Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Long Strange Trip: Nevada Caves and Hot Springs

And now, a long time past when it actually happened, I am writing the final part of the four-part blog post about our winter road trip in the bus. In the last post, we had just finished a long drive along a gravel road out of Utah and into eastern Nevada. The sun was beginning to set just as the gigantic Mt Wheeler had come into view to the west. It made it hard to see anything more than it's silhouette, but it was still really cool looking. The Great Basin Nat'nl Park protects part of the mountain range surrounding Mt Wheeler and its unique micro-climate and habitat. I think it's the second highest peak in Nevada. It really looked big, even in the distance. As we got closer, it became towering, and the sun eventually dipped behind it's peak. Now that the sun was behind it though, we could see more detail of the forest that covered it (there are bristlecone that live on it) it's snow capped peak. It was actually making its own small rotating cloud that reminded me of the imagery of blood from the gash in the sky from the mountain peak scraping it. The bright red sky from the sunset was the reason blood first came to mind, I guess. It was crazy.

Lehman Caves
The famous drapery in Lehman Caves.

On our map, we saw that there was a campground in the park. It wasn't too deep into the park, so that was good. It was getting dark fast, and we wanted to find our camping spot soon! Also, it was getting pretty cold. This was not only because the sun was setting, but also because the road to the campground started taking us up the mountain higher than we thought. Soon we were in an aspen forest with a cold creek running through it. It got suddenly really damp and cooled off even more. This was where the campground was, and where we would be sleeping for the night. It was a good thing we had the bus because camping outside would've been freezing cold! Afterall, we were at elevation in Nevada in winter. And that was also probably why we were the only people camping in the entire park that night.

Lehman Caves
Historic graffiti in the Lehman Caves.

The next morning, we woke up pretty early because we wanted to catch the first cave tour of the day at 9am or so. We were feeling pretty grody, as we'd been traveling for so long already with no shower (not since we left Denver), so we made sure to also have enough time to wash up a little in the visitor center bathrooms before we made human contact that morning! It was nice that the bathrooms were heated, let me tell you, because there's nothing like a freezing toilet seat in the morning! When we were done, we made our way inside where the rangers were and bought cave tour tickets for the first tour of the day. We were kind of surprised we had to buy tickets even though we had a National Parks annual pass, because we didn't have to buy tickets to go into Carlsbad Caverns. Weird, but we bought them anyway because they weren't too expensive, and at that time of season, it is about the only thing you can do in the park. Well, I guess you can go hiking in the bitter cold, but most of the roads were closed due to snow in the park.

Powerlines to Bartine
The power lines to Bartine hot springs.

Nobody else showed up for the first cave tour until 5 minutes after it started. We were all ready and excited to be getting a personal tour of the cave, until a middle aged couple (of who the wife was a huge tubby) were ushered in after the ranger already started telling us the history by flashlight. Bummer, but our group was now still tiny (4 people plus the ranger), so the tour was going to cool anyway! It started out in a man made concrete hallway ramp that led down into the cave. Once in the actual natural cave part, the soft lighting in there brightened it up and lit up all of the cave decorations. There were a lot of cool things everywhere! And a bonus, was that it seemed warmer inside the cave than outside. The ranger told us the history of the cave as we walked through the narrow passages. In some places, you had to duck down and really pay attention to where you were walking, or you would walk right into a stalagmite! What a difference between the more visited Carlsbad Caverns. These in comparison must not see much visitor traffic.

Bartine Hot Spring
Romy washing his greasy hair at Bartine! Ahhh Dirty hippy!

The cave tour was short compared to how long we spent in Carlsbad, I think it was a little over an hour or so, maybe two? We took the longest tour, which was called the Grand Palace Tour. It basically took you into all of the rooms that are possible to easily walk through. When we were all finished, we headed back to the bus to hit the road. The nearest town to the park, Baker, looked totally abandoned, but I'm sure it springs back into life in the summer, when the park gets more visitors. But still, its pretty small, with one cafe and a gas station that we almost didn't notice! I don't remember if we filled up there or not, but next we headed onto Hwy 50, dubbed the Loneliest Highway in America. We had a hot springs guide book with us, and our goal was to try and find as many hot springs as we had time to go see on our way back to California along Hwy 50.

