Invaders – pests in the southwest

Tumbleweed by Jez Arnold

A tumbleweed (or Russian thistle) by Jez Arnold

I never imagined that tumbleweed, the iconic extra in any western movie, is actually an ‘obnoxious weed’, to quote from a sign at Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada.

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Russian thistle at Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada.

Tumbleweeds are the seed dispersing stage of ‘Russian thistle’ a plant that is bright green until after it has flowered. In autumn it dries out, breaks away from its roots and ‘tumbles’ through the landscape spreading more than 250,000 seeds per plant. It probably arrived from the Ural Mountains of Russia via flaxseed imported to South Dakota by Ukrainian farmers in the early 1870s and by the early 1900s had spread to most of the western states. Russian thistle thrives in disturbed soil, requires very little moisture and has proliferated amazingly well.

Kiwis know all about issues with introduced pests in New Zealand and the country spends millions of dollars a year trying to save our vulnerable species but I hadn’t expected to find similar problems in the USA.

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A small tamarisk tree beside the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

And Russian thistle wasn’t the only unwelcome intruder that we saw. Almost as ubiquitous was Tamarisk (or salt cedar), a tree native to Asia which was introduced as an ornamental and for erosion control particularly along stream banks where it has been spectacularly successful. It can spread along riverbanks at an estimated speed of 20 kilometres per year! It also very effectively suppresses the growth of other plants by excreting salt which makes the ground beneath it unbearable for seedlings of other species. And if that wasn’t enough, it drinks a lot of water! Mature trees can have roots at least 30 metres below the soil surface and these suck up water which native plants and animals need.

It is one of the world’s super-plants and is tough to get rid of. If it is cut down it can regrow shoots 40 centimetres long in two weeks and can be more than two metres tall in two years. If you burn it, it grows back. In order to try and control it the tamarisk beetle has been imported to the US. So far they have only eaten tamarisk and over several years can kill a tamarisk tree by continually eating its foliage and stopping the tree photosynthesizing.

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Tamarisk or saltcedar beetle. They were introduced in 1999 and are now found on about 10 million acres of land in Utah and Colorado.

The beetles seem to be working in some areas but meddling with eco-systems is never straight forward. Stands of dead tamarisk are a fire hazard and have to be manually cleared and it takes a while for other plants (hopefully native but often not) to recolonize the areas. During this time other plants and animals suffer from the effects of things such as stream-side erosion and lack of shelter and nesting spots.

We spent quite a bit of time getting acquainted with the amazing Colorado River and couldn’t help but be impressed with this mighty river and fascinated (and somewhat horrified) by the many different ways that its water is being used.

We learned that the native fish of the Colorado River are ‘one of the most bizarre and unusual faunas found anywhere in the world’ and that many of them are endemic to that particular river system.  Dams and introduced fish (such as Asian carp, introduced as a food source) are having a huge effect on the 14 native fish species which include native carp, minnows and suckers and the astonishing Colorado pikeminnow which can grow up to 2 metres long – or used to.

NZ mudsnails

Of special interest (and slight embarrassment) to us was the problems being caused by New Zealand mudsnails. Yes, I know! Who would think that a native animal that most of us have never heard of would be causing problems overseas. They were first discovered in Idaho in 1987 and have spread widely, probably being dispersed by birds as well as fishermen. It was sobering to realise the extent of problems caused by both the deliberate and accidental introduction of non-native species in a robust country like the USA and that even something like the New Zealand mudsnail which is innocuous in an ecologicaly vulnerable country like New Zealand can be a pest overseas.

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The Colorado River at Lees Ferry, not far below Glen Canyon Dam. New Zealand mudsnails were first found here in 2002.

 

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Trip Highlights – part 2

This posting shows some more of the highlights in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and the start of our California experience. Of course it is hard to choose the photos that best show how it is, as I can’t show the sounds, the smells and the general feeling of a place. These will have to suffice in the meantime.

