What is it that draws me to Mono Lake? I’m not entirely sure why this hauntingly beautiful lake attracts me – perhaps it’s the fragility of the ecosystem combined with its unique geologic and cultural history. Whatever the reason, I have developed a real love affair with this 700,000-year-old lake and the surrounding basin area.
Mono Lake is an endorheic body of water — meaning it has rivers and streams that flow into it, but no outlet except for evaporation. This inland sea becomes alkaline due to this unusual phenomenon. It was not always endorheic in nature. After the last ice age, the lake water started to recede and the river that once flowed from the lake into the Owens Valley ceased to exist. There are many other endorheic lakes in the world — the Great Salt Lake in Utah, Lake Van in Turkey, Qinghai Lake in China, Lake Turkana in Kenya, Lake Eyre in Australia, and the Caspian Sea in Russia — to name a few.
The fragility of this incredibly unique ecosystem was recognized in the 1970’s. Biologists started to voice concern that water diversion from the Mono Basin to supply Los Angeles was leading to lower lake water levels and an increase in the salinity of the lake. The increase in salinity would harm the survival of the brine shrimp population, a critical food source for thousands of migratory birds. A concerned group of citizens formed the Mono Lake Committee to lobby for the protection of this naturally beautiful and environmentally-sensitive area. Through their efforts, legislation was eventually passed to protect the area.
The Mono Lake National Forest Scenic Area was created through congressional legislation in 1984. The purpose was to allow the forest service to manage this special geological, scenic and cultural area and prevent damaging water diversion to the City of Los Angeles. Unmonitored water diversion once threatened this delicate ecosystem – home to brine shrimp and a species of alkaline flies. Migratory birds can now still depend on Mono Lake as a stopover and re-fueling station, feeding on the explosive population of brine shrimp for nourishment on their long journey. Mono Lake is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) due to its critical role in supporting migratory bird populations.
Unique geologic formations called “tufas” are prominent along much of the lakeshore. These formations were created underwater as the calcium-rich streams feeding the lake reacted with the carbonate-rich lake water. These limestone (calcium carbonate) towers give the area a majestic, magical aura. As lake waters receded with the diversion of water to Los Angeles, many of these towers were left exposed and stranded on land. Today, visitors can walk around and among these noble structures.
On our first visit to Mono Lake, we chose to explore the South Tufa area to get a look at those surreal-looking tufas – up close and personal. From the parking lot, there are numerous walking trails including a boardwalk that guide you to the shoreline through sagebrush meadows and along land-locked tufas. Interpretive signs are scattered along the trails giving information on the history of the lake, as well as describing the distinct flora and fauna. There’s also a rich native american heritage in the Mono Basin that is shared in signage both along the trails surrounding the lake, and in the natural history display at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center.
The off-shore rock formations visible from the trails are home to both California Gulls and Osprey. Mono Lake is home to the second largest California Gull rookery in the U.S. – the Great Salt Lake houses the largest rookery. They provide a safe nesting habitat against predators such as coyote. During nesting season, access to the off-shore islands and towers is restricted. For years, when water diversion in the surrounding basin led to low water levels in the lake, these nesting grounds were vulnerable to predators that could access the nests via exposed land bridges.
We have been fortunate to observe a few of the bird species that make Mono Lake their home at various times of the year – including Osprey, California Gulls, American Avocets, Wilson Phalaropes, Violet-green Swallows, and Great-horned Owls. We even saw some Snowy Egrets from a distance perched on the off-shore tufas. The biggest thrill for us was the night we were there at dusk and watched as several great-horned owls emerged from their daytime resting place on one of the lake tufas. They came close to us, and although I did not have my telephoto lens with me that night, I was able to capture some pictures. It was beautiful to watch them silently glide about the rocks and meadows.
We have visited Mono Lake often this summer, both at the South Tufa area and Navy Beach. It is especially enchanting in the early evening when the lake and surrounding meadows come alive with bird and animal activity.
On September 16, we made the trek back to Mono Lake to see the moon rising over the lake. When we got there around 6:30pm, the sun was about to set behind the great wall of the Sierras. The light was incredible!
Although I was not set up to take a serious photo of the moon (did not have my tripod with me), I did snap some shots trying to keep the camera as steady as possible. When the moon started to appear on the horizon and make it’s way up into the evening sky, it literally just took my breath away! I snapped these two shots – somewhat different because I was playing around with the white balance on the camera. Not bad for an incredible amateur who forgot her tripod!!
For more information on Mono Lake, the Mono Lake Committee maintains an excellent, informative website.
I have some shots from our visit to the Navy Beach area of Mono Lake that are equally stunning, but alas! – I’ve misplaced the flashdrive where I had those stored! Along with a lot of other photos. Hopefully, I will find it. Luckily, I had most photos backed up. But if I do not find it, there are some photos that I had not gotten around to putting on my external hard drive and I fear they may be lost forever 😦
When most people think of Yosemite, the popular photographs and landscape paintings of El Capitan and Half Dome come to mind. Yosemite Valley is the main hub of the park and the place I had visited on two previous occasions until this summer. While the valley is impressive and not to be missed if you have never been to Yosemite, there are less crowded areas of the park that are worth exploring. Since we are stationed in the Eastern Sierras this summer, we had the unique opportunity to get to know the less publicized region of the park.
Tioga Pass Road (Route 120 west) from the east is an imposing road that climbs precipitously through the steep, rocky slopes of the Eastern Sierras to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. Given our close proximity to this geographic region of Yosemite, we decided to focus our summer exploration of the park to this general area. It has not disappointed us.
On our first visit to Yosemite in early summer, we stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. Generally, my first inclination when visiting a new park is to stop and peruse the information in the visitor center to orient myself to the area. This gives me much needed material in the form of maps and guides so I can chart out future trips and highlight specific trails and places of interest I want to pursue. I left the visitor center with a local trail map as well as a wildflower identification book and The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada – a guide to plants and animals. I was armed with the essentials now! I’m never happy unless I have a book in my hand! (I also stamped my all-important passport book, of course!)
We discovered a nice trail accessed from the visitor center parking lot. It would take us past some historical points of interest and also provide us a workout hiking to a picturesque lake and to the top of Lembert Dome.
