A week in the Sierra Nevadas

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Secret Lake, near Leavitt Meadows, east of Sonora Pass.

After a great experience picking up our ‘Minnie Winnie’ from Apollo RV at San Leandro (near San Francisco), and despite horrendous head-colds, Eddie and I bravely set out for the mountains. First we had to stock up with supplies so by the time we left the outskirts it was late but Eddie did a fantastic job driving to the maximum speed limits all the way so that we got to Calaveras Big Trees State Park campground by dusk.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and preserves two magnificent groves of giant sequoia – the world’s largest trees (in volume). They are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and can live for up to 3000 years. The trees are truly impressive – the one in the photo below had a diameter of about 30ft. We’d struck a heat-wave in San Franciso (30 degrees instead of the 17 degrees it was last time we were there in August) and it was no cooler at Big Trees, in fact it was 31 degrees in the shade at 4.15pm. One the walk around the North Grove we saw a woman running (!) back to the visitor centre to get help for her mother and aunt who were 80 & 85 and couldn’t walk any further. A woman in another group commented to us that as there wasn’t mobile phone coverage ‘they’ should really have panic buttons along the trail which is a 1.5 hour basically flat walk.

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A giant sequoia, Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

From Big Trees, despite warnings about narrow roads & tight bends, we headed along  state highway 4 up and over Ebbetts Pass which was a great drive through glacier sculpted granite country and volanic rock. It is not for vehicles over 25ft long though – we are 22ft long and quite tall and wide.

We were planning to visit the eastern side of Yosemite  National Park but the campground had been evacuated as a precaution against the plague. Two dead animals had been found with the plague and the danger was that fleas from the animals could infect humans. Thank goodness that we don’t have to worry about the plague in NZ – there are signs about it in all the campgrounds here. A major pesticide spraying operation was being undertaken at Tuolumne Meadows (where there is a 300 site National Park campground) and Mono Lake (more on that later) was awash with displaced RVers. It was very hot and we knew that we’d never find a campsite with shade so we decided to back-track and head back into the mountains, this time on state highway 108 over Sonora Pass.

This was our highest pass so far at 9628ft (2934m) and the big Ford engine handled it beautifully. It’s a long drive and the road must have been incredibly hard to build. The altitude was noticeable to us and it would be under snow for months while in the summer it’s very hot. After the discovery of Comstock Lode (silver & gold) in Nevada there was a rush east from California. Sonora Pass was opened as a pack track in 1862 and was a road by 1865 – an amazing achievement.

We stayed three nights at Dardanelle to try and let our colds run their course and then retraced our steps, this time stopping at the pass for a short walk along the Pacific Crest Trail which crosses the road at this point. Up here the landscape is volcanic as these rocks stood higher than the eroding glaciers that created the bare granite landscape at lower elevations.

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The vista from near Sonora Pass, note the volcanic rock

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Walker River below Sonora Pass, back in granite country

We finished our Sierra Nevada experience with our first hike, leaving Leavitt Meadows at 7.00am to beat the heat. Our destination was Secret Lake (photo at top). We heard a siren as we were returning to the campground and later heard that there is usually an accident a day on the Sonora Pass road and that a team of paramedics is kept on standby at the nearby Marine Mountain Training Base.

Nearly everyone here is mad on fishing with the popularity of a campground pretty much solely based on its proxmity to water. We’ve seen people fishing surprisingly small streams and wondered why they bothered. The mystery was explained on our last morning in the Sierra Nevadas when what looked like a water-tank truck came through the campground. Our neighbour Ray explained that it was delivering fish for the river. We thought they’d be juveniles but no, they are big fish, really big fish! Eddie and I disagree on the exact size (of course) but they were probably about 500mm long. Eddie wished Ray good luck with the fishing but Ray said that it wasn’t fishing, he’d be ‘just hauling them in.’ We saw the truck again further down the road and they were scooping out net loads of really big fish out of the tank and dropping them off the bridge into what I would call a creek. I wonder how long they survive if they are not caught?

From here we are heading into Nevada which is in the grip of a serious drought, in fact I don’t think it has rained there since we last visited three years ago.

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Exploring southwest USA

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon

After having such a fabulous time in 2012, we’re about to do it again – only this time for longer.

