Mojave National Preserve

We ventured into the desert of Mojave National Preserve in March. I've driven back and forth along Highway 15 many times, peering into the Mojave and being glad I never broke down. I really had no interest in that scrubby, hot, windy land. I wasn't even curious.

My friend Woody, who joined us on the Death Valley leg of our trip, recommended a visit to Mojave National Preserve and he really talked it up. It started to sound interesting.

We had a little mishap with our pop-up trailer and ended up at a hotel in Needles for a night. The next day we found a place to buy a tent and resumed our trip.

Bye-bye pop-up, hello new tent!

The Mojave National Preserve is a tough place to navigate. Not that it's hard to find your way around, but rather there is so much space to get around in. There are all sorts of interesting things to see, but they are really spread out, as are the gas stations. Next time we go, I'll have a better plan.

Desert flowers-- globe mallows

That didn't stop us from having fun in the places we did get to. We stayed at the Hole in the Wall campground, which gave us great access to rocks to climb on, pictographs, the visitor center, and the Rings Trail.

Something I appreciated about this preserve, is that I really felt like I was "out there" in a way I usually don't in National Parks--at least not in the front country. There weren't a lot of other people hanging out in the desert, even in the campground.

Hole in the Wall

We stayed in the most developed area, but it's still a smallish campground (37 sites). It was nice being in walking distance of the visitor center because we attended a pictograph walk, night slide show, and of course, took part in the Junior Ranger program.

Playing on the rocks at Hole in the Wall.

Desert nights are the best for campfires.

Rings Loop Trail

One of the coolest things about Hole in the Wall is the Rings Trail. If you start south of the visitor center, it winds through pictographs, past cactus and other desert plants, and into Banshee Canyon. The kids (and I) couldn't get enough rock scrambling.

The best part of the hike was about to start.

Trailhead: Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center parking area, 20 miles north of I-40 on Essex and Black Canyon roads.
Discover how Hole-in-the-Wall got its name as you ascend narrow Banshee Canyon with the help of metal rings mounted in the rock. The 1.5-mile round-trip hike connects to the Mid Hills to Hole-in-the-Wall Trail.

Kelso Dunes

When we were in Death Valley, it was just too hot to play on the dunes, so we were glad to find even bigger ones here. We didn't make it all the way to the top, but we enjoyed rolling around in the sand, digging for moisture, burying ourselves, following foot (paw) prints, and watching lizards and raptors.

Just a couple inches down and the sand is cool and damp.

We barely saw this guy hiding in the dunes.

Trailhead: 3 miles west of Kelbaker Road on the well-graded, but unpaved Kelso Dunes Road.
Hikers at sunrise and sunset are treated to both cooler temperatures and the rose-colored glow of the dunes. The roughly 3-mile round-trip hike might take several hours as you slog through the sand, then slide down the slopes. Moving sands sometimes create a "booming" sound-run downhill and get the sand moving to hear the sound.

Kelso Depot Visitor Center

The Kelso Depot is an old, restored, train depot. Much like Livingston, Kelso was a place where trains could get "helper" engines to help them over the next pass (or "grade" as we call them in California).

According to the Park Service, "The first depot at Kelso opened in 1905, followed a few months later by a post office, an engine house and an “eating house” to serve both railroad employees and the passengers on trains without dining cars. The town grew over time, as more employees were needed and more of their families moved to the Mojave Desert to join them."

Now it's a visitor center, bookstore, and art gallery. We got out of the sun and wind and watched a Park Service movie. We almost watched it again just to sit in there.

Next Time

Now that I know what exists beyond I-15, I can't wait to get back. We'll go in through Baker (rather than the Cima Road to the east), explore the cinder cones and lave tubes, camp along a dirt road....and of course, I have several hikes picked out.

I found this on the Preserve website:

"Mojave National Preserve is vast. At 1.6 million acres, it is the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous United States. While you won't be able to experience it all in a single visit, taking the time to plan ahead will ensure a safe and rewarding adventure.

And remember: you can always come back..."

I'll remember.

