I was looking through photos today and came upon this one of a snapping turtle at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. He was so covered with algae in the water it was hard to pick him out from the branches and logs. That was a good day.
My last day at Joshua Tree National Park was a half day, as I needed to get back to the airport and fly home.
I visited one of the most iconic rock formations – Skull Rock. It really does look like a skull, with eye sockets and a nose and everything. The area around Skull Rock has lots of fun rocks to climb on, and I took an opportunity to climb around with all the other tourists.
Then I went over to Hidden Valley, which has a short one-mile nature walk through the rock formations. Hidden Valley is so named because it was rumored to have been a place where cattle rustlers hid the cattle that they had stolen from nearby ranchers. The location of the valley and its rock formations also made for a slightly cooler environment than other areas of the desert, meaning that it has a different ecosystem. Oak, juniper and grasses grow here among the rocks.
The Hidden Valley Trail gave me one last opportunity to walk among and climb on the rocks. It is a great trail for kids; an easy loop.
Hidden Valley is also an area where people try their hand (or feet!) at tightrope walking. I was able to watch a few people walk across a line stretched between two rocks about 50 feet above the ground. It looked terrifying! It was really neat to watch, although I hope they were tethered with safety lines… It looks like there’s one in the photos; I hope so!
All in all, I really enjoyed my time at Joshua Tree. Even though it wasn’t really warm, the sun was shining and there was no rain! What a fabulous long weekend!
Day 2: December 6, 2015
First thing in the morning I drove up to Keys View – a viewpoint within the park that offers 360 views of the desert and several unique features. Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley are visible below, and I got a great view of the Salton Sea in the distance. Smog often conceals the view of Mexico, but the wind must have blown the smog away that morning, because I was able to see Signal Mountain, about 95 miles away, across the border to Mexico. It was a great view!
It was really cold though – the wind and exposed location made me glad that I had brought my hat and gloves! Winter in the desert can be cold, especially at higher elevations, and it wasn’t even a particularly cold day!
Lost Horse Mine – 4 miles RT
The Lost Horse Mine is aptly named. In 1890, Johnny Lang and his father brought their cattle to the Lost Horse Valley for grazing. One night, their horses disappeared, and they were able to track them to near the Keys Ranch, where they had a run-in with the McHaney Brothers, suspected cattle rustlers. The McHaneys told them their horses weren’t there.
Along the way, Lang made the acquaintance of another man, who had discovered gold in the area, but was afraid to develop the mine because of threats by the McHaneys. He sold his claim to Lang, who acquired three partners to offer protection, and started developing the mine. He purchased a two stamp mill, hauled it up the hill, and set up a line to bring steam up the hill to power the mine. The work was difficult; due to the remoteness of the site, a road had to be built to haul all the materials through several miles of undeveloped desert.
Unlike many other mines in the area, the Lost Horse mine was very successful. Eventually, Lang partnered with a Montana businessman, who brought a larger ten stamp mill to the site. Of course, at some point he realized that Johnny Lang was skimming profits off the top, as the day shift and the night shift were producing very different amounts of gold. He gave Lang the option to either be bought out or go to jail. Lang chose the buy-out, and kept prospecting nearby, until he died of exposure one winter. His body wasn’t found for a couple of months, and then was buried near Keys View Drive.
The Lost Horse Mine produced more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 of silver, more than $5 million in today’s dollars, over its lifetime. Not too shabby!
The hike is an out and back, two miles uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back. It is a moderate hike, with views of the valley and a recent forest fire, as well as rock foundation ruins of various cabins and outbuildings in the area.
The mine threatened to cave in several years ago; the National Park Service tried a new innovative technique that involved filling the mine shafts with polyurethane foam, and then covering the foam with fill dirt to prevent it from disintegrating in the sun. They also built a new head frame over the main entrance to the mine. Despite all this however, the mine is still unstable, so there is a fence around the main entrance to prevent people from walking too close to the shaft.
