Monthly Archives

March 2006

Isla Guadalupe :: Restauracion Y Conservacion

Guadalupe Island, Mexico

Finally, an authoritative book has been published about Guadalupe Island, our favorite eastern Pacific island and one of Mexico’s finest ecological wonders. Published in December 2005 by Instituto Nacional de Ecologia (INE-SEMARNAT) and compiled by editors Karina Santos del Prado and Eduardo Peters, Isla Guadalupe, Restauracion Y Conservacion describes the geology, flora and fauna of this unique island. Particular attention is paid to the spectacular geology with satellite photos and topographic maps, descriptions of the bird species with photographs from atop Afuera and Adentro islands, and coverage of the Guadalupe fur seals, elephant seals and great white sharks. I am proud to have provided many of the images appearing in the book including the cover. An English-language edition is planned for later this year.

Isla Guadalupe, Restauracion Y Conservacion

Wildlife of Guadalupe Island
Underwater Guadalupe Island
Above water coastline and geology of Guadalupe Island
Guadalupe Island great white sharks and Carcharodon carcharias
Guadalupe fur seals and Arctocephalus townsendi
Our complete collection of still photographs at Guadalupe Island

Between Showers

California, San Diego

Downtown San Diego viewed from Point Loma. A storm system passed through Southern California last weekend dumping rain, hail and snow. However, the sun was able to peek through the clouds for a moment at sunset, lighting up the San Diego skyline while the surrounding harbor and mountains in the distance lie in shadow.

San Diego harbor skyline, late afternoon, storm clouds and mountains

San Diego harbor skyline, late afternoon, storm clouds and mountains.
Image ID: 15672
Location: San Diego, California, USA

Photo of Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park

California, Death Valley, Desert, National Parks

The Devil’s Golf Course is a curious assemblage of crystalline salt shapes spread over a large swath of the Death Valley salt pan. This saltpan, which is the lowest point in Death Valley National Park, and indeed the western hemisphere, holds a small amount of subsurface moisture. This water is extremely salty and briny, a result of the accumulation of minerals that were left behind when the 30-foot-deep Holocene-era lake disappeared (the accumulation continues with each year’s winter rains). Capillary action draws the subsurface moisture upward. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind salt crystals that form myriad fantastic shapes. The growth is quite slow, perhaps as little as one inch every 35 years. Wind friction and seasonal flooding of the area during winter storms erodes or reshapes the salt crystal forms, and the process continues.

Devils Golf Course, California.  Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world.  The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt

Devils Golf Course, California. Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world. The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt.
Image ID: 15582
Location: Devils Golf Course, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Devils Golf Course, California.  Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world.  The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt

Devils Golf Course, California. Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world. The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt.
Image ID: 15596
Location: Devils Golf Course, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Devils Golf Course, California.  Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world.  The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt

Devils Golf Course, California. Evaporated salt has formed into gnarled, complex crystalline shapes in on the salt pan of Death Valley National Park, one of the largest salt pans in the world. The shapes are constantly evolving as occasional floods submerge the salt concretions before receding and depositing more salt.
Image ID: 15613
Location: Devils Golf Course, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Visiting Yellowstone National Park

Grand Teton, National Parks, Wyoming, Yellowstone

Following are some thoughts about a first visit to Yellowstone National Park.

Avoid Mid-Summer If Possible

I recommend avoiding the summer crowds by visiting before school lets out in June or after Labor Day. While I have not found summer crowds at Yellowstone to be a major problem (like they can be at Yosemite), I do make an effort to avoid them simply to have a more pleasant visit. Two areas that do tend to get crowded in summer months are Old Faithful and Canyon areas from about 11am to 3pm or so. My visits have been during the height of summer (July) to accommodate the kids vacation schedules, but if I could have scheduled them for after Labor Day I would have. Also, many animals avoid the summer heat by ascending into the surrounding mountains or retreating into shade during the day. By visiting when it is cooler, when the animals are more likely to be at lower elevations, you may have better luck seeing them. This is particularly true of elk which are more numerous and easily seen around the park in Fall.

