Sunday Hikes: Mastodon Peak Loop Trail

This hike was my favorite hike during my recent trip to Southern California.   The 2.3 mile long Mastodon Peak Loop Trail is on the far southern end of Joshua Tree National Park near the Cottonwood Visitor Center.   We were lucky to have warm weather in the low 80’s and blue skies with puffy white clouds.   After parking in the Cottonwood Springs parking lot, we took off down the Cottonwood Springs Trail.   The Mastodon Peak Loop follows this trail for approximately a mile before veering left and looping back around towards the campground.

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Following the Cottowood Trail before the Mastodon Peak Loop veers off

The beginning of the trail goes right by the Cottonwood Spring which is a virtual oasis in the desert.   The massive Cottonwood trees surrounding the spring look so out of place in the surrounding desert.   After passing the spring, the desert returns in force with cactus, rocks, and sandstone.   After taking the left to follow the Mastodon Peak Loop and leaving behind the Cottonwood Trail, we started to pick up some elevation.   Once we ascended to the peak, there was one of the signature giant rock piles that you see in Joshua Tree NP.   Of course Josh had to climb to the top, so Anya and I followed him as he picked his way up through the rocks.

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Starting to ascend to the high point of the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail

Climbing rocks in Joshua Tree NP is incredibly fun.   It is part rock scramble and part hopping from rock to rock.   We ended up circling around the peak and coming up the back side of the rock formation.  We admired the view with the surprising sight of a large body of water to the south.   After looking online, I think it was the Salton Sea, but I’m not 100% sure of that.   We found a shaded spot in the rocks at the top.   We each had a granola bar and chilled for a bit.   I then made my way down so I could take some pictures of Josh and Anya on the top.

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View from the top of Mastodon Peak with the Salton Sea? in the distance

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Josh and Anya at the top of Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree NP

After taking the pictures, I went ahead a bit while Josh and Anya worked their way down.   Almost immediately around the corner is the entrance to a gold mine.  The gold mine is barred but you can easily look down into it.   There is a partial structure beside it which looked to be in the process of being rebuilt.   It was cool to think that under the Mastodon Peak we had climbed was a gold mine.   Josh and Anya caught up then and checked out the mine as well.

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Mastodon Mine sign and barrier

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Peering down into the Mastodon Mine

After leaving the gold mine area, we quickly finished the loop and made our way back to the car.  This hike was amazing and I can’t recommend it enough.

rk

An Afternoon in Natchez MS

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I was in Natchez this week for work visiting a customer.   I hadn’t been to the downtown area by the Mississippi River so I thought I would check it out before leaving town.   Needless to say, downtown Natchez is beautiful and fun.   There are several restaurants and bars by the water along with a trail system.   Most of the trails are really just routes through the streets downtown which I checked out.   Along with the plentiful bars are shops and antique stores.   Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check out all of these but will try to plan for more time here in the future.   I’d also like to check out the Nature Trail along the river.   I took some pictures and hope you enjoy.   rk

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Sunday Hikes: Lions, Tarantulas, and Giant Hares on the Boy Scout Trail in Joshua Tree NP

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I went to Joshua Tree NP in November 2016 with my mom; we only spent a half a day, which only gave me a tiny taste of what the park has to offer! Mom and I drove around and looked for the best hike for our short time! One of the trails we looked at but did not have the chance to do was the Boy Scout Trail. This is an eight mile, one way hike that starts in desert surrounded by Joshua Trees and goes into a mountain, small Valley and ends with more desert. Not really my kind of hike because of the 16 miles round trip. The trail caught my eye because of the “warning” sign that was informing hikers of sick bighorn sheep spotted on the mountain portion of the trail. Rangers wanted hikers to call in if they saw any ill bighorn, so they could get them medical help. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do the hike in November.

When Dad, Josh and I decided to go back to Joshua Tree in March, the only thing I wanted to do was the Boy Scout Trail. Dad and Josh agreed and we were all so excited and anxiously awaiting the small chance we could see a bighorn!

We decided it would be a cool evening hike! Instead of doing the 8 miles in and 8 miles out, we parked our car at ranger station by the exit of the trail and took an Uber into the park to the trailhead. I thought it was a clever idea! Our Uber driver was very friendly and chatty- a little too chatty. By the end of the 30 minute ride, we knew just about his whole life story. We told him we were hoping to see a bighorn and he proceeded to tell us we probably wouldn’t but to watch out for mountain lions and good luck; we laughed as he drove off.

We started the trail around 6 pm. We were having a blast talking, joking and enjoying the scenery. I loved seeing the Joshua Trees in bloom and seeing all the plants in  the desert! About a mile into the hike we saw a couple of jackrabbits, which dad tried to chase down to get a good picture of. I don’t think he succeeded.

