Tuesday, April 24, 2018

All Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway

We are back in Arizona camping in Williams on old Route 66.
The Grand Canyon is calling us to the South Rim and Williams is the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon".
Railside RV Ranch will be our home for the next few days. Railside is very near the train tracks and station as you might have guessed from the name. The park is not a luxury resort, the long pull through sites are quite close to each other but it does have a lot of conveniences. There is a hot tub, a dog park and Cable TV and decent WiFi are included in the nightly fee. You can get complimentary continental breakfast in the office each morning as well. The RV park acts as a concierge service for the Grand Canyon Railway. We were able to book our tickets through them with senior and military discounts, arrange pet sitting for Rascal and get a complimentary ride to and from the station.

The Grand Canyon Railway runs twice daily to the South Rim. The 65 mile journey takes 2 hours and 15 min each way and provides expansive views of the Colorado Plateau. There are several classes of travel ranging from non air conditioned coach coach to luxury parlor car. We chose the observation deck experience in order to see more of the landscape.

While we were waiting at the station to board there was a wild west show featuring some rather inept robbers and the marshall. It ended with a shoot out and we heeded the call to board.

It was great riding on the second deck and watching the long train snake on ahead of our car which was 4th from the end. Ticket prices included complimentary coffee, juice and pastries. A variety of cocktails were available for purchase. Our personal travel assistant Christina kept everyone supplied with beverages all the making sure we were comfortable and that our questions were answered. She provided each of us with a pocket map and spent time with each cgroup helping us plan our 4 hour visit to the canyon. We were entertained by a wandering guitarist and the engineer occasionally announced points of interest along the route.

The train passed the station and then backed up using a maneuver they called the Santa Fe split to get us into position. Once in the station we headed straight for the rim trail and our first view of southern portion the vast space that is the Grand Canyon. The colors and shadows were magnificent, changing around each turn in the trail as we made our way to the Verkamp's Visitor Center. You know I had to put the stamp on the passport book.

From the Visitor Center we headed back east along the rim trail past the Hopi House and El Tovar Hotel and down to Bright Angel Lodge for what we thought was going to be a quick lunch. The long lines made it a 45 minute wait but it was the fastest option. Note to self: Pack sandwiches and lots of water for a future trip, the lines are crazy and crowded.

Once fueled we continued to the end of the Rim Trail at Kolb Studio and walked to the first stop on the Hermit Road Loop which is called Trailview Overlook. 

The overlook is on a promontory out into the canyon so once you are out on the point you can look back at the Rim Trail down into the canyon at the folks hiking the Bright Angel Trail and a glimpse of the Colorado River at the end of that trail. We were also lucky enough to spot a mountain goat jumping on the rocks across from us.

There are Buses that run all along this route and beyond but we decided to spend our time looking at the canyon rather that queing for the bus. On a return visit we will plan to stay at the lodge and do further exploring but this time we had the dog to consider.

With an hour left we headed back toward the train station. Fred wanted to walk part of the Bright Angel Trail and I was interested in the Hopi House exhibits. We split up at met later as the train backed in to pick us up. Christina had snacks and beverages waiting for us and we were happen to get to our seats. The ride home was eventful. we saw antelope, mule deer, traveling musicians and the train was boarded by bandits who overcame the Marshall. The sun was setting as we pulled into the Williams station.

Our ride was waiting and we got home to find a happy Rascal, who had been walked and fed in our absence.
If you only have a day to see the Grand Canyon the Grand Canyon Railway is a great experience. The town of Williams on old Route 66 is fun to experience. There are a number of restaurants to choose from, Brewed Awakenings Coffee Co, and the Historic Barrel + Brew Bottlehouse to enjoy.
We didn't try it but folks we met on the train raved about Rod's Steak House.

Grand Canyon Railway
235 N Grand Canyon Blvd
Williams, AZ

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Las Vegas: A Walk on the Wild Side Part 3

Elephant Rock
Fifty-five miles northeast of Las Vegas is one of Nevada's most impressive state parks, Valley of Fire. The parks 42,000 acres were formed by the action of wind and shifting sand millions of years ago. Time and erosion carved surreal shapes and formations out of the brilliantly colored sandstone and limestone, creating the amazing environment that we enjoy today.
Valley of Fire is very accessible. 18 miles of paved road transect it and give you a view of the amazing rock formations. There are a few miles of dirt road near the campgrounds that will also accommodate vehicles unless you are driving a car very low clearance.
The Beehives
For those wanting to get a closer look there are 4 1/2 miles of developed trails. We began our tour at the west entrance where a $10 entrance fee gave us all day access. We drove Valley of Fire road to the first pull-out at the Beehives. These unusual sandstone formations have been eroded into the domed shape of a beehave. Many of them have tunnels big enough to crawl through and little window holes to peer inside. There were a lot of families with school age children enjoying the rocky playground of rocks.

