Spring in the Smokies

It’s the home stretch, baby. Just two more nights in North Carolina, two furious days on the road, and we’ll be back home. My bet is that I’ll be wishing we were back on the road again in about a week. The glow of being home sometimes wears off quickly.

Leaving Evansville, we headed to Big South Fork NRA in Tennessee. This turned out to be a fabulous spot to camp – quiet, great bathrooms/showers, and well-spaced campsites in the trees. I’d go back in a heartbeat.20160514_133149This area is loaded with hiking trails, so we opted for a 6.5 mile jaunt to one of the original homesteads in the area.20160514_12214620160514_12052720160514_12194020160514_120941

 

Magnolia trees with gigantic leaves are scattered along the Trail – they were gorgeous to see, and would be truly spectacular when they bloom.20160514_105548Perhaps best of all, this was a walk on which we could take Jezzy. I totally understand the ban of dogs on trails in the National Parks and many State Parks, but we jump at the chance to include her on our hikes where we can.

Moving on, we decided to revisit Smokemont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was our third trip to GSMNP, and our second to this campground – in fact, we had the same campsite as our first visit. There were few campers in the Park, although the road in was jammed with cars near any trailhead or attraction when we arrived on Sunday. I really thought that we would be able to see blooms on the thousands of rhododendrons in the Park. Nope! We were STILL too early in the season – a huge disappointment. We saw a few meager blossoms.20160514_104449Our seven mile hike took us along a trail dense with rhododendrons on each side, limiting our views out into the Smokies. So, I had to concentrate my camera on some of the small sights instead of the big scenes. Macro photography is not my specialty, but I did spy a few things I wanted to share. Check out this pink moth. The flowers on the Salomon’s Seal were nearly ready to open.

Most of my flower shots were stupid-looking, so I’m not even going to bother to post them. BUT, the real show came as we trudged back to the campground. As we passed the RV dump station, we noticed dzens of yellow swallowtail butterflies clumped together in pools of liquid on the ground. Whether this was fresh water from the spigots or a bit of drizzle from some RV’s gray or blackwater tanks, I don’t know. But the butterflies were everywhere.20160516_132106Nearby was an even more curious sight. At the base of a tree near our site were other clumps of swallowtails, but I’m not sure what was happening here. But it was butterfly carnage – torn wings and pieces and parts of butterflies were everywhere amid the clumps of fluttering wings. Were they mating, and then the females eat the males? I have no idea. It might be hard to see in the photos, because the ground cover masks the pieces of wings, but look closely and you’ll see what I mean. I’m anxious to get to a spot where I can have enough Wifi to do a bit of research on this – it was crazy to see.20160516_16070320160516_160753We checked out the Visitor Center and wandered through the reconstructed settlement there. Original buildings from various areas of the Park have been moved here, and restored. It’s gorgeous, and the perfect, picturesque setting.20160517_121553.jpg20160517_121636.jpgAnd, how could you NOT want to just settle in and hang out on the veranda of the Visitor Center for a spell?20160517_123858.jpgNow, we’re in Maggie Valley, NC for a ‘rally’ with our T@B and T@DA pals. There are probably 50 campers here, from as far away as New England and Seattle. It’s great to connect with old friends and greet new ones.

I  think my phone is trashed – I inadvertently left it on a chair under our awning last night. It rained, and some of the rain funneled directly into the chair where it pooled around the phone. Damn! I’ve dried it out as best as I can, but nothing seems to be happening. It was due for replacement when we get back home, but I’m sad that it may have bitten the dust a bit prematurely. I’m definitely not relishing the learning curve of a new phone.

