It’s all about geology in Utah. This post zeroes in on the impressive variety of rocks that can be seen in southern Utah. Between April 3rd and 13th, we drove from the far southwest corner of Utah to Torrey, a small town in central Utah near Capitol Reef National Park. We put about 1680 miles (2703km) on our rented SUV, traveling on highways, two-lane local roads, and rough, unpaved roads. We walked through canyons, up cliffs, and along mountain ridges. It was a rock odyssey, from the enormous, ancient formations layered into the distance to the red rock dust on our boots and in our noses. In Utah, the shapes, colors, and textures of rock run the gamut from subtle to bizarre. Going back and forth between spacious, soul-satisfying vistas and mesmerizing details, it was a ten-day orgy of aesthetic pleasure.
Southern Utah’s landscape is harsh, forbidding. Maps tell the story of settler’s reactions with plainspoken names like Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Rattlesnake Bench, Tarantula Mesa, Hell’s Backbone, and Last Chance Desert. Summer is hot, winter cold, and spring rains can bring floods. But the beauty beyond all that, between the dust blowing in your face and the endless miles of cracked earth, is truly sublime. In the last letter he wrote before he disappeared forever, Everett Ruess recalled riding “over miles of rough country, forcing my way through tall sage and stubborn oak brush, and driving the burros down canyon slopes so steep that they could hardly keep from falling.” He enjoyed the beauty of the wilderness and the vagrant life he was leading, preferring “the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”
In the fall of 2000, I journeyed to south-central Utah twice, each time for less than a week. I went to support my teenage son, who was in a wilderness program. The second visit included a cold night spent with him and other families high on Boulder Mountain with nothing but a sleeping bag and a rough lean-to for protection from the elements. It snowed that night, causing the tarp over our heads to fall on top of us. Brrr. Warming ourselves next to a campfire amid the vast, open skies of the high desert that morning was definitely a memorable experience. The jaw-dropping drive down from Salt Lake City, the dramatically changing views, the crisp air, and the spareness of life in the high desert moved me. As awed as I was by the power of nature in this place, I was also charmed by the atmosphere of the small town where I stayed after that night on the mountain. Capitol Reef country and Torrey, Utah dug into my soul and worked their magic. I vowed to go back and returned three years later. And yes, it was memorable again.
That trip nineteen years ago was intensely pleasurable because my experiences were so different from everything I’d known as an east coast native. I explored, I hiked to a waterfall, I rode a horse, and I sat down under a juniper tree and painted the towering red-orange cliffs. In subsequent years I often thought about that wild country and the little town at the heart of it – I wasn’t done with Utah’s extraordinary landscape. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it seemed like travel could feel good again and Utah was the perfect place to go. This time I’d share it with my partner, Joe, who is a wonderful travel companion.
On April 2nd we flew to Las Vegas and picked up a rental SUV at the airport. We stayed in town overnight and set off for Utah the next morning.
Four photos from the plane: low tide ripples off the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham Airport, a view of Lopez Island as we climbed to cruising altitude, Oregon’s beautiful Mt. Hood, and the sere, dun-colored desert outside Las Vegas.
With dramatic clouds threatening rain but not producing it (as so often happens in the desert), we continued north to Cedar City, our base for the next 3 days. The biggest draw for tourists in that area is Zion National Park, which neither of us had ever seen. But we knew the park would be a mob scene – even on a weekday in April. Not only does the park require you to leave your car in a crowded lot and take their shuttle bus to get to the major hikes and observation points, now they even require reservations for the popular hike up Angel’s Landing. It was spring break and families were everywhere. I was torn but Joe was adamant: after some discussion, we decided to forgo the main entrance to the park altogether. We would explore the less-frequented north end the next day, taking a scenic drive to a short trail that leads to a magnificent overlook. Even that proved daunting for us lowlanders when the altitude challenged our lungs. Plopping down on the rocks as often as we needed to turned out to be as entertaining as the views, thanks to the lizards scampering about.
