was named by John Wesley Powell in 1869 during his exploration of the west. The name stuck. When you see the reds of the surrounding cliffs, you can see why. Flaming Gorge is one of five distinct gorges/canyons in this stretch of the Green River. This pic is actually just before Flaming Gorge, in Red Canyon.

The Green River in Red Canyon, just above Flaming Gorge. Yes, the river really is green.

The gorge area is only about 30 miles from our campground, but it is thirty miles of twisting mountain road. I didn’t realize how strong my fear of edges was until I tried to drive on these. Fortunately, Kathe’s shoulder has now healed enough that she was able to resume her driving duties! Phew…

Geology is big here; there are signs along the roadside giving the current rock formation / era, and sayings like, “Dinosaurs roamed here,” or “Ancient seabed, shells and sand dunes.” Because of the erosion over the millennia, we travel backward and forward through the history of the earth as we drive up and down (or actually, down and up) the hillsides.

Sheep Creek Bay Overlook, at the south end of Flaming Gorge. The sun conditions make huge differences in the color of the water. The next day, the water here was gray. Notice the prominent evidence of tectonic activity with the upthrust formations tilting once horizontal sediment beds.

Parts of these gorges have been flooded to create the ninety-one mile long Flaming Gorge Reservoir by damming the Green River, the Colorado’s biggest tributary. We were able to take a tour of the 502′ high Flaming Gorge Dam, going down into the turbine room, and out at the downstream base. Thank goodness for elevators!

Flaming Gorge Dam
One of three turbine-driven generators. Together, the three turbines use 4,000 cubic feet of water per second. The dam can release more water if needed, through bypasses.
One of the turbine wheels that was removed during a retrofit.
I thought we used a lot of climbing rope on the MDI-SAR team! They do inspections by rappelling down the face of the dam. Oh! May I? May I, please? Please?

The dam has of course changed the ecology of the river. Some fish previously in the river are gone. But the Green River downstream of the dam is now apparently a world-class trout fishery. There were lots of very large trout swimming in the eddies of the generating plant outlets, but fishing is not allowed in the immediate downstream area.

Are you hungry yet?

As is frequently the case, the top of the dam is a roadway, usually a two direction road except when something like this is trying to cross!

Yes, it IS an oversize load…
At times, the road over the dam is definitely one way!

Dinosaur National Monument

About an hour and a half away from our campground (again over the mountains) lay Dinosaur National Monument. What kid (of any age) can resist dinosaurs? Sure! Let’s go.

Dinosaur NM is quite large, but its gem is just inside the western (nearest to us!) entrance. The “Quarry Exhibit Hall” is an enclosed cliff face of what was originally the river bed of an ancient river. Approximately 1,500 bones are visible here, from ten different species of dinosaurs. The site is estimated to have been formed about 149 million years ago. It was discovered in 1909 by Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum when he found eight tail vertebrae of an Apatosaurus (how can they tell???). Many of the fossils discovered here were shipped to museums around the world, but many remain.

One side of the Quarry Exhibit Hall, showing how it is built right into the cliff face. This is the third such building. It appears robust; time will tell if this is the one that will last!

Naturally enough, the cliff face and the fossilized bones are pretty uniform in color. This makes discerning the bones somewhat difficult, especially in pictures.

As taken.

To make it easier to see the bones, I have enhanced the contrast and used edge sharpening in the remainder of these pictures. I should note that the National Park Service does the same thing on its website. (To a greater degree, in my opinion!)

With boosted contrast and sharpening.

One of the things that makes this site so different is not just the density of preserved bones (which of course are now fossilized, i.e., they are rock, not bone), but also the number of bones that are still articulated—attached to the bones next to them. It is very rare to find skulls still articulated to the cervical vertebrae.

Skull still attached.

Many species died here. In this picture are large bones from two different species. Across the top is an Apatosaurus scapula. Below it, going from lower left toward the upper right is a Diplodocus scapula. And from lower right toward upper left is an Apatosaurus femur.

Scapula, scapula, femur.

Apparently, mostly complete skeletons are exceedingly rare. The NPS publication describing this part of the wall says, “Articulated Skeleton: Paleontologist’s Dream.” This picture is of a nearly complete Camarasaurus. I couldn’t see all of what they were describing, but then, I’m not a paleontologist!

“Nearly complete.” If you say so!

And if I could be permitted a slight aside here, whatever happened to the dinosaur names that I learned as a kid? My grandkids (and this exhibit) and I speak a completely different “language” of dino names! I want my T-Rex back!

Aside to the aside: I really put that in for a bit of humor, but decided to do a little web searching and came across this. Apparently, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus (Thunder Lizard) were initially thought to be different species, but soon thereafter they were “determined” to be the same, with the animal identified as Apatosaurus being simply a juvenile Brontosaurus. Since the name Apotosaurus was published first, the name Brontosaurus was dropped from the formal nomenclature in the early 20th century, but not from many museum exhibits, nor from popular use. But wait! There’s more! In 2015, a new study “determined” that they are indeed separate species, and that there may be a third closely related species. So I guess I get my Brontosaurus back.

Whatever their names, some of the beasts were BIG! This is a Camarasaurus femur.

Don’t meet this one on a dark night…

Notice that parts of that femur are dark and shiny. That is from the oil on many people’s hands. Most of the gallery is under a “don’t touch” policy, but in some places the kids (again, of all ages!) are invited to touch.

Please touch me!

As part of the preservation efforts here, the wall is being monitored for seismic activity. There are strain gauges across many of the cracks, and there are other detectors at several places. I was not able to find a ranger who could identify what those were for.

Monitoring the rock. Notice that one of the bones is broken at a crack.

Dinosaur National Monument is big; we only dipped our toes into the water, so to speak. We did go another mile or so in to “Swelter Shelter,” to see some 1,000 year-old pictographs and petroglyphs, created by the Fremont people. I learned the difference here; the terms are not synonyms. A pictograph is created by staining the surface of the stone, usually with red ocher (ochre if you’re a Brit). A petroglyph is formed by chipping or etching the stone. Both are present at this site, but most are petroglyphs.

Combining both forms here. Notice that there is some evidence of ocher staining that remains.
Do these remind you of 1950’s depictions of aliens? Wavy, sinuous arms, tentacles from their heads? Hmmm.

Unfortunately, there were also etchings that were less than 1,000 years old. Why do people feel the need to carve their initials into irreplaceable sites like this?

For an “in between” stop in our adventure, this one had some pretty great stuff! Our countries are so full of fascinating nature, history, and people. We keep marveling!

We are about to join with our two oldest grandkids for several weeks, so get ready for some guest bloggers!

We’ll see you again down the road.

geysers, grizzlies, and guardrails

“All animals in Yellowstone National Park are wild and dangerous!”

“All wildlife is dangerous! Remain at least 25 yards from any animal.  Remain at least 100 yards away from bison and bear.”

“Yellowstone is a Dangerous Place”

These and similar signs are all over Yellowstone.  We need to be wary of all the animals!

Beware dangerous chipmunks! Or is it some kind of western squirrel? He was greatly enjoying a gourmet mushroom he’d found nearby.