Spencer Hot Spring
One of the tubs at Spencer Hot Springs at dusk.

Our first stop was called Bartine Hot Springs. It actually was pretty close to the highway, just less than a mile north of it. The only point of reference to know you were there was a small mound off in the distance by some powerlines. Also there was a small ranch by the name of Bartine that was right next to it. We turned off the highway, went around the small ranch, and took the powerline access road towards the small mound, where we assumed the hot spring was. The road was super dusty, but as we got towards the hot spring, it started to get flooded! We saw a huge pipe sticking out of the ground, and a concrete tub, so we walked towards it. We could no longer drive due to the soggy ground. However, when we got to the spring, it was kind of a let down. The water was coming out of the ground into a concrete box which had the giant pipe sticking out of it. Then the water was piped into another tub, but it was pretty nasty from cows and algae and dirt. So we didn't soak here, but since we did make the effort to come and check it out, we figured we should at least wash our hair a little. So that was what we did. It was soooo refreshing and nice to wash in hot water.

Spencer Hot Spring
Another nice tub at Spencer at dusk.

After Bartine, we got back on Hwy 50 to go further west. The next hot spring on the way was called Spencer Hot Spring, and it was near the town of Austin, NV. It also was not too far from the highway, but it was far enough that you couldn't really tell by looking that there was an obvious mound or something. Instead, there were some dirt roads that headed towards a black rock thing in the distance. As we got closer, the roads didn't actually go to the black rock formation, but right next to it, where there were now some mounds visible and light whitish soil (often a good indication that there's a hot spring!). We knew we were in the right place once we started seeing the tubs and cleared out areas to park. There were three main tubs. Two of them were made of watering troughs, and one was dug into the ground, lined with large flat rocks. We chose the one that was dug into the ground, because it had a nice large wooden deck somebody built. Plus it was the last one we drove to and decided to park the bus next to it. We got there just as the sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. It was getting really cold outside now, which made us super happy to be camping at the hot springs! Before we went in, we made sure to get the bed and everything set up for the night, so that we could quickly jump back in after the hot spring.

Smith Creek Hot Spring
Clean and clear blue water at Smith Creek Hot Spring.

There was nobody else at Spencer except us. Even if there were other people/campers, the place was so huge that everybody would have their own tub. Spencer was more like a hot spring complex. It was nice to spend the evening there. After getting out of the spring, we stayed warm all night in the bus, thanks to our crazy mega sleeping bags. The next morning we turned on the propane heater to warm up as we packed up the bus to get ready to hit the road again, back on Hwy 50. It was a short drive to Austin, where we filled up on gas and got some coffee at the Toiyabe Cafe. They made some real good cappuccinos in there! And they had some informational/tourist brochures and mini pamphlets about the history of Austin. We took some and read about Austin as we drove further west, towards home.

Smith Creek Hot Spring
A second hotter tub at Smith Creek Hot Spring.

We decided that we still had time to hit up one more hot spring on the way home. The closest one that wasn't too much of a detour was called Smith Creek Ranch, and it was on the Lincoln Highway detour, NV 722. Its a pretty cool road, so we decided to take it. Again, we didn't really have a good idea of where we were going, just a crude map and directions from the guide book, so we were in for another adventure trying to find Smith Creek. We knew it was out towards the edges of the playa, but there were a bunch of dirt roads that went that way. So we picked one and went. It started off pretty good, weaving between the giant sage brushes. Then it started hitting silty patches! The bus almost sunk into the ground, so Romy just pressed harder on the gas so were could make our way through the silt. We had a HUGE cloud of silt behind us. After a while, the road kept getting worse, but once we hit a silty patch, we had to just push through it or else we'd get stuck. Finally, we found a silt-free section where we turned around and went back to try another road (what, did you think we'd give up that easy?). We had better luck with the next road we tried, although it ended up not being the best option either, as we learned when we actually got to the spring. We parked the bus when we were so close that the ground was getting soggy and wet. We discovered that there were two tubs, pretty far apart from each other. Both were really nice. Also, along the span between the two tubs, there were a lot of little mini craters filled with hot water bubbling out. It was really interesting.

