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October 18 - November 7, 2011

Round Trip Road Trip
to Death Valley National Park, CA, USA
21 days

Palm Springs
Twentynine Palms
Death Valley National Park/Furnace Creek
Lone Pine
Lake Arrowhead

Hyatt Regency Suites
Fairfield Inn & Suites
Ranch At Furnace Creek
Best Western Plus Frontier Motel
Sequoia Lodge
Hilton Garden Inn
Our Cabin

Itinerary - Click to jump to that part of the blog
Tuesday, October 18 - Drive to Palm Springs
Wednesday, October 19 - Palm Springs
Thursday, October 20 - Palm Springs
Friday, October 21 - Drive thru Joshua Tree National Park
Saturday, October 22 - Drive to Death Valley National Park
Sunday, October 23 - Death Valley National Park
Monday, October 24 - Death Valley National Park
Tuesday, October 25 - Death Valley National Park
Wednesday, October 26 - Drive to Lone Pine
Thursday, October 27 - Lone Pine
Friday, October 28 - Lone Pine
Saturday, October 29 - Lone Pine
Sunday, October 30 - Drive to Kernville
Monday, October 31 - Kernville
Tuesday, November 1 - Kernville
Wednesday, November 2 - Drive to Victorville
Thursday, November 3 - Drive to Lake Arrowhead
Friday, November 4 - Lake Arrowhead
Saturday, November 5 - Lake Arrowhead
Sunday, November 6 - Lake Arrowhead
Monday, November 7 - Drive Home


Welcome to our California Desert Road Trip blog!  As usual, we'll keep you informed of itinerary changes, bookings, etc., in this introduction.  Expect a few changes right up to and even after our departure.  The hotels listed in the headings are current reservations.

Dave's experience with Death Valley, our primary destination, is from a road trip as a child.  During that trip, our reservation at the Furnace Creek Inn was lost and we were forced into a single room.  Luckily there were only three of us in that room!  On the way home, there was a huge sandstorm that stripped the paint off of our car and sandblasted the windows.  Dave's dad was none too thrilled to have to junk the car and buy a new one after that trip.  We plan to rent an SUV to avoid a similar fate.  Oh, and there was that side trip along a dirt road to a ghost town on a nearly-empty gas tank.  Let's just say his dad didn't give up easily and we had to coast all the way back to the inn.  Thank goodness it was all downhill!  We never did find that town, by the way.  Maybe we'll have better luck this time.

As of this first update, August 1st, we have booked our first four hotels in Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms, Death Valley National Park, and Lone Pine.

August 8:  Our hotel selection in Palm Springs has been changed from the Best Western Las Brisas to the Hilton Hotel because we have enough rewards points to get the entire stay for free.

August 9:  After doing a bit more research on our choice of hotel in Palm Springs, we decided this particular Hilton isn't worth the points/cost, so we have cancelled our reservation.  We have replaced the Hilton with the Hyatt Regency Suites.

August 22:  We've made a couple of minor adjustments to our schedule to avoid a Saturday stay in Kernville and to accommodate additional sightseeing from Lone Pine.  God forbid that motels with websites should respond to reservation requests.  Our emails requesting availability from two motels were ignored. We chose the only motel in the city that has a website that actually takes reservations.  But we's the current scoop.  We have added an additional day to Lone Pine which will push our arrival in Kernville to Sunday, which we expect will make for a quieter stay.  Not that Kernville is a big city, far from it, but it is a popular weekend stopover for river rafting and fishing.  We found that the best rooms at local motels were not available on Saturday, but fully available starting on Sunday.  No problem for us!  This will allow time for a day trip from Lone Pine to additional nearby sights such as the Ancient Bristlecone Forest or Mt. Whitney.  Don't hold your breath for either of these stops, but the extra day will allow for the possibility "just in case." 

We have also booked our rental SUV from Hertz, as usual.  We usually get an upgraded vehicle from our local place, so keep your fingers crossed. We always select the least expensive SUV, which in this case is a Toyota RAV4, but we have never actually received that model at the local office, only when we picked up at an airport location.

August 30:  We tacked on an extra weekend to the trip to allow for a stopover at our cabin at Lake Arrowhead.  Since it is on the way, we figured, "Why not?"  This will also allow us to add on additional days elsewhere without messing up a reservation, just in case.  Or, we can skip it and go directly home.  We always have dogs with us when we're there, so this might give us a chance to go out and see some of the surrounding areas without having to worry about leaving them alone for too long.

September 7:  Our final hotel has been booked in Victorville.  All reservations are now complete.

October 17:  We picked up our rental SUV today from Hertz.  We reserved, and received, a Toyota RAV4 again.  Oh well, sometimes you win upgrade roulette and sometimes you lose!  No problem, we got used to the previous one, so no worries.  The next update will be from Palm Springs.

Tuesday, October 18 - Drive to Palm Springs - Hyatt Regency Suites

Nestled at the base of the majestic San Jacinto Mountains, Palm Springs is a world-famous resort destination with a perfect combination of intimate small town friendliness and chic urban sensibility. Soak up the perfect blend of casual relaxation and outdoor enjoyment in this year-round desert paradise. Palm Canyon Drive ambles through Palm Springs’ historic downtown, dotted with one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries, antique stores and innovative restaurants and cafés. Pack a picnic to enjoy on an alpine trail at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Hike to a 60-foot waterfall in Tahquitz Canyon. Palm Springs has one of the world’s largest caches of Mid-Century modern masterpieces, from famous private homes including Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate to Elvis’ Honeymoon House. Peek inside the stars’ hot spots on celebrity home tours, or sip a drink while listening to live music by a famous hotel pool, all after a day of golf, tennis, hiking, or shopping.

Experience the urbane sophistication of the only all-suite hotel in downtown Palm Springs. Our atrium-style hotel offers resort-like charm, the city’s best views, and guest rooms with six floors of expansive balconies and terraces. Sip a fine vintage at SHARE, our wine lounge, or savor a small plate from SHARE’s bold menu. Recline in a custom-made lounger poolside and order something from the redesigned poolside bar. Families love our cabana suite option with private direct poolside access. When it’s time to explore the Coachella Valley, there’s no better starting point than Hyatt Regency Suites Palm Springs. From our central setting right on Palm Canyon Drive, you’ll find fabulous shopping, trendy entertainment, world-class dining and plenty of attractions close at hand.

Let's get this show on the road!

We set off a little after 2:00 pm on the back roads to Palm Springs.  Dave was overridden on his original route that had us taking highway 76 around Palomar Mountain.  We compromised by taking highway 79 through Temecula (our local wine country) and then continuing over the mountains into the Coachella Valley.  Total time to our destination should be around 1.5 hours according to our GPS "Trish".

There isn't much to report about the drive.  Nothing happened and we only stopped to top off the gas tank.  Well, OK, we stopped to take a picture of a desert vista, a rocky canyon, rocky hills and a blooming yucca plant.  But, we only did that for those of you who aren't locals.  These things pretty much surround where we live, so for us it wasn't anything unusual.

The drive was quite easy.  Much easier, in fact, than we expected.  The route taking the 76 road wouldn't have been any problem at all in hindsight.  We'll do that one some other time when we're exploring the local mountains.  We always have to have something in mind for another road trip.

The ascent up the mountain that defines the Coachella Valley where Palm Springs is located doesn't rise as steeply from the west.  It is quite a surprise to reach the summit and see an entire valley community spread out below.  The elevation goes up to over 4,000 feet at the top, but it doesn't feel that high at all from the western approach.  There is only one short stretch where there are pine trees.  Mostly there are low scrub bushes, Manzanita trees and other desert flora, if anything.  Rocks are the predominant features.  LOTS of rocks!

We stopped at the Coachella Valley Vista Point for a couple of photos.  The photo to the right from the viewpoint shows the direction we will be traveling when we depart Palm Springs.  To the left and directly below us is Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage.

The mountain road put us right in the middle of Rancho Mirage, which is a decidedly upscale locale to be modest.  Continuing toward Palm Springs, the next city we pass through is Cathedral City, decidedly not upscale and looking very down on its luck.  Palm Springs looks somewhat better in a faded 1950's sort of way, but some of the hotels and shopping centers appear to have been recently updated.  However, our second choice of hotels, the newly-remodeled Holiday Inn Resort, is out of business.  Wow, we "came that close" to booking it instead of the Hyatt!  There are many empty stores and restaurants all along Palm Canyon Drive, the main drag.

We arrived at the Hyatt Regency Suites, which is in the middle of the main part of Palm Springs, at the expected time.  We decided to self-park in the garage under the hotel.  We thought we had selected a spot by the elevator to the hotel, but it turned out to be the elevator to a now-closed shopping mall attached to the property.  So, we moved to the correct place and went up to the lobby.

The Hyatt was a totally rundown dump a few years ago and we would never have chosen it if it weren't for the recent glowing reviews on Tripadvisor.  It was totally redone in the past year or two, so it looks nice enough in a hipster sort of way.  The lobby is very stark, but that appears to be the norm nowadays.  How this type of hotel, a 1980's atrium-style property, thinks it is ever going to be hip is beyond us, but it looks nice for what it is. 

Check-in was pleasant and the desk clerk was very nice and helpful.  She gave us vouchers for free breakfast every day of our stay, which we did not expect.  We were also upgraded to a "Premier" Double on the top floor (6th).  We kind of expected an upgrade based on reviews saying that Hyatt Gold Passport members are usually upgraded and the fact that we are here in the off season on a weekday.  All of the rooms are 600 square feet.  We got a AAA rate of $208, plus $15 resort fee that includes wi-fi, plus $9.50 for self-parking (valet is $12.50).  As mentioned, we also scored free breakfast, but we don't know why as it isn't mentioned anywhere.  We were offered a 2:00pm late check-out at no extra charge, which we accepted, but we don't expect to use it.

The suites consist of a living area separated from the bedroom by the bathroom.  The furnishings are all new, but they could be cleaner.  Not filthy exactly, but not clean either.  They overlooked some small things in the remodel that scream 1980's...popcorn ceilings, yellow light switches and really ugly (but probably expensive) marble tiles in the bathroom.  However, the A/C works and we have a nice balcony overlooking the pool and mountains behind the hotel.

When we asked the desk clerk about restaurants, she said to just walk out on the street and turn to the right, so that's what we'll be doing next.  She did mention a few places to try that we were already aware of from online reviews, but we'll probably stop at the first thing we come to.

After walking down Palm Canyon Drive as instructed, we came upon the main strip of restaurants.  First we had to walk past the two-block empty shopping mall that is attached to our hotel.  It appears to have once been anchored by a department store at each end, both of which are vacant, and the interior is closed and dark.  There are a few restaurants and shops still open that face the street, but we're talking maybe three along the entire length of the mall.  We'd venture a guess that nearly 40% of the businesses along the main drag are either closed or on their way out.  There is a huge banner hanging from the defunct mall asking citizens to vote for a proposition to revitalize the downtown area, but we don't know what that entails.  Other than the vacant mall the street looks nice enough and there were plenty of people out strolling and eating in the available restaurants.

We settled on Maracas Mexican Cantina. It is a large place with both sidewalk seating, an inside dining room and upstairs balconies where guests were sitting outside eating.  The view from up there must be something to behold.  We were seated along the railing fronting the sidewalk.  It was 88 degrees at 7:00 PM, so sitting outside was pleasant.  It isn't humid out here in the desert like it would be at home, so it doesn't feel nearly that warm after the sun goes down.

Both of us ordered from the "Specialties" menu that isn't shown online.  Bill had a Grilled Skirt Steak Salad and Dave had Chicken Veracruz.  The salad was huge and was good enough to order again.  The chicken was OK, but not repeatable.  The best thing about it was that there is a choice of two sides, so Dave was able to accommodate his new, more restricted, diet with ease.  One of the choices was vegetables and was a huge portion, so hopefully he'll stay on track.  Neither of us had dessert, but Bill did have two blended drinks.  The total bill was $71.00 with tip, which is high for Mexican food, but we didn't order typical Mexican fare, so the price wasn't as outrageous as it sounds, especially for Palm Springs.  The service was friendly.  We might try the Japanese restaurant the desk clerk recommended for tomorrow now that we have checked out the menu.

After dinner, we wandered the few blocks back to the hotel and crashed in front of one of the two 42" LCD TV's in our suite.  By the way, the touted "SHARE" restaurant off the lobby wasn't open although all printed information indicates that it is open until 10:00pm every night.  We can't imagine why a trendy "tasting" menu wouldn't fly in a town full of octogenarians. Yes, that was sarcasm.  Since there are no menus in the room, we have no idea what is served there.  The room service menu isn't anything unusual.  Free light snacks are served every night in the lounge off the lobby from 5-7pm, which is nice if you are into that sort of thing.  We saw a lot of people headed in that direction earlier.  There is also a bar by the pool where we saw people eating when we first arrived.

Wednesday, October 19 - Palm Springs - Hyatt Regency Suites

Our day started around 8:00 am with the free breakfast in the restaurant.  Click to view the Menu.  The coupon says it is a choice of buffet or plated breakfast, but the buffet is only offered on weekends.  The service and food were very good.  For a free breakfast (menu prices for what we had were $17.95 and $18.95) it was better than any other hotel we've stayed at.  If we had paid for it we would say it was overpriced, but still quite good.  Dave ordered a vegetable frittata and the waiter offered to substitute fruit for the potatoes when he tried to order it separately.  Bill had a crab dish that looked sort of like Eggs Benedict.  Both meals were excellent and completely covered by the coupon.

After eating we wandered around the lobby, lounge and pool area to check things out and take a few photos of the hotel.  We have to agree with online reviews in that there is nowhere comfortable to sit anywhere in the lobby or the lounge.  They have gone with trendy over comfort for sure.  In general it is a very nice place, but it is already showing a lot of wear and tear.  The pool furniture cushions are in disrepair with overflowing ashtrays adding to the overall disheveled appearance.  The pool furniture is the same chunky fake wicker sectionals you'll find now on Crystal ships.  In our opinion, this will look very dated, very quickly, but what do we know?  In the case of this hotel, they shouldn't have chosen white as the cushion color, but that's their problem.  We can't fault the staff here at all.  Everyone is very friendly and goes out of their way to greet each guest when they see them.  The wi-fi is extremely fast, much faster than our DSL at home.

As one would expect for Palm Springs, the weather is clear and warm.  It is 72 degrees this morning and we expect the afternoon temperature to get above 90.  All we have on our agenda for today is a visit to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a typical thing for a tourist to do here.

We set out from the hotel at 10:45 AM for the tramway.  On the way out of the parking garage the attendant asked where we were going and offered directions, which was very nice.  The tramway is about a mile north of the hotel on Tramway Dr., so it isn't rocket science to find it.  Click to view the Tramway Brochure.

We arrived at the tramway at 11:00 AM.  Judging by the number of remote parking lots built into the hillsides, they must have some huge crowds in the peak season.  Today, we were able to park in the main lot below the Valley Station.  It is a steep uphill walk to the station from the parking lot, so if you visit this attraction and are not able to walk well, have someone drop you off at the station before parking.  As usual, people with walkers and canes passed us with no problem.

There was a short line to buy tickets, but we were assigned to board the tram leaving in just five minutes.  Each car holds 80 people and leaves every 20 minutes.  They were running only one side of the trams, but it appears they have the capacity to run four cars on two cables.  As with the Space Needle in Seattle, they first take your picture in front of a green screen and superimpose you onto a scenic backdrop.  The pictures are sold at the top.

The tram cars are round and the floor rotates so everyone gets to see the entire panorama without moving around.  The recorded spiel says that all water and supplies for the station restaurants has to be hauled up on the trams, including water.  Every time a car goes up, a tank under the floor is filled with water.  When it reaches to top, it is pumped out.  A clever idea that seems to work, but it seems like it would be easier to pump the water up.  Maybe two miles up to 8,500 feet is too much to do that.

The ride takes about fifteen minutes with spectacular views to the valley below along with extreme close-up views of the solid granite mountain's peaks.  The temperature at the top today was about 67 degrees when it was over 90 on the desert floor.

There is a large station complex at the top where there is a sit-down restaurant and a cafeteria, a gift shop, and the counter to buy your photos.  We went directly outside to the viewing deck for some photos, then climbed up to the lookup above the station.  From the top one can see all the way to the Salton Sea about fifty miles south of here.  There is a good view of the cities of the Coachella Valley and the huge wind farm to the north of Palm Springs.

When we went back inside we found the photo counter empty between arrivals, so we bought our photo.  They held it for us until we were ready to go back down the mountain.  All of the employees are very nice here and the facilities are clean and well kept.  All in all, this is a well-run attraction and well worth a visit.  The cost per person is about $23.50, parking is free.

Behind the station is a paved switchback trail down to Long Valley.  There is a nature trail that winds through the forest and around a protected meadow.  There are miles and miles of trails here to explore if you are so inclined, which we are not.  There is also a shorter loop trail to a desert viewpoint.  The walk was worth the effort and the forest was pleasant.  Well, it would have been better without the families who found it necessary to scream the entire time, but such is life.

We took our time trekking back up the trail to the station.  There was about a fifteen minute wait for the next tram down, so we went out and took a photo of one of the cars as it arrived in the station.  On the way down, we were able to get a scary photo looking straight down to the lower station.  We spent a total of two hours at this attraction, so it was 1:00 PM when we got back to the car.

On the way back to town, we stopped in at the Palm Springs Visitor Center on the corner.  They have refurbished a googie-style gas station as the visitor center.  A friendly volunteer chatted with us about touring the wind farm nearby, but when we determined it wasn't a tour organized by the facility itself we sort of lost interest.  She also made some suggestions about how we might be able to unload some vintage 1950's furniture we have that we'd like to sell someday.

We expected to find lots of 1950's second-hand shops here, but so many stores are closed that finding anything interesting at all is difficult.  We said yesterday that about 40% of the businesses and restaurants appear closed.  After wandering around today we'll up that to 50% or more.  There is an entire food court area that is closed and for sale.  There must be at least ten large restaurants and countless retail locations that are vacant, as well.  That on top of the entirely derelict mall attached to the hotel adds up to a very depressed economy.  The woman at the visitor center said she remembers when that mall was very popular and hoity-toity.  We looked it up last night and it jogged our memory of seeing it in the past.  It was anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Joseph Magnin, and paved with elaborate inlaid marble.  The stores were an array of upscale luxury boutiques.  Of course, that was probably twenty years ago now.

We stopped back at the hotel to freshen up, then walked down Palm Canyon Drive to find someplace to eat lunch.  There were cops going down the street announcing they are going to start towing cars in five minutes.  Apparently there is a parade coming up, but nobody seemed to be gathering to watch it.  There is a Hollywood Blvd-esque Walk of Fame along the sidewalks.

We ended up at Ruby's Diner across the courtyard from the Mexican place we ate at last night.  It wasn't busy at all, but the service was abysmal.  We almost walked out after waiting over fifteen minutes for a server to even take our order.  After ordering, the waiter came back fifteen minutes later to tell Bill they are out of the bread stated on the menu for his sandwich.  He didn't care, but did it really take fifteen minutes to find that out?  Other than that the service was friendly enough.  Our food was plentiful and a good value, but very bland and not worth going back again.  Click to view the Menu.

Continuing our walk down Palm Canyon Dr., we expected to find some interesting shops, but we were disappointed in that regard.  For every shop still in business, there are three vacant ones.  It is still a pleasant stroll and there are many misting systems along the way to keep the temperature reasonable.  It is in the low 90's today, but it doesn't feel that hot because it is so dry.

We must attract dippy local parades because we ended up in the middle of one again.  This time it was the Palm Springs High School Homecoming Parade.  We won't make fun of the one we saw in Newport, OR anymore.  Basically they dragged everyone out of school and found a way to justify having them all participate in the parade.  This included floats with a fairy tale theme with bored teenagers lounging in beds.  We never did figure out what was up with that except they were fairy tales.  There were also groups from elementary schools, two marching bands, and a flash mod at the end.  It was homespun fun, but we wouldn't knock anyone over to see it again.  It only lasted about 30 minutes, so it was nice enough to stop and watch it for the kitsch value alone.

After the parade, we continued walking to the end of the main shopping area, checked out an "import store" that looked more like a 99-cent store, and then walked back up the other side of the street.  We did find a number of interesting restaurants in three blocks, so we'll have no problem finding another dinner location for tonight.

Back at the hotel around 5:00 PM, the maid had finally cleaned our room.  Apparently leaving a tip prompts the maid to fold your towels into shapes.  This hotel doesn't change your towels or linens unless you call the front desk and specifically request it.  While hotels always tout the environmental aspect of doing this, we know the real reason is to save the hotel money.

We rested in the room until around 7:00 PM when we ventured out in search of dinner.

