‘Tis the season to explore migrating bird refuges!

 

Take your binoculars and see if you can spot Black-necked Stilts!

It’s late April and the migratory birds are flocking to sanctuaries in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties!

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge will offer free guided hikes this Saturday, April 26, from 9 AM to Noon, featuring a two-mile roundtrip walk through wetlands, viewing visiting birds on the Pacific flyway.  Bring binoculars, water, insect repellent, sunscreen and walking shoes (and field guides to birds, if you have them).  Children are welcome, but, no pets.  Meet at the Elk Grove Gate at 9 AM; take Elk Grove Boulevard exit off I-5, and go to west side of I-5 to the gate.  Information: fws.gov/refuge/stone_lakes.

Even closer to home is the Consumnes River Preserve (www.consumnes.org), on the river of the same name, just north of Thornton on San Joaquin County’s northside.  Also on April 26, join for a Guided Photo Walk (meet at the Visitor Center at 9am, at 13501 Franklin Blvd., Galt).  The Preserve is open, dawn to dusk, and paved trails take you into wetlands and vernal pool areas that team with migratory birds this time of year.

Take the kids or grandkids to either of these exciting natural preserves – you’ll get a much better understanding of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta, at the same time!

 

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Sequoia National Park; home of the giants and sister to Kings Canyon!

General Sherman Sequoia, 40' in diameter and largest tree in the world, attacts crowd while ranger shares highlights!

Huge grove of Sequoias stands as sentinels to entrance to General Grant Grove.
Our Scotty at Sequoia overlook, with sister park Kings Canyon and Sierra in background.
Our Scotty teardrop trailer is right at home with the big boys in Lodgepole Campground!

 

Susan Viall stands in front of downed, 20′ diameter Sequoia.
The Tunnel Tree is a favorite for picture taking; here our Focus passes under!

Several things impress as you approach this majestic park and its neighbor, Kings Canyon National Park, from Visalia, CA (we arrived on Hwy 198 at the Ash Mountain entrance).  They include the rapid and scenic rise from near sea level in the San Joaquin Valley to 7,000 feet in the Sierra, the frequent number of immense Sequoia groves throughout the two parks, and incredible views of the High Sierra, particularly in the Kings Canyon!

The majesty of the Giant Sequoias caused Valley residents to petition Congress for protection (both to save the huge trees and to preserve the watershed) and Sequoia became America’s second national park in 1890.  John Muir explored the Giant Forest, home to four of the world’s five largest trees and climbed nearby Mt. Whitney, at 14,500 feet the tallest peak in California, bringing renewed attention to the stunning vistas and huge trees.

We were camping on a recent visit (towing a small teardrop trailer), and made for a reserved spot in a delightful Sequoia campground, Lodgepole Camp, complete with village store and visitor center. Nearby is a marvelous hotel, The Wuksachi, complete with great restaurant and cute bar. At night, the stars were like bright diamonds in the Milky Way; but lock up your food from marauding bears!

Once settled into our campsite, we began our tour of the park by driving a few miles to the General Sherman Tree Grove, and hiking downhill to see these over-sized trees. First impressions count, a lot – one is amazed that around every turn is a monster Sequoia, measuring 12 to 35 feet in diameter and topping out at almost 300 feet.

One does not expect to be so awed by the General Sherman itself, but it is “that much larger” than its neighbors, measuring 40 feet in diameter, 275 feet in height, and, in total volume of wood, the largest tree in the world! It makes for big crowds, as the most known feature in the park.  The General Grant Sequoia, almost as daunting, is the anchor attraction in the General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon Park.

Nearby, a side road takes you to Moro Rock, worth the short hike for marvelous views, past the Auto Tree (where cars once drove up upon the huge downed trunk) and to Tunnel Log, where one can drive your car or truck through the hollowed-out trunk. It makes for great photos!  Another option, in summer, is the road to Crystal Cave, for you spelunkers! While driving, keep your eyes open for mule deer, skunks, coyotes and black bears!

The adjoining Kings Canyon National Park offers its own share of stunning revelations, though the park’s size and scope of its features require several days to fully explore! Plan a long weekend trip, or a week if you want to hike, for touring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks; you will forever want to return for deeper exploration! 

