Ghost Town Bodie

Ever since I stumbled upon Rhyolite, a ghost town of respectable size in Nevada, I learned more about the handfuls of poignant mining/gold rush ghost towns of California. Of the ghost towns, Bodie was the most notable but relatively distant from any major city, and the thought of visiting Bodie had remained in the back of my mind ever since. As a resident of California, I knew I’d eventually see it—it was only a matter of when, and once again I found myself east of Yosemite, not inconveniently far from Bodie. Time to go!

The state has turned the ghost town into a historic state park with an entry fee of $8/adult, which is used to preserve the town. Unlike many parks, Bodie literally is nothing more than a ghost town with well-spaced apart dilapidated buildings, dusty artifacts, and the remainders of once busy streets. Campgrounds, trails, and picnic areas can’t be found anywhere near Bodie.  Also, unlike other ghost towns that have revamped into kitschy tourist attractions, Bodie remains in “arrested decay,” or in the same historic condition it was left in.

As a result we left our trailer on national forest road at Mono Lake and drove the 45 minutes to Bodie Historic State Park.  Our free boon docking spot at Mono Lake:img_20161014_181025-01

Entrance into Bodie:img_6069

Bodie began as an ore mining camp, and later “boomed” when profitable amounts of gold were discovered in the mines.  A remaining mine as seen in the distance:img_6104

Like in many romantic, Wild West stories, thousands of hopefuls flocked to Bodie, making the once tiny mining town flourish to a population of 5,000-7,000 with 2,000 buildings at its peak. There was a church, school, fire houses, railroad, jail, red light district, and dozens of saloons.

Numerous buildings are left in their original state, with homes adorned with furniture and wallpaper and stores stocked with shelves and goods.  People are allowed to roam the deserted, dusty streets that were once bustling with people, life, and brawls.  Remnants of artifacts can still be found on the ground, such as bottles and pieces of furniture and chinaware, but taking them is prohibited. (And apparently there is a curse cast upon those who take artifacts!)  Ogling over the exteriors of the building is already awe-inspiring; peeking into the buildings is even more so.

Ghost towns are beautiful, fascinating, lackluster, and romantic.  I find myself easily drawn to them, and it’s hard to say exactly why.  Compared to other countries, we can’t say America is really old; Bodie itself isn’t over 150 years old.  Perhaps because this is the “real” America–rugged and wild, and always will be.

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Bristlecone Pines

I had just learned about the ancient bristlecone pine trees—the world’s oldest known trees—at Great Basin National Park, and my fascination with them plus further research led me to the discovery of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. During my side trip of summiting Mount Whitney, I learned that the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was not far. In fact, it was right off our route north on Highway 395, nestled in the White Mountains in Inyo National Forest. We headed there the day after we summited Mount Whitney.

Within this ancient forest is the 4.5-mile loop trail that includes the bristlecone pine named Methuselah, known for many years as the world’s oldest tree and living organism at 4,750+ years old. However, in order to protect Methuselah from vandalism, this tree is not labeled. Curious, I google imaged “Methuselah bristlecone pine” before the hike and saw dozens of pictures of this tree. I snapped a screenshot and set off on the trail determined to find it.

Well, we studied the photos, searched and searched for this tree in the Methuselah Grove, and finished the 4.5-mile hike slightly disheartened that we could not find the damn tree! With dismay we admitted to a park ranger that we could not find Methuselah, and she told us that the tree was not as obvious as one would think.

“But the photos from the internet make it appear so distinct, so easy to find,” I said.

“There aren’t any photos of Methuselah on the internet,” she laughed.

“What?!” Had Chris and I been wastefully searching for this damn tree? “I thought it was all over the internet.”

“Nope, those pictures you see on the internet are not of Methuselah. It’s the wrong tree.”

I showed her my collection of images.

“Nope, none of those are of Methuselah,” she confirmed.

Well then!

But then she proceeded to give us a hint, for next time. “I believe the 1958 March issue of National Geographic has a picture of part of Methuselah.” Chris and I haven’t searched for this issue just yet, but next time we return to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, we’ll make sure to look it up!

Despite not being able to ogle over the mighty Methuselah, we still enjoyed every bit of the hike. Situated high in the mountains at 10,000 feet, we were able to see the surrounding California landscape sprawling below us.

The Sierra Nevada mountains to the west:img_6059

And even Death Valley to the east:img_6038

The ancient bristlecone pines must be seen to be believed. They are sculptures in a desert, or a piece of imagination, or an illustration of a child’s horror story, with their tangled roots and outstretched branches seemingly defying nature. They are unreal…but they are real.

