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Archive for February, 2014

We regretfully moved from San Simeon to Paso Robles on Monday. Did some laundry and headed out to two wineries: Wild Horse and Dunning. We seem to always find something we like and those two were no exceptions. Dunning is way, way back in the hills and they had a resident flock of wild turkeys.

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The next day was set aside for more wine tasting, followed by a visit to Susan and Fred Miller in Atascadero. But earlier in the day, on the recommendation of Susan, we went out to breakfast at The Other Joe’s in Templeton. She said the hash browns were to die for. I was skeptical because I am not a fan of hash browns. But it turned out to be one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten. The hash browns were fantastic: crispy and brown on top and creamy and soft underneath. I recommend this café!!!

After we had digested a little, we visited Mission San Miguel Arcangel in the little town of San Miguel. It’s more run down than Mission San Luis Obispo, but I liked the sense of peace that emanated from there.

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From there, we went to two wineries on the east side of Paso Robles. Because there are so many to choose from, I usually select wineries that focus on Zins and Cabs. Since most of them include other varietals in their tastings, we still get a bit of variety while searching for the perfect zin. Bianchi was nice, but it was Tobin James that seduced us into joining their wine club. It has a Western theme and when we entered, we both thought “Belly up to the bar”. We did and began tasting okay chard and zin. We had told the pourer that we really loved fruity Zins, so she started pouring reds from the reserve list. One Zin was “Fatboy”; it wasn’t the best Zin we’ve ever had but definitely the second best! At $55, it was way more than the most expensive bottle we ever bought. We loved all three of the reserve Zins we tasted. So we decided to join their wine club and received a 15% discount. They send shipments of 8 reds twice a year, but they select the wines. I want Fatboy, Fatboy, Fatboy!

We got back to the RV park in time to park the wine, sit for a little bit and then headed to Atascadero to find Fred and Susan Miller’s home. Luckily, Susan had warned me about the Garmin getting the route wrong because it did, in fact, dead end us in someone’s front yard. The alternate Mapquest instructions got us to their place, and what a place! It is way up on a hill and has grand views in a couple of directions. Their grounds encircle the house and include two pools with waterfalls, several sitting areas, fruit trees, raised veggie beds, oak trees and more. It is an area with dark nights and they have a telescope to enjoy the stars. It was getting dark and a little chilly so we went inside and enjoyed good company, good wine, a great meal and what Susan said were “low-fat” brownies. Maybe they were but it was hard to tell with strawberries, ice cream and caramel sauce surrounding them. (Sigh of contentment)

Our wine perambulations over, we headed 100 miles north to Carmel. After some research, I had found that there aren’t that many campgrounds or RV parks in the area and the few I found were $50 or $60 per night. That didn’t please me. Dave had a phone app called The Ultimate U.S. Campground Project and it showed us campgrounds at Laguna Seca (now Mazda) Raceway. We went there and got a site with a great view, electric and water for $33 ($2 off for senior discount). It’s about 10 miles east of Carmel, but I’m willing to drive a little more to save $17 per night. We are between a firing range and the racetrack, but there’s nothing much going on right now.

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Thursday was our big day out. We pulled it together and first headed out for Point Lobos, south of Carmel. It was warm with a little breeze. With high clouds overhead, the Pacific ranged from steel gray to deep turquoise blue. We walked to Weston Beach, the area where Edward Weston spent a lot of time photographing the rocks. They are full of interesting composites with intricate designs. One of things I love about the beaches covered with gravel is the hissing sound the water makes as it recedes. I found an art installation on one of the really rocky beaches.

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After lunch, we drove down to Bird Rock and watched the mating ritual of Brandt’s Comorants. Their throat patches were bright blue and they were shaking their wings. It was really neat.