We live at sea level in a place where the humidity often approaches 100%. We were now over 6,000 feet higher than that, all day and night, with humidity as low as 20%. We hadn’t realized how hard it would be to acclimate to the high desert! The following day we chose an easier itinerary: explore the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap and drive a big loop over mountain passes in the Dixie National Forest. The petroglyphs were some of the best and most accessible we’ve seen but the wind was fierce through the Parowan Gap. I couldn’t resist tossing tumbleweed in the air and watching it bounce down the road like a cartoon character. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get that phone video I made into another post.
We had one more day in Cedar City, a day that for me, began with feeling absolutely wretched. Mornings were getting slower and slower as the thin air made the simplest task a struggle. We weren’t sleeping well, either. Ah, the joys of hotel pillows – they’re never like one’s own! And the air in hotel rooms, don’t get me started on that. So that day we drove south to a lower elevation and by the afternoon we were both having a great time clambering around petrified sand dunes at Snow Canyon State Park. A long, relaxing lunch at an out-of-the-way spot that took us a while to find capped the day.
The next day we had a long drive ahead of us; we’d be visiting Torrey, the small town in south-central Utah that I fell in love with over 20 years ago. But I’ll save that for later. Needless to say, there are way too many photos to go through and trip impressions fade too quickly. It was an intense two weeks of sensory overload. There was rock above all, in countless guises – smooth, rough, grainy, pock-marked, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, lavender, white, black, warm, cold, shaped into hoodoos, perfect rectangles, and domes, wrinkled like elephant skin, balanced and poised to topple any minute, and solid as the ages underfoot. There were wonderful plants, some rare, some cultivated, all tough as nails. There were scintillating conversations with native Utahans, especially Martha, a 76-year-old native of Teasdale (population 219) who showed us the old tea house ruin. And Curtis and Tristan, proprietors of Dark Sky Coffee in Torrey, whose warm, relaxed hospitality and excellent espresso brought a gleam to my eyes. There were fierce, sandy winds, icy winds out of the north, and calm, sunlit afternoons under Cottonwood trees. There were good meals, especially a memorable breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries, and grits at the Black and Blue Diner in Las Vegas. There were long, dusty, unpaved roads, miles and miles of them, with horizons that peeled back the story of the earth for us to read. And there were ravens. Everywhere we went we saw single pairs of ravens flying together through the blue skies, slicing them up into then and now, backs shining silver in the sun, feathers dark as night.
Here’s a group of photographs from random moments over the course of the trip. More soon!
8. The car’s GPS says it’s 21 degrees outside one morning as we cross a high pass…many places haven’t opened for the season yet…and a sign in Cedar City announces 29 degrees on another morning. But the sun was warm and most of the afternoons were comfortable.
“…it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.
Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.
It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.
One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.
The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.
The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.
We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.
Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.
We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!
*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.
The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.
But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.
If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.
A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.
After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.
We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.
After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.
At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.
The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.
Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)
Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.
We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!
We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.
Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.
Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.
The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)
We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)
Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.
Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.
Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!
It’s a little town in northern California – more precisely, in Humboldt County, home of mammoth redwood trees, counter-culture cannabis growers, and (more prosaically, because everything shouldn’t be exciting) dairy and beef farms.
we were driving onto the Coupeville ferry and crossing over to the Olympic peninsula. It’s a longer route, but so much prettier, and we avoided Seattle traffic. Heading south along the Hood Canal (it’s a fjord!) on a quiet two-lane road, we passed Hamma Hamma and Lilliwaup,
glimpsed a herd of elk grazing by the roadside, then merged onto the interstate (ugh). We powered past Portland and stopped in a town called Brownsville for the night. Google pointed us to a local joint called Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post for dinner. The food went down even better after we watched a vintage truck –
the one we thought was part of the display of vintage tools and stuff –
start up with a groan and a growl and slowly, very slowly, putter down the road. (We noticed the pickup truck owner’s wife scowling as she sped away in a separate vehicle).