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Finally we've seen a black bear - this one at Bearizona near Williams in Arizona. The bears in this enclosure were sick of being gawked at by people in cars and were ready to hibernate, unlike the cubs in another enclosure who seemed full of energy.

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An antelope squirrel at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, spread-eagled next to our picnic table. Not sure if it was cooling itself on the shaded concrete or marking or what?!

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Observation Point, Zion National Park. This was an amazing climb up from the valley floor through about four different landscapes; cliff, canyon, valley walls and finally mesa top - fantastic! We started at about 7.30am and were the fourth group to arrive but the way down was a very busy experience.

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Just downstream from The Narrows, Zion National Park Utah.

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Eddie on petrified sand dunes at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah. The canyon was named after a person, I can't imagine that it ever gets snow.

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Looking down on Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California. We couldn't drive through the basin as the road had been damaged by flooding - you can see water in the basin which is usually a dry salt flat.

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Coyote in Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park. We've been enchanted by our few glimpses of these wily animals and we've often heard them at night. They are amazing survivors and despite the fact that more than 100,000 of them a year are killed (shot, poisoned etc) they are holding their own.

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Manzanar National Historic site, California, remembers the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese (both US citizens and those born in Japan) after the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in 1942. Manzanar, in Eastern California, was one of 10 camps built to house families uprooted with short notice (most had only two weeks to sell their property and pack what they could carry). The interpretation centre and replica barracks are very good and the experience was moving, sobering and occasionally harrowing and was a reminder of the fragility of human rights in the face of hysteria.

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Interpretation panel in the toilets (or should I say restrooms) at Manzanar National Historic Site - brilliant!

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And on a lighter note, Eddie and the 'stang at Red Rock Canyon State Park, California.

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Trip highlights – part 1

It’s been a real challenge to find time to get the blogs that I want to write finished because there is so much to see and do. In the meantime I thought I would put together a selection of photos of trip highlights with brief captions. This is a wonderful country to explore!

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The Colorado River from Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah.

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On a ranger-led hike through the restricted Fiery Furnace area at Arches National Park, Utah.

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Eddie at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. We went early in the morning to avoid the crowds so the light wasn't brilliant for photos but it was definitely worth seeing.

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Petroglpys at Newspaper Rock, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

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Our favourite fire-ring so far - Devils Canyon Campground, Utah.

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Sivapapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument - from above.

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And from below. We had a great hike up a canyon travelling under another two bridges.

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Eddie at Goosenecks State Park, San Juan River, Utah.

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Monument Valley (of course!), Navajo Tribal Park.

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Best picnic spot so far, South Rim of Grand Canyon, Arizona.

It’s hard to show everything, but hopefully you can get an idea of what we are seeing – lots of very cool scenery.

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The Great Depression & the great outdoors.

While travelling along the very scenic highway 12 in south-west Utah we stopped for lunch at the small town of Escalante. In the restaurant was an unattributed list of the 15 best drives in the world. US highway 12 between Panguitch and Torrey was ranked as the second best drive scenic drive in the world but guess what was ranked number one? The Milford road in New Zealand. After pausing for a moment to feel a pulse of pride I realised that both of these roads had been built by work schemes during the Great Depression and wondered how much tourism and public access in both countries owes to the Great Depression? In the US it appears that it is quite a lot.

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Water tower at Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada, built by the CCC.

During the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a public work relief programme. To sign-up men had to be between the ages of 17 & 28, be unmarried and from families receiving government relief. They fought forest fires, planted trees and built roads, trails and recreation facilities on public lands. For this they were paid $30 a month and had to send $25 of that home to their families. Part of what is now US highway 12, connecting the then remote towns of Escalante and Boulder, was built by the CCC between 1935 and 1940. The road travels through an amazing landscape of mostly solid rock and required enormous effort, ingenuity and ‘tons of dynamite.’ The men who worked on it nick-named it the ‘Million Dollar Road.’