After checking Tripadvisor for reviews of the three steakhouse restaurants that looked interesting this afternoon, we settled on The Falls.  It is located in the same buildings as the Mexican restaurant and Ruby's, so an easy walk from the hotel.  Click to view the Menu.

The Falls is located upstairs from Ruby's.  We were seated promptly inside.  Our very friendly server offered drinks and took our orders.  She had a trainee with her at first, but she disappeared eventually.  Bill ordered the grilled salmon, Dave ordered prime rib.  We both had the spinach and strawberry salad.  The salad might be the best salad we have ever had.  It was tossed together and full of interesting flavors.  The entrees were just a big piece of fish/meat on a plate.  Well, OK, the salmon came with asparagus spears.  Dave ordered a side of the corn, which was fantastic.  It was fresh corn sautéed with spices and was absolutely delicious.  The entrees were above average, not the best we've ever had, nor the worst.  The portions were very generous, as they should be for the price.  Service was outstanding throughout the meal from everyone, including busboys.  The restaurant's decor is quite attractive with a fused glass sculpture/divider in the center of the room.  This is a special occasion kind of place, but we saw only one couple dressed up.  Everyone else was in shorts and casual shirts.  The bill came to $104 before tip, which is high for just a piece of meat on a plate, but since it was very good we'll overlook it.  We'd probably eat here again, but not on this trip.

After dinner we just walked back to the hotel and crashed for the night.  According to the local news, it isn't supposed to be quite as hot for the next few days.  Let's hope they are correct.  There is a screaming child in the next room tonight.  We're hoping she'll go to bed earlier than we do!

Thursday, October 20 - Palm Springs - Hyatt Regency Suites

It isn't quite as hot today, only 93 for the high.  We started off with another free breakfast in the restaurant, which was again outstanding.  It is good enough to pay for.

At around 11:00 AM, we set off for The Living Desert attraction in Palm Desert, only about 20 minutes away off of Palm Canyon Drive.  We passed through that way on the way into Palm Springs.  This was in lieu of our original destination for today, the Indian Canyons.  We're hoping that the zoo/garden will have more to interest us than a hike through a landscape that isn't much different from what we look at back home.

Although we weren't expecting much, we were very pleasantly surprised.  The parking lot is nicely landscaped and the entrance area is attractive.  There is a AAA discount on admission, so we paid $12.75 per person (regular rate is $14.95.)  For what we got, the price is a bargain.  We wouldn't pay the extra $6.00 for the tram service though.  Since when is that an extra charge?

Although this is billed primarily as a zoo, and there are animals to look at, it is much more than that.  They have demonstration gardens to show how to use water-wise plants in residential gardens, a nice garden center with plants on sale, numerous donated sculptures, a butterfly garden, desert landscapes, cactus gardens, columnar cactus gardens, exotic birds, aviaries, palm oasis, an African savannah with the appropriate animals, a recreated African village with a gift shop, cafe, and entertainment venues, plus a huge model train set up outdoors near the entrance.  The animal enclosures are nice and the animals seemed happy.  We were surprised so many animals were out in the heat of the day.  The ones sleeping had windows into their dens so we could still see them.  There was also an amphitheater where they do live animal presentations, plus a few smaller things like a "keeper chat" and other such things.

They were setting up a large area of western town facades for an upcoming Halloween event for kids to trick or treat in.  They were also starting to cover the plants with lights for the holidays.  We were very happy we chose this place instead of the canyon. 

By the time we were finished wandering the zoo it was past time for lunch, around 3:30 PM.  We passed a beautiful Cheesecake Factory restaurant on the way, so we stopped there on the way back to the hotel.  Click to view the Menu.  The restaurant is located in a lovely shopping center called The River.  Needless to say, there is lots of water involved in the landscaping.  The center is mostly large chain restaurants surrounding a huge move theater.  There is also an enormous defunct Borders Books that leaves a big empty space to fill in a prime location.  This complex is located in the very upscale city of Rancho Mirage and it certainly fits the image.

We have never been to a Cheesecake Factory before, but this certainly won't be the last time.  Our meals were fantastic and a very good value.  The total bill was less than $50 for an enormous amount of food that was absolutely perfect.  Everything was fresh and tasty, plus they even had healthy dessert options for Dave.  Of course we ate too much and we'll probably have to find something to at least snack on later, but that shouldn't be a terrible chore for us.

We arrived back at the hotel at around 5:30 PM to find vendors getting ready to set up their wares in the street in the front of the hotel.  Every Thursday night Palm Springs blocks Palm Canyon Drive and it is filled with crafts, food, art, and entertainment.  We have read mixed reviews about this event, Villagefest, but we'll wander out and check it out later.  It runs from 6-10PM.  By the way, it was still 89 degrees at 6:30 PM.

Around 7:30 PM, we went outside to the Villagefest.  Directly in front of our hotel is the food section.  It smelled good, but we were full from lunch, so we didn't buy anything.  There were maybe twenty food options along the street including the ones in the main food area.  The stalls stretch the length of the main business district along Palm Canyon Drive, about 4-5 blocks.  There are a lot of gaps where vendors are missing.  We overheard someone say that in the past there were almost no gaps at all.  So, in keeping with the general business climate we have seen so far, we'd have to estimate that there was more empty space than booths.  With the temperature pushing 90, you might think it would be unpleasant strolling around, but it was very nice out.  What they say about dry heat being more comfortable certainly is true.

The lack of vendors didn't seem to deter the crowds.  It wasn't jam-packed, but there were enough people around to make it look successful.  Most of the booths were selling the usual festival junk, but a few had nice jewelry, homemade candy, candles, garden ornaments, fresh produce, fruit, etc.  We bought a huge concrete frog embellished with shells on the way back, plus a couple of other small items.  The woman where we bought one item was extremely friendly and pleasant.  The seller at the concrete frog place told us to be very careful on the street because "young thugs" like to start fights, so stay out of the way.  There were police everywhere, so we felt safe.  The people walking around were a better class of people than you'd see elsewhere at this sort of event.

The shops along the street stay open during the evening.  We saw shops open tonight we thought were out of business since we'd never seen them open before.  All of the restaurants along the street were packed, although none appeared to have a line of people waiting.  All in all, this looks like a good idea for local businesses.  We're surprised they do this every week, year 'round though.  While this is something to see if you are already in Palm Springs, it definitely isn't worth driving out here to see until the economy picks up again.  By the way, the prices on everything we paid attention to were very reasonable.

It only took us an hour or so to walk the length of the festival and back to the hotel.  The valet rushed to open the door for us when he saw Bill with the frog.  After taking our purchases down to the car, we stopped by the bar in the lobby to get a blended drink for Bill.  The bartender was very friendly and offered to make a smoothie-type drink for him, then only charged him for the special of the night, which was a bargain for what he got.  We weren't hungry enough to go out for dinner tonight.

We enjoyed our stay in Palm Springs and would come back again sometime.  While the shopping isn't what it used to be, the restaurant scene is still worth the effort to come out and stay for a few days.  The Hyatt Suites is nicer than we expected, although not perfect.  The staff is very nice and friendly.  We would choose this property again.  The location is great for walking to restaurants and the suites are huge.  With all the freebies they tossed in, it is a good value, also.

Friday, October 21 - Drive to Twentynine Palms via Joshua Tree National Park - Fairfield Inn & Suites

Ruggedly beautiful desert scenery attracts nearly 2 million visitors each year to Joshua Tree National Park, one of the last great wildernesses in the continental United States. Its mountains support mounds of enormous boulders and jagged rock; natural cactus gardens and lush oases shaded by tall fan palms mark the meeting place of the Mojave (high) and Sonora (low) deserts. Extensive stands of Joshua trees gave the park its name; the plants (members of the Yucca family of shrubs) reminded early white settlers of the biblical Joshua, with their thick, stubby branches representing the prophet raising his arms toward heaven.

Twentynine Palms, home of Joshua Tree National Park Headquarters, is a city with something for everyone, with pristine air, beautiful natural surroundings, and a small town family lifestyle. The community takes pride in sharing the area's history, culture, lustrous starlit skies, and breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. Beyond the last of the traffic lights, here in the vast and palpable silence, we are the gateway to the scenic Mojave Desert, the great California Outback, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

The Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott is the first all-suite hotel in the Morongo Basin (Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree) offering an expanded complimentary breakfast buffet, fitness center, business center and both wired and wireless internet. Not only is the hotel located a mere 5 minute drive to both the USMC (Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center) and the Joshua Tree National Park, but also is a choice base location for activities such as rock climbing, hiking, or even stargazing! As a film-friendly hotel, our staff has a good scope of photo shoot areas and detailed maps for traveling. Whether business or leisure, whatever your lodging needs might be, you will be sure to enjoy the best amenities in all suites, including; a microwave, refrigerator, in-room coffee, LCD/Flat Panel televisions, a separate living area with sofa-sleeper, and a spacious work desk.

It is 78 at 11:00 AM this morning, expected to rise to a high of 92, which is a few degrees cooler than it has been.

We haven't seen anyone else in the restaurant using the free breakfast coupons, so we're still not sure why we scored this bonus.  But, it certainly makes for a better value for the dollar at this place.  The breakfasts cost anywhere from $12.95 to $18.95, and the buffet, which was available today, is $18.95.  The food is outstanding, but no breakfast is worth that much unless maybe it is covered in truffles and caviar or something.  Also, the servers readily make substitutions and offer extras.  For example, Bill asked if he could have an English muffin instead of the toast, so the waiter brought him both.  When Dave asked to substitute fruit for potatoes (which he has been doing all along), the waiter said he could have both if he wanted it. 

We headed off toward Twentynine Palms via Joshua Tree National Park at around 11:30 AM.  Trish didn't like us trying to take the back way into the park by driving south.  She kept yelling at us to turn around at every intersection in Palm Springs and on the freeway.  Maybe she knew something we didn't because after we shut her up and found our way there, the road was closed!  Damn, now we have to go all the way back the way we came and go directly to Twentynine Palms instead.  We have no clue why the road is closed.  There were some people standing around at the closed gate, but no rangers or other information about it.

It wasted about an hour driving down there and back to Palm Springs, but we weren't in a hurry anyway.  The park was mostly just a time-killer to avoid arriving at the next hotel too early anyway.

Once we drove through Palm Springs, we veered off to the east where the big wind farms are just north of the city.  The highway is scenic with the drive taking about another 90 minutes after we started over from scratch.

When we arrived in Joshua Tree, we decided to go to the park Visitor Center to find out what the story is with the closed road.  Turns out that there was a flood a few weeks ago and the road was severely damaged.  The ranger said it will probably open tomorrow, which is a lot sooner than they expected based on the damage.  That road is really the back way into the park and we would have missed most of the major sights in the park if we had gone that route.  So, we were lucky to start our tour from here instead.

It was around 3:00 PM by the time we wrapped up at the Visitor Center, had lunch in the cafe (quiche and a meatball sandwich), and set out again for the park a few miles up the road.  We renewed our annual pass before we left home, so we didn't have to pay the $15 per car admission fee. 

The loop road winds through the spectacular scenery that is way more interesting than we expected.  It starts with jagged hills of sharp boulders.  Most of the park is surrounded by huge smooth granite formations that are the result of magma pushing up and the overlaying sandy soil eroding over eons.  The jagged hills give way to a vista of thousands of Joshua Trees backed by scenic granite mountains.

The road winds among the huge piles of boulders.  Most of the hills are available for rock climbing from beginner level on up.  There were kids and adults clambering all over the first one we stopped at.  There was a spectacular view of the valley from the vantage point of the rocks without climbing too much.

Continuing along the loop road reveals amazing view after amazing view.  We pulled off at a whatever "exhibits" we saw, but most consisted only of roadside signs describing various features in the park.  The only actual hike we took was to Barker Dam.  There is also an old ranch on the spur road that leads to the dam parking lot, but it requires advance reservations. 

At the Barker Dam parking lot, there is a choice between the 1.1 mile loop nature trail to the dam, or a longer one to an ore crusher (or something like that...we weren't paying attention.)  We took the one to the dam.  Luckily the heat didn't materialize today and it was only 83 degrees most of the time.  The temperature in the shade was very pleasant.  As we got closer to the dam and into the canyons surrounded by giant rock formations, the temperature dropped many degrees.  We can understand why the native people would choose this spot since it is not only protected, but much cooler.

The trail is easy and winds through beautiful secluded desert landscapes, along the base of the granite, and ends up at the dam.  It was built by cattle ranchers in the 1900's in an effort to provide more water for their cattle at a natural catchment basin.  There is some water here anyway as evidenced by the bighorn sheep grazing in the mostly-dry lakebed.  The entire area is spectacular.  In a few protected areas among the rocks there are some small, interesting purple cactus plants.  If there is any water available, there are other small flowering plants in the crevices, as well.  Below the dam are some remains of the concrete watering troughs that were fed through pipes from the dam.  We encountered only two other people along the trail.

Beyond the dam, the loop trail passes some interpretive signs with information about various desert plants and animal life in the area.  We saw some miniature squirrel-like animals we can't find in our guide or on any of the signs in the park.  We are going to say that they are squirrels of some sort, but they might be some kind of big mouse.  What do we know?  We can safely say they are mammals of some sort.

Also along this trail is a huge naturally carved out boulder that housed a small Native American population in the distant past.  There are petroglyphs inside the cave that are readily visible and accessible from below.  The drawings that are painted are considered vandalism by the park service because the paint tracing was added later.  There is a sign advising visitors to report any further evidence of this happening.  How does anyone find this kind of behavior acceptable?

The remainder of the trail is beautiful, but uneventful.  By the time we returned to the car it was a little after 5:30 PM and the sun was starting to set behind the mountains.  There aren't any other significant stops, so we continued along the loop toward Twentynine Palms.  We only stopped to check out the informative sign about how erosion formed the granite we see today by removing the topsoil and exposing the granite that has pushed its way up over billions of years.

By the time we reached the other end of the loop and returned to the highway in Twentynine Palms, it was pushing 6:30 PM.  The ranger at the Visitor Center told us it would take an hour to drive the loop without stopping.  What we had expected to be a short drive of maybe two hours, turned out to be an all-day trek.  It wasn't difficult or particularly tiring though.  If we hadn't stopped for lunch, we probably would have been totally exhausted, but that little break revived us enough to get all the way through the park.  If you are into camping, this would be a beautiful place to do it.  As for rock climbing, it goes without saying that this would be an amazing location to try it.

Tonight's stop is at a new Fairfield Inn by Marriott on the west side of Twentynine Palms.  There is also a new Holiday Inn Express nearby, plus a handful of vintage motels.  This Fairfield, the lowest rung on the Marriott ladder, is an all-suite hotel.  That's the only reason we chose it over the Holiday Inn Express.

We found the hotel with no help from Trish since it is too new to be shown on any maps.  It is set back about a block off the highway, but we had no problem locating it.  Judging by the cars in the parking lot, it isn't exactly overflowing with guests tonight, but it isn't empty either.  There was no wait to check in, but the poor guy at the front desk had a newly bandage hand and couldn't work very quickly on the computer.  He was very apologetic, but we didn't mind at all since it was obviously not his fault.  The price for a suite at this hotel is only $113 which includes free internet and breakfast.

Our room is on the second floor (top floor) at the end of the hallway, so it is very quiet.  It appears that there are no other guests anywhere near us.  The room is huge with a semi-divided seating area and two queen beds.  There is an LCD TV on a swivel so it can be watched from the sofa or the beds.  The bathroom has black and white tiles in a retro pattern with a black granite counter.  For a Fairfield Inn, this one has an upscale appearance.  Although huge, the room is mostly empty space, which is odd, but doesn't affect us at all.

Once we were settled, we went out to find a place to have dinner.  We knew of two highly-reviewed restaurants in town, but asked at the front desk anyway.  The manager recommended the two places we already knew about, plus a diner-type cafe he said was his favorite because it is cheap and good.

We tried to find the first place recommended because we saw it on the way in.  Even so, we passed it three times before we could finally get close enough to see that it is very crowded.  While this is certainly a good sign, we just weren't in the mood to eat in an upscale restaurant tonight.  So, we went to the Carousel Cafe the manager had recommended.

To say this place is a throwback to another time is an understatement.  It is the epitome of roadside mom-and-pop diner.  The building is shaped like a carousel building and the decor consists of carousel-themed knick knacks.  Although it was clean and there weren't cobwebs hanging from the hundreds of ceramic carousels, it is in a state of deferred maintenance and looks like it could fall down at any moment.

Any worries were quickly dispelled by an amazingly friendly waitress who could not possibly have been any more sincere.  She informed us that we can order anything on the huge menu, including breakfast.  She also pointed out the $4.99 hamburger special that includes fries and coleslaw.  There was a $4.99 dinner special also, but it didn't appeal to us.  The regular dinners were all $10.95 unless you moved up to exotic choices like halibut steak.  We stuck with the roast beef dinner that came with both soup (clam chowder tonight) and salad, a choice of potato, vegetable (corn), and rolls with butter.  Yikes, carb overload alert!  The waitress let Dave get more vegetables instead of potatoes, so he did the best he could under the circumstances.  She offered several other substitution options also.

The food was typical diner food from the 50's.  Actually, we're not sure the meat wasn't really from that long ago, but it was all edible and filling.  The lettuce in the salad was fresh.  We've never seen so much gravy on one plate!  We were the only customers in the place most of the time, but it only has eight booths and a handful of tables, so it isn't a huge place.  It is probably most popular for breakfast.

Our total bill only came to $27.00 before tip for an enormous amount of food.  As we were leaving, the waitress offered to make us some iced teas to go at no charge, which was very thoughtful of her.  She also made a suggestion of a place we might visit on the way to Death Valley tomorrow.  While the meal wasn't anything to write home about, we would probably go back for breakfast and we might if the free one at the hotel isn't enough.

Back at the hotel, we promptly crashed in front of the TV.  Tomorrow is an expected long drive, so we're hoping it starts off better than today or we'll be arriving at the hotel around midnight!

Saturday, October 22 - Drive to Death Valley national park via Mojave National Preserve - Ranch At Furnace Creek

Mojave National Preserve is located in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County, California, USA, between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40. The preserve was established October 31, 1994 with the passage of the California Desert Protection Act by the US Congress. Natural features include the Kelso Dunes, the Marl Mountains and the Cima Dome, as well as volcanic formations such as Hole-in-the-Wall and the Cinder Cone Lava Beds. The preserve encloses Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve, which are both managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Impressive Joshua Tree forests cover parts of the preserve. The Cima Dome and Shadow Valley forests are the largest in the world. The defunct railroad depot and ghost town of Kelso are also found there. The depot is now the visitor center. The preserve is commonly traversed by 4 wheel drive vehicles traveling on the historic Mojave Road.

Death Valley National Park is a national park in the U.S. states of California and Nevada located east of the Sierra Nevada in the arid Great Basin of the United States. The park protects the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert and contains a diverse desert environment of salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states and has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve. Death Valley National Park is visited annually by more than 825,000 visitors who come to see its diverse geologic features, desert wildlife, historic sites, scenery, and clear night skies.

It is the hottest and driest of the national parks in the United States. The second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere is in Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet below sea level. The park is home to many species of plants and animals that have adapted to this harsh desert environment. Some examples include creosote bush, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, and the Death Valley Pupfish, a survivor of much wetter times. The park covers an area of 5,270 square miles of which 5,194 square miles is federal land.  Approximately 95% of the park is a designated wilderness area, which covers 4,774 square miles, making it the largest in the contiguous 48 states, and the sixth largest in the United States overall.

Welcoming guests since 1933, the Ranch at Furnace Creek offers accommodations in a casual, family-like setting, the perfect complement to the classic elegance of the Inn at Furnace Creek.  Hear the clatter of horse-drawn wagons as they roll through the Ranch and bring you back to the Old West. Stop off at the Corkscrew Saloon for a cool drink and a game of darts. Ride a horse, take a hike or challenge your kids to a game of horseshoes. Visit the General Store for a quick snack and some great gifts. Check out the antique stagecoaches, mining tools and steam locomotive at the Borax Museum.  As you wander around the western-themed grounds, you'll feel like you've been transported back to the 1800's when this site was established as a working ranch. Yet, you'll enjoy the amenities of modern civilization, like quiet, recently refurbished rooms, a Golf Pro Shop, a spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, a children's playground and the National Park Service Visitor's Center - which is just a stone's throw away.

The weather today ranged from the mid 80's into the low 90's depending on which hill we crossed.  The only point at which the heat became noticeable was after we entered Death Valley itself.  The rest of the drive was perfect.  As usual, there was not a single cloud in the sky all day.

We got up a bit earlier than usual to get to the free hotel breakfast before 10:00 AM.  Although the breakfast room wasn't crowded, the scrambled eggs and bacon were depleted.  However, they also had a refrigerator full of yogurt and two kinds of Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches.  There was also a variety of packaged cereal, make-your-own waffles, whole apples and muffins.  We almost went back and got some eggs when the attendant re-stocked them, but we decided we didn't care that much and we needed to get on the road.

