2020 Oct: RV to Utah slots, SD Badlands, Wyoming, Idaho’s Sawtooths

Self-contained RV travel provides a healthy antidote to pandemic isolation. Our 32-day RV getaway in fall 2020 visited intriguing corners of Utah, Indiana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho. Tom’s favorite image of the trip was Zebra Slot:

Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this vertical panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


A smoky start diverts us from Idaho to Utah

Upon our departure from Seattle on September 14, smoky fires irritated Washington, Oregon, northern California, and much of the West. As we drove through Yakima, Washington, dangerously thick outdoor smoke from a nearby fire caused Carol to suddenly gasp for breath and pull over the RV onto the shoulder of a steep curve of the freeway. After donning N95 masks and changing drivers, we regained normal breathing, although a little scared. We wisely decided to redirect our planned hikes away from smoky Idaho’s Sawtooths, and instead head south towards clear skies in Utah. The unplanned extra day of driving paid off with clearer air and rewarding revisits to three favorite hikes in Southern Utah.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Driving two hours of jarringly rough washboard took us halfway down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above, Carol spans the narrow slot of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. We hiked from the Lower Trailhead of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch to the slot canyons of Peekaboo Gulch and Spooky Gulch, looping back via Dry Fork (5.7 miles round trip) up to a bench trail. (Instead, I recommend starting at the Upper Trailhead, to cover similar mileage, to further transit the coolness of Dry Fork, and to save 10 minutes of side road driving time.)

We last hiked Spooky Gulch in April 1997 (pre-marriage), along with Wes, Phyl, Jim, Dave, Rebecca, Deirdre, and Stan. On that trip, this group shared scenic backpacking overnight from Silver Falls Wash to Harris Wash. Finding chunks of petrified wood in the wash was memorable.

Below: Large Datura flowers bloomed in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch.

A Datura flower blooms in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. The Datura genus is in the Potato (Solanaceae) Family, also known as the Deadly Nightshade Family. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A Datura flower blooms in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Please reexamine my Zebra Slot panorama at the top of this article. From Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, we hiked east on a well-trodden but unmarked path to Zebra Slot Canyon through beautiful open-desert washes (5 miles round trip with 450 feet total gain). Upon entry to this short slot canyon, a pool of water turned back Carol. Wearing shoes with socks removed, I bravely splashed through the green liquid, which became knee-deep. Then a claustrophobically-narrow passage nearly blocked my sideways squeeze, as my trail-runner shoes were pinched tightly in a V-shaped vise. Separately visiting 1 week later, my sister-in-law Rebecca had to chimney over that section. Zebra Slot had been cut much deeper and narrower since Carol and I last visited in 2013. In an unexpected double whammy for Rebecca, rains had raised the pool up to neck-deep! Zebra Slot then rewards your efforts with a spectacularly-striped sandstone cathedral.

An excellent environmental surprise: Thanks to the greatest legislative victory in the history of SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, of which we are members), in 2019, Congress passed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which declared 663,000 acres of wilderness, including Little Wild Horse Canyon Wilderness, within the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. These wonderful hiker playgrounds, which were for decades designated by BLM as Wilderness Study Areas, are now incrementally better-protected from threats such as off-road vehicles and Uranium mining.

Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah

Pleasure-Way RV at sunrise near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Pleasure-Way RV at sunrise. near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. Hike a classic loop from Little Wild Horse Canyon to Bell Canyon (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: Sunrise at our free campsite near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah.

Last done 14 years ago, we re-hiked a fun loop from Little Wild Horse Canyon to Bell Canyon, through fascinating narrow slot canyons and open mesas. This great walk (an 8.6-mile circuit with 900 feet gain and descent) is a short drive on a paved road from Goblin Valley State Park. This year (on Sept 20, 2020) the loop only required a small amount of scrambling over rocks and to our relief, was otherwise easy walking. The several water holes which were up to our knees deep in April 2006 were luckily dry and filled with gravel for us.

In 2006, a tight slot with water encouraged me to span across with the intent to stay dry. But widening walls caused me to drop embarrassingly into the pool! Carol had wisely sloshed directly through. With my spirit dampened, and a few scrapes and bruises the wiser, shivering, I poured the water out of my boots and walked the mile remaining back to the trailhead.

Colorful sandstone patterns are revealed in the slot of Little Wild Horse Canyon. San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Colorful sandstone patterns are revealed in the slot of Little Wild Horse Canyon. San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Click here for more of Tom’s Utah travel tips.

Family visit in Indianapolis, Indiana

As with every visit to Indianapolis to see Carol’s mother, I enjoyed trimming the hedges and admiring the plantings we have done in the past.

NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Central Canal was dug in the early 1800s to facilitate interstate commerce, but the project was cut short due to financial problems. Today, the refurbished Canal Walk (stretching north through White River State Park to 11th Street) serves downtown as a beautiful waterside promenade for walkers, runners, bikers, and sightseers. We’ve now twice enjoyed walking it.

Click here to read Tom’s Indiana tips.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

On our drive back to Seattle, Badlands National Park was worth revisiting in South Dakota.

Sunset illuminates the Badlands Wall above cracked mud near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. The intricately carved cliff of the Badlands Wall constantly retreats as it erodes and washes into the White River Valley below. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunset illuminates the Badlands Wall above cracked mud near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. The intricately carved cliff of the Badlands Wall constantly retreats as it erodes and washes into the White River Valley below. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

An orange sunrise lights rock formations near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

An orange sunrise lights rock formations near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Until this trip, I hadn’t realized that the town of Wall in South Dakota was named after the natural rock formation of the Badlands Wall. This year, for our first time, we visited the infamously kitschy Wall Drugs, which is advertised for hundreds of miles around with annoying billboards (like the 1925-1960s Burma-Shave).

History: The signs for Wall Drugs “began in 1936, when Ted Hustead was a struggling young pharmacist desperate for business. He took the advice of his wife, Dorothy, and put up a sign on old U.S. Hwy 16 offering free ice water to anyone who stopped by. It worked. A few customers began pulling off the highway. Then Hustead went sign-crazy and began posting them up and down the highway. By the 1960s, there were about 3,000 Wall Drugs signs in 50 states… Wall Drugs is now down to about 250 signs in South Dakota, 30 in Minnesota and 20 in Wyoming. The only thing keeping many of those up is that it would cost millions to remove all the nation`s noncompliant roadsign signs, and a deficit-minded Congress has never fully appropriated the money to do the job.”

Deadwood, Black Hills, South Dakota

A modern vehicle pulls a covered wagon in Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A modern vehicle pulls a covered wagon in Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: In South Dakota, the casino tourist town of Deadwood was worth seeing for a few hours, including the Adams Museum.

After the discovery of large placer gold deposits in Deadwood Gulch in 1875, thousands of gold-seekers flocked to the new town of Deadwood from 1876 to 1879, leading to the (illegal) Black Hills Gold Rush, despite the land being owned by the Sioux. At its height, the city had a population of 25,000 and attracted larger-than-life Old West figures including Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok (who was killed there). The entire city is now designated as a National Historic Landmark District, for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era architecture.

To best appreciate historic Deadwood in fascinating detail, we recommend watching the dramatic HBO television series “Deadwood” (Seasons 1, 2, 3 dated 2004-06). Wikipedia says the Deadwood TV series “received critical acclaim, particularly for Milch’s writing and McShane’s performance, and is regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time. It also won eight Emmy Awards (in 28 nominations) and one Golden Globe.” We checked out the DVD free from Seattle Public Library (or one can see it on HBO or Amazon Prime for a price). The more recent 2019 movie “Deadwood” is a coda that isn’t as good as the 2004-06 TV series.

Spearfish Canyon Nature Area, Black Hills, South Dakota

Below: Walk the trail to Spearfish Falls for 1.5 miles round trip within Spearfish Canyon Nature Area, managed by South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks in the Black Hills.

Little Spearfish Creek plunges over Spearfish Falls to meet the main Spearfish Creek. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Little Spearfish Creek plunges over Spearfish Falls to meet the main Spearfish Creek. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Click here for more tips about South Dakota and the Midwest.

Yellowstone Falls, South Rim Trail, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

From the Black Hills of South Dakota, we enjoyed a scenic route across northern Wyoming, new to us, to reach the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We drove via Powder River Pass in the Bighorn Mountains, to Cody, to overnight on the reservoir at Buffalo Bill State Park, to the beautiful canyon of the North Fork Shoshone River, up to Yellowstone Lake, to the Mud Geyser, then to Canyon Village. Much of the route resembled southern Utah, including isolated mountain ranges, canyons with various eroded pinnacles, colored rocks, and idyllically remote, well-kept ranches.

Lower Yellowstone Falls seen from Artist Point on South Rim Trail. The Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lower Yellowstone Falls seen from Artist Point on South Rim Trail. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: We enjoyed walking the South Rim Trail from Upper to Lower Yellowstone Falls to Artist Point. The Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and becomes a major tributary of the Missouri River. Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872.

Click here for more tips about “WYOMING: Devils Tower; Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA), except when compromised by forest fires, as it was in fall 2020. Significant wildfires burning nearby stung our eyes during the first hike.

Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls
Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA. The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are made of pink granite of the 50 million year old Sawtooth batholith. This image was stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Inaccurate blogs led us to hike Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Reaching both falls turned out to be harder than expected (9.1 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain, measured with GPS and altimeter). The main trail is wide and easy through pleasant scenery, even bikeable. But the side trips necessary to actually view each falls requires scrambling with steep exposure on slippery, loose rocks (not recommended for children). By consulting my BackCountry Navigator GPS map, I was able to find and follow the poorly-marked side trail straight up 400 vertical feet to Bridal Veil Falls; but Carol turned back as the trail severely steepened, and a later group lost the trail and also turned back. In the end, the best part of the hike was at the idyllic beginning: beautiful mountain reflections in Stanley Lake.

Titus Lake Trail

From Galena Summit is a worthwhile hike to Titus Lake (3.75 miles round trip with 750 feet gain) in Sawtooth National Recreation Area. At its higher elevation, Titus Lake was clearer of smoke than Stanley village.

Alice-Toxaway backpacking loop to Idaho’s impressive El Capitan
The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

On October 6-7, 2020, starting from Tin Cup Trailhead, I backpacked the Alice-Toxaway Loop clockwise for 20 miles in two days. The first day to idyllic Twin Lakes was a moderate 7.4 miles with 2090 feet gain. Carol joined me for the first 4 miles then returned to sleep in the comfort of the RV. Tenting in the backcountry wilderness at Twin Lakes, I was rewarded by a sunset view from a bluff over Alice Lake nearby.

