We’re back on the road again*, heading east from California to New York. We always marvel at how easy it is for us travel compared to the pioneers from 150 years ago. When we were living in the Tahoe area, the plight of families heading west for months and getting caught in an early and very harsh winter was especially evident with all things named DONNER.
On this drive east we’re able to travel through a state or two a day and trying to hit natural wonders we haven’t yet visited. On our way out of Reno we drove through the Nevada desert on Route 50, the loneliest road in America, according to Jack Kerouac and others. It’s clear, however, that people have been through in the past as evidenced by the strange shoe tree, not exactly a natural wonder, but definitely unusual.
First natural wonder: Sand Mountain Recreation Area. This is why it earned the name; it looks like a mountain made of sand.
This huge pile of sand was once beachfront property on the ancient glacial Lake Lahontan. Over centuries it has been driven here by the wind to reach a height of 600 feet, give or take each day’s accumulation or loss of windswept sand grains. Our new car does have 4-wheel drive, but it’s not equipped to venture up this pile of sand. In fact, we saw dune buggies attempting the climb and they petered out about halfway up.
Later along the loneliest road we saw dust devils, whirlwinds, or sand-nados, sometimes as many as three or four in the dry grasslands next to the road. When Chris passed this way a couple days after us he actually had to pull off the road for a half-hour to wait for a dust storm to abate. Thousands of years from now the sand dunes might end up in different spots.
Late in the afternoon one day we arrived at Great Basin National Park.
Our timing was not ideal. If we had been here earlier in the day, we would have visited Lehman Cave, with all kinds of unusual speleothems (cave formations). If we had arrived at dusk we could have joined the highly rated ranger talk describing the night sky, with some of the best viewing in the world from this International Dark Sky Park. With our late-afternoon arrival we settled for a climb to Mather Overlook. Stephen Mather was one of the strongest proponents of creating the US National Park Service and its first director. We’re ever so grateful!
At Mather’s Overlook Michael tested his new iPhone app, Peak Finder, which uses GPS to show outlines of mountains visible from the user’s location and give their names and other information. Then when you take photos it lets you apply the labels. Here’s our view from Mather Overlook.
The other notable feature in this park is the presence of bristlecone pine trees. “Where are they?” we asked, because we didn’t see anything looking like pine needles or like the redwoods we had left in California. Bristlecones are up to 5,000 years old. They’re short and at high altitudes they have twisted, weathered trunks and sparse needles. Well, these trees were short and looked old. Although they didn’t seem to have needles, they were in the right spot, so we reluctantly called them bristlecones. No Wifi for verification!
THIS is a bristlecone (photo from Britannica.com)
After Nevada, we traveled through Utah along interstate 70, one of the most scenic stretches of interstate highways in the US. This is what we think of as Old West, with mesas and buttes, river rapids, and rock as far as you can see.
On our way to Aspen a couple months ago we drifted off this path and went through Colorado National Monument, yes, through. This is not a standing monument like the Washington Monument in D.C. Instead it’s a protected area (similar to Bears Ears National Monument) that has not been declared a national park. We followed Rim Rock Drive for miles through a canyon carved out by the Colorado River, though the canyon is so wide the river was generally out of sight. This stretch of beautiful Western landscapes has striking geological formations of canyons, monoliths and plateaus, with mountain-climbing animals around every corner.
We read the story about one of the early explorers in the area. From the time he first visited, John Otto had an obsession with the area. When he wasn’t making trails in the hills, he campaigned tirelessly to make the area a protected national park, open to the public. He married a girl from out East and brought her here to share in his love for the region. The marriage lasted a couple weeks; she couldn’t deal with the isolation. Otto stayed on and did much of the exploration and road-building that allowed people like us, a century later, to understand why he fell in love (with the land, not the lady).
On to Aspen, part two of our cross-country trek.
P.S. We are loving our National Park America the Beautiful pass. We just wave it at the entrance and get into all these great spots hassle-free. With 2,000 federal recreation areas included, we are just scratching the surface.
*I drafted this in June, when we were making our third trek of 3,000+ miles east across the country, but didn’t have the time to finish it until now, with summer almost over!