We have driven I-20 through Louisiana more times than I remember, but somehow we have never seen this Great Blue Heron Statue right along the interstate in West Monroe, LA. It is part of Restoration Park (right next to the La Quinta Inn & Suites - West Monroe location) along with a pond and walking trail. We had to keep moving so we did not get to explore the park or trails, but it seemed like a nice area to stretch your legs. The statue was beautifully made and slowly spun in the wind. With the right wind, it looked like it's wings could even flap. It was a pleasant surprise to find along the interstate.
We left on a whim when we saw the news about a "Super Bloom" occurring in Death Valley National Park and it was worth it! During any given year scattered flowers will bloom in Death Valley, but when the right conditions exist, large areas of the park with erupt with flowers creating washes of color on the normally bare ground. With this only occurring once every decade or so, we decided to head west! We had never been to Death Valley before, so we had no idea what to expect. In addition to the beautiful flowers blooming everywhere, the scenery was breathtaking! Death Valley lies between two stunning mountain ranges. The valley that runs between them includes sand dunes, beautifully colored mountain sides, canyons with walls of marble, salt flats, and the lowest elevation in North America (282 ft below sea level). Death Valley is well worth a visit, even if there isn't a "Super Bloom". Since there are not any grocery stores nearby, be prepared with plenty of food and water before you enter the park. Now, on to the flowers!
The majority of the flowers seemed to be flowers called Desert Gold or Desert Sunflowers, but there was a surprising amount of variety once we got out of the car to look at them closer.
While I looked through a lot of websites and books to identify these flowers, I found a website called The American Southwest very helpful.
To start our second day in Death Valley, we decided to take a different route through the park and, if we had time, go back to see one of the places that we had missed on the first day, an area known as Artist's Palette. Some areas along today's route had even more spectacular flower displays than yesterday's route and we stopped several times to take more pictures.
Our next stop was the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. These dunes are completely different from the ones that we visited at White Sands National Monument, NM. The sand here is comprised of many different colors that are primarily quartz. The sand was warm, but if you stuck your finger down into it, you quickly felt the temperature drop.
Next, we decided to head to Mosaic Canyon. This canyon is one of contradictions with one side being primarily comprised of smooth marble and the other of rough stream deposits. Additionally, the marble is much older than the cemented stream deposits that stand on the other side of the canyon. The drive up to the canyon is a bumpy one (although the road seemed well maintained). Once in the parking area, be sure to turn around to face the road you just travelled. The view is incredible and is lost in a picture.
Once you enter the canyon you get your first glimpse of the marble...and it practically glows. The beginning of the trail requires some scrambling up the slippery marble and coming back down can be a challenge, too.
We stopped after the first 1/4 mile so that we would have time to see Artist's Palette.
After a quick stop at Stovepipe Wells Village, we headed towards Artist's Drive in order to see Artist's Palette, an area of the mountains that are colored with a variety of hues. These mountains are part of the Amargosa Range and were created by a combination of sedimentary and volcanic rocks. The colors are created by various iron oxides and minerals in the volcanic ash.
This ended our final day in Death Valley National Park. We attempted to reach Dante's Peak before dark, but when it was clear that we wouldn't make it, we turned around to enjoy the sun setting on the blankets of flowers. Along the way there was still plenty of beautiful scenery.
Death Valley National Park contained much more than we expected and was well worth a visit. We plan to return to see more of its unique features.
For more information, please visit the park's website.
We also picked up a booklet at the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center that contained interesting information about the sights and suggested routes for two days. The book is called "Road Guide to Death Valley National Park" and was written by Robert and Barbara Decker with maps and drawings by Rick Hazlitt.
We decided to head to Death Valley National Park because of the "Super Bloom". We had never been before and didn't know what to expect. While the flowers were incredible, there are plenty of other geological features within the park that make it well worth the trip even after the flowers have faded. Death Valley lies between the Panamint and Amargosa Mountain Ranges. The valley itself is 156 miles long and Badwater Basin within the valley claims the lowest elevation in North America at 282 ft below sea level. Within the park you can discover sand dunes, canyons lined with marble, brightly colored mountain sides, and expansive salt flats via car. Other famous locations, including the Racetrack Playa where rocks seemingly move on their own, are only accessible with an off road capable vehicle or by hiking. (To learn the mysterious circumstances behind how the rocks move, go here.)