Eddie & I were enraptured by the grandeur of the scenery and the fascinating geology on our last visit and on the itinerary this time is Nevada (again – we really like it and this time we’ll do the alien highway), a thorough exploration of southern Utah, a few more places in southwest Colorado, Arizona (including both rims of Grand Canyon), maybe New Mexico (if time allows) and then we’ll loop back to San Francisco through southern California including the Mohave Desert and Death Valley.

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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

We learned such a lot on our last visit including an appreciation of the vastness of the USA and the complexity of it. We were impressed by the quality of the camping grounds in national and state parks, how polite people were, the excellent visitor centres, the ancientness of the landscape and were especially moved by the very old native American sites and stories of their more recent hardships.

Surprises were the fact that the US has problems with introduced pests (including NZ mudsnails) and the impunity with which native animals are killed. We saw many celebratory photographs in gas stations and the like of people posing with cougars, bears and other animals that they had killed. In NZ our native animals are so vulnerable and we spend a lot of time and money looking after them (mostly) so killing native animals for sport seemed odd to us. I am cheered to see that California has just out-lawed trapping bobcats for fur.

After collecting an RV (no station-wagon for us this time) we’ll be heading across the Sierra Nevada mountains on our way to Nevada. I’ll be posting about the interesting things that we discover – I’d love you to join us.

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Left to right; Black Canyon of Gunnison NP, Yellowstone NP, Canyonlands NP, Eddie attacking a bear.

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Travelling America’s Pacific Rim of Fire

Nearing McKenzie Pass, Cascade Mountains, Oregon

After our sojourn in the desert and prairies of eastern Oregon we drove west to the Cascade Mountains. These are part of the ring of volanoes and mountains that make up the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’.  As usual we skipped the towns and headed to the forest but we had some difficulty finding a decent camping spot, eventually finding one at the fourth campground we tried which was the last on the road that runs alongside the Metolius River near the tourist town of Sisters. The campgrounds were busy and many sites were reserved, obviously in preparation for the upcoming Labour Weekend when literally everybody seems to have their last summer holiday. We started out early the next morning so we could drive the Santiam/Mckenzie Pass loop and still get to a campground before it was too late in the day and we missed out. We squeezed in a fantastic walk through forest (a bit of a novelty on this trip) to waterfalls on the McKenzie River which were tumbling over basalt ledges.

Mckenzie River near Koosah Falls, Oregon.

We should have stopped at the Lava Lands Visitor Centre but we were worried about a campsite so we drove straight on to Newberry National Monument, which is the largest caldera in the Cascades volanic arc. Inside it are two lakes (Paulina and East) which were probably orginally one but were divided by deposits of pumice and lava. The oldest lava flows here are 400,000 years old but the youngest was formed only 1,300 years ago. We get a campsite by driving to the farthest campground (there are four).On the way in we stop at the Visitor Centre and Ranger Terra (who is a real treasure) shows Eddie how to fold the American flag, it must be folded in a particular way so that when it is done 13 stars (representing the first 13 states) are showing. We comment on the fact that we see the American flag everywhere and Terra tells us that most Americans treat the flag like a person (obviously a very well respected person).

Eddie & Ranger Terra folding the U.S. flag, Newberry National Monument.

Next day we walk the Lake Paulina circuit (7.5 miles) and then head on to ‘Big Obsidian Flow’ (which is the bit that appeared 1,300 years ago) where we have a good view of Lake Paulina after we’ve tired of marvelling at the glass-like and amazingly jagged flow. Native Americans travelled here to collect obsidian to make knives and tools and apparently an archaeologist was so impressed with how sharp and smooth obsidian edges were that he had scalpels made and instructed a surgeon to use them on him with exceptional results.

Lake Paulina, Newberry National Monument.

Big Obsidian Flow.

From Newberry we headed towards our next geological feature Crater Lake but first we stopped in La Pine for breakfast at Gordy’s Diner (a truckstop) where Eddie had the best steak of the trip.

Queuing to get into Crater Lake National Park, I think we had to wait 20-30 minutes to get to the head of the line.

