ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NAT’L MONUMENT—a rare beauty is found

I’ve got to admit, when it comes to our preference in choice destinations, a desert setting wouldn’t be the first on our list.  Maybe not even second.  But easily a strong third.  Yet now that we’ve been exposed to a variety of arid, cactus-filled, barren regions, those deserts kind of began to grow on us.  To say we’re developing an appreciation of them in all their different varieties and moods might not be too far off the mark either.

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Cholla Cactus catch the last rays of the sun—they’re pretty, but don’t get too close!

Maybe a desert landscape will never supplant a mountainous one in our heart of hearts, but still we’re finding an enjoyment in our hikes through them, and desert camping isn’t so bad either.  There’s something about first sights can be deceiving.  Take time to look closer . . . a second glance might make a difference.

4-5diii-3625-edit-xEarly desert mornings often start with brilliant colors.  And that’s the mantra that I use for motivation to leave a warm bed in the predawn darkness of a day.

4-5diii-3467xIn truth, a desert sunset can easily hold its own with any other—and generally they’re not as rare.  Much easier to witness, you just need to be out-of-doors.  Sit back, just wait, bring along some friends, and soon the show begins.  Not a better way to close down your day.  A desert certainly has its assets.

(But we could do without those colder nights and the bouts of strong winds that have a way of cropping up.)

4-5diiisd-3564xStill on our way west, we left the Tucson area behind, but we weren’t done with the Sonoran Desert.  It wasn’t long before we diverged from Interstate 10, taking a lonely road to the southwest, driving through some more of that wide open empty territory we’d become accustomed to.  A couple of monotonous hours later we turned due south, heading directly for the Mexican border.

A loooong stretch of road through a never-changing land filled with saguaro, it makes for quite a hypnotic driving experience.

A loooong stretch of road through a never-changing land filled with saguaro, it makes for quite a hypnotic driving experience.

4-6d-3341xA couple of border checks later, we were pulling into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Another first for us.

4-g16-6318xKnown as the Green Desert, we quickly observed that the park is filled with giant saguaros, chollas, and ocotillos, to name just a few.  But where oh where was its namesake to be seen???  As the miles clicked by we hadn’t come across any.

4-6d-3323xSmall by national park standards, the monument is slightly over 500 square miles in size.  Set aside in 1937 to preserve and protect a pristine example of Sonoran Desert habitat, the park is located virtually on the Mexican border.  Much more than an endless stretch of desert landscape, mountain ranges rise up both to the east and west as you make your way south through the park.  But where was the elusive Organ Pipe cactus???

4-g16-6301xBefore the day could get away from us, we quickly set up camp and then headed out on our quest.  We were determined to lay eyes on that evasive (and apparently extremely rare) Organ Pipe cactus!

4-5diii-3447xTwo scenic roads wind through the park, both having loops that encompass mountain ranges.  We made the choice to try a segment of the 37-mile long Puerto Blanco Drive.  Undoubtedly, we soon discovered, one of the most scenic roads in Arizona, it travels deep into the unspoilt backcountry. Crossing cactus plains and traversing mountain foothills, it encircles the Puerto Blanco Mountains.  Besides the varied plants of the Sonoran Desert, the drive passes close to old mines, springs, historic sites and a tree-lined oasis, giving access to several hiking trails.  With most of the route a one-way drive, only the first 5 and last 13 miles of the loop are two-way.  With sunset  a mere hour or so away, we only drove that first 5 miles of the route.  Scenic as it was, alas, no organ pipe cactus was to be seen.

4-6d-3324xHow can this be, we asked.  The park’s namesake and yet so well-hidden??? More determined than ever, we (okay, maybe just myself) weren’t heading back to camp as defeated dogs.  There HAD to be one somewhere nearby.  And that’s when I had my epiphany .  .  .  the Visitor’s Center, of course!

4-g16-6332xAlthough closed for the day, the Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open most days (except federal holidays) in the winter months.  Typical of many national park centers, a short nature trail showcasing a microcosm of plants found in the park makes a simple, scenic loop through a garden environment.  Maybe not exactly “out in the wild”, still I had found the prize. And she was a beauty!  Now I could return home as a happy camper this night.

This was just the start!

Mornings in the desert can be a sweet thing . . . and most of them are!  With the rising sun, the air is cool (not cold!), refreshing and yes, there’s a purity about it too.  Just the way we like to begin our day . . . a short walk with a warm drink in hand, greeting other early risers.  You just can’t help but smile.

But if camping is your modus operandi, take note!  Twin Peaks Campground has only first-come, first-served sites.  With 208 no-hookup sites, a large number of those are in a no-generator area.  Nevertheless, you’ll find most sites, all with paved pads, nicely spaced apart, with desert plants and landscaping to fill in between.  A very pleasant setting and a wonderful place to stay.

4-g16-6330x4-g16-6306There’s more to interest park visitors than the natural features of Organ Pipe Cactus.  The prevalence of border crossings and illegal immigration was an interest we couldn’t resist.  Although Arizona has more than its fair share of immigration checks and border inspections, perhaps none is more convenient than the one on the park’s southern boundary.  Lukeville, Arizona, only about 4 miles from the Visitor Center, was first on our list today.  Chris was especially eager.

I’ve got to admit, it was surely an eye-opener to see what actually exists.  In fact, it was a little unbelievable.  First off, here at Lukeville, it’s a fence, not a wall.

4-g16-6309Maybe a wall should be built? It was certainly food for thought.

Extending a mere 3.5 miles on either side of Lukeville, it is 16 feet high, designed to prevent pedestrians from crossing over.

Chris didn’t see it as much of an obstacle.  Give him a little time and he’d be over in a jiff.  Better yet, he said, a pair of wire cutters would prove more convenient.

Maybe a wall should be built? It was certainly food for thought.

Occasionally we saw an official border crossing guard come driving along the perimeter.  I guess nothing will get past them.

4-jcw-5108Unless you made the effort to follow the fence to its terminus, that is.  There you’d find the ‘fence’ became only a ‘vehicle barrier’.  And suddenly, crossing over just became a whole lot easier.

4-jcw-5110xToo easy, we thought.  Maybe there were cameras nearby?  Or drones, perhaps?

No one ever came to check us out, so no foul no harm, I guess.

4-g16-6316We hung around for the ranger talk shortly thereafter.  She filled us in on some statistical facts, as well as a sad story about the murder of a park ranger shot by illegal criminals crossing over the border.

For sure, it’s another world down there on the border.

We filled our time here easily .  .  .  with hikes and drives and a trip to a nearby town.  When it came to getting the most bang for our bucks, it was the Ajo Mountain Drive that topped the list.  If you want to catch the whole essence of this place (and see more than a couple lonely Organ Pipe cacti), this is the scenic drive to take!

From the start, the scenery offers promise of good things to come.

From the start, the scenery offers promise of good things to come.

A narrow, one-way unpaved road heads towards the foothills of the Ajo Range, the high, rocky ridge which forms the eastern boundary of the preserve.  Although only 21 miles in length, the rutted, sometimes washboardy route that has its fair share of twists and turns, can take more than a couple hours to drive.  Add more time to stop and take some pictures, or maybe hike one of the trails along the way.

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The scenery is simply magnificent, with extensive cactus plains separated by imposing volcanic mountains striated in rainbow hues.

Soon enough, you won’t have to wait long, the organ pipe cacti begin to make their appearance.  A few at first, of varying size . . . but then, just wait!

4-5diii-3460xAlong the road, you can’t miss the granddaddy of them all!  More than a few photos have been taken from this spot, I’m sure.  We were no exception.  Aptly named, we were suitably impressed.

4-5diii-3454xRarely found in our country, but common in Mexico, the plant is predominantly found up to 3,000 feet in elevation on rocky hillsides where it can absorb the most sun.  Very sensitive to cold (a hard frost could kill it), it is rarely found in low desert areas.  The plant is slow growing, taking 150 years to reach maturity.  When fully developed, it can reach a width of 12 feet and a height of 15 feet.  The older plants eventually produce white flowers which are open at night and close in the morning light, being pollinated by bats.  The national monument protects the vast majority of the organ pipe cacti in our country.

4-5diiisd-3541Take this drive in mid-afternoon and watch the warm light of day bathe the scenery in a golden glow.  Rock formations have their muted colors enhanced, compelling you to stop for a lingering look.

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Arch Canyon Trail leads up a canyon towards a pair of natural arches in the volcanic rock.

And the hard edges of desert scenery soften in the pastel light of early evening.

4-5diii-3437Don’t be in a rush to leave the desert behind as darkness settles over the landscape.  In the last rays of light when the sun disappears, that’s when you can see a whole different picture. And maybe, just maybe, develop a whole new admiration for something you never saw an attraction for.

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4-5diiisd-3549With newfound appreciation for desert scenery.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

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Posted in California, Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument | 4 Comments

AFTER BIG BEND—White Sands and Good Friends

In the relative distances of the Southwest, the 360-mile drive to Las Cruces was a mere hop, skip and jump from where we were camped on the western fringe of Big Bend.  By mid-afternoon, after an uneventful drive through long, empty stretches of desolation, mountain peaks once again appeared through the distant haze and as we entered the town of Las Cruces the scenery had begun to pique our interest.

Lying in the heart of the Mesilla Valley, Las Cruces (the second largest city in New Mexico with a population of just over 100,000), is ringed with several groups of mountains.  It is however, the Organ Mountains to the east, with their distinctive profile of jagged “needles”, that dominate the city.  And when the setting sun gives them that occasional warm glow, then you’ll know what’s so special about Las Cruces’ attributes.

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photo credit: Wikipedia

Our 3-day stay wouldn’t be enough time for all the activities we’d planned to do.  First up were the necessities—food supplies and clean clothes and linens.  After 8 days of basically primitive camping, a re-stocked refrigerator and clean sheets wouldn’t be taken for granted.  Secondly was the big attraction just a short drive north of the city.  A day spent at White Sands National Monument would add another notch to my list of national parks and monuments bagged.  When the necessities of life were wrapped up, we headed out!

To get there you must cover a whole lot of flat, empty land.  All owned by our federal government and the largest employer in the town of Las Cruces, the national monument is pretty much surrounded and overwhelmed by the White Sands Missile Range and Testing Grounds.  Nevertheless, the scenery doesn’t begin to change until just a few miles from the monument’s entrance gate.  That’s when you notice the muddy-colored dirt has changed to a dazzling white (more so when the sun is out), and mountains begin to take shape on the horizon.  White Sands National Monument contains about half of all this type of sand within its boundaries.

3-6d-3300White Sands almost became a national park as far back as 1898.  A grass-root group in El Paso had proposed the creation of “Mescalero”  (named after a group of native Apache living in the area around 1850) National Park.  It was not successful when it was discovered that the local group saw the proposed area as a great place for a game hunting preserve.   Conflicting with the conservation policy held by the Department of the Interior, their plan was not successful.  In 1921 the owner of a large. local ranch who also happened to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior at the time, promoted the idea of the area being designated a national park, an “All-Year National Park”, usable year-round.  This idea did not succeed, due to many difficulties.  Later, an insurance agent from a nearby town was influenced by these proposals and mobilized support for the park’s creation by emphasizing the economic benefits.  Due to his “taking up the banner”, the park was created as a national monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, made official by President Herbert Hoover in the early days of January 1933.

3-5diii-3402White Sands National Monument is a wonderfully unique place. The white sand dunes that make up the park are thousands of years old, made up of a substance rarely found in sand—gypsum.   Gypsum is water soluble, meaning that rain usually dissolves it, eventually carrying it to  the sea. However, since the monument is located in the Tularosa Basin and is surrounded by mountains, there is nowhere for the rain water to take the gypsum. The water dissolves and leaves the gypsum behind, creating fields of white sand dunes.

3-g16-6202The trick is to arrive at the monument early in the day.  The incentive is to find pristine sand . . . after the winds have made patterns and before the visitors have left their tracks all around.  With few designated trails, people are allowed to proceed where they wish.  By the end of each day, a myriad of footprints can be seen running hither and yon.

Wind and rainfall leave behind a wide variety of patterns and designs in the landscape.

Wind and rainfall leave behind a wide variety of patterns and designs in the landscape.

The white sands dunefield is an active, dynamic dunefield.  Slowly but relentlessly the sand, driven by strong southwest winds, covers everything in its path.  The dunes move from west to east as much as 30 feet per year.

3-5diii-3413Walking through the dunes is an unforgettable experience; often there are no other footprints ahead, just wind-created ripples and occasional lizard tracks. When daylight begins to fade after a sunny day, the sands take on a reddish-pink hue, and the surface patterns become more pronounced as the shadows lengthen. An overwhelming sense of peace and stillness descends, and when the sun finally dips below the distant San Andres Mountains, for a few minutes the land is bathed in a mysterious light, as the sands themselves seem to glow while the horizon on all sides becomes dark.

3-5diii-3411These ethereal dunes are one of the earth’s natural wonders.  The experience you’ll have here can be unforgettable, leaving an indelible image in your mind’s eye.  White Sands is a exquisite example of why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.

To make the most out of this place from a photographic standpoint, try reading this tutorial for some great suggestions.

3-g16-6209The secret to getting the most out of White Sands National Monument is to be here at the golden hours, either just before sunrise or around sunset times.  As the colors in the sky take on their most colorful hues, the dazzling white sands capture some of that color.  It is simply the most magical time here at the monument.

3-5diii-3423x3-southwest-1290And then, too soon (we never did make it in to those Organ Mountains!), we were back on the road.  Next stop, Oro Valley .  .  .  a small town on the northwest side of Tucson.  A major destination on our winter excursion two years ago, this area had plenty to offer and wasn’t easily forgotten .  .  .  not the least of which were two good friends, Mike and Barbie Tupper.

Not that I care to divulge the scoops on one of our favorite campgrounds, but if you can keep it “under your hats”, Catalina State Park has a lot going for it if you’re lucky enough to snag a camping site.  Located in the shadow of the towering Catalina Mountains, the park has great hiking trails (some leading up to the higher peaks), fabulous views, good shopping options (Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy) just across the street, great grocery stores and restaurants only 5-15 minutes away) and the piece de resistance (IMHO) a dedicated paved bike trail awaits at the entrance to the park, connecting you up with miles and miles of wonderful biking opportunities.  It’s really by far the best camping option you’ll find for miles and miles, the only campground we’ve found in this part of Tucson.  And, as if we weren’t already joyous to be starting a full two-week stay here, our first evening in camp put on a real welcoming show!

3-g16-6212As you can see, while not overly private with bushy vegetation, the sites are nicely spread out for an open, spacious feel.  With 140 sites to choose from between two separate loops, the pads are all paved and have both back-ins and pull-throughs.  No wonder it’s such a popular place (make your reservations ASAP).

From every site you’ll have some view of the Catalinas—so in-your-face, they dominate the view—but those sites on the outside loop will give you the best sight, as well as easy access to some trails.  Late afternoon had us preparing for the show .  .  .  a fairly predictable and reliable event.  As shadows lengthened and warm afternoon temperatures cooled, we’d light up our propane firepit, add some extra layers of clothing and settle in for the nightly event. It never ceased to amaze us.

Skies on fire . . . Arizona has some spectacularly winning sunsets.

