JOSHUA TREE NAT’L PARK—When Once Just Isn’t Enough

Occasionally, you get a taste for something that seems intriguing, and then all too soon it’s gone.  Something that you received just a small dose of, and ended up wanting more.  Perhaps the full appreciation didn’t develop until after the event.  Or, in this case, the place.  So it was with Joshua Tree—at least for me.  It might have been the rainy, overcast conditions of that first visit that overshadowed the potential of this park.  It could have been our short time there—only 3 days—that didn’t provide enough time to explore its full value.  Whatever the case, I was giving Joshua Tree a second look .  .  . its location being a mere 50 miles or so from the outskirts of Palm Springs.  A short drive away, by noon we were pulling into the park’s south entrance.

RV camping in Joshua Tree isn’t ideal.  Although having just under 500 campsites spread over 8 campgrounds, the 200 sites that are reserveable are located within two campgrounds on the northern fringes of the park; one not having direct access into the park (it has its own entrance), while the other is reviewed as having terribly rutted roads.  The remaining campgrounds have sites more sized for tents and very small campers, leaving a precious few sites large enough for medium to large RVs.  Therein lies the need for early arrival time, most certainly in the prime spring months as well as all weekends.  We were among the few fortunate who were able to find an adequate site, privately tucked away among the rock formations in Jumbo Rocks Campground.  Once again proving that Airstreams come with assets not readily apparent.

The weather gods seemed to be blessing us on this second visit of ours.  Instead of dismally damp days, we arrived to sapphire skies filled with billowy clouds.  Glorious, spirit-lifting sunshine.  Okay, maybe with some blustery conditions (something more common than not here in the Southwest, we had discovered) to make the day slightly less than perfect.  Nevertheless, with high expectations we set out to reacquaint ourselves with a park we hadn’t seen in two years.

The Joshua Tree is the significant hallmark of the park (naturally).  Not the only outstanding park feature, but certainly the most iconic. Distinctive in its appearance—is there anything that compares to it?—many adjectives have been used to describe it.  Unique.  Gnarled.  Grotesque.  Something out of a Dr. Seuss book.  From my standpoint, Joshua trees have great photogenic potential in both their character and their shape.  I had big hopes for coming away with some unique pictures.  Joshua trees just don’t grow in many southwest desert locations.

They are native to the Mojave Desert.   Situated between the Great Basin Desert to the north and the Sonoran to the south, the Mojave is an arid, rain-shadow desert, the driest in North America. Elevations of the Mojave are generally between three to six thousand feet, although Death Valley (found within the Mojave boundaries) includes an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.  Joshua Trees only grow in elevations between 1,200 to 6,000 feet, the High Desert of the Mojave.

On this splendiferous day we soon discovered a rare event—the trees were in bloom!  Not a given in just any year of the Joshua trees’ life, to produce blooms require the perfect conditions:  well-timed rains and a crisp winter freeze.  So their stars must have been in perfect alignment (as were ours) and we were witnesses to this special occurrence.  Big clusters of white-green flowers were popping from the tips of their branches.  A great photo op on the first day of our visit.

Although our first trip to Joshua Tree wasn’t under such great conditions, I did come away with a few good photos.  You can find the collection as well as more information on these trees (that are actually yuccas) in my Airstream Travelers’ post of two years ago.  Without being redundant in this current post, I’ll let my photos give you the whole picture.  In contrast to our last visit, this time I had abundantly clear skies, unfortunately so.  Proving you can have too much of a good thing, a few clouds would have helped give more photographic interest.  But, be things as they were, I never missed a sunrise or evening shot.  And let the trees work their magic in the landscapes.

As much as the trees, another feature of the park is equally difficult not to notice.  The boulders.  The mountains of rocks.  Everywhere are piles.  In all sizes .  .  .  some quite overwhelming.  If you care to learn more about their origins and the appeal they provide to rock climbers, just read more in another post previously written.  Suffice it to say, on this trip we also took advantage of their scenic potential.

Driving through the backcountry to trailheads.

The trail to Barker Dam is filled with rock formations.  Literally towering above the well-worn path, crowding in on both sides along the trail.  Weaving your way through passages, it’s tempting not to go astray, to take a climb up some of those piles.  It tends to bring out the kid in you.

Back in the ranching days when cattle grazing was a way of eking out a living here, a dam was built within these rocks to contain a water supply for the cows as well as the mining operations nearby.  Bone dry as it was two years ago, this time it was a veritable lake (giving proof the California drought had taken a turn).

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the take from the mines in the Sierras petered out, miners fanned out into the deserts. Here hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging environment in which to operate a mine. But a few hardy adventurers persevered and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park—although few were.

An old windmill rises from the desert floor.  This relic of the old west is trapped in time, a rusting site in an arid landscape.

The trail to Desert Queen Mine leads to an overlook directly above the ruins of this mine.  One of the more productive mines, it produced 3,845 ounces of gold from 1894 to 1961.  Along the way you’ll see evidence of equipment left behind.

Curious Chris takes a closer look.

You might even be surprised at what you’ll find half buried in the shifting sands.

One of the most scenic spots in the whole of Joshua Tree is found on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.  With the overcast, socked-in conditions of our last trip, we didn’t even attempt to check this place out.  This time it was a different story.

The scenic road to the top leads through one of the thickest groves of Joshua trees in the entire park.

It is an awesome view.  The panorama before you takes in the glimmering water of the Salton Sea spanning west to snow-capped Mount San Jacinto rising above the town of Palm Springs.  Slashing across the valley floor is the San Andreas Fault—the whole landscape of the Coachella Valley.

After soaking in that view, one last memorable sight can be seen far to the right.  There, beyond the rolling ridges of the San Bernardino Mountains rises 11,499-foot Mount San Gorgonio, the highest point in Southern California.

Between the trees, the rocks and the all-encompassing views, how could this not have been a memorable visit?

And the hiking wasn’t too shabby either.

Hitting the high notes in Joshua Tree,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, Joshua Tree N.P. | Leave a comment

PALM SPRINGS—Who would’ve thought . . .

It wasn’t a town I had on my radar screen.  It certainly didn’t sound like our kind of place.  Palm Springs?  Really???  The image conjured in my mind was a town known for its polo matches and a plethora of golf courses.  Designer boutiques and upscale restaurants added to it.  But I kept an open mind when Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa, informed us that they’d be spending a good deal of the winter near the town and wondered if our travel plans would perhaps coincide with their location.  Lo and behold, Palm Springs was directly in line with our drive from Borrego Springs to Joshua Tree.  Literally smack in the middle of our route.  Although by then it was late in the planning (Palm Springs and environs being a hot spot for snow birds), I got to work and snagged us a spot in a conveniently-located RV resort.  Fait accompli!  Palm Springs was added on to our itinerary.

Bordering the east side of Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Route-86 is where we took a turn north, finding that it’s an easy drive of about 75 miles to the town of Palm Springs.  A very scenic drive.  First you’ll see the great Salton Sea (you’d end up IN the Salton Sea if not making that turn to the north).  It ran for miles and miles before finally disappearing in our rear-view mirror.  Connecting with I-10, we passed through the Coachella Valley, fertile farmland interspersed with countless country club golf courses.  A beautiful landscape .  .  .  it’s a different world out here in Southern California.

Locally known as “The Desert Empire” to differentiate it from the neighboring Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley is an area of fluctuating but constantly increasing population.  Having around 500,000 people living here in April, the number drops to slightly less than half that size by July, only to bounce back and hit a high of nearly 800,000 people by January.  It all goes to show that the area, including Palm Springs, is one popular winter destination.

Although the valley is an extension of the Sonoran Desert and thereby has a very arid climate, agriculture is big business here.  Having large underground aquifers left over from the last ice age (over 10,000 years ago) when this area was under a fresh water lake,  and with the help of the Coachella Canal which brings water from the Colorado River, the area is a prime date-growing region . . . providing 95% of our nation’s crop.  After passing endless miles of what we took to be palm tree nurseries, it finally dawned on us that “Hey, this is some kind of crop!”  Indeed it was.