After queuing to get into Crater Lake National Park the actual road through the park wasn’t too busy but the crowds at each overlook were pretty big and when we got to Rim Village it was all rather overwhelming. Well, we had to be somewhere for Labour Weekend but this certainly wasn’t the best place. Crater Lake is extraordinarily beautiful (I can see why it is so popular) but the crowds were not. All the accommodation options were full so we high-tailed it out of there. We’ll return someday to do some of the hikes, but not on a holiday weekend!

Crater Lake – the result of a massive eruption 7,700 years ago which left a basin where a peak used to be. Rain and snow filled the basin and the water is exceptionally clear.

As we drove south place after place had no vacancy signs out but we lucked into a cottage near Klamath Lake which had a huge bathroom and (oh joy) an oven – Eddie was missing his roast potatoes. We had lovely views of the mountains across the lake and could hear coyotes singing in the distance although we didn’t see any.

The view from the cottage in evening light – nice

Suitably restored by showers, foot-scrubs, roasted potatoes and sleeping in a decent-sized bed we carried on south through the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which was very dry although when there was water there were thousands of birds, to Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. You might think that would have had enough lava by now but we were finding it all fascinating and loved the wide vistas that these sparsely vegetated areas gave us. Lava Beds are part of the Medicine Lake Volcano which over a million years has created endless miles of volcanic stuff. The last eruption was 1,100 years ago but it is now considered dormant.

Lava Beds National Monument from Fleener Chimneys

I was especially keen to see Captain Jack’s Stronghold, an area of lava flow where Kientpoos (Captain Jack) and 150 of his Modoc people held off the U.S. Army for five months. The story goes like this (it may sound familiar). Settlers wanted to take up land around Lake Tule and in 1864 the Modoc were asked to give up their homeland and live on a reservation near Klamath Lake. On the reservation tensions between the Modoc and the other tribes sent there and the shortage of supplies promised by the U.S. government led to the Modoc returning to their lands. The Army was ordered to return them to the reservation – by force if necessary – and a skirmish at Lost River resulted. Many Modoc fled to their traditional stronghold by Lake Tule, successfully rebutting the U.S. Army for five months until their water supply was cut off. They left in the dead of night and broke up into small groups but were later captured. Kientpoos and three other warriors were hanged and the rest of the men, women and children were sent to a reservation (at one point chained together in cattle cars) in Oklahoma, half a continent away.

Eddie on the trail through Captain Jack’s Stronghold

I know this now, but the interpretation at the site was coy about the eventual fate of the resistant Modocs. Neither the hangings or the exile were mentioned. This wasn’t the first time that we’d noticed this kind of reticence. Many information panels started with details of the original inhabitants and how they lived but then jumped to the life of the later white settlers without mentioning how the settlers acquired the land or the fate of the native Americans whose home it was. I got cross about this a few times but at this site in particular.

Aside from being the scene of the Modoc’s resistance Lava Beds is also well known for its enormous number and variety of lava tubes. We explored a few, some of whose entrances were adorned by pictographs painted by the previous inhabitants who used the caves for special cultural ceremonies. Some of the caves were very rough, some had ice at the bottom (!) but our favourite was Valentine Cave (found on that day) which was wonderfully smooth.

Just inside the entrance of Valentine Cave, Lava Beds National Monument.

After Lava Beds we headed south along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. The road was an interesting succession of gravel washboard, seal with enormous gouges in it (snow plough?), wide asphalt, single lane but sealed and finally a two lane sealed road of average quality. By looking at the map we could see that the road quality depended on who was responsible for it and presumably how much budget they had left that year.

Our best lunch spot – Lake Helen with Lassen Peak in the background

Our next ring of fire stop was Lassen Volanic National Park which erupted energetically between 1914 and 1921. The park had only recently re-opened after being evacuated due to forest fires and we drove through some of the damage (no stopping allowed). The trail up Lassen Peak was closed for trackwork to make it safer after a boy was killed by a rock-wall collapse in 2009 so we’ll have to do it next time. Instead we hiked into Bumpass Hell, (named after an early guide, Kendall Bumpass, who fell into a pool and burned his leg), an amazing thermal area with the hottest steam vent in the world that’s not actually in an erupting volcano (161 degrees C). There are lots of things named hell or devil in volcanic areas.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

We’d love to have spent more time at Lassen, there’s lots to explore, but we needed to start making tracks back to San Francisco and our flight home. We spent a couple of very hot days on the gold-fields where I lamented the fact that there is so little to see on the ground and that everything was closed (most things were only open Thursday to Sunday even during the summer). Plumas-Eureka State Park was excellent (hard rock mining but also the birth-place of skiing in North America).