My new solo tent, tested that night, is the 18-ounce TarpTent ProTrail Li (the same model as Rebecca began using this year on her various journeys). The tent’s super lightweight is possible by using hiking poles and four staked lines as support. This roomy tent worked great, helping make the weight backpacking (about 19 pounds base weight plus food and water) resemble that of day hiking. (I have yet to test it in conditions where condensation inside might collect, designed to drain out the downward-sloped interior side netting.)

My second day returned via Toxaway Lake and Farley Lake for an athletic 12.5 miles with 1260 feet up and 2940 feet down, joyfully met by Carol in the last 2 miles.

On our August 2007 backpacking trip here, Carol and I enjoyed staying 2 nights at Alice Lake, and day-hiking to Toxaway Lake round trip over 9390-foot Snowyside Pass. This revisit in 2020 dramatically climaxed our fall trip.

Luckily, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area offers enough new hikes to bring us back for a third visit, such as day hiking to 1) Sawtooth Lake; 2) Marshall Ridgeline; 3) Washington Lake Trail, in the White Cloud Mountains, with optional backpack to Chamberlain Basin; etc.

Click here for more Idaho tips.

Tom’s more-extensive photo gallery for this trip, “2020 Sep 14-Oct 8: RV to UT, IN, SD, WY, ID”


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2020 Aug: Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, Mt Rainier NP

After a dozen hikes to Spray Park splendor since 1982, in summer 2020, I discovered an adventurous loop return to Mowich Lake via Knapsack Pass Trail (see Washington Trails Association), in Mount Rainier National Park. However, slippery exposure on steep scree and snow scared my wife Carol, who vowed never to hike Knapsack Pass again! (6.7-mile circuit with 2600 feet gain.) Fortunately, steps postholed in soft snow allowed crossing safely on that warm day (August 17th). I delighted in this flower-filled loop under the snow cone of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.

Beware, the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass Trail exposes hikers to steep scree and year-round snow fields which could become dangerously icy. The trail is best navigated by experienced hikers only, in late summer using a good map, GPS device, and trekking poles (or ice axe if icy). The worn trail, marked with cairns and boot tracks, may become difficult to follow in the half mile of scree and snow fields southeast of Knapsack Pass.

A mountain memorial for David Dempsey in Spray Park

While bicycling on May 8, my older brother Dave sadly lost his life to a negligent motorist along Highway 32 in Chico, California. In the field of flowers pictured below in Spray Park, Carol and I spread some of Dave’s ashes:

In memorium: lupin and aster flowers bloom prolifically in Spray Park in mid August 2020, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

In memorium: lupin and aster flowers bloom prolifically in Spray Park in mid August 2020, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


More images from Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop

From familiar Spray Park, our counterclockwise circuit entered territory unknown to us, in the headwaters of Cataract Creek above Mist Park (pictured below). If conditions became too rough, we were okay with turning back.

This panorama shows the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

This panorama shows the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. In mid August, mosquitoes and blue lupin flowers predominated, plus paintbrush and a few late-blooming avalanche lilies. 4 images were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Crossing several steep snow fields made us nervous, perched above sharp rocks:

Mount Rainier seen from the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mount Rainier seen from the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Then we steeply ascended sharp scree and switchbacks to Knapsack Pass, a small notch in Mother Mountain:

Mount Rainier NP: Headwaters of Mist Park, along Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Ascend steep switchbacks up Knapsack Pass, a notch in Mother Mountain at the headwaters of Mist Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Mount Rainier loomed impressively above flower fields along Knapsack Pass Loop Trail.

In mid August, a late-season avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum in the Liliaceae family) blooms white with yellow center in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

In mid August, a late-season avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum in the Liliaceae family) blooms white with yellow center in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Pink flowers bloom on the rim of Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Pink flowers bloom on the rim of Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Mowich Lake seen from Knapsack Pass trail, which is a steep "social trail" in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Caution: the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass trail exposes hikers to slippery scree and steep snow (possibly icy), best hiked in late summer using a good GPS device, map, and trekking poles. The Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop is very rewarding but only recommended for experienced, well-equipped hikers. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mowich Lake seen from Knapsack Pass trail, which is a steep "social trail" in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Caution: the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass trail exposes hikers to slippery scree and steep snow (possibly icy), best hiked in late summer using a good GPS device, map, and trekking poles. The Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop is very rewarding but only recommended for experienced, well-equipped hikers. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Click here to read more of Tom’s hiking tips in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

2020 July: Eastern Sierra hikes & backpack, California

Walking outdoors is a great remedy for pandemic confinement. On the east side of California’s impressive Sierra Nevada range from 18 July to Aug 3, our family group undertook four day hikes plus an easy 4-day backpacking trip. To help prevent spread of COVID-19, we and the overwhelming majority of fellow hikers considerately wore masks or bandanas or kept 6+ feet of distance as we passed.

Backpack from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake in Hoover Wilderness

In Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, our scenic backpacking trip from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake was 7.6 miles one way with 2360 feet gain and 310 feet descent over three leisurely days, reversed on the fourth day. A day hike from our Green Lake campsite to West Lake was 3.9 mi with 1830 feet gain to 8896 feet elevation. Our favorite campsite was nestled above quiet Nutter Lake. From our Summit Lake campsite, two of us hiked east to Burro Pass for a pleasing view to Virginia Lakes (2180 ft gain over 4 miles round trip). Unique and colorful rock patterns delighted my photographer’s eye! The next day, half of our party hiked over Burro Pass to Virginia Lakes Trailhead, to be picked up by us driving around from Green Creek Trailhead. (This makes a great one-way hike via car shuttle for those with two vehicles, as we did in 2000.)

Sunrise at Green Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunrise at Green Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)



Glacier-scoured exfoliating rock pattern in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Glacier-scoured exfoliating rock pattern at Nutter Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)



View Virginia Lakes from Burro Pass in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

View Virginia Lakes from Burro Pass in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


We trained for the backpacking trip with the following four day hikes.

Day hike 1: Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail in Hoover Wilderness

Staying below 8000 feet elevation, the Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail helped us acclimatize before attempting the higher trails on this page. We hiked Leavitt Meadows Loop clockwise (8.9 miles with 1570 feet gain including a ridge extension above Lane Lake) in Hoover Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The best ambiance is at Secret Lake. Roosevelt and Lane Lakes also provide pleasant views. The Trailhead is at Leavitt Meadows Campground (GPS 38.33401 N, 119.55177 W).

A crayfish pinches a finger at Secret Lake. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A crayfish pinches a finger at Secret Lake in Hoover Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 2 of 4: Hike Crystal Lake & Mammoth Crest Trail, at Mammoth Lakes

Pandemic closures of many indoor activities has sent hikers onto trails in record numbers. Advance reservations resolved the stiff competition for campsites in Mammoth Lakes village and for overnight backpacking permits.

Starting early to find parking and avoid crowds, we walked from Lake George Trailhead to beautiful Crystal Lake (side trip) then to volcanic Mammoth Crest for 7 miles round trip with 2000 feet gain. Both the scenery and high altitude (exceeding 10,000 feet elevation) were breathtaking. Mammoth Crest trail ascends the rim of the Mammoth Lakes Basin, an impressive glacial cirque, to attain far-reaching views of the Ritter Range and Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River Canyon.

If you have extra energy, consider hiking a rewarding loop including Deer Lakes and Duck Pass (13.2 miles with 2765 ft gain, using a car shuttle. Or break this into a separate hike from Duck Lake Pass Trailhead to Duck Pass (7.2-8 miles round trip with 1680+ feet gain). If backpacking, reserve it many months ahead, or check for “walkup” reservations on shorter notice.

See Lakes George & Mary below Mammoth Crest Trail. Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. Mammoth Lakes lies on the edge of the Long Valley Caldera, geologically active with hot springs and rhyolite domes that are less than 1000 years old.(© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

See Lakes George & Mary below Mammoth Crest Trail. Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 3 of 4: Shadow Lake Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Shadow Lake made an excellent day hike for 7.5 miles with 1200 ft gain in Ansel Adams Wilderness. An early start from Mammoth Lakes village allowed us to squeeze two cars into the small parking lots at Agnew Meadows Trailhead. Normally required for day hikers, the “Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile Shuttle” was cancelled during the pandemic summer of 2020, and a limited number of vehicles were allowed to drive in and park.

Hike to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. Mammoth Lakes, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mount Ritter and Banner Peak reflect in Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. Mammoth Lakes, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Yellow green and purple rock pattern along the trail to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Yellow green and purple rock pattern along the trail to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Historic Benton Hot Springs, Mono County

Historic Benton Hot Springs is worth an hour to view the rusting old cars and farm equipment. Benton Hot Springs (elevation 5630 feet) saw its heyday from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for nearby mines. At the end of the 1800s, the town declined and the name Benton was transferred to nearby Benton Station.

Cracked windshield on rusting car in Benton Hot Springs, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Cracked windshield on rusting car in Benton Hot Springs, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mono Mills ghost camp above Mono Lake

With views of Mono Lake and Mono-Inyo Craters, the gravel side roads around the site of the historic Mono Mills offer free primitive campsites partially shaded by handsome pine trees, cooled at 7356 feet elevation in Inyo National Forest. (From Lee Vining, drive south on U.S. Route 395 and turn east on California State Route 120, for 9.1 miles to Mono Mills.) Luckily, in addition to developed campgrounds, our National Forests designate many free “dispersed camping” areas along the more-remote gravel roads.

Sunset at Mono Lake seen from Mono Mills, a nearly-vanished ghost town 9.5 miles southeast of Lee Vining in Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunset at Mono Lake seen from Mono Mills, a nearly-vanished ghost town 9.5 miles southeast of Lee Vining in Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 4 of 4: Piute Pass Trail in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest

The following giant boulder tumbled from cliffs above and nicked the corner of this restroom at Sabrina Campground!

This giant boulder tumbled from cliffs above and nicked the corner of this restroom at Sabrina Campground, in Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Ill-fated restroom at Sabrina Campground, in Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Situated along Middle Fork Biship Creek, Sabrina Campground is a great base for reaching several good hikes within a short drive. We enjoyed hiking Piute Pass Trail via attractive ponds, lakes, and wildflowers (9.7 miles, 2200 ft gain) in John Muir Wilderness.