How to get there: From Stockton, the park is 205 miles and about 4 hours; we took Hwy. 99 to Visalia, then east on Hwy. 198 to the park entrance.  

When to go: Just about any time of the year, though biggest crowds hit in summer when school is out.  The park’s main attractions are located around 6,700 feet; temperatures stay pretty cool, even during most summer days, and get nippy at night (often deep snows cover the landscape in winter).

What to see while there:  Stop first at one of several visitor centers for displays that offer the historic insights on this stunning landscape.  And, hikers will regret not hiking the General Sherman Trail and General Grant Trails; the park offers scores of other trails through the Sequoias and into the High Sierra backcountry.  And, kids young and old will enjoy driving in the car under Tunnel Log!

What’s nearby: Fresno and Visalia are not far off your route; Visalia has a cute and walkable historic downtown worth touring.  Of course, the park shares a common border with Kings Canyon, so plan to visit both parks!

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course, good walking shoes or boots, sunscreen and sunshade hat, and water bottles or a canteen if you plan to hike the park’s spectacular trails. 

Where to stay (including camping): Fresno and Visalia offer lodging and dining options outside the park.  Wuksachi Lodge and Stony Creek Village (in adjoining Sequoia National Forest) offer lodging options; each, as well as Lodgepole Village, offer dining options.  Camping is offered at a number of sites within the park like Potwisha, Buckeye Flat, Dorst Creek and Stony Creek; we camped at Lodgepole Campground during our last visit.

For more info: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, PO Box 47050 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA 93271-9700; www.nps.gov/seki; or phone  559.565.3341 for insights into the park as well as hiking and camping. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; or contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Next week, a feature on Sequoia’s sister park, Kings Canyon; until then, happy travels in the west!

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Good maps lead way to stunning, out-of-way places!

A good map is key to exploring many of California's out-of-the-way places!

View from our campground on a PG&E reservoir came with lakeside view and low fees for the night!
PG&E reservoir offers stunning views, inexpensive campground!
Pine Flat Lake in Sierra shows the impacts of several years of drought!

On a late fall trip last year, headed for a few days in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, we happened to spend time in the historic Sierra foothills town of Mariposa.  To get to Sequoia, we had a choice: return to the Valley and take Hwy. 99 to Fresno and Visalia, then up to Sequoia on Hwy. 180 – or, explore some of the backroads that wind through the foothills!  We took the latter approach and discovered “California Gold”!

Maps – as an old Army Infantry Platoon Leader, I treasure old-school maps!  Yes, we have GPS on our iPhone 5s, and a Garmin GPS unit; but I like detailed, paper maps.  So, at home I pull out my trusty State Farm Road Atlas, and I visit AAA to get detailed, updated maps.  From Mariposa, we took the circuitous route along two-lane, paved roads with names (no numbers), finding quaint towns like Wishum, North Fork, Shaver Lake and Trimmer (little places “where the time stands still and the decades cannot improve”).

We found a campsite on a PG&E reservoir, lakeside, for $20, discovered Shaver Lake and Pine Flat Lake, all with additional inexpensive campgrounds and beaches awaiting our exploration.  We eventually came out of the backroads, intersected Hwy. 180 above Fresno, then turned uphill for the final tour into Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

So, gather those detailed maps, and take the road less traveled occasionally!  You’ll discover new gems, and find countless reasons to return for a future exploration!  Once you get the hang of it (“Up” on a map is always North; get a few more pointers from family or friends who served in the Army or Marines!).

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; or contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Coming Friday (and Sunday in the Stockton Record), a feature on visiting the big trees in Sequoia National Park!

 

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Grand Canyon National Park; Stunning, changing views will bring tears to hardened travelers!

 

View from Mather Point near Grand Canyon Village changes by the hour; it will take your breath away!

Canyon from Desert Drive overlook; if your eyes are good, you will see the Colorado River almost 5,000 feet below!
Bright Angel Trail attracts both day hikers, and those descending the entire mile in elevation drop to the Grand Canyon floor (also the trail used by mules hauling guests into the canyon).
Two hikers explore big country at Moran Point

We have been profiling the nine national parks of California, but with a recent visit to the Grand Canyon, just east of California, we could not resist offering up this update.  Next week, we will return to California’s national parks with a feature on Sequoia National Park.