Skies on fire . . . Arizona has some spectacularly winning sunsets.

The greater Tucson area has much to offer from a diversity of venues.  Literally, there’s something for everyone.  For us, it’s all about nature and the outdoors and being active.  When weather is never a hindrance to such pastimes, you’ll easily fill each day to the brim.  Having friends that share the same interests, we never lacked for things to do.  In fact, two weeks was not enough time and much was left undone.  Well, that’s one way to guarantee a return visit.

The occasional morning bird walks in the park were always on Chris’ list of must-dos.  Mike, who also had a mutual interest, always joined in, returning with some fabulous bird photos.  A real pro when it comes to capturing birds in their natural settings, Mike has accumulated a huge portfolio of bird images.

3-mt-4236Photo Credit:  Mike Tupper

If you’d care to sit back a few minutes to take a gander at more of his great bird portraits, check out his Flickr account here.

Trails in the park were as good as they come—and most convenient to boot.  But just down the road, a short drive away, was the little-known Linda Vista Trail.  Climbing the lower flanks of the Catalinas, the desert scenery just never got boring.

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A fine afternoon to be enjoyed with good friends!

The Tucson area is just packed with interesting places and all kinds of activities to do.  Winter days are usually mild and invariably sunny—what more could you ask when heading out to explore?  True, it’s a Snowbird Hotspot, but generally people spread around to all the various attractions and crowds don’t seem to gather.  Maybe the Sonoran Desert Museum would be an exception to that statement.

3-mt_harrishawk3Go early .  .  .  stay all day .  .  .  take your time .  .  .  it really is one of the best venues in all of Tucson.  The term “museum” might be misleading—this is no boring, indoor activity.  85% of everything this museum offers will be experienced out-of-doors.  Paths to follow, desert gardens to explore, wildlife living within very natural enclosures and live animal presentations are the main features of th3-mt_harrishawk2is place.  Two good restaurants to choose from will help to restore your energy and prolong your visit.  But if you do come, in all certainty PLEASE—don’t forget to attend the Raptor Free Flight!!  Talk about a wild bird encounter—this show will give you a thrill (besides teaching you some interesting facts about birds of prey).  Undoubtedly, the stars of this presentation have to be the Harris’s Hawks.  Magnificent creatures that will fly and soar and swoop and dive and pose for your pleasure in their native desert habitat.  Two shows a day—if you come, make sure to attend!

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Once again, it’s Mike’s photos that captured these great birds.

 

 

 

If you haven’t had your fill of wildlife and such, the Tucson Zoo at Reid Park is a fine place to spend an afternoon or longer.  Not an overwhelmingly huge place to explore, it is smartly divided into 3 or 4 sections, making it easy to navigate through.  There’s plenty of information provided about each of the individual animals, and plenty of opportunities to capture some pretty good candid photos.  Mix that in with a sunny day that just feels great to be outdoors, and you’ve got yourself another perfect excursion.

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Yet again, Mike took all these photos.

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And then you can cross another good day off of your time in Tucson.

Many more days filled our time here around Oro Valley.  If a trip to this area is in your future, you won’t go wrong spending some time in these places I’ve mentioned.

You should already know once arriving in Tucson, you’re in the land of the saguaro.  But that knowledge really hits home when y3-g16-6285ou make a visit to Saguaro National Park.  Separated into two distinct districts, one east and the other west of Tucson, they each have their own personalities.  But the common denominator remains the saguaro . . . and this park is the place to learn all about it.

Famous for their incredibly large stature, these dignified members of the cacti family cover hillsides, rocky terrain, mountain peaks .  .  . stretching out as far as the eye can see.  At least they do in this awesome national park.  A visit here should be a requisite for anyone staying for any length of time in southwest Arizona.

Just 25 miles or so north of Oro Valley you’ll find the small, but very worthwhile Oracle State Park.  For 75 years a ranching family owned the property that now comprises the park, handed over to the state in 1976.  Thanks to the Kannally family, this gorgeous plot of land lying on the north side of the Catalina Mountains offers more open spaces to explore and enjoy.

3-g16-62633-g16-6249If you care to learn about the family’s life here in a remote desert area, their home, built between 1929 and 1933, is open for free tours.  It’s a delightful mix of Mediterranean and Moorish styles surrounded by inviting terraced gardens lovingly kept up by local volunteers.

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A good ending to your time spent here is to hike a couple of their trails.  After a great lunch at the Patio Cafe in the nearby town of Oracle (highly recommended), you’ll be inclined as we were, to walk off all those calories on a wind-swept hilly trail that led through a maze of bouldered mounds.  Good views . . . interesting formations . . .  great exercise!

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And another superb outing comes to an end.

Thanks Mike,

for capturing the essence of that day!

All good things too soon end .  .  .  and so it was with us.  With more unexplored territory before us, more trails and places yet to find, it was time to hit that lonesome highway.  So move on we must (and interestingly, on one overcast, uncharacteristically cloudy day).  But something is telling us, we’ll be dropping in again.

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Thanks, Barbie and Mike,

for sharing great times

and some good eating too!

Airstream Travelers,

Mindy & Chris

Posted in Arizona, Catalina State Park | Leave a comment

BIG BEND, Part 2—Deep in the Heart of (West) Texas

Big Bend keeps most of her treasures tucked away.  Unlike many of our national parks, especially those found in the West, where natural attributes tend to confront visitors head on, Big Bend compels its visitors to go looking for its special places, the scenic rewards.  Not much, aside from the Chisos, are exposed out in the open.  Therein, I learned the park’s message.  To have a meaningful stay, visitors must go out and make a serious effort.  In contrast to the typical national park tourist, you’ll need to go more than a few hundred feet from the roads.  When you do your exploring at the cusp of the day, you’ll be sure to get more bang for your buck.  And that is exactly the strategy I followed, as I sought to find the natural elements to invigorate my connection to this land. A good starting point was up in the Chisos Basin.  I can rely on mountain peaks to touch something deep within me.

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Early mornings tend to put mountains in their best light.

A huge, angular range of cliffs and rock peaks, the Chisos are the southernmost mountain range in the continental U.S. and the only range to be contained completely within a national park’s boundaries.  Born of volcanic fire, they were shaped by the forces of erosion, sedimentary rocks exposing the harder igneous intrusions beneath.  Completely surrounded by hot desert lowlands, the mountains are going through a long process of recovery—from logging and over grazing.

2x-6d-3239Surrounded by craggy peaks, four of which exceed 7,000 feet, the Chisos Basin is a huge forested depression within the heart of this range.  Lying at an elevation of 5,400 feet, the Basin is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.

2x-5diii-3333There is only one place where the ring of mountains has a break .  .  .  only one place where water collected from precipitation can flow out of the basin.  Cutting a deep V in that rocky barrier, a seasonal stream has carved through rock, creating Oak Creek Canyon; and at its terminus, hikers will reach what has been called the Pouroff.  Rocks worn slick as glass from cascading water and cliffs towering high above your heads makes the Window Trail the most popular hiking trail in the Chisos Mountains.

After following the trail through an open arid landscape, the closer you come to those cliffs, the more interesting the trail becomes.  The usually dry streambed leads you into an increasingly deep and overgrown canyon as you make your way to the “V” in the rocks.

Never boring, this trail has something for everyone—except for flowing water in the dry months.

Never boring, this trail has something for everyone—except for flowing water in the
dry months.

The panoramic view from this high vantage point is spectacular.

The panoramic view from this high vantage point
is spectacular.

The trail winds through a sheer-walled, slot-like canyon.

The trail winds through a sheer-walled, slot-like canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Framed by vertical cliffs, the lower end of the canyon contains several small pools of collected water as well as a succession of water-polished rocks.  The final drop-off is a doozie—more than 2,000 feet straight down.

Headed towards the end of the trail that leads to the Pouroff, Chris gives a sense of scale to the height of the canyon walls.

Headed towards the end of the trail that leads to the Pouroff, Chris gives a sense of scale to the height of the canyon walls.

Inspired by our experience in the Basin, we headed back to our camp on the eastern edge of the park.  Better weather conditions give me hope . . . more trails await.

2x-g16-6036The Old Ore Road was first utilized in the early 1900s to transport ore from Mexican mines to the railroad station north of today’s park boundary.  A rough dirt “track”, the route was forged by mules and pack trains a century ago.  Today it leads to one of the park’s “hidden” attractions—for those who dare venture across an unforgiving desert landscape (high clearance vehicles recommended).

2x-g16-6043One thing’s for certain when it comes to hiking in Big Bend . . . you can’t avoid walking through sandy washes (dry streambeds).  They’re everywhere, and generally provide the most unencumbered route to your destination.  They’re just not the easiest pathway to trod through.  The Ernst Tinaja Trail was no exception—at least the initial mile or so.

But you soon learn the effort expended was worthwhile.  Entering a canyon lined with layers of colorful sculpted rock, the trail leads to an oasis that is one of the few places in the park that always contains water.

In Spanish, a tinaja is a large, earthenware jar which is descriptive of Ernst Tinaja, appearing to be a deep hole hollowed out of the limestone canyon floor.

2x-5diii-3095It’s the convoluted rock layers lining the canyon that really are the highlight of this trail.  Like layers of a delicious cake in all shades of pastel hues, it’s a great place to sit awhile, take in the whole effect and just marvel at the wonders that nature manages to create.

And it’s here in the backcountry of Big Bend.

2x-5diii-3092Another natural wonder can be found on the east side of the park .  .  .  and it’s slightly more accessible, probably due to the popularity of what it has to offer.

Over 100 years ago (1909 to be exact) an optimistic (some might’ve called him foolhardy) guy by the name of J.O. Langford made his way from Mississippi to this southernmost area of Big Bend.  Actually, the banks of the Rio Grande wasn’t initially his destination, but rather he had just struck out with his—take note—pregnant wife, as well as 18-month old child, seeking to improve his health.  Over the years, malaria had taken a heavy toil on his body and like many people of that day, he thought the drier climate would improve his life.  During a stay in an Alpine, Texas hotel, he first learned about the curative waters of a hot spring near the Mexican border.  Even after being told there was “nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans”, he went to the county surveyor’s office and filed his claim under the Homestead Act, sight of the hot springs unseen.

It took 11 days to reach their new home (people were tougher back then, you know—or they died prematurely).  Upon arrival, the Langfords discovered a Mexican family with 10 children already living on the land.  Instead of evicting the “squatters”, Langford allowed them to remain.  They became the best neighbors anyone could have asked for.

His home was well-built, as is evidenced even today.

His home was well-built, as is evidenced even today.

After a 21-day treatment of bathing and drinking the spring water, J.O. regained his health.  Convinced of its curative powers, he set about building a permanent dwelling for his family.  Then he opened the springs to other bathers.  He charged 10 cents a day, or $2 for the whole 21-day treatment.  In addition to running the bathhouse, he became a schoolteacher, a self-taught doctor, and a postman.  Besides the bath house, there was a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins rented for $1.25/night.

His post office/store was also well-built, operated as a concession by the park until 1952.

His post office/store was also well-built, operated as a concession by the park until 1952.

In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs are still open to the public and the foundation of the bath house can be seen.  It is one of the most popular locations in the park.

The row of motel-like rooms had cozy interiors—each with a wood-burning, stone fireplace, stone flooring and a hand-painted wall, each unique in their depiction of various scenes from life in the southwest.

2x-g16-60192x-g16-6024A short trail leads to the hot springs, a small, concrete-enclosed, shallow bathing area.  Flowing at a rate of 250,000 gallons each day, the 105-degree mineral water overflows into the much cooler Rio Grande.  In early morning, as steam rises into the air, chances are you’ll have the place to yourself.  Otherwise, it’ll be every man and woman for themselves and the little pool can become jam-packed.

From my point of view the real treat lies further along that hot springs trail.  After following the riverbank for awhile, the path takes a turn and heads uphill.  High above and directly below that same hot spring, is one of the iconic views of the Rio Grande.  So perfect, in fact, that I would be taking this trail one more time . .  . at sunrise the following morning—by now you should know that’s my customary time.

2x-5diii-3139-hdrAnd that’s just some of what you’ll find on Big Bend’s eastern side.  The west side has its own unique places.

Starting with the semi-ghost town of Terlingua.

Only one campground is found on the western side of the park—Cottonwood, having primitive, smallish sites with no hookups or generators permitted—there are a couple of private RV resorts not far from the park’s entrance.  The town of Terlingua being the hub (of sorts).

2x-g16-6098This town has seen better days.  Some folks might call it quaint or quirky.  Others see it as an artsy place.  Asking me, I’d say it definitely has the look of a place forgotten by time .  .  .  but still hanging on by tooth and nail.

2x-g16-6112The discovery of cinnabar – from which the metal mercury is extracted – in the mid-1880s, drew miners to the area, creating a city of 2,000 people.  Cinnabar was apparently known to the Native Americans, who prized its brilliant red color for body pigment and pictographs.  Various Mexican and American prospectors reportedly found cinnabar at Terlingua in the 1880s, but the remoteness and hostile Indians discouraged mining.  A man named Jack Dawson reportedly produced the first mercury at Terlingua in 1888, but the district got off to a slow start.  It was not until the mid-1890s that the Terlingua finds began to be publicized in newspapers and mining industry magazines.  By 1900, there were four mining companies operating at Terlingua.

Cinnabar production had peaked during the first World War and by the start of the second World War the Chisos Mining Company had filed for bankruptcy and the miners began to trickle out. By the end of the war it was a bonafide ghost town.  Now, the only remnants of the mining days are a ghost town of the Howard Perry-owned Chisos Mining Company and several nearby capped and abandoned mines.

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I’m sure real estate around here goes for bottom dollar.  On the other hand, there’s some great “fixer-uppers”.

2x-g16-6110In the 1960s, however, people began returning to Terlingua. In 1967 the world’s first Chili Cook-Off was held here, and thus Terlingua gave birth to the now famous event.  It put the town on the map.  Among the founders of the first chili cook-off in 1967 was car manufacturer Carroll Shelby (of the famed Carroll Shelby Chili Mix), 2x-g16-6093who owned a 220,000-acre ranch nearby.  On the first Saturday of November, over 10,000 “chiliheads” convene in Terlingua for two annual chili cook-offs: the Chili Appreciation Society International and the World Chili Championships.

The current citizens represent a diverse brand of individuals.  They are a collection of loners, artists, eccentrics, and outcasts – maligned 2x-g16-60942x-g16-6101individualists who have fashioned their own crude American Dream in the anonymity of this remote corner of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The only B&B we found in town, we can attest to its good food and pleasant ambiance.

We found it fascinating to wander around the old cemetery. All of the deceased had been Mexicans, it seems, and the style of the cemetery was distinctly Mexican. There are all kinds of headstones and graves in the cemetery. Many graves are marked with a simple wooden cross. But some are quite elaborate. Many of them have a small stone shrine that shelters trinkets of various kinds.

2x-g16-61002x-g16-6097Housed in the old company store of the Chisos Mining Company, The Terlingua Trading Company is the spiritual descendant of the old Trading Post operated by Rex Ivey for the trappers, settlers, and cowboys along the Rio Grande. His son, Bill Ivey, and his family, carry on the tradition as the owners and proprietors.