Hike to Piute Pass Trail via ponds and lakes in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Hike to Piute Pass Trail via ponds and lakes in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) is native to western North America. Piute Pass Trail, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) is native to western North America. Piute Pass Trail, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Tom’s extended photo gallery show from “2020 Jul 18-Aug 3: CA High Sierra”


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2019 Sept: RV to Wyoming, Carhenge, Cahokia, Colorado, Utah

A diverse RV camping trip took us across the USA from Seattle to: Wyoming’s Wind River Range; Nebraska’s kooky Carhenge; Indiana family; Illinois’ prehistoric Cahokia Mounds; Colorado’s southwest corner; Utah’s Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks; and California family (September 4–October 20, 2019).

2019 Sep 4-Oct 20 favorites: RV to WY, NE, IL, CO, UT


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Below, see all images from the trip in galleries by location:

Wyoming: Wind River Range


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The Wind River Range lies in the Rocky Mountains southwest of Grand Teton National Park. Mostly made of granite batholiths formed deep within the earth over 1 billion years ago, the Wind River Range is one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. These granite monoliths were tectonically uplifted, exposed by erosion, then carved by glaciers 500,000 years ago to form cirques and U-shaped valleys. We enjoyed several hikes and a backpacking trip in Bridger-Teton National Forest on the west side of the Continental Divide (which follows the crest of the “Winds”):

Green River Lakes day hikes

Glaciers scoured the terminal moraine which naturally dams the Green River Lakes, which are the headwaters of the Green River (chief tributary to the Colorado River). Upper Lake offers the best reflection of Squaretop Mountain (11,695 feet elevation), an iconic granite monolith. To acclimatize, we hiked a loop of 7.2 miles with 700 feet cumulative gain entirely around Lower Green River Lake, including the short side trip to Upper Lake.

A tougher hike took us from Green River Lakes Trailhead, along just the west side of Lower Lake, to Slide Lake (13 miles round trip minimum, with 2100 feet gain). Those with more energy can add the Natural Bridge in Clear Creek Valley and loop back via the east side of Lower Lake.

Photographer’s Point day hike

Above Pinedale, along the enjoyable day hike to Photographer’s Point (9.6 miles round trip with 1150 feet gain), view Wind River peaks rising above the popular Titcomb Basin backpacking area.

New Fork Lakes day hike

From Narrows Campground, we hiked a pleasant trail along New Fork Lakes just past the end of the lake (4.4 miles round trip with 400 ft gain). (The kokanee salmon were not yet spawning on September 12, 2019.)

3-day backpack to Big Sandy Lake: Cirque of the Towers; Clear Lake, Deep Lake, Temple Lake

Our spectacular two-night backpacking trip established a tenting home base at Big Sandy Lake Campground (11 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain going in, and 400 ft gain going out). On Day 2, we hiked with lightweight day packs from Big Sandy Lake to Clear Lake and Deep Lake below East Temple Peak, then looped back via the the Continental Divide Trail to Temple Lake, Miller Lake, and Rapid Lake (7.5 miles, 1060 ft gain). Every step of this day hike offers inspiring views, such as the sharp spire of East Temple Peak above Deep Lake, Cirque of the Towers in the distance, and more. On Day 3, two hours before sunrise, I departed from Big Sandy Lake to reach Jackass Pass viewpoint for Cirque of the Towers and Lonesome Lake (6.5 miles round trip, 1860 ft gain) on the Continental Divide Trail. Then I joined Carol hiking out to Big Sandy Trailhead (5.4 miles with 400 ft gain).

Nebraska (NE): Carhenge, near Alliance


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Carhenge replicates England’s Stonehenge using vintage American automobiles, near Alliance, in the High Plains of Nebraska. After studying Stonehenge in England, Jim Reinders recreated the physical size and placement of Stonehenge’s standing stones in summer 1987, helped by 35 family members. “It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers,” said Reinders, who built Carhenge as a memorial to his father. 39 automobiles were arranged in the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring a slightly smaller 96 feet (29m) in diameter. All autos are covered with gray spray paint, and the “heel stone” is a 1962 Cadillac. The site was gifted to the Citizens of Alliance in 2013. In the surrounding Car Art Reserve, Reinders’ “Ford Seasons” consists of four Fords, inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Jeske’s Over the Hill Campground conveniently welcomes campers adjacent to Carhenge.

Illinois: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site


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Who knew that the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas is right across the Mississippi River from St Louis: Monks Mound, near Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site preserves the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Cahokia existed around 1050–1350 CE. The present park contains about 80 man-made earthen mounds, but at its apex around 1100 CE, Cahokia included about about 120 mounds and covered 6 square miles (16 km2) with a population briefly greater than contemporaneous London. Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning 1000+ years before European contact. Cahokia Mounds is one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States.

Colorado: Great Sand Dunes National Park


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Dunes rise up to 750 feet tall in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, on the eastern edge of San Luis Valley, Sangre de Cristo Range, south-central Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park


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Now honored by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park was established by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in the Four Corners region near the town of Cortez. Starting around 7500 BCE, Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by nomadic Paleo-Indians. Later, Archaic people established semi-permanent rockshelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BCE, the Basketmaker culture emerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 CE the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture. The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 1100s began building massive cliff dwellings.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, was built 1190-1260 CE by Ancestral Puebloans. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south into what is today Arizona and New Mexico. Cliff Palace was rediscovered in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason while looking for stray cattle.

Colorado: San Juan Mountains


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In 2019, we admired peak fall colors in late September and the first week in October in the San Juan Mountains. Silverton, Ridgway, and Telluride made great bases for hiking and touring in this spectacular southwest corner of Colorado.

Utah: Moab: Arches National Park

My brother Dave and I re-hiked a favorite trail: Devils Garden loop via Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, Dark Angel, Pine Tree Arch (8 miles with 800 feet gain, with slight scrambling and exposure in places on the Primitive Trail portion, not for those with fear of heights).

Luckily for our group, the Devils Garden Campground host had left a paper note allowing us to grab sites left on October 10 by campers escaping cold 22-degree-F overnight temperatures, freeing sites which had been fully-booked 6 months in advance. Photographing sunset and sunrise around Skyline Arch was a joy! Below are photos of this and other-years activities in Arches National Park:


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Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Dave and I hiked impressive sandstone gorges from Chimney Rock Trailhead over to Spring Canyon, under the looming shadow of Capitol Dome, then down to a car shuttle at Highway 24 (10 miles one way with 1100 ft descent and 370 ft gain). Wading across the Fremont River completed this spectacular, quiet escape from crowds elsewhere in the park. Below are photos of this and past-years activities in Capitol Reef National Park:


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Reference

Tom’s Southwest USA blog articles include Arizona, ColoradoNevada, New MexicoUtah, plus Texas. See also Midwest USA.

2019 June: RV: Alaska-Canadian Highway; Cassiar; Yukon; Denali; Juneau; Glacier Bay

Our new Pleasure-Way Plateau XLTS RV drove like a dream for 6200 miles round trip from Seattle to Alaska from May 27-July 3, 2019. We reached Fairbanks and Denali National Park via the Cassiar Highway in BC and Klondike Loop through Yukon. We returned via the Parks Highway, Glenn Highway, and Alaska-Canadian Highway (ALCAN). A great side trip was by ferry from Haines to Juneau to Skagway. Out of five weeks, my top sights were 1) the day cruise from Juneau to South Sawyer Glacier in spectacular Tracy Arm Fjord, and 2) the fabulous flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park starting from Skagway. Lastly, we returned for a bike ride and hike in Jasper National Park in Alberta, plus a quick stop to admire Mt Robson.

Favorite photos from Alaska-Canadian Highways trip 2019 May 27-July 3


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2019 Alaska & Canada trip interactive GPS waypoints and Google Maps

Alaska History

In Alaska, men have long outnumbered women; so Alaskan women jokingly say “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”.

From 10,000-30,000 years ago, Asians migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia. In 1784, Russians led by Shelikof settled permanently on Kodiak Island. Natives were enslaved and ill-treated for generations. In the mid 1800s, Americans and British undermined the weakening Russian fur monopoly and Tlingits waged guerrilla war. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward instigated US Congress to buy Alaska from the Russians. In 1880, gold was discovered at Silver Bow Basin and Juneau was founded. In 1896, gold was discovered on a tributary to the Klondike River, easiest accessed by ship via Skagway. World War II ravaged Attu & Kiska Islands in 1942-43. Alaska became a state in 1959, with a size one-fifth that of the lower 48 states combined. After the 1968 oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay, the trans-Alaska pipeline was built 1971-77. The 1971 “Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act” formed Native Corporations.

Alaska’s resident population in 2019 is about 736,000 (similar to the number within Seattle city limits). Private pilots here outnumber truck and taxi drivers combined. Roads reach only 5 of Alaska’s 15 national parks. Alaska visitors each year outnumber residents by a factor of two. About half of all visitors come via cruise ship.

Global warming: Since the mid 1900s, Alaska has warmed 3 degrees Fahrenheit and its winters have warmed nearly 6 degrees. Human-caused climate change induced by emissions of greenhouse gases continues to accelerate the warming of Alaska at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is having disproportionate effects in the Arctic, which is heating up twice as fast as the rest of Earth. Earth’s glaciers are shrinking fast, as described below affecting Kluane Lake, Mendenhall Glacier, and Glacier Bay National Park.

Below are more extensive galleries and stories from each area visited.

CANADA: Barkerville, British Columbia


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Historically the main town of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Barkerville is now the largest living-history museum in Western North America. The town was named after Billy Barker from Cambridgeshire, England, who struck gold here in 1861, and his claim became the richest and the most famous. This National Historic Site nestles in the Cariboo Mountains at elevation 1200m (4000ft), at the end of BC Highway 26, 80 kilometres (50 mi) east of Quesnel. Gold here was first discovered at Hills Bar in 1858, followed by other strikes in 1859 and 1860. Wide publication of these discoveries in 1861 began the Cariboo Gold Rush, which reached full swing by 1865 following strikes along Williams Creek.

CANADA: Cassiar Highway, British Columbia


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The scenic Stewart–Cassiar Highway (Highway 37, aka Dease Lake Highway or Stikine Highway) is the northwesternmost highway in BC.

The nonprofit ‘Ksan Historical Village is a living museum of the Gitxsan Indigenous people, reconstructed in 1970 in the Skeena Country of Northwestern British Columbia. See impressive cultural artworks painted on longhouses and carved in totem poles. ‘Ksan is near Hazelton at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers on Gitxsan territory, a short drive off of the Yellowhead Highway (just east of the southern start of the Cassiar Highway). ‘Ksan was founded in 1866 (before Hazelton) and was populated by the Gitxsan Indigenous people.

