Watson’s Grotto Oregon Caves

Once you have walked into Oregon Caves National Monument, you will immediately realize that the cave is pretty wet (there will be water dripping on you throughout the cave walk, so a waterproof jacket with a hood is highly recommended — and a hat at a minimum). The first stop is at Watson’s Grotto where you get a good look at the Oregon Caves river running through the cave:

Oregon Caves river

River at Watson's Grotto Oregon Caves

The walls of the cave at this point are a lot of openings and crevices, but no distinct formations:

Oregon Caves Watson's Grotto

The next stop on the Oregon Caves tour is at Petrified Gardens.

White Sands Dunes Drive

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is an impressive site with its pure white gypsum sand dunes — the largest in the world with 275 square miles of gypsum dunes. Before I began exploring the dunes themselves, I dove the entire Dunes Drive which is about 8 miles round trip. For those visiting for the first time like myself, it’s a great way to get a quick overview of the entire White Sands National Monument before choosing where to explore the sand dunes. While there are many beautiful sights which will peak your interest and help you decide where you want to explore, one of the unexpected sights I saw on the drive was the piles of white gypsum sand on the side of the road:

Gypsum sand piles on Dunes Road at White Sands National Monument

There is so much gypsum sand and it’s constantly being blown by the wind that they need to plow Dunes Road just like snow in the mountains.

Oregon Caves Entrance

When you arrive at Oregon Caves National Monument, there is a short walk from the parking area to the visitors center. The walk is along a paved road and immediately gives a feel of the area with a lot of moss clinging to rocks and trees:

Oregon Caves moss on rocks

Oregon Caves moss hanging from trees

Once you reach the visitors center building, there is a beautiful waterfall that empties into a clear pond. This is the water that is coming out of the cave entrance from the river that runs through it:

Oregon Caves entrance waterfall

Oregon Caves entrance pond

It’s only possible to explore the Oregon Caves by guided tour which leave in groups of a maximum of 15 people on a regular basis depending on how crowded the day is. A guide will take you up to the Oregon Cave entrance where you will be greeted by a moss covered entrance:

Oregon Caves National Monument entrance

and a river flowing below you:

Oregon Caves river at entrance

The guided tour was wonderful providing a nice history of the cave with plenty of opportunities to take photos and ask questions. The first stop inside the cave on the Oregon Caves tour is at Watson’s Grotto.

Death Valley Badwater Basin

If you are going to take a trip to Death Valley National Park, you’re definitely going to want to make a stop at Badwater, the lowest point in North America. Badwater has an elevation of negative 282 feet (-86 meters) or 282 feet below sea level. Badwater is marked with a sign (The sign and the Badwater spring beside it are not actually the lowest point of the Badwater Basin: the true lowest point is several miles to the west over the salt flats, but can be dangerous and difficult to reach)

Badwater Basin sign

To the right of the Badwater sign is a small spring-fed pool of water that is undrinkable due to the salt content giving the point it’s name: Badwater. Even though the water is undrinkable, that doesn’t mean there isn’t life in it. The Badwater spring hosts varied plant life, aquatic insects and the Badwater snail.

Death Valley Badwater Spring

If you are a bit more adventurous, you can take a short walk out into the Badwater Basin salt flat:

Death Valley Badwater Salt Flats

Giant Saguaro Cactus High Five

I always love it when I come across something unexpected when traveling through National Parks. While heading toward the visitor center at Saguaro National Park in Arizona, I had to slam on the brakes of my car when I noticed that two giant saguaro cactus were doing a classic high five with one another:

Saguaro National Park cactus high five

Crater Lake In Winter

This was my first visit to Crater Lake National Park and although it was May, there were still piles of snow along the side of the road that stood over 15 feet high. Driving next to these snow banks was enough to make the trip worthwhile and is a great reason to visit Crater Lake in the winter.

The big drawback to visiting Crater Lake in the winter is that your activities are limited. Crater Lake rim drive is closed. Due to the large amount of snow, hiking is pretty much out of the question (although cross country skiing and snow shoeing would be possible — permits are required for overnight snow camping). That means that there’s really only one spot to view and take photos of the lake:

snow covered Crater Lake Wizard Island in winter

Crater Lake in winter

Crater Lake National Park in winter

As can be seen from the photos, the other big difference is that cloud covered weather doesn’t let the beautiful blue of Crater Lake shine through, and instead leaves it a steel grey. I heard that has a much bluer tint when the sun is shining brightly even in winter, but to really get the color you need to visit in summer (which means I will be back again) when you can take photos like this:

Crater Lake Wizard Island in summer

Yosemite Falls

If you go to Yosemite, one of the highlights of the trip will be seeing Yosemite Falls. It’s highest measured waterfall in North America with a drop of 2,425 feet (739 meters) and the sixth (sometimes now listed as seventh with the discovery of Gocta Cataracts) highest measured waterfall in the world. While it appears from Yosemite Valley that Yosemite Falls consist of a two-stage drop of Upper Yosemite Falls and Lower Yosemite Falls, there is actually a Yosemite Falls Middle Cascades which consists of five smaller plunges. These are rarely mentioned because they can’t be seen from Yosemite Valley (although they can be seen when hiking the Yosemite Falls trail up to the Upper Yosemite Falls). The Middle Cascades plunge 675 feet (206 meters) which is more than double the drop of Lower Yosemite Falls.

There are a number of vantage points in Yosemite Valley where it’s possible to get a photo of the entire Yosemite Falls which make a spectacular sight.

Yosemite Falls through pine trees

Yosemite Falls Upper and Lower

Yosemite Frazil Ice

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Yosemite was to get the chance to see frazil ice. Yosemite Creek is famous for frazil ice, but the temperatures have to be perfect for it to form. It needs to be a clear, cold night where temperatures get down into the 20s or lower so that the mist from Upper Yosemite Falls and Lower Yosemite Falls freezes to the rocks on the way down. Then the day needs to be sunny and warm enough to melt that ice that froze overnight so that it falls off the sides of the waterfall walls and into the river forming a type of slush in Yosemite Creek. This slushy mess is called frazil ice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to see any frazil ice on my visit, but here are a couple of videos that show why I was hoping to see it (and why I will be going back until I get the opportunity to witness frazil ice)

Yosemite Creek

Yosemite Creek is often overlooked due to the magnificence of Yosemite Falls, but definitely should not be dismissed as it offers a number of beautiful photo opportunities. Yosemite Creek emerges from the base of Yosemite Lower Falls which eventually flows into the nearby Merced River. The first part of Yosemite Creek is rugged with large boulders, but becomes calmer as it flows away with it meandering under a few beautiful bridges:

Yosemite Creek near base of Lower Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Creek Bridge

Lower Yosemite Falls

The Lower Yosemite Fall is one of the easiest Yosemite Valley waterfalls to access and makes for some wonderful photos. The Lower Yosemite Falls is the final portion of Yosemite Falls and descends 320 feet (98 meters) drop. There is a viewing area at the bottom where many people that visit Yosemite gather to take photos. The Lower Yosemite Falls is easily accessible near the Yosemite Lodge on flat paved paths and just over a mile hike from the Yosemite visitor center:

Lower Yosemite Falls from hiking path from Yosemite Lodge

Lower Yosemite Falls viewing area