And so it goes in Terlingua.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0062.JPGOnce on the park’s west side, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road gives easy access to most all that area’s interesting sights.  Maxwell served as Big Bend’s first superintendent, from the park’s inception through 1952.  When he began serving in July of 1945, he supervised 4 employees and had an annual budget of $15,000.  At that time, the park had no paved roads, no electricity, and the nearest telephone was 100 miles away.  While superintendent, Maxwell laid out the route of the road today named in his honor to highlight the more spectacular geologic features on the west side of the park.

The 30-mile paved road showcases some of the more noteworthy historic and geologic features of Big Bend.  With the drive providing easy access, we spent a solid three days taking in some of the highlights.

From historic ranches nearly hidden by the overgrowth,

From historic ranches nearly hidden by the overgrowth,

 .  .  .  to eye-catching landscape scenes.

. . . to eye-catching landscape scenes.

2x-6d-32872x-g16-60922x-g16-6007Several hiking routes in a variety of lengths have their trailheads along the drive.  We can highly recommend the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff.

Following one of those ubiquitous dry washes, the trail leads to the base of colorful cliffs that make up Burro Mesa.  One of those special places that you truly need to see in person, the hike takes you into a hidden box canyon where a high, dry waterfall is waiting.  Desert wash plants and magnificent geology surround you in this worthwhile roadside stop.

2x-g16-60802x-g16-6082When the water flows, it must be a magnificent sight.  It was pretty awesome even as dry as a bone.

The piece de resistance awaits at the end of this scenic drive.  As I wrote in Part One of my Big Bend post, the Rio Grande passes through three major canyons on its passage through the park.  Mariscal Canyon is difficult to reach, requiring a drive on a rough dirt track several long miles to see it.  Boquillas Canyon, on the park’s eastern border, is easy to get to via a paved park road and a short hiking trail, but only the mouth of the canyon can be seen.  Further exploration is not possible with steep rocky walls dropping down to the river.

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A beautiful sight, but that’s as far as you can go.

Santa Elena Canyon is a whole different story.  It is the most impressive geological feature along the Rio Grande, a 1500-foot gash that runs for eight miles in the uplift that forms the Sierra Ponce Mountains. When the light is just right (no, we were there too late in the day) and the river not to high (sorry, water flow was at one of its higher levels), one can get great photos at the mouth of this canyon.  Yet it wouldn’t be a total waste of our time; this canyon has a pathway leading in.  Some benefits could be salvaged from our efforts.

2x-g16-6120After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail climbs several short switchbacks and then gradually descends along the banks of the Rio Grande. Hikers are surrounded by lush riparian vegetation and 1,500-foot towering vertical cliffs of solid limestone.

This trail follows the bank of the Rio Grande as it cuts through the Mesa De Anguila. It’s a short hike, but the stunning views in the canyon make it one of the top attractions of Big Bend.

2x-g16-6118If you time your hike in the late afternoon, you’ll find warm light bouncing off the inner canyon walls, illuminating the usual pea-soup green river.  Dropping down to water level amidst clumps of trees and bushes, it’s a place to stop and savor in this magical time of day.  Don’t miss it if you come!

2x-5diii-32872x-5diii-3298Timing can be everything (or, it can be a bust).  In our choice of timing this drive, more opportune moments were waiting as we retraced our route back as the day was winding down.

Every path and route taken in reverse will appear in a totally different way—that surely held true for our return trip.  The extra bonus was the reality that most significant landforms were to be found on the east side of  the road.  Let the afternoon light shine on!2x-6d-3266Otherwise dull and lifeless rocks can shine with an unbelievable inner glow given the perfect time and angle of light.

2x-5diii-3241And impressive sights such as Cerro Castellan, rising more than 3,000 feet above the desert floor, will seem to explode in brilliant boldness.  A sight like this surely had my photographic juices flowing.

2x-5diii-3285If the fates are smiling and your stars are aligned, you might just be around to witness the last great light of the day.  In Big Bend, more often than not, you can count on having a show such as this.

2x-5diii-33672x-5diii-3313Big Bend might have gotten off to a slow start for us, but the park closed out with a climax.  The sights we saw, the trails we took, the whole story of this place left us with some indelible images . . . both in photographs and memories.  Not a place to zoom through (that would never be worth the effort), but rather to give more than a few days within its borders.  But isn’t that the way it should be in places so vast and varied as Big Bend?

2x-5diii-3099And don’t forget the golden light of day can make all the difference.

2x-g16-6068Heading on to more adventures,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

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Posted in Big Bend Nat'l Park, Texas | 2 Comments

BIG BEND NAT’L PARK—Headed toward the ends of the Earth

“This looks like the very edge of the world.”                            ~Lady Bird Johnson

“Visitors to Big Bend don’t just happen by and decide to drop in,”  said a young Ranger during a recent presentation we were attending.  “People who come to this park REALLY want to be here.”  No truer words were spoken.  Talk about being off the beaten path!  Headed west on Interstate 10, you hang a left at the farming community of Fort Stockton, Texas and then drive a mere 100 miles or so across some of the starkest landscape in our country JUST to arrive at the park’s entrance gate.  But, you’re really not there yet .  .  .  things don’t start to get interesting for another 25 miles or so. Yes, Big Bend is truly an isolated national park.

2-6d-3207xNevertheless, your heart might tend to beat a little faster once you pass the Persimmon Gap Entrance.  Maybe it’s relief you’re feeling—“Finally, we made it SOMEWHERE!”  you say enthusiastically.  Of course, the caveat to your exclamation is that somewhere is actually a wilderness.  Don’t expect much in the way of services or creature comforts here.  You’ll be staying in a remote and isolated location where wild animals, desert lizards and creepy crawlers far outnumber humans.  If you don’t mind that aspect, then you’re going to love it here!

Headed down the Main Park Road the landscape slowly begins to change—unfolding in a pretty miraculous way.  First appearing like an apparition on the horizon, the Chisos Mountains begin to take shape.  The true centerpiece of the park, this mountain range practically dances above the desert floor.  We would come to realize during our tenure here that the Chisos (Chee’-sos) dominate nearly every panorama in this park.  For mountain lovers such as ourselves, this one feature would add the special glow to what many might perceive as a rather desolate and bleak place.

2-5diii-3157-pano-xFew U.S. national parks are as remote as Big Bend—the two main entrances are both well over an hour’s drive from any mainstream town, and the nearest major city is El Paso, 300 miles west.  Then again, we are in Texas.  Yet despite the isolation, visitation has been steadily increasing in recent years as more people learn about the fantastic mixture of desert, mountain and river canyon scenery within and around the park.  How remote is Big Bend? You have to want to go there because it truly is the end of the road. It is also on the United States-Mexico border. To go any further, you need a passport. There is neither TV nor radio service here. Cell towers arrived at the neighboring village of Terlingua recently, but the coverage is poor and all but non-existent in the Park. The newspaper delivered into the area is a three-day-old copy of the El Paso paper. The closest doctor is 100 miles away.

2-g16-6003xOnce entering the park, with every successive mile covered, those distant mountains become more vividly clear.  As a first-time visitor to the park, you must confront a common misconception—Big Bend isn’t just all about desert scenery.  In fact, you might say there’s something here for everyone.

2-6d-3237x“The Chisos rise like an island of greenery and life, in the midst of the barren, sun-blasted, stone-bleak ocean of the Chihuahuan Desert.  An emerald isle in a red sea.”                ~Edward Abbey

Big Bend’s natural features are many. It is the only U.S. National Park to contain an entire mountain range within its borders. It also has more bird and reptile species than any other National Park and more than 175 species of butterflies. The Rio Grande forms the international border for over a hundred miles in the Park. The river flows through three magnificent canyons and is designated as a Wild and Scenic River, making it one of the premier float trips in North America. Any one of these would make it interesting on its own, but all of these together in one Park make it someplace very special.  Therein lies the basis for it becoming one of our national parks.

2-mapnphikeWhen you reach Panther Junction you’re nearly at the heart of the park.  Here you’ll find the largest of the park’s five visitor centers.  Great information is provided as well as a video that gives a superb overview of the park.  Once on your way, you’ll have a choice of three directions to decide between.  Take the road leading southeast, you’ll end up at Rio Grande Village.  A few miles further on, the route dead ends at Boquillas Canyon.  Head due west from Panther Junction and in 3 miles a lefthand turn climbs into the heart of the mountains.  If instead you continue heading west, the route takes you out of the park in 25 miles or so.  A couple miles further on you’ll come to the semi-ghost town of Terlingua.  Whichever way you choose, many rewarding destinations will be found.  As one who chronically has trouble making decisions, our stay would give us a taste of all three.  First up would be Rio Grande Village, where the only full-hookups park campground awaited.  With only 25 sites offered, reservations were a definite requirement.

Paralleling the eastern flanks of the Chisos, our route set out across a large expanse of Chihuahuan Desert before slowly pealing away from those Chisos peaks.  It wasn’t all monotonous desert scenery as the road lost nearly 2,000 feet of elevation—we could see distant mountains along the horizon.  Who would’ve known Big Bend had such a diverse landscape?

2-6d-3261x  The road to Rio Grande Village takes a straight line approach towards those distant peaks rising abruptly across the Rio Grande.  A forbidding wall of rock, the mighty Sierra del Carmens, an almost flat-topped limestone wall on the Mexican border, loom dramatically 5,000 feet above the river’s bank.  It’s a formidable sight, the likes of which we had never seen, even being the veteran travelers we thought we were. A photo op if I’d ever seen one!

2-6d-3219xBig Bend National Park is known for its size (801,163 acres—45 miles to drive across it)—the seventh largest of our national parks in the lower 48, it’s vast diversity in elevation (as high as 7,832 feet in the Chisos Mountains and as low as 1,800 feet in the Rio Grande River Valley), its assorted biology (1,200 species of plants, 450 birds—the most varieties found in any single national park in our country), 75 mammals (including black bears, mountain lions and javelinas) and 56 reptiles, it’s important paleontology and archeology (artifacts as old as 9,000 years old!) and over 100 miles of international boundary shared with Mexico along the Rio Grande (Río Bravo in Spanish). All this and Big Bend is still considered one of the most underrated, most remote and least visited parks in the lower 48. Yosemite sees more people in two weeks than Big Bend does all year.

The full-hookup Rio Grande Village RV Resort was nothing more than a concrete parking lot.  The nearby Rio Grande Village Campground, on the other hand, lacked hookups but made up for it in scenery and more privacy between sites. Proving you can’t always please everyone every time, we made our choice (at least one of us did) and then learned to live with it for the coming 4 days (Scenery: 0; Conveniences: 10). What we lacked in privacy (does packed in like sardines give you a picture?), the location more than compensated.  Our first night showed us what was waiting just down the road.

2-5diii-3167-hdrxAnd there would be more .  .  .  much more scenery to take in at this far eastern quadrant of Big Bend.

Sometimes considered “three parks in one,” Big Bend includes mountain, desert, and river environments. Less than an hour’s drive can take you from the banks of the Rio Grande to a mountain basin nearly a mile high. Big Bend offers its visitors a chance to explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and to experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude. Extensive paved roads allow for a quick look at the landscape, and over 150 miles of dirt roads provide for a more adventurous perspective. Hiking trails can be found along the river, in the desert, and up in the Chisos Mountains; trail lengths vary from short dayhikes to multi-day backcountry treks. And RV camping is allowed in designated areas off backcountry roads!

2-5diii-3216xFirst and foremost, there is the river–the dominant feature of the park. The Rio Grande.  Spanish for “big river”, although in Mexico it’s called Rio Bravo del Norte or just Rio Bravo—meaning “wild river”.  Flowing south and east from its origin in Colorado, it eventually passes through the park before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 1,885 miles.  In Big Bend the river forms the 118-mile long southern boundary of the park, passing through three major canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas).  Alternately, it flows through the desert, where green stands of trees, tall grasses and other riparian life cling to its banks.  It is the epitome of an oasis in the desert, as well as being the prime subject for many a landscape photographer.  It beckoned to me most everyday spent in Big Bend.

Early morning on a wind-swept rocky promontory catches first light on the distant Chisos Mountains . . .

Early morning on a wind-swept rocky promontory catches first light on the distant Chisos Mountains . . .

. . . while sunset light could bring a mellow glow to an otherwise monotone landscape.

. . . while sunset light could bring a mellow glow to an otherwise monotone landscape.

Not the official “big bend”, nevertheless this turn of the river coming out of Boquillas Canyon could be considered a minor ‘big bend’ . . . don’t you think?

Not the official “big bend”, nevertheless this turn of the river coming out of Boquillas Canyon could be considered a minor ‘big bend’ . . . don’t you think?

The desert of Big Bend is the Chihuahuan.  The largest desert in North America, most of it lies south of the international border.  Taking in a small area of southeastern New Mexico and extreme western Texas, it extends south into a vast area of Mexico. Its minimum elevation is above 1,000 feet, but the vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. While some winter rain falls, most precipitation occurs during the summer months.

2-g16-6038xThe early Spanish explorers, the first Anglos to set foot in this forbidding place, called the area El Despoblado (The Uninhabited Land).  The name still holds true today, hundreds of years later.  The wildlife population exceeds the human one, by quite a substantial number.  Plant life is varied and plentiful, with over 60 species of cacti and other spiky plants.  Landscapes include narrow canyons, colorful badlands, eroded rock formations, sand dunes, desert plains, dry washes and oases.

Nearly every desert scene is backed by some mountainous landforms.

Nearly every desert scene is backed by some mountainous landforms.

And then, there are the mountains.  While the park has several peaks and mesas jutting out from the desert floor, it is the Chisos Range that stands as a magnificent centerpiece in this park.  For many, this is the main draw they come to see.  A collection of huge, angular cliffs and rocky peaks, the highest rising to 7,825 feet.  Their tree-covered slopes stand in stark contrast to the arid desert lowlands far below, giving refuge and habitat to wildlife that includes black bears and mountain lions.

2-6d-3258xAs you drive more than two thousand feet up Green Gulch, the vegetation rapidly changes from desert to montane forest.  A dramatic drive, having its fair share of hairpin turns and steep grades, you’ll pass through several vegetation zones before reaching the pinnacle of this park.

2-5diii-3325xEnsconced within those towering peaks lies the Chisos Basin, sheltered on all side by high cliffs and the mountaintops of this range.  There you will find the park’s most appreciated facilities—a lodge and restaurant, as well as a visitor center, general store and even a primitive campground for tents and smaller RVs.

2-5diii-3155xLording over the Chisos Basin, Casa Grande, though not the tallest peak of the range at slightly over 7,300 feet, dominates the view.  Truly a landmark feature!

2-g16-6062xBig Bend National Park has an unusually rich history, the effects of which are present everywhere you look. The landscape is living testament; shaped over millions of years by volcanic forces, erosion, and enormous seismic events, it also still holds untold numbers of dinosaur fossils and sea creatures from when the area was engulfed by an ancient ocean.

2-5diii-3321xHumans have inhabited the park for more than 10,000 years — first were Native American tribes such as the Chisos, about which little is still known and, more recently, the Comanche and Mescalero Apache; all of whom have left their mark in the form of rock art, mortar holes, and shelters. Mexicans and Anglo settlers would establish a presence later, building homes, farms, ranches and mines (some persisting until as recently as the 1960s), of which many ruins can still be found.