The next day we crossed the Oregon/California border and sailed down a loopy mountain road in a downpour, finally arriving in peaceful little Ferndale at dusk. Early the following morning I wandered outside where a peaceful, pastoral scene unfolded: the world refreshed by September rains.
Contentment worked its way under our skin and deep into our bones as we strolled wide beaches, hiked emerald forests and motored through rolling hills that overlooked the empty Pacific far below. Daily coffee in a laid-back cafe with a workshop where a man builds kayaks anchored us to Ferndale’s gentle rhythms.
We’re home now and I miss this exquisite corner of the world already.
Maybe you can see why.
We met a cast of friendly, eccentric characters on the trails, including a 94-year-old man intent on hiking a steep trail connecting grasslands and beach, a woman of a certain age hiking barefoot in the rain with two tiny dogs on leashes and a cat on her back, and a man who seemed to go nowhere without his two cockatoos.
On the way back home we spent two nights on the Oregon coast in the little town of Waldport. More on that later, but here is a view from the beach at low tide one morning:
This trip went by too fast. I know I’m privileged to be able to spend any time at all at such spectacular places as California’s redwood forests and its nearly deserted northern beaches. Breathtaking scenery lurks around the corner anywhere you look though, if you let old habits drop away and look with new eyes.
A few weeks ago Sigrun Hodne, who writes at the blog Sub Rosa, posted a brief video about the photographer Jeff Wall. You may or may not find Wall’s photography appealing, but maybe you’ll be intrigued by what he says, as I was.
Towards the end of the clip Wall talks about art.
“I think all art is always an expression of the affection for there being a world…
“…that there’s something to see… that anything even exists.”
“It’s already a kind of joyful relation to what is. And then everything else becomes a detail…”
“I think all artists are pretty sympathetic people. They’re sympathetic to being.
And I think that’s why people like art.”
The photographs were made on two afternoons in May, during a trip to the Methow Valley, in north central Washington. Creeks originating from glaciers on some of Washington’s highest peaks drain into the Methow River, which weaves and wends its way through spare, sage green highlands before emptying into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. The valley is dotted with small towns, and one called Winthrop emphasizes an American West atmosphere enough to resemble a movie set. Along with opportunities to camp, fish, ski, ride horses, and raft the river, the classic western look of Winthrop brings tourists to the area.
Coming in spring, we expected quiet and weren’t disappointed. We stayed outside the town of Twisp at a small farm whose owners work in retail and real estate while caring for a handful of horses and chickens and running an airbnb side business. A patchwork economy works best in the valley, as in so many rural areas. From the riverside we drove high up into the lonely, sere hills, where fires have their way with dry forest land and the views leap across space, and free the soul. The cheerful golden Balsamroot flowers that sprinkle the hillsides with color every spring were fading but no matter – my affection for the world was still an unhesitatingly joyful relation to what is, right there, in that particular place, at that particular time.
1. Fire-ravaged juniper tree, Thompson Road, Methow Valley
2. Fallen trees and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) leaves, Gun Ranch Road, Methow Valley
3. Shriveled Balsamroot flower, Thomson Ridge, Methow Valley
4. Lichen on rock, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
5. Single boulder in an Aspen grove, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
6. Fire-ravaged junipers and dry grasses, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
7. Lichen-splotched boulder, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
8. Insect on fading Balsamroot flower, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
A few more photos from the Methow Valley are here.
Who’s Flora? Flora is Fauna’s pal. You know, the one who makes everything livable.
Flora’s strong presence in L.A. is a key ingredient of the city’s identity. The city is chock full of glamorous botanical introductions from faraway places, native plants that thrived here for eons and everything in between. The “florabundance” of southern California captivated me, so here’s a selection of plants from in and around L. A. – a selection guaranteed to be completely unscientific and thoroughly skewed. Most of these images are of trees because trees got to me on this trip, but you’ll find a few other plants in too, for the sake of variety.
