Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Posts tagged “california

Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


Giants of the Desert(s)

Joshua Tree and Star Trails
Joshua Tree and Star Trails

Star trails and high clouds from Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

Driving across the southwestern United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that all deserts are the same. However, differences in elevation, temperature, topography, and precipitation make them distinct in ways that are often hard to comprehend from a fast-moving car.

For all their differences though, both the subtle and the striking, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts share one thing in common; the most visible symbol of each is a large, majestic, and photogenic plant perfectly suited for the harsh conditions in which it evolved to inhabit.

A spectacular winter sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

A spectacular winter sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

For the Mojave Desert, that plant is the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Not actually a tree but rather, as the scientific name betrays, a species of Yucca, early settlers bestowed the befuddling name upon this plant after noticing that the contorted arms resembled the prophet Joshua raising his arms to the sky in prayer.

Today, the Joshua tree is considered an indicator species for the Mojave Desert, as many other inhabitants of the Mojave (two-legged, four-legged, and winged alike) depend on it for survival. The Joshua tree grows through portions of western Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada, but some of the largest and healthiest stands are protected within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

Joshua tree sillhouette at sunset

Sunset colors at Joshua Tree National Park

Sunset colors illuminate the landscape at Joshua Tree National Park

Full moon and joshua tree

A nearly full moon hovers over a Joshua tree at sunset

For the Sonoran Desert, the symbolic plant is the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Despite the nearly ubiquitous use of the saguaro as a symbol of the American Southwest, this excruciatingly slow growing cactus actually only grows in a small portion of the Sonoran Desert extending from extreme northwestern Mexico into south-central Arizona.

Sunset at Saguaro National Park

Sunset from the Gould Mine Trail in Saguaro National Park. On the horizon is Kitt Peak, home to one of the largest astronomical observatories in the United States

Like the Joshua tree in the Mojave, the saguaro is an integral part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. Birds such as the Gila woodpecker nest within the flesh of the cactus while the fruits and flowers provide a source of food for many other species, including humans. When the end finally comes for a saguaro (which can take well over 100 years), the flesh rots away to reveal an internal structure consisting of a series of wooden ribs, which often remain standing long after the saguaro dies:

Saguaro cactus with ribs showing

A young saguaro mimics a neighbor who has seen better days

Both the saguaro and Joshua tree face serious threats; in the long term from a climate that may change faster than they are able to migrate, and in the short term from a loss of habitat due to rapidly ballooning human populations in the desert regions that these giants inhabit.


Into the Valley of Death (Part 3): Canyon Combing

Colorful rocks in Gower Gulch, Death Valley National Park
Colorful rocks in Gower Gulch, Death Valley National Park

“Canyon of Color”: A walk through lower Gower Gulch reveals rocks in nearly every color of the spectrum

No tour of Death Valley would be complete without a peek into the myriad of mysterious canyons that slice abruptly into the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. When rain does bless Death Valley, it often arrives quickly and in large quantities, which can quickly turn a storm from a blessing into a nightmare. With little soil and few plants to soak up the water, most precipitation ends up rapidly draining into creeks and streams. Canyons that are bone dry 99% of the year can almost instantaneously find themselves channeling deadly flash floods, mudflows, and debris flows. Each time this happens, the canyons get slightly deeper (and the mountains slightly smaller) as the water picks up and transports bits of rock down to the valley floor where it dumps them in large piles known as alluvial fans. If the mountains weren’t continually being uplifted by tectonic forces (which most of the ranges in Death Valley are), this process would quickly erase the mountains from the landscape.

In October 2015 (just a few months before our visit), portions of Death Valley received several inches of rain in just a few hours, a nearly unprecedented storm for such a dry environment. Many roads were damaged or wiped out completely by floods and debris flows and portions of the park remained closed even several months later.

One of the most interesting canyons in Death Valley is Gower Gulch, located just south of Furnace Creek. Until recently, Gower Gulch was a small, run-of-the-mill canyon carved into the soft, buff-colored badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation. Things took a dramatic turn in the 1940s when the waters of the nearby (and much larger) Furnace Creek Wash were deliberately diverted into Gower Gulch in an attempt to prevent them from flooding populated areas downstream. With the drainage area of Gower Gulch enlarged by over 16,000%, periodic floods began to incise Gower Gulch at an alarming rate. The Gulch has deepened by more than 20 feet in just the last several decades, an erosion rate nearly unheard of in the geological world. The rapid erosion rate has caused some unintended consequences to overlooks, roads, and other park infrastructure but has simultaneously provided geologists with a fascinating window into what happens when you make a stream too big for its own britches.

