Tuesday, May 14, 2024

No aurora for me!

Late Friday night (May 10, 2024), my facebook feed blew up with various people reporting aurora borealis (Northern Light) sightings as far south as Arizona and southern California. It was overcast at home that night, and so I just looked out a north-facing window and saw nothing. Had I been less tired, maybe I would have driven up into the Angeles National Forest, but I was tired, and still a little skeptical. But the postings continued into the next day, and the possibility of more sightings the next day had me interested.

The next night, I was already planning to head to Joshua Tree National Park, to do some regular night sky viewing and maybe some astrophotography. Meanwhile, earlier on Friday, I discovered that Sky's the Limit was planning to do a dark sky observing event, so I contacted them and got approval to volunteer for that. Sky's the Limit is located directly on the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park, north of Twentynine Palms.

After the outreach event wrapped up (a success, of course!), I got my car packed up (around 11pm) and I headed into the park, trying to put some distance between me and Twentynight Palms. Folks, it was a complete zoo in the park on Saturday, which I suppose I should have expected. There were literal five minute long periods when a continuous line of cars would make it impossible to pull back into traffic. Cars were parked along the road and continually circling through parking areas. No way you could get dark adapted if you didn't walk some distance away from the roads and parking lots.

Aurora-wise, it was a washout. Even if there were faint lights to be seen, it would have been hard to see. The shots I posted were what I got, which was a lot of car head and tail lights, and no aurora. Only funny things photographed were artifacts from car lights, reflecting within my camera lens.

Reports from the Interweb confirmed that the aurora on Saturday night were a lot weaker than the ones on Friday night, and no significant sightings were posted for our vicinity.

On an unrelated note, a couple of other space-themed photographs from the past week. SpaceX launched another set of satellits out of Vandenburg, which was visible all over the southwest US. This was on May 9. Also on May 9, I photographed the two-day old crescent moon. I photographed the one-day old moon, the night before. That was the narrowest crescent I ever saw.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Ice Age Fossils State Park, North Las Vegas, NV, Hiked May 5, 2024

I had read about this park, Ice Age Fossils State Park, opening just a few months ago. On reading more, I learned there's an actual visitor center at this park, unlike the national monument that virtually surrounds this park (Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument). Because I figured it pretty likely that I wouldn't actually see (or recognize, even if I did see) any actual fossils in situ, I wanted to be taught the significance of this place while also being on site, to hopefully learn a little more effectively that just by reading.

The visitor center is pretty small, and likely wouldn't take a visitor more than 20-30 minutes to read each exhibit and description. But it was indoors (climate controlled) and flush toilets and drinking water were on site, and provided good insight into how prehistory can be reconstructed.

None of this would be true of the national monument mentioned, above.

[I hiked a part of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument a few years ago, but apparently didn't blog it. It consists of a boundary, and two trails, both of which are considered "temporary" trails, because they don't actually take you near any likely fossil finds. They only exist to count visits and provide visitors something to do in the area. There is also extremely limited on-site interpretation. It's basically left up to the visitor to download the information on their website as you walk around]

In my case, I walked around, first, then hit the visitor center, to sort of reiterate what I saw on site. But the signage on the trail was informative. I could see the spot where a large mastadon tusk was found in the 1960s, then reburied, then rediscovered in the 21st Century, and where a tiny Dire Wolf knuckle was found. [The knuckle was the only solid evidence that Dire Wolves once lived in southern Nevada. The mastadon tusk was found partially wrapped in a 1960s Las Vegas area newspaper.]

Of course, for me, not being bound by the rules of science, I can make up stories about time travellers buring mid-20th Century newspapers into the ground, thousands of years ago, and mobile, trading indigenous people taking bones from the La Brea Tar Pits and burying them in southern Nevada. [No, I'm not serious, but, yes, enjoying thinking up ascientific alternative explanations].

There are three designated trails in Ice Age Fossils State Park. The shortest is the Megafauna trail, a 3/10 of a mile paved trail around metal "sculptures" of dire wolves, North American lion, mastadon, and other large mammals that lived here during previous ice age periods. I didn't use a tape measure, mind you, but some sculptures did not seem proportional to how large they should be. Those old bison were huge!

The other two trails form overlapping loops around areas that were excavated in the early 1960s, and areas where "natural" erosion of the Las Vegas Wash exposed layers of deposits. Walking all sections of the three trails, and the connectors, totaled a little over 4.5 miles for the day. That's longer than it had to be because I needed to pee, so walked back to the visitor center after finishing the Big Dig trail, then headed back out to cover the parts of the Las Vegas Wash trail that I didn't cover on the way back, the first time.

The significance of this area (both the state park and the national monument) is that springs once rose here. Rains that falls on the Las Vegas Mountains travels underground, until it reaches an imperious layer, where it seeps back up to the surface. When it rained more, the springs were hearty, and the area was marshy, with ponds and lots of plant and wildlife, and animals that died around here could be buried by silt and fossilized in large numbers. Hence, the density of fossils found here.

Today, the springs in this particular area are gone, but the wash remains. The wash is generally dry, but during infrequent rains, can briefly fill and rage from here down towards Lake Mead. When it does that, it erodes down in the wash, exposing some of those ancient fossils.

Back in the early 1960s, somebody got the idea of bringing in heavy machinery to dig large swaths of silt and clay to be searched for fossils and evidence of prehistoric human habitation. This was called, "The Big Dig." Obviously, that's a pretty destructive way of excavating, and, I would think, has great potential for mixing finds in various depths (hence, various ages) together. It's not something that would be done, today.

This being a desert, and the silt and clay (caliche) are hard, and slow to erode, so those trenches from over 60 years ago are still very obvious. It's just piles of dirt and cliffs of sediments, but the potential for future research in unexcavated sections and along eroding walls obviously remains, in both the state park and the national monument. That makes interpretive signs and museum exhibits so important for lay persons such as myself.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Calico Hills and Calico Tank Trails, Red Rock Canyon NCA, NV, Hiked April 21, 2024

Hiked Sunday, April 21, 2024. Carried my crop sensor dslr, but forgot to return the SD card, so that was just extra deadweight for me to carry. Grumble.

A long time ago, I hiked the Calico Hills trail from the start, when fall wildflowers carpeted the area. I wondered if, following a wet spring, we might get a similar show?

Alas, the answer appears to be, "No." I mean, there were certainly some wildflowers, and likely more blooms still to come this spring, but they were not dense as that long-ago fall day.

The Calico Hills trail starts near the entrance station. From the visitor center parking lot, you need to head downhill, and, from the lowest lot, find the trail signage heading yet further down, towards the aforementioned entrance station. Once there, you cross the street, and make your way a bit further west, before heading back north, parallel to the road.

Nonetheless, the route had some promise, for me. Although much of it parallels pavement, you're not right near the road, and only a fraction of visitors to the area ever walk the lower reaches of this trail.

Of course, even on crowded trails, usually you manage to leave a pretty good proportion of the crowd after a mile or so. However, because you're often hiking narrow canyons or climbing relatively narrow chutes, even relatively few people can still produce bottlenecks. For this day, that would only be an issue further along, on the Calico Tanks part of this trail. For the Calico Hills trail, once away from various trailheads, it was, as expected, pretty empty.

It's not wilderness, obviously, and, in fact, the climax of the hike is a view back into the Las Vegas Valley. However, you do get plenty of time to listen to the wind and be lost in your own thoughts.

On my previous trip on this trail, I inadvertantly diverged from the actual Calico Hills trail, right around Calico II, and wound up within the Calico Hills, themselves. That's not entirely my fault, as there are lots of use trails around here, and even the signage can be a little confusing. In one case, as I approached a sign, a bright arrow pointed one way, but an arrow in shadow was not apparent, and I turned the wrong way. They good news is that I got to see a Mojave aster bush in bloom. Then I backtracked and fixed my mistake.

By not losing the trail, this time, I was brought pass a few stained rock slabs with a few faint pictoglyphs (pecked out of the rock, rather than painted on the rock). I had to increase the contrast of the photos, after the fact, to make the pictoglyphs more apparent.

Just prior to that, I heard the scraping of a small chuckwalla over sandstone. I peeked over a ledge, to snap a picture of him.

That's this picture, here.

I also snapped a picture of some of the weirdly eroded sandstone. This one looks like a grumpy old man, yelling, "Get off my lawn," with a uvula and everything.

Among the wildflowers I did see, were desert marigold (pictured at the top of this post), which was probably the most common. I saw a few blooming beavertail cactus (the second flower shot in this post), with many more on the way, and quite a lot of globe mallow (not pictured), again, with many more buds, indicating more blooms were on the way.

I also saw a few mariposa lily, as pictured, here, and a few bushes of mojave aster (the next shot).

Finally, I saw one patch of what may have been fleabane, and once I got on the Calico Tank trail, several really prolific red bud trees. Everything else pictured was on the Calico Hills trail.

Once on the Calico Tank trail, it got more crowded, and there were more times when I had to step to the side, or others had to step aside, to allow hikers traveling in the opposite direction to pass. There were also a few times I did not take the right route up. One made me do a short lift to get back over to the trail. Not particularly dangerous, but clearly not what would be on the designated path for a trail like this.

Once the trail starts on it's southernly leg, the climbing gets steeper, so even though it's only supposed to be 1.1 miles from the parking area to the tank, the last 1/2 mile feels longer. Well, it was also after I had already walked about four miles, so even more so. I dragged in places, and huffed and puffed a lot.

The tank itself is just a small natural pond, where runoff is trapped, providing water for desert residents through much of the summer, depending on how wet the winter and spring was.

The official trail stops at the tank. But going to the other side provides nice views towards the Las Vegas Valley. From the north side, you have the option of either walking just a bit above above the west "shoreline," with the a small potential for an unpleasant and bumpy slide into the lake (not as likely with grippy shoes), or taking a higher route, further to the right, with no exposure to a fall. Not remembering for certain at the time, I took the low route out, and returned via the high route.

Once on the other side, a modicum of balance and you can get to one of a number of nice views to the south and east. The tank photo in this post is from the opposite side, looking north.

I then picked my way around a bit. But, knowing my legs were already becoming a little wobbly from exertion, I did not attempt too many options. Obviously, had I only walked from the nearest trailhead, this wouldn't have been an issue. Also, if I were in better shape. But this was my first significant hike (more than 3-5 miles) in a really long time.

The funny part (to me) was, after making my way up a nearby boulder, I semi-froze on the way back down. That's because the way up required me to lose one point of contact with the ground, pulling up with my arms, with one leg pushing up a narrow ledge. Naturally, that means the decent required this in reverse, losing one point of contact, and having to drop below the point of no return to land a foot on the "surface." And the tricky part is, when you're going down, you can't easily see your toe holds, or how far you'll have to drop to make ground contact.

So, in this case, I kept readjusting my toeholds and hand holds, trying to minimize the drop down to the "surface." The slope was such that, if I miscalculated, my foot might land on a sloping surface, then I might slide and flop on my butt, or worseould just make the hop down, or try to ease my way a bit closer to the surface. After about five adjustments, and me trying to decide if it was safer to just make a longer hop down where I could see where I was going to land, and control the direction of my landing, I finally committed myself to a single position and move, eased myself down as far as I could, then took the blind drop down to the surface. Turned out the drop was about ten inches! Seemed like it would be longer than that from above. I was happily relieved. Yeah, I'm really bad at judging heights from above!

Occasionally sloppy with my footwork, but no significant problems heading back down Calico Tank trail. Once back at the parking lot for Calico Tank/Turtlehead Peak, I observed numerous rock climbers on the cliffs, now to my left. I continud seeing them pretty much the entire way where the Calico Hills were adjacent to the Calico Hills trail, both higher up on the cliffs, and on some of the rock faces at the bottom of the canyon, right above the wash.

This is in addition the regular rock scambling-types, who don't use technical gear. The rock climbers I'm talking about had ropes, a means to anchor those ropes, helmets, the works. Since I'm too chicken to do such a thing myself, I have not checked in terms of whether climbers are using existing anchors, or restricted to using what's already there. But there were quite a lot of them.

I had seen them on previous trips, but it seemed like there were more, today. Also, I had often seen them along the escarpment. Or, more accurately, I saw their lights on the escarpment, after dark, while I snapped Milky Way shots.

I have also often seen the helmeted walking back towards the trailheads on that side of the scenic drive.

I semi-inadvertantly left the Calico Hills trail during my return, as I neared Calico I. I figured I had approached Calico I at road level, but I could see some very well-defined trails down below, and thought those might also link back up with the Calico Hills trail.

So I explored, which is not objectively a bad thing. In this case, though, it did add a little distance and a lot of climbing and decending and climbing to eventually get back on the Calico Hills trail. But you only learn for sure if you walk the steps, which I did.

There are also linkages between the lower part of the Calico Hills trail and trails on the Calico Basin side of the national conservation area. But that would have added a non-trivial additional distance, which I wasn't prepared to walk. So, instead, once it became clear how long this detour would take, I took a cross-country route out of the canyon and back up to where the Calico Hills trail was.

Near the end, I had another choice, of whether to return the way I had come, or take the "Grand Circle" trail back to the visitor center. Even though I've done both trails before, it was long enough ago that I wasn't sure which would be faster. Because the Calico Hills trail went all the way back down to near the entrance station, I felt like the Grand Circle trail would be shorter. But that trail takes a roundabout way around the visitor center, and you wind up approaching it from the southwest, so I'm not sure which way would have been quicker to my car.

On the other hand, I had, for a while, the idea that I would want to pop into the visitor center/gift shop, just to see what's what. So walking toward the visitor center rather than my car seemed the more appropriate route. However, by the time I did get to the visitor center, no, I was ready to go home.

As indicated on the screenshot of my Alltrails recording, I walked just under ten miles for the day, with about 1575 feet of gross vertical elevation gain. I was pretty beat. First decent distance of continuous walking in a while. Good to know, before I make overly ambitious plans for additional hiking this spring and summer!

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Birds! Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, 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 lots of vegetation and insects that the birds can feed on. This provides plenty 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 from the north and east, 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.

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 a-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 at Pahranagat 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 Viewing 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 campsites 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 her 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 and back, but not so hard or strenuous that I'd be falling asleep on the 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, although 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 Pocket.

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 of interest to see here.

And, as noted, it was okay. There are essentially no interpretive signs here that would point out nearby points of interest. Could not even find the dam (cistern) in the area. I was also under the mistaken impression that there might be petroglyphs to see here (there may be, but I didn't find them). 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.