Category Archives: 2016 USA RV Road Trip

Travel Report on Buckskin Mtn., Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon Parks, Apr. 10, 2016

Hello everyone.  I have started a several month long road trip, hauling my little Scamp RV to the western US – at least 6 National Parks in California I never have visited, plus a number in the northwest I wish to visit again.

My drive started Monday Mar. 28, a hot dry day in Tucson.  I drove the short distance directly west to the tiny “town” of Why, Arizona (couple of houses, gas station, tiny reservation casino).  The only “restaurant” closed at 4pm.  The casino (room with some slot machines, no players) had a snack bar but the fryer was down, so they only had a microwave to heat some prepackaged hamburgers from the fridge.  I drove the 15 miles north to the small mining town of Ajo to find dinner.  Why stop in Why?  Because it is the closest RV park to the Organ Pipe National Monument.  Organ pipe cacti are one of the 4 types of giant columnar cactus, along with the Saguaro, Cardon and Senita, all of which occur only in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, Mexico.  Unfortunately, the weather chose a very rare rain day as I drove through the Monument; cool but not conducive to photography.

From Why I drove northwest up to the Colorado River just south of the Parker Dam and Lake Havasu, an area called The Parker Strip.  For about 20 miles, on both the Arizona and California side of the river, the river basin is lined with communities and resorts, including the Colorado River Indian Reservation, many homes with back porches constructed as private boat docks onto the river.  Nestled halfway up the Arizona side is the wonderful Buckskin Mountain State Park, right on a huge bend in the river, with plentiful trees and full RV hookups and facilities.  I hiked out to the turn-of-the-last-century copper mines which dot the mountain tops east of the river.  The 30 and 40 foot deep shafts of the mines along the trails have been fenced to keep people from stumbling into them.  The almost barren hillsides were completely devoid of any wildlife or birdlife, although the riverside had an abundance of birds, almost all European “trash” imports (common worldwide, such as European starling, Eurasian collared doves and house sparrows).

From southern Arizona I drove to my first major destination, Joshua Tree National Park in southern California.  Although I had done some research into what to look for and to do, somehow I missed the fact that from the end of March to the middle of April is the absolute high season for both this park and Death Valley, apparently due to the nice weather, the spring flower season and the California universities’ spring breaks all coinciding in time.  All 7 campsites in the park were full, outside RV parks were booked through the middle of April, and hotels were booked.  I got the last room, one night only, in a motel in the town of Joshua Tree.  The Park Service told me this time of year always is busy, but this year is breaking all records – they have not seen such crowds before.  I enjoyed one 5 hour early morning drive through the loop encompassing the best of Joshua Tree, with a number of fine views, but very little in the way of any wildlife.  The Joshua trees themselves, for you unfamiliar with them, are the signature plant for the Mojave Desert, as is the saguaro cactus for the Sonora Desert.  Joshua trees are simply one of many species of yucca plants – they are called “trees” because they happen to have such large stalks, and multiple branches, that fully grown ones actually are “trunked” and branched up to 35 feet in height.

Because of the overflow at Joshua Tree, I called ahead to Death Valley National Park for reservations, and found the same situation – all campsites booked and full.  I found a private RV park site just at the western edge of the Park, in Panamint Valley, with an opening for one night only on the upcoming Sunday, 3 days in the future, which I reserved on the spot.  I drove north from Joshua Tree to stay for a couple of days in Mojave.  I was amazed at the extensive wind turbine power plant starting just north of town, and similarly amazed two days later driving up to Death Valley at the two huge solar power plants just to the east of Mojave.

My RV park in Panamint Valley was desolate (this pretty much describes all of Death Valley National Park outside of the mountain tops).  Panamint Valley is the valley just west of Death Valley itself.  On a different subject, Tucson AZ has the cheapest gasoline prices in the US (always).  California the most expensive.  So I was not surprised at finding prices rise from $1.70 to around $2.70 upon crossing into California.  Driving north into the desolate reaches of the Mojave Desert to reach Death Valley it did not surprise me much to find the California prices jump from around $2.70 to about $3.40.  This price held true even inside the Park – except at one pump – the one where my RV camp was – there the private owners jumped the price to $4.50.  Finally, at that price I was willing to accuse them of price gouging.  Fortunately, I could avoid that pump and so paid “merely” $3.50 further inside the park.

Most of Death Valley itself lies below sea level, and due to the triple range of mountains to the west, is robbed of all moisture laden air which would drop rain; it averages less than 2 inches per year.  This year it had fairly decent winter rain, following good seed dispersal in prior years, so this was a blockbuster wildflower year.  Crossing the two 6,000 foot mountain ranges, to the west of the valley itself, provided a profusion of roadside wildflowers.  Even below sea level, the roadsides were colored in many places with flowers.  Much of the valley floor itself at the lowest levels is sheets of white alkali salt flats, as well as alien landscapes of giant broken chunks of salt-mud composites created as the ground swells and shrinks with the infrequent rain and baking heat.  The end of March temperature while I was there was a cool 97 degrees Fahrenheit.  Again, the lowlands were devoid of wildlife during my visit.

From Mojave I drove north 6 days ago to Three Rivers, just outside of Sequoia National Park.  The drive up through the southern Sierras was beautiful with wildflowers, and the long drive on small highways through much of the San Joachim Valley presented miles of citrus and nut groves.  Three Rivers sits at the junction of two forks of the Kaweah River, in a lush valley at the base of the Sierra Nevada Range.  I stayed at the Sequoia Ranch RV Park, with its large family flock of very noisy acorn woodpeckers, constantly swooping to the thousands of holes drilled into the various tree branches to insert acorns.