Rock Lake, Eureka State Forest.

We also went to the site of Marshall’s 1849 discovery of gold in a sawmill tail-race which started the whole California gold-rush. Great museum but most of the buildings were closed and the actual discovery site was a little underwhelming.

The site of the first discovery of gold (by Europeans) in California – 1849.

We stayed in a brilliant little cottage to relax and pack (which took a while) and then drove to San Francisco to begin our journey home after a fantastic trip – reflections will be next up.

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You can’t pump your own gas in Oregon

When we arrived in Baker City, Oregon, we managed to get a ‘parlour suite’ at the Geiser Grand Hotel. This fantastic old hotel, which was built in 1889 during a gold-mining boom, was going to be demolished to make room for a carpark but was rescued, restored and re-opened in 1993. The view in the photo is looking down to the dining room from the second floor (where our room was) and at the top you see the amazing stained glass ceiling which is the largest in the northwest. The hotel is very ornate with lots of crystal chandeliers and we loved it! So do lots of other people as the hotel is booked out despite the very slow tourist season that is being experienced in America.

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After a shower to wash off all the dust we had a very civilised dinner in the restaurant before enjoying the luxury of a bed wider than 1.2m. Next morning we headed out to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretation Centre. I knew that settlers headed west to Oregon to find land but otherwise I’m pretty vague about the story and significance of the trail. The Centre turned out to be a great way to rectify my ignorance. We can tell that the day was going to be hot so we started with a walk down to see a section of the actual trail and some historic wheel ruts. The heat, the dust and the tiny wagon certainly made us start thinking about the travellers’ trials – it turns out that we were visiting at pretty much the same time that they passed this spot, if all had gone well during their journey.

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Inside the centre we followed a kind of time-line of the trip which started with some marvellous stuffed oxen and then moved on to details of the dust, deaths and experiences of those who made the trip. It seems that the trip wasn’t so bad for men who experienced quite a lot of freedom and camaraderie during the trip (and might have occasionally had a good time) while for the women it looked like an unending nightmare as they worked endlessly to maintain standards, trying (hopelessly) to keep everything clean, cooking meals on fires fueled with ox dung and sage bush, mending, sewing, caring for children and walking about 20 kms per day – the wagons were only for carrying their worldly goods.

The journey from the east took about six months and by the time they reached this point in Oregon they had nearly made it. About 400,000 people made the 3,200 km journey from the Missouri River from the 1830s to 1869 (when a railroad was completed) and the death rate was about four per cent. Especially poignant was the interactive next to a child’s musical instrument which invited you to consider whether you should take it with you on your trip. Initially it was a good idea because your child had something to amuse themselves with and could join in any musical evenings but it was no longer useful after the nine year old girl who owned it died on the journey.

After enjoying the luxuries of the Geiser Grand for another night we headed further West into Oregon. But first we had to fuel up and you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon. This is a state law aimed at preserving jobs and at Baker City it was fine, they filled the car, cleaned the wind-screen and you paid inside but at other places it was a bit farcical. At most gas stations you can card-pay at the pump and in a couple of cases you’d get out of the car, open the fuel cap, put in your card, punch in the numbers and then wait for the attendant to come and put the nozzle into the tank, then you’d wait for them to take it out before you could drive away. The good attendants (as in NZ) were ambassadors for their town, providing great information. Perhaps their wages should be subsidised by the local promotion association rather than through the higher price for gas – not that the price worried us, petrol was cheap!

Next stop was the Sumpter Valley Dredge, one of the largest in the USA. The dredge has been beautifully restored (see the after and before photos below) and was pretty cool – especially being able to walk around the machinery on what I can only think of calling the ground floor. No doubt someone will be able to tell me the proper term.

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After Sumpter we drove along more forested roads before coming to the ranchlands near Prairie City. Here a sign informed us that ranchers helped ‘feed the nation, preserve open spaces and provide a habitat for wildlife’ although I think by wildlife they don’t mean anything that would eat their stock, such as wolves, cougars or bears. We were most impressed with the nearby Strawberry Mountain (an old volcano) and vowed to return.

