U.S. 395, the California Highway Least Traveled—and Its Most Epic


California is a really long state. In the north-south direction, drivers traditionally traverse the state on either U.S. 101 or Interstate 5. Highway 101 is more picturesque, going through seaside towns and redwood forests and boasting gorgeous coastal scenery and mild weather. It’s also slower. Travelers wanting to make haste take I-5, but south past Redding the penalty is long, boring stretches of flat valleys, farmland and orchards that go on forever.

My wife and I have made the drive from Seattle to Los Angeles (and back) several times to visit family, and each time we’ve taken one of these two routes. Early this month, we drove to L.A. on I-5 in three days over 1,200 miles, not a pace we particularly like. For the trip home, we decided to change things around and take our time on the overlooked easternmost route astride the Sierra Nevada Mountains on U.S. 395. We’d view it as a road trip instead of a way home. Maybe drivers avoid this highway because it crosses desert environments with very few towns along the way. Never before have we taken this way home, previously only having gone as far north as Mammoth Mountain to ski when we lived in L.A. many years ago.

This post is about the drive home, an eye-opener for me that made me rethink future road trips to and from Southern California. There are no big California cities on 395. Reno in Nevada comes closest. It’s an epic drive that the Sierra Nevadas dominate, but also skirts the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) points in the continental U.S. We drove nearly the entire length of Highway 395 through California, from Victorville in Riverside County in the south to Susanville close to the Oregon state line, including the brief portion into Nevada, a drive of 500 miles.

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Exploring New Zealand’s Banks Peninsula


How is it that a hilly, almost mountainous peninsula that is an ideal environment for lush forest, surrounded on three sides by the ocean and composed of mineral-rich volcanic soil, seems almost devoid of it? Any drive through the Banks Peninsula reveals a landscape that is tussocky with very few stands of trees. What isn’t covered by grassland seems overtaken by gorse and broom, hardly forest land that you might expect in this setting.

It is an unfortunate fact that old growth forest was destroyed by the Maori who set fire to the canopy to flush out game. After the Europeans arrived, the practice of deliberate burning continued, along with introducing sheep and goats and gorse that didn’t do any favors to the ecology.

It seems incongruous now but the Banks Peninsula was previously the domain of two slightly overlapping, non-contemporaneous volcanoes that were last active approximately 10 million years ago. Because they were shield volcanoes, they released broad lava flows that are now highly eroded. What remains now are ridges with steep sides that radiate from their volcanic centers. The most extraordinary features of the peninsula are its two enormous harbo(u)rs, Lyttelton and Akaroa, which formed from the oceanic flooding of the two volcanic calderas. The peninsula now looks like a giant lobster claw jutting out from the Canterbury Plains.

Banks Peninsula. Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. “The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.”

I got a breathtaking view of Lyttelton Harbour from a viewing platform at the top of the Christchurch gondola. From there, I could also see the town and port of Lyttelton that suffered so much damage in the earthquakes. Other than the views from up here, including one of Christchurch and the Southern Alps beyond it, there is very little to admire. The ground is covered in tussocky grass. All the footpaths are littered with sheep poo as these animals have free rein to graze anywhere among the hills.

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

I saw a more grassy landscape at Godley Head Reserve, which once served as a military defense battery during WWII, the bunkers now abandoned and covered in graffiti. The grasses grow higher here probably because sheep browsing is restricted by fencing. There was no need for careful sidestepping along the walking paths. The headland is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs that drop off to the ocean.

Godley Head

Godley Head

Godley Head's grassy landscape

Godley Head’s grassy landscape

My wife and I also took a two-day trip to the peninsula’s other side, Akaroa. The scenery changes here with greener hillsides and larger stands of trees, also some second-growth forests that suggest the promising possibilities of regeneration on the Banks. Akaroa is now a resort town, its commercial district divided by an indenting bay, that were once  French and English settlements. The entire township now has a more Gallic character as all the streets and restaurants have French names, though there’s hardly a word of français spoken. A good way to see the lava flows that occurred many times is to take a boat cruise into the harbor. The erosive power of pounding waves becomes apparent when you notice the many sea caves along the cliff faces.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

Hector's dolphins play in the sailing vessel's bow wave.

Hector’s dolphins play in the sailing vessel’s bow wave.

The drive to Akaroa passes by the Kaitorete Spit. Although not technically part of the Banks Peninsula, the spit juts out from its southwestern tip for 25km, separating shallow Lake Ellesmere, larger than either harbor, from the sea. Two weeks ago, we visited Birdling’s Flat which can best be described as a pebble beach. Rockhounds come here to find agates and geology students from UC to identify rock samples. My geologist son-in-law explained to me that this vast accumulation of rock was deposited by a tsunami.

Birdling's Flat

Birdling’s Flat

View to the West (Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop, WA)


Part of the scenery in and around the Methow Valley is the spectacular arrangement of mountains and valleys. Looking westward from Sun Mountain Lodge, you can see the steepest peaks in the distance, eroded hillsides in the middle and glacial valleys in the foreground. Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions covered this entire region with lava and ash. The westernmost area of the North Cascades were lifted higher and over time, water erosion, landslides and glacial action removed the volcanic layers to the south and southeast, leaving behind the smoothed hillsides we see near Winthrop today.

On the Trail of the Pacific Northwest’s Ice Age Floods


A rendering of an Ice Age flood (image usage permission granted by Stev Ominski)

One of the biggest surprises about Northwest natural history is that there were many catastrophic floods during recent geological times that dramatically altered the landscape of Washington state. Almost half the state was inundated. This hypothesis was first put forward by geologist J Harlan Bretz in the 1920s.

These floods are thought to have swept through the state many times during periodic ice ages. During the last ice age, a lobe of a Canadian glacier blocked the Clark Fork River drainage in Idaho, causing glacial meltwater to fill up the valleys of the Mission, Bitteroot and Rattlesnake Mountains to form Glacial Lake Missoula, estimated to have been 3,000 square miles. High above Missoula, along the  mountain slopes, there are strandlines of many prehistoric lakes. More than once, when the water level became high enough, the ice dam would be breached and let loose 500 cubic miles of water in 48 hours, a cataclysmic megaflood that drained to the southwest into eastern Washington, down through the Columbia gorge, into parts of western Oregon, even extending as far south as Eugene, and out to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. At one time, present-day Portland was buried under 400ft of water. It is estimated that the flow rate was ten times greater than all of the world’s rivers combined. The onrushing deluge carried with it not only unimaginable amounts of water and debris but enormous boulders, some rafted on icebergs over hundreds of miles before being deposited (glacial erratics). The Willamette Valley in Oregon has erratics up to 40 tons. These repeated inundations stripped off the topsoils of eastern Washington to lay bare the hard basaltic layers underneath (from previous volcanic lava flows as early as 17 million years ago) that earned this area its name, the  channeled scablands (coined by Bretz). To this day, after many thousands of years, you can still see evidence of the flood(s).

The scablands would not be as spectacular if not for the basalt layers. One common form that appears in the Northwest is columnar basalt, vertical cracks forged in the basalt layers as they cooled very slowly. Less resistant to erosion is basalt entablature, usually on top of  columnar basalt, that has cooled more rapidly and therefore don’t readily form clean vertical cracks but show a more random fracture pattern. When monstrous floods attack these layers, columnar basalt can more easily be plucked away, leaving behind steep, vertical channels in the landscape, called coulees. Most coulees are dry, unlike canyons that still have rivers flowing in them.

Example of columnar and entablature basalt, ingredients for creating the flood landscape of the channeled scablands

My wife and I set out on a road trip to see firsthand some of the spectacular evidence that these floods left behind. I picked out a few important sites that we could fit into a three-day trip. Going by car is a great way to visit these places, especially with the help of references such as Bruce Bjornstad’s classic book as a guide. This book

Our first stop was an overlook just outside Quincy. A short half-mile hike to the edge of Babcock Ridge gave us a stunning view of the resort of Crescent Bar over 600ft below and giant flood-produced current ripples on a bar across the Columbia River. These ripples are gigantic in scale, about 20-50ft high and spaced over 300ft apart, estimated to have been submerged under 600ft of water. At that height, the waters overtopped portions of the ridge that we were standing on, carving out the gigantic Potholes Coulee just to the south.

Giant current ripples on West Bar along Columbia River. (Note water vessel for scale)

Another phenomenon that fast-moving water creates are potholes. High-energy tornadoes of water (or kolks, as they are called) tore out huge holes in the bedrock, sometimes more than a mile wide. Some are now lakes and ponds, but most of them are dry. There are many examples of this, including the gigantic one we saw north of the Frog Lake trailhead on Morgan Lake Road in an area called the Drumheller Channels and the lakes below Dry Falls.

A kolk created this giant pothole in the Drumheller Channels. (Note that I’m in the center of the photo which only shows a portion of the pothole.)

Drumheller Channels are an amazing network of interconnected, braided channels that were sculpted out of the earth by the deluges from the northeast. Below is a panorama that I spliced together from seven photos taken along our drive on Morgan Lake Road.

A glimpse of the Drumheller Channels from Morgan Lake Road (click to enlarge)

As dramatic as the landscape looked from the road, we just couldn’t visualize what this area looked like from above. With the help of Google Earth, it can clearly be seen. This area was unique enough that it was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

Drumheller Channels looking northwest toward Potholes Reservoir (Google Earth)

Along the northern shore of Lake Lenore are a series of caves that were carved out by the swirling flood waters, plucking out the looser columnar basalt more easily than the more resistant entablature above it. You can see them as you’re driving along Hwy 17. A turnoff for the attraction leads to a parking lot where the trailhead is located. Beyond the stone staircase up a short distance, the trail divides to the left and right. Some of the caves were large enough for prehistoric people to have used as shelters.

One of the many flood-cut caves along Lake Lenore

Further, just before Coulee City, is Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, an area used for recreation and a showcase for observing the handiwork of ancient floods. Spanning 3.5 miles wide and averaging 400ft in vertical drop, Dry Falls is the remnant of the largest falls that the world has ever seen, ten times the size of Niagara Falls, but now a dry cataract. You can try to envision this cataclysmic spectacle from the Dry Falls Interpretive Center on Hwy 17, two miles north of the main park entrance. (Un)luckily for us, the center was closed for the entire day due to staff meetings. But, the overlook is open year-round (weather permitting). From here, you can gaze at the immense cataract and the plunge pools, now lakes and ponds, that the waterfalls created.

Satellite view of Dry Falls cataracts  looking south (Google Earth)

Dry Falls panorama from Interpretive Center overlook (click to enlarge)

As we drove past Ephrata toward Moses Lake on Hwy 17, we couldn’t help but notice the vast flood plain littered with boulders. When the flood waters broke free from the Grand Coulee, they spread out into the Quincy Valley and deposited these boulders knocked free from the Grand Coulee and sources upstream, some as high as 60ft. This area is known as the Ephrata Fan, an expansion flood bar, where there is little productive farming.

Glacial erratics along Hwy 17 between Ephrata and Moses Lake (Google)

While almost all flood-cut waterfalls in the channeled scablands are now dry cataracts, there is one that remains, a whisper of its former self, but spectacular nonetheless. Palouse Falls flows year-round, but its most impressive displays are during spring melt when the volume is greatest. At the foot of the falls is a large plunge pool. The falls are part of the Palouse River system, which continues through the breathtaking Palouse River canyon downstream to join the Snake River. Unlike typical canyons, these coulees were sheared by the ice age floods.

The best place to see it is at Palouse Falls State Park, accessed by a spur road from Hwy 261, 17 miles from Washtucna. We enjoyed a picnic lunch here (there are nice picnic tables) and hiked a trail that hugged the edge of the coulee, including one that led to a very narrow ridge directly above the pinnacles to the left of the falls.

Palouse Falls used to tumble over the entire gap but is now a shadow of its former self.

Beyond Palouse Falls lies the Palouse River canyon. Note the vertical walls typical of flood-sculpted coulees.

This illustration by artist Stev Ominski dramatizes what the event probably looked like.

A rendering of the flood through Palouse River Canyon (image usage permission granted by Stev Ominski)

Interestingly, ninety percent of Washington’s vineyards are planted in soil deposited by or as a consequence of the ice age floods. Almost all the silts and minerals that used to cover the scablands got stripped away and laid down in the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys where the state’s finest vineyards are located. The Willamette Valley in Oregon, known for its pinot noir, also has soil similar to that from Lake Lewis, the temporary 1,200-foot flood-produced backwater lake that rose behind Wallula Gap in eastern Washington and covered the Tri-Cities area (Pasco, Richland and Kennewick).

Only three days long, our road trip was certainly not comprehensive enough to see even a fraction of the geological evidence of a megaflood. But, with a new understanding of what took place, I will never look at eastern Washington with the same eyes as before. It was worthwhile and humbling to take the trip.

Update (8-4-15): Lying between McMinnville and Sheridan near Oregon’s Highway 18 are glacial erratics that were left behind by one of the Missoula floods. Erratic Rock State Natural Site showcases a 36-ton argillite specimen that is presumed to have been encased in an iceberg that got rafted by a flood and deposited here when the water receded. It is the largest erratic in Oregon. What makes this particular set of rocks so unusual is that they came from Canada, the only ones known to have traveled beyond our neighbor’s borders.

erratic rock

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City of Rocks State Park (Faywood, NM)


Our final night of camping on this road trip was spent at City of Rocks State Park, north of Deming in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, a unique, surreally beautiful area where every campsite is nestled among huge boulders.

City of Rocks features a wide field of boulders created 35 million years ago when a volcanic eruption from the Emory Caldera rained down tuff that hardened and was eroded by wind and water over millions of years. Some of these rocks are 40 feet high and are quite beautiful, ignimbrites of pinks, blue-grays, and browns, and strewn over 1,200 acres in the middle of the Mimbres valley, an odd sight in an otherwise flat and featureless terrain. Some of these upright megaliths reminded me of Stonehenge, but mostly they are randomly scattered, sometimes forming lanes between them that suggest urban pathways. The park also includes an astronomical observatory (one of two in the New Mexico state park system) that has a 14″ telescope. Keeping with the astronomical theme, the various sections of the park, arranged in loops, are named after constellations.

At night, without light pollution, dark-night-sky viewing is possible. On the night of our stay, the skies were clear; we might’ve seen the Milky Way as we did at Chaco Canyon if it weren’t for a bright full moon. We heard coyotes howling overnight and in the early morning.

Among the many desert plants here, the ocotillo stood out as the most unusual, tall and cactus-like with near vertical stems branching at ground-level and spiny appendages all along them. For most of the year, they can appear to be dead, but we were fortunate to have seen them fully leafed out and topped with crimson flowers, a direct result of prior rains.

Too bad we were in a rush to get to the Grand Canyon. This is a campground worthy of a longer stay.

City of Rocks State Park
Faywood, NM
575.536.2800
 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)


Neither of us has ever been to Carlsbad Caverns. We set aside three whole days to explore it since its remoteness in the southeast corner of New Mexico makes it unlikely we’d ever have an opportunity to return. This remoteness is the reason that, although its wonders are many, far fewer visitors show up than at the more popular national parks. It is located in an almost featureless desert, indistinguishable from much of west Texas, but possessing oil deposits underground that supports much of the local economy. You’re more likely to hear a Texas drawl here than not.