Colors in Gower Gulch, Death Valley National Park

Late afternoon sunlight bathes the cliffs above Gower Gulch in golds, pinks, and oranges. Note the mud line on canyon wall.

Gower Gulch had experience once of these erosive floods just a few months prior to our visit. The lower walls of the canyon were still coated in a thin layer of tan mud left behind by the October 2015 floods. In many cases, the mud line was 10-15 feet high. Little imagination was needed to realize that Gower Gulch would be a terrifying place to be during such an event!

Flood deposits in Gower Gulch, Death VAlley National Park

Two different types of flood deposits in Gower Gulch; multicolored gravel originating from Furnace Creek Wash, and buff-colored mud from the badlands surrounding the gulch. 

An hour north of Gower Gulch is Mosaic Canyon. Cut into the Panamint Mountains the rise to the west of Death Valley, Mosaic Canyon also experiences mudflows and debris flows during intense rains. The bedrock of the canyon is ancient dolomites, limestones, and marbles; in many places, these rocks have been polished to a shine by floodwaters roaring through the canyon.

The highlight and namesake of the canyon though are the spectacular deposits of breccia (a sedimentary rock made of coarse-grained, angular rock chunks cemented together by a finer-grained matrix) that have been pasted onto the canyon walls by repeated debris flows. The high carbonate content of the rocks allows percolating water to quickly cement the debris flow deposits together into a solid layer that can adhere to the canyon walls. The fragments of rock within the breccia are a representative sample of those that comprise the Panamint Mountains, and thus vary widely in color making the breccia appear like a complex fresco created by a powerful force of nature.

Colorful breccia in Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Mosaic Canyon gets its name from the colorful breccias that coat much of the canyon wall. 

breccia in Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

More breccia in Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Breccia and marble, Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Colorful breccia fills a depression carved into the polished marble walls of lower Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

One can hike up Mosaic Canyon (some moderate scrambling required) for about a mile and a half, admiring the rock formations, before coming to a ~50 high cliff (a waterfall during wet periods) that inhibits further upstream travel. Hiking up Mosaic Canyon is truly spectacular, each bend reveals a new assortment of geological treasures, only some of which are pictured here.

Looking down Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

A hike up Mosaic Canyon ends here unless you have a rope; behind me is a 50′ dry waterfall

Rock patters in Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

The character of Mosaic Canyon change with every bend!

 


Into the Valley of Death (Part 2): Ventifacts and Dunes

View of Black Mountains from Ventifact Ridge

Wind gets far more credit for shaping the surface of the Earth than it should. Contrary to popular belief, wind is a relatively poor sculptor of landscapes, especially when compared to water in its many forms.

Remove water from the equation though, and the influence of wind becomes magnified. The planet Mars is a great example. Dry for billions of years, with no streams or ocean waves to shape its landscape, Mars has become a barren land of sand dunes and sandblasted rocks.

If you want to experience a Mars-like landscape without the inconvenience of a long flight, Death Valley just might be your best bet. Here, water is so sparse that the effects of wind are more prominent and striking than anywhere I’ve ever visited.

Death Valley and Telescope Peak from Ventifact Ridge

Martian-like landscape on Ventifact Ridge, Death Valley National Park. A snow-dusted Telescope Peak (11,043′) is visible in the background.

View of Black Mountains from Ventifact Ridge

Looking east along Ventifact Ridge toward the Black Mountains

My personal favorite wind-driven geologic phenomenon are what are geologists call “ventifacts.” Ventifacts are rocks (usually boulder-sized) that have essentially been sandblasted by wind-blown sand particles for extended periods of time. Ventifacts are consequently pockmarked with an array of pits, grooves, gouges, striations, and etchings that betray their uncomfortable past. Near Badwater in southern Death Valley, a low, linear ridge covered in boulders of dark black volcanic rock juts out into the valley, intercepting the strong winds that often blow along the valley’s length. Nearly every rock on this ridge shows these telltale signs of sandblasting. Combined with the lack of vegetation, photos from here resemble many of those taken by the Mars rovers more than just about anywhere else on Earth.

