Hot Springs

Balanced Rock Moonset

Of all the U.S. National Parks, one I never really expected I’d ever visit is Hot Springs. But expectations seldom mean much, and family connections brought me to central Arkansas this June, determined to see and enjoy this rather obscure and idiosyncratic National Park.

Hot Springs is hardly a wilderness park, but it does encompass several forested mountains, relatively undeveloped by local standards. To see a bit of the park’s backcountry, I was up and at a trailhead an hour before sunrise. 88 degrees and 95% humidity at 5:00 in the morning is rough going for a high desert dweller like me, and hiking these forests in the summer inspires a lot of respect, sympathy and a little horror for the lives of the native Americans and early settlers who inhabited these parts.

Boulders in Forest

A couple miles on a lightly used trail, liberally laced with spider webs, brought me to Balanced Rock, an outcrop of boulders that provided a focal point and a view of the surrounding woods. The boulders are made of Arkansas novaculite, an attractive, hard, pale rock that reminded me of the beautiful quartzites in Idaho’s Lemhi Range. The geologic map of this region is fascinatingly convoluted with lots of impressive folding, and these mountains would be a wonderful geologic playground were they a little less afflicted by trees.

Geologic Map Hot Springs

The balance point of Balanced Rock:

Balanced Rock Contact

The hike out in peaceful morning solitude was graced by a tortoise and some beautiful flowers (identification welcome!):

Arkansas Tortoise

Orange and Green

Leaves and Petals

Those big geologic folds funnel water down into the earth and send it back warm to the surface. Hot Springs was originally preserved in 1832, the first time the U.S. federal government took action to protect a natural resource. In the late 1800s, almost all of the springs were capped and diverted into bathhouses, and Bathhouse Row forms the core of the park. A couple small springs are still permitted to flow above ground a little, but one can only imagine what this hillside once looked like with dozens of streams of warm water cascading down to the now buried creek.

Spring and Pool

Display Spring Pool

The historic buildings of Bathhouse Row are interesting and mostly attractive, though some of the more monumental and institutional architecture is definitely a product of its time. The Rehabilitation Center (below) and the Arlington Hotel are enormous and rather looming. The former was used to provide spa treatments to U.S. soldiers, and the bathhouses offered many early attempts at physical therapy, some of which were likely ahead of their time, while others make one happy not to have lived 100 years ago.

Hot Springs Buildings

In its time, Hot Springs was a popular destination for the well-heeled (including Al Capone and the Mob), and it has some nice examples of early 20th Century opulence. For instance, the Edwardian parlor in the Fordyce Bathhouse (which is now the Park visitor center):

Fordyce Parlor

Blooming magnolias and a painted facade:

Main Street Magnolias

Hot Springs is certainly an unusual member of the National Park system, but it has plenty of historic and natural interest, and I’m glad to have had a chance to see it.

Downtown in Trees

Summer Storms

Deep Springs in Gold

The seasons have turned, and I haven’t had too much time for photography. But the last week has brought some welcome summer monsoon moisture, and a marvelous run of evening storm clouds that go crazy with color at sunset. For the last two evenings in a row, the entire valley has been blanketed in honey-colored glow.

Gilbert Pass Lightshow

Monsoon Mammatus

I often shy away a bit from photographing on evenings like these, since the color is just so lurid. But sometimes such light shows are impossible to resist.

Chocolate Mountain Cloud Epic

Druid Rainbow

Spring Storms

Owens Storm Cascade

The new normal around here seems to be a disappointing winter followed by some stormier spells in spring (see, for instance, May 8th last year, when we got our biggest snowfall of the entire 2014-15 season). This spring is playing out along the same lines, with the drought of February and March followed by some satisfying April storms. Though none of these recent systems have been especially epic in terms of actual precipitation, they’ve provided some epic views of the Sierra!

Cloudripper Snow

Fog in Piñon Forest

Westgard Fog Layers

I don’t get too many opportunities to photograph fog here in the Great Basin desert, but the storm system a few weeks ago brought some beautiful shifting banks of mist to the forest around Westgard Pass in the White Mountains.

Westgard Fog Trees

A few beams from the rising sun made the fog especially beautiful.

Westgard Fog Bank

Badlands and Storm

Color in Storm

Colorful volcanic rock, sweeping empty valleys and shafts of sunlight breaking through winter storm clouds made for a glorious January afternoon in the badlands of Esmeralda County, Nevada.

Volcanic Hills under Cloud

Looking across the Columbus Valley playa to the Candelaria Hills and the Pilot Range:

Sun under Storm

Columbus Valley Sunrise

Columbus Playa

A tranquil dawn in remote western Nevada, as the sun rose on the dry sediments of an ancient lakebed – even in one of the driest regions of North America, the memory of water is always written on the landscape.