We walked from the visitor center parking area and found the trail across the road. This hike would take us on several trails that intersected with each other, ultimately forming a loop back to where we started.
The trail is relatively flat going into the meadow, and crosses the Tuolumne River offering up fantastic views of Lembert Dome to the east. On the other side of the river, the trail ascends gradually to Parsons Memorial Lodge, a National Historic Landmark dedicated in 1987.
This lodge was constructed as a memorial to Edward Taylor Parsons, who was a member of the Sierra Club and an active, vocal opponent in the losing battle to avert the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir to supply San Francisco with drinking water.
It was built in 1914 and has served as a meeting place for the Sierra Club, as well as housing a library of material significant to this area. It is open to the public, and during the summer a popular program called the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series is organized with presentations including poetry readings, naturalist talks, storytelling, and music.
Near the lodge continuing east toward the Lembert Dome trail access, you pass the Soda Springs Cabin and the spring itself. The Soda Spring is a carbonated, cold-water spring. John Baptist Lembert laid claim to 160 acres surrounding this spring back in the mid 1880’s and built the existing cabin on the site near the spring.
It was thought to be a springhouse. He raised goats in this area for several years before eventually becoming a guide for tourists and a naturalist. Lembert Dome was named for him after his untimely death in 1897.
We continued on to the Lembert Dome parking area, where we would pick up the trail to the dome. Partway up this trail, there is a side trail to Dog Lake which we decided to take. It would be a perfect spot for lunch, and then we would backtrack to Lembert Dome and continue our hike to the top of the dome.
Dog Lake was situated in a serene spot overlooking some mountains and has a nice beach area on the west side of the lake. It was a pretty lake surrounded by mountains, and not terribly crowded. The hike to Dog Lake is steep at the onset so likely a reason there is less traffic. I have to admit I was mostly curious why it was called Dog Lake but could not really find any obvious reason upon reaching the shore. The lake was not shaped like a dog! (my first thought) It was not surrounded with Pacific Mountain Dogwood trees (common in western Yosemite). I read later that it was called Dog Lake because a geologist surveying the area found an abandoned litter of puppies by the lake. Go figure! Never would have guessed that!
The really cool thing about Dog Lake was the abundance of wildflowers blooming along and around the shoreline and trail. It was the perfect time of year to witness the flowers of several plants that thrive in this sub-alpine environment. There were drifts of Phyllodoce breweri (Purple Mountainheath) and Rhododendron columbianum (Western Labrador Tea) along the shore that literally took your breath away.
I also discovered several other species of wildflowers along the trail leading to Dog Lake that were not familiar to me. I love the challenge of identifying new plants and have since noticed these same plants growing along other trails we have hiked this summer. And, of course, I was discovering the abundance of one of my favorite plants – Aquilegia formosa – Columbine. In researching plant identification sources for this area, I found a great online resource for wildflower hunting in the Eastern Sierras. It is published by the Bureau of Land Management.
We found a quiet place to eat lunch, and then headed back down to the intersection with the Lembert Dome trail and continued our trek to the summit! It was quite an impressive climb to the top of the dome – albeit not exactly the same as scaling Half Dome, but still scary for this cautious hiker. Lembert Dome is one of several granite dome rock formations in Yosemite Park.
It took me a while to get up the nerve to scramble up the steep granite rock face to the top, but I did it and was rewarded with spectacular views of the Tuolumne Meadows area.
Since it was getting late in the afternoon, we decided to continue down the Dog Lake trail to Tuolumne Lodge and catch the shuttle back to the visitor center. This was the steepest part of this trail, and I’m glad we were going down this section! We had to wait about 20 minutes for the shuttle, but it was worth it as we got dropped off right near our truck. The whole hike was probably somewhere around 6 miles from start to finish. I would recommend this hike as an introduction to this region of Yosemite since it passes by some historical sites and offers a moderate hiking workout with the exceptional reward of reaching the summit of Lembert Dome.
It all started with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill near the northern California town of Coloma. In 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter working for John Sutter’s sawmill, found some flakes of gold in the South Fork American River while working on providing water-generated power to the lumber mill. Over the course of several years, more than 300,000 people migrated to California in search of their fortune. Some were miners, but many others came to support the mining effort through selling supplies, operating stores, banks and hotels, and providing the basic necessities of life.
Placer gold was the most successful form of gold mining early on. Placer gold was mined by separating out the gold from sand or gravel, often found in streambeds. It required much less in the way of technology and tools. The gold and other precious metals were isolated from the sand and gravel using tools as simple as a prospector’s pan to wash out the lighter particles of sand, leaving the heavier gold flakes and nuggets in the pan. Over the years, methods to improve the extraction of gold from the sand bars were developed such as water powered sluice boxes, and eventually diesel powered dredges!
Lode mining, or hard rock mining, was the other type of mining employed during the gold rush years and beyond. Lode mining involved tunneling into a mountain or hillside and was much more labor intensive. Placer gold deposits often originated from one of these *lodes* or veins of gold in rock, and were exposed as a result of erosion from the elements – such as water running over these veins and depositing sand and gravel containing gold into streambeds. Often times, when placer gold was discovered in a stream, the search for the source of that gold led to the discovery of veins in solid rock. Lode mining began to really take over as a more industrial way to extract gold when placer gold mining ceased to be productive.
Forgive my over-simplification of the history of gold-mining in California, but I just wanted to give a brief introduction before delving into the really cool stuff! The old mining towns!! A superb example of a gold mining boomtown is Bodie, located southeast of Bridgeport, CA. Bodie is a registered National Historic Landmark as well as a State Historic Landmark.
BODIE STATE HISTORIC PARK
We are just an hour south of the Bodie State Historic Park, and since I had been recommending this place as a *must see* to our camping guests I figured I should get there myself and check it out! The town of Bodie was established more than 10 years after the initial gold rush started in California. This is partly due to the fact that the initial discoveries of gold were on the western side of the Sierras. When gold discoveries and mining started to decline in production in the western Sierras, people moved on over to the eastern side of the Sierras to try their luck.
