Category Archives: National Parks, Monuments, Etc.

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

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 stalactites reach up to join the stalagmites 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!

Let the Wild (Pony) Rumpus Begin!

When we first started building our itinerary and knew we’d want to be in Delaware early in October, I thought it would be fun to get back to Assateague Island — and maybe my brother, Richard and sister-in-law, Carol could join us! They made hotel reservations as soon as we told them our plans. They come to Chincoteague Island annually and were just looking for a good excuse to come back this fall. We’re SO glad they did!

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is on Assateague Island, abutting Assateague Island National Seashore. One of the  primary draws to come here was the two herds of Assateague ponies, one in Maryland and one in Virginia. We remembered coming here about 30 years ago when our kids were young. Of course, neither of us remembered too many details. It was great to return.

The refuge has much to offer in addition to the ponies, with many varieties of birds, sika deer–actually a small type of elk, not a deer–rabbits, and many other species.

We stayed at a campground a very short distance from the refuge on Chincoteague Island (VA) so we could bike in.  We can see the Assateague light from our “living room” (and kitchen, and dining room, since they’re all the same).

Assateague light from our campsite

Assateague Light was built at the southern tip of Assateague Island, but the island is basically a sand dune, and every storm moves it.  It is now significantly south and west of where it was when the light was built, so the light is now 1.5 miles from the current southern tip of the island.

Southern Herd

The southern pony herd in Virginia is the larger of the two, at about 150 ponies.  They are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.  The department has a special use agreement with the  Wildlife Refuge to use a large fenced-off marshy area where the horses are kept.  This area is so large that even with a 540mm lens, the horses at the far side are not able to be reasonably photographed.  These horses are less than 1/2 way across the marsh.

Ponies at dawn (540mm lens)

Same area, later in the day.

Sometimes they do indeed come closer.  The road into the refuge goes along one side of the marsh where I got the pictures below, and there is a mosquito-infested trail that goes along another.  We didn’t last long on that one.

Chincoteague Pony

Whether they’re in the Chincoteague or Assateague herds, the breed is Chincoteague Pony.  The reference I saw said “All colors.”

Another that came close-ish.

I called this one, “Black Beauty”

Mare and foal

And sometimes they get even closer.  Notice the brown and white mare and the smaller pony just to the right in the picture below. They are the same as in the picture above, but somehow they got out of the enclosed marsh area!

When out early one morning getting some of these pony pictures, I saw a wonderful sunrise across the street from the marsh area.

A few minutes before sunrise

Panning to the right a little bit…

“Our” Herd

We hadn’t made too many plans ahead of time with Richard and Carol but knew we’d be sharing many restaurant meals together, and boy, DID we! Our first day together, I offered to drive us all to the northern end of the island so we could visit both the Assateague State Park (run by MD) and the Assateague National Seashore. (Don’t worry — it took us all week to be able to get it all straight!).

We piled into Scarlett (our F350) and headed out. It only took a bit over an hour to get there and with all the conversation in the car, it seemed like a very short ride. The Visitor’s Center for the national park is quite large and just before the bridge that heads onto the actual island. And of course, there were ponies on the side of the road as we approached the bridge —- Move on! Move on! No stopping! scolded a park employee. We ducked  briefly into the state park and then onto the adjoining road into the national park.

The speed limit is only 25 MPH so it allows you to peer into the woods and toward the beach looking for ponies. We found a beautiful long (!) boardwalk that lead out over a brackish marsh in one direction and out to the bay on the other. It was so peaceful.

We spotted quite a few RV’s parked (camping) in the parking lots adjacent to the beach. It piqued our curiosity and it looks like we’ve put camping at either the state park or the national seashore in the future.

Richard and Carol suggested we share dinner at one of their favorite restaurants followed by amazing ice cream! Who can say no to fresh crab cakes and an ice cream sundae? And so, over the next few days, we shared dinner at a different restaurant each evening. Wow!

The next day, Al and I returned to the northern side of the island but brought our bikes. The part of the park that you can access by car and bike isn’t all that long (maybe 3 or 4 miles) and beyond that, it’s all OSV (over-sand vehicles) —- a permit is required, and alas, Scarlett weighs too much. The biking was perfect and we had our PB&J sandwiches at the beach. A mare and foal were there along with many surfers!

Northern Herd

The ponies in the northern herd in Maryland are owned by the US Government, and are free to roam wherever they want to in the Maryland section of the island; there is a fence at the state line to keep the two herds separate.  This herd is smaller, estimated at 70-80 ponies.  They can be hard to find, but there are “leavings” everywhere!

There are “Pony Patrols,” volunteers who are charged with keeping visitors at least 40′ away from the ponies when they roam into heavy tourist areas like the beach.  But a long lens can bridge that 40′ gap pretty easily!  Since these are wild animals, I didn’t want to be any nearer—but I guess there are a lot of people who aren’t as smart.

We saw this mother and colt pair next to a restroom at the beach of the National Seashore.