Our next destination was the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site which is a one of a kind place which features the stone building that housed the ‘Golden Flower of Prosperity’. The stone and wood building was built in about 1870, before the town which now surrounds it, by a Chinese businessman and was later owned for many years by Lung On (an urbane businessman) and Doc Hay (a medical man). After their deaths the building was closed up and ‘rediscovered’ in the mid-1970s when it was opened prior to being demolished. Locals were astonished to find the place still looked as if the proprietors had just popped out and visiting the building is a truly OMG experience – especially for me. I have never seen such an intact view of the day to day life of Chinese businessmen. The store, the apothecary, the kitchen with its enormous wok and piped running water, the smoke scarred ceilings, it really is an exceptional site.

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The nearby interpretation centre is really great too with information on the two remarkable men whose building it was. Naturally they were leaders of the local Chinese community (although they stayed longer than any of them) and acted as interpreters, bankers etc. I found the display (below) of a letter found in store and never sent very moving. I imagine that wife thought her husband had forgotten her.

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We stayed the night at Clyde Holliday State Park which is a great spot, lots of tree, grass (very rare in the desert) and cheap firewood. Eddie couldn’t resist buying some and from then on he was hooked and we had a fire most nights.

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Our last stop in this part of Oregon was the John Day Fossil Beds, one of the richest fossil beds on Earth. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Centre (named after the young minister who drew attention to the fossils in the 1860s) is brilliant, taking you through the 40 million years of the age of mammals using fossils and fantastic diaramas that show the different time zones and the wierd and wonderful creatures that lived during those times.

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As we drove west we called in to the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds which are described as ‘a gently contoured theater of geological change’. It was really the wrong time of day to visit (evening is best) but the hills were still pretty stunning. They are the result of volcanic ash settling over the area about 33 million years ago and eventually turning to clay and rock. Geological forces lifted and faulted the strata and erosion by rain has exposed the different layers. The different colours are the result of different soil formation; the red is rusty iron minerals oxidised by long exposure, the yellow is a mix of oxidised magnesium and iron and the black marks are rich with manganese. All errors in this interpretation are mine! However they were formed exactly, they are rather fantastic.

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Unfortunately this is where our 5 month old Canon S100 powershot camera decided to stop working – which was very sad. We still had our waterproof Pentax but we were going to miss the versatility of the Canon. Despite our period of mourning we still needed to keep heading west for our next geology lessons in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.

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Idaho – Craters of the Moon, Sawtooth Mountains and really good potatoes

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After Yellowstone National Park we headed down to Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idado which is described as the strangest 75 square miles in the US. When we arrived, after quite a long drive through land used by the Idaho National Laboratory (no admittance anywhere), it was hot and windy. It was also really hazy but more about that later. The lava beds were created by an eruption 2,000 years ago and are really fantastic. Folds of cooled lava (see photo below), cinder cones and splatter cones cover the landscape for as far as the eye can see (especially at the moment). Most of the area is rough and sharp and would be impassable without the roads and tracks that have been built.

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The campground was pretty stark but walls of lava have been built up around the various sites to create some privacy. We camped next to a gnarly limber pine which despite the lack of any other nearby vegetation still had the ubiqitous squirrels and chipmunks. It is a relatively small park but obviously well loved by the staff, the (flush) toilets were spotless and the toilet paper had even been perked!

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We did a couple of short hikes (Eddie’s broken toe is doing well) which had some thought provoking interpretation – at some of the sites we have been to there has been a real problem with theft and damage. The ethos of the American National Park system is to make visiting really easy (you can usually drive to all the best sites/views) but this obviously has repercussions.

By the time it got really hot we were on the road north to Sawtooth National Recreation Area. We stopped in Ketchum (a winter ski resort town) where we struck the rudest Americans we have come across – fellow shoppers in the grocery store. This was a surprise as so far almost without exception people have been amazingly polite and helpful. I have several times wondered how they cope with the service in NZ.

As we drove north the ever present haze turned into serious smoke and at one stage I it was so bad that I didn’t think we’d see the Sawtooth Mountains at all. Thankfully it cleared a bit by the time we reached Little Redfish Lake and I got a glimpse before we settled into our streamside campsite.