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Eddie at a scenic overlook on highway 12 - the road snakes away into the distance

Esclante’s economy was initially based on farming but by 1910 the native grasses were ‘gone forever’ due to overgrazing. Interest then turned to mining and logging but these industries came to a close with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (the country’s largest outside of Alaska) in 1996. Locals were furious and public ‘hangings’ of Clinton were carried out but the town seems to have settled into providing services for visitors. We were a little startled to see a ranger fully armed and wearing a flak jacket at the Monument visitor centre so perhaps things are not quite as calm as they seem?

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A viewpoint built by CCC along the North Rim of Grand Canyon - no doubt without today's safety measures

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A view from the North Rim of Grand Canyon

At many of the state parks, national monuments and national parks that we’ve gone to we’ve seen some amazing work done by these men under what must have been pretty tough working conditions. Although they probably wouldn’t be built today, given that we tend not to dynamite and concrete things in national parks, the tunnels and switchbacks at Bryce Canyon National Park, for example, give access to the wonderland of hoodoos and spires below the rim and really enhanced our experience of the park.

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A tunnel on the Peekaboo Trail at Bryce Canyon

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One of the two switchbacks that provide access down the near vertical descent below the rim.

At the wonderful Colorado National Monument, which really is a park that you drive around, the road which affords tourists such fantastic views was built by the CCC. The road climbs up from the plains below via switchbacks and tunnels and then hugs the edge of cliffs until it descends again at the other end of the park.

The work was not done without significant human cost though and this is acknowledged at Colorado National Monument with a panel (shown below) detailing the deaths of nine men in a single accident. Again, this has echoes of the Milford Road.

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It is hard not to be impressed with what has been achieved and be glad, that although this work probably wouldn’t be undertaken today, that it was done. Mostly the work as been done sympathetically using local materials and has provided access to many scenic wonders. The ease of access has created its own problems though and I think it is a good thing that no more roads and structures are being built. There is still wilderness here for people who are willing to make the effort to get to it.

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The Great Depression & the great outdoors.

While travelling along the very scenic highway 12 in south-west Utah we stopped for lunch at the small town of Escalante. In the restaurant was an unattributed list of the 15 best drives in the world. US highway 12 between Panguitch and Torrey was ranked as the second best drive scenic drive in the world but guess what was ranked number one? The Milford road in New Zealand. After pausing for a moment to feel a pulse of pride I realised that both of these roads had been built by work schemes during the Great Depression and wondered how much tourism and public access in both countries owes to the Great Depression? In the US it appears that it is quite a lot.

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Water tower at Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada, built by the CCC.

During the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a public work relief programme. To sign-up men had to be between the ages of 17 & 28, be unmarried and from families receiving government relief. They fought forest fires, planted trees and built roads, trails and recreation facilities on public lands. For this they were paid $30 a month and had to send $25 of that home to their families. Part of what is now US highway 12, connecting the then remote towns of Escalante and Boulder, was built by the CCC between 1935 and 1940. The road travels through an amazing landscape of mostly solid rock and required enormous effort, ingenuity and ‘tons of dynamite.’ The men who worked on it nick-named it the ‘Million Dollar Road.’

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Eddie at a scenic overlook on highway 12 - the road snakes away into the distance

Esclante’s economy was initially based on farming but by 1910 the native grasses were ‘gone forever’ due to overgrazing. Interest then turned to mining and logging but these industries came to a close with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (the country’s largest outside of Alaska) in 1996. Locals were furious and public ‘hangings’ of Clinton were carried out but the town seems to have settled into providing services for visitors. We were a little startled to see a ranger fully armed and wearing a flak jacket at the Monument visitor centre so perhaps things are not quite as calm as they seem?

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A viewpoint built by CCC along the North Rim of Grand Canyon - no doubt without today's safety measures

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A view from the North Rim of Grand Canyon

At many of the state parks, national monuments and national parks that we’ve gone to we’ve seen some amazing work done by these men under what must have been pretty tough working conditions. Although they probably wouldn’t be built today, given that we tend not to dynamite and concrete things in national parks, the tunnels and switchbacks at Bryce Canyon National Park, for example, give access to the wonderland of hoodoos and spires below the rim and really enhanced our experience of the park.

