Padre Island: Drive it Like You Stole it

A marine shipping container; double-click to enlarge.

A marine shipping container; double-click to enlarge.

Padre is an island off the southern tip of Texas.  I set up camp a half mile down the beach and went into town for dinner.  Returning in the dark, I opened my tent to find the interior covered in sand thanks to a strong wind from the Gulf.  This became a hallmark of Padre camping:  nothing could stop the sand.

Early the next morning, I met an older man who had visited Padre several decades prior.  He said that the island and the resort town 15 miles inland were far nicer now than they were back then.  The ranger told me that since I drove in after hours, I could pay on my way out – whenever that happened to be.  Our conversation convinced me to drive the entire length of the beach, 60 miles – few people go that far, etc.

Sunrise on Padre Island. Double-click to enlarge.

Sunrise on Padre Island. Double-click to enlarge.

Padre’s beach resembled a garbage dump.  All manner of junk washes in from far-away parts of the world.   Lumber (with nails, of course), decomposed animals, medical waste, giant shipping containers, crates, buckets, furniture, plastic bottles, balloons, tropical fruits, and dead trees were strewn across the entire 60 miles of shoreline.  The key in camping was to find a clean patch of sand surrounded by only harmless trash, not the disgusting stuff.

A sign warned that four-wheel drive was henceforth mandatory, and that many hazards were present.  A rising tide and prevailing trash deposits led me to set a course close to the dunes in soft sand.  The tires cut a 3-inch deep track as I slalomed through at 15-20 mph, the engine growling in a pleasingly deep pitch.  This was great fun, and as advertised I saw very few people.

Sunset near mile post 54. Double-click to enlarge.

Sunset near mile post 54. Double-click to enlarge.

Upon reaching the southern tip of the island, I met a man and his son who were camping there while Mom and daughters had a “girls’ night out.”  In an extremely rare event, I turned down their fajitas in the interest of setting up my own camp before dark.

The return drive the next morning was cake.  With a fallen tide, I cruised the shoreline a few feet from the waves at 30 mph with pelicans and shore birds out in force.  As I left, the friendly woman staffing the ranger station turned down my attempt to pay.  “That’s a nice gesture,” she said, but it’s not necessary.”

Additional photos below.

Double-click to enlarge.

Double-click to enlarge.

A lost buoy. The circular top is about 7 feet in diameter. Double click to enlarge.

A lost buoy. The circular top is about 7 feet in diameter. Double click to enlarge.

The "backcountry" campsite near mile post 54. Double click to enlarge.

The “backcountry” campsite near mile post 54. Double click to enlarge.

Area 51/Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range, Nevada

Area 51 is fabled to be where the U.S. Government houses aliens.  It is a development and test area for the most advanced military aircraft.  The base is secretive and unwelcoming to outsiders, and it has made itself into a tourist attraction based largely on these very traits.  There is also a cult following of web sites that track and speculate on happenings at the base.

Rachel, NV

Rachel, NV

I drive south on Nevada 375, officially named the Extraterrestrial Highway.  Tiny Rachel is the nearest town, and milks the alien cache for all it’s worth (see photos).  The bar tender, a young woman, cheerfully hands me a map showing the way to the Area 51 access road.  One cannot actually enter the base, but it is possible to drive to up to the entrance and see the security police and surveillance cameras.

It is the smoothest dirt road I have ever driven on, and I quickly cover the 13 miles to the boundary line.  There is a commuter bus that transports workers to and from the base each morning and afternoon.  The bus does not stop for anything drives at very high speeds.  My visit is timed to avoid the bus.

Security police watch me from a white Silverado pickup truck perched

Rachel, NV

Rachel, NV

20 feet above me on a hill inside the base boundary.  Brightly colored signs advise against entry and warn of the possible use of deadly force.  Another sign states that “Photography of this area is prohibited.”  Violators are typically held face down at rifle point until the local sheriff arrives to arrest them.  Then it’s a $650 fine for a first offense.  Having no desire for trouble, I walk within a few feet of the boundary, smile and wave to the cameras and the security police, and leave.  None of the base personnel ever make contact with me in any fashion.