Upon driving the small winding road up into Sequoia National Park, at around 7,000 feet one finds oneself inserted into the heart of the largest of a string of Sequoia groves, the Giant Forest.  The sequoia tree is shy just a few feet from being the tallest tree species on earth (the Redwoods are slightly taller on average), and the sequoia is within a few feet of being the largest in diameter (girth) at the base (the baobab trees of southern Africa bear that record), but, because the sequoia trunk maintains so much of its massive girth for almost its entire height, it is the largest tree on earth, and, indeed, the largest living thing on earth. Viewed from some distance, and in isolation, the trees do not appear as truly massive as they in fact are.  Once one stands next to the trunk of a very mature sequoia (very mature taking thousands of years and achieving trunk diameters of between 20 to 30 feet) the scale at the base becomes obvious.  Standing at a distance, the overall effect, where the sequoia stands among its much more numerous various pine species, is that of some sort of alien construct, an aberration built among the normal forest.  The trees reach full height of between 250 and 300 feet at about 700 years, at which point the very tops die back and become rounded and any remaining lower limbs fall off, leaving a massive columnar trunk rising 250 feet into the sky, the first 150 feet of which is barren of branches.  Then, over the next couple of thousand years, the trees simply continue to grow in girth, until they exceed in size all other living things – Magnificent!

I spent one day driving north to the neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, which contains more sequoia tree groves, including the perhaps best single spot for public viewing right around the Grant Grove parking lot.  While there I did manage to photograph a beautiful male Audubon’s warbler (subspecies of Yellow-rumped) and a raven scavenging for nesting material.

Back at Three Rivers my RV campground filled up for the weekend, apparently partly because that is when people from the coastal cities head for the parks, and partly because of a Jazz Festival occurring over the long weekend.  I inquired about attending some of the festival, with sessions at a number of close-by locations, but the $40 per day ticket price dissuaded me, along with the approaching multi-day rain moving in.

The night before last it started raining, and is supposed to continue raining throughout central California for about 5 days.  Yesterday I decided to leave the Three Rivers area, where the rain would have had me stuck inside my RV in a crowded campground, and drove up to Groveland, at 4,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, a tiny old gold-rush town outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park.  Here I found an RV park with practically nobody in it.  Even with the rain, it is a fresh treat.  The Iron Door Saloon in town claims to be the oldest continuously operated drinking establishment in California, being established sometime during one of the two local gold rushes of the 19th century.  Surprisingly, it served me quite a good breakfast this Sunday morning.

Tomorrow am is supposed to be rain free so I intend to make my first visit into Yosemite.  Until later.  Dave

Travel Report on Yosemite National Park & Bodega Bay, CA, Mon. Apr. 18, 2016

Hello all.  Five days, in and around Yosemite National Park, provided unique and transient beauty.  Fires had scorched sections of the forests on the northwestern entrance side, but wildflowers were everywhere along the roads climbing and descending the mountain passes.  Yosemite Valley presented 7 major waterfalls, all engorged by the heavy winter snowmelt and recent rainfall.  The valley floor was lush green with a number of trees in bloom. The rivers and streams filled their banks and presented cascades at every turn.  El Capitan, the granite cliff face, rises vertically well over 1 kilometer (3,600 ft.) above the valley floor, and is one of the largest exposed granite monoliths in existence.

I spent much of my first early morning in the park photographing, from the far side of the valley, the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls disgorging exceptionally large volumes of water.  Due to recent rains, small streams and water pools existed on the valley floor which normally would not be there.  This permitted photos with foreground reflections providing great color depth.  I took multiple series of shots, from different vantage points, in order to produce composite “big” prints of the scene.

I visited the Ansel Adams Gallery, which, rather than being a museum as I had hoped, was a store selling prints of many photographers, including Adams.  They did have large copies of many of his best Yosemite photos.  Nearby I enjoyed, each day, a large coffee in place of lunch, sitting outside and photographing the ever present Steller Jays, Rock Squirrels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

I stayed in an RV park in the tiny gold rush town of Groveland, some 25 miles outside the park’s northwest entrance.  I previously wrote about finding breakfast in the Iron Door Saloon, reputed to be the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in California (note the use of the phrase “drinking establishment”, rather than “saloon”, as during prohibition the old photos show the outdoor sign advertising only “cold soda”).  I had supper there a couple of evenings for their wonderful homemade soups.

As in all parks I have visited over the years, early morning from first light until about 9am provides a fair amount of solitude and most wildlife viewing – from about 9am on the roads fill with crowds of tourists and solitude ceases unless one is willing to hike off the major roads.  Yosemite parking lots become almost full by mid-day – this is in mid-April.  Summer must be overwhelming.  My last day in the park I spotted two climbers about 1,000 feet up the side of El Capitan.  The one with a bright red shirt was just visible as a speck to the naked eye.  I understand it normally takes over 4 days for climbing parties to ascend, spending the nights hanging in special “tents” from the cliff face.  Not for me.

From Groveland I drove northwest across the state to Bodega Bay on the coast, sliding between the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.  Crossing major freeways, with their 6 lanes of heavy traffic, I took wrong turns several times, having to make U-turns to regain my route.  Most of the distance was driven on the small California state highways, 2 lane roads, but packed with traffic, particularly big rigs.  The scenery is pretty, but California has installed concrete barriers down the middle of many two lane highways to prevent any passing and head-on-collisions.  This, along with rush-hour-like traffic, pretty much destroys any scenic appeal.  The small roads cross a number of weird draw bridges which span the inland bay and rivers – at one of these traffic was stopped and I watched the workings of the bridge.  Rather than two sides opening upward, the entire central span of the bridge rotated sideways 90 degrees to create the opening.  I have not seen this before.

Bodega Bay is a very small town situated along a gorgeous stretch of coast and rocky headlands.  I stayed in a lovely, though rather expensive, RV Park – very few campers on Thursday, but over the weekend it absolutely filled every available space.  I believe 100% of the huge RVs had California plates.  This was an experience similar to others I have had in every national park in California.  Apparently the state is so populous that the national and state parks fill with residents.  A far cry from my experiences in most national parks outside California where the majority of campers are foreign or from out-of-state (I did meet some Europeans at my camp in Groveland).

