To begin, the name — Death Valley National Park — doesn’t immediately conjure visions of a lively holiday. And you’ve heard: It’s the lowest, driest, hottest place on earth. All true. But here, in one of the world’s most dramatic desert landscapes — a place of shifting sand dunes, multi-hued rock formations, and hidden canyons — you’ll wake before dawn to watch the rugged mountains turn pink with the sunrise. Then, come nightfall, you’ll marvel at star-filled skies as the desert wind rustles the palms. And you’ll wonder why it took so long to find your way here.
Full of Life
Death Valley has earned its “dry” reputation thanks to an average annual precipitation of fewer than 2 inches. In fact, no rain fell at all in 1929 or 1953.
Yet, Death Valley is full of life. From autumn into spring, the weather is positively heavenly. The occasional winter rainstorm ushers in vast fields of wildflowers. And a remarkable range of creatures, both great and small, have either adapted to summer’s harsh conditions or find refuge in the area’s diverse habitats. Not merely barren desert, the park also encompasses spring-fed natural oases, pinyon-juniper woodlands and even pine forests. With so much to see and do, the intrepid explorer should determine a base camp. Just a stone’s throw from the national park visitor center, The Oasis at Death Valley, comprised of the historic Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley, provides a well-situated solution with unexpected luxury. It’s a true oasis-like setting, with modern accommodations, fine dining and spring-fed pools, a welcome contrast to a day spent exploring salt flats, mud hills and volcanic craters.
Many Death Valley National Park visitors venture to this remote region 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas to marvel at the stark desert beauty and escape into the beautiful silence of the park’s vast expanses. But given that it is the land of stark contrast, why not create your own itinerary with a nod to the exotic landscape?
Mix in a massage under the Oasis’s date palms with a summit of the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. And pair a soak in the Inn’s healing waters with a mountain bike ride out Skidoo Road. Follow a jeep tour to a ghost town and enjoy a glass of fine wine, sipped al fresco on the terrace, as the sun sets in the valley below. You get the idea.
Wondering where to begin?
After the 1848 discovery of gold in California, the valley experienced more than a century-long mining boom. Most pioneers set out on a quest for gold and silver but were met with a notable lack of success. The only long-term profitable ore to be found in the region was borax, which was transported out of Death Valley with the famous 20-mule teams.
Today visitors can explore the once bustling towns of Chloride City, Gold Point, Panamint City and Ballarat, among others. Peer into abandoned mines, and step inside the old saloons, post offices and abandoned houses and imagine what life must have been like for these hearty Westerners.
Tee it Up
Bring your A-game (and your camera) to the lowest golf course in the world, The Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley, at 214 feet below sea level. The hazards here include coyotes that like to fetch golf balls (you are allowed a free drop) and the perplexing fact that balls don’t travel as far below sea level. Recent renovations on Death Valley’s 18-hole, par-70 course addressed water conservation and transitioned 15 acres of maintained turf to desert with low-water-use native plantings. But the improvements didn’t make the course any easier. So, should the top-rated links humble you, look forward to the smile-inducing, 19th-hole grill and bar, complete with a drive-through for golf carts.
Scout for Wildlife
Remarkably, more than 400 animal species are native to the park, including dozens of reptiles, 51 different mammals and even six kinds of fish. You never know what you’ll see, so keep your eyes open for roadrunners zooming across the highway and coyotes feeding on fallen fruit in the date palm groves of the Inn at Death Valley.
Most of the park’s animals are nocturnal, so venturing out at dawn or near sunset when animals are active is your best bet. The park’s scattered water sources, including Darwin Falls, draw a wide range of animals. Carry a small pair of wide-angle binoculars. When possible, choose a spot that offers a wide view and stay put.
Swim and Soak
Back at the Inn, built on the grounds of a natural spring in 1927, a million gallons of fresh glacial water flow out of the ground daily. The naturally heated Travertine Springwater, a comfortable 84 degrees year-round, fills swimming pools at the resort and at the nearby Ranch at Furnace Creek. Because the water is continually replaced with fresh spring water, there’s no need to chemically treat the pools.