Bryce is Best

The first Canyon views bring a gasp of amazement. Can this be real? Is is some kind of lighting trick?20160424_102544.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160422_113539 Reality set in, and my head swiveled from side to side to take in the extraordinaryness that is Bryce Canyon. My second thought? I don’t have the camera or skills to capture this. I wish I had a stereo, or 3D camera.

imageOur three-night stay in the North Campground turned into four, as we swiftly figured out that we couldn’t possibly drink in all the sights in such a short time. I don’t know how much time would be enough, but we didn’t reach that limit. At Bryce, the attraction is the hoodos, those tall skinny spires of rock that reach up from the Canyon bottom and are wind and weather eroded into spectacular formations. 20160423_124638.jpg20160422_10350720160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpg20160422_11290320160422_102850Some have names, such as Tower Bridge.20160424_120753Others set your imagination reeling with images from your own knowledge. Some days, we shuttled to trailheads on the amazing bus system, and bicycled back and forth other days when it suited us. It was always cold in the morning, warming up into the mid 60’s – 70’s during the day. Spectacular winds blow through the Canyon, swirling dust devils through the air. Parents clutched their kids, and everyone hung on to their hats. John convinced me to step out to precipice for a photo op. I had to brace myself from being blown off the edge, and hang on to my favorite hat at the same time.imageWe hiked the northernmost trail (Fairyland Canyon) and the southernmost trail (Bristlecone), and several inbetween those two. The details of each day have already blurred, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite photos.20160423_124959.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_102731.jpg20160423_131258.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_115055.jpg20160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpgEven if you never hike, amazing views can be had from the Rim Trail which travels along the 18 mile length of the Canyon. Take the shuttle, jump off and on and you please.image20160423_132918.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160423_141607.jpg20160423_141757.jpgEven the jet contrails above Bryce resemble hoodoos. I was sorely tempted to turn this photo upside down to make my point, but you’ll get it anyway.20160422_120634My quest for the Bristlecone Pine, the oldest living trees on earth was answered, but not in the manner that I had hoped. This is what I had hoped to see, but the Bristlecones we saw were far less spectacular.20160423_134804.jpg20160422_103817But we did observe many in varying stages of life, and felt privileged to do so. We saw some variety of spruce that was forming cones, and the branch tips were bright pink. Perhaps it was new branch growth, but it appeared to me to be cone formation with the striking color. A visit like this will remind you of all you do not know, and probably will never really understand.20160424_104123.jpgNow we have seen the oldest (Bristlecone), tallest (Coastal Redwood), and largest (Giant Sequoia) trees in the world. My heart still belongs to the Sequoias, but it quiets me to be in the presence of any of these giant trees.

I have so many more photos that I perhaps will share on a separate photo-only post, if I find a place with some good WiFi. A post like this gobbles up an amazing amount of our monthly data plan. ;-)

Our post-Bryce plan was to camp on BLM land in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But, we awoke to snow and freezing rain. We packed up our stiff and frozen awning,  and rolled as quickly as possible to a lower elevation. As we dropped down (over 3000′ for the day), the snow turned to sleet, then to sunny breezy 50 degree temps, then back to rainstorms as we reached Kanab, UT. The knowledgeable Ranger at the Visitor Center there advised us not to venture onto any of the backcountry roads, as the storm threat and past rainy weather had made the roads unpassable for two-wheelers such as us. She showed us where we could find a great camping site just off a paved road, which we checked out. It was raining by the time we got there, and the deep ruts in the clay site were enough to scare us off camping there for the night. There are signs everywhere warning of impassable roads under rainy conditions. We headed back to an RV park in Kanab. It’s probably a good thing, since it’s been raining steadily for six hours since. One bad experience with a tow truck has made us wary of volunteering for another

Tomorrow, we plan to venture back up into Grand Staircase to see if it’s possible to actually stay and explore for a night or two. But, having had one bad towing experience, we’re not about to expose ourselves (willingly) to another. We may roll eastward. Destination unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lonely

It’s been called the Loneliest Highway in America, and whoever coined that phrase sure knew what she was talking about. That’s US 50, running west to east across northern Nevada. In two days, we probably didn’t see 75 cars on the road over about 400 miles. That’s lonely.

My expectations for US 50 were low. Scrubby desert, beige, barren and trashy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was more like driving through Death Valley – an amazing array of colors and textures, punctuated by historical landmarks. US 50 is the Lincoln Highway, after all….

We stopped to see landmarks for the Pony Express, which ran along this route.20160417_134755 Hard to imagine the hard lives of the riders, and also of the men who manned the stations, maintaining fresh horses and supplies.

There was also the occasional huge sand dune, totally out of place against the desert landscape. One huge dune begged for a photo, but I was so disappointed in the result that I’m not posting it. Without anything nearby for scale, the photo has no impact.

Another interesting portion of the Highway, stretching for about 6-10 miles had low sandy banks on each side. People had left messages with black stones – mostly about who loves whom, but some about world peace, high school graduations, and whatnot. It was charming.

We stopped at Grimes Point to view petroglyphs that are nearly 1000 years old. In this small area, nearly a thousand of these ancient etchings existed.20160417_12381620160417_12373220160417_124026 But, some of the rocks have been defaced, and appear to have markings indicating that the petroglyphs  had been chiseled off.

John located a spectacular (free!) campground for us for the evening called Hickison Petroglyphs. In this 16 site campground, we were the only campers. See us in the center of the photo? Do we look lonely?20160417_170138 We picked a site with a great view, and had our own sheltered picnic table and vault toilets. Bad point? The trash. All the bins were overflowing, and previous campers had left their trash on the ground, bagged up for the critters to get into. Idiots and jerks. It was the only low point of this great site. We hiked the interpretative trail, and totally enjoyed this unique BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground.

The next lonely day took us to Great Basin National Park, located in northeastern Nevada. Once again, we found ourselves nearly the only campers in a pristine campground.20160418_150029 I can’t say enough positive things about camping here. It is spectacular. The Great Basin actually covers most of northern Nevada, although the National Park is just a small piece of it. The Great Basin is this huge area where the only water is what falls here, as a result of rain or snow. No rivers flow into or out or it. We’re camped at Baker Creek Campground, high desert at about 7500+ feet. We hear the creek roaring from snow melt from nearby Wheeler Mountain and other peaks, and the wind whistles through the spruce trees, which are everywhere. That’s the only sound. No cars, no generators, no voices. Lots of turkeys, although we never actually saw any of them.

We hiked twice, taking the Scenic Drive as far as we could until it was blocked off. John, Jezzy, and I then hoofed it up the road about 2-1/4 miles to Mather Lookout (about 9200′) where we were treated to spectacular views of Wheeler.We passed a few altitute markers.20160419_11183920160419_122419 Some of the spruce trees here are bursting with pinecones. Many of them had thousands of budding cones – a sight I’ve never seen before.20160419_113137Again, we were the only ones here – how many people get to experience their own private National Park?

This park is home to the Bristlecone Pine, an ancient tree which grows at high altitudes for thousands of years. After it dies, some of the trunks remain for another two thousand years or so, before the wind and elements wear them down. There’s a young (probably transplanted) specimen near the Visitor Center, and it’s the most amazing tree. 20160419_145833 The needles are short and thick with an extra resinous coating to reduce moisture loss. They are incredibly dense. Although I scoured the campground for more Bristlecones, I wasn’t able to find any. In the Park, they are all above the 10,000′ mark, which was inaccessible to us on foot. Photos of the ancient Bristlecones show windblown, hardy trees. It was so sad not to be able to see them, since this seems to be our Trip of Trees.

Today we hiked up Baker Creek, and the South Fork from about 7500′ to just over 9000′ feet. We were thwarted in our original plan, as the Trail forked, and both directions were deeply snow covered, unlike this photo, which is just slightly snow-covered.20160420_112152 Without any other footprints to keep us from wandering off the trail into the wilderness, we felt we had to turn back.We passed this grove of birch trees, which all had a sensuous bend near the ground. Tough to get a good photo, but I hope you get the idea.20160420_122117 So, it was three miles up, three miles back. We passed through alpine meadows and followed the rushing creek, so it was a pleasurable hike in any case.

There are many other amazing sights in this remote National Park. As we drove in, we thought there was a deer on this small bank. 20160419_144914It actually was a stone statue of a giraffe, although one of its horns was busted. Giraffe? Nevada? In the Visitor Center, there’s a 132 year old Winchester Rifle which was found leaning against a tree in a remote area in 2014. Imagining the story behind this sets my imagination racing. The rifle has been restored, and sits in a protective glass case.20160419_102300

I have to be honest and admit that the very first part of our drive leaving Carson City was not so lonely. We decided to detour to Virginia City, an old-timey Western mining town. Part of the silver rush in the late 1850s and 60s, it was a bustling mining town. A devastating fire demolished most of the town in the early 1870s, but it was quickly rebuilt, and it has remained in that state since.20160417_10133420160417_101002 The old buildings, which have been updated somewhat to accommodate electricity and modern plumbing look like another fire waiting to happen.20160417_100849 There are huge timbered facades and wooden sidewalks. Miners, cowboys, and saloon girls in period clothing wandering around. 20160417_102202It was quiet when we wandered through on Sunday morning, but this is certainly a spot which would deserve a second visit.

We head out tomorrow for Bryce Canyon. Our campground will be at 9200′, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for continued great weather. Don’t want to have to winterize on the fly, but we will if we have to!

 

 

Foreign Lands

After traveling around and camping in the US for the past four months, John and I decided to add a bit of international flavor to our trip. So, we jumped on our bikes (from our current base in Carson City, NV) and headed off to the Sovereign Republic of Molossia, a scant twenty miles away. 20160416_115956Never heard of Molossia? I’m shocked!

It all started with an article from Atlas Obscura, which I read just a day or two ago. (I urge you to read this, so you will understand why we needed to make the long trek to a foreign country). It seemed only reasonable to bike up there to see what Molassia is all about. The article linked above indicated that tours would be given on April 16, which just happens to be Obscura Day (whatever that is). We even brought our passports, in hopes of getting the coveted Molossia stamp, which was also referenced in the article.

Well, the welcome mat certainly was not rolled out as we had expected. 20160416_120155No Trespassing signs were everywhere. We were warned not to cross the clearly marked US/Molossia Border, without permission, which we didn’t have. 20160416_120105Inside the Palace or Official Residence, we could hear somebody vacuuming (presumably the President, First Lady, or one of the 31 other citizens of Molossia). We were hesitant to approach.20160416_12032020160416_120426From a distance, we could see the business center of Molossia, which seemed to consist of a Post Office, bank, some kind of t-shirt shop, and a few other sites which were too far away for us to clearly see them. 20160416_120220Fred, the guy at the Border Control station was distinctly unhelpful.20160416_12012020160416_120207After propping our bikes up for a few photos, we sadly pedaled away. 20160416_120251Perhaps if President Kevin Baugh would send the Official State Limo to pick us up, we would consider another visit. Until then – Bah!

On the bright side, we pedaled about 40 miles – checked out Dayton State Park, had a superb (and cheap!) lunch at Compadres in Dayton, and sneaked a peek at some of the treasures stowed away at the Dayton Historical Museum.20160416_130122Here are a few other shots of our day’s adventure around the Dayton/Molossia area.20160416_10365520160416_11185620160416_12564020160416_124921It was a pretty good day.

 

Deep Blue

Sadly, we left the Redwood National Forest, and pointed the Fireball east for the first time in months. Got one last photo of the giant tree in our campsite ‘backyard’. 20160410_174110As close as we could measure this with our Stanley 10′ tape measure, it was nearly 38′ around.

One last pass through Crescent City was in order, as this was our last view of the Pacific Ocean as well. The old lighthouse there (still operating), sitting on its picturesque island is a beautiful sight for any camera lens.20160410_12025720160410_120232 McArthur-Burney Falls State Park was our next stop for a brief overnight. The never-ending county road took us through the Siskiyou Mountains. Bet our average speed for a 40 mile stretch was no more than 25mph, but what a gorgeous route. Sometimes, it pays not to be in a hurry.20160411_112513The campsites at McArthur-Burney were large, secluded, and barely populated.20160411_175254 We wandered down to the spectacular falls. Not only does water thunder over the top of the falls – it also pushes through the bedrock walls on each side of the main falls.20160412_090844 I’ve never seen anything quite so dramatic. Water flow was good, and we could hear the falls back at our campsite, even though it was probably 1/3 mile away. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through this point, so I even got to walk a few hundred yards on this trail, perhaps made most famous by the book and movie “Wild”.