Permalink 04/16/15 07:42:00 am, by Mel Email , 844 words, Categories: Beyond Greater Yellowstone, Hikes, Anders, Finn ,

Flowers of Death Valley

This spring is a super bloom spring in the Mojave Desert. Just the words "super bloom" brings great joy to my wildflower-loving heart. When the right amount of rain falls at the right time of year, the desert comes alive with flowers. All those seeds that have been waiting for just the right conditions to sprout, let loose in golds, pinks, and purples.

I wish I had remembered to bring my camera, but I did my best with my phone. Here are a few of the flowers we were lucky enough to stumble upon.

Want to do more than look at flowers (what?!?!)? Here are a handful of other things to do in Death Valley.

Permalink 04/03/15 07:49:00 pm, by Mel Email , 116 words, Categories: Beyond Greater Yellowstone, Flora ,

So your kid wants to be a vegetarian

In the last month, three different friends have asked for recipe advice after their kids decided to go veggie. I’m putting my suggestions here in the blog so that next time someone asks I have a thorough resource to point them to.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 24 years and our kids have been eating green their whole lives. That might change, but for now we a pretty vegetable-centric house.

First, why would a kid want to be vegetarian? A lot of them come to it because they love animals and don’t want to eat them. Simple as that. What they may not know is the animals we eat, for the most part, are treated horribly. I could go into it here, but I won’t. I’ll direct you here or here or you can read Diet for a Small Planet.

Other kids are worried about climate change and they role meat plays in increasing our carbon and methane output. The Guardian reported that eating less meat is essential for curbing global warming and Scientific America wrote how meat contributes to global warming.

Or maybe it’s health benefits. If you are eating meat from a store or restaurant you are almost guaranteed to be filling up on antibiotics. And vegetarians have a lower rate of heart disease and some cancers. Brown University posted about the health benefits of a veggie diet as did Women’s Health.

Whether your kids wants to start Meatless Mondays or go full bore into veggie life, here are a few of our favorite recipes to get you started.

We try to have a bean day, lentil day, a tofu day, and an egg day (from our own chickens) each week.


Zucchini-basil soup

Tomato soup with quesadillas.

Cream of broccoli (vegan)

• Chili is always a good bet because it’s filling, easy to make and freeze, and gets you a good dose of veggies and protein, especially if there are nuts and beans. We love Cashew Chili.

(Non-Soup) Main Dishes

• Finn’s favorite bean-based dish is black bean salad. There are lots of varieties, but ours usually include black beans, tomatoes, cilantro, corn, feta, and red onion. A little guacamole and chips rounds this meal out.

• My kids also love burritos-- tortillas, beans, tomatoes, and cheese, but I make it in a bowl (sans tortilla and cheese) and add sautéed veggies for me.

• When the eggs start piling up, it’s time for quiche. I try new recipes once in awhile, but everyone demands gruyere quiche with golden onion and red pepper. So now I make only that.

• One thing my kids both like is falafels. We soak and cook the chickpeas, but this recipe is similar to the one we use. I double this because we are big eaters, or quadruple it and freeze half.

Veggie sushi--it takes awhile, so save it for the weekend.

Crispy quinoa cakes (with the added benefit of a complete protein!)

Black bean fiesta burger

Black bean and sweet potato burger

• And when you just can’t cook another thing, grab some garden burgers from the store or pasta with marinara sauce.


Mostly the kids eat fruit, string cheese, popcorn, or whatever else they can scrounge from the kitchen, but if I am feeling motivated I might make some of these:
Banana balls
Energy bars


Everything in the From A Beautiful Bowl of Soup cookbook is so delicious. They recipes are all vegetarian and mostly vegan.

We get a lot of recipes from Super Natural Every Day.

I love Oh She Glows! vegan cookbook, but the kids aren't really into it. It’s a little too “out there” for them.

Now you have a few ideas about what to feed your vegetarian kid!

Permalink 04/02/15 03:06:00 pm, by Mel Email , 618 words, Categories: Eat ,

Death Valley with Kids and Families

We just had a fabulous five day-four night trip to Death Valley. Man, was it hot! Even for Death Valley, it was hot—high 90s in March!