But it doesn’t stop with dates.  A variety of fruits and vegetables are growing here.  Table grapes are big.  Citrus fruits in abundance.  Artichokes, avocados, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, figs, grains, lettuce, mangoes, nectarines and peaches—the list goes on and on.   Domesticated grasses, flowers and trees for warm-weather or desert climates are cultivated too.  Mostly they’re sold for use on the golf courses and in landscapes.  Which brings me around to one of the ubiquitous scenes you can’t help but encounter .  .  .  several times a day during your time here.

Golfing .  .  .  everywhere.  Lots of country clubs.  An abundance of courses.  Hard to believe there could be so many within such a relatively small area of land.  But golf they do.  Roughly 125 golf courses blanket the area, making it one of the world’s premier golf destinations.  It is the most popular golf vacation destination in California.    Welcome to Palm Springs!  Just as I expected.

But what I didn’t expect were the mountains .  .  .  so tall and so close.  Approaching the city limits of Palm Springs, it appeared we would be driving straight to the very base of mountains soaring up at the end of the palm-bordered street!  Now that was quite the surprising eye-opener!  A setting such as this was going to add bonus points to a town I was ready to pass by.

They are the San Jacinto Mountains, and the Coachella Valley stretches along the eastern side of the range.  Considered to be a ‘sky island’, the fauna and flora found in these mountains cannot tolerate the triple-digit temperatures found in the surrounding valleys.  While the annual precipitation on the east side of the range averages only 6 inches a year, above 5,500 feet the average can go as high as 30 inches—another factor isolating life found in the elevations.  Within eyesight of Palm Springs rises the highest point in the range, San Jacinto Peak, at a height of nearly 11,000 feet.  Interestingly, its northeast face is the steepest escarpment in the continental U.S., gaining 10,000 feet in just a few miles—no other mountain rises so high so fast, not even the Sierra Nevada or the Grand Tetons.  Wow!  It is squeezed between the San Jacinto fault on the west and the San Andreas fault system on the east, both faults being very active and very capable of producing major earthquakes.  Hmmm, that surely should give a local pause.

Happy Traveler RV Park was easy to find—it’s only a block off Palm Springs’ main drag, Palm Canyon Drive.  An interesting place, it’s biggest assets are the spectacular mountain views as well as being within walking distance of downtown Palm Springs (or a mere half a block from the local trolley stop).  But (and this might be a huge “but”), you’d best have a rig less than 40 feet long if you want to stay here.  Does ‘packed in like sardines” draw you a mental picture?  This was surely one of those myriad of times when we found ourselves deeply appreciative of being Airstream people.

credit: Happy Traveler RV

How the big rigs fit in (and there were some of those here) was a mystery to us .  .  . but fit they did.  As it was, Chris found it a challenge backing in, but after several minor adjustments, we were in like Flynn!  Ready to enjoy a 4-day visit.  Whew!

Despite being a tight fit, the saving grace about this place is giving each site nearly total privacy with 8’ high hedges encircling your space. Feel free to drape with lights for a cheerier look!.

Although settlement of this area had its roots in agriculture, it didn’t take long for the idea of a tourism industry to have its beginnings.  The early 1900s saw people with health conditions coming here for the dry heat.  When naturalist and travel writer George Wharton James’ two volume The Wonders of the Colorado Desert described Palm Springs as having “great charms and attractiveness”, the tourists began to arrive.  That was in 1910.  Another book promoting the area, published in 1920—Our Araby: Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, brought in even more travelers, necessitating more construction of hotels and luxurious resorts.  “Build it and they will come” certainly proved true—soon movie stars were making the pilgrimage, attracted by the hot, dry, sunny weather, seclusion, and proximity to where they worked.  Estates were built and country clubs sprang up.

By the 1930s Palm Springs was immensely popular with movie stars and estate building expanded into the Movie Colony neighborhoods.  Then came more clubs—The Racquet Club in 1934, the Tennis Club in ‘37 and the first golf club also opened in the 1930s.  Nightclubs were popping up as well—The Dunes in 1934 and the Chi Chi Nightclub in ’36.  Southern California’s first self-contained shopping center was built in Palm Springs in 1936.

While Palm Springs remains popular with Hollywood’s rich and famous, retirees and Canadian tourists are adding to its expanding population.  Housing capacity doubled between 1947 and 1965.  No longer just a place to visit in the winter, the town began to morph into a year-round community.  Today it has a population of about 45,000 permanent residents.  While its had its share of ups-and-downs dependent on economic swings, tourism is now a major factor in the city’s economy.  Having over 100 hotels and resorts, with just as many restaurants and dining spots, Palm Springs is open and doing good business.  Following the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, its downtown area has been revitalized, making it now a center of attraction.  It’s a pleasant place to stroll and window shop; small cafes and atmospheric eateries tempt the passer-by to stop and try their offerings.

And wouldn’t you know, we just happened to be arriving on a Thursday afternoon! Sometimes kismet does happen!

 

A great introduction to the downtown area is to take in Villagefest  held every Thursday night from 6-10pm.  Set up in the heart of town, it attracts hundreds (if not thousands) to the event each week.  Like a huge farmers market on steroids, it continues block after block. Booths offer handcrafted items, a diversity of artwork, unique food, as well as great street entertainment performing on each consecutive block.  It’s one big party atmosphere where shops along Palm Canyon Drive stay open late and the Art Museum offers free admission.  An event not to miss!

With a tour of the downtown and a taste of Villagefest under our belts, we were ready to get involved in activities offered in the Palm Springs locale.  There was one that was top on my list—Indian Canyons.

“If you are only going to hike one place while in Palm Springs, this is the one you want to make sure you don’t miss.” 

With a write-up like that, who could resist?

Traversing the east side of Coachella Canyon you’ll see the San Andreas Fault.  Because of this fault, the Valley has many hot springs.  Fault lines cause hot water springs or geysers to rise from the ground.  These natural water sources made habitation and development possible in the otherwise inhospitable desert environment around Palm Springs.

If you read my post on Anza Borrego, then you were informed that the California fan palm flourishes around water oases. Though water might not always be visible, these palms grow downstream from the hot springs source.  Often trampled by animals come to drink at the spring, coupled with requiring a great deal of water and a certain temperature range, many palms never make it to maturity. Protected oasis habitats such as are found in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Coachella Valley Preserve and here at Indian Canyons, to name just a few, ensure the survival of this state’s only native palm tree.

Centuries ago, ancestors of the Cahuilla (Kaw-we-ah) Indians settled in the Palm Springs area, developing extensive and complex communities in the canyons. They had plenty of water and hundreds of varieties of plants and species of animals to ensure stable living conditions.  They planted crops of melons, squash, beans and corn, hunted animals, and gathered plants and seeds for their food and medicines.  Fast forward to the late 1800s when this area was experiencing the establishment of settlements.  Stage coach routes were crossing Indian territory and later the railroads came through.  From that time, our federal government deeded 32,000 acres of their native land to the Agua Caliente people.  Today, this great recreational area of scenic wonder is owned and utilized by the native Indians, who generously make it accessible for public enjoyment.  We headed out for a day of hiking and exploration.

We began with a hike on the most popular trail, Palm Canyon.  Fifteen miles in length, it is billed as one of the great beauty spots in western North America.  The abundance of the California Fan Palm trees make for a breathtaking contrast to the stark, rocky gorges and barren desert lands that surround it.  It begins with a short but steep descent with multiple switchbacks to the canyon below, and then you’re pretty much home free.

Once down, you are immediately surrounded by hundreds of fan palms. You can’t help but be overwhelmed.  This might not have been our first palm oasis to encounter, but it was by far the most extensive and impressive.  Soon you are virtually engulfed by these giants .  .  .  it’s a wondrous thing to experience.

The trail leads through the canyon, slowly gaining in elevation.  Along the way you follow the course of the water, the palms bordering its banks and providing constant shade as you hike.  Occasionally you’re able to get a close-up encounter . . . soak your feet, take a dip, or just enjoy the ambiance.