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Having got Dave’s cold, I was coughing quite a bit and getting tired so we headed for the Carmel 17-mile drive. About half the drive is through a forested residential area. Then we reached the coast. We got out of the car and were hit with maybe a 25 mph blast of cold air – a surprise after Point Lobos. But the stormy sea was magnificent so we hopped out for a few minutes at the various stops. I loved the point where people would tee off on a little patch on the rocks right by the water.

 

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We finished the drive and headed back for our last night on the road. This 6-week trip was totally enjoyable. Going from the desert to the seashore gave us great contrast. The desert – so quiet; the ocean – endlessly thunderous. But two things they had in common was giving us the opportunity to gaze out over vast landscapes and some great star nights. We’re looking forward to our next trip in September.

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Right before we left Pismo on Friday, the flat morning fog had morphed into sun and fog: dramatic lighting. I dashed to the beach for 10 minutes and snapped away. That campground was just about full on Thursday night for the long weekend. Deservedly so; it’s a great place, central to lots of activities and fine for hanging out. On the 50-mile ride north, I couldn’t stop at Morro Rock, but it was decorated with a thick ribbon of fog and looked great.

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We lucked into another wonderful state park: San Simeon State Park. It’s two miles south of Hearst Castle and 2 miles north of the cute little town of Cambria. On Friday morning, it was an easy 50-mile cruise from Pismo to here. Worried about the holiday weekend, I made reservations for this park back in Death Valley. The reservation system said that a site would be assigned when you arrived. This eased my mind until we arrived and found nobody at the entrance kiosk. It basically was find your own space and note your reservation. There were a lot of spaces at noon, when we showed up, but soon people were piling in. So I don’t know what happens if you’re a big rig who has reservations and all the spaces have been taken by the time you arrive. We’re in the higher loop with a great view from our back window. Dave is feeling somewhat better today, so St. Valentine must be smiling down on us. After we had found a great spot with an ocean view and settled in, a ranger came and said we had reserved a space for Washburn primitive campground. He gave us the option of moving or paying $5 more per night to stay where we were. We gladly payed the extra for our lovely view. When we checked out Washburn later, we knew we had made the right choice.

Hearst Castle is only a few miles north of our campground, so I went up there on Saturday to get tickets for a Sunday tour. The setup there is that there is a large building at the bottom of the hill with the ticket booths, gift shops, snack shops, Imax movie theater and a small museum. The film about Hearst requires a tour ticket ($25 per person) that also gets you on the bus going up the hill to the estate. So I wandered around for a while and looked at all the Hearst stuff. No sale.

Dave felt well enough for a hike on Saturday, though I was experiencing the very early stages of “I think I’m coming down with a cold”. For me, that usually involves a slight sore throat or a headache or just an “off” feeling. So I wanted to do something active before I got real symptoms. It was foggy which was kind of nice since we’ve barely experienced coastal fog all week. We took the short walk to San Simeon Beach, which is a rocky beach. Standard for most California beaches, it has a small lagoon where a lot of birds congregate. There were quite a few fishermen on the shore, but I don’t know what they were catching. The excitement of the morning was seeing a dead sea lion on the beach.

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We returned inland to pick up the San Simeon Trail that basically circles Washburn Campground. The 4-mile hike was described a little bit in my notes and bits of it were displayed on the campground map but not very clearly. The trail had lots of benches, lots of “Stay on Trail” signs but absolutely no signs saying it was the San Simeon Trail, how it went or how long it was. None of the people we passed on the trail knew anything. Not a great system for older or weaker hikers. But the fog made everything photogenic and the terrain went from coastal fields to oaks on the gentle hills. In one area, Spanish moss covered every tree around. The trail ended at Washburn Campground, where there finally was one map. Washburn CG is okay, but the sites are closer together and it has a crowded feeling. We were tired after our walk and spent the afternoon in contemplative activities (blogging, reading, napping, watching the kid and dog antics outside).

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Sunday turned out gloriously sunny. Our tour of La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Castle) started around 11 a.m. The tour guide was pretty good, escorting us through Casa Grande, the main house, with fantastic rooms (like Scotty’s Castle on steroids).