We checked out of the hotel around 10:30 AM and went across the highway to buy some water and other supplies.  We also bought a salad for Dave and a sandwich for Bill in case we don't find somewhere to stop for lunch.  We're going to be on the road for at least four hours and we're not sure what we'll find at the available stops.  At the check-out, the bag girl realized we hadn't picked up any salad dressing for the salad and offered to go get some for us.  She brought back one of everything so Dave could choose whatever he wanted.  Now that's service!  She could not possibly have been any more pleasant or accommodating.

Once on the road, we quickly left civilization behind and started our drive north toward Death Valley.  On the extreme outskirts of Twentynine Palms, we came across a vacation home so charming we had to stop and make an offer to buy it.  It would really make a nice addition to our cadre of valuable properties.  By the way, this particular "house" is a deluxe model because it comes with an existing outhouse.  Believe us when we tell you that this was one of the nicer places.  OK, so next door was a hippie commune complete with geodesic dome and down the road a piece is a building with NO TRESPASSING signs all over it.  In the back are pyramids and another geodesic structure.  We're pretty sure we're better off not knowing what goes on around these parts.

We drove for about an hour, passing rocky hillsides and flatlands, before reaching the edge of a huge valley with a dry lake bed in the center.  On the far side, more jagged volcanic mountains loom in various states of erosion.  There are also a few random cinder cones every now and then in the middle of the flatlands.

After driving for hours through the scenic desert landscape, we took a turn onto the historic Route 66.  At the intersection is a vintage motel/cafe/gas station, now out of business along with everything else in the vicinity.  After a few miles we turned off of the old route and onto a scenic highway northward.

Our midway destination for today is the old Kelso Depot in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve.  It was originally built back in the days when extra locomotives had to be added to pull steam-powered freight trains up the steep grade toward the east.  It fell into disuse when technology improved and diesel locomotives were introduced.  It was closed in the late 1980's and was going to be demolished by Union Pacific until it was eventually saved by concerned citizens and restored by the park service.  It re-opened in 2005 as the Visitor Center for Mojave National Preserve.

The depot is now restored as it would have been in its heyday.  There is a vintage lunchroom, still serving, recreations of sleeping quarters that were rented to railroad employees, a ticket office, baggage room, and displays about the desert around us.  This place is located in the middle of nowhere, so it must have been quite a convenience back in the day.  There was originally a general store and housing for the workers in the area, as well as a huge roundhouse for the locomotives.  Most of these facilities have been demolished, but a few houses remain on the other side of the tracks.  The ranger on duty was eager to give us whatever information he could about the depot.  Best of all, the entire thing is free of charge.

We bought a couple of souvenirs in the gift shop, used the facilities, and started on the road toward Baker, another 45 miles away.  There is literally nothing between the depot and Baker, located on the freeway between L.A. and Las Vegas.  There is some dramatic volcanic landscape on the way, so there is something to look at.  Nobody stops in Baker if they don't have to.  The best motel, Arnie's Royal Hawaiian, has closed its doors.

The only plans we have for Baker is to gas up the car and have some lunch.  We had to choose between the Taco Bell attached to the gas station or IHOP.  We went with IHOP because neither of us can remember actually ever going to one before, so here's our chance.  We were the only customers in the place most of the time, but it was newly refurbished, the waitress was very sweet, and the food was good.  Our lunch of two sandwiches and soft drinks came to $25 before tip.  The beef in the sandwich didn't taste like Banquet TV dinner meat either, so we were happy.  Actually, the food is pretty darn good for where we are!

From Baker, the road to Death Valley is about as straight and stark as can be.  This part of the drive takes about two hours to the entrance to the national park.  There are certainly enough interesting geologic formations to look at, so it isn't boring at all.  We didn't pass more than five cars in the entire two hours.

The only civilization, if you can call it that, is at Death Valley Junction where we turned off on the road into the park itself.  At this remote intersection are the Amargosa Opera House, Hotel, and Cafe.  You can look up the history of this place online if you are interested, but the latest gossip would have one believe that the poor old lady who started it is now chained up in some room and then forced to perform her act a few times a week.  We're fairly certain the circumstances aren't quite that sinister, although there is probably a hint of truth to parts of it.

Even outside the boundaries of the park the scenery is stunning.  There are weird eroded hills that look like clay with shiny white, vertical stripes in them.  We learned earlier that the stripes were formed when magna seeped into the already crystallized lava flows.  However it was formed, it makes a striking spectacle now as it glints in the setting sun.

We reached the entry monument for Death Valley National Park at around 4:45 PM, exactly on our predicted schedule.  Microsoft Trip Planner does it again!  What's odd is that such a popular park would have visitors pay the entry fee at an unmanned automated kiosk that would be very easy to bypass.  We have an annual pass that produced our permit when inserted in the machine.  Otherwise one has to use cash or a credit card.  We didn't pay attention to the price, but it is around $20 for a 7-day pass.  The machine prints a slip of paper that goes on your dashboard for the duration, but we find it a bit hard to believe anyone checks.

When you enter the park you start at the 3,000 foot elevation and plunge to below sea level at the valley floor.  On the way, one of the first major features is the 20 Mule Team Canyon and the Badlands at Zabriskie Point.  The parking lot is at the same level as a wide dry wash at the foot of the eroded canyons that plunge into the valley below.  We climbed up the steep pathway to see the view, then drove down into the valley below.

The first thing we passed was the venerable old Furnace Creek Inn, built back in the 1930's to lure tourists to the valley when the Borax mining company decided to try to preserve the entire valley for posterity (and to continue to make money for themselves.)  It was immediately popular and has been ever since.  The rates starting at $350 a night for a tiny room attest to that to this day.  The fancy dining room at the inn required gentlemen to wear coats to dinner until just a few years ago.  They still have a dress code of sorts that forbids shorts and T-shirts.  This is the only restaurant in the park that requires reservations for dinner.

We opted for the more casual (read: cheaper) alternative a mile or so down the road at the Furnace Creek Ranch.  Both are run by the infamous Xanterra whom we loved oh-so-much at Yellowstone.  Needless to say, we aren't expecting much here except overpriced motel rooms.

To be perfectly honest, it really isn't all that bad.  Yes, it is definitely overpriced at $240 for a "Deluxe Double" room.  We chose this room because they are in single-story buildings and reviews had stated how thin the walls are throughout.  We figure that if we have to listen to people on either side of us, we can do without them walking above us, as well.

Check-in was fine. The clerk was friendly and gave us information about the complex, dining hours, etc.  Then she gave us a map to our room.  There is a little western-style "town" that houses two restaurants and a saloon, a general store and other facilities.  There is also a Borax Museum on the property.  The "Deluxe" rooms are in two semi-circles that back to the pool and tennis courts beyond a wide green lawn.  The other rooms are either in ramshackle duplex cabins at the front of the property, or in two story motel-style buildings at the back. 

We drove to our building with no problem and found nobody else parked in front.  We thought these rooms were sold out, but apparently not.  There is a neighbor on one side around the corner, but no one on our side.  However, the thin walls do make us aware that they do indeed exist, plus the fact that the wife likes to sit on the lawn directly in front of our doors.  Oh well, maybe they'll leave tomorrow!

The room was recently refurbished and looks nice for what it is.  The furniture is all new, the paint is fresh, and there is an LCD TV and a refrigerator.  The view is of the lawn with the pool beyond.  We can easily walk to the spring-fed pool right out our back door, but it is far enough away to be quiet.  Parking is right out front, motel-style.  The bathroom is brand new with nice stone counters and beautiful tile work.  It is certainly nothing like the bare bones you get at the Yellowstone hotels.  The air conditioning seems to work just fine and it was on when we arrived.  There is also a ceiling fan, but it is very noisy, so we don't plan to use it unless we absolutely have to.

There are several options for dinner, so we wandered back toward the "town" to see which one doesn't have a line tonight.  We stopped in first at the Wrangler Steakhouse which is the upscale option.  Click to view the Menu.  All of the restaurants serve basically the same thing, but with a bit of variety to fit the surroundings.  The steakhouse serves what one would expect.  We had to wait a couple of minutes for a table, but only because they are short staffed and can't use all of the available tables.

Our waiter was pleasant, although rather harried having to serve eight tables.  Nonetheless, he was fine and our food was delivered promptly.  Bill ordered a pasta dish with scallops and the house salad.  Dave ordered the Cowboy Steak with the spinach salad.  The salads were very good, as was the pasta.  The steak was OK, but nothing special. However, it was better than the one he paid $36 for in Palm Springs and included a choice of two sides for the same price.  We didn't have dessert, so including one mixed drink our total came to $97 before tip.  All things considered, it was much better than we expected from previous experience with Xanterra restaurants, so we have no complaints at the moment.

After dinner we walked along the storefronts to look at the other restaurants, the 49er Cafe and the Saloon.  Both were packed with people waiting outside.  We're hoping that was only because it is a Saturday night and we won't have such crowds tomorrow and beyond. 

Next we went in to check out the General Store.  We found the usual souvenirs to buy, at reasonable prices for a national park.  They also sell limited groceries and produce for campers.  We might stop by sometime to get some lunch food for our outings because there aren't any other food options in the park and the distances to the sites are long.

We walked over to the pool area, then back to the room.  It is still over 90 degrees outside, by the way.  The pool is fed by a natural hot spring, then the water flows on to irrigate the golf course.  Why there is a golf course in the middle of Death Valley is anyone's guess, but there it is!  Who wants to play golf in the 120 degree heat anyway?  Someone does, apparently.

Our day was over at around 9:30 PM.  All in all, it went better than expected for a longer drive than we usually prefer.  It didn't seem long at all and the scenery along the way was well worth it.  The next few days should be filled with more sites in Death Valley.  Let's hope the heat stays as moderate as it has been recently.

Sunday, October 23 - Death Valley National Park - Ranch At Furnace Creek

There hasn't been any change in the weather so far.  It is still in the 90's most of the time.  Oddly, it gets hotter at night.  It was only in the high 80's when we wandered over to the 49er Cafe for breakfast around 9:30 AM.

We were seated immediately and served by a friendly waiter.  The food was delicious and plentiful.  We'd even go so far to say it was a good value for a hotel meal. 

We loaded up the car with a supply of water, ice and some lunch, then drove up the road to buy gas for the car.  Yikes, the price of gas here is $5.27 a gallon for the cheapest unleaded!  They know they have a captive audience for sure.

On the road again, our plan for today is to cover the sites to the south of Furnace Creek.  We have to re-trace our entrance route, bypassing Zabriskie Point since we stopped there on the way in.  The next stop up the road is Twenty Mule Team Canyon, a stark landscape that is so dry and inhospitable that it supports almost no plant life of any kind.  It resembles big mounds of dried yellow mud, which is pretty much what it is except this mud is millions of years old and hardened into stone.  It was deposited as sediment under the ancient lake that existed here long ago.  There is borax on the veins in the cracks of the layers of solidified mud.  Warnings about staying out of dangerous mines are all over, but we didn't see any.

The loop road is a one-way trek over a dusty dirt road that is carved in the wash at the base of the hills.  Some are partially upturned pinnacles, others look like melting ice cream.  All of them are an off-white with a yellow cast and very dry.  If you look closely it is easy to see how the layers were deposited and compressed over time into the formations we see today.  The loop rejoins the main highway about 1.5 miles higher up the grade.

Along this route are layered mountains twisted and uplifted by the forces of nature.  Originally all of the layers were flat, laid down by sediments or volcanic eruptions.

Several miles farther up the hill we came to the turn-off for the road to Dantes View.  There are some mothballed mines within view here.  They are on private property and could come back to life at any time if the price of borax rises.  The road climbs up to over 5,000 feet.  The view back down the road to the valley is a site to behold.

The drive is rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of almost the entire length of Death Valley miles below.  The valley is only five miles wide, but it is over 100 miles long.  We are at the southern portion today.  Looking straight down from the viewpoint, we have a great view of one of the alluvial fans flowing into the salt flats created over thousands of years and gradually filling in the valley floor.  However, since the valley is continuously sinking, the infill never catches up.  In addition to the paved viewing area, it is possible to walk along the ridge to a point of volcanic rock some distance beyond.  We're a bit surprised this is allowed because one misstep and you'd find yourself tumbling for miles until you reach the valley floor.

We had to retrace our route back to the junction below the Furnace Creek Inn, where we made a left to go south directly below the viewpoint we visited above.  Just a few miles drive brought us to the trailhead for Golden Canyon.  This short hike, about 1.5 miles round trip, follows a wash-out former paved road into the badlands we viewed upon arrival at Zabriskie Point.  The mouth of the canyon is narrow and surrounded by towering upturned layers of sediment.  Most are a light golden color, hence the name.  Up close the layers are clearly obvious and the ground is littered with tons of shards that could pave thousands of patios.

Remnants of the road that was washed out in 1976 show the power of the water at it rushed down the canyon.  Most of the canyon is the yellowish stone, but there are also colorful green layers, towering pinnacles of stone, more towers and other features as the wash winds its way upward.  At the upper reaches in the canyon is the Red Cathedral that caps the sedimentary rock below.  Adjacent is a huge smooth stone tower rises thousands of feet above us.  On the way back down we came across a beautiful section of sharply upturned layers in a reddish-brown color.  It is possible to hike all the way up to Zabriskie Point, but we probably don't have to tell you that isn't what we did.

Back on the main road, we drove for a few more miles until we came to the turnoff for the Devil's Golf Course.  We were the only visitors brave enough to take the bumpy dirt road out into the salt flats to the viewing area.  The flats here are far from smooth.  Through the action of heat, water, expansion and contraction, the floor is a jumble of jagged salt deposits.  Most of it is brown or gray, but pure white, tiny delicate formations are still pushing out of the cracks and filling in spaces under the layers.  Anyone unlucky enough to trip and fall among these jumbles would be very unhappy indeed.

We bumped back to the main road again and continued south to Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley.  Furnace Creek is below sea level, but this is even lower.  A natural spring emerges from the base of the towering rock mountains, but it picks up so many dissolved minerals on the way that it is saltier than the ocean.  The Badwater Pools are only a few inches deep, but they reflect beautifully the adjacent mountains that rise to over 10,000 feet.  Way up on the cliff is a sign showing sea level.  We took the long walk out onto the salt flats, then hightailed it back to the car to get away from the annoying, biting gnats.  The car was covered with them like a scene out of a Hitchcock movie.

Safely ensconced in the sealed car, we ate our lunch before starting our drive back to the north.  It was around 3:30 PM at this point.

Close to where we started, but still south of the junction, we turned off on the one-way, paved Artist Drive.  This winding road takes visitors through colorful deposits below the amazing peaks of the adjacent mountains.  Spectacular views of the salt flats below are revealed as you climb up the alluvial fan.  The main attraction on the drive is the stop at Artist Palette.  This is a natural deposit of various minerals that oxidize into an array of pastel colors splashed on the hillside. 

There are many other interesting formations to see on the way back down to the main road.  Another smaller section of mineral deposits decorate the side of one hill, a big rock flow looks like it was poured over the top of a hill, breathtaking views of the layered mountains are visible, and huge blocks of stone lean at precarious angles.  These sites are only the tip of the iceberg of what we actually saw along the route.

Back on the main road again, we could see another angle on the dramatic layered mountain peak near the junction.  Don't worry, we'll post all of our pictures after we get home.  What we are highlighting in the text is a fraction of what we have to show!

We stopped to re-fill the gas again (distances are vast here), so we'll be ready to go again in the morning.  Then we returned to our room.  Unfortunately, housekeeping skipped us today, so we finally have a complaint.  At $192 a night for what is basically a motel room, we expect at least cursory housekeeping.  Bill called the front desk and the woman who answer acted appalled, so maybe this is an unusual occurrence.  She had someone bring us clean towels and offered to do whatever else we might need.  We just exchanged the towels and called it a wash for today.  We're not slobs anyway, so it isn't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

At around 5:30 PM we strolled up to the 49er Cafe for dinner.  There are several cars parked in front of our building today, so we were thinking maybe it would be busy, but it was nearly empty.  We were seated right away and served by an extremely pleasant waitress.  The hostess was also very nice.

Click to view the Menu.  Neither of the entrees we ordered is shown on the downloaded menu though.  Bill ordered a meatloaf dinner that came with mashed potatoes, gravy, sautéed corn with peppers, and bread.  Dave had the Oasis Salad and an Early Miners Burger which was a bacon cheeseburger topped with a fried egg.  He was thrilled that they offer a "skinny bun" option instead of a regular bun and it was actually edible (it was sort of like whole grain flatbread.)  All of the food was outstanding, so we have no idea what the problem was with the food at Yellowstone.  The total bill was only about $40 before tip.  We consider this a bargain for a monopoly like this.

After dinner we went next door to the General Store to buy some sandwiches and fruit for lunch tomorrow on the road.  We also found some souvenirs to buy that we missed yesterday.  The store is really quite extensive, but you have to look all the way in the back to find it all.  There were two tall cases of pre-made sandwiches with lots of variety, and another with containers of fruit and other salads.  Around the corner were several displays of microwaveable foods, giant cookies, muffins and such.  The prices are very reasonable for a place like this. 

It was still in the 90's after dark when we walked back to our room.

Back in the room, we crashed until it was time to watch The Amazing Race, which we just can't miss.  Other than that, nothing else happened worth reporting.  It appears we have no direct neighbors because it is quiet so far and no one is sitting outside our door tonight.

Monday, October 24 - Death Valley national Park - Ranch At Furnace Creek

It is somewhat cooler today with a slightly overcast sky.  This also enhances the scenic beauty, which we'll show you later.  It was around 83 degrees when we walked to the 49er Cafe for breakfast at 9:30 AM. 

Breakfast was great again.  Our dippy waitress, who acted like it was her first day, was our first, "Are you twins?", for this trip.  OK, here's a picture of us from yesterday.  You be the judge.  Click HERE to view.  By the way, Dave is nine years older than Bill for starters (Dave is on the left in the photo.)

OK, so back to the original subject...we hit the road to explore to the north of Furnace Creek at 11:00 AM.  We stopped only once during the one hour drive.  This was about fifteen minutes into the drive for photos of the surrounding landscape to the north, east, west, and south.  Not much out there, huh?  The only other photo stop we made was just north of the turn-off for the Stovepipe Wells area.  There are some enormous sand dunes in the valley below.  You can't discern the size in the photo, but take our word for it that they are huge.  We'll stop by for a closer look on our way out of Death Valley.

Our destination for today is located at the far northern end of the park.  We actually had to pass through the fee station to get to Scotty's Castle. It was privately owned before the park service bought it in the 1970's, along with a ranch below.  For the history of the castle and ranch, click HERE.

It takes exactly one hour to get there from Furnace Creek without stopping.  The first glimpse one gets of the property is the unfinished main gate.  Up until a few years ago it was used as the visitor entrance, but this was moved for safety reasons.  We assume because it is too narrow, but we're not sure about that.  As you can see in the photo, the construction is of poured concrete.  If the original owner told you what it was made of, you would have been handed a load a baloney about imported bricks and masons shipped in from Europe.  In reality, almost everything to build and furnish the castle was made in Los Angeles or Glendale, including the supposedly imported tiles and "handmade" iron work that came from a catalog.  The only tiles actually brought from Spain were a few used for decorative purposes. 

As you drive up to the castle, there is a Visitor Center to the right that was once a garage and staff quarters.  Behind this is a spring-fed stream with a small waterfall that would have eventually been diverted to fill the huge, unfinished swimming pool in front of the castle.

We parked and wandered into the visitor center to buy our tour tickets.  We waited patiently while the ranger ran through the Junior Ranger program with a group of kids.  They really take this stuff seriously as she asked questions to be sure their completed workbooks were done correctly.  It was cute to watch.  When they were all checked, they recited an oath about protecting national parks or something like that.  All we know is that it took about fifteen minutes, but we didn't mind.  The ranger did stop to tell us that the next tour would be at 12:30 PM, so we had 30 minutes to kill anyway.

There are two tours of the castle, the main house and an underground tunnel tour, plus one that includes a hike to the ranch where Scotty actually lived two miles down the canyon (he didn't build, own, or live in the about it at the site above.)  We bought a combo ticket with both tours for $20 per person.  Individually they are $11. 

As mentioned, the first tour, the underground tunnels, is at 12:30 PM, followed by the house tour at 2:00 PM.  Each tour lasts one hour and is led by a ranger dressed in period costume.  We were told to meet at the bridge over the pool for the first tour, so we wandered outside to take a few pictures of the castle before the tour. 