The Big Room, Kings Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room and others, “rooms” all named by the 16-year-old Jim White who purportedly first discovered the caves, are wondrous to behold. The word cavernous seems to describe The Big Room aptly, an immense chamber big enough to hold six football fields. An almost level, paved walkway allows everyone to enjoy The Big Room. For those so inclined, there are slightly to much-more-strenuous ranger-guided tours that vary from mild climbing, scrambling (sometimes on rocks that seemed coated with candle wax), rope climbing and going through claustrophobic tunnels barely large enough to squeeze through.

Millions of years ago, at a time when the area was more tropical than at present, an ancient reef was transfigured when hydrogen sulfide gas rose from the oil deposits below and mixed with the oxygen in the water from above. The resulting sulfuric acid carved out the caverns in limestone. The decorations we see today—stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn and the rest (collectively called speleotherms)—are the result of the “normal” process of deposition built up over time by calcium-rich droplets of water. Artfully designed by a Hollywood lighting director many years ago, the major rooms are beautifully illuminated by artificial lights, effects that Jim White never saw that he would likely denounce as removing the “mystery of the caves.” Our favorite tour was the Kings Palace which showcases rooms so elaborately embellished with cave decorations that the word opulence comes to mind.

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

The other attraction here are the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from the so-called Natural Entrance about an hour before sunset. The Park Service has installed some high-tech equipment within the cave that can detect when the bats are ready to emerge; it translates the bats’ echolocation sounds to frequencies that humans can hear. At first, over the amphitheater’s PA system, there was a single click or pop; within seconds, there were so many clicks that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Shortly thereafter, the bats emerged in waves, rather than all at once. No photography (nor turning on of electronic equipment of any kind) was allowed during the bat flight. They disturb the bats as they fly out. The park ranger told us that the more impressive sight is the bats’ return an hour before sunrise, when they swoop back (literally dive bomb) into the cave at about 25 mph or more. On the morning of our departure, we rose early and got to the amphitheater when it was still dark. Try as we might, we couldn’t see the bats, even silhouetted against a lightening sky. But we did hear zipping sounds in the air around us, like bullets whizzing by, which we could only assume were the bats returning so fast that we couldn’t see them. A thickening fog also likely obscured our vision somewhat.

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

The video below from YouTube shows a much larger swarm emerging from the cave than we witnessed. Bat populations ebb and swell, depending on the season.

The closest town with full amenities is Carlsbad City, some 25 miles away from the park entrance. However, right at the intersection of the park road with Highway 62/180, there is a Rodeway Inn and a few services, including an RV park, gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It’s called White’s City, where we chose to stay, only about 6 miles from the visitors center. It’s much more convenient, but which seems to be on most travel sources’ lists of not-recommended places to stay. Our own experience here was not ideal, but not terrible either. Eating at the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner quickly got old.

White Sands National Monument (NM)


We ended the day by visiting White Sands National Monument. Here is an eerie landscape of enormous white sand dunes that seems more appropriate in a beach setting. Surrounding the monument is the White Sands Missile Range, the largest U.S. military installation, which had a significant history during World War II and the space program. It was here at the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The monument is actually a part of the missile range and is subject to closure when military tests are being conducted.

We took a ranger-led informational tour that ended in a brilliant sunset against dramatic clouds. The sand dunes here are spectacular and improbable.

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow


The sand is composed of finely ground hydrated calcium sulfate, more commonly known as gypsum, that was blown in from ancient Lake Lucero, a vast drainage basin where dissolved minerals from sedimentary layers in the nearby San Andres and Sacramento Mountains collected, with no natural outlet. Water evaporated rapidly, leaving behind soft, large gypsum crystals (selenite) that wind eventually broke apart and tumbled into ever smaller grains that formed the dunes. This process continues to this day. Unlike sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so it stays cool even in summer.

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands


As the sun set behind the San Andres Mountains, the white sands kept the landscape visible even as it got dark (top photo). We could easily have spent another whole day here.
White Sands after sunset

White Sands after sunset