In good weather, a side trip is worthwhile through Stewart, BC to Hyder, Alaska and beyond to Salmon Glacier, the world’s largest glacier accessible via road. Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest in Canada, is a 37km (23 mile) drive from Stewart, past Hyder and beyond the Bear viewing platform, along Salmon Glacier Road, built for mining interests.

In tiny Jade City, Cassiar Mountain Jade Store is worth a visit.

CANADA: Yukon: Whitehorse, Dawson, Klondike Highway


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We enjoyed a short hike from Miles Canyon Suspension Bridge, near Whitehorse, capital and largest city of the Yukon. At Miles Canyon and the former Whitehorse Rapids downstream, the Yukon River cuts through 8-million-year-old lava flows, the Miles Canyon Basalts. Salmon pooling above and below the rapids attracted humans who left tools here 2500 years ago, and likely other people arriving 8000-9000 years ago after the retreat of glaciers. These narrow cliffs and rapids also established the upstream terminus for paddlewheelers during the Klondike Gold Rush, eventually helping establish the City of Whitehorse. Whitehorse was incorporated in 1950 at kilometer 1426 (Historic Mile 918) on the Alaska Highway. The town was named for the former Whitehorse Rapids (now drowned by a hydroelectric dam), whose pale-colored glacially silted waters resemble the mane of a white horse. The Yukon River originates in British Columbia and flows into the Bering Sea in Alaska. Although historically and popularly called “Yukon Territory”, the territory is now officially called “Yukon” (after the federal government’s Yukon Act in 2002).

The SS Klondike No. 2 sternwheeler, launched at Whitehorse in 1937, was the largest vessel ever to sail the Canadian portion of the Yukon River. The SS Klondike No 2 moved silver-lead ore, freight, and passengers primarily between Whitehorse and Dawson, until retirement in 1955 ended the era of commercial steamboats in the Yukon. It’s now a National Historic Site in Whitehorse.

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, in Whitehorse, has some frighteningly huge skeletons of extinct beasts, such as Jefferson’s Ground Sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni), which was endemic to North America from 10 million–11,000 years ago. It became extinct in Yukon 75,000 years ago. During the ice ages, Beringia’s climate alternated between warm interglacial and cold glacial periods. During glacial periods, sea levels dropped 120 meters, exposing a land bridge that was up to 1000 kilometers (620 miles) wide. Beringia, like most of Siberia and all of North and Northeast China, was a grassland steppe. Fossils found on both sides of the Bering Land Bridge show that since the time of the dinosaurs, it was a major route for the exchange of plants and animals between Asia and North America. Swedish botanist Eric Hultén coined the term Beringia in 1937. Beringia includes the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Sea, the Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas in Russia plus Alaska in the United States.

Just west of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, the Klondike Highway departs north as Yukon Highway 2 to Dawson City.

Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–99), after which population rapidly declined, in Yukon, Canada. Dawson City shrank further during World War II after the Alaska Highway bypassed it 300 miles (480 km) to the south using Whitehorse as a hub. In 1953, Whitehorse replaced Dawson City as Yukon Territory’s capital. Dawson City’s population dropped to less than 900 through the 1960s-1970s, but later increased as high gold prices made modern placer mining operations profitable and tourism was promoted.

Dredge No. 4, a National Historic Site of Canada, was the largest wooden-hulled dredge in North America. Operating from 1913 until 1959, it recovered 8 metric tones of gold. After nearly 30 years on the Klondike River, it was re-built near the mouth of Bonanza Creek to run for another 18 years before sinking where seen now, along Bonanza Creek Road 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) south of the Klondike Highway near Dawson City. A hydro-electric dam 60 km away powered the massive water pumps, winches, and 72-bucket line to sluice gold from river gravel, 24-7 from late April or early May until late November each season, and sometimes throughout winter. Vast river beds were upended into tailing piles, including 26 homes, as the ongoing Placer Mining Act gave mining rights precedence over surface rights.

Although Dawson City’s landscape is severely marred by industrial placer mining which continues to the present, my favorite sight was the Paddlewheel graveyard. Explore the ruins of seven historic paddlewheel boats discarded in the woods along the banks of the Yukon River. Directions: On foot or auto, take the free George Black Ferry to West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway. Turn right into Yukon River campground and park at its northern end. Walk through the yellow gate, turn left, and walk downstream a few minutes to the Paddlewheel graveyard. This site is protected under the Yukon Historic Resources Act. As we walked back to the ferry, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotted by nonchalantly.

Jack London’s Cabin replica evokes the American novelist, journalist, and social activist (1876–1916). At age 21, Jack London spent a difficult winter 1897–1898 prospecting for gold from in a rented cabin, just prior to the gold rush of 1898. While he didn’t strike it rich, he later turned his Klondike adventures into fame and fortune with legendary short stories and books. His most famous works include “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, both set during the Klondike Gold Rush. A pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first writers to become a worldwide celebrity and earn a fortune from writing. He was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction. London’s cabin, abandoned after the Gold Rush, was re-discovered by trappers in 1936 who noted London’s signature on the back wall. Yukon author Dick North organized a search in 1965 and eventually had the cabin dismantled and shipped out. Two replicas were made from the original logs. One is shown in Dawson City, while the other was re-assembled at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, Jack’s hometown.

A few blocks away, I photographed the Robert Service Cabin, rented by him 1909–1912. Robert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, often called “the Bard of the Yukon”.

Alaska: Taylor Highway Chicken


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Chicken is one of the few surviving gold rush towns in Alaska, worth a stop to see the metal chicken sculpture and the F.E. Company Dredge No. 4 (Pedro Dredge, part of Chicken Historic District), which ran 1938-1967 near Fairbanks & here at its final resting place in Chicken. Mining and tourism keep Chicken alive in the summer, and about 17 people stay through the winter. Gold miners settling here in the late 1800s wanted to name the town after local ptarmigan birds, but couldn’t agree on the spelling, so instead called it Chicken to avoid embarrassment!

Alaska: Fairbanks & North Pole (combines images from 2019 and 2006)


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I recommend the “Golden Heart Review” musical comedy, held nightly at the Palace Theatre in Gold Rush Town, Pioneer Park (Alaska’s only Historic Theme Park), in Fairbanks. Through songs and stories, the polished, professional cast covers the historical highlights of Fairbanks, also known as “The Golden Heart City”. Pioneer Park, run by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Department of Parks and Recreation, commemorates early Alaskan history with museums and historic displays. Pioneer Park was opened in 1967 as Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. After being given first to the state and then to the city, Mayor Red Boucher renamed the site Alaskaland, which was changed to its present name in 2001.

Alaska: Denali (Mount McKinley; combines images from 2019 and 2006)


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Run by concessionaire Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture, the non-narrated transit buses are green in Denali National Park and Preserve. From our RV based 3 nights reserved in Teklanika Campground, I rode the bus twice to Eielson Visitor Center, including one trip further to Reflection Lake, above Wonder Lake.

Don’t overlook Denali State Park along the Parks Highway in Matanuska-Susitna Borough adjacent to the east side of Denali National Park and Preserve. Hike the scenic Curry Ridge Trail (6 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain) from the great new K’esugi Ken Campground, in Denali State Park.

Alaska: Independence Mine State Historical Park, Wasilla


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Independence Mine State Historic Park is 14 miles northwest of Palmer, Alaska. The Independence Mines were a gold mining operation in the Talkeetna Mountains. Independence Mine was the second-largest hard-rock gold mining operation in Alaska, after a larger site near Juneau. Mining here dates back to 1897 around Fishook Creek; these claims joined to form Wasilla Mining Company, which worked the mines from 1934-1943 and again 1948-1950. The company ended operations in 1950 expecting to resume, but never did, thereby well-preserving its mining equipment and buildings for eventual donation to the state in 1980, which established Independence Mine State Historic Park.

Alaska: Glenn Highway & Tok Cut-Off


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Nabesna Road offers spectacular scenery in a seldom-seen, wild corner of Alaska, the headwaters of the Copper River. Tt Mile Post 16.6, Kettle Lake picnic site offers a great view of the Wrangell Mountains. A humorous sign here says “TOILET 1 MILE”. The Wrangell Lavas built the Wrangell Mountains over the past 10 million years. Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft) is the largest andesite shield volcano in North America. The cinder cone of Mount Zanetti (13,009 ft) rose prominently 1000 feet above its northwest flank during the past 25,000 years. Wrangell reportedly erupted in 1784 and 1884–85. Occasional steam plumes rise from the park’s only active volcano, and ash sometimes coats the summit snow. Flowing northward from it is the Copper Glacier, source of Copper River which flows northward, then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range, then southward to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova, cutting through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains, marking most of Park’s western boundary.

Alaska: Haines Highway


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A surprising gem, the Hammer Museum in Haines delighted my wife and I with its quirky and humorous tool displays!

At Port Chilkoot in Haines, we toured Fort William H. Seward National Historic Landmark. Also known as Chilkoot Barracks and Haines Mission, 1902-1945, it was the last of 11 military posts in Alaska during the gold rush era, and Alaska’s only military facility between 1925 and 1940. It policed miners moving into the gold mining areas in the Alaskan interior, and provided military presence during negotiations over the nearby international border with Canada. William H. Seward was the United States Secretary of State who oversaw the Alaska purchase.

Alaska: Juneau & Tracy Arm


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I had wanted to experience the Inside Passage by ferry between Prince Rupert and Juneau, but our dates had fully booked several months in advance. Instead, we ferried our 22.5-foot RV from Haines to Juneau to enjoy 5 nights in Mendenhall Campground. Then we ferried from Juneau to Skagway, all on the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Juneau area really captured our hearts.

Located in the Alaskan panhandle, Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and the second largest city in the USA by area (only Sitka is larger). Isolated by rugged terrain on Alaska’s mainland, Juneau can only be reached by plane or boat. Downtown Juneau sits on Gastineau Channel at sea level under the steep Coast Mountains up to 4000 feet high, topped by Juneau Icefield and 30 glaciers. Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, when the government of what was the District of Alaska was moved from Sitka. The city is named after a gold prospector from Quebec, Joe Juneau. Kudos go to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, the best collection in the state.

Nature expert and sculptor R.T. “Skip” Wallen created “Tahku”, a stunning 6.5-ton, 25-foot tall breaching humpback whale statue with fountains and lights, completed in 2018 in Overstreet Park along the Seawalk near Juneau-Douglas Bridge in Juneau. Tahku celebrates 50 years of Alaska statehood 1959-2009.