The hotels within the park were fully booked and too expensive for us anyway, but unless you choose to stay within the park, be prepared to drive an hour or more to get there. We decided to stay at the Motel 6 in Beatty, NV, which we enjoyed, but we also would have liked to have a few more restaurant options (Happy Burro Chili and Beer was very good and our best meal). We did not get to eat within the park. We tried to get indian fry bread at the small restaurant on the Timbisha Shoshone Indian Reservation within the park, but they had unfortunately run out of food. There are no grocery stores nearby, so be prepared with plenty of food and water before you head to the park.
Besides the flowers, one of the first plants we came across within the park that made us stop was a strange looking bush covered with orange filament-like strings. It took some research when we got home to figure out what this plant was. Turns out, it is a parasite plant called Toothed Dodder. According to a Death Valley National Park post, it is in the Morning Glory family and related to the Sweet Potato. It does not kill it's host bush, but the tendrils reach out to find annual flowers and plants and it will kill them. As strange as this plant is, it is native to the Mojave Desert and just part of this ecosystem's normal lifecycle.
After the flowers and beautiful scenery, the salt flats were our first stop. The salt flats in Death Valley are extensive and cover almost 200 square miles. The beginning of the salt flats (from our driving direction) was well before Badwater Basin and had surprising patchy areas of grasses/vegetation and streams of water!
We had to walk a little ways to get to the salt flat and even with February temperatures (already in the low 90's), we were glad we took water. Once we got out to the salt flats, there was a nice variety of crystal structures as the water evaporated and the salt dried.
In some of the muddy areas around the water we even found some small worms burrowing through the mud. Suddenly the placards at museums talking about fossilized worm trails and burrows made sense!
After a couple more stops to look at flowers, one of my favorites was the Gravel Ghost, and a stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we came to Badwater Basin.
Badwater Basin is located in the salt flats of Death Valley and is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level. There is a label on the mountainside across the road from the parking area for Badwater Basin that marks sea level. While it is not impressively high in a picture, it certainly is when you are standing there!
As we drove away from Badwater Basin at the end of our first day in the park, we came across a coyote trying to cross the road. Fortunately, everyone stopped in time, but I think the speed limits in the park are much too high. Please watch for wildlife and be cautious. After deciding not to continue crossing the road, the coyote practically sat down next to our car and gave us great looks! We pulled off the road and watched it from the car until sunset.
A perfect end to our first day exploring Death Valley!
So I am sensing a theme over the past couple of days...could it be possible that I love dinosaur fossils?!? Yes!!! We stopped in Clayton, NM to stretch our legs during our drive from Colorado and just happened to pass a dinosaur display on our way through town.
There was pretty much no debate at that point. Getting back to West Texas at a reasonable hour? No longer an option. Our attempt at an hour detour turned into several hours, but we had a lot of fun. Clayton Lake State Park claims to have one of the highest concentrations and diversity (at least 8 species) of preserved dinosaur tracks in the world, and I can see why. Despite my love of dinosaurs, I have gotten to see very few in-place dinosaur tracks and have not yet been able to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park outside of Dallas/Ft. Worth. The couple of places that I have visited have had 2-4 preserved prints (still very cool), while Clayton Lake claims to have over 500 (wow!). While they are not all obvious, many are excellent.
The entry fee for the park was $5. The visitor's center looked very nice, but was closed when we arrived, so we filled out our permit slip and deposited our fee into the box at one of the several information stations (there is one at the entrance of the parking area for the dinosaur tracks). The walk was only 1/4 mile each way, but it was hot and its easy to stay at the tracks longer than planned, so bring water. The trail was level and easy, but not paved, and a set of stairs leads you down to the footprints.
At the end of the trail was a pavilion with information about the tracks.
And now, on to the tracks!!!
There were also informative signs along the boardwalk to explain what you were seeing. This sign explains the footprints seen in the picture above.
In addition to dinosaur tracks, there are also fossilized remains of worm burrows, palm fronds (pictured above), possible leaves and an area where they think a dinosaur used its tail to balance itself in the mud.