One such interesting ruin, a place known as Luna’s Jacal, was the home of Gilberto Luna (jacal is an adobe-style housing structure designed to keep the interior dramatically cooler than the surrounding environment). A pioneer Mexican farmer, Gilberto came here in 1900, raised a large family, and peacefully coexisted with the otherwise hostile Comanche.  He planted vast cotton fields in the flood plain of Terlingua Creek, flowing just beyond his front door.  Back then, the creek was a wide-running stream, lined with cottonwoods and alive with beaver.  After the nearby mines opened, the cottonwoods were all cut to fuel the furnaces and the creek became a perennially dry wash.  The area was overgrazed, and the resulting erosion has left only rocky desert supporting cactus and creosote.  Gilberto died here in 1947 at the age of 108.  His home has been on the National Register since 1974.

2-5diii-3299xThe general area where the park now exists was set aside as protected land when locals and others who had strong feelings for the place lobbied the state of Texas to take action to preserve it.  In 1933 the state legislature established what was originally named Texas Canyons State Park.

2-6d-3230xLater that year it was re-designated Big Bend State Park.  Before the new park would be suitable for visitors, roads, trails and facilities needed to be built.  Enter the CCC for this task.  Several hundred young men, most of whom were Hispanic, worked in the Chisos Mountains between 1934 and 1942.  Using only picks, shovels, rakes, and one dump truck, they built the 7-mile road into the Chisos Basin.  After that humongous job was done, they set about constructing trails and several stone and adobe cottages in the Basin.  The results of their hard-earned labors are still being utilized by visitors today.

2-6d-3251Despite all the progress made on behalf of the state park, Big Bend supporters wanted something more—for it to become a national park.  But first, more land needed to be acquired from surrounding private property.  In the midst of the Great Depression a grass roots movement swung into action and with the help of matching state funds, $1.5 million was allocated to purchase 600,000 acres from private owners.  With the blessings of its supporters, the State of Texas delivered the deed to the Federal Government in September, 1943 and Big Bend National Park was officially established on June 12, 1944.  It opened to the public on July 1 of that same year.

2-5diii-3270xSo, you might be wondering “Just WHAT is there to do in such a wild and desolate place???”  Good question, which I must admit, the answer to which is not so readily apparent when one initially comes to Big Bend.  It sure appears to be a WHOLE LOTTA DESERT .  .  .  and pretty bleak as deserts go.  With our first initial days having less than desirable weather (clouds and even some uncharacteristic rain showers), I was really beginning to wonder when the place would begin to stir me (as usually is the case with our national parks).  I must admit, it did require some in-depth searches .  .  .  a few trails taken .  .  .  and persistence on my part.

After all,  what’s so great about a desert landscape?

After all,
what’s so great about a desert landscape?

Slowly, the place began to reveal itself .  .  .

2-g16-6058xA touch of sunset light on desert peaks .  .  .

2-6d-3274xand maybe, just maybe, there might be something here to get my juices flowing.

2-5diii-3364-hdrFrom the wide expanse of Big Bend,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris

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Part Two coming soon.

Posted in Big Bend Nat'l Park, Texas | 3 Comments

AIRSTREAM TRAVELERS—Hightailing It out of Dodge

It’s not that we dislike Indiana winters that much . . . well, maybe just a little  . . . it’s more like having so much spare time on our hands during all those shut-in days that gives good reason to once again pack up and hit the road.  Not that we need an excuse .  .  .  but the winter season is an ideal time to seek out new places, or revisit those destinations that had particular appeal.  And so it was this season .  .  .  the winter of 2017 .  .  .  once again found us stocking up our Pendleton Airstream and gearing up to leave again.  It wouldn’t be her maiden voyage, but still in her first year of travel, with the kinks worked out and her equipment broken in, we were off to warmer climes (or so we hoped).

Luck had been with us as our preparations were underway.  No snowfall to contend with and unseasonably warm temperatures hung around through the end of the year.  We managed an easy departure, but knew an arctic front was approaching.  Chris couldn’t get away fast enough.

Initially, we headed due south.  No use wasting time—the smart money was on the most direct route to warmer weather.  But the cold front was pressing down on us—the question remained as to how far its reach would be.  First night on the road had us in Memphis, Tennessee   .  .  .  setting up camp on the western banks of the Mississippi.  Tom Sawyer RV Park was a so-so campground whose biggest selling point was all about location.  It helped to have a clear and not-so-cold-as-Indiana evening where we enjoyed the ambiance of Old Man River’s scenery.

1-g16-5902River barges plied the waters throughout the night, bringing to mind memories of our college years in those days of yore.  The reverberation of their powerful engines was an added feature to being situated in such close proximity to the water.  And thus we passed our first night on the road.

1-mrw-4122New Orleans was our next day’s destination .  .  .  a straight shoot south once leaving Memphis.  Surely the bite of winter’s cold wouldn’t be so severe at that southern latitude.  We chose a state park campground on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, adjacent to the quaint and scenic town of Mandeville.  And that is where our fate finally caught up to us.

It could’ve been much worse—towns in northern Louisiana actually had some snow.  For us here on the North Shore (as it is known), it came in the form of cold rain.  Heavy, cold rain.  Does raining cats and dogs give you the picture?

With a full day set aside for seeing the local sights, intrepid travelers that we are we weren’t dissuaded from heading into the Big Easy—we geared up in several layers of warmth and made a beeline into town.  French Quarters here we come!

1-mrw-4125Inclement weather keeps tourist traffic at bay, we soon learned.  Why, we had the usually bustling Bourbon Street almost to ourselves!  Shops were open .  .  .  some live music was to be heard .  .  .  but for the most part people were staying indoors and dry.  We soon left the streets for drier places—a good restaurant owned by the famous Brennan’s family, Mr. B’s Bistro was known for their savory Creole cuisine.  Dish it up, please!  And while you’re at it, let’s have an order of your equally renowned southern bread pudding.   If you look hard enough, you’ll find something redeeming in a miserably cold and wet winter day.

The rain was over by the time we hit the road next morning.  Warmed up a little too.  We now turned our course to the west—the predominant direction we’d be taking for the rest of this trip. For the time being In the coming days, we had visions of sunshine, warmth and a balmy breeze wafting through our Airstream windows as we made our way to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Having its beginnings as a pirate stronghold in the early 1800s (debonair “privateer” Jean LaFitte had his base of operation here), the town of Galveston, located on the eastern end of Galveston Island, would quickly grow to be the most prominent town in Texas by the 1840s.  Situated on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay made it a burgeoning port of entry for many immigrants, as well as the center of trade in Texas.  It was one of the largest cotton ports in the nation, the most active port west of New Orleans.  Along its commercial district, known as “The Strand”, it had the reputation of being “the Wall Street of the South” and by 1839 it had become the largest city in Texas.

A very progressive town besides.  Galveston was a city of firsts in Texas .  .  .  the first post office, first opera house, first naval base, first Masonic Order and Catholic parochial school, first orphanage, first gas lights and telephone lines, and later, the first electric lights.  It was a town on the move and a town of prosperity and culture. It gained a reputation for being the “Pleasure Island” for the wealthy class of Texans.  It was at the heights of the town’s heyday that their world came crashing down.  On September 8, 1900, Galveston was struck by a devastating hurricane that would easily attain the record of being the deadliest natural disaster in our country, before or since.  Today it is simply known as “The Great Storm” and its impact would leave its mark on the island for decades to come.  Galveston would never be the same again.

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Today Galveston harbor is still an active location . . . a dock for cruise ships and freighters as well as a scene of oil rigs’ construction and repairs.

You’ll see these plaques on buildings and homes as evidence of structures left standing.

You’ll see these plaques on buildings and homes as evidence of structures left standing.

Between 6,000 and 12,000 souls were lost in the terrible storm.  An island barely above sea level, when the storm surge rolled in, sea water engulfed everything.  What the water didn’t wash away, the winds tore down.  Flying debris bashed in and crashed through anything left standing.  Very little remained behind once the storm had moved on.

More sobering yet was the cost in human lives and how to contend with the mass burials.  With an aftermath  beyond comprehension, the bodies were too numerous for conventional burials.  At first, they were weighted and buried at sea, only to wash ashore a few days later.  The decision was then made to burn the bodies on funeral pyres built from the debris of collapsed buildings.  All over the city local men were literally drafted to do the job of collecting the bodies, oftentimes necessitating being held at gunpoint in order to accomplish such a gruesome and repugnant task.  This tragic chapter still looms large in the island’s collective memory as Galveston families pass down stories of survival and loss.

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Former warehouses have been renovated and remade into shops and downtown eateries.

The Strand, with its flamboyant architecture and stylish buildings also suffered catastrophic damage.  Some buildings lost entire floors, others lost elaborate cornices and flourishes.  As a result, many businesses elected to move away from the wharf.  The Strand never regained its grandeur; in subsequent years it turned into a warehouse district.  It wouldn’t see any sort of revival until the 1980s when Galveston began a campaign of renewal.  Galveston-born oilman, George Mitchell led the revitalization efforts, to overhaul and promote the historic downtown district.

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Stylish architectural features have been preserved, giving a feel of what The Strand once was.

With enthusiasm over the transformation of their town, city leaders were motivated to take another step forward by reviving the Mardi Gras celebration.  A selection of renowned architects was commissioned to design fantastical Mardi Gras arches to span the streets of The Strand district.  By implementing an assortment of programs and events, Galveston has become a Mardi Gras destination.  In recent years, more than half a million people now come to the island for the city’s annual Celebration.

1-g16-5944As an epilogue to the devastation of The Great Storm, Galveston citizens were determined to take the steps necessary to prevent such a terrible calamity from ever befalling their town again. In 1902 design and construction began on a 15-foot high seawall along the Gulf Coastline.  Two years later it spanned over 3 miles in length, and by 1963 it had been extended to over 10 miles.  Moreover, the ground behind the seawall was sloped upward for 200 feet to a point where it was eventually 4-5 feet higher than the top of the wall.  Today, erosion has slightly diminished those numbers.  Another hurricane swept through Galveston in 1915, thought to be even stronger than the 1900 Storm. The seawall stood the test and prevented any major damage from impacting the town.

1-g16-5988The Seawall might have been built for protection from nature’s fury, but it’s obvious that it has become much more than that.  About 30 feet wide at its top, it appears to be a one-of-a-kind elevated concrete boardwalk.  With views looking out over the water, it is a Grand Promenade for all the people to enjoy, whether strolling or jogging or dog-walking, skating or biking.  With adjacent shops, restaurants and lodgings, it is simply a fun place to be and truly a centerpiece to this revitalized town.

1-seawallThe place to find Galveston’s true character, to see glimpses of the look this town once had, you need to head to the East End Historical District just a few blocks south of the heart of the town.  Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the architecture of the homes reflects a variety of styles and periods.  Always on the search for the original look of a place or town, you can be sure that was a locale I needed to check out.

With a diversity of designs, from small, simple cottages to large, elaborate homes, the East End  didn’t disappoint.  I spent more than a couple of hours roaming its 50 city blocks.

1-g16-5961Many of the homes had historical plaques on their front lawns.  A brief explanation of the  particular architectural style as well as background of the home’s former owners. Each had a story to tell that went back into the 1800s.

1-g16-59761-g16-59721-g16-59101-g16-59641-g16-59791-g16-5958Since a little amount of neighborhood gawking goes a long way for Chris Wall, he soon left me to wander more of the East End while he found his calling on the nearby Pelican Island.  Mostly a deserted land flanking Galveston Harbor, the far eastern end once an immigration station site, is now known as Seawolf Park.  A popular weekend spot for local townspeople, it has a fishing pier, picnic sites, a playground, and more significantly (to some, more than others) a WWII submarine, the USS Cavalla, and one of only three remaining destroyer escorts in the world, the USS Stewart.

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Yes indeed, he whiled away a few hours at this location, finding it to be a worthwhile time.

1-jcw-4137Back in that historical district, we met up just in time to take in an impressive house tour.  From my perspective at least, it won hands down over any tour of submarines or ship destroyers.  A very worthwhile and insightful experience . . . the house, mind you (not the boats).

1-g16-5953Known today as Bishop’s Palace, it is owned and operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation.  Okay, so it might not have been on par with Downton Abbey, nevertheless this was a mansion on quite a grand scale.  Built from 1887-1892 for Colonel Walter Gresham, he was an attorney and entrepreneur who came to Galveston from Virginia following his service in the Civil War.  He was a founder of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad, and also served in the Texas Legislature.  With his wife Josephine and their nine children, they represented the highest echelon of Galveston society.  Their home was one of the very few to survive the 1900 hurricane nearly unscathed (many windows needed replacing).  Today it stands as one of the most significant of Victorian residences in our country.  To take the tour is to see firsthand how certain lives were once lived.  Very enlightening.

The grand entryway begins with a bang . . . you can’t help but exclaim some oohs and aahs.

The grand entryway begins with a bang . . . you can’t help but exclaim some oohs and aahs.

 .  .  .  and from there the impact never does let off. Was this REALLY someone’s home?

. . . and from there the impact never does let off.
Was this REALLY someone’s home?

It’s quite the tour and worth the entrance fee.  It’s a very well-done, self-guided with hand-held pre-recorded devices, the tour explains house details as well as including some Galveston history.

1-g16-5920The Sacred Heart Church, adjacent to the mansion, easily holds its own in stature for the neighborhood.  Totally destroyed by The Great Storm, it was totally rebuilt in 1903.

1-g16-5990Galveston Harbor is a busy place; it’s not unusual to see freighters coming and going.  The state of Texas Department of Transportation provides a free trip via ferry that connects Galveston to another adjacent island.  The only connection between two important barrier islands, it’s an 18-minute ride across Galveston Bay, spanning the entrance to the harbor.  As the ferry weaves between the international freighters, anchored or passing by, you can’t help but to realize “Now this is quite the busy waterway.”  The Texas Gulf Coast provides a huge economical importance to our country.  And you can witness this all for free!  All aboard!

1-g16-60021-g16-5997There are several campgrounds along Galveston Island, indicative of being a winter destination for many a snowbird.  Although Jamaica Beach RV Park was a fine looking place, it had one serious flaw in our estimation.  Situated about 12 miles down the island, it would make a lengthy drive each time we headed into town.  It was a crowded resort, but neatly kept up—it appeared to have all the guests it could handle.  This was our first choice initially, but changed our minds before arriving.

Sandpiper RV Resort was located on the fringes of the town of Galveston—a factor that weighed strongly in its favor.  Privately owned, having concrete pads and full hookups, it was its proximity to town as well as being in sight of the Gulf, that easily won us over.  Each day we looked out to see the sun rising over water, each night we took a walk along the beach.  The disappointments of New Orleans soon faded from memory as we made better ones here along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Not a bad way at all to spend winter days strolling in balmy gulf breezes.

Not a bad way at all to spend winter days strolling in balmy gulf breezes.