Appreciate The Morning Hours

The absolute best time to be out and about in Yellowstone is sunrise to 9am. Hands down, no argument. So the best thing you can do is adjust your body clock to get up with the sun. Yellowstone in the morning, without crowds or traffic noise and in the cool morning air, is magic. The wildlife is more visible, steam from geysers and hot springs is thicker and more dramatic in the cold air, there are few cars on the roads and the walking paths and trails are nearly empty. Many times I have been the only viewer of a geyser erupting at this time of the morning, or the only photographer observing a group of elk. If you want to find solitude in the commonly visited Yellowstone sights, you simply must make use the morning hours. At 7:30am most visitors are either asleep in their hotel/rv/tent or contemplating breakfast and are not interested in being outside touring the park; this is particularly true of families. In addition the buses of day visitors won’t arrive for several hours. If you are out and about shortly after the sun rises, you will feel like you have the park to yourself. I make a practice of getting up with the sun every single day that I can while in Yellowstone, and it gives me several hours where I feel I have the place to myself. (The same is not true of sunset, however.) The Geyser Hill boardwalk near Old Faithful is very quiet before 8am, walking it with a camera or cup of coffee and pastry in hand at that time of day is tranquil indeed and the many columns of steam rising around you are pretty neat. There are usually fewer than a dozen people on the Old Faithful benches when it makes its first post-sunrise eruption of the day — contrast that with the hundreds or thousands filling the benches when it erupts in the midday or afternoon. The Artist Point and Lookout Point overlooks for viewing Yellowstone Falls in Canyon may have just a few people, most of them quietly sipping coffee and enjoying the tranquil canyon view, listening for raptors crying and the sound of the falls tumbling. Lamar Valley will have a few wildlife watchers, those who realize morning and evening offer the best chances for sighting bear and wolves. The geothermal hotspots are at their best in early morning, particularly Midway Geyser Basin, with its towering columns of steam rising from Excelsior and Grand Prismatic geysers, and Mammoth Hot Springs.

For wildlife, the early morning rule applies to sunset too. Many animals are more easily observed just after sunrise and before sunset, so if your goal is to see wildlife you would do well to be out looking at those times.

Visit Grand Teton National Park Too

Grand Teton National Park is just minutes to the south of Yellowstone National Park, yet very different. The morning hours in Grand Teton, with the rising sun illuminating the Teton Range and Mount Moran over the Snake River and Jackson Lake, are simply sublime. Hiking is good in Grand Teton, people are few, and your chance of seeing a moose is pretty good if you drive slowly and look carefully. If you are entering or leaving Yellowstone via its south entrance, I highly recommend spending two nights in Grand Teton National Park at the Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge, or if on a budget, the Colter Bay Cabins. You can also stay south of the park in Jackson Hole, which offers plenty of nightlife, hotels and motels, but you are missing something by staying there in my opinion. If you do one thing in Grand Teton National Park, it should be to watch the sunrise hit Mount Moran from Oxbow Bend.

A Suggested Whirlwind Tour of Yellowstone National Park

It is true that many people try to “do Yellowstone” in a day or two, especially those from overseas who are on a very tight schedule. Ok, if you must do it that way, in 24 hours you can see Old Faithful and a few other geysers, several waterfalls, herds of bison and probably some elk. But the pace and timing of seeing these things will be less than ideal and you probably won’t experience the real Zen of the place by moving so fast.

If you are making the effort to visit Yellowstone you really owe it to yourself to spend a minimum of four nights there, and even that is really only a whirlwind glance at Yellowstone given that it is such a huge park. I prefer a minimum of 7-8 nights, but that is unrealistic for some people. Following is an itinerary that I suggest if you are tight on time and can manage only four nights in the park. It focuses on the Old Faithful and Canyon areas. By the way, I recommend that you avoid shifting from hotel to hotel (or campground to campground) each night since it is a poor use of your time and ties you to the hotel/campground for checkout/check-in each day, which is a serious constraint. By staying in the Old Faithful area for two nights and the Canyon area for two nights you can see all the best spots in Yellowstone from these two locations, especially if you are willing to get going early in the morning to make the most of the daylight.