Truly a jewel in the desert, the arid landscape seems far away.

Occasionally, you come back out into the open  .  .  .  it’s a chance to see the world around.  High rock canyon walls encase the oasis, unrelenting sun is once again bearing down.  Then more palms are up ahead and soon we’re shrouded back in their shade.

I gotta tell you—this is one terrific trail!

Near the end of the hike, we break through the oasis, to begin climbing up one side of the canyon’s wall.  Back comes the sun—unrelentingly so, and the trail becomes increasingly rocky.  What started out as a stroll through cool shade has turned into something quite different (and not in such a good way).  I look ahead to where this uphill travail is leading, stoically trudging on.  The end in sight, I made it up and turning around, looked back to find my reward.

And what a reward it was!

On the way back, we happened upon some workmen I assumed to be tribal members rebuilding a bridge across the flowing water.  I paused before crossing, to say how much we enjoyed taking this trail.  One of them spoke up and suggested that if we have time, we might also appreciate taking the Andreas Canyon Trail.  Having learned long ago in our travels that unsolicited recommendations generally turn out to be very much worth our while, we took off to find its trailhead.

If the view we first saw from the parking lot was any indication, the Andreas Canyon Trail was not going to disappoint.  After admiring the great height of those stately skirted palms, we started out with high expectations.

Not one of the longer trails, this one was a loop that followed another stream through groves of more California Fan Palms.  Even more verdant than the Palm Canyon Trail, the abundant vegetation growing along the water gave the feel of a jungle environment.  It was lush, and green, and heavily shaded .  .  .  a cool respite on a hot winter day.  Could there be a more enjoyable hike?

Crossing over the water at the apex of the loop, the other side was hiked from a higher perspective.  Above the oasis and looking down on it, we had a more open view of the surroundings.  Still green along the trail, the mountain views rose up behind that hidden oasis.  How incredibly scenic!

If ever you find yourself visiting Palm Springs and have any interest in nature, we would highly recommend looking up Indian Canyons.  Just on the outskirts south of town, it is really convenient and I’m here to say you won’t regret taking time for a trail (or three).  Here in these special hidden oases you might just grasp what this valley was before all the building and play grounds began.  An incredibly wonderful place.  The Cahuillas knew a good thing when they found it.  You’ll leave with a memorable  impression.

There’s another side to Palm Springs that I have yet to mention, and you can have good exercise while you explore it.  It came as somewhat of a surprise to learn that this is a very friendly biking town (more bonus points to add on here). Having an extensive system of bike paths that are mostly well-marked, you can choose to tour the downtown area, or famous celebrity homes, or go through the picturesque palm-lined residential district.  That’s my cup of tea—biking and sight-seeing rolled into one good time.

Wasting no time at the start of a new day (and fortified with a hearty breakfast), we took off to explore and follow one of the official bike routes around town. Choosing the 13-mile citywide tour that circles the town,  we’d get a sample of many Palm Spring assets.  You can access the entire Palm Springs bike routes here.

The scenic aspect of biking around town started out with quite a bang. Yep, those are the mountains just outside the gate of our RV park.

Going in a clockwise direction on the city loop, we passed places we had not yet seen.  The Art Museum, the oldest golf club in Palm Springs and the backside of some downtown shops.  A convenient coffeehouse came into view .  .  .  we stopped for a late morning latte and some sweets.  Now that’s a good start to a ride!

The best part was to come . . . biking through  unrestricted (meaning ‘ungated’) nice residential areas.  I was soon to get an introduction to the unique Palm Springs architectural style that had its beginnings several decades ago.  It would be a real eye-opening experience.

Beginning back in the 1920s, architects with a modernist vision were attracted to the desert environment.  Using the dramatic topography of the Coachella Valley as an inspiration, certain architects began to create a design style that came to be known as Desert Modernism  Noted for its use of glass, clean lines, natural and manufactured resources and indoor/outdoor spaces, this new style seemed to evoke a lifestyle of simple elegance and informality.  Influenced by the demands of desert living and the intense climate, the architects and designers employed use of inventive materials, modern construction techniques, post-war technologies and found an enthusiastic and willing clientele to build for here in Palm Springs (read: the wealthy and avant garde type).

Architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the movie stars, using the town to exemplify architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun’s glare.

Palm Springs architecture became the model for mass-produced suburban housing, especially in the Southwest. This “Desert Modern” was a high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows. Environmentalists soon condemned Desert Modern, but still its popularity caught on. Here were houses that fully merged inside and outside, providing spaces for that essential Californian style—and indeed middle-class American—life: leisure.  The style was here to stay.

After touring a few miles of these neighborhoods, we began to notice a definite change in the appearance of the residential community.  We were cruising the streets where people lived, but instead of seeing their homes, there were gates and private entrances blocking what lay beyond.  Wow, talk about security and barred entries!  Nevertheless, I found these gates did have their own character.  I called it Palm Springs Privacy.

 

Our biking day didn’t end with the house tour, we were just getting ‘warmed’ up.  After stopping for a lunch break, I was ready to hit the bikes again.  It was one of those times (however rare) when I felt I could go on biking until dark.  We almost did!

More streets to tour, more sights to see, even more mountain views to take in.  Before the ride was over I believe we had combined most of the town’s bike routes.

It was a very satisfying day (and the conditions couldn’t have been more perfect!).

Palm Springs turned out to be another one of this trip’s destinations where we wished for a lengthier stay.  In retrospect, there were many more trails yet to hike, more biking to be done and hey! there was the tramway up to the summit of the San Jacinto Mtns.  So much to do, much more to see .  .  .  I guess a return trip would be in order.  Palm Springs has a lot to offer.

From the lush oases of Palm Springs,  Airstream Travelers,   Melinda & Chris

POSTSCRIPT  .  .  As it turned out, Randy and Teresa had a change of plans that necessitated canceling their Southwestern winter plans.  We’ll never regret swinging through Palm Springs, and something tells me someday they’ll be making it here too. 

Next stop–Joshua Tree!

Posted in California, Palm Springs | Leave a comment

ANZA BORREGO, Part 2—Desert Wonders, natural & man-made.

Park employees and locals alike were ecstatic after the day-and-night-long rain had subsided.  Already having a winter season with above average precipitation (as had all of southern California), Anza Borrego had just received over an inch of rain in the last 36 hours.  An incredible amount of rain for a single event in this desert environment.  Water filled the washes . . . ran down the streets . . . pooled outside our trailer.  What I saw from our campsite sure didn’t look much like a desert scenario—I could swear the landscape was bursting out green right before my eyes.  Park volunteers were all talking about this one rainfall could signal a banner wildflower bloom. But could it happen in the next 3 days—the length of the remainder of our stay?

Already there were good signs . . .

It was a great day to go climb a mountain . . . cool temps, clear skies, and a full day of rest behind us.  We headed out for Coyote Canyon where we would find the trailhead for Alcoholic Pass.

The fragrance began soon after I left the northern village limits of Borrego Springs . . . that’s where a large majority of the fruit orchards can be found.

Yes, you read it right—here in the environs of Anza Borrego Desert you’ll find orchards of oranges, limes and lemons, along with plenty of grapefruits.  Over two thousand acres to be exact.  Turns out that with perfect citrus-growing weather and thanks to Borrego Valley’s aquifer, the area can produce “table-quality” citrus that is shipped all over the world.  And oooooh, what a perfumed fragrance permeates the air!

Driving past the orchards, the pavement soon ends.  Once again, Chris would be applying his newly-acquired sandy wash driving skills.  Piece of cake.  A three-mile drive would take us to the trailhead.

But roadside attractions have a way of altering the best laid of plans.  No sooner had we hit the wash that I noticed the delicate blooms of desert flowers.  Clumps of color were popping up!  Could it be???  So soon after?  It was no mirage .  .  .  there were more than a few!  Holy moley!!! With some now-forgotten blurts of exclamation from my mouth, Chris got the idea he should be pulling over.