To the left of the house is a chiming clock tower that also used to play the favorite song of visitors when they arrived.  It still works and chimes every fifteen minutes.  The building below that is disguised as a castle is the powerhouse for the property.  More on that later.  We waited on the bridge overlooking the shallow end of the pool on one side and the very deep end on the other.  The pool doesn't have a bottom because it was never finished.  It was the last project started before construction stopped in 1931 due to a property dispute.

A chatty ranger dressed as an engineer came out and told us some interesting history, then lead us down into the "Seahorse Room" to the left of the pool.  They think this was intended to be a changing room, but they're not sure.  The name is derived from the chandelier in the center of the room.

The point of this tour is to show how technology was used to run the house.  It always had electricity, heat and a form of cooling.  Running water came from a spring above the property and required no pumps to provide water pressure.  Water power also generated power in the beginning and ran a motor that operated the washing machine in the basement.  We were shown this area with a huge boiler that provided steam heat (it drops below freezing here in the winter and snow is common.) 

Next we moved to a tunnel that runs the length of the pool and beyond to connect all of the buildings.  The ranger was very good at asking people questions to get everyone to participate, which was actually fun.  There were only six people including us on this tour.  There are leftover tiles, clearly marked Made in U.S.A., but passed off as imported, stacked where they were left in the tunnels.  The tunnel is so bright because it has large windows into the pool.  Had this ever been finished, this area would have been used as a viewing room for watching people swim.

Continuing into a narrower tunnel, we were shown a huge bank of Edison batteries that were used to power the house originally.  They would still work today if they are filled again.  They don't use the acid common today, so they haven't deteriorated at all.  Connected to this area is another tunnel that leads to the powerhouse.  This is the ornate castle-like building under the clock tower.

In the powerhouse are the original water-powered generator and three newer diesel machines.  The latter no longer work, but the original 1930's model water-powered generator still works just as it did back in the day.  The ranger had one of the guests turn on the water and it immediately powered up the lights in the room and on the outside of the building.  The tour ended with an explanation of the solar hot water heater on the hill above the unfinished courtyard.  This provided all the necessary hot water for the house.  Had it been finished, the courtyard would have housed a garden and additional apartments for workers and guests, plus archways overlooking the pool.

We climbed up to the roof of the powerhouse for a view of the valley below, Scotty's grave on a hill above, the pool and the entire property through an archway.

Across from the entry driveway is a "hacienda" that was a guest house now used to house the rangers.  There is also a cookhouse on the hill adjacent to the house.  It was too hot to cook in the house, although it does have an elaborate kitchen used mostly for show.  Up the road from the hacienda are the stables with a display of old coaches and automobiles.  The view of the house from here is worth the extra effort to walk up.

We were told to meet at the courtyard gates at 2:00 PM for the main house tour.  The same people who were with us on the first tour were there, plus about twelve more including a group of small children.  Why do people think little kids (we're talking three years old or less) are going to be appropriate on a tour that the ranger spent fifteen minutes explaining that you CAN'T TOUCH ANYTHING?  At least they didn't scream or run around, so we didn't care.  As it turned out, an old know-it-all coot was more annoying than the kids and had to be admonished twice about not touching things or walking on the carpets.

The turret on this end of the house is a spiral staircase that leads to/from the upper music room where the tour ends.  We entered the courtyard between the main house and the annex.  The carved wooden front door leads into the main living room.  At one end is a two story fireplace.  On the other is a two-story stone waterfall that provided natural air conditioning for the room.  The draperies are leather to help insulate the room.

Our tour took us through Scotty's bedroom which was never actually used.  The whole thing was just a prop for his elaborate stories.  We also went through the dining room, show kitchen, several bedrooms upstairs, and then back outside to cross a bridge to the annex.  This annex housed the "cheap rooms" that were rented to visitors, and an ornately carved music room where we were treated to a dramatic concert by the automated pipe organ that still works perfectly. 

Dave asked the guide who was giving tours back in the 1960's when he visited as a child.  The park service didn't buy the property (for $850,000) from a religious organization until the 1970's.  She said the tours were given by that organization and the original owners had guides before that.  We exited through the turret and back out toward the visitor center.

We really enjoyed both tours, enhanced by the enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable rangers.  We went back to the car to eat the lunch we brought with us while we watched a huge crow unzip a pouch on a motorcycle parked nearby and steal the owner's lunch.  Dave tried to stop the bird three times, but finally gave up when it came right back and started pulling at the zipper again.  He figured it out in no time.  A lone coyote was wandering around at the entrance driveway, forcing every car to stop while he meandered out of the way.

Our next drive took us to a nearby spur road that leads about five miles to Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater created when magna oozed up and hit groundwater, causing several big explosions.  The desert landscape changes to a volcanic one miles from the crater itself.  It was extremely windy at the edge of the crater where there are no barriers to prevent someone from tumbling all the way to the bottom of the crater.  You would probably not be badly injured on the ashy slope, but it wouldn't be any fun walking all the way back up.  There are several smaller craters a short hike away.

There are no more major sites in the north of the park, so we drove about 40 miles south before reaching the Salt Creek Trail.  This boardwalk through a green meadow carpeted with pickle weed, is to a salt-water stream that is home to the only fish who survive from the original ancient lake.  They survive in seasonal streams and in these very shallow pools.  We didn't see any fish, just gross yellow water and mosquito larvae, but the area is beautiful.  To reach this site, we had to drive a couple of miles on a very bumpy road that almost dissuaded us, but we endured and it was well worth it.

It was past sunset when we arrived back to the southern part of the valley.  We stopped at a nearby site, the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works.  This facility only operated for five years, but in its heyday it housed many workers in a makeshift town on the flats.  Only two adobe ruins attest to this now.  On the hillside are the remains of the boiler, cooling vats, offices and a twenty mule team hauling wagon.  Dave remembers visiting fifty years ago when you could still freely climb all over it.  It is fenced off now, of course.  Our late arrival (after 6:00 PM) allowed us to see a spectacular sunset afforded by the cloudy skies we haven't had until tonight.  The sun broke through to illuminate the mountains across the valley just before the sun slipped behind the eastern mountains.  It is still over 90 degrees however!

We stopped to fill the gas tank on the way back to the hotel, just a few minutes south of the Borax Works.  It seems quieter at the hotel than it has been, although it hasn't been crowded before this either.  We were happy to see that housekeeping showed up today.

All we did was clean up a bit and walk to the 49er Cafe for dinner. There was no wait for a table and the restaurant was mostly empty by the time we finished.  Dave had a delicious American Buffalo Flank Steak and a spinach salad while Bill had a pasta dish with sundried tomato sauce and chicken.  Both were fantastic, although pricey.  Our total bill was $72 before tip.  That includes one mixed drink from the bar.  Still, not ridiculous for where we are and the large, high quality portions.

Again, we stopped at the adjacent General Store to pick up lunch for tomorrow and small desserts for later tonight.  Other than that, we are done for tonight.  We'll try to cover a few sites that were too off the beaten path tomorrow, but only after we check out some displays on the grounds of Furnace Creek Ranch.  There is a Borax Museum and some other things to look at right outside our back door.

Tuesday, October 25 - Death Valley national Park - Ranch At Furnace Creek

Although it is not overcast today, the temperature never did exceed 90 degrees anywhere we went.  A very pleasant day indeed!

Breakfast was the same as usual at the 49er Cafe.  The service was slow, but it wasn't the fault of the waitress.  Forgetting one of our drinks was, but it wasn't a big deal and we didn't mention it.

Today's plan is to tour the grounds of the Furnace Creek Ranch where we are staying and the Inn where we might have if it didn't cost an arm and a leg.  Actually, now that we have seen the Ranch, we'd probably choose to stay here again anyway.  We prefer the casual atmosphere and the multiple dining options.  At the Inn one has to dress, although relatively casually, for dinner in the dining room every night. 

We started wandering around the grounds of the Ranch after breakfast.  At the very front of the property, visible from the road, is a 20 Mule Team Wagon and the Registration Building.  To the right of this building is a street of duplex cabins which are the original lodgings from the 1930's when the ranch was known as the "camp".  They have been refurbished and look about the same as the regular motel rooms except for the smaller footprint and duplex buildings.  These are the least expensive option here, but they are perfectly acceptable.

At the end of the lane of cabins is a large date palm grove and behind that the Golf Course Clubhouse.  There is a fast food restaurant in the clubhouse, but we haven't gone there.  We assume it is as good as the other restaurants since everything here is run by the same concessionaire.  The date palms have seen better days, but it is still interesting to look at.  There are some horseshoe courts and some covered wagons to look at also.

Circling back around behind the registration building and in front of the row of restaurants you'll find the Borax Museum.  This free museum includes a small historic building that was moved to this site years ago.  There are some displays inside, plus a gift shop.  We chatted with the very friendly clerk for a while before stepping out back into a big open air display of mining implements of every sort.  There is an old 20 Mule Team Barn that was moved here in the 1960's, lots of equipment, and even a locomotive.  It is a nice place to look at for free, that's for sure.

Walking along the main street toward our block of Deluxe rooms, we took the pathway behind the rooms toward the pool area we can see from our back door.  There is a sports area adjacent to the pool with a putting green, lawn bowling and shuffleboard court.  The natural spring that supplies the pool is at one end of the pool enclosure.  The pool looks to have been recently refurbished also.  Part of a new seating area is awaiting furniture, but it looks very nice.

At the farthest rear of the property are several two story motel-style buildings where all of the Standard rooms are located.  They look exactly the same as our room except they are slightly smaller.  We opted for the deluxe room only to avoid having someone walking on our ceiling in a two story configuration.  Otherwise, these rooms are fine, and a bit less expensive.  All of the room types have been refurbished recently.  These buildings overlook the golf course.

After a brief stop to load up the car with supplies, we took off for the nearby Furnace Creek Inn.  You may recall that this was built in the 1930's to lure wealthy vacationers to the area to promote the idea of preserving Death Valley for the future.  Dave's family stayed here fifty years ago and it looks exactly the same.  It doesn't appear to have been updated as recently as the Ranch, but it isn't in poor condition or anything.  Parts of the interior look dated because of poor design choices in the 1980's, but otherwise it is fine.

We started by wandering out back to overlook the oasis garden that is watered by a spring that also fills the pool.  We saw absolutely no guests or staff anywhere outside until we approached the building to go inside.  Obviously this is the off season!  The Inn re-opened this month (it is closed in the summer.) 

Walking down to the gardens, the temperature drops a few degrees among the beautiful palm trees, streams, waterfalls and ponds.  We saw our first employee when we were walking toward the door to the elevator.  He stopped what he was doing to greet us.  Once inside, we were deciding whether to take the stairs or the elevator when a maid came over to ask if we needed any help finding anything.  She was chatty and very friendly, as well.

We took the vintage elevator up to the third floor lobby, checked out the gift shop and wandered into a beautiful lounge.  Huge bay windows look out over the desert below.  The dining room is immediately adjacent and looks very attractive; although there was only one table occupied for lunch (it was around noon at this point). While there is nothing wrong with the inn, we would definitely choose the casual atmosphere of the ranch if we stay here again, price notwithstanding.

OK, so here's where our plans went down the drain.  Not so much off track, but not at all what we expected.  We started driving north again, but took the cutoff toward Nevada to check out the Keane Wonder Mine.  We drove the entire length of this road and never saw the turnoff or any signs pointing at it.  Checking out the park service map, we finally noticed the tiny print noting that the mine is off limits due to safety hazards in the mine.  Oh well, too bad, so sad.  Let's move on.

With the mine off the table, we figured we'd drive out of the park and into Nevada to the Ryolite ghost town.  Ugh, what a mistake this was!  That's an hour of our time we'll never get back.  Yes, it exists, but that's about all we can say for it.  We're appalled that this place is owned by the BLM because it certainly appears to be nothing more than a collection of private interests (people living in trailers around the property) who are trying to capitalize on the tourists stupid enough to venture out here.  OK, so you tell us what a sculpture of a miner with a penguin has to do with anything?  It is a front for a free "museum", er, ah, gift shop, that leads up the road to a typical ghost town bottle house that is obviously fake and houses an old man with a card table out front selling "information".  Adjacent is an old ramshackle building with a hand drawn sign trying to fool visitors into believing this is from a ghost town somewhere and was moved here.  Since when do ghost town buildings have pink fiberglass insulation?

There actually is an authentic ghost town here, but it consists of only one short street of stone ruins topped off by a depot building surrounded by a tall chain link fence.  The only remnant of a train ever going through here is an old caboose out back.  No tracks remain.  There are also warning signs all over the place about the presence of rattlesnakes.  That only serves to make us feel right at home, so no big thrill there.

Well, that was sure a drag.  On the way back we opted out of the 26-mile dirt road trip through Titus Canyon back into the park.  Dave thought maybe that was where the never-reached ghost town of his youth might be, but more on that later.  Anyway, we did pass a sign pointing out Corkscrew Peak, so it wasn't a total waste.

We drove straight through the junction in the valley to reach the oh-so-famous (not) "Devil's Cornfield."  Sigh.  Here's a photo.  Who the heck makes this shit up?  They sure must have been desperate for entertainment back in the day when they first tried to lure tourists to this place.

Yesterday we promised you more sand dunes, so they're up next.  These are for real huge, impressive dunes, not some made-up fantasy from the past.  They are also very popular, so unlike everyplace else we've been today, we aren't the only people there.  However, it isn't crowded today, but by the size of the parking lot it must be at some point.  We walked out a ways into the sand, which is so fine it is more like sparkly dust that sand.  Dare we say it looks like fairy dust?  Visitors a lot younger than us walked all the way out to the large dunes.  Dave did that when he was seven, but he thinks maybe the dunes were closer to the road then.  We'll settle for zoomed in pictures.  Take our word for it that these things are huge.

We didn't intend to go this far today because we have to travel this route on the way out of Death Valley tomorrow.  But, with nothing to show for our day so far, we continued on to the other lodging option in the valley, Stovepipe Wells Village.  Wow, we sure did make a wise choice choosing Furnace Creek!  Stovepipe Wells is run by some of the surliest staff ever.  This place used to be run by Xanterra also, but whoever runs it now is definitely several rungs lower down the ladder in the sophistication department.  Besides that, there is nothing here except a General Store, gas station and a motel that is surrounded by concrete and not much else.  Their lovely pool is drained and the plaster has been removed. On the concrete are painted big red lines and the word "CRACK".  Not a good sign.  No evidence of any actual repair work going on today or in the recent past.  Skip this option if you plan on staying in the valley.  The motel buildings did look to be in decent shape though.

This is where we had originally planned to turn around today, but it is only 1:30 PM and we aren't tired yet, so onward and upward (literally) we go.  Up the alluvial fan until the turnoff for a road to some charcoal kilns and other things of a mining ilk.

First up was a dirt road to the Eureka Mine.  The sign said it was only 2 miles, so we figured we'd give it a shot.  It was VERY rough going, but we made it to the Aguereberry Camp ruins without too much damage to our kidneys.  There are a few tumbledown buildings left here and a mine up on the hill.  Along the derelict dirt road to the mine is an old rusted out automobile.  The interior of the largest house must have been quite fancy at one time.  Each room has a different pattern of linoleum and the doors all have pink trim.  Hmmm, wonder what's up with that?  Several old iceboxes look like they are brand new and would still perform as designed.  They sure don't make 'em like they used to!

The interpretive sign at the camp said to continue up the road a bit to a turnoff for the Eureka Mine, so we did as we were told and went to the mine.  The sign here said to take two flashlights and it was OK to explore the mine.  Yeah, well, once up there, the entrance to the shaft was barred by thick, welded-in-place metal bars that looked pretty permanent to us.  Not that this is any big surprise these days, but how about updating the sign?  Anyway, the general area was interesting with old rusted barrels probably containing leftover cyanide and other toxic substances strewn about.  Around the hill is a ruin of the Cashier Mill that was used to crush the ore to find gold.  Oh yeah, this is a gold mine, not Borax like in the valley.  Also, a big difference in the temperature up was only 70 degrees!

It was so pleasant that we ate our lunch in the car enjoying watching the crows look for food in the brush.  We tossed out some grapes and they were thrilled to hunt for them when they thought we weren't looking.

As we were driving back on the paved road, we came upon a sign pointing to the "Skidoo Site".  Aha!  THIS is the ghost town Dave's dad never got us to!  The name brought it all back.  We all thought the name sounded amusing, so we were determined to get there.  However, it is a nine-mile dirt road that goes up and over steep hills.  Night fell, the gas tank emptied and we had to turn around, defeated, never to reach Skidoo.  Should we try it?  We have a 4x4 this time, not a sedan. 

We'll give it a shot and see how it goes.  Unlike before, we know how far it is, nine miles.  So, we reset the trip counter and set off.  OH MY GOD, the road is SO bumpy!  Should we stop?  We've only gone 4 miles so far and now we're climbing up into the hills where the sides drop straight down to the valley 3,000 feet below.  Dave remembers this part.  He doesn't recall whether he and his mother were vomiting out the window yet, but it sounds plausible.  It was somewhere around here that we had to give up and turn around back then. 

Yes, we thought about it, too, but figured we've come this far and the SUV doesn't seem to be having any problems.  The road got very rough with big rocks that had rolled into the road (get it, rocks rolled)...but we digress.  We kept going until we came down from the hills on the other side and the road smoothed out a bit.  Needless to say, we were completely alone on this trek.  This is a good thing because there would have been no way to pass a car coming in the other direction!

Eureka!  There is the interpretive sign out in the middle of nowhere, literally.  There is nothing here except the sign.  Dave can hear his mother yelling, "Oh my God, Ed!  You drove us all the way out here for THIS???"  Maybe it worked out for the best back then because we never knew that this was it.  Or maybe that long ago there was still something here, who knows?

Still, Dave made it to the destination we had set out for some fifty years earlier.  Yeah, so there's nothing left here except some rusty old tin cans.  But, sometimes there is more to a place than meets the eye.

After reveling for a few minutes in the solitude and the memories, we started back the way we came.  It seemed a lot shorter this time even though we stopped at an old miner's claim.  Those guys sure were persistent.  The mine dug below an old skeletal house was chipped by hand into solid rock.  The only thing remaining of the house is the kitchen sink.  That big hole in the picture is chiseled into the quartz rock and turned into gravel at the entrance.  Would you have what it takes to even attempt doing that?  Heck, we wouldn't even have the balls to TRY!

The road back seemed a lot shorter knowing now where we are going and where we've been.  The sun was starting to set and adding dimension to the rock formations along the way.  Back again in the valley, we passed the dunes with the setting sun adding to the dramatic setting.

We arrived back at Furnace Creek around 6:30 PM and went directly to the cafe for dinner.  It was packed, but we only had to wait a couple of minutes for a table.  The staff was frantic and obviously short of help, but all of them worked hard to serve everyone promptly.  We had the same waiter from last night and he was thrilled to see us again.  Bill ordered the buffalo flank steak Dave had last night and it was again delicious.  Dave ordered the fried chicken dinner and didn't like it.  Nothing really wrong with it except it was boring and a mess to eat.  Fried chicken is only worth the effort when it is really tasty.  This wasn't.  No matter, he ate it anyway and had plenty of food with two servings of vegetables and bowl of cole slaw he didn't know was included. 

Back at the room we reorganized our luggage for our departure tomorrow and crashed for the night.

Wednesday, October 26 - Lone Pine - Best Western Plus Frontier Motel

Lone Pine wears many faces for the tourist and resident alike. For some it is the High Sierra with hiking, fishing, biking and other outdoor recreational opportunities. For others it is the high desert with what writer Mary  Austin called “the twenty mile shadows.” She meant the Sierra Nevada mountain shadows cast across the valley near sunset on the face of the Inyo Mountains to the east. For still other history enthusiasts, it is the site of the great earthquake of 1872 that one March morning dropped the valley floor some twenty-five feet and flattened most of the adobe town. Four historic cemeteries encapsulate much of the history of the town.  Lone Pine is still a working cowboy and ranching town. Everywhere you turn you’ll find cowboys, and horses, and if you just happen along at the right times of year one of the long trail drives when Anchor and Kemp and others take the cattle up or out of the mountains as they have for more than a century.

Situated in Eastern California's beautiful Owens Valley, the BEST WESTERN PLUS Frontier Motel is ideal for guests traveling to Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as a centralized stopover between Los Angeles, Yosemite and Las Vegas. Enjoy either mountain or valley views in one of 73 well-appointed guest rooms, each featuring cable satellite television and high-speed Internet access. Guests are welcome to an expanded complimentary continental breakfast each morning before exploring Inyo County attractions. Take a day trip up to Mt. Whitney, only 13 miles away, to visit the Mt. Whitney Hatchery or spend the afternoon in the Inyo National Forest. The Manzanar National Historic Site is conveniently only eight miles from the hotel.

It is very windy and much cooler today, probably in the high 60's or low 70's.  Hopefully we won't repeat the sandblasting of the car incident from 50 years ago, but we'll see!  One trip down memory lane is plenty.