I was intrigued by the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail, 3 miles south of Douglas Bridge next to Savikko Park. Formerly the largest gold mine in the world, this mini-town peaked in the 1880s, but was abandoned after partially sliding into the sea on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines 2300 feet deep, due to an extreme high tide and failure of unstable underground rock pillars. Now, spooky reminders poke through the forest on well-signposted and interpreted trail: the concrete New Office Building; 1917 slide site; “glory hole”, and the restored shell of Treadwell pumphouse. The 1914 Pump House had three centrifugal pumps which lifted 2700 gallons of saltwater per minute from Gastineau Channel for milling and fire protection during the winter when fresh water from the Treadwell Ditch was frozen in snow pack. Treadwell Mine operated 1882-1922.

For spectacular views over Mendenhall Glacier, hike the West Glacier (Mt. McGinnis) Trail 6-9.5 miles round trip, 1000-3200 feet gain, best late May-September. The Trailhead is a half mile from Mendenhall Campground entrance by road. A good trail skirts the northwest side of Mendenhall Lake then climbs through forest to the bare rock along the glacier’s west side, where some scrambling and route finding skills are required. Mendenhall Glacier flows 12 miles from downtown Juneau, in Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a unit of Tongass National Forest. Mendenhall Glacier has retreated 1.75 miles since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created, and over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) since 1500.

Don’t miss a day cruise to South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord, in the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains. We highly recommend the smoothly stabilized day cruise aboard the 56-foot boat Adventure Bound. This journey to the heart of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness (Tongass National Forest) rivals Norwegian fjords and adds a punchbowl of icebergs from the spectacular South Sawyer Glacier, which calved ice into the tidewater with a rumble and a splash. Whales, bears, sea lions and other wildlife showed up along the way. The fjord twists narrowly 30 miles into the coastal mountains, with peaks jutting up to a mile high, draped with tumbling waterfalls.

Although few would call me religious, I loved the peaceful setting of the National Shrine of St. Therese, 22 miles north of downtown Juneau, in Tongass National Forest. A stone causeway from shore reaches this natural-stone chapel nestled amid a tranquil wooded island. This ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau is dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of Alaska, missionaries, and the Diocese of Juneau. She wrote that what really mattered in life was not our great deeds, but our great love.

Alaska: Flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park


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Flightseeing from Skagway or Haines (a cheaper base) is a spectacular way to see Glacier Bay. We were bedazzled by Mountain Flying Service’s 1.3-hour West Arm tour from Skagway. Glacier Bay is honored by UNESCO as part of a huge Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site shared between Canada and the United States. In 1750-80, Glacier Bay was totally covered by ice, which has since radically melted away. In 1794, Captain George Vancover found Icy Strait on the Gulf of Alaska choked with ice, and all but a 3-mile indentation of Glacier Bay was filled by a huge tongue of the Grand Pacific Glacier, 4000 feet deep and 20 miles wide. By 1879, naturalist John Muir reported that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. In 1890, “Glacier Bay” was named by Captain Beardslee of the U.S. Navy. Over the last 200 years, melting glaciers have exposed 65 miles of ocean. As of 2019, glaciers cover only 27% of the Park area.

Alaska: Skagway


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Skagway was founded in 1897 on the Alaska Panhandle. Skagway’s population of about 1150 people doubles in the summer tourist season to manage more than one million visitors per year. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park commemorates the late 1890s Gold Rush with three units in Municipality of Skagway Borough: Historic Skagway; the White Pass Trail; and Dyea Townsite and Chilkoot Trail. (A fourth unit is in Pioneer Square National Historic District in Seattle, Washington.)

Alaska-Canadian Highway (1942 ALCAN)


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Open year round, the Alaska Highway is wider and slightly safer than Cassiar Highway. Both are worth driving as a loop, as we did in 2019. Road conditions were generally fast 50-65 mph, except some sections of permafrost heaves requiring 35-50 mph and a few dozen miles of gravel being repaved. The Alaska Highway comprises BC Highway 97 + Yukon Highway 1 + Alaska Route 2. It starts at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, BC and goes via Whitehorse in Yukon to its officially end in Delta Junction, Alaska. Despite being driven by 100,000+ people per year (2016 estimate), this route feels quite remote, and is a great place to see roadside mega-fauna wildlife.

Originally known as the military acronym ALCAN, it is also called the Alaskan Highway or the Alaska-Canadian Highway. The ALCAN was built as a military road during World War II to link existing airfields to the territory of Alaska. In 1942, 1700 miles (2700 km) were completed, but weren’t opened to the public until 1948. As of 2012 the roadway has been shortened via reconstruction to 1387 miles (2232 km), entirely paved (except where being repaired). Informal historic mileposts denote major stopping points. Delta Junction, at the end of the highway, claims “Historic Milepost 1422” where the Alaska Highway meets the Richardson Highway, which continues 96 mi (155 km) to the city of Fairbanks at Historic Milepost 1520, often (but unofficially) regarded as the northern portion of the Alaska Highway, although Richardson Highway Mileposts are measured from Valdez. The Alaska Highway is popularly (but unofficially) considered part of the Pan-American Highway to Argentina (with a discontinuity in Panama).

Fort Nelson Heritage Museum in British Columbia: this quirky museum is worth a stop to see the Alaska Highway construction display, pioneer artifacts, trapper’s cabin, vintage autos & machinery, a white moose, and more.

Near Liard Hot Springs, keep alert for herds of Wood Bison, a threatened species in Canada, grazing obliviously along the Alaska Highway. We saw 50 by day (but beware their dark bodies are invisible at night).

Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest is one of the most famous landmarks along the Alaska Highway. Started by a homesick GI in 1942, the number of signs has snowballed. Private Carl Lindley, serving with the 341st Engineers during World War II, was assigned light duty while recovering from an injury and erected the signpost for his hometown: “Danville, Ill. 2835 miles”. Visitors may add their own signs to the over 80,000 already present.

Don’t miss the fascinating George Johnston museum at ALCAN Mile 804 in Teslin, Yukon, two kilometers north of the Nisutlin Bay Bridge. Colorful exhibits, dioramas, and artefacts honor Inland Tlingit people such as George Johnston, one of the Yukon’s renowned photographers. Best of all is watching in their small theater the touching National Film Board film: “Picturing a People” by Tlingit Director Carol Geddes.

As the Alaska Highway crosses the former inlet of Kluane Lake in the St. Elias Mountains, Yukon, notice clouds of dust swept from Slims River Valley, which dried since a recent glacial meltwater diversion. In a startling case of global warming, over 4 days in spring 2016, the Slims River suddenly disappeared, leaving windswept mud flats creating clouds of dust in the formerly clear air. With its main water supply cut off, Kluane Lake will be isolated within a few years, shrinking below its outflow into the Kluane River (which flows into the Donjek River, White River, Yukon River, and eventually the Bering Sea). Kluane Lake chemistry and fish populations are rapidly changing. For the last 300 years, abundant meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier has been channeled by ice dam to drain via the 150-meter wide Slims River, north into Kluane Lake. Between 1956 and 2007, the Kaskawulsh glacier retreated by 600-700 meters, which most scientists attribute to human-caused climate change. Meltwater flooding from accelerating retreat in 2016 carved a new channel through a large ice field, diverting all flows to the Kaskawulsh River, a tributary of the Alsek, which flows into the Gulf of Alaska.

I reveled in hiking Sheep Creek trail (15 km with 1200 m gain or 4000 ft) for spectacular views of the Slims River Valley, surrounding St. Elias Mountains, plus Kluane Lake seen from Soldier’s Summit on Tachal Dahl (Sheep Mountain) Ridge. (Or halfway up also gives worthwhile views.) Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli, or thinhorn sheep) encountered me on top.

Big Delta State Historical Park: Rika’s Roadhouse served travelers on the historic Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail from 1913 to 1947, at a historically important crossing of the Tanana River. Find it off mile 274.5 of the Richardson Highway in Big Delta, in the Southeast Fairbanks Area, Alaska. Jovo ‘John’ Hajdukovich, an immigrant from Montenegro, had the north-south section of this log structure built in 1913. Starting in 1917, Swedish immigrant Rika Wallen operated this regional hub serving gold stampeders, local hunters, traders, and freighters; and she bought the roadhouse in 1923. With the construction of the ALCAN Highway and the replacement of the ferry with a bridge downstream, traffic moved away and patronage declined.

Alaska animals, wildlife (combines images from 2019 and 2006)

Our roadside wildlife sightings over 5 weeks in 2019 racked up 50 bison, 21 black bears, 8 grizzlies, 29 caribou, 8 moose, 28 dall sheep, 12 stone sheep, 10 red foxes, 9 bald eagles, 2 otters, 1 porcupine, 90+ Steller sea lions, 90+ harbor seals, various snowshoe hares, sandhill cranes, etc. The long bus ride round trip to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park is especially great for seeing wildlife.


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CANADA, Alberta: Jasper National Park images from 2019


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In Jasper National Park, we bicycled from Snaring River Overflow Campground to Ewan & Madeline Moberly Homestead (1903 log cabin) and Corral Creek (10 miles round trip). Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site (which I find to be more spectacular than the Alaska Highway).

With 1 km of rerouting discouraging our bikes on flooded Jacques Lake Trail on 01 July 2019, we instead hiked on foot for 6 miles to scenic Beaver Lake, then nearly to Summit Lake before turned back by rain, in Jasper National Park.

CANADA: Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

See much more about Mt Robson at this link.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Mount Robson Provincial Park (in British Columbia, Canada) is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site listed by UNESCO in 1984. This image was stitched from 2 photos having near and far focus for great depth of field. Click to Add to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Recommended Alaska guidebooks

Search for latest “Alaska travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2013: 2012: 2012: 2012:
2012: 2009:

2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


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Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


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Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty Zebra-tailed lizards (allisaurus draconoides), some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.

2017 Sept USA road trip: hiking central Colorado, St Louis, South Dakota, Wyoming

Driving from the Northwest to Midwest USA round trip in fall 2017, Carol and I enjoyed 11 days of hiking and photographing the Rockies of central Colorado. St. Louis impressed us with glorious Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the Western Hemisphere. I took a break from photography while visiting Carol’s family in Indiana. South Dakota surprised us with starkly beautiful Badlands National Park, magnificent Mt. Rushmore, poignant Crazy Horse Memorial, and exceptional Custer State Park. Plentiful wildlife cooperated with our cameras: bison (aka buffalo), bighorn sheep, a mountain goat, a bluebird, a black-billed magpie, and prairie dogs. Capping off a wonderful month, we revisited Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming.

