Epic Desert Road Trip – Part 1 Reno to the Great Salt Lake

On October 19, 2010 I flew to Reno to meet up with my brother from Hawaii and my Dad who lives in Reno in the summer and Arizona in the winter. Our mission: drive from Reno, NV to Surprise, AZ via Colorado and visit as many National Parks as we could along the way.

We started our epic journey by packing up Dad’s 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. We had a lot of stuff, including two boxes of home-grown tomatoes plus three grown adults to take, but my experience loading vehicles for live animal shows has taught me a thing or two about how to pack!

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Will and Dad and a Packed Monte Carlo

We headed out of Reno on I-80 east, along the Truckee River.

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The Truckee River

We were following much of the Truckee River Route of the California Emigrant Trail. We stopped at a rest area that marked the Forty-Mile Desert.  This part of the trail was described as the most dreaded section of the entire route to California.  We decided to have lunch.  Too bad those emigrants in the mid 1850′s could not have gotten in a time machine to join us.

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Lunch in the Forty-Mile Desert

We continued heading east until we reached Wendover NV.  We spent the night there and in the morning, we toured the historic Wendover Air Base. “Wendover Air Base operated primarily as a training site for the crews of B17, B24 and B29 aircraft, including the Enola Gay and Boxscar, the crews of which were responsible for the first deployment of nuclear weapons over Japan in 1945.” – (Tooele Co Website)

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Wendover Air Base

The Great Salt Lake loomed ahead – and we stopped at one of its shores to explore and have lunch.

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Great Salt Lake

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Caroline examines the Great Salt Lake

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The Great Salt Lake is too salty for most plants and animals to survive, however, there is one famous resident of the salty lake: Sea Monkeys! Sea Monkeys are actually shrimp that are able to exist in salty inland lakes around the world.

No reptiles live in the Great Salt Lake, however, many species of snakes and lizards live in the surrounding desert. Sadly, I found a juvenile gopher snake in the parking lot of the lake’s marina, but it had been squashed by a car.

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Smooshed Gopher Snake

Next Posting…Arches National Park

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Arches National Park

The Hognose Heaven Zone

There is a mysterious area very near to that place which is known as Washington DC. It is an area as vast as about  1 or 2 square miles and as timeless as infinity (or at least a few million years.) It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between city an country.  Journey with us now into this wondrous land. It is an area which we call the: “Hognose Heaven Zone.”

Our story begins with a foursome of herpers, Caroline, Charise, John W and Jon K, hiking to an undisclosed location near Washington DC.   Years before this journey began, former Reptiles Alive Wildlife Educator and Keeper Jeff Stryker discovered  a population of hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes (two awesome snake species that are not very common in the suburbs) living in this strange spot and named the place “Hognose Heaven.”

As the group’s journey began, they spotted their first herps of the day. There were many turtles and frogs living in the wetlands along the trail.

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Nesting eastern painted turtle

Soon, the  group of herpers veered off the main trail onto a little-used trail that led to the heart of Hognose Heaven. They began turning over logs and rocks.  A four-toed salamander was discovered!  The salamander’s creamy white and black spotted belly helped with its identification.

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Four-toed Salamander

After arriving at Hognose Heaven, something very unexpected appeared to materialize out of the rocks, sticks, and leaves – something that even four experienced naturalists could hardly see until they were right on top of it!

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Newborn Fawn

The fawn was only a few hours old. Its camouflage was remarkable! The baby deer was nearly invisible – the perfect survival strategy for a small animal that can not yet walk or run. Its mother was nearby and would return as soon as the coast was clear. Even though the group was in a strange place, it is normal to find fawns alone in the woods without their mother. As soon as the people vanish, the mother deer will come back to care for her fawn.
After observing the baby deer, the group continued searching for snakes. Caroline quickly found the hognose snake’s favorite food item: toads.

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Toad

As Caroline approached John W to inform him of her find, she noticed he was holding something in his hands. Something about 3 feet long, with orange spots on a black body and a pointy, upturned nose. “Hognose! Hognose!” she yelled with joy!