Day 1

Arrive at Old Faithful area early afternoon. I recommend staying at Old Faithful Inn (ask for a room facing east so you can watch the geyser from your bedroom) or in one of the Old Faithful Lodge cabins. If you are coming from Grand Teton National Park through Yellowstone’s south entrance, be sure to make brief stops at Moose Falls and Lewis Falls. After getting checked in, spend the afternoon walking Geyser Hill, the centerpiece of the geothermally rich area known as the Upper Geyser Basin. You will probably see a few geysers go off while you do. The five “predictable” geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin — Old Faithful Geyser, Riverside Geyser, Daisy Geyser, Castle Geyser and Grand Geyser — are described in the visitor center near the Old Faithful Inn along with their next expected eruption times. Old Faithful goes off about one an hour, is quite predictable, and you can work it in around your other siteseeing. Don’t make a big deal about it, get away from Old Faithful Geyser and see the others for a much richer experience. Check the times for Riverside Geyser and Castle Geyser particularly. Make your way from the Old Faithful geyser area along the boardwalk and down to Morning Glory Pool at the far end. In between you will pass by the predictable geysers along with many smaller and/or unpredictable geysers as well as springs and vents. For this first afternoon I suggest trying to photograph two geysers in particular. Riverside Geyser, which is beautiful in and of itself, is lit perfectly and has the likelihood of a striking rainbow during its late afternoon eruptions making for one of my favorite Yellowstone pictures. You will need to position yourself “downriver” a little to see the rainbow. (Use a polarizing filter but only turn it part way to maximize the rainbow against the geyser.) Riverside’s eruptions last for 20 minutes or more but the first five minutes are the best. Castle Geyser is another easily photographed geyser provided its expected eruption is convenient for your afternoon tour of the area. Since Castle’s eruptions last so long (30 minutes or more) it is a simple matter to walk around its periphery and find the best angle given the sun, clouds and time of day once it has started. Perhaps end the day by photographing Old Faithful erupting in the final hour of sunlight.

Day 2

What’s planned: Old Faithful eruption sunrise / Midway Geyser Basin / Firehole Lake Drive / Fountain Paint Pots / Gibbon Falls & Gibbon Meadows / Geyser Hill sunset.

Day 2 — Morning

This is a big day, lots to see, so get going early. Don’t worry if you get tired, you will be done by sunset and can go to bed early.

Start by day off by watching / photographing Old Faithful at its first eruption after sunrise. Position yourself by the Old Faithful Lodge, making sure to get a coffee and pastry in the lobby before you sit down outside to wait. The light is super on Old Faithful at this time of day, and with it coming over your shoulder you will see something like this and there will be very few other people out with you so see and hear it go off. Other than sunset, this is the best time to really admire the eruption.

After Old Faithful’s eruption, hop in the car and venture down the road to Midway Geyser Basin. If the air is cool you will see the steam rising from Midway Geyser Basin well before you arrive, towering hundreds of feet in the air. Spend 30-45 minutes walking the path in Midway Geyser Basin, taking you past Excelsior Geyser and the amazing colors of the bacteria mats of Grand Prismatic Geyser.

Leave the Midway Geyser Basin and continue down the road to Firehole Lake Drive. Take this drive slowly, stopping often and lingering. Since Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way loop, if you want to see something again you must repeat the entire circuit. You will pass Great Fountain Geyser, which is predictable but has a very long interval; pass it by unless someone who knows geysers confirms that an eruption is imminent, in which case stick around for the show. The most easily photographed geyser on Firehole Lake Drive is just a few yards down the road: White Dome Geyser. It erupts frequently but unpredictably. I think I have waited perhaps 20-30 minutes at most for it to go off. Pink Cone Geyser and Firehole Lake are ahead, the last notable stops on Firehole Lake Drive.

After completing the Firehole Lake Drive, continue down the road to the Fountain Paint Pot area, and walk the boardwalk. You’ll see several geothermal features including a constantly erupting geyser (Clepsydra), hot springs and paint pots.

Day 2 — Midday

Depending on your energy and what time it is, you have a few options. Either return to the Old Faithful area for lunch, rest, or walking Geyser Hill, continue down the road. If you choose to keep going for a while, or if elk interest you, I suggest doing the following before you return to the Old Faithful area. Continue on the road to Madison, bear right toward Norris, you will be following the Gibbon River now. You will come to Gibbon Falls after five miles after Madison; it is usually crowded here during midday, perhaps difficult to find a parking spot. The view of the falls from the road on the bluff is poor. If you are adventurous, instead do this: park a few hundred yards downriver from the main viewing area, hop over the wall, descend the dirt slope to the river, walk up the river along the fisherman’s trail to the foot of the falls, and enjoy this view. It is fine.

Once you are done with Gibbon Falls, continue to Gibbon Meadows, which is a broad meadow area about five miles north of Gibbon Falls. The hope here is that you will see elk, they are often in the meadow. If you arrive to a line up of cars, elk are likely the cause of the traffic. If there are elk here, great, stop and admire them while you can. You will likely see more during your visit to Yellowstone but in the event you do not, you want to get a good look now.