We did see quite an array of wildlife in the park, in addition to the chipmunk.  We saw bison, including some close enough to get good pictures of (but far enough to still be safe). We also saw deer, elk, and an osprey.  No bear (of which I’m very glad), and no moose (of which there are very few remaining in the park).

Practicing for rutting season, I guess.
An after dinner drink!
An osprey on the prowl for dinner,
Gotcha! How would you like your trout?

There are many dangerous things in the park, as in most of the National Parks.  Their wildness is what calls many of us to go to them; it is what makes these places special.  Being attacked by wild animals, driving off the edge of a narrow mountain road, or falling into a pool of boiling water are some of the things that can befall a careless or inattentive visitor.

We got a late start on our first day in the park, so we decided to just do the north part of the park (we were staying outside the north entrance). We’d go down the western side through Mammoth Hot Springs, to Norris, across to Canyon, up through Tower, and then back to Mammoth. Here’s a picture of the Yellowstone river near Tower.

Yellowstone River

We had visited Yellowstone eleven years ago after a service trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with our church.  We were in a small rental car and enjoyed driving in the park. The roads on the east side of the park are quite mountainous, twisty and narrow—a challenge! Fun! 

Driving them in a crew cab long bed dually pickup truck (basically, the biggest F350 that Ford makes) is an entirely different experience from driving them in a compact!  White knuckle time. Through a good portion of the park, there were no guardrails. And it was hundreds and hundreds of feet to the ground below. We decided to not go to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Lamar Valley because they would have required retracing some of that route.  But those were the only places we had wanted to visit that we missed. If we go back in the future, we may rent a compact car to make touring the park less terrifying!

The geysers and geothermal pools are, of course, Yellowstone’s calling card. The density of these features is unique in the world. They are unquestionably beautiful and awe inspiring, but you need to be careful.  There are boardwalks in many of the dense areas of springs, pools, and geysers, and there are frequent signs warning people to stay on the boardwalks.  The “ground” they traverse is often simply a thin coating over a hot spring, most of which will be fatal if a person becomes immersed.

Travertine and hot pools in the Norris Basin area.

On our previous visit, I watched two men ahead of me on a boardwalk.  They came to one of the “Danger! Hot water. Stay on the boardwalk” signs, and one handed the other his camera, stepped off the boardwalk (right next to the sign), and had his friend take a picture of him and the sign.  As a former boss of mine was fond of saying, “You can’t fix stupid.”  But Darwin clearly missed an opportunity here.

This time, we saw many unattended small children on the boardwalks, some standing on the edge of the boardwalks (there are often no railings), or kneeling at the edge leaning over—presumably, “to get a better view.” As parents, it was very tough to see these situations.

But… these pools and springs are unquestionably beautiful!

Grand Prismatic Spring

The colors of the pools are caused by thermophyllic bacteria, also referred to as “extremophiles.” Different types of bacteria have different colors and live in different water temperature ranges: blue indicates the hottest temperatures, then yellow, then red.

I didn’t get a good picture of it, but the steam drifting above the Grand Prismatic Spring was tinged with the reds and blues of the water.

Quick: what was the Roman Coliseum built out of?  Travertine. Didn’t know that myself until a few hours ago. Travertine is a type of rock made by the evaporation of mineral laden water.  And it is all over Yellowstone, particularly in the Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Basin areas.

Travertine terraces.
I wish I knew what causes it to form terraces instead of just smooth slopes.

Over time, the travertine will envelop anything it encounters.

Such as this tree…
Or this walkway.

The pools and springs sometimes warn of their danger by continuously steaming. 

Caution: blue indicates the hottest springs and pools.

Others are quiet and appear inviting!

Quiet, but deadly. Notice how thin the crust is!

Geysers are the other thermal features most people associate with Yellowstone. Some are grand, but erupt unpredictably; others are small and erupt frequently. A few are large and predictable. Eruptions can last for a short time, releasing all their pressure quickly, or they can last for hours. We saw quite a few of the small geysers,

Even small geysers can build up a significant cone over time from the dissolved minerals.
Not sure whether this is a small geyser or just a bubbling spring.

And what visit to Yellowstone National Park is complete without watching Old Faithful erupt?

It really is impressive seeing this eruption. Not the biggest in the park, but the biggest we were to see on this trip.

We had the great pleasure of meeting a member of the Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue team who is now a law enforcement ranger at the Old Faithful District. We hadn’t seen each other since last July, and it was very good to see him again!

We finished our trip by hiking to the Morning Glory Pool. When we visited eleven years ago, it was about six weeks earlier in the year than we were here this time. On our previous visit, the Morning Glory area was closed due to grizzly bear activity in the area, feeding on several bison which had not survived the winter.

Morning Glory has a reputation of being one of the prettiest pools in the park and I was really looking forward to finally getting to see it this time. It was pretty, but I was somewhat disappointed.

It is widely reported that Morning Glory has been damaged by visitors throwing coins and trash into it, and the colors are reportedly not as striking as before; some articles refer to the name “Faded Glory,” The park is making efforts to try to repair the damage, but it is unknown whether it will ever be completely restored.

Morning Glory Pool

It was a real treat to be able to explore and enjoy Yellowstone again—it’s a real gem and should be on everyone’s bucket list.

South Dakotans!

Once we decided (months ago now) to give up our ‘sticks and bricks’ home in Maine and continue our nomadic life as full-time RVers, we needed to choose a state to ‘hang our hat.’

Well, we’ve done it. We’re South Dakotans. In March, we registered our truck and trailer in South Dakota; the registration fees there are much lower than in Maine. All that South Dakota requires for registration is a South Dakota mailing address, and since it is quite possible that the trailer and truck will never be in Maine again, there was no point in leaving them registered there. We were able to do the registrations entirely through the mail, which resulted in the following conversation being held several times with campground “neighbors.”

“Where are you from in South Dakota?”

“Never been there!” (OK, Not quite true… but it is a good line. We had been there for a week eleven years ago, on Pine Ridge Reservation.)

But now we have. In order to establish our domicile in South Dakota, we have now obtained our SD drivers’ licenses, and registered to vote.

South Dakota has laws that are written specifically to attract full-time RVers, as do Florida and Texas. To gain resident status—to be able to get a driver’s license and register to vote—you merely have to have proof of spending one night in the state every five years. The reason we chose to cease having Maine as our domicile is because SD has no state income tax, and as noted above, much lower vehicle registration costs. Now we just have to make sure that we don’t stay in any one state for six months or more in any year, or that state could claim us.

“Honey, why did we plan so much time in South Dakota? There isn’t much to do here…”

Yeah. Right…

Mount Rushmore National Monument

Everyone has seen Mount Rushmore, if not in person, then in pictures. So is there anything new to say about it?

It is BIG. Pictures can’t capture the scope of the sculpture. No, not even the ones that we’re including here. The entryway into the park is aligned closely to the direction of Washington’s gaze. But I didn’t realize until we wandered a bit that there are other viewing sites that let you look directly at the other presidents as well. We didn’t find the one to look directly at Lincoln, but we did for Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

There is a “sculptor’s studio,” where they have maintained one of Gutzon Borglum’s scaled down sculptures created in preparation for the real one on the mountain. This study is at a scale of one inch to one foot. The studio allowed us our favorite picture of this visit.