John W and Caroline yelled for Jon K and Charise to come and see the spectacular serpent. When they arrived, however, the snake was acting strange.

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Does this Hog-nosed Snake Need Help?

As the group excitedly discussed the behavior of the hognose snake, the snake in question seemed to miraculously get better!

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It’s a Miracle! (or maybe just a Hognose)

After making his miracle recovery from his apparent death, the snake made his move and slithered back to the safety of his rocky home.

Now, the group needed to make a decision. Continue the search? Or have lunch? Caroline suggested having lunch after a short hike over to a nearby bizarro-world she called: CACTUS ISLAND!
Believe it or not, (believe it), the prickly pear cactus is native to the Washington DC area. Much of its habitat has been lost to urban development, but it can still sometimes be found in certain micro-habitats around our nation’s capital. That day, the cactus was in bloom!

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Prickly Pear Growing Near Washington, DC

Does the story end here? Did they find an eastern milk snake? Did they have a good lunch? Only they know the answer to those questions. Questions from the Hognose Heaven Zone.

Amphibian Action!

After the snowiest winter in Washington’s recorded history, the amphibians have finally made their way to the vernal pools to signal the beginning of spring. They are bit later than usual in this area. Late February is typically when spring peepers, wood frogs, and spotted salamanders make their first appearance in the DC area. This year, due to abnormally harsh winter conditions, they were about two weeks or so behind.

Last Friday night a few of the team members from Reptiles Alive had the special opportunity to visit a wetland area that is usually off-limits to the public. Off limits because it is behind a shooting range! We were invited by master naturalist Greg Zell along with a handful of other professional herpetologists and naturalists.

We met up at dark in the cool rain. Perfect weather. Well, maybe not perfect for humans, but definitely perfect for amphibians! On the road into the park, we discovered our first amphibians of the night – American toads!

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After putting on our rain gear, we crossed the shooting range walking over millions of broken clay targets until we reached the wetlands.  Immediately someone yelled “Spotted!”  Then more shouts were heard, and we realized, we were in the middle of hundreds, possibly thousands of spotted salamanders!  It was AWESOME!  They were everywhere!  Large female salamanders were being surrounded by 5 to 10 males at a time.  Salamanders were almost everywhere you pointed your flashlight, crawling through the mud or swimming like fish in the cold, clear water.  After an hour or so, spermatophores from the males began to fill the water as the ancient amphibian breeding rituals took place. It was the most amazing salamander sight I have ever witnessed.

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We spent a few hours observing them, photographing them and discussing them before we all decided it was time to come in out of the rain and dry off.  A few of us headed to Dogfish Head to warm up and have a late night dinner, but that, is another story…

North Carolina Herptravanganza

Imagine a blond, brunette, and a red-head visit a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. A horror story, adventure, or comedy?

A friend at a local zoo invited us down to his place in the woods for a few days of reptiles and fun on thousands of acres of protected forest.

So, we packed the car with tons of goodies and headed down early in the morning. Our directions were to: “drive down a road until you think no one could possibly live there, then drive a few more miles.”

We turned on a dirt road with his address on the mailbox, and quickly ended up on a dirt road with the word “SNAKES” spray painted on a board lying on the side of the road. I guess we got the right place. Boy, did we! A few minutes up the road we encountered another sign stating the land is protected preserve. Not far from that were some tin on the side of the road for reptiles to hide under.

No reptile fan would ever in their right mind pass up the opportunity to look under tin. We got out of the car fire drill style and ran to the tin. Notin’ Honey. Our real surprise was waiting for us at the end of the road. What a beaut!

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Notice this gorgeous log cabin is run by solar panels? That’s right kids, this baby is completely off the grid! It comes with all the amenities;

  • All hard wood
  • Huge fireplace
  • fridge
  • hot water
  • giant woodburning stove
  • comfy beds
  • dogs
  • tasteful interior decorations

Did I mention it was off the grid?

