The Great American Road Trip

A much awaited part of our world trip, our longest road trip (yet!), was finally around the corner – 21 days in the Southwest of US starting in California on 13th (that’s the family’s lucky number!) Jun 2016. Certainly called for a pit stop after Yellowstone and what better than friends, food and fun to get us all set! Manish’s long-time friend Chandra, a classmate from school going back some 36 years and his wife Arundhati graciously hosted us at their San Jose home. A visit to the wine district of Napa Valley and wine tasting at the Castello de Amorosa, a meet-up and dinner with Manish and Chandra’s schoolmate Sujit & his family who were visiting the US (ironically we never met in India in all these years!) at SFO, and a visit to the haloed institution Stanford University were all part of the package.

Chandra takes us to Napa Valley, that’s one more off the bucket list!
A view of the vineyards of Castella de Amorosa, Napa Valley
With buddies it is always Beer – Manish, Chandra & Sujit get-together in SFO after nearly 30 years

We met and caught up with our college friend Radhika & her lovely family after 24 long years. And in the process got invaluable inputs on some beautiful additions to our itinerary.

Meeting after 24 years! A lifetime to catch up on with our college buddy Radhika Madhavan

On the morning of 13th Jun we set out to the Yosemite National Park located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite has the distinction of being the first instance of land set aside by the US government to be preserved and for public use through the Yosemite Grant in 1864 and setting the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite itself acquired National Park status in 1890 ensuring the natural beauty and wilderness of this area is preserved for us and the generations to come to enjoy, thanks to the concerted and tireless efforts of selfless people like Galen Clark, John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.

Yosemite National Park’s Arch Rock Entrance

The granite arch entrance is an apt gateway to Yosemite’s world of granite and water. The landscape as we see it here is the result of millions of years of geological and glacial activity that sculpted the granite rock into amazing formations, gave birth to deep canyons, multiple streams, cascades, waterfalls and lush meadows.

After a stop for a picnic lunch by the Merced river under tall cedar trees, we headed to the core and most visited area of the park, the Yosemite Valley. We were not quite prepared for the traffic jam we found ourselves in, so decided to park at the nearest possible spot and walked to the Visitor Center. Great decision as it gave us the time we needed to browse the exhibits and watch the documentary on Yosemite. We came to highly value the (usually) 20 minute capsules in all the National Parks which are an excellent brief on the history and geology of the park. We then headed off to check-in to our tented cabin accommodation in the Half Dome Village, until recently known as the Curry Village.

Our tented accommodation in Yosemite at the Half Dome Village

That night (and the next 2) turned out like being in a freezer! It was so cold despite the month of June and we sorely missed heating in the tent. Needless to say we were up early the next morning and quick to walk across to the warmth of the coffee shop! Could not but wonder why we were paying so much for non-heated tents with shared shower and restroom facilities, no coffee or breakfast and housekeeping limited to change of towels 🙁

We set out to explore the sights of the Yosemite Valley using the park’s hybrid shuttle, an eco-friendly transport option with value-added commentary by the knowledgeable drivers. First stop for us was the Yosemite Falls with a short hike to the lower falls. With spray blown in multiple directions and bright sunshine it was a wonderful sight that inspired Mihika to try and capture the beauty on paper. As we walked further we started seeing the upper and mid-sections of the waterfall that were hidden from view earlier and could appreciate how tall it is.

The Yosemite Falls inspire the young artist in Mihika
The Yosemite Falls consisting of three parts, the Upper Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Falls, is considered to be the highest waterfall in North America
A brightly coloured Western Tanager perched near the Yosemite Falls

Next stop with a change of shuttle was El Capitan, one of the two most famous granite formations in Yosemite, the other being the Half Dome located next to our place of stay. We first admired the two Sentinels that stand across from the El Capitan before walking through the grassy meadows to get a view of the gigantic El Capitan.

The majestic Sentinels of Yosemite
The awe-inspiring El Capitan, a 3000-foot tall monolith, a dream to scale for many rock climbers
Winged Beauties - a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan
Winged Beauties – a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan

The afternoon was spent on two activities. The first was a Ranger-led walk and talk on the Black Bears of Yosemite. It was quite shocking to know that 37 bears, a little over 10% of the park’s population of ~350 bears, had been hit by vehicles on the park roads in 2015. And in 2016 there had already been half-a-dozen accidents even before the peak traffic & tourist season of Jul-Aug. The second activity was an exploration of the traditional Ahwahnechee village exhibit at the Visitor Centre. In a recurring pattern across the national parks we had visited so far, we learnt that native American tribes inhabited the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years, living in harmony with and an initimate understanding of the complex ecosystem that supported them, before European settlers discovered the place and ultimately displaced them. The evening saw us watching a documentary on the life and work of John Muir besides catching up on social media with the limited internet connectivity at the village reception.

The next morning we started early to drive up to the Glacier Point that offers panoramic views of the Half Dome, canyons, waterfalls and the valley. A couple of stops along the way at the Tunnel View point for its photo opportunities of the valley.

Amazing vista from the Glacier Point with the Half Dome in the centre, Tenaya Canyon on the left and Liberty Cap, Nevada & Vernal Falls on the right
A Stellar’s Jay enjoys the sunshine at Glacier Point

On the way down, we stopped by the Bridal Veil Falls vista point to see this fascinating waterfall up close and could see why it was given its name.

The Bridal Veil Fall that sends spray in different directions

In the afternoon we decided to brave the Yosemite Valley traffic to drive to the Tuolomne Grove off Tioga Road and not on the shuttle route. The attraction here were the ancient Giant Sequoia trees that are endemic to the region and found in 3 groves in Yosemite. The main and most visited Sequoia grove, Mariposa, is closed for restoration until 2017. Giant Sequoias are amongst the oldest living trees in the world, outlived only by the Bristlecone Pines, and many of them have lived through the most significant milestones in recorded human history! Here is another example of a tree that has adapted to its natural environment prone to forest fires – like the Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone, the Giant Sequoias also have cones that are opened up by fire to release seeds. The 1.6 mile walk to the grove was easy being downhill, the groans of uphill walk back were all but forgotten on sighting an Acorn Woodpecker that was tirelessly pecking away at the bark of a mammoth tree!


