Friday, May 29, 2009

The Integratron: UFOs, Didgeridoos and You

In the Mojave Desert, standing amongst the trailer homes of Landers, just north of Joshua Tree, rises the Integratron. If you see a UFO flying nearby, or an earthling meditating atop the geomagnetic vortex, don't be surprised. It's that kind of place.

In the 1950s, engineer George Van Tassel, who once worked with the equally eccentric Howard Hughes, started building what he believed was an anti-gravity and time machine that could also rejuvenate living tissue. Think of it as a technological fountain of youth that just happened to be inspired by beings from Venus. Better living through science indeed.

Arguably what Van Tassel did succeed in designing is an acoustically perfect wooden dome. Now owned by the Karl Sisters (aka "Space Sisters"), the
Integratron is a wacky tourist attraction for some, a place of otherworldly inspiration for others. It's usually open to the public two weekends each month for hour-long "sonic baths" ($10). Imagine yourself stretched out on yoga mats piled with Mexican blankets and pillows while crystal bowls are made to sing and hum. It's hypnotic, and your body will vibrate. I accidentally fell asleep.

Next month may be the best time ever to visit the
Integratron -- well, at least since the UFO conventions of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. On June 20 and 21, the Integratron will celebrate the summer solstice with DidgeriDome, featuring musical jam sessions, fire performers, healthy food vendors and a weekend camp-out. Preregistration is required: call (760) 364-3126 or email the sisters at Fees range from $20 to $80, depending on how long you stay and where you're from (locals get discounts, aliens are free).

Photo: The Integratron (Sara Benson)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Summer has arrived early this year at Yosemite National Park. The Tioga Road through the Tuolumne Meadows high country, which sometimes remains closed into late June or early July, is now open to vehicle traffic. And the dizzying cables are already up on the Half Dome summit trail. So, what are you waiting for?

Oh, that's right. It's Memorial Day weekend, and only a crazy person would take a last-minute trip to Yosemite. But if you just wait until next Tuesday, when the holiday crowds subside, you'll hit a precious bubble of quieter time in the park, especially in the still snowy highlands.

Most people tackle Half Dome as a 14-mile day trek. But why rush? If you can score a wilderness permit to camp overnight at Little Yosemite Valley, you can beat the crowds of day trippers from the Happy Isles to the top of the dome. Even though wilderness permit reservations for Little Yosemite Valley are booked up through August 30, 40% of the daily trailhead quota (i.e., 12 people) remains open for first-come, first-served permits starting the day before your hike (get in line at the Yosemite Valley wilderness center really early, say by 6 or 7 a.m.).

Wanna know a secret? There's another way to approach Half Dome, other than starting from overcrowded Yosemite Valley. From Tenaya Lake, you can hike over Clouds Rest and camp by Sunrise Creek, then get up early and tackle Half Dome before finishing your 17-mile backcountry trip down in Yosemite Valley. Getting back to your car at the trailhead off Tioga Road is a cinch on the YARTS public bus, which currently leaves the Yosemite Valley visitor center at 5 p.m. daily in July and August (weekends only during June and September). Just don't try this route until the snow melts later in the summer -- it's 100% snow-covered right now. (For current trail conditions throughout the park, click here.)

As of today, a limited number of wilderness permit reservations were still available for both the Happy Isles and Sunrise Lakes trailheads during the last week of August and first week of September, just before the madness of the Labor Day holiday weekend starts.

And if you're going to go, why not take along my book? Compass American Guides: Yosemite & Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, also available from Amazon.

Photo: Valley View (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Utah: Happy Birthday, Whatever Your Name Is

It's not every day that you turn 100 years old. But that's exactly what is happening this summer at Zion National Park.

Or, should I say, Mukuntuweap National Monument, the name given to this southern Utah wilderness when it was first federally protected in 1909. There's still some debate about what mukuntuweap means. Late-19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell thought it was a Southern Paiute word for "straight, narrow canyon." If you've ever thru-hiked the Narrows of the Virgin River, you'll probably agree with him.

Don't worry if you miss Zion's centennial party on July 31, when the historic Grotto cabin, the park's first visitor center, is set to reopen as the new home of the park's artist-in-residence. There are more centennial events later this summer:
  • Free showings of classic films shot in and around Zion, like the Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. starting August 13 at Springdale's Canyon Community Center.
  • A walk through the 1.1-mile-long Mt. Carmel-Zion tunnel. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gaze through those panoramic stone windows that vehicles can't stop at. Advance registration ($12) starts at 9 a.m. (MST) on June 26 online at the Zion Natural History Association (ZNHA) website or call (435) 772-0210.
Other NPS sites celebrating their centennial in 2009 include Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico and Navajo National Monument in Arizona.

And here's my shameless self-promotional plug: you can read about these parks in my book Great Destinations: The Four Corners Region: Where Colorado, Utah, Arizona & New Mexico Meet, available from Amazon.

Photo: Zion Canyon (Sara Benson)