I spent two days walking along some marsh lands by the coast, and walking around the rim of Bodega Head, a mountain which forms the seaside arm of the bay, and is surrounded on the open Pacific side by sheer cliffs and roiling surf on the rocks below.  The mountain top is covered with various species of wild flowers, and is habitat to at least 5 sparrow species.  All the male sparrows are singing from the high points of the low shrubs (see photos).  The bay itself contains a large marina, at which were docked two wooden “tall ships” from Oregon for the week.  Several species of grebes and the common loons (which I have not seen before) were diving for fish in and around some of the marina walkways.

I met a bird watcher up on Bodega Head, where the grey whale watchers congregate.  He helped confirm some of my identifications of difficult species (3 different species of cormorants were present).  Sitting in a chair on the cliff face he kept swatting and killing the very annoying, longish flies that were bothering us.  I asked him what they were, and if they were biting; he replied they were kelp flies, and they did not bite – they were just nuisances.  He said he was teaching them to stay away.  I noted that, as they each were being methodically killed, they probably were not learning anything.  He then clarified that he was “teaching” the species through evolutionary pressure – he had taught each of his daughters to kill every kelp fly that landed, and they would teach their children and grandchildren, and eventually the genes which give the flies the proclivity to land on humans would disappear, as those flies all will have been killed, hopefully before reproducing.  I thought long and hard about this, and did some complex mathematical modeling on the back of a beer napkin (of course that is where I would do such modeling), and concluded he may have a valid idea.  Sometime, just a little before our sun grows to a red giant and bakes the earth, he will have produced enough descendants with the proper training to eradicate the “human-bothering” gene with which the flies obviously are afflicted.  Of course, by waiting just a handful of eons longer, the sun would engulf the earth and eradicate the gene anyway.  Nevertheless, there is something really satisfying about being able successfully and consistently to swat extremely annoying kelp flies when they land.

From Bodega Bay, on Sunday, I drove the roughly 100 miles north to Fort Bragg, all on the famous California SR 1, which winds up and over the seaside cliffs which mark the northern California coast.  It really is a beautiful drive, but in many places one averages a scant 25mph.  I will continue north from here, in a day or so, to the Redwood National Park.  I see more rain is in the forecast for much of this week.  Oh well, that is normal for spring in the northwest coast.  Later.  Dave


Travel Report on Fort Bragg, Redwoods Nat. & St Parks & Lassen Volcanic NP, Mon. Apr. 25, 2016

Hello.  The Pacific coast by Ft Bragg and for several miles north comprises MacKerricher State Park, a wonderful string of small secluded beaches hidden in coves of rocky, bluff shoreline, with thunderous surf and breakers roiling over hundreds of sharp black rocky extrusions.  Pacific harbor seals, cormorants and other seabirds sit on the rocks.  On the small wildflower strewn and grassy bluffs over the shoreline are the usual sparrows and numerous California ground squirrels which were completely unmindful of humans.  Two rivers flow into the sea through the park, both offering sandy shorelines busy with ducks, geese, mergansers and shorebirds.  I spent a couple of days photographing wildlife and scenes, and a couple of hours bicycling the park.  I would have stayed longer, but the weather report had 5 days of rain moving into northern California within a couple of days, and I wanted at least one rain-free day in the redwoods.

On Tuesday I drove the short distance north on Route 1 (combines with 101 part way up) to Trinidad; the wild coast and evergreen forests of the coastal hills are beautiful – and far less traffic and only low population centers.  If I were required to live in California, I would want it to be here in the northwest.  I am staying in the Sound of Sea RV Park a few miles north of the little town of Trinidad, on a bluff just a mile south of Point Patrick.  The owner has a large and beautiful two story house, manicured lawns, an Australian cockatiel as a “guard bird” in the office (it makes lots of noise when someone enters) AND a white Maserati sitting in his carport.  I no longer need to wonder whether some RV parks can be profitable.

Just a dozen or so miles north of here one enters a series of parks protecting the remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests; the system includes a number of California state parks, made up in large part of a number of donations by wealthy patrons in years past, and the National Park; the total extent is a hodgepodge of corridors connecting the major groves.  Most of the system is administered as a joint California-Federal park.  I was surprised to learn that the original (pre-19th century) “Old-Growth” redwood forests covered just 3,000 square miles (about 20 by 150 miles).  The very mature trees of the old growth may be over 2,000 years old, over 20 feet in trunk diameter, and rise to well over 330 ft. (100 m), the tallest trees on earth.  These forests have existed for 350 million years (before and during the dinosaur age).  Due to logging, the old-growth forests now make up barely 5% of the original, or about 150 square miles (about 10 by 15 miles if all compacted).  Restoration of cut areas would obviously take several thousand years just to re-create the largest trees.  I now appreciate the “wisdom” of some of the more radical environmental groups that ultimately successfully stopped the logging, and resulted in the patchwork of protective parks that today exists.

My first evening, dining at the locally very popular Lighthouse Restaurant, I found myself in conversation with a wiry, elderly, thin man as we stood in the long ordering line.  He is a current member of Earth First (the perhaps best known radical group taking on the loggers), who moved from LA to Trinidad 17 years ago to commit full time to the continued effort.  I was surprised to learn they just succeeded in stopping some further logging some miles away.  I did not know the redwood logging wars of the 70s continue.

A quick word regarding the relationship between the redwoods and the giant sequoias.  Until this trip I assumed they were the same trees, and thought there was but one national park.  I found I was ignorant. Though both are evergreens, and both have very red wood, and they both grow into giants, they are not even of the same genus taxonomically, though belonging to the same sub-family.  The giant sequoias (genus sequoiadendrum), the most massive trees on earth, grow only in the drier mountains at around 6,000 feet, and stand like aliens among other scattered evergreens, with little undergrowth.  The wood easily breaks, and is not useful as lumber. Groves of giant sequoias are found in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks.  Redwoods, confusingly of genus Sequoia, are the tallest trees on earth.  They grow only along the northern California coast at just above sea level, in very humid, rainy, dense fern and mossy environments.  They, unfortunately, produce excellent lumber, and so almost have met their demise from logging.  The remaining redwoods mostly now are protected within a patchwork of the Redwood National Park together with several adjoining California State parks.