The tall trees dwarf us
The Old Red – Amongst the most mature trees in the grove
The Dead Giant – a dead Giant Sequoia with a stagecoach passage carved through as a tourist attraction in the 1800s
An Acorn Woodpecker catches our attention with its persistent pecking that made a distinctive noise

The third morning at Yosemite saw us departing the park (happy to escape the cold nights!) through the scenic Tioga Road, the last road to be cleared of snow for the Tioga Pass to be opened up to traffic in the summer. We stopped by the Olmsted Point to take a look at the “lunar” landscape, a peek down the deep Tenaya canyon and a glimpse of the Tenaya lake that lay further ahead. Another stop at Tenaya lake to admire the serene blue waters with its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding mountains and snow caps and we were on our way out of Yosemite and soon looking at the expansive Mono Lake as we neared the town of Lee Vining.

Tenaya lake in the distance seen from Olmsted Point
A Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel in the Lunar Landscape of Olmsted Point
The serene blue waters of Tenaya Lake provide an ideal setting to reflect
Mono Lake comes into view as we leave the Tioga Road and Yosemite

The places of interest for the day (4th of the trip) after leaving Yosemite were the Bodie State Historic Park and the Mono Lake. We drove along the Mono lake to Bodie, an abandoned mining town from the Californian gold rush era. It started as a mining camp in 1859 with the discovery of gold here by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey after whom the town is named. It grew and witnessed its peak between 1877 – 1880 before its decline in the late 1910s and eventual abandonment. It was fascinating to walk through the streets of this ghost town which has preserved the houses, shops and community hall in the state they were left in, including some furnishings and contents. The small museum contains family photographs of residents, tools used by the miners and payroll registers of some of the mining companies with beautifully handwritten (almost calligraphic!) lists of the names & roles of workers among other artefacts. The town witnessed a fair share of violence we learnt with brawls, shootings and murders not being uncommon!

The short-lived ghost town of Bodie
Walking the streets of Bodie
Interior of a house in Bodie
A truck of the gold rush era
Seen inside a shop in Bodie – chocolate is an all-time favourite!
The gas station in Bodie – note the bullet holes in the “Shell” sign

We then descended down the Bodie hills and stopped by Mono lake, a huge saline soda lake to admire the hundreds of California Gulls along its shoreline and the curious formations of limestone called tufas. The tufas started emerging when water levels in the lake reduced following diversion of water to serve the needs of Los Angeles! The fall in water levels has adversely affected the ecosystem supported by the lake, in particular the migratory birds that nest here. Fortunately the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental organisation has taken up the cause of preservation of the lake and made significant progress over the last couple of decades.

Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada peaks in the background
Tufas, limestone formations, visible in Mono Lake
California Gulls by the Mono Lake

Driving along Hwy 395, we headed to our destination for that night’s halt – June Lake village. The next morning we enjoyed the views and calm of the picturesque Gull and June lakes before heading off to the Earthquake Fault in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. We spotted a mule deer on the highway, the first one with antlers that we had seen. He quickly retreated into the forest.

The Gull lake, Mono County
Mama duck with her little ducklings enjoying the morning in Gull lake
The beautiful June Lake
A stroll along the “beach” at June Lake turns out to be more chilly than we thought!
A beautiful mule deer sporting antlers in the Inyo National Forest


The fissure believed to have resulted from a system of fractures a series of strong quakes centuries ago. The native Americans are known to have used this for food storage at times when it had ice trapped in!

Next up on the itinerary was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a detour from the town of Big Pine, added last minute as it was too tempting to pass by without looking at the oldest known living organisms dating over 4000 years in age.


An old Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pine trees do not grow very tall, unlike what is normally expected especially after knowing about the Giant Sequoias, but they thrive in higher elevations under harsh conditions where other plants cannot grow. They have shallow and highly branched roots and extremely durable wood that is highly resistant to rot and insects. The exposed wood of Bristlecones, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.

Sculpted appearance of a Bristlecone resulting from weathering action of the elements

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A squirrel peeps out from a fallen Bristlecone Pine

Leaving the windy slopes of the White Mountains where life has adapted to harsh climate, we descended down to the valley to visit a place where humans were forced to adapt to harsh climatic conditions during World War II. The Manzanar National Historic Site located between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine on Hwy 395 represents a little known part of American history. It is one of ten camps setup following the attack at Pearl Harbour where over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry along the Pacific coast were incarcerated for stated reasons of suspicion but with no evidence ever found against any of them it is natural to wonder if it was just the face of racism showing itself. Acknowledging the wrongs and preserving the site with its story narrated candidly in the documentary screened every half-hour are great steps forward indeed.

The Manzanar site located in Owens Valley, harsh sandy winds blow through most of the year in this barren land


In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed into law The Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged the injustice and granted reparations to the Japanese Americans interned by the US Government during World War II

After the dusty scorching winds and admiring the spirit of the Japanese community that had during its stay here altered it from barren land to little gardens and fruit orchards, we were ready to call it a day. We headed to the town of Ollancha with a tiny detour into Alabama Hills near Lone Pine to catch a glimpse of the locale that has seen the making of many an old Western movie.

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The Rustic Oasis Motel, Ollancha – a comfy rustic experience complete with rabbits hopping around the garden!

The dawn of day 6 on the road saw us witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises at just past 5 am as we woke up to get going to the Death Valley National Park.

Fire in the sky – what a sunrise!


A couple of black-tailed jackrabbits (aka American desert hares) sprinted across the road as we drove in as if to prove the abundance of life in the desert. Pretty soon we were looking at such beautiful shades on the mountain sides, it got us wondering if this was painted or real!

Is it a painting or a real mountain side?

First stop was the Mosaic Canyon with a short walk into the canyon to see the beautiful marble like polished surfaces. It was difficult to imagine water flowing through the canyon in the heat though it was just about 8 in the morning!