Nevada Panorama
Panorama of the bus at Smith Creek.

It took us so long to get to the springs, after the road mishap, that we didn't have much time to stay. So after checking the place out, we headed back to the highway (but on a different road). We would like to go back to this one, as it was really nice. There was a super hot tub, which seemed like the temperature was adjustable by moving the pipe partially out of the tub. There was also a tub closer to body temperature, so you could literally have your pick here. Another interesting thing was that the springs were really close to the original Pony Express Trail! I couldn't of thought of a better way to end our winter break vacation than with some new hot springs in Nevada. We only had a few more hours of driving west on Hwy 50 (well, more like the whole rest of the day) before we were home. What a fun trip!

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Long Strange Trip: Exploring in Moab, Utah

This is part 3 of a 4 part write-up on our winter break trip from California to Chicago and back. However, what I'm not writing about is the time we spent in Chicago over Christmas and up to New Year's. That will be for another post! So what follows is the story of how we made our way back to California in our VW Bus. Along the way, we stopped in Golden to visit Romy's side of the family. There wasn't much snow, even in Colorado, so our plans of skiing along the way back were basically thrown out the window! So instead, we decided to stay in southern Utah for a good part of the ride back to do some hiking and exploring. There were so many places around Moab that we didn't yet see, so we planned on heading over that way and checking stuff out. Plus our friend Will was going to be in town, and we thought it would be fun to hang out with him for a few days. So I guess the story of the trip back to California actually already starts deep in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. After leaving the Denver area, we headed towards Glenwood Springs along I-70, through the very scenic Glenwood Canyon. I read about a place in Glenwood Springs where there was a natural cave, and inside of it a natural hot spring! The place was called a vapor cave because of the steamyness inside, similar to a wet sauna. Being on a tight budget, we decided to go check it out since it was one of the cheapest hot spring things you could do in Glenwood Springs. Only $12 bucks! According to a guide book, the cave was once visited by the Native Americans who took their sick there for healing. It's the only natural vapor cave in North America. I really liked this place (although Romy was not as enthusiastic). It was very dark inside and super steamy! There was water running along the base of the cave walls, and the water was so hot that it heated up the entire cave to a sweltering temperature! We had to go in and out a few times to cool down. If you're ever in the area, go check it out! We didn't get any pictures, as it was so steamy I think the camera would've broke!

The Corona Arch
Jenn and the Corona Arch outside of Moab.

After getting all steamy in the vapor caves for a little bit, we continued our journey west. It was just getting dark as we crossed the Utah border. But the moon was really bright, so we were able to see outside pretty well. We headed towards Moab through Cisco (the weird semi-ghost town). We took the road that goes towards the Colorado River and then stays along side it until you get to Moab. That's the best route in my opinion. The moon was shining down on us and illuminating the towering red canyon walls. It was reflecting off the river water, and the stars were shimmering too! The bus was running well, and we were rolling into Moab enjoying the scenery. It was so cool! Soon we got into Moab, and decided it was time to eat and drink. Last time we were here, we liked the microbrews at the Moab Brewery, so we decided to stop there again in hopes that maybe Will would answer his phone and join us for a beer. But when we got there, the brewery was closed down for annual cleaning! Oh no! Just as we were turning around to get out of the parking lot, a Jeep showed up. And guess who it was!? By some freaky coincidence, the stars aligned and it was Will! He said he saw an orange VW Bus and knew that it could be no one else except us! Wow! So instead of dinner and beer at the brewery, we took some beers we bought back in Colorado over to his friend's place and had dinner and beer there. It was fun!

The Corona Arch
Close-up of the Corona Arch.