1. The silhouette of a Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) frames distant hills on a trail at Topanga State Park’s Trippet Ranch, which is about an hour’s drive from downtown L.A.
2. More Coast live oaks at Trippet Ranch. The day we were there birds, squirrels and deer were feasting on the ripening acorns.
3. A fallen branch, probably oak, at Trippet Ranch. The live oaks of California take on wonderfully sinuous, expressive shapes as they grow.
4. Staying with the oaks, here’s a lovely, plump little acorn on a Tucker’s oak tree (Quercus John-tuckeri) at Joshua Tree National Park. The park is a good two or more-hour drive from L.A. but it’s well worth the effort to get there. More on that in another post.
5. Just off a trail in Joshua Tree National Park, the eponymous Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) stands tall. It is actually not a tree, it’s a type of yucca. This specimen suffered an injury to its trunk but it soldiers on, in a very harsh environment. The area has only received about two inches of rain this year; about a third of that fell just after we left, causing road closures and evacuations in town.
6. Back in downtown Los Angeles, hilly streets mean you might get to look down on a freshly clipped topiary tree. What a treat!
7. In trendy Silver Lake everyone has a little corner of paradise; this one comes with a generous sprinkling of banana plants and Bird of Paradise plants (Strelitzia). Oh, and a vintage Ford Falcon parked out front does add a certain charm to the block.
8. The fruit of a South American Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) hangs heavy on the branch, on a street in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. These trees drop their leaves before flowering – what a sight the brilliant magenta pink flowers are on bare-leaved trees!
9. On just about any block in L.A. there will be a corner like this one, with lollipop palm trees, telephone poles and criss-crossed wires, street lamps, and random signs. You’ll often find a certain glow in the sky too, maybe from the city’s relentlessly sunny skies and its proximity to the ocean. Or perhaps it’s that stubborn inversion layer. Or maybe all that light is just bouncing around so much that it glows.
Hesperoyucca whipplei (syn. Yucca whipplei
The Yucca’s stalk
A Yuuca and a view, Angeles national Forest
11. At my feet on a residential street, a tree was artfully creeping over the sidewalk, and scattering its pretty golden leaves about like glitter on a movie star’s gown. OK, that’s a stretch, but this little scene did delight my eyes.
12. Down at the beach, forests of kelp grow just off shore. Now and then they toss us an offering. Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is actually a fast-growing algae, and I’m not kidding about the forest part – offshore kelp beds are thick, and plants can reach well over 40′ tall.
13. A tangle of branches looks a bit haunted, in a ravine at Trippet Ranch, Topanga State Park.
14. I think this is a Peruvian peppertree (Schinus molle), one of many exotics planted around L.A. This was at Elysian Park, L.A.’s oldest park and a nice, quick escape from the frantic traffic of the city below.
15. At Angel’s Point in Elysian Park another Mexican fan palm stands tall amidst an unlikely assortment of objects. A whimsical sculpture seems to mock the heavy-handedness of downtown high-rises, and five glorious ravens sail freely on the updraft of a glowing, if smoggy, L.A. sunset.
16. I was struck by the sight of tree roots penetrating deep into rocky cliffs, in a number of places around the city. This photo was taken on the road to Mt. Wilson Observatory, a narrow, winding two-lane that had me clutching the edge of my seat more than once.
17. Evergreens cling to the rocky hillsides of Angeles National Forest, along the precipitous road that climbs up to Mount Wilson Observatory, elevation 5,712 ft/1741m. Two of the largest telescopes in the world (for their time) are here. The location benefits from regional inversion layers that trap clearer air on top of the mountain, but it suffers from light-polluted night skies.
18. Another view of oaks in a ravine, through filtered light at Trippet Ranch, Topanga State Forest.
19. Warm, arid southern California even manages glimpses of autumn here and there. This fiery tree appears to be a maple. I found it on a roadside, high up in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour from downtown.
