Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Death Valley National Park - November 2017 - Part One

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St. Luke's Folly, Searching for Uncle Erv, Wonder, and a birthday

"Get the license plate number!" I called to the Lady.
I had watched the pickup turn onto Saline Valley Road in the rear view mirror. It was far in the distance as the intersection with 190 fell from view. And now, almost immediately, it was roaring by us as if, at 35mph, we were standing still. The passenger held an inverted peace sign out the window.
"Why?" the Lady asked through the swirling dust. "Are you going to report them to somebody?"
"Hardly," I explained. "I just want to be sure that if we're ever in the market for a used Toyota Tacoma, but don't buy that one."

It was truly amazing how fast the dust cloud disappeared beyond us and it was, again, a quiet Thursday. We stopped for a quick lunch at Lee Flat among its legendary Joshua Trees.

The road narrowed as we continued north. As we now climbed the Lady alerted me.
"There a vehicle coming at us."
I saw dust and a sun glint off the windshield through the joshuas and quickly found a safe place to pull off the road. It was the Tacoma pickup. They pulled to a stop beside us, windows went down, and the passenger, a young woman with a map in her lap, leaned  toward the  driver's window. There was real hope in her voice when she asked, "Are you going to the Springs?"
"No, we're not," I answered.
"We should have went right, shouldn't we?"
She sounded so thrilled to be heading to the legendary mecca of Saline Valley Hot Springs it stifled any comments about her and her fellow's driving.

We filled them in on the route to Saline along with a few landmarks to confirm they remained on the correct route over South Pass and down Grapevine Canyon. We did not tell them we were on our way to find the first road - now long abandoned - that was constructed to reach the depths of Saline Valley from the south.

After a bit of scouting on foot, we carefully took the truck down to the road's lowest point in San Lucas Canyon.

The road continues a short ways up a side canyon to some prospects. We camped right on the edge of the Inyo National Forest's Inyo Mountains Wilderness and Death Valley National Park's Death Valley Wilderness, land now protected and preserved as wild and free. Thank you 1964 and for one time our government could come together and do something because it was right.

Since we were going down canyon in the morning, for an afternoon walk we headed uphill and explored ridges for views and orientation.

We decided to traverse a ridge and dropped into a side canyon as it offered a distant view down into Saline Valley.

The valley's large, salt (NaCl) deposit was noted in the 1860's but due to the insolated and rugged terrain it was not exploited until 1903, first by the Saline Valley Salt Company. Transport was by mule pulled wagons out the northern end of the valley. This venture only lasted two years. Salt harvesting began again in 1911 with the building of an aerial tramway 13.5 miles in length up and over the Inyo Mountains to the railroad on the north end of Owens Lake - the famous Saline Valley Aerial Tramway. The construction project wiped out the salt company's finances and the operation was leased to a newly formed Owens Valley Salt Company. This venture lasted until 1918. The costs of running the vast system always proved to negate any profits. A short attempt to revive salt mining was tried again in 1920 by the Taylor Milling Company. It lasted less than a year and the tramway fell into disrepair. Five years later a new company was formed, The Sierra Salt Company. Their idea was to transport salt out by truck via a road on the south end of Saline Valley and the company talked Inyo County into getting  involved with its construction. The route was via San Lucas Canyon.

Shadows were long in the now late afternoon.

We descended a long side canyon that connected with San Lucas Canyon well below our camp. This would make a nice circle back home to our cozy camper.

We arrived just in time for evening color.

The next morning found us out on our coffee walk watching first light bathe the crest of the Inyo Mountains above us.

After a breakfast of goat meal and blueberries, with packs and boots on we started down San Lucas Canyon. As we rounded the first bend we took one last look back at the truck.

We continued down and with rock like this we knew we were in for a treat today.

Finally the canyon narrowed and we descended a series of easy pour overs.

Then came what we named the mile long corridor - a long straight section of canyon.

The canyon narrowed and things got very exciting.

We had reached what we had came to see - the remains of a road blasted out of the vertical canyon walls at the top of a series of impassable falls.

What were they thinking? After the blasted area, the road crosses a large landslide path. Here the road appears to be constructed of fill all supported by stacked rock and timbers. This is the bottom of a switch back turn.

Most of everything is long gone. This is very dangerous, unstable terrain.