Explore by Jeep
Rent a Jeep, load up, and learn about the local geological and mining history as you wind through Titus Canyon, a 27-mile-long gorge through the Grapevine Mountains. Expect door scraping narrows when you encounter rock walls — hundreds of feet tall and only 20 feet apart — before rising via ribbon-like switchbacks. Along the way you’ll see American Indian rock art and learn about the early miners, lured to the region by the prospect of riches.
Strap on Your Hiking Boots
Stop by the National Park Service visitors center to learn about hikes within the park, for any fitness level. We love the colorful Mosaic Canyon and Badwater Basin salt flats, the lowest place in North America. Other options include an easy (albeit sandy and rocky), 1-mile round-trip up a canyon to Natural Bridge, the largest of the park’s natural bridges. Consider a hike along the rim of a volcanic crater just over an hour northwest of your base camp. Six hundred feet deep and a half-mile across, Ubehebe Crater looks like something you might find on the moon. It formed around 2,100 years ago as magma flowing upward from deep within the earth met pockets of groundwater, setting off a powerful volcanic steam eruption.
Be sure to practice safe hiking (bring plenty of water) in this rugged terrain. Ranger-led hikes, such as the 7-mile Death Valley Paleontology Tour that leads to Pleistocene-era fossils, are also available in season.
Explore on Two Wheels
With hundreds of miles of both paved and dirt roads, road and mountain biking are popular within Death Valley National Park during the winter months. Visitors can bring their own or rent mountain bikes at the Inn or the Ranch. Either way, resort staff members can suggest tried-and-true scenic rides and safety tips.
Marvel at the Amazing Night Sky
With its desert-clear air and miles-from-anywhere location, the expansive night sky at Death Valley is ablaze with stars. Because it has some of the darkest night skies in the country, it is designated a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded. Don’t miss the ranger-led astronomy tours offered throughout winter.
It’s been said that Death Valley National Park is like a different planet. Apparently, George Lucas agreed. Rather than attempt to create a galaxy far, far away, he chose to film both “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” in the national park.
Explore the otherworldly terrain that helped to inspire these classic films when you head to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Desolation Canyon, Golden Canyon, Dante’s View and Artist’s Palette to stand where Luke Skywalker contemplated the Force in 1977.
Wonder at the Wildflowers
The wildflower bloom demonstrates the life that springs forth from late fall and winter rains in this 3.3 million-acre park. Each year’s display varies with the intensity of the bloom and the timing of the flowers’ appearance.
But it is not uncommon to see Desert Gold and Brown Eyed Evening Primrose or Notched Leaf Phacelia appear in mid-January or earlier. The full impact of the revitalization becomes most apparent between February and March but sometimes continues until June at higher elevations.
Change doesn’t come quickly in Death Valley National Park. Geological time remains the standard, human impacts are minimal, and the landscape is seemingly eternal. The coyotes continue to howl on the flats, yet a resounding silence prevails.
Once nourished by the vast, unexpected beauty and the startling contrasts, the change within will be yours to define.
If you go
The Oasis at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Resort) sits in a lush oasis surrounded by the vast and arid desert of Death Valley National Park, California —just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The resort includes two hotels: the historic Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley, with 66 newly refurbished rooms and 22 all-new casitas and the more family-oriented, 224-room Ranch at Death Valley. Learn more at oasisatdeathvalley.com or call 844-236-7916.
Warm up with a sun-drenched and relaxing family getaway. From Costa Rica to California to the Caribbean, these experiences will tempt you to begin packing....right now.
Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagaya.
Seamlessly integrating the Peninsula’s vibrant landscape with the amenities of a contemporary eco-luxury hotel, the Forbes Five-Star luxury, 182-room resort has recently reopened, revealing the results of an imaginative $35 million renovation.
Tap into the “pura vida” lifestyle (it's for real) and choose from a long list of adventure, spa, fitness and wellness opportunities served up in a relaxed and welcoming indoor-outdoor environment. Access kayaks, paddleboards and jet skis from the beach or relax by one of several pools that overlook the volcanic sand beach areas.
