Saguaro National Park

Our last stop on our road trip home was to Saguaro National Park which is split into two halves on either side of Tuscon, Arizona.  After our cave tour at Colossal Cave, we spent the afternoon cactus-touring along the scenic loop of the east park and then found some dispersed camping in the foothills back near Colossal Cave.

   

The next morning we made our way across Tuscon to explore the western half of the park.  Each half is a little different, including the visitor centers.  I wouldn’t skip either one.  We didn’t do any hiking but just toured the scenic loop, checking out the cactus varieties up close.  That evening we were treated to a grand sunset out in the open desert west of Phoenix, near Saddle Mountain.

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Down into Colossal Cave

Oh look, another cave system!  Colossal Cave Mountain Park is a privately-owned park and cave system near Tucson, Arizona.  We hadn’t planned on going here but decided to stop by and check it out. As there happened to still be space available on their next scheduled tour, Darlene and I decided to join their mid-grade “Ladder Tour” – a little more than their basic walking tour but not so much spelunking as their “Wild Cave Tour”.  Anyway, it was fun – we’re glad we stopped for it!

   

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White Sands National Park

Onward to White Sands National Park in New Mexico – the world’s largest gypsum dune field.  We spent a few hours hiking around and taking pictures.  The fine gypsum feels nice and cool underfoot – it doesn’t heat up in the sun like sand.

I had hoped to also visit the Trinity test site but it’s open to visitors only two days each year (once in April and once in October) due to the site being part of the active White Sands Missile Range. We left the park an hour or two before sunset to find a nice dispersed campsite beyond the next little range of mountains:

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Carlsbad Caverns

Continuing on our return trip, next stop was Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas near the New Mexico border.  We checked out the visitor center and went for a hike in the afternoon before continuing on to camp on some BLM land in New Mexico near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  The following day was of course to visit Carlsbad Caverns.

We bought tickets for the self-guided tour and spent several hours enjoying and following the extensive walking paths of the cave system.  There are ranger-led tours to some more isolated portions of the cave but these are very limited and get booked up well in advance.  After exploring the cave at our leisure and having lunch back in the van, we waited around to join the ranger-hosted twilight event to learn about the bats that use the cave for much of the year and to wait for their grand, swarming, evening exit from the cave.  No photography allowed (or any devices or talking for that matter) but we did get to watch many hundreds stream out.  Apparently at later times of the year, you can see many hundreds of thousands of bats exit the cave.

We camped on some more BLM land that evening but woke the next day to a severe high wind and dust storm forecast for hundreds of miles in every direction.  We had already planned to restock food in the town of Carlsbad so we ended up just renting a hotel room to sit out the storm.

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Big Bend National Park

On our return trip from watching the eclipse in Central Texas, Darlene and I first headed to the southwest edge of Texas to spend a few days exploring Big Bend National Park along the Mexico border.

 

We didn’t have campground reservations and of course everything in the park was booked out for weeks but we were able to snag backcountry sites which you can only reserve in-person 24 hours in advance.  These are a handful of very dispersed but specifically designated sites along some of the unpaved back roads.  Know that some of these roads require high clearance 4×4 vehicles and some of the sites are very remote, requiring hours to reach.  We actually chose not to take one of these sites because we didn’t want to have to spend so much time to get to it and from it.  As it turned out though, we spent over an hour trying to get to a camp area outside the north end of the park.  In hindsight, we should have looked to find a campground out the more built-up west entrance of the park.

Anyway, we spent three full days hiking, biking and touring very different areas of the park, from desert to mountains and along the Rio Grande.  If you go, make sure you don’t skip out on the really well done Fossil Discovery Exhibit.

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In the Path of Totality

Darlene and I drove the camper van out to Texas to try to see the total solar eclipse as it traced out a path across North America on April 8th.  Darlene’s friend and coworker Rhonda and her husband Jim have a home in the country in central Texas, northwest of Austin, which happened to lie near the center line of the path of totality.  They invited us as well as many other friends and neighbors to experience the eclipse together on their property.