Ventifact and sand ripples, Death Valley National Park

Ventifact and sand ripples, Death Valley National Park

Close up of sandblasted ventifacts in Death Valley

A pair of excessively pockmarked ventifacts. Note that the top portion of the foreground ventifact has been completely eaten away near the top.

Larger ventifacts like the one below often take on an exceptionally strange shape. This is because wind (even very strong wind) is incapable of picking up anything bigger than a large grain of sand, and even then it can’t lift it more than a few feet off the ground. The result is that the bottom two or three feet of the bounder gets abraded away, while the top remains relatively intact, leading to the classic “hourglass” shape of large ventifacts.

Man standing on ventifact

Yours truly atop a large roadside ventifact in Death Valley

All of the sand blown along the valley has to go somewhere. In several locations around Death Valley National Park, mountain ranges act as obstacles to wind, and where the wind stops or slows, the sand is deposited in large dune fields.

Death Valley has not shortage of dunes but the most accessible are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Unfortunately, the proximity of these dunes to paved highways means that they are also one of the most visited locations in the park. Upon arrival at the dunes a bit before sunset, we were immediately greeted by the high-pitched insectile buzz of an amateur drone (currently prohibited in national parks) hovering overhead. Fortunately, such devices have a limited range and we were soon free of the annoyance. Even though the Sun was getting low, our plan was to stay awhile. Before long, the Sun set, the stars came out and we had the dunes almost entirely to ourselves as the nearly full Moon illuminated our path:

Death Valley sand dunes with stars

A clear winter night in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park. The yellowish glow on the horizon at right is light pollution from Las Vegas, nearly three hours away.

Ripples in sand dunes, Death Valley

Ripples in the sand, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley

One unique feature of the these dunes is the presence of large patches of dried & cracked mud between the dune crests. Having been to dozens of different sand dunes, seeing anything other than sand (and the occasional hardy bush) in a field of sand dunes in a strange sight. The origin of the mud is connected to the fact that the dunes lie nestled against the base of the Panamint Mountains. Periodically, mudflows and debris flows burst forth from the canyons at the foot of these mountains, migrating their way into the low spots between the dunes. The mud dries quickly in the arid climate, forming the large mudcracks. The sand dunes, constantly in a state of motion, eventually bury most of the mudflow deposits, leaving only portions peeking through.

Mudcracks and sand dunes at night, Death Valley

Mudcracks in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the dried remains of mudflows from the Panamint Mountains that occasionally penetrate the dunes. The Pleaides star cluster is visible near the top of the photo.

Coming up in part three, we leave the valley behind and explore the myriad of canyons cut into the mountains ringing Death Valley. Then it’s on to Joshua Tree!


Into the Valley of Death (Part 1)

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
View of Death Valley from Dante's View

Death Valley and Badwater Basin seen from Dante’s View, over 5,500 feet above the valley floor

Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest (and hottest) point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, has long been on my list of places to visit in person. In part because of the superlative involved but also because Death Valley on the whole is a geological Mecca of sorts. A few weeks ago, I finally got to make my pilgrimage, but not without a few surprises. First of all, I never expected to be wearing four layers (including thermal underwear) and a winter hat when taking my picture next to the famous Badwater sign. I also didn’t expect visiting Badwater to be one of the least interesting things that I saw in Death Valley. This is not a knock against Badwater, but rather a testament to the fact that even after visiting 32 of the 59 national parks in the US, I can honestly say that Death Valley was one of the most spectacular and diverse I have been fortunate enough to spend time in.

With a week off before Christmas, we were looking for someplace “warm” to camp. We had originally planned to head to southern New Mexico and Texas to check out the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains area. However, in the days leading up to our departure, the forecast lows plunged into the low 20s. It wouldn’t kill us, but we figured we could do better. Heading to Death Valley turned out to be a good audible as the lows were only in the low to mid 40s, quite pleasant by December standards. Oddly enough it was a bad experience during the depths of winter in 1849-50 that gave Death Valley its foreboding name. One member of a lost and ragged group of prospectors is said to have quipped “goodbye Death Valley” as they finally departed the basin that had given them such torment. Today though, armed with an automobile and several large water jugs, winter is an ideal time to take in the spectacular sights of Death Valley. After several days in the park, saying “goodbye” was the last thing I wanted to do.