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We did a nature walk in the morning (and saw some kokanee salmon) before heading up to the lake for a view, only to be told that we had to pay $5 to enter the day use (picnic) area. Despite being in a national forest (which we have a pass for) the concessionaire was adamant that we had to pay the fee even though we only wanted to stay for a few minutes. Indignation at having to pay to view public land kicked in and we returned the offered envelope and drove back to the visitor centre and walked (sneaked) back to the lake for a view.

We headed further north and passed through the town of Stanley and saw one of the sources of the haze. Just north of the town a wildfire was raging. It had already been burning for two weeks (burning 19,000 acres a day) and was uncontainable. It was moving so fast that it was too dangerous to drop in the smoke-jumpers who work to try and cut off the fire. All that is possible is to try and protect any structures in the fire’s path. There are at least two more fires like this burning in Idaho and many others in the surrounding states.

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Just outside of Stanley was a temporary fire fighters camp for at least 1,100 firefighters. They don’t expect to have the fire contained until the beginning of October when the first rain/snow comes. It amazes us that despite the extreme fire risk you are still allowed fires in the campgrounds.

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We carried on to Stanley Lake which we instantly liked and so camped there for the night. In the photo below our campsite is at the right. We had a thunder and lightning storm just before dark and we heard later that lightning had started a few more fires near the Sawtooth Mountains which fire crews were working to put out before they took hold. The Forest Ranger that we talked to was worn down but philosophical. People in the towns were mostly concerned about protecting human life and property but we felt sad for the wildlife too. The losses must be huge.

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I was reluctant to leave Stanley Lake but was placated with the plan to return someday with our inflatable kayaks. As we travelled the scenic byway towards Boise (pronounced boysee) we passed multitudes of camping areas – it is a great area. We had lunch in Idaho City (population about 500), a goldfields town which has a delightful blend of heritage and run-downness. Idaho is known for its potatoes and we’ve bought Idaho potatoes from the supermarket but with our lunch (at Calamity Jayne’s) we had the most amazing ‘fries’ and I don’t even like chips. Long hand-cut well-fried potatoes, yum!

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We finished off our day with a visit to the World Centre for Birds of Prey (near Boise). Great exhibits, a breeding programme for the endangered American condor and we met a rare Kenyan falcon – much smaller than ours, totally human imprinted and fascinating. We also saw an Arctic falcon (the world’s largest), a Panama eagle and Wally, a great horned owl – the only owl with orange eyes. Wally is a big bird and was hand-reared. Staff didn’t know that he could fly until during one of the ‘meet a raptor’ shows he suddenly flew into audience, crash landing into a woman’s lap!

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After the birds it was time to get onto the interstate, (Eddie loves these because the speed limit is 75 mph/120 kph) navigate the rather diabolical traffic around Boise and head to Baker City in Oregon where we were planning to stay in the town’s heritage hotel, the Geiser Grand. 🙂

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Yellowstone: geysers, bison….and people

Yellowstone National Park was on our must-see list for this trip. We knew that it was going to be busy (it gets 3 million visitors a year) so we had a couple of cruisey days at Grand Teton National Park, which is just to the south. We cooked pancakes, used the laundromat and watched the squirrel near our campsite work from dawn to dusk stocking its nest with cones. We eventually roused ourselves enough to do a ranger-led walk to some small lakes nearby. When we turned up there was about forty people and I was wondering whether we should do it or not. I was wondering right up until the moment when Ranger Jamie told us that a grizzly bear had taken down a male elk (wapiti) near the walk and would be guarding the carcass. As usual we learned heaps from the Ranger although the pace was torturously slow and Eddie & I had to go for a brisk walk afterwards (with our bearspray!)

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Yellowstone (America’s first national park in 1872) has the world’s highest concentration of geysers and we were amazed by how extensive the area of geothermal activity was – you drive through miles of it. First up was the West Thumb Geyser Basin which is on the edge of Lake Yellowstone so that makes it very picturesque. Unfortunately the ever present haze from the millions of acres of forest burning in various states meant that we couldn’t see the full extent of this enormous lake.