All too soon we left this idyllic setting, moving on to a place we hoped to find equally appealing (but in a totally different way).  It would be a long drive to get there . . . requiring an overnight stop . . . and a detour off main highway arteries.  A wilder place for sure, nearly completely isolated from conveniences we’d become accustomed to.  But for us these were all selling points.  New horizons were right around the corner.

Streaming on,

Melinda and Chris

Posted in Galveston Island, Texas | Leave a comment

COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT—Little Known, But Throws A Big Punch

“I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me.  I’m going to stay and promote this place because it should be a National Park.”                               ~John Otto, 1907

14-g16-5859We generally drag our feet when our travels are coming to an end.  Not that we’re so opposed to heading back to Indiana, it’s more like hating to see a good thing coming to an end.  We’ve discovered in our more recent trips that when facing that fateful ending, it helps to add a couple (or more) interesting stops along our way home.  Something to look forward to.  A new place to check out.  A way of putting off the inevitable.  Call it what you will .  .  .  it seems to help soften that return drive.  This time around, we had barely begun our road trip when this little side excursion popped up—a short, but sweet interlude on our homeward journey.

It was a national monument, no less.  On this, of all trips, our commemorative national parks tour .  .  .  it would be impossible to resist.  A mere stone’s throw from I-70—surely it was preordained. Only an hour’s drive out of Moab, we had just crossed over into Colorado when we took the highway exit and made a turn towards the south.  Colorado National Monument. looming high above the landscape would be very hard to miss.

Even as national monuments go, this one is hardly well-known.  Maybe it’s in the name—being vague and not too descriptive.  Perhaps a guarded secret, with the nearby town of Grand Junction thinking it more like their private backyard preserve.  As does the small town of Fruita, located at the park’s westside entrance.  If it wasn’t for one man’s initial interest and hard-earned labors, it might very well never become what it is today.

14-g16-586013-co-plateauColorado National Monument preserves one of the grand landscapes of the American West.. It is a mere section of the greater Colorado Plateau, that uplifted high desert region that encompasses the Four Corners region of our country and includes ten national parks as well as seventeen national monuments.  As soon as you pass one of the two entrance gates, the park road begins switchbacking up the near vertical walls of the Monument’s mesa.  Rising up to 2,000 feet above the valley floor, it’s at the top where all the action begins.  You must go up  .  .  .  take the road or hike a trail.

13-grand-valley-mapThe Monument is part of what’s referred to as the Grand Valley. With the Colorado River flowing through its heart, the name is derived from what the river was first called—the Grand River.  A trio of towns make up this valley—Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita—each with their own distinct personalities.  Once an area receiving little notice (by Colorado standards), today it has a new reputation.  You might say that the Grand Valley has been discovered—or remade.  It’s becoming a destination area—day-trippers and weekend getawayers are looking in this direction.  It’s a change from the more popular Front Range cities. Here, the vineyards and fruit orchards add a bucolic view to the scenery and the offerings of Grand Junction (food, shopping and arts events) have something for most people’s tastes.  And then, there’s the outdoor side for more enticements—that’s where the monument comes in to play.  Great hiking and biking, to begin with.  World-class mountain biking trails.  Sunny days and dry climate make it all possible (but summers can be on the hot side, I’ve read).  Surrounding mountains ring in the valley, while the sheer cliff walls and deep canyons dotted with colorful rock formations make it a photographer’s ideal setting. One of the few remaining areas we had yet to explore in all of our Colorado ramblings, if the Monument wasn’t enough, there was this whole valley we were anxious to see.

The drive to the top is an adventure in itself.  A very scenic road as well.  Prepare to go slowly—it’s full of curves and tight turns along a constant uphill grade.  No straight-aways to this road, longer RVs will have their challenges.  But to get to where the action is (it bears repeating)—you must go up.

14-5diii-2848It’s a taste of things to come.

14-5diii-291214-5diii-2911While people lived in this canyon landscape as long as 12,000 years ago, in more modern times this was easily a forgotten and little-explored area.  In the latter part of the 19th century, the Grand Valley was slowly being settled.  Towns grew up and livelihoods made, but people saw very little reason to visit the arid canyons that existed on the other side of the Colorado River.  Until the town of Fruita needed a new water source, that is.

For 22 years, the people of Fruita had used the river as that source.  Then Grand Junction’s growing community began dumping all its waste water into the river.  Located downstream from there, the townspeople of Fruita soon began to look at the Land Across the River for a source of cleaner water.

In the ensuing years a pipeline would be built—20 miles long—to connect a water source located high on a mesa passing through the red rock canyons and over the river, to the town.  It would take more than a year to construct.  Among the many men hired to work on this pipeline was an eccentric wanderer name John Otto.  Known as a “powder monkey” (an explosives expert), he developed a strong attachment to this high plateau and rugged canyons.  He soon decided to set his roots here, to stay and build trails and promote this incredible chunk of land, “because it should be a national park.”

So, let me help you to see an accurate image in your mind of the layout of this topography.  High on the plateau you have a grand view over miles and miles of the valley below.  Stretching all the way to distant mountains on the horizon.  Standing on the precipitous edge of this mesa, the ground drops away, going near vertically down to the canyons below.  Several canyons have cut into the mesa’s flanks, all carved over eons by rushing water pouring down from the land above, combined with ceaseless winds to aid in the rocks’ deterioration.  Down in the valley below, these finger canyons all flow into the large Monument Canyon that stretches the near-length of the entire east side of the monument.  It’s out there—in that vast Monument Canyon—where you’ll see spectacular rock formations.  Some will say it’s a microcosm of the famed Monument Valley.  And that’s when you wonder aloud “Why haven’t I heard of this place before?”

Red Rock Canyon is just one of those side canyons that cut into the main body of the monument’s plateau.

Red Rock Canyon is just one of those side canyons that cut into the main body of the monument’s plateau.

From the land above, you’ll have absolutely breathtaking views down to what has been carved out below.

14-5diii-295614-5diii-292914-5diii-291614-5diii-291413-john-ottoDuring the age of John Muir, some 1,000 miles from Yosemite Valley, a kindred spirit and passionate conservationist began to dedicate himself to protecting and promoting the land we know today as Colorado National Monument.  John Otto spearheaded fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and penned newspaper editorials and endless letters to Washington politicians in support of national recognition for the ancient canyons and towering monoliths of his adopted home.  Living alone in the canyons and using a pick and shovel, he carved out trails. Gradually, through his single-minded pursuit and his Herculean physical efforts, the scenic treasures hidden in the canyons were made accessible to the public.

Ultimately, Colorado National Monument was established on May 24, 1911, as a presidential proclamation by President Taft under the authority of the Antiquities Act.  Otto became the park’s first park custodian/ranger with a salary of $1 per month.

13-john-otto-weddingJohn married Beatrice Farmham, an artist from Massachusetts, near the base of Independence Monument in 1911. Otto’s insistence on living in a tent in his beloved canyon was reportedly one of the reasons why Beatrice left him after 2 months (and a 3-week honeymoon).  Perhaps receiving a pack burro from John as her wedding gift played a part in it too.  She filed for divorce, gave John $2,000 in alimony, and headed back East.  She got as far as Kansas, where she married a cowboy and for a time they were part of a Western Exhibition Show.

Leading from the Visitors Center, a trail follows the perimeter of the rim of the canyon for an easy mile or  so.  From the trail as well as the overlooks, you’ll have outstanding views of some of the more scenic perspectives of Monument Canyon.  Ending near the campground, you’ll have easy access when staying here to capture early morning or evening light on the landscape.

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Sunrise paints the sandstone formations in brilliant golden reflected light.

One great feature of this park is the wide variety of hiking trails offered.  From lengths of a quarter to over fourteen miles, they vary from easy to more difficult levels of ability.  Some stay on top, while others lead down into the canyon.  Something for everyone, and they all offer tremendous views.

IMHO, it’s the scenic park road that is the monument’s big claim to fame.  The Rim Rock Drive is one supremely scenic experience where IT’S ALL ABOUT THE VIEWS.  A paved, 23-mile-long road that connects both entrances of the park, it gives access to trailheads and overlooks, while staying low on the risky-drive meter.  If you’re not too squeamish about steep drop-offs with no guardrails, that is.  Another great touring road.

An early morning drive will show the rocks in their best light.

An early morning drive will show the rocks in their best light.

Inseparable from the identity of the Monument, the Rim Rock Drive is a winding roadway that plots an improbable course along the rim of Monument Canyon.  With 19 overlooks and 14 trails along the drive, it was built by the CCC beginning in 1931, when its route was laid out by engineers.  Most of the actual road building was done between 1933 and 1942.

14-5diii-2895Making significant use of native building materials, construction crews built Rim Rock Drive without benefit of heavy equipment like bulldozers or backhoes.  After blasting rock apart, they removed refuse by hand or guided horses pulling small dump carts on rails.

14-5diii-2910Construction was suspended by World War II and finally completed in 1950.  The entire road has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

14-5diii-288113-bikes_on_rim_rock_driveBiking the Rim Rock Road has obviously caught on.  With a good paved surface and plenty of gorgeous views, all you have to contend with is making the challenging 1,800-foot climb to the top.  After that, it’s all rolling hills and winding curves to give you an exhilarating ride.  With an easy and swift descent at the end.

So popular a ride, many organized bike tours have taken place on the Rim Rock Road. Ride the Rockies has had it on their agenda and Tour of the Moon is a annual classic ride held here since the 1980s.

The quintessential formation at Colorado National Monument is Independence Monument.  Soaring 450 feet above the valley floor, its massive height belies the fact that it is, in fact, a very slender, delicate formation.  Some who view it up close at ground level think that it closely resembles the sail on a sailboat. It is one of the most frequently published summits in the state of Colorado, following Maroon Bells and Pikes Peak.  Its image appears frequently on calendars and picture books of Colorado.

14-5diii-287514-5diii-2873Less than two months after the Colorado National Monument became a reality in May of 1911, John Otto was the first man to climb Independence Monument, fittingly on July 4th.  It was a stupendous feat back in those days of primitive climbing gear, although he did drill holes in the rock and placed steel pipes (which the park service has since removed).  Placing the American flag on its summit, he began a custom of sorts in recent years.  Area climbers have picked up Otto’s tradition and make the climb each Independence Day.

John Otto retired as the park’s custodian after 16 years of service.  He headed west to California where he died in 1952 at the age of 81.

Saddlehorn Campground is located on top of the plateau, in the vicinity of the Visitors Center.  Having convenient access to the views and hiking trails, it’s a great place to set up camp.  What it lacks in amenities—no hookups—it makes up for with paved pull-through sites tucked into a pinyon and juniper trees environment.  If you’re lucky enough to snag an outer rim site in Loop B (reservable), you’ll overlook the valley below and have tremendous views just a few steps from your trailer door.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0050.JPG14-g16-5868When you have the advantage of staying where the action is, you always increase your chances of capturing those unplanned, spontaneous sights.  Although once indigenous to the area (ancient pictographs and petroglyphs provide the evidence), Desert Bighorn Sheep had become extinct.  Beginning in 1979, 37 were re-introduced to Colorado National Monument, and a census taken in 2010 recorded about 50 are now living within the park’s boundaries.  A few of them happened by near to where we were camped.  A kismet moment to capture.

Taking advantage of our prime campsite spot, I ended both days along the canyon rim.  As the sun dropped low and the light warmed up, that’s the time to be out roaming with one’s camera.  One night, in particular, gave me some special color—I could see its effect on the cliff faces.  A fleeting moment of illumination.

14-5diii-2966And then, the encore just before the light grows dark .  .  .

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Leaving the rocks behind us,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

. . . until the next trip,

over and out.

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Posted in Colorado, Colorado Nat'l Monument | Leave a comment

AROUND MOAB—Riding Through the Old West

12-moab3xIf Arches, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point are ever to be one of your destinations, you need look no farther than the town of  for your staging area.  Located a few short miles south of the roads that lead to these parks, Moab has grown in popularity as more and more visitors flock to the area.  Several years ago we found it to be a small, sleepy town having not much to offer, but in the intervening years it must have caught on and learned that catering to tourists was money in the town’s coffers.  Up went the motels and more eateries, spiff up the main commercial area and pull out the red carpet—Moab was open for business.  With an outdoor adventure store seemingly on every street corner, today you won’t have to look far to find a way to explore the beauty of Moab’s backyard.

What Banff is to the Canadian Rockies, Moab is to canyon country.  This is the capital city of Utah’s sandstone wilderness, a focal point for desert and river adventure, the destination for slickrock tourism  The area is teeming with exotic red rock canyons, towering natural stone arches and spires, snowcapped mountains, ancient rock art and exhilarating hikes.  People come to Moab from all over the world to hike, bike, raft, and drive the rough roads that penetrate the fantastic desert landscape.  They come to take in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and for the view from Dead Horse Point.

Paved roads or dirt . . . even river waterways . . . all will give breathtaking scenery and memorable experiences.

12-5diii-2339x12-potash-roadx12-5diii-2329x12-moabMormon pioneers arrived in the area around 1855, where they established the Elk Mountain Mission, but then were quickly driven out by the native Indians.  It wasn’t until the end of the 1870s that the Mormons sunk permanent roots here.  They named their new settlement for a remote desert land referred to in the Bible as “the land beyond Jordan”.  A ferry operated here from 1885 until 1912, when the first bridge to span the Colorado River was built.  For most of the 1900s, Moab was a quiet ranching center until a uranium boom in the 1950s caused the population to soar—there were more residents in 1960 than the 5,100 who live here today.

12-moab2As in other Western mining boom towns that ran dry, tourism came in to fill the economic void, and catering to visitors is the primary source of livelihood for Moab today.  Over the past 30 years Moab has established itself as one of the most important centers for river running and the explosively popular sport of mountain biking.  One interesting legacy of the region’s mining activity is the number of rough roads “leading off to nowhere,” which is exactly where cyclists and 4WD people want to go.

The good news is you don’t need a mountain bike or some ATV vehicle to explore the area—there are decent paved roads taking you into awesome redrock scenery. Of course, you can do the rougher stuff too . . . if you’re inclined to step up your adventures a degree or more.  We tasted a little of both.

Four great official state scenic byways lead out from Moab—diverse in their offerings, but all equally spectacular.  You could easily spend an entire vacation just taking in all this area has to offer; as it was, we found time to “do” two and part of the third of those drives.  Plenty of activities along the way, the drives weren’t just about sitting in our vehicle all day—although that could have been a personal choice (just not our way of doing a drive).

Two of these roads lead out from Moab paralleling the Colorado River, but in opposite directions.  We began with the drive headed east, actually State Road 128, which eventually joins up with I-70.  12-g16-5673xKnown as the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway, there’s a lot more to it than just being a picturesque route.  For the first half of its 44-mile length the road passes through a Recreation Area where a dedicated paved bike trail runs adjacent to the road.  With great scenery and an overall level grade, the most difficult aspect of biking this trail would be keeping your attention on where you’re going.

Interspersed along the route you’ll find a dozen BLM campgrounds.  Located between the road and the river, most of the sites are adjacent to the riverbank and have great views.  Although all are primitive camping, at least 6 of them would accommodate RVs, some up to 40’ long. Although we were set up in an RV park in town, we liked the looks of these—our kind of camping—as did many others, as all campgrounds appeared mostly full.