That night, after hanging out, we found a camping spot at Ken's Lake, just south of Moab. It was peaceful (since it was mid-week) but pretty chilly since it was also at higher elevation. But we didn't care because we got pretty cozy inside the bus with two sleeping bags each. The next day we decided to go hiking to the Corona Arch, also known as Rainbow Arch. Moab is right outside of Arches National Park, which we've visited before. I think we've seen a majority of the arches and windows inside the park, but there are actually a lot of natural arches outside the park too, and Corona Arch was one of them. It was a short hike from the river to the arch. It actually resembled the corona of the sun (which is what I think its named after). We spent a good part of the morning exploring that area, and then we decided to give Will a call. We made plans the night before to go looking for arrowheads in the washes. So after a quick lunch of whatever food was still left in the fridge of the bus, we met up and headed towards the Klondike Bluffs.

Will and Romy
Will and Romy 'walking the wash' looking for stuff.

We had such a good time just wandering around walking through all of the washes in the Klondike Bluffs region. We were picking through the rocks and pebbles in the sandy ground, feeling them and looking at them. I found some rocks that were clearly chipped or flaked by a human (ie not random). There were others I found that we shaped to be very ergonomic hand tools. Tools for punching holes in leather, cutting, scraping, etc. We would take our finds to Will and show him, since he was kind of the expert of the group. Then he would tell us what he thought they were. Sometimes when I was searching through all of the rocks on the ground, and found one that fit my hand so perfectly, it felt like I was literally taken back to the ancient times when these people used stone tools. I felt connected. Its very indescribable how perfectly these tools fit in your hand, and how instantly you know their purpose! Now I have to admit, at first I thought it was a lot of B.S. and that what I found were just a bunch of randomly broken rocks that resembled tools. However, later on when we went to the visitor center at Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada, they had some stone tools on display. They looked EXACTLY like what we were finding in the washes. I could've spent hours walking the washes and just looking. But the sun was going down and it was starting to get really chilly, so we headed back to the cars and went to get some dinner.

View from Gemini Bridges Rd.
Climbing up Gemini Bridges Rd. outside of Moab.

The next morning, we found another place on the map outside of Moab to explore. It was called Gemini Bridges Rd, and it took you deep into the back country around Moab (as deep as you can go on a dirt road). It went right past a set of natural bridges called Gemini Bridges. We were in the Bus, but we decided to go try and see how far we could drive down the road in the Bus. Why not? We figured we could always turn back if the road started getting nasty. So there we went, full of excitement and hope that we could make it. The road started climbing pretty steeply up a windy road that was literally etched into the side of a red rock cliff. The picture above is at about the highest point of the road. That cliff in the picture is what the road somehow got up. I'm still not sure how it all happened, but after we got up, the road flattened out and started following a valley. Then it climbed its way out of the valley into a broad plateau region, which was speckled with eroded sandstone fins and washes. We didn't see many other people, but the few we did see were all in pick-up trucks or jeeps. We were the only people in a VW Bus, but hey, the road was okay for the Bus, and we kept going. After about an hour, we reached Gemini Bridges. A short walking trail took us to the bridges, which we were actually standing on top of. There was no safety rail or anything. It was left completely natural, and you could walk across the top of the bridge, which was pretty wide, but it was still a couple hundred feet drop if you wandered off the edge of it! Below the bridge we saw a trail and also a rough dirt road. We decided to turn the Bus around and try to find that road. Eventually we found something that looked promising according to our map, so we kept driving. Eventually the road dropped into a sandy wash, which we didn't feel the Bus was going to handle very well. So we found a good parking spot, and started walking to see if we could get to the bottom of the Gemini Bridges.

Frozen Spring
A frozen spring in the desert!

Eventually, after a good 45 minute hike, we got to the bottom of Gemini Bridges. I have to admit, it wasn't as spectacular seeing them from the bottom as it was walking across them on the top, but the hike was cool. We then found a small side canyon not to far away and started to explore. As we were hiking deeper and deeper into the side canyon, we thought it might turn into narrows or something. Instead, we found frozen spring water! It was so bizarre! I mean, I realize it was winter and all, but it was still strange to see a creek completely frozen over running down the middle of a dry red rock canyon! Hiking further, we eventually found the source of the creek. It was a slowly trickling cold spring that just came out of the base of one of the cliffs. Very cold! But I bet it would be nice in the middle of summer! I think I prefer cold weather to hot, though. Even so, one of the things that sucks about winter is that it gets dark so early. It wasn't even 3pm and we had to start heading back towards the Bus, otherwise we would risk getting caught by the setting sun. We made it back just in time though. There were some crazy thunderstorms brewing off in the distance as we were driving back to Moab. They all seemed to miss us, but they were dumping rain all over. As long as it didn't rain or snow on us, we were happy! That night, we decided to camp close by the dinosaur footprints along Potash Rd. It was Friday night, so the campground was a little busy. We found a spot away from the party people and got comfy. It was warmer at lower elevation, so we didn't need two sleeping bags, just one was ok.