Too tired to walk at 8 am!
The Mosaic Canyon

As we drove down getting lower in elevation, the temperature reading continued to steadily inch up. We were soon at the point where we were at sea level and set to continue below sea level as we proceeded to Furnace Creek.

The Mesquite Sand Dunes from a distance


The mesmerising Mesquite sand dunes with a perfectly formed crescent!
Bothered by the heat or worried about rattlesnakes?
The temperature continues to soar quickly!
Quite an appropriate name!

Next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre for our intro and orientation on the park’s history and ecology. The documentary in its honest style included an emotional narration by an elderly lady of the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe saying they believed (like native Americans all across) they had been put in that particular place by the creator to look after and care for the land and how strange it was to be allocated a “reservation” to live on in their own land was theirs.

The landscape as we see it today is the result of a whole host of geological activities over millions of years, the last of which was a stretching of the Earth’s crust creating the slanted rock layers of the mountain ranges (that look very different from the fold or uplift mountains we are more familiar with) and the valley in between. The valley is starved of rainfall being in the “shadow” of three mountain ranges on the west which result in depletion of the moisture content of air as it crosses the mountains. And so we have the driest and hottest place here in the continent.


The Golden Canyon
Having learnt about the desert ecosystem and importance of preservation, Mika takes her oath as a Junior Ranger to do her bit to protect and preserve wilderness

The much awaited highlight for the day was the fact that we could look at the highest & lowest points in contiguous US within an hour of being at the lowest point! At Badwater Basin we stood at the lowest at 282 feet below sea level with extensive “salt flats” stretching out and water vapour visible over the shimmering white surface in the distance.

So bright, hot and windy, cannot look up or let go of cap! At the lowest and hottest point in mainland USA, 282 feet below sea-level
Braving the heat of 43 deg C! The Salt Flats of the Badwater Basin where water evaporates leaving behind salt cyrstals
There still was some water flowing through in the Badwater Basin despite the burning heat

And then it was time to head up to Dante’s View after a brief colourful journey through Artist Drive and taking in the amazing vistas from Zabriskie Point both of which give one the feeling of being in a gigantic 3D canvas.

In the Artist Drive, it is a delightful palette of colours come alive in 3D paintings!
In black & white – the mountains sketched & shaded across the landscape!
Mika excited at seeing “Badlands“, the namesake of a locale a favourite singer of hers grew up around!
Stunning formations seen at Zabriskie Point
Another view from Zabriskie Point

From Dante’s View point one can see the lowest (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) and highest points (Mount Whitney, 14505 feet above sea level) of US on a clear day. Relieved at the perceptibly cooler temperatures here we spent some time walking around and admiring the views from different angles, spotting lizards and some birds before departing the park.

Panorama from Dante’s View – of the lowest point in the US!

Day 7 – time to head to Las Vegas for a relaxed couple of days, especially considering that we had just entered a heat wave gripping parts of California, Nevada and Arizona for 4 days. ‘Finding Dory’ at the legendary Brendan theatre and the cool environs of some of the famed casinos of Vegas like Bellagio were the perfect getaway from the heat outside, but we did need to steel ourselves to go and see the Hoover Dam on day 9.

The Bellagio, Las Vegas
Sights and sounds on the Vegas strip



The Colorado river at Hoover Dam


View of Hoover Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Day 10 was a long day with an early start as we had a lot of ground to cover before catching the sunset at the Grand Canyon. Our first destination situated in the state of Utah was an addition to our original itinerary based on our friend Radhika’s strong recommendation.

IMG_6961The Zion National Park is an amazingly beautiful place, it looks like a series of sandstone temples chiseled by a master sculptor! We learnt that water in the form of the Virgin river, a tributary of the Colorado river, working its way through the Colorado plateau after its near vertical uplift millions of years ago is that accomplished sculptor.

Fascinating striated sandstone formations that define Zion

A shuttle bus tour through the Zion scenic drive saw us deciding to come back here to walk through the Narrows some day. We headed out onto the Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway to enjoy the scenic drive and saw some of the most spectacular formations including the Great Arch, the East Temple and the Chequered Mesa.

The Great Arch, Zion National Park
The East Temple stands tall behind the beautiful red sandstone
The Chequered Mesa is a marvel of nature with its array of colours and perfect chequers

The drive outside the park heading towards the town of Page in Arizona continued to be scenic through canyon country with landscape alternating between the colourful hill formations of Death Valley and red sandstone formations of Zion.

Sandstone formations on the drive along Lake Powell

Crossing Lake Powell we continued past Page and as it was past 4:30 pm we knew we were too late for a tour of the mesmerising Antelope Canyon. So we drove straight to the Horseshoe Bend trailhead. We walked through the sandy stretch of 1.2 km to arrive at one of the most beautiful sights we have ever beheld, created by the meandering Colorado river.

The Colorado river takes a 270 degree turn at the Horseshoe Bend
Stunning colours of the Glen Canyon at the Horseshoe Bend
Contemplating the vastness

A most satisfied lot, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon National Park with our fingers crossed to make it there in time to catch the sunset. And we made it to the South Rim of the canyon in time to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen while trying to fathom the width and depth of the Grand Canyon! At its widest the canyon stretches 29 km and just over 6 km at the its narrowest!! And it is 1.6 km deep.

Sunset over the Grand Canyon, 24 Jun 2016

As darkness fell we drove into the heart of the park towards Yavapai Lodge where we were to stay and on the way were delighted to stop to let an elk cross the road with her little calf. The next morning we made our way to the Visitor Center and from there hiked the stretch along the canyon rim to the Geology Museum. We stopped at various places to admire the sheer grandeur, immense size and seemingly infinite stretch of red monuments. I must say we were disappointed at the haze hanging around which as we learnt soon enough, is not uncommon here due to air pollutants carried by the winds from the nearby urban centers and industries.

The Grand Canyon is not a single but a multitude of gorges & canyons carved by the Colorado and its tributaries

At the Geology Museum we learnt about how the canyon is a geologist’s dream with its visible historical record of the earth’s layers of rocks, the oldest (called Vishnu Schist) of which date from nearly 2 billions years ago and the youngest 200 million years. It was fascinating and frankly quite mind boggling to try and comprehend the formation of this landscape which has been a shallow sea at some points in time and a swamp at others, the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages and all that have resulted in what we see today. It is so much more than just erosion by the Colorado.