But it’s the road itself that has to be the main attraction, cutting through a narrow, steep gorge that follows the south bank of the Colorado River.  Sheer sandstone walls rise up along both sides of the river, leaving little room for the road to be included. Moreover, as the course of the river goes, so goes the pavement.  Expect constant curves and no shoulders on this road, just glorious views around every bend. A great touring road!

12-5diii-2332xBefore the drive gets really going, there’s a trailhead you shouldn’t miss.  Negro Bill Canyon Trail is well-known to the locals, as was indicated by the nearly filled parking area, even at this early morning weekday hour. Of course, we pulled in (thanking our lucky star that there was still an empty spot) and prepared for a hike that entailed more than a few stream crossings (10, if you’re counting). Best to take the hiking sticks!

12-g16-5664xNamed after William Grandstaff, a black prospector and rancher who grazed his cattle here during the late 1800s, the trail goes through a lovely canyon, cut into the Navajo sandstone by a small, perennial stream that has its origins high up on a riverside cliff and flows into the river here at the trailhead.  The hike follows this stream through a lush riparian environment of cottonwood and willow trees, belying the fact that you’re in the midst of a high desert environment.  With a water source along most of the route that requires crossing—barefoot or rock-hopping, your choice—and more shade than you’d expect to find, this would make for the perfect hike when days turn hot.  As for us, it was merely a warm sunny day, so using stepping stones for stream crossings was my preferred mode of stream fording.

12-g16-5670x12-g16-5666xIf a very pleasant and interesting hike is not enough for you, how about finding a reward waiting at trail’s end?  The big pay-off is a dramatic natural bridge (actually, an alcove arch), one of the longest stone spans in the world (fifth or ninth longest, depending on the source).  Morning Glory Natural Bridge vaults 243 feet across the canyon’s head and is extremely difficult to photograph.  Separated from the sandstone cliff behind it, there’s only 15 feet across the gap.

It’s something you’ve just gotta see in person to really appreciate.

Once back on that road again, we turn east and continue on.  After a quick lunch stop, we realize the day is slipping away.  Yet there’s miles to go and more to do .  .  .  and the scenery is___ just___ getting___ better!

12-5diii-2320xThe canyon widens and the views open up.  When Parriott Mesa comes into view you’ll know that you’ve crossed over .  .  .  the invisible barrier .  .  .  a threshold into another place and time.  Skylines and profiles of soaring towers and squat mesas define this iconic landscape.  I couldn’t help but feel we had driven into our own personal Western drama—it’s that picturesque.  What lies before us can readily evoke memories of long ago classic Western movies—in point of fact, several of those movies were filmed here   .  .  . The Comancheros, Wagon Master, Ten Who Dared, Against a Crooked Sky, and Rio  Grande, to name a few.

12-5diii-2396x12-5diii-2394xRising over Castle Valley, Parriott Mesa makes for one arduous hike, or better yet, one iconic photo of Utah’s acclaimed redrock country.  But, perhaps most significant of all, it’s a base jumper’s premier destination.  Not by any means our cup of tea, nevertheless we find it fascinating to watch—in person or video.  Check out this stimulating youtube here for a 3-minute true-life experience.

12-5diii-2362xParriott Mesa also marks the junction with the La Sal Mountain Loop Scenic Drive—the route we only began to drive.  Time being a factor—I did say there was too much to take in around Moab in our short week here—we took the turn-off and began the drive, hoping to capture a small taste of the drive’s offerings.

In its entirety it is about a 60-mile route, starting south of Moab and winding through the Manti-La Sal National Forest before tying into SR-128, taking the Upper Colorado Scenic Road back into Moab from the east. Along the way it is a magnificent (so I read) drive through a variety of landscapes from alpine mountains to rugged canyons.  It is truly a great escape when the summer heat sweeps through Moab—the peaks of these mountains reach to nearly 13,000 feet, the second highest range in Utah.  There are numerous hikes and mountain bike trails to take along with forest service campsites nestled in forests of fragrant pines and quaking aspens.   There’s even some great trout fishing to be done in the several beautiful lakes and streams. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be experiencing that—but there’s always our next visit.

The ultimately best way to experience the drive is to come down from those mountains into the valley below—the view looking out over Castle Valley will entice you to pull over, taking time to soak in a scene that is pure Old West.  If you happen to be there when the late afternoon light is striking those mesas and spires, then you’ll have a simply spectacular view.

Coming from Highway 128, we were backtracking the route and the afternoon light hadn’t dropped far enough to the horizon to light up the scene and add good contrast.  Still, we had a glimpse of the landscape’s potential .  .  .  it was enough to give us pause.

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The Priest and Nuns (known as The Rectory) is the formation on the left, while Castleton Rock points heavenward on the right.

12-5diii-2372xDuring my research, I came across a passage that read “Castleton Tower has been featured in more commercials than Joe DiMaggio.”  Whether that’s true or not, I came across one Chevy commercial where Castleton Rock had a prominent role.  Take time to watch the youtube—it’ll take you back a few decades—and keep in mind it was filmed in those long-gone days before drone photography.

Standing 400 feet above the 1,000 foot cone, Castleton Tower is as famous for being a classic photo op as it is for being a world-famous climbing destination.  It has been reported that over 40,000 ascents have been made since it was first climbed in 1961.

Just when we were thinking this scenery won’t be surpassed, we headed further down Highway 128 on the last leg of our sight-seeing adventure.  With the day nearly done, we had one last act of this show waiting ahead—and let me say, this final act sold the whole show.

12-5diii-2416-hdrxSlightly more than 20 miles from the start of this drive, the Fisher Towers are a commanding presence.  A 2-mile dirt road will take you to the parking area, information board, primitive campground and trailhead for a hike around the rock formations.  Named for a miner who lived near this location in the 1880s, they are a group of unusual vertical cliffs and pinnacles, eroded into jagged shapes on the top and grooved down their sides.  Actually, they are composed of three major fins of rock rising between 1,000-2,000 feet above the valley floor.  Each fin contains multiple towers, a number of which have been named—Titan, Kingfisher, Ancient Arts, Cottontail Tower, Echo Tower, Oracle and Lizard Rock.  Needless to say, both individually and collectively, they have become famous for being a superb photo subject as well as a world-renowned climbing destination.

The big regret of our memorable day was not having the time to take the Fisher Towers Trail.  Rated as a mere moderate hike of 5 miles round trip, the route takes you through the maze of soaring sandstone towers ending at a scenic overlook on a high ridge above Onion Creek.  Requiring more hours to hike than we had left in the day, we could only take the trail leading to a scenic overlook of those monster spires.  And with a sigh and a moment of regret, I knew this too would wait for another trip.

12-5diii-2398x12-5diii-2423-hdrAnother more recent TV commercial filmed on one of these towers, features the corkscrew summit known as Ancient Arts.  A short, 30-seconds long, it was able to capture something of the thrill that climbing these towers can produce.  Maybe you wondered where it was shot.  Well, now you know.

Back on that paved road for once final short drive, I knew there was a last photo op I just had to bag from this day.  Once more following the course of the Colorado River, there’s a stretch where the Towers are reflected in its waters.  With the sun dropping fast and the lay of the land unexplored, we found a suitable spot to take the shot.  Sometimes, having a photographer’s assistant can pay off in multiple ways.

A fitting end to a rewarding drive—a drive I would highly recommend as the epitome of what the Moab area has to offer.

The Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway, aka—Potash Road/Shafer Trail Road, had a hard act to follow.  In the end, I would discover there was no point of comparison (except maybe for the scenery)—two completely different roads, it was like comparing apples to oranges.  Equally good, yet equally different by nature.

12-g16-5701xAnd, in this instance, nature required a slightly different mode of travel .  .  .  this drive was considerably less civilized.  The wilder side of outdoor adventures is something Moab is more than capable of providing.  In no time at all, Chris had taken the lead and procured us a suitable ride.  Packing up some provisions after a hearty breakfast, we headed into the backcountry of the Moab area.

image4xBut, in his heart of hearts, and from the wistful words he had spoken, I knew what he would rather have rented looked something like this .  .  .

 

The Potash Road starts out with a bang! and really never lets go.  Once again we were following that Colorad12-potash-road-map-xo River, this time headed west along its northern bank.

The Potash Road is definitely the route to outdoor adventures.  Running alongside the Colorado through another deepening, sheer-walled sandstone canyon, it has a paved surface for the first 15 miles.  Along the way you’ll pass a couple BLM campgrounds—small, but oh-so-scenic—as well as some great hiking trails.

Flowing as red as the cliffs that rise above it, the Colorado River once helped to carve the landscape we now enjoy.  You can see the road we took squeezed tightly between water and rock.

12-potash-road2x12-g16-5696xThe fall season is one of the most popular times for rock climbing around Moab, and the cliffs of  Potash Road are one of the prime places for the sport.  Known as Wall Street for a very good reason, the sandstone cliffs rise up to an immense 500 feet.  With such easy access for the climbers, you can belay right beside your vehicle.  It’s almost guaranteed you’ll see some of this kind of action as you begin your drive down Potash Road.

For us, the real adventure was the drive.  A few miles past Wall Street the road turns to gravel and begins a gradual climb.  Still following the course of the river, we round a bend and the scenery opens up to wider views.  Now that’s a sight worth saving—a microcosm of Moab scenery in a single shot!

12-g16-5718xSoon after, the road roughens and we’re glad to be driving “just a rental” rather than our new Ram truck.  With sharp turns and more obstacles encountered, Chris shifts to 4WD and we take off.  Splendiferous redrock scenery is all around us .  .  .  ya-hoo!  Wild West, we are here!

12-g16-5724x12-g16-5731xSometimes, you just got to stop awhile, soaking up the tremendous views. Really breathtaking and oh so awesome!Sometimes, you just got to stop awhile, soaking up the tremendous views. Really breathtaking and oh so awesome!

The road passes by its namesake area—the evaporating ponds of Intrepid Mine.  A vast potash extraction site, the process involves pumping river water into underground galleries where it dissolves potash salts.  From there, the solution is aspirated back to the surface and into large evaporation basins.  The process is complete when the water evaporates, leaving only the potash salt behind. From a distance, the ponds resemble an iced-over frozen lake.

So what is potash good for? Mostly fertilizer, I have read.

So what is potash good for? Mostly fertilizer, I have read.

To break up the drive and give us a leg-stretcher, the trail to Corona Arch is a great option.  A moderate hike of less than 3 miles round trip, it wouldn’t cut out too much time in our day’s adventure.  With a 500-foot elevation gain, it would compensate for all the sitting we’re doing.  Lead on—the arch at the end would be worth it!

Mostly traversing over slickrock terrain, the uphill grade is gentle, but constant.  Near the end, there’s a rather steep rock slope to surmount, but safety cables firmly anchored and a 10-foot steel ladder make the climb a piece of cake (and add interest to your normal trail hiking).

From the top of the ledge you’ve just attained, you’ll see the prize of this trail before you—and quite a sight it is.

12-g16-5704xCorona Arch is one of the prettiest arches in the Moab area, and can certainly hold its own when stacked up against those in the nearby national park.  Having an opening of 140 feet by 105 feet, its graceful span gives an unobstructed view from both sides.  More to the point, on this very warm fall day, it offers the only shade you’ll find on this trail when standing in its immense shadow.

12-g16-5710xSince the arch is located outside of Arches National Park, it hasn’t received the same protections as with federal lands.  Although banned since 2013, an airplane has flown through it and it was also known as a  popular spot for “the world’s largest rope swing”.  To illustrate what fool-hardy people sometimes do for thrills, take a quick look at this youtube. And yes, someone has died while attempting this—that’s what prompted the ban now in existence.

Back on the road again, we headed out on the last leg of our adventure-filled drive.  Enjoying the day and the picturesque scenery, there were a couple of sights to take in before we would reach the climatic end to our day.  And speaking of climatic ends . . . have you ever watched the 1991 classic movie Thelma and Louise?  If so, you will undoubtedly remember its ending.  Although in the movie it was the Grand Canyon where the ending took place, in reality it was here in Utah at this very spot we passed by.  The jeep rental company had indicated its location and gave some background stories.  Two cars were sent over the cliff during the filming (to shoot different angles), both later recovered and helicoptered out. Dummies were used instead of real people, but no one informed the diver going down to attach hooks to the cars.  He about had a heart attack under water when thinking the dummies were real people.  Putting movie endings and stories aside, it is a breath-taking location in its own right.

12-g16-5736Overlooking this view but from 2,000 feet up, the butte of Dead Horse Point overshadows its surroundings.  Where far-reaching views and the river’s horseshoe bend can be seen from up there, it’s an entirely different view from below.  Just another iconic shot of this incredible redrock country.

12-g16-5739A couple posts back in my Canyonlands’ blog, I mentioned there being a second route beside the highway to access the park’s entrance.  Call it the scenic way (some might say foolhardy), the road leading up Shafer Canyon will also take travelers to Canyonlands’ borders.  And on this bright and beautiful day, that was exactly the route we were taking.

12-g16-574112-shafer-signFor sure, it’s steep and somewhat risky—there are signs giving warnings and such.  But the Shafer Trail is well-known and well-used and offers plenty of outstanding birds’ eye views.  You just can’t get such an experience on any old pavement road.

I had prepared Chris well for this little endeavor .  .  .  he had some “warm-up roads” under his belt already.  When it came right down to it and we’re on the way up, we were committed to “no turning back”. So why did I hear something uttered under his breath, something that sounded a lot like “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!”?

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Looking forward to what was to come  .  .  .  looking back from whence we had come.

A thrilling experience all the way!

The Shafer switchbacks zigzag from the canyon floor to the plateau above, rising 1,500 feet.  This route was previously used by cattlemen and sheep herders back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  After grazing their livestock up on the grassland plateau, they’d move them down to the canyons when winter was approaching.  Although this went on for several years, it wasn’t exactly a fail safe route—a few unlucky animals would slide off the steep canyon walls.

Of course, we made it up!  Never did I have any doubts.  Chris might have lost some enamel off his teeth, but what a small price to pay for the experience.  High mountain passes in Colorado have nothing over this Shafer Trail—and I’m glad to know we still have the heart to take them!  It’s a classic trail that is probably known far and wide, but just how many can say THEY TOOK IT!!!

12-g16-5762And in the end, safe on the top, to have captured an impressive image like this!

12-g16-5758Which pretty much sums up our time in Moab.

Taking our leave of great redrock country,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

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Posted in Moab, Utah | Leave a comment

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK–A Different Perspective

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

~Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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Salt Valley Overlook, late afternoon.

photo: Credit: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

photo: Credit: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Forty years ago Arches was anisolated and infrequently visited spot.  There was only a simple dirt track when Edward Abbey was a ranger here and wrote his seminal work, Desert Solitaire.  Today is a different story.  The park has been ‘discovered’ and unless it’s the dead of winter you’re practically assured of being part of a crowd that rivals those of the Grand Canyon.  By mid-morning on this particular October week, the line of cars entering the park stretched well over a fourth of a mile.  Fortunately I was departing, having arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, with no intention of returning until late in the afternoon. Still, I was hoping to find the essence, the true nature, of Arches National Park, despite the crowds of people.