See this trip’s sequential images in my Portfolio: 2017 Sep 21-Oct 17: CO, MO, SD, WY USA. We drove for 27 days across the USA from Seattle to Indianapolis round trip from Sept 21 – Oct 17, 2017.

New galleries from this trip are as follows:

The Rockies of Central Colorado

In galleries below, click “i” to display informative captions.

Colorado: Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon

In scenic Glenwood Canyon along I-70, one of America’s most scenic Interstate highways, beguiling Hanging Lake deserves its popularity for hikers (4 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain).


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Colorado: Rifle Falls State Park

28 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Rifle Falls State Park offers a distinctive triple waterfall.


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Colorado: Aspen: Maroon Lake, Ashcroft, Independence

Yellow fall colors brightened the resort of Aspen, where nearby 1880s Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns evoked the state’s mining history. Because no campground options were available around 8000-foot Aspen in late September, I booked at AirBnB [your signup supports my work] a good-value condo with kitchen for 4 nights of necessary acclimatization, to prepare for hiking to high altitude. Snagging a parking spot midweek before sunrise at crowded Maroon Lake allowed us to capture the iconic Maroon Bells lit by magical morning light. From there, we grunted breathlessly upwards through fall colors via Crater Lake to desolate alpine Buckskin Pass (11 miles round trip with 3000 feet gain to 12,462 feet elevation) in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest. 


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Colorado: Leadville

We enjoyed strolling in historic Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation of 10,152 feet).


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Colorado: Vail

A relaxing condo stay near Vail allowed a pleasant walk through aspen fall colors to Booth Creek Falls (4.3 miles / 1400 ft gain) on Booth Lake Trail #1885.


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Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

At Kawuneeche Visitor Center near Grand Lake, we learned that Trail Ridge Road was sadly closed ahead due to ice, which would have required driving around several extra hours to reach Estes Park. Luckily, driving upwards anyway allowed time for the problem to melt along the 12,183-foot-high crossing of Rocky Mountain National Park eastwards to our base at Estes Park KOA. We enjoyed hiking a wonderful loop from Bear Lake Trailhead with spur trails to an impressive series of lakes, waterfalls and peaks (13 miles gaining 2600 feet via Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, The Loch, Lake of Glass, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls then back; arrive early for parking or take the shuttle).


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Colorado: Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park features strikingly tilted red sandstone formations, appreciated via hiking up the pleasant Carpenter Peak Trail and back via Elk Valley loop and Fountain Overlook, 8.5 miles with 1600 feet gain. A shorter walk is to the Peak then directly back (6.2 miles and 1400 ft).


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Colorado: Garden of the Gods

Driving and strolling is a joy in Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark, run by the City of Colorado Springs.


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Colorado: Paint Mines Interpretive Park

Little-known Paint Mines Interpretive Park will delight any admirer of rock hoodoos and colorful abstract patterns.


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St. Louis, Missouri

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, Gateway Arch is the world’s tallest arch (630 feet high), the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere and Missouri’s tallest accessible building. Built as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, and officially dedicated to the American people, it is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947. It was built 1963-1965 at the site of St. Louis’ founding on the west bank of the Mississippi River and opened to the public in 1967. (Although built to last for ages, it is eventually susceptible to a tornado impact which could rip off the upper two-thirds.)


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South Dakota

SD: Badlands National Park

In this peacefully remote park, bighorn sheep grazed fearlessly along the roadside and dramatic sunset/sunrise colors lit the colorful cliffs sculpted from ancient sediments.


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SD: Black Hills: Custer State Park and wildlife reserve

South Dakota’s largest and first state park was named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Completed in 1922, the Needles Highway includes sharp turns, low tunnels and impressive granite spires along the northern 14 miles of South Dakota Highway 87 (SD 87). The road lies within Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Rapid City, in South Dakota. Needles Highway is part of the figure-eight route of Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. A magical sunrise warmed the freezing air over idyllic Sylvan Lake. Cathedral Spires Area is most impressive. A famous herd of 1500 bison freely roam Custer State Park, as seen along Wildlife Loop Road.


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SD: Black Hills: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the Mount Rushmore project 1927–1941, with help from his son, Lincoln Borglum. Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).


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South Dakota historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of carving the likenesses of famous people into the Black Hills in order to promote tourism. Robinson’s initial idea of sculpting the Needles was rejected by Gutzon Borglum due to poor granite quality and strong opposition from Native American groups. They settled on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum decided on the four presidents. Each president was originally to be depicted from head to waist, but lack of funding ended construction in late October 1941. Mount Rushmore is a batholith (massive intrusive igneous rock) rising to 5725 feet elevation in the Black Hills.

SD: Black Hills: Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain on private land in the Black Hills, between Custer and Hill City, 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, in Custer County, South Dakota. In progress since 1948, the sculpture is far from completion. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. It is operated by the nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The sculpture is planned to be of record-setting size: 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of Crazy Horse will be 87 feet high (whereas the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high).


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Crazy Horse (1840–1877) was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He took up arms against the United States federal government to fight against encroachment by white American settlers on Indian territory. He earned great respect from both his enemies and his own people in several battles of the American Indian Wars on the northern Great Plains, including: the Fetterman massacre in 1866, in which he acted as a decoy, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, in which he led a war party to victory. Four months after surrendering in 1877, Crazy Horse was fatally wounded by a bayonet-wielding military guard, while allegedly resisting imprisonment at Camp Robinson in present-day Nebraska. In 1982 he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a 13¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Wyoming

Wyoming: Black Hills: Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower (aka Bear Lodge Butte) rises dramatically 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, standing 867 feet from base to summit, at 5112 feet above sea level. Devils Tower was the first United States National Monument, established on September 24, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. This charismatic butte is made of intrusive igneous rock exposed by erosion in the Bear Lodge Mountains, part of the Black Hills, near Hulett and Sundance in Crook County, Wyoming. The 1893 wood stake ladder for the first ascent of Devils Tower (by Willard Ripley) was restored 1972. The last known use of the ladder was in 1927 by daredevil Babe “The Fly” White. In 1972, the Park Service removed what was left of the bottom section, and restored the top 140 feet of the ladder (see photo). In mid October, bright yellow cottonwood tree leaves framed Devils Tower in quiet Belle Fourche River Campground.


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Grand Teton NP images are now split off from Yellowstone into their own gallery; and new 2017 photos are added to both parks:

Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park


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Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park


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See the following master articles which consolidate galleries geographically for multiple trips:

USA: Hawaii

The striking natural beauty of the state of Hawaii has attracted me six times, and I will gladly return. The islands of Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui offer some of the best hiking experiences in the world. Our latest Hawaii trip was 2017 Jan 16 – Feb 6, visiting Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.

Hawaii favorites:


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Our biggest excitement in Hawaii 2017 was seeing lava jetting into the ocean and exploding:

Above video: From late afternoon through twilight on February 1, 2017 we rented bicycles for the 8 miles round trip on a gravel emergency road to see molten rock exploding in the ocean at Kamokuna in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just west of Kalapana on the Big Island, Hawaii, USA. On Kilauea volcano’s south flank, Pu’u O’o crater has been erupting continuously since 1983, making it the world’s longest-lived rift-zone (or flank) eruption of the last 200 years. Since 1987, Hawaii’s southern coastal highway has been buried under lava up to 115 feet thick. Kilauea is between 300,000 and 600,000 years old and emerged above sea level about 100,000 years ago. (Tahitian drumming heard in this video was recorded on my smartphone from the evocative Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu.)

Oahu


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Kauai


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The 11-mile Kalalau Trail is one of my favorite backpacking trips in the world. The trail crosses five valleys and ends at Kalalau Beach, blocked by sheer cliffs (or Pali, in Hawaiian). Thankfully, State permits limit the number of overnight hikers to this wonderful area. You can also find greater solitude in the off season (non-summer).

The Na Pali Coast is so spectacular that noisy flight-seeing helicopters fly over steadily, within earshot for over half of all daylight minutes. Hikers should adjust their expectations accordingly for this steady onslaught to the ears. Admittedly, I have flown over Kauai in a helicopter twice and affirm that the views are truly astounding, including full circular rainbows. However, the views will have more personal, intimate meaning when you invest “sweat equity” by hiking or kayaking. (Zodiac boats are not allowed to drop off or pick up hikers on Kalalau Beach — you must earn this experience by backpacking.)

Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is mostly a State Forest Reserve, open to hiking as well as hunting for invasive feral pigs.

“The Big Island” of Hawaii


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Humans first populated the Hawaiian archipelago on the Big Island, around 300-600 AD. Polynesians bravely canoed here from the distant Marquesas Islands and later from Tahiti. Using large catamaran-like canoes with coconut-fiber sails, Polynesians became some of the finest sailors in history. Early residents left rock pictographs, used simple tools and irrigation, lived in relative harmony with nature, fought wars with each other, and passed down a proud culture through stories and songs to future generations. British Captain James Cook would not discover the Hawaiian Islands, which he called the Sandwich Islands, until a thousand years later, in 1778.

The Big Island is geologically the youngest island in the 25-million-year-old Hawaiian chain — in fact it is still being created! Lava flows have blocked the Chain of Craters Road, and molten lava pours regularly into the Pacific Ocean. You can actually watch the Big Island grow. UNESCO has honored Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on their list of World Heritage Areas.

MauiA rare silversword plant blooms in Haleakala National Park, Maui, State of Hawaii, USA.

Backpacking in Haleakala National Park on Maui is one of my favorite experiences. Haleakala visitors can also day hike, ride horseback, bicycle, and drive through the fantastic scenery and rare ecosystems of this 10,023-foot dormant volcano. Bicyclists can coast down 10,000 vertical feet on the 40-mile road from the summit of Mount Haleakala. Commercial operators offer supported bicycle descents.

As you hike or ride horseback across Haleakala Crater, the dry moonscape turns into a lush green cloud forest over just 6 miles. The crater forms a bowl 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, and its floor averages 6700 feet in elevation. With a National Park camping permit, you can sleep overnight in the crater in your own tent. Or reserve one of the three cabins by lottery. Morning mists drift through the cinder cones in Haleakala Crater and often evaporate by mid-afternoon.

See the official bird of the state of Hawaii, the Nene (or Hawaiian Goose, Branta sandvicensis) grazing in and around Haleakala Crater, especially near campsites (but please keep them natural and don’t feed them). The nene (Branta sandvicensis, or Hawaiian goose) is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and is the official state bird. Nenes are found in the wild on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Hawaii (the Big Island). Nene DNA indicates that the species evolved from the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) which likely arrived in this archipelago about 500,000 years ago, shortly after the volcanic Big Island emerged from the sea.