This meager offering doesn’t begin to do justice to the amazing variety of flora in and around Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, both the arid wilderness around L.A. and the well-irrigated landscape in and near the city offer up an astounding variety of plant life. I hope this post encourages you to take another look around your own neighborhood. There may be more to it than you realize.
3. Fallen Floss-silk tree (Ceiba speciosa) blossoms, Watts, L.A.
4. A young Joshua tree stands near Shelter, a sculpture by Noah Purifoy (1917 – 2004), at the Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree.
5. Along the Barker Dam Trail at Joshua Tree National Park. Parry’s Nolina in the foreground, a prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) cactus to the right, unidentified red flowers behind boulders.
6. A meal at Mh Zh – red lentils with herbs, hummus Bling, and grilled farm bread.
7. The Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., where key scenes from Blade Runner were shot.
8. A Venice street corner.
9. A culinary suggestion from Venice Beach
10. Looking up into a Brugmansia flower (aka Angels trumpet) at Descanso Gardens, La Canada Flintridge.
11. A museum guard walks past Robert Therrien’s sculpture, Under the Table, at The Broad Museum, L.A.
12. Eucalyptus trees are ubiquitous in southern California, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
13. The famous Los Angeles sprawl seen from the road to Mt. Wilson, in the Angeles National Forest.
14. California beaches have a calm beauty on overcast days. Zuma Beach/ Point Dume, near Malibu.
15. At Joshua Tree National Park, granite rocks take on an oddly malleable quality in the receding light, as if they were globs of dough ready for the oven.
16. At pretty Hermosa Beach, wet sand reflects a pier full of sunset-watchers.
More on the photos:
This muscular sculpture on a plaza at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. has a long title that describes the materials: Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson’s Airplane Parts, About 1000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space. It’s by artist Nancy Rubins and was installed in 2001. I like the way it interrupts the grids of surrounding high rises by taking similar rectangular, hard-edged forms, breaking them up and setting them at all angles.
This lopsided sunset meets heavy cloud cover on the road out of Joshua Tree. The narrowly focused light show preceded a lengthy display of lightening over a distant desert mountain range. When we got back to L.A. it was raining. Several people remarked that it took them by surprise – after all, who checks the weather forecast in a place where warm, sunny weather is an everyday occurrence?
The Floss-silk treewas blooming all over town, adding joyful pink highlights to the greens and browns of the California autumn landscape. The tree is native to South America and is related to the kapok tree. The leaves fall off before the tree blooms, so the huge flowers are even more dramatic – perfect for a city known for creating drama.
The Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture is just that, but also much more. It’s difficult to describe the impact of seeing Noah Purifoy’s fifteen years’ labor weathering in the spare, harsh Mohave desert. If inventiveness, artistic expertise and social commentary interest you, you may be here for hours, as we were. I first visited the site in 2014; photos of Purifoy’s sculptures from that visit can be found here.
Joshua Tree National Park is one of those oddly otherworldy, spectacular landscapes that one never forgets. Coming back to it for a second look, I was not disappointed – in fact, our hike on the Barker Dam loop trail was a high point of the trip. Photos from a 2014 visit to Joshua Tree are here and I plan to post more from this year’s trip soon.
Near our airbnb in the busy L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake, there’s a casual Israeli/Middle eastern restaurant called Mh Zh. We sat at a counter inside (all the “real” tables are outside on the sidewalk) and chatted with the manager while watching the chef slide rack after rack of delicious-looking food into the flaming oven. The employees were relaxed and upbeat, the food was amazing, and watching it all go in and out of that oven was pure theater.
The Bradley Building is a refreshing bit of 19th and 20th century style in the middle of modern L.A. You’ll recognize it immediately as the place where much of Blade Runner was filmed. Walk in, wander around the first floor, and climb the stairs until you’re met by ropes marking off the tenants’ space – one of whom is the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division! Many films and commercials have used this handsome space that abounds with intricate details. An interior door opens ontoBlue Bottle Coffee, an airy, high-style (21st century version) coffee shop where we enjoyed great espresso and an order of perfectly poached eggs on toast.