Petrified wood
A little further along Valley of Fire  Road there are some petrified logs to walk around before arriving at the East (Lake Mead) Entrance where you can park and climb the hill to get a closer look at Elephant Rock.

Stone cabins built by the CCC to shelter hikers.
We turned around and stopped at Seven Sisters picnic area for lunch before returning to Visitor Center Road where the most spectacular formations in the park are located. Across the road from Seven Sisters are 3 historic stone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid 1930's as shelter for hikers traveling the Arrowhead Trail. The cabins are in a beautiful setting and remain in very good condition.

We stopped at Mouse's Tank to hike the petroglyph canyon. Valley of Fire is dog friendly so Rascal was able to walk with us. He seemed to enjoy the soft sand after struggling with volcanic rubble and cactus thorns all winter. The canyon trail is only 1 1/2 miles round trip. It has dozens of petroglyphs on the steep walls of the canyon. 

The sun over the steep wall of Petroglyph Canyon
We had a good time spotting them and trying to figure out what they meant to the person that chipped them into the desert varnish.
Are they art or graffiti?
Do they have spiritual significance or are they the bored winter doodles of someone that would rather be hunting?
Do they tell a story?
Document history?
Were they meant to leave a message?
In the end it doesn't matter. We love them for their antiquity, a visual link through time.

Fire Canyon, Fire Wave and the White Domes are further along Visitor Center Rd. The colors, the soft rock edges carved by wind and sand, the play of light and shadow all seem familiar somehow. Familiar and other worldly at the same time. 

Doesn't this rock formation look like the Starship Enterprise?
Many movies have been shot on location in the Valley of Fire. Transformers, Con Air, the Martian scenes of Total Recall, Captain Kirk's death scene from Star Trek Generations were all filmed in the park as late afternoon sun made the rocks glow red.

We enjoyed our visit, the drive and the short hikes but were disappointed not to have spotted any wildlife. Then right at the side of the road were a herd of Bighorn Sheep feeding on the burrobush and brittlebrush.

The sheep were as curious about us as we were about them.
We plan to return and plan to spend a few days in the RV campground so that we can enjoy more of the park.

Valley of Fire State Park
29450 Valley of Fire Rd
Overton, Nevada

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Las Vegas: A Walk on the Wild Side Part 2

We didn't drive enough our first day at Nellis so the second day we decided to accept the challenge of the Extraterrestrial Highway which is Nevada Route 375. 
The remote winding road through high desert country is as close as one can get to the mysterious Area 51. 

Alien Research Center

We stopped at the ET Highway sign for a quick photo and then drove a few miles to the Alien Research Center Gift Shop. We thought the center was closed because the doors were locked but Fred knocked repeatedly (he wanted in) and someone let us in. Somehow the door had locked by itself! Or did it........

Fred was determined to get in.
The gift shop was fun and quirky. The best part was the giant alien statue crafted of sheet metal. It looked amazing in this isolated environment. 
There are a few points of interest along the road. 

The black mailbox in the middle of nowhere.
There are not many landmarks on this deserted stretch of highway. 
The "Black Mailbox" in the middle of nowhere has served as a meeting place for UFO hunters for many years. The mailbox has been replaced many times due to theft and other vandalism. Nearby rocks are graffiti covered and the sign for Mailbox Rd is covered in travel stickers.

Our destination was the little town of Rachel, Nevada and the Little A'le'Inn diner. The cafe is a funky place that embraces alien culture. The parking lot features a very tall self parking sign for visiting UFO's.

We were warmly welcomed with a "where have you been all day? We've been waiting for you" from Betty who seated us and took our order with a smile. We wandered around the restaurant while waiting for our alien burgers to arrive. The walls are covered with photos of close encounters and UFO sightings mailed to the Little A'le'Inn from all over the world. We enjoyed our burgers, gathered up a few souvenirs and left our autographed dollar on the ceiling for ET to find. 