The biggest struggle for us was getting in everything we wanted to do…first thing in the morning. By 11:30, it was blazing. But, we carried on, drinking tons of water, slurping electrolytes, slathering sun screen, and hiding beneath big hats. Oh, and a dip in the Furnace Creek Resort each afternoon helped.

Here are some of our favorite things to see, do, and learn in Death Valley.

Artist Drive

Maybe we just needed some time in the air-conditioned car, but we all loved the Artists Drive. Getting into the multi-colored hills was amazing—minerals in turquoise, purple, orange, yellow, brown, and more, make up the hills. We got out at Artists Palette and wandered around, climbing the small hills, finding caves, and wandering the washes. The kids also love the HUGE dips in the road that feel like a roller coaster.

Ubehebe Crater

Our favorite thing about Ubehebe Crater is saying the word “Ubehebe” over and over. Our second favorite things was walking around the edge of the steam volcano crater and looking into the bottom and at the orange sherbet-colored walls. Our third favorite thing was the amazing number of flowers on the inside of the crater. Our fourth favorite thing (or was it first?) was that it is about 15 degrees cooler up there. Our fifth favorite thing was hiking to the bottom of the crater—just Anders and I. It’s a slog on the way back up, plan on sliding back down each of the 500 feet you step up. And don’t do it in sandals—that was my downfall—I was piercing my feet with sharp rocks with every step. Still worth it.

If you walk the 1.5-mile loop, you’ll also see Little Hebe Crater. Little Hebe is my new nickname for Finn.

Pupfish at Salt Creek

This is an easy boardwalk “trail” that you can do even on a hot afternoon. The boys thought the pupfish were “so cute.” I think it’s amazing they can live in such high salinity and at temperatures ranging from almost freezing to 100 degrees. Tough pups!

Some species of pupfish are thought to be extinct, some are threatened, but the Salt Creek pupfish are doing ok for now. Check them out while you can.

Mosaic Canyon

Even if you just walk the first 0.5 mile or so of this trail, it’s well worth it. The canyon walls are gorgeous, and the rhyolite forms short canyons or narrows, and there are lotso of rocks to climb over. If you like to scramble and play, this hike is for you. We walked up to a pile of boulders that block the trail (which you can climb over on the left). We were told the boulders are two miles up, but they seem closer. The first part of the trail gets pretty crowded, so be prepared.

Star Wars

Our boys are Star Wars nuts. Imagine their delight when we ran into Ranger Taylor Jordan in Mosaic Canyon and he told then four locations in Death Valley were used to film scenes in Star Wars. Apparently George Lucas ran out of money or time, and when he had to re-shoot some scenes of Tatooine, he didn’t go back to Tunisia; he went to the Death Valley sand dunes.

Local kids dressed as Jawas and carried a droid up a hill. There are all sorts of fun stories.

If you are really into it, here’s a self-guided tour to where the Star Wars scenes were filmed. Costumes not required.

If you aren’t a Star Wars fan, check out all these other movies filmed in Death Valley.

Badwater Basin

You have to stop at Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America (until the Salton Sea dries up). Take a photo at the sign, walk out a little bit, then get back in you car and drive a couple miles down the road. Between mile markers 19 and 30, you can pull over and walk out onto the salt flats without the inhabitants of all the tour buses at Badwater Basin. Around mile marker 20, the salt flats get really close to the road. Be sure to taste the salt while you are there!

Mesquite Sand Dunes

I wanted to bring a sled for the sand dunes, but didn’t have room in the car. I was glad I didn’t shove them in, because when I watched other people with sleds, it didn’t seem to be going so well. They’d get half way down and then just stop. You need something slipperier to slide down the dunes.

However, it’s pretty fun to climb up them and run down. And it’s really hot. We found lizard and bird tracks in the sand. If we had stayed longer (we had a bathroom emergency ;) we would have dug into the sand to see how cool it is below the surface.

Junior Ranger and Hiking Club

We always join in the Junior Ranger programs when we are in national park. It’s a great way to learn about the place and get to know it better. Death Valley is in the inaugural year of a “Hike Death Valley” program. Popular hikes in the park are given a point rating and if you get four points you get a sticker. I found completing the challenge was just the motivation Little Hebe needed to keep walking.