Once you are done with Gibbon Meadows, return to the Old Faithful area.

Day 2 — Late Afternoon

On the return to Old Faithful you will pass Firehole Canyon Drive, a one way drive. You are now going the “right” way to take it, since taking it earlier in the day would have required you to double back. Whatever, if you have not taken Firehole Canyon Drive yet do it now. There is a waterfall and swimming hole near the end of it, with parking, if you are hot enough to want a swim.

Also on the return to Old Faithful are two small geothermal areas that might be worth visiting depending on your time: Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin. Biscuit Basin has several nice features such as Sapphire Pool, Shell Spring and Jewel Geyser. Black Sand basin has Emerald Pool and Sunset Lake. However, if it is within two hours of sunset I would suggest skipping both Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin.

Get back to Old Faithful with at least two hours of sunlight left, and make your last walk around Geyser Hill, hopefully seeing one or two geysers erupt that you have not seen yet. This will give you a second chance to see Riverside in late afternoon light. Plus it is a good way to end your stay in the Old Faithful area, with a final walk among the many hot spots on Geyser Hill, winding up at sunset with just a short stroll back to your hotel.

Day 3

What’s planned: Old Faithful eruption sunrise / Gibbon Meadows / Norris Geyser Basin / Hayden Valley / Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone sunset.

Day 3 — Morning / Midday

If you didn’t get a good look at Old Faithful’s sunrise eruption yesterday, you have another shot at it this morning. So get up, watch and photograph it, then pack up and leave pronto. You are on your way to Canyon this morning, and will pass by many of the places you saw yesterday. If there are any that pique your interest, you can make a quick stop to see them again, but keep moving if you can. In particular, spend some time at Gibbon Meadows if you are there early, look around the periphery of the meadow for elk.

Once past Gibbon Meadows you reach the Norris area. Here you have a chance to visit Norris Geyser Basin. Norris Geyser Basin is worth a visit as it has pleasant boardwalk paths, some pretty springs and a nice open area of geysers, vents and fumeroles. I suggest that you walk through the Norris Geyser area this morning (now), since the features are more attractive in the morning air. If it is, say 11am or later, you may wish to pass it by and visit it tomorrow morning.

On the way from Norris to Canyon is the Kepler Cascades side road (one way). It is worth driving but if you miss it there is no great loss. The cascades (falls) are distant and not too dramatic.

After Norris Geyser Basin and Kepler Cascades drive you will arrive in the Canyon area. Save your first look at the actual Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for later today, or better yet tomorrow morning. Your first view of the canyon should be in morning or late afternoon light for the most visual impact. If it is too early to check in to your hotel/campground in Canyon, then simply grab a picnic lunch in the Canyon village shop, pass through Canyon and head south towards Yellowstone Lake, to spend the afternoon in the Hayden Valley.

Day 3 — Afternoon

After leaving Canyon you will drive along the Yellowstone River (above where it drops into Yellowstone Canyon). Look for swans and pelicans here, and fly fishermen. Eventually the drive opens up into the Hayden Valley, where bison herds are typically seen. Drive slowly, stop at the turnouts, use binoculars to look for bison, elk, coyote, antelope and perhaps wolf or bear. Some of the elevated views overlooking the river and Hayden Valley are magnificent.

At the south terminus of the Hayden Valley is the small Mud Volcano geothermal area. This is a good turnaround point and spot to stretch your legs with a little walk. After spending 20-40 minutes at the Mud Volcano area, return to Canyon through the Hayden Valley again. The late afternoon and sunset time here can be wonderful, and we have often had herds of bison gather around our car as they cross the road and swim across the Yellowstone River.

Eventually you will be back in Canyon. Check in if you have not done so already. Then, to end your day, drive the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It’s a one way drive. You will want to stop at two points, Inspiration Point and Grandview. I suggest saving the south rim and Artist Point for tomorrow morning.

Day 4

What’s planned: Hayden Valley / Artist Point and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone / Tower Falls / Lamar Valley / Mammoth Hot Springs

Today you could sleep in (until 8:30!) if you wish. If you want to have a good look at wildlife, however, get up with the sun and return to the Hayden Valley, driving the length of the slowly and stopping often to look. Chances are good that you will see some things you did not see yesterday, since the early hour and lack of people may make the wildlife more plentiful. Try to return to Canyon by 9am to make the most of your visit to Artist Point.