We did not hang around the house for long, it was time to look for reptiles! We walked outside laughing and talking, but that did not last for long. Serious herping was happening. The first thing you notice about being in the middle of nowhere is the absolute silence pierced only by the song of a bird, an insect, or a rustle in the grass next to the solar panel. Was that a flash of green I just saw? What the … ? Aren’t those guys supposed to occur in Florida?

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I was dazzled, we were in the most northern range of the Carolina Anole! He was gorgeous. We hadn’t even left the front yard. I drooled in anticipation.

Things were gettting serious. Serious relaxation that is.

I have a very exciting job with rooms full of children in sugar induced frenzies and wild life. I love my job. I love the noise, the screaming children, zombied parents and teachers with glazed eyes and stumbling walk, the tortoise with the occasional gas…

my brain needed a bit less stimulus to munch on for a while.

Mark, our gracious host, and I wandered with snake hooks. There were timber rattlesnakes and copperheads around. Mark even mentioned how two rattlesnakes like to sit in the bushes near the bird feeder waiting for rabbits and chipmunks to come in for breakfast. We hoped there would be some use for the hooks today. (We use them to gently scooped up and guide venomous snakes away from us if we find one along the path.)

I was enjoying stories of otters and hawks along our flower scented walk when we found our first group of tin. All of us excitedly began to peak under them. We took turns lifting up a piece while the rest of us squinted in anticipation. Nothing in the first group. We walked up a small hill and soon found a prize.

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A gorgeous representative of its species!

The snake is pretty too.

That is Jennifer holding an eastern kingsnake with our host, Mark looking on. This kingsnake is something I would call an intergrade. That is; a mix two subspecies. The snake has characteristics of both the Florida kingsnake and the eastern kingsnake. See the chains of yellow up his side?

Mark tells us that many of animals found in this part of North Carolina are a mix of the northern and southern versions of the species. They are the best of both worlds. How cool!

If you look closely, you may be able to see that this kingsnake is missing its entire tail! It is likely that a hawk or some other animal got a hold of it and bit it off. The snake got away, but not without missing a few parts. Poor guy!

In a little wetland area, we met a cute little critter of the slimy variety. Isn’t he a cutie

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Flowers were blooming everywhere. We walked over footbridges, across streams, meadows, and through grass. After crossing the same stream several times, we all stopped. “What smells like strawberry banana smoothie?” A native plant with tiny flowers all over it? Boy, do we have some fascinating plants in the States.

“Quick Caroline!”

“I see it!”

“I think it just ran under that log.”

He found a much better hiding place.

“Is it okay to come out now?”

“Time for me to make my getaway while no one is looking.”

That was one cute skink.

We decided to walk to Mark’s closest neighbors place to check out a yurt they were building next to some very nice ponds. I have never heard of a yurt before. I found out that it was a round house with a domed ceiling and a hole in the top for a chimney, or in this case, a skylight.

I was amazed at the amount of space the building had.

This building was to be completely off the grid as well. Three cheers for green living!

Past the house in progress and up the hill was the one thing that all hikers in the south fear! Watch what happens when I lightly tap the sandy area with my snake hook

Stay away from that ant mound. They look small, but they are fast and fierce!

Next, it was time to check out an old barn in the middle of a field that fell down. Boards were everywhere. For the first time for all of us, we found the elusive cornsnake!

Why is this snake considered hard to find. Believe it or not, its people! One of the reasons for the snakes declining population is collection for the pet trade. There are many people who like snakes, but please Leave them in the Wild where they Belong! The main reason these snakes are disappearing is likely just the presence of people. We are building houses where animals used to live, and bulldozing over and killing thousands of animals. Cornsnakes do not occur in the Washington DC area because of this. Check your field guide however, and it will list the snake as occurring in the region. Sad. Hopefully little guys like this wild animal will make a comeback and continue doing its job eating mice!

We had a wonderful day herping. Now it was time to light a fire and cook some fajitas. I think Caroline was so excited about finding the corn snake she fell asleep on the couch first. Gradually we all staggered up the blue spiral staircase into our warm and cozy beds.

What an adventure!