Columbus Valley Watercourse

Nevada’s highpoint, Boundary Peak, together with its conjoined twin Montgomery, look down from over 8,500 feet above, over the Volcanic Hills to the playa.

Boundary Peak Dawn

Summer Playa

Monitor Playa Detail

Here are a couple semi-abstract views from last summer, on a warm evening with hazy skies from distant fires, above the Monitor Valley Playa in central Nevada. Monitor Valley is one of Nevada’s most beautiful, high up at around 6,000 feet, remote, unencumbered by any paved roads in its 70-mile length, empty save for a few small ranches, and flanked on either side by the relatively lush and wild Monitor and Toquima Ranges.

Great Basin playas are each a little different, and their colors can be very interesting, particularly under the light of changing skies. This one appeared to be quite wet, set among grasslands green from the summer rains.

Monitor Playa

Death Valley Wildflower Update

Black Mountains Bloom

The Black Mountains seem to be a poorly named range, especially when their feet are covered in flowers!

Wildflower report from a flying visit to Death Valley yesterday:

One thing most people seem to neglect in reporting wildflowers is mention of places where they DIDN’T see anything. This is also useful information. We didn’t see any blooms of note crossing Panamint Valley. There was a little desert gold getting going as you head up the east side around 2k elevation, but not extensive yet – maybe in another week. We took a brief look half a mile down the road to Trona – nothing yet. Basically nothing in Darwin Canyon. Nothing much coming down into DV from Towne Pass either, except an isolated patch by Emigrant Campground.

Badwater area and south is still very much the place – starting around Natural Bridge turnoff, things get good. The desert gold photographed the best, but some of the fans around Badwater were covered in in primroses, with purple phacelia making a showing as well. We went as far as the Copper Canyon fan, which was awesome.

If one didn’t want to head down to Badwater for some reason, there’s also a lot of desert gold between Furnace Creek and Salt Creek, and along the Beatty cutoff.

I’d love to hear what people are seeing up the road to Ubehebe, towards Cottonwood Canyon, on the West Side Road, or in other parts of Panamint Valley! Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s good to know.

Flowers, Playa, Skyline

Dead Owls

Barn Owl Face

In one of those odd coincidences that sometimes crop up in life, last weak brought me two dead owls on two consecutive days. If I were a pagan in antiquity, no doubt I’d find it all very portentious, but instead my reaction was fascination mixed with an appropriate amount of sadness.

Barn Owl Waves

The first victim was a barn owl someone found on the ranch. The more biologically minded folks in the community quickly gathered to take advantage of the opportunity to get a good look and feel at its feather structures and general anatomy. Soon enough, we noticed a deep splinter that had penetrated its ear region, and showed signs of infection, as well as some damaged feathers. Margins of survival are thin for a predator in winter.

Barn Owl Talon

Barn Owl Patterns

The next day’s owl was sadder, in that its death was entirely human caused and utterly unnecessary. Anyone who hikes around the hinterlands of Nevada and eastern California will find a ton of old mining claim markers. These usually take the form of upright, hollow PVC tubes. Unfortunately, they offer tempting rest or nest sites to birds, who then get stuck inside and die slowly. People have reported finding remains of ten, twenty, or even more individuals in a single tube.

Dead Screech Owl

Happily, in Nevada it’s now legal to knock these things down (the California BLM is a little vague on that point, though they do encourage the public to fill or cap tubes [seldom practical for the casual hiker], and in theory old markers are required to be removed). I noticed one standing upright and went to do my duty as a good citizen and knock it down. Sure enough, I found a mummified screech owl inside, with some bones from a previous victim tangled in its talons.

Dead Owl

If you come across upright white plastic tubes in the desert, please take a little time to do what you can. The silver lining is that you may get to take a look at some interesting animal remains.

Dead Owl

Moisture Pulse

Moisture Pulse

Following an afternoon of steady rain in Death Valley and a warm, convivial lunch with the estimable Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa, Greg Russell and I were rather late in searching out a sunset spot. Clouds were playing among the summits of the Funeral Mountains, so we walked out onto the stony desert ridges above Furnace Creek hoping to see some drama. But when we arrived on a hilltop, our hopes for a colorful sunset vanished as we looked west to see a wall of cloud rapidly boiling up out of the valley and sweeping over Manly Beacon, the mountains and us. But we were treated to a couple of minutes of nice views while moisture rolled into the Twenty Mule Team badlands, until everything went gray as we were enveloped by mist in the fading daylight.


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