Now, go view Artist Point on the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is the classic view of the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the source of millions of photos and many paintings. You’ll see why when you get there. During summer I highly suggest getting there by 10:00am, since a rainbow forms in the spray of the falls around 10am when viewed from Artist Point. It may be crowded by this time at Artist Point, since tour buses do visit this spot as well as virtually all of the visitors staying in the Canyon area. So arrive early, relax, and you will see that the crowds come and go and you can find some quiet out on the point itself eventually.

After Artist Point, on the way back out the south rim drive, make a stop at the Upper Falls where there is a parking area. These are less impressive than the Upper Falls but still worth seeing. If you want to get in a quick (one hour for the fit, add 30 minutes if not) aerobic workout, take Uncle Tom’s trail down into the canyon for a close up view of the Lower Falls. There is a good view of the Lower Falls at the bottom, but you can pass it up if you don’t have time. It is quick going down, slower going up, and you will feel the burn in your thighs.

Time to head to the Lamar Valley. Ideally you will leave Canyon to head north through Dunraven Pass to the Tower-Roosevelt area. However, if the Dunraven Pass road is closed for construction you will need to drive the long way (through Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs to reach Lamar Valley), in which you will need to push your Artist Point visit earlier in the day (8:30am instead of 10am) to allow for the longer drive. Tower Falls is just off the Dunraven Pass road, and is a short walk from the parking lot to the view point.

Once you reach the Lamar Valley, slow down and take the drive along the length of the valley slowly. Stop often, use binoculars and look for wildlife. This is perhaps the least crowded part of the park yet it offers beautiful views of bison herds, pronghorn antelope, perhaps a bear or wolf, and gently rolling hills overlooking the Lamar River. Spend a few hours at least driving the length of the valley.

Note: in 2005 the Slough Creek wolf pack could be observed from bluffs along the dirt road leading to the Slough Creek campground using spotting scopes as they went about their daily routine. Similar possibilities with the Slough Creek pack may still exist. Early morning and sunset are good times to watch for them.

Its time to choose. Do you want to return to Canyon the long way, via Mammoth Hot Springs, or return to Canyon on the Dunraven Pass road? The latter means you miss the sights of Mammoth Hot Springs but allows you to stay in Lamar Valley until dark, are good plan for viewing wildlife. The former is a long drive but if you enjoy geothermal features Mammoth Hot Springs is a place you don’t want to miss, the terraces and springs are beautiful.

Day 5

Assuming this is your final day in Yellowstone National Park, you have a few options. You may wish to begin the day early with a last sunrise drive through the Hayden Valley, looking for bison and elk. You may take in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone one more time, this time from Lookout Point on the north rim of the canyon, which offers a different angle and closer view of the falls than Artist Point. A rainbow is visible in the Lower Falls when viewed from Lookout Point around 10:15am, a little later in the day than at Artist Point.

Whether you exit the park to the north, west or south, you will pass by Norris Geyser Basin. If you have not yet visited this area, this morning is a good time to do so.

Exiting via the North Entrance. If you leave the park via the North Entrance (Gardiner, MT) then a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs is called for since it is right on the way. Plan a minimum of one hour to drive the Upper Terrace Drive, add another hour if you wish to walk the Lower Terrace boardwalks. In fall months, elk are often found on the lawns and nearby hills of Mammoth Hot Springs, so it is good to spend some time looking for them too. On the way to Mammoth Hot Springs you will pass Sheepeater Cliffs, accessible via a short side road. Usually yellow-bellied marmots and Uinta ground squirrels, also called whistle pigs for their distinctive vocalizations, can be found perched on the large boulders at the foot of the cliffs, near the picnic area.

Exiting via the South Entrance. In this you have a long, but pleasant drive, passing by many of the spots you have seen already. Depending on your time you will almost certainly stop at a few. In order: Gibbon Meadows, Gibbon Falls, Firehole Canyon Drive, Fountain Paint Pots, Firehole Lake Drive, Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin, to name several.