After checking out the mine, I also hiked up to the top of the hill for a 360 view of the surrounding area. It was beautiful! I saw a small, orange butterfly there as well, he was such a pretty little guy! On the return hike I saw a small lizard, the only one I saw during my trip. Most of the reptiles in the park are in a state of hibernation in winter, so it isn’t typical to see them unless the temperatures are sufficiently warm.
After the Lost Horse Mine, I drove over to the boundary where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado Desert. Near this spot is a place where the habitat is perfect for a type of cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla. The name is misleading though, as the cholla is covered in thousands of tiny, hair-like spines that will quickly attach and then embed themselves under your skin, making for a very painful experience. This one area of the park has a “garden” of hundreds of cholla, making it look like they were intentionally planted here.
The walk in the cholla garden is not rigorous, and gives visitors a good overview of how these cacti grow and reproduce. There are even birds that love to nest in the cholla, because the spines give them protection from predators! A short distance away from the cholla garden, the desert provides habitat for ocotillo, a succulent that has long thin leaves stretching high over my head. These plants can appear dead for much of the year, coming back to life and blooming after a rain.
My evening included a trip for more pho; this time at the Red Lotus in Twenty-Nine Palms. It was kind of fun to compare the pho at each place. I liked the broth at the Yucca Valley pho restaurant better, but I liked the meat better here. It was a good end to another good day.
In December, I flew down to Los Angeles for a quick long weekend trip to Joshua Tree National Park. It was not extensively planned; tickets were booked just a couple of weeks before. But despite that, it was a fabulous trip.
Day 1: December 5, 2015
Willow Hole Trail – 7 miles RT
The first day I started at the Visitor’s Center for some trips on where to go in the park. I wanted to see Bighorn Sheep. The Ranger said that they often hung out at the Willow Hole, which can be reached by a 7 mile round trip hike through several dry washes that connect to the popular Boy Scout Trail. I went. The trail was mostly flat, taking you by a popular rock climbing area; it was fun to stop and watch the climbers try their trade on the giant boulders in the park.
After leaving the Boy Scout Trail, I was entirely alone – I did not run into anyone else on the entire hike. It was quiet, save for the birds chirping, letting me know I was getting closer to the spring. Sadly, I did not see any Bighorn Sheep on the hike, but I saw some songbirds and it was a nice pleasant hike nonetheless.
Barker Dam – 1 mile RT
Barker Dam is a dam that was built by homesteaders in the early 1900s, to provide a consistent water source for their cattle grazing in the area. The dam is still there – the National Park Service left it intact when they took over management of the land, and it now provides water for the wildlife living in the area. It is another spot that Bighorn Sheep are known to frequent in the park. Except when I was there; then the Bighorn Sheep are not…
The Barker Dam hike also leads past several ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, they have been damaged by vandals. They are still neat to see, but keep in mind that the paint colors and outlines were the result of the vandalism, and not what these petroglyphs would normally look like.
As I was finishing the short Barker Dam trail, the sun was sinking lower in the sky. The birds and the rabbits were finding their way to their shelters for the night. I was able to find a good vantage point along the main road to watch the sunset. It wasn’t a spectacular viewpoint, but it did let me get some photos of the Joshua Trees silhouetted against the setting sun.
Dinner that night was pho at Pho 85 restaurant in Yucca Valley. It really hit the spot after 8+ miles of hiking that day! I finished off the day with some wine and TV in the room before heading to bed. Peace…
The Yucca brevifolia makes its home within the unique habitat of the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park. More commonly known as a Joshua Tree, this yucca was named by Mormon pioneers who believed that these succulents looked like the biblical figure of Joshua raising his arms to heaven in prayer.
Joshua Tree National Park protects two primary desert habitats, the cooler higher elevation Mohave Desert, located between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation, and the hotter Colorado Desert (part of the larger Sonoran Desert) at the lower elevations. The Mojave Desert is known for its Joshua Trees, while the Colorado Desert has cholla and ocotillo.