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A tunnel on the Peekaboo Trail at Bryce Canyon

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One of the two switchbacks that provide access down the near vertical descent below the rim.

At the wonderful Colorado National Monument, which really is a park that you drive around, the road which affords tourists such fantastic views was built by the CCC. The road climbs up from the plains below via switchbacks and tunnels and then hugs the edge of cliffs until it descends again at the other end of the park.

The work was not done without significant human cost though and this is acknowledged at Colorado National Monument with a panel (shown below) detailing the deaths of nine men in a single accident. Again, this has echoes of the Milford Road.

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It is hard not to be impressed with what has been achieved and be glad, that although this work probably wouldn’t be undertaken today, that it was done. Mostly the work as been done sympathetically using local materials and has provided access to many scenic wonders. The ease of access has created its own problems though and I think it is a good thing that no more roads and structures are being built. There is still wilderness here for people who are willing to make the effort to get to it.

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Colour Country – southwest Utah

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Cedar Breaks National Monument - a fantastic world of colour.

Since we arrived in southwest Utah we have been astounded by the colours of the landscape and the quality of the hiking. The colours are the result of the layers of mostly iron-rich rock and the many years of erosion that the layers of different hardnesses of rocks have endured. The fantastic hiking is the result of the lack of biting insects, consistently good weather, clear open trails and wonderful vistas.

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It was less than 10 degrees C at Cedar Breaks - not quite what we've got used to.

The altitude at Cedar Breaks National Monument (the trees are cedars and the ‘breaks’ are the edges of the cliffs) is about 10,500 ft (3,200m) and the air here was brisk! There are some great viewpoints and a couple of short hikes but to get amongst the spires and hoodoos we had to wait until we got to Bryce Canyon National Park.

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Bryce Canyon National Park - an amazing collection of colour & form.

Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon at all but a row of eroded ampitheatres along about 30 kilometres of a plateau which is about 2,750 metres high at the highest end. Some of the rock layers are quite soft and erode rapidly. The hoodoos and spires are formed when a cap of harder rock protects the layers underneath from erosion.

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Bryce Canyon, below the rim and amongst the hoodoos.

What is special about Bryce Canyon is the fact that you can get down below the rim and amongst the rocks on a series of fantastic trails built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s (I will write more about the CCCs in a later blog). You can see one of the trails below in the photo Eddie took through a window in a fin of rock. All of the trails start with a descent, which is great fun, but end with a steep but well graded climb back up to the rim. It was busy at Bryce so we left for our walks very early and it was always a shock to meet the hordes of people just below the rim (some of whom were struggling to get back up) and the bus-loads of tourists at the rim viewpoints.

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Eddie's clever photo on the Peekaboo Trail, Bryce Canyon.

Our next major park was Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of Utah’s five national parks. The park consists of a 160 kilometre long mono-cline thrust up by movement in the earth’s crust. It is called a reef because it was an impenetrable barrier to early travellers and capitol because one of the whitish domes of Navajo sandstone looks like the US Capitol building in Washington.

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Rock colours at Capitol Reef, Navajo sandstone is on the top of the ridge while in the background is a cliff of red wingate sandstone.

Capitol Reef is definitely a park for hikers. There is a scenic drive but this hardly gives you an idea of the beauty of the park. We did two wonderful walks and hope to come back one day with a 4WD so that we can access more. Our first was an 18 kilometre hike from the campground to Cassidy Arch which traversed up and down rock platforms, gullies and a canyon.

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Looking down on the scenic drive from the 'Frying Pan' trail to Cassidy Arch.

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Eddie on Cassidy Arch, supposedly visited by Butch Cassidy.

We finished our exploration of Capitol Reef with a hike through Grand Wash and then a quick jaunt to see Hickman Bridge (photos below) before heading north to meet the Colorado River again.

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Grand Wash, Capitol Reef National Park. A wash it were water flows when it rains but otherwise it is dry.

