Category Archives: California

Death Valley: The Largest National Park

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It is hard to truly describe what makes Death Valley such a wonderful and unique place. It is probably best known as the location of the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

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Land below sea level generally only exists in places with hot, dry climates, as otherwise, the low lying terrain would fill up with water. Death Valley certainly is dry! It receives less than 2 inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Minneapolis, a city that would be considered neither dry nor wet, averages around 30 inches per year (including winter snowfall).

Badwater Basin, like much of Death Valley National Park, is a large scale version of everything one would imagine dryness to be.

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The entire basin, which stretches out longer than expected, is covered with salt, deposited in a honeycomb-like structure, creating a scene that appears to be out of some kind of documentary about deforestation or climate change.

Of course, not the entire park is below sea level.

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In fact, its highest point, Telescope Peak, is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and despite the dry and hot climate of the valley below it, is covered in snow, and impassible without ice gear towards the end of March. Interestingly enough, while March may be an ideal time of year to visit Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and some of the low elevations of the park, the higher terrain makes the park actually worth visiting in the summer too (with the right hydration precautions taken of course).

At the park’s lower elevations, near and even a little bit below sea level, the hikes are a bit milder, and significantly different from a typical hike in the mountains. Shorter hikes (1 to 3 miles each way) to places like Sidewinder Canyon…

and Mosaic Canyon…

have trails that cut through the rocks, through little “slots”, and along wide flat trails that appear to have been carved out by runoff from the flash floods that occasionally occur in the park.

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Death Valley is certainly a place with some unique weather patterns, and some unique weather hazards. When most outdoor activities are planning, the weather hazards most likely to be considered are related to temperature and precipitation. Extremely hot weather is Death Valley’s most obvious weather hazard. Visiting in March, or at some other point during the cooler part of the year, definitely helps visitors avoid these extremes.

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With wide open spaces, no trees, and complicated terrain, some crazy winds can occur in Death Valley, whipping up and and dust from the dry ground below it, covering any and all things!

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Storms will pass through the complicated terrain, often first producing some interesting looking clouds.

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Then, often times, while producing decent amounts of precipitation in the higher mountains terrain, in the valley below they will mostly just manifest as strong and gusty winds.

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These winds can even be hazardous to campers, breaking tents, bending poles, and complicating campfires.

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Other than the extremes, in elevation, temperature and dryness, the rest of the park feels kind of a bit like a National Park sampler pack.

There are hikes that take visitors to amazing views of the park, but the park is not all about hiking (like Rocky Mountain National Park).

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The natural bridge is most certainly an “arch”, but Death Valley does not have the concentration of arches found at Arches National Park.

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There are a few fantastic sand dunes here, but not as many as there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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The park has some other unique natural features, such as the “Devil’s Golf Course”, but isn’t the constant barrage of unique features that is Yellowstone.

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One can even spot the occasional desert wildlife here.

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Those that are into numbers already know what makes Death Valley unique; elevation, temperature, dryness. Those who are more into experiences find themselves also loving the park, but in a manner that becomes harder to articulate. Often, it is just said that the place is “beautiful”, or “amazing”.

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Maybe nothing more needs to be said. After all, sometimes these commonly used descriptor words, although light on specifics, along with photographs, really do tell the story. Nature, like artwork, is open to interpretation, at the behest of the beholder.

However, when covering mile after endless mile across the park, it is hard not to observe how expansive and wide open the park feels, as a result of how dry the air is.

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Maybe that is the reason Death Valley is also the largest U.S. national park in outside of Alaska.

Winter Fun in the Mountains

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Winter fun in the mountains is about more than just skiing and snowboarding.

People who take wintertime vacations are typically drawn to one of two categories of vacations; Vacations people take to escape winter, and vacations people take to enjoy winter.  The former includes tropical resorts and beach towns in places where a 45 degree evening is considered grounds for remaining indoors.  The later, of course, typically involves mountains, with skiing and snowboarding being the most common activities.

In North America, the winter fun season lasts generally from the later part of November through the end of March.  Based on anecdotal evidence (the people I know and have talked to), the peak time to visit the mountains in winter occurs sometime around the middle part of February.  By this particular part of the year, enough snow has generally fallen to produce some of the best snow conditions of the year.  Also, temperatures have recovered a bit from their mid-January lows, and are a bit more pleasant.