When my two brothers and I ranged in ages from 11 to 15, my mom pulled up to the Grand Canyon rim in our 1962 Ford station wagon and urged us to see the view.  Family lore has it that one of us said “no; it’s just a big hole in the ground”!

Not so; my wife and I recently approached the park’s south rim at 5 PM to find the canyon bathed in stunning hues from the setting sun – absolutely incredible!  We had each been to the park before a few years earlier, but these heart-stopping views of a canyon a mile deep never cease to bring tears to our eyes! 

This is a landscape to inspire the multitudes; the Colorado River runs 277 miles through the park, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, and filled with the most incredible geologic layers carved over millions of years.  The colors change throughout the day, and each day brings new vistas and hues!

We entered Grand Canyon Park at the south entrance, stopping first in the town of Williams, 50 miles south of the park. Williams is on old Route 66, and offers a cute, walkable old downtown, with several blocks dedicated to the Route 66 mantra. We stopped at an Italian bistro, had a delicious pizza and a drink and stocked up at the Safeway before heading into the park.

Just outside the park entrance is the small town of Tusayan, home to the Grand Canyon Airport and a number of motels (we stayed recently in the Red Feather, a very nice place); the Grand Hotel also is another nice option. The town has a McDonald’s, several souvenir shops, the National Geographic IMAX theatre and more.

We spent three nights in the Mather campground, very well appointed, with more than 200 campsite options – only about a quarter-mile from the Canyon rim. No electrical hookups, but nice otherwise, with mostly secluded campsites set in an evergreen forest (and big mule deer seeking handouts).  Early mornings or late afternoons can bring sightings of mountain lions, wild turkeys, Bighorn sheep as well as rattlesnakes.

Our first full day included a quick breakfast at the McDonald’s just outside the canyon entrance (to use Wifi), a hike down to the canyon rim above the Bright Angel Trail, and a leisurely bike ride along the south rim and through our campground. Once again, the views of the canyon are surreal, no matter what time of the day. We planned the next morning to see it at sunrise!

We toured the south rim road the next day, heading east, with about a dozen different turnouts, each with unique vistas and history. We also stopped at the Tusayan Ruins and Museum; a tour shares the history of the native people that once made their life on the rim of the Grand Canyon. A short walk from the museum takes you to one of their encampments, including storage rooms, living quarters and a kiva, (the site of ceremonial events) and once home to up to 50 people some 800 to 1000 years ago.

Our final day, we had an early lunch at the Hotel El Tovar, the large and historic hotel on the South rim – delicious food and a dining room rich in elegance and history.

After wandering a few blocks along the South rim to the Bright Angel Lodge, we decided to take a hike down the Bright Angel Trail. This is the trail used by mules to take people all the way to the canyon bottom – we hiked about a mile down the trail, then had approximately 700 vertical feet to climb out – definitely tougher than the trek down! Absolutely amazing views at every turn; our camp dinner that night tasted all the better after that hike!

By the way, don’t do what one 20-something did when we stopped at Moran Point.  As he was pitching baseball-sized rocks into the abyss, I suggested that “rangers, animals and people below would not appreciate that”; “oh, I never thought…”, he replied.

You will want to book soon, if you plan a summer adventure to this national treasure!

How to get there: From Stockton, the park is 740 miles, about 12 hours; we took Hwy. 99 to Bakersfield, then east on Interstate 40 to Williams, then Hwy. 64 north to the park entrance on the south rim.   Grand Canyon also has an airport right outside the park entrance.  The canyon’s north rim is another option, but requires a longer drive and different route.

When to go: Just about any time of the year, though biggest crowds hit in summer when school is out.  The canyon’s south rim, ranging from 6,600-7,400’, stays pretty cool, even during most summer days, and gets nippy at night.

What to see while there:  Stop first at the visitor center for displays that offer the flora, fauna and historic insights on this stunning landscape.  You can drive directly to many observation points along the south rim, all of them breath-taking.  Enjoy a meal or snack at the historic El Tovar Hotel or Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village.  If you are a hiker or biker, miles of walking and biking trails line the rim, from Hermit’s Rest to Yaki Point.  And, hikers will regret not hiking at least part way down one of the several trails into the canyon.