Miracle of miracles . . . wonder of wonders.  .  . I was in 7th heaven!  And yes, I’m here to tell you, with just a little searching ALL these species were found in a small area of desert along the Coyote Canyon Road.  (Later revealed to be one of the best hotspots in all of the park for early wildflower sightings—referred to as Desert Gardens, for good reason).

We were slightly delayed for our hike of the day.

The trail to Alcoholic Pass has been around for a long time—a reeeeally long time.  At least a thousand years.  Probably more like two thousand.  That’s how long ago the native Indians known as the Cahuilla called this area home.  Living on the east side of Coyote Mountain in what is now called Clark Valley, evidence of artifacts indicates that they made regular trips over the Pass in order to access the bounty growing in Coyote Canyon.  Here they would find “a veritable harvest field from the desert plants.  Moreover, the mountain itself was prime hunting ground for large game like sheep and deer.

So here we were, ready to embark on another mountain hike with an interesting story behind it.  That’s what I like about this park . . . it’s full of history too.  And just like the trail up Ghost Mountain . . . it was short, but oh so steep.  Something like 700 feet in less than a mile.  But the views would surely be worth it (so said a park ranger).

Here I stand, just starting up, with Coyote Canyon behind me and the massive San Ysidro Mtns. looming beyond.

Residents of valley settlements chose to go over the Pass into Borrego Springs, rather than take the longer route that encircled the mountain.  Although trips would be made for purchasing goods and food, probably some imbibing of drink was also involved, to the extent that they might be staggering back home.  A more probable source of the trail’s name refers to the layout of the route—full of switchbacks, twists and turns in a relatively short distance in length.

Steep, zig-zaggy and rocky—that about sizes up the trail to Alcoholic Pass.

The good part of taking a steep hiking trail is the opportunities afforded when you’re compelled to stop and breathe at certain intervals.  That’s when you look all around, take in the sights, and get a great bird’s-eye view of the landscape.

Far below, the patchwork pattern of citrus orchards with the village of Borrego Springs beyond; all backdropped by the San Ysidro Mountains.

The rewards of the hike are the views from the saddle of Coyote Mountain.  Both to the east and the west , what you’ll see makes it worth the effort expended.  Looking toward distant peaks it seems fitting to sit and reflect on wherever your mind takes you .  .  .  of lives spent here over countless generations or of your life in the here and now.  The scene spread out over miles of desert to the distant peaks beyond is a typical Anza Borrego landscape.  We take time to sit on a comfortable rock, appreciating our time spent here.

Anza Borrego is a magnificent place, encompassing more than 600,000 acres.  It is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the contiguous United States.  But, much more than just the statistics, it is a desert wonderland encompassing eons of geologic history, deep canyons and towering mountains, and enough space to find your haven of solitude.

Chris gazes out to the huge expanse of the Santa Rosa Mtns. across Clark Valley.

Along with the natural attractions of Anza Borrego Desert, there’s another equally fascinating aspect—albeit manmade.  Standing in front of the Borrego Springs Visitor Center you’ll see a statue of Juan Bautista de Anza, the partial namesake for this park.  Probably the first Anglo to pass through this desert, de Anza was commissioned by the King of Spain to discover an overland route from New Spain to California.  In 1774 with an expedition consisting of 240 people and 1,000 animals he passed through this area, continuing northward through Coyote Canyon, eventually reaching the area around San Francisco.  A big accomplishment at that time, he was suitably rewarded by being appointed first governor of what is now the state of New Mexico.

But the story that I find even more remarkable concerns the man that created this romanticized statue of de Anza—Ricardo Breceda.  While this welded scrap metal, rust red sculpture stands in a prominent location along the town’s main thoroughfare, if you drive out of town along main arteries, you’ll soon see more metal sculptures scattered across the landscape, both to the north and south of town.  Giant-sized replicas of creatures that once roamed Borrego Valley when it was once a lush forest millions of years ago—mammoths, sabertooth tigers, wild horses, ancient camels, giant sloths and battling raptors stand in the desert, compelling you to pull off for a closer look.  If you don’t already know the background story, you will surely be searching it out.  Head to the Visitor Center for more information as well as a driving guide to where they all are located.

The creator of this menagerie, spread out over three square miles of non-contiguous desert land surrounding Borrego Springs, is Ricardo Breceda, a gifted artist who ten years ago never knew that one day he would have the talent and skill to build these remarkable sculptures. His talent grew out of a devastating accident on a construction job that changed his life.

Ten years or so ago, he was selling exotic boots when he traded a pair for a welding machine and began to experiment with what he could fashion from metal.  When his 7-year-old daughter requested he try constructing a life-size dinosaur, the results gave him inspiration to go further.

From that beginning, Breceda’s sculptures are now found across the world, from Canada to Australia. The highest concentration of sculptures are found in Borrego Valley and were all commissioned by Borrego landowner, Dennis Avery, who has scattered the sculptures on lands that he has held for years in conservation. The private property, called Galleta Meadows, is open to the public for viewing.  Just pull off the road and follow tracks through the sand if you want a closer look (maybe a photo or two).

The original sculptures were inspired by animals that lived millions of years ago in the Anza-Borrego area during the Plio-Pleistocene age. Later sculptures were inspired by local history and then by pure whim and fantasy. Breceda brings his sculptures to life by portraying the creatures in motion.   There is even a full-size Willys Jeep with a driver and a passenger scaling the rocks.

But there is another person integral to this story, the man who envisioned all this in the first place..  Avery, truly a deep-pocketed philanthropist, had the original idea to create a gallery in the wilderness, thinking that if the early animals of the area could be recreated in 3-dimensional form, it would give greater understanding to visitors of what the area may have been like millions of years ago.   Consequently, he has been very generous with his support and funding of the project.

Sometimes you can’t help but get into the act!

Moreover, and maybe most significantly, Avery grants public access to his private museum.  The sign on his property indicates the visitors may hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp for up to three days on Galleta Meadows amidst the statues, for free.  How cool is that???

And the word is spreading.  People come from both here and abroad to take in the sight of these 130 full-sized metal sculptures.  It’s a big draw for Borrego Springs, so reported by the Visitor Center.

And just when you don’t think you could be more astounded, you’ll encounter Breceda’s latest creation which could easily leave you speechless.  A serpent (some call it a dragon) rising from the desert sand takes Breceda’s art to yet another level of awesomeness.

With the head of a dragon, the body of a sea serpent, and the tail of a rattlesnake, the sculpture is 350-feet long and actually stretches across the road, appearing to dive under the pavement.  With each of Breceda’s creatures becoming more complex, his serpent is made up of literally thousands of individual scales that had to be welded onto a frame, one at a time. The head itself is incredibly detailed and that is what makes it such a show-stopper.  That, and its immense size.

IS THIS AMAZING OR WHAT?!!!

It took Breceda four months to make the serpent in his studio and three months to transport and erect it in the desert with the help of 12 workers.  Between the materials, labor, and transportation costs, Avery (of the Avery Label fortune) estimates the total cost of the serpent to be about $40,000. When asked if this creature is his favorite of all, Breceda replied that it was too early to say.  “Time will tell if it holds up to the high winds that sweep across the valley floor.”  If it holds up and doesn’t give him headaches, it probably will be.

One of our last evenings in Anza Borrego found us winding up yet another mountain trail near Yaqui Pass.  Bill Kenyon Overlook was a great place to be around sunset, so I’d read.  Not exactly off the beaten route, I was amazed we had it to ourselves.  What a great place to bring this park altogether!  With a diversity of scenery spread out below us, it was Anza Borrego Desert in a microcosm.  At the end of day with twilight hues, the land was warmed in a rich palette of colors .  .  .  subtle shades on the distant mountains while shadows drifted across the bajadas.  A picture that gave even Chris pause for reflection.  I need say no more.

With a mixture of emotions .  .  . we’re leaving too soon .  .  .  the weather’s too perfect .  .  .  we did make every moment count .  .   .  but the wildflowers are soon to peak!!  we were pulling away with commitments waiting.  Anza Borrego surely deserves a return trip.

