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11 June 2018 / leggypeggy

Zion’s popular Riverside Walk is postcard material

Temple of Sinawava, Zion National Park

The Temple of Sinawava starts the Riverside Walk

Riverside Walk, Zion National Park

Poor John is dwarfed by the sandstone walls of the Riverside Walk

One of our favourite outings in Zion National Park was the leisurely and picturesque Riverside Walk, starting at the Temple of Sinawava, a massive stone amphitheatre that unofficially marks the beginning of the canyon.

The temple and the trail that runs alongside the Virgin River have become one of the park’s most popular destinations. Some of the gorge walls rise 1000 feet.

With lush green foliage, humbling views of towering sandstone, gurgling water and wildlife, the walk is pure postcard material.

Virgin River, Zion National Park

Views along the Riverside Walk

Virgin River, Zion National Park

The beauty of the Riverside Walk

Just over a mile in distance one way, the path is paved and mostly level. We set out in the early morning and there were almost no other walkers. Then traffic picked up.

A lot of people were outfitted in wet gear (special closed shoes, chest-high waterproof pants and long walking sticks) so they could wade into the waters of the Zion Narrows that stretch beyond the Riverside Walk. Apparently late spring and summer are the best times to tackle the narrows. That’s when the water is lowest and warmest.

Of course, we didn’t have any of the necessary gear, but after seeing that everyone was dressed almost identically, I realised it was possible to rent the gear. Maybe another time. One of our group had ventured into the narrows on a previous trip and said how breathtaking the views were. I think it’s possible to hike about two more miles into the ever-narrowing canyon.

We took our time, walking to the water’s edge a couple of times and me photographing everything around me. We got to the end in time to see some people heading into the narrows. It was a clear day and almost no chance of any flash floods, so I reckon they had an amazing outing.

The Narrows, Riverside Walk, Zion National Park

Walkers head into the Zion Narrows

There was a special treat on our return walk. I’m always scanning the distance for wildlife and I spotted a deer—as it turned out it was a female mule deer. She was drinking at the river’s edge and had her bum to us. But slowly she turned and made her way across about 50 yards of grassland.

She came right up to the fence along the path beside us and then slipped through the gap. She was aiming for the delectable leaves on a tree right in front of us. Miraculously, no one else came along to disturb the experience. We moved on after about 10 minutes, and just then she made a leap up the hill. Perhaps we were the only ones to see her.

I later learned that people often see mule deers on that walk, but we felt special and rewarded anyway.

 

Riverside Walk, Zion National Park

Sandstone walls rise up to 1000 feet

3 June 2018 / leggypeggy

On the road to another USA national park

on the road from Death Valley to Zion National Parkon the road from Death Valley to Zion National Park

Life has been a little unpredictable lately. We’re still camping and most of the recent campgrounds haven’t had internet. One had no amenities at all—no electricity, no running water, no toilets—but the most gorgeous setting imaginable. More about that place soon. Another had its internet knocked out by a bush fire in the area.  Yet another simply didn’t work.

on the road from Death Valley to Zion National Park

But the scenery has been amazing every which way that we looked. So I thought that until I have a better and more stable connection, I’d share some of the incredible and diverse views we saw as we drove from Death Valley to Zion National Park.

As an aside, it took me almost an hour to get this posted. Life on the road can be challenging and rewarding. It took me about the same amount of time to take all these pics.

on the road from Death Valley to Zion National Parkon the road from Death Valley to Zion National Parkon the road from Death Valley to Zion National Park

 

 

30 May 2018 / leggypeggy

Time for a run in Death Valley

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Poor John ventures off the end of the boardwalk at Badwater Basin

Our tour has introduced us to some of California’s extremes. After the lush green landscapes and grey granite cliffs of Yosemite National Park, we headed to Death Valley National Park. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, as well as the lowest, driest and hottest in all of the USA.

In fact, on the afternoon of 10 July 1913, the US Weather Bureau recorded a high temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) at Greenland Ranch (now appropriately named Furnace Creek) in Death Valley. This temperature stands as the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded at the surface of the Earth.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Don’t drink the water at Badwater Pool

Instead of Furnace Creek, we headed to a different record maker—Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, it is the second-lowest depression in the Western Hemisphere (behind Laguna del Carbón in Argentina, which sits 62 feet lower). Interestingly, Mount Whitney is only 85 miles to the west of Badwater, and rises to 14,505 feet.