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Hickman Bridge, 37 metres high and hard to photograph!

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Water that was – experiences in California & Nevada

So far everywhere that we’ve travelled has been in the grip of a drought. In California the snow-pack last winter was only five per cent of usual so there has been no snow melt to refill the reservoirs. There are signs everywhere exhorting people to conserve water and locals that we’ve spoken to about it are very weary and seem to feel that rain is never going to come. In northern Nevada questions are being asked about how much water the dairying industry consumes which has echoes of the debate in Canterbury, which does look at bit like Nevada in places. There are irrigated green fields in amongst the brown so there still water coming from somewhere for some people. All of this does give Eddie a chance to use his favourite conversation opener – questions about the weather.

In eastern California Mono Lake has suffered from years of water extraction for irrigation. In 1994 it was agreed that extraction would be reduced to allow the lake to return to 1961 levels but it is now a long way below even the 1994 level. The photo shows Eddie heading down to the lake somewhere near the 1994 level. The remarkable tufa towers used to be in the lake.

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Mono Lake

Lake Washoe (east of Lake Tahoe) is a startling illustration of how dry things are. The lake is 6.5 kms long and more than 3 kms wide and is normally about 3.5 metres deep. At the moment it is a meadow and the photo below shows Eddie & I on the ‘lakeshore’. The lake also disappeared in 1990s and early 2000s.  Washoe Lake is an important stop for migratory birds and also has a population of shellfish and I imagine fish and other animals. I wonder how long it takes them to come back, especially the shellfish who can’t move here very easily. The lake drying up is not a new thing though, as evidenced by sand-dunes made over thousands of years during dry periods.

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Washoe Lake

After Washoe Lake we’d planned to stay at Lake Lahotan, a reservoir further east but it is now a large brown puddle and not an attractive proposition at all. The next day (after overnighting in our first RV park) we stopped at Grimes Point Archeological Area, one of the largest petroglyph (rock art) sites in the US with the art work in the photo below believed to be about 6,000 years old. Until about 10,000 years ago much of Nevada was covered by vast lakes and Lake Lahotan once reached this far (about 35 kms away from the brown puddle) and Grimes Point was a rocky peninsula. The old lake levels can be seen below the two pointed hills in the distance. Today Grimes Point is in the middle of a dry area near Fallon and while we were there we were deafenened by fighter jets taking off from the airbase nearby.

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Eddie at Grimes Point with rock-art

We travelled through Nevada’s dry back-country to reach Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. The attraction here was the chance to see fossils of this strange dolphin like creature, a reptile that roamed the seas at the time of dinosaurs. Ichthyosaur fossils are found all over the world but the specimans found at this site are the largest – about 15 metres long. The site of the remains have been preserved in a ‘fossil house’ which Eddie and I had a tour of for the princely sum of $3 each. Thanks Ranger Mike.

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An artist's representation of a 15m long ichthyosaur

In the same state park is the ghost town of Berlin, established in 1896 to exploit silver. It lasted until 1911 by which time nearly five kilometres of tunnels had been built and $849,000 of silver extracted. I am not sure what that would equate to in today’s money. We’d been hoping to explore the Diana Mine but a flash-flood about three weeks before had filled the mine with silt. Sadly the flood had also flowed through some of the buildings and, as there didn’t appear to much money being spent in the park, it didn’t seem likely it would be removed.

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One of the gullies that provided a shute for floodwaters

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The Berlin Mill where the ore was processed

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Mrs Steven's house at Berlin

Apart from the damage caused it’s hard to believe that there’s been  much rain. Most of Nevada consists of unestimatable acres of hardy sage brush. I like Nevada, it’s empty and stark and has fantastic and varied rock formations. But despite a lot of mining activity rural areas are suffering and we saw lots of abandoned buildings and many small towns seemed to be barely clinging on. And while I like the balmy Nevada evenings, it’s been really hot (37 at Fallon) so I’m looking forward to cooler temperatures on the higher plateaus in Utah and Arizona.

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