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Much improved from the last tour I took years ago, now you can wander the grounds at your own speed (limited by the absence of food or bathrooms). Our speed is slow. The Neptune Pool – spectacular outdoor pool. The Roman Pool – spectacular indoor pool. Everything is sensational.

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We’re lucky we visited when we did: next week they’re going to empty the Neptune Pool to share it with the Hearst Cattle Ranch. The springs that the estate depends on have dropped from 240,000 gallons per day to 47,000. The draught is having a terrible effect in central California. The hills out here have gone beyond gold and tan to a dusty gray color. There’s no grass to feed the cattle, so feed has to be bought for them.

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Eventually, we got back on the shuttle and returned to earth and reality. We watched the Imax film about Hearst Castle – not bad. Then we tried to upload our blogs. No dice.

Next we went a few miles up Highway 1 to see the Elephant Seals, that haul themselves onto the Piedras Blancas Beach to rest, mate and pup. Some of them look dead; some of them are dead. A couple of pups apparently lost their mothers one way or another and they don’t last long without them. One amorous male, about the size of a small whale, had enough energy to lunge at a female, bite her neck, wrap himself around her and have his way. If her pup gets in the way, too bad. It looked like he just rolled right over anything in his way, alive or dead. He approached about 8 females while we were watching; all that without Viagra. In the meantime, a couple of males were fighting in the water a distance away. It was pretty lively compared to the last time we were there.

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The final event of the day? Hearst Ranch Winery. Much better than I expected. We bought half a case. Oh yeah!

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It seemed like a lot of driving: Two days and 350 miles to get from Death Valley to Pismo. But it’s very pretty here and the moist air is refreshing. We’re camped at North Campground, about a mile from downtown Pismo Beach and right next to a wide beach and the prime monarch butterfly grove at Pismo.

After finishing the blogs and posting them on Monday, we walked over to the Monarch Butterfly Grove. The fog was breaking up and the sun gets the butterflies fluttering. The picture with two butterflies on the ground is insect foreplay. The male has to prove he has the strength to carry his lady love to his love nest. She cooperates by sitting quietly while he tries to get her up and if and when he does, she folds her wings up and off they go. No overweight butterflies here!

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From the grove, we walked right to Pismo Beach. It has packed, white sand and lots of birds, people and dogs. Pismo Pier is visible to the north as well as a swath of expensive homes that sweeps up the tall hill east of Highways 1 and 101. Very pleasant to walk on.

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Dave wasn’t feeling that great, so we had a quiet afternoon and then went south to check out the Guadalupe/Nipomo dune area. There’s two access points and we chose Oso Flaco Lake, nestled right next to a large field of spinach. A boardwalk crosses the lake, enabling us to look down on White Pelicans, Cinnamon Teals and, of course, the ubiquitous Coots.

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We continued to the beach, but it was very windy and the dunes nearby were fenced off to protect the Snowy Plover nesting grounds. They weren’t there yet, but they are endangered so their nesting area is off limits. We returned to camp and watched the Olympics.

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Dave wasn’t feeling any better the next day, so we made an easy day of it and headed out in late morning for the Pismo Beach Pier. Nice, but not that impressive.

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Next came San Luis Obispo. I wanted to see the mission there. After a nice lunch in a pub (fish & chips and iced tea for me, a burger and Dead Guy Ale for Dave) we got on a docent-led tour of the mission church and grounds. It was a large group, including about 10 middle-school kids. The mission has been rebuilt, expanded, improved so there’s not too much original of the buildings, but they have some very old art hanging on the walls. Their point of pride is their five bells that have been used continuously since the mission was founded. Human bellringers are still used. We didn’t get to hear them because they only get rung for mass and special occasions.