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

The first thing to know about Death Valley: it’s big. Nearly 3,000 square miles big. The national park that protects it and the surrounding mountains covers upwards of 3.3 million acres—about the size of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—making it the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. It takes awhile to get around and the character of the valley varies wildly along its 100+ mile length. All parts of the valley share some common characteristics though: heat (average July high: 116.5 F), aridity (2.3 inches in a good year), and low elevation (over 500 square miles of the valley lie below sea level).

Death Valley has been low for a long time but the dryness is a comparatively recent development. During the last glacial maximum (geologist-speak for “ice age”) 12,000-30,000 years ago, the surrounding mountains received so much precipitation that Death Valley turned into an 100 mile-long lake known as Lake Manly. Since Death Valley is bordered on all sides by mountains, streams draining out of the mountains had no easy way out. Over time, as the climate dried and the lake evaporated, thick layers of salt were deposited on the valley bottom. This is why most of the valley floor appears white. With the encouragement of the rangers, I tasted it and can confirm that it is indeed salt!

Close-up of salt formations at Badwater, Death Valley

Salt formations at Badwater, Death Valley National Park

In many locations (in particular a spot known as “Devil’s Golf Course”), the salt grows into some fantastical yet potentially dangerous formations. The valley here is a wonderland of 1-2 foot high irregular mounds of salt & mud, all encrusted with razor sharp blades and daggers made of salt crystals (see photos below). While the salt is relatively brittle, falls are still to be avoided at all cost. Walking around Devil’s Golf Course reminded me of the time I completed shredded a brand new pair of leather hiking boots in one week of doing geology field work on fresh, sharp a’a lava flows in Hawaii. The only difference was the a fall here would quite literally rub salt in your wound, not a pleasant thought at all.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley

Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park

Close-up of the salt formations at Devil's Golf Course.

Close-up of the salt formations at Devil’s Golf Course.

Near Badwater Basin are some spectacular and very colorful badlands sculpted out of young, soft, clay-rich sedimentary rocks. We arrived in Death Valley our first day just in time to catch sunset over the badlands (photo at top of page) and then hiked through them the next day after we started to desiccate from walking around on the salt flats too much.

Late afternoon light on Manly Beacon in the badlands near Furnace Creek.

Late afternoon light on Manly Beacon in the badlands near Furnace Creek. Note hiker for scale.

If salt daggers, ancient lakes, and badlands aren’t enough excitement for one day, you’ll be happy to know that the northern end of Death Valley has experienced some volcanic activity within the past few thousand years. In a stark contrast to the bleak white salt flats of the southern valley, the valley landscape here is shrouded in dark black cinders and volcanic cones. The centerpiece is a large hole known as Ubehebe Crater, a type of volcanic feature known as a “maar.” Maars are the result of “phreatomagmatic eruptions” (your new scrabble word for the day; it will just take you a few turns and some incredibly good luck to be able to play it…), which occur when magma beneath the Earth’s surface comes into contact with groundwater. The heat from the magma causes the groundwater to flash into steam, creating a violent explosion, and, as so often happens with violent explosions, a large hole in the ground. The red and white sedimentary rocks that existed prior to the eruption still appear beneath the volcanic cinders in places creating a beautiful palette of colors.

Ubehebe Crater at Sunset

Ubehebe Crater, at the north end of Death Valley, at sunset

More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!


The Golden Gate (Bridge)

Golden_Gate_Fog_1

Bridge_Vertical1

San Francisco.

I’ve always thought that it would be one of the few large cities where I could actually stand to live. Never mind the fact that my current and projected foreseeable future income levels will not permit me to live in any of the parts of the city to which the above statement applies. Or the fact that the next major rupture of the San Andreas or Hayward faults is going to make things look…shall we say…”less attractive”. Ignore those minor details for now. All I mean to say is that it seems like a nice place to live, which is a thought that perplexes me, given that in general, the idea of living in the same metropolitan area as several million other human beings makes me want to look up job listings for “hermit” and run away into the hills screaming. San Francisco though seems to have a charm and a combination of positive attributes though that most other cities do not.

