Doesn’t it always happen this way? You never find something when you’re looking for it, and then, when you’re not looking for it at all, you stumble across it!
That’s what happened today as I was walking through a park, searching for raptor nests. I spied a possible nest cavity in a snag and made my way along a muddy path to the bottom of the tree. Suddenly, I saw two trillium plants.
What a happy sight! Native western trillium in bloom! This spot was remote enough, though seemingly used by transients, that it might survive as a trillium refuge. I had searched another area unsuccessfully, where I had seen the flowers several years ago. I’m happy that there are still some in the heavily used park.
If Trona Pinnacles looks like something out of a sci-fi flick, that’s because it has indeed served as a backdrop for several movies. You might have heard of some of these: Star Wars, Star Trek V, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.
I first drove to the Pinnacles in 2005, during a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had set aside part of one day to make the drive to the somewhat remote area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than an hour to get there, and I had made arrangements for an afternoon horseback ride at Furnace Creek, back in Death Valley. By the time I got to the Pinnacles, I had about a half hour to spend there if I wanted to make my ride. I peered at the Pinnacles from a plateau that overlooked what I thought was a rather limited formation. There was a steep-looking road down to the Pinnacles, but I “there’s no way I’m driving down there,” I decided. I quickly snapped some photos from the parking area and sped back to Furnace Creek.
There would be a return trip in my future.
A Closer Look
It wasn’t until January 2017 that I made it back to Trona. I had planned to spend unlimited time there, doing lots of photography and some hiking. I lucked out with a dry day. This time I had rented an SUV, so I had high clearance, though a car could make it.
I drove south through Trona, and spotted the Pinnacles, rising like the Emerald City out of the desert. I arrived at the turnoff for the Pinnacles about 10 miles later. At the corner there are some interpretive signs about the human and geological history of the area.
I lingered there, reading and then taking some photos of the landscape and trains resting on the tracks. There were some cool cloud formations that also caught my eye.
The five-mile dirt road to the landmark had received recent rains, so it wasn’t as sandy as I remembered. When I arrived at the plateau that overlooks the monument, I realized the drive down the hill to the Pinnacles didn’t look so bad, and saw other vehicles, including a huge RV, down below. How the heck did that RV make it down the steep drive, I wondered. You have to realize that the Pinnacles lie in a basin. To really experience them, you need to get down there. The drive down the gravelly slope was so easy, I felt silly.
And then, I had my real surprise! Trona Pinnacles is expansive! You can’t even see all of it from the plateau. Narrow dirt paths snake around more than 500 formations. I had no idea how much I missed on my previous visit.
Towers and Dumpy Cones
Like their cousins at Mono Lake, the pinnacles are tufa formations, which are primarily calcium carbonate.
At Trona, they’re distinguished by age, elevation and shape. The northern, middle and southern groups were formed by different ice ages.
The shapes range from towers and tombstones, to ridges and cones. Towers are the tallest, rising 30-40 feet, while tombstones are “stubby and squat,” rising 20-30 feet.
Ridges are “massive, toothy runs” that can be seen in the northern and middle groups.
Finally, cones are the smallest, reaching only about 10 feet high, and they are “dumpy and mounded.”
On my visit, I concentrated on the tallest and most interesting formations, which turned out to be among the northern and middle groups.
The sun was out; there were some spectacular clouds to add depth to the scenes. The only problem was the WIND. This was my fourth trip to Death Valley and never before had I experienced such winds. I was not going to abandon my photography plans, so I soldiered on.
Each time I got out of the car, I had to fight hurricane-like gusts. I was afraid the wind would snap off the car door! I had to use all my strength to close the door. It goes without saying that any hiking was out of the question.
During my visit, I saw only a couple other cars, and I suspect it’s not heavily visited.
A Wealth of Minerals
You can spend as much time as you like at Trona Pinnacles. It’s fairly easy to access, unfenced and free of fees.
