The Giants of California

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Bachelor and Three graces

No, we are not talking about the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, but rather the majestic largest trees on the planet – the Giant Sequoias.  Along picturesque highway 395 is the gateway to Yosemite National Park from the east.  No, we did not stop at Yosemite on this trip, but we did spend about a week there a few months before our retirement.  Since Yosemite National Park is located in the Eastern Sierra we decided to  insert our past excursion to the Giant Sequoias at Mariposa Grove.  Our previous blog was about the Ancients, this one is about the Giants.

Mariposa Groove

Mariposa Grove

These giants are not the oldest living things, that title belongs to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine tree that we talked about in our previous post.  In total volume the giant sequoias are the largest living things known to humans.  However, they are far outlived by the Bristlecone pine (4600 years old while the Sequoias only make it to around 3266 years).  The Bristlecones grow extremely slowly, while the Sequoias owe their size to rapid growth rather than their age.

We took the tram that winds through the Giant Forest, where we were awestruck by the Sequoia’s grandiosity and their massive trunk size.  They are not only tall, (you have to crane your neck straight up to see the top), but they are also broad – a car can be driven through some of them!  We got off the tram and hiked down to get a closer look at the many incredible giants in the forest.  We were indeed the dwarfs walking among the giants – an indescribable feeling.

Meet a few of the Giants…from the Mariposa Grove.

The Grizzly Giant is number 26 on the largest tree list and is estimated to be 1800 years old.  It is indeed a grizzly – its tall, its huge and enormous!

Grizzly giant

Grizzly Giant

Trunk of Grizzly Giant

Trunk of Grizzly Giant

The Clothespin Tree is named as such for it looks like a clothespin from afar.  The natural tunnel caused by numerous fires is wide and can fit a car.

Clothespin Tree

Clothespin Tree

Bachelor and Three graces

Bachelor and Three Graces

Mariposa Tree

Mariposa Tree

The fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree collapsed in 1969 under a record snow load after being weakened by the massive hole in its base.  Note that the Sequoias do not have deep tap roots, rather the roots are spread out as far as 150 feet fairly near the surface to provide a stable base to balance its massive size.

Fallen Monarch

A Fallen Giant

The California Tunnel Tree was cut in 1895 to allow horse drawn stages to pass through and is the only remaining tunnel tree in the forest.

California Tunnel Tree

California Tunnel Tree

Because the Yosemite National Park is world famous, it was of course crowded during the summer with traffic and parking somewhat problematic.  The shuttle that services the thousands of visitors is overly crowded as well.  Our tip – if you visit during the summer be sure to get into the park as early as possible every day.  Despite the crowds, the magnificent beauty of Yosemite is unsurpassed.

On this trip we camped at Yosemite Pines Campground in Groveland, which is about 30 minutes from the west gate.  Betsy had to be parked outside of the park due to her size.

A few of the many stunning vistas and natural beauty of Yosemite National Park, gem of the Eastern Sierra.

Yosemite Valley

Stunning Yosemite Valley

Hetch Hetchy

Controversial Hetch Hetchy, also known as the Little Yosemite

Half Dome at Glacier Point

View of Half Dome from Glacier Point

Top of Vernal Falls

Top of Vernal Falls, a few days later three visitors fell to their death as they climb behind the guard rail

Defying the odds – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree

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Gnarled Bristlecone

We are so behind with our storytelling not only because we’ve had no internet connection but also we are having so much fun and enjoying so much beautiful scenery.  For now lets go to White Mountain

White Mountain, CA

At 10,000′ elevation , White Mountain is home to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Another excursion not to be missed while in the Eastern Sierra is a day just to visit and touch a very special tree, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine that is.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree

Eroded Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree

Checking out an eroded Ancient Bristlecone Pine tree

 Why is this tree so special?  Well, these Bristlecone Pines are the oldest and most picturesque trees on earth.  They exhibit spectacular growth forms of twisted and beautifully colored wood.  How old?  How about more than 4,000 years old – which would make them older than Jesus and the Pyramids.

These ancients thrive by growing slowly and steadily in the most difficult environment in the White Mountains area at an elevation between 9000 to 12000 feet.  White mountain peak is the third -highest peak in California at 14,246 feet.  The climate here is characterized as arid, dry and windswept cold.  It is seemingly an unlikely place to find the oldest living trees but this is where the bristlecones have survived for  more than 40 centuries.  They have the ability to adapt to this unique environment and attain great age not in spite of of it but because of it.  They can only survive where other plants can’t compete with them for rare resources, and what other plant would want to live here?

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree

To see these ancient trees we walked one of the three trails at Schulman Groove (named after Dr Edmund Schulman), the Discovery Trail.  Here we learned a short lesson in the natural history of the bristlecones and had breathtaking views of the southern-most glaciers in North America high atop the Sierra Nevada range (and we thought we have seen them all in Alaska).  We also saw the red quartzite rocks.  Dozens of Clark  Nutcracker birds were there keeping us company with their chirping and cracking.