For a family-friendly introduction to the exotic fauna and flora of Costa Rica take a guided tour of the Trail of the Giants, a scenic adventure that showcases the region’s birds, monkeys, iguanas, butterflies and giant trees while providing jaw dropping views of the resort’s Arnold Palmer golf course and the Pacific Ocean. The Kids For All Seasons club features a kid-sized pool and junior lounge chairs as well as a range of immersive programs to entice the youngest guests.
Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, California
A family favorite, this iconic Victorian gem is the crown jewel of one of the most popular beach vacation spots in the United States. The long, wide stretch of sand provides easy access to the water and thus the perfect home base for your family’s seaside activities. Get out the boogie boards, issue a beach volleyball challenge, take surfing lessons, learn the secrets of mermaid fitness or join a clambake. Top-notch children’s and teen programs and spa options are also available. You’ll create your own family history in this legendary beach destination.
Set sail with Royal Caribbean.
You’ll find plenty of family adventure onboard the megaships headed for the sun-drenched Caribbean waters. Snap a selfie with your favorite Dreamworks characters or test your skills on the rock-climbing wall. Go ashore and enjoy water sports and cultural outings. Push your limits on the longest zip line over water, test your skills on the Flow Rider surf simulator and take in high-diving, and acrobatic performances at an outdoor AquaTheatre. There is entertainment for every age group, an array of dining options to suit every taste and the option to relax by the pool with your favorite book. Check for special savings on last minute departures. Contact: www.RoyalCaribbean.com.
Del Mar, CA.
Immerse your family in Old World, Mediterranean-inspired luxury when you check into the family-friendly, 249-room Fairmont Grand Del Mar. Lounge aside one of four heated pools, check out the equestrian center, sign up for a guided hike into the adjacent canyon preserve, or consider a mother-daughter spa treatment. Get in the swing of things on the Tom Fazio-designed golf course or pile into the free shuttle for a day at the beach.
For an extraordinary dining experience, indulge in an adults-only evening at Chef William Bradley’s Addison, Southern California’s only five-star, five-diamond restaurant. It's an experience you will long remember and be eager to tell your foodie friends about.
Contact: www.fairmont.com/san-diego/ ; www.addisondelmar.com
Hawk’s Cay Resort, Duck Key, FL.
While some parts of this popular family resort may still be recovering from hurricane damage, guests eager to return to this sunny stretch in the Florida Keys can take advantage of up to 30 percent discounts for stays in resort villas. The Can’t Wait Rate includes access to Coral Cay, the kid’s activities center, where a putting course, the wet and wild Pirate Ship pool and a long list of other activities will be available. The spa, boat ramp and Angler & Ale waterfront restaurant will also be open. Families can also check out the dolphin research facility, learn to stand up paddleboard, go fishing or explore the underwater world with a snorkel. Sounds like a great family vacation!
Blink and you’ll miss Buellton, Calif., a tiny town a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. And maybe that’s just fine with Buellton, one of those undiscovered destinations where everyone expects you to stay a few exits south, in touristy Santa Barbara, or just keep driving through to nearby Hearst Castle.
But, if you pull over, you’ll discover a place with a series of quirky, fascinating attractions that take a nice picture and a tasty, if not unexpected, cross-cultural experience.
I have to admit, Buellton’s presence was jarring to me when I drove south on California Highway 101. When I was a college student in Southern California, this town technically didn’t really exist. It wasn’t incorporated until 1992, a few years after I graduated. If you’re still having trouble placing it on the map, then think Pea Soup Andersen’s, the iconic roadside restaurant known for its split-pea soup. That’swhere Buellton is.
Just across the street from Andersen’s is the new Sideways Inn, named after the cult film shot right here. It’s part of a sprawling Flying Flags RV Resort, with its rows upon rows of impressive land yachts.
Buellton definitely has a road theme going on. Across the old 101, which runs parallel to the current 101 and right next to Flying Flags, you’ll find the Mendenhall’s Museum, a private collection available by appointment only. You can tour its vast collection of gasoline pumps, globes and road signs.
Mark and Vickie Mendenhall, the museum’s curators, live on the property and personally give all the tours. I was particularly impressed with their California license plate collection that goes back almost a century and tells the state’s automotive history. You can easily identify plates issued during the world wars, as well as the state’s evolving self-image, from agriculturally-focused to the diverse place it is today.