 

If he were alive, Edward Abbey would probably be apoplectic by such a scene.  As it is now, he could be turning over in his grave if he knew these circumstances existed. Having spent a few years of his life here at Arches, he forged a strong connection to this land which he so vividly illustrates in Desert Solitaire.  Anyone who reads this book won’t have trouble understanding Abbey’s attraction to this rugged desert landscape as well as his feelings as to how people should experience it.

I intend to put a different slant on this blog.  Rather than providing our personal experiences and descriptions of the park, I’ll let the written words and biographical information of Edward Abbey take you through.  My photos, his thoughts.  Between the two, perhaps your interest will be piqued .  .  .  maybe enough to inspire a trip of your own, or to read his book, seeing the park through his words.  All of the quotations have been taken from Desert Solitaire.  And, let me add, those words don’t necessarily reflect my thoughts or opinions, at least to their fullest extent.  Nevertheless, they certainly illustrate his personality and beliefs.

11-5diii-2185“ . . . most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast.  This is not a travel guide but an elegy.”

~ Author’s Note

In the late 1950s Edward Abbey spent a couple of summers as a ranger in what was then Arches National Monument.  His experiences during those summers living in a park trailer in the interior of the monument became the basis for his first nonfiction book, Desert Solitaire:  A Season in the Wilderness.  The book is filled with beautiful descriptions of the raw desert.  He also includes some of his adventures while there, as well as his views on development in the Southwest.

In 1929, newly-inaugurated President Herbert Hoover declared two separate areas as Arches National Monument, both near Moab, Utah.  The area was enlarged and opened to tourist development by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938.  It was designated as a national park in 1971, and although Abbey might disagree, the raw beauty of the landscape is still on display, as the one million visitors each year will come to see.

“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” 

For Abbey, the desert and stark canyon lands of the American Southwest, beyond the end of the roads, became his ideal place.  Passing the visitor center, the park road winds steeply up the side of the canyon formed by the Moab Fault, past the Penguins and along the Great Wall until the full splendor of the park comes in to view at the top.  With its towering monoliths and spires, the aptly named Park Avenue is a grand introduction.

11-g16-5613“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

Based on his activities as a park ranger, Desert Solitaire is often compared to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  Published in 1968, Abbey’s classic reveals his fierce devotion to the desert’s wild landscapes and equally fierce opposition to something he called “industrial tourism” where development, including visitor centers and roads, is the center of people’s “nature” experiences rather than nature itself.

“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”

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Landscape Arch, morning light.

To call Edward Abbey simply an “environmentalist” would be inaccurate. Although his writing focused primarily on environmental issues, Abbey seemed to be constantly critiquing the culture that surrounded him. His works ranged from fiction writing to blunt, and sometimes harsh, essays. Much of his writing was so controversial that even some groups of environmentalists rebuked his stance. Abbey was known to throw beer cans from his car because the highway he was traveling had already ruined the landscape surrounding it.

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs–anything–but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”

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Skyline Arch at sundown.

” Let the people walk .  .  . What about children? What about the aged and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents’ backs need only wait a few years–if they are not run over by automobiles they will grow up into a lifetime of joyous adventure. . . . The aged merit even less sympathy: after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled.”

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North Window at sunrise.

You can’t help but feel his passion in this deeply poetic book.  It has philosophy.  It has humor.  It has sincerity and conviction.  His words are often blunt and even callous in their fervor.

“So I lived alone.
The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally.”

He finds a supreme irony in the fact that our national parks originated with a two-fold purpose:  “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. Two principle goals which he perceives as destined to collide as the public’s enjoyment today implicitly involves the automobile and the roads they require.

“Wilderness and motors are incompatible and the former can best be experienced, understood and enjoyed when the machines are left behind where they belong — on the superhighways and in the parking lots . . . “

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Broken Arch, late afternoon.

“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”

The book is interspersed with observations and discussions about the various tensions, be they physical, social or existential, between humans and the desert environment. Many of the chapters also contain lengthy critiques of modern Western civilization, our country’s politics, and the decline of America’s environment.  At times it becomes a polemic against development and excessive tourism in our national parks.

And, from my experience in the days we were there, Abbey does have a point.  For all its grandeur, unless one is willing to walk several miles or at least out of sight of the roads and popular locations, you’ll be hard pressed to find a spot where you can create a personal relationship with this unique landscape.

“Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. not so much from choice as from necessity – I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

11-g16-5660In his own unique and provocative style, Abbey describes his experiences as a park ranger in Arches National Park (it was a National Monument back then) before it became more “civilized”.  Abbey is blunt, at times testy, a bit irascible, and certainly rough around the edges. He is, as one writer put it, an “eloquent loner”.

Abbey was able to create a synthesis between the redrock landscape and his words, as rough and stark as the scenery itself, compelling the reader to feel and see his world.

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The Fins in Devil’s Garden, twilight.

Desert Solitaire is moving, passionate, and controversial. His words are heartfelt.  You won’t always agree with Abbey, but you will think. And you will be grateful Abbey took you along for the wild ride and let you in on some of his adventures.

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The Three Gossips, late morning.

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.”

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Balanced Rock, sunrise.

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

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The Organ, late morning.

“A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins.”

Another sight that I’m sure would distress Abbey in no small measure would be to witness the throngs that gather almost every evening at one of the park’s most noteworthy places.  Delicate Arch is where the action happens.  The Mecca of Arches, the end of the rainbow, simply the iconic image of the park.  A thicket of tripods manned by photographers of every caliber line the sloping sandstone shelf overlooking that magnificent arch.  All are waiting for that special moment, hoping for “the glow”—the magic moment when the setting sun, on clear evenings, turns Delicate Arch a fiery red.

11-g16-5636“If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful – that which is full of wonder.”

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Delicate Arch, sunset.

Perched precariously on the edge of a sandstone basin, this lone arching ribbon of stone well deserves its reputation.  You earn the privilege to behold it in all its glory as the hike is a steady uphill climb across slickrock, ending with a narrow catwalk of a trail carved into the face of a sheer cliff.  Delicate Arch, standing 45 feet tall and framing the distant La Sal Mountains, justifiably earns the right to be the most photographed feature in a most photogenic national park.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wall.

Edward Abbey’s life ended in much the same way as he had lived . . . with his unique style and personal choices.  Not wanting to be embalmed, he made a request that his friends transport his body in the bed of a pickup truck to his grave, wrapped only in a sleeping bag, and buried without attention to the laws concerning burial.  His final wish was to fertilize the growth of a tree, bush or other desert plant.  He also made the request that a marker would include his final words .  .  .  “No Comment.”  A group of his closest friends fulfilled those wishes.  Then celebrated his life with one loud and boisterous wake.

A person is fortunate, extremely so, when his words far outlive his life.  So it is with Edward Abbey.  You might find his views somewhat untenable, but some thoughts are worth giving credence to. Keeping with the theme of this post, he should have the final words.

So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”

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View across the Petrified Dunes, sunrise.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.

May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Postscript:

If Abbey’s words have touched a chord in you, perhaps you’d like to give the following book by David Gessner a once over:  All the Wild that Remains:  Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; or read a short synopsis here.

Posted in Arches National Park, Utah | 2 Comments

CANYONLANDS NAT’L PARK—A Wild and Rugged Land

“[It is] a strange, weird, grand region of naked rock with cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.”

~John Wesley Powell, recorded during his 1869 Expedition near the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

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Okay, close your eyes and visualize with me here a moment. Imagine standing on a narrow tongue of land, almost 2,000 feet above the land below, overlooking out over a seemingly endless view of canyons, cliffs, buttes and rocky spires. A valley far below you, roughly outlined by a fringe of white rock, containing strange solitary towers rising from its depths. The Grandview Point, in the Island in the Sky district of the park, offers one of the most stunning views in America. The Green and Colorado Rivers have carved a surreal landscape here.

10-mrw-3842The  mighty Colorado and Green Rivers converge in the heart of Canyonlands National Park.  Both of these rivers washed out up to 2,000’ deep canyons cutting into 300 millions of years of  geological history. A complex network of countless tributary canyons formed by flood and storm water create an endless maze that extends beyond the horizon – a colorful and a truly unique landscape. Rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into the three main districts: The Needles, The Maze and Island in The Sky (locals call it I-Sky). Isolated from one another, these three areas are accessed by separate, dead-end roads. Hoping to capture the essence of this park in one fell swoop, we chose I-Sky for our Canyonlands experience.

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Map of Island in the Sky—beige areas are the mesa top; blue areas drop down into the canyons.

Sandwiched between the Green and Colorado Rivers and looming over the northern reaches of Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky is a grand, flat-topped, juniper-studded mesa offering the park’s most accessible and dramatic photographic opportunities.  About 45 minutes from the town of Moab, it is bisected by a paved road which includes numerous overlooks, each offering a heat-stopping view of hundreds of square miles of river-carved terrain thousands of feet below.

Achieving national park status in 1964, the area has a rich history dating back to the Anasazi Indians.  Evidence shows that humans first passed through here 10,000 years ago; more recently native people lived here a few hundred years ago.  Their pictographs and petroglyphs can be found throughout the park.  European explorers found this region to be an impediment, finding other routes that avoided geographic obstacle. From the 1880s to 1975, local ranchers used much of Canyonlands for winter pasture.  The uranium rush of the 1950s is responsible for most of the back roads in the park.  While the mining altered parts of the landscape, their roads opened the area for recreationalists to discover.

Canyonlands is the largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, so vast it’s divided into three districts.  The Maze is rough, remote, and rarely visited.  Island in the Sky (I-Sky) floats high above the canyon bottoms, a mesa rimmed with vertiginous vistas.  The Needles—more than 110 miles south of I-Sky—offers miles of stupendous hiking.  I-Sky is the most visited region of the national park, last year having more than 600,000 visitors.

There are actually two ways to enter Island in the Sky—one road paved and the other “road” definitely not paved.  One is an official state highway, adequate for any type vehicle and RV to drive; the other is more rough and dusty, having considerably more of a steep grade.   Definitely not adequate without 4WD and as we would later learn, better for vehicles with a short wheel base.  One makes for an easy Sunday drive, and the other, I might venture to say, is only for drivers having ice in their veins—surely not for the faint-hearted.  Oh, but what an experience it is!  In the end, I am very pleased to report, we (er, should I say ‘he’?} managed them both.  (Details and more photos coming in an upcoming post).

10-g16-5766xHighway 313 gently winds and climbs to the entrance of the park while the Shafer Road begins at river level and climaxes with a heart-pounding precipitous climb 1,500’ up the canyon wall, thereby accessing the park’s entrance.

10-shafer-trailPulling into Canyonlands can be the easier part, whereas getting a campsite there can be much more problematic.  For unknown reasons, this large expanse of park having acres upon acres of rolling open land, has only one campground with a mere 12 sites, all on a first-come, first-serve basis!  Nicely laid out, with paved pads and road, perhaps the park’s creators anticipated much less of a demand.  Maybe that was so back in the 1960s, but today it’s quite a different story.  Nearly 30 miles from the main highway, and then another 10 to reach the campgrounds around Moab, you need to have Lady Luck on your side when you pull into Willow Flats Campground, or expect to make the round trip drive back to Moab each day.  Choosing to arrive on the Monday after a 4-day school holiday weekend and pulling in at the break of day, we were fortunate to find several sites being vacated.  Selecting one than could accommodate our near 30’ trailer (at least half of the sites are sized more for tents), we simply waited until the previous campers pulled out.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0047.JPGIt was a super site and we settled in for our 3-day stay.10-g16-584410-g16-5848Overlooks rule at Island in the Sky – once we began checking out the lay of the land I came to realize that  what I had read in my research was confirmed – the district is mainly centered around various overlooks from the high elevation of the “island” mesa top. When at Island in the Sky, the numerous overlooks are where it’s primarily at. Some are easy to access .  .  .

.  .  .  like this view just across from the Visitor Center. 10-g16-5776xWhile others come with no small amount of extreme effort .  .  .  like this view going down the Shafer Road to the river below (adventure to be described in that upcoming post).

10-g16-5779xAnd yet, there are still some excellent views waiting along the scenic park road.  Overlooks with parking areas make it easy .  .  .  sometimes all you need do is step from your car.

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Early morning light illuminates Candlestick Tower.

While other views are just a short walk down a well-trod path.

9-g16-559810-5diii-2666xThen again, maybe to get the full effect—the complete enchilada, you’ve really gotta do the steps and work the plan and head down a trail or two.  But just as I wrote in my previous post, there are rich rewards to be gained with not that much exertion.  Besides, walking across the slickrock terrain can actually be FUN!  Trust me.

You’ll want to start with the White Rim Trail .  .  .  it’s not just the tremendous views that await, but also the whole complete picture of what Island in the Sky is all about.  C’mon—it’s only a mile out to the point and a mere 140’ elevation gain.  You’ll easily do it!

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Once reaching the promontory, an expansive panorama of the White Rim, the Colorado River canyon, and the spires of Monument Basin spread out before you.

Even though they share many of the same perspectives, one aspect of Canyonlands that is different from Dead Horse Point is the view you get of the White Rim from just about every overlook at Island in the Sky.  Halfway down from where you stand (that’s 1,000 feet or so), is a wide flat plateau that has been formed by a layer of white sandstone much more resistant to erosion than the strata above or below it.  The White Rim (looking a tad more beige-ish in this early morning light) parallels the Colorado and Green Rivers forming a belt around the Island in the Sky’s circumference.

10-5diii-2627xMonument Basin is the star of this overlook, giving a grand picture of what lies in the deepest recesses of the river canyons.  Hoodoos and towers and sandstone pillars, looking diminutive in height from the viewer’s perspective, would dwarf an elephant if standing nearby.

10-5diii-2631x10-5diii-2644xEasily seen from all of the overlooks, a 100-mile track, the White Rim Road, built by uranium prospectors after World War II winds along the edge of the rim. Driving the full distance is said to take 2 days at least (overnight camping areas are provided) and a few parts require 4WD.

Not every attraction at Canyonlands involves heading to an overlook.  To keep things interesting there’s a few good destinations sitting out on the mesa.  Paved roads lead to the trailheads, and again, the length of the trails won’t break your bank (or your reserves of energy).

Upheaval Dome Overlook is one of the most memorable features in Canyonlands.  It’s unexpected and so different from the surrounding landscape.  One minute you’re hiking over redrock terrain, and then ka-boom! you’re face-to-face with a surprising geologic feature.

It looks like a big climb, but hiking on slickrock is definitely easy.  Something of a misnomer, this wind and rain-polished rock is actually gritty with beautiful striations and textures.  Maybe slick and treacherous when wet, when dry you’ll find it grips your shoes and makes the uphill climb lots easier.

10-g16-5802xOn the way to the second overlook (most people seemed to stop at the first one) you’ll begin seeing far-off views and a more varied terrain.  Worth the extra mile or so, you’ll learn that like most hiking trails, it’s not just about your destination.

10-g16-5807xYou walk uphill to what has the appearance of the rim of crater and standing there on the brink, you look in.  Wow, what a sight!