Related to sunflowers, silversword plants (Argyroxiphium genus) grow for up to twenty years before a blooming with a huge flower stalk between May and November. After just a single gigantic bloom, the plant dies. In Haleakala Crater, the fascinating native silversword plants are endangered by feral goats. Silverswords grow only on Maui and the Big Island.

Recommended books for Hawaiian Islands travel

Search for latest “Hawaii travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2017 Jan: Hawaii: Oahu, Kauai & Big Island, lava exploding into ocean

On the islands of Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island from January 16 – February 6, 2017, we rediscovered Hawaii. Since my last visit 20+ years ago, traffic is worse but the allure endures.

Hawaii favorites:


Click here to reach my “USA: Hawaii: Favorites” Portfolio gallery to Add images to Cart (to buy Downloads, Prints, or Products such as canvas wraps or picture puzzles).

Our biggest excitement was seeing lava jetting into the ocean and exploding:

Above video: From late afternoon through twilight on February 1, 2017 we rented bicycles for the 8 miles round trip on a gravel emergency road to see molten rock exploding in the ocean at Kamokuna in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just west of Kalapana on the Big Island, Hawaii, USA. On Kilauea volcano’s south flank, Pu’u O’o crater has been erupting continuously since 1983, making it the world’s longest-lived rift-zone (or flank) eruption of the last 200 years. Since 1987, Hawaii’s southern coastal highway has been buried under lava up to 115 feet thick. Kilauea is between 300,000 and 600,000 years old and emerged above sea level about 100,000 years ago. (Tahitian drumming heard in this video was recorded on my smartphone from the evocative Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu.)

Click here to see all my images from this Hawaiian Islands trip in day by day order January 16 – February 6, 2017.

Hawaii galleries for each island:

Oahu:


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Kauai:


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Big Island:


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Maui:

1987 photo: A rare silversword plant blooms in Haleakala National Park, Maui, State of Hawaii, USA. Related to sunflowers, silversword plants grow for up to twenty years before a blooming with a huge flower stalk between May and November. After just a single gigantic bloom, the plant dies. In Haleakala Crater, the fascinating native silversword plants are endangered by feral goats. Silverswords grow only on Maui and the Big Island.

2016 Sept: Oregon: Wallowa: Eagle Cap Wilderness backpack

From September 11-13, 2016, we enjoyed walking 22 miles in 3 days backpacking to Mirror Lake and idyllic Glacier Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness, within Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, in the Wallowa Mountains, on the Columbia Plateau of northeastern Oregon. Scenery of “the Wallowas” resembles that of California’s Sierras but is much closer to Seattle!


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Our 3-day, 22-mile route was as follows:

  1. Hike 7.3 miles gaining 2000 feet from Two Pan Trailhead (5600 ft) up East Lostine River to camp at popular Mirror Lake (7606 ft). This excellent base camp has lots of sites (but adjacent Sunshine Lake may be more photogenic and less crowded), with three good day hikes for extended stays:
  2. Day hike from Mirror Lake to Glacier Lake via Glacier Pass (6 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain), highly recommended! Other options from Mirror Lake include (not done by us):
    • Ascend Eagle Cap, a short and steep 3.5 miles round trip gaining 2000 feet.
    • Loop via Moccasin Lake to Douglas Lake and Horseshoe Lake, 8.6 miles gaining 500 feet (or omitting Horseshoe makes 5-mile loop).
  3. Backpack out 8.7 miles via scenic Carper Pass (800 feet gain) to remote Minam Lake and West Fork Lostine. Walking out this different route adds variety to the trip but creates a more-punishing 3000-foot cumulative descent back to Two Pan Trailhead. Minam Lake suffered from low water levels this September, but the outlet West Fork Lostine River was pleasant to explore.

If you have 4+ days, considering reversing the loop and camping the first night at less-crowded Minam Lake, then the second/third nights at one of the following: Upper Lake (good base for ascent of Eagle Cap), or popular Mirror Lake, or nicer Sunshine Lake, nearby Moccasin Lake, or most-beautiful Glacier Lake (which is more effort over a ridge 1000 ft up, 200 down).

Directions: In the northeast corner of Oregon, from Pendleton, take Interstate 84 east to La Grande. Turn north on State Highway 82 through Elgin to Lostine (10 miles west of Enterprise). In Lostine, go 7 miles south on Lostine River Road to the National Forest boundary where it turns into Forest Road 8210, up Lostine Canyon for 11 more miles to the end of the narrow gravel road with some washboard roughness. At the trailhead, backpackers self-issue their own Wilderness Visitor Permit, one per group. Horse-packers can be booked to assist your trip.

Other good hikes in the Wallowa Mountains:

From Wallowa Lake Trailhead, attractive Ice Lake is 15.4 miles round trip (not yet done by Tom). From Ice Lake, the scenic white granite Matterhorn is 1977 feet gain in 3.4 miles round trip to an impressive view. A good inexpensive base with hot showers is Wallowa Lake State Park (just south of Joseph and Enterprise, Oregon). Optional extension:

  • From the Ice Lake Trail junction (2.6 miles one way from Wallowa Lake Trailhead), the following scenic extension adds 21.3 miles round trip: a lollipop-shaped loop to Horseshoe Lake, Douglas Lake, Moccasin Lake, Mirror Lake and Glacier Lake.

See also our nearby hikes in Hells Canyon and Eastern Oregon.

2015 October Southeast USA (TN, NC, VA) + Indiana fall color trip

See Tom Dempsey’s photos from our fall color driving loop October 7-23, 2015 from Indianapolis to Southeast USA (Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia), shown sequentially in day-by-day order.

Trip description October 7-23, 2015

Description of sights along our itinerary October 7-23, 2015 (round trip from Indianapolis to family visits in Kingsport, Durham, and Gloucester Courthouse):

  1. Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium Kingsport, Tennessee.
  2. Cherohala Skyway: Atop the Unicoi Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Cherohala Skyway reveals far-reaching views in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a subset of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Vibrant fall foliage colors begin in mid October at highest elevations then work their way down the Cherohala Skyway. Long in planning since 1958, the Cherohala Skyway opened to automobile traffic in 1996 – a new National Scenic Byway. The Skyway climbs over 4000 feet, starting at elevation 900 feet along Tellico River and reaching 5400 feet on the slopes of Haw Knob in North Carolina. The 43-mile paved road of the Cherohala Skyway follows Tennessee State Route 165 (SR-165 or TN 165) for 25 miles from Tellico Plains to the state line at Stratton Gap, then continues on North Carolina Highway 143 (NC 143) for 18 miles to Robbinsville. Cherohala combines the names of the two National Forests traversed: “Chero” from Cherokee and “hala” from Nantahala NF. The Skyway accesses various protected and recreational areas including Citico Creek Wilderness, Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
  3. North Carolina’s section of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mileposts 305-316 and 445-469: Beacon Heights Trail, Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls and Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, Pisgah National Forest, Waterrock Knob Trail, various overlooks and fall foliage colors. The scenic 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was built 1935-1987 to aesthetically connect Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia) with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, following crest-lines and the Appalachian Trail. It is both a National Parkway and an “All-American Road” (one of the best of the National Scenic Byways).
  4. Beautiful Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina.
  5. Virginia’s section of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mileposts  1 to 55: vibrant fall foliage colors on October 18-19, 2015; a lovely sunset view at Chimney Rock Mountain Overlook (Milepost 44.9, elevation 2485 feet), near Buena Vista; Indian Rocks, a beautiful short stroll at Indian Gap.
  6. The attractive Cataract Falls State Recreation Area features Indiana’s largest-volume waterfall, located an hour southwest of Indianapolis, near Cloverdale. Bright autumn foliage colors glowed for photos captured on October 21, 2015. Altogether, Cataract Falls drop a total of 86 feet including intermediate cascades. Mill Creek plunges 20 feet in the set of Upper Falls and a half a mile downstream the Lower Falls drops 18 feet. The park’s limestone outcroppings formed millions of years ago when the region was covered by a large shallow ocean. The 148-foot wooden Cataract Falls Covered Bridge was built in 1876 at the Upper Falls of Mill Creek (formerly known as Eel River) and was open to automobile traffic until 1988. The bridge now serves pedestrians and was extensively repaired starting in 2000. It is the only remaining covered bridge in Owen County.

New galleries created from the above trip:

Tennessee: Appalachia: Bays Mountain Park

In Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium in Kingsport, Tennessee, enjoy walking a 2.3-mile loop (and other trails) on boardwalks and easy paths around the old Kingsport city reservoir which provided water 1917-1944 and now serves as lake habitat. This attractive nature preserve is the largest city-owned park in Tennessee and was declared a State Natural Area in 1973. As part of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, the ridge of Bays Mountain runs southwest to northeast, from just south of Knoxville to Kingsport, in eastern Tennessee.



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Tennessee/North Carolina: Cherohala Skyway

Atop the Unicoi Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Cherohala Skyway reveals far-reaching views in the Blue Ridge Mountains (a subset of the Southern Appalachian Mountains). Cherohala combines the names of the two National Forests traversed: “Chero” from Cherokee and “hala” from Nantahala NF. Vibrant fall foliage colors begin in mid October at highest elevations then work their way down the Cherohala Skyway. Long in planning since 1958, the Cherohala Skyway opened to automobile traffic in 1996 – a new National Scenic Byway. The Skyway climbs over 4000 feet, starting at elevation 900 feet along Tellico River and reaching 5400 feet on the slopes of Haw Knob in North Carolina. The 43-mile paved Cherohala Skyway follows Tennessee State Route 165 (SR-165 or TN 165) for 25 miles from Tellico Plains to the state line at Stratton Gap, then continues on North Carolina Highway 143 (NC 143) for 18 miles to Robbinsville. The Skyway accesses various protected and recreational areas including Citico Creek Wilderness, Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.



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Virginia: Appalachia: Blue Ridge Parkway

This gallery illustrates Virginia’s section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. (See separate gallery for North Carolina’s section.) Photos by Tom Dempsey include: vibrant fall foliage colors on October 18-19, 2015; a lovely sunset view at Chimney Rock Mountain Overlook (Milepost 44.9); and beautiful Indian Rocks. The scenic 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was built 1935-1987 to aesthetically connect Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia) with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, following crest-lines and the Appalachian Trail.