I spent my first afternoon exploring the length of the Prairie Creek Redwood State Park on a small paved road through the middle of old growth.  I also hiked the short trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the National Park.  The next day I drove the unpaved Davison Road through several miles of very dense redwood. The tree density was so heavy most of the travel seemed dark as night and headlights were required. The redwoods along this route all were well under 2 feet in diameter.  Only on my return did I notice the very dark and giant stumps among the thickly clustered smaller trees – stumps 5 to 20 feet in diameter, and 5 to 20 feet high – upon inspection all with obviously flat tops.  They sat black and house-sized within the forest.  It was then that I realized this forest had been logged long ago, and twenty to thirty young trees now occupy the area once claimed by a single giant.  I was passing through a graveyard of giants – the hulking black stumps indicating where the magnificent mature trees once stood, now almost completely hidden within a much too dense cluster of younger trees.

Eight miles up the Davison Road brought me to the end of the road, from where I hiked the short distance in to Fern Canyon.  Fern Canyon is simply magnificent.  The canyon walls, though not so high (maybe 50 feet), are sheer – the width at the bottom probably averages under 35 feet – the bottom is mostly a shallow stream which has created switchbacks every 50 feet or so, providing new vistas at each turn.  The cliff walls are covered with up to 5 different species of ferns, producing a complete wall “papering” of hanging plants.  The valley bottom hosts dozens of fallen trees, which crisscross the stream, or jut at odd angles and heights.  Hiking the canyon bottom requires crossing the stream about 15 times, balancing precariously on narrow fallen trees, or climbing over giant logs, or simply trying to hit the shallowest parts where the water spreads over rocks.  The ferns, along with the redwood trees, are said to be of the same types as created much of the ancient wet forests of the dinosaur era.  A number of scenes from “Jurassic Park 2”, BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” and IMAX’s “Dinosaurs Alive” all were filmed here.  As I spent a couple of hours navigating the canyon, I thought about coming face to face with, not a tyrannosaur, but rather a flock of those little chicken-sized, chirping carnivores (Compys) from Jurassic Park.

On Thursday I obtained a permit from the National Park Service to hike the “Tall Trees Trail”, which permit allows visiting the grove of the largest redwoods which include the tallest trees.  The visit starts with a 7 mile drive from sea level up to a little over 2,000 feet, then using the provided “combination” to pass through a locked Park gate, followed by a 7 mile steep descent on a dirt road to just below 1,000 feet elevation, where the car is parked.  From there one hikes down another 800 feet along a steep trail into the Redwood Creek Valley, where exist the very tallest trees along a beautiful rocky stream.  The “Libby” tree is along the trail, and for years was considered the tallest tree in the world; in recent years its top has died back, and several nearby trees have been discovered to be taller – the location of these is kept secret.  Maple Trees, which grow closest to the streams, have trunks and huge twisted limbs completely covered in green-yellow moss, and sit among the large ancient ferns.   A very majestic arena in a deep valley far from crowds of people.

On Saturday I traveled to Lassen Volcanic National Park, which I previously visited 3 years ago.  The drive took twice what I anticipated, as first I experienced a flat tire (2nd within a year – picking up nails on old logging roads), having then to find a tire shop in tiny McKInleyville to repair it, followed by a number of road construction zones on the passes through the mountains, requiring flagmen and multiple stops.  I had thought I would pass over a short coastal mountain range before again crossing the northern San Juaquin Valley before climbing to Lassen.  I did not realize I was north of the valley, and basically the entire 200 miles was continual mountain roads; very scenic, but slow going.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is higher in elevation than I recall, and even my RV park, located well below the entrance, is close to 5,000 feet.  Freezing nights, cold slushy rain with periodic pebble hail, and this morning snow, greeted me.  The road through the Park, which climbs to close to 9,000 feet, is mostly closed (usually doesn’t open until mid-June), but is open up to Devastated Area which provides many of the great views.  The Manzanita Lake has a number of Buffleheads, as well as Canada Geese.   The Lassen Volcano famously blew its top in 1915, much of it captured on film by an intrepid early settler in the area.  Huge rock slides, two succeeding massive pyroclastic flows, and car-size boulders catapulted for miles, devastated much of the eastern and northern flanks of the mountain, all clearly still visible today.

My initial goal on this trip was to visit all 7 of the California National Parks, of which previously I was acquainted only with Lassen.  That goal now is achieved.  I am uncertain exactly where I am heading from here, though probably I will stop again in Weed to visit their unusual brewery, and also in the Lava Beds National Monument which apparently has dozens of lava tube caves filled with bats, both along the California Oregon border. Later.  Dave






Travel Report on Lava Beds Nat. Mon., Tule Lake & Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuges, May 8, 2016

Hello all.  I last wrote from Lassen Volcanic Nat. Park.  Starting at Lassen in north-central California, the Cascade Range is a string of volcanoes running north through central Oregon and Washington (and on through Canada and into Alaska, though with different names).  From Lassen I drove the short distance to Lava Beds Nat. Monument, where I camped for 4 days.  I had no nearby restaurants either at Lassen or Lava Beds, and survived off of sandwiches and salads stockpiled from a Walmart in Redding the week before – great meals neither to anticipate nor in which to indulge.  The couple who owned the RV park, Eagle’s Nest, in Tionesta, was delightful, making up for any “out-in-the-boonies” issues.  Their property, along with most of the Monument, was filled with the little Belding’s Ground Squirrels, which dug their holes everywhere. Cute babies (see photo)!

Lava Beds, well off any beaten track, has few visitors – but is marvelous.  The Park Service claims over 700 lava tube caves, of which about 18 have been improved to the extent of having ladders or stairs permitting entrance and exit into the different levels.  Some of the caves approach a mile in extent.  Many are wet, with bacterial or fungal mats lining the walls and ceilings, and amazing colors when lit with a light source.  Exploration requires obtaining a permit after certification that one is free of fungal spores from caves elsewhere within or out of the country for the “white-nose” fungus which infects bat populations.  The accessible caves are shown on park maps, and rated 1, 2 or 3 for difficulty; rating 1 signifies little stooping and no crawling, and relatively smooth walking surfaces – rating 2 signifies the need to at times climb over rocks, and some stooping (duck walking) through areas with less than 4 foot ceilings – rating 3 signifies the need for helmets, gloves and knee pads to traverse crawl spaces sometimes less than 1 foot high, and tunnel complexes within which someone could get lost.  I avoided “3s”, but visited 7 different 1 and 2 rated caves.  Two tube-caves dropped down through 3 different superimposed lava tube levels, to sufficient depth underground that they had permanent ice floors.  Others opened into larger chambers ½ mile downtube where the ceilings were covered with a hydrophobic bacterial mat which formed microscopic water beads on the outside of the mats which reflected all light as brilliant gold veins.  All required good light sources; the Park Service recommended 3 lights per person and not traveling alone.  I, of course, travel alone, but always carried 4 quality LED light sources (the idea of being half a mile underground, with no idea of direction, in an earthquake prone area, in total blackness, with no light source spooks me just a little).

Ancestors of the Modoc Indians lived in the area for many thousands of years, and a number of sites are rich in rock art, mostly petroglyphs, but with two small lava tube cave entrances displaying pictographs.  Petroglyph Point is a very long sandstone shelf along the base of a mountain which, until a hundred years ago, was an island in a much larger version of what today is Tule Lake National Wildlife Sanctuary.  In the early 20th century the federal government drained much of the lake creating thousands of acres of new fertile farmland, still farmed today.  What remains of the lake, with man-made channels, connects with vast marsh lands and seasonally flooded areas which run north and west, connecting with the Upper and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, which extend into Oregon almost all the way to Crater Lake National Park.  The petroglyphs must number in the thousands, depending on what one counts as a single item.  Large areas of the shelf have been degraded by century old and modern graffiti.  The petroglyphs mostly are geometric designs, including many “saw tooth” lines, dot formations, and some anthropomorphic figures.  As their original creation occurred on the rock face where it rose vertically out of the water of the lake, the petroglyphs are said all to have been made from canoes. Considering the quality (low) and scrawling nature of most of the “art”, I almost can picture groups of happy native American kids swimming in the warm shallow summer lake waters, along the islands shore around to the cliffs, where they scribbled whatever “art” they chose onto the soft walls.  Who knows?

From Lava Beds I drove the short distance north, west and south again to go around Mt Shasta to Weed California (when clear and covered with snow,  at over 14,000 ft. Mt Shasta presents one of the most stunning volcano appearances in the world). The town’s name “Weed” has been somewhat controversial in recent years as many businesses have used it to create tourist paraphernalia such as “I ‘heart’ Weed”.  The local brewery, Mt Shasta Brewery, even got into a legal tiff with the California legislature a couple of decades back by using the web address and selling beer known as Weed Ale (the brewery won the legal battle).  In fact, the town is named for its founder, a lumberman by the name of Abner Weed, founded back around 1900.  Mt Shasta Brewery (still WeedAle online) is a rather strange pub.  A huge sheet metal building with 30 foot ceilings, located on College Street in the middle of a small residential neighborhood, it produces and sells the normal micro-brewery assortment of beers.  I have visited it twice, and continue to find the brews mediocre at best, but an interesting visit none-the-less.  I stayed in the Trailer Lane RV Park out of town, between the highway and the railroad tracks: needed white noise at night to sleep.  I did get to see there my first Granite Spiny Lizard, pretty with its blue throat, but never saw the black bear that had torn the trash cans apart the day I arrived.

I remained in Weed for 4 days, working out my travel course for the next 6 weeks, as I had given little thought to what to do after visiting the California parks.  Deciding I had several weeks before revisiting Yellowstone, I decided to spend some days further visiting the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for its abundant birdlife.  I first moved to tiny Dorris, on the California Oregon border, but as the only RV Park, owned by a lovely but very elderly couple, had no Wi-Fi, locked bathrooms with showers advertised as hot on Tuesdays and Saturday and sited between the railroad and highway, I moved on to Klamath Falls, Oregon the next day.  Klamath Falls is a lovely old lumber town, sitting on the Lower Klamath Lake and River, and sporting dozens of interesting restaurants and brew pubs.

The two Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, the Lower spanning the California-Oregon border, and the Upper between Klamath Falls and Fort Klamath to the north, are among the premier waterfowl refuges in the country.  The wetlands, marshes, river, and lakes lie in one of the major flyways for migrating waterfowl, and host a huge number of permanent species, including birds of prey, which nest here.  I have spent two days driving the dirt roads around various marshes, lakes and canals, and have seen an astounding variety of birds, including a number of new ones for me, some quite rare, or difficult to view, such as the Tufted Duck, Tricolored Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Burrowing Owl and White-fronted Goose.  I had great luck in locating the nesting burrow of a Burrowing Owl with the help of a local photographer, and so obtained good close-ups of the owl.  Other birders told me where to go to find the lone Tufted Duck, a rare if not unique sighting in Oregon.  I regularly see over 12 species of ducks and geese, 3 of grebes and over 12 of shore birds, along with numerous birds of prey and songbirds.   Putnam Point, just outside Klamath Falls, is reputed to be the best spot in the country for viewing the mating dances of both the Western and Clark’s Grebes.  I have photographed both species there, but have yet to witness the dance.

I will spend a couple more days in Klamath Falls, hoping for a chance to observe the grebes dancing, then move on to Bend, OR, and from there east to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, another premier birding sanctuary, but for nesting eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rather than waterfowl.  Later Dave

Travel Report on Birding around Klamath Falls and Snake River Birds of Prey, Sat., May 21, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote just after arriving in Klamath Falls, OR, and was then starting my birding around the lake.  I remained for 6 days, and spent each morning visiting Putnam Point, at the south end of Klamath Lake where it flows into the Klamath River.  This probably is the best spot in the world to view both Clark’s and Western Grebes during breeding season.  The two species are very similar, distinguishable only by the placement of the black cap above the eye, and the subtle beak color.  Both species re-establish mating pairs in April and early May, and engage in spectacular courtship rituals.  Patience and time spent observing them paid off with some action photos, including the most spectacular ritual, the courtship dance.

The “Dance” normally starts with what I call the “Challenge” – a pair, either of Clark’s or Western Grebes, face off on the water, with necks extended forward and low over the water, the jet black hood feathers raised to produce a half moon over the face.  The two face each other from about 1 foot.  Five different ritualistic head movements were displayed during the Challenge phase, which itself lasts from a few to 20 seconds.  The pair in the face-off alternate the very distinct head and neck positions, which include: head low and fully forward on the long neck, “glaring” at the other; head dunking forward and under water; head and neck raising up high above the level of the other; flipping water to one side with the beak; and turning the lowered head 45 degrees to one side.  After the challenge, with no warning the eye can discern, the birds take off “running” on their legs at right angles to their Challenge faceoff position.  Within a second or so they lift their bodies fully up and out of the water, literally running on top of the water, side by side, continuing for up to 60 feet while leaving a trail behind of boiling water.  They run with wings pinned open and back, necks arching upward and curving forward, with the head and beak tilted back up.  This running on water is called “Rushing”.  At the end of the Rush, both birds dive under water.  The Challenge and Rush are considered one of the most remarkable animal courtships of any animal species on earth.  National Geographic reported on a study done last year researching how this bird can literally run on water; it is the largest vertebrate in the world that can do so.  High speed cameras show the grebes taking around 20 steps per second (the world’s Olympic sprinters are just approaching 5 strides per second), with the webbed feet angling out sideways for each return stroke.  I have included a separate photo gallery with a number of photos taken in rapid series which, if you click through them using the slide show, will give a visualization of this spectacular courtship – this gallery starts with the 24th photo below.  The slide show is started by simply right-clicking on any photo in the gallery.  (I obtained some video, but the still photos are much higher resolution quality).
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Other Grebe rituals include engagement in what I call the “Necking” ritual, often after chasing off an intruder who came too close to the pair’s space.  The pair will raise their heads straight up on the very long necks, then, alternately, or simultaneously, coil their neck down pulling their head onto their back where they will grab at a feather with the beak.  This ritual can continue for 10 to 20 seconds.  The birds have in addition a “Weed” ceremony that occurs at the site of nesting, but this I did not observe.  I did, however, observe what I call failed Challenge and Rush ceremonies.  Twice I observed a pair of Western Grebes start the Challenge faceoff phase, which continued normally for a number of seconds, followed by just one of the grebes taking off for the Rush; the other just sat and watched the lonely Rush of the other.  Indeed, the second time I photographed this, I was astonished that, as soon as the poor lone grebe took off on the Rush, the remaining one almost immediately stopped watching, turned and dove under water for fishing.  Brutal.  I automatically assumed in both cases it was the female who presented the false Challenge, because it so reminded me of Lucy eternally promising Charlie Brown that this time she would not pull away the football.  (I expect some guff for admitting my assumption, as the sex of the grebes is indistinguishable).  Finally, over several days I watched the same complaining juvenile grebe follow an adult, making begging noises insistently for food; the adult completely ignored the youngster, even after catching and bringing a fish to the surface (the fish usually are consumed underwater).

I visited Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuge twice more, and continued to see a very large variety of birdlife.  A Golden Eagle in first year plumage grabbed a partially grown Canada Goose gosling.  Although I only got a quick photo of the eagle air-born after dropping the gosling, I did photograph the parent geese trying to shelter the remaining goslings from further predation.  Later, in the same area I observed a coyote hunting the banks.  All the predators knew it was easy feasting this time of year.

From Klamath Falls I drove the short distance to Bend, OR, where I stayed just a day, and then drove on to the small town of Homedale, Idaho to stay at the green Snake River RV Park right on the river.  My target was the very long-named “Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area,” encompassing the Snake River Canyon; it provides the densest raptor nesting area in the US and probably the world.  Eighteen different species of raptors congregate here, most using the area for nesting along the basalt cliffs over the Snake River.  The plateaus above the cliffs are covered with grasslands bored full of the holes of countless Piute Ground Squirrels, which, together with Black-tailed Jackrabbits, provide the main nourishment for the nesting raptors.  The area particularly is famous for the nesting Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, together with Golden Eagles and three different species of Buteo Hawks.  Unfortunately, both days I had scheduled for driving the cliff ledges were rainy and extremely windy – poor weather for the nesting raptors to be hunting, though I got a few decent photos.

On Tuesday I drove to the tiny town of Arco, Idaho, close to the Craters of the Moon National Monument which covers one of the major volcanic hotspots of the last several thousand years.  I spent one afternoon visiting, but had, unfortunately, again bad weather.  The tiny town of Arco, population about 900, sits below a cliff face (really a hundred faces) with almost every face of the cliff marked in white paint by each high school class year, starting from about 1920.

Wednesday I drove north through the beautiful Salmon and Bitterroot Valleys, from Idaho into Montana, to visit Loey, a high school friend from my time in boarding school in India.  We drank wine out on her magnificent yard and reminisced about long-ago times and school mates who still seem as family. Loey is planning our 50th class reunion to be held next summer at her location in Montana.  From Stevensville I drove to Bozeman for a last few days before my planned 10 day stay inside Yellowstone Nat. Park, where I will have no Wi-Fi or cell phone access for the duration.  Later.  Dave

PS. Below are two separate photo galleries available for slide show. Click any picture of the top 23 photos for a set of pictures covering the travelogue. Below those start a second gallery, starting after the Swainson’s Hawk in flight; this gallery shows a complete series of Grebe’s Challenge and Rush ritual, which can be viewed, rapidly advancing through the pictures, to get a sense of the actual ceremony – this set of photos starts with the 24th photo below and is labeled at that point.
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Full Series of Clark’s Grebes Challenge and Rush Courtship Ritual Below.

Travel Report on Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT and Yellowstone Nat. Park, WY, June 5, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote from Bozeman, MT. preparing to enter Yellowstone.  In Bozeman I spent one afternoon at the famous Museum of the Rockies.  I arrived while they had two special exhibitions of great interest to me (and the general public); both were specials by the National Geographic Society.  The first was a display of the “Fifty Greatest Photographs”, which included the editorially selected 50 most compelling cover photos ever displayed in the National Geographic Magazine.  These were poster sized reproductions, with a discussion of the detail behind each photo and the impact it had.  This was an awesome undertaking, occupying two large rooms, and many of the photos staggered me.  Most were not up to my current technical standards for photo resolution and color (for almost all came from the film era), but of course it was the content that was stunning, pleasing and/or disturbing.  A real treat.  On top of that, they filled a third room with the photos taken by a young European couple who spent two entire years trekking on foot along the ridge line of the Andes, from Quito, Ecuador to the southern tip of Chile, along with their journal entries recorded with each photo.  Another visual treat.  The main regular attraction at the museum is the dinosaur and paleontological collection, including the largest collections in the world of Tyrannosaur and Triceratops skulls.  The museum collection is (was) curated by the world famous paleontologist Jack Horner.  He already was well known among enthusiasts and scholars, but became especially well known to the general public as the advisor to all 3 of the Jurassic Park movies, as well as being the inspiration for the paleontologist character, Dr. Grant, in the original film.  The museum was great, and it turned out to be Dr. Horner’s retirement day celebration, open to the public; he was there, sitting under the large full Tyrannosaur skeleton, chatting with children (see photo).

I drove from Bozeman following the Madison River, source of the Missouri River, upstream to the West entrance to Yellowstone on Monday the 23rd.  I had some unusual stomach trouble for two days, picked up from a dish of vegetarian eggs Benedict in the best breakfast restaurant in Bozeman (which I won’t name publicly).  My first night in Yellowstone, camped in the one RV loop that already had had a number of grizzly visits in the past 3 days, I needed to make several quick trips to the rest room facilities.  This was a long walk from my RV, in the rain, keeping an eye out for that neighborhood grizzly.   I had experienced poor weather for 8 straight days prior to Yellowstone, ever since visiting the Snake River Canyon, with mostly heavy cloud cover and high winds, plus rain daily, often for hours straight.  Well, it didn’t change in Yellowstone.  My first 8 days produced practically constant rain, snow, sleet, “slush balls” (huge slushy hail) and wind – on the second day I awoke to 3 inches of snow and it still was falling – high road passes were closed.  Other than the general wetness, the major depressing factor was the very heavy overcast and lack of visibility.  Most of my decent photos all came from the last two days in the Park, which mostly were clear and sunny, albeit cold.

I spent the first 7 days at Fishing Bridge, the spot where the Yellowstone River exits the Yellowstone Lake.  This site was famous for cutthroat trout fishing until 1973 (indeed, I have memories and B&W photos of fishing trout here with my father in 1960). The cutthroat were overfished, and then in the 1990s someone illegally introduced lake trout to the ecosystem, and the cutthroat now have been decimated.  Fishing today is permitted on much of the river and lake (not from the bridge), but barbless hooks must be used and cutthroats must immediately be released, whereas lake trout or rainbow trout, if caught, must be killed.  The Fishing Bridge Camp offers the only RV hookups for power etc. inside the Park, and do not allow soft-sided camping such as tents or pop-ups due to the grizzly bear problems.  I ate most of my meals in the little cafeteria in the General Store.  I re-visited much of the Park those first 7 days, obtained some nice “storm” photos, but it was very much less than ideal photo weather.  My last 3 days I moved up to Canyon Camp near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Weather cleared, and most of my wildlife photos were from these few days.  As the Canyon Camp had no hookups, I had no electricity and could not do my photo work, consisting of daily developing, captioning, key-wording and sorting the still and video images on my computer – this had to remain for after I left the Park.

Yellowstone basically fills with tourists starting from the time of year the roads connecting the two main wildlife valleys (Hayden and Lamar) open in late May.  By getting out to explore by crack of dawn, a little after 5am each morning, one can travel and see wildlife and the attractions with only a few other hardy souls; by a little after 8:30am or so, the crowds start hitting the roads and filling the parking areas – by 9:00am the throngs and tour busses have left their lodges, finished their breakfasts, boarded their transport and the Park becomes filled with a mass of humanity until sundown.  In addition, for wildlife viewers with spotting scopes and long-lens photo-gear, the ground heats enough soon after sunrise so that by 10am viewing through powerful optics becomes blurred at distance (due to cells of air turbulence).  I spent some of the busy parts of several days revisiting the thermal areas of the park, which display more geysers, hot springs, mud pits and steam vents than all those found in the rest of the world combined.  I spent many beautiful days photographing these attractions three years ago, and so really was focused this time on wildlife.

A number of the birds photographed were, for me, uncommon or not often photographed, including the rare Harlequin Ducks, Trumpeter Swan and American Dipper, which is the only aquatic species of all Passerine birds (songbirds or perching birds, which make up fully half of all species on earth); it feeds on insects underwater. I also photographed the colorful Barrow’s Goldeneye duck, Osprey at their giant nest, Cliff Swallows in flight at their “jug” nests and a Dusky Grouse, among others.