For starters it is located in one of the most scenic environs of any city in the country. Rolling grassy hills, redwood groves, long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, rugged coastline, appealing architecture, fortified islands, all within an hours drive of the city center. Hard to match that. Seattle comes close (the view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day? ahhhhhhh) but it gets marked down because it gets, on average, 14 more inches of rain each year. Salt Lake City has gorgeous mountains but it is covered in snow for part of the year and tends to get smothered by thick layers of pollution that get rammed up against the western flanks of the Wasatch. And all cities east of the Rockies are automatically disqualified because they’re east of the Rockies. To some Phoenix might seem sort of scenic, what with the 50 foot high cacti and mountains and all, until you realize that in reality it is a sizzling hell hole with literally no sustainable water source and is totally unfit for large quantities of human habitation. At least San Francisco has Yosemite just a few hundred miles away that it can poach water from. Also, it sort of seems like everything in San Francisco is painted either white or a nice bright pastel color. Painting everything white does wonders for a city; it makes it feel larger, cleaner, less claustrophobic, and lends a nice airy, ethereal quality to everything.

San Francisco also has what in my opinion is one of the few man-made creations that actually contributes to the beauty of a place rather than besmirching it: the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you’re not familiar with the bridge, it is one of the few things in San Francisco not painted white or pastel, but rather a bright burnt orange (actually “international orange” for those of you who want to go out to your local Home Depot and pick up a gallon). The “Golden Gate” for which the bridge is named (and not vice-versa) is a narrow strait that connects the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. In a somewhat eery coincidence, U.S. Army Captain and explorer extraordinaire John C. Fremont bestowed the now famous name upon the strait in 1846, two years BEFORE the strait was used as the point of arrival for millions of millionaire wannabees seeking riches in the newly discovered gold fields east of Sacramento. Fremont had given it the name Golden Gate because he recognized the area’s potential importance in opening up trade with the Orient, completely unaware (obviously) that the discovery of real gold in California is what would cause the population of the city just to the south of the strait, San Francisco, to multiply by 18,000% in just six years, and make the Golden Gate known worldwide. In the 1920s, fed up with the 20 minute ferry ride across the strait, some folks decided it would be a bright idea to build a bridge across it, apparently thinking that sitting in traffic for more than 20 minutes waiting to cross the strait while constantly having to yell at the driver in front of you to stop futzing with their iPhone and drive would somehow be more pleasant than the leisurely ferry crossing.

Ship_Golden_Gate

Yang Ming container ship is greeted by the Golden Gate Bridge

An unique perspective on the 1.7 mile-long suspension bridge can be obtained by going beneath it. If you don’t have a boat, fear not, in another stunning coincidence, the U.S. Army conveniently constructed a masonry fortification, Fort Point, on the point right beneath the south end of the bridge in 1853*:

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

*Actually the Army did no such thing. You know, seeming as how the technology to build a massive metal suspension bridge across a deep, windy, 1.3 kilometer wide strait didn’t exactly exist in 1853. The engineers in charge of building the bridge eighty-odd years later did however build the bridge directly above the fort (they wanted to remove the Fort entirely but cooler heads prevailed), and so the Fort, being the rather inanimate object that it is, remains there to this day, providing a nice spot to stand and look out over the bay while holding on to your hat and listening to rush-hour traffic crawl past on the bridge high over your head.

Arguably the best, although not most unique, views of the bridge can be found north of town, just off of Highway 101 in the Marin Headlands where a number of overlooks along Conzelman Road provide spectacular vantage points from which to observe or photograph the bridge.  These overlooks aren’t a secret though, the ones closest to Highway 101 are predictably packed with people and it can be impossible to find a parking spot. However, the bridge is also partially obscured here, head further and higher up the road for more expansive views that, while still busy, become less so the further from the highway you get. and. The number of tripods also increases steadily as you get further and further from the interstate which I interpreted as a good sign since one of my goals was to get some photos of the bridge at sunset. As you can see in the picture at the top of the page, these overlooks are often slightly above the fog that socks in the coast from time to time.

Most people seem to stop and turn around at the one-way-road/18% grade sign that appears along Conzelman Road just before it begins to wind its way back down through the headlands to the coast. If you proceed onwards though, you will be rewarded by getting to shift your car into low gear, and also by a plethora of quieter and more secluded, albeit more distant, views of the bridge. The road ultimately deposits one at the trail leading to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, located at the northern entrance to the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was built in 1853, and yet several hundred ships still managed to wreck themselves in this area during the influx associated with the California Gold Rush, a testament to the ability of the area’s trademark thick fog to obscure any sign of the coast until its too late.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse, Marin County, California

More pictures of the local flora and fauna hopefully coming soon, including the biggest group o’ Grebes you’ve ever seen in one photograph.