The weather forecast was looking pretty grim a week before the big day – a multi-day storm for central Texas and heavy cloud cover for much of the entire path across the central states.  We made the long trip anyway in the hope of seeing something though.  It started looking more hopeful as we got closer.  On the morning of, the clouds were pretty heavy but patches of blue sky started to appear mid-morning, a few hours before the moon’s shadow was to reach us.  It never completely cleared but we were all excited and grateful to be able to see and enjoy the eclipse through the passing clouds – and even still see totality through the veil of clouds right up until the end of it.  The clouds did obscure much of the outward radiance of the corona during totality but it was still spectacular and we were able to clearly see several prominences extending beyond the edge of the moon – even with the naked eye!

I had set up a bunch of cameras and my two telescopes to capture the scene and share magnified views of the sun as it happened.  I had a few things go wrong though, including inadvertently moving my telephoto camera’s lens out of focus (ruining the wider view I wanted to capture) and discovering a series of tiny blotches across the images and video from my 8″ SCT telescope setup that I had to touch up afterwards.

I was still able to put together a short video of the experience:

Many thanks to Jim and Rhonda for their hospitality and inviting us to join them – and nice job guys on fixing the weather just in time!

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Here’s the galleries (and videos) from several previous solar eclipse experiences:

Eclipse from the Ruby Mountains (annular eclipse in Nevada on 10/14/2023)
A Total Eclipse of the Sun (total eclipse in Oregon on 8/21/2017)
Eclipse Watch (annular eclipse in California on 5/20/2012)

Petrified Forest National Park

On our way to Texas to see the eclipse, we enjoyed an afternoon checking out the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona: lots of wide vistas and pretty landscapes, some pueblo ruins and petroglyphs, Triassic era fossils and of course lots of colorful “rockified” (okay, petrified) tree remains everywhere.

 

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Northern India: Delhi, Agra and across Rajasthan

Darlene and I joined a small group trip in Northern India in late January, booked through Explore!. The tour began in Delhi and traveled across much of the Rajasthan region of northern India before finishing off in Agra and returning to Delhi after two weeks.  We then took a little extra three day excursion to Rathambore National Park in search of tigers to cap off our visit to India.

We had a fun group of the nine of us (everyone from the UK but us), plus our wonderful Indian tour leader Inder Singh (“Indu”).  We also had an additional local guide at many of the historical sites we visited.  India proved to be quite the experience – from the crazy anything-goes, honk-to-be-heard traffic of every form and size to the innumerable historic sites and temples to the massive crowds of super-friendly Indian people everywhere.  Oh and of course so many curries and other Indian dishes to try!

Here’s a taste of our adventure in the form of a 10-minute video montage:

A 10-minute video montage of our trip. (Smaller/lower quality version here)

Starting in busy Delhi, we visited a number of temples, tombs and a mosque over two days before traveling by train into Rajasthan. In Ajmer, we visited one of the oldest mosques in India and, not being a place visited by foreign tourists, we were approached by lots of folks wanting to take selfies with us.  That evening we stayed at a rural Maharaja’s palace now converted into a heritage hotel where we were treated to an ox cart ride into the neighboring village.

   

We visited the massive Chittorgarh Fort the next day on our way to Udaipur in the south.  In Udaipur, we saw a performance of Dharohar folk dancing and toured the City Palace before Darlene and I succumbed to a tiring cold and missed out on the boat tour across Lake Pichola as well as a demonstration of miniature detail painting.  We were feeling better the next day as we continued on to Jojowar, stopping off at a beautiful Jain temple.

   

Our next stop was to see a demonstration of handcrafted Dhurrie rugs by Roopraj Prajapat – and have the whole group tempted into buying some rugs!  We then continued on to visit the Mehrangarh Fort and Palace as well as visit another busy street market in Jodhpur.

 

Then we were on to a long drive and our deepest point into the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, to Bikaner.  Along the way, we visited the Karni Mata “Temple of Rats” where tens of thousands of rats make a home and are cared for, worshipped and given offerings.  (While Darlene waited in the bus. ;-)  In Bikaner, we were given a tour of the Junagarh fort and palace, saw some havelis (traditional highly decorated mansions) while exploring a street market, visited another miniature painting artist and the girls got painted in henna while the boys played foosball.

   

On the way to Jaipur, we took a driving break  to see some more havelis in Fatehpur.  With two days in Jaipur, we toured the Amber Fort and Palace, visited the astronomical observatory park of Jantar Mantar and the City Palace but also were treated to more Indian handcraft demonstrations – few came away from there empty-handed!