We had another nice breakfast in the cafe.  While overall the food is reasonably priced, we are still appalled by $50 breakfasts.  It isn't as though we are having steak for breakfast.  At least it is good food, which is a definite plus when you are at a Xanterra managed property.

We're heading out of Death Valley this afternoon and moving on to Lone Pine where we'll have another four-day stopover.  Let's see what weird adventures we can find today...

Checking out wasn't anything much, but the woman who checked us out was chatty.  An old lady in front of us was trying to find a room for tonight that wasn't too expensive.  Fat chance, honey.  The clerk was nicer than we would be and showed her pictures of the available rooms (standard rooms only) and explained that the cheaper cabins always sell out well in advance.  However, cheaper doesn't mean cheap around here.  They are still expensive for what they are.  We would definitely stay here again though.  After seeing all of the other options, Furnace Creek Ranch is by far the better choice all around.

We hit the road north around 11:00 AM, maybe a bit later, we forget.  That was a few hours ago, you know, we can't remember everything.  It is extremely windy today, so someone is really turning up the memories from the sandstorm and the ruined car from fifty years ago.  The sand in the valley isn't blowing yet, but it is getting hazy around the mountains.  The temperature is in the mid 70's.

There is a climb straight up an alluvial fan to reach the mountain pass out of the valley to the west.  The elevation at the highest point is 5,000 feet.  So, that means we went from below sea level to 5,000 feet in just about ten miles.  Imagine the early pioneers climbing up from the valley floor in their covered wagons, nearly dying of thirst and finally reaching the summit.  "Oh lordy, lord, hallelujah!  We have made it out that God forsaken valley!"  Then they start to descend the other side, turn the corner and see THIS (minus the highway, of course.)  "SHIT!"

We could tell you the name of this second valley, but that would require walking across the room and looking up the information, so Google it if you really care that much.  It is part of Death Valley National Park, but as far as we know there aren't any attractions here.  Most of it is a dry lake bed with sand dunes at one end.

At the midpoint of the mountain on the western side of the valley is the third option for lodging here, Panamint Springs Resort.  Somebody had a very vivid imagination to call this place a resort.  It is WAY removed from any of the sites in the valley, at least forty-five minutes to Stovepipe Wells, and another thirty minutes to Furnace Creek.  That would be too much driving, in our opinion.  Even if you are on a budget, think twice about this place.  The rooms are in ramshackle cabins along a dirt lane in back and the "restaurant" doesn't look much better.  It is all privately owned and operated, so if you want to avoid supporting corporate giants, this is the only way to do it.

The highway (CA 190) snakes along the ridges of the mountains, through some dramatic volcanic landscape, and the down into the Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada Mountains looming on the other side.  The total distance is only about 90 miles and the drive, without stops, takes about an hour and forty-five minutes.  There were no problems until we reached the edge of the mostly dry Owens Lake.  Apparently the City of Los Angeles diverts most of the water, so now there is some sort of plan to alleviate dust by using sprinklers to keep it wet.  We learned all of this from a Visitor Center along the way, which was our only stop of more than five minutes.

Well, almost the only stop.  At one point along the lake there is road resurfacing going on, so we had to wait for an escort to continue in a short convoy.  This is where déjà vu struck and the blowing sand from the dry lake bed started to re-create Dave's departure from Death Valley all those years ago.  It did not, however, escalate from what you see in the picture, but it was a nice gesture on nature's part to make the effort.

Since it was only 1:15 PM when we arrived in Lone Pine, we headed straight for the Film Museum we had read about. Click to view the Brochure.  We'll bring Dave's dad into this again.  He was constantly mistaken for Hopalong Cassidy by kids in airports.  This happened often enough that he just started signing the autographs to make the kids happy.  If you own what you think is an authentic autograph, you may want to show it to Dave first.  Again, fate took a hand because the side street to the museum is Hopalong Cassidy Lane.

The owner, Beverly, was selling tickets ($5.00 per person) and she informed us to come to the theater in fifteen minutes for a video documentary on the movies made in the area.  The Alabama Hills area and Movie Road are the locations for many early westerns and are still used for commercials and movies today. 

Movie props and western memorabilia are displayed in the museum.  One might expect the usual dusty array of kitsch at a place like this, but the whole place is immaculately maintained.  The displays are interesting and varied.  For a mom and pop operation, this is the best museum of its kind we have ever seen.  Oh, and Beverly told us that our ticket is good for admission to a movie shown in the theater for the next two nights.  They show movies that were shot here.

The documentary was very well done with lots of information about the movie making.  It only lasts fifteen minutes, which is plenty, and is both amusing and educational.  It really couldn't be better.

After the movie we finished looking at the displays and started out.  Beverly asked how we liked it and was thrilled when Dave told her he was impressed by how clean it was in addition to the lovingly displayed items available for viewing.  He told her the story about his dad being recognized by kids in airports when she asked what brought us here.  She was overjoyed to hear about it.  She and her husband are obvious fans of the westerns and it shows in this beautiful little museum.

Our hotel is just a few blocks south of the museum, so we were there in no time.  It is an old motel that has been nicely upgraded to a Best Western Plus.  It certainly isn't fancy, but what can one expect for a room rate of $99.99 anyway?  A lot apparently.  Check out our room.  It is 800 square feet!  It looks like a converted office or maybe a meeting room because the two beds are Murphy beds that can be flipped up out of the way.  There are at least twenty phone jacks behind one of the sofas.  That's right, there are two sofas, a table and two chairs, and a desk with another chair.  The large LCD TV is so far away across the room we may need binoculars to watch it.  And, there are THREE air conditioning units.  We didn't know it when we booked, but each room is themed after a different western movie star.  Ours is the John Wayne room, so there are pictures of Mr. Wayne all over the place.

This room is directly on the highway, so it is a bit noisy, but we have a pastoral view of cows grazing across the street with the towering Mt. Whitney as a backdrop.  The side view is of open desert and mountains in the distance.

The woman checking us in wasn't exactly Miss Congeniality, but she got the job done and wasn't rude or anything.  There is a free hot breakfast in the morning, but it ends at 9:00 AM, so it may be too early for us.  We'll try though.  There is also a pool, laundry room, and free wireless internet that actually works and is very fast.

After we set up campfires so we can communicate across the vast room via smoke signals, we drove up the road for dinner.  This was around 6:00 PM.  "Up the road" means about a block, by the way.  If there were sidewalks we would have walked, but the stretch of highway near the motel isn't safe for walking.  The entire downtown is a bunch of storefronts along highway 395 and runs about four blocks.  By the way, we could take this road all the way home if we wanted to take the scenic route the entire time.  It is comparable in historic terms to Route 66 and is lined with old motels and neon signs.  Lone Pine is full of vintage signs, but most are not lit anymore, which is a shame.

The restaurant we chose tonight is Seasons, a much touted local place that is rated very highly in reviews.  If there is a fancy place in town, this is it.  There might have been some competition at one time, but about half of the newer looking restaurants are out of business, along with many of the shops.  Only old time diner/cafe places remain open.

When we arrived, there were plenty of available tables.  The hostess jokingly asked us if we had a reservation.  We were seated in a booth by the windows.  After we arrived a steady stream of new arrivals came in during the entire time we were there.  So, we'd definitely say this particular place is doing a good business considering this is the off season and it is the middle of the week.  It never did fill up, but it was over half full the entire evening.

Our server was very pleasant and did a good job.  Bill ordered a filet, Dave ordered pork tenderloin plus French onion soup.  Both meals came with the house salad, vegetables and rice pilaf.  Considering the raving reviews, the food was a bit of a disappointment.  Compared to the diners lining the highway, this is definitely the highest quality meal you're going to get around here, but it isn't gourmet dining by any stretch of the imagination.  The soup was flavorless, but edible.  The salads were fresh, but only contained lettuce and one slice of tomato.  The waitress arriving at the table with a giant wooden peppermill was very over the top for what the salads were.  Again, fine, but nothing to write home about.  The filet was a huge portion and cooked exactly as ordered, but didn't have any discernable sauce or seasoning on it.  The pork tenderloin had an herb-wine reduction sauce that was subtle to the point of not adding much, but the meat was top quality and perfectly cooked.  The vegetables were overcooked sliced carrots with herbs and were OK.  The pilaf was what you'd expect after the prior descriptions of the food.

So, all-in-all, the meal was high quality, but lackluster.  It was less expensive ($69 before tip) than any of our dinners at Furnace Creek, but we got more food there and much of it was more flavorful.  We'll head for one of the diners for the rest of the trip.  We're not sorry we went here, but we probably won't go back.  Besides, by the look of things, the diners could use some business.  A couple of them had some customers, but most were empty.  Maybe that says something about the food though.  We'll try the two that had some business.

We drove up the next two blocks to see if there are any shops in town we have to visit.  Nope, just a market and some bait shops.  That makes it easy, doesn't it?

We were back in our cavernous room at the Best Western by 7:30 PM and done for the day.  By the way, it is quite chilly outside now, probably in the low 60's or high 50's.  We didn't bring any warm clothing, so let's hope it doesn't get any cooler than this.

Thursday, October 27 - Lone Pine - - Movie Road/Alabama Hills - Best Western Plus Frontier Motel

For many, Lone Pine is the background against which John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and many others fought and won the west. The Alabama Hills are still one of the most sought after locations for filming, for both feature movies and even more car commercials. Besides westerns, there have been science fiction films like Star Trek, Tremors and Iron Man, and film noir such as High Sierra, I Died A Thousand Times and Woman Trap. There have even been cinematic romances where the guy kissed the girl or at least the horse at the end of the last reel. Visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum right on South Main Street and see the fifteen minute orientation film to catch up on many more titles. Tour the Alabama Hills just a few miles west of town on a self guided tour.

The chill factor this morning is in the 40's and crystal clear.  Official weather stations say it is in the 30's, but no way is it that cold.  The view from our room of the mountains is particularly spectacular with the sun highlighting them.  All of the cattle across the road wandered in a single file line to be fed, which was cute to watch.

We made it to the free breakfast in spite of the short serving hours.  This motel only serves from 7-9AM, so if you want to take advantage of it, you have to get up at the crack of dawn.  Remember, we consider the crack to be anything before 11:00 AM.  The food was just OK, nothing special.  Pre-fab scrambled eggs, sausage patties, bread for toasting, pre-made waffles, canned fruit, muffins and four kinds of cereal.  It was difficult to fill up, but enough to get us started.

Apparently our section of the motel is "fancier" than the original rooms.  We thought all rooms had western star names, but only the ones in our "L" do.  The others are regular motel rooms with a pool in the center.  The grounds are nice (for a motel) with a big kinetic sculpture near the pool and some metal sculptures along the road.  The whole place looks to have been recently upgraded, we assume to get the "Plus" designation from Best Western.  It is well worth the $99.99 we're paying per night.  Regular rooms start at $79.99.

We'll be doing the Alabama Hills and Movie Road self-guided tour today.  The booklet we bought for this at the Film Museum is supposed to guide us with instructions like, "Stop two car lengths from the intersection and walk 100 paces to your right."  The owner of the museum gave us a list of GPS coordinates also, but she said most people find the locations fine with just the book.  We're not usually motivated enough to do much hiking, so don't hold your breath for this being the most exciting experience you've read about so far.

OK, so off we went toward Whitney Portal Road to find Movie Road.  That would have been a lot easier if we hadn't been looking at the storefronts and paying attention to the street signs.  Our GPS is of no use because she doesn't know where anything is around here by name.  We eventually figured out that we had to turn around about four miles north of town in the middle of nowhere.

Turns out the street we needed is the same one the restaurant we went to last night is on.  Oh well, at least we finally figured it out without wasting too much time.  On the way we were treated to a boulder painted to look like a big monster, and an impressive view of Mt. Whitney.  The tallest peak is more than 14,000 feet tall!

We have a pamphlet from the Film Museum with amusing instructions about how to find ten of the B-Western shooing locations.  It says that there is a stone monument at the corner of Whitney Portal and Movie Road, and they are correct.  It couldn't be any easier to find.  Finding the sites is sort of like a scavenger hunt.  "Reset your odometer.  Drive .5 miles, then pass one dirt road to the left, then another, then stop two car lengths short of the third."  There isn't anyone else on the road, so it is easy to stop whenever.  The road turned to dirt quickly, but it is wide and smooth, so no trouble navigating. 

The entire route is only a few miles, although it is possible to continue beyond the sites and explore on your own for many more miles.  In addition to the movie sites, there are striking granite rock formations and other geologic features to gaze in awe over.

We arrived at the first of the locations just .5 mile from the turnoff.  This one is the location for the 1930 "Gunda Din-Tent City".  We tried to get the same angle to recreate the scene, but since we don't have a mobile crane we had to make do with shots from the ground.  Some of our efforts are better than others, as you will see in our photos with the reference photos added.

Next up, at .4 mile mark, is a backdrop from the 1963 feature, "Showdown".  Note that the modern road in our photo is also visible in the movie still that clearly shows vehicle tracks in the road!  Producers were lucky then that we didn't have DVD players that could pause each scene to look for flaws.

A short distance along the road, we forked to the left and arrived at a rock formation shown in the instructions.  Circling around the back of the rocks, we came upon the exact location of the Grave Site scene from the 1951 film, "Rawhide".

The next clump of rocks was a very popular location for shooting a variety of movies.  All we had to do was walk around and look for the correct angles to frame shots of "Gunga Din-Tentrapur", 1940's "The Gay Caballero", and 1957's "The Tall T".  Following directions to walk 50 paces up a dirt road led us to the site for the Hanging Bridge from "Gunga Din".  The bridge only looks big in the original photo because of perspective.  It was really only a few feet off the ground.  Remnants of the mounts still exist on the rocks, something that wouldn't be allowed today.

Beyond the location for the bridge is a ravine that was the setting for several wagon-overturning scenes.  The 1962 "How the West Was Won" is up first.  Turning to the left is the locale for 1960's "Hell Bent for Leather".  Below, in the ravine, a rusted out vintage car remains, another piece of litter that the production company of today would be required to haul out with them.

The final location is the site of two scenes from "Rawhide".  Both are of the Stage Station.  One is a distant shot.  Turning around we spied the second Stage Station with a unique rock formation to the left.  We'll admit that it took GPS coordinates to find this one, but find it we did.

We didn't expect the hunt for the locations to be as interesting as it was, and best of all it was easy and free.  It is cool out today, which made it more appealing to be out and about.  It was only 57 degrees the entire time we were wandering around in the sun.  This whole outing took a little over an hour, so we're only now approaching the noon hour.

With that adventure out of the way, we decided to go ahead and do the drive up to the Whitney Portal, the trailhead for hiking to Mt. Whitney.  After consulting our map, we determined the total distance to be just less than twelve miles.  Lone Pine is at just over 3,200 feet.  Whitney Portal is just above 8,200.  Still, the drive was very easy with no traffic at all.  There were several turnouts that provided spectacular views of the valley and the Alabama Hills area we just left.

The main purpose for driving up here is to get to the start of the hike to the 14,000+ Mt. Whitney.  Who does that?  Apparently a lot of people because there is actually an "overflow" parking lot in case the regular one gets full.  There are also campsites here, but most were closed today.  This is the tail end of the season for hiking because snow will make it too difficult shortly.

Across from the parking area is a spectacular, unmarked waterfall that tumbles hundreds of feet down a granite jumble.  The water is still partially frozen.  Icicles decorated a fallen branch over the stream and snowy drifts of spray adorned the edges of the waterfall.  At the very end of the loop road there is an enormous chunk of rock that fell eons ago from the peak above.

Another smaller stream feeds a serene pond where there were several people fishing.  Part of the surface is still covered in a thin sheet of ice this late in the season.

A small, rustic store supplies cooked to order pancake breakfasts and burgers, limited camping supplies and rock climbing gear.  The clerks couldn't have been any more indifferent to serving people who weren't planning to hike.  The girl at the counter barely looked up when we bought a couple of souvenirs.  You could buy a case of beer for $25 at the end of season sale though.  Nearby are conveniently located bins to collect our leftover human waste.   Oh yeah, let's go hiking and haul everything back with us!  Sounds like fun, doesn't it?  We know we're lazy-asses, but come on.

The drive back down to Lone Pine only takes about fifteen minutes.  It was 1:30 PM at this point, so we stopped at the corner of Main St. (Hwy 395) and went in to the Mt. Whitney Restaurant.  Directly across the street is the vintage neon sign for Margie's Merry Go Round Cafe advertising BBQ, ribs, etc.  There is no evidence out front that this place now serves Chinese food, so it must be quite a surprise to go in and find it.

The Mt. Whitney Restaurant is the epitome of a greasy spoon roadside cafe, except it is spotlessly clean.  We were told to "sit anywhere" and handed menus by a relatively friendly waitress.  This is a locals kind of place and they receive priority treatment, but we were never neglected.  We ordered a chili burger and a turkey melt sandwich, both came with a choice of several sides.  We both chose a green salad.  The food was very good, no complaints at all, and the total bill with two soft drinks came to less than $25 with tip.

We stopped by the local bank to get quarters for the laundry at the motel.  Dave filled the gas tank while Bill went across the street to get the change.  A local man asked Dave for a few dollars to buy gas.  Rather than give him the money for God-knows-what purpose, he offered to fill the small gas can he had with him instead.  That made him happy. 

Next we went to the grocery store across the highway to find something to take with us for lunch tomorrow.  The pickings were pretty slim, especially for Dave, but we found a few things to eat.  The cashier was very friendly, as were the other employees wandering around.  We couldn't handle living in a town where everyone knows your business as they obviously do here. 

We were back at the hotel by 2:30 PM with plenty of time to rest and get the laundry done a few doors down from our room.  The motel has a nice laundry room with four coin-operated washers and two driers.

Nothing else happened until we got hungry again around 6:30 PM and went back to the Mt. Whitney Restaurant for dinner.  The same atmosphere prevailed and we were served promptly.  The only glitch was that Dave's char-broiled chicken breast wasn't cooked through, but the waitress was suitably appalled and corrected it immediately.  Bill had a steak that was over an inch thick with no fat on it at all.  Both meals came with vegetables, soup, and choice of potato.  Our total bill for this meal was less than $50 including tip.  The food wasn't a gourmet delight, but everything tasted good and was served in large portions.

Back in our motel room by 7:30 PM, we settled in for the night.  We're not quite sure what we'll do tomorrow, but we are sure to find something fascinating.  It is nice to be out of the heat of the desert for the first time in many days.

Friday, October 28 - Lone Pine - Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest - Best Western Plus Frontier Motel

Standing as ancient sentinels high atop the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest, bristlecone pines rank as the oldest trees in the world and have achieved immense scientific, cultural and scenic importance.  In the White Mountains, the ancient bristlecone pines seem to show a preference for growing on the white, rocky soil that gives the name to this mountain range.

Today's weather started off in the high 50's with clear skies.  Breakfast at the motel was too crowded, so we grabbed a couple of things and went back to our room.  Apparently other people would prefer that it is served later than 9:00 AM also.  It seemed like the entire guest list arrived at the last minute.  All of the hot food was depleted.  Not good.

Since we combined two outings yesterday, we have an extra day to fill with something else.  Our back up plan for today pushes Manzanar to tomorrow.  We'll do the long drive to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest today instead.  Click to view the Brochure.

The forest is located above the 10,000 foot level in the Inyo National Forest about 60 miles north of Lone Pine.  We left the motel around 11:00 AM.  The drive is mostly through the pastoral Owens Valley surrounded on both sides by mountains.  To the west are the Sierra Nevada ranges that tower up to 14,000 feet.  There are a couple of very small towns on the way, Independence and Big Pine.  Both have about a fourth of the population of Lone Pine's which is a little over 2,000.  Oddly enough, one of them has a county courthouse and the other a large high school.  Independence has some charming Victorian homes and old buildings along the highway, but like everywhere else we have been, over half of the stores and restaurants are closed.

The turn-off onto the Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway is easy to find.  There is a big sign on the corner and a little information kiosk nearby.  We knew we were at the right place because the road is under construction.  What trip of ours would be complete without construction of some sort?  This was another roadblock where we had to wait for a "follow me" car to drive on the wrong side of the road.  The woman stopping traffic was having fun with the bikers in line behind us who kept yelling at her to stop cars from turning left and skipping the line.  We were first in line, by the way.

We were told it would be about a ten minute wait and it was.  No big deal.  The scenic road winds up and up and up.  There is a short section that squeezes between some towering volcanic cliffs that is only one lane, which is harrowing because you can't see if cars are coming the other direction.  It is about twenty miles from the main highway to the White Mountain turnoff to the visitor center.

The entire drive is a winding climb from the valley up to above 10,000 feet.  It was only around 48 degrees near the top when we stopped at a viewpoint.  From here we had a panoramic view toward the east and the Inyo Mountains and to the west across the valley to the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.  From here it was another five or so miles up the very winding, but paved, road.  There was a toll booth near the bottom, but it was unmanned.