Heading back on the road and streaming away,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

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ANZA BORREGO—Not just your ordinary desert park

After nearly two months of working our way west to the Pacific Ocean, once we departed San Diego it was time to make a dramatic course change—from now on the general direction of our route would be to the east.  With several weeks of travel still ahead of us, nevertheless the writing was on the wall . . . the proverbial bullet would have to be bitten . . . we were working our way back east towards Indiana.

It was somewhat of an adventure just to get here.  Driving inland after leaving San Diego, we traded ocean views for a bucolic landscape of rolling hills and the occasional orchard.    A soothing, pleasant little country drive, it was hard to believe we were just an easy hour’s drive out of the bustling metro area of San Diego.  But the pastoral scenery didn’t last long.

A few turns in the highway later, the avenue of shade trees with their overhanging branches became a  road edged with cascading boulders.  What had been soft-curved and green-draped hills turned to mounds of rocky, arid ground.  Hard-edged and stark, this drive had taken one dramatic turn.  The prelude of scenes to come.

With two routes leading into Anza Borrego State Park, one involved great scenery but with many more miles to drive.  While the other and more recently constructed one offered the same great views but with more thrills along the way.  Would there be a doubt as to which one I would direct my husband to take?

The Montezuma Valley Road (aka—S-22) opened up access into the Borrego Valley for those people living in the San Ysidro Mountains.  Construction on the highway began in 1954 and once you drive it, you’ll soon understand why it took nearly 10 years to complete.  It would require 160,000 tons of dynamite for the prisoners from the Montezuma Honor Camp to carve a way down San Ysidro Mountain to the valley floor.  When it was completed, the mayor of Borrego Springs declared June 24th, 1964 as a holiday for all the residents.  The road was and still is a big deal .  .  . and without a doubt it is one huge adventurous drive to take.

Coming down the grade you’ll have tantalizing views as you swing around the flanks of the mountains to the Borrego Valley far below—but don’t look if you’re the driver!

Dropping more than 3,000 feet in elevation, the route passes through several different climate zones along the way.  Massive rock formations, rugged canyons, a view of the Salton Sea . . . but keep your eyes on the road as you navigate the twists and turns along the road (and engage the Jake brake if you have one!).

And then, perhaps with a sigh of relief or an unclenching of fingers, you take the one and only scenic pullout of the drive.  A time to regain your composure or perhaps to soak in the view .  .  .  the scenic overlook is THE place to capture an eagle’s view of the layout of Borrego Valley.

The little town of Borrego Springs is back-dropped by the huge expanse of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Once out of the San Ysidro Mountains, it’s clear-sailing into the park.  The S-22 will take you into the small town of Borrego Springs—think of its location as being the hole in the Anza Borrego “donut”.

With tourism and snow birding as its economic base, Borrego Springs is a quaint little village, whose heart is a grassy green commons area, appropriately named “Christmas Circle.”

Just outside the western edge of town, hang a left off the S-22 and you’ll be pulling into the main campground of Anza Borrego— Borrego Palm Canyon.  Lady Luck was surely shining down on me when months ago I was able to snag one of their full hookup sites.  You can find a couple other RV Resorts in Borrego Springs, but this is the only full hookup one you’ll find within the park.  If you’re looking to set up camp smack in the scenery and adjacent to the park’s most popular trail, then this is the one for you!  (Early reservations are a MUST).

So, maybe you’re wondering what enticed us to select this desert park jewel for our week’s stay.  Or how in the world did it ever appear on our radar screen?  Suffice it to say I had come across the park in my photo magazines, coming to learn how it was an area full of scenic potential.  Say no more!  I liked what I read.  Being in the neighborhood just sealed the deal.  Years ago, I added Anza Borrego to my bucket list of destinations.

Yet little did I know of the riches that were waiting.  Similar to our experiences with Death Valley, at first glance when surveying the big picture, one is left wondering what could possibly be of much interest .  .  .  much less a whole week of our time.  From a far-off perspective, the park appears to be just dry desert wasteland.  But wait, stay awhile, wander around and open yourself to possibilities.  At least, that was our approach.  That’s when we discovered Anza Borrego’s vastly different looks.  And so we began . . .

The park is framed by mountains, rugged and rocky pinnacles. The common denominator is the desert landscape, but within its boundaries you can find fascinating rock formations, wondrous slot canyons, remote spring oases, and—the drawing card for me—the earliest spring wildflowers in California.  And so my quest began.

A road trip to the Pumpkin Patch was a good introduction to the park.  A paved road led into the mountain flanks before turning off on a sandy wash.

Oh yes, driving down those ubiquitous washes became a common mode of travel in the coming days.  A landlubber from the Midwest, Chris soon was driving through them like a pro.

There are more than 500 miles of roads in the park, many of them dirt or sand.  There are routes up rocky hills, through deep sand, along scenic streams and down steep hills.  It’s a park that attracts OHV fanatics, but fortunately the park is big enough for everyone to share.Several palm oases exist throughout the park.  Thanks to underground springs, the state’s only native palm, the California fan palm, flourishes around these water holes.  On this first foray into the ‘back country’, an added feature would be stopping at what’s known as Seventeen Palms.  An aerial view coming into the oasis (courtesy of Chris’ drone) gives an accurate scene of how these green islands of trees stand out in such contrast to the stark and barren desert that surrounds them.

With 2,500 species of palms worldwide, only 11 are native to North America.  The largest of these and the only palm tree native to western North America, is the California fan palm.  Anza Borrego is a good place to see them.

And then it was on to the Pumpkin Patch .  .  . plowing on through those desert washes!! A 4wd trip for sure.

It is a fascinating geologic feature—a field of concretions that spread over an area the size of a city block.  This unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil and revealing globular sandstone concretions that look much like pumpkins in size and shape. The nucleus for these concretions probably formed millions of years ago by the natural cementing of sand particles to small objects such as a piece of shell, a grain of sand or even an insect.  On the nearby ridges, new pumpkin-sized concretions continue to grow and become exposed.  A really unique sight!

Yes, it’s a real attention-getter and you’ll be amazed to see them in person (but not an easy drive to get there).

There’s plenty of historical background to describe how people lived here years before it became a park.  Native Americans called this home for thousands of years, leaving evidence of their way of living.  In more recent times, there were explorers, and travelers, some coming to ranch or try their hand at farming.  Perhaps the most captivating story of human habitation occurred in more recent times and there’s even a short film at the Visitor Center describing the life of the family that lived up on Ghost Mountain in the Blair Valley area of the park.

The Anza-Borrego Desert is a beautiful place to visit, but a tough place to live. The areas inhabitants usually built homes near water, trees, and roads, but not Marshal South, who traded utility for scenery when he built a homestead in the 1930s atop Ghost Mountain (Yaquitepec to the native Indians) near Blair Valley.  From 1931 until the mid-1940s, Marshal and his poet wife, Tanya, lived atop this rock-strewn, remote mountaintop in a brutal, hostile environment.  They built an adobe cabin that they called Yaquitepec, fashioned an ingenious rainwater collection system, lived off the land (as much as they could), made their own clothing (but nudity was the preferred style), birthed three children, and tried to emulate, to one degree or another, the life of the prehistoric American Indians.  The tough life eventually caused Tanya to take the kids and file for divorce (never to speak of her life on the mountain) and for the home to be abandoned.  Marshal would die a year after leaving.

Over a period of nine of those years, South chronicled his family’s controversial primitive lifestyle through popular monthly articles written for Desert Magazine.  His writings tended to romanticize their way of living, illustrating a life in total harmony with nature (who was he kidding???).  But his writings found an enthusiastic audience, which continued throughout their stay.

Today the South’s home lies in ruins—crumbling adobe walls, the frame for an arched doorway, a rusted bed frame, and cement and barrel cisterns once used to catch seasonal rainfall. A one-mile trail at the foot of Ghost Mountain climbs 1,200 feet to the site. The Souths had named the mountain for the “thin, ghostly trails” that led to the obscure ridge where they built their home.

Cutting off the main paved road, we drove across Blair Valley on a dirt road leading to Ghost Mountain.

