1999 Spring Break
California Deserts

4 - 8 April 1999

Revised 15 December 2001,
Photos & Text © 2001 by Len Schwer

Overview of Route of Travel and Sights.
Map taken from MapSend

  This is another in the series of almost annual Spring Break Vacations Augie & I have taken over the past few years: 1997 Lake Powell, 1996 Northern California and Mt Lassen, 1995 Mexico and Cancun, 1994 Texas and Big Bend Area, 1992 Kauai, 1991 Washington DC, 1990 Arizon and Four Corners Area.
  This was a rather modest trip with the intent of visiting several national parks in California. The plan was to make a circular route by driving south on Interstate 5, east on Interstate 15, then north through Death Valley, back west to see Mono Lake and then head home by traveling west on Interstate 80. A late spring snow storm closed US Highway 395 beyond Big Pine so we never got to Mono Lake and had to backtrack to Bakersfield and Interstate 5 to return home.

Click on a picture to size full size view in floating window.

Sequoia National Park
  Departed about 9:30AM for the Ash Mountain (south gate) to Sequoia National Park with several hikes in mind after reading “Sequoia & Kings Canyon Great Walks.” The radio information station 1610 AM for the park warned of work on General’s Highway and the ranger at the entrance confirmed that traffic was only permitted through the construction zone on the hour. The ranger also asked if I had 4 wheel drive on the 4Runner, which along with the warning sign about tire chains I took to be a caution. We drove into the park about 4 miles to Potwisha Camp Grounds where the construction crew was staging cars for the on-the-hour crossing of the work zone. We parked and took a brief hike, 0.2 miles listed as #34 Potwisha, which crosses over the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. There were some interesting grinding holes in the granite rocks near the river bed and a nice man-made waterfall where a pipeline crosses the river. The path crosses the river via a short suspension bridge. We took a few picture here along the river.
  The construction caravan departed at 11:00AM and guided us past the area where a stone guardrail is being built along the edge of the road. The construction zone only lasted about 4-5 miles and then the line of cars continued up General’s Highway. Our next hike was planned for the Crescent Meadow area, hikes #28 Morrow Rock and #29 Crescent Meadow. As we traveled up the road, Three Rivers is at an elevation of 800 feet and the highest point on General’s Highway is Lodge Pole at 6720 Feet, we noticed a few patches of snow. But those patches rapidly joined together and we were soon in a winter wonderland of tall trees covered in snow. Most of the camping and trailheads were closed and soon we came to a ranger stopping traffic on the road where it was required to have tire chains or 4 wheel drive to continue. Although we looked for a sign, we never saw the sign for the Crescent Meadow turn off and it is likely the sign was covered by snow from previous plowing efforts. We knew we had passed the turn off when we arrived at the Giant Forest Village, which was closed.
  We continued on to the turn out for the General Sherman Tree and stopped for a walk around the tree and to take a few more pictures, documenting the winter landscape.
The General Sherman Tree is almost surreal, as it looks like some prop left over from a Hollywood production, it is difficult to comprehend such a huge living object in the middle of what is otherwise a typical CA mountain forest setting.
  Our drive north along General’s Highway continued up to Lodge Pole, which is the main visitors center with the usual parks services market and souvenir store. We looked around briefly at the exhibits, the most interesting was an old park guest book that had an entry from a fellow named August something that caught Augie’s eye. At this point it was snowing lightly, that pelted snow that rolls around on the ground, and the sky was darkening.
  The elevation from Lodge Pole to the northern park entrance, now in King’s Canyon National Park as the two parks adjoin, is nearly the same with the Big Stump entrance at 6800 feet. So the road between the two is relatively level, with the typical ups-and-downs of mountain travel. But, the nearly constant elevation also meant we were above the snow line the entire route. It was at this point that we knew there would be no more hiking while in Sequoia National Park.
  We arrived at Grant Grove, just north of the Big Stump entrance, and took the snow covered loop trail, #1 General Grant Tree Trail 0.8 miles, among the many large sequoia trees in this grove. We took a few more pictures here before leaving the park.
  The 40 mile drive back to Three Rivers from the Big Stump entrance along Highway 245 is about the most winding downhill road I have ever driven and it seems like the road will never level out in the valley far below. On the descent the pelted snow turned to a light drizzle that followed us most of the way back to our Three Rivers motel; we arrived back at our motel at about 3:30PM.
  We had dinner at the Noisy Water Cafe in Three Rivers. This is a large restaurant with a nice view of the Kaweah River. The food here is more home style cooking. Augie had the bar-b-qued chicken breast and I had the broiled catfish. Augie’s meal was served with a large salad and I the had cream of mushroom soup which looked and tasted homemade. The serving sizes were ample, but Augie added a piece of apple pie to his meal to make up for the skipped lunch. $35.
Best Western Holiday Lodge
Three Rivers, CA
Rocky bank of Kawaeah River
Kawaeah River
A winter dusting of snow
Among the Sequoias
General Sherman sign
General Sherman Sequoia
General Grant Sequoia