Eventually we reached the turn for the Schulman Grove Visitor Center.  Mr. Schulman was some guy who was really into researching the trees and discovered some of the oldest specimens.  The oldest wood he dated went back over 4,000 years.  The living trees around here go up to 3,500 years, but we would have to hike a 4-mile round trip to see those.  There was a log cabin visitor center here until a few years ago when it burned to the ground.  A public outcry led the park service to rebuild it, which is in progress today.  It looks to be nearly completed in a similar fashion to its original design.

A temporary trailer is set up housing a ranger who collects the $3.00 per person fee (we have a pass, so paid nothing.)  It would be extremely easy to skip paying the fee because the ranger is inside and there are no barriers to prevent anyone from just walking onto the trails, which we saw several people doing. 

Ranger Dave was VERY eager to tell us what we needed to know, what to see, and where.  He even tried to get us to take some Halloween candy he brought in for the visitors.  He didn't ask us if we had a pass or needed to pay cash until he had talked to us for at least twenty minutes.  We bought our usual souvenirs, a hat and a T-shirt, and went back to the car to eat the lunch we brought with us.

It took a little over an hour to get up here, so it was after noon at this point.  It is chilly, but pleasant with a light jacket.  Remember, we are above 10,000 feet here, so the only trees living at this level are the bristlecone pines.  Around the area here, there are some short shrubs also, but at the other grove (several miles up a dirt road 1,500 feet higher) there are only the pines.  We opted for the 1/4 mile short hike to see the highlights.  As mentioned, if one wants to visit the 4,000 year old Methuselah tree, a 4-mile hike is required.

The loop trail we took switchbacks up a steep rocky hillside through one of the groves.  The oldest living trees here are only 1,500 years old, but there is a fallen stump that is 3,200.  The sign said it died in 1679 (or something like that...point is, a long time ago.)  Younger trees are the ones that look healthy and full of leaves.  As they age, the oldest trees end up with gnarled old dead wood and maybe one or two branches that are still alive.

The trail affords some fabulous views across to the Sierra Nevada and some of the glaciers still hanging on from the last Ice Age.  Even dead trees are beautiful examples of nature's art work.  The trees usually succumb when erosion exposes too much of their shallow root system and they are then subject to attack by insects or disease.  There was no mention of the trees being endangered and there are far more healthy trees standing than dead ones.

At one point on the trail, Bill almost had to chew his arm off to get it unstuck from a rock crevice.  Then Dave came along and pointed out that he was only trapped by the camera angle and there is actually a huge gap.  Damn, we were hoping for a lucrative movie deal.

Continuing up the trail leads to more of the ancient trees, some tenaciously clinging to rock outcroppings.   There are basically two types of rocky hills here, white dolomite rocks and shards of limestone that were shoved up from an ancient sea bed.  The trees do better in the white rocks because it reflects the harsh sunlight and stays cooler, thus preventing some of the moisture from evaporating.  It is amazing that these trees can last for thousands of years among a bunch of chunky, dry rocks, but hang on they do.  Just across the road from the ancient trees' grove, the environment is too harsh for anything except tiny, low shrubs to grow.  Only in this semi-protected microclimate can these trees survive.

Ranger Dave told us it would take about 45 minutes to complete the loop trail, but it probably took a bit longer than that.  The rocky trail is very steep and at 10,000 feet we weren't exactly sprinting along.  We didn't leave the grove area until 2:30 PM and we felt it was too late in the day to attempt the drive on the dirt road to the really ancient trees' grove at 1,500 feet higher.  The ranger told us it would take an hour each way to get there, plus another hour or so to do the hike, so it wasn't in the cards.

It is much easier to drive downhill than up, so we were back at the construction zone at the bottom of the hill in no time.  When we passed through this morning, the road had just been re-surfaced.  Just four hours later, all of the lines were painted and the entire thing was completed.

There is a historic fish hatchery on the way back, but we decided we'd go there before visiting Manzanar tomorrow to help kill more time.  We don't know if Manzanar will take one hour or four, but we've been getting an early start lately, so we should have plenty of time to do both.

We arrived back at the motel around 4:30 PM, where we freshened up and rested until time to go out for dinner.  We went to the Mt. Whitney Restaurant again by default.  There was nowhere to park near the place on the other side of the street we wanted to try.  We'll give it another shot tomorrow.

Being a Friday, any restaurant around here with halfway decent food was doing a good business, including this one.  The sad place across the alley, empty.  Give it up already.  The staff recognized us from yesterday and were actually friendly this time.  Bill ordered the meatloaf dinner that was just OK, but lots of food.  Dave had a throwback to the 50's combo dinner with fried shrimp and a steak that was very good.  The steak in particular was fantastic with no fat on it at all and perfectly cooked.  Both dinners came with soup or salad.  Our total bill, including two soft drinks and a shake to go was only $43 before tip.  It certainly isn't gourmet dining, but it is filling and all of it is edible, so no complaints from us.

We were back in our humongous room at the motel by 7:00 PM.  If we were staying longer we'd set up some tin cans with a string between then so we can talk from one sofa to the other across the expanse of floor space.  For now we'll just continue to yell across the void.

Saturday, October 29 - Lone Pine - Manzanar National Historic Site - Best Western Plus Frontier Motel

North of Lone Pine lies Manzanar National Historic Site where, in 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.

It is warmer today, but still cloud free.  The temperature in the morning was around 50 degrees, but later it warmed up into the low 70's.  We were up by 8:00 AM, but decided to skip the crowded motel breakfast, which was again overflowing into the lobby.  Instead we drove up the road to the Mt. Whitney Restaurant again where there was no wait at all.  The food at breakfast is about the same quality as lunch and dinner.  Lots of it, but not much else to recommend it.  The poor place across the street had no customers again, this place was booming.

We made a brief stop back at the motel to pick up our supplies for the day, then headed north on the highway at around 10:30 AM.  Our first stop was at the Historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery we saw on the way back from the forest yesterday.  We had no idea what we'd find here, but it was worth a shot to kill some time.  Click to read the Brochure.

Basically, this is an old stone hatchery built in the early 1900's as part of a program to stock trout in California rivers.  This practice continues to this day, but the government wanted to close this location to save money back in the late 1990's.  Local citizens and others got together to save it, which they did.  It is still in limited production today, but the primary purpose appears to be tourism.

Out front there is a serene pond filled with huge trout that rush to the side of the water whenever anyone wanders over.  They are expecting food that visitors may purchase from machines nearby or in the gift shop.  The ducks on the pond do the same thing in anticipation of a feeding.  We were the only visitors at the site this morning and we didn't have any quarters, so they were all out of luck.

The pond reflects the beautiful stone hatchery building that was built to blend in with the backdrop of mountains and to "stand for all time."  It looks like it could do that what with three foot thick stone walls.  It looks to be in good condition, too. 

We walked into the open door and a couple of tattooed rock-climbing types greeted us and gave us an information pamphlet.  They said they are leaving soon, but the "ladies in the gift shop can help you."  We were told to wander around and that there were fish in the breeding tables to look at. 

In the huge, nearly empty hall were two long table tanks set up as examples of how they process works.  In the past this entire room was filled with these tables.  There was no indication that the facility isn't still being used in some capacity, but there wasn't enough equipment around to do much breeding.  It looks like the room is used more for meetings and events than for breeding fish.  Still, for a free attraction it was interesting enough to look at.

In a separate room at the end of the hall is an interpretive center for local wildlife that was mildly interesting.  Being native Californians, we have most of these animals wandering around our backyard every day, so it wasn't all that enlightening for us.

Wandering out the back door led us to some outdoor facility like fish towers and big rusty pipes with water drooling out.  Then back around to the pond out front.  All of this took about thirty minutes, so we were back on the road headed south by noon.

Our next stop is the pre-determined outing to visit Manzanar Historic Site.  Click to view the Brochure.  Google it if you want to know the details (and you should).  Essentially, this is where people of Japanese descent were "relocated" after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  120,000 people were removed from the Pacific states just in case they might sympathize with Japan during the war.  This included both resident aliens and American citizens.  Many of them lost everything in the process.  They were sent to ten "War Relocation Centers" all over the country, but mostly in the west.  The entire event is disgusting and should serve as a wakeup call to every American that yes, it can happen here.  Let's be sure it never happens again.  It is utterly ridiculous that fear and paranoia over something that might happen can lead to an atrocity like this, especially in the United States.

The process of restoring the site has barely begun.  When the camp closed in 1945, the buildings were sold for scrap and the site was left to disappear into the desert sand.  Only two original buildings remain, the auditorium and a mess hall that was brought back from the local airport.  Many of the barracks buildings were sold intact and still exist as private residences, motels, etc.  The auditorium has been restored and houses the Visitor Center.

The displays in the center vividly tell the story of what happened to the internees.  It is not a sanitized version of this sad chapter in our history, but truthfully tells how it happened, why, and how it affected the people who were sent here.  There is a 20-minute film that is told by people who were actually involved in the relocation, which only adds to the poignant tales that are told here.  Anyone who still thinks this relocation was a good idea after seeing this film should be ashamed of themselves.  It is repulsive and needs to be remembered to prevent it from happening again.  Every American should visit this site and hear this story.

The rest of our visit is a self-guided tour around what remains of the camp, which isn't much.  Click to see a Map.  They have recreated one of the watchtowers at the corner of the property.  Still existing are the stone sentry posts that were built by residents of the camp out of local stone.  Also, two of the barracks buildings have been re-built.  One shows how they appeared when the first people arrived in 1942 and the other is an example of the "improved" version from 1945 when they were finished with drywall on the inside.  The barracks buildings were hastily slapped up practically overnight out of thin wood framing and tar paper.  There were gaps in the roof that let in the sand from frequent wind storms, not to mention the relentless heat of summer and freezing temperatures of winter.  Heat came later, but was not installed when the residents first arrived.

When the first Japanese came, the landscape was a barren desert.  Over the years, the residents built beautiful gardens complete with pond and waterfalls, planted flowers, installed lawns and built a reservoir facility.  Surrounding the camp they had fields to grow their own food to supplant the rations the army supplied.  Be sure to read the information online to get the details because it does show how these people persevered and made the best out of a terrible predicament.

The drive is a circuit around the outside edge of the camp along dirt roads.  Along the way is the baseball field, a once-lush park complete with an elaborate pond with a recently re-built wooden bridge and traditional stone monuments, the aforementioned gardens that each block of barracks built, a hospital facility, expanses of old orchards and trees planted to provide some beauty and shade to the residents.  An original mess hall has been brought back and recreates how the thousands of meals were prepared and served to the residents.

Most touching of all is the cemetery at the far back of the property with its white stone obelisk marking the sacred ground.  Thoughtfully, the government allowed the deceased to be buried outside of the barbed wire fencing surrounding the site.  Only a few remains are still buried here, most having been relocated at the request of families.  However, the graves that remain are decorated with paper cranes, coins and other memorabilia.  The ledges around the monument also hold tiny offerings to the dead.  The large posts around the monument and a bench in front of the hospital were created out of concrete to look like wood.  One of the residents was an accomplished artist who specialized in this craft before he was sent here.

Adjacent to the cemetery is a small pet cemetery.  This might have been the most tear-jerking spot of all.  People have left small toys and mementoes, but the seeing the water dish left there for a dear departed pet is enough to make grown men cry.  We dare you to visit this place and not get choked up at least once.

Continuing our tour lead us to more old gardens.  All of these were buried by fifty years' worth of sand, but they have been unearthed by former residents and others determined to preserve the memory for future generations.  Toward the entrance of the camp is a large area where staff houses were located.  Needless to say, this area was much nicer than where the residents lived.  They had paved streets, stone houses and concrete sidewalks.

By the end of the camps in 1945, they were almost self-sufficient.  The industrious residents made camouflage netting in several factory buildings, grew fruit and vegetables, and manufactured tofu and soy sauce.  Still, this was not a place most people were proud of and it wasn't until their children grew up and wanted to learn about the history was the story brought back to life.  Now, there is an annual reunion held here that is both a celebration and an homage to those who endured this dark time in U.S. history.

Our visit to Manzanar took almost four hours, but we could have spent hours wandering around and looking for details from the past.  Here and there we found broken bits of pottery, a circle of rocks that once surrounded a small tree, and more.  If you are ever in this area, make it a point to spend some time here.  You won't regret it.  Most of what remains is a row of concrete footings or the remnants of some long lost garden, but if you take some time you can imagine what it must have been like to be yanked away from everything you knew to try to make a life for yourself in the middle of nowhere among a group of total strangers.

It was after 3:30 PM when we wrapped up our visit and started back toward the motel, about ten miles south of here.  We startled a coyote on our way out.  We stopped for a photo of the "Welcome to Lone Pine" sign.  For a town that claims it has a lot of charm and should be catering to the tourists who are pretty much its only source of income, the locals aren't very friendly.  Most of the people we have encountered are very aloof and not at all interested in outsiders or being in the least bit friendly.  The staff at our motel actively avoids making eye contact with guests.  That's not to say everyone is like that.  The old woman at a shop we stopped at was very friendly and some of the workers at the restaurant are nice enough.  But, for every one like that there are five more who look like they wish the tourists would just shut up and get out of town.

We stopped at McDonald's to pick up something to tide us over until dinner time.  The same "why are you bothering me" attitude oozed from the girl at the register, but we got what we ordered and it was fine.

Back at the motel, we crashed until time to go out again for dinner at around 6:30 PM.  We threw caution to the wind and went to Margie's Merry Go Round Restaurant.  Based on the fabulously restored neon sign out front, you might think this is a good ol' American food place.  Well, then, you'd be wrong!  They serve Chinese food.  They do still have the original menu from the previous owner with the original the new Chinese chef.  Can you say "eclectic"?

The decor is a mish-mash of God-only-knows-what styles, but their Halloween decorations are cute.  The inside seating area is tiny, but they will gladly fire up the heaters so you can sit out front if you want to.  We were told to seat ourselves as is the custom around these parts and we took the last table available inside.

We take back what we said about the locals not being friendly because these people couldn't possibly be any more welcoming.  We think it is a family operation, but maybe they just seem like it.  The only Asian in residence is the chef.  She brought out our food and was so genuinely sweet to us we almost needed to take insulin.  The older man and a younger guy we think might be his son, were friendly, funny, and quite the good time.  We were asked which menu we wanted to order from, but asked to see both.  The place was full of mostly locals and they were all eating the Chinese food, so we ordered the Family Dinner that came with a cup of soup (won ton or egg drop, we chose one of each), plus appetizers consisting of fried cream cheese wontons, fried shrimp, and shrimp egg rolls.  All of the appetizers and the soup were the best we have ever had.  Fresh, light and crispy.  Fantastic.

As mentioned, the chef personally served us our entrees, beef with broccoli and a chicken dish with bok choy and other green vegetables that wasn't what we ordered.  We didn't care, it was good and it was a chicken dish, so close enough (we actually ordered cashew chicken).  Both of the entrees were fresh with a light sauce and rivaled the best Chinese food we've ever eaten.  Even the fried rice that came with it was something special.  All of this added up to a total bill of only $40 before tip.  We were stuffed.  It was amusing when the "son" brought over a big bowl full of wrapped fortune cookies for us to choose our own.  He said he didn't want to be responsible for our future, so we have to do the choosing.  Too funny.  This was probably the best overall dining experience we've had so far this trip.

We were ensconced in our warehouse of a room by 7:30 PM where nothing else happened worth talking about.  Oh yeah, somehow our pets learned how to send photos of themselves via cellphone:  Jake, B.K., and a suspicious looking Barney.  We think maybe they found out we are going to Lake Arrowhead without them.

Sunday, October 30 - Drive to Kernville - Sequoia Lodge

Kernville, the Gateway to the Sequoias, has a large tourist industry centered on white water rafting down the rapids of the mighty Kern River. One can also enjoy mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. Fishing is extremely popular and the golden trout is highly sought after for catch and release fishing by fly fishermen. Downtown Kernville has an Old West look with restaurants, antique and specialty shops, motels, and several parks. The Kern Valley Museum houses collections of historical items, artifacts, and memorabilia including a library of many early western movies filmed in the Kern River Valley. The nearby Kern Valley Airport is a popular general aviation destination for pilots, with on-site services including a restaurant and riverside camping. Further north one can stroll through the giant Sequoia trees in the Trail of 100 Giants, and hike to the fire lookout atop the majestic Needles granite formations.

Situated between majestic mountains and just minutes from the giant sequoia trees, Sequoia Lodge offers you an "oasis" for your visit to the spectacular Kern River Valley!  We have 14 sparkling, air conditioned rooms that all have a refrigerator, microwave, in-room coffee, phone, and extended cable with HBO. All of our rooms are no smoking.  From any of our rooms, you are just steps away from the Kern River. Just steps away from a day full of fun or relaxation.

The weather today continues the trend and is in the low 70's with not a single cloud in the sky.  We were up early enough for the free breakfast, but opted to return to town for a real breakfast again.  The restaurant was busier than it has been so far and there was only one waitress for the entire place, but she was still pleasant.  Our food was good, not great, but fine.  The bill today was only $18.

We dawdled around until 11:00 AM, then went to check out.  This process took way longer than necessary because Dave is using a $50 Travel Card reward from Best Western.  Neither of the women at the counter had ever seen one before, so they had to go online and figure out how to redeem it.  They eventually determined that it is valid and applied the credit to our bill, so the total, including tax, for our four nights in that humongous room was $397.

We drove south for about an hour before anything changed.  Then, our GPS neglected to announce which way to go at a fork in the highway, so, of course, we chose the wrong one.  She found a quick way back to the highway and we only lost about ten minutes.

After driving for an hour past ramshackle, partially abandoned little towns, weird metal art in random fields, and roadside cafes/motels, we turned off toward Lake Isabella and the Sierras.  We made only two stops at vista points overlooking Lake Isabella, an artificial lake behind an earthen dam built over fifty years ago by the Army Corp. of Engineers.  The lake is used for recreation and flood control for Bakersfield far below.  The area around it is mountainous with pastures of horses and cattle on the valley floor at various points.  It is cute in a rural sort of way, but nothing out of the ordinary for us Californians.

We arrived in Kernville at around 1:30 PM and drove around a bit looking for a place to get lunch out of the way.  We ended up at B&B BBQ where we were the only patrons.  The extremely friendly owner (and sole employee on duty) advised us that her specialty is pulled pork she cooks "out back" for ten hours, then cooks for another ten hours in the oven.  We took her word for it and both ordered a sandwich.  Bill also had the peanut butter pie for dessert.  The pork was good and came with fries.  Total price for this meal was $38 before tip, a bit pricey for what we got, but not outrageously so.

Our motel for this stop is up the canyon from town a couple of miles.  Along the way we passed the place where nobody called us back to confirm our reservation until weeks later.  Their loss.  We went with the only motel in town that takes reservations online.  By the looks of the motels in town and up the canyon, we chose wisely.  The Sequoia Lodge is a mom and pop place, but it is relatively modern and full of cute fishing-related decorations inside and out.  There is a charming rock garden with pathways along the Kern River that the property backs to.  They have a fish cleaning shed, patios and BBQ's at the ready so you can grill your catch right outside your door.  We won't be doing that, by the way.

The extraordinarily friendly manager, Pat, came out of one of the rooms to check us in.  It would be impossible for her to be any friendlier.  She gave us info on the area and told us where to buy food, breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Then she pointed us to the building in the back where we have the most expensive room ($149 per night) that overlooks the river with windows on three sides.  When we were unpacking the car, she walked over to ask if everything is OK.  We assured her it is as expected and we'll be fine.

Our room isn't luxurious by any stretch of imagination and is kind of like staying in someone's guest room, but it is clean and has everything we need.  There is a kitchenette with a refrigerator and microwave, plus basic tableware.  A big bowl and microwave popcorn are provided.  There are cute fishing knick knacks all over the walls, pretty much the same as what we have at our place in Lake Arrowhead that you'll see in a couple of days.  Apparently, these people shopped from Terry's Village also.  There is even an electric faux fireplace for ambience.  The bathroom is tiny, but serviceable.  We hope the house next door is a vacation home and nobody lives there because they have a perfect view into the bathroom window and we have no shades or curtains in there.

Although we were assured that wi-fi is available, we can't find any evidence of a signal, so we'll have to ask about it next time we see Pat wandering around.  It isn't a deal breaker not to have it, but we know our fans will go through withdrawals soon if we can't post our daily update.

Dave saw Pat and went out to ask her about the internet.  She was doing laundry and they ended up chatting for quite a while.  Seems they share the same sort of hospitality background, so they've hit it off well.  She is very friendly anyway and we're sure she would gladly offer up whatever information she can to help her guests.  Her husband has created the picturesque area to walk around and sit by the river behind the hotel.