If you’re in town for just one day, stop by OstrichLand USA, a 33-acre ranch where you can view and feed these ostriches and emus. That’s right, feed. You get a dish of bird pellets, and the birds peck at them through a fence. Ostriches are known for being territorial and irritable, so the entire ranch is littered with warning signs, which of course I heeded but my children didn’t. (“No, honey, don’t feed the bird with your fingers!”)
Somehow, our digits survived.
One of the best parts of Buellton is its central location. From here, you can quickly get to some of California’s best beaches. My favorites: Goleta Beach Park, right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus. Walk out on the pier for a terrific view and you might see a shark or two, like we did. And Jalama Beach County Park, a 45-minute drive from Buellton on mountain roads that twist and turn their way to an abrupt end. If you go, you have to try the famous Jalama Burger at the General Store.
To get a better view, you have to get higher. We headed over to nearby Los Olivos for a hot air balloon ride with Sky’s The Limit, a regional operator. We’d seen their balloons flying over the wineries in Temecula, Calif., when we visited a few weeks before, and were dying of curiosity. What’s up there? On an early morning flight, we found out. Wineries, a bird’s-eye view of the beach, and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Yes, this is where the Gloved One came to get away from Los Angeles.
From the sky, you’ll also see Solvang, a curious and unexpected place that all too often steals the spotlight from Buellton. And there’s a reason for it. Solvang is an American city that looks as if it belongs in Europe — specifically, in Denmark. People come here to marvel at the faux Danish architecture, sample Danish pastries, and pretend they are not in the United States. Which is kind of difficult in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, but I guess that’s what you call “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Solvang is worth a look, and you’ll find a few good restaurants and a lot of great pictures there, but if you’re coming here it isn’t the main attraction. To really experience the northern part of Southern California — or as some call it, Central California — you have to get out. Head to the mountains or the beaches, and push the boundaries a little.
Or, to borrow a word the Buelltonites like to use, go sideways.
Where to stay
In Buellton, the Sideways Inn is a fun, authentic experience. It has a nice pool, and breakfast is included in the room rate. The nearby Santa Ynez Valley Marriottcaters to more of a business travel crowd and has an excellent on-site restaurant, which makes really good salad and sandwiches.
Where to eat
For breakfast, head over to Ellen’s Danish Pancake House (805) 688-5312 for the Danish pancakes. They’re oversize, thin, and not too sweet; you will want to order another plate. Go to Bacon & Brine in Solvang for lunch and order anything with a pickle. The pickles ruly are one-of-a-kind. Try the Hitching Post II for dinner. The artichokes there are amazing, and the steaks are cooked to perfection.
What to do
You mean, apart from ballooning and visiting the beach? How about picking fruit? We had a fun afternoon harvesting delicious blueberries at Santa Barbara Blueberries. The hiking opportunities here are also extensive. You can find more on hiking and other outdoor activities at the Visit Buellton site.
Who doesn’t love the sunny days you’ll find in Southern California?
And if you check in to the oceanfront Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, you can expect the ultimate family beach vacation. It’s one where the kids are having fun, mom and dad are relaxed and you all connect while experiencing #bucketlist adventures.
Your clan can learn how to catch a wave, fly a kite on the beach, build sand castles or toast s’mores over an outside fireplace on your guestroom patio. Later, glimpse a Blue whale in its natural habitat, witness a pod of stampeding dolphins, or report a Garibaldi sighting while snorkeling in the Pacific.
The resort’s Beach Butlers offer personalized services so parents can enjoy a stress-free day under the sun. Services include setting up beach chairs, umbrellas and towels, offering and assisting with food and beverage service and providing transportation to and from the beach on the complimentary beach shuttle.
Forgot the sunscreen? Not to worry. Beach butlers are also fully equipped with sunscreen and tanning lotion.
Seeking the next level of relaxation? The Ritz-Carlton Spa offers a full menu of services including massage, facials and body treatments. Choose from a selection of treatments designed to soothe, recharge and rejuvenate the body, mind and spirit. The Spa also offers wellness classes including yoga and Pilates.