With all of the visitors, not only from all over the country, but from all over the world, other events, and other activities are bound to follow.  In the middle of winter every year, the Village of Breckenridge hosts the International Snow Sculpture Championships, which features snow art from artists from various places around the world (from local artists, to places as far away as Argentina).  These sculptures can commonly be viewed the final week of January through the first week of February.

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Events in the middle part of the winter also include family activities, Mardi Gras celebrations, and random parades through the village, such as this one at Keystone, which features Riperoo, the mascot for Vail Resorts, which owns eight of the top Western U.S. ski resorts in California, Colorado, and Utah.

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And the events that take place in the ski villages throughout the peak part of the ski season are not just limited to family friendly activities.  With the number of visitors that come to the area, high class villages like Aspen, Jackson, or Vail, are able to draw some fairly well known acts to preform during the evening.

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Those with enough energy can ski all day long, and party all evening in many of these western villages (although there might be a limit to how drunk you can get in Utah).  There is even a T-shirt commemorating this type of day.

While the ski resorts themselves are the main draw, and the main reason there are as many visitors to the mountains as there are at this time of year, wintertime activities are not limited to only the resorts and the villages that support them.

As I wrote about last year, there are plenty of outfitters in the mountains that offer dog sled tours.

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Many of these outfitters also offer snowmobile rentals and tours, and many are quite close to ski resorts and resort villages.

Due to geographical features, it is not hard to find hot spring throughout the West.  One of the most popular hot springs in the country, Strawberry Park, is located in Steamboat Springs, less than 10 minutes from the ski resort.

And, with frequent spells of warmer weather, it is quite possible to find a day, even during the peak part of ski season, where it is possible to just take a hike in the woods (that is, if you can handle hiking over a little bit of snow).

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It is a story repeated in many different places throughout the country.  In any place where you have large amounts of visitors, many other activities and events, often catering to all different kinds of people, pop up in response.  This is why we see tons of miniature golf courses, boat tours, and even night clubs pop up in places like Orlando, “Down-East Maine”, and the Wisconsin Dells.  In each case, a primary draw (like water parks, or ocean front) brings people to the region, and then the other amenities follow.  However, in many of these places, the area has become quite congested with people.  Those who have either sat in traffic, or spent a small fortune on strips such as International Drive in Orlando, or the Smoky Mountain Parkway in Pigeon Forge, will refer to places like these as “tourist traps”.

But are these places “tourist traps”?  It is, after all, quite easy to spend a small fortune in Vail right after sitting in major traffic on I-70 to get there.  However, despite the similarities between the “tourist traps” of the East and the mountain resorts of the West, there are still some major differences, with the primary one being the balance between natural and man-made attractions.  Theme parks such as Disney World and Six Flags are completely the creation of humans.  And, although we have lifts to carry us up the mountains, and a nice pool to cover the Hot Springs, the main attractions here are still the natural features that first brought us here.  So, until a roller coaster pops up adjacent to Park City, mini-golf courses start to line South Lake Tahoe, and Dillon Reservoir becomes covered with bumper boats, the mountain west has not become a “tourist trap”, at least not in the same way as the “tourist” traps had developed in these other places.

With that being said, it is still important to remember that there is way more to wintertime in the Rockies than skiing and snowboarding.  And, while there are some visitors who do little else but ski on their visits to the mountains at this time of year (spending most of their remaining time in their condo), there are others that take part in a lot of other activities and attractions in the area.

Pacific Beach San Diego

I laid there for over an hour in the hot California sun.  In fact, it was unusually hot for the oceanfront.  While areas further inland regularly get significantly hotter, temperatures well into the 80s with insane humidity is quite rare for the beech.  Despite the unusual conditions, I still captured this California experience.  In fact, the entire time I felt as if I had stepped right into a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

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There is the ocean, the palm trees, the waves, and most importantly, the surfers.  Boy were there a lot of surfers.  I had never seen so many surf boards in my life.  Even in my most vivid imagination of a California stereotype, there were not nearly as many surf boards in one place.  On the way to and from the beach, a clear majority of vehicles had surf boards in them.