The photo below is part way down. The view down into the canyon is still not quite the entirety of drop in elevation in this amphitheater.

Here is a shadowed view to the canyon bottom.

What an incredible folly! You may accuse me of having the benefit of hindsight, but after two years of construction putting a road here and vast amounts of effort to try to keep it in place, it was quickly abandoned in favor of building a road down Grapevine Canyon into Saline Valley and overhauling the aerial tramway. Salt was trucked out the new Grapevine Canyon route - now Saline Valley Road - until 1929 when the tramway was back in operation. The Sierra Salt Company ceased operations in 1930. It just did not pay to mine salt in Saline Valley.  St. Luke's Folly was long forgotten.

If you have interest, here is a link to a series of historical photos of the salt mining operation, the tramway, and a few of the San Lucas Canyon Road, available on the Eastern California Museum's website - Saline Valley Salt Tram

However amazing it was to see the effort poured into this road building endeavor, part of us yearned to see how this looked prior to the destruction. This has to be one of the deepest canyon drops forming an amphitheater in the Inyos. It is a beautiful place.

We spent a bit over an hour here.

There is a large ammo box bolted to the rock face at the top of the rock cut, visible just right of center in the photo below.

Inside was a plastic bag with a note from a visitor in March 2017 along with Charlie's card.

Charlie retired last year after years of good service to the public and Death Valley National Park. He will be missed.

It was time to return back up canyon to camp.

It was early afternoon when we arrived back at camp. We decided to pack up, head out, and get in position for our next adventure as the next day was my birthday. When the Lady asked what I wanted for my birthday, my reply was, "Let's spend some time searching for my Uncle Erv!"

Our adventure continues in the upcoming Part Two

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wandering the Mono Basin - October 2017 - Part Two

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Mono Pass

The Lady decided on hiking Mono Pass for her birthday present. We had been to Mono Pass before, taken the easy 3.5 mile trail on the west side from Dana Meadows in Yosemite National Park. That route would not qualify as a birthday present long hike. Birthday present day called for a hike up from the bottom on the east side and ascend Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass. Then, of course, turn around and hike back down to the bottom.

Mono Pass is the historic pathway through the Sierra crest south of Tioga Pass. Tioga is a new modern highway pass and not a route used in the early days.

Mono Pass was used by the Native American tribes - long before white intrusion - as a trade route and path to cooler summer terrain. The east side tribes had an important trade good that spread throughout the west, obsidian for points and tools, a product of the volcanism in the Mono Basin.

The east end - bottom - of the trail starts at Walker Lake -

a natural impoundment of water trapped by a recessional moraine of the glacial era's Bloody Glacier.

Walker Lake is hard to get to. Public access via the road into the lake is not allowed. Private cabins and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lands result in a locked gate. Public access is now provided to the west (upper) end of Walker Lake via a steep rough dirt road to the top of the huge lateral moraine south of the lake. A trail head sits at the top and a steep trail switchbacks and drops hundreds of vertical feet down to Walker Lake. There were three vehicles at the trailhead when we arrived, all were there for angler access to Walker Lake. The trail up Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass is another of the Sierra's forgotten trails and gets little use - just the kind of route we love to experience, especially seeped in so much history and so many stories.

Where the trail crosses the inflow into Walker Lake - Walker Creek - we had a wonderful surprise. Non - native brown trout, planted long ago in Walker Lake and fall spawners, had moved up into the gravels of Walker Creek for their yearly reproductive rituals. 

We love it when a large trout's dorsal fin sticks out of the water.

This diversion could have delayed us all day as could wandering through the remaining aspen color in the broad meadows above the lake.

But our quest was for a birthday present long hike, and our fate was to climb, and climb we did.

The exact reason for the name Bloody Canyon is lost to time. Some say it was because of all the cut legs on work horses and mules made bloody by the unforgiving grade and sharp rocks. Others say it is because of the red colors of the metamorphic roof pennant rocks overlaying the younger classic Sierra granite.

It was spectacular and glorious. The weather cool and perfect. The skies washed clear by the recent storm.

I will add here that Walker Lake and Walker Creek are named after my favorite mountain man - Joseph R. Walker. In 1833, working for Benjamin Bonneville, Walker was tasked with finding an overland route to California. Everyone who came after - Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, the gold rush and the California Trail, followed Joseph Walker's lead.