Mother, ever so sanguine.

The colt seemed to be bothered by the bugs in the area (mosquitoes and biting flies), and was squirming on the sand.

Man, quit bugging me!

Aaahhhhhh!

Birds on the island

This island is on a major migration flyway for many species of birds.  Later in the fall, apparently the ground looks like it has snowed when several tens of thousands of snow geese congregate on the island!

Here are some of the birds we saw on the island.  Egrets of several subtypes are everywhere!

Why don’t sailboats have an egrets’nest instead of a crows nest?

Not sure what this one is looking at or for!

Fishing, definitely fishing!

Flying too fast for me to keep framed properly. Oh, well.

Flight attendants, prepare for landing!

We saw several other species too.

Great Blue Heron

Osprey; look at the talons!

Bald Eagle

Great Blue Heron

Turkey Vulture

And of course, we have the ever-present seagulls and Canada Geese.

Don’t even think about taking my sandwich!

Geese at our campground

We spent a couple of days at the beach with Richard and Carol on the Chincoteague Island side. It was lovely! So much long-overdue visiting while being serenaded by the surf and warmed by the sun.
Having never vacationed with any of our siblings as adults, we were so happy to get so much time with Richard and Carol. We had a blast and we’re already making plans for the next time!

Other animals in the Refuge and at the Seashore

Lo and behold, there are animals other than ponies and birds here! Some are very well hidden like this crab.

Maryland crab hiding in the grasses.

Don’t know what kind of butterfly this is…

Sika “deer,” actually a type of small elk

Homo Sapiens Surfaris

Anyone know what this moth is?

White tailed deer

Camping, the beach, wildlife, photography, and family — what a winning combination! We look forward to returning to Assateague and hope that Richard and Carol can join us the next time.

Gettysburg

Al: I never served in the military; I know that I don’t have a soldier’s “headset,” for lack of a better word. I have high respect and admiration for those who have.

I considered not writing about Gettysburg.  The scope is too large.  Being on the battleground is completely overwhelming; I don’t know really where to begin.

One way could be to look at the sobering statistics. In three days of fighting, July 1 – 3, 1863, approximately 7000 soldiers were killed. There were approximately 51,000 casualties (soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing). There are many estimates of the casualty count; we have seen higher and lower estimates. Some units lost two thirds or more of the men who were present at the start of the battle. 158,000 were engaged in the battle across the three days.

Casualty figures for a unit

Amazingly for a battle that surrounded a city, there was only one civilian casualty; a twenty-year-old  woman named Jenny Wade was killed by a stray shot.  How times have changed.

The civilian structures were damaged, though, and some still bear the scars.

Bullet scarred wall

Through-and-through cannon ball

Occasionally we’ll include a reference, “(NPS)”. This indicates that a particular statistic or comment came from the National Park Service’s Gettysburg FAQ web page.

Kathe: I’ve been to Gettysburg in recent years but Al had never been; I couldn’t wait to share it with him.

When we entered the visitors’ center, we headed right for the ticket booth and decided to purchase the three-way pass that comprises the Cyclorama, the museum, and a two-hour bus tour of the battlefields. As we always do with every National Park we visit, we started with the orientation film. It gave an overview of the three days in July 1863 — narrated by Morgan Freeman — and I was already in tears.

From the overview film, we were shepherded upstairs to the Cyclorama. It’s breathtaking – a 360-degree painting of the Gettysburg Battlefield that was painted in 1883 (it’s one of four that have been created – this one was acquired and restored a few decades ago). It is 42 feet tall and 377 feet around. We all stood on a raised platform in the middle of the room and were surrounded by images, lights, sounds, and narration that made it all come to life. We were in the midst of the battle. It was sobering. More tears.

Detail from the cyclorama

Us: Later while on the battlefield, one of the things that surprised us was the terrain. This is open, mostly flat, land.  In 1863 it was even more open; many of the trees now present were not there.  Then it was agricultural fields. The National Park Service has an ongoing program to restore the area to the conditions at the time of the battle, removing trees, planting orchards, and restoring walls and fencing. Local farmers have access to the land to plant crops.

According to our tour guide, the tactics had not changed much from the days of the Revolutionary War, with the soldiers often marching in a line across an open field toward the opposing side.  A rise of only 100 feet (sometimes less) could give a dominant position.

The key high point was Little Round Top, at 150 feet above the fields.  The higher rise next to it, Big Round Top, was not useful militarily because it was (and remains) completely wooded.

View from the top of Little Round Top; only 150′ gives a strategic “high ground” advantage

Shortly after the war, various groups began placing bronze and stone (mostly granite and marble) monuments on the battlefield honoring regiments, divisions, corps, and armies.  Now there are approximately 1328 (NPS) monuments within the park. They range in size from gargantuan (Pennsylvania and New York) to diminutive and hidden in the woods (Maine 20th). The brigade monuments had either round (Confederate) or square bases (Union).

