Surfing Down Sand Dunes

Our time in Death Valley National Park was pretty amazing. We slept out under the stars for two nights without a tent (considering all of the times that we have camped in the rain and snow this was a real novelty). We also experienced being at the point of lowest elevation in North America, and we watched the sun rise and set over some of the most gorgeous rock formations. However, our absolute favorite part of the trip was hiking out onto the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

We had an absolute blast when we visited Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and were excited to find out that Death Valley has sand dunes of their own. In Colorado we were dressed in boots, hats, and rain coats, but when exploring the sand dunes of Death Valley we were able to slip off our sandals and enjoy the sand between our toes in t-shirts and shorts. We knew that the sand would get pretty hot by mid-day, so we arrived at Mesquite Flat early in the morning when the sand was still cool on our feet. By the time we left two hours later the our feet were already starting to feel what a huge impact the rising sun has on heating up the sand.

The best part about visiting sand dunes is that there is no single trail that you have to hike. It is really fun to watch each member of the family take their own path up the dunes. It is even more interesting to see how they get back down the other side. High Five loves to surf down on his stomach, while Five Ball enjoys running at full speed straight down. Five of Hearts has a much more graceful descent as she skips her way down each dune. By the time that we were done visiting the dunes we could have made our own mini sand dune with all the sand that was stuck to the kid’s bodies. Luckily we were able to take them swimming in the pool at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Sand dunes are super fun, but having water to wash up in afterwards makes things much more enjoyable.



Walking Among the Ancients

Whenever we visit California we seem to find ourselves visiting amazing trees. We have played under and on Giant Sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park, felt infinitesimally small hiking through the Redwood forests along the northern coast, and this past week we felt like relative infants while visiting a grove of the world’s oldest trees at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near Bishop, CA.

While Bristlecone Pine trees don’t have the girth or stature of Sequoias and Redwoods they are seriously old trees. In fact the oldest living tree on earth (called Methuselah) is a Bristlecone Pine that is 4,765 years old. Unlike most trees the oldest Bristlecone Pines are actually the most twisted and stunted looking. Bristlecones growing in harsh conditions grow more slowly thereby developing compact, resinous wood which helps defend them from insects and diseases. These trees are amazing at growing in harsh conditions with poor soil and little water. They have figured out how to get just enough of what they need to survive year after year.

It was quite the experience driving to the Schulman Grove (named fro Dr. Edmund Schulman who first discovered how old Bristlecone Pines trees are). In order to reach the grove you must drive up to an elevation of over 9,000 feet with amazing views of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. After over 30 minutes of driving straight up along a winding road we finally made it to the grove where we were greeted with the interesting formations of the Bristlecone Pines.

After checking out the visitors center we set out to hike the Discovery Trail and view trees that have been around since the Roman Empire was going strong. It was a very humbling experience to be in the presence of such ancient trees. The twisted formations and the colors are absolutely stunning and it was hard to stop ourselves from taking a picture of each tree. Now we just need to travel to the Arctic to visit the world’s smallest tree (the Dwarf Willow).

Subterranean Fun at Lava Beds National Monument

Our first stop after leaving Montana was Lava Beds National Monument. We have wanted to visit this fascinating park for several years now, but its location in the North East corner of California has always made it just a little too far out of the way. We came very close when visiting Crater Lake National Park back in 2015, but the extra distance south was just a bit too far for our travel weary kids. So, it was with great anticipation that we drove into the park on an absolutely gorgeous October day to check out some fascinating volcanic formations.

Our first stop was at Tule Lake where we enjoyed spending time viewing the many aquatic birds scattered across the water. We viewed Egrets, Pelicans, Grebes, Coots, and many Gulls. Unfortunately, we didn’t add any new species to our Family Big Year List, but it was super impressive to view the concentration of birds on the lake.

From Tule Lake we headed to the Lava Beds National Monument where we met with a park ranger and received our caving permit. Since we had been in a cave recently in Montana with the same hiking boots we had to use the Bio-Cleaning Station to make sure that our hiking boots weren’t helping to spread White-Nose Syndrome, which is a very serious disease that has been killing bat populations. Since humans can carry the fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome between caves it is very important to take precautions when visiting multiple cave sites.

After getting our boots cleaned and our permit we were ready to check out the many lava tube caves (created by cooling lava flows 10,500 to 65,000 years ago) that are accessible to the public. We decided to start our visit at Skull Cave, which is one of several ice floor caves in the park. Historically ice has formed on the floors of these caves and has acted as a very important source of water for animals in times of drought. However, human impacts on the caves (people used to ice skate on the cave floors) and global climate change has caused many caves to loss their formations of ice over time. The ice floor at Skull Cave is now closed off the public, but the walk down to the bottom of the cave was still really exciting and super cold! The kids especially liked using their multi-colored MPowered solar lights to guide their way.

From Skull Cave we took a hiking trail that led to both Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The boys really enjoyed Big Painted Cave where they had to climb down into a pretty small opening to access the back of the cave. We then walked to Big Painted Cave where we were able to view petroglyphs (rock art) depicted on the cave walls by people living in the area over 6,000 years ago.

Overall we had a wonderful visit to Lava Beds National Monument. Not only did we get to experience some amazing caves and view really interesting volcanic formations, but we also learned more about the history of the Modoc people who lived in the area before white settlers and the United States Army forcibly removed the Modoc people onto reservations. The park has many great displays explaining how the Modoc people used the surrounding environment and about The Modoc War that occurred from 1872-1873. We really appreciated getting both a geological and historical overview of the park.

Hiking The Highline Trail – Finally!

Since the fall of 2014 we have been trying to hike the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, road closures, swarms of visitors, and snowy weather have gotten in the way. But finally the stars aligned on the last week of September and we were met with a sunny, uncrowded day to head out along the Highline Trail.

Due to an active forest fire in the park the Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass meaning that we had to drive an extra hour and a half to reach Logan Pass from the St. Mary Lake entrance. However, the extra drive time was so worth it considering the conditions that we met once in the park.

Even though there was snow at the top of Logan Pass the sun was shinning, the sky was a brilliant blue, and there were hardly any other people visiting the park that day. In addition having the Going-to-the-Sun Road closed from the west made the Highline Trail super quite and peaceful as the trail winds on the rocky cliffs above the road for the first mile or so.

The Younger Fives really enjoyed hiking along the ledge at the beginning of the trail and looking down at the sheer drop. It is a good thing that none of us have a fear of heights as the hand cable that provides some extra security had already been taken down for the season. Once off the cliff section High Five discovered that the trail side plant species were covered with seeds just waiting to be caught by the wind and he spent the rest of the hike helping to disperse seeds. At times he released so many seeds that we were completely covered with seed fluff and looked quite ridiculous.

As we progressed along the trail we could see smoke from the Sprague Fire, but it didn’t affect the air quality where we were hiking. However, as we made our way up Haystack Pass we were met by hikers returning from the other direction that said the other side of the pass was getting pretty smoky. At that point we decided that we would rather hike in the fresh air and decided to turn back.

Turning back before Haystack Pass left us with enough time before dark to stop at Two Medicine Lake where we picnicked and enjoyed the scenery. The lake was really cold but felt great on our feet after hiking.

The Autumn scenery throughout the drive and hike was absolutely amazing and it was hard to think of this as being one of our last visits to Glacier National Park for the time being. Wildlife viewing for the day was also really great as we saw a mama Grizzly Bear and her cub, an American Pika (these guys are amazingly adorable), Mountain Goats, and a large heard of Big Horn Sheep that walked within feet of our picnic table. All in all it was very hard to drag ourselves away from the park at the end of the day and we all agreed that our Highline Trail experience was definitely worth the wait.

Badlands Moon Rising

Our last major stop on our East Coast Escape Road Trip was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We arrived in the evening just in time to head into the park for some star gazing. A huge full moon made star watching difficult, but lit up the surrounding landscape giving the night a truly magical feel.

The next day we were in the park bright and early to try and get some hiking in before the temperature rose. Most visitors to the park only drive the loop road stopping at the scenic overlooks, so once you get off the road you pretty much have the park to yourself. We decided to hike towards Deer Haven and didn’t encounter any other visitors.

Hiking through the badlands is like being on the surface of another planet where someone made hundreds of dribble castles out of sand. There are a variety of formations and the colors can be quite spectacular. The Younger Fives had a blast climbing the various outcroppings, but soon found out that even though the formations are highly prone to erosion (The Badlands average one inch of erosion per year) they are very rough and can really scrape up your skin.

As the sun moved overhead the valley floor quickly heated up and all too soon it was time to return to the car and continue on towards home. As we drove away from the Badlands we all agreed that this national park ranks as one of our top favorites, and we all hope for a return visit.