A Good Map

Here is a great Yellowstone map to help you get your bearings:
http://www.nps.gov/applications/parks/yell/ppMaps/ACF337B.pdf

Photo of Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

California, Death Valley, Desert, National Parks

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley offers a great view from the Funeral Mountains, across curious gullies of sedimentary rock and packed mud that comprise the badlands below Zabriskie Point, to the floor of salt-pan floor of Death Valley and the Panamint Range in the distance. It is especially striking at sunrise, so much so that photographers have made it a must-take photo during their first visit to Death Valley. Manly Beacon rises in the midst of the panorama, its striped contours testament to the tilted layers of sediment of which it is formed.

Rainbow and clearing storm clouds, sunrise light on Manly Beacon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Rainbow and clearing storm clouds, sunrise light on Manly Beacon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California.
Image ID: 27660
Location: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Full moon over Zabriskie Point landscape, Death Valley National Park, California

Full moon over Zabriskie Point landscape
Image ID: 28676
Location: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Venus sets over Manley Beacon and the Panamint Mountains, viewed from Zabriskie Point, landscape lit by a full moon, evening, stars, Death Valley National Park, California

Venus sets over Manley Beacon and the Panamint Mountains, viewed from Zabriskie Point, landscape lit by a full moon, evening, stars
Image ID: 28677
Location: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Zabriskie Point, sunrise.  Manly Beacon rises in the center of an eroded, curiously banded area of sedimentary rock, with the Panamint Mountains visible in the distance, Death Valley National Park, California

Zabriskie Point, sunrise. Manly Beacon rises in the center of an eroded, curiously banded area of sedimentary rock, with the Panamint Mountains visible in the distance.
Image ID: 15585
Location: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Zabriskie Point photos

Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

California, Death Valley, Desert, National Parks

Death Valley National Park‘s most accessible sand dunes are just a few miles down the road from Stovepipe Wells, in the center of Death Valley. 14 acres of sand dunes, rising several hundred feet high in places, lie about a quarter mile from the road. While there is no official trail from the roadside parking area to the dunes, you cannot miss them. Just set out on foot from your car in the direction of the dunes that look most interesting and walk for a while. Gradually the brush and vegetation gives way to pure sand and you are there. It is easy to find your own space out here, away from others, among the valleys that lie between the dunes. Sunrise and sunset are the times to walk among the dunes, it gets too hot during midday. Night finds noctural animals roaming the dunes, such as the kangaroo rat and sidewinder. The morning visitor will see cool animal tracks on the dunes, tracks that gradually disappear as the sands shift in the days breezes. If I took my kids to these dunes I would bring a boogie board or big cardboard boxes to let them slides down the steep sides of the biggest dunes.

Tiny hikers atop Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California.  Near Stovepipe Wells lies a region of sand dunes, some of them hundreds of feet tall

Tiny hikers atop Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California. Near Stovepipe Wells lies a region of sand dunes, some of them hundreds of feet tall.
Image ID: 15577
Location: Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Mesquite Dunes sunrise, dawn, clouds and morning sky, sand dunes, Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California

Mesquite Dunes sunrise, dawn, clouds and morning sky, sand dunes.
Image ID: 28689
Location: Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Eureka Dunes.  The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are California's tallest sand dunes, and one of the tallest in the United States.  Rising 680' above the floor of the Eureka Valley, the Eureka sand dunes are home to several endangered species, as well as "singing sand" that makes strange sounds when it shifts.  Located in the remote northern portion of Death Valley National Park, the Eureka Dunes see very few visitors

Eureka Dunes. The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are California’s tallest sand dunes, and one of the tallest in the United States. Rising 680′ above the floor of the Eureka Valley, the Eureka sand dunes are home to several endangered species, as well as “singing sand” that makes strange sounds when it shifts. Located in the remote northern portion of Death Valley National Park, the Eureka Dunes see very few visitors.
Image ID: 25250
Location: Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Sand Dunes, California.  Near Stovepipe Wells lies a region of sand dunes, some of them hundreds of feet tall, Death Valley National Park

Sand Dunes, California. Near Stovepipe Wells lies a region of sand dunes, some of them hundreds of feet tall.
Image ID: 15576
Location: Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Ripples in sand dunes at sunset, California.  Winds reshape the dunes each day.  Early morning walks among the dunes can yield a look at sidewinder and kangaroo rats tracks the nocturnal desert animals leave behind, Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Ripples in sand dunes at sunset, California. Winds reshape the dunes each day. Early morning walks among the dunes can yield a look at sidewinder and kangaroo rats tracks the nocturnal desert animals leave behind.
Image ID: 15607
Location: Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

We have been visiting the Piedras Blancas rookery of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) since early 1991, when it was newly colonized by animals from the San Miguel, San Nicholas and Ano Nuevo rookeries, and have watched it grow to its current size. We have had the good fortune to witness many marvelous animal behavior spectacles in our travels, and the breeding activities at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony rank right up there with the finest wildlife viewing anywhere in the world, especially now that the colony is so large. The fact that it is a short drive from San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, only yards from Highway One, and affords one a visit to Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, Big Sur or Hearst Castle in the same day, make it really special.

