The vast, gorgeous Adirondacks – upstate NY

The largest park in the lower 48, the 6-million acre Adirondack Park of northern New York was our next adventure.  It is so large that we could obviously only hope to see a small portion of it during our 5-day stay.  So, for this trip through we decided to hang out near the southeastern border, at Lake George.

wpid14607-2013-07-30-NY-.jpg
Mountains and more mountains all the way to the horizon!

Created in 1892 as one of the first Forever Wild Forest Preserves in the nation, the Adirondack Park is a unique wilderness area.  It is the largest publically protected area in the contiguous United States.  The state of New York owns approximately 2.6 million acres, while the remaining 3.4 million acres are devoted to forestry, agriculture and open space recreation.  The Adirondack Park is not a National Park – there’s no fee to enter and the park doesn’t close at night.  Nor is it a state park, a common misconception.  It’s also the largest National Historic Landmark, covering an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and the Great Smokies National Parks combined.

Lake George
Lake George

Outdoor recreation possibilities in the Lake George area are endless.  The Village of Lake George is a tourist destination and at this time of the year it’s like a big recreation and amusement park for all ages.  We were not ready to mingle with hordes of tourists as traffic and parking was horrendous, so we spent most of our time enjoying a laid back experience in our preferred way – hiking and driving along the numerous scenic byways.

We mapped our route starting from Lake George and left in the car early one morning, following three of the many scenic byways – High Peaks, Olympic, and Central Adirondack Trails – creating a 200-mile loop.  Touring the unspoiled geographic areas of the Adirondack Mountains, we were in awe of the rolling hills, deep forests, and mountain peaks.  Among the features that made our drive unlike any of our previous experiences were the waterways – literally thousands of lakes, (Placid, Long, Raquette and Saranac were only a few that we saw ) ponds, and many miles of rivers and streams.  It’s hard to imagine how incredible this area looks when the leaves turn in the fall, but unfortunately we won’t be in this area then.

It appeared many other tourists had the same plan we did – take a hike!  On both trails we followed near Lake George – Sleeping Beauty and Prospect Mountain – the screaming brats and their moms seemed to be yelling at the top of their lungs.  Good God, can’t these people figure out what hiking and nature are all about?  Both trails were a hike up to a summit, and despite the rocky terrain and the continuous  ascent to the top, the area is a popular family outing destination.  We’ll look for something a little more remote and “family unfriendly” next time.

We clocked 8 miles on the Sleeping Beauty Trail…

…and 4 miles on the Prospect Mountain Trail.

Prospect Mountain Summit
The Lowes at Prospect Mountain summit

Our base camp on this stop was at Ledgeview Village RV Park.  Click here if you would like to see Steve’s review of this excellent campground.  We were excited to meet fellow campers who were from a town very near our home in Tracy, CA.

Ledgeview RV Park
Spacious sites

 



 

Fascinating Death Valley – you gotta go here!

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

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – Pristine Mountain Wilderness

Our trip into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was a real eye-opener.  We thought Yellowstone was big – this park is 6 times larger!  It’s America’s largest National Park at 13.2 million acres, and it holds 9 of the 16 highest mountain peaks in the U.S.  Vast is the correct term for this park, and yet it is one of the least-visited in the country.

There are no designated campgrounds here, and most “accommodations” are simple wilderness camping with no permits required.  However, folks are required to use the provided National Park approved bear-resistant food containers.

Mt Wrangell, Alaska
That huge snow-covered mountain is Mt. Wrangell

Due to its massive size there is no realistic way to experience all or even most of this park within a reasonable amount of time.  There are only 2 primitive gravel roads into the park, and it takes several hours on either one of them before you come to a place where you can even begin to explore.

The only way to enjoy a short trip here is to fly in for your adventure.  Did someone say fly?  We’re up for that!  We took a 30-minute flight into the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains, to the remote town of McCarthy.

At the McCarthy airport (Cessna 206 used for the flight), Alaska
At the McCarthy airport (a Cessna 206 was used for the flight)

During the flight we were awed with the park’s vastness, and astonishing views of the highest peaks, massive glaciers and pure wilderness.

Mt Blackburn, Alaska
Mt. Blackburn

We skirted around the major peaks of Mt. Sanford (16,237 ft), Mt. Drum (12,010ft), Mt. Wrangell (14,163ft) and Mt. Blackburn (16,390ft).

Stairway Ice Fall, Alaska
Stairway Ice Fall

We flew over Root Glacier, Stairway Icefall and Kennicott Glacier, and along the wide rocky moraine.  Even from the plane we saw only a tiny section of this park.  Incredible!

Kennicott Glacier, Alaska
Just your average 25-mile long glacier (Kennicott)

Flying into the park allowed us to spend most of the day exploring the remote towns of McCarthy and Kennecott.  Kennecott originated with the establishment of the Kennecott Mines Company in the early 1900’s.  During those years, nearby McCarthy grew as a town that provided illicit products and services such as alcohol and prostitution, which were forbidden in the mining town.

Today, McCarthy’s population consists of only 51 brave permanent residents.  Kennecott and McCarthy have no central water, sewer or electrical systems.  Generators provide power, and water is pumped from wells or hauled by hand.  The remoteness, historical buildings and magnificent scenery are what continue to draw most visitors to this place.

Kennecott Copper Mill, the building on the hill to the right is huge!, Alaska
The huge complex of wooden buildings on the hill comprise the Kennecott Copper Mill

There was a very interesting copper processing mill in Kennicott which is the most popular attraction here.  Built in 1907, the mill is a complex of wooden barn-red buildings.  Today, many of them are unstable and in the process of being re-vamped by the Park Service, but several are open for the public to check out.

The film at the Visitor’s Center was a great place to start, as we learned how the very high-content copper ore was discovered, followed by the massive effort it took to construct a mill in the wilderness.  A 200-mile railroad to the nearest port in Cordova was also built at the time.

The area’s copper-rich history is celebrated as a National Historic Landmark and is part of the the National Park Service system.

Kennecott mill,Alaska
Part of the Kennecott Mill complex which is being “stabilized” after many years of neglect.  Workers and their families basically walked away from this town in 1938 when the company shut down their operations

We followed a trail out to Root Glacier, which along with Kennicott Glacier has dumped massive dirt and gravel flows through the nearby valley.  It was incredible to stand near the flows and listen to the cracking ice and dirt in front of us as far as the eye could see.   This mass of material is continually melting and moving very slowly down the valley.

Hiking to Root Glacier, Alaska
Hiking to Root Glacier

We think flying in and out of the park was a good decision, since it gave us fantastic views of 16,000-foot peaks, massive glaciers and icefalls.  We talked to a man and his daughter who had backpacked in the park for a week, and they told us they were only able to see a tiny fraction of it.  Did I mention this place is VAST?

Our base camp for this stop was at Kenney Lake RV and Mercantile park.

This was a wonderful stop that we’re glad we made.  The cost of the flight was well worth it, as we were able to see so much beauty from the air.  And the relaxing day in these remote towns really got us to thinking about what a life out here might be like.  We highly recommend this trip!