Joshua Tree also has several spectacular rock formations, which are monzogranite, created when groundwater seeped into cracks in the monzogranite and eroded the corners away to form the round rocks. Then when flash floods eroded away the ground around the rocks, these large rounded boulders were left exposed. The exposed piles of rocks are called inselbergs. Joshua Tree became a mecca for winter rock climbing, when places like Yosemite were covered in snow. However, it eventually became a destination in its own right.
Joshua Tree was designated as a National Monument in 1936, after Minerva Hoyt’s activism on behalf of preserving desert habitats achieved protection for the park. Although she was originally born on a plantation in Mississippi, she moved as a young woman to Pasadena, California and became interested in desert plants through gardening. Mrs. Hoyt was also instrumental in obtaining protection for Death Valley and the Anza-Borrego Desert. The park was elevated to National Park status on October 31, 1994, after passage of the Desert Protection Act; at the same time 234,000 acres were added to the park for a total size of 790,636 acres (1,235.37 square miles).
In addition to rock-climbing, the park is popular for hiking, birding – hundreds of bird species travel through the park on their spring and fall migrations, and astronomy. The park’s dark skies, along with Southern California’s relatively stable atmosphere, makes for excellent conditions for observing the stars. The park has nine campgrounds for visitors, and annual visitation is 1,383,340.
Park wildlife includes many species of birds, lizards, snakes, rabbits, ground squirrels, coyotes and Bighorn Sheep. Many of the animals within the park are nocturnal, due to the high daytime temperatures. Native Americans inhabited the area beginning about 400 years ago, but were gone by the early 1900s. Prospectors began moving into the area in the 1840s, looking for gold and silver. Over time, about 300 mines were established within the current boundaries of the park – most didn’t produce much, but a few were quite profitable. There are still several areas within the park where visitors can see the remnants of the old mines.
I was lucky enough to visit Joshua Tree for a long weekend in December, and I had a wonderful time. My posts will be coming soon!
Life hasn’t gotten any less crazy lately, so I’m still so far behind on posts! But meanwhile, here’s a little sneak peak of my trip in December. More coming soon, I promise!
Day 13: Friday, October 16, 2015
We all know the Star Spangled Banner, and if you are anything like me, you have sung it (badly) a million times, but have you ever thought about the song and what it represents?
The last stop on my whirlwind Virginia tour, before I flew home from the Baltimore airport was a brief stop at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
I headed out in the mid-morning from Chincoteague Island, and had about a three hour drive to reach Baltimore. I had a quick lunch, and that left me with just about an hour to visit the fort before I needed to head to the airport for the 5 pm flight.
Fort McHenry was built in 1798, the second fort at the site to defend Baltimore Harbor. It is a five point star shaped fort, an effective defense because any two points of the star can create a crossfire for attackers arriving by sea. It also has a dry moat to prevent attack by land. It is named after James McHenry, a physician who served as an aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War. He also was one of several foreign-born signers of the Constitution, while a member of the Continental Congress. He served as the Secretary of War for both the Washington and John Adams administrations.
During the War of 1812, on September 13, 1814 at 6:00 am, British warships began a 25 hour bombardment of the fort. Due to the defense provided by 22 ships the Americans had sunk in the harbor, the British could not continue further up the river, and very little damage was done on either side of the battle. Three soldiers and one civilian woman were killed in the fort; she was carrying supplies to the troops when she was cut in half by a bomb – 24 Americans were wounded. One British ship sustained light damage from cannon fire, and only one man was wounded.
The British gave up when they saw that their bombardment wasn’t having its desired effect – and they had that pesky problem of running out of ammunition… And here’s where the Star Spangled Banner comes in… Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner, had been sitting on a ship behind the British line; he had been speaking with the British commanders before the bombardment began in order to get a prisoner exchange going. After they wrapped up their conversation, the British made Key and his colleague stay behind the British line until the battle ended.
When the smoke cleared the next day, Key looked up to see if the flag was still there, and was so moved to see it that he wrote a poem that he named Defence of Fort M’Henry. It was later set to music and became known as the Star Spangled Banner. Interestingly, although it was a popular patriotic song, it didn’t become our national anthem for another hundred plus years, in 1931.
After the Battle of Baltimore, Fort McHenry remained an active fort through World War II – used as a prison during the Civil War, and by the Army as a hospital for troops returning from the front in World War I. It transitioned to a Coast Guard Fort in World War II.
It became a National Park in 1925, but in 1939 was re-designated as a National Monument and Historic Shrine – it is the only site within the system to carry this double designation.
It is also the place where all newly designed American flags are flown first – the first 49 and 50 star flags are still located at the site.
The fort is preserved to look as it did during the War of 1812, and while I didn’t have a lot of time, I was able to explore the fort. It is hard to see the star shape from the ground, but it is very apparent in aerial photos. I was able to check out the living quarters, various store rooms, and the powder magazine, which had sustained a direct hit by a bomb during the battle – either it was a dud or the rain extinguished the fuse!
I also went up to the walls of the fort, to look out over the harbor. It is a little tough to imagine what the view would have been like over 200 years ago, as there is all sorts of industry and tall buildings on the other side of the harbor now.
I certainly enjoyed seeing such an integral part of our nation’s history!
But too soon, it was time to make our way back to the airport, return the car, and fly home. I had such a great time seeing so many historic sites on the trip, but it was nice to come home…
Driving Distance for Day 13: 181 miles – Chincoteague Island, VA – Fort McHenry – Baltimore Airport
Entrance Fee: $10 per person or free if you have a National Parks Pass.
For the night: My own bed!
Day 12: Thursday, October 15, 2015
After our boat tour and lunch, we made our way over to Assateague Island, to check out Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, it’s confusing that Chincoteague NWR is on Assateague Island – I don’t know why either…
I talked in my last post about the history of how the ponies got to the island, but Assateague Island and the refuge contain much more than ponies. In the 1800s, there was a small community on the island, clustered around the lighthouse.
The original lighthouse was built in 1833, to warn ships of the dangerous shoals offshore. Construction began in 1860 on a newer, taller lighthouse, but it was delayed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Construction was completed in 1867. It has a First Order Fresnel lens, the largest type of lens made.
The lighthouse is currently undergoing restoration work – it was repainted, and the gallery deck was repaired so visitors can climb to the top of the light. I was there in the off season, so it wasn’t open, but I can imagine how cool it would be to climb to the top and see the view!
The community that lived on the island began to move away after one man bought a large tract of land and began restricting overland access to Tom’s Cove. The villagers gradually barged their homes and buildings over to Chincoteague Island to continue there. In 1943, most of the Virginia side of the island was sold to the U.S. Government for the purpose of creating a National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge has several trails; some of them take you by the fenced area where the ponies are, so of course, that’s where I wanted to start. The path is level and paved, so it is more a walk than a hike. But, I found myself having to walk quickly to try to avoid all the mosquitoes! I wasn’t expecting them to still be so ravenous in the middle of October!
I was able to get some good photos of the ponies from the viewing station though, so I was willing to put up with some mosquito inconvenience. They looked so peaceful, just grazing on the grass and enjoying the sunshine.
I also took a detour from the trail out to the beach, where I found a lot of horseshoe crab shells. They look so prehistoric! Unfortunately, there were mosquitoes on the beach too, although not as many. Bothersome critters!
My last walk for the today was to see the lighthouse – this path is about ½ mile roundtrip. It was great to get a close up view of the lighthouse with its red and white candy striped exterior. It is a very tall structure!
After that, I called it quits in the woods, and went over to the beach. It was a gorgeous, sandy beach – I can understand why this area is such a vacation destination in the summer. I walked along for a little while, just taking it all in, watching the herons and egrets fish for their dinner in the nearby marshes, and listening to the birds.
And before we left, I was treated to a fantastic view of a mare and her foal – they were so peaceful.
Dinner that evening was a quick stop for a sandwich at Subway, followed by a front row view of a beautiful sunset. The end of a great day…
Driving Distance for Day 12: only a few miles – Chincoteague Island, VA
Entrance Fee: $8 or free if you have a National Parks Pass.
Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn on Chincoteague Island again – excellent!