Monterey, California: Famous for the Coast, Famous for the Cheese

Sunset at Fort Ord Dunes SP

Sunset at Fort Ord Dunes State Park

Did you know that Monterey Jack cheese takes it’s name from the city where it was first made by Spanish settlers and then later first commercially marketed by a Scottish immigrant? Neither did I. That is, until I came across a lovely, if somewhat small and water-logged (and apparently created on a home inkjet printer…) interpretive sign informing me of that fact on a recent hike to the top of the peak that now bear’s Jacks’ name:

Interpretive sign on Jacks Peak

The Sign

Located just outside of Monterey, CA, Jacks Peak is the highest point in Monterey County topping out at a whopping 1,068 feet above sea level.  The sign left me curious, and wanting to learn more about this mysterious Jacks fellow and his delicious cheese. After much additional research, I am now able to present you with the following information:

1. There is actually a fair bit of ongoing, spirited debate over who exactly should be credited with first making “Monterey jack” cheese. And Julius Caesar is involved…somehow.

2. According to the Monterey County Historical Society, Monterey jack is one of just four varieties of cheese to have been invented (created? first made? can one really “invent” cheese?) in the United States.  In other words, while the U.S. may be top dawg at spitting out fancy new electronic devices that start with a lower case “i”, we are seriously lacking when it comes to new innovation in the field of dairy products.

3. Due to it’s creamy texture, Monterey Jack is excellent for making grilled cheese sandwiches.

I probably could have kept this list going for a while but reading page after page about cheese made me hungry. Lacking any authentic Monterey jack, I instead “settled” for a large hunk of Tillamook aged medium white cheddar, a piece of cheese that was so tasty I seriously considering including a picture of it right after this period. In fact, I still am considering it.

Monterey is also famous for a number of other attractions, nearly all of which, sadly, have little or nothing to do with the cheese that so admirably and bears the city’s name. Most of them do, however, involve the ocean in some way or another which is a pretty good consolation prize if you ask me.

Boardwalk and ice plant

A boardwalk snakes through a field of invasive ice plant at Fort Ord Dunes State Park

Fort Ord Dunes State Park is one of the newer such attractions. Not new in the sense that the beach or the dunes itself are new (they’re quite old actually) but new in the sense that the land it occupies was for many years part of the Fort Ord U.S. Army post. In 1994, the Fort was closed and since then much of the land has been reclaimed and opened to recreational use. Over 10,000 acres were set aside by President Obama as Fort Ord National Monument 2012.  A small strip of the beach and adjacent dunes just north of Monterey became Fort Ord Dunes State Park (pictured above) in 2009.

Coast at Point Lobos

Looking south along the California coast from Point Lobos State Reserve

Clear on the other side of town is Point Lobos State Reserve, also part of the California State Park System.  The scenery at Point Lobos is breathtaking to put it mildly. In slightly more concrete terms, it was WELL worth the drive back into town to withdraw some cash so we could pay pay the cash-only $10 entry fee to the park. Now, you can also park on the highway and walk in for free but in my humble opinion, $10 is a small price to pay to keep one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the world preserved for all to see.  Like the nearby, and arguably more famous, 17-mile-drive and Pebble Beach area, the Point Lobos reserve protects rugged and rocky stretches of coastline, sheltered coves home to seals, sea lions, and sea otters, and one of the last remaining stands of Monterey cypress.  What you won’t find here though is multi-million dollar mansions and immaculately manicured golf courses dotting the coast which in my view improves the scenery to a level that is beyond my ability to communicate via words.

Monterey cypress, Point Lobos State Reserve

One of only two remaining groves of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) trees on Earth, Point Lobos State Reserve

Cirrus clouds above Lover's Point, Monterey, CA

Wispy cirrus clouds hover above Lover’s Point in Monterey, CA

Sunset from Carmel Beach

The hoards enjoy a beautiful winter sunset from Carmel Beach

Last but not least is Carmel Beach, located in the small hamlet of Carmel, which is distinctive in that it eschews street lamps and prohibits the wearing of shoes with heels higher than two inches.  It is also one of the few towns in the U.S. to forgo street numbers. While you mull on that for a bit, take note that Carmel Beach is oriented almost directly towards the late afternoon sun, making it an ideal location to spend the end of your day watching our local nuclear fusion reactor dip below the apparent horizon of the Earth (that’s a more astronomically correct way of saying “sunset”).  Note also that you won’t be alone. No matter though, just bring a blanket, a box of crackers, and some cheese and enjoy the show!