Its longevity depends on location—the harsher the environment, the longer the lifespan. Its incredibly slow growth (about 1 inch per century) results in a very dense wood, making it sturdy enough to withstand environments its neighboring trees can’t endure. Unlike most trees, the bristlecone pine survives on nutrient-poor, rock-like “soil,” allowing them to live without competition. Parts of the root, branch, or trunk also “die back” when it is harmed by drought or diseases in order to protect the rest of the tree and keep it growing. In addition to living thousands of years, the bristlecone pine also remains on earth for thousands of years after death!

“We do know that the oldest trees survive in the most difficult situations. Perhaps there is a life lesson there for all of us.” ~from the Methuselah Walk brochure

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Alabama Hills & Mt. Whitney

I’ve always said California has everything, and that was before I even knew that California also has the highest AND lowest points (both within ~100 miles of each other) in the contiguous U.S!

Last year in Death Valley, we sauntered along Bad Water Basin, the lowest point in the U.S. at -282 feet below sea level. This year we figured we’d summit the U.S.’s highest peak, Mount Whitney, at 14,497 feet tall.

By mountaineering standards, Mount Whitney is relatively easy to summit. Between summer and fall, anyone in decent shape can summit the mountain—no mountaineering experience required. As a result, the 22-mile out and back trail from the east in Whitney Portal is an incredibly popular hike–so popular that a permit is required to summit. Summiting from the west side in Sequoia National Park isn’t limited, but it requires a multi-day backpacking trip instead. An early spring lottery typically distributes all available permits for the hiking season (100 day hikers + 60 backpackers), but no-shows abound the autumn off-season. We walked into the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine at 11am on the day of our planned hike, snagged a couple of permits, and set off for Whitney Portal.img_6023

At the trailhead lies the popular Whitney Portal campground, suitable for those summiting Mount Whitney, but at $22/night for nothing more than pit toilets and picnic tables, I preferred to boondock in the stunning Alabama Hills just 12 miles east of Whitney Portal. In addition to being free, the surrounding landscape was stunning and vacant. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.img_5976_fix

I had never heard of Alabama Hills until I came to summit Mount Whitney. Apparently these wonderful rock formations are well-known in the Hollywood industry; multiple films such as How the West Was Won, Gladiator, and Iron Man were filmed amongst the rock formations with the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance.  Preparing dinner outside in this Hollywood backdrop was glorious.img_20161010_182254

One iconic landmark within the Alabama Hills is the Mobius Arch, particularly for its signature framing of the Mount Whitney crags in the morning. img_6022

Sunset, too, provides dramatic lighting.img_20161010_171948

We left our trailer behind in the Alabama Hills while we set out for our 2-day/1-night backpacking trip to the Mount Whitney summit. Since we only snagged permits at 11am that morning, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 1pm. We only had 5.5 miles to hike until we reached camp, which turned out to be a beautiful trail with picturesque meadows and trees.img_5984img_20161011_160827

A ranger told us that the popular Trail Camp was exceedingly popular, so we camped just about a 5-minute walk east of Trail Camp along Lake Consultation. Not only was it more peaceful than Trail Camp, the views were more phenomenal.

We kept our bear canister a distance from our tent.img_20161011_185116

After a crappy night’s “sleep,” we awoke at 3am for a Mount Whitney sunrise summit. Hiking in the pitch dark passed by quickly, and the first glimmer of light filled me with apprehensive excitement.img_20161012_055049

We made it to the glorious crags just before alpenglow.img_20161012_062704img_20161012_063206

Sunrise between the crags:img_20161012_065450

Alpenglow looking to the west in Sequoia National Park:img_20161012_065920

Almost to the summit:img_20161012_065740

And finally, the summit!img_20161012_075524img_6002

There was even a hut at the summit, apparently for hikers who unfortunately get struck by lightning. Lesson: Don’t attempt to summit if it looks like rain!

On the way back down, we quickly realized how hiking in complete darkness was probably a better idea than hiking in daylight. The darkness had prevented us from seeing just how steep all the switchbacks were! There were multiple moments where we looked up incredulously, exclaiming, “We hiked up all that?!”img_6007img_6010

As opposed to seeing only three other hikers for a sunrise summit from the east side, there were dozens of hikers attempting to summit after 9am–on a weekday in October! Fall offered us not only windless, perfect weather for hiking, but also plenty of permits to snag at the last minute.  We’ve summited plenty of conical mountains and volcanoes, but none craggy at the top.  Thanks to Mount Whitney’s unique rock top, we witnessed an incredible summit alpenglow and sunrise.  And thanks to the nearby Alabama Hills, we were able to camp in a movie set…for free! Even for those not interested in summiting Mount Whitney, the Alabama Hills are well worth the visit.