The Pennsylvania monument

One of many New York monuments, this one in the cemetery

Detail of the New York monument

There were also many markers across the battlefield that indicated the midpoint of each regiment and their right and left flanks (ends). You can see how closely the units were deployed.

Markers indicating the right flank of one unit and the left flank of the next

We walked the range that the Maine 20th Regiment had spread across on Little Round Top; it was amazingly short. Due to where they were deployed, their monument is a short walk into the woods. The inscriptions on the sides of the monument list the soldiers who were killed or died of their wounds inflicted during the defense of Little Round Top.

We took advantage of a free Ranger Program in the park on our last morning there: a tour of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery on Cemetery Hill. This area was known as Cemetery Hill at the time of the battle and was one of the contested regions.  The Soldiers’ Cemetery is adjacent to a pre-existing public cemetery which gave the hill its name.

Soldiers were originally buried in shallow graves on the battlefield. They were then re-interred with great effort at the Soldiers’ Cemetery.

Originally set aside by the state of Pennsylvania, it was for the Union dead only.  Most of the Confederate dead were interred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA, in a special section set aside for Gettysburg casualties (NPS).  Now it is a national cemetery and is still in active use.

Initially the plan was to bury soldiers without regard to rank or unit.  However it was decided to bury them in sections, according to the state they were from—still without regard to rank. Remarkably, most of the graves have names.  Each state section has some graves marked “Unknown.”

Most graves are identified

Sometimes the state and even the regiment were known, but the soldier’s identity was not

Each state had a marker indicating the number of soldiers buried here.

The marker for the Maine section

Additionally, there are many simple numbered marble markers for soldiers for whom their state was unable to be determined.

One section of graves of unknown soldiers

All of the soldiers are arranged in a semicircle around the Soldiers Monument that is the focus of the cemetery.  The way they are buried seemed unusual; they are buried behind their headstone with their heads toward the center.  In this way should they rise they will be facing outward, ready to defend Cemetery Hill again.

The cemetery is still in use; here are some graves from the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.  Still newer graves are in an adjacent annex.

Graves of soldiers from the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II

Marking newer graves of unknown soldiers

Being on the battlefields of Gettysburg gave us a deeper understanding and reverence for the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling place that we hope each of you will have an opportunity to experience.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln.
November 19, 1863.

Delivered at the Soldiers’ Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

The Ohio and Erie Canal

In my post about our recent biking, I promised a separate post about the Ohio and Erie Canal per se.   True to my word…

I’m not going to try to regurgitate all that has been written about the canal and its history. Use the link above for a Google search page of sites about the canal.  Instead, I want to offer what I saw of it and my impressions.  I learned any history that I include here from Interpretative Rangers or the various informational signs posted throughout the park.

The name Ohio and Erie Canal stems from the two ends of the canal: Lake Erie and the Ohio River. By connecting the two, commerce was enabled between Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.  It turned Ohio into the third wealthiest state.

The canal was a huge undertaking!  It was dug entirely by hand in the 1820s and completed in 1832.  It was specified to be a minimum of 40 feet wide at the top and 26 feet wide at the bottom, with a minimum depth of 4 feet.  The canal was used for cargo until 1861 when rail transport took over.  From the 1870s it gradually degraded until 1913 when massive storms damaged much of what was left, and lock #1 had to be dynamited to allow flood waters drain.

We rode along 25 miles of the tow path, from the southern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the northern end. In the southern end it is hard (for me, impossible) at times to discern the path of the canal. Gradually, the outline of the canal becomes visible as a large dry trench.  Much of the tow path is between the canal and the Cuyahoga River. Toward the northern end, the canal still holds water, although probably no longer four feet. I was told that some industrial sites still draw water from the canal.

I don’t know how many locks were originally in the region we biked, but we saw many—again, mostly in the northern half.  Canal barges were specified to be a maximum beam (width) of 14 feet and length of 85 feet. Although the canal trench was specified to be 40 feet wide to allow boats to pass each other, the locks were much narrower averaging only 15 feet wide and 90 feet long, thus fitting only one boat at a time.

Looking south (upstream) through a lock.

Another lock, also looking upstream.

The lock gates were massive wooden structures, some operated by hand, others by horses or mules.  The average lift capability of the locks was 9 feet, with the largest (called the “Deep Lock”) being 17 feet.

I wasn’t able to find any sign of the pumping equipment they would have needed to manage the water levels in the locks.

Near the north end of the park is the Canal Exploration Center, a CVNP visitor center. The exhibits are very well done!  Stop in, if you’re in the area.

At the CEC is a restored lock with the gates in place.

In this era of GPS location accurate to a few feet and laser transits, it was sobering to think back about the tools available when the canal was built.

A surveyor’s compass.

Surveyor’s chains, for distance.

At the Canal Exploration Center I found this modern flood control device; it had valves that would send canal water into a side arm of the Cuyahoga River.

Flood control valve.