Fun for the Family
The Eco-Adventure Center is dedicated to showcasing Southern California’s natural wonders. Fifteen excursions showcase the local surroundings and are led by expert naturalists. Families can learn about the blue whales on a whale watching adventure, discover the native fish and underwater creatures on a snorkel excursion, or experience riding the waves during a body boarding activity.
The resort features great dining, two outdoor swimming pools, two whirlpools, a playground area, basketball court, ping-pong table, and tennis courts. Throughout the summer, poolside movies are presented every Thursday evening and a selection of children’s movies is available for in room viewing.
Quick, what's the difference between a big resort hotel and the Wizard of Oz's Emerald City?
Answer: A story.
The wizard's creator, L. Frank Baum, was a frequent visitor to Coronado, California, and the town's beating heart, the Hotel del Coronado ("The Del" to the locals). His visits were so frequent, in fact, that his editor arranged for the rental of a separate house—off of "The Del" property—so that he might get away from the perpetual distraction of the hotel and get some writing done. The hotel and his whimsical experiences there clearly influenced his imaginings of Oz; some of Baum's illustrations of the Emerald City even look suspiciously like the iconic Queen Ann-style hotel.
Coronado still retains much of what attracted Baum (not the least of which is its own, amazing story), and it has also developed an even richer offering of experiences, accommodation, dining choices, and activities that (fortunately for his editor) didn't exist in Baum's day. And because families have always been such a part of the Coronado story, much of that new growth is still family-friendly.
The crown jewel of Coronado is, of course, the Hotel Del Coronado.
Before it was completed in 1877 there was little more than dust and scattered tufts of pampas grass. But the dreams and vision that brought forth the grand hotel spread outward, and shortly the whole island was transformed into the lush, green, and (relatively) tranquil community you see today.
A stroll through the exquisite Coronado neighborhoods is a hint of the island's military presence on its north side. Many current and former navy personnel have homes here, and that military precision shows in the beautifully kept homes and immaculate landscaping (you could bounce a quarter off the lawns). But perhaps a better way to stroll the area around the Hotel Del is to tag along with Coronado Touring for a truly fun and fascinating walking tour. The grand and historic feel of the Hotel Del suggests a great story all its own, and a couple of hours with Coronado Touring confirms it.
You'll even see "The Oz House", Mr. Baum's former "off-site" residence. If you can do this early in your Coronado visit, you'll then see the place with a sense of wonder you might otherwise miss (how else would you know about the secret message in the sand dunes?).
The walking tour begins in the Glorietta Bay Inn, which is itself significant in the story, as it's principle building was the home of Coronado's greatest benefactor and "savior" of the Hotel Del dream, John Spreckels. The Glorietta is a terrific option to the Del Coronado, as you are just across the street from the Del but can choose from luxurious and historic rooms in Spreckels's original house or more modern and affordable rooms of various sizes throughout the rest of the hotel. The entire property is immaculately kept and the friendly staff clearly take their cue from, Claudia, the Glorietta's gregarious and hospitable manager.
The vivid and fascinating history of the island lends a richer tone to everything else you experience afterward. Just a few blocks from the Hotel Del, Clayton's Coffee Shop could be just a nifty 50's-themed diner (albeit with great food and sumptuous milkshakes), but now it feels like a time machine and you wouldn't be surprised to see Mr. Baum himself at the counter reading the day's paper over a coffee and apple pie.
Two more blocks along Orange Avenue will find you transported back to that golden age of theatre at the incredibly restored Village Theatre and two blocks back on Orange Avenue from Clayton's will satisfy that old fashioned summer yen for handcrafted ice cream at the Moo Time Creamery.
And of course many of the shops at the Hotel del Coronado itself recapture that historic feel, like at Spreckels Sweets & Treats, where you can get (among loads of other things) the same fudge or saltwater taffy that Frank Baum undoubtedly sampled.
But while Coronado Island certainly honors its rich history, it has grown up nicely with terrific contemporary offerings. Head south along the narrow peninsula (Coronado is technically not an island) where you'll find the contemporary and luxurious Loews Coronado Bay Resort one of Parents Magazine's "10 Best Family Beach Resorts".
