Blazing some trails on Prince Edward Island

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Prince Edward Island National Park

Prince Edward Island (PEI) isn’t just all pastoral landscapes and gleaming harbors.  The island is also famous for being the home of Anne of Green Gables, and I vaguely remember the tv series from decades ago.  However, since I wasn’t a fan we skipped a trip to the Green Gables National Historic Site.  Fortunately, our base camp at Cavendish was only five minutes away from PEI National Park.  As always, we did what we do whenever we get a chance – hike and bike.

On our first full day we hiked one of the trails which took us through several micro-environments.

Duneland at PEI

Starting off toward the dunes along beautiful Cavendish Beach.

Cavendish Beach

He made it!  I’m down on the beach already.

After a while the trail took us out into a wetlands area.

Cavendish Beach

Homestead Trail

The clouds seemed to mimic the outline of the trees.

Falcon

A good looking Merlin checked us out from above.

We finally ended up at a red beach where I touched the warm waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Next we headed back inland and followed the Homestead Trail.  This one passed through lush forests and rolling farmland along the beautiful shores of New London Bay.

The sun was already high over our heads so there were no shady spots to rest on this section, but at every turn we were faced with meadows of pretty colorful wildflowers.

Homestead Trail

Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday afternoon!

Homestead Trail, PEI

Is he lost?  Does he care?

A hint that summer is almost over.

On another day we took our bikes and followed the coastline of PEI fronting the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The soil on PEI is a deep red, so the dramatic rocks and cliffs around the coast reflect this, while the sand on the beaches is white.  It makes for a stunning coastline.

PEI Coastline

Sandstone

There were many areas of reddish sandstone like this one.

PEI Coastal Trail

Why is this woman so happy? Could it be the wildflowers, the birds, the beach? Maybe all of the above?

PEI Coastline

Steve spotted something way out at the end of the rocks – is that a bird ?

Bald Eagle

After getting closer – yup, it’s a Bald Eagle!

Several foxes strutted along the road causing a traffic jam.

Red Fox

Red fox trotting along the road.

Red Foxes

These foxes look like they’re kissing

The day finally ended with another gorgeous sunset over the island.

Red Sand  Beach

Red sand beach glowed at dusk

PEI Sunset

Gulf of St. Lawrence glowed orange in the sunset.

Next up:  Island girls meet up at PEI

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Frolicking in the Sand and gazing at the Sun – Alamogordo

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White Sands National Monument

Other than missiles, rockets, and Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo, NM is also known for its gigantic sea of sparkling white gypsum.  The ever-changing dunes of brilliant and white gypsum sand engulf 275 sq miles of the White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument

Gypsum dunes form here under a unique set of circumstances.  Rain and snow in the surrounding mountains dissolve the mineral gypsum from the rocks and carry it into the Tularosa Basin below.

San Andres Mountains

San Andres Mountains

Since there is no river to drain the basin, water containing the gypsum is trapped.  Then the water evaporates, leaving the gypsum behind in the form of selenite crystals.  The forces of nature – freezing and thawing, wetting and drying – eventually break the crystals down into sand-sized particles light enough to be moved by the wind.  Without wind there would be no dunes.  Since wind speeds of only 17 mph are needed to start the movement, we bet that the day after our visit when the wind storm with gusts of 40-50 mph must have moved a lot of dunes!

White Sands National Monument

Crescent shaped Barchan Dunes

Hiking along the 1.5 mile Dune Life Nature Trail, we were fascinated by the various animal footprints left behind.  Most of the animals are nocturnal because of the harsh daytime temperatures.  They are rarely seen during the day but their tracks from the previous night tell a story.  Within the extremely harsh environment of the dune field, plants and animals adapt to desert conditions – such as the Soaptree Yucca in the picture below, where two thirds of its body is now under the sand due to dune movement.

When you are surrounded by this glistening sand, you can’t help but feel like a kid.  I tried to “sled” down the dunes, can you tell I’m having so much fun!