We used the South Rim shuttle service to visit various vista points like the Mohave, Hopi and Powell points, sometimes walking through the trails connecting them. We admired the “Battleship” formation which we learnt had caves that were a favoured nesting place for some of the California Condors in the park and caught glimpses of the Colorado river flowing deep down in the canyon. Later that afternoon we attended a ranger-led talk on the critically endangered California Condors. These huge scavenger birds had come to the brink of extinction with only 27 surviving birds in the 1980s. Fortunately their numbers are now slightly healthier at over 425 after an intensive recovery program and the Grand Canyon has around 80 of them in the wild.

The Battleship formation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Mihika participates in a Ranger-led talk on the California Condor

After the talk we took the shuttle to get to the Abyss and Pima points to look at the canyon colours come alive in the rays of the setting sun.

The rays at sunset reveal the rich hues of the canyon at Pima Point

Day 12 – we start out early to catch the sunrise at Yaki Point and walk down the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to see it from a little deeper. It gave us an opportunity to see the Kaibab limestone walls up close and an intermediate view of the canyon.

Hiking down the South Kaibab trail
On top of the world at Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab trail!

The hike was a good way to wrap-up our canyon experience and we headed out to Sedona, a desert town that features red sandstone formations and regarded as one of the energy vortex locations. My interest in spirituality was the reason for visiting Sedona. The town’s most unique feature, besides the sandstone formations, are its numerous roundabouts, something we associate with the UK and Europe but not the US. We visited three of the four main vortexes that evening – the Cathedral Rock, the Bell Rock and the Airport Mesa, the last being a common vantage point to watch colourful sunsets.

Red sandstone formations at Sedona
The Cathedral Rock group at Sedona
The Bell Rock and Energy Vortex
Sunset view point at the Airport Mesa

Day 13 was a relaxed start (maybe the calming effect of the energy of the place!) with a mid-morning visit to the fourth vortex at Boynton Canyon. On our way we met a gentleman who greeted us and offered each of us a heart-shaped stone to carry home the energy with us. We felt blessed!

The Boynton Canyon at Sedona
At the foothill of the location of the energy vortexes at Boynton Canyon

The agenda was the rest of the day was a drive through the historic Route 66, one of the oldest highways of the US, and an overnight halt at the old city of Needles before heading to our next destination the Joshua Tree National Park.

In the town of Williams on historic Route 66

The Joshua Tree National Park would mark the culmination of Manish’s “U2 pilgrimage” starting at the ghost town of Bodie and through Death Valley in homage to their bestselling album “The Joshua Tree“. We were now going to see one of the largest congregations of the perennial Yucca that adorns the sleeve of the album in its natural habitat.


The Joshua Tree – a fascinating member of the Yucca family that thrive in the deserts of southwest to central US

The Joshua Tree National Park is a transition zone between two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado and has features of both and supports a diverse ecosystem. There are two main varieties of the Yucca seen in the park, one ofcourse is the Joshua Tree and the other is the Mojave Yucca, a very beautiful looking plant.

Mojave Yucca
Yuccas of all kinds and sharp bends!
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For …
Bright colours in this transitional area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts

We walked the Hidden Valley trail which is said to have been completely isolated for centuries and hence had distinctly evolved plant & animal species until one of the rocks concealing it was blasted through by cattle herders and the micro-habitat more or less destroyed by grazing and introduction of exotic / invasive species. It was very hot though it was still the morning and so the walk seemed longer than the one mile (1.6 km) it actually is. In the afternoon of day 14 we were en-route to San Diego on the Pacific coast and looking forward to the cooler days and nights ahead.

A major attraction for us in San Diego was the USS Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier of the US (from 1945 to 1992) that has been converted into a museum. Docked in the Navy Pier at the San Diego harbour, this huge ship is extremely educational and carries many helicopters and aircraft used in the years of the Cold War and subsequent missions including rescue and relief. There are veterans who served on the ship at various points to explain the ship’s operations, aircraft launch and retrieval mechanisms on the seas using the extremely small airstrip, as well as the internal workings and a day in their life.

The USS Midway Museum, San Diego
The upper deck of the USS Midway with a huge collection of aircraft used through its life
Trying to get a feel for the navigational controls of the huge ship
Checking out the interiors and some controls on a helicopter
The closest yet to being in command of a fighter jet
Resting after a few hours of exploring and learning walking through the 3 levels and numerous passageways of the massive USS Midway

From the harbour we headed to the historic Gaslamp Quarter and onto the panoramic Coronado Bridge to cross over the San Diego bay to Coronado, the residence of many retired officers of the US Navy. Last stop for the day was at the Mission Beach before calling it a day.

The icoinc gas lamps of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego
End of day 15 of our road trip – at the Mission Beach, San Diego

Day 16 was reserved for a visit to the San Diego zoo (and this possibly was our last visit to any zoo) that is celebrating its centennial this year and doing some pioneering work with various organizations across the world on saving species from extinction.

A Giant Panda resting at the San Diego zoo
A Pink Flamingo feeds its chick

The next evening we visited the La Jolla Cove to admire the congregation of sea lions, cormorants, sea gulls and pelicans who were basking in the warmth of the setting sun. And to watch a bunch of surfers riding / attempting to ride the waves.

Cormorants by the scores on the cliff sides at the La Jolla Cove
Well fed sea lions (judging by their size) snooze on the rocky shores

Day 18 was our departure from San Diego and arrival at Santa Clarita, our base for the Hollywood city Los Angeles. Thanks to inputs from an old friend of Manish, we made a very meaningful stop at the immensely peaceful Meditation Gardens of the Encinitas Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship established by Paramahansa Yoganada.


View of the Pacific Ocean from the mediation garden at the Encinitas Retreat

Next stop was at the beautiful city of Laguna Beach in Orange County for a meet-up with my sister Thara and her family who had just arrived here for a road-trip vacation. Coincidentally they had planned to cover the same spots as we had done but in the reverse direction!