Rachel, NV

Rachel, NV

Death Valley Photos: Owlshead Mountains

Owlshead Mountains, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Owlshead Mountains, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Owlshead Mountains, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Owlshead Mountains, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Death Valley Photos: Chloride City and Monarch Canyon

Chloride City, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Chloride City, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Desert Bighorn Sheep, Chloride Cliff, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Desert Bighorn Sheep, Chloride Cliff, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Death Valley Photos: Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Death Valley Photos: Coyote, Hole in The Wall

The blog has been dormant the last 2 weeks during my exploration of the Deep South, including Cajun Country.  I’ll wrap up the remaining Death Valley and Texas stories this week and then detail my newest adventures.

This coyote was standing in the middle of Badwater Road, a two-lane, 55 mph highway.  I called him over to the shoulder and he came immediately.  He minded better than my dog at home.   See canyon photos below.

Coyote on Badwater Road, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Coyote on Badwater Road, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Coyote on Badwater Road, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Coyote on Badwater Road, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Hole in the Wall, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Campsite,  Hole in the Wall Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Campsite, Hole in the Wall Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Death Valley Photos: Echo and Mosaic Canyons, Artists Drive, Ubehebe Crater

Eye of the Needle, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Eye of the Needle, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Eye of the Needle, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Eye of the Needle, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Inyo Mine, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Inyo Mine, Echo Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Artists Drive, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Artists Drive, Death Valley: Double-click image to enlarge.

Mosaic Canyon, with new friends.

Mosaic Canyon, with new friends.

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley: Double-click on image to enlarge.

Death Valley Photos: Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Death Valley: The Racetrack and Ubehebe Crater

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand.  Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand. Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack is the world-famous playa upon which rocks move mysteriously.  Scientists believe that strong winds blow the rocks across the playa under icy, muddy, slippery soil conditions.  A playa is the most naturally flat geological surface on the planet.  The National Park Service asks visitors not to walk on the playa when it is wet, because the resulting footprints last for years.  Driving on the playa is prohibited at all times.  I saw a few footprints and tire tracks on the playa.

The Park Service warns visitors about the risk of flat tires on Racetrack Road at every possible opportunity.  The visitor centers feature dioramas showing how small rocks protrude from the washboard road surface.  The highly competent ranger I spoke with, Mr. Langford, advised me to limit my speed to 15-20 mph and my tires would be fine.  He was right.  I did, however, cross paths with a

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

group in another SUV who sustained 2 flat tires.  “People try to drive 40 mph, and the rocks tear through tires at that speed,” Langford explained.

A few miles north of The Racetrack, I momentarily heard a deafening roar directly above my vehicle.  An F-16 at seemingly eye level streaked past heading east, perpendicular to my direction of travel, a 30-foot afterburner flame shooting from its engine.  It was turning hard right to avoid hitting the mountain directly in front of it.  Having rapidly turned itself south, it shot just over the top of another mountain and dived into a valley out of sight.  This entire set of maneuvers took less than 10 seconds.  Ranger Langford had explained, with his typical enthusiasm, that fighter pilots often practice bombed drivers on Racetrack Road.  I’m glad I got to experience it!

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Death Valley: Culture of Rocks

The Culture of Rocks

The Cathedral, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

The Cathedral, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Often we admire the waterfall, the river, beautiful trees, perhaps a meadow or wildflowers.  These features are the main attraction, while rocks, at best, fade into the background.  In Death Valley the rocks rule.  Death Valley’s rocks exude a commanding presence in every direction and every location.  The immensely sized mountains and canyon walls colored in vivid reds, blacks, greens, grays, and tans compel the visitor’s attention.  It is not a matter of a few impressive formations scattered around the park.  Death Valley is filled with flashy colored rocks sporting exotic and chiseled appearances that defy description.  See additional photos below.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.