At Tom Tom's
Trying to stay warm at Tom Tom's.

Our short stay in Moab was unfortunately coming to an end. But no trip to Moab is complete without a drive-by of Tom Tom's VW "museum." So the Saturday morning we were rolling out of Moab, we decided to drive by the place. Every time we've been here, the place seems completely abandoned, yet there are always new Beetles or Buses parked, and sometimes the Buses are re-arranged. So somebody has to be busy, but nobody is there when we've knocked on the door in the past. It was about 8am, we already got our morning coffee (well I did anyway), and so we tried to knock on the door of the garage building that is attached to the huge lot that is just saturated with VWs. Nobody was there. So I just sat in the bus trying to keep warm (it was FREEZING outside) and Romy went to explore the part of the lot which was open to the street. Then, a car pulled up. OMG I was now kind of afraid for Romy, who was probably technically trespassing, although he was just wandering the part of the lot that was not fenced in. I guess Romy wasn't too deep in, because he met the man who pulled up in the car and started talking. After a while, the man went to unlock the garage door (!) and Romy came to the Bus to tell me that the man that just pulled up was in fact Tom Jr!!!! OMG!!! After literally years of stopping by this place every time we've driven past Moab, we finally met the owner of all those VWs. He let us in the lot to see them all. There must of been hundreds of Beetles, Ghias, and Buses of all years just sitting in that lot. He told us he's been slowly selling them to interested parties, and also restoring some himself. Some of the cars were so packed in, I have no idea how he would get them out if somebody wanted it.

At Tom Tom's
The fence at Tom Tom's is almost artful.

Of course we had to ask how much he was selling the stuff for. The prices he quoted were kind of high. But whatever. Its probably because he didn't really want to sell them. He's a collector-type (well, his dad was anyway). And what a collection! I think we stayed in there wandering around and talking to Tom for over an hour. Even though the sun was coming up, it was still really cold, so we walked around very briskly. Tom Jr started up the heat inside of his garage, which was just slightly warmer than outside. After a while, we headed out just as some more people he knew started showing up. What a great way to end a trip to Moab!!

San Rafael Swell
On our way out of Utah, over the San Rafael Swell.

Our next destination was Nevada. We still had a precious few more days before we had to be back, so we decided to spend them in the state that we always intended to go see, but have never come around to exploring. But standing between us and Nevada was the San Rafael Swell, a huge exposed anticline (a piece of the Earth's crust that is bent in a rainbow shape). I think this region is being lobbied to become a national park in the future. One day we would like to go hiking and exploring in the baja before that happens. But we already decided to go spend the last of our days in Nevada, so we drove on through along I-70. The two days of so that we had left wouldn't be anywhere near the time we would need to really see Nevada, though. But it would be enough time to go check out the Great Basin National Park, and some hot springs!

Awesome Nevada Dirt Road
Almost in Nevada! We took a dirt road for a good portion of western Utah.

We drove all the way to Cove Fort, Utah, where I think I-70 ends and butts into I-15. At that point, we decided to get on a tiny gravel road which would eventually take us into the national park, because that was the most direct route. We must of been feeling pretty adventurous, as this was more than 100 miles of dirt road ahead of us, some of it with a good dusting of snow! But what is a road trip in the Bus without a little adventure?! It ended up being one of the most scenic parts of the whole trip, in my opinion. This part of western Utah is the far eastern part of the great basin desert. I really like the great basin desert, and seeing it from a dirt road was even better. We didn't see any other car along the entire 100 mi + stretch before we got to the national park! Bad if we broke down, but the Bus was running just fine and we had plenty of gas and food and water, so we went for it. It was Romy's idea!