In 1859, W.S. Bodey from Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold in the hills surrounding what was to become the mining boomtown named after him. He died in a blizzard near the site of the future town before he was able to see the gold industry here come to fruition, but his discovery started the influx of miners to the area. At the height of the boom in Bodie between 1877-1881, there was estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 – 8,000 residents in the town. Thirty mines operated in the countryside and 9 different stamp mills processed and extracted the gold from the rock hauled out of the nearby mines.
Bodie had a fairly civilized town population with merchants and miners, a school and several churches – including a Methodist Church still standing and a Catholic Church.
It has been recorded through census reports that Bodie was an extremely diverse community comprised of many ethnic groups and nationalities. Bodie even had its own Chinatown district where businesses such as general stores, laundries, saloons and boarding houses flourished.
Of course, as with many of these remote mining towns, in its early days, Bodie attracted a rougher element and gained a reputation for being a *wild* place. It is reported in the history of the town that at one time there were more than 60 saloons and a *red light* district on Bonanza Street – often referred to as Virgin Alley and Maiden Lane!
During its heyday, there were several notable personalities who resided in Bodie. Theodore Hoover, brother of President Herbert Hoover, was superintendent of the Standard mines for a period of about three years from 1903-1906. He lived in one of the larger houses next to the Stamp Mill and eventually became head of the Mining and Metallurgy department at Stanford University.
The Boone Store and Warehouse was owned and operated by Harvey Boone, a cousin of the legendary Daniel Boone.
Another well-known resident was Patrick Reddy, an aggressive Irish born attorney who represented the labor class. He eventually became a California State Senator.
Mining continued in Bodie until 1942. Over the years, gold production dropped and mines closed resulting in a dwindling population. The onset of World War II also forced the shutdown of all non-essential gold mines due to the War Production Board order L-208. Mining never resumed and the town was abandoned.
The family of the last and largest landowner in Bodie, James Cain, were concerned about looting and vandalism once the town was deserted. They hired a caretaker to oversee the town until a better solution was forthcoming.
In 1962, the town was purchased by the California State Parks so that the historic buildings and artifacts could be preserved and shared with all. The town is now maintained in a state of *arrested decay*. Buildings are repaired to maintain the integrity of the roofs, windows and foundations but are not restored. The buildings have been left as they were when abandoned. As a result, you can peer into the windows of the buildings and see furniture, wallpaper, and various artifacts of daily living still present as they were left. It truly is an eerie experience.
Only about 5 percent of the original buildings still remain. The missing buildings fell victim to the elements over time, including at least two serious fires that partially destroyed the town. Legend has it that one of the more serious fires in 1932 was caused by a two-year-old boy who was playing with matches.
We paid the extra money to have a guided tour of the Stamp Mill, which I highly recommend. Our tour guide was a young man from Gardnerville who had been working for the park giving interpretive tours for just a few months.
He did an excellent job of explaining the process used to extract gold from mined quartz and convert it into bullion bars. He expertly guided us systematically from room to room in order to communicate a clear picture of the step by step process. It was rather disturbing to hear about the chemical processes later developed to aid in the extraction of the gold. No OSHA in those days! Miners were routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that significantly impacted their lifespan. Oddly enough as I write this, it is Labor Rights Week 2016!
The stamp mill was originally powered by wood which was an enormous undertaking given the fact that this is the high desert and the town sits above the tree line. Enormous amounts of wood had to be hauled into Bodie via wagon to fuel the machinery in the mills that produced the gold.
In an effort to become more efficient, one superintendent of the mines, Thomas Leggett decided to bring electricity to the mill. The year was 1893. The nearest hydroelectric plant was 13 miles away and he is credited with developing one of the first long distance transmission lines of alternating current in the country. Reportedly, Tesla and General Electric served as consultants for the project. I was particularly impressed with this historical anecdote.
We caught up with the tour guide later in the day and asked him about his job. He told us he was one of a number of employees who stayed on site overnight during the days they were working, in several of the houses that were maintained in habitable condition. In fact, he said he was staying in the very house that used to be owned by one of his ancestors who worked in the mines.
I thought that was really cool, and I could tell that he did too. He confided to us that after the park closed for the day it was extremely quiet and peaceful. The park is accessed by an 11-mile winding road with the last 3 miles on *washboard* dirt and gravel (and I can attest to the fact that it is the longest 3 miles you will ever travel!) You can imagine the remoteness and solitude at night. I envied him the opportunity to stay overnight in such a special place. I’ve heard the night sky out there is incredible to experience.
Bodie is reputed to be a ghost town and several evening Ghost Walks are conducted each summer for those interested in experiencing the town at night. I was chatting with a camper who was in the site next to us last week, and he said that he happened to visit Bodie on a day when it was open for nighttime tours. He described it as awe-inspiring. (a little side note – this camper was also a classical guitarist and we were treated to his stunning music each night while he was here in our campground!)
I would like to give credit to the Bodie Foundation and the folks who contributed the historical information for their published walking guide. Many of the facts I’ve mentioned in this post come directly from this guide, which I highly recommend purchasing for a nominal fee. The Bodie Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to support the preservation of this unique place. Bodie has been named California’s Official Gold Rush Ghost Town and the foundation uses the money it collects from the walking guide, the Stamp Mill tours and the on-site museum gift shop to help fund the protection of the town and educate the public.
One of the main goals this summer is to explore on foot some of the hiking trails in and around the greater Eastern Sierra range. My first priority was to get familiar with some trails in close proximity to our campground and around the June Lake Loop. So far, we have hiked two notable trails within the June Lake Loop proper.
RUSH CREEK TRAIL
On one of our first days off after starting work at Oh! Ridge Campground, we decided to tackle a trail just a couple of miles down the road from us. The Rush Creek Trailhead is located just across the road from Silver Lake National Forest Campground – one of several campgrounds that falls under the maintenance duties of Jim’s position. From Hwy 395, take the south junction of Route 158 to a parking lot on the west (left) side of the road. Look for the very visible National Forest signs for this trailhead. I was drawn to this trail for a couple of reasons. A short distance into the hike you enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area and I just could not wait to be inside this wilderness area named after one of my favorite photographers! Also, this trail is an access point for some backpackers to the John Muir Trail and the Thousand Island Lake region. I knew we would not make it as far as the John Muir trail but I wanted my first hike in the Eastern Sierras to take me into the wilderness area. The trailhead elevation is 7,250 feet.
We were still getting acclimated to the altitude so we took many breaks on this stretch of the trail to hydrate and enjoy the scenery unfolding around us.
The beginning of the trail winds along the back of the Silver Lake RV Resort through aspen groves and then starts steadily climbing. The views of the June Lake Loop valley from the first leg of the trail were quite spectacular. The trail actually follows the road (although high above) for a while and then climbs with numerous switchbacks. It’s not long before the terrain turns to sagebrush, wildflowers, and the occasional Jeffrey Pine. Mid-day is probably not the best time to be heading out on this hike. It is exposed and hot. But, of course, that’s exactly when we hit the trail!
One interesting feature along this section of the trail is a railway that ascends straight up the hill to Agnew Lake from Silver Lake. The trail crosses this railway several times during the ascent. The tramway was constructed to move supplies to build a series of hydroelectric facilities in the early 1900’s. Dams were built on three natural lakes – Agnew, Gem and Waugh – to enlarge them and use the overflow to generate electricity. The hydroelectric dams still service the towns in the June Lake Loop area. An interesting fact that I read after completing the hike is that this rail system was salvaged from the old gold-mining town of Bodie about 40 miles north on Route 395. Nice to know that materials were recycled back then and put to good use. More on Bodie in another post!
I’ve read that many hikers take a short cut and opt to walk up the staircase-like tramway, but apparently the cable tramway is still used to transport workers and supplies for the hydroelectric dam maintenance. So, taking this detour is not advised as one is never quite sure when a cable car might be encountered!
In early July, the wildflowers are in abundance in the Eastern Sierras and the diversity of plants flowering along the trail was astounding. I was in plant lover’s heaven, and paused numerous times for picture-taking (as well as to catch my breath)! Early in the hike along a shaded section of the trail I discovered a magnificent little plant called Calochortus leichtlinii – Leichtin’s Mariposa Lily.
The delicate, intricate flower literally took my breath away. It is in the Liliaceae family, is a monocot and a perennial herb native to California. According to the USDA Plant Database, the plant communities where this flower typically grows are Yellow Pine, Red Fir and Lodgepine Pine forests as well as subalpine forests. It is commonly found in dry, sandy, rocky areas. One wildflower guide indicates that this species is rarer in the Eastern Sierras, so I felt privileged to have spotted it growing on this trail. Mariposa means *butterfly* in Spanish and the flower petals do indeed resemble butterfly wings.
Other wildflowers blooming in early July here along the trail include: Castilleja linariifolia – Desert Paintbrush, Eriogonum umbellatum v. nevadense – Nevada Sulfur Flower,
and Penstemon rostriflorus – Bridge’s Penstemon.
I’ve decided to make an informal pact with myself to limit my picture taking to the return leg of our hikes whenever possible otherwise progress is slow. I take note of things I want to photograph and keep my camera handy on the hike out. This only works for an out and back hike however! Hiking poles get in the way too and I tend to put them away when I’m concentrating on photo shoots. I actually lost one of my hiking poles on this hike! I’ve had those poles many years. I collapsed the poles and stuck them in my water bottle pocket thinking this would be secure. Somewhere along the way, one of the poles worked its way out and I did not notice until we were almost down to the trailhead. I figured I was going to need to purchase another set, but as luck would have it, on another hike the next week I found some poles left by a hiker. Funny how that happens!
We stopped for lunch at Agnew Lake, one of several lakes that is dammed for hydroelectric power. In the distance, on the other side of the lake, we saw the tramway continuing on steeply to the upper Gem Lake where another dam is visible. We met some women backpackers who had just descended the Clark Lakes trail on the other side of Agnew Lake and were taking a break under some much needed shade trees. They were visibly tired and indicated that this trail was incredibly steep and rugged with some exposure – not for the faint at heart.
After lunch, I continued on ahead of Jim and was more than halfway to Gem Lake when I realized he was not catching up. I backtracked to Agnew Lake, but still no Jim. I came upon some backpackers heading up the trail, gave them a description of my lanky husband and asked if they had seen him. Yes, as a matter of fact, a guy had stopped and talked with them for a while about the weight of their packs and their trip. He had even asked to pick up one pack and put it on to feel the weight. That sounded like Jim! He told them his wife was the better hiker, and kept on hiking up the trail but his legs were feeling it so he had decided to start down.
I caught up with him soon after, and we hiked the rest of the way together. The views heading down the trail into the valley were spectacular.
If you want a good work-out and are reasonably acclimated, then this is a good hike to get in shape. I would definitely extend the trip all the way to Gem Lake since you gain the most elevation on the 2-mile hike to Agnew Lake. It’s only another 1 ½ miles to Gem Lake. If you are interested in an overnight trip, then hiking to the Thousand Island Lake region is a 7-mile hike in, and from what I understand is worth the trek!
PARKER LAKE TRAIL
A couple of weeks later, we wanted a short afternoon hike and decided to take the Parker Lake Trail back to – you guessed it – Parker Lake. This trail is accessed from a parking lot a couple of miles back on the Parker Lake Road. The dirt/gravel forest service access road is located just north of Grant Lake on the June Lake Loop road – Route 158. It is a well-maintained road and should be accessible with most vehicles.
This is a 2-mile hike from the trailhead to Parker Lake with an elevation gain of just 636 feet, making it a very family-friendly hike. The first part of the trail is where you gain most of that elevation. This is a sweet trail with a good diversity of terrain. The first half of the trail traverses through typical sagebrush meadows interspersed with groves of Curl-Leaf Mountain Mahogany – Cercocarpus ledifolius. Along the trail, I could hear the rushing sound of Parker Creek. I quickly realized that we were hiking along the top of a small canyon formed by Parker Creek as it tumbled down the ravine towards Mono Lake.
As we climbed in elevation, the trail flattened out and we found ourselves hiking adjacent to Parker Creek. This section of the creek was slowly ambling through a much different ecosystem. The water was clear and the stones made for a beautiful picture!
We were now in a Jeffrey Pine dominated forest with groves of Aspen trees along the creek. We came upon a large specimen Jeffrey Pine and had to stop for some pictures! I am amazed at how the landscape can change so dramatically from dry sagebrush to moist forest. As we continued our hike and reached Parker Lake, the forest transitioned to Lodgepole Pine.
These two pines are decidedly different and easily identified. Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) is characterized by its cluster of three needles that range in length from 5-10 inches and tends to have an elevation range of 6,000-9,000 feet. The bark on a Jeffrey Pine is deeply grooved, rust-colored with age and has an aromatic smell similar to vanilla. Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) is the only 2-needle per cluster pine in the Sierras and the needles are short in length. The bark of Lodgepole Pine is not furrowed, but is thin and scaly in appearance. These two pines can overlap in elevation range with Lodgepole occurring at much higher elevations up to 11,000 feet. It’s been interesting to become familiar with the habitat of different plants here in the Sierras as it gives me a sense of what vegetation zone I’m in and approximate elevation range.
We reached Parker Lake and were rewarded with a clear blue lake nestled between towering 12,000 foot peaks.
The wind was really buffeting the east side of the lake so we continued on around the lake on an informal side trail to find a sheltered spot to eat lunch. After lunch, we walked further towards the west side of the lake. There were thickets of shrub willow and moist pockets of grassy areas near the lakeshore that we had to navigate through in search of a trail that continued around the lake
We never found a path through the thicket, but as we were exploring this side of the lake getting lost in the thick cover of shrubs, I stumbled upon a mass of Delphinium glaucum! What a surprise to see this native plant blooming here.
Always on the lookout for plants and wildflowers, I also discovered what I thought was the same Mariposa Lily that I had found on the Rush Creek Trail. I compared the photographs when I got back to the campground, and realized that this was an entirely different species! How thrilling! The species on the Parker Lake trail is Calocortus bruneaunis. The differences in the two species is ever so slight. The Leichtin Mariposa has a white flower with a purplish-brown triangular blotch on the perimeter of a yellow center. The Bruneau Mariposa also has white petals but the center is characterized by a pattern of yellow and burgundy stripes with purple stamens. Side by side, the difference is notable.
Some other plants along the way included :
The advantage to an out and back trail is that the scenery is seen from a different perspective, and therefore, new discoveries make this appear to be new territory. Hiking into the lake, we were focused on what lay ahead, and upon our return, a remarkable view of Mono Lake was revealed to us. We came out of the forest, turned a corner in the hilly sage meadow area and there was Mono Lake off in the distance in all her glory. I love surprises like that.
We decided that at some point in the summer we would hike this trail again, and do it closer to dusk. It seemed like an ideal place to observe wildlife in the early evening visiting the creek and lake.
I’m not sure what it is about the high desert mountain environment that beckons me, but I love this geographical area. I’m sure that I must have something in my DNA that attracts me to this harsh yet hauntingly beautiful landscape. Driving into the Oh! Ridge Campground in June Lake, CA for our first “workamping” experience was thrilling for me as I contemplated a whole summer spent exploring this unique place. I came upon a John Muir quote that seems appropriate for my summer adventure: “Wander a whole summer if you can…. time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will definitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.”
We arrived at the campground on June 29th, found our site supervisors and were guided to the spot we would call home for the summer. Since they were desperately awaiting our arrival due to shortages in staff, they *encouraged* us to start work the next day. After close to three weeks on the road, we were ready to get started working and that night set our alarm for the first time in three weeks!
My position in the campground is to help out in the kiosk registering campers. I work with one other person which means that on her days off I am the sole person staffing the kiosk.
My first day on the job was definitely what you would call *hands-on* training. My priority that day was mastering the online system we use to check in/out campers and manage the campsite reservations. Since I consider myself fairly technology literate, I did not think this would be a huge challenge and it proved even easier than I’d imagined. I love learning new systems and was quickly on board with this one. There were several other daily tasks that needed to be completed each day. These tasks included sending daily reports to the district manager regarding on-site reservations and doing preparation work for the camp hosts. The hosts stop in each morning to pick up the list of in-coming and out-going campers and the daily plastic reservation signs for each site generated by the kiosk staff.
Aside from these regular everyday jobs, I quickly realized that our campers and the June Lake beach day use guests believe us to be an on-site visitor center and information resource for literally everything. Where’s the closest laundromat? Is gas cheaper at June Lake Junction, or should I travel to Lee Vining? Can you recommend a hike that would be suitable for small children? Is June Lake a man-made lake or natural lake? What sites do you recommend we visit in Yosemite? How long will it take us to drive to Yosemite Valley from here? Do you have an update on the Clark Wildfire happening down the road? We have only one day to spend in this area, what should we do? What is the best way to travel from here to Mammoth on the OHV trails? We forgot to pack pillows, is there a place close by that sells pillows?!
You get the picture! These are all exact questions I have fielded over the past week alone. My librarian training and natural curiosity serves me well here. I set about happily spending my free time in the kiosk surfing the web for information on the area to aid me in answering all the questions coming my way. In addition, Jim and I are spending our days off exploring the area. After just a couple of weeks, and day trips to both the Mammoth Forest Service Visitor Center and the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, I had an arsenal of information at my fingertips. I thoroughly enjoy my daily interactions with campers and day use visitors. It has been a great experience so far.
Jim is working in the maintenance department directly with the maintenance supervisor. When I started searching for workamping positions, Jim had one main requirement– he would not under any circumstances clean bathrooms! In maintenance, you do not clean bathrooms – so an ideal position for him. He’s making the adjustment to working with someone else on a daily basis. It is a much harder transition for him. Being self-employed all your life gives you a perspective and approach to work that is often at odds with those who have spent their entire lives working for companies. Now, I’m not making any kind of statement regarding the value of being self-employed vs. working for someone else.
It’s all about what you have adapted to, and how you approach problems, issues and solutions – just sayin’! So, it has been more difficult for him but he is managing and tries to keep an open mind – most of the time! At the very least, his stories about some of his co-workers are entertaining. He does really like the guy he works with directly every day and that helps.
We have a campsite that is actually two sites together with a three-sided wind shelter in between that we use to store the bikes, and various other things that we do not want to haul around in the truck. Of course, we cannot put anything in there that is attractive to bears as it is open on one side. We also are fortunate to have some larger Jeffrey Pine trees on our site that provide us some shade part of the day.
We are located on one of the loops furthest from the beach access. That means during the week the campsites adjacent to us are often empty and we have a nice private location (except for weekends when the campground fills up). Our site offers a view of the mountains, and we move our chairs and picnic table around to different spots depending on time of day – to get shade or to avoid the winds that can kick up in the afternoon. As an employee site, we have full hook-ups, although the sewer hook-up is not standard and we have to use a macerator. Interesting little gadget, but it does work!
We have our Airstream chairs as our only *patio* furniture at the moment. I’m hoping to find some comfortable lounge chairs that offer lumbar support somewhere in our journey but still looking for just the perfect chair. On a rare trip through Gardnerville, NV, we stopped at a Walmart and picked up a cute little aluminum (what else?) table and a really nice indoor/outdoor carpet. The carpet lives just outside the door to the trailer and has helped keep the sand build up inside the trailer to a minimum. We do not have a shortage of volcanic pumice sand!
The one slight issue we have discovered with our location has to do with the resident rodent population – namely, the chipmunks that abound in and around the campground. Apparently, they have no predators and we have officially waged war on these pesky little creatures. I have affectionately dubbed this the “Summer of the Chipmunk Wars”. We realized that the rodent situation had escalated when the truck would not start one morning about two weeks after we had arrived. Since this is our only mode of transportation, we were not happy. Upon investigation, Jim discovered a chipmunk nest under the hood in the compartment that houses a substantial wiring harness that regulates the gauges on the dashboard.
And these darn little varmints were wrecking our truck. Several of the wires had been chewed causing the truck to immediately shut down once started. Now, these are extremely tiny wires with about 20 to a bundle.
Jim is a fairly resourceful person but fixing this was going to take some extraordinary ingenuity. I admired his tenacity to just get to work and find a solution to the problem. He exhibited excellent anger management skills! He decided the best temporary fix was to try and splice the broken wires together, and in order to do this, he needed some very small pieces of wire. I went looking for something that might work, and came up with an old set of earplugs that I never use. He examined the wire and declared it might just suit.
Now, in situations like this, the best thing to do is give Jim some space. I handed him the wire, and immediately occupied myself with other things and left him to concentrate on the minute task of splicing these teensy wires together. A while later, the sound of the truck starting up was music to my ears. I will not go in to detail as to how we have reduced the rodent population – use your imagination on this one. But, our chipmunk war is on-going and we are to date winning the battle!
It’s August now – actually almost the end of August. Hard to believe! I will be starting to post some of our day-off adventures from the summer and organizing them around themes. Stay tuned!!
Monday, June 27th
We left Glacier NP on Monday, June 27th with three days to travel to our new posting at Oh Ridge Campground in the Inyo National Forest near June Lake, Ca. I planned a route that would take us through Idaho along the scenic Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness Area and the Salmon River watershed.
We stopped in Polson, MT on our way south out of Kalispell to fuel up and stock up on food. There is an excellent grocery store on the north end of town. Polson sits on the southern end of Flathead Lake within the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the scenic Route 93 that runs along the western side of the lake is noteworthy. It’s a very picturesque drive. We continued south on 93 through Missoula and on into Idaho.
By the time we arrived on the outskirts of North Fork, ID it was getting to be early evening. We came upon a general store with an RV park attached to it, and decided to check it out as a place to stop for the night.
The North Fork RV park sat behind the store and restaurant and was curiously empty. Upon investigation, the young woman in the store said it would be $29 per night with full hook-ups. We had our pick of treeless, open sites. It turns out the place is family operated, and they had just completely re-done the small RV park, and just re-opened. They did have small trees planted at each site that someday would provide shade. The family was very nice, and the older couple who own the place are building a very nice house adjacent to the campground. Loving all things construction, the lines of the unfinished house beckoned to us and we walked over to investigate after we got set up. The setting was actually quite pretty, although even in the early evening temperatures here were in the 90’s. We got a quiet night’s sleep and woke up refreshed.
Tuesday, June 28th
On Tuesday, we passed through some of the prettiest country I’ve ever seen. Once we left North Fork and headed along the Salmon River, we realized there were many, many national recreation area campgrounds right on the river that would have been a much better place to camp the night before. Oh, well – next time! The scenery between the towns of Salmon and Challis was especially spectacular.
We stopped at the Colston Creek picnic/boat launch access area for a rest. I used the pit toilet facilities here, and much to my surprise they were sparkling clean and the inside walls were completely painted with an amazing mural by local students! The mural depicted local flora and fauna. Totally blew me away!
Jim could not resist getting refreshed in the Salmon River while we wandered around the shore of the river looking for birds nesting in the cliffs above us.
We turned off of Rt. 93 so we could take the scenic Route 75 through the Sawtooth Valley and up and over Galena Pass at 8,743-foot elevation. This road also bypasses Sun Valley so I was sure it would be spectacular. It did not disappoint me. Shortly before the town of Stanley, we noticed a small museum on the right hand side of the road and had to stop.
The Stanley Museum is located in the historic Valley Creek Ranger Station and is on the Historic Landmark Registry. It is operated by the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association. The museum displays many local artifacts and photographs that offer the visitor a glimpse into central Idaho history and culture. Behind the museum sits a small building that houses a unique cold storage room – an above ground root cellar. It was fascinating! The building has 32-inch wide walls insulated with sawdust and although the outside temperature was in the 90’s, the inside of this room was very refrigerated.
We left the museum and started up the road heading for Galena Pass. Just shy of the pass there is a scenic overlook that offers an unparalleled view of the Sawtooth Valley below. The overlook is dedicated to Bethine and Frank Church. This politically active couple were instrumental in helping to establish the Wilderness Act of 1964 and conserve this area of Idaho. Bethine was present for the dedication of the overlook and shared a favorite quote of her husband’s (the former Senator who helped to establish the Wilderness Act): “I’ve never known a person who felt self-important in the morning after spending the night on an Idaho mountainside under a star-studded sky.” It is a great place to rest on the steep upward climb to the pass and reflect on the beauty of the valley and the people who work to make it possible to enjoy such wilderness.
Pressing onward, we passed over the summit and headed down towards the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley. Oh my goodness, we hit a serious traffic jam in Ketchum and any thoughts of detouring through the town of Sun Valley disappeared quickly. Even in the summer, this is a very busy area. We managed to get out of this congested area without any mishaps and our focus now was on getting some miles behind us. We needed to get to Route 80 and start heading west towards Reno and the detour over the Sawtooth Scenic Byway was worthwhile but cost us some time.
By sundown, we had reached Wells, Nevada. Now, to be honest, my least favorite stretch of road in the entire country is Route 80 through Nevada! The interstate here is sprinkled with small towns usually boasting a few truck stops, RV parks and casinos. It’s always hot and dusty when I am traveling through as well which does not add to the charm. It was approaching dark and we had to stop. I decided to take a chance on the Angel Lake RV Park situated on the western edge of town. I’ve no idea why I chose this particular RV Park – more or less a toss of a coin, and further away from the casinos! It turned out to be okay. The woman in the office was extremely nice and offered us a space that gave us some privacy from the other mostly seasonal RVer’s camped there. Apparently, this RV park is home to seasonal mine workers who stay here for extended periods of time. Since these workers spend many hours a day working, the place was quiet! They are either working or sleeping. Anyway, for one night it suited us.
Wednesday, June 29th
Our destination today was Oh Ridge Campground in June Lake, CA and the main objective was simply to drive. We figured we would reach the campground around 3pm in time to get set up and meet our new co-workers. We bypassed around Reno by detouring on Route 95 in Fernley and picking up Route 50 towards Carson City and then headed south on scenic Route 395. This road runs parallel to the Eastern Sierras and is truly a remarkable drive. We would have made our destination on time too, if not for a slight issue with the truck. Seven miles past Gardnerville, NV we were climbing a hill and the truck just lost power, the engine light came on and we had to pull over. The diagnosis was most likely a bad fuel filter, and we unhitched the Airstream so Jim could travel back to Gardnerville for parts. I stayed with the Airstream! The engine light had gone off on the drive back to Gardnerville, so he got back with parts in hand and we hitched up and continued on our way. Still, it was a delay of several hours. We still got to the campground before dark and settled in. Our first impression upon entering the campground and seeing the mountains and lake was “Thank goodness”. Now, this was a place we could spend the summer!
On Monday, June 20 we headed up into Glacier NP after filling up on our free KOA breakfast, and stopping at a carwash to scrub both truck and trailer. At the West Glacier entrance, Jim signed up for his senior pass and we asked about possible camping. We were directed to either Apgar CG or Fish Creek CG and after touring the two quickly, we landed at Fish Creek for the first 4 nights of our week long stay and moved to Apgar CG for the remainder of the week.
The park had opened up the B loop of Fish Creek campground a week early due to bear activity on the other open loops, so for the next few days the loop was first come, first serve (normally reservation only). The sites were spacious and were mostly pull-throughs. Our site was level enough that we did not have to adjust anything but the front jack! It was getting on toward late afternoon once we got set up, so we ate quickly and decided to drive up the Going to the Sun road in the early evening. It was a beautiful evening and the scenery and colors along the route were breathtaking. A good choice to drive the famous road in the evening. We avoided the daytime crowds and went as far as the Logan Pass Visitor Center and turned around. I must say that the road did live up to expectations. Many, many photo ops!
When we were at Logan Pass, we noticed that some of these higher trails were closed due to snow cover, but you could still hike back to Hidden Lake from the visitor center. We decided to tackle this hike the next morning since it was not a long hike, and not much elevation gain. We were still feeling the altitude!
During our week-long stay in Glacier, we completed three hikes. All the hikes were fantastic. Here’s a brief recap of each hike.
HIDDEN LAKE TRAIL
The trail to Hidden Lake from the Logan Pass Visitor Center was still mostly snow-covered but manageable in our hiking boots. There was still a sizable amount of snow up here, and we saw numerous skiers hiking up some peaks and skiing down!
The walk back to Hidden Lake was a fairly level hike with minimal elevation gain, as I said earlier. This was a good thing as we were definitely needing to acclimate to the altitude. Walking was slow since we were trekking through snow, but this was okay. I was savoring the incredible beauty of the area and taking many photos, so going slow was just fine with me.
Two miles back on the trail, there is a lookout point which offers a view of Hidden Lake below. An interpretive sign on the lookout details the environmental impact of our warming climate on this area. A photo taken in the 1930’s shows how much the area has changed as the warming temperatures have permitted a rising of the tree line. The increase in forested area means a decrease in the alpine meadow area, threatening many species that depend on the alpine meadow for both food and survival. This part of the trail near the lookout was a *local* hangout for the mountain goat population here in the park. They were tame and enjoyed posing for many photos!
Most people on the trail turned around at the lookout and headed back down to the visitor center. Of course, I was bent on continuing on down to the lake. The sign saying *you are now entering grizzly bear territory* deterred me somewhat – but I forged on. Jim was lagging a bit behind me, so I hiked alone for a while taking comfort in the fact that there were several other folks in front of me. When I noticed the fields of Glacier Lily though, I took pause. Apparently, the tubers of this lily are a favorite food of the grizzlies. I figured they did not have much else to eat this time of year, and decided to head back. (I had not yet purchased the bear canister spray that everyone carries!) So, I did not make it down to the lake, but it was getting towards evening anyway – another reason to exit grizzly country – and we had a long drive back down the Going to the Sun road to camp.
This trail was heavily traveled and I’m sure a popular one all summer long. Great short hike for children, or those not wanting or liking a long hike.
AVALANCHE LAKE TRAIL
A couple of days later, we decided to hike the Avalanche Lake Trail since it was lower in elevation and would not be snow-covered. It proved to be a very popular hike. We are not fast movers in the morning when on vacation, so it is usually around 11am when we are arriving at trailheads. Not an advisable practice when traveling in populated national parks. Oh well, we survived the parking space race. After looping around the trailhead parking area several times, I finally got out of the truck and circled around like a vulture waiting for someone to leave. Finally – I was lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time. I guarded the open space aggressively while Jim made the loop back around to find me. Success!
This trail was crowded and if I were to do this hike again I would choose to go much earlier in the morning. However, that said, it really was a spectacular hike along the Avalanche River. There were parts of the river that flowed through rocky *canyons* where the elevation drop was more significant, creating wonderful little rapids and waterfalls.
This hike was mostly wooded as compared to the alpine meadow hike we took to Hidden Lake. So, a refreshing change of scenery and ambience.
I was happy to discover some familiar wildflowers including one of my favorite plants – Tiarella – in bloom.
I also noticed a type of Clintonia – which I later identified as Clintonia uniflora or Queen’s Cup. We even skirted by a sleepy little snake on the trail. I’m surprised we did not step on him!
I would say this is a trail for families with young children since the elevation gain is insignificant and the trail length manageable for children. And the reward at the halfway point of the trail is a nice lake with a beach area for picnicking and playing.
LOOP TRAIL TO GRANITE PARK CHALET
Now we’re talkin’ – a real hike! The Loop Trail starts part way up the Going to the Sun road on the West Glacier side – at the hairpin turn in the road. This was the *piece de resistance* of our stay in Glacier. I absolutely loved this hike. The hike climbs steadily to the Granite Park Chalet to the tune of a 2,200-foot elevation gain in 4 miles. It starts by going through a burned out area teeming with new plant life, then traverses through an open meadow, and culminates with about a ½ mile walk through an enchanting fir forest with fields of glacier lily interspersed.
The view from the top at Granite Park Chalet is mind-blowing. The chalet is not yet open for the season. I think it opens July 1st. The crew was busy cleaning in preparation for overnight guests. On the way up the trail, we passed and talked with some of the folks coming down from the chalet who volunteer their time to help with the chalet cleanup every year. One couple said they spotted a grizzly on the far mountainside when they hiked up to the chalet two days before. We ate our lunch at a picnic table outside the chalet and hung out for a while enjoying the sheer vastness of the mountain scenery.
The Granite Park Chalet is a National Historic Landmark and was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914. It was one of the last structures to be built by the railway in Glacier NP. It is now an overnight stopping point or destination for hikers. But, watch out – it’s pricey and reservations are necessary! But – oh, it sure would be nice to stay up here for a night!
Jim was still getting his *hiking legs*, and on the hike down I moved somewhat faster, so I was by myself most of the 4 miles back, snapping photos of flowers and enjoying the solitude. I was in hiking heaven! Due to the elevation gain and length of this hike, the trail was not crowded – the kind of trail I like and look for whenever possible! I was often alone on the trail (I had by this time purchased the bear spray canister) and kept a keen eye out for grizzlies but alas I did not see one. We both felt pretty good about getting this hike under our belt, as the elevation at the top was not that much (6800) but the gain and length of the trail was challenging. We were coming off a six-day drive, and working up to this hike with the two shorter trails was perfect.
In between hiking and relaxing, I spent some time job searching while Jim worked on doing some routine maintenance to the truck. I discovered a sweet little public library in Columbia Falls where I could access WiFi, while Jim scoured the town for a decent auto parts store. He is sold on Reilly Auto Parts, by the way. They helped us out a couple of times along our travels. On Saturday, June 25while sitting in the library surfing the workamping job scene, I got a FB message from my sister and brother-in-law. The company he is working for in Tahoe had a job opening for a couple – one doing maintenance in the campground, and one to work in the kiosk checking in campers. The position was further south in the eastern Sierra’s near Yosemite NP. We had thought we would stay in the Glacier area, but this was a good deal and just the type of work we wanted. I looked up the company website as well as the campground to get a sense of the area – dry, high desert interspersed with pine trees surrounded by 10,000-foot mountain peaks. Yeah – I could live there for the summer! I called the district manager and was offered the job on the spot. I like to think it was my sparkling phone personality and our resume that got us the job. But I’m realistic. They just needed bodies to help keep the national forest campground afloat!
We were heading to California! They were willing to wait for us to make the 3-day drive from Montana and I started planning our route.
Hard to believe it is almost the end of July. And we’re in California not Montana. What the heck happened you ask?
We left Vermont on July 14th heading for a workamping position in Whitefish, MT. After a 6-day drive to get there from the east, we ran into a slight problem. We were not impressed with the campground where we were to stay for the summer. To say I was disappointed is a huge understatement. We were hired to work for a company that operates a couple of motel/hotels in Whitefish, and they had reserved us a spot in the RV park right in town. I guess I should have been leerier – with RV Park in the title. Let’s just say that it was not up to our expectations, and we decided not to stay. Our neighbors were an arm’s length away, and many were long-term residents with barking dogs tied up under their trailers, or just running loose. You get the picture. Not that the campers weren’t nice, just not the environment we were seeking. I won’t go into the sordid details but we set up camp, discovered many things *broken* including the water hook-up and campground staff, ate a quick dinner, and talked about what to do. Less than two hours later, we both decided we could not live here for the summer or even one night.
Our very first experience with workamping was a bust! Luckily for us, we started the trip with enough money to see us through a year. So we pulled up the outriggers, hitched up to the trailer and headed for the only other campground near town as it was approaching dark – the KOA right outside of Whitefish. We had just quit our jobs before we even started! I am sure that was a first for me. Lesson learned – if possible, check out the campground you will be living in personally. Do not rely on the human resources person who hired you. She assured me that it was a decent campground based on information from folks on site but obviously they do not have the same standards that we have.
I will comment on the KOA campground. While it was an expensive night’s stay, the campground was clean, the staff friendly, the site roomy and we got a free breakfast in the morning. I would recommend staying there in a pinch. Too expensive for more than one night in my opinion but at least it felt safe and comfortable.
We spent the rest of the night there discussing our options. My first thought was to go up into Glacier NP and find a campsite and relax for a few days. We needed to recover from our six-day drive, and after the debacle in Whitefish, we needed to have some fun! And I needed to muster up the energy to start another job search. So, that’s precisely what we did. Jim had just turned 62 in May – the magic age for an Inter-agency Senior Pass – so we could dry camp for only $11.00 per night. Since it was still early in the season for Glacier, we had no problem getting a campsite.
There is a happy ending to the story! Stay tuned for You’re in CA, not MT?? Part II…….
Okay, I finally got around to getting my first blog site set up and am looking forward to learning the process. With limited internet access right now, I’m hoping to write off line and upload whenever I can get to a place with free WiFi.
Look for many changes as I figure this out, alter how I want this site to look, and add pages and specific topics of interest to me.
First order of business will be to create an “About me” page so that you can know where I am coming from and where I might be going with this new adventure I’ve started.
Lynn Thomas Amber