Furnace Creek Resort Pool

An afternoon dip in the pool is what kept us going late in the day. The pool is spring fed and just the right temperature. We timed it so we’d get to the pool about 4:00 pm and by the time we were back at our campsite, it was in the shade. No more sweating!

Get a $5 pass at the Furnace Creek Resort registration desk. There are also showers in the pool dressing rooms, if you are into that sort of thing.

And as long as you are in the area, you might as well get ice cream at the general store.

Golden Canyon

This is a lovely walk through a canyon into bluff-colored badlands. We hiked the two-mile (round trip) to Red Cathedral. Toward the end of the trail, the canyon gets tiny and you get to climb through and over rocks. There are interpretive brochures, but the container was empty when we got there. We made something up for each of the interpretive spots. I think it was even better than what the Park Service has planned.

Super Bloom!

We hit the desert in a super bloom-- picture carpets of wildflowers. Actually, you don't have to picture it, you can look at my photos.

We didn’t get to see or do everything we wanted to on this trip, but we made a good effort! And we have a list of things for next time.

Permalink 03/20/15 10:31:00 am, by Mel Email , 1146 words, Categories: Beyond Greater Yellowstone, Hikes, Things to Do, Anders, Finn ,

Science says, “Go hiking!”

I’m following paw prints in the snow as big as my late Malamute’s fuzzy feet. I think about Rigby all the time even though he died two years ago. It’s a little weird. While I am kind of sad, I am mostly wistful. It doesn’t take a psychology 101 class to know that it’s not so much the dog I miss, although he was the greatest dog that ever lived; it’s the experiences I had with him I miss. It’s what he meant to me.

Rigby meant long hikes in the summer and equally long cross-country ski tours in winter. He meant getting outside every day, even when I didn’t want to, and I miss him most when I am on the trail.

The paw prints lead through crusty, white snow contrasted with black tree trunks burned in a fire a couple years ago. They cross a log bridge under gray clouds and head up a small hill. I stick to the packed-down trail and posthole up to my knees as soon as I wander off-trail.

Despite missing my dog, I am really happy. I am almost always really happy when I am moving forward in the woods. I feel like the best version of myself. My mind is clear, my heart is pumping, everything around me is beautiful.

People often say they want to get “out there” when talking about the woods. And I say it too. But I think we all mean that we want to get “in there.” We want to get into the woods, into the mountains, rivers, streams, and brooks. We want to get into the trees, into quiet and solitude, and into our own selves a little bit more.

It's not so much about getting away, it's about about being where you are without all the noise and clutter. It’s about being home.

As I reach a spring locally known as the Fountain of Youth, my own personal sunbeam breaks through the clouds and turns the snow to glitter. The plants in the creek are the most vibrant green. It’s almost cliché.

There’s a log across the stream here and I walk above the gurgling water, still bathed in warm light. I briefly think of the people I wish could experience this with me, but know being alone makes it different, and possibly more special.

There have been several articles in the last few years about how time in nature makes people happier, smarter, better looking. Nature walks combat stress while boosting mental well-being. All work-at-home, homeschooling, moms of two high-energy (yet very sensitive) boys need nature walks. All humans need nature walks.

One of the latest studies, published in the journal Ecopsychology found:

"Group walks in nature were associated with significantly lower depression, perceived stress, and negative affect, as well as enhanced positive affect and mental well-being, both before and after controlling for covariates. There were no group differences on social support. In addition, nature-based group walks appear to mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affect while synergizing with physical activity to improve positive affect and mental well-being."

There’s a reason I feel so good tromping around outside. There’s rationality for missing the adorable dog that got me hiking or skiing several days a week. I didn’t need an explanation for craving time slipping up icy trails, weaving in and out of trees, or listening to chickadees thrill in the middle of winter, but it’s interesting to know that science says I should go hiking.

Sidenote: Why haven’t I heard of Ecopyschology before? I need a subscription!

Permalink 02/02/15 07:37:00 am, by Mel Email , 599 words, Categories: Hikes, Essays, Dogs ,

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