The study and the mountain, from the sculptor’s studio.

Side note: In the early 20th century, Borglum maintained a home and studio in north Stamford, CT, not far from where Kathe grew up!

Crazy Horse Memorial

As we continued to explore the Black Hills of South Dakota, we knew we wanted to stop here. The amazing thing about the Crazy Horse memorial is that it is a work in progress—indeed, it was 1948 when artist Korczak Ziolkowski began to carve this incredibly huge work. The sculpture depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Chief Crazy Horse astride his horse and pointing into the distance.

It is HUGE! Larger than Mount Rushmore, the carving, when finished, will be 563 feet tall and 641 feet long. Look carefully.

Chief Crazy Horse Memorial. At the right you can see the etched outline of where the horse’s head will be.

You can actually spot some heavy equipment up at the top (on top of the arm)–we can’t imagine doing that kind of work, can you?

Close(r) up of the arm with equipment

Ziolkowski’s wife and and seven of their children continue to direct the project since his death in the early 80’s. Technology has changed a bit; the use of laser measuring tools and explosives is now in place.

What is particularly impressive about this project is that a lot more is happening at the site than just the sculpture — a new on-site university, an incredible museum, speakers, special programs, and conferences. Everything is supported by private donation and run by a non-profit group. In fact, the US federal government offered to donate 10 million dollars and it was declined. There was concern that the federal government would take over control of (and change) the project.

Wind Cave National Park

Al first learned about this park from a friend on the MDI Search and Rescue team who used to be a ranger there. Wind Cave was designated as a NP in 1903 and was actually the first cave anywhere in the world to be so protected. It is the sixth largest and most dense cave system in the world. To date, 149 miles of passageways have been explored and surveyed—all within ONE square mile. However, they only represent 5% of the total cave system. YIKES!

Wind Cave: only one square mile in area (so far).

There are three major levels. We took a tour in middle level.

No stalagtites or stalagmites here. The rock over the cave isn’t porous.

Frostwork, popcorn (which reminded us of our ceilings in our old home in NH), and boxwork are the three formations found here. In fact, Wind Cave is thought to be the home for 95% of the world’s boxwork.

To form boxwork, the limestone from which the cave is carved fractures twice. The first fractures are filled with water bearing the mineral calcite, which forms a latticework of stone much more erosion resistant than limestone. Later (much later), the limestone is fractured again, this time admitting flowing water. Over millions of years, limestone is eroded away to create the cave, but the stronger calcite remains to create the striking boxwork.

Boxwork in Wind Cave. Although it is resistant to erosion, it is VERY fragile!

Wind Cave is a sacred place for the Lakota People. Their emergence story originates here; they believe the cave is where they left the subterranean world to live on the surface. The NPS has a writeup on their website.

The only known natural entrance to the cave is a small opening (maybe a five year old could squeeze through). The ranger explained that when there is a difference in barometric pressure inside and outside the cave, a wind will blow; sometimes the air is rushing into the cave, sometimes out. She demonstrated with a ribbon.

On this day, the air pressure outside the cave is higher than that within; therefore the wind is blowing into the cave.

Badlands National Park

The native peoples had names for it. The early European trappers and explorers had names for it in their languages. Nobody wanted to travel through it. Today, we call it “the Badlands.”

Who would want to travel across this terrain?

We also call it beautiful! The rawness of nature here is inspiring.

Even in this hostile environment, mother nature surprises us.

Big Horn sheep

We chose to take a trail that was partly on the floor, and partly on a ridge. There was a log and wire ladder to get to the ridge that took some doing—mental and physical.

Can you find Kathe?

Unfortunately, we think that this ladder is what injured Kathe’s shoulder, requiring her to be seen by a doc, and wear a sling for about a week.

We also saw some careless parenting up on the ridge.

Unsupervised. Parents are way back off the left hand side of the picture.

We are about 50 feet off the floor. The wall below the path is sheer. The boy in the white shirt is off the path, standing on a sloping surface covered with loose material. A few seconds after this picture was taken he fell; fortunately he only only slid part way toward the edge. It was absolutely terrifying to watch; we felt completely helpless. A disaster was very narrowly averted. I was getting ready to rush back down to the floor to see whether there would be anything I could do for him.

A few miles northwest from where most of the pictures above were taken, the terrain is quite different, with smoother features and a fascinating coloring.

A different era, different sediment reaching the ocean floor. Different colors.

There was so much to see in the Badlands. As always, click on any Badlands picture in the gallery below to see them all as a slideshow.

As we noted above, pictures cannot truly represent what we’re seeing. We wish you could be with us to share the real experience, but for now these pics will have to do. We really enjoyed taking this first exploration of our new state. We’ll be back!

Olympic Peninsula

We had the good fortune to spend a week on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. We visited four major areas on the peninsula, each one very different.

Sol Duc

We started out by camping in Sol Duc (Sole Duck), deep in Olympic National Park. The campground was run by the concessionaire, and was part of the Sol Duc Resort. We sort of lucked into this one via Sir Google; there are actually two campgrounds in Sol Duc that take RVs. The other one was heavily wooded and we would probably not have been successful getting Scarlet and Rhett in there. The one we had was small (about 15 sites), but wide open. The site was nestled in a grove of birch trees.

Beautiful in the morning

It was also a short walk to one of Sol Duc’s main attractions: thermal springs! We spent quite a bit of time soaking… The spring water is 150°, and is mixed with the river water to the desired temp for each of three pools. The hot one was hot enough that even I couldn’t stay in it for more than about 10 minutes—and I love hot baths! Just like in the Three Bears, the middle one (temperature) was just right.

Ummm. Sorry. No pictures; we were too busy relaxing!

You may have heard that the Pacific Northwest (PNW) gets a LOT of rain. There are several rainforests within the park. We were not in one, but looking around at the trees it sure looked like it. The older trees were covered in moss!

There are several trails leading out of the Sol Duc campgrounds; we encountered some deer browsing just off one of the trails.

Only about 15 feet off the trail.

We followed one of the trails out to the Sol Duc waterfall.

It is hard to comprehend the amount of water that cascades through these falls every day.

On the way back home (yes, the trailer really is “home”) we found another waterfall, albeit not quite as large.

A pretty, small stream, part way up a hill from the trail.

Sol Duc is completely surrounded by mountains. Nice scenery! Lousy connectivity! For the first time ever, we had to send a text message out through the Garmin Inreach satellite communicator that we carry for back country emergencies. (It wasn’t an emergency…)

Crescent Beach

Sol Duc is southwest of Port Angeles, which seems to be the major town on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the northern boundary of the Olympic Peninsula. Crescent Beach is a little west of Port Angeles, but is on the shore of the Strait.

Being here made us appreciate Oregon’s beach access law. Directly across the road from the campground was “their” beach, but “don’t go past the rainbow pole! That’s not our beach and you’ll be trespassing.”

In the distance (right side) is Vancouver Island, Canada!

About 1/2 way toward the trees in the distance, the beach belongs to someone else, and campers can’t go there. Sigh.