The early Mono Basin settlers believed Mono Pass was where Walker made one of the earliest Sierra crossings and they named Walker Lake and Walker Creek in his honor. But it's probably a mistake. The majority of historians believe Walker crossed the Sierra Nevada much farther north.

Our climb was just beginning.

This is an old Sierra trail with a steep grade. It wasted no time gaining elevation.

We took our first break at Lower Sardine Lake and consulted the map.

We figured an hour more to Mono Pass. The map showed the route was straight up the cleft in the upper right of the above photo. We'd leave Lower Sardine at 12:30 pm, be at the top at 1:30, and give ourselves a turnaround time of two pm. It would be three hours back down traveling at a little over two miles an hour - the same as our upward pace.

Fall in the high country foretelling the coming of winter is absolutely stunning.

The trail traverses around and climbs above Upper Sardine Lake.

Around every bend now, the Lady was convinced we'd be at Mono Pass. "We should be there," the Lady said beginning this grade. "I can almost touch the sky!"

And yet, the trail continued, but we knew we were there with the familiar vistas around us.

The surface of Summit Lake behind the Lady was frozen, a sheet of ice.

Lt. Tredwell Moore crossed over Mono Pass in 1852 in pursuit of the Yosemite Miwoks Indians. The Miwoks attempted to escape to the Sierra east side but the U.S. Army doggedly pursued them across this ancient route. Moore reported the discovery of a large lake - Mono Lake - and returned to the west with mineral samples that began the flow of prospectors and settlers to the Mono Basin.

It's ruggedness saved Mono Pass. It would not become a wagon route. The Sonora Mono Toll Road took its place as a route for wagons and commerce.

Mono Pass remains unchanged. Almost forgotten, it is a quiet beautiful place. A place where birthdays can be celebrated.

"Do you think you'll be able to do a hike like this when you're sixty one?" I asked the Lady as we relaxed in the sun, packs off, legs stretched out, our backs against rocks, munching away from our bags of snacks.

"You mean tomorrow?" she asked. "Yeah, I could do this again tomorrow." She slowly looked all round and nodded her head in the affirmative. "This is a good birthday present!"

We left Mono Pass at 2:15 pm. It never hurts - with good weather - to linger in the Sierra high country.

The steep, some might even consider treacherous, descent back to Lower Sardine Lake makes its naming easy to understand - a load of sardines went into the lake.

We propose it would have been more fun if the lake had been named in honor of the mule that went in with its cargo of sardines, maybe Zeke Lake or Anna Belle Lake? 

The route continued down, down, down with us surrounded by bloody colored rocks.

The canyon was in deep shade when we reentered the timber lower in the canyon. Cold bit into our faces with the wind.

The long climb up from Walker Lake to the trailhead felt good. We changed into fresh clothes at the truck, felt refreshed and started our drive down to Lee Vining around quarter to six. Early in the day we had agreed we'd have dinner at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli.

Note: More information on Mono Pass and the early days of settlement in Mono Lake Basin can be found here -

Yes, it was busy at Nellie's even on a Sunday evening. With the cold wind, no one ate outside. A woman, Vicky, invited us to share her table. Vicky has worked for the concessionaire in Yosemite Valley, all seasons, for years and has housing there. Vicky loves to dance and, when Tioga Pass is open in the summer, she drives over on Thursdays because Whoa Nellie Deli has a dance band on Thursday evenings. Dinner and dancing makes the two hour drive well worth it for Vicky. This Sunday was for a last fall walk in Lee Vining Canyon before Tioga Pass closes for the winter.  

After a great dinner and pleasant time spent with Vicky, we needed north on 395 as dusk gave way to night. We pulled into our favorite dispersed camp spot at Mono Diggings.

We slept well. A great horned owl's deep vocalizations echoed among the granite boulders. It had warmed so much from the start of our trip, we now slept with the windows open. The cold feels so good with us snuggled in our warm bedding. The crisp smell of sage added to the night.

We wandered at dawn on the Lady's birthday.

It was Monday morning. We took our time heading home. We were surprised so many were still out looking for fall colors up Lundy Canyon. I couldn't resist probably the most photographed fall scene up Lundy.

A quick lunch at the Mono County Park in Walker and then up and over Monitor Pass ended our trip and wanderings in Mono Basin, an adventure complete with a special birthday present and paths through history.