There was one more stop on our way back to base. The staff at Little A'le'Inn gave us directions to the Area 51 Boundary on Groom Lake Rd. The dirt road is not marked. Our directions included a mound of dirt with a water tank and a corral but we found it. There are a few clues that you are getting close. A stop sign with warning not to proceed, a grey truck on a nearby hilltop and a surveillance cameras warned us that we had gone as far as was safe for us to travel. 

We headed back to Nellis with smiles on our faces even though our only close encounter was with a warning sign.

Little A'le'Inn
9631 Old Mill Rd
Alamo, NV

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Las Vegas: A Walk on the Wild Side Part 1

Who goes to Las Vegas and never even sees a casino? It wasn't our plan but that's what happened when we realized how close we were to some of the countries most naturally beautiful places and weird wonders.
Fred and I stayed for a week at Nellis Air Force Base. We usually enjoy our military FamCamps and Nellis has a nice one. We enjoyed watching the Thunderbirds practice early in the week and hearing Taps on a Friday evening is always such a calming experience. I must admit that I don't enjoy Reveille as much.
We had quite a list of things to do that included some major Las Vegas attractions, then we realized how close we were to Grand Canyon West and that their new zip line was operational. We mapped it out and found that the drive was doable as a day trip at 125 miles one way.
There are only service animals allowed at the Grand Canyon so we found a doggie day care for Rascal. If anyone is looking for day boarding in Las Vegas we had a great experience with the Petsmart Dog Day Camp on North Rainbow Blvd. They are open from 7am-9pm giving us plenty of time for our adventure.

Fred on the Zipline.
Vegas traffic is snarly, especially in the morning. There was a lot of road construction that added to the mess but once out of the city we had a smooth ride. We drove through Boulder City on the Way and got some great views of Lake Meade before driving across the Hoover Dam. I was disappointed to realize that you can't see the Dam from the road but not so much that I wanted to delay our arrival at the Grand Canyon by stopping. There is a large Joshua Tree forest to drive through, a few miles of open range (with cattle pretty close to the road) and The Hualapai Reservation. Grand Canyon West is privately owned and operated by the Hualapai people.

The view from Hualapai Ranch
We arrived at the visitor center and where a gracious information desk host helped us decide which tours we wanted to participate in. There are many to choose from including air tours by small plane or helicopter, and water tours of the Colorado by raft, pontoon or river boat. Fred was there for the Zip Line and we both wanted to enjoy the Skywalk.
Once through ticketing we boarded a shuttle for Hualapai Ranch. The ranch is set up like a small western town with wood framed buildings and wooden sidewalks. There are gift shops and restaurants and a wonderful  Coffee Shop that serves ice cream. There are cabins overlooking the canyon for overnight guests. Some folks were practicing their bull riding and cattle roping skills while others prepared for a horse back ride. Hualapai Ranch is where the Zipline Center is located. Fred got ready for his instructions while I wandered the wild west drinking coffee. I was able to get a distant photo of him swinging out over the canyon. We didn't plan very well. I should have had him wear a bright orange shirt so he was easier to pick out.

Fred at Eagle Point 
Once he returned we got back on the shuttle for Eagle Point and our first good look at the canyon. It was breathtaking standing so close to the edge. The stop is named Eagle Point for a rock formation on the opposite side of the canyon. It looks like an eagle with its wings spread, soaring straight up to the sky. Eagle Point is the location of the Skywalk. 

The views to the bottom of the canyon were fantastic.
I never thought that I would find myself standing on a glass platform 4000 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon but we did it! It helps that there are strong railings and photographer/tour guides that help to explain the vast distances. I'm not saying that vertigo didn't occur but it was an exhilarating experience and one that I wouldn't have missed. It was absolutely thrilling to be able to look down into the canyon and to try and feel the enormity of the space.
We thought that after the exhilaration of the zip line and the joy of the skywalk stop 3 called Guano Point would be a let down. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Guano Point
There used to be a bat cave across the canyon. During the 1950's the guano in the cave was mined for fertilizer. The project was short lived due to the expense of running the operation. You can still see the remnants of the tram that was used to transport miners and guano across the canyon. 

Guano Point has a trail that allows you to climb to the Highpoint for 360 degree views of the canyon and surrounding landscape. This is the most picturesque place at Grand Canyon West and we are glad that we took the time to stop there. When you visit wait to eat lunch at Guano Point the food choices are great and the outdoor dining area has wonderful views of the canyon. Hualapai vendors offer handcrafted native American jewelry and crafts at this stop as well.