Don’t expect much from the town of Trona, beyond a convenience store and gas, if you need it. With a population of about 1,900, it’s a sad little “blink and you miss it” hamlet that is centered on the mining activity in dry Lake Searles. The name of the town comes from the abundant mineral trona, one of many extracted by Searles Valley Minerals. Lake Searles once held water, eons ago, but as it slowly evaporated, the water left behind many minerals. In the 1800s, the dry lake became the scene of many mining operations. First, there was borax, famously being carted out by 20-mule teams. Later there was an Epsom salt operation, and now, a multitude of minerals is produced, including salt, borax, boric acid, and halite.
The natural landmark lies in Searles Valley, just south of Panamint Valley, and isn’t far from Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake. It’s also within the California Desert National Conservation Area.
The October full moon is known as the Harvest Moon, but my Witch’s Datebook says it’s the Blood Moon. I wonder where that name came from.
Usually, the September full moon is called the Harvest Moon. But this year it’s in October, due to the closeness to the equinox. Every few years, the autumn equinox falls closer to the tenth month than the ninth.
The October full moon has also been called the Dying Moon and Hunter’s Moon, for the time of year for hunting and preserving meats for winter. Perhaps the name Blood Moon arises from hunting and slaughtering.
Under the bright light of the Harvest Moon, farmers can harvest such crops as corn, pumpkins, squash, wild rice and beans. Scientists explain that most months, the moon rises about an hour later each night.
But the Harvest Moon seems to rise at almost the same time for several nights around the full moon.
Harvest your crops, or just harvest that extra long moonlight to enjoy!
Otherwise known as Elbe Evangelische Lutherische Kirche, the Little White Church sits next to the railroad tracks in the village of Elbe, Washington.
I had passed the kirche before. A couple weeks ago I decided to stop and photograph the bright white building in the morning light. But it wasn’t open then. This time, I vowed to stop if I saw that the church door was open. I approached Elbe and looked over to see that the church door was indeed open. I quickly pulled over and parked.
And, as luck would have it, a gentleman in red suspenders was doing some painting around the doorway. A real Norman Rockwell scene.
I stepped inside the wee church. Built in 1906, it’s a National Historic Place and one of the smallest churches in the country.
Its lovely wood pews can hold 46 people, though there is no organized congregation and no full-time pastor.
It’s a modest interior. No stained glass windows. The organ is the original Farrand-Votey, built in Detroit.
Services are held once a month, from March through November, and the church overseen by a nonprofit with a board of directors from area Lutheran churches.
The folks who originally settled in the area were immigrants from the Elbe River area near Hamburg, Germany. Locals built the church, which stands 46 feet high at the steeple. The bell is from a locomotive.
As I was ending my visit, I noticed a narrow rope hanging from the ceiling near the door, and a small handwritten note nearby that read “Ring the bell.”
What?? I can ring the bell?! I can ring a church bell! That would be something. So I asked the painter, just to make sure, and he encouraged me to do so. I gave a gentle pull and the bell gave a modest clang. That made my day.
It can make yours too. If you are driving to Mount Rainier National Park, toward the Nisqually entrance, you’ll go right through Elbe.
When people have birthdays, there’s usually singing. “Happy Birthday to you… happy birthday…“ You get the picture.
But when an inn has a birthday, does anyone sing?
The historic Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park is celebrating its 100th year. Built in 1917, the inn is a classic, rustic, big-timber affair that the national parks are known for.
Back when men were men, and furniture was BIG, this inn set a precedent for other parks. Until then, visitors stayed in Spartan tent camps. The first director of the National Park Service, Steven Mather, wanted the new inn to be a model for other parks. Can you believe it cost only $90,000 to build? Of course, in 1917, that was a lot of moola.
You could say Paradise Inn rose from the very soil around Mount Rainier. Cedar trees damaged in a nearby fire in Silver Forest were salvaged and used in the construction.
The large, heavy tables and chairs in the lobby were made from Silver Forest trees.
Back then, dead trees were not valued and left standing as they are today, largely as wildlife habitat.
If you visit the inn, you can see the original timbers and furnishings.
There is a tall clock that is framed in local wood, along with an upright piano also encased in wood.
With a view of Mount Rainier just steps away, the inn offers 121 simple guest rooms – no telephones, TV, or internet. There are rooms in the main lodge, with shared baths, and rooms with private bath in the Annex, which was added later to accommodate ever-growing crowds of visitors. The structure is getting some renovations and promises to be better than ever.