And yet on we continued to Agra for the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort of Agra and the Baby Taj mausoleum, with a stopover at another red sandstone fort at Fatehpur Sikri.

   

On our return to Delhi, the rest of our group headed home to England while Darlene and I boarded a train for Rathambore in hopes of seeing Bengal tigers in the wild.  Unfortunately, none were to be found on our three excursions into the park over two days.  Hey, but Darlene bought some more Indian handicrafts!

It was a great trip overall but I admit to being put off by the constant street crowds, the noise and air pollution and the garbage strewn everywhere – lining the streets and filling the river beds.  However, we’re both still happy to have had the opportunity to visit India and we very much enjoyed our group and Indu’s enthusiastic guiding.

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Red Rock Canyon

We reached the final destination of our road trip down SR95 on New Year’s Eve: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The area is full of scenic trails, grand vistas, gorgeous rock formations and lots of bouldering and rock climbing opportunities. As usual, we found places to camp along dirt roads on nearby BLM land.

 

Due to Red Rock Canyon’s popularity and close proximity to Las Vegas, you have to purchase a timed entry reservation online to access the scenic loop road and its associated trailheads but the system works well.  One thing I’d recommend to make the most of your time is to spend a day exploring the Calico Hills area from the other side – from the free-to-access Calico Basin area – so that you can have more time for other trails on the day you reserve entry to the scenic loop.

   

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Rhyolite Ruins, Desert Art and Wild Burros

Continuing south on SR95 from Tonopah and Goldfield, we came through Beatty and reached the Goldwell Open Air Museum a little before sunset:

 

We spent the next two nights in a spot in the hills outside Beatty and ventured out on our bikes to explore and visit the remains of the mining town, Rhyolite.  We also encounter some wild burros both out in the desert and in the middle of the town of Beatty.

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International Car Forest of the Last Church

Next stop along Nevada’s SR95: another once-booming mining town, Goldfield, and the International Car Forest of the Last Church:

There’s a few old buildings and several collections of abandoned mining gear in town.  We skipped those but did swing by the old “pioneer” graveyard in the outskirts of town to see some unusual epitaphs:

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Mirrors, Dunes, Clowns and Mines

To continue our road trip down SR95 in Nevada, we returned from our Berlin ghost town detour and camped out near Tonopah at the base of the Crescent Sand Dunes, in sight of a solar concentrating power plant:

The following day, we visited the freaky fun Clown Motel and the neighboring graveyard from Tonopah’s early mining days:

But we spent most of the day checking out the very interesting Tonopah Historic Mining Park:

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Berlin / Ichthyosaur State Park

The day after Christmas, Darlene and I headed out in the camper van for a road trip down the western side of Nevada. Starting from the Tahoe house, our first stop heading south along SR95 was an overnight stay at Walker Lake:

Passing through Hawthorne the next morning, we then took a major detour off SR95 to visit Berlin /Ichthyosaur State Park –both a silver mining ghost town and a significant fossil site for ichthyosaurs.  We enjoyed seeing and reading about this history of Berlin but unfortunately, the fossil site building has very limited hours in the winter so we could only peer in the window.

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A Return to Disneyland

Darlene and I decided to make a little road trip last week to Anaheim to visit the Disney parks.  It had been 27 years since I’d been to Disneyland, a little longer for Darlene, and neither of us had ever been to Disney’s California Adventure Park.  Happily, Hoan was able to join us for the day at Disneyland.

 

We were all most impressed with the new-to-us Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge area in Disneyland. It was fun to see both old and new stuff, including the holiday versions of classics like the Haunted Mansion and Small World.  At California Adventure Park, we were impressed with the many detailed environments created around the park, but particularly the Radiator Springs area from the Pixar “Cars” movie. Some rides weren’t available at each park though – like the Indiana Jones ride was under maintenance all week and several had delayed openings or multiple temporary breakdowns.  We actually missed out on Space Mountain entirely as it broke down during our assigned window late in the day.

Unfortunately, despite our mid-week attendance, the normal standby lines were often pretty awful (often 50-80 minutes) and Disney’s paid extra “fast pass” Genie+ system isn’t that great.  You can only schedule something every 90 minutes, the most popular ride in each park isn’t included and you’re often assigned a window several hours later so you don’t really get to make use of the “lightning lanes” very many times over the course of the day.  Plus, as we experienced, there’s no recourse if the ride breaks down during your assigned window.