Sunset at Carmel Beach

Sunset at Carmel Beach


The World’s Most Spectacular Meeting of Land and Sea: Big Sur, California

Big Sur coast looking south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

We interrupt the recent Colorado-centric nature of this website to bring you an important dispatch from the western shore of the North American continent, also known as the Golden State of California.

On a recent visit to Monterey, CA to visit my girlfriend, we decided to drive south along the famed Pacific Coast Highway and spend a night in the Big Sur region of central California. To invert the timeless words of Douglas Adams: “this has been widely regarded as a good move.”  The local tourism bureaus like to tout the area as “The world’s most spectacular meeting of land and sea”.  While I generally get somewhat uncomfortable and squirmy around such subjective superlatives, there is no denying that at Big Sur, the land does indeed meet the sea; as exemplified by the fact that, on more than one occasion, I would have quite easily been able to walk directly from solid earth into the ocean, had I chosen to do so.  I didn’t choose to do so but the point is that I could have and I imagine it would have been quite a spectacular meeting if I had. Maybe next time.

Partington Cove, Big Sur

McWay Falls, Big Sur

The Big Sur region is home to a plethora of beautiful and intriguing attractions, of which we had time to sample only a smattering. California Highway 1 meanders its way through Big Sur, rarely in a manner which permits one to safely exceed 30 miles per hour, but almost always in a manner which provides spectacular views of the jagged coastal cliffs along the Pacific Ocean below. Fortunately, pullouts are ample, thus avoiding the need to try and enjoy the view while simultaneously keeping the car from punching through the guardrails and plunging into The Sea.

One of the highlights is Juila Pfeiffer Burns State park, home to a 80-foot high waterfall that plunges into an aquamarine cove surrounded on three sides by ragged sea cliffs. Big Sur also marks the southern extent of the range of the Coast Redwood. Although these trees are not nearly as large or prevalent here as they are further north along the California coast, small gulches and canyons along the coast harbor small, yet impressive groves of these stately conifers.

Michelle admiring the redwood trees along the Canyon Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

From the “proof that spending time amongst a large quantity of tourists is never boring” department, I present the following tale as a humorous anecdote. Looking at the above pictures, It doesn’t exactly take a trained eye to notice that the natural environment of the Pacific Coast is wholly different than just about anywhere else in the country. Nevertheless, while milling about a trailhead in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I had the pleasure of overhearing an exchange between two other groups of hikers in which one group proudly informed the other that “this place really reminds us of the time we visited the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona. It’s amazing how similar it looks.”   For those of you unfortunate enough to not be familiar with Northern Arizona, Sedona looks ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like the above pictures but instead more like this.

Lest you doubt my incredulity over the above comparison, let’s do a brief comparison of the landscapes shall we:

Big Sur

Sedona

Color of rocks

Everything but red

Red

Vegetation

Coast Redwoods, Monterey Pine, Laurel, Oak

Pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, manzanita, cacti

Ocean

Yes

Yes, 300 million years ago

Annual precipitation

42 inches

19 inches

Commonly observed fauna

Seals, otters, whales, evil seagulls

Squirrels, javelina, rattlesnakes

Elevation

Duh…it’s the sea

4,300 feet

Geologic features

Sea cliffs, sea arches, mountains, waterfalls

Buttes, mesas, canyons, plateaus

Extremely pricy resorts and hotels

Yes

Yes

Highway frequented by excruciatingly slow RV’s

Yes

Yes

Alright, so maybe there are some similarities after all. But not the kind that would lead one to compare a wet, foggy shoreline to a labyrinth of redrock canyons and mesas in the middle of a desert. I wanted to say something along the lines of “what have all y’all been smoking?” or “excluding hallucinations, have you ever actually BEEN to Arizona?” but I kept my mouth shut and moved on.

And last but not least, enjoy a few pictures of the native inhabitants of the area:

Sea otter in Monterey Bay willing to work for his/her afternoon snack. We watched this otter floating on his back cracking open various sea critters for a good twenty minutes.

A bloom (or swarm…experts seem to disagree on the proper term for a group of jellyfish) of aquarium-bound jellyfish. We saw a whole bunch of these floating in the ocean from a pier in Monterey which sort of made me never want to go in the ocean again.