Sisters meet across the globe!
Sisters enjoying their little time together as only sisters can!

We were then on our way, negotiating the immense traffic of LA and making the most of the Carpool / HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane reserved for use by vehicles with two or more passengers.

The reason for us staying in Santa Clarita rather than LA was the Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme-park whose roller coasters were a must-do for Mihika.

At the Six Flags Magic Mountain Mihika is all smiles

Day 20 was dedicated to LA starting with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a look at the Chinese Theatre.

Where dreams are made!
Many a star adorns this Walk of Fame

We used public transport (buses & the metro) to get to LA and around LA. It was a Saturday and hence the frequency of the trains and buses probably was lower than weekdays but that meant a lot of waiting in between for us. Took us a while to get to Sunset Boulevard for another homage destination of Manish’s – the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the quintessential rock/metal hangout for rockstars and their groupies. It continued to fascinate by appearing in Guns N Roses classic videos including November Rain, Estranged and Don’t cry.

A street made iconic by many a legend
Finally here!!
A dream to be standing here

Lemmy, the Motörhead frontman, was a daily fixture here when the band was not on tour. Rainbow, one of Manish’s favourite bands was named after this venue. Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, GNR, Poison, WASP, Ringo Starr, John Lennon – all were regulars here.

Standing next to Lemmy!

With the celebrity salutations done, it was time for a visit to the California Science Center, with interesting and interactive exhibits that we all found very engaging and instructive. We could have gone on but closing time was upon us and so we strolled out to the rose garden admiring the blooms before heading back to the metro station. Our last place to visit for the day was the Griffith Observatory to peek through the telescopes for a glimpse of the wonders of the universe. On the shuttle to the observatory we came too know of extremely slow traffic on the way up due to a Ringo Starr concert in the Greek Theatre. As we inched along wondering when we would make it, Manish gauged that we would not be able to make it back in time for the last bus back to Santa Clarita and so took the call to leave the bus and head back. The right decision it turned out to be in hindsight an hence ended our day in LA.

And the 21st day arrived and we were finally on our way to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Hwy 1 as it is popularly known. We joined this state highway that runs across most of the Pacific coastline of California at the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a cloudy day and our stop at Morro Bay for breakfast wasn’t giving us too warm a feeling. But that was more than compensated by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals at a designated viewing area. They were stretched out on the beach sand, mostly asleep, but some of them making loud bellowing noises and a few frolicking in the cold waters. We learnt that these mammals had nearly disappeared from the Californian coasts following extensive hunting for their blubber and so it is heartening for environmentalists that their population has now reached a healthy level.

Elephant Seals cover the sands on the Pacific coastline
A younger one joins the group

We drove along the winding road as it wound its way along the unique coastline of cliffs and narrow rocky beaches. Little rock formations and isles were visible at many places not too far from the coast. We stopped at a number of vista points and admired the mystical look of fog hanging on the cliff sides with some flowers just beginning to bloom on the lower parts of the cliffs. The views especially around the area called Big Sur were simply beautiful!

Fog hugs the cliffs as waves kiss the shores on the Pacific Coast Highway
Cliffs & coast make this journey a memorable one
A dramatic coastline

Eventually the road moved a little inland after the town of Monterey and we continued on it until the approach to Santa Cruz and then branched off towards Saratoga. We were happy to get back to our friends Jagdeep and Vipin and Mihika delighted to be back with Riya and Saachi. It was the evening of 3rd July. We had arrived in good time to rest and ready to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations of the Saratoga community.

Riya, Saachi and Mihika accompanied by Vipin, get to learn some trivia from John and Abigail Adams
Wearing the colours of the day!

A bright morning on the lawns of the Kevin Moran park with enthusiastic citizens, some dressed as eminent characters of independent USA and sharing snippets of history with the kids, a band playing and a choir singing, it was just the celebration we needed after 21 days on the road!

This has been an extra long blog post as we decided to keep this entire experience as one cohesive piece. If you have read this far, thank you for staying with us!

Yellowstone National Park: The Earth’s Giant Pressure Cooker

After a month of travel in South America it was a much needed restful stay and wonderful time with our old friends Jagdeep and Vipin at their home in Saratoga, California. Mihika found her much needed company of children and became good friends with Riya & Saachi.

A warm, lovely welcome for us, handcrafted by little Saachi
Old is gold when it comes to friends – Jagdeep & Vipin, our college and first-job buddies


We were now ready for our next big destination – the Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) on 2nd June 2016. SLC is not the closest airport to Yellowstone but the most reasonable one to fly into coming from California. At the car rental desk in the SLC airport we had to spend some time to get Montana included in the set of states we could drive in; the default rental agreement allowed us to drive in the states immediately neighbouring Utah and so Montana was not included. Yellowstone is spread across 3 different states – Wyoming (primarily), Montana and Idaho. While most of the park area is in the state of Wyoming, three of it’s five entrances (west, north & north-east) are in the state of Montana. We had chosen to divide our stay at Yellowstone in two, first half near the west entrance and second half near the north-east entrance, to enable us to explore the different parts of this vast park. With the car rental sorted, we were off on a long drive to West Yellowstone, our base for the first 3 of our 6 days at the Yellowstone National Park. Starting with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as we pulled out of the Salt Lake City airport, it was a scenic drive on the I-15 N through parts of Utah and Idaho. We passed by the town of Idaho Falls, made iconic (for us!) by our dear friends Mamatha & Sripathi for whom it was home for many years. We arrived in the quaint little town of West Yellowstone in the evening and checked into the cosy Alpine Motel located a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone park entrance.

The next morning we entered the park in anticipation of the wonders lying within the first ever National Park that was established over a century ago in 1872. In particular we wanted to see for ourselves what we had seen on videos of Yellowstone – the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, the brilliant colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.


It was a bright sunny day and we were completely swept away by the beautiful vistas as we entered the park – endless stretches of pines, shimmering streams, snow-capped peaks in the backdrop, bald eagles flying near the streams.