We parked at Badwater for two main reasons—to let the group venture out onto the salt flats leading from the small spring-fed pool of water that’s so bad it’s undrinkable, and to let Fiona have a run.

Fiona is one of four Australians on the tour and a passionate marathon runner. She was keen to sprint 4–5 kilometres across the salt. I can’t remember how hot is was that day, but I’d have to be out of my mind to want to run even 40–50 feet on the salt flats.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Fiona (in turquoise shorts) finishes her 4-kilometre run at Badwater Basin.

I got a pic of her returning. She limited her run to 4 kilometres, so she had enough time to take pics and a few swigs of water. Fiona said no one was walking on the salt beyond 1 or 2 kilometres from the start, and she found the texture of the flats changed quite a bit as she ran.

Other things change the texture of the landscape. Every now and then, major rainstorms flood the valley, covering the salt with a thin sheet of standing water. Any newly formed lakes evaporate very quickly. In fact, Death Valley’s evaporation rate is so high that a 12-foot-deep lake could dry up within a single year.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley

Our group scatters across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The largest specimen in Joshua Tree National Park

On the way to Badwater Basin, we had the chance to stop at Joshua Tree National Park and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which sprawls across 14 square miles of Death Valley.

The pictures below show the drive from Yosemite to Death Valley and then beyond. I think the terrain is stunning and oh-so colourful.

California scenery

Going to Death Valley

California scenery

Going to Death Valley

California scenery

Going to Death Valley

California scenery

Leaving Death Valley

 

27 May 2018 / leggypeggy

Beautiful and varied views at Mirror Lake and Cook’s Meadow

Mirror Lake, Yosemite

Finally we reach Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake and granite cliffs, Yosemite

We loved the scenery looking north

There are two ways to get to Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park—we took the wrong way. I’m kidding. We took the southern trail, which just happened to be longer and rougher than the paved trail that goes along the northern side of Tenaya Creek.

As it turned out, we were quite pleased to have stayed on the southern side because it is much more scenic. The path is rocky with quite a few ups and down, and runs through beautifully treed areas with a few glimpses of wildlife (click pics to enlarge). The north side is just a paved service road.

 

Our trek to Mirror Lake began at the park’s shuttle stop #17. At first it’s a single path, that soon divides to either side of the creek. We’d read that it was possible to do an entire loop, and assumed we could start from either side. We chose to avoid the crowd on the paved road, so instead of crossing the stone bridge over the creek, we veered to the right.

We expected to walk a couple of miles and then find a crossing.

Southern trail to Mirror Lake, Yosemite

The southern trail is much more scenic

Southern trail to Mirror Lake, Yosemite

All the walk is beautiful and some is even flat!

Turns out, there is no safe access from one side of Mirror Lake to the other, except via bridges at each end of the trail.

Even though we hiked for quite some time, we never found the far bridge that would have taken us to the other side. We weren’t alone because all the hikers coming towards us had gone on for a long ways and never found the bridge.

Southern trail to Mirror Lake, Yosemite

See how much prettier the rougher trail is

The website, which we didn’t read until long after the walk, warned that ‘hikers often spot what appears to be an easy way to rock-hop across Tenaya Creek, either just for fun, or as a way to shortcut the loop and rejoin the trail without doing the entire loop. While this crossing is only ankle deep at first, it quickly becomes thigh deep, and, all too often, hikers are swept into dangerous whitewater and pinned against rocks. Don’t be tempted to leave the trail, and always remember when approaching moving water to look at the conditions downstream.’

Mirror Lake, Yosemite

It might look shallow enough to wade across, but don’t be fooled

We didn’t see a shallow enough spot to even think about crossing. That’s probably because the creek runs highest in spring and summer. Funnily enough, Mirror Lake is often referred to as Mirror Meadow in late summer due to the lack of water and the influx of grasses and sandy areas. Maybe you can cross then?

Yosemite Fall from Cook's Meadow, Yosemite

Looking at Upper Yosemite Fall from Cook’s Meadow

View from Cook's Meadow, Yosemite

Another view from Cook’s Meadow

In addition to the Mirror Lake hike, we did a circuit of Cook’s Meadow. It’s almost in the middle of Yosemite Valley and gives wonderful views of the surrounding granite cliffs, including the Half Dome. The meadow is named after John Cook, a New York businessman, who ran a hotel in the valley in the 1880s. His livestock used to graze where we walked. I hope they appreciated the views. 

P.S. Speaking of cooks, I hope you’ll take time to check out my cooking blog.

Cook's Meadow and Half Dome, Yosemite

A cow’s eye view of Half Dome (on the right) from Cook’s Meadow

25 May 2018 / leggypeggy

Plenty to do in Yosemite National Park

Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Strolling up for a closer look at Bridalveil Fall

River from Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

A river gushes below Bridalveil Fall

Our few days in Yosemite covered an array of activities, virtually all in the valley, which represents only about 1 per cent of the entire park.

After visiting the giant sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove, our next stop was Bridalveil Fall. This area is an important nesting site for black swifts and peregrine falcons. It’s also home to Mount Lyell salamanders. Of course, we didn’t see any of these. But we did have a lovely walk along the river created by the fall. Bridalveil is also slated for restoration, including new access paths, improved signage, upgrades to parking and restrooms, and improved viewing options.

From there, our next stop was the famous El Capitan, a prominent granite cliff that looms 3000 feet over Yosemite Valley. It is one of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world because of its diverse range of climbing routes in addition to its year-round accessibility. Jordan, our guide and driver, pointed out a cluster of climbers who had most likely spent the night on the wall of El Capitan. Not my idea of comfy accommodation. 

El Capitan, Yosemite

El Capitan, a granite cliff, looms 3000 feet over Yosemite Valley

Climbers at El Capitan, Yosemite

Can you see the climbers on the ledge in the upper right of the pic?

Many in the group were keen to hike the Half Dome, which proved impossible. The hiking cables weren’t out because of poor weather conditions. So they had to settle on hiking to Vernal and Nevada Falls. My hip said it would rather spend time at the visitor’s centre and doing some less strenuous walks.

I decided to save my energy for the next day with hikes around Cook’s Meadow Loop and to Mirror Lake (coming soon).

Half Dome, Yosemite

Although it looks like half the dome (on the right) fell off, it is virtually complete

How Yosemite came to be a park
There’s a small group of people we all should be thanking for getting the USA’s national park system going. Some were famous while others were doing their job or following their passions.

A few years after the first tourists first rode into Yosemite Valley, a group of concerned citizens lobbied to spare Yosemite, and especially the giant sequoias, from exploitation.

In response, California Senator John Conness introduced a bill to set aside the valley and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias for ‘public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable forever.’

That helped to kick things along and, in 1864 and in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln took time out to sign the Yosemite Grant into law. The concept of national parks was born.

President Roosevelt and John Muir

President Roosevelt and John Muir

In 1890, Congress set aside more than 1500 square miles of ‘reserved forest lands’, which soon became known as Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were added in 1906.

But creating a park was just the beginning. Someone had to look after it.

Galen Clark, who had explored Yosemite extensively, was appointed as the first guardian in 1866. He and his sub-guardian (I don’t know the name) worked tirelessly to protect, maintain and administer the grant, all on a combined annual salary of $500, which I learned was often not paid.

Revered as a host, guide and park protector, Clark was repeatedly appointed to this important position by different Boards of Commissioners. He was also a charter member of the Sierra Club.

Another figure was Frederick Law Olmsted. When the grant was sign in 1864, the governor of California appointed a volunteer board of directors to administer the park. Olmsted, a member of that board and a noted landscape architect, wrote a groundbreaking report setting out how the government should manage and protect the land for the benefit of the people. Considered too far ahead of its time, Olmsted’s report was quietly suppressed. Still today, his early guidelines serve as a model for national parks management and policy.

Buffalo Soldier, photo from Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier, photo from Wikipedia

The Buffalo Soldiers played another important role. When Yosemite became a national park in 1890, there was no such thing as the National Park Service. Instead each summer from 1891 through 1913, the Presidio of San Francisco sent the US Cavalry to patrol three national parks—Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia.