A state park, at the other end of the beach… and people in the park can’t go onto the campground’s beach, either.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful setting and we enjoyed strolling on the sand.

Can you find Kathe? What’s she looking for?

Kathe normally beachcombs for sea glass, but we haven’t been successful finding any in the PNW. Here she was looking for…

Sand dollars!

We had a visitor.

But what are all those dark spots on the beach? Something is living in the sand (clams?). It leaves two kinds of markings.

Tracks from the creature from the deep!
They can be quite complex.
Piles of sand, expelled from below. These are all over the beach, and are those dark markings in the previous picture.

Please leave a comment if you know what animal is creating these tracks and the… what shall I call them?

Sometimes I wonder about the people who lay out campgrounds. Who would think that putting the sewer connection at the highest point in the site would be a good idea? Remember: it flows downhill!

Hurricane Ridge

Crescent Beach isn’t part of Olympic National Park, but we went back into the park to visit Hurricane Ridge on the recommendation of a friend who is a former park ranger there. So, so, so glad!

Also we were so glad that we didn’t have our trailer hooked up to our truck for this one! The road up the ridge is steep and twisty. But the views are worth it. Down at sea level the skies were gray and cloudy, so we almost didn’t go. (Note to self as a future reminder… Always go!) Up top? Take a look!

Kathe getting pix of the horizon.
Yes, it was worth …
… the drive up the ridge.

Despite the name, the weather was quite mild with calm winds. We enjoyed our hike to the end of the currently open trail. The remaining trail to the peak of Hurricane Hill was still closed due to snow.

And there was still lots of snow on the ridge. Some people like to fight with Darwin’s attempts to clean the gene pool. The pictures below are at the top of a very steep slope down into the valley.

Stating the obvious: “Caution. The contents of this coffee cup may be hot.”
Close up of the signs.

They are doing a lot of work on the trail up to Hurricane Mountain. It seems like they are widening it, and are using a lot of large rocks along the up-slope edge of the trail. I was quite surprised to see what appear to be ferns on this rock. I don’t know whether they are fossilized in the rocks, or somehow imprinted on the rock after it was split. I suspect the latter, but…

Images of fern leaves on the rock.

Fort Worden State Park

Unexpectedly, Fort Worden turned out to be the highlight of our time on the peninsula. Located on the northeast corner of the peninsula, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north and west, and Puget Sound to the east and south, it was the main one of three forts that guarded Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, and Seattle. The driving force for the creation of the fort was the shipyard, not the city! Fort Worden was built between 1898 and 1917 in the second wave of the Endicott Board forts; the first wave (of which Fort Stevens was part) was built before the establishment of the shipyard when defense of the Sound was not deemed critical. The fort was activated with the arrival of the first troops in 1902, and served in both World Wars I and II. The gun emplacements were never used; the guns were removed in WWI, for use in Europe. The primary use for the fort after that was training.

Reduce, reuse, recycle! Fort Worden is a poster child for reuse. Decommissioned by the Army in 1953, it was purchased by the State of Washington in 1957 to become “Fort Worden Juvenile Diagnostic and Treatment Center,” for troubled youth. This center closed in 1971, and in 1973, Washington re-created it as the current state park. For a more detailed history of this fascinating fort, read Fort Worden: Rebirth Through Decay, by Peter St. George.

What makes Fort Worden special, compared, for instance, to Fort Stevens, is that a large number of its original buildings are intact. Most other forts of this era have had their (mostly wooden) structures torn down leaving only the foundations.

A Public Development Authority (PDA) was created by the city of PortTownsend, WA, to

“help renovate and fill the 70-plus historic buildings on Fort Worden’s campus, expand the number and types of partners and programming at the fort, and create an outstanding hospitality experience for guests.”

The state still owns the property; the PDA has a 99 year lease on the buildings. The PDA is renovating the existing buildings to enable other uses. The base hospital is now a remote campus for Goddard College. Local businesses at the fort include two publishing / printing companies, a yoga studio, a massage therapist, the Port Townsend School of the Arts, and Centrum Arts Foundation. There are concert series, with some of the larger concerts held in the WWI-era balloon hangar!

The officers’ and NCOs’ residences and a dormitory are being refurbished and furnished with antique period furniture. These are available for rental, from 30 beds down to three or four. Apparently many family reunions and some weddings book there. We were taken on a tour by one of the PDA board members! We were so gobsmacked by what we were walking through that we forgot to take any pictures. (Us? Forget pictures???) But you can see some of the refurbished officer’s houses and other residences on the PDA’s website. (You can also reserve time in them on those pages, if you will be in the PNW.)

Finally, not all of the buildings remain. There are foundations here too, all that is left of some of the quarters. The PDA is in the process of building new structures there, within the original building footprints.

The state park also includes the remains of the gun emplacements, in pretty much the same state as those we found in Fort Stevens. However, we found some types that we didn’t see in Oregon.

Mounting for a five inch gun. Much lighter construction than for the ten inch rifles used in both forts.
Mount for a three inch anti-aircraft gun.

The fort was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Being engineers, they were very detailed. Being the Army, meticulous records were kept. Here are some pictures of the plan for the three inch anti-aircraft gun mounts pictured above.

Diagram of this battery of anti-aircraft guns. (Can you find Kathe?)
Closeup showing measurements.

North 317.39 feet, East 231.25 feet. But from where? The entire fort was laid out from a single benchmark, which still exists.

The benchmark is the brass point on the side of this block. Note the engraved, “B.M.”

The trees have grown in the many years since the fort was active, but in some places you can still see what the soldiers would have seen.

Looking east across Puget Sound, to Whidbey Island. Taken from the roof of one of the ten inch batteries.

In other areas, you can’t.

Looking out from an observation bunker.

We’re now over 20,000 miles into our adventure, and are still having a great time.

Loving our new life—and each other!

Big Mountains, Giant Trees

We’ve left our winter home of Quartzsite, AZ, and are headed north—initially to Vancouver, BC, to visit our daughter Beth’s family. Can’t wait! As much as we enjoyed being in the desert in Quartzsite (thank you BLM!), it is good to be on the road again and seeing new things.

Our second stop was in Three Rivers, CA, just outside the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park, the second National Park (what was the first???). Nestled in the western flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the scenery was gorgeous!

There is a downside to being surrounded by mountains… No cell signal. Nada. Zilch. Zip. It made us long for the very slow connectivity in Quartzsite! However, the campsite had a poor WiFi signal—I think through a satellite—so we could occasionally check our mail / Facebook messages. Sigh. We’re addicted to the net.

The restaurant we went to for breakfast was using dial-up to tie into their credit card system. When was the last time you heard the dulcet (!?) tones of a dial-up modem?

The reason for being here was to go into Sequoia NP, so let’s get to it!

The major attraction here is the trees, of course. In terms of volume (mass), the giant sequoias are the largest living trees. Coastal redwoods can grow taller, but they have a smaller diameter, and don’t retain that diameter at higher heights as much as sequoias do. The sequoias are limited in height due to limits on the capillary action which brings water and nutrients up from the root system. The redwoods can take in moisture through their leaves more efficiently, and thus grow higher than capillary action by itself would allow. (The ranger giving the talk accused the redwoods of “cheating!”—he must be a sequoia fan)

Note the building for scale!