On a beautiful, sun-drenched morning we made a pilgrimage out to the site.  Trudging up the well-worn path was a good opportunity to imagine how many times the family traced this trail, carrying needed supplies up to their home.  For us it was a hike in the park . . . for them it was a way of life.

Lest you begin to think this was some kind of utopian life here on the mountain, let me assure you that even on a pleasant winter day, you can understand this was no easy way of living.

These were the days of the Great Depression and life wouldn’t have been easy under most ‘normal’ conditions.  People in general were more self-sufficient, so it’s not fair to hold this family’s lifestyle to ours of today.  And yet . . . it does have an extreme aspect to it.

The view from their mountaintop looks out over the Blair Valley. At least they had a room with a view, and maybe that was what they were looking for . .  . a desert view, that is.

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery and that’s something Anza Borrego can offer.  Just when you might be thinking it’s all about rocks, boulders, and dry, barren landscapes,  you need look no farther than a good hike through an amazing slot canyon.

Instead of slogging up, we headed down . . . where flash floods through the ages have carved a trench through the rocky, sedimentary terrain.

With no ‘official’ trail to guide us, Chris scans the area to find the most desirable route to take.

Simply named The Slot, you make your way down into the ravine to begin the adventure winding your way through narrow rock walls.  Why it’s not listed as an official park trail remains a mystery—but fortunately for us, we had it all to ourselves.

Once down, we soon left the bright morning sunlight behind and entered a different world—totally different.  Diffuse light brought out the warm tones of the rocky siltstone walls, sometimes reaching 40 feet high.  As the walls went higher, the passageway becomes more narrow .  .  .  this is not a trail for—er, how do I put this?—‘wide’ people!

As the walls made for a tight, circuitous route, the experience can be surreal, it not slightly claustrophic.  For us, it was a marvel and we felt like kids exploring a labyrinth.

I’m sure Chris is glad he didn’t overindulge on his breakfast!

If the experience of passing through a narrow slot canyon isn’t amazing enough .  .  .  how about finding a highlight at the end?  Although not a formal trail, somehow many a photographer has captured this sight and that’s how I managed to track it down.  Near the far end of the canyon you’ll need to look up (or easily miss it).  High above, a slanted rock slab bridges the arrow gap in the canyon.  Apparently broken off from one wall, the scepter-shaped block was caught in mid-fall and now rests between the two walls.  Lodged overhead, you wouldn’t be advised to remain long just below it.  Still, I got Chris to hang in there.

After nearly a mile of winding through the passageway, the canyon begins to widen.  Then suddenly you exit into brilliant sunlight as the rocky cliffs pull away.  The heat returns along with the world we’re more accustomed to, but wait!  There still remains the return trip.  Like most trails you’ll take, whether above or below ground level, it always looks totally different when you back track.

And the fun wasn’t over just yet.

The trip to Font’s Point isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Everyone will tell you the drive is definitely worth the effort.  Park rangers will advise you to take a shovel along (just in case). Definitely don’t try to drive it after a rain. If in doubt, caravan with others.  But do it, if you can.  The reward at the end makes you forget about the drive.

First, though, you must navigate a sandy wash—uphill.  With some soft, deep places along the route.  Keep a slow but steady speed and stay in the tire tracks of those having gone before you.

Despite some awesome scenery you’ll find along the way, pulling over for a photo op might just be your downfall—move on and shoot on the fly!

Be prepared for some sharp turns—remember not to stop—and never ever hit the gas pedal too hard.  Four miles later and with a ‘whew!’ we had made it!  Now you hoof it the last 100 yards or so.  Uphill, of course.

And then you’re standing on a high promontory overlooking the Borrego Badlands.  Before you lies a spectacular landscape of the most rugged desert landscape you’ll ever imagine.  Millennia ago the delta-marine waters of the northern Gulf of California covered this area. Local mountains were uplifted while the waters dried up, leaving sedimentary layers of rock behind.  Now, all that remains is arid rocky geography, sunken mesas and corrugated hills of dry mud. The forces of erosion gently soften contour lines through wind, rain and generations of flash flooding. Thousands of acres of sedimentary rock contain enough side canyons and dry washes for a lifetime of adventurous exploring.

With more than a 180° view, every direction has an incredible view.  Difficult to wrap your mind around, you can’t help but stand in awe.

Some might describe the scene as breathtaking; others might say there are no words for what you’re seeing.  Grasping no good words of exclamation, I just stood silently soaking in the scene.  Every report was true—Font’s Point is THE highlight of the park.   But first, you need to navigate those four miles to get to this point (or choose to hoof it in on foot).

A beautiful ending to an adventurous day, the drive back out actually went smoother—with familiarity surely comes capability.  An added asset for the drive was the sunset color illuminating our route.

A somewhat rare event was scheduled to move in.  Late that night rain was due to fall.  Blowing in from the Pacific, it was forecasted to hang around.  At least a full day.  Maybe another night.  Possibly substantial amounts.  A very welcome occurrence for the desert environment.

As it turned out, it rained cats and dogs.  Constantly.  No breaks.  With intermittent downpours. The skies opened up.  Dry washes ran wild.  Water puddled and ran like small streams through the road.  We huddled inside our camper, giving up hopes to salvage the day.

Nevertheless, the next day made up for all we had lost.  A clear blue and brilliant sky was the harbinger of a dry day.  I was out to greet its beginning, camera in my hand.  Ah freshness! Beautiful light!  Pure fragrant air.

Just down the road from the campground, a stand of fan palms glowed in the rising sun.

Another bonus to the torrential rains (besides stimulating a wildflower crop), the peaks of nearby mountains were now crowned with a blanket of snow.  Desert fauna with an alpine backdrop . . . talk about a Kodak moment!  And it’s all here at Anza Borrego—one VERY special park!

From  an oasis in the desert,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

    (stayed tuned for the coming part 2!)

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SAN DIEGO—Where the living is easy . . . but the rent isn’t cheap.

Ahhhh, San Diego.  A place I have imagined only in daydreams.  The epitome of all things Californian.  Endless sunshine.  Superb beaches.  Laid back and easy going.  Year-round perfection.  We had arrived and were greeted by  . . . what else? Blue skies and gentle breezes.  I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to begin soaking it all up.  Two weeks of bliss lay ahead—what was I thinking??? It should have been four!

This was our first real taste of the Golden State.  Well, not exactly.  We had a touch of California a few years back, during our Oregon Tour.  We had managed to cross into northern California just long enough to experience the redwoods, but that was rather more like a place apart.  Not what I imagined California to actually be.  Although this is a state of many looks, the San Diego scene was how I imagined a great deal of the state.  Sunny and bright.  After weeks of being immersed in a desert landscape, this would be a big switcheroo .  .  . a different world .  .  . and we were ready.  Luck upon luck . . . good fortune wasn’t being taken for granted . .  . we had found the perfect campground to bring our hopes and desires altogether.  Mission Bay RV Resort was one perfect campground . . . and we had splurged on a water view site.  Oh, wondrous day!

The “resort” itself was nothing special.  Actually it was a huge parking lot, having just a few strips of grass dividing some of the rows, with some trees scattered around to help keep the place from looking totally sterile.  Its selling point was the location—right on the shoreline of Mission Bay, with a wonderful bike trail that connected to a whole entire network of trails adjacent to the resort.  Its location also gave easy access to just about any part of San Diego, being close to (but not within earshot of) a major highway  artery.  It isn’t a cheap stay, but its assets made it assuredly worthwhile for us.  Mission Bay Park is a big asset for San Diego.

This wasn’t always so.  In fact, Mission Bay is a relatively new creation.  Back in the 1940s, the city of San Diego wanted to diversify its economic base, which was primarily based around the military.  To create more of a tourist and recreational center, they looked for land that could be developed for this purpose.  Near the outlet of the San Diego River was a tidal marsh that could be utilized with no small efforts through dredging and filling operations. The river was constrained by levees and Mission Bay took shape and became the jewel that the city planners had envisioned.