In the summers of 1899, 1903 and 1904, more than 400 Buffalo soldiers (African–Americans serving in the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry) were the sole protectors of these parks. They constructed the road to the top of Mt Whitney in Sequoia National Park and the park system’s first museum (an arboretum) in Yosemite.

Two other important figures were John Muir, a passionate advocate for national parks, and President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, Muir convinced President Roosevelt to visit and camp with him in Yosemite. At that time, Muir pushed to have control of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove shifted from state to federal control. In 1906, President Roosevelt signed a bill that did exactly that.

Learn more
Yosemite has a much more diverse history than I can cover here. If you’re interested, use the internet or books to find out more about the geology of the region, how the indigenous natives (the Ahwahneechee) were displaced, the wildlife and habitats, management issues today, the affects of climate change and so on.

El Capitan, Yosemite

A more scenic view of El Capitan

21 May 2018 / leggypeggy

Giant sequoias a great way to start our journey

Giant sequoia, Yosemite,National Park

One of about 25 mature trees in the Tuolumne Grove

Giant sequoia, Yosemite,National Park

Sequoias can live to be thousands of years old

Jordan, our guide and driver for our 15-day tour of national parks, thought the giant sequoias of Tuolumne Grove were the perfect way to start out visit to Yosemite.

And he was right.

Toulumne is one of three sequoia groves in Yosemite, and has about 25 mature trees, all with their distinctive red wood. The other groves are Mariposa (closed for restoration work until June 2018) and Merced.

We checked out a slice of a huge sequoia that was cut down many decades ago. The timeline marked on the slice shows that the tree, when felled, was more than 2000 years ago, and the bark was more than one-foot thick.

We followed the path down what was the Big Oak Flat Road. It was one of the earliest tourist routes and, even though it was treacherous, it was popular with miners, ranchers and loggers.

Back then, sequoias covered an extensive range, but today they grow only in isolated groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. To survive, the sequoias need moisture (mostly from winter snows) and periodic fires to reduce the number of competing species and open the forest canopy.

Jordan spotted two kinds of pine cones—one complete and one well munched by wildlife, probably squirrels. We even saw an ‘offending’ squirrel, as well as a deer in the distance.

We also had the chance to see the sequoia with a hole cut through the middle, and one that had fallen many decades ago.

Sequoia, Yosemite National Park

Poor John and one of three Peters on our trip stroll through the cut sequoia

Felled sequoia, Yosemite National Park

Felled sequoia. Photo by Peter Smith

In looking up information for this post, I discovered that the name sequoia was given to these trees by Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1847. He never explained why he chose that name, but the most common guess is that Endlicher, a linguist as well as a botanist, named the genus in honour of Sequoyah, the inventor of the first Cherokee writing system. I hope that’s true.

Trees in Yosemite National Park

A variety of trees grow in the Tuolumne Grove.

19 May 2018 / leggypeggy

Western USA is gobsmackingly amazing

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is supposed to be a short, flat walk. We tried to do the entire loop, which is harder and longer, but found there was no way to get across the river, so we trekked back the way we came. Who cares when scenery is like this!

There’s hardly been time to catch our breath. We have had eight sensational days enjoying some of the USA’s most varied and stunning scenery and hospitality. We’ve hardly had a moment to spare, and certainly not a moment to write a decent blog post.

Sometimes we reach camp after dark. Then it’s set up tents and get dinner going. We’re taking it in turns to cook and wash up. Everyone puts up their own tent.

Mornings we’re sometimes up and piled in the van before 5:30am. Seriously, we’re afraid we might miss something.

So far we’ve visited an amazing collection of national parks in four states—Yosemite, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. There’s also been Death Valley, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Navaho National Monument and Monument Valley. Everything is gobsmackingly beautiful.

We’ve been on hikes galore, a 4WD road trip and a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon. I’ve relished every minute, but I’m tired just thinking about it. Maybe you are too.

Tonight we’re in a motel (with wifi—yay!), so here are two pics from Yosemite to tide you over until I have the chance to write and share more.

Yosemite Falls, upper and lower

Yosemite Falls is North America’s longest waterfall (2425 feet). Lower Yosemite Fall is on the lower left.