Male elephant seals (bulls) rear up on their foreflippers and fight in the surf for access for mating females that are in estrous.  Such fighting among elephant seals can take place on the beach or in the water.  They bite and tear at each other on the neck and shoulders, drawing blood and creating scars on the tough hides, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California

Male elephant seals (bulls) rear up on their foreflippers and fight in the surf for access for mating females that are in estrous. Such fighting among elephant seals can take place on the beach or in the water. They bite and tear at each other on the neck and shoulders, drawing blood and creating scars on the tough hides.
Image ID: 20369
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory.  Winter, Central California, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory. Winter, Central California.
Image ID: 15521
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Elephant seal mother and pup vocalize to one another constantly, likely to reassure the pup and confirm the maternal identity on a crowded beach.  Central California, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Elephant seal mother and pup vocalize to one another constantly, likely to reassure the pup and confirm the maternal identity on a crowded beach. Central California.
Image ID: 15421
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

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Elephant seals are the largest of pinnipeds, reaching 16 feet in length and 2.5 tons. The southern elephant seal is just slightly larger than the northern species. They are phocids, true seals, characterized by the lack of external ear flap and moving on the beach by flopping along on its belly. They propel themselves in the water with their hind flippers and use their foreflippers primarily for steering and crude dexterity. The elephant seal is notably characterized by its enormous proboscis (enlarged nose), which in adult males grows about a foot in length and hangs over its mouth. Adult elephant seals generally live to about 12 years. Mortality is high among young elephant seals, due to trampling and separation while young, and due to the rigors of weaning and learning to survive independently. The only significant predation upon elephant seals is by great white sharks and orca (killer whales).

Range. Northern elephant seals range from the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian islands south through California and into Baja California. In general they are oceanic animals, spending 90% of their lives in the ocean, living up to 5000 miles offshore and diving to depths in excess of 5000 feet in pursuit of deep water prey such as squid and bottom fish, generally spending only 4-5 minutes at the surface between foraging dives. Males, who have higher nutritional needs than females to sustain the several month fast they maintain during the breeding season, forage closer to shore along the continental shelf and have a more varied diet than the females to account for it. Females tend to forage beyond the edge of the continental shelf in deeper water. They are one of nature’s champion divers, exceeded perhaps only by the sperm whale.

History of the Northern Elephant Seal. Elephant seals were hunted heavily in the 1800’s for their fatty blubber which was rendered into high quality oil for machinery, lamp oil and paint. They were driven onto beaches and beaten. By the late 1880’s they were nearly extinct, so much so that sealers could no longer locate them and switched to hunting other species. A small holdout colony at remote Guadalupe Island off Baja California, Mexico remained, from which all northern elephant seals today are descended. (A similar survival situation was observed in Guadalupe fur seals, whose numbers were even fewer and who today are recovering but at a slower pace.) This genetic bottleneck is a concern since the entire population has only the genetic variation (and potential weaknesses) of a few dozen animals. The species is recovering, growing about 6% each year and moving northward to reoccupy historical colonies and create new ones along the Pacific coast of the United States. It is estimated that their population is now between 120,000 and 150,000 individuals.

History of the Piedras Blancas Colony of Elephant Seals. Historically, elephant seals have not colonized the Piedras Blancas coast, so the formation of this significant rookery is a relatively new and notable development. The growth of the Piedras Blancas rookery has been quite strong, to the point where it now stretches for almost four miles from its northernmost to southernmost points and hosts over 15,000 northern elephant seals during the course of the year. It began in late 1990 when a few dozen elephant seals were observed on the brown sand beach south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. The following spring, several hundred were observed to come ashore for their annual molt. It is felt that these animals colonized the Piedras Blancas coast because of overcrowding and failure to reproduce successfully at other locations. Remember, the northern elephant seal population has been on a steady increase since it was nearly wiped out in the late 1800’s, so it is natural for existing colonies to exceed their capacity and for new colonies to arise.