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The sun started setting around 7 and it was beautiful. The silhouette of the Joshua trees in front of the sunset was very pretty and unique! The sunset was a bright pink and orange and made a glow on the rocks which formed the start of the mountain.

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Before the mountain portion of the trail began, we climbed a big rock and brewed some coffee at the top. One of my favorite memories from the entire trip was watching the sunset on top of the rock while making the coffee. It was getting dark quickly, so we took our coffee and snack to-go on the trail!

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We hiked the mountain portion of the trail and started entering the valley. There is always some point of a longer hike where everyone is quiet for awhile and you focus on the trail, the views and take in the sounds of nature- or in this case, the silence of nature. We were at that “point” of the hike.

It was quiet when all the sudden, within a few seconds, so much happened. I ran into Dad and Josh who were walking a few feet ahead of me, and there was a loud noise. I had no idea what the noise was, but quickly caught along when the boys started screaming, jumping, and throwing rocks. There was a mountain lion 4 feet away from us. We had startled it since we were being quiet. I quickly joined Dad and Josh, trying to scare the mountain lion away. I was so scared! The lion eventually creeped out of our sight, but did not go far. I grabbed a rock for protection, just in case!  We kept hiking, terrified and confused. We all took turns explaining what we saw and heard to process what happened.

Not long after our encounter, we saw a tarantula. In any other circumstance, I would not be thrilled to see a big spider, but I would choose a tarantula over a mountain lion any day! Josh and I wanted to keep moving and get as far away from the lion, but Dad tried to stop and take a photo. Josh and I were not pleased with that.

We hiked quickly, played music, and talked at a loud volume to insure our “friend” left us alone. The three of us were paranoid and ready to see that car. Thankfully, we never saw the mountain lion again!

We finally reached the car around 9:30 and I don’t think I have ever felt so relieved. We ditched our rocks that we carried the last 4 miles of the hike for protection and hopped into the car to head back to the hotel!

Anya

Adopt a Bighorn Sheep in Death Valley National Park

It is somewhat of an inside joke between Josh and I that despite visiting National Parks out west multiple times, we have never seen a bighorn sheep.   We have seen about every other possible animal there is to see, but never the elusive bighorn.   Hence the origin of the name of our blog.

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During our visit to Death Valley National Park last weekend, we discovered that the Death Valley Natural History Association had an “Adopt a Bighorn” program to help fund research and monitoring of bighorn sheep.   We of course felt like we had to participate.   This way whenever we see one of those bighorn crossing signs, we can hold up our stuffed bighorn sheep and imagine what it must be like to see the real thing.

If you would like to participate and support the Death Valley Natural History Association, you can contribute at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center like we did or you can follow this link:  http://www.dvnha.org/programs-events/adopt-a-bighorn.   rk

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Sunday Hikes: Night Hikes at Pine Mountain and Blood Mountain

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Josh and me at the top of Pine Mountain

Night hikes are a fun way to experience a trail in a different way.   I would recommend if you are going to try night hiking to be prepared and to hike somewhere that you are familiar with so you do not get lost.   We typically bring headlamps, compass, water, snacks, and Josh’s coffee making apparatus to prepare coffee at the turnaround point.

Josh and I typically will do a night hike when it is either a full moon or a new moon.   On a clear night with a full moon, there is no need to use your headlamps and the trail looks otherworldly with an ethereal glow coming from the moon.   It is easy to spot wildlife and keep your footing.

However, with the new moon this weekend we decided to hike one of our regular hikes nearby at the Pine Mountain Recreation Area and the following night hike to the Appalachian Trail to crest the summit of Blood Mountain.   The allure of hiking with the new moon is the hope to see stars and maybe even a bit of the Milky Way galaxy.

Fellow night hiker Anya joined us to hike at Pine Mountain the first night.  Josh had brought some crazy tea in a bag he found somewhere for us to brew at the top.    The Pine Mountain series of trails is two loops connected with a trail over the top of Pine Mountain with a spur trail to the overlook where you can see the bright lights of Atlanta in the distance.   This trail system is easy to access off of exit 288 on I-75 in North Georgia.   Just turn east and follow the road to the right and there is the trailhead with ample parking.