Southern most glaciers in North America

Southern-most glaciers in North America on the Eastern Sierra Nevada range

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees

Ancient Beauties

Red Quartzite Rocks

Red Quartzite rocks

Fallen Dead Bristlecone Pine Tree

Fallen Ancient

After our hike we watched the movie “Bristlecone Pine, Oldest Known Living Thing” at the just-opened new visitor center.  We learned more about Dr Schulman’s discovery and research using a tree borer that  helped in tree ring chronologies dating back to 6700 BC.  In 1957 he said , “Microscopic study of growth rings reveals that a bristlecone pine tree found last summer at nearly 10,000 feet began growing more than 4,600 years ago.”

Tree core of the Ancient Bristlecone Tree

Tree core sample, where growth rings are counted

Clark Nutcracker

Clark Nutcracker

Bristle Cone

Bristlecone

After a day of learning and exploration we had  lunch at the Sierra View Vista Point about a quarter mile from the forest.  We had an extraordinary million dollar view across the Owens Valley to the Sierra crest.

Sierra Vista Point

And one more awesome view.

Sierra Vista Point

Although we never got around to it, Steve very much wanted to ride his bike all the way down White Mountain back to the outskirts of Big Pine.  Wow, from 10,000′ to 3,800′ – all downhill and lasting something like 23 miles!  Maybe you want to give it a try if you make it up there?

State of Arrested Decay – the Ghost town of Bodie

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Downtown Bodie

A must-see along scenic 395 (if you like ghost towns as Steve does) is a landmark, Bodie State Historical Park.  Bodie is the remains of the famously rowdy gold mining town sitting at 8,375 feet elevation, located northeast of Yosemite National Park 13 miles east of Highway 395.

Panorama of the Bodie the Ghost Town

The remains of the baddest rowdy town of Bodie

Only about 5 percent of the buildings remaining from the 1880’s are still standing in perhaps the West’s best preserved ghost town.  The Park Service keeps them in a state of “arrested decay,”  protected but not restored.  What this means is they will replace items that break (like roofs and stairs), but they do not completely restore anything.  This leaves most of the buildings looking very much as they did well over 100 years ago.  The interiors are maintained as they were left, providing a snapshot of the past.  Looking around, we observed golden hues of wood weathered by more than a century of wind, rain, sun, snow and leaning walls propped up by old beams.

The town’s reputation then was characterized as “a bad man from Bodie was worse than a bad man from elsewhere,” due to its lawlessness and wickedness.  The town once reached a population of 10,000.  This story reminded us of another gold rush town, Skagway in Alaska, where gunfights, killings and robberies occurred regularly.  Steve says it sort of reminds him of Oakland, CA nowadays.

What’s sad is that the prospector who first discovered the gold and after whom the town was named (with a misspelling), Watterman S. Body  (a.k.a William S. Bodey) was not able to enjoy  his discovery – he froze to death in a blizzard the same year he found it in 1859.  His body was discovered the following year after the snow melted.

After visiting the ghosts in town we had lunch at their picnic area about a quarter mile past town.  It appeared very few people were aware of the picnic area and we had it all to ourselves for a nice quiet snack.  

The 13-mile drive to Bodie is a winding paved road with the last 3 miles of dirt and gravel beginning at the gate.  The dirt/gravel portion is in poor condition and must be traveled slowly – NOT recommended for RV’s.  The park is open year-round, but the excellent museum closes at the end of October.  We were fortunate to visit the museum on the last day it was open!

The road to Bodie

The road to Bodie

Lunch at Bodie

Lunch at the picnic area 1/4 mile north of town

On our way out we were treated to an exceptional view of the Sierra Ranges.

Leaving Bodie

Snow dusting on the Sierra’s

Some hidden gems along the Eastern Sierra – Scenic 395

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Convict Lake

We’ve been on this road before, yet the scenery on Highway 395 remains awe-inspiring. We had never explored much of what lies beyond the highway, the less-traveled roads that brought us deep into the area’s natural wonders and very colorful history.  Folks who have a strong interest in geology would find this place paradise.  For us who simply want to gawk and experience its beauty, it’s best to simply spend as much time discovering hidden corners and appreciate it firsthand.  We are a couple of weeks late in enjoying the full fall splendor, as the autumn colors are beginning to fade and the temps are dropping.  And yes, we realize we can’t do it all at once – especially with some areas already closed for the season.  However, there were enough beautiful sights here to persuade us to extend our stay for a couple of days.  We will come back again to do more of our favorite outdoor activity – hiking.  There are many opportunities here but we are somewhat rushed to outrun the winter weather.  I know what you’re thinking – oh those poor people with nothing else to do but follow the sun!