The facade of Yellow Fever restaurant in Venice, a still somewhat funky town fifteen miles west of LA. The restaurant advertises “Asian bowls for your soul” and is takes no cash. Is credit more soulful, I wonder?
This sign kind of sums up why we didn’t spend much time in Venice. Can you say, “Tacky?” The little canals of Venice are attractive enough, if you manage to disregard the occasional small, unpowered boat loaded down with belongings, obviously serving as a tiny home for a less fortunate person than those living in the chic, multi-million dollar homes lining the canals.
Twenty minutes from downtown LA is the quiet oasis of Descanso Gardens. I can’t say I was very impressed; maybe I was there at the wrong time of year. Still, it was a pleasant hour or two, the oaks are splendid, and I always love to see Brugmansias in bloom.
I wanted to see the Broad Museum, which opened three years ago. I did find some gems there but when all was said and done I was, well, overwhelmed with being underwhelmed. Or something like that. There are just too many in-your-face, big spectacle pieces. There isn’t enough coherent, thoughtful art. An excellent review of the architecture and collection is here.
Eucalyptusdoesn’t grow where I live, so I’m especially susceptible to its charms. This one, a pretty basic specimen, is quite beautiful if you study the sinuous curves of trunk and branch against the light flutter of gray-green leaves. It towers above the ground at the Watts Towers, a delightful community space that will (hopefully) show up soon, in another post about L.A.
It may not be a great image, but this gives you an idea of the juxtaposition of wild outdoor space and urban sprawl that is characteristic of Los Angeles County. You can see views like this from many different high spots around LA; this one was taken on the road up to Mt. Wilson. The Mount Wilson Observatory is the site of pioneering research in astrophysics, and several of the world’s largest (at the time they were installed) telescopes are housed there. The twisting, narrow road isn’t easy on an acrophobe, but once you’re up there, cares do drop away.
We visited Zuma Beach and Point Dume State Park on an overcast morning – a perfect time, it turns out, if you’re more interested in scenery than swimming. We saw dolphins swim just a few feet from a pair of surfers who were respectful enough to remain quiet, and watched a Great egret catching grasshoppers along the roadside.
Another view of the sculptural desert landscape at Joshua Tree National Park.
Hermosa Beach is a small beach town about 45 minutes from downtown LA. The first pier here was built in 1904, and three years later the incorporated city acquired two miles of beach, to remain perpetually free from commerce and open to all. Without commerce, I would not have enjoyed the fabulous Mh Zh restaurant or several great cafes, but everything has its place, doesn’t it? I was glad I could get away from L.A.’s commercial intensity and go out to the desert, up to the mountains, and onto the beach, in beautiful SoCal.
In the spirit of working with what’s available, here is a group of photos I’ve tossed together from the road trip through Oregon and northern California that we took a few months ago. After days of being immersed in the randomness of my possessions – open a drawer, dig into a closet, unleash the chaos – my mind may be incapable of knitting together a coherent story or explanation for these images. Most were taken in small towns, and a few are from what used to be a small town. Perhaps there is a thread of nostalgia that connects them. Perhaps not. I’m OK either way. After all, like everything else, these images are part of the vast, beautiful, spacious world we live in where every thing is a world in itself, even as it plays a part in the greater mystery.
These photos were made at four locations in northern California: the picturesque agricultural town of Ferndale, the historic mountain mining town of Weaverville, the remote coastal hamlet of Shelter Cove, and a ghost town called Helena, near Weaverville. I made liberal use of effects when processing most of these images, primarily with Color Efex Pro.
I do a fair amount of research before I travel to a new place, but never so much that the sense of discovery is quashed. In that spirit, our road trip to southwestern Oregon and neighboring northwestern California unfolded with a nice balance of the known and the unpredictable: we always knew where we were staying at night, but every day offered up new discoveries.
Take beaches, for example: I’ve seen photos of Oregon beaches and I’ve been to a few of them, so I thought I knew what to expect: crashing surf, vast expanses of sand set with sun-bleached log giants, craggy sea stacks. I expected I’d find sea stars and hoped to spot sea lions. But fossils and rows of geometrically patterned rocks on the beach? No, I didn’t expect that!
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That’s Beverley Beach, on Oregon’s central coast in the first photo. We pulled off Route 101 there one day with little more than a sign to entice us. The parking lot is on the opposite side of the road from the beach, so we took the short path following a log-packed creek under the highway and out to a broad, sweeping beach. Savoring the instant “Ahhh” of relaxation you get when you meet the ocean, we slowly meandered south, enjoying the mind-freeing spaciousness and the satisfying give of sand underfoot. It was a brisk day, the sky packed with cumulus clouds, the tide half-way in, the views up and down the beach nearly empty. No ships, few birds, just ocean, earth and sky, and a pin-like gash on the horizon where a distant lighthouse stood.
Soon the landscape changed, and we arrived at a steep, hard-packed mud cliff, oozing moisture from runoff overhead.
Curious about the muddy cliff, I leaned in, and peering closely, I saw one, two, hundreds – no, thousands – of fossils, arrayed at eye level: a paleontologist’s home run. There were shells displayed at every possible angle, and odd, perfectly spherical protrusions, too. Wonderment is a gift, and we had it in spades that day as we walked the beach, but part of me wishes I’d known a little about the geology here before. I was entranced by the fossils and oddly-shaped rocks but I had no idea I was witnessing evidence of two different formations from tens of millions of years ago: a neat pairing of sediment layers and volcanic ash layers, the now-compacted ash hailing all the way from the distant Cascade Mountains.
Here’s a quick video about Beverley Beach fossils. The photos below may picture the volcanic layer but so far, I’ve been unable to find out what makes these intriguing, sculptural shapes.
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The beach offered up treasures, too:
And apparently there are things to eat:
What a piece of luck it was to choose that beach to explore.
Another day we wandered north on Route 101 from Newport, searching for a spot we remembered from a previous trip on the Oregon coast, a scenic overlook that was as far south as we got that time. Eventually we found it (I’m not called Balboa for nothing!) on a narrow, two-lane road called Otter Crest Loop that parallels the highway. The Ben Jones Bridge, built in 1927, spans a dramatic gorge overlooking a wild strip of coastline. Inspecting the rocks, once again we found Pelagic cormorants nesting here, on precarious crevices high up on a salt-sprayed cliff. Photographing them proved beyond my capability, but it felt good just to watch the birds swoop in to their narrow perches, and listen to wave after wave of foamy turquoise seawater crashing into the rocky shore.
The central coast of Oregon is so packed with scenic pull-outs, it’s hard to know where to stop. Gunta, an Oregon coast expert who blogs at Movin’ On, recommended Cape Perpetua, a headland which is the highest viewpoint on the Oregon coast reachable by car. Advertised to provide fantastic views on clear days, Cape Perpetua afforded us a dramatic view of a darkening squall drawing nearer and nearer as the air grew colder and colder. A short loop trail through the woods features mighty evergreens and an old stone and wood shelter looking out across the Pacific. The intense contrast between snug forest and windy sea was a perfect mix.
One minute, dark clouds and icy-cold winds bit our faces, the next, sunbreaks lit up the shore:
And then it was on to southern Oregon and a rewarding day of botanizing with Gunta (close encounters with carnivorous plants!). The day after that we romped on another spectacular Oregon beach, on our way to northern California, where house-sized redwoods kept us humble, and a hundred miles from the ocean, in a charming mining town, the oldest continuously used Chinese temple in California kept us humble, too…but that’s another story, or maybe several stories.