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Pine Mountain Recreational Area sign

The first loop we took the right fork and quickly went in elevation from about 900 ft to almost 1600 ft in about a mile.   Once we crested the mountain we took the spur to the overlook and Josh brewed the tea and we enjoyed the view.   Being only about 40 miles north of Atlanta the stars were not very visible, but for this area were nice.   Venus in particular was very bright.  The weather was quite comfortable for late February in Georgia.   At this point we had decided to do the more aggressive Blood Mountain hike the next night so we returned to the trailhead using the other side of the first loop and crossing thru the “fat man’s squeeze”.    This is about a 2 to 2 ½ mile trip.   If we had completed the second loop, then the total distance would have been 4.56 miles.   I like the second loop but feel like it is a more enjoyable hike taking the left fork and going around.

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Atlanta city lights in the distance from the top of Pine Mountain

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part of Josh’s coffee making contraption

The next night Josh and I drove about 2+ hours up into the North Georgia mountains to the Chattahoochee National Forest.   This is a huge area of land inhabited by black bears and is where the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail begins.   To get to the Blood Mountain trailhead take Hwy 19 north from the Atlanta area until it dead ends on Hwy 129, go left on 129 towards Vogel State Park and the trailhead at Neels Gap will be well marked on the left before you get to Vogel.

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Neels Gap Trailhead sign

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Neels Gap Trailhead map

After parking at the trailhead, we marveled at the brightness of the stars just from where we were parked and were excited to see what we could find at the top of Blood Mountain.  We started out on the Byron Herbert Reece Trail, which crosses a creek with Rhododendrons everywhere and quickly elevates over its .7 mile length.   It is marked with blue blazes.   You will come to a well-marked crossroads where you can go left south on the Appalachian Trail, right north on the A/T, or straight which has a couple of other named trails.   We took the right fork, north on the A/T, to traverse the 2+ miles to the summit of Blood Mountain.

Thankfully the trail is very well marked with reflective white blazes from here on as it was pitch black and other than our headlamps we could not see much around us (well except for one fat rabbit).   It was colder tonight dropping down into the lower thirties.   As we climbed to the top of the 4459 ft mountain (the highest point along the A/T in Georgia), the trail started to remind me of a stone staircase at points and even a few larger rocks to climb over.   As we neared the summit, we had hiked higher in elevation than the mountains around us and could start to see the orange glow of Atlanta around 100 miles to the south.   There were several flat granite areas (where I could say a great dad joke, “don’t take this hike for granite”), right before we crested the top.   The wind was positively howling at the top and unfortunately we couldn’t get the flame to stay lit on Josh’s coffee brewing contraption.   We did enjoy the stars, but with the Atlanta orange glow to the south we couldn’t see the Milky Way like we could out west in Texas and Utah.

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Atlanta city lights in the distance from the top of Blood Mountain (note we did bring a better camera than the iphone and tripod to try and get star pictures but the wind was too strong to get it set up and hold still)

To return we just went back the same way we came up.   We had one spot where it took us a few minutes to be sure we were still on the trail and it got a bit spooky in the black woods when we could hear bats squeaking a flying about.   But before we knew it, we were back to the trailhead at our vehicle.  The entire round trip hike of 4.3 miles took us about two hours.   Since the night pictures on my phone left much to be desired, I have a few pictures of Blood Mountain from a previous day hike.   I hope our adventures have inspired you to try night hiking.   rk

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Chattahoochee National Forest sign

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White blaze on the Appalachian Trail near Blood Mountain in North Georgia

The Free National Park Days in 2017

This Monday is one of the free National Park days for 2017.    In 2017 there are the following days that are free to go to a National Park.

  • January 16: Martin Luther King Day
  • February 20: Presidents’ Day
  • April 15-16, 22-23: Weekends of National Park Week
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 30:   National Public Lands Day
  • November 11-12: Veterans Day weekend

Of course, we are past the January date.   Since the National Parks are underfunded and having record attendance year after year, I am not sure if free days are needed.   But, I suppose it is a great way for people to visit a National Park who haven’t before.

According to recently released statistics from the National Park Service, over 330 million visits were made to National Park Service sites in 2016.   This was 7% higher than in 2015.   While the Great Smoky Mountains were again the most visited National Park in 2016 with over 11 million visits, the highest visited Park System site was the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California with over 15 million visits.

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Windmill in Golden Gate National Recreation Area

If you want to get away from the crowds, some of the least visited parks in 2016 were the Alaska National Parks like Gates of the Arctic and Lake Clark.   In the continental US, you can avoid the crowds are Isle Royale and North Cascades.   All of these measure their annual visits in the thousands instead of the millions.

rk

Canada here I come….