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As the group headed for the gardens, I recognized Sue Fiust, a woman I had worked with in Customs for years and years (and years!) What a coincidence! She and her husband, Rick, were checking out the mission for her daughter’s wedding in September. Dave says this happens to me often, but not that often.

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I went out for an afternoon walk on the beach after we got back. It is always entrancing. The sunset was deep and vibrant, and an almost full moon lit up the Lazy Daze.

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Dave’s cold continues to make him miserable so I decided to go shopping at the Pismo Premium Outlets Shopping Center. After what was for me some heavy-duty shopping, I bought one top. Didn’t find gold earrings, sturdy jeans, a black purse (I avoided Coach) or heavy socks. I guess I just don’t wear the right stuff anymore (if I ever did). After grocery shopping, we had a quiet night at home. On Thursday morning, I got up early and went for another walk on the beach. I was surprised to see a large bunch of Snowy Egrets looking for breakfast with all the seagulls. As the tide rises, it brings in all the little crabs and the birds peck away. One was chasing away the other nearby gulls. He looked like a stiff-legged hunched, grouchy old man. Of course, they don’t get their morning dose of java to help them face the day.

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As Dave was still close to comatose from his cold, I decided to go wine tasting. Because I would be the designated driver, I selected the one winery that focused heavily on Zins: Saucelito Canyon Winery. It’s only about 7 miles from the campground. After lunch, I drove over and tasted an interesting Cote de Blanc, a blend of several white grapes that were new to me. The first Zin was very light but then they poured Dos Mas Zin, a blend of Zin, Granache and Petite Sirah. Oh yeah, that was the one! I drove back happy with 2 bottles. But it won’t be such a fun Valentine’s Day tomorrow.  If my sweetie feels better, maybe we’ll both get to do some tasting when we reach Paso Robles on Monday.

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After the dunes, we had a relaxing mid-day and then headed about 3 miles away from the campground to Mosaic Canyon. The light at 2 p.m. in January was soft and nice. We only went up about a half-mile before returning but the canyon was amazing and difficult to compose, as usual. There was one section of rock that looked like “angel fat” (plump and golden) but the photographic image didn’t quite meet up with my imagination.

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We returned to camp for Cuba Libres and potato chips, saving Jeff Denno’s Limoncello for another day.

Wednesday was a long day. We first headed east to Rhyolite, a ghost town. The few buildings that are more than a foundation are heavily protected by fencing. The old train station has 7-foot-high cyclone fencing with barbed wire on the top. That doesn’t work for photography. The glass bottle house is still accessible with a garden of miniature versions of the town buildings.

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Right next to Rhyolite there is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, comprised of many odd, wonderful sculptures. There was a new one this trip, always fun to see.

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After that, we continued 4 miles east to Beatty, Nevada, with cheap gas ($3.23 per gallon), cheap milk ($4 per half gallon) and connectivity. We shivered in the city park and uploaded our blogs. After that and lunch, we went on one of our favorite drives in Death Valley: Titus Canyon. Because of the time spent in Beatty, we entered the canyon later in the afternoon and got all the late light before the pass. Leadfield was mostly in shadow, as was Titus Canyon. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

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Thursday was new territory for us: Fall Canyon, a half-mile north of the exit from Titus Canyon. The light was very soft and ratcheted down to downright dull with heavy overcast as the day progressed. The 6-mile hike was a slog through the heavy gravel-stones of a big wash, but as we twisted around the steep turns, the walls of the canyon got higher and more dramatic. The endpoint was a 35-foot dry waterfall. We perked up at camp after late showers and Limoncello.