We went up into the mountains to see the tree named “General Sherman,” the largest known living tree in the world, in terms of volume. The diameter at the base is greater than 36 feet! And the volume of its trunk is more than 52,000 CUBIC FEET. It is up at around 6,900 feet elevation; getting there was fun. Vehicles over 22 feet long are prohibited from making the drive. Our truck is exactly 22 feet; we can see why longer vehicles are excluded!

Unfortunately, I forgot to dump the dashcam that evening, and the video of the drive got overwritten. However, here are a few pics showing the road.

I don’t want to think about the effort it took to create the road! The designers did an excellent job of siting it; with very few exceptions the road above you is invisible. Looking down (way down), you can occasionally see the path ahead of you.

Yes. That’s road WAAAY down there!
All those sections of road that you can see are one road, back and forth and back and …
A portrait of the artist.

We were particularly taken with this roadside wall construction; it is so different from what we were used to at Acadia!

Smooth, flat walls, with a precise 90° corner to the smooth, flat top.

What were we talking about? Oh, yes. The trees!

General Sherman. World’s largest living tree
Can you find Kathe?

There are 75 known groves of giant sequoias in the world. The adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks protect “over 30” (NPS statistic) of those groves. (Three more groves are protected in nearby Yosemite NP.) General Sherman is in the grove named Giant Forest, an apt name if ever there was one. It contains 2,161 sequoias with a base diameter of over ten feet.

The sequoias live for a very long time. The ages of General Sherman and “The Sentinel” (near the museum in Giant Forest) are both estimated to be 2,200 years (“plus or minus 600 years,” according to one research article, we were told by a ranger). A page in the Yosemite NP site refers to a sequoia 3,266 years old, but is written in the past tense, so it may not still be living. Yes, you can buy giant sequoia seeds in the gift shop, but you’d better will them to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren!

The Sentinel—at least, a part of it!
The base of The Sentinel, showing fire damage.

Giant sequoias require fire to reproduce! The fire does two things. It causes the seed cones (should these be called “sequoia cones,” like “pine cones?”) to open and release their seeds, and it removes the debris covering the forest floor so that the seeds can reach the soil and take root. A decades-long policy of complete fire suppression resulted in unhealthy groves with dense underbrush of other trees. That policy has been reversed, allowing some fires to take their natural course; the groves are regaining their health and there are now immature giant sequoias of different ages growing in the forest. There are few trees in the Giant Forest that do not bear signs of fire. Fortunately, they are able to withstand the fires, in part due to a bark that is up to two feet thick.

With a person for scale.
Amazingly, still alive!

A good portion of the park is still closed due to snow. It is hard to believe that only a few days ago we were in the desert, with the temps in the high 80’s. When we drove through the park gate, the ranger told us, “You can’t go through to King’s Canyon. The road is closed due to last night’s avalanche.” Never been told that before!

Speed limit…. BLANK? Let’s go fast!

In addition to the trees, the park has high mountains, deep valleys, and fast flowing streams.

Do they really need to say this?
We’re really both still traveling together!

Before Europeans discovered this area, indigenous people were here. There is at least one site with pictographs; quite possibly more that they don’t tell visitors about.

Pictographs at Hospital Rock

And we found this “community kitchen” fascinating.

Grinding holes worn into the rock in the kitchen
Can you get acorn flower at Whole Foods?

We enjoy visiting parks “out of season;” not only are the crowds thinner (sometimes non-existent), but it also forces you to come back again to see the parts that are currently closed! Lots more to see here.

Our next post will probably be from the Oregon coast… See you there!

“Paging Dr. Seuss!”

Joshua Tree National Park is a great playground with varied terrain; large portions are covered with myriad granite structures. Some are weathered and rounded, with large smooth (-ish) boulders in the area. Some are jagged with rubble scree at their base instead of the boulders. The geology of the area is complex. From what I’m reading, some of that difference depends on the depth of the magma that was the source. The crystalline structure of much of the granite is quite large and rough; this draws rock climbers from all around the world. We saw many there.

We traveled to Joshua Tree NP with friends James and Gloria, whom we met first at the Grand Design RV Owners’ rally back in January. James is a ham radio operator, so we also went to the Quartzfest gathering together.

The park has two very different ecosystems, the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert; they are distinguished by elevation with the Mojave much higher than the Colorado. Vegetation and animals are different between the two, with the higher Mojave being both wetter and more vegetated, and the Colorado more arid. We spent our first two days in the Mojave desert on the north side of the park, which contains the majority of the Joshua Trees.

The northern part, Mojave desert

The scale of some of the rock formations is hard to get across in pictures, until you see some with people in them. Can you find the four climbers in the picture below? Hint: one of them is the climber in the picture above.

Climbers’ playground! And a nice place for us to pause for lunch and to watch.
No people in this one (to the best of my knowledge!) But trust me; it is big. Larger than the surfaces the climbers were using.
Can you find Kathe?
With rocks like these, who needs a gym???

Joshua trees

Have you ever looked at the trees in Dr. Seuss’ books, such as the cover of The Lorax? It is said that the Joshua trees are the inspiration for his Truffula trees; he lived and worked in the southern California area.

They are oddly shaped! Twisty and gnarly. But oh, so cool to look at.

Kathe and James, both looking for the best picture of this tree.

Technically, Joshua Trees aren’t trees, but related to the agave. They are long lived, typically living several hundred years. The visitor center was selling Joshua Tree seeds and a little, itty-bitty pot to plant them in. Might work, if the person buying them can wait a few hundred years!

We were very lucky to be there while the Joshua Trees were blooming. There are several fairly distinct stages to the bloom cycle.

The lower right picture is a fully formed bloom. Not a usual “flower” structure!
Art in nature!
Joshua tree blooms
Another tree in bloom. It seems to be a young tree, but that’s a guess.

A part of the Mojave desert portion of the park holds a Joshua tree forest. It isn’t a dense forest, but there sure are a lot of Joshua trees!

A view of the forest; the tree in the foreground is blooming.

A few more pictures of scenes from the Mojave part of the park that I just found visually magnetic.

Yes, there is vegetation other than Joshua trees//

Life in the desert is hard. Even for the cholla (CHOY-ah) cacti. The lace-like skeleton of the cholla is interesting.

Do you know the purpose of this mesh-like construction? I don’t. Another year’s free subscription to our blog to whoever dreams up the funniest answer.

But life tries hard to find a foothold! (“roothold”?)

The transition zone

Where the two deserts meet is called the “transition zone.” Overlooking the transition zone is the highest point in the park reachable by vehicle, Keys View.

Looking southwest, toward the Colorado desert. The Coachella Valley in the midground is nearly a mile below us. The dark stripe on the right a little above the midpoint is a section of the San Andreas fault which runs through the valley. Just to the left of the picture is the Salton Sea, at 230 feet below sea level.

Although the transition zone contains animals from both sections, we saw very little wildlife in the park at all, just a few lizards. We’re just as glad that we didn’t see any of the rattlesnakes which are starting to come out as the days grow warmer. (People camping near us in Quartzsite have seen them!)