What’s nearby: Las Vegas and Hoover Dam are not far off your route returning to California; the lovely red rock town of Sedona is just two hours south towards Phoenix.  And, Williams, that quaint town where your turn off I-40, is worth a visit it you have not done so on the approach to the park.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course, good walking shoes or boots, sunscreen and sunshade hat, and water bottles or a canteen if you plan to hike the park’s spectacular trails. 

Where to stay (including camping): Williams and Tusayan offer lodging and dining options outside the park.  Grand Canyon Village and Desert View (further east on south rim) offer a host of lodging and dining options.  Camping is offered at a number of sites within the park; we camped at Mather Campground our last visit.

For more info: Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023; www.nps.gov/grca; or phone  928.638.7888 for insights into the park as well as hiking and camping. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; or contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Next week, we will return to California’s national parks with a feature on Sequoia National Park, until then, happy travels in the west!

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Williams, AZ; gateway to the Grand Canyon, and a Route 66 favorite!

Old Rt. 66 is the heart of quaint, walkable downtown Williams, AZ!

Several blocks of William’s old Rt. 66 are home to shops specializing in all mode of Rt. 66 memorabilia!
The Grand Canyon Railroad departs Williams, headed north to Grand Canyon Village on the park’s south rim.

We were in route to Grand Canyon Park’s south entrance, and stopped first in the town of Williams, AZ, 50 miles south of the park. Williams is on both the new Interstate 40, and the old Route 66, and offers a cute, walkable old downtown, with several blocks dedicated to the Route 66 mantra. We stopped at an Italian bistro, had a delicious pizza and a drink and stocked up at the Safeway before heading into the park.  The Grand Canyon Railroad also departs Williams and drops you, about 60 miles later, right at the quaint rail station in Grand Canyon Village.

Heading north on Hwy 64 from Williams, and just outside the park entrance is the small town of Tusayan, home to the Grand Canyon Airport and a number of motels (we stayed recently in the Red Feather, a very nice place); the Grand Hotel also is another nice option. The town has a McDonald’s, several souvenir shops, the National Geographic IMAX theatre and more.

Where to stay (including camping): Williams and Tusayan offer lodging and dining options outside the park.  Grand Canyon Village and Desert View (further east on south rim) offer a host of lodging and dining options.  Camping is offered at a number of sites within the park; we camped at Mather Campground our last visit.

For more info: Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023; www.nps.gov/grca; or phone  928.638.7888 for insights into the park as well as hiking and camping. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; or contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Next week, we will return to California’s national parks with a feature on Sequoia National Park, until then, happy travels in the west!  Coming this Friday, our Grand Canyon update; watch for it!

 

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Joshua Tree National Park; Strange, alien landscape yields desert treasures!

This fine Joshua Tree speciman is typical of many that dot the park's north and western portions

Author’s spouse Susan stands next to spindly but beautiful Ocotillo
The Jumbo Rocks area is great for exploring/climbing and contains a nice campground
Chollo cactus stand as eerie sentinels inside the park
Skeleton of old travel trailer is part of the “ghost resort” at Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, an hour’s drive south of Joshua Tree.

Next time you are discussing vacations with your significant other, suggest your family spend four days in the California desert.  My wife, a few months ago, looked at me as if I were crazy!  However, we just returned from exploration of Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, along with the Grand Canyon, and we thoroughly enjoyed our desert experience!

Joshua Tree National Park is a good day’s drive from the Stockton area; we did not know what to expect, merely how to get there.  We entered the park through its southern entrance (we were returning from a visit with friends in Yuma, AZ), very dry with a wild and alien assortment of plant life.  From 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, to Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations.

Fortunately, we stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center, which explained all of these plants thrive in the “Colorado Desert” that is the park’s south and east side – dry desert at 3,000’ elevation  and below.  We initially thought the Mojave yucca in this part of the park was the Joshua Tree for which the park is named – wrong!  Turns out it is a close cousin, but not the Joshua Tree.

Our route north through the park slowly climbed in elevation, past old mining roads, patches of Ocotillo, the Cholla Cactus Garden and through the Jumbo Rocks area (very scenic campground at the Rocks).  Here a jumble of boulders and rock slabs is thrust into the sky like pick-up-sticks – a kid’s wonderland of climbing opportunities (though rangers warn you the park is home to six species of rattle snakes)!