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We hadn’t visited Scotty’s Castle in years and years. So after Dave returned from another pre-dawn expedition to the dunes, we headed north. Scotty’s Castle is a smaller, less expensive version of Hearst Castle, but wonderful just the same. Scotty, a con man who invented a gold mine, conned Albert Johnson, a rich businessman from Chicago, into supporting his “gold mine”. In fact, Johnson was Scotty’s gold mine. He soon discovered the ruse, but apparently was so amused by Scotty that he kept him around until he died. The “castle” was actually built for and mostly by Johnson’s wife, Bessie. It has wonderful details like leather curtains, tiled floors, kitchen and bathrooms and even plates. Almost all of the original furnishings and details of the ranch have survived. The piece de resistance was a Welte organ, made in New York (anyone in your family, Tom?) with a full complement of pipes, cymbals and you name it. They were hidden behind a screen so you couldn’t see them. It was a recorded performance but it was marvelous. The park ranger, who was dressed as a 1930’s reporter, did a great job of bringing the spirit of the times to life.

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At 3,000 feet, the grounds were cool. Then we drove 8 miles west to Ubehebe Crater, a deep, deep depression in the earth. Some of the wind gusts were brutal, cold and probably 30 mph, not what you want to experience on the edge of a crater! For once, I had not thought to bring my jacket. So after a few shots, I got back in the car while Dave took a short trek to Little Hebe crater.

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We returned to camp and spent our final evening in Death Valley.

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Day Two in Death Valley was cloudless and windy. Hiking Golden Canyon was on our schedule, but we had a leisurely morning because Dave thought the light would be better later. We walked over to Furnace Creek and walked through the end of a Death Valley Marathon (thinking of you, Sage). Lucky people, the weather was pretty ideal for a long run. We shopped around the general store, reconfirming that the grocery section was pathetic and expensive. There were people with several large telescopes out front and I got to take a look at the surface of the sun (It looked hot).

We finally got ourselves together and drove the 3 miles to the Golden Canyon Trailhead. We’ve done this hike many times and it’s one of our favorites. The light wasn’t great in the canyon but once we started to rise, the hills were nicely lit without heavy shadows. When we got to the highest, narrow path that goes along the foot of a monolith, the wind picked up and my light hiking pants were snapping in the breeze like an American flag. We descended to lower spot to eat lunch and decided to walk part of the way to Zabriskie Point, which we had never done before. Once up high in that direction, we realized for the first time that the monolith we went under was Manley Beacon, the other side of a famous landmark that was clearly visible from Zabriskie Point.
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We headed back the way we came and the light in Golden Canyon was much better. We spent some time advising many people that “Yes, it is worth hiking the mile.” I passed one family of 5 and heard a sniveling 7- or 8-year old girl complaining “I don’t want to walk a mile. It’ll take too long.” “I’ll help out and carry your pack” her mother said. “NO! I don’t trust you with my pack.” That conversation reminded me that we rarely hear kids over age 3 or 4 complaining about the hikes. Usually the parents are trying to keep them from climbing cliffs or running up side canyons.

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We got back to camp around 3, showered and had coffee. Then I put half of what was a big-ass ham in our tiny little oven. It fit snugly and soon was emitting a wonderful aroma. We had ham with an apricot jam-brown sugar glaze, butternut squash tortillas and a nice bottle of zin from the San Francisco Winery. The good life in the desert.

It was overcast all day on Sunday. That really muted the colors. After bacon and eggs (but no fat newspaper), we went over to Furnace Creek, hoping there would be free internet, but no such luck. We uploaded the blogs, ate lunch and headed back to Dante’s View, trundling through the 20-Mule Team Drive on the way. The light was so even and low that nothing was too impressive.

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At Dante’s View, Dave was hoping to catch better light on the Valley floor. About all we caught was colds; it was glacial with a brutal wind (in other words, normal for January). Dave went all the way out to point (about a quarter of a mile); I made it about 2/3’s there. There was no great light in the Valley.

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We consoled ourselves with Pizza and booze at the Corkscrew Bar in Furnace Creek. It was packed with Superbowl Sunday fans, but they drifted out as the Seahawks tore the Broncos to shreds. It was too loud to hear the commercials so we focused on the pizza (the wine: not so much). That was it for this end of Death Valley.