From the sands on earth to the sun up in the skies we took a scenic drive to 9200′ via the Sunspot Solar System Model to the National Solar Observatory located in the Sacramento Mountains.  Dry air, with very little pollution and plenty of sunshine make the peak an excellent site for observing the sun.  The pretty drive began at “Neptune” in the town of Cloudcroft and ending up at the Sun, where the visitor center is located.

Since we didn’t call ahead, we were surprised when we found the visitor center closed on a Monday.  Fortunately, a walking tour map was available so we ventured on our own.  There are many gigantic telescopes housed in domes around the grounds.  The Evans Solar Facility houses the coronagraph and coelostat, which are mainly used to look at the corona around the sun – the faint outermost layer.

Sun Telescope

26-foot spar housed the coronagraph and coelostat

An impressive instrument we checked out was the Dunn Solar Telescope.  The tower above ground is 136′ tall, but there is another 228′ of the structure underground.  The kind of things on the Sun that scientists here are investigating are granulation, sunspots, solar flares and varying magnetic fields. If you look closely at the center monitor on the right image, you will note that the telescope is displaying a sunspot in real time. Cool, we saw the sun !

Just a few minutes from the Sunspot Solar Observatory was the privately-owned Apache Point Observatory.  There are four telescopes currently operated there, performing night-sky astronomical research.  If you are into research or are interested in the closest star to Earth, our Sun, a visit to the observatory is worthwhile.  If you are just curious travelers like us, then the scenic drive to Sacramento Peak makes it a good day!

From 9200′ we could admire a spectacular view of the Tularosa Basin with White Sands surrounded by the San Andres Mountains.

Tularosa Basin

Tularosa Basin with White Sands.  Betsy is parked somewhere down there!

Next up – the Lone Star State!

Fascinating Death Valley – you gotta go here!

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The sand storm, the wind  and a little shower the previous night did not dampen our spirits, for we woke up to a beautiful sunny cloudless day at Stovepipe Wells.  However, due to an event – “The 63rd Annual Death Valley ’49ers Encampment” – the 12 full hook-up sites were booked for the rest of the week.  So, we moved  across the street and dry camped at the Stovepipe Wells NPS Campground.  For $12 you get a parking spot, no hookups.  No problem, let’s save some $$$!

Death Valley….what a foreboding name.  Why is the name so bleak ?  A group of Euro-Americans became stuck in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California.  They gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there.  Despite its name this place is anything but deathly.  Its geologic history has created a diverse and extreme landscape that is quite amazing to behold.

In less than a year we are back at Death Valley National Park as we promised ourselves, and we continue to be fascinated by this unique place.   Though we’ve been to Wrangell-St Elias National Park (the largest National Park in America), the size of Death Valley (the largest National Park outside of Alaska) is still formidable at 5,300 square miles.  It is vast with its own assortment of  uniqueness and desert beauty.

Dantes Peak

Dante’s Peak at 5,500′ with a view of the 110 mile long Death Valley.  That big white area in the middle is salt, not water.

Death Valley is known for its triple superlatives: hottest, driest and lowest.  Officially the hottest place on earth holding the record at 134 F (57 C), the driest for it receives less than 2 inches of rainfall or none at all and the lowest dry point in North America at Badwater Basin – 282′ below sea level.  This is an unforgiving, inhospitable place but it is remarkably beautiful in its own way.  Winter months are really the time to come here, even the park rangers advise against doing so in the summer.

The park has a long list of attractions, and because there is little vegetation the full display of rocks, cliffs, badlands, peaks, sand dunes, salt flats and more are in your face.  Going from one place of interest to another left us enthralled and awed as none of them are the same and each has its own unique character.  While marveling at all these sights we also got some good exercise, as most stops require a fair amount of hiking.

StoveWells Pipe

Holding on to the Stovepipe that marked the waterhole.

But first, where did the name Stovepipe Wells originate?  There was only one known water source on the cross-valley road.  Because sand often obscured the waterhole spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker – hence its unique name.

Lets explore, shall we ?