The Colorado desert

It is possible to drive from the northern part of the park to the southern part through the park but it is an approximately two hour drive due to the speed limit in the park. We opted to pick up our stakes and bring our rigs to the southern entrance, going around the west side of the park. Part of the reason for moving instead of just doing the southern part as a day trip from the north is that this brought us that much closer to “home,” i.e., Quartzsite.

Going around the park that way on I-8 (or, “the 8,” out here) one comes across this.

Think this is a windy stretch of road?

If you’re hauling an RV as we were, you better hope it isn’t a windy day! But we’re really glad to see large wind and solar farms. This one went on for miles; it is the largest we had seen since Texas.

There is a BLM dry camping area immediately outside the park at the southern entrance (the area abuts the park). This turned out to be one of the prettiest places we have ever camped, with desert flowers blooming right alongside our camper and all around us, and mountains in the background. We would go back there in a heartbeat!

Desert lupine, smaller than the kind we have in Maine. Nice campsite!

The southern part of the park has few Joshua Trees. Being more arid, the main vegetation here is various types of cacti. The main draw there, especially this time of year, is the desert bloom—at least it was for us.

This has been an exceptional year for the bloom.  We didn’t go to two highly reported areas, one near Tucson and one in Southern California where the authorities had to close a town of 60,000 people when 100,000 people tried to come photograph the flowers one Sunday.

But Joshua Tree was really pretty!

Fields of flowers in the desert.

The Cholla Garden

“Be careful! They’ll jump out at you and attack you!” Gloria warned us as we were getting out of the car at the Cholla (CHOY-ah) Garden section of the park.

The Cholla Garden

“Yeah. Ha ha ha ha.” That’s me, of course. (You’d think I would have learned by now…)

Cholla are well guarded, but those needles are for transportation, not protection!

Cholla cacti spread by dropping small sections to the ground which then take root. The dropped sections are transported by passing animals, including those of the homo sapiens variety. See all those needles? Barbed!

I was walking through the garden being careful to not brush against cacti. Then the wind blew a small dropped section against my boot. Instantly about twenty needles were stuck in the leather (thank goodness that I wasn’t wearing sandals or even regular low shoes)! Did I mention that the needles are barbed? Trying to pull the needles out of my boot’s heavy leather simply resulted in them breaking off.

The cholla bloom isn’t a typical flower.

We really enjoyed our three days in JTNP. There is much more to do there, including several hikes we’d like to take. We’ll be back.

So closes another portion of our adventure. We wish you the best on your own adventure through life, whatever it may be!

Camping is tough when you have to put up with scenes like this every evening! The view from our BLM campsite south of Joshua Tree NP.

Sunrise, Sunset: swiftly FLY the days

Each sunset marks another day of our adventure together.

Al: “I retired seven months ago today.”

Kathe: “That’s not possible!”

We’ve been living here on the desert for over three months. The time has gone by so quickly. We are now starting to plan our spring and summer travel; it is almost time to leave.

We’ve come to love it here on the desert. At our own choosing, we can be quiet or busy—with friends or on our own.  And, with apologies to all our family and friends still in the colder climes, the weather hasn’t been too bad, either!

Palm Canyon

Last week, we went with some friends to Palm Canyon, in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. According to this, it is the last place in Arizona that California palm trees grow in their native environment. A nice one-mile in-and-out walk, it was our first time up actually near the mountains that surround us.

Entrance to the NWR: Several miles down a dirt road.
We’re walking back in there! The start of the Palm Canyon trail, yet several more miles down the dirt road.
Kathe, on the trail!
Surrounded by the remains of volcanos

A comment I had read on the net said that the viewing point was a half mile up the trail, but that the palms themselves could be reached in an additional third of a mile “up a fairly steep trail.”

Yeah. Got rope?

At the viewing point.
“Up a fairly steep trail.” Yeah.
A closer view. Longer lens; we didn’t go toward the palms past the viewing point!

The desert is greening up. We’ve apparently had an unusually large amount of rain this winter. A person we met on the trail said that in a normal year, this scenery would be brown.

Not lush like in non-desert areas, but there is green there!

And we’re starting to see some flowers blooming. We hope to see more of the “desert bloom” when we go to Joshua Tree National Park in California for a few days this week.

The “ghost flower” (Mohavia Confertiflora). The petals are translucent!

Et cetera

So what else have we been doing these “desert days?” Some of it we’ve written about before, like Kathe’s quilting, the rock and gem shows, and our trip to visit Mike’s family over Christmas.

Out of town

We had been warned that for a few weeks in January Quartzsite is an overcrowded madhouse with long lines, terrible traffic in town and so on due to multiple rock and gem shows, and a big RV show. Additionally, the population on the LTVA (BLM’s Long Term Visitors Area), where we are living, swells. We wanted to avoid all that humanity if we could.

Fortunately in addition to the LTVA, the BLM has six “fourteen day” camping locations in the Quartzsite area. These sites have no services whatsoever, but are free to camp in for 14 days. After that you have to leave for at least fourteen days. If you want to continue to use free BLM land in that time period, you must move at least 25 miles away.

We were fortunate that we had two back-to-back events at a fourteen day area three miles farther out of town than we normally reside: a (yes, another) Grand Design RV owners’ rally, and a ham radio gathering, “Quartzfest.” These allowed us to avoid the worst of the Q-crush. Just to experience the big RV show in town we did ride our bikes there one afternoon; no way we were going to try to drive in and find a parking space. For all the hype surrounding the “big tent” show, we were unimpressed.

Quilt Show!

We had fun helping with the Quartzsite Quilt Show put on by the local quilting group Kathe is part of! I helped set up (and tear down) the exhibit space, and Kathe was busy before, during, and after the show. The quilts were quite impressive.

“Wolf Maiden” by Janet Nieuwenhoff. More than 68,000 1/4-inch squares.
“Hummingbird” by Kathy Chesher
“Running Free” by Kathy Chesher and granddaughter Kaylee Wilcox
“Storm at Sea” by Cara Osmin

Road Trip: Yuma

We spent a week in the Yuma area, staying at BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA in California with “blast from the past” friends, Henk and Mary.

Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912; Yuma had Arizona’s first prison, in use from 1876 to 1909. A portion of the prison, now called the “Territorial Prison,” is preserved as a state park (part was long ago demolished to make way for a railroad line). There is a museum with many displays about prison life. One showed interesting information about the prisoner demographics; some that stuck out to me were that most of the prisoners were considered to be literate, and virtually all used tobacco of one form or another.

Entrance sally port into the prison.
Some of the timeline stones…
The original cell block. The doors had a second identical grate about 18″ inside; the two were interlocked so that it was impossible to open both at the same time. Only a few of the cells still have this mechanism intact.
The “new” cell block. The interlocked double-gate mechanism seen in the old cell block did not seem to be used here. (Remember, the prison was shut down in 1909.)

The territorial prison had enlightened leadership. From one of the museum displays:

The Prison had more modern amenities than most homes in Yuma, and Yumans resented that.

  • Electricity
  • Forced Ventilation
  • Sanitation, including two bathtubs and three showers
  • A library with 2,000 books, the most in the Territory at the time
  • Enlightened, progressive administration
  • Even a Prison Band!