On Monday, we headed 25 miles north to Stovepipe Wells to enjoy the northern part of this huge park. As we expected, the large non-hookup part of the campground had about 3 motorhomes and a few tenters. The view is so spacious here. We hung around, reading, blogging and staring out at mountains. I made spicy chicken chili for dinner and we watched “Warm Bodies” a love story where zombies gradually turn human again. Not one of John Malkovich’s better roles.

We got up pre-dawn on Tuesday and drove about 3 miles to the dunes. There was no wind, so it was a cool, pleasant slog up to a dune with a view. Dave went his way; I went mine and found a spot I was happy with. We were back to camp by 8:30 or so.

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Needing milk, we stopped at the very small gift shop-grocery store. The only milk was pints for $1.50. We’ll try Beatty, NV and hope for cheaper groceries. The cashier told us that he had lived in Death Valley for more than a year. He said one of the worst aspects of the summer heat was keeping oven mitts outside his house so he could touch the doorknob without burning his hands. Yikes!

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Well, we’ve had a couple of chore days. Tuesday was the WiFi chore day. That meant decamping to Starbucks and buying coffee, water and a panini while we used their WiFi for about 4 hours. That saved us a lot of bandwidth. We both uploaded our blogs; then I did some financial stuff and Dave did some photography stuff. While he was working, I drove a final grocery run for Death Valley and went to Barnes and Noble to buy Olympos, Book 2 of the Ilium series. I’ll read something else in between to ratchet down a little from the busy drama of the first book.

Our Wednesday chore was to drive to Pahrump and go to an RV campground to do laundry and dump. We reached the RV Ranch Resort around 11 am and enjoyed a lazy day.

After a breezy drive from Pahrump to Death Valley, we camped at Sunset Campground at Furnace Creek. It’s not a beautiful place, but it’s okay and allows generators. Texas Springs is a higher, prettier campground, but it’s harder to level and doesn’t allow generators. So we settled in for our 11th visit to Death Valley. The clouds were neat, so as soon as we were hooked up we drove to Zabriskie Point and photographed. There were lots of Russians and Bulgarians around, fun to listen to the foreign languages. We bought a couple of t-shirts at the Visitor Center, returned to camp and got mildly bombed on Rum, Cola and potato chips. All in all, a satisfying day.

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On Friday, we woke up to sprinkles. Oh boy, a good weather day. Little did we know!

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We decided to gradually wend our way south 17 miles to Badwater, one of the classic tourist stops in Death Valley. Our first diversion was Artist’s Drive. The colors are so amazing but so difficult to photograph. We stopped a lot before we reached the “official” stop and got some better views of the area.

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After the exuberance of all those pastels, we were prepared to zoom back to the main road, but a coyote crossed the road in front of us and continued on his business as we scrambled for our cameras. Then another one appeared, staring at us in that disconcerting way they have. Every time it turned to go, Dave called “Hey” and it would turn back, hoping for a handout.

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We drove the rest of the way south to Badwater and it hadn’t changed much. It didn’t have much water and the area just looked worn out. We ate lunch there but didn’t spend much time.

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Our next stop, now heading north again, was Natural Bridge. A short trail leads up a canyon to the bridge. It wasn’t the best light but it rarely is. There was a very tall dry waterfall right off the trail.

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Next stop: Devil’s Golf Course. A rather silly name that plays on the fact that Death Valley has a golf course. What was so amazing all day is that the clouds just kept moving around and changing. They improved all the images tremendously.

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We set off for Dante’s Viewpoint a little after 4 p.m. It’s abour 25 miles there from Furnace Creek, but the last 8 miles or so wind from about 1,000 feet to 5,500 feet. The air is correspondently cooler, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes a cold pain. The view of Death Valley is unsurpassed. We have been there many times over the years and this was by far the most amazing experience. The clouds, the light, it was utterly amazing. We were there about 90 minutes and I was entranced the whole time. And then it began to snow lightly. Wow!

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