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Joshua Tree

I didn’t think I’d like Joshua Tree National Park.  I typically prefer the more “traditional parks” that consist of deep canyons or mountains, forests, and lakes.  I figured Joshua Tree NP would just be a boring desert with a bunch of cool trees, right?

Free camping on BLM land outside of Joshua Tree NP:img_5875

Within minutes of entering the park, I figured how very wrong I was, especially during the magic hour of sunrise.  Silhouettes of the gnarled trees beckoned us as we drove down the vast, empty road, and it became understandable why artists, poets, and nature lovers personify these trees.  I, too, became enamored by these trees, and yearned to grab them by the arms and dance in the desert twilight.img_5877

Compared with the 20+ national parks we’ve visited, Joshua Tree NP truly leaves a lasting impression.  With its alien world of spiky trees and rock formations, it is difficult to imagine such a place exists on this planet.  But it DOES exist, which is why there are national parks to begin with–to show the world just how incredible certain parts of the world can be.

Who knew that desert landscapes could be so beautiful?  Perhaps the most scenic and popular trail in the park is the 1-mile Hidden Valley loop trail, where ranchers once rustled cattle.  We watched sunrise at Hidden Valley and had the typically crowded valley all to ourselves.img_20161008_064058img_5888img_20161008_072020img_20161008_072801

We then proceeded to the neighboring Barker Dam, which unfortunately had no water in the fall season.  The trail was still scenic, but not as gorgeous as Hidden Valley.img_20161008_082133

Attractions along the road include Skull Rock:img_5905

And a sprawling “garden” of cholla cactus, a surreal landscape for sunrise or sunset:

The Quail Springs Rock Exhibit Area is popular amongst rock climbers and boulderers. img_5936

And the densest concentration of Joshua trees can be found in the higher region of Black Rock Canyon.img_5908

With tolerable autumn weather, a bike ride up to Keys View is a glorious way to view the park and its trees.  Keys View boasts the only lookout at the park, which overlooks the Coachella Valley.img_5949img_5944

Joshua Tree NP doesn’t have much in the way of long, epic hikes like those in Glacier or Canyonlands, but its short, scenic strolls through concentrated areas of rocks and trees help one appreciate the landscape at a more leisurely pace.  With rocks to climb, new landscapes to explore and discover, and so much to learn, Joshua Tree NP will bring out the inner child in anyone.img_20161008_183424

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Valley of Fire

Some lesser known state parks can flaunt the grandeur of national parks, and Nevada’s first state park, Valley of Fire, defends that claim.  Originally we planned on driving straight from Great Basin National Park, Nevada to Joshua Tree National Park, California but we made the spontaneous detour to Cathedral Gorge State Park.  While searching for a free place to boondock near Las Vegas, I stumbled upon Valley of Fire–there was BLM land just outside of it.  After the brief detour to Cathedral Gorge, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make another brief detour to Valley of Fire.

However, unlike Cathedral Gorge, Valley of Fire is massive.  Not massive by national park standards, but definitely massive by state park standards.  While only a few hours are required to see all of Cathedral Gorge, several days would be necessary to explore all of what Valley of Fire has to offer.  Sadly, we only had half a day to check out a handful of the park’s highlights.

In order to get a head start on our day, beat the weekend crowd, avoid the afternoon heat, and watch a spectacular sunrise, we got up bright and early to search for Fire Wave.  It wasn’t difficult to find, and the half mile hike to reach it was also easy.  This was a photographer’s paradise.

After Fire Wave, we made our way to the nearby White Domes Slot Canyon, another quick hike under a mile.

Interesting rocks, desert shrubs and cacti abound!

Next, we drove through most of the gorgeous alien-like park to Elephant Rock, which is conveniently located along the road.img_5840


And finally, we made the quick driving tour through the Arch Rock campground area where I was able to carefully observe Mother Nature’s wind stone arches.img_5851

As the park began to fill up with tour buses, the temperature rose, and we knew it was our time to head out to our planned destination–Joshua Tree National Park.  After all, we had never even heard of the park the day before! Considering Valley of Fire is only an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, I’m sure the park is the outdoor lovers’ retreat for the nearby locals. With unimaginable beauty comparable to the deserts of southern Utah and Arizona, Valley of Fire deserves to be visited again and again.

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Cathedral Gorge

As I quickly made my way in and out of the Great Basin National Park Visitor Center to use the bathroom, curiosity drew me to the information board.  I couldn’t resist skimming over the PLACES NEARBY map, especially with its beautiful pictures.  A stunning photo captioned “Cathedral Gorge” caught my eye, as it resembled a mini Badlands National Park.  Seeing that the state park was conveniently located right off the highway on our route to Southern California, I saw that there was no reason why we couldn’t stop for a brief visit.

We pulled over to scope out Miller’s Point, the park’s most spectacular view over the gorge.  To my surprise, it was more than just an overlook–there were covered picnic tables, bathrooms, plenty of parking, and even a couple trailheads, free of charge!  img_5731

Miller’s Point:img_5742img_5733

From Miller’s Point, a metal stairway led me down to the Miller’s Point Trail, which took me through the scenic gorge to the 4-mile Juniper Draw Loop Trail.  This 4-mile trail basically made up the entire state park, making it easy to see what the park had to offer.

Descending from Miller’s Point:img_5743

Photos from the Juniper Draw Loop:img_5762img_5769img_5772

The park’s iconic cathedral spire:img_5773

For a $7 day use fee, visitors can spend time in the park’s beautiful picnic area along the walls of the gorge (or just park at Miller’s Point for free).img_5775

Since we accidentally discovered Cathedral Gorge along our drive, our visit was spontaneous and brief.  Fortunately not a whole lot of time is required to explore the entire park; we were in and out in just over a couple hours.  I’m thankful that I read the information board at Great Basin National Park; Cathedral Gorge was a wonderful little surprise in the area.

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Great Basin National Park

Literally lost in the middle of nowhere across the expanse of a massive desert, Nevada’s sole national park quietly lingers between a cluster of mountains.  It’s a damn easy place to pass by along the lonely highway, and I’m sure most people do just that. However, making that adjacent turn into the labyrinth of mountains takes wanderers, explorers, and the curious into landscapes that can only be imagined: cave chambers at the foot of the mountains, groves of the Earth’s oldest living trees, iconic rock formations, a rock glacier, and Nevada’s highest peak at 13,159 feet.  That’s quite a bit for a tiny national park!

Our plan was to cram it all in: Day 1 would consist of a summit to Wheeler Peak followed by the scenic hike through the Bristlecone Grove and to the rock glacier, and Day 2 would start with a 90-minute tour through the Lehman Caves before heading out.

We were about a month out from the seasonal closure of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, but all water spigots at the park had already been shut off.  It was no surprise why–during our stay at the Wheeler Peak Campground (a high-elevation campground at 9,900 ft!) we never saw the temperature rise above freezing level!  Luckily the visitor center in Baker was still open, and we filled our water jugs there.  Once high up at the campground we picked literally the BEST site (#22) and stayed warm in our cozy little trailer.img_20161005_164550

At only 8 miles round trip, the summit of Wheeler Peak isn’t too difficult to reach.  Still, the altitude zapped the energy out of me, and the brutal cold and wind didn’t help either.

I wore my balaclava during the entire hike.  The peak is that little hump to the right of the rock formations.  Yep, we were going there.img_20161005_133705

So close, yet so far!img_5687

Yay, the summit!img_5690

Once off the peak we strolled along the lakes (more like ponds) toward the bristlecone pine grove.img_5691

The trail to the bristlecone pine grove requires a little uphill climb, which surprisingly isn’t easy due to the 10,000+ ft. elevation level.  But we soon set eyes on the bristlecone pine trees that lay scattered throughout the area.img_20161005_144042img_5696

I had to hug one.  They’re so beautiful, full of personality, and SO old!  Even after death they can remain on the earth for thousands of years!img_20161005_144505

Beyond the grove of bristlecone pine, we continued to the rock glacier.img_5698

The end of the trail with the tiny rock glacier in the distance:img_5703

We covered between 13-14 miles that day, which would have been a piece of cake had it not been the altitude.  13-14 miles above 10,000 feet?  I slept GOOD that night.

Finally, the Lehman Caves, which were only discovered in the late 1800s.  Exploration and new discoveries are constantly taking place within the caves, and there are daily cave tours throughout the year.  I reserved tickets online ($10 for adults), showed up at the visitor center at 9am, and thoroughly enjoyed my 90-minute tour of the cave.  It felt like being a kid all over again.img_5712

Cave bacon!!!img_5721

We spent only a day and a half at Great Basin National Park, but we probably saw more than most visitors see during their entire visit.  The late season, weekday, and menacing cold probably also kept out most visitors, giving us a serene experience within the area. Outside of Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada is known to be quite bleak and desolate, but the natural areas showed us that Nevada had a lot more to offer.

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