Cholla Cactus Garden Joshua Tree National Park

While certainly most famous for the Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree national park has a variety of other plant life that is well worth exploring. Just like it’s worth taking the time to stop to see the Ocotillo in the southern part of the park, it’s most definitely worthwhile stopping at the Cholla (pronounced choy-ya) Cactus Garden located in the Pinto Basin (which usually only receive 4 inches of water a year) near the center of Joshua Tree national park.

Cholla cactus garden Joshua Tree national park

It’s a pretty amazing sight, and the Cholla cactus looks terrifyingly like a cactus that you would never want to mess around with. In fact, there is a great quote on the information sign before entering the cactus garden:

“If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.” — J Smeaton Chase

cholla cactus

The cactus garden has a short 1/4 mile nature trail that is definitely worth taking, but be sure to leave the dogs behind (they aren’t allowed and wouldn’t fare too well against the Cholla) and keep a close eye on children so they don’t try to touch the cactus (the spines are needle sharp).

Cholla cactus garden path

One thing you will immediately notice is that it appears that a fire recently swept through the area burning the base of most of the Cholla in the garden:

Cholla Cactus fire

The truth is that this is natural and simply the dead spines of the Cholla cacti, and none of these have ever been burned. Even with the dark discoloration, the plants are healthy with the upper portion of the plant continuing to grow new stem segments. These segments with drop off as the plant gets older which will then produce a new plant.

I had not expected to see the Cholla cactus garden while driving through Joshua Tree, but I’m definitely glad that I made the stop. The sheer concentration of them in this one area is breathtaking and certainly a sight to see. In many ways, they were just as impressive as the Joshua trees, just in a different way. If you find yourself anywhere near the garden while driving through the park, it’s a stop that you won’t regret making even if it takes you a little bit out of your way.

Dry Yosemite National Park

I stopped by to visit Yosemite National Park a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time, I ran into a dry Yosemite. When you see all those spectacular photos of Yosemite Falls, you might forget that the beautiful scene isn’t constant. Depending on the amount of snowfall the region receives during the winter, it’s not uncommon for Yosemite Falls to go dry in the late summer or early autumn. While the valley is still spectacular, for anyone who has visited when the falls is flowing (or for anyone that was expecting to see the falls not realizing that it sometimes stops), there seems to be something missing.

missing Yosemite falls

While there is a bit of water in the river, it is far less than I had ever seen in my previous visits. Normally you would see the upper falls flowing over the ledge in the above photo adding one more piece of beauty to it. Instead, all you can see is the stain on the rocks from where the falls normally flows:

Yosemite falls dry at Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Upper falls not flowing

Yosemite Falls isn’t the only natural wonder which is affected. Most of the water falls coming into Yosemite valley were completely dry or just a trickle of water. The rivers and streams that flow through the valley are greatly diminished or completely dry. And a hike to see Mirror Lake found that when the lake isn’t there, it’s a lot harder for it to reflect like a mirror:

Mirror Lake Yosemite without water

Yosemite Mirror Lake dry

A storm just went through California and I suspect that the falls, lakes and rivers are now once again flowing (or should be very soon). I often get asked whether I get bored visiting National Parks again and again, and the answer is a resounding “No.” National Parks aren’t stagnant like the photos in books or the picture postcards. They are always changing and can look dramatically different depending on the time of year that you visit. That makes them exciting to visit each and every time, but it also means that if there is a particular natural wonder that you want to see, you need to take the time to make sure that it’s there when you plan to go. While I prefer Yosemite when the water is flowing, I am glad that I had the opportunity to see it dry — and get a new perspective of this spectacular valley.

Ocotillo Joshua Tree National Park

While best known for the Joshua Tree for which the national park was named after, that’s not the only plant that can be found within the Joshua Tree national park‘s boundaries. In fact, if you decide to focus exclusively on the Joshua Trees (of which there are plenty which will mesmerize you for countless hours), you will end up missing a plethora of other interesting plants which inhabit the park. With only a bit of effort, you will find that there are numerous other plants within the park that can capture your attention. One of the most interesting plants found within the park is the Ocotillo.