Mojave National Preserve
  A light rain is falling as we depart Three Rivers heading for the town of Baker near the Mojave National Preserve. We left the rain behind as our route took us back through Visalia then down Highway 99 through Bakersfield where we connected to Highway 58 and then onto cross the Tehachapi Pass at 4065, where we ran into some rain showers again, and down past Barstow at 2106 feet. The drive took about 5 hours.
  We stayed at Arne’s Royal Hawaiian Motel $49 per night, which if AAA was to rate would be a minus 1.5 stars. After driving through town I would recommend staying at the motel associated with the famous Bun Boy restaurant, or the Will’s Fargo across the street. The Bun Boy is in part famous for the 134 foot tall thermometer which displays the current air temperature; the 134 feet is symbolic of the record temperature recorded near Death Valley of 134 degrees. Of course a tourist photo near the thermometer is required.
  After checking in at Arne’s Royal Hawaiian Motel, we headed south on Highway 127 and entered the Mojave National Preserve. We drove about 40 miles to the Kelso Dunes; Hike #45 in “50 Best Short Hikes.” These sand dunes are the second highest, about 600 feet, in CA; the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley are taller.
We hiked up towards the base of the dune and took a few photographs. The dunes are interesting in how they form, and how the then blowing wind moved the sand grains across the surface. I guess this is the stereotypical desert adventure, i.e. walking across a sand dune.
  We then headed for the Hole-in-the-Wall, Hike #44 in “50 Best Short Hikes,” which is a rock formation where wind had eroded many large holes into the rock formation. It was already after 6PM when we arrived so we looked around and took a few pictures, before heading back to Baker. The distances inside the Mojave National Preserve are not large, but we dove about 150 miles while exploring the two sites and about 20% of that was on well graded dirt roads.
  Dinner was at the Bun Boy where Augie finally gave up his chicken diet for a Frisco Burger and I had the peppered steak. The Bun Boy restaurant is a glorified version of Denny’s with a 24 hour menu, but perhaps a little more variety. $30 The gift shop lured some dollars from our wallets as Augie bought a nice Bun Boy sweatshirt for Angela and I picked up an Area 51 coffee mug for Ms Becky.
Baker, CA famous thermometer
134 feet tall & 67 degrees
Entrance to Mojave off I-15
Kelos Dunes
are about 600 ft high
Lots of sand
Sand and clouds
Short hike to Hole-in-the-Wall
along desert trail
Wind erosion causes holes
Closer view of hole
A nice sunset over the Mojave

Death Valley National Park
  Headed north on Highway 127 to the junction with Highway 178 and into Death Valley. This was a long driving day, but one of great scenery and extreme changes in altitude. Starting from Baker at 923 feet we made the long descent into Death Valley and what appears to be its major attraction, Badwater at 282 feet below sea level. It is about 100 miles from Baker to Badwater and the scenery continues to change around ever bend in the road. We stopped along the route for a few pictures at the entrance to Death Valley and again at Mormon Point where the road descends below sea level.
  Badwater is a salt flat formed as saline underground waters percolate to the surface but are rapidly evaporated. There is a very well trodden path from the parking area out onto the salt flat. But it is an easy walk and worth a bit more time to walk beyond this path of many and venture out onto what appears to be untracked salt flats that extend for miles. The crystallizing salt forms patches that are roughly 5 feel across and these patches interact at their edges with adjoining patches. As the patches attempt to spread they form pressure ridges and micro-mountains on a not quite geological scale. There is a sign on the rocks above the parking area that indicates sea level, and provides a feeling for just what 282 feet below sea level means in terms of distance.
  From Badwater we continued north to Natural Bridge which is an arch across the narrow canyon formed by water eroding away the softer rock. The 2 mile round trip hike into the bridge is fairly easy, but uphill all the way into the bridge. Just beyond the bridge are three water falls, dry most of the year, the first two of which are easily scaled, but the last clearly marks the end of the canyon for the majority of visitors. The drive to the parking area is the worst part of the experience as the road is gravel with wash-boarding and numerous holes that might easily swallow a careless Geo Metro driver.
  A short drive further north on Highway 178 lead to the entrance to Artists Drive which is a 9 mile loop drive into the foothills of the mountains. The drive is reminiscent of the Painted Desert in Arizona, but obviously much short and not as spectacular, but still a worthwhile side trip.
  From Artist Drive we continued north to Furnace Creek and the junction with Highway 190 which we took east heading for Dante’s View. The 25 mile drive from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View is well worth the trip as the view from the 5475 foot summit over the valley below is wonderful. The temperature is considerably cooler at the peak and windy when we visited. We also use our binoculars to look far below (5700 feet) to see many other visitors walking out onto the Badwater salt flats. The people look like so many ants through the binoculars, but would otherwise go unnoticed in the vast expanse of salt below.
  We decided to save a visit to Scotty’s Castle for the next morning and headed from Dante’s View to the Phoenix Motel in Beatty Nevada. We continued along Highway 190 to Death Valley Junction and then took Highway 127 north across the state line to reach Route 95 which leads to Beatty about 30 miles to the northwest. The Phoenix Inn is another of those would be minus 1.5 stars on the AAA scale. It’s unique feature is the rooms are constructed from mobile classroom structures, three to a unit. We bought gas and asked for a dinner recommendation and were directed to the Stagecoach, which is one of 3 or 4 motel/casinos in Beatty. We opted for the buffet, rather than ordering from the menu as this seemed to be what most of the dinners where doing. The food was edible, but in some cases unrecognizable as I heard more than one person in the food line as what an item was. $20
South entrance to Death Valley
from Highway 178 heading north
View of Badwater below
Visitors hike on the salt flat
There is plenty of room
to spread out from the crowd
White dot above is sea level +282 ft
The Boys at Badwater
Dry water fall
Hike to Natural Bridge
Natural Arch over canyon
Canyon trail from arch
The Boys at Artist Drive
Artist Drive is similar to Painted Desert
Dante's View at 5,475 ft above sea level
down to Badwater 282 ft below sea level
Overview of Death Valley
Overview of Badwater
Scotty's Castle at north end of Death Valley