The sheer luster in the recently refurbished interior betrays the many family-oriented amenities, including poolside movies (at just one of the three pools!), a dedicated kids' activity desk, and rides in one of their authentic Venetian gondolas. And it's just a short walk or free shuttle to the quiet Silver Strand State Beach, which might seem like your own private beach, relative to crowds at Coronado Beach.
Further along Orange Avenue from the Hotel Del on the north side of the Island you'll find a host of shops, restaurants, and activities surrounding the Ferry Landing. Nearby the Ferry Landing is the sumptuous Coronado Island Marriott Resort, with exquisite views over the bay to the beautiful San Diego skyline, rejuvenating spa treatments, a private water taxi across the bay for guests, and a lush pool and outdoor restaurant that you may find difficult to leave to explore Coronado.
But explore you must, for no matter where you stay, your own Coronado story is waiting to be written.
"Coronado: The Queen of Fairyland"
And every day her loveliness,
Shines pure, without a flaw;
New charms entrance our every glance,
And fill our souls with awe!
- L. Frank Baum
WHEN TO GO:
The locals are spoiled in San Diego, and even during what they call "June Gloom", the weather is pleasant (if not fully sunny till noon). That said, the best months for weather are June through September. You'll find better deals and smaller crowds outside those months.
THINGS TO DO:
You'll find plenty to keep the whole family busy on Coronado, but here are number of things to consider in your itinerary:
- Gooey fun: After dinner S'mores on the beach at Hotel Del Coronado.
- Haute Culture: and evening at the impressive Lamb's Players Theatre
- Discovery: Kayak tour with a state park naturalist at Loew's Coronado Bay Resort.
- Gluttony: The indescribable decadence of the Hotel Del Coronado Crown Room Sunday brunch.
- Toodling: Pedal the family around the island on a 4-person surrey bike, available at your hotel or shops around town.
- Learning: Get the full and fascinating story on the island at the Coronado Museum of History & Arthttp://coronadohistory.org/.
Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa
Glorietta Bay Inn
Hotel del Coronado
Loews Coronado Bay Resort
Take a hike — and take the whole family with you.
Here are five scenic destinations to consider:
1. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
For jaw-dropping beauty, lace up and explore the jagged peaks of the magnificent Teton Range hear Jackson Hole. Trails that hug the shores of String, Leigh and Trapper lakes are ideal for families. With little elevation gain, the flat terrain provides ample opportunity to photograph the Tetons reflected in the water, wade into the shallow lake and picnic along the shoreline where the views will astound your entire crew.
Contact: wyomingtourism.org; http://www.fourseasons.com/jacksonhole/
2. Tackle a Colorado 14er.
The Centennial State is home to dozens of 14,000-foot peaks that beckon residents and visitors alike. Whether you make it to the summit or simply relish the high-altitude views, several of the trails are viable for adventuresome and fit families.
At 14,060 feet, Mount Bierstadt is both the closest peak to Denver and considered among the most approachable. Plan to arrive early, hydrate well and be off the mountain by midday to avoid dangerous thunderstorms that can roll in quickly.
Contact: colorado.com, 14ers.com
3. Shenandoah National Park.
More than 500 trails snake through this National Park in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, just 75 miles from Washington, D.C. Access family-friendly trails via the 105-mile long Skyline Drive, a historic National Scenic Byway that traverses the park. The highway also offers 75 scenic overlooks to stop and appreciate the region’s natural beauty. The 3.5-mile Lewis Springs Fall Loop is popular with families and offers scenic views and waterfalls. The Stony Man Summits and lower cliffs is the same length, offering stunning vistas with only 500 feet of elevation change.
4. Southern California’s Backbone Trail.
Not far from the Hollywood action you’ll find the 68-mile Backbone Trail, extending the length of the Santa Monica Mountains. Choose from a handful of day hike options. Try the Ray Miller Trail, accessed through Point Mugu State Park.
Scenic views of Ventura County can be seen from the 6-mile loop trail, starting at the trailhead off Yerba Buena road. Either way, you’ll be worlds away from the urban hustle.