Don’s confuse this unusal looking plant, ocotillo (Fouquteria splendens), for a cactus. The thorny, multi-stem shrub is in fact a woody deciduous plant. Unlike other deciduous shrubs, which normally grow leaves in the spring and drop them in the fall, the ocotillo may grow and drop leaves as often as five times during the year. Its leaves aren’t season dependent but rain dependent.

ocotilla shrub

ocotilla branches

You will also find that these plants attract the desert bees and when the new leaves are sprouting on the Ocotillo, there will be a buzz found throughout the shrub.

ocotillo leaves

I found these in the southern part of the park where they were prevalent and stood out in the landscape. it’s worthwhile stopping to take a look at one and examine it a bit more closely and it’s a wonderful desert plant to photograph against the deep blue sky.

Albino Redwood Tree

The instant that I heard that there was such a thing as albino redwood trees, I knew that I was going to have to try to find one to see it for myself. The problem is that finding them isn’t an easy thing to do. Since these trees are so rare, the places where they grow are, for the most part, deeply guarded secrets. And despite the huge contrast in color from the normal redwood trees, they can be very difficult to spot.

The albino redwood (sometimes called the ghost redwood or white redwood) gets its unique white color because it isn’t able to produce chlorophyll. The result is that it has white needles instead of the typical green needles found on most redwood trees.

These ghost redwood trees don’t grow to be very tall. Since they can’t produce chlorophyll on their own and thus lack the ability to do photosynthesis, they have to get all their nutrition from the roots of the redwood tree from which they sprouted. This limits how big that they can grow. Since they must derive all their nutrition from the roots of the main tree, this makes them a parasite. These white redwoods are exceedingly rare — It’s estimated that as few as 25 may exist in the world.

albino redwood tree

I came across this albino redwood at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in California. There are supposed to be several of the ghost redwoods throughout the park, but except for a single one along the Redwood Grove Nature Trail (stop #14), their locations are not publicized to keep people from destroying them.

The one on the Redwood Grove Nature Trail isn’t pure white — the needles have a slight green tint and many of the needle branches contain both green and white needles:

albino redwood tree at Henry Cowell state park

I was able to find another one which was pure white and really stood out, especially with the surrounding green of the other trees. Here are a few photos that I took:

Here is a short video about the albino redwood trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park:

New York 9/11 Fireman Visits All 397 National Parks

I have to admit that visiting all 397 (hopefully more by the time I complete it) national parks is a secret goal I have. I’m not sure if I will ultimately be able to accomplish it, but it always gives me hope when I come across stories like this.

Yesterday Girard Owens, a retired New York fire department lieutenant who was a fireman during 9/11 managed to visit his 397th national park — and chose it to be the Statue of Liberty on the 11th anniversary of the World Trade center terrorist attack. One of the aspects of his journey that I liked the most is that his family didn’t even realize that he was on a quest to accomplish this noteworthy feat. Below is a photo of him with his son and daughter pressing the last stamp into his book and a short video of him during his visit to the Statue of Liberty:

397 national park stamps

How National Parks Benefit The Economy Infographic

As you might well imagine, I love our national parks. Unfortunately, in these times of budget cuts, that argument is simply not enough when it comes to keep the financial support coming to our national parks. What many people fail to realize, and what is often not expressed when it comes to the funding fights for national parks, is that national parks also provide a huge economic benefit. As part of the 96th birthday of the National Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association has released an infographic that sums up some of the economic benefits that our national parks provide.

I encourage you to do more than simply look at the economic information provided, but take some notes and contact your congressional representative. Let them know that you strongly support the continued funding of national parks not only for the beauty they provide, but because of the economic benefits they provide.

As the inforgraphic plainly states at the very top:

After two years of declining funding, national parks now face the prospect of additional cuts, including the looming threat of the “sequester” schedule of January 2013. If Congress doesn’t agree on a deficit reduction plan, the Park Service could face cuts up to 10 percent. That would mean closed visitor centers, closed campgrounds, closed parks and thousands of park staff out of a job.

Beach #1 Olympic National Park

I must admit that I love the beach. When I eventually stop my travels, getting a place near the beach so that I can walk along the shore on a daily basis is something that I would love to do. There is simply something incredibly intriguing on how beaches change with each storm and all of the wonderful things that can be found while wandering the beach (obviously this doesn’t include the increasing amount of trash and plastic).

Beach #1 at Olympic National Park at Kalaloch was one of those wonderful beaches to explore that had so much more than sand and surf. The beach was protected by a line of trees on the hill above the dunes. Below the trees at the top portion of the beach was lined with driftwood that ranged from huge trees to small pieces as far as the eye could see. Below the driftwood was one of the largest assortments of perfect skipping stones that I have come across in all my travels. The beach was mostly the perfect sand beach that you imagine visiting, but sections had the skipping stones mixed in making a wonderful contrast. Here are a few of the photos I took that should make you want to take a visit as well:

beach #1 Olympic National Park

Nature Valley National Parks

It’s always great to hear about businesses that get behind national parks and help support the goals and efforts of the national park system. One business that supports national parks on a regular basis is Nature Valley and I think that they deserve a little shout out of appreciation for taking a lead in supporting the national park system.

One of the essentials that I take whenever I hike are snacks because I never know when a short hike will turn into a much longer journey as I wander national park trails. One of the snacks that can often be found in my backpack are Nature Valley granola bars.

On a recent trip to Olympic National Park, I stopped by a waterfall in the Fletcher Canyon area of Quinault Valley. As I placed my backpack down, I reached my hand inside and pulled out a snack. I decided that it would make a nice “thank you” photo in hopes of encouraging Nature Valley to continue their support of our national parks, and hopefully encourage other businesses to support them as well.

Nature Valley at waterfall in Olympic National Park

nature valley olympic national park

2012 National Park Photo Contest

A call to all amateur photographers (you can’t earn 20% or more of your income from photography to participate) out there that love to visit national parks — the 2012 national park photo contest is live. This is a great excuse to get out into national parks to take photos while enjoying the beautiful scenery. If this sounds like something that would interest you, here are the details:

The photo contest has a goal of highlighting the best of America’s national parks (the photos must be taken on land owned by the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Forest Service). The winning photo will be featured on the America the Beautiful National Park Pass for 2014.

Photographs which are eligible need to be taken between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2012. Photo entry submissions will be accepted from June 28, 2012 to December 31, 2012. Photo winners will be announced by March 15, 2013 in the following five categories:

  • Adventure and Outdoor Recreation
  • Historical and Cultural
  • Scenic, Seasons and Landscapes
  • Friends, Family and Fun(ny) on Federal Lands
  • Wildlife

All contest photo entries will be judged by the following five criteria:

  • Originality
  • Artistic Composition
  • Technical Quality
  • Photographic Technique
  • Showcasing the best of America’s recreational opportunities

The contest sponsors ask that you follow these rules when taking your photos and submitting them:

  • No photo manipulation except for cropping, red-eye removal and/or adjustment of contrast and brightness
  • No breaking of any laws or rules on federal lands
  • Stay safe — don’t put yourself in danger to get the photo
  • Refrain from taking photos of anything that is inappropriate, indecent or obscene

The contest’s grand prize is $15,000 with the winner’s photo being places on the 2014 America the Beautiful National Park Pass. Second prize is $10,000 and an America the Beautiful National Park Pass. Third prize is $2,500 and an America the Beautiful National Park Pass. There are also a number of honorable mention prizes that consist of 2-night hotel stays at historic hotels across the U.S.

To participate, get more information and submit photos for the 2012 National Park Photo Contest, go to You should only submit photos that you have taken between the dates listed and all photos should be in JPEG format. All contest photos should be high-resolution 3 mb or larger as the winning photos must work in print. You can find the official rules here (PDF).

Speed Kills in National Parks

One of the things I have learned from visiting numerous national parks is that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. While you may have a specific destination in mind when you start off the day, sometimes the greatest adventures and most fun come from the unexpected side paths that reveal themselves and you choose to take. It’s the journey of getting to where I am heading rather than the destination which usually proves to be what gives me the most out of my trips.

With this in mind, it amazes me that so many people that visit national parks seem to be in such a hurry to get somewhere. They are so focused on the destination that they forget to take in all the wonderful and unexpected surprises along the way. This seems to be especially true when it comes to getting somewhere by car in national parks.

speeding kills bears sign

When you visit national parks this summer, remember to slow down. Take your time to admire the beauty and wonder all around you, even when in the car. Not only for yourself, but for all the animals that call the national park their home. Speeding cars kill far too many of the animals living in national parks than it should…