The ravens at Guano Point were huge

Grand Canyon West
5001 Diamond Bar Rd
Peach Springs, AZ

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Death Valley National Park

On the road through the Mohave Desert
The road took us north out of Twentynine Palms and soon we were driving Kelbaker Road through the Mojave National Preserve on our way to Death Valley. The preserve is an enormous 1.6 million acres, about half of which is designated wilderness.

Cinder Cone in the Mojave Preserve.
There are Cinder cones in the lava fields along both sides of the road and we had our first sighting of the large sand dunes that are part of the dramatic landscape of the Mojave.
The Kelso Depot was a good halfway point to stop for lunch and to stretch our legs. Rascal looks forward to these breaks as much as we do. The depot is where the old Salt Lake Line of the Union Pacific Railroad had a stop. The depot building is home to the Mojave Preserve Visitor Center.
There is a lot history in this small stop in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The depot and clubhouse building was built in the 1920's with adobe walls, red roofs and high ceilings in Spanish Mission style. The lavish architecture was intended to attract passengers who liked traveling the Santa Fe Railroad known for its tourist friendly Harvey Houses.
This was a busy place during WWII years. Three shifts worked round the clock freighting iron ore from the Vulcan Mine located just south of Kelso to the steel mill in Fontana California.
General George S. Patton's troops travelled through the station on their way to Desert Training prior to deployment in North Africa. The Mojave was the closest environment to the conditions they would endure in combat.
At wars end the mine closed and diesel engines required few workers to maintain them. The railroad town of nearly 2000 became a ghost town. The depot and old Post Office buildings were preserved through local efforts before becoming part of the National park system.
We found ourselves driving part of old Route 66 as we passed Baker and continued our journey.
There were no vacancies at the  campgrounds in Death Valley National Park so we had made plans to stay a short distance away in Amargosa Valley Nevada.
The RV park was interesting, located right across the street from the Area 51 Alien Center which is a combination diner, Gift Shop and Bordello. The camp host also worked at the diner and encouraged us to try the breakfast menu. The omelets were as good as he promised.
Death Valley National Park has been on our list of must see places since we started this journey 3 years ago. I don't know whether it is from growing up watching 20 Mule Team Borax commercials during episodes of Death Valley Days or a desire to see desert sand dunes but we were happy to have arrived.

We spent 3 days touring the park.
The first day we decided to explore the southern corner of Death Valley National Park. This is a huge site covering 5262 square miles on the border of California ans Nevada, 91% of which is designated wilderness.

The Badlands of Death Valley from Zabriskie Point
We drove in from the Nevada side via rte 190 and made our first stop at Zabriskie Point. This is one of the most popular viewpoints in the park. It overlooks a spectacular area of badlands in golden colors that draw you into the landscape. The overlook is at an elevation of 950 feet. By the time we got to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center we were at 190 feet below sea level.
I was disappointed to learn at the Visitor Center that the wilderness areas were off limits to us, even with the Jeep. Minimum recommendations for visiting remote backcountry areas are 10 ply tires with 2 mounted spares. The sharp volcanic rock surface of Death Valley is deadly to the sidewalls of tires and the service fee for a tow or rescue is $2000.  We sadly decided to leave seeing the magical moving rocks of the Racetrack for another visit.
We consoled ourselves with a picnic lunch and headed for Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level.

Badwater Basin is an incredible sight. I walked a mile out to the end of the salt flat trail and it seemed to go on forever beyond me and I didn't feel any closer to the mountains that ring the valley.
We felt tremendous respect for those early explorers that survived this desolate place. I can't imagine trying to navigate over the sharp volcanic rock on foot or horseback. The sharp irregular lava stone is too big to provide stable footing but is not large enough to use as stepping stones. Walking on it in worn leather shoes and moccasins must have been like wading in broken glass. By the way that glass would have been covered in a crust of salt making the inevitable injuries even more painful.

The rough lava rocks of the salt flats.
Fred and Rascal met up with some climbers while I walked the salt flat (dogs aren't allowed on the trails). The young couple were very enthusiastic about their planned climb and were searching for the remains of a plane that had crashed many years ago. We wished them luck and headed back out toward Artist's Drive.

A distant view of the salt flat
The 9 mile scenic loop was named after the pooled colors on an artists palette. The one way road is narrow and winds between rock cliffs that hand out into the road in places. There was a new view of mineral stained rock around every turn. We stopped at a pull-out and climbed a hill to enjoy the colors of the rock on one side of the road and the vast salt flat on the other.

