Sunday, December 26, 2010

San Diego, Southern Arizona - November 7-13, 2010

With colder weather settling in to the north, a trip along the southern part of the country was in store. There are a number of National Parks and National Monuments across southern Arizona and California so I packed up and headed to San Diego.

Day 1 - Sunday

This was basically a driving day. The route was south on I-25 to Hatch where I picked up the cutoff over to I-10 at Deming. From there it was west to Benson, Arizona , where I stayed the night.

As usual, I played my MPG game where I reset the trucks miles-per-gallon calculation at the start and tried to see how high I could get the average to be. On previous trips I had gotten around 10 MPG but this time I ran into bad luck with the winds. A breeze from the southwest was quartering into me from the right on the way south and then quartering from the left once I turned west. It takes very little headwind to cause me to have to downshift frequently to maintain speed. The camper has a large surface area to create drag plus there is a parachute-like effect in the space between the camper overhead and the truck's roof. By the time I got to Benson the mpg read only 8.9.

Day 2 - Monday

The first stop today was the Saguaro National Park which has two parts - one east of Tuscon and one west of the town. I chose the eastern side and tried to time my arrival with 9:00 since that is when most of the park headquarters buildings I have been to open up. I got there about 10 minutes early but they have a driving loop through the park that was already opened so I took that first.

The park is right on the outskirts of Tuscon so that makes the loop road a popular spot for bicyclists and joggers and they were out in force. Several times I had to wait for them to clear the way since the road was really only one lane wide. After the loop, I stopped at the headquarters building to look at their displays and buy a souvenir magnet.

A typical Saguaro cactus.

They don't grow nearly as thick as they used to. The problem was caused by a couple of stretches of freezing weather - once in the 1960's and once in the 1990's. They should come back if there isn't another freeze and they also keep cattle off the land to avoid trampling new sprouts.

I would hate to have to travel through this area on foot.

Autumn sun over Saguaro.

The city of Tuscon is right on the border of the park. As long as the housing density doesn't rise, the impacts should be manageable.

Next was the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument which is located on the border with Mexico southwest of Tuscon. The road over to the area appears to be the first real road north of the border and therefore was crawling with border patrol agents. I went through two checkpoints and saw several mobile detection units with tall, electronic surveillance masts along the road.

This road also passes by the Kitt Peak Observatory which I could see on top of the mounains next to the highway. Once I got to the little town of Why, I turned south which would have led me to the Mexican town of Sonoyta except that I turned off a few miles short of there. The landscape was similar to that around Saguaro but they also have Organ Pipe cactus which only grows in the far south of Arizona and in Mexico.

Kitt Peak Observatory

An example of an Organ Pipe Cactus (at the Monument Visitor's Center.)

From there it was north through Ajo to Gila Bend where I picked up I-8 west. By this time, the wind had really strengthened and was about 30 mph directly from the front. I could feel it sucking the gas tank dry but I eventually got to Yuma where I spent the night.

Wind whipped dust on I-8 to Yuma. (taken through the windshield)

Day 3 - Tuesday

The goal for the day was to get to San Diego and have some time to see a few things before heading to the campground. It was interesting to watch my GPS system which shows the elevation as I'm driving. As I approached El Centro, California, the elevation kept dropping. I was thinking El Centro must be close to sea level but the numbers actually went negative. It turns out that El Centro is the largest American city that is below sea level (-50 feet, actually). After driving throught the broad valley, the road started climbing again - up to over 4000 feet to get over the mountains before dropping back down into San Diego.

My first stop was the Birch Aquarium which is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is located in La Jolla which is just north of San Diego, proper. It is a fairly small aquarium but they had a number of unusual critters. They seemed to specialize in seahorses and had a number of varieties which they have successfully bred. Their back patio area had a nice view of the ocean.

Whale statues outside of the Birch Aquarium.

A nice view of the coastline from the back deck of the aquarium.

There were some surfers down below. I seem to remember the water off of this coast to be quite cold.

Next was the Cabrillo National Monument which is located on Point Loma which is across the bay from the city. The monument is dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542. He explored up the coast - perhaps all the way to Oregon but broke his leg along the way and died of gangrene before he could return. He is generally considered the last of the European explorers that opened up North America.

Statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

The monument has a nice view across the bay to San Diego.

One of the residents at the monument.

There was still time left in the day, so I set my GPS to take me to Balboa Park where I planned to visit a couple of museums. Since the GPS didn't know I was driving with a big camper it sent me up Hill Street which would rival anything in San Francisco for steepness. I hoped the camper was well secured as the nose of the truck pointed up to the sky. I managed to power up the hill and eventually find Balboa Park.

It took a while to find a parking spot I could fit into - I finally went over the San Diego Zoo parking area to get one. The first stop was the Model Railroad Museum which is quite large. They model the area around Southern California including Tehachapi Pass which is famous as a railfan site. There are layouts in both HO and O scale as well as a toy train layout. (Toy trains don't try for realism - they use three rail track and things like old Lionel trains).

I then stopped off at the San Diego Natural History Musem which was a couple of buildings over. They had some nice exhibits on dinosaurs and quite a few dioramas. It wasn't as extensive as the Denver Museum of Natural History which is quite large. I saw a 3D IMAX film exploring what the life of Sue (the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found) might have been like. They couldn't resist putting in a few 3D scenes of Sue roaring and looking like she was going to bite your head off. Afterward, I headed to the campgound (in Chula Vista) and set up for the night.

Balboa Park, San Diego.

The Botanical Building at Balboa Park.