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We saw quite a bit of wildlife; a coyote, yellow-bellied marmot, bald eagle, golden eagle, osprey, elk, loads of chipmunks and squirrels but the thing that we got closest to was bison – specifically some lone males who were plodding down the road at a couple of locations. They are totally unfazed by the traffic (which is considerable) and you have to slowly ease past them. Another one (that I didn’t get a good photo of) was walking right down the centre line.

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We spent several hours walking around the geyser basin near “Old Faithful”. We started with Old Faithfull which erupted at nearly exactly the predicted time (hence the name) which its been doing for over 150 years. There were mud pools, bubbling springs, spurting springs, geysers and lots of people but it was definitely worth seeing.

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Next up was the much photographed Grand Prismatic Pool. The signage at Yellowstone wasn’t that great and we ended up in the wrong carpark but it turned out to be a wonderful mistake. While we didn’t get close to the pool we were able to walk up a hill and get a fantastic view. Another couple had done the same thing and took our photo – nice!

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The next day we went to Mammoth Hot Springs. On the way we stopped at Roaring Mountain which was an unexpected delight. The side of the mountain is coated in white and vents are gushing steam. What is really amazing is that, because the steam is coming out under pressure, you can hear it roaring. Brilliant and hardly any people bothered stopping.

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Mammoth Hot Springs include a series of terraces (smaller versions of NZ’s famous, and sadly gone, pink and white terraces). Along with the boardwalks there was a driving loop that we thought would be easier to walk – I think some people found us stranger than the springs.

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After Mammoth we looped back to Canyon Campground (there is a lot of driving to do in Yellowstone) and the next day explored the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We walked to lots of viewpoints on both sides of the river and did the metal staircase which takes you down about 300 steps to a viewpoint. It is actually quite a haul back up and we felt the altitude though not as much as some. A family of Mormons, who all looked very fit, scampered up in front of us. I heard a woman on the way down saying to her son, “If a bunch of girls in dresses can do it then you can” and smiled to myself as I expect that the girls were way fitter than the boy and the dresses didn’t seem to slow them down at all.

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The Grand Canyon was simply stunning – such amazing colours. The crowds were a bit tiresome but occasionally we would briefly have a viewpoint to ourselves. The view seems more profound when it is quiet.

We had an action packed drive out of Yellowstone with another road-walking bison to navigate, a bison near the Museum of the Park Rangers (not much money being spent there), a golden eagle on a rock by the river and a bald eagle on a tree further down the road – too far away to get a decent photo of but great to see.

We spent the night in Montana, our sixth state, before heading our next geologic adventure, Craters of the Moon – “the strangest 75 square miles on the North American continent”.

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Dinosaurland

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So far we’d seen lots of nature and some farming but between Colorado National Monument and our next destination Dinosaur National Monument we were very definitely in mining country. It wasn’t clear what was being mined – we think natural gas in some places and we also saw oil pumps along with miles of pipes and powerlines. When we got to the ‘Welcome Centre’ near the park we were told that we had better book accommodation straight away as everything was very busy with “all the oil work that is going on”.

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The visitor centre at the park was okay but the main event is a cliff face of dinosaur bones which are still in-situ and protected by a large glass building. Due to traffic congestion you can only get there by taking a short shuttle ride. I wasn’t expecting to be that excited about the exhibit but you walk in (after a long walk up a wheelchair accessible ramp) and are suddenly facing an huge wall of enormous bones – it is breathtaking. After gazing in wonder at this massive collection of fossils, which are the result of a large number of dinosaurs who died in a riverbed during a drought and were later washed up here (like a log jam of bones), you go down to the bottom of the cliff where you are allowed to touch quite a few of the bones – which is pretty special.

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We walked back from the exhibit via the fossil discovery trail and saw fossils, petrogylphs and a striped whipsnake! We did a bit more exploring and stayed in a ‘Kabin’ at a campground in Vernal which was a nice break from sleeping in the van. Next day we were off to Flaming Gorge where we saw an otter – very cool! We stayed at Dripping Springs campground which is in 19,000 acres of park that was burnt in 2002. The amount of damage caused by fires here is astonishing. There are fires raging in about 5 nearby states and the air is very hazy with smoke.

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Oh dear… Next stop Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – bear country!

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