This fabulous bay lies right smack in the middle of San Diego and is the largest aquatic park of its kind in the country. It has of over 4,600 acres in roughly equal parts land and water. Mission Bay Park boasts 27 miles of shoreline, 19 of which are sandy beaches with eight locations designated as official swimming areas. Encircling it all, with arteries leading out to other high points of San Diego, is the 14-mile paved Mission Bay Bike Path.   You can bet your biker bootie that we made good use of this jewel of an  asset.  We spent many good hours taking this path to a variety of locations.  Once on the Ocean Boardwalk, you are able to bike up the coastline to La Jolla, taking in Seal Beach. And maybe a tasty pizza.

Once settled in and quite at home, it was time to hit the high points of this town.  With research in hand and options galore, the difficulty lay in the deciding.  Which of San Diego’s many assets should be first on our list?  For newcomers such as us, we made a good choice .  .  .  get a seat on the Old Town Trolley and see all the town’s attractions (learn some background too while you’re at it) all from the comfort of an open-air bus!  Let that trolley roll!     You can cover a lot of ground in one afternoon on the trolley.  What’s even greater still, at any of its many stops, you’re able to hop off and tour awhile on your own—if you have the inclination.  Or stay in your seat and spin entirely around town, all the while listening to your driver give a history presentation.  All well-worth the $$$ spent, with no stress in finding parking spaces.

Another way to get to know the many districts that make up San Diego is to take in their Farmer’s Markets.  Always set up in the heart of the district, it’s a great way to discover the different personalities of each place.  We hit them all, on different days, getting a sense of how each one was different.

Little Italy is adjacent to downtown San Diego, between the historic Gaslamp District and the high-rise buildings.  Once home to San Diego’s flourishing tuna fishing industry and generations of Italian families who made their living on the sea, Little Italy is now a lively neighborhood made up of high-rise condos and sophisticated shops.  Having an uptown feel to it, set alongside outdoor cafes and Italian trattorias, it’s the largest of the town’s farmers markets and the assortment of offerings reflects that.  With lattes in hand, we strolled the booths and soaked up the atmosphere. Pretty impressive.

Hillcrest is a small but affluent neighborhood, known for its “tolerance and acceptance”, its gender diversity, and numerous locally-owned businesses.  Just north of Balboa Park, it is one of the older districts, but its age isn’t reflected in the well-kept Craftsman homes and mid-century modern apartments.  It might be on a slightly smaller scale than Little Italy’s farmers market, but its offerings were all first class.  Plenty of organic produce, eggs included.  Artisan cheese, anyone?

And then, there’s Pacific Beach.  Now you’re talking laid back, SoCal beach town.  The atmosphere is free spirited and very casual.  Its farmers market reflects all things fresh and healthy.  With a little face-painting and tatooing thrown in.  Tie-dyes and long flowing skirts are still in style.  Handmade jewelry and artwork for sale.  You won’t find farmers markets like this in every town, and it sure was fun to walk through it.  The people-watching was a big part of it all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that we had the feel for the lay-out of the land, we thought it was only fitting that we get our bearings from the water .  .  .  water being a big part of the San Diego scene.  Down at the marina, you’ll find at least two companies offering one and two-hour cruises of the San Diego Harbor.  We opted for the longer one.

Flagship Cruises offered narrated harbor tours several times each day, even a Sunday brunch or a dinner-dance cruise.  Nothing so fancy for us . . . we were just interested in the sights.  We did, however, opt for the last afternoon cruise,  the late light would cast good color over coastline scenes.

First off, you’ll get an all-encompassing view of San Diego, a pretty impressive sight.  Who would’ve known that this is our nation’s eighth-largest city, as well as being the state’s second largest?  With a backdrop of rugged cliffs, impressive homes are built terraced up the hillsides.  On a clear afternoon day sailing on sparkling water, it’s sure something to take in.

There’s plenty to see from a water perspective; I’d highly recommend the cruise to any visitor.

We had a good look along the east side of Point Loma all the way down to Cabrillo Nat’l Monument.  We saw the Naval Air Station and Sub Base, cruised beneath the Coronado Bridge, and had close-up views of the U.S. Navy base and shipyards.  Never a boring moment!

Probably the highlight for us was an up-close and personal look at the Navy’s one-and-only stealth destroyer, the Zumwalt.  At a cost of 4 billion $$$ to build (yes, you read it right!), we assumed it was just too valuable to set out to sea.  But it’s a one-of-its-kind and state of the art and here we were within a stone’s throw.  Cool.

And so ended Day 2 of our San Diego adventure.

Now that we had the feel of the town, it was time to get down to the details   .  .  .  plenty of things were on our lists.  With many enticing activities waiting, it seemed the San Diego Zoo topped them all—so it was easily unanimous.  A bright and sunny day sealed the deal . . . we were off for a day at the zoo!

Spread out along a canyon, the San Diego Zoo has a lot of ups and downs when walking its pathways.  It is one of the largest and most famous zoos in our country, having all kinds of exotic animals and birds.  You’re in for a treat not easily forgotten, as well as a day of plenty of exercise.  It’s all happening AT THE ZOO!

 

 

 

The flamingos are the first to greet you!  They set the stage.

                                          Never a dull moment here at the zoo!

Alas, perhaps its most famous resident—easily one of its most popular—the panda was tucked away in a remote corner of his enclosure, napping the day away.  Not one of the more active animals at any given time, still we had hopes for more.

 

Another day and it was back to the Embarcadero for us.  A Spanish word meaning “landing place”, the Embarcadero is where you’ll find much more than the harbor cruise ships.  For us (specifically one of us) it held endless delights.  Where to go first . .  . what to choose . . . don’t try to do it all in one solitary day!  He selected the USS Midway to be the first—not much of a surprise to that choice!

One of the US military’s largest ships, the decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier.  For the cost of admission, you’ll have a self-guided audio tour to take, helped out along the way by former Midway crewmen (now retired) who willingly answer any questions you might have.  Talk about a great experience . . .

 

Chris takes the hot seat in the Midway’s op center.

And so another day went in San Diego.

A lot of San Diego has to do with water and things that float.  I’m not just talking about paddle-boarding either (although there were more than a few of those).  You just can’t visit this town without preparing yourself for hours aboard a variety of sailing or floating ocean-going vessels.  To Chris’ delight (how did I guess?), we partook of quite a few.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is housed in one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world.  The iconic and majestic Star of India is docked on the beautiful waterfront and it’s the main attraction at the museum.  But it doesn’t end there .  .  .

The museum’s collection includes the HMS Surprise, an authentic replica of an 18th century Royal  Navy frigate, the Rose, a 20-gun vessel built in 1757.  It was actually used in the filming of Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4.  Chris couldn’t let the opportunity to get the feel of this ship slip by.

But the two boats that truly started his juices to flow were a Soviet submarine, the B-39, which played an integral role in the Cuban missile crisis .  .  .  and an American research submarine, the USS Dolphin, the navy’s last operational diesel-electric deep-diving research and development submarine.  Once again, Chris just had to get a hold of those controls.

But before you’re allowed entrance, you must pass a little test of size and agility.

–which we did.

And then you’re allowed to roam free at will and explore every nook and cranny.  Which he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that just about topped off

another one of our days

here in San Diego.

A large statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo gazes out over the land he discovered.

Point Loma is a seaside community within the city of San Diego. Geographically, it’s a craggy, sandstone finger that stretches down and protects San Diego bay, bordered on the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, the east by the San Diego Bay, and the north by the San Diego River. In person it’s a scenic and wonderfully remote spot with stunning cliffs and open ocean views, made all the more beautiful by bright rich green vegetation and sapphire blue skies.  Together with Coronado Island, the Point Loma peninsula delineates San Diego Bay and separates it from the Pacific Ocean.

Home to the site where the Europeans first set foot on the West Coast, Point Loma is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in San Diego. The peninsula has been described as “where California began”. Today, Point Loma houses two major military bases, a national cemetery, a national monument, and a university, in addition to residential and commercial areas.  It’s split up into 5 districts: gorgeous homes in the La Playa area, the Midway or Sports Arena area, Sunset Cliffs, the harbor side and the waterfront urban village of Liberty Station.