Pat came over after checking that their wi-fi is working (it is), so we went outside with the computer to try to get a connection, which we did.  We might have to go outside whenever we want to upload, but that's not a problem since we are the only guests most of the time we are staying here.

It is so pleasant outside that we wandered out and sat on one of the covered patios overlooking the river to rest up until dinner time.  Pat told us where, and where not, to go for dinner.  We wandered across the street to the Riverkern General Store to get something for breakfast in case we don't want to drive to town (only a few minutes down the road, by the way.)  Groceries are very limited there, but they had some cereal, milk and other essentials that will get us by.  They also have a tiny restaurant section.  When we asked about breakfast the extremely friendly woman at the cash register offered us a menu to take with us and hoped we'd come back again.  We assured her we would be back.

Around 6:00 PM we drove back to town and went to That's Italian, which was Pat's first choice.  Click to view the Menu.  We were greeted by a waitress in a fabulous pirate costume.  We keep forgetting that tomorrow is Halloween.  Our server was dressed as Cleopatra, the owner as a gypsy, and another waitress as a "Pasta-tute", which everyone in the room thought was hilarious when she announced it. 

We both ordered non-pasta entrees, Chicken Marsala and Chicken with Lemon & Garlic.  Both included a choice of soup (cabbage & potato) or a salad.  We both chose the salad.  Garlic bread is also included.  The salads were fresh, but nothing special, same with the garlic bread.  But, the entrees were fantastic.  Even the vegetables were outstanding.  It looks like perhaps we have landed back in civilization where everything isn't served directly from the microwave.  Oh, and the total bill for all of this was only $38 before tip.  We were each given a ballot to vote for the best costume among the waitresses.  They'll have a drawing for a gift certificate from the ballots.

We could be on another planet considering the night and day difference in the friendliness of the locals compared to the frostiness in Lone Pine.  The motel manager, the store owners, everyone at the restaurant, and the locals having dinner were beyond welcoming.  It is like a breath of fresh air after the last few days.  It probably has to do with the many repeat visitors and that this is a more upscale vacation spot than Lone Pine.  Many people come back here year after year and the store owners seem to know everyone.  It is more like the atmosphere at Lake Arrowhead where we have a house.  Also, there aren't as many closed businesses here.

We were back at the motel by 7:00 PM and settled in to watch The Amazing Race.

Monday, October 31 - Kernville - Sequoia Lodge

It is cooler today, but still clear.  It never got above 72 degrees all day and it was very chilly overnight.

It was a pleasure not to have to get up at the crack of dawn to get to breakfast for a change.  However, we still got started around 9:30 AM.  Our stop for breakfast this morning is at Cheryl's Diner downtown, across the street from the Italian place we went for dinner last night.

We keep forgetting it is Halloween, so when we walked in and the waitresses were dressed as pirates it took a minute for it to register.  The two of them, older women who have probably been working there forever, were delighted to tell everyone who came in how they made their costumes.  One of them claimed she only remembered she needed one yesterday and had to slap hers together from bits and pieces she found at Wal-Mart.  Whatever, she did a good job.  Both of them looked great and they sure were having fun with it.

Click to view the Menu.  Bill ordered the Chuck Wagon breakfast, an array including pancakes the size of a dinner plate, eggs, bacon and hash browns.  Dave had a Denver omelet and was thrilled they offer fresh fruit instead of potatoes.  The waitresses were bubbly and delighted about Halloween.  They knew everyone who came in except us, but they treated us as though they knew us.  Our total bill for a ton of food was only $18 and it was WAY better than what we got at the diner in Lone Pine.

Apparently the elementary school brings the kids down to the town square to trick or treat at noon, but they won't let them cross the street to the diner.  The waitresses decided they would take their show on the road and give out candy in the park.  "We don't know who will run the diner, but who cares?  It's Halloween!"  They also talked about a street in town where everyone participates and they get 300 kids coming by.  We'll check it out later.

Our only plan for today is to drive the perimeter of Lake Isabella just because it is there.  We took the counterclockwise route from Kernville.  The first Historical Point of Interest sign we came to pointed down to an old cemetery overlooking the Kern River.  Pioneer graves were moved here from another site, plus there are more recent additions.  Some of the older grave markers are broken, but many are intact and go back to the 1800's.  You sure can't beat the view from here.

The next stop was at a campground and marina just behind the main dam.  The Lake Isabella dam is one of the many old dams in the country that have been designated as being at high risk for failure.  This one consists of the main dam and an auxiliary dam divided by a rock promontory.  Both of them were built before interior drainage systems were used, so they are in danger of eroding from the inside and collapsing.  That is why the lake level is kept much lower than capacity even with the heavy rains we have had.  The spillway is now known to be insufficient, posing the possibility that the dam could be over washed during a flood, causing a catastrophic failure.  As if that weren't enough, the auxiliary dam was knowingly built on a fault line and on silt that could liquefy in a large earthquake.  Yikes!  If the dams were to fail, the wall of water would immediately destroy the little town of Lake Isabella and seven hours later it would flood the center of Bakersfield.  No matter, there is no money to fix it, so tough luck.  The lake is pretty though.

Continuing our drive around the dam and through a pastoral valley, we stopped at a Ranger Station and picked up some local information from a ranger who lost interest when we said we are not camping and have no intention of doing so.  We backtracked a mile or so to the Keyesville Recreation Area, not knowing quite what it was, but since it has bathrooms we figure it is something important.

What it is is a designated off-road area with camping.  It has a nice view of the river, lots of oak and pine trees, and some hilly dirt paths for off-roading.  We picked up some gigantic pinecones of a type we haven't seen before.  There are large pine trees around us at Lake Arrowhead, but they don't have cones this huge.  The motel manager said there are some up the river if we walk about 1/4 mile to the fishing area.

At the highway end of the recreation area is Slippery Rocks, a raft and boat launching area for white water rafting down the river.  There is a cable strung across the river with a hand-powered car, restrooms, and a somewhat paved flat area to get into the boats.  No one was there today, so it was quiet and serene.  Upstream, the boulders are polished smooth, while the white water starts just downstream at a bend.  Bill noticed some tiny blue butterflies on the ground.  They have beautiful markings, but are less than the size of a quarter.

Back on the road, we arrived at the dusty old town of Lake Isabella.  This is where we saw the first "Dam Failure Evacuation Route" signs.  We were amused by the vintage neon sign in front of the Dam Corner general store.  Later, we noticed these stores elsewhere and called Another Dam Corner.

The rest of the drive was a repeat of our arrival route.  We decided to stop at the Kern River Hatchery on the way to the motel for no reason other than it is there and free of charge.  This hatchery isn't the elaborate affair we saw outside of Lone Pine.  Instead it is just concrete fish pens for young trout, streams that feed the pens, a bunch of guys on the federal payroll standing around doing nothing, empty concrete tanks, and a holding tank for mature trout.  There are no explanations of what you are looking at.  It is pretty much a working facility that they let the public wander around freely.  There is a small museum, but it is only open on weekends, so we missed our chance.  In other words, a big yawn.  Heck, it was free, so nothing lost but a few minutes of our time.

We did drive through the residential neighborhoods the waitress said were going all out for Halloween tonight.  We saw only three houses with any decorations at all, so their interpretation of "all out" doesn't mesh with ours.  It was interesting to see the neighborhood though.  As we had guessed, this town is nicer and more prosperous than Lone Pine by a long shot.  We saw hardly any for sale signs and only one closed business in town.  Most of the residents and visitors are senior citizens or outdoorsy types fishing or rafting on the river.

Across the street is the Owens Boys Camp that looks sort of sinister.  Last night we saw a drill sergeant-type marching a line of teens across the parking lot.  Today we heard him yelling at them behind a stand of trees.  After researching it, we learned it is a juvenile detention facility for low-risk cases.  At least the area is scenic, but it doesn't sound like any fun.

We arrived back at the motel around 1:30 PM and declared ourselves done until dinner time.  Pat and Keith were out tending to the grounds.  They keep the dirt drives raked nicely, which is what Keith was doing.  Pat was fighting a never ending battle with the dust on the patio furniture.  Of course, the wind kicked up later in the afternoon and undid all of her hard work.  We'll give them a lot of credit for trying to keep up with it though.

The wind really started blowing around 4:30 PM, but it is still warm and pleasant, probably in the mid to high 70's.  Keep your fingers crossed that the mountains don't burst into flame which is what usually happens in California when the winds kick up.

We ventured into town for dinner around 6:00 PM, ending up at Ewing's on the River.  Click to view the Menu.  Once again, the waitress was extremely friendly.  Turned out she went to the same high school Bill did, although probably 30 years apart.  She moved up here after her father moved into their family vacation cabin and loves it.  Back to the food, we both had New York steaks, one the traditional version and the other the pepper steak.  The meals came with a choice of soup or salad, we both had salads that were fresh and tasty.  The rolls that came with them were amazing. 

The steaks came with vegetables and a choice of several potatoes, sweet potato fries or rice pilaf.  The sweet potato fries were to die for.  We've had these before, on Crystal for example, and never saw what the big thrill was.  Now we do, these were delicious.  The steaks were the best we've had in a long time.  Even the regular steak had a perfectly spiced rub that was mouthwatering.  The meat was cooked exactly as ordered, too.  The meal could not have been any better, really.

It was dark when we arrived, but the dining room overlooks the Kern River below and the town beyond.  It was slow since most people stayed home for Halloween, so it was quiet.  Our waitress was dressed up as a sexy Alice in Wonderland.  It was fun today seeing so many people participating in the costumes.

We were back at the motel by 7:30 PM.  Earlier a couple looked at one of the rooms in our section, but they must have taken one of the regular rooms.  We are still alone in our building.  The wind died down after dark, so no hills bursting into flames so far. 

Tuesday, November 1 - Kernville - Sequoia Lodge

It is cooler today, barely hitting 70 degrees, and still very windy.  We're both having sneezing fits from the stuff flying around, but we'll survive.

We went to Cheryl's Diner again for breakfast.  Again, it was fine, the service friendly, and a good value.  It's very nice that they have a lot of healthy options, something we haven't found anywhere else so far.  After breakfast we drove across the street to see if any of the shops in the old part of town were open.  Finding nothing of interest open, we checked out a fancy tourist information kiosk in the park with a giant touch screen display.  Who'd have thought a tiny town like this would have something so sophisticated?

All we have planned for today is to drive up the canyon to the Giant Sequoia National Monument.  Did you know that "sequoia" is the only word that contains all five vowels?  That's what the sign says; don't blame us if it is wrong.  The motel manager said that the drive is about 30 miles and will take about an hour.  Our map says it is 45 miles.  The manager was correct.

We were on the road by 10:00 AM, the same highway right out front all the way to our destination.  The highway winds up the canyon following the Kern River until it turns into the Giant Sequoias.  The scenery along the way is breathtaking.  We came upon a beautiful waterfall right next to the road.  Farther up the mountain there are several dramatic granite peaks and towering cliffs.  There are a couple of "resorts" along the way also, none of them worth mentioning beyond the fact that they exist.

There was no one on the road with us, so the drive was easy.  We arrived at the final destination, the Trail of 100 Giants, at around noon, a little over an hour after we left the motel.  There is a $5 charge paid on the honor system for parking, but our pass covers that.  We picked up a pamphlet for the trail and crossed the street to the starting point.

The total length of the trail is about 1/2 a mile if you do both loops, which we did.  It is a well-maintained, paved trail that is completely accessible for wheelchairs.  Some features are marked by descriptive signs, but most just have numbers corresponding to the information in the pamphlet.  It was very chilly here, in the low 50's.

First up is a 1,500 year old giant sequoia with a cave-like opening in the trunk.  The trees here seem more impressive than the ones we saw in the coastal groves, but that may be because they exist among pines and oaks rather than a big grove of redwoods.  Next along the trail are a recently burned area and an open area that has been replanted with seedlings for future generations.  Another interesting feature is a trio of redwoods that have fused at the bottom.

Suddenly, the trail was blocked by an enormous, newly-fallen old tree that looks as though it fell yesterday, or at the very least within the week.  The needles are still green on the totally uprooted tree.  The huge trunk is broken in several places.  The first broken area is at least twenty feet thick.  Any other tree unfortunate to be in the path of the falling redwood was snapped like a twig. The trail was blocked in two places by the tree, so we had to hike around the giant until we reached the shattered remains of the very top of the tree.  Here is a link to a video of the last seconds of the tree falling  This is a link to another video with a ranger discussing the aftermath:

A nice thing about this grove is that it is possible to get far enough back to take a picture of an entire tree to see the true majesty of these giants.  The next marked feature is a fallen tree that toppled between 1850 and 1860.  The wood is so resistant to rot and insects that it hasn't deteriorated at all after all these years.  Up the trail are two trees that have combined to look like a pair of elephant feet.

In addition to the trees there is a beautiful meadow with a warning not to eat the poisonous plants.  It wouldn't have occurred to us to munch on any of the plants, but someone must have or they wouldn't feel the need to tell us not to.  A serene creek runs through the meadow.

Our walk along the trail took about an hour, maybe a bit more, but we were back at the motel by 3:30 PM.  The only thing we hadn't done yet was to explore the river below the back of the motel.  As mentioned before, the managers have rearranged the rocks to create trails and shaded places to sit overlooking the river.  When the river is higher, it is possible to sit here and watch the rafters float by.

Our room is in a separate building behind the main part of the motel.  We couldn't be any closer to the river.  The building literally hangs over the river bank.  The manager told us it is possible to walk about 1/4 of a mile along a path by the river, so we started to do that.  We couldn't discern a distinct trail and she had warned us to stay on the pathway and not in private backyards.  It was tough going clamoring over the polished granite boulders by the river.  We gave up after a few minutes figuring it is all going to look pretty much the same.  We turned around at a small sandy beach area that fronts a wide, calm part of the river.  

Back in our room, we did pretty much nothing until it was time to go out for dinner at 6:00 PM.  We liked our meal so much at Ewing's last night that we went back again tonight.  We had the same waitress and pretty much the same meal, plus a coconut shrimp appetizer that was the best rendition of this dish we've ever had.  Our total bill was higher as a result, about $89 before tip, but well worth it.  We've had meals this trip that cost well over $100 and they weren't nearly this good.

Nothing worth noting happened after we returned to the motel after dinner.  The wind and allergy attacks continue, but nothing we can't handle and haven't been through before.  At least we'll be ready for Lake Arrowhead where the pine pollen falls like snow most of the year.

Wednesday, November 2 - Drive to Victorville via Red Rock Canyon State Park - Hilton Garden Inn

Red Rock Canyon State Park features scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations. The park is located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converge with the El Paso Range. Each tributary canyon is unique, with dramatic shapes and vivid colors. Historically, the area was once home to the Kawaiisu Indians, who left petroglyphs in the El Paso mountains and other evidence of their inhabitation. The spectacular gash situated at the western edge of the El Paso mountain range was on the Native American trade route for thousands of years. During the early 1870s, the colorful rock formations in the park served as landmarks for 20-mule team freight wagons that stopped for water. About 1850, it was used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers. The park now protects significant paleontology sites and the remains of 1890s-era mining operations, and has been the site for a number of movies.

The City of Victorville is located in the High Desert area (also known as the Victor Valley) of San Bernardino County. Victorville is accessible via Interstate 15 and Highway 395, linking the city with all other areas of Southern California and to Las Vegas. The City of Victorville encompasses approximately 67.68 square miles of land. Victorville has experienced a substantial growth since 1980 with population growing from 14,229 people in 1980 to 107,609 in 2011.

The Hilton Garden Inn Victorville hotel in California is conveniently located in the Heart of the High Desert just 30 minutes from the Ontario International Airport, two hours from Los Angeles International Airport and the Beach, and three hours from Las Vegas.  Our beautiful hotel offers comfortable accommodations, friendly service, and a relaxed atmosphere in the beautiful High Desert.

It was very chilly this morning, in the low 40's.  There is still some wind and it is very dry, but nothing has burst into flames yet.  It never cracked the 70-degree mark at any point during our drive today, even in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

We were up slightly earlier than usual because we have to check out today and get moving toward our next stop.  We had plenty of time to go to Cheryl's Diner for breakfast, where the very friendly waitress who has served us every day was there again.  She was alone again today, but it was very slow.  When we left there were no other customers in the place.

We chatted about the fallen tree in the Sequoias.  She said it fell just a few days ago and they still aren't sure what to do about it.  Tunnel through it, remove it, cut a section out, or re-route the trail.  Sounds like a no-brainer to us...just re-route the trail.  It isn't all that difficult to figure out.  But, it would be kind of interesting to tunnel through it just for the novelty value.  Whatever they do, we're sure it will cost a fortune and require years of special studies and input from the public. 

We had another "small world" moment with the waitress.  Recall that the one at Ewing's went to the same high school Bill did.  The one at the cafe was born in the same city Dave was.  Her family moved here 40 years ago and she has been here ever since.  Our food was again good and a bargain.  A huge waffle was only $4.75.

Back at the motel, we packed up and prepared ourselves for the road again.  Check out time is 11:00 AM, but we were ready to roll by 10:30 AM.  Dave went to check out with the ever-friendly Pat and Keith.  This stop was intended as a filler and not much else, but it turned out to be one of the highlights.  The people in Kernville were so friendly and welcoming that we would return just to sit around and do nothing.  We recommend that you all do the same.  And, if you do, stay at the Sequoia Lodge and tell Pat and Keith that Dave and Bill sent you.

There isn't much in the way of scenery on the 3-hour or so drive today.  We're only stopping in Victorville so we don't have to climb the backside of the mountains to Lake Arrowhead when we're already tired.  Oh, and we have plenty of Hilton Honors points to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn for free, so why not? 

Our first scheduled stop was at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Click to view the Brochure. Yawn.  What a bore.  The visitor center is closed due to budget cuts and the rest can be seen from the highway.  Yes, the eroded red rocks are pretty, no question about it, but this isn't a destination.  They had a restroom, so that's a plus.  We turned off on a side road to a set of magnificent cliffs across the highway and walked up to them.  Nobody else was there.  The cliffs sort of look like ice cream that melted and re-froze.  The pink stuff that has run down from the harder layers above is just a stucco-like coating on the clay sediments.  Tapping on it sounds hollow and it falls right off.  The clay base of the cliff is just that, clay.  It doesn't seem very stable at all.  The red layers are lava flows that coated the sediments long ago.  Those layers have hardened into stone, protecting the softer layers from erosion.

OK, so that took all of ten minutes and we were back on the road headed west.  All we saw for the next hour were miles and miles of scrub desert plants and Joshua trees.  Oh, and lots of shacks and derelict old gas stations and other roadside businesses.  Our GPS didn't like our choice of routes at all.  She kept yelling at us to "MAKE A U-TURN NOW".  We had a map with our pre-planned route passing Edwards Air Force Base and sort of zigzagging toward Victorville.

We decided to take a slight detour parallel to the highway and drive through beautiful downtown Boron.  Wow, talk about depressing.  There is almost nothing left of this town at all and what there is has long been out of business.  There were a couple of dumpy motels, a gas station and two restaurants still open, plus one grocery store.  One of the motels has a big sign out front proclaiming, "We guarantee clean rooms!"  One would hope a guarantee like that would go without saying.

We stopped in front of the Twenty Mule Team Museum and the adjacent Saxon Aerospace Museum.  Both of them are free, so we figured we'd at least look at them.  "The Fountain" in front of the aerospace museum looks pretty forlorn, but what doesn't here.  There is a jet parked out front.  The guy manning the counter asked us to sign the guest book, but that's all that was required for admittance.  The displays were actually kind of interesting if you are a guy.  Old rocket parts, uniforms, jet engines, etc.  What was there was presented nicely and you could get right up and touch things.  There weren't any signs saying not to.  We were the only visitors.  This place was worth the stop, but nothing we'd make a serious effort to see.  But, if you are passing by anyway, give it a shot.

Next door is a Twenty Mule Team Museum that also includes stuff from the local high school and whatever else people have donated or loaned.  However, it goes on and on, down some steps and into another building in the back.  The place is much larger than it looks from the front.  There were a couple of semi-interesting exhibits, most of which were in various stages of neglect.  There is a display of rusty old equipment out front, too.  We didn't see anyone working there when we came in, but she appeared as we were leaving to answer the only other visitor's questions.  If she was a day under 100 we'd be very surprised, but she seemed to know what she was talking about.  The visitor asked, "What is this a painting of?"  "It is the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley."  Visitor:  "Oh, it is Scotty's Castle?"  "No, it is the Inn, that's a different place."  We escaped the insanity at this point.  That old lady was way more patient than we would have been!