I successfully found most of the larger mammals, including the three most sought after, wolves, black bear sows with cubs and grizzlies.  Four times in the Tower Falls area I saw one or both of the two sow black bears that inhabit the area, each currently with two wonderfully funny tiny cubs.  The cubs tumble and rumble with each other and scramble several feet up the side of a tree at any perceived frightening sound.  A lone bull elk just off the road attracted hundreds of viewers in Hayden Valley one day; herds of cow elk were everywhere, attracting the wolves.  I viewed an unfortunate abandoned newborn elk for half an hour, mewling pitifully for its mother.  Two cow elk came out of the woods from different directions attracted to the mewling, but the baby was not theirs, as evidenced by smell.  The next day, however, in exactly the same location, I noted a newborn with a cow, and believe one of the cows eventually accepted the calf.  Moose are rare to see in the Park now according to the rangers.  I did see one in very unusual circumstances; I was driving through a forested valley north of Canyon, when I stopped for a couple of cars pulled off the road to ask what they saw – they were watching a bull moose just down below the road in the trees.  I got out to photograph, but the moose was moving behind the trees but toward the road behind us.  I assumed the moose was going to cross the road there, and got my camera ready.  As I was looking through the camera finder, a car came spurting toward us, around the blind corner, just as the moose appeared climbing up onto the road.  The car screeched to a halt, just bumping the moose, which jumped, slipped on the pavement, and “skated” across the road.  Yes, I got a photo of the moose skating; proof is in the attached photo below.  We followed the moose into a clearing on the far side, where it resumed eating, apparently uninjured. (Maximum speed limit anywhere in the Park is 45mph for this reason.)

In the Park, most grizzly and wolf sightings are at great distances (generally too far to see with the naked eye, or seen only as dots in the distance), whereas black bears with cubs often are along the roads near Tower Junction.  A fair number of “trained” visitors and professional photographers now spend much of the summer in the Park doing nothing but following and recording these three species.  I spent parts of two days viewing wolves at an elk kill, including interactions with ravens and bald eagles. As usual, it was viewed at great distance, as was the recently located wolf den with several pups (about two miles from the viewing location). Elk constitute the main prey of the wolves, though one pack in the Park is said to specialize in bison.

In Lamar Valley, probably the best big-game viewing area of the Park, I witnessed a black bear on the far side of the river chased first by young bull bison, then chased back into the woods by a lone coyote (I call him the lone ranger).  Subsequently, coyote howling broke out behind me on the hillside, and on the far side of the river two more coyotes joined the lone ranger coyote, with tails wagging and much hopping around.  I mentioned to a photographer standing next to me that they probably were saying “Jake my man – Way to Go, Jake – you really showed that bear.”  The next morning we discovered the source of howling on the hill behind us, as someone spotted the coyote den; I spent a couple hours watching after being told one coyote had carried a pup out of the den and into a neighboring growth of poplars.  Soon, the mother coyote came to the den, from the opposite direction, and two pups came out of the den and suckled and romped around.  The mother seemed suddenly to realize she was missing a pup – she walked a few feet away and started howling.  An answering howl came from the poplars, whereupon the mother jogged over into the poplars, returning about 10 minutes later with the “lost” pup in her mouth, which she deposited back into the den (much of this I also was able to record on video).  I again “anthropomorphized”, after explaining to a neighboring photographer the scene of yesterday, when the lone ranger coyote had run off the black bear – this time I suggested the same lone ranger had gone too far in taking one of his pups to visit the poplar grove.  I imagined that he had received a severe “talking too” (the howling), as well as nips when the female came to retrieve the pup.

Of great interest to me, along with watching the wolves, black bears with cubs and the coyote den, was watching and photographing the lines of “watchers,” lined as we were along the road with our cameras and spotting scopes.  I have included below photos of, not only the wolves, bears and coyotes, but an image of the “watchers” in each case, which properly sums up what you will experience if you spend much time in Yellowstone seeking wildlife.

I spent much time especially seeking grizzly encounters closer than the common sightings, which are at well over a mile.  After 10 days I still had had no luck, but on the morning of departure I decided to take a last early two hour drive through Hayden Valley.  A little before sunrise, at a point where the Yellowstone River curves right along the road, I noticed an unusual black object lying on the river bank just on the far side; three other people had stopped there, and one told me he thought it had moved and was a black bear.  I viewed it through my long lens and almost jumped for joy – the black blob resolved itself into a huge grizzly resting on a bloody carcass.  At that point the grizzly, apparently disturbed by our voices, stood; it was a very large grizzled brown male, looming over a bloody newborn elk kill.   I then noted a lone cow elk a few hundred yards further up on the opposite bank – almost certainly the grizzly had taken the calf shortly after its birth.  Grizzlies are the largest predators on earth, and certainly can take down full grown elk, as well as moose, but often take the easiest kill.  The grizzly was about 150 yards from us, and we were protected by the Yellowstone River running between.

For the next hour and half, as it gradually grew brighter with the sunrise, I stood and took photos, as well as some wonderful video clips (as to which I haven’t figured out whether insertion is possible into my travelogues).  The grizzly interacted aggressively with a couple of brave ravens, which kept sneaking up to grab pieces of the carcass.   As I had 7 hours of driving ahead, I reluctantly left at a little before 8am to retrieve my RV back at Canyon.  Driving out of the Park took me back up the Hayden Valley, where I passed again by the grizzly kill-site at close to 9am.  Now, the road was a traffic mess, not only with the crowds finally emerging from late breakfasts to congregate about the grizzly site, but with the arrival of 5 large bull bison, which had descended the steep bank from the back of the road, coming down to the river to water – they split the crowds on the road into a north and south group, and jammed up traffic, turning the road effectively into a single lane (a most unusual dual “bear-bison jam”).

I drove out of the Park through the east entrance, through Cody and down to Casper, WY, where I am staying for 3 days to catch up on work on the 600 photos and 30 videos I have taken since I last had electric power for my computer equipment.  I am camped here along the North Platte River, and will follow it down to Scottsbluff and later Mormon Island, both in Nebraska, before heading on to Kansas City for a mini-reunion with my brother and sister.  Later.  Dave