During the mid-1990’s, individual elephant seals had begun to move up the bluffs and onto nearby Highway One, creating a traffic hazard. Visitors would pull off the road for a better view of the elephant seals, causing a parking problem and trampling the vegetation of the coastal bluffs and sand dunes. In recent years Highway One has been realigned away from the elephant seals, parking has been made available to visitors, and through the generous work of the Friends of the Elephant Seal a large boardwalk and interpretive exhibit was built offering superb viewing of the elephant seals just yards away. Most recently, a land trade was made between the Hearst Ranch and the State of California to place sensitive lands west of Highway One in public trust, including the entire Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony.

Seasons of the Northern Elephant Seal. Although Northern elephant seals are oceanic animals and as individuals spend the majority of their life at sea, as a population elephant seals utilize the Piedras Blancas colony nearly year round. There are two principal reasons elephant seals come ashore: molting (shedding their fur coat) and birthing/breeding. From April through August the elephant seals return to shore to molt, with females and juveniles molting first followed by subadult males and finally adult males. By August they are gone, back at sea with a new coat of a fur. In fall, immature animals will haul out to rest, younger animals appearing in September and older animals later. However, in general these immature elephant seals, typically weaners, yearlings and subadults, do not stay into the breeding season, generally leaving by late November to make way for the older animals.

Breeding. Elephant seals are polygynous, meaning that males will attempt to have more than one female mate at a time. Sexually mature male elephant seals return to the colony in late November and December. These include the huge beachmasters, up to 16 feet long and 2.5 tons, powerful individuals who will compete among themselves to establish beachhold territories for harems of females. Bull elephant seals will rear up, bellow and try to intimidate one another. Often one of the bulls will back down or move out of the territory, and they both resume resting. However, if neither backs down they will approach each other and rip into each other with massive, savage bites. These spectacles are fierce and brutal battles, resulting in massive scarring of the bull elephant chest to the point that you can easily identify a beachmaster bull elephant seal by its bloody and scarred neck and chest. Ultimately, each of the victorious bulls will have established a territory within which he may assemble a harem of 30-40 females. The males will fast during the breeding season, remaining ashore to protect their territory, and will attempt to conserve energy by not fighting whenever it is politically possible. Competition continues through the season while the sexually mature male elephant seals are in residence, ebbing and flowing with natural shifts in territory and harem composition and with newcomers displacing tired beachmasters if the opportunity presents itself.

Birthing and Pups. In December females return to the colony and form harems around the males. Elephant seals are highly sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females differ in size considerably. Female elephant seals are much smaller than the males, up to 10 feet in length and weighing one ton. Generally within five days of their arrival at the colony from eight months at sea, the females give birth to a single pup that they have been carrying since the previous breeding season. Births are usually first observed in late December and continue increasingly through February, peaking near mid-February. Often seagulls will be the first to detect a new birth, flocking to the birth to feast on the discarded placenta. Vocal bonding between the pup and mother is critical and takes place immediately as this is the only certain way the mother and pup can identify one another if they are separated, which is a common occurrence on a crowded beach and beside 5000 pound males that do not hesitate to trample and push the pups aside while mating or fighting. Orphaned pups are commonly observed, usually through separation with their mothers or by virtue of a mother than is insufficiently mature to understand how to care for its pup. Some mothers who have lost their pup will attempt to steal another female’s pup. Some mothers will also tolerate an orphaned pup nursing, although this may actually doom both pups as it is thought that a mother only has enough milk supply to properly nourish a single pup each season, since for each pound that a pup gains its mother will have lost two. It is estimated that about 3500 pups were born at the Piedras Blancas rookery in 2005. Pups weigh up to 75 lbs. at birth and may be four feet long. When they are first born they carry a striking dark black, smooth coat which will gradually fade to brown as the pup matures.

Weaning. Females nurse their pups on fat-rich milk for only 28 days. Shortly before she weans her pup, the female will mate with one or more of the mature bull elephant seals. She will then return to the ocean leaving the pup to fend for itself. At this point the 300 pound pup is called a weaner and its existence is quite precarious. It must learn to swim and forage for itself, living off its fat reserves as it does so. For two months a weaner will remain at the rookery, gradually gaining swimming and foraging skills. If it is successful and survives, it will adopt a diet of squid, fish, rays and small sharks.