Nothing happened for the hour remaining in our drive.  If you want to buy some desert acreage "dirt cheap", we saw sign after sign offering it.  At the city of Adelanto on the outskirts of Victorville, are the remnants of many unfinished housing tracts and a shopping center that is nothing more than concrete foundations and a bunch of light poles in an empty parking lot.  Across the intersection a huge sign promotes another shopping center featuring a Target store "Coming Soon".  Yeah, right, like that's ever going to happen.

Victorville looks like it was on a roll with development when the rug was pulled out from under the economy.  Some very nice, but incomplete, housing tracts line the highway.  There are no signs of any of them actually being completed and filling in the vacant tracts of land, but one developer was still trying to sell his one street of completed homes.  Another was advertising, "No money down, bankruptcy OK, foreclosure no problem."  No wonder the housing bubble burst.  Isn't that kind of offer the very reason so many people are eating it now?  Getting people to spend money they don't have doesn't seem like the best idea to us.

The byproduct of all of this once-flourishing development is a slew of brand-new, mostly empty, shopping centers on every corner.  Well, yes, some corners are now trying to sell the vacant commercial property, but there must be every national chain restaurant and fast food place on the planet available here.  How long they will last is anyone's guess.

We made a wrong turn and had to back track a bit to get to the hotel, which is on the frontage road along the freeway.  Next door is a small amusement park, but otherwise the view around the hotel is mostly vacant land.  There is a shopping mall across the highway where there are numerous chain restaurants to choose from, assuming they are still in business.  We'll check that out later.

As already mentioned, we are staying at one of our favorite chains, Hilton Garden Inn.  These hotels are a bargain anyway, but with our Gold perk of a free breakfast (usually $11.95 per person) it is even better.  The breakfasts at this brand are regular restaurant food, not a minimal buffet, so it is quite a deal.  We're only stopping here so we'll be rested, fed and ready to drive up to Arrowhead tomorrow.

Check-in was courteous and efficient except they only gave us a breakfast voucher for one person.  We noticed the error and the clerk gave us another one with no argument.  We're on the top floor, as requested.  This might be the only chain that still honors your preferences during free stays.  We always get the room type we want, the preferred location, free breakfast, internet (complimentary for everyone here), and two bottles of water.  Can't beat all that for free!  We do like that this brand has a restaurant that serves dinner and/or room service also, just in case.

We arrived at 3:00 PM and didn't go out again until dinnertime around 7:00 PM.  Actually, we didn't even go out, we went down to the restaurant in the lobby.  Neither of us wanted a big meal and the Garden Inn restaurants serve decent food and a reasonable price.  Dave had a Chicken Caesar Salad that was only $7.95.  Bill had the special, Chicken Picatta, and it was only $8.95.  The food was OK, nothing to write home about even though that's exactly what we're doing in the blog right now.  The service was friendly, but glacial.  We almost got up and left without paying it took so long.  However, when the server showed up again she apologized and said room service was "going crazy".  No excuse, but at least there was a reason.

We were back in the room, where we stayed, by around 8:15 PM.  We got a call from home about the water being off.  Eventually, it was determined it is the entire tract, not just our place.  That's a bit of a relief since it will be fixed eventually, but let's hope that is sooner rather than later.

Thursday, November 3 - Lake Arrowhead - Our Cabin

Nestled in the majestic mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest, widely known as "The Alps of Southern California," is the best kept secret on the West Coast - Lake Arrowhead. A stunningly beautiful, cozy and quaint mountain resort paradise, Lake Arrowhead features countless outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, backpacking, bicycling, water and snow skiing, fishing, and much more. With the stunning scenery and wildlife, comes a natural peacefulness that has lured people to these mountains for centuries.

Lake Arrowhead offers 5 Star resort hotel accommodations, shopping, restaurants, seasonal weather, and exceptional real estate opportunities. Whether you're looking for rest, relaxation, a romantic getaway from "the flatlands", or the thrill of being at one with Mother Nature and all she has to offer, you're sure to find it at Lake Arrowhead!

It is chilly this morning, in the mid 50's.  We don't expect the temperature at any point today to rise much above what it is now.  It will drop below 40 tonight in the mountains, if not below freezing.

Do we love Hilton Garden Inns or what?  Their breakfast is so great we'd gladly pay for it ($9.95), although we're glad we don't have to.  You get whatever cooked-to-order items you want, or more than one if you choose.  When Bill ordered an omelet, the waitress asked if he wanted a side of bacon, sausage, hash browns, or, "How about a waffle or something?"  Plus you get what you want from the Continental buffet (fruit, yogurt, cereal, toast, pastries, muffins, etc.)  And, the omelets were fantastic.  The server was very sweet and couldn't have been any nicer.  No problems with the service this morning at all.

We'll be heading up to the mountains this morning.  We're taking a back road up that we haven't used before.  It is also the usual evacuation route when the west side of the mountain catches fire in the summer, so it is probably good to be familiar with it "just in case".  Weather reports say it might snow on Friday night.  How cool is that?  Quite a change from the desert, that's for sure.  Our local mountains are more forested than the places we have been so far on this road trip.

Our departure was delayed by further developments in the water issue at home.  When the water service was restored, a pump failure in the water system caused a huge pressure surge that in turn burst our connection at the street.  So, do you think the water company will take any responsibility for this?  Heck no.  It is all on us.  Oh yeah, they came out and turned off the water.  Dave had a screaming match with the technician over the phone and he agreed to come look at it.  He did show up quickly, but reaffirmed that they won't fix it, "but you can make a claim or pursue legal action."  Oh boy.  He also said we are supposed to have some sort of pressure regulator installed to protect ourselves.  We already have a device they require to protect THEIR system that was installed at great expense to us when this was mandated.  Dave asked, "So we have to protect YOU, but you don't have to protect US?"  Apparently not.  The estimate for installing this little protective device, $3,000!

Not one to sit on his hands while the bureaucracy fumbles around, Dave arranged for a plumber to come out and fix it.  Amazingly enough, he actually did show up and $825 later, had it fixed by 3:00 PM.  He also made sure to phrase his repair order to put all the blame for the cause on the water company.  Oh, by the way, while the water company guy was there he got a call to go to another house where the water was gushing from a burst pipe for the same reason.  Doesn't sound like our problem, now does it?  [Note: We never were reimbursed after we made a claim, which was ignored.]

We managed to leave the hotel around 11:00 AM, taking calls on the road.  The total drive time is only about an hour with no stops.  We have never taken the back way up the mountain before.  It is a more gradual incline than the main route up from the west, but it is also more rural.  The beginning of the mountain road on the west is in the populated city of San Bernardino.

The mountain resort communities are in the San Bernardino National Forest.  The only benefit for us is that we qualified to be reimbursed when the county mandated that the forest be thinned on Lake Arrowhead properties (which is a tiny amount of space for us.)  They actually did reimburse us for having the work done, which is a miracle in itself. In fact, we made a bit of a profit on it!

Our first stop was at Silverwood Lake, a lake we didn't even know existed until we looked at the map to find our way up.  It is part of the California water system and is completely man-made.  It is used for recreation also.  The vista point we stopped at was brand new with huge parking areas.  They must be expecting a crowd at some point.  No one else stopped while we were there. 

The drive up is scenic.  Our mountains are more forested than the desert areas we have been so far this trip.  With the fires a few years ago and the bark beetles killing many of the trees, it looks better now that the trees have been thinned.  You wouldn't know anything had been done, but it looks a lot better and the trees seem healthier.

We were stopped by a flagman at one point.  A helicopter was flailing around dragging a cable over the trees by the highway.  It was extremely windy, so we expected it to crash right in front of us at any moment.  Apparently so did they, which is why the road was blocked.  We only had to wait a few minutes, but it was interesting watching the spectacle.

After winding up the mountain for another ten minutes or so, we arrived at the small community of Crestline.  This village is the smallest of the three mountain lake resorts.  The lake here, Lake Gregory, has always had problems of one sort or another.  Either the dam is about to burst or the water is full of algae.  This is where Dave's parents used to rent a cabin from time to time.  Back then there was a private club with a log clubhouse that was quite hoity-toity.  It went bust at least three times that we are aware of.  At one time there was an ice skating rink where Dave learned to ice skate, and some other recreational facilities.  The lodge once sported a fancy restaurant and cabin rentals, among other things.  The lodge still remains, but it is used as a community center now.  The lake looks better than it has previously, but it still looks a bit desperate with a big waterslide added on one side.  The little town looked OK.  If you are on a budget, Crestline is the best choice for a vacation home.  Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake are more upscale.

The drive all the way around the lake only takes about fifteen minutes, so we were back winding our way toward Lake Arrowhead in no time.  We ended up on the west side main highway eventually and from there it was only ten minutes to our house.  We're always surprised how well this little place holds up with hardly anyone making the trek up here.  We half expect to plummet down the hill every time we park on the wooden deck, but so far so good.  We haven't been up here since the trees were thinned several months ago.  It looks a lot better and we have a better view, but you'd never suspect that over 30 trees were removed.

The biggest surprise was that the leaning electric pole out front was actually replaced after Dave called and reported it several months ago.  It had been that way for years, but we became concerned when it started to pull the cables supporting it out of the ground.  It would also periodically yank the wires out of our house, too.  All fixed now!

Dave inherited this house in 2000 and it was, to put it politely, a bit dated.  We intended to paint and replace the ridiculous furniture (it had been a rental before his mother bought it and she never did anything to it.)  Anyone who knows us realizes that there is no way all we're going to do is paint.  Dave went nuts and practically gutted the place.  We installed a new kitchen, which is still tiny and in the same configuration, but has new tile, appliances and refaced cabinets. 

There are two living rooms.  The one upstairs had a mantle and shelving installed, all new furniture, lighting, and window coverings added.  The God-awful brown carpet was replaced with commercial-quality fake wood that isn't affected by tracking in the snow (or the water leaks when it freezes and backs up.)  The sliding doors on both levels had to be replaced with low-E glass and stronger locks.  The biggest change was to rip out a ridiculously placed closet that drove Dave crazy.  Now it is an attractive cabinet that looks like it has always been there.  An ugly homemade pair of windows was replaced with one larger one that opens for cross ventilation. A new door completed the entry.

We redecorated the upstairs bedroom with new wallpaper, furniture and carpet. The precarious stairway was redone with new railings and added lighting.  The 1980's style walnut light fixtures were replaced.

Downstairs is another living room that had a dramatic upgrade.  Previously, tiny basement-like windows flanked the hideous fireplace.  We had those replaced with full-sized windows that actually open, the fireplace was refaced with stone, and, of course, all new furniture and window treatments.  The downstairs bedroom was redecorated also.  Both bathrooms were completely redone with new tile showers and countertops.  All that is left is to someday finish the lower basement level, but there is no urgency to do that since it has already been over ten years and we have made no progress on that project.

After dumping our stuff, we drove the short distance (about a mile) to Lake Arrowhead Village.  This shopping area has been here since the lake was developed back in the 1930's (or thereabouts), but the only original building that remains is a round structure in the center of the lower level.  The upper level is mostly aimed at locals with a Stater Bros. supermarket, pizza parlor, post office and a few other shops.

The original village was burned to the ground, on purpose, and rebuilt in a similar alpine style.  The lower level is supposed to be a sort of outlet mall that replaced the mom and pop stores a few years ago.  That idea never took off and the landlord went bankrupt (again), so it is a hodge podge of outlets, gift shops and vacancies now. It is surprisingly busy most of the time and there are several decent restaurants to choose from.  Adjacent to the village is the Lake Arrowhead Resort, a hotel and condominium complex.  The hotel was recently re-done and looks very nice.  This is the only part of the lake that is relatively accessible to non-owners via scenic boat tours and rentals.

The main issue for tourists is that the lake is privately owned by property owners in the original subdivision from the 1930's, Arrowhead Woods.  Only lots in this area have lake rights.  No one else is allowed on the lake to fish or launch boats.  We are in this "special" area, but we don't have a dock.  We could, however, launch a boat if we chose to do so.  As far as we know, the dam is in no danger of collapse, but there are issues here.  All of the water supply for Arrowhead Woods came from the lake until some idiot sued and complained to the state because his dock was left high and dry during the drought a few years ago.  Now the community is limited in how much water it can draw from the lake, so we have a mix of lake water and purchased water.  It was scary originally because the town had no connection to the California water supply before because it wasn't necessary.  That seems to have been solved now.  By the way, the lake has been full to overflowing ever since due to adequate rain.

Lake Arrowhead was originally constructed as an electric generating scheme that never worked.  It is now used only for recreational purposes and local drinking water.  Bugsy Siegel had a club and speakeasy in the oldest part of the community.  Those buildings still exist as private residences or B&B's.  One of them still has the secret passageways in the basement where they could quickly hide the gambling paraphernalia and alcohol when a raid by the feds was imminent during Prohibition.

Our task today isn't nearly that glamorous.  We're just stocking up with food for the next few days.  Our plan was to go out every night just like we would do on vacation, but with snow forecast for Friday night we're being safe and preparing with supplies so we can eat in. It is extremely windy up here tonight, but not particularly cold yet.  It was in the high 60's all day and into the evening.

The third major lake resort up here is Big Bear Lake, the largest of the three at the highest elevation.  We'll try to take a drive up there over the weekend if the snow doesn't thwart our plans.

Unfortunately, our Verizon wireless internet connection isn't working.  We don't know if this is temporary or if something has changed and it no longer works.  So, we'll be uploading via a dial-up connection for the time being.  We're feeling positively prehistoric.

Friday, November 4 - Lake Arrowhead - Our Cabin

It was very windy and generally stormy overnight.  By early morning it was 39 degrees, foggy and pouring rain off and on until around 9:00 AM when it turned to hail.  The hail continued long enough that it started to coat the deck.  Shortly thereafter, the temperature dropped to 36 and it began to snow.  We love the transition from the noise of pouring rain to the silence of snowfall.  We're glad we picked up groceries yesterday.  We can't drive around because we don't have tire chains, so we'll do what we usually do when we're up here, nothing.  The street we're on is always plowed promptly, so we won't be trapped here unless the snow continues, which isn't in the forecast again until Sunday.

Since it is snowing, we figured we'd go all the way and build a real wood fire.  Usually we're too lazy and use the gas fireplace downstairs.  However, building a fire required running down two levels to collect wood from the pile under the parking deck.  The wood is wet, but we tossed it in anyway and turned on the gas log lighter.  It isn't totally rustic up here.  We have gas and sewer service!  At home we're on septic and have to have propane delivered.  Go figure.

It continued to storm all afternoon with alternating rain, hail, and snow.  It wasn't until 1:30 PM when the temperature dropped to 34 degrees that the snow finally started to accumulate.  We're still ensconced in front of the fire, doing nothing.  Oh yeah, we did have lunch that required us to get up and walk the ten feet to the kitchen.

Same ol', same ol' around here all day.  The snow continued all day until the trees were nice and frosty.  This will probably all be gone in a few days, so we're enjoying it while we can.  Probably 3-4" fell today.  This is nothing to you guys in the Midwest and East, but for us California boys, this is a nice change.  The snowplow came by at 5:00 PM and cleared the street, but we're not planning to go out until the ice melts tomorrow afternoon.

Chains are required for driving up here, so we couldn't go anywhere even if we wanted to.  The roads should be clear by tomorrow.  The snow continued off and on most of the evening.

Saturday, November 5 - Lake Arrowhead - Our Cabin

It's a beautiful, sunny morning up here in the mountains.  Cold though, only 34 degrees.  Everything is coated with ice and a two-inch layer of snow.  We briefly considered driving up to Big Bear today, but we realized that this is Saturday with the first snowfall of the year.  It will be too crowded and the roads filled with gawkers, so we're staying in again, so far.  Maybe we'll go out later for lunch or dinner, but don't hold your breath.

The high temperature for today only reached 37 degrees, although the sun did melt the snow off of the trees.  There are still a few inches of snow on the ground and ice in the shaded areas.  We didn't venture out.

Sunday, November 6 - Lake Arrowhead - Our Cabin

Today is a repeat of Friday, rainy, snowy, icy, foggy, and cold.  The temperature this morning is 34 degrees.  All this means to us is that we'll be staying put again today, probably cleaning the cabin and getting ready to leave tomorrow.  The drag of staying at your own place is that the last day is always spent dusting, vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms.  Bring on the hotel maids!  No such luck, unfortunately.

By 10:00 AM, the snow was falling in large flakes worthy of a Christmas card.  The weather forecast predicted snowfall for above 5,000 feet, which is slightly higher than Lake Arrowhead, so this is a nice surprise.  Rain would have frozen into ice on the roads, but light snow we can deal with.  All we have done so far this morning is vacuum the ashes out of the fireplace and start over with a new load of wood. 

The big excitement for the day was the fire alarm going off when we tried to clean the oven.  At least we know the alarm company is on the ball.  The phone was ringing within seconds of the alarm going off.  They gave us the code to silence the smoke detector.  We knew how to stop the alarm itself, but the smoke detector wouldn't shut the hell up.  Wasn't that exciting?  Don't expect much more for today.

The sun came out around 2:30 PM, briefly giving the wet and snowy trees a glittery appearance.  The snow had already turned to rain about half an hour earlier.  The road never accumulated any snow, but it will certainly be icy after dark when the temperature drops again.  By the way, it soared to a whopping 39 degrees when the sun came out.

Monday, November 7 - Drive Home

It was freezing this morning, literally, it was 32 degrees.  There was some icy rain overnight that deposited about an inch of little round ice beads all over everything.  The car had about three inches of snow on top, but the street is mostly clear.  There were some ice patches in the shade, but nothing unmanageable without chains.

We did our cleaning chores, packed up and hit the road down the mountain toward home around 11:00 AM.  The drive takes only 90 minutes, so we were home before 1:00 PM.  We stopped briefly at the bottom of the mountain to push the remaining chunks of ice/snow off the SUV.  We'd been dropping pieces all the way down, but we didn't think other motorists on the freeway would be amused if it fell in front of them.

There were two happy dogs waiting for us!


Wow, an entire road trip with no illnesses or other problems.  Everything went smoothly and according to plan.  Reservations were honored, hotels were as expected (thank you Tripadvisor!) and most of the stops were more entertaining than we had anticipated. 

Overall, each stop had some merits.  We wouldn't go back to Lone Pine because the locals were so unwelcoming in general and we saw everything we're interested in, but the things we saw were well worth it.  Manzanar in particular was one of the highlights of the trip and very enlightening.  As we've already said, everyone should see it and learn from it.

Palm Springs is long past its prime and the economy has hit the city hard.  But, we'd probably stay there again.  There are loads of restaurants and hotels to choose from and the people are friendly.  It is probably of more interest to those of you who are into the pool "scene", but there is something for everyone and the prices are reasonable for a resort city.

We enjoyed our drive through Joshua Tree more than we expected.  We probably wouldn't bother to go that way again, but it was well worth looking at.  We'd give Twentynine Palms a miss next time unless we absolutely needed a break from the road.  There are at least two modern hotels to choose from, so from that aspect it is a fine stopping point.

The drive through Mojave National Preserve was long, but interesting.  Again, we wouldn't do it again necessarily, but it was definitely worth doing once.

Death Valley National Park is a must-see destination.  We could have spent at least another day exploring.  We can't understand how people only spend one night there.  It is impossible to see more than one or two of the most famous highlights in one day.  The distances are vast and it takes half a day just to get from one end to the other.  Not to mention the heat factor.  We were happy that the Xanterra-operated hotel was very nice.  We hated our experience at their hotel in Yellowstone, but Furnace Creek Ranch was charming and pleasant.  We'd stay there again for sure.

As mentioned, Lone Pine isn't anything, but the places we visited from there on our outings were well worth it.  We probably wouldn't go to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest again, but if you are passing that way it is worth a detour.  Everything else we saw there, Alabama Hills, Movie Road, Film Museum and Manzanar, are must-see locations.  Just choose a different base city if you are in the vicinity.  The motel was fine, but everything else was lacking.

We only tossed in the stop in Kernville because Dave knew someone when he was a little kid who had a house in Lake Isabella.  In other words, he'd heard of it, nothing more.  This small town turned out to be absolutely delightful.  The people were extraordinarily welcoming and friendly.  There were a number of good restaurants and lodging options.  We were very happy with our stay at Sequoia Lodge and would for sure choose to stay there again.  It was fun to see the giant sequoia that had fallen just a few days before our visit.

Victorville is Victorville, what else can we say.  It was OK for a night and the Hilton Garden Inn was very nice.  This is a one-day stopover, tops.

It was a thrill to be at our cabin at Lake Arrowhead for the season's first snowfall.  It was just enough to be fun without being an inconvenience.  Every time we are there we say, "Why don't we come up here more often?"  Oh yeah, all those road trips get in the way!

So there you have it.  Another road trip completed with no scars to show for it.  We chalk this one up as a winner.

Be sure to visit the Photo Gallery to see all of the pictures from this adventure.  The ones linked in the text are only the tip of the iceberg!

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