Day 11: Wednesday, October 14, 2015
The last destination of our Virginia trip was Chincoteague Island. I had grown up reading the Misty of Chincoteague stories, had my collection of Breyer horse Misty and her foals, and wanted to see where the real life Misty had come from.
If you aren’t familiar with Misty, she was a real live Chincoteague pony who has purchased by children’s author Marguerite Henry. Misty and her family were the subject of several of Henry’s books, detailing her fictional life on Chincoteague Island with a young boy and girl and their family in the 1940s. For this girl who grew up horse-crazy, to see the island where Misty came it was the stuff of dreams come true. And now, we were there and I was going to see ponies!
The ponies live on Assateague Island, which is one of the barrier islands off mainland Virginia. It is uninhabited, with the people living on nearby Chincoteague Island. There are a couple different explanations about how the ponies got there, but each story has some supporting evidence and which one is true is unknown.
- The inhabitants of Chincoteague Island and the mainland placed their horses out on Assateague Island in order to get out of paying taxes on them. Over the years, some went wild, or were forgotten, and there they remain.
- In the 17th century, a Spanish galleon wrecked off the coast of Virginia, and some of its cargo of horses were able to swim to Assateague Island, where they remain.
The Chincoteague ponies are actually horses, but a couple hundred years of living on a salt marsh island, subsisting on poor quality forage, as well as years of inbreeding has created animals with a smaller stature and more pony-like characteristics. The pot bellies that are evident on many of the ponies are also a trait that has developed due to their poor quality diet.
There are two herds of ponies, separated by a fence that divides the Virginia side of Assateague Island from the Maryland side. The Virginia side is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and although they allow the ponies to live there, the refuge management has enforced a limit on their numbers.
Every year in July, there is an pony penning on the Virginia side of the island, where the ponies are technically “owned” by the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Department. The ponies are swum across the short distance between the islands (it is a really short distance, and very small foals are given a lift), given veterinary care, and some of the foals are auctioned off, both to earn money for the Fire Department and to control the population. The official annual event began in 1924, and features the usual festival accoutrements, lots of food, a carnival, and fireworks.
On the Maryland side of Assateague Island, the second herd of ponies are considered wildlife by the National Park Service. Other than contraceptive darts, these ponies are given no medical care, and live their lives as truly wild animals. Aside from all the tourists that undoubtedly feed them tons of junk food – you can get a fine for it, but that never seems to stop dumb people.
And now I was finally there, and even though it wasn’t during the annual festival, I was going to get to see the ponies. I booked a tour on a “pony boat,” my term for the small boat that was scheduled to take us around the island to see the ponies from the water. And in the afternoon, we were going to visit the Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island to see them from a different view.
That morning I woke up early and took a stroll around Chincoteague Island to see what there was to see. It was pretty quiet on a Thursday in October. It was nice to see the pink light of the sunrise reflecting off the water, even if the sunrise itself was blocked by houses.
We met Captain Dan at the dock to commence our “pony boat” excursion. There were two other couples on the boat with us, so it certainly wasn’t crowded at all. And off we went. Captain Dan grew up on the island, and shared lots of interesting information about the history of the island, the patterns of erosion of the sandbars, the nearby military facilities, and the wildlife. And of course, the ponies.
Captain Dan had a book with photos of all the ponies that live on the island, complete with their birth dates and parentage (if known). He knew which stallions had bands consisting of which mares, and where each group liked to hang out. He told stories of various ponies and their lives.
While I wouldn’t say it was a banner day for pony spotting, we saw about 8-10 ponies over the course of our three hours on the boat. We had plenty of time to observe the ones that we saw. We also got great views of the lighthouse on the island, two bald eagles, and a tri-colored heron! The weather and the scenery were fantastic and it was wonderful to be able to relax for a couple of hours out on the water.
If you are visiting, I would highly recommend Captain Dan’s tour – I loved it! We finished off our morning tour with lunch at the Jackspot restaurant again; I couldn’t get enough of those oysters that we had the day before. And at $1 per oyster, who could go wrong!