It is an amazing metamorphic feature whose origin is the subject of some debate. In stark contrast to the otherwise flat sedimentary rock formations across all of Canyonlands, this is a crater, 2 miles wide, surrounded by a ring of raised sandstone in which the strata have been buckled and twisted. At the center, some distance below the rim, sits a blue-tinged mass of distorted rock; the basin resembles a volcanic crater but it is thought either to result from meteorite impact or an upsurge of salt deposits from deep below the surface.

10-g16-5797xIt was described by an eminent geologist in 1943 as the most remarkable geological site yet discovered in Utah.

10-g16-5810xAnother feature that definitely adds interest to Canyonlands’ mesa top is the series of swirl-top sandstone mesas rising from the otherwise flat plateau.  Offering a different type of hiking experience, they also hold evidence of the Anasazi who came before.

We couldn’t wait to tackle this trail!

10-g16-5838xAztec Butte is the most prominent of the Navajo sandstone domes on the Island, and the trail leading up to its nearly flat summit presents an all-encompassing panorama.  But first comes the task of climbing up there.  Chris was pretty motivated.  My spirit was willing .  .   .  but would my body see it through?

10-g16-5822xIn truth, it doesn’t get dicey until near the very top. There, a steep rock-face has deterred more than one hiker, we saw.  But with a good team leader, you can do it!

Two hundred feet of elevation later, we were standing on the top and what a glorious view it was!  A trail leads around the summit perimeter, providing far-reaching panoramas.  Taylor Canyon is the notable view, with its redrock buttes stretching to the horizon.  Yes, the Anasazi had it right—this spot was prime real estate!

10-g16-5823xSome reconstructed stone ruins are seen as you wind your way around the top.  Not much is left after several hundred years have gone by.

10-g16-5826xWith Aztec Butte behind us, we then climbed an adjacent, smaller one. A sheltered alcove tucked beneath the rim of the butte’s summit leads to ancient stone granaries.  Once used for storing water, seeds and food in tightly sealed baskets and pots, the Anasazi used granaries as we would pantries today.

10-g16-5840xAztec Butte was just the leg-warmer for our last hike in Canyonlands.  I had my heart set on the False Kiva Trail, but I knew it would be a tough challenge (read: attempting another steep scramble). And yet, there would be glory in the destination.

It is debated whether to disclose the exact location of False Kiva as it enjoys a semi-protected status. While park rangers are required to disclose the location of the Class II site, it does not appear on official maps of the park.  Having no map in hand to guide us could make the hike extraordinarily tricky, but fortunately Chris had recently acquired a new hiking trail app—AllTrails—that gives great directions as well as mapping your route along the trail via GPS that allowed us to navigate to our goal.  If you’re any kind of hiker, we’ll assure you at  $30/year it’s worth every dollar.

The trail starts out easy enough . . . clearly visible, with just slight ups-and-downs.

10-false-kiva-trail-1-2But before it’s over, you are crossing over the side of a cliff, loose talus on the trail.  And then it becomes really interesting as you must scale the cliff, and the loose rock becomes larger boulders along the way.

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Looking back from the way we came.

About then, you’re wondering if this could all be worth it.

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The absolute most difficult part—yes, there’s a trail going up the side of that cliff.

And finally, the trail rounds a bend and there it is.  The site is called “False Kiva” because people falsely believed the main round structure is a kiva or ceremonial room.  However these big structures were fairly common shelters for ancestral Puebloan people living in the area around 1200 AD.  Partial excavation and stabilization of the big structure in 1986 showed it was  only used for daily activities like cooking and sleeping.  The absence of a midden or garbage area indicates the site was only occupied for a short time, although the presence of the storage cists indicate that foods were stored there.

10-false-kiva-2False Kiva is a hauntingly beautiful photo location made popular by landscape photographer, Tom Till.  Hidden under a vast alcove at the edge of Island in the Sky, it has all the ingredients of a great canyon country shot.  It is the low circular ruin forming an ideal foreground to a classic Canyonlands grand scenic, with the silhouette of Candlestick Butte balancing the shot.

10-5diii-2693-hdrChris was underwhelmed .  .  .  but he had to admit that afternoon WAS a huge adventure.

And now, before I close off this Canyonlands post, I must admit that the best was saved for last.  What Delicate Arch is to Arches and Thor’s Hammer is to Bryce, Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is the iconic image here.  Even more than that, some would say it’s become a “classic” of the entire Southwest.  Whatever claims are made, it is simply The Shot To Get, and every visitor to the park, be they sightseer or professional photographer, makes the pilgrimage to this spot.  A stream of tour buses all day, a gaggle of photographers before dawn.  It’s that well-known and that well-photographed.  A place that popular is not exactly my kind of place. But when in Rome .  .  . I ended up paying a visit each day, each time seeing a different scene.

Framing the rugged Colorado River canyon as the pinnacles of Washer Woman and Airport Tower add distinction and the peaks of the La Sal Mountains form a backdrop, Mesa Arch, composed of Navajo sandstone, is a small but graceful span perched on the very rim of the mesa.  Making an ideal sunrise location, the red sandstone seems to glow as if on fire when the first rays of the rising sun strike the underneath side of the arch.

During the day (when most people see it) the Arch is interesting but without any glow it’s just another scenic Canyonlands’ view.

10-g16-5765My first morning visit was not what I had hoped for.  With overcast morning skies, the sun barely made an appearance.

No light, no drama. No rewards.

10-5diii-2659-hdrAh, things changed on that second morning!  Clear skies with just enough clouds to bring colors to the sky and sunlight definitely did break through. Mesa Arch lit up and the view came alive, but sadly the crowd of photographers kept me off to one end of the row of shooters.

(Tomorrow, I’ll be here sooner!)

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Third time’s a charm they say, and it worked that way for me!  Our last morning in the park—good morning light, a better position and everything came together.  My iconic Canyonlands’ shot was in the bag.

10-5diii-2788-hdrCanyonlands is more than a picturesque place to grab good photographs.  One visit to this unique national park will soon make apparent that with its towering mesas and buttes, sheer and colorful cliffs, dramatic views and interesting trails, it epitomizes the canyon country of our Southwest.  It is truly a magnificent park where two great rivers have carved their way through rock, leaving a maze of serpentine canyons in their wake.  The fins, buttes and spires are a photographers’ delight, as well as all those who come just to view the park’s offerings.

10-5diii-2813-hdrThe Green River overlook was just down the road from where we were camping.   Bordered by soaring sandstone cliffs and overlooking the chasm of Soda Springs Basin, the overlook seemed to present a microcosm of what Canyonlands is.  With a view to the western sky, I found it a convenient and ideal place to end our days here.  Finding solitude as I strolled the mesa’s rim, the soft evening light seemed to inspire reflection.  It’s easy to sense the timelessness of this place, not so easy to comprehend the forces of nature that carved this scene. And so, I am left just to appreciate what I am seeing, to capture it with my camera.

Author Edward Abbey, a frequent visitor and seasonal ranger at nearby Arches, described the Canyonlands as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.”    That pretty much sums it up.

10-5diii-2712-hdrAirstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

Posted in Canyonlands Nat'l Park, Utah | 2 Comments

DEAD HORSE POINT STATE PARK–Despite the Name, Admire the Views

Personal Note:  Airstream Travelers are no longer on the road.  Shortly after posting the last blog, we finished our journey after accumulating just under 4,000 miles on our Airstream alone (almost double that on the truck).  A glorious trip where the weather gods smiled down on us (something never to be taken for granted) and nothing major went wrong (another factor never a given).  Now I am left to finish my posts from a different perspective—back in Indiana.  But truth be told, I still sit at the same table in the Airstream where all the previous posts were composed.  It’s my way of retaining something of the ambiance experienced in our travels, as well as  a good solitary spot where everyday life isn’t as prone to interrupt.  I hope you who are still following our story don’t feel the spontaneity of our travels has been lost because there are still a few magnificent places yet to come.  The following one being a personal favorite.

9-deadhorsestateparkmap-1Two parks—tied together by a common denominator, both high desert plateaus, each located on their own isolated promontory jutting out over the deep gorge of the Colorado River.   Soaring two thousand feet above the river below, both places offer incredible panoramic views, yet each of those views is distinctly different.  The common thread that they share is the road you must take to access them.  Geographically, they are next-door neighbors.  One is a national park, the other is one of Utah’s most outstanding state parks. When the access road divides, the fork to your left will take you to the entrance of Dead Horse Point State Park—our next destination.

Less than a dozen miles north of the town of Moab you’ll come to the turnoff that leads to both parks.  Leaving the redrock country behind you, the Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway first goes through rolling grasslands of BLM open grazing country.  Before becoming too comfortable with the drive, you’ll encounter a series of hairpin curves as the ascent to the high plateau begins.  About 15 miles along the Scenic Byway you’ll reach the fork—left leads to the state park; right will take you to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands.  That segment will have to wait for a coming post.  Now we’re headed to Dead Horse Point.

It’s a small state park, covering just 5,300 acres at the edge of a plateau, dwarfed by the size of nearby Canyonlands.  But what it lacks in size it more than compensates for with its views. Even before standing on its Point with the magnificent overlook, the views from the Visitor Center is none too shabby.  Here you’ll get your first taste of what is to come—looking across vast areas of eroded ridges and cliffs, the bright turquoise tailing ponds of a potash mining complex and in the far distance, the peaks of the La Sal Mountains giving a backdrop to the scene.

Facilities consist of the Visitors Center, a picnic area and the small campground.  Nevertheless, the Center is first class and is a must-stop on your way in.  Located on the plateau’s rim, you’ll get a cram course on the background of the area as well as getting your bearings on where to proceed from here.

9-g16-5578Nestled within a grove of juniper, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert.  Unfortunately, it consists of only 21 sites, all but four are reserveable and that means you need to jump on it if you have any hopes of camping here.  The sites are all very nice, most with good separation, having paved drives—some pull-throughs, and all with covered patio areas, complete with storage area, electrical outlets and oversized picnic tables.  The absolute best part of camping here is the proximity it affords you to the views and hiking trails.  With the campgrounds of Moab at least a 40-minute drive away, it’ll make snagging those sunrise photos at the overlooks a whole lot easier to manage.

9-g16-5601Arriving in the late afternoon, I was anxious to get where all the action was.  The famous overlook.  The Dead Horse Point.  Renowned for its sunrise views, its sunsets weren’t reputed to be a bust by any means.  Intending to scope out my sunrise spot, I’d hang around to see what twilight would offer.

Late afternoon light paints the buttes and cliffs of the canyon in a golden hue.

Late afternoon light paints the buttes and cliffs of the canyon in a golden hue.

I watched the sun drop over the canyons (sunset photos will come later), then returned to the location where I had previously been shooting.  With the sun now gone what a transformation is seen—from the warm afternoon light to the cool shades of twilight.  And yet, it’s the very same view (albeit, with a lot longer shutter speed!).

9-5diii-1899Dead Horse Point is situated atop a high plateau at an elevation of about 6,000 feet above sea level. From the Point, a “layer cake” of geologic time may be viewed in the buttes, cliffs and pinnacles, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history—in myriad bands of different hues.

And then came the climax of the evening.  Tonight was the full Hunter’s moon night. Every photographer’s goal—shoot the full moon rising over a dramatic landscape.  And yet, I thought my ship had sailed, that last evening was the prime time for full moon photos.  If you wait until the full moon night (full moons rise as the sun is setting), you can expect the landscape to be too dark, the moon looking more like a spotlight in a black sky. With the full moon due to rise above the mountain peaks, I had figured that by the time it appeared above the horizon the landscape would be way too dark to recover. And then it happened.

9-5diii-1908xWhat did I have to lose?  There it was, rising full and huge and so bright it actually lit the landscape below it!  An amazing sight.  Quick! Turn the tripod and focus in—then let the camera do its magic.  I wouldn’t know until much later, but I was successful in my endeavors.  A great place to be on a full moon night.

9-5diii-1912Scroll forward to the following morning .  .  .  you can be sure that I had returned.  With headlight lit up and another in hand, I scrambled down to a previously scouted-out sunrise location . . . a protected ledge below the official overlook.

But first, before the famous view was lit, I saw the eastern sky come alive—it was a fiery sunrise scene.  I switched my view and leaned over the rocks (the view being around huge boulders) and caught an unanticipated sight.

9-5diii-1942-hdrAnd then, it was back to the Main Act .  .  .

The view from Dead Horse Point is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world.”  This spectacular overlook provides a breathtaking panorama of Canyonlands’ sculpted pinnacles and buttes.  But what makes it unique is the view of the gooseneck bend in the Colorado River, clearly in sight directly below.

9-5diii-1951-hdrWhat a difference there is from the early dawn light soon to be followed by the first golden rays of sunrise.

9-5diii-1983The photographer side of me motivates an absurdly early, pre-dawn departure from a warm bed, but once on site, the quixotic side of me desires to simply stand and absorb the scene I came for.  Forget the reason I find myself here.  Sometimes, what I witness on a sunrise shoot is so totally overwhelming that it requires some moments to merely pay homage to.  Standing on this narrow piece of wind-blown rock confronted by the scene before me was one of those singular moments.  A moment to pause and bear witness to the grandeur, to the timelessness of this scene.  Then in the span of one deep breath, I transform to my other side and quickly begin capturing the image with camera.

9-5diii-1999Many comparisons can be made between Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands, but they have their contrasts too.  One feature we found most noticeable was the layout of their trail systems.  While Canyonlands has one main park road with side arteries cutting off of it that lead to trailheads, Dead Horse Point also has the one main road leading to the Point, but except for the campground side road, no other roads lead off to trails.  Instead, Dead Horse Point has one main Rim Trail—subdivided into the West and East Rim—which forms a great loop hike of nearly 7 miles that encircles the high plateau.  Added to the loop, there are a couple of spur trails, short in distance, that lead to superb overlooks.  But for the majority of the trail, the entire loop affords spectacular views out over the canyon, offering a change of perspective and views throughout the hike.  With only minor changes in elevation, and scenes to set your spirit soaring, the trail’s length will hardly faze you.

9-hiking-map-1From views that seem to go on forever, they’re easily as grand as any in nearby Canyonlands, but here you’ll find the trails not nearly as heavily hiked as the ones in Canyonlands.

9-5diii-2013You’ll find other views along the trail so close up and in your face, such as this overlook of Pyramid Butte, you’d think a thrown rock could reach it.

9-g16-5591Scenery so spectacular and overwhelming to make the observer feel infinitesimal and awestruck.  That’s what this Rim Trail has to offer.

9-g16-5598As inspiring and majestic as this location is, there is the origin of its name that leaves one to wonder. According to the stories, around the turn of the century the end of the plateau—now Dead Horse Point—was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top.  Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the Point.  The neck, which is only 30 yards wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush.  This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape.  Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

9-g16-5568In contrast to that sad story, today you’ll find the Point a place of wonder and delight.  I came to learn that it is also a ritual gathering place when the day is closing down.  Both evenings spent here at the park, I came to admire the setting and was a witness to the rite of sunset.  One night was a time more of jubilation—energetic with all manner of selfie photos being taken, while conversely the other was an evening of repose and quiet reflection.  Different groups of people, different styles of expression.  And the observer in me felt compelled to savor and save it.

9-5diii-1886-hdrWith one last parting shot .  .  .

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Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah | Leave a comment