Our destination was the southernmost tip of Point Loma, where you’ll find the Cabrillo National Monument.  Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to see San Diego Bay, the monument preserves the wild land on a windswept pinnacle with 360-degree panoramic views.

It was September 28th, 1542 when a Spanish fleet led by Cabrillo sailed into the bay.  Commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition along the Pacific Coast in search of trade opportunities, or perhaps to find a way to China or a route that connected the Pacific Ocean with Hudson Bay, Cabrillo remained just long enough to name the area San Miguel.  About one week later he was making landfall on Santa Catalina Island.  For several more weeks he would continue up the coast, reaching the Sonoma area north of San Francisco before autumn storms would force them to turn back, eventually returning to Santa Catalina Island.  Cabrillo would meet up with his fate there, dying of gangrene from an infected injury.

The best known landmark on Point Loma is the Old Lighthouse.  Perched atop the southern point that creates the entrance of the bay, the small two-story building was completed in 1854, first lit in November of 1855.  It was one of the first lighthouses operating on the west coast.  At 422 feet above sea level at the entrance of the bay, the seemingly good location for a lighthouse soon proved to be a poor choice, as fog and clouds within the marine layer often obscured the beam for ocean-going vessels. On March 23, 1891, the lighthouse ceased to be used for its original purpose, as a new lighthouse was built nearer sea level on the same southern point. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is now partially open to the public and has been refurbished to its historic 1880s interior.  And naturally, it’s listed in the National Register.

Even though much of the southern end of Point Loma is occupied by the navy, the Point is amazingly pristine.  It’s just the old lighthouse surrounded by native vegetation overlooking the ocean and the rocky shoreline below the sandy cliffs.  Exploring the tide-pools and whale watching are two very popular activities along the beach.  And then there’s the bayside view, with its magnificent panorama of San Diego and the naval vessels making for their berths at day’s end.  All-in-all, a very beautiful and serene place to savor.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery provides a peaceful and scenic spot to take in the last light of day.

Perhaps saving the best until last, Balboa Park was always on our radar screen.  Too large to ignore, too important to pass by, we took it in on several occasions.  Each time we came away all the more impressed.  It is a magnificent cultural and landscaped complex.

Often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West”, it is the largest urban cultural park in North America, even exceeding New York’s Central Park in size.  In addition to natural areas and formal gardens, the park has 17 significant museums, several theaters, one grand outdoor organ (free concerts on Sundays), and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.  There is a wide selection of restaurants (both indoors and out), several gift shops and walking trails to take advantage of.  It is at once overwhelming and very grand.

Set aside for public recreational use in 1835, little of the land was developed as a city park for many decades.  In 1892 a local botanist, Kate Sessions, initiated a project to use part of the land as a horticultural nursery to be used for the public enjoyment. She would later be known as the Mother of Balboa Park.

Then came the plans for holding an international exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, utilizing this city park as the location.  Renamed for the Spanish explore Vasco de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean, many of the buildings were constructed for the event.  Built in the Spanish Colonial-Revival Style, this highly ornamental style was the first of its kind in our country.  Scheduled to last only one year, the 1915 Expo was so popular it was extended another year.  More than 3.7 million people took it in during its run.

El Prado, a long, wide promenade and boulevard, runs through the heart of the park. Nearby are many of the park’s museums and cultural attractions.

Twenty years later, San Diego hosted the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition to boost the local economy during the depression. Additional structures and landscaping were added to the park, including the Old Globe Theatre, International Cottages, and Spanish Village, all of which are still in use today.

The Spanish Village was a delight and my fav venue of the park.  Unique, colorful and diversified, its atmosphere was a reflection of its purpose.  Unique shops painted in bright colors housed under Spanish-tile roofed buildings contain small studios and galleries that encircle a courtyard delineated with an equally colorful patchwork of flagstone blocks.  The atmosphere sets the stage for all the creative products you’ll find on display and for sale.  It’s stimulating and joyful and is something I’d highly recommend.  The assortment of crafts and fine art will amaze you.

And it’s all free (until you make a purchase or take in a museum, that is).

So ended a great day filled with sensory-overloading attractions.

I’d be remiss without mentioning two other significant San Diego locations .  .  .  places to stroll and soak up the ambiance under the gentle warmth of a typical day.  Old Town State Historic Park is the city’s Spanish-era heart.  Many preserved and restored buildings give the picture of its original appearance.  Founded around 1820 by demobilized Mexican soldiers who had done their military service at the Presidio, you’ll find old adobe homes, shops and restaurants with outdoor patios.  The stores are manned by costumed employees who speak as if you’re actually living at that time.

No wonder it is the most visited state park in California.

And then there’s Coronado (sometimes referred to as Coronado Island).  Seen from the mainland, many days it appears to be a mirage floating on the mist across the bay.  Actually, Coronado is a tied island—connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land—appropriately called the Silver Strand.  Whatever its designation, is has one of the best beaches in our country as well as one of our country’s more famous resorts, the Hotel del Coronado (known to locals as simply The Del).

From the beginning, when the land was just overgrown brush inhabited by small animals, the purchasers saw its potential for being a resort community.  By 1888 they had built the Hotel Del Coronado and the rest is history.  Streetcars connected Coronado to the mainland early in the 1900s, and that helped bring the tourists in.  Today, there’s a town of about 20,000 that relies mostly on tourism and the service industry.

The beach is one of Coronado’s strongest assets . . . consistently ranking as one of the best in our country.  Thanks to the mica, the sand is sparkling and fine.  With a terrific view of the ocean and spectacular sunsets, with classy restaurants and specialty shops, the Del is reminiscent of the Victorian era.  In fact, it is the second largest wooden structure in the U.S.–the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon is first.  It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1977.

And it hasn’t diminished in its grandeur of a bygone time when presidents and royalty, socialites and glamorous celebrities spent time and stayed here.  Fortunately for us, it’s not off-limits to the common folk.

If I haven’t lost you by now with my discourse on all the wonderful features San Diego has to offer, with all the attractions to entice you to come, then let me provide one more attribute you can expect to see .  .  .  one that can easily hold itself in comparison with the others.  It is a big part of the San Diego scene and without costing a penny, it’s available to all.  For us, it was right there at our back door.

Sunsets in San Diego are a big deal, be you a local or a visitor.  Once you’ve seen one, you’ll easily be won over.

Moreover, it doesn’t require the ocean to provide the proper venue  .  .  .  here on Mission Bay there were ample places in which to view the sun’s last rays.

Maybe it was more of a fluke than a common occurrence, but come the end of day here on Mission Bay we had the show right from our door.  It never ceased to wow us.

How’s this for a backyard view?

One late afternoon found us a few miles north, along the coast at La Jolla.  After strolling along their downtown streets (we’re talking high-end shops and galleries), we headed over to the ocean drive to experience a different sunset perspective.  Once again, the people came .  .  .  along walkways, down on the beach, perched on the coastline rocks.  Another serendipitous moment.

In point of fact, San Diego has its own dedicated, singular place set aside for specifically the sunset hour.  Just south of the free-spirited, laid back town of Ocean Beach you’ll find Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.  Stretching along the Pacific Ocean, bordering the western edge of Point Loma, the park encompasses intricately carved coastal bluffs, arches and sea caves.  With its rugged coastline and expansive panoramic ocean views, there’s plenty of room to spread out from the multitudes who all come to witness the spectacular sunset (they hope).

More often than not, I sense that they don’t walk away disappointed.  It would seem it’s an event that tends to bring people closer together.  Awesomely cool!

last night in San Diego had us strolling the Pacific Beach Boardwalk—another overwhelmingly popular spot.  The sunset hour found us at Crystal Pier where crowds had begun congregating.  Some 872 feet long, the pier has been a unique landmark of this small beach community since 1927.  (It has quaint hotel cottages atop the raised wooden structure).  One last colorful sky .  .  .  and then, too soon, it would all be just a memory.

Leaving the SoCal scene behind,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in California, San Diego | 3 Comments

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