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My Discovery Pass came in the mail this week!    If you remember from my previous blog, https://bighorntravelblog.com/2016/12/15/canada-national-parks-free-in-2017/, Canada is offering their National Park pass for free in 2017.   To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if this offer was open to us in the good old USA or if it was only for Canadians.   Since they were so kind to send me the pass, I will have to make sure to visit one or more of Canada’s National Parks this year.   If anyone has suggestions of their favorite Canadian National Parks to visit, please comment and let me know.   Thank you!

rk

Café Du Monde

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Beignets from Café Du Monde

I don’t think I have ever been to New Orleans without stopping at Café Du Monde.   This restaurant is pretty well known, some might even say “world famous”.    The concept here is simple:   gorgeous location, irresistible hot beignets, and cool atmosphere.

Café Du Monde is located in Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter.   Jackson Square is the cultural heart of the French Quarter and a great place to hang out and soak in that cool atmosphere.   There are usually artists painting in the square (and selling their art as well).   Towering over one end of the square is the St. Louis Cathedral which is a historic and beautiful basilica.  On the other end of the square is Washington Artillery Park with sweeping views of the Mississippi River.

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The St. Louis Cathedral seen from across Jackson Square

In one small corner of the square is Café Du Monde.   You will notice when you visit that it isn’t fancy and takes only cash.   They serve the iconic New Orleans beignets and chicory coffee.   The beignets are fried dough covered with large heaps of powdered sugar.   They are also served hot and you can down more than you would think in very short order.  The chicory coffee is bitter and best with large amounts of cream and sugar.   Nothing makes you feel like part of the French Quarter than devouring these hot delightful morsels and watching the activity all around you.   Make sure to stop here during your next visit to New Orleans.

rk

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Café Du Monde

A National Park for each Month of 2017

Since we are at the beginning of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to list which National Park would be the best to visit during each month of this year.   Of course, at Bighorntravelblog we believe it is always a good time to visit a National Park, but there are some compelling reasons to visit these parks in the month indicated.    I hope that this inspires you to consider visiting National Parks when planning your vacation time in 2017.

January – Rocky Mountain National Park.   Colorado is known for its great skiing in places like Breckenridge, Vail, and many others.   Why not combine a ski trip with a visit to beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park.   Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of winter activities including ice climbing, mountaineering, snowshoeing and skiing.   This is also one of the few national parks that allows backcountry camping in the winter.

February – Bryce Canyon National Park.   If you think the orange-red hoodoos look amazing in the summer, then you should see them in February when the rock spires are coated with snow.   It is very beautiful and the clear cold skies should make for some great stargazing as well.

March – Death Valley National Park.    Despite the name, in the spring flowers bloom throughout Death Valley.   Perhaps you will get lucky and during a March visit get to see the Superbloom which happens about once a decade (which is about how often they get any substantial rain in the park).

April – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.   Late April after Spring Break is usually one of the more inexpensive times of year to fly to Hawaii.    The weather here is always perfect plus you could tack on a visit to Haleakala National Park as well.

May – Grand Canyon National Park.   The Grand Canyon is always a great place to visit.   In May you can beat the summer crowds and heat and dodge the snow that is here in the winter.

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June – Great Basin National Park.  Summertime is when the crowds really come out to the National Parks.  Why not take this time to visit one of the least visited National Parks in the lower 48.   This is one the best places to see the stars in the lower 48.   Summers are the one time a year you can see the yellow bellied rock marmot.   The yellow bellied rock marmot hibernates for 9 months a year and is usually only seen in mid summer as they sunbathe on the rocks.

July – Zion National Park.   Now I know, Zion is a zoo with crowds in July.   But July is the best time to hike the Narrows or the Subway.   Wading through the cold water of the Virgin River feels great when it is over 100*F and the risk of flash floods washing you out of the canyon is minimized.

August – Olympic National Park.   Olympic is normally very rainy and wet, but in August you have your best shot of sunny skies and relatively warm weather.   The clear skies are also make this a great time for a side trip to the Space Needle in Seattle to get great views of Olympic and Mt Ranier National Parks.

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September – Yosemite National Park.   Yosemite is another park that in the summer months is difficult to traverse due to crowds.   But visiting in the winter isn’t great because many of the roads are closed and huge portions of the park aren’t accessible.   September is a great time to visit as school is in session so the crowds are down and all of the park is open for business.

October – Acadia National Park.    Acadia in October is stunning.    The New England foliage is showing their full color and the weather is perfect.   Add in some lobster rolls was watching the ocean crash on the black rocks and I can’t think of a better place to be in October.

November – Biscayne National Park.  Visiting this park in South Florida in the summer is like giving yourself over to the mosquitoes as a human sacrifice, but the bugs die down in late fall but the weather is still nice.   This is the best time of year to visit this park.

December – Yellowstone National Park.   Snowmobiling through Yellowstone is one of my bucket list items.   Wildlife is easy to spot in the snow and the cold air really shows off the steam rising from the hot springs and geysers.

rk