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IN: Cataract Falls State Recreation Area

The attractive Cataract Falls State Recreation Area features Indiana’s largest-volume waterfall, located near Cloverdale (an hour southwest of Indianapolis). Bright autumn foliage colors glowed for Tom Dempsey’s photos below captured on October 21, 2015. Altogether, Cataract Falls drop a total of 86 feet including intermediate cascades. Mill Creek plunges 20 feet in the set of Upper Falls and a half a mile downstream the Lower Falls drops 18 feet. The park’s limestone outcroppings formed millions of years ago when the region was covered by a large shallow ocean. The 148-foot wooden Cataract Falls Covered Bridge was built in 1876 at the Upper Falls of Mill Creek (formerly known as Eel River) and was open to automobile traffic until 1988. The bridge now serves pedestrians and was extensively repaired starting in 2000. It is the only remaining covered bridge in Owen County.



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See the following master articles which consolidate galleries geographically for all Tom’s trips:

2015 July hikes, history: Eastern Sierras + Castle Crags SP, California

On a hiking trip via our VW Eurovan camper July 5-23, 2015, we rediscovered the beauty of the Eastern Sierras, and for the first time hiked spectacular Castle Crags State Park in Northern California. Below, I share our itinerary and my favorite images in day-by-day trip order.

Photo gallery: “2015 Jul  5-23: all: Sierra Nevada + Castle Crags, California”


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More details

Tips and notes for our July 5-23, 2015 California itinerary, in order of visit:

  1. Off Highway 88 near Carson Pass (near South Lake Tahoe), hike a varied loop through lush wildflower fields from Woods Lake Campground to Winnnemucca Lake then Round Top Lake, in Mokelumne Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest. The excellent loop trail is 5.3 miles with 1250 feet gain (or 6.4 miles with 2170 feet gain if adding the scramble up Round Top).
  2. McGee Creek Canyon makes an excellent moderate day hike through fields of summer wildflowers in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, near Mammoth Lakes. Swirling patterns of fractured red and gray metamorphic rocks rise impressively above this hike of 6 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain to the beaver pond on McGee Creek.
  3. View Indian baskets and history, plus outdoor machinery used in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct 1908-1913, at the Eastern California Museum, 155 N. Grant Street, Independence, California, 93526. The Museum was founded in 1928 and has been operated by the County of Inyo since 1968. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and interpret objects, photos and information related to the cultural and natural history of Inyo County and the Eastern Sierra, from Death Valley to Mono Lake.
  4. See Mobius Arch and other curious rock formations in BLM Alabama Hills Recreation Area, in the Owens Valley, west of Lone Pine in Inyo County. The Sierras tower 10,000+ feet above you to the west, and Inyo Mountains rise to the east. At a certain angle, Mobius Arch frames Mount Whitney (14,505 feet or 4421 m elevation), the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada. The Alabama Hills are a popular filming location for television and movie productions (such as Gunga Din, Gladiator, Iron Man, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), especially Westerns (Tom Mix films, Hopalong Cassidy films, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, How the West Was Won, and Joe Kidd). Two main types of rock are exposed at Alabama Hills: 1) orange, drab weathered metamorphosed volcanic rock 150-200 million years old; and 2) 82- to 85-million-year-old biotite monzogranite which weathers to potato-shaped large boulders.
  5. We were enthralled at the Museum of Western Film History, at 701 S. Main Street, Lone Pine. Fans of movies and television shouldn’t miss this trove of memories, including their good video presentation. Scenes of actor Russell Crow riding through “Spain” in Gladiator (2000) were filmed in nearby Alabama Hills Recreation Area with looming Sierra Nevada peaks as backdrop. See the actual car from the film High Sierra (1941) – in the climactic movie sequence, “Mad Dog” Earle, played by Humphrey Bogart, flees from police by accelerating this 1937 Plymouth Coupe automobile up the old Whitney Portal Road. See the exploding head graboid puppet from the film Tremors (1990), starring Kevin Bacon.
  6. Along the Cabin Trail, see an historic mining cabin built of old-growth bristlecone and limber pine logs, in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, in the White Mountains, near Big Pine. In terms of its ancient logs, you can think of this as one of the world’s oldest cabins. The Mexican Mine for extracting lead and zinc ore was first established in 1863 as the Reed Mine, but it suffered various weather and supply problems at 10,000 feet elevation and was abandoned in the early 1950s. The world’s oldest known living non-clonal organism was found near here in 2013 — a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) 5064 years old, germinated in 3051 BC. It beat the previous record set by the famous nearby 4847-year-old Methuselah Tree sampled around 1957. Starting from the visitor center at 9846 feet, we hiked the Cabin Trail loop, returning along Methuselah Grove Trail (highly recommended, to visit the world’s oldest living trees), with views eastward over Nevada’s basin-and-range region. An important dendrochronology, based on these trees and dead bristlecone pine samples, extends back to about 9000 BC (with a single gap of about 500 years).
  7. My favorite hike in the Bishop Creek watershed goes from South Lake to Long Lake and Saddlerock Lake, looping back via a steeper, poorly marked route to Ruwau Lake, Chocolate Lakes, and Bull Lake, in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. The rewarding semi-loop is 9 miles with 2220 feet cumulative gain. (An easier walk is 7.2 miles round trip with 1500 feet gain to Saddlerock Lake, out and back via beautiful Long Lake.) One of my favorite shots of the trip is cirrus clouds streaking over Mount Goode (13,085 feet) and Hurd Peak (12,237 ft, center) in a panorama stitched from 12 overlapping photos.
  8. Also in the Bishop Creek watershed, enjoy a scenic hike from Lake Sabrina to beautiful Blue Lake, Emerald Lakes, and Dingleberry Lake. The good trail is 8.5 miles round trip with 1850 feet cumulative gain. (Beyond Dingleberry Lake, the trail splits to Midnight Lake and Hungry Packer Lake.) A memorable image is Mt Thompson (13,494 feet) and Thompson Ridge rising above beautiful Blue Lake in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest.
  9. Also in the Bishop Creek watershed, enjoy a scenic hike from North Lake to Lamarck Lakes. The moderate trail to Upper Lamarck Lake is 5.5 miles round trip with 1550 feet cumulative gain, which we day hiked along with other family members who were backpacking onwards.
  10. Enjoy an easy, very rewarding hike from Mosquito Flat through Little Lakes Valley to Chickenfoot Lake and Gem Lakes. An impressive array of pyramidal peaks reflect in the creeks and lakes in spectacular Little Lakes Valley. To reach the trailhead, turn off Highway 395 at Toms Place (15 miles south of Mammoth Junction) onto paved Rock Creek Road, and drive 10.5 miles to the end. We hiked the moderate trail to Morgan Pass, 7.5 miles round trip with 1250 feet cumulative gain; but you should skip the left turn to redundant Morgan Pass and instead turn right to visit the pretty Gem Lakes.
  11. At Mono Lake, intriguing towers of calcium-carbonate decorate the South Tufa Area and reflect photogenically in the lake, in Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Don’t miss the Visitor Center in Lee Vining along Highway 395. The Reserve protects wetlands that support millions of birds, and preserves Mono Lake’s distinctive tufa towers — calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. Mono Lake has no outlet and is one of the oldest lakes in North America. Over the past million years, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams and evaporation has made the water 2.5 times saltier than the ocean. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp, and provides critical nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and blackflies. Since 1941, diversion of lake water tributary streams by the city of Los Angeles lowered the lake level, which imperiled the migratory birds. In response, the Mono Lake Committee won a legal battle that forced Los Angeles to partially restore the lake level.
  12. Bodie is California’s official state gold rush ghost town – Bodie State Historic Park lies in the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Mono County, near Bridgeport. Bodie fascinated me for 4 hours photographing reflections in glass, dilapidated historic buildings, mining equipment, doors, interiors, and more. Afternoon thunderstorm clouds loomed over my panoramas of historic Bodie and the Standard Stamp Mill. After W. S. Bodey’s original gold discovery in 1859, profitable gold ore discoveries in 1876 and 1878 transformed “Bodie” from an isolated mining camp to a Wild West boomtown. By 1879, Bodie had a population of 5000-7000 people with 2000 buildings. At its peak, 65 saloons lined Main Street, which was a mile long. Bodie declined rapidly 1912-1917 and the last mine closed in 1942. Bodie became a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and Bodie State Historic Park in 1962. .
  13. Peaks of Desolation Wilderness rise above a popular lake in Wrights Lake Recreation Area, in Eldorado National Forest, near South Lake Tahoe. In summer, reservations are required to get one of the crowded campsites. Arrive early before 9am or mid week to get a parking spot for great hikes; or park as we did in the day use area for a nice walk around the lake (which connects to excellent Twin Lakes Trail and Grouse Lake Trail). Directions to Wrights Lake Campground: 23 miles east of Placerville on Highway 50, 11 miles north on Ice House Road (Forest Road 3), 9 miles east on Forest Road 32 (Wrights Lake Tie Road), and 2 miles north on Forest Road 4 (Wrights Lake Rd).
  14. On our way back to Seattle, in Castle Crags State Park in Northern California, granite pinnacles soared majestically above krumholtz-formation trees atop Castle Dome Trail, just west of Interstate 5, between the towns of Castella and Dunsmuir. One of my favorite hikes in the state is to Castle Dome, an excellent trail 5.8 miles round trip with 2100 feet gain. Geology: although the mountains of Northern California consist largely of volcanic and sedimentary rocks, granite plutons intruded in many areas during the Jurassic period. Heavy Pleistocene glaciation eroded much of the softer surrounding rock leaving soaring crags and spires exposed. Exfoliation of huge, convex slabs of granite made some impressive, rounded towers (California’s look-alike for Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains, in China).

See the above photo gallery for the following Sierra flower photos:

  • Giant blazingstar or smoothstem blazingstar (Mentzelia laevicaulis)
  • Opuntia fragilis (brittle pricklypear)
  • white Datura flower flower blossoms
  • Coville’s columbine or Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens)
  • Alpine Penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii)
  • Iris missouriensis (or Iris montana)
  • tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum)
  • prickly poppy (Argemone Genus)
  • Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-fire).

Previous California trips:

In 2015, we were overdue to return to the Eastern Sierras, having last visited 15 years earlier, when we saw Mono Lake & Bodie and backpacked the scenic Virginia Lakes – Summit Lake – Green Lake loop. More recently in 2011, we enjoyed camping in Yosemite Valley (see gallery) in November, a time highly recommended to avoid the overwhelming crowds of summer. A separate article covers all of my images from California (and integrates all photos seen above).