There were plenty of tracks and imprints to see and speculate about, but there was also beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife including Mule deer, dragonflies, damselflies, bunnies, birds, and an unusual looking cricket (unfortunately, I did not get a good picture). Highlights of the birds included a Greater Roadrunner, Say's Phoebes, Rock Wrens, an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a Green-tailed Towhee, Lark Sparrows, a Red-tailed Hawk, and swirling Turkey Vultures.
More information can be found here:
Ok, so this one is not outdoors, but it is full of fossils (which used to be outdoors), and I'm not going to argue with a Tyrannosaurus Rex! Are you?!
I love fossils and this is my favorite museum! It is privately run and it is my understanding that the museum is a showcase of what the owners have found on paleontology digs. After finding a specimen, they cast representations of the actual bones and put them on display here. Castings of these specimens are sold to museums all over the world. While most of what is on display are castings, there are some real fossils as well. There are some that you can touch and some that you cannot. Their collection is impressive with a range of both terrestrial and aquatic fossils. They offer free guided tours throughout the day (ours was great) and have a wonderful gift shop that includes real fossils and castings for purchase (be prepared to part with some money). Amazingly, real fossils can be purchased for as little as $1-2 all the way up to $20-40 and castings up to the $1000's. One of my favorite things about this museum is its size. It is small and manageable, but they have made good use of the space and many of the displays are hung from the ceiling. It is up to you whether to spend 30 min or a few hours here, and while there are displays everywhere, it is not overwhelming. If you are in the Colorado Springs area, this museum is definitely worth a visit.
My personal favorite, the smallest, terrestrial dinosaur there, Bambiraptor feinbergi!
More information can be found here:
I have visited this park twice, in 2010 and 2015, and the views and wildlife were worth the visit both times. This is a free park maintained by the city of Colorado Springs. The park can be seen by driving, biking, or walking and there are a couple of pull-offs and parking lots. There are trails off of the parking areas and a biking lane that follows the road. The park also has a very large gift shop (called the Trading Post) and a separate Visitor's Center. Bursts of wind can blow through the park, particularly around the main parking area, bringing with them blowing dust, so be mindful when you are in the higher areas. Additionally, storms can come up quickly, so be prepared. There is also plenty of wildlife including deer, bunnies, and squirrels/chipmunks, so please drive carefully. Highlights of the birds I saw included a Prairie Falcon, Black-billed Magpies, Western Scrub-Jays, Spotted Towhee, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Pinion Jays can also be found here, but I did not see one. The main attractions here are the rock formations, which are beautiful, and I also really enjoyed the Least, or Colorado, chipmunks!
More information about the park can be found here:
Wow! This place had quite a collection. I was expecting a history of mining, which they also had, but the majority of this museum is a spectacular collection of minerals. The Mining Museum is located within the Colorado School of Mines in Boulder, Colorado. There are two floors and the rooms that house the museum are relatively small, but they are packed full of incredible things to look at. The upstairs is minerals, found locally and globally, a short history of mining, and crown jewels. The downstairs contains fossils of all kinds, meteorites, more minerals, and a gift shop. In addition to the museum, the campus has points of interest, including dinosaur tracks and imprints/fossils, that you can walk to. I did not realize it, but we got there 45 minutes before the museum closed an it was not enough time for me. I would have gladly gone back the next day, but due to the 4th of July the rest of the weekend was a school holiday, so the museum was closed. An added bonus was that the museum was free. We will definitely visit again when we are in the Boulder area.
I took way too many pictures, and I can't upload them all, so this is only a small sample of what the museum held.
More information can be found here:
Barr Lake State Park is about 40 minutes northeast of downtown Denver and it was well worth the visit. This was only one of two parks that I got to visit in the Denver area and it turned out to be one of my favorite stops in eastern Colorado. They won me over when the first thing I saw was a adorable owl at the front entrance!
As if that wasn't enough, I also saw some great birds and beautiful scenery. About half the park is trails while the other half can be driven. I spent my time at the boat ramp and on the Neidrach Trail before a storm chased me back to my car. Even while I was waiting out the storm, I spotted a few good birds including a Swainson's Hawk being mobbed and a Black-billed Magpie. I liked this park so much, that I returned again before we left Colorado.
Even the bunnies thought it was too hot before the storm!
Highlights of the birds I saw included Clark's and Western Grebes, Bald Eagles, Osprey, a Swainson's Hawk, an American Kestrel, Northern Flickers, a Downy Woodpecker, a Black-billed Magpie, Bullock's Orioles, American White Pelicans (which I never expected), and Barn Owls. There is plenty of wildlife around, so please drive slowly.