We climbed through Sheep Pass, where in early morning we saw Bighorn Sheep through a distant binocular scan.  A side trip took us to Keys View, almost a mile in elevation, with a panoramic park view (one can see the San Andreas Fault in the valley below).  At elevations above 3,000’, the park begins to transition into the “Mojave desert” – and Joshua Trees begin to appear. These tall, rangy trees can reach 40’ tall and are actually a species of yucca adapted to high, arid lands.

We took a short hike to the old Lost Horse Mine, which produced well over 10,000 ounces of gold (worth about $6 million today) between 1894 and 1931.  The trail to the Lost Horse Mine offers remnants of both the mine and its adjacent stamp mill; it’s one of 300 mines that once prospected in the park.  Who knows if another fortune lies under foot?

Heading further north, take the short side road to Barker Dam, built in the early 1900s to capture rainwater.  Wildlife, depending on time of day, and birds frequent the watery oasis!  The park offers viewing, if lucky, for exotic species such as Chuckwallas, Desert tortoise, Greater roadrunners, Desert iguana, Bighorn sheep and many more.  In this part of the park, Joshua Trees are almost everywhere!

The park headquarters is located at the Oasis of Mara, long settled by American Indians, with another visitor center than offers insights into ancient peoples who made the park their home.  Another place in the park where Native American history is interpreted, with evidence of ancient pottery and mortars carved into rock, is at Cottonwood Spring near the visitor center.

Plan a trip to Joshua Tree National Park; with Death Valley a few hours north, and the Salton Sea just south, you might want to link all three into an incredible desert adventure!

How to get there: From Stockton, the park is 460 miles and eight hours.  Take I-5 south to the LA area, then take I-10 eastbound. For the park’s north entrance, go north on Hwy. 62; for the south entrance, remain on I-10 to the park’s south side.

When to go: Spring and fall are best, though the park gets many visitors in the summer (however, the desert can be hot in summer).

What to see while there:  Stop first at one of the visitor centers for displays that offer the flora and fauna notes on this alien landscape.  Then make several stops in both versions of the desert, walk into this strange land, and look at these wonderful plants and listen to the disquieting sound of utter silence!  It’s a picture-takers and bird-watchers paradise, as well.

What’s nearby: The Salton Sea, a huge, inland sea caused by ecological and man-made disasters in 1906 and surrounded by “ghost resorts” caused by floods in 1976/77, is just 40 miles south of the park.  For highlights of this most remarkable side-trip, or Death Valley National Park, about 200 miles to the north (you might want to link the two parks in one journey), see my blog, below.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course, good walking shoes or boots, sunscreen and sunshade hat, and water bottles or a canteen if you plan to hike the park’s spectacular trails.

Where to stay (including camping): Yucca Valley on the north side of the park, and Palm Springs, Indio and Coachella on the park’s southwest side offer lodging and dining options.  Camping is offered at a number of sites within the park.

For more info: Joshua Tree National Park, www.nps.gov/jotr; or phone 760.367.5500 for insights into the park as well as hiking and camping. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.

For additional travel destination inspiration (including recent pieces on Death Valley and Salton Sea), see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Happy travels in the west!

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Cute critters and petting zoo helps history come to life at the San Joaquin Historical Museum!

Mocha and Cloud and two baby lambs will be part of the petting zoo!

Kids are dwarfed by giant clamshell bucket used to dredge levies on the Delta
Kids enjoy the history of our city, county; here a class takes in lunch at the museum

Friday and Saturdays through May 31, bring the kids and family to experience barnyard critters in the petting zoo, at the San Joaquin Historical Museum in Micke Grove Park!  At the petting zoo, you will find two mama sheep with twins, Pixey the pig with two piglets, twin Nigerian dwarf kids, a mini Hereford calf and a baby llama (arriving in April).  Your kids/grandkids will love this!

The Museum is nestled in the 258 acre Micke Grove Park just south of Lodi, California. With eight large exhibit buildings packed with Native American, pioneer, Gold Rush and agricultural history, and four historic buildings including the Charles Weber Cottage dating to 1847 and the Calaveras School, 1866, it’s one of the state’s best historical museums.

Inside the museum’s ongoing exhibits are many examples of early pioneer and Gold Rush transportation. Included in the collection is an original prairie schooner, one of only several left in existence, dating to 1859, many farm wagons, buggies and all manner of early farm equipment. The museum is rich in old farm implements: plows, harvesters, tractors, Holt and Best crawlers, Caterpillar tractors, John Deere tractors and many more.

Wander through the museum’s exhibit buildings and get a sense of life in the 1860s through the early 1900s, or picture life on the prairie crossing the US to California. Life on the farm is clearly depicted from more than one hundred years ago; the exhibits clearly paint a picture of life that was then a bit harsher than what we enjoy today!

A large contingent of historically-correct docents are available to give you tour tips and interpretive information. On any given day, docents will help bring history to life for kids from 5 to 95!

Directions: the museum is located inside Micke Grove Park, at 11793 N. Micke Grove Rd., Lodi. From Interstate 5, go east on Eight Mile Road, then left on Micke Grove Road. Admission: Just $5 for adults, seniors (65+) and teens are $4 and kids (6-12), only $2. The park also has a vehicle admission fee. Winter museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 AM to 4 PM.

For more information, go to www.sanjoaquinhistory.org, or call (209) 953.3460. For additional “close to home vacation” ideas, go to http://blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel. Take the family and make a fun day at Micke Grove Park and the museum!

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Imperial Dam on Colorado River feeds ag in Imperial Valley and SoCal cities

The Imperial Dam on the Colorado River lifts water 25 feet, so that gravity can feed it to California's Imperial Valley and southern California cities. In many years, almost no water reaches Mexico.

These four massive de-silting ponds help remove most of the silt/dirt carried by the mighty Colorado, before the cleaner water is shipped to California’s Imperial Valley and SoCal cities.
The All-American Canal carries Colorado River water west to the Imperial Valley and Southern California.

We recently made a two-week tour of desert California and Arizona.  Our plan was to take in three national parks (Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California, and Grand Canyon in Arizona), see a couple spring training baseball games and friends in Phoenix and Yuma.  Along the route, we also toured the Salton Sea area, a man-made lake and environmental disaster (see my previous post that offers pictures and history of this most strange area) and, just outside Yuma, AZ, the last major dam on the Colorado River.  For years I have heard how southern California fuels its agriculture and city growth on water from the Colorado – the detective in me wanted to see how they did it.

We toured the Imperial Dam and Desilting Works; the dam spans the Colorado River 18 miles northeast of Yuma, Arizona. The purpose of the dam is to raise the water surface 25 feet and provide controlled gravity flow of water into the All-American (water to CA) and Gila Gravity Main Canals. The desilting works remove most the sediment carried by the Colorado River to prevent clogging of the canals and subsequent extensive maintenance. In 1906, silted irrigation canals helped the flooding Colorado River flood into the Imperial Valley, filling the Salton Sink with 50 feet of water and creating a lake 25 by 35 miles long.

The lesson here – when traveling, take the time to veer off course and explore the lesser-known gems that come with traveling!

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Death Valley National Park: driest, hottest, harshest and lowest place in the United States!

Author's spouse, Susan, and author Tim stand at Badwater Basin sign on pleasant March day.

Badwater Basin is home to alkaline flats, alkaline waters and the lowest place in the United States at 282 feet below sea level!
This water trailer and wagons once hauled 36 tons of refined borax to the railroad, 160 miles from the Harmony Borax Works in the park.
Harmony Borax Works boiler and refinery produced borax from 1883 to 1888; just off the main park road, an interpretive trail in the park explains the operation’s history.
Sand dunes, weathered trees mark Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes within the park.
Our Scotty teardrop trailer outside the entrance into Death Valley NP.
Snowy Sierra peaks stand behind cabin in Olancha, just miles outside Death Valley’s western entrance.

In the hundreds of years prior to California’s 1849 Gold Rush, the Timbisha Shoshone people populated the Panamint Valley and Death Valley areas.  These are lands of extremes – the driest, the hottest, the harshest and the lowest lands in the USA.

During the California Gold Rush, several wagon trains of 49ers attempted to short-cut across the valley – after one miner died, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”, hence the name.

We approached the park from Hwy. 14/395, entering the west entrance.  Outside the park, we passed stunning Red Rock Canyon (with a beautiful state campground), passed through Olansha (and fueled up on a marvelous breakfast at the Ranch House Café).  At the Panamint Springs park entrance, gas was $4.65/gallon, pointing out our proximity to the “middle of nowhere” and need to plan ahead!

At Panamint Springs – with elevation of sea level – the land continues to drop down, eventually reaching its nadir at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the US.  Badwater retains remnants of an ancient lake, with consistent alkaline/salty water (don’t miss the sea level sign, set 282 feet up the rugged bluff just to east of the Badwater turnout); and take the short hike down to “taste” the salty lake bed!

In 1873 silver was discovered in the park and Panamint City swelled to 5000 residents. The silver played-out about four years later, leading to Death Valley’s “white gold” discovery, borax.  Stop at the Harmony Borax Works, including the old refinery which operated from 1883-88.  Their 20 mule team wagons would haul 36 tons of refined Borax (and 2000 gallons of water for the mules) 160 miles to the nearest railroad. Harmony Works lasted only five years due to competition from other borax operations in the basin area.

Gold was discovered east of the park in 1904, leading to the last great American gold rush. The gold drew thousands of people and saw several roads built to the mining district of Rhyolite – but a financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912.

Other park points of interest include Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert scene and Golden Canyon – a short hike off Hwy. 190 takes you into a truly golden canyon – your hike best taken in late afternoon when sunsets offer best colors.  Just miles south is Natural Bridge; a short drive off the main road and modest hike takes you to this natural wonder.

Within the park are Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek Resort, each offering lodging, dining and camping.  Furnace Creek offers the most upscale overnight options!  The park offers a variety of camping options, though, with little shade, summer camping is only for the very hardy!

How to get there: From Stockton, Death Valley is about 490 miles and 9 hours; take Hwy. 99 south to Bakersfield, then Hwy. 58 east, Hwy. 14/395 north, then Hwy. 190 into the park.

When to go: Spring or fall are best times to visit.  Avoid summertime when temperatures can hit 120+ in the shade!

What to see: In addition to the options already noted, if you have the time, explore other historic remnants of the park’s early history, such as the Ballarat ghost town on west edge of park, the Eureka Mine site and charcoal kilns within the park.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course.  If you plan to walk or hike,  sunscreen, a sunshade hat, water bottles and food.

Where to stay: Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek offer both lodging and camping within the park.  Additional campgrounds dot the park scene – small towns outside the park offer scant motel accommodations.

What’s nearby: Rhyolite Mining District to the east and several other smaller ghost towns on edges of the park.  Joshua Tree National Park is just 170 miles to the south – don’t miss this amazing desert environment!  And the Salton Sea area is just south of Joshua Tree, making another interesting destination.  From Death Valley, Los Vegas and the Grand Canyon are a few hundred miles to the east.

For more information: See Death Valley National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/deva for many insights on the park, lodging and camping.  The park’s phone: 760.786.3200.

For more travel inspiration, see my bi-weekly travel blog: http://blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel; contact me at tviall@msn.com.  Coming in the next week, tour Joshua Tree National Park with us!  Happy trails in the west!

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March 30 is special birding tour of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge; other local events!

Sometimes the best vacations are right here, in our own backyard!  On March 30, from 8:30 AM to noon, take a special birding tour of the Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the San Joaquin County line.

This is a special RSVP-only bird watching tour, taking place at the normally closed wildlife refuge. To RSVP (space is limited), call 916-775-4420 or go to www.FWS.gov/refuge/stone_lakes.  Address is 1624 Hood Franklin Rd, Elk Grove.   Enjoy the wonders of wildlife, close to home!

And, a couple items coming up at REI Coop in our area:

Backpacking the John Muir Trail, from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney is the program at REI Sacramento, on April 23, 7 PM (limited to 60 folks, free, but register soon), and,

REI Garage Sale for members, only, at REI Stockton, April 26, 10 AM.  To get onto the REI monthly events calendar, go to: http://www.rei.com/event/55343/session/85342?cm_mmc=email_com_gm-_-retail_events-_-032614-_-tle_events&RMID=20140325_Retail_Mail_Prod_v4&RRID=2562382&ev11=1&ev36=10816819.

Happy travels in California!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer; he retired in late 2012 after almost 10 years as executive director of Stockton's Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Before that, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape ... Read Full
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