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.

Fog in the Owens

Fog under Whites

There’s nothing like mountains reaching above the clouds, and when the clouds are low and the mountains high, then there’s a lot of mountain to reach up. Last Wednesday morning, I awoke inside a cloud here in Deep Springs Valley, drove above it over the White Mountains, and down into another cloud of fog in the Owens Valley. Sunrise above these conditions must have been spectacular, but even several hours later, I couldn’t resist driving uphill a bit to take some pictures of White Mountain Peak towering 9,000 feet out of a fog bank lingering on Bishop and the Owens Valley.

Owens Valley Fog

The high peaks of the Palisades above Big Pine were as impressive as ever:

Fog Under Palisades

Panoramic version – please enlarge!

Owens Fog Pano


Blooming in Storm

Looking to the Rain

The heavy rains this fall around the Death Valley region raised many hopes for a good wildflower season, and these hopes are now being fulfilled. Greg Russell and I took a trip to southern Death Valley last week, and found substantial amounts of desert gold already in flower. Sand verbena and brown-eyed primroses were also beginning to make an appearance. But even more promising were the millions of healthy green shoots springing from the endless gravel. They were particularly prolific on one of the large alluvial fans spilling from the Black Mountains, with sweeping views down the valley to the Owlshead Range.

Alluvial Flowers

It’s worth pointing out that it takes a pretty thick field of flowers to show up well in most pictures – the blooms shown here were even better in person!

Ashford Gold

I’ve never seen limestone such a brilliant orange as in this section of the Black Mountains.

Orange Limestone Desert Gold

The clouds were thick, but we did see a brief display of light as a sunset beam broke through the storm.

Ashford Peak Light

As we were leaving, light rain began falling. It continued throughout the day, and the clouds thickened towards evening as mist began to wrap the mountains and badlands. All those young plants received another timely dose of moisture, so I expect the wildflower show will get better and better.

Look to the Sun


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