And I watched, gradually getting a nasty sunburn on my back.  I watched people walk by.  I saw a group of people play football in the water.  I saw about a dozen “wind surfers”, and even got to witness the challenge involved in using the wind, a much more variant force than that of a boat (used for activities like water skiing), to get up onto the water.  The most experienced wind surfers still appeared to require a few attempts to get up onto the water.  By contrast, experienced water skiers seem to always get up on their first attempt.

Mostly, I observed the surfers catch wave after wave.  I wondered if these waves were better or worse than a typical Saturday on Pacific Beach.  I wondered how long it took the better surfers to achieve this level, and whether or not their form was truly as great as it appeared to an outsider like me.

Normally, my attention span would wane much sooner than this.  But I was capturing the moment.  And, also I was quite exhausted.

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The previous afternoon, I had flown into San Diego and attended my friend’s bachelor party, which was mostly held in Downtown San Diego’s Gas Lamp Quarter.  Similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans, or Midtown Manhattan, this district is touristy and quite expensive, but not overly cheesy.  There are a few chain restaurants and bars, but many of the establishments are unique to San Diego.  The nightlife here is not confined to one or two stretches of a road, as in places like the “Las Vegas Strip”.  The entire square mile was majorly hopping, with restaurants, bars, loud music, dancing, and the sidewalks where quite full with patrons, most of whom likely spent upwards of $100 over the course of the night.

The main thing that set the “Gas Lamp Quarter” apart from similar districts in other large cities was how many times we were solicited, and how aggressively we were solicited, by wait staff at bars and restaurants while walking down the street.  Someone from nearly every restaurant we walked by would talk to us, and tell us about their food and specials and such.  The only other place I remember being solicited walking down the street was along Division Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast, and those conversations were always brief.

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I only spent three days in San Diego, and a good chunk of it was tied up by the bachelor party, rehearsal, and the wedding itself.  So, I did not get a chance to go to Sea World, or any of the standard San Diego tourist places.  However, I did really appreciate where the wedding was held; At a resort called the Catamaran along San Diego’s Sail Bay.

At this location, I spent most of my time in the Pacific Beech (and Mission Beach) area.  Aside from the standard boardwalk, the neighborhood has several active roads with lots of restaurants and bars, and is the kind of place where you can find almost anything within a short walk of each other, as well as the beech.  Both during the day, and in the evening, streets like Mission, Grand, and Garnett were filled with people taking part in many different activities.

California is a unique place with a distinct culture, and although I was only here for three days, I did get to observe a lot of it for myself.  People here really do drive everywhere!  Even though Pacific Beech is a walkable area on a grid system, the type of area you would expect to be more pedestrian/transit oriented in another major city, almost everyone seemed to be arriving here by car.  And this means that parking is hard to find in a lot of places.  As we left the beech that day, we were asked by a car full of surfers coming to the beech where our car was, in hopes that they could take our parking spot.

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While San Diego does have a transit system, almost all of the people I talked to basically did not consider it an option.  I did ride on both a bus and the train.  The bus driver told me there were no “transfers” (i.e. from one bus to another or from bus to train on one fare), making the system seem inconvineint for most.

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The fish tacos here are truly amazing!  And it really is the tortillas that make some fish tacos  more amazing than others.

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There are tons of other foods that are somewhat unique to the area, including a lot of foods with avocado and/or sprouts.  I particularly enjoyed San Diego style fries, which include meat, cheese, avocado, and garlic.

Although Southern California is known to be less obsessed with football than the rest of the U.S., there are still tons of people who get really into football, both college and professional.

Bicycle riders are clearly divided into two types; One that rides hard core and comes out early in the day wearing full bike gear, and one that rides cruisers, goes about 10 mph, and only pedals when absolutely necessary.  The later group does not wear helmets.

People here in general appear healthy- about as healthy as Denver, and far more healthy than the Midwest.

I really wish to return to San Diego, as I still feel there is much more to do that time allotted.  In a future trip, I think it would be neat to actually take a lesson and learn to surf, spend some time in some of the other popular neighborhoods, and I would really like to have some sushi, as there is probably a lot of really good sushi here.  And, I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more scenes like this one.

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