The Eastern Sierra is an abrupt wall reaching two miles above the floor of the Owens Valley.  It encompasses  everything from desert scrub and alkali springs to lush alpine meadows and jagged mountains holding glacial ice.  We are experiencing golden autumn leaves – fantastic fall colors in some areas.  We explored a few creeks, lakes and canyons.  But this is also a great place for so many other activities – mountain biking, 4-wheeling and lots of hiking.  And of course you skiers would be in heaven up here!

June Lake Loop– a scenic 14-mile mountain drive where massive glaciers have carved out a steep horseshoe-shaped canyon.  The area has four lakes known not only for fishing but also for many year-round activities. At the entrance to Oh Ridge campground, a slot machine has been erected in concrete to commemorate a lost slot machine supposedly tossed into June Lake in 1941 when “the Feds” were looking around for bad guys.

June Lake Loop

June Lake Loop

Mono Lake – Travelers along scenic 395 can’t possibly miss this – the oldest lake in North America.  It is described as hauntingly beautiful and its most distinctive feature is its eerie tufa towers – mineral structures created when bubbling fresh-water springs intersect with the lake’s alkaline waters.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake viewed from an 8000′ overlook.  You can’t see Steve in front of the RV on his ladder – busily cleaning the windshield so I can take more pictures!

Tufa

Steve checking out a Tufa

Crowley Lake is considered one of the best spots for trout fishing and is the focal point of Mono County’s fishing season.  To my fishermen friends, make this your next fishing destination.  The lake is named after Father J.J. Crowley, the popular “Padre of the Desert.”

Crowley Lake

Crowley Lake

At the McGee Creek Canyon we parked our car at the end of the paved road and walked further to view the wildly colorful mountains with swathes of red, orange, brown and gray.  Geologists call these “roof pendants”- chunks of older rocks remaining on top when the great gray granites Sierra rose up beneath them and glaciers ground most of the older rock away.

Mcgee Creek Canyon

Mcgee Creek Canyon

Red Mountain

Red Mountain

Convict Lake  was the site of a shootout in 1871 that occurred when local law enforcers tracked down escapees from a Nevada Prison.  The lake sits on a spectacular setting of rugged mountain peaks.  Simply beautiful!

Convict Lake

Convict Lake, my personal favorite among the lakes we visited

We drove to Rock Creek Canyon, known for its vibrant fall colors but because we blinked or we were late in the season our chances to ensure the best show had just passed.

Rock Creek Canyon

To Rock Creek Canyon

Due to the high elevation, the aspens here were the first to shed all their golden leaves.  As we drove back to camp  we saw snow starting to fall on the mountain peaks.  Time to move on!

Conway Summit

Conway Summit

Desert Scrub

Desert Scrub

Bishop

Bishop

We witnessed a beautiful sunset on our last night at Brown’s Town Campground in Bishop.  Stay tuned for more stories about our stop here!Sunset at Bishop

Begin Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway – Mono County

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Bridgeport Reservoir with Sawtooth Ranges in the background

In the past we have driven over most of highway 395 but never stopped to smell the roses, for we had to go from point A to B and overlooked many beautiful locations.  Besides, those times we drove during summer and winter season and it is quite different now in  the fall.  We will be sharing beautiful sceneries that are often overlooked by Californians when driving through this road, us included.

Leaving Sparks, Nevada behind we head south and took highway 395,  the Scenic Eastern Sierra Nevada.  For several hundred miles the highway traces the dramatic eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, diving down into the deepest valley in North America (Death Valley) and passing roadways and trailheads that lead to all kinds of natural and historic wonders.

Highway 395 outside of Sparks, Nevada

Highway 395 south of Sparks, Nevada

Our first stop on this highway was at Bridgeport, where we set camp to explore and be awed by the beauty of the surroundings.  Bridgeport is a popular destinations for fishing – a town backed by the jagged spires of the Sawtooth Range, aptly named because of its knifelike spires of granite splitting the sky with splendid accuracy.

Bridgeport Reservoir with Sawtooth Ranges in the background

Bridgeport Reservoir with Sawtooth Ridges in the background

Driving around here we noticed the vast sage brush rangelands with wide open spaces for which the west is famous, and the vast ranges where  the happy cows from California reside.  We believe they are happy, since we noticed them smiling each time we took pictures of them!

Happy Cows from California

Happy (and lazy) cows from California.  Hey, get up and get back to work!

The interconnected Twin Lakes (located about 13 miles west) are beautiful and worth the drive; each well over a mile long, and about half a mile wide.  These lakes are nestled under the jagged crest of the Sawtooth Ridge, and the icy blue Matterhorn Glacier; they’re really something to look at.

Upper Twin Lake, Bridgeport

Upper Twin Lakes

Lower Twin Lakes

Lower Twin Lakes

Deer along the highway

Full Moon

View of Full Moon from our Kitchen

More beauty along  the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway in Mono County.