Madison River flowing through the western part of Yellowstone

Here’re some things we learnt through various resources about Yellowstone that make it a very special place. The entire region of the park as we have it today has been shaped by the “supervolcano” or geological hotspot that lies beneath it. The Yellowstone volcano is not the typical cone-shaped mountain that comes to mind when one thinks of a volcano; it is a huge chamber of hot magma spread over a large area of about 3200 km² and at about 5 to 8 kms underground it is closer to the earth’s surface here than anywhere else in the world. For us it was especially interesting having recently visited the Galapagos Islands which owe their existence to a geological hotspot too. Differences in other environmental factors between the two mean they are very different from each other. The key difference is water (precipitation & ground water), abundant in Yellowstone but scarce in Galapagos. Like Galapagos, this region maybe old for us on a human timescale but on a geological timescale it is young and continuing to evolve. There have been three supervolcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot resulting in the formation of the Yellowstone Caldera and it is estimated that these have occurred every 650,000 to 700,000 years with the last one pegged at around 640,000 years ago. Which means the next one is just around the corner .. but at ~10,000 years it is definitely not going to be in history / geography textbooks any time soon! The magnitude of the supervolcanic eruptions are so huge that the entire landscape and life is altered …. it seems like a continuous cycle of birth and death or renewal by Nature. The combination of heat, earthquakes and water are responsible for the geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots) numbering over 10,000 in the park, the largest concentration in the world. It is like a giant pressure cooker that keeps venting steam and hot water while a lot is cooking inside. You can actually hear the activity beneath the surface! This region that remained undiscovered by the world until the latter half of the 19th century is home to four of the “big 5” of the North American continent – Grizzly bears, Grey Wolf, Bison and Moose.

Before we got into more of the wonderful sights of the Yellowstone National Park, we headed to the nearest visitor center to get Mihika enrolled for the Junior Ranger program, something she had enjoyed and had been a useful learning experience at the Everglades National Park. On our way to the Madison Visitor Center we saw our first herd of bisons grazing with many little calves prancing around!

A grazing bison herd, the first we saw in Yellowstone!

At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.


The ranger started with an introduction to Lodgepole pines, the most widespread conifers in the region, named so for their use by the native American Indians as poles in the shelters they built. These are easily identifiable by their needles that grow in groups of two. The tree has two types of cones, one of which remains tightly sealed by a resin until exposed to high temperatures that can open it and disperse the seeds within. The talk made us see forest fires in an entirely new light – the natural fires caused by lightning strikes or high summer temperatures help to open up the fir cones and pave the the way for new trees to grow after the old forest is cleared by the fires and the burnt organic matter enriches the soil to promote new growth. This in turn attracts grazing animals and the entire food chain that follows creating a self-sustaining and balanced ecosystem. Based on this understanding of the adaptation of the trees to fire, the National Park Service has in the past few years changed its approach to natural forest fires and lets the fires burn except where there is a threat to buildings within the park.

Lodgepole Pines constitute about 80% of the trees in Yellowstone

We saw pretty white flowers on the ground that the ranger explained are wild strawberry which turn out quite small in size and that the larger strawberries we see in the grocery stores are the result of years of cultivation and improvements by humans. He added that we are free to pick and eat any berries in the park as long as they are all consumed within the park. As a rule no material found on park property is permitted to be taken out and any attractive finds like deer antlers are to be reported to the park rangers.

Wild strawberry plant

The ranger then pointed out to us a tree whose bark was shaved off in places as a result of bisons rubbing themselves against it, something they do to help get rid of itching as well as to shed off their winter coats. The tree actually had some bison fur (hair ?) on it as evidence!

A tree bearing the marks of bison rubbing against it

As we walked past a mountain called the National Park mountain, formed by the last lava flow that occurred here about 70,000 years ago, we learnt of the historic expedition in 1870 by Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford & Gustavus Doane that led to a geological survey of the region by the geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 whose comprehensive report paved the way for setting up of the national park in 1872.

Mihika concludes a session with a Yellowstone National Park Ranger

We then started off on our trip to cover the Grand Loop, the ~230 km roadway that runs around the park and is divided into the upper and lower loops. We had planned to devote a day each to the loops leaving the 3rd day to drive across the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of North America, that is a not part of the Grand Loop to the north-east end of the park.

We started with the lower loop with the Grand Prismatic Spring as the first major attraction. On the way we stopped by Firehole Falls and Fountain Paint Pot.

Firehole Falls

Fountain Paint Pot was an excellent introduction to the four different kinds of geothermal features in Yellowstone – geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The former two occur in places of abundant groundwater while the latter two occur in places of limited groundwater accumulation. Geysers are formed when there is a constriction in the rocks above the accumulated water that results in a build-up of pressure as the water gets heated and eventually steam & hot water shoot up. Hot springs occur when there is no constriction in the rocks. Fumaroles are steam & gas vents. Mud pots occur when the surface is rich in volcanic ash and clay.

Hotspring in the Fountain Paint Pot trail
How many shades of blue!!

The many brilliant colours seen around the hot springs come from “mats” of different thermophilic microorganisms each thriving at different temperatures and extreme pH levels in the inhospitable waters. So fascinating!

An unexpected sight – a small snake seen in the warm acidic water at Fountain Paint Pot

Next up was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the much photographed colourful “eye” of Yellowstone. To get to it we crossed the dormant Excelsior geyser which no longer erupts but continues to pump huge volumes of hot water into the Firehole river.

Hot water flows into the Firehole river from the dormant Excelsior geyser
The Grand Prismatic Spring

On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!

IMG_5279And then it was on to the ..

IMG_5306The most visited geyser in Yellowstone is so called for the regularity of its eruptions at about 90 minute intervals which guarantees visitors will see it in action. It was like show-time with people sitting all around from 10-15 minutes before the forecast time of the next eruption. And after a few bursts of steam and water, it finally went up about 13 minutes after the forecast.

Old Faithful, the most visited geyser of Yellowstone, erupts at 16:37 on 3rd Jun 2016

We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.


Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake and a serene sight with it vast expanse of blue water meeting the horizon in the distance. Amazingly there are hot water springs next to the lake whose water is pretty cold. We read about the spot which was once called “Hook & cook” where fishermen would simply put fish caught from the lake into the hot water pool next to it and the fish was cooked! Now fishing here is banned. In yet another example of invasive species destroying endemic species, Yellowstone Lake has seen a sharp decline in its population of Cutthroat Trout following the (accidental) introduction of Lake Trout. This has affected the food-chain and ecosystem in the area.

Yellowstone Lake with a small hot spring in the foreground

We had stopped to take the above photo when a fellow visitor tapped Manish on the shoulder and told us to turn around to see a grizzly bear in the distance. Not believing our ears, we thanked him and peered to catch a glimpse of this mighty animal. Sure enough we saw a bear a little distance from the lake’s shoreline, ran to wake up Mihika who was asleep in the car and excitedly went forward to get a better view.

Our first sighting of a Grizzly Bear in the wild!

Imagine our excitement when the bear climbed up towards the road nd went on to cross it as we watched! And we continued to watch him forage on the other side for quite a while before he headed deeper into the woods and out of sight.

Grizzly crosses the road near Yellowstone Lake


Extremely thrilled and feeling super-lucky to have seen a grizzly bear at such close quarters on our maiden drive, at a time & place we didn’t expect to, we continued on our drive towards Hayden Valley where we were planning to be at sunset to see some wildlife. Beautiful scenery continued to emerge as we drove along the Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone Lake shore at Pumice Point


The sun was in our eyes as we drove up an incline on the road and so nearly did not see the bull Elk that was crossing the road. We stopped in the nick of time and he backed up to return. He went back to graze and it was a visual treat to admire him at close quarters for as long as we wanted.

A bull Elk grazes in Hayden Valley



We saw bison grazing on either side of the road as we drove further. Just around sunset it was a beautiful golden light on the valley and meadows next to Yellowstone river. We could see deer crossing the river in the distance and thought they might be Pronghorns.

Sunset in Hayden Valley
Deer crossing Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

A little further up we were mesmerized by a huge herd of bison grazing right next to the road, quite unmindful of the cars around. It was soon an “animal jam”! These majestic, powerful animals are quite a sight from close quarters. Docile as they look, we heeded all warnings of staying at a safe distance from them to avoid any surprises.

A herd of bisons at sunset in the Hayden Valley



A bison calf

It was nearly nine in the night by now and past our planned return time. What an action-packed day it had been!

The next morning we headed on to the upper loop with the first stop at the beautiful Gibbon falls where there were dozens of swallows constantly flying around the rocks.

Gibbon Falls

Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, the most active geothermal area of the park that includes the Steamboat geyser, the world’s tallest. We first took the trail for the Porcelain Basin, whose name is inspired by the milky colour of the mineral siliceous sinter deposited here. The colours around the springs here are a little less dramatic here as microbes too find it difficult to thrive in its very acidic environment.

Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin

We then went up to the Steamboat geyser and a number of others on the trail. Of course no luck with watching any of them erupt. The Steamboat does not erupt on a schedule and there can be long periods ranging from months to years between two eruptions. The last major one was on 3rd Sep 2014.

We then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs stopping by the Swan Lake where we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes.


Sandhill Cranes near Swan Lake

At Mammoth we admired the terrace like formations created by the calcium carbonate deposited over years by the springs. Some springs have gone dormant leaving behind hardened cones to mark their existence.

Lower Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs


We then stopped at the Albright Visitor Center and learnt about the park management history which had a chequered start in which little was / could be done to preserve the flora and fauna and there was a steady decline in the population of predators due to hunting, poaching and conflicts with humans. The Grey Wolf completely disappeared from here and it took many years and debates to put in place and implement a restoration program that reintroduced this species into the park in 1995. There is evidence that wolf restoration in Yellowstone has had multiple beneficial effects on the ecosystem and has demonstrated that perhaps ecosystems work in intricately complex ways that are not fully understood by us. Thanks to our friend Shastri for sharing this informative TED talk by George Monbiot that discusses effects on landscape as well.

Amidst all the action, Mihika had completed all the activities she needed to earn the honour of being a Junior Ranger and too her oath to preserve and protect. As our visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the US National Park Service, she got an additional token to mark the event.

Mihika joins the Yellowstone Junior Ranger club

We went on to join a Ranger talk on the wildlife in Yellowstone, bears being of most interest. Mihika used the opportunity to enquire about grey wolf spotting opportunities and we learnt of a place near the Lamar Valley where a den and the presence of wolves was confirmed. So we duly noted that for the next leg of our stay. All ranger talks included a set of exhibits such as furs and antlers. The furs all had tags citing their origin, typically these were animals killed in road accidents or had to be put down due to preying on farm animals outside the park boundaries.

IMG_5503We then headed onward to see the Tower Falls encountering Robins, a little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel, pine trees that looked like ready decorated Christmas trees and a warning sign about Bears.

Chipmunk or Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel?
A robin watches as we pass by
A pre-decorated Christmas tree!!
Warning signs are placed at various places, needed more to keep the bears safe

As we drove towards Mount Washburn, we came across a traffic jam with people peering down the side of the road. We pulled up and found ourselves looking at a family of Black Bears, a mother with two cubs, moving away into the treeline. It was just a glimpse of the mother but we were entertained to the play of the two cubs on a tree branch for a long time! Wow!!

Black Bear cub plays on a branch!

We had been told that Black bears and Grizzlies can be distinguished visually not by their colour (Black Bears can be brown, tan or black in colour) but by the hump on the Grizzly’s shoulder which is absent in the black bear.

We were in real luck again that afternoon – we soon came up on a second congregation of people and it was a second Black Bear family high up on a distant tree. It was a mother and two cubs with the mother curled up and done for the day we thought while the cubs were engaged in play higher above, nearly at the tip of the tree! It was quite remarkable to see how high they had climbed and how such a large animal was sleeping comfortably on what appeared to be rather thin branches of a pine!

The last stop on our route was planned to be the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but we were out of time and energy. So we headed back and on the way saw a bunch of cars pulled up near a small turn-in. With no steam to keep us going, we decided to give it a pass but luckily spotted the object of interest – a Moose! So pull over we did and walked back to see this majestic herbivore, the only land mammal that can feed under-water while holding its breath.