Day 4 - Wednesday

The day started off with the San Diego Zoo. I had been here before and it is one of my favorite zoos. The one issue it has is the hilliness of the terrain. My initial plan was to catch the motorized tour bus and get the overall picture of the place and then head to a few of the most interesting exhibits on foot. That didn't work out since I got there at opening time (9:00) but the tour didn't start operating until 10:30. I just headed out and would play it by ear.

By the time 10:30 was getting close, I had already covered three quarters of the zoo and was down at the bottom of the canyon it is built in. I hiked up the oppsite side to see the polar bears and then to catch the sky tram back to the front. From there I caught the bus and toured the place again.

One thing that stands out about this zoo - they have some full grown examples of a lot of the animals. The big male Polar bear was gigantic - easily twice the size of the ones at the Rio Grande zoo. Of course, they have more space and a lot more money coming in to fund the operation. Their big male gorilla was also quite impressive.

The big male polar bear.

One of the females. the other one was sequestered to have cubs.

A statue showing how big a male polar bear can be. (That isn't me standing with the bear. The scales to the right let you see how you compare to a polar bear which weighs up to 1800 lbs.)

After a quick lunch, I decided to head over to Sea World. I hadn't been to a Sea World in a long time and was looking forward to the dolphins, in particular. I discovered that the off season had begun for the park so most shows were put on only once per day. Fortunately, the best ones were in the afternoon which allowed me to attend them. I saw the dolphins - as part of a large, musical show with birds, small whales, and some trapeze artists. I caught Shamu's show which is always fun as he splashes water over anyone in the first 12-15 rows. There was also a show with trained pets - dogs, cats, birds, and a pig - all from the local animal rescue center. I'm not sure what that has to do with the sea, but it was entertaining.

Shamu doing his thing.

For some reason, not many people wanted to sit up front.

They have a nice penguin exhibit with a moving walkway.

My back was pretty tired after all that walking, so, after stopping for dinner, I headed back to the campground and showered, watched a DVD, and hit the sack early.

Day 5 - Thursday

This was the day I started heading back home but I wanted to take a different route and see a few more things on the way. I headed north a bit and stopped first at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. They have changed this around a little bit since I was last here and added more animal exhibits. The main attraction, though, is still the large, open enclosure with a number of different species of African animals. There are a number of types of antelope, some rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. They have the tallest giraffe in North America (19 feet tall).

One interesting fact that was pointed out was that the small antelope they had never moved out of the end of the large enclosure. The reason was, their instinct is to keep their predator's in view at all times so they can be prepared to run. There was a Cheetah exhibit at that end of the valley (a separate enclosure) so the antelope kept them in view all the time. I bet the Cheetahs were frustrated watching all that fast food walking around and not being able to go catch it.

San Diego Wild Animal Park.

This is the open area that is the main attraction of the park. A number of species roam the area together.

This guy reminds me of someone but I'd better not say who.

The tallest giraffe in North America. They say a 6 foot tall human can walk under his belly without bending over.

Got pretty close to this guy. (There is glass between us).

Afterward, I gassed up and decided to reset my gas mileage calculator to see if I could do better than 8.9 on the way home. I headed north a bit more to Temecula and then took a two lane road east over the Santa Rosa mountains. Of course, with my luck, the wind was quite strong in my face, again. When combined with the 5000 foot elevation gain and winding roads, I was only at about 8.0 at the top. The downhill side of the pass got me back to about 8.8.

At the bottom of the pass was the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument visitor's center. The monument protects a large area which contains a number of endangered species including the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. I stopped and got my souvenir magnet. Another five miles or so and I was in Palm Desert. At that point I picked up I-10 east and made it to
Blythe, California where I stopped at a campground on the banks of the Colorado river.

I didn't get a picture of the area so I found this shot of the National Monument area from the BLM web site.

Day 6 - Friday

This day was a bit play-by-ear with the main goal of getting back to the campground in Benson that I stayed at on the way out. I was trying to get to a couple of National Monuments that were west and south of Phoenix. The first one was the Sonoran Desert National Monument which was set aside to protect the diversity of a large chunk of the desert. There aren't any buildings or visitor's centers with this monument so all I could do was drive through the middle of it. I took a small road from Gila Bend, east through the towns of Maricopa and Casa Grande, and then back to I-10. The monument has hiking trails but it looked pretty bleak at this time of the year.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Next was going to be the Ironwood Forest National Monument which is similar to the Sonoran Desert monument in that there are no buildings or improvements to visit. The information I had suggested that a loop road exists but parts were gravel and might require 4 wheel drive. I decided to skip this one for now.

In place of Ironwood, I headed in to Tuscon and visited the Reid Park Zoo. My Rio Grande Zoo pass got me in for free so that was a good deal. It is a nice, little zoo, and seemed well attended for a weekday. I liked their giraffe and rhinoceros exhibits which included some grassy areas rather than just the bare dirt of our own zoo.

After relaxing for a while (and resting my back), I headed out to Benson.

Day 7 - Saturday

This was a driving day - heading for home. The only semi-interesting thing happened in T or C where I got off the highway to look for a gas station and got caught in what I assume was a Veteran's Day observence at their cemetary. After getting through all the traffic, I found some gasoline and some lunch and then drove home. I nursed the gas mileage along and got it up to 9.1 by the time I rolled in to the drive. I would wait until the following day to unload the camper and get it winterized. Any trips I do this winter will not be with the camper.

This was a nice trip that avoided both the heat of summer and the storms of winter. The last night in Benson saw a low temperature of about 26 which was the only cold weather I encountered. I don't know where the next trip will take me but there are a multitude of options.

Total miles driven - 2043
Gas mileage - 8.9 on the way out, 9.1 on the way back.