Artist's Palette
There was one more road on our agenda for the the day, 20 Mule Team Canyon. The canyon's dirt road is only 2.7 miles long but is very steep and gives you an idea of why it took 40 mules to pull a wagon load out of the valley to the train station.

Day 2 found us heading to the Nevada portion of the National Park.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is designated a Wetland of International Importance. It is a desert oasis with 7 natural springs and numerous seeps. This unique environment is home to several threatened and endangered species.

Crystal Spring
We enjoyed a walk through the visitor center and a guided tour on the Crystal Spring boardwalk trail where the volunteer guide pointed out several species of birds and native fish. We were lucky to see some of the brilliant blue Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish in one of the refuges springs.

The tiny sliver of Devil's Hole visible through the mesh.
The deep cavern of Devils Hole is the only known home of the Devil's Hole pupfish. Devil's Hole, surrounded and protected by the wildlife refuge, is part of Death Valley National Park. We drove a little deeper into the refuge and climbed a rocky trail to access it. The spring is very deep, divers have not found the bottom. A small rock shelf near the surface of the spring is where the entire population of the Devil's Hole Pupfish lives. These little fish were made famous in 1976 when the Supreme Court ruled that groundwater diversion be limited enough to protect their rock shelf. The water was being extensively redirected to a local farm in an attempt to grow corn commercially in the desert environment.
The rock shelf of Devil's Hole only gets direct sunlight for a couple of hours a day. Our timing was right but even with binoculars we weren't able to spot any of the elusive swimmers.
We completed our tour with a short hike on the Point of Rocks Boardwalk. I love how the boardwalks at Ash Meadows let you the fragile ecosystem with minimal impact to the environment. We were able to see another spring and also get close to the rocks where there are caves to explore and desert bighorn sheep to spot in the peaks.

With one more day to enjoy the park, and restricted from wilderness areas we decided to start our tour with a visit to Rhyolite Ghost Town near Beatty Nevada. Quartz with gold inclusions was discovered in the these hills in 1904. It didn't take long for miners to arrive and for camps to be established. By 1906 the town of Rhyolite was thriving. The downtown included a school, a 3 story bank, a stock exchange, a hotel and a number of retail establishments. The Opera House held weekly musical events and shows. Baseball, Tennis and Basketball were played. There were dances and parties and even a symphony all paid for in gold from the 2000 mining claims in the nearby hills.
The bank Panic of 1907 had a big impact on Rhyolite. Mines started to close, the banks failed and newspapers went out of business. People dwindled away. The largest mining operation and only employer left in town, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine closed in 1911 and by 1916 Rhyolite was completely abandoned.

Rhyolite Ghost Town
The foundations and walls of some of those buildings remain. A once grand Hotel at the top of the main street is mostly intact. Beyond the ruins you can still see boarded over mines in the hills.

Boarded over gold mine.
It's an interesting place. We found ourselves trying to imagine it as part of a bustling old west story but all I could think of was No Name City from Paint Your Wagon and how it all fell apart.

Wall of the Bottle House
There are some interesting bottle houses in Rhyolite. Tom Kelly and enterprising man and former miner wanted to build a home in Rhyolite. Wood was scarce but the town was home to 50 saloons and the saloons all had an excess of bottles. In 1906 Mr Kelly collected 50,000 of them and used them as building material. He stacked the bottles, mortaring them together to create enough space for 3 rooms. There are a few broken bottles but the house made of glass is the most well preserved home in Rhyolite.

Sand Dunes
We drove back into the California side of Death Valley to walk the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These rolling drifting sand dunes are what I always pictured the desert would look like. MIles of soft hot sand with shapes that change from day to day. They were as impressive as we had hoped and look amazing with the Panamint Mountain range behind them.

Fred and the borax wagon
 Our last stop of the day was Harmony Borax Works. The plant was in operation for about 5 years in the late 1800's, processing up to 3 tons of borax a day. There is a display at the borax works of one of the double wagons that would have been pulled to the train station in Mohave by mules. You can still see clumps of Cottonball Borate ore in the flats near the plant.

Wild burro on the road home.
Fred and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Death Valley. It has been high on our list of unusual places to see and it lived up to our expectations.
When you visit be aware that Scotty's Castle is closed due to flash flood damage and is not anticipated to be open this year. The road to Dante's View is under construction and will not be open until the end of May this year.

Death Valley National Park
328 Greenland Blvd
Death Valley, CA

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
610 E Spring Meadows Rd
Amargosa Valley, NV

Rhyolite Ghost Town
Beatty, NV