Some of the cells are open to enter, and, of course, pretend to lock your friend in!

Each cell housed twelve inmates, and was exposed to the weather. Note the steel bunks. Ouch!
Prisoner Al!

From Yuma, Kathe went to Corning to play Grandma Lobster, giving Mike and Laurelyn the opportunity to travel during school vacation week. While Kathe was gone, I went to another ham radio gathering in Yuma.

By the time we got back to Quartzsite it was obvious that the exodus had begun. The desert is emptier again; so is the town. People have started heading north preparing the way for us.

Sunrises and Sunsets

One of the advantages of living on the desert is the essentially unrestricted view of the horizon, especially compared to New England. We have been (usually!) waking up before sunrise, and have gotten in the habit of looking for the sunrise, and again for the sunset every day.

Click on any of the pictures below to see them all as a slideshow of larger versions, and remember you can always right click on any picture in our blog and choose “open image in new tab” or similar, to see the largest resolution that we uploaded..

One other thing…

Drum roll please! When we set out on our adventure, we told ourselves that we would try RV “full-timing” for a year before deciding whether to sell our house on Mount Desert Island.

Well, it hasn’t been a year, but we’ve made the decision! We want to continue this adventure for the foreseeable future, so we will be putting the house on the market this summer. We’ll fly back to MDI to take care of all that has to be done to get a house ready for new occupants.

That’s about it for now. Life has been fairly quiet so we haven’t been posting frequently. Rest assured that as we start to travel again we’ll be keeping you up to date with the activities of your favorite lobsters!

Smoky Mountains and Sunsets

From Shenandoah we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).  We stayed in Big Meadow Family Campground, in Townsend, TN—about two miles from an entrance to the park. The park owners were very friendly and accommodating (we had several large packages delivered there), and the park was maintained meticulously.  Highly recommended if you travel that way.

I (Al) had been to GSMNP many times, always the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, and had several places I wanted to go with Kathe.  Late May was usually somewhat crowded, but not so much as to make getting to what you wanted to see difficult.  I was hoping that the park would again be fairly quiet now, being “after season.”  Maybe it was fairly quiet with respect to the summer crowds, but it certainly wasn’t quiet.

On our first day in the park, we went to Cades Cove.  This is a roughly 11 mile one-way loop through an area that was settled for about 100 years before the creation of the park.  Kathe and I enjoy trying to understand something of small communities by looking at their graveyards.  There are several in the Cades Cove area, along with several small churches.

There are three churches in the cove:  Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, and Methodist.

We think that the Primitive Baptist church is the oldest in the cove.

The steeple and bell of the Primitive Baptist church

Interior of the Primitive Baptist church

Pulpit Bible in the Primitive Baptist Church. Note the vandalism / graffiti on the inside back cover.

Traditionally, Methodist churches had two doors, one for men and one for women.  Although the Methodist church in the cove has two doors, the practice of separating men and women was not practiced in this church.

The Methodist Church

The Methodist cemetery

We were able to see several generations of the cove’s families, and marriages between them.  We noticed that families would sometimes switch denominations with part of the family being buried in the Baptist cemetery and others in the Methodist.

The Oliver family was one of the founding families of this settlement, and remained a presence there. (Click on a picture in the gallery to see the larger, uncropped, version.)

It was hard to see the infant graves with only a single date on the headstone, or a span of only a few weeks or months.

Especially heartbreaking was to find several groupings of three infant headstones from the same family.

The cemeteries are still active, despite being in a National Park. People who lived in the cove before the creation of the park are still able to be buried there.

Two of the things we wanted to see in the cove—Abrams Falls and the mill—we had to pass on due to the crowding.  By the time we got to the parking area for the falls we didn’t have enough time for the hike, and when we got to the mill area, there was no available parking. So we headed back to camp.

Afternoon in the Smoky Mountains

After dinner we went to Look Rock to see the sunset.  This is several miles out the Foothills Parkway, a separate part of the park.  Right at the parking lot, there is a short walk to a viewpoint to the south.  While very pretty, it wasn’t going to be the best for sunsets.  As we were walking back to the car to try to find another place, a young couple asked if we were looking for the tower.  Yes!  They showed us the start of the path across the road from the parking.  After a short (uphill!) hike, we were set for some good sunset photography.

The next day we decided to drive to Clingmans Dome for sunset.

The first part of the drive is along the Little River, which has many cascades and is quite pretty.  One of the disadvantages of driving a large pickup truck is that there are very few places you can pull over for a photo stop.  We did find a few though.

A small cascade along the Little River

The Little River can also be serene

Eventually the road leaves the river and heads into the mountains.  Here we saw our first hints of fall colors, although we missed the bright reds of Maine.

This is a long drive (the Dome is in North Carolina, and the road is a twisty mountain road). The drive was worth it! At many points there are good views of the mountain range that we are in.

The Appalachian Trail passes directly under the tower we watched the sunset from, so I guess I can now say I’ve been on the AT!  (Nah.  I wouldn’t do that to my friends who have hiked the AT.)

Row after row of Appalachian mountains at sunset

In addition to sampling sunsets wherever we land, we love to eat, too! We eat out fairly often, possibly more than we should.  But here we “had” to eat lunch twice at the Black Bear Cafe in Townsend.  Their fried grouper sandwich was outstanding!

We continue to find that meeting people is one of the most enjoyable aspects of RV life.  At Big Meadow, we met Joe and Judy, and two of Judy’s sisters, Jo and Rachel.  We enjoyed comparing our RVs and the modifications we each have made (their rig is a larger version of ours), and talking about favorite places to visit. The sisters are three of seven sisters.  When we left the park the three, who were roughly in their late 70s, were heading out to have lunch with some of their friends…they hadn’t seen since elementary school!

From here, we went to Mammoth Cave, which Kathe already covered in her spelunking post.  We’ll catch you again from Memphis!

Caverns, Caves, and Bats, Oh, My!

I remember a small cave in the woods out behind my Nanny and Pop-pop’s house when I was a little girl. My brother told me about it; I decided to take his word for it.

Two weeks ago, while in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia), we visited Luray Caverns. Luray is a commercial attraction and not part of Shenandoah National Park. We signed up for a tour and were led down a long, fairly steep staircase to an amazing underground world. I remember seeing stalactites and stalagmites in Howe Caverns in New York State as a youngster. But these…

Stalactites hang ‘tight’ to the ceiling.

Stalagmites (bottom left) ‘might’ reach the ceiling some day.

The young man who toured us thru the caverns seemed to be in training for some kind of footrace; we wanted to take lots of photographs but he kept insisting that we stay together and keep up with him. It was frustrating and we finally decided we’d take our time and take the photos we wanted to—we had paid dearly for the tour and wanted our money’s worth.

Sometimes the stalagmites reach up to join the stalactites to form pillars or columns.

The stalactites are formed by water coming down through the roof of the cavern carrying dissolved limestone. The limestone is left behind when the water evaporates.  Stalagmites are formed when those drips of water drop off and hit the ground; as the water evaporates, the stalagmites grow upward. Many experts claim that the stalactites and stalagmites grow as slowly as 10cm every 1000 years. They are precious.