Just beyond Stovepipe Wells Campground is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  We were told that sunrise at the Sand Dunes is one of the best times to catch that golden glow from the sun.  And true enough, I managed to catch that moment when the sun rays hit the dunes. These 150 foot high dunes are surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the primary source of sand being the Cottonwood Mountains to the north and northwest.

Mesquite Sand Dunes Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Also close to Stovepipe Wells is the Mosaic Canyon, where we walked through a narrow canyon with smooth, polished marble walls that enclose the trail as it follows the canyon’s sinuous curves.  We observed “Mosaics” of rock fragments naturally cemented together along the trail.  We missed this one on our first trip but checked it out this time.  Fantastic – a must see!

Mosaic Canyon Mosaic Canyon

Further north we followed the boardwalk along Salt Creek Trail.  It is a saltwater stream which is the only home to a rare pupfish which can survive in the salt encrusted water.  A salt-resistant pickle weed also thrives here.

Pickle Weed Salty Creek

If you have only a short time to visit the park, be aware that many impressive sights are toward the south end of the valley near Furnace Creek – about 40 miles from our base camp at Stovepipe Wells.  The key here is to start early to get a good flavor of what the valley has to offer and to give yourself time to drive between all of the points of interest.  To enjoy its assortment of uniqueness is to take time and explore.  We would estimate that 3 full days should be allocated to explore, 4 would be even better.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Here you will see landscape of vast salt flats. Walking on the salt flats you can hear the crunch of the salt….

282 feet below sea level Salt Flats

Next stop was the Natural Bridge, a medium-sized limestone rock formation that has been hollowed at its base to form a span across two rocks.  Getting to it is a half mile walk and at the end of the trail is a dry waterfall.

Natural Bridge Dry Waterfall

The Devil’s Golf Course is an immense area of rocky salt eroded by wind and rain.  It is called as such because it is incredibly serrated so that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”  At first you would think it is a coral reef, but taking a closer look reveals gnarled crystalline salt spires.  We tromped through this strange and rugged terrain to get a closer look at the salt formations and found several holes in the surface with perfectly clear water shining underneath.

Devils Golf Course Devil's Gold Hole

We took the scenic nine mile drive to the Artist’s Palette, where we saw striking arrays of colors in the hills caused by the many different minerals in the earth there.  Note the sea green, lemon yellow, periwinkle blue, salmon pink and purple colors that are splashed across the barren background.  Exquisite and simply amazing!

Artist Pallete

The Golden Canyon Trail was another worthwhile hike that winds through a canyon of colorful rock walls.  At the end of the trail is beautiful Red Cathedral, formed by extremely steep cliffs.  It is composed of red colored oxidized rock.

Red Cathedral Colorful canyon walls at Golden Canyon

Along with its stunning natural splendor, Death Valley also has colorful human tales.  There were several mining ventures that boomed and busted in the 1800’s.  One of them was the Harmony Borax Works, where a 20-mule team hauled borax 165 miles from the desert floor to the railroad town of Mojave.  It only operated for 5 years.

Another story tells of a colorful character named Walter Scott, an ex-cowboy and prospector.  A beautiful mansion toward the north end of the valley called Scotty’s Castle is named after him – even though it was actually built and owned by his friend, millionaire Albert Johnson.  As the story goes, Scotty (a con artist) claimed that he financed the building himself from his secret gold mine, when in reality it was the Johnson’s vacation home.  Scotty’s Castle is currently owned by the Park Service and has 2 very good tours that can be taken there.  They also have several shaded tables which are perfect for enjoying a picnic lunch between tours.

The Timbisha Shoshone American Indian tribe lives and thrives in the heart of the valley by Furnace Creek.

Scotty's Castle Organ Room, Scottys Castle
Harmony Borax Refinery 20 Mule Team

The Furnace Creek Visitor center has recently been renovated and updated.  We encouraged you to stop by and check out their modern and interactive displays.

Next up, 4-wheeling in a Jeep around Death Valley.  How cool is that?

And here’s just a few of the many  striking desert scenery and colorful canyons as seen from your car window.

Devils Corn Stack

Devil’s Corn Stack

Custard Canyon

Custard Canyon

Red Canyon

Red Canyon

Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon