Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Birds! Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuse, NV, April 9, 2024

While still being on "borrowed time" (vacation days we took to see the eclipse, even though we ended up not going), this day (which would have been a travel day back from our eclipse viewing destination to Las Vegas) became a bird viewing day. I was sitting around thinking to myself, "Hey, I've got my long telephoto lenses (which I brought to photograph the eclipse, obviously), might as well use them."

First stop was local, before I even settled on the second part: Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Apparently, I first visited in September, 2017. And, although I know I have been there at least a few times since, I may not have blogged those other visits. As of today, this is a link to the city's webpage for the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve.

The first time I visited, they briefed me on some information and signed me up. Not sure if they still do that for first time visitors. Since then, it's just been a sign in. This time, they asked me my zip code as I checked in. I always wonder what they use that information, and if there's a answer that would be more advantageous for me in the long run. Like, if I give a local zip, does that mean they'll think fewer out of towners visit, and will thus be less likely to impose a visiting fee on outsiders? Or, if there are a lot of outsiders, maybe they'll qualify for more state and federal funding, which will be better for the birds?

There are eight ponds in the preserve, and their designed function is to let sediments settle out and have water percolate into underground aquifers. The unintended effect, of course, is lots of surface water in the middle of the desert. That attracts lots of bird life, both resident and migratory. No fish are in the ponds, but I lots of vegetation and insects that the birds can feed on. This provides lots of opportunities for bird watching and bird photography, especially if you have a telephoto lens.

The surroundings have changed quite a bit since my first visit. Houses are encroaching to the east and southeast, for example, and there's a bike/walking path that runs back there, as well. You can't access that directly from the Bird Preserve. I presume the paths connect to the Las Vegas Wash, itself an inadvertantly created waterfowl habitat.,/p>

As i walked around the preserve, trying to get my three miles in and get some nice waterfowl shots, I thought of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. I had never stopped there, before, but on past trips to Great Basin National Park, I had driven by it, coming and going, each time I went. I could see it comprised of two substantial lakes, with one lined by cottonwood trees. My guess was it was well under two hours away, and something I'd like to spend time around.

[On checking, I saw it was about an hour and forty minutes from the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve -- Up I-15 to the Great Basin Highway (U.S. 93), north on U.S. 93, and the preserve is directly adjacent to the highway, just before Alamo (local pronounciation is Ah-LAME-oh).

I guess I was already thinking about something similar, which would have been a visit to Desert National Wildlife Refuge. But I knew there wasn't a lot of day hiking available at that location, and that the visitor center there was closed on Tuesdays (as were visitor centers for a few other places I thought about visiting that day). And, as it turned out the visitor center here is also closed on Tuesdays (and Wednesdays). But, at least, the flush toilets at the visitor center were unlocked. They also had some flyers I could grab, including one with illustrations of some of the birds that visit, which I could use to id what I saw here and at the Henderson Bird Preserve.

The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve also has an illustrated flyer on line, but I didn't discover that until after my visit there. It's just fun to be able to put a name to the birds you're seeing.

Hiking trails, of which there are many at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, are open sunrise to sunset. There's also first come, first served, free camping on the preserve, with vault toilets. Did not note any running water at the campsites, but there would be running water at the visitor center, a few miles down U.S. 93 from the campgsites and day use area. In addition, if the campsites fill, there is free dry camping (no facilities) across the highway, on BLM land. That's fine if you're in an RV, but obviously not idea if you're in a tent.

A camp host was in the site near the large picnic structure at the north end of Upper Pahranagat Lake. We ate lunch at the picnic shelter, then drove along the dirt refuge road to the south end of the lake, which was the actually-designated picnic area. Camp sites are along this road, right adjacent to the lake. I'm told it fills most days during good weather (spring and fall).

As we drove slowly south, we passed the camp host, heading the other way in a pickup truck. She was checking to see if we were camping or if we were day use. Got some good information from here then, and also when I ran into her again, as I neared the end of my hike, when I was on foot and she was riding an electric bicycle. Five stars, if I was doing a review.

There are several dams or dikes that cross the lakes, indicating the lakes are not naturally that large, although the name of the place (Valley of Shining Water, in Paiute) indicates that water was present pre-contact, so probably springs and marshes, and maybe smallish lakes, but not the large lakes of today. The dike at the south end of Upper Pahranagat Lake is topped by a paved (accessible) trail, and has some benches and tourist telescopes mounted if you want to scan the lake. The pavement is also part of the Upper Lake trail. If you continue completely around the lake, using the dirt road to complete the walk, it's a three mile loop. Perfect for my intentions (long enough to break up the drive to get here, not so hard or strenuous that I'd be too tired to drive home).

Apparently, most of the migratory birds have moved on, or at least weren't hanging around mid-day, when I was here. Only the last four photos in this post were taken here, althoug I took many more. Just didn't get many closeups of waterfowl.

One really surprising thing I did see was the last photo. As I started across the dike at the north end of the lake, I saw something small and thin sticking its head out of the water. I thought maybe it was a snake. As I neared, it dived under the water. I scanned, camera at ready, if it came up, again. It did, and I got my shot. In the moment, I thought maybe it was a beaver, albeit a very small beaver. Didn't know of many mammals that swim under water besides beaver and otter, and it wasn't an otter. Turns out it was a muskrat. I never knew what a muskrat looked like, but the camp host informed me that there were no beavers around the area, and that it was a muskrat.

I also got photos of a red tailed hawk, and an osprey. The osprey was carrying around a headless fish in its talons. I kept interrupting his or her lunch as I walked around the lake.

So about six miles of hiking for the day, separated by about 90 miles of desert. No significant change in altitude, but my first significant day of mileage in quite a while. Not quite as cool as watching a total solar eclipse, but at least something to show for my vacation days.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Gold Butte National Monument, NV, April 8, 2024

Visited April 8, 2024. This was the day of the total solar eclipse. I had long-standing plans to fly to Austin, TX to see the eclipse, but about a week of consistently poor weather forecasts from about 14 days before the eclipse persuaded me to make alternate plans. I then had a backup plan to fly to Rochester, NY, which had consistently good long-range forecasts, all the way up until about four days before the eclipse. As a result, I ended up cancelling both plans, to save the money and bank the affinity points for a future trip. Incidentally, with the benefit of hindsight, Rochester was clouded out; not sure if I could have gotten far enough east for at least some breaks in the clouds. Austin was mostly cloudy, but had some clearing around totality, so might have been fine.

Since both my wife and I already had put in for the days off from work, we settled on taking a couple of short trips around the Las Vegas area.

Unfortunately, the very interesting areas in Gold Butte National Monument that I'd like to visit are, at the very least, high clearance, and, more preferrably, four-wheel drive territory. The only "accessible" area (mostly paved) road in the monument is Gold Butte Road, down to Whitney Pocket. So we drove the roughly two hours from the Las Vegas area to Whitney Pocket.

The rocks in this area are pretty, but not spectacularly so. They're similar to what you'd see at Redstone (see here, here, and here), which is a much shorter drive over pavement to get to from Las Vegas. By contrast, the rocks at Little Finland, in Gold Butte, look other-wordly. But they are also far past the pavement, and getting there with a Prius was going to be very iffy. Same thing applies to the several popular petrglyph panels. So we didn't go beyond Whitney Pockets.

Because this was a spur of the moment trip, I did not research what I could see from just Whitney Pocket. My recollection was just that this was a jumping off point for other spots, but surely there would be things to see here.

And, as noted, it was okay. But I didn't even manage to find the dam (cistern) in the area. As far as I know, there are no petroglyphs for me to have seen in this area, either. But I did find an intereting spot, where the shape of the rock wall the the shape of the rock cliffs are such that a heart-shaped area of the wall was lit up. I initially thought maybe this was a place where graffiti was removed, but, no, looks like it's just natural lighting on that small section of wall, behind the CCC storage cave. The sandstone was also pretty.

We started our drive this way around 9am, so the eclipse started long before we actually got to Whitney Pocket. We stopped several times along the way, to get quick peeks at the on-going eclipse. Maximum coverage, a bit over 50%, occurred while we were still a bit outside of the monument boundary.

In terms of getting to Whtiney Pocket, from Las Vegas, head north on I-15, to Exit 112, NV-170. Head south (east) on NV-170 until you cross over the Virgin River. Make a right at the road right after the bridge. This is Gold Butte Road (also referred to as "New Gold Butte Road"). About 21 miles on this mostly-paved road takes you to Whitney Pocket. This road has a 25 mph speed limit, which most regular cars will not have a problem staying below, due to rough pavement. Some segments are not paved, at all.

It's quite likely I didn't make three miles of walking on this trip. But I did poke around the rocks at several places. And I got well over six miles of hiking the next day, so I don't feel too bad including this bit on my blog.

General disclaimer: This area is pretty far off the beaten path, and most areas are beyond cell coverage. No services, and no visitor center on the land. Just a few portapotties near designated (free) campsites. Bring all that you will need, because getting anything else will be a long drive.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Northgate Peaks Trail, Zion National Park, October 30, 2022

Somehow managed never to blog this hike, from about 18 months ago.

First did this hike back in 2016. Hadn't necessarily planned to hike it again, but it became one of those, "I have time for a modest hike today, and don't want to have to hassle with the shuttle bus in Zion Canyon" sort of day.

The two longer hikes I'd like to take from up this way are Hop Canyon towards Kolob Arch, and the West Rim Trail. Those would be all day hikes. This one, by contrast, is only about 4.5 miles roundtrip if you just go to the overlook, or a bit longer if you decide to tackle one of the "gates."

From Utah Highway 9, take Kolob Terrace Road north. Alternatively, if coming from the west, you can take Pocketville Road north, through a residential area, and it will intersect into Kolob Terrace Road. Both are in the town of Virgin, Utah. From there, you head north about 12.5 miles, through some very scenic country with several other trailheads along the way. The last major signed trailhead would be for Hop Valley, although the Connector Trail (between the Hop Valley trailhead and the Wildcat Canyon Trail) crosses Kolob Terrace Road. There's a modest parking area at this trailhead, with a vault toilet but no running water. I've had no trouble finding room the two times I've been here, but it could just be a timing thing.

This trail initially heads south, out of the parking area, before turning east. Within the first 3/4 of a mile, the Connector trail comes in from the right, then the Wildcat trail shoots off and down, to the northeast. At that latter split, the Northgate Peaks trail veers to the south, staying above the rim. It's mostly level, and a mixture of grasslands and dwarf forest pretty much the whole way to the primary overlook.

That's where the "official" trail ends, at which point you could turnaround and retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Alternatively, you can take unofficial routes up the massive rocky protrustions on either side of the overlook. After you've turned around, the one on your right (east) is pretty straightforward, and does not require giving up much altitude before you scramble up the "gate." The one on the west would both require giving up more altitude, and have a much steeper and less protected approach.

The last time, I just walked back to the trailhead. This time, shortly after turning around, I noticed the path heading towards the east Northgate, and decided to explore. After a brief descent through a forested patch, I came out at the base of the stone dome. It was a good scramble up, but entirely non-technical, and not exposed. From the top of that gate, you've got a wonderful view the drainages for Left and Right forks of North Creek. Lots of exposed cliffs, some stained pink, others bleached white.

Once back down off the dome and on the main trail, it is again mostly flat and straightforward, back to the parking area.

I'd still like to hike Hop Valley and the West Rim trails, and possibly also the Connector trail. I looked up into Hop Valley years ago, when I hiked down in LeVerkin Canyon, and I've looked down it, from the Hop Valley Trailhead. It would be long, with cow patties and sand, but straightforward. The West Rim trail, I haven't decided how far I should go from either the top or the bottom, but it's something for a later trip to southeastern Utah.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Big Dune, Amargosa Valley, NV, March 10, 2024

After driving up to and hiking around Ubehebe Crater, we needed to drive back down to the Las Vegas Valley. Shortly after Beatty, NV, we passed a large brown sign, "Big Dunes." And we saw, yes, there were some large sand dunes to our west. So we turned off on the road the sign pointed, which turned out to be dirt/gravel/sandy. Putter along at between 10 and 12 miles per hour, for the most part, we slowly bumped our way down the road. There were no other signs, so we just stayed on the "main" road, which google maps says is Big Dunes Road. The direction to the dunes slowly shifted, from southwest to south of us, to a little east of south of us.

We passed an RV or two, of people camping or maybe just picnicking near the dunes. Finally, the road began curving to the south, albeit well west of the dunes. Total drive was probably about 30 minutes, at our very leisurely pace. Took it slow, so I wouldn't inadvertently drive into a sandy patch, where I'd be stuck.

We finally came to a sign, so we drove through the apparent entryway adjacent to the sign. The road was still fine for passenger vehicles. Then the road led to a wide, flat, hardenened area, with some signage and picnic tables. Beyond that, no roads (for passenger cars) were obvious, and the way became very sandy. I elected not to continue driving, parked, and started walking towards the dunes.

This soon proved to be the correct choice, as the sand got deeper and wider. This was dune buggy territory. Nearly the entire area is, in fact, designating as an ATV area, and we could see and hear vehicles speeding over and around the sand dunes.

Dune primrose was pretty common in the sandy soil, as we walked towards the dunes. Once it becomes complete sand, of course, there's nothing growing on the blowing dunes.

In part because it was an ATV area, I did walk carefully when I reached the sand, and did not try walking as far as I might have if I didn't have to worry about getting in the path of a recreational driver. My suspicion is they were probably annoyed by walkers, who were something else they had to worry about. But, practically speaking, they shouldn't be driving quickly over blind drops without a spotter, anyway. That's to keep themselves safe from collisions.

It was pretty windy, so even with the ATV leaving tracks, a lot of those tracks got at least partially obscured in short order. You could see streamers of sand flying over dune lips. But at ground level, it was not too windy to enjoy the scenery.

On the return trip, more so than on the way out, I observed more critter footprints in the sand than I had noticed on the way out. Lots of ripples in that sand, too.

All told, we probably spent about 45 minutes walking. The parking area was maybe 1/3 of a mile from the taller dunes, maybe a bit more. Relatively slow going over sand, of course. But level, except for on the taller dunes, so not particularly strenuous, at least not when the temperature is still spring-like.

Although I suspected the road would continue around the west side of the dunes, eventually leading us back to pavement, I decided to play it safe, and returned to U.S. 95 the way I came. I knew that was doable, and, again, didn't want to risk getting stuck in the sand. The drive back was shorter than the drive out, partially because I knew where I was going, and partially because I drove 12-16 mph back, somewhat faster than when I drove in, since I knew what I was going to see.

Upon checking maps after getting home, I see that I could have taken a paved road (North Valley View Blvd), about 3.5 miles south of Big Dunes Road, off of U.S. 95. Two miles on pavement south would have led me to a parking area. Depending on how far west I could safely drive, that would leave me 1-2 miles east of the dunes. That would mean two to three times the walking distance of the route we took, but a lot less slow driving on a dirt road. If your vehicle can handle deep sand, it's a drive up to and upon the dunes. If you think your vehicle can handle deep sand but are wrong, it's a really expensive tow.

This is the last of three short hikes I took over the weekend, which, collectively, total all of about three miles, so would qualify under my traditional definition of three miles off pavement to qualify for a hike.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley National Park, CA, March 10, 2024

This was the first day of daylight saving time, but I got up at my "regular" wakeup time, and tried for an early started. Drove off early, with the thought of maybe returning to a less-crowded Lake Manly this morning. But after considering the amount of backtracking on the road this would involved, I elected to head north, to Ubehebe Crater, after first heading down the Beatty Cutoff road towards Badwater. Pulled over and took a shot down the road (see previous post), then turned right and made the very long drive to Ubehebe Crater.

For context, it's about 56 miles from Furnace Creek Visitor Center to Ubehebe Crater, and about 45.5 miles and about an hour driving time from Beatty Junction to the crater. Had we gone to Badwater, first, that would have added another 35 minutes each way.

The Ubehebe crater is large, about 1/2 mile wide, and 1.5 miles to walk around it. It and its neighbors formed just a few thousand years ago, when magma contacted subsurface water, leading to a series of explosions. In addition to Ubehebe, there are several other, smaller craters to the south, incluidng Little Hebe Crater. That one is obviously smaller, but more clearly defined.

I elected not to walk to the bottom of the crater. However, on the drive back, I stopped about 1/2 mile from the crater, to walk, explore and snap pictures among one of several dense patches of flowers I saw on the way up. I stepped carefully, either in sandy washes or rocky tops, or on occasional fused tuff, where nothing was growing.

It won't be a "superbloom," but there is a lot of stuff blooming, now. Probably won't last long as the summer heats up, though.

As a BTW, there are no restroom facilities at Ubehebe Crater parking area, but there are flush toilets at the Grapevine ranger station, back on Scotty's Castle Road. Scotty's Castle, itself, remains closed, likely for at least another year.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Lake Manly, Death Valley National Park, March 9, 2024

Made it up to Death Valley over the weekend. Drove up on Saturday, March 9. Stopped at Dante's View on the way in, to get a view of the Badwater Basin from above. Then drove around and down to Badwater, itself, to see "Lake Manly" from the water's edge. That's roughly an hour drive, from Dante's View, by the way. Well under three miles of walking for the day, with maybe a mile up to near the "peak" of Dante's View, and 1/2 mile around Badwater. So not an offical hike, by itself. But something worth blogging and seeing.

"Lake Manly" was one of several names given to the recurring terminal lake at Badwater Basin. During ice age periods, the lake is large and persistent. During more recent periods, it has appeared only rarely, after major water events, such as when the remains of Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Tropical Disturbance Hillary came through. Heavy rains returned in February of this year, expanding the lake and making it a sight to see. So we wished to see it. This'll be the first of three posts I'll make over the next week or so, from that trip.

From Dante View (no restroom facilities at the top, btw, but a vault toilet down the road about a 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile), I could see an area far below, where Badwater Road appeared to approach very close to the shoreline of Lake Manly. Later, as I drove south on Badwater Road, I could see an alluvial fan that appeared to pour right into the lake, meaning, a steep incline of dry land to the lake, and a possible dry approach to the water's edge. While I ended up parking near Badwater and walking out from there, my walk did confirm that I could have approached from that alluvial fan and reached the water a lot quicker.

It was crowded, but that was to be expected. Still, arriving as late was we did, I was able to park just 150 yards or so from the lot. Vault toilets there.

Kind of a party atmosphere, with many people trying for their instagram moment. You could walk along the narrow outlet from the Badwater Spring, over salty and mostly dry crust. The farther you walked, the more the dry spots thinned, and you'd be walking in toe-deep brine. Because this was normally a salt flat, you could walk hundreds of yards, while still having water only toe deep. Yes, great for a "walking on water" look.

Depending on where you stopped and how you framed your shot, you could get a bit of privacy and a wide open view over a smooth, glass-like surface, or an isolation shot, or a shot with posing people overlapping, as far as the eye could see.

The water is evaporating quickly. It was no longer deep enough (about a foot) for reliable kayaking, and the surface area was maybe 1/3 of what it was a month or so previous. But it's still a picturesque mirror for the desert and mountains surrounding the basin. If you just want to get to the water, I'd suggest parking 1/4 mile or so south of the Badwater parking area, just past mile marker 17. That's on the alluvial fan, that allows for a short, dry walk to the water's edge. For "walking on water" shots, maybe walk from the edge a bit further north and east.

The last shot was the next morning, driving down the Beatty Road cutoff. I was considering an early morning visit, but it would have required an addiitonal 1/2 hour of driving to Badwater, then turn around and heading north, towards Ubehebe Crater, which I hadn't been to, yet, and was a priority for me to see, this trip. So figure at least 90 minues later, and over an hour additional driving, for what was already going to be a fair amount of driving. So we elected to turn back towards Ubehebe Crater, forgoing a chance at a morning view of Lake Manly, up close.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, February 12, 2024

A variety of factors have kept me off the trail, which has been pretty damn frustrating. Finally managed a little excursion on Monday afternoon, February 12, 2024. Drove out to Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. The recent snows promised the potential of some nice skyline shots.

This has been a somewhat regular destination for me, although I don't think I've been there for a few years. Got there early, with time for a little walking before sunset. Probably only did two or 2 1/2 miles, though.

Took plenty of shots. Chatted with an LASD sergeant, for a bit. He was also there enjoying the view. I was just trying to make sure I wasn't going to get locked in there. The sign out front says the park gates are locked at 6pm. About twenty minutes before that, a truck came rolling around the road, announcing "final call" for the gate being locked.

I took my last shot around 5:48pm, then headed to my car, and drove slowly down the road, reaching the gate with a few minutes to spare.

After I got home, I saw a crescent moon, and wanted to try out one of my telescopes, an Orion XT8 Dobsonian that my wife found at a thrift store a number of years ago. It was getting hard to track objects with it, because it was so sticky when trying to push the tube in any direction. So I bought some new teflon bearings, which I installed over the weekend. The good news is that it's a lot smoother, now, and easier to fine tune the pointing. The bad news is, it's so slippery that it slides up or down in altitude, depending on how heavy the eyepiece I am using. I'm going to have to buy some new magnetic weights to keep the tube balanced.