We were fascinated to learn that until the 1920s, tourists were allowed to snap off the end of a stalactite as a souvenir. Once the tip is broken off, the stalactite will cease to grow. It was sad to see so many broken, flat ends as we worked our way through the passages.

The old expression “A picture just doesn’t do it justice!” came to mind when we downloaded our pictures of the reflecting pool. It was pure magic; footsteps ceased and all you could hear was the intake of air as each tourist rounded the passage and gasped as they faced the pool head-on.

Can you find the waterline? See the perfect other-worldly reflection?

On our way to Luray, we passed dozens of billboards (and I mean dozens!) advertising the caverns. Many of them called attention to ‘The Great Stalacpipe Organ’—what could that be?

Sure enough as we were nearing the end of our tour, we came into a huge room within the cave that had an organ console up on a landing. Apparently you can make arrangements to get MARRIED in this room, complete with a pipe organ accompaniment. (It’s a bargain at $1900 for just 12 guests!)

The famous stalacpipe organ in Luray Caverns.

The organ is actually an electrically actuated lithophone that produces tapping of a large number of pipes (stalactites)  throughout 3-1/2 acres of the cave. You can see the wires along the walls, weaving in and out of the limestone appendages. The tour guide pushed a button and we were regaled with the limestone version of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—you could almost make out the tune! Because of the enclosed space of the cavern itself, the song can apparently be heard throughout the entire cavern.

One of the most magnificent features in Luray Caverns are the ‘curtains’— they are beautifully translucent stalactite formations that drape down from the ceiling —almost like long sheets of beautiful linen. Glorious!

Stalactite curtains

During our stop in the Shenandoah Valley, we had the solar panels installed which required Al to be at the campsite all day. He encouraged me to go out into Shenandoah National Park by myself.  The first day I went out, I missed a sign and ended up driving across the width of the park into the next town before I realized what I’d done (without my trusty navigator with me). So I turned around (I’m getting really good at those twisty-turny mountainside roads) and found the turn I’d missed.

When I finally got through the gate, I drove up to the first viewpoint. It actually involved a 4 mile loop hike and it was not something I was up for. So I stopped into the ladies’ room—The woman at the sink reminded me of someone from back home. “Wait! I know you!” I exclaimed. It was Dot—I’ve known her for a couple of decades — we attended the same rughooking retreat for many, many years back in Maine. What were the chances? We had a great time catching up for a few minutes. Back to the park . . .

Shenandoah NP boasts its centerpiece Skyline Drive as one of the VERY BEST places to see beautiful fall foliage (don’t worry, Mainers —I don’t believe anything can top autumn in Maine); it runs the entire length of the park. Unfortunately, there was not a smidgen of fall color. There were, however, some beautiful overlooks with views that reminded me of the Great Smokies—I stopped a number of times and made a stop at the Visitor’s Center just as a few spritzes of rain appeared on my windshield.

From Skyline Drive in Shenandoah NP–no fall foliage in sight

By the time I got back to the truck, the clouds and fog had really socked in—and it was raining more steadily. Yeah, doing twisty roads—steep and downhill—and not being able to see past a very few feet in front of my bumper was NOT FUN.

I went back to the national park on the second day of the solar install and was able to spot just a few more leaves giving way to a touch of dark yellow. Many leaves appeared just brown and shriveled. Disappointing. We’ll go back another year— and for Al, it will be his first time IN the park.

Fast forward five days — poof! We’re in Cave City, Kentucky, the home of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Imagine a series underground caves and tunnels that layer, twist, and intersect for more than 400 miles! We stopped at the stunning visitors’ center and learned quite a bit about the cave system. O.K., I knew about the bats but not about the cave crickets and cave rats!

The descent into the Historic Entrance

We had pre-purchased tour tickets online for the Grand Avenue Tour for the next day so this first day in the park, we decided to venture into the self-guided “Historic Entrance.” It comprises two huge rooms with numerous placards with all kinds of information; you can read your way right through. There were lights — just enough so you could see your way around and read the signage (kind of). There were three rangers on duty. Al’s great about asking questions and learning as much as he can from the rangers. Interestingly, one of the rangers told us that since those placards have gone up, it’s rare for anyone to talk to the rangers anymore. How sad! She explained that they have so much knowledge to share but if no one approaches them . . .

During the revolutionary war, much saltpeter was mined from the cave to make gunpowder.

We stopped to speak to another ranger on the way out. I asked about the bats. They’ve lost about 90% of the bat population due to the White Nose Syndrome; it’s a fungus that has killed millions of bats across the U.S. It came from Europe and Howe Caverns was where it was first detected here. The ranger said he’d only spotted two bats today and he pointed his flashlight to a tiny black spot high up on the cavern wall. So small.

The next day’s Grand Avenue Tour comprised four miles of strenuous walking and climbing—-all at 260+ feet underground!
Two rangers accompanied us —one at the front who flipped light switches ahead of us and who taught us so much along the way. The second ranger brought up the rear and switched lights off as we moved on.

It was magnificent—see for yourself!

Notice no stalactites or stalagmites! A sandstone layer above the cave’s limestone prevents water infiltration through most of the cave.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) “flowers” grow throughout the cave.

The gypsum takes on many different appearances but yes, it’s the same gypsum that is in the wallboard of our homes.

Sometimes the passages are wide and low; other times tall and (very) narrow.

They reminded us of the slot canyons we saw in Arizona.

The cave was a commercial attraction in the 1800s. People were encouraged to put their names on the cave ceiling, using candle soot!

At one point during the tour, the rangers had us sit at on benches along the sides of the path. They wanted us to experience TOTAL DARKNESS and turned off all the lights and just listen. It was amazing.

Can you see my hand? Neither could I!

There were side passages everywhere!

As we neared the end of our Grand Avenue Tour, I asked the lead ranger what the difference is between a cave and a cavern; having visited both, I was curious. He gave me a very simple answer: “RN!”

Toward the end of the tour we reached a section without the sandstone cap, resulting in some stalactites. Places that are moist are lit with amber light to cut down on algae growth.

As we approached the exit, the ranger stopped us and shined his light on the ceiling so we could see a large group of cave crickets. They hang out there and only leave the cave every 7-14 days to eat. Cute little critters, eh? I told the ranger I was glad to see the crickets and was REALLY glad I HADN’T seen any cave rats. “Don’t look over to your right then,” he told me. “I can’t guarantee they’re aren’t some over there.” Aaaaaand, I made a very quick exit!

The cave crickets are about 1.5 to 2 inches across.

Water, water, everywhere! It’s what carved the magnificent cave system. The Green River and its tributaries did most of the work and it still runs several layers below the tunnels that we traveled.

We hiked a trail near the historic entrance, and found river height / flood gauges…

Don’t want to be anywhere near here when there is a 56 foot flood!

Finally starting to see some color!

The cave systems we visited were magnificent and very different from each other; Luray was commercialized with a very quick, pricey tour while Mammoth Caves had a huge range of tours and with our Senior Park Pass, it was a steal! We’re so glad that we got to experience both of these amazing places. And, yes, we’re still on the prowl for some fall foliage!