5. Canyonlands, Utah.
For long views, sunny days and unique land formations, consider a hike into the history-rich Canyonlands. It’s a photographer’s dream landscape, so keep your camera handy as you choose among short strolls, longer day hikes or more strenuous outings.
The 2-mile Grand View Point trail offers panoramic views of the Island in the Sky Mesa. To learn about how the Anasazi lived in the area, consider the Aztec Butte Trail, where some of their rock structures are still visible.
Contact: utahscanyoncountry .com/index.html
An Essay: Gardener in the Wild
The San Jacinto Mountains, above Palm Springs, California, shoot up 10,804 feet from the desert without, as one writer has it, the geologic fanfare of foothills. I'd come in January to one of its mountain towns, Idyllwild, to try to recover some shred of a self, fractured from a September move. I left a beloved New England landscape, townhouse, and garden for a particularly congested section of Los Angeles, called Miracle Mile. The miracle, as far as I can tell, has to do with cramming 5,280 linear feet with a million people, an equal number of cars, and billions of dollars.
Every day in L.A. was raw, and seemed dangerous. Drivers were poised to kill. I saw a homeless man brush his teeth over a trash bin. On a clear night in October we heard long minutes of gunfire. I couldn't sleep. A California native, Salvia leucophylla, bloomed blue-lavender in the neighborhood, but my heart was closed. One afternoon I hit a car in a parking lot. In early January I had two bouts of traffic-induced panic.
All this was confusing and upsetting. When I did sleep, I often woke up crying. I wanted to steady myself, thinking of the far greater displacement and losses suffered by survivors of Katrina, and tried to buck up. But all life is individual life.
The first week or so in mile-high Idyllwild I ran at urban speed. Cell phone work? Wi-fi card installed? Bills paid? On a six-hour hike on the familiar South Ridge Trail, I scrambled off-trail up a ledge, and then couldn't remember the way I had come. Body not attached to head.
On the coastal side of the mountain, eleven overlapping life zones seem to call in the plant diaspora of California. It's a dizzying and unpredictable botanical stew, where Chaparral-zone shrubs chat up lodge pole pines. Particularly striking are the twisting architectural shrubby trees, manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.). The mahogany-cinnamon color of its smooth and slick-looking bark enlivens the forest and rocks and boulders and honeycombed canyons of greens and greys and coffees. Even the silvery skeletons shine.
One warm mid-January morning something happened between me and a manzanita that brought me back to ground and to my senses. I was walking along the Ernie Maxwell Trail. I had strolled by thousands of these shrubs and small trees already when, for some reason I spied, I suppose in some Buddhist sense, one. It was holding onto a small slope just up from the trail, trapped by debris from a fallen tree. I jumped into the manzanita. I grabbed dead branches from its crown. I pulled out pieces of wood from its branches. I threw it all into a pile across the trail. I cracked, shoved, dragged, kicked. It was as if I had run out after a storm to find the venerable mountain laurel in my Massachusetts garden similarly stricken. I worked so fast and hard my arms scraped and bled, but not so mindlessly that I lost balance or footing.
I finally stopped. The tree was permanently pinned and torn in three places by the splintered giant. Short of a chainsaw, I could work no further. I grieved for this little tree.
Then, I took a broader view. The mountain was witness to thousands of crushed manzanita, most still living. I've since returned to Idyllwild (it's the anti-L.A.) to see new growth on the tips of "my" manzanita, in spite of its wounds. A couple of times though, preoccupied on the trail, I've whizzed by it. So much for oneness.
Yet I carry a few of the manzanita's small leathery leaves in a pocket, and hide three or four in my pillowcase. I can't explain why.
Two days after my adventure on the trail, a generous Czech woman in Idyllwild leant me a book about "plant spirit" medicine. She did not know about the manzanita.
Eliot Cowan writes in this book: "[T]he magic is not in the matter. It's in the spirit." So I don't worry about losing the leaves. I don't know what to make of it all, really.
Sometimes I think it was just the natural behavior of a gardener in the wild.
Paula Panich, Los Angeles, CA
Paula Panich is author of Cultivating Words: The Guide to Writing about the Plants and Gardens You Love (Tryphon Press, 2005).