An early start was in order for the next day, as we wanted to check out Lassen Volcanic National Park, and (hopefully) get in a brief hike. Closed!! Even the Visitor Center was closed for the season (doesn’t open until Memorial weekend). We wandered around the area, checking out the early seismograph located there.20160412_101516 For miles around, there are huge chunks of volcanic rock – although I don’t know the history of this volcano, it must have been one enormous eruption, or series of eruptions. It’s a gorgeous area, and we were sad not to be able to explore.20160412_10294920160412_104056 Even the State Highway is closed for the season at that point – we had to backtrack to get to Lake Tahoe, our next destination.

This was one of the rare times we really didn’t know where we were going to ‘land’ the Fireball. We had pinpointed several campgrounds in the nearby National Forest, but all are closed for the season. We finally found one state park on the west side of the Lake, which had probably a dozen open campsites. So, Ed Z’berg Sugar Point Pines State Park became our home for three nights. What an interesting spot. This is a huge State Park with over 175 campsites. But, we were the only campers there. Showers were all locked up, but we did have flush toilets. Solitude, very cold windy nights, and a huge starry sky. Bonus – we woke up on Day 2 to snow.20160414_071457Lake Tahoe is deep and cold. It holds 39 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the state of California with 14″ of clear, drinkable water. It’s an amazing sparkling deep blue color.20160413_121931image The average depth is 1600′ feet, which I find incredible, since Lake Superior has an average depth of less than 500, and is about 1350 at its deepest spot. We hiked, biked, and wandered everywhere we could. It was difficult not just to sit and appreciate our good fortune for being able to land in such a spectacular spot.20160414_11345820160414_104152One point of interest was Vikingholm, a large Scandinavian style home built on the southern shore in the 1920s.. Dappled light made photos difficult, and I was disappointed not to get a great photo of the snow-covered sod roof which covers a section of the home. 20160414_12284320160414_12231220160413_124015Completed in 1929, it now is part of the Park, but was closed (nothing apparently opens until Memorial weekend). But what a pleasure to walk around.

Saw this notable cedar of some type with its curly bark, and a large pine tree with an unusual repair job to cover up a wound.

The rest of our time was spent viewing the lake from every possible elevation and angle. With the bright clear skies brought on by the prior night’s snowfall, it was a photo dream. I could probably post a hundred photos, taken just because I wanted to imprint these images on my brain.

Lake Tahoe was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and part of them took place right on the trails in our campground. How could we resist taking our mountain bikes (and rifles – HA!) and heading out to the biathlon course?20160413_114121 We got off to a great start, but soon ran into old icy snow piles. Wham! Suddenly I was face-planted in the cold icy stuff. Luckily John didn’t see it, but he did ask me to recreate the scene for a photo. NOT! I managed to biff a second time before we came to a huge (50 yards long) deep muddy hole. There’s no way we could tell how deep it was, and there was no way to bypass it, so we turned back. Yes, I did fall once again on the return. For my efforts, I have a sore knee and a bit of ice burn on my leg. Badges of honor on an Olympic course – I’m proud.

The Donner Party met its demise in this area, so we headed to Donner Lake State Park to see the new Museum there, which just opend in Fall 2015. The Donner Party was a group of 89 pioneers headed to California in 1846-47. They took a ‘shortcut’ which didn’t turn out to be that, and bogged down for months. The upshot was that about half died along the way, and their bodies were consumed by others in a desperate attempt to survive. Only 47 of the original 89 survived that brutal winter, the worst in 100 years. Other areas of the museum are dedicated to the Chinese laborers who cut the railroad tunnels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1860s. The labors of these workers are finally being appropriately credited to them, after years of silence for this achievement. The Museum doesn’t really lend itself to photos of these exhibits, but a statue outside, dedicated in 1918, pays tribute to all those California pioneers.20160414_145408We left much unseen in the Lake Tahoe area, in the hopes that we’ll make a return trip.image 20160414_121830Hard to believe, but we’re already feeling the pressure of moving eastward to make our deadline of being in Maggie Valley, NC on May 18. How are we going to cover all of those miles in a mere month?

We’ve rolled into Carson City NV for a few days. No more camping in the woods by ourselves – we’re in a crowded RV park.20160415_141906 But there’s WiFi! Showers that aren’t coin-operated! Electricity and water. All the things we haven’t had but for a day or two in the last two months. If it wasn’t for all the traffic noise, other campers, and barking dogs, it would be great!

The trek eastward continues.