Inyo National Forest
  We connected to Highway 395 in Lone Pine and headed north through Independence and then Big Pine. These are three very nice towns. All appeared clean and well maintained and hopefully prosperous; a pleasant drive. At Big Pine we headed east again on Highway 168 for the Ancient Bristle Cone Forrest. About 500 yards down the road we were informed by the highway sign that the road to the forest was closed. We decided that we had come a long way and wanted to see these ancient trees, so we would continued on until turned back. About 13 miles from Highway 395 is White Mountain Road while leads up to Sierra View Area at an elevation of 10,000 feet where the Bristle Cones live. We drove up to about 8500 feet before the snow on the windy narrow road became too much of a potential liability and forced us to turn back. The view from that paltry elevation was still very nice and the other surrounding pine tress with their twisted trunks gave an impression of what we might have seen.   Returning to Highway 395 and again heading north it was only 14 miles to Bishop, which is a fairly large town and again appeared to be well maintained and with ski season still in progress quite busy. But the blush on the rose paled as we read the news on the CalTrans electronic road condition sign -- “Chains required 40 miles ahead.” During our 5 hour drive from Scotty’s Castle to Bishop, the weather had worsened and a major winter storm had hit the Sierras. We stopped at the local CHP Station in Bishop to get an overview and found out the even Interstate 80 had been closed to trucks and chains were required. At this point our options were to continue on to Lee Vining with a hope that 4 wheel drive would be adequate to get through, stay in Bishop and see if the roads and weather improved by morning, or retrace our route south around the mountains and then head back to the Bay Area via Bakersfield. We chose the latter as it had the least risk and dependence on the whims of this last gasp of mountain winter weather. I called the Best Western in Lee Vining to cancel my reservation and left a message for Ms Becky advising of our change of plans.
Entrance to Inyo
8,500 ft and too much snow to go further up

Early End of Trip
  The drive to Bakersfield from Bishop was pleasant and for a large part previously untraveled by Augie and me. However as we approached the Tachapias the drizzle and rain that we had been passing in-and-out of along the eastern edge of the Sierras now turned to snow, and not just flurries, but an inch or more sticking to the ground and giving the surrounding desert vegetation a strange appearance. I used the truck’s 4-wheel-high driving mode, which provides power and traction to both axles, and that provide a little comfort for the driver and hopefully more safety for all. When we entered the roadway we were 15 miles below the summit and the snow increased in intensity as we made it to the summit and started down. Driving up to the summit in the snow was bad, but driving down from the summit was worse because gravity sets the minimum speed without constant braking. The snow stayed with us until about the 2000 foot level, and at about 3000 feet we caught up with a CHP car that was driving a moving road block to keep the traffic at a safer speed.
  We arrived in Bakersfield at about 8PM and headed for a Best Western motel Augie researched in the AAA California Tour Book ... never leave home without it. It was along day with 500 miles of travel, a few disappointments, but many new sights and precious memories of another Father and Son spring break vacation.

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Photos & Text © 2001 by Len Schwer