Our favorite bunny. It must have been a juvenile because it would get so close at times that we could have touched it. Mom was a bit more wary.
The Barn Owls were what I came to see, and they did not disappoint! If you do go to see them, please be respectful of their nest by quietly watching from an appropriate distance. I was able to get my pictures by putting my camera up to my spotting scope, which was set up at least 40 feet away. Like most birds, owls are protected by Federal Law.
Apparently the lake was pretty high since Colorado has been getting lots of rain lately (summer 2015). The park is owned by the state, but the lake itself is owned by a Farmer's Association company that sells water. They can access water from the lake at any time in order to provide water shares to farmers. This means that the lake is not always as high as when I saw it and my understanding is that they can drain it to pretty low levels sometimes. Nonetheless, it was a very pretty park with views of meadows, Barr Lake, Cottonwood groves, and the mountains. I am not sure how birdy it is when the lake levels are low, but there was a nice variety of birds when I visited. The people that I spoke with at the entrance station, visitor's center, and the Park Rangers were all very nice and knowledgeable about the park. I can't wait to go back and explore more of the park next time!
The entrance fee was $7 for the day. There were several bathrooms, picnic areas, and a nice visitor's center. The park has plenty of information about activities that you can join on their website and on the information boards that can be found at parking areas. They have a nice website with up-to-date information about activities, several maps, and other good information: Barr Lake State Park website.
Two of their activities included Moon Walks and outings on a Pontoon Boat, both of which I thought would be fun!
This park is maintained by Jefferson County, and wow, have they done a nice job! I have to admit, after seeing the name, I didn't know what to expect and was hesitant to go, especially since the park is in the foothills of the mountains (I mean why else would you name a park Lair O' the Bear if there weren't bears everywhere?!), but when I saw that American Dippers had recently been sighted on the eBird list, I was off before you could yell "Bear!".
This park is about 40 minutes west of downtown Denver, and while I did not see any bears or mountain lions (whew!), I did see lots of great birds. They have a nice parking area and the trails are open for use by horses, mountain bikers, hikers, and dogs, though a couple of short trails are restricted to hikers only. This was a pretty busy park with plenty of bikers and hikers and all of the dogs were well behaved with one exception (there's always one...). There were also plenty of fishermen and anglers enjoying the river. Facilities included bathrooms, picnic areas, and an educational area. The trails were easy to walk and level. Taking the trail upstream of the parking area, there were two stream crossings where you had to skittle across slippery rocks for a couple of feet, but these were a good ways down the trail. There are two bridges that can be used to cross the river, but at the time of my visit, the one upstream of the parking area (Dipper Bridge) was closed.
And I don't know how this couldn't be a dinosaur footprint!
The park was apparently greener and more vegetated than normal due to recent rains. I don't know what it normally looks like, but it was beautiful when I was there. This was also my favorite drive while we were in the Denver area. Besides the scenery, highlights included American Dippers, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Violet-green and Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, Lazuli Buntings, a Spotted Towhee, and a Black-capped Chickadee (for birders like me that spend most of their time in Carolina or overlapping ranges). There were also plenty of butterflies, including a Weidemeyer's Admiral (pictured below).
And of course, the star of the park, the American Dipper! I was lucky enough to not only find one Dipper, but two! A juvenile and adult were foraging along Bear Creek.
They may be plain looking birds, but American Dippers are very neat. They can only be found in clear, fast flowing streams with exposed rocks to perch on, and they only eat the aquatic insects and larvae that can be found in these streams (Sibley 2014).
More info about Lair O' the Bear can be found here:
as well as info about other Jefferson County parks.
Map of Lair O' the Bear:
Biologist by training, curious by nature.
Death Valley NP "Super Bloom"
Death Valley National Park (Day 2)
Death Valley National Park (Day 1)
Clayton Lake State Park
Dinosaur Resource Center
Garden of the Gods
Barr Lake State Park
Lair O' the Bear Park
Desert Botanical Gardens
White Sands National Monument
Bosque del Apache
Very Large Array
Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
South Llano River State Park
Meep, Meep! Roadrunner!
Great Horned Owl
Crunchy (the turtle)
Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Bitter Lake NWR