Highway395 Highway 395

Our digs with a view at Paradise Shores RV park.

Paradise Shores

Our digs for two nights

Paradise Shores RV Park

Morning View at the Park

The mornings at Bridgeport were “brisk” – into the low 20’s and a little colder than we like to subject Betsy’s systems to.  The elevation here was over 6400′, so our next stop will be at Bishop, which is closer to 4000′ and will give us milder nights.

Our Alaska adventure parting thoughts and stats

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Above is Our Alaska Adventure Route, the red pins on our way in and the purple ones on our way out.

Exploring Alaska on our first year of full-timing was considered ambitious and brave by some of our friends.  But we’re so glad we did it!  The experience taught us so much in a very short time.  We learned to navigate tight spaces, deal with rough roads, make due with minimal utilities and live in remote campgrounds with like-minded adventurers.  We have synchronized to perfection our tasks of moving in and out of tight sites and hooking and unhooking the tow.  We feel more than ready to live on the road full time from now on.

The road to Alaska via British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada can not be taken lightly.  No matter how many long hours and hundreds of miles of driving, you will never get tired of the endless views of incredible scenery.  Coupled with the scenic drive are unavoidable road hazards; unending road repairs with lovely female road workers waving at you, frost heaves, dips, gravel breaks and so on.  These hazards were realities that we were prepared for and dealt with as part of the experience.

As much as we tried to cover most of Alaska, it is just not possible.  Alaska is immense and super-sized;  we covered only a fourth of it.  Mountains are higher (Mt. Mckinley aka Denali) and parks larger (Wrangell-Elias National Park).  Check these stats: Alaska is 2.3 times larger than Texas and the size of Texas, California and Montana combined.  It’s home to the biggest this, the highest that and the most of these – with less than a million residents (about 700,000) enjoying all of it.

And the fishing – oh yeah!  To all my fishermen/women friends, this is the place to be excited about the fish.  I don’t fish, but I hooked a Halibut here.  As long as you know how to navigate the complicated fishing regulations,  you’re in for the tastiest and freshest Salmon and Halibut you’ve ever had.  Fishing is well managed here, and its monitored to support subsistence living for Alaskan residents.

Glaciers, glaciers everywhere!  There are approximately 100,000 glaciers here, with only about 600 named.  We never got tired of gawking at them, hiking to them (Portage and Exit Glaciers), driving to them (Mendenhall Glacier), flying over them (Kennicott, Root GlaciersGrewingk Glacier), landing on them (Mt. Mckinley) and sailing to them (KnikAialik, Holgate, Meares glaciers).  Many time we just drove by them while enjoying their beauty (Matanuska Glacier).  They were always unbelievably pristine and beautiful.

Wildlife, yes.  Alaska is where the wild things are!  Wildflowers adorned highways, mountains and homes, wild animals roamed around and across roads.  Birds chirped and/or just hung around, tart but tasty wild berries grew everywhere.  We never got tired of enjoying all of these things in their natural habitats.

Hiking and biking trails galore.  They were all there for the taking, with scenic views and often some wild animals along the route.

Alaskans live in a different frame of mind.  They are relaxed, hardworking, resourceful and rugged.  They are surrounded by such beauty, yet they thrive in the harsh nature of their environment.  We hung out with two couples – Wilma/Randy and Gemma/Steve – who had lived there for two decades.  Amazing people! Are we planning to go back to Alaska?  We can’t wait!

                                                                                                                             

Our trip stats:

Arrival in Canada, start of trip  =  5/30/12

Departure from Canada, end of trip  =  9/17/12

Miles traveled (including 410 on inland passage ferry)  =  5,722

Miles driven in Alaska  =  1949

Miles driven in Canada  =  3773

Days of trip  =  110

Days in Alaska  =  73

Days in Canada  =  37

Gallons of diesel burned  =  648

Border crossings between U.S. and Canada  =  8

Campgrounds/RV parks visited  =  37

Animals squashed while driving  = 1 squirrel and 2 birds of unknown species (obviously not fast enough flyers).  We had some close road encounters with moose, deer and a couple of bears, but fortunately they didn’t get together with Betsy.

                                                                                                                       

For those planning a driving adventure into Alaska, here are some must-haves:

  1. Milepost – it beats a GPS hands-down.  Order one in March for the latest version.
  2. Passports- you are going in and out of Canada, whether by ferry or driving.

  3. Be prepared for sticker shock; e.g. Halibut and Chips $16-$21 (but worth it), lemons $1.79 each.

  4. For RV’rs, the campground /RV parks are just that, nothing fancy – live with it.

  5. A spirit of adventure and plenty of patience.  You don’t want to rush this trip!

 

A word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska…If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first. –Henry Gannet, Harriman Alaska Expedition 1899.