Anyway, on the third day we rested, had lunch in the Downtown Disney District between the parks, attempted (and failed) at an escape room in Irvine and met up with Hoan’s family for dinner.

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Eclipse from the Ruby Mountains

Scouting over maps of the path of October 14’s annular eclipse, I spotted a potentially nice area to view it in the lovely Ruby Mountains of central Nevada (south of Elko) – an area I had never explored before. Darlene was off to visit Maine with her sister and Hera had been having more health issues but she seemed to have stabilized again when I decided to go ahead and pack up my bike and telescopes in the van and head out a couple days in advance to secure a nice spot.

I found a spot with a gorgeous panoramic view on Harrison Pass that was somewhat isolated from the access road – and the soon-to-be-gathering small crowd of vehicles and campers.  I set up and tested my cameras and telescopes the day before the eclipse and also did a bit of exploring by mountain bike on what turned out to be some nasty steep ATV roads.

Two-minute video of the annular eclipse

The sky started out fairly clear as the eclipse began but unfortunately the cooling air seemed to form more and more clouds as the time of max eclipse approached.  It looked like we were going to be completely overcast and I could see and hear lots of folks jumping in their cars and driving down the highway to try to find some open sky.  As it turned out though, the clouds thinned enough to give a filtered view of the full annular “ring of fire”.  And sure enough, the clouds dissipated as the moon began to uncover the sun again.  Maybe a mountain ridge viewing point wasn’t such a great idea given that mountains tend to attract cloud cover even without the cooling effect of an eclipse.  At any rate, the eclipse viewing was a success.

 

I decided to cut the trip short due to Hera’s deteriorating health but then the van broke down as I got to Elko: check engine light on and lots of codes saying half the cylinders were misfiring – and on a Sunday when all the repair shops are closed.  I eventually got a 24/7 mobile mechanic service to check it out but they recommended taking it to the one Ford dealer in town as it was going to be an extensive diagnosis and repair, and should be under warranty anyway.  (Only 21,000 miles on the van.)  Apparently driving it too far in this state could cause serious engine damage so I spent two nights in the Ford service parking lot.  First waiting for them to open on Monday morning and then waiting most of Monday for a technician to become available. Something’s failed with the VCT (variable camshaft timing) system and it’s going to be a multi-day repair job (engine take-apart) but they can’t even locate parts right now due to the UAW strike including closures of many parts warehouses across the country.  So I decided to rent a minivan, transfer everything out and head home with Hera.  Once again, the van is kaput and in a shop far away.


Update (11/10/2023): It took three weeks but eventually the UAW strike ended and they repaired the engine over three days.  Darlene and I drove out in my car (with Hera) to pick it up.

Before heading out of Elko, I noticed the fresh water tank was empty – which seemed very weird.  Why would they go to the trouble to find and open the dump valve?  We found a place to refill and it was nearly full before I stepped out and noticed all the water draining through the side door of the van.  Turns out the water pump filter/strainer had burst.  I should’ve emptied the tanks and pipes before leaving it because it apparently got cold enough to freeze and bust things.  I didn’t think about it before I left the van there amidst all the worry about the engine failure, my sick cat and being stranded in Elko for who knows how long.

The scary thing was that the water was flooding the electrical compartment.  It was right on the edge of submerging the fuse box.  It was dumb luck I caught it when I did.  I don’t know what would’ve happened – shorted out, started a fire?  Anyway, I stopped the fill and we sat there for a while letting things drain before moving the van for fear of shifting the water and making contact and then who knows what.

When we got home I investigated further and found that I was able to replace the little $10 pump filter part and there were no other leaks.
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Carson/Ebbetts Passes

One year after the camper van was rear-ended and a very long time at a body ship plus several more months getting rebuilt and outfitted, Darlene and I (and Hera) were finally able to head out in the van again for some exploration. We ended up camping out in four different dispersed spots we found over not quite two weeks in an area of the Sierra Nevada between Carson and Ebbetts Passes (often near the Pacific Crest Trail), going exploring by mountain biking, hiking and geocaching.

 

We had nice weather the whole time except for some wildfire smoke that started to blow in on the last couple of days.  We cut the trip a couple days short to avoid getting caught out in a bit of snow forecast for the higher elevations.

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