A Moose grazes at sunset, no care whatsoever for the gawkers!

On the last morning at West Yellowstone, we decided to pay a visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center before heading into the park, just so we could see a couple of grey wolves in case we were not fortunate to see them in the wild. The Center located near the Yellowstone park entrance houses orphaned and “nuisance” grizzlies and wolves. Nuisance bears are those that have got habituated to foraging in garbage and hence humans and keep straying into towns repeatedly. Here we got to watch two grey wolves, who were not grey at all, as we learnt about how they are encouraged to fish and behave as they would in the wild with a non-contact policy for the animal keepers. Grey wolves we learnt need not be grey in colour, they can be black or white too.

Grey Wolf fishing at the Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

At the bear enclosure we witnessed how bears look at alternative food sources when available. Below is a demonstration with a bird-feeder being targeted by a Grizzly. The message to the public was “no bird feeders in bear country”.

No bird feeders in bear country – they become bear feeders!

There was a “Keeper Kids” program for the children that Mihika participated in to learn about the food habits of bears and help with hiding food in the bear enclosure also called “habitat modification” to encourage the natural instinct of the bears here to forage and look for food rather than have it dished out to them.

Post-lunch we headed into the park to cross-over to Cooke City, a small town near the north-east entrance. But first a stopover to see Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone river and the beautiful falls as the river enters the canyon.

The Yellowstone Falls as the river enters a deep canyon
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carved by the Yellowstone river

We drove through the Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of Nrth America for the large numbers of animal congregation seen here especially towards the end of summer during the rut season. We stopped by the place from where a wolf den could be sighted across a river. There were lots of people but apparently no wolf activity, so we went on to see plenty of Bison and some Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land mammal after the Cheetah.

Pronghorn in Lamar Valley – the second fastest land mammal
Bison herds graze in the Lamar Valley
Bison crossing the Lamar River at dusk
Drive through Lamar Valley

We passed by a little village called Silver Gate at the north-east entrance before arriving at our destination Cooke City where we were greeted by the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows flying around the trees and buildings near our motel.

Eye-catching name at Silver Gate near the North-East entrance to Yellowstone
Tree Swallow

The next morning we made an early start to try our luck with spotting wolves and other animals around the Lamar Valley. A Mule Deer and some birds (not to mention the Bisons who were always there) later we arrived at Slough Creek, the location of the wolf den.

Mule Deer
Black-billed Magpie
Brewer’s Blackbird

We were in luck as the adult wolves and nine cubs were active around the den. People pointed out the exact location of the den which was but a dot in the distance and after a peek through the scopes setup by some guides, we could spot the wolves through our binocs. It took a lot of focus as they were quite distant and very tiny even when seen with binocs / scopes. So no photos really, but we managed to get one shot in which a black coloured adult can be seen on zooming in – the tiny black dot just in front of the little bowl-like depression between two dry tree stumps.

A wolf in the distance appears as little black dot between the two dry tree stumps

Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.

A Bison rests in Lamar Valley
Flock of Canada Geese near the Lamar River

The next day was reserved for a drive through the scenic Beartooth Highway leading away from the park towards the town of Red Lodge. It started with some views from a higher elevation and spotting a pair of Pikas scurrying around the sagebrush on a rocky hillside and then the vistas expanded with snow in huge patches and frozen lakes! It was a high point for Mika and it was play time 🙂

American Pika


Play time with snow!
Rock shaped like a dinosaur head! Seen on Beartooth Highway
Biker’s Stop to refuel on the BearTooth Highway
Snow all around in June! View from the Beartooth Highway
Wild strawberry flowers by the Little Bear lake on Beartooth Highway


The Bear Tooth – the pyramid shaped spire created by glaciation that gives the mountain its name

The next morning we set off for the Grand Teton National Park located at the south of Yellowstone. On our last day at Yellowstone we were fortunate to spot Trumpeter Swans and a Grizzly bear across the Yellowstone river and help a few others to see it too!

Trumpeter Swan
Spot the Grizzly amongst the sage brush?

The Grand Teton is like a little sibling to Yellowstone. We stayed in the town of Jackson just outside the Grand Teton national park to look through the sights here. It offers dramatic views of the Teton range of the Rocky mountains, reflections of the mountains in the quiet waters of its many lakes and flora that is more varied than the pine dominated Yellowstone.


A reflection of serenity, the Grand Teton National Park


Mt. Moran at sunset

The Grand Teton is considered a better habitat for moose but we weren’t able to see any. We saw plenty of Elk, some Pronghorn and Bison, but most valuable of all was the sighting of a Grizzly quite close to the park entrance as it sauntered away in the evening.

A Grizzly at the Grand Teton
Elk crossing river at Grand Teton
A Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of Idaho and Nevada. Finally managed to get a pic of this beautiful bird in the Mormon Row at Grand Teton

We learnt of the “dude” ranches that had started up here before the National Park was established – dudes beings the well-heeled folks from the Eastern parts who wanted to experience the countryside and rural life. The visit would not be complete without a drive through the gravel track of Mormon Row featuring barns and homesteads established in the 1890s.

A private ranch in Grand Teton, a few of these co-exist with the National PArk
The Mormon Row with homesteads setup by Mormons primarily from Idaho

After a week completely immersed in the wonders of nature, it was time to return to SLC and head back to San Jose for a short pit stop before the next big undertaking – a 21-day road trip starting with Yosemite National Park and covering a whole lot of sights, all subjects of the upcoming posts!

Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.

We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

IMG_1416A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.



We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.

Shell Mound

Brown Pelican

We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.


Double Crested Cormorant


The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.

Saw Fish


Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?


Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.


IMG_20160423_153928They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!




We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron

As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!


On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.


As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!

The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.

IMG_1488There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, IMG_1496quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.

Redwinged Blackbird - Warrior of Everglades
Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird







Purple Gallinule
Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.

On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.

All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!

The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.



We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.

Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!





Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.


But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.




Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!

With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!

IMG_20160426_122524In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂


IMG_20160425_124808Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.

Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.

We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades –