More Desert Beauty

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Twin Peaks Campground
Nights: 8
Hikes: 3

Organ Pipe is what we expected Saguaro to be—a remote, quiet place with captivating views, giant cacti, and abundant hiking. It feels like a full fledged National Park with its great campground, nice visitor’s center, scenic drives and daily ranger programs. They even have a “Not so Junior Ranger” activity booklet for folks like me who really want to be a Junior Ranger again. 🙂 You can take the pledge and earn a patch and everything!

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Views from the campground.

So what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Guess they get that question a lot because it’s in the booklet. Mainly it’s about how they are created. National Parks are established through an Act of Congress while a National Monument is established by a Presidential Proclamation. Not sure which president established this National Monument, but I’m glad he did.

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Again we were treated to stunning sunsets every night.

While we saw just as many giant saguaros at Organ Pipe as we did at Saguaro National Park, this park gets its name from another cactus. Organ Pipe is the only spot in the US where you will find large groups of organ pipe cactus growing wild. Unlike saguaro that shoot up one main column and then branch out arms, these look like a clump of arms coming up from under the ground. They reminded early settlers of church organ pipes, thus the name. The plants grow to about 15 feet tall and we saw everything from 3 to about 20 arms. Plants don’t flower until they are 35 years old and when they do the white flowers open only at night, an adaptation to the heat, and are pollinated by bats. Later red fleshy fruits provide food for Sonoran desert animals.

We found the largest Organ Pipe cactus in the park. It had cool crested arms in the middle.

Organ Pipe has one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve found in a national park. There is a staffed entry station where they assign you campsites, collect your fee and answer your questions. When we arrived the friendly ranger greeting us was from Forks, WA!

A little aside about park rangers here. We have met so many helpful, knowledgable, kind rangers who care about sharing and protecting our nation’s beautiful lands. I never realized that most are part-time seasonal workers earning low wages. It takes a ranger about 10 years to get a full-time, year round position. These are folks who do this work because they love our parks and I’m glad they are there to make our visits not just possible but also pleasurable. In addition our parks wouldn’t run without the many volunteers who staff visitor’s centers, act as campground hosts, and work on trails. A big thank you to the folks working to make sure our parks continue to thrive for another 100 years and beyond!

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Back to the campground… Every site has a poured concrete parking pad and patio area. A few have ramadas (shade structures over the picnic tables). There is decent space between the sites, nice desert landscaping providing some privacy, free solar showers (which we didn’t try) and really clean restrooms. The campground was pretty empty so we asked and February is their busy season although it sounded like the 208 sites (174 of which are for RVs) are rarely all taken. This little gem is still undiscovered.

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Ocotillo get green leaves only after it rains. We even saw a few with red flowers at the tips.

Part of that may be due to its proximity to the Mexican border. People seem to fear border areas, but we’ve been following the border through Texas and Arizona and never felt unsafe. Here they had lots of signs warning visitor’s what to do if they encountered illegals crossing into the US. Basically it boils down to leave them alone and report sightings to a ranger. They say don’t give them water because they may venture even further into the desert and get stuck. In opposition to this there is a group in town that reports over 90 bodies have been found in this area in the last 2 years and they regularly put water in remote areas as a humanitarian gesture.

We did not spot anyone while we were hiking (they say it’s rare as these folks don’t want to be seen), but we did see a couple of black water jugs on the side of a trail, a sure sign illegals had been there. (They use black water jugs because they don’t glint in search lights). And one day several border patrol vehicles were near the entrance with a woman handcuffed in the back seat. But we always felt safe in the campground. Rangers and border patrol patrolled frequently and the only people we saw around were other campers. Last year we read an article about how the park had a bad reputation, but a new superintendent turned that around by bringing in more staff and border patrol.

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Awesome color on the mountains at sunset!

With no worries about safety we were free to enjoy the park. We spent much of our time relaxing at camp soaking in the sunshine and views, but we did get out for some activities too. On our first day we rode our bikes the 1.5 miles to the visitor’s center, took in the exhibits, and walked the short nature trail. Chuck sat through a little of the ranger talk on pupfish, an endangered species they are bringing back. The ride back to camp had a few good uphill bits, that let me know I’ve been getting lazy.

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Looking back toward the campground from the nature loop trail.

The next afternoon we took a hike from the campground to the Victoria Mine (4.3 miles with just a bit of up and down). Other than the crumbling stone building, it wasn’t very interesting. Still with the heat it did wear us out a little. I do not think this is a place you want to hike in summer. There is little shade and the sun and low humidity mean you have to carry a lot of water to stay hydrated, even in the winter.

Our favorite hike was on the 21 mile, unpaved Ajo Mountain loop drive. The park guide lists 8 scenic drives, all on unpaved roads. This one had great views and a booklet to guide you. Numbered markers along the way signaled stops with information in the booklet. We were also in search of the crested cacti and rock arches listed in the “not so junior ranger” booklet. Luckily they give you mileage points, but we still couldn’t locate some of them.

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One of the arches on the loop drive.
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Thank goodness for a shady lunch spot! The top was covered in ocotillo branches.

About half way around we stopped to eat our lunch and head out on the hike recommended by the “Forks” ranger. One guide said it was 3 miles roundtrip to Bull’s Pasture, another 4.2. All I know is we kept climbing and climbing and when we thought we were there, we weren’t, so we trudged on. Luckily someone put a sign at the end to tell us we had made it! Although the trail descriptions claimed it was only an 800’ elevation gain I’m sure it was more! That ranger was right though, it was worth it for the great views. I’m finding I love exposed rock mountains rising up toward the sky.

I wish we could count Organ Pipe toward our official National Park number, but alas it’s not on our map. Still it will remain one of our favorites.

Looking Back at 2016

We hit our 6 month mark the day after Christmas, so the end of the year seems like a good time to look back. Of course we’re already a month into the new year so before it’s too late here’s a look back at all the amazing places.

In our “take it slow” quest to hit all 59 official National Parks we managed to visit seven parks in 2016: North Cascades, Glacier, Teddy Roosevelt, Wind Cave, Badlands, Big Bend, and Saguaro. Hard to pick a favorite as each is so different. Glacier had loads of great scenery plus we could bike to the visitor’s center and little village by the lake. Teddy Roosevelt, a park that wasn’t even on our radar, had the coolest badlands rock formations we hiked on and touched and marveled over. At Badlands we enjoyed more hiking on badlands formations plus beautiful sunsets. Big Bend didn’t disappoint with its spectacular scenery and desert landscape. If I have to pick one I’ll go with Glacier because of all it had to offer with its activities, hikes and many awesome views.

We also made it to 12 other “national” sites run by the National Park Service which are turning out to be favorite stops as well. Each has added to our journey with its interesting history or beauty and I’m now on the look out for more of these sites. We visited the National Bison Range, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, Pompey’s Pillar, Fort Union Trading Post, Mount Rushmore, Minuteman Missile Launch Facility, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Alibates Flint Quarries, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Fort Davis, Padre Island National Seashore and the San Antonio Missions.

Along our route we’ve passed through 10 states (WA, ID, MT, ND, SD, NE, KS, TX, NM, AZ), three that were new to me, and parked our home in 34 different places. Here are some of our favorites so far.

Best campgrounds: Gilbert Ray County Park outside Tucson for it’s spectacular sunsets, spacious sites, desert landscape views and sunny peacefulness. You can’t go wrong with saguaro in every direction! Marcus Island on Lake Roosevelt is a close second for a private, lakefront campsite with eagles swooping through.

Best campground views: Gilbert Ray for all the above reasons, sunsets at Badlands and sitting lakeside watching the weather roll in at Marcus Island.

Best free camping: Fritch Fortress on Lake Meredith and Upper Bobcat outside Winthrop WA.

Best hikes: Iceberg Lake at Glacier, Cap Coulee Loop Trail at Teddy Roosevelt North, and Badlands Door and Notch trails.

Best small towns: Twisp WA where we enjoyed their 4th of July parade and Whitefish MT where we had a great lunch and explored the little shops.

Best big town: San Antonio for the Riverwalk and Missions

Biggest surprise: Close-up encounter with a bear while bike riding in Glacier

Biggest bummer: Issues with our trailer like losing a skylight in Texas

So after 6 months of adventures on the road how are we feeling? I think we’re both more settled into our lifestyle. At first we were apprehensive each time we hit the road for a new location wondering if we would like it and if there would be a campsite open. Now we still have a bit of that, but we trust more that things will work out (of course we do a lot of research ahead of time which helps up the odds that it will!) and we know if they don’t we can move on to another spot. We’re more comfortable with not having our stops planned out very far in advance, and although we usually have a general idea of where we’re heading next, we’re open to changing our plans if new opportunities arise.

We’ve reaffirmed that this adventure wouldn’t work if we didn’t get along so well. Early on we found that living in a tight quarters magnifies differences. In a house you naturally divide the “ownership” of spaces with each of you taking the upper hand in how it is organized (or not), used and decorated. With a trailer every space is shared and you’re together 24/7. There are ways to get time to yourself and differences can be worked out if you are open about your needs and willing to compromise. For the most part we’ve transitioned pretty easily and while there were a few bumps we’re both still happy to be on this journey together.

So I guess the big takeaway is that this type of adventure requires you to be flexible. Flexible in your plans, flexible with your partner, and flexible in so many more ways. From navigating a new grocery store every shopping trip to having someone different cut your hair each time to making due with what you have on hand, there are many little details that used to be easy but now require more thought and the ability to go with the flow. And while not finding the brands and organic produce you’re used to can be frustrating, finding new favorites and seeing unusual things from different regions is fun and when we do find old favorites we appreciate them even more. And whether we like it or not, our journey has made us both more flexible, and not in that I’ll complain about it the whole time I’m being flexible kind of way, but in a laid back go with the flow kind of way.

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Our cozy home

I think one reason we’re able to cope with all these changes is that our Airstream provides the stability of home. I’m a bit surprised by how it has developed this reassuring comfortable feeling. Even though the view outside the windows keeps changing, at night when we shut the door and pull the blinds everything around us disappears from my mind and it’s like were in our own little, safe, familiar bubble. And so I’ll leave you with one last highlight.

Most memorable moment: On an evening hike in Teddy Roosevelt North as we sat sipping wine and watching a family of deer prance off into the sunset, it really hit home how lucky we are to not only be seeing all these amazing places in our great nation, but to be on this adventure together.

 

Love those Saguaro !

Saguaro National Park
Loop Drives: 2
Hikes: 2

While we loved the campground and the desert landscape at Gilbert Ray and around Tucson, it turns out Saguaro was not our favorite national park. Somehow there isn’t something of the spectacular in this park. True the saguaros are cool, and I love how they seem so human and are all so different, some with arms that point down or curve around which only seems to make them look more life-like, but we saw just as many of those in Tucson Mountain Park and even on the drive into town. So our explorations in Saguaro just didn’t wow us.

This is another park with two parts to it, one on the east side of town and one to the west (near Gilbert Ray), both with visitor centers.

Both sides also have loop drives with views of the cacti which is a great way to experience the park, but unless you really get out and follow one of the trails you aren’t getting the full effect. By getting up close you realize how big the saguaros can be and see the diversity in their forms. You also get to see all the other cacti up close.

Gilbert, Ray of Sunshine

Gilbert Ray Campground
Nights: 17 (plus 3 over at Snyder Hill BLM)

It seems everyone raves about Gilbert Ray Campground in Tucson Mountain Park and we can see why. Since Saguaro NP doesn’t have any campgrounds of it’s own, this park seems to be the spot to stay and it really feels like a national park with it’s sweeping views of the mountains and desert landscape. With the Tucson Mountains between you and the city it feels more remote than the 20 minute drive to town. And since it borders the national park you are in a great spot for exploring.

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Spot #1

When we arrived there were only a handful of other campers occupying the 140 sites nicely spaced among the saguaro, barrel cactus and palo verde trees. Sitting beside our trailer soaking in the desert views and sunny 75 degree weather felt so peaceful. Just what we had been racing toward!

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We were rewarded with spectacular sunsets every night.

The only thing we didn’t like at Gilbert Ray was their 7 day stay limit. But in testament to how much we loved the park we left for a few days and came back. Those few days were spent at Snyder Hill, a Bureau of Land Management boondocking site. Most BLM sites are far out in nature, but this one is best described as an abandoned lot on the outskirts of town. If you frame your view just right the hill is picturesque, but the rest of it is scrub land devoid of cacti, littered with broken glass, rutted from rain runoff, and fairly crowded with campers running generators and weekend ATVers. There were a few nice spots, but we didn’t want to drive through the dust and ruts to get to them so we settled in the main clearing and made the best of it by spending our days in town doing laundry and grocery shopping. We couldn’t wait to get back to Gilbert Ray!

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Spot #2
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Nice views out our windows!

After seeing other campers with the hoods of their trucks open and lights strung beneath, we finally asked someone what was up. Apparently pack rats are common here in the desert and they will climb into your engine and chew up the wiring and insulation. The lights and raised hood deter them. So off to the store we went to get more lights.

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This was our first Christmas on the road. We were not sure how we would feel, but it turned out alright. We decorated the trailer by stringing lights inside and out, hung our stockings in the window, and even got a tiny tree with lights. On Christmas day we FaceTimed with family, which was almost like being there, and took a walk through the campground enjoying the views. Then we cooked a nice turkey dinner, opened a bottle of wine and enjoyed cheesecake for dessert. It was probably our most relaxed Christmas ever. And yes, I am wearing flip flops in those pics! 🙂

Tucson Mountain Park has a network of trails. We hiked Brown Mountain, which starts just across from the campground entrance. It was a nice climb to a great view of the surrounding desert landscape. I kept stopping to marvel at the cacti. When we got to the top of the first hill, the trail went down a bit and then up the next peak. With no map we weren’t sure exactly how the trail went. We debated heading back the way we came but we  knew there was a loop back through the desert floor so we decided to press on. We could see a trail far below, but when we came down the hill we never found the turn off and ended up in the picnic area. After wandering a bit we headed through a wash and the scrub brush in the direction we knew the trail should be and found a faint path that led to the main trail. Thank goodness we ran into another hiker who advised us that the way he had come led back up the mountain. We were getting tired and didn’t want to climb anymore so off we headed in the other direction to skirt around the base of the hills. Back at the campground we were thankful that we carry around our own hot shower and ice cold drinks!

Another day we ventured to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just up the road. It was crowded with visitors who didn’t seem deterred by the steep $20 per person entry fee. (Note: if you’re going to be seeing other attractions in the area you can purchase a Passport Savings Book that gives you 2 for 1 entrance.) Seems everyone who had family visiting for the holidays was taking them out to see the sights. This place is a little bit gardens, a little bit aquarium, a little bit aviary, and a big bit zoo that left us feeling sorry for the animals in the small enclosures. We did get to see a Gila Monster, but most of the animals were hiding from the mid-day sun. My favorite part was the cactus garden. Every turn held a new weird variety at which to marvel. The aquarium held creatures from the desert rivers and the Sea of Cortez into which they drain. The fossorial garden eels were the coolest, rising straight up out of the sand like long blades of grass and swaying in the water until a fish swam by and they instantly shrunk back disappearing into the sand.

We ended up spending 3 weeks here just outside Tucson and still couldn’t get enough of the desert views.

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If you are ever this way a few recommendations. Have breakfast or lunch at the Coyote Pause cafe, just outside the entrance to Tucson Mountain park. It’s delicious. For grocery shopping, the closest stores to the park leave something to be desired, but the brand new Fry’s on W. Valencia Road is worth the extra drive. We also ended up driving 30 minutes across town to do laundry at Mike’s Just Like Home Coin Laundry. The other places we found were dirty and broken down. On Wednesdays Mike’s has a $1 wash deal. Even without it, it was one of the cheaper places we have done laundry.

 

Big Bend Part 2

Rio Village Campground
Nights: 3
Hikes: 2

Since it takes nearly 2 hours to drive from one end of Big Bend to the other, we decided to camp a few days on the eastern side of the park. We found less of the spectacular geologic scenery of the western side of the park here and it seemed a bit more arid. It turned out we were glad we had spent more time on the other side and if you can only visit one part I would say go for the western side of the park. Still there were some good views here.

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View of the Rio Grande from the Hot Springs trail. On the right side is Mexico.

Again we hiked to a canyon carved by the Rio Grande at this end of the park. Boquillas Canyon was not quite as spectacular, maybe because you couldn’t get as far into the canyon with the trail washed away or maybe because the lighting wasn’t great in the afternoon when we went. We did spot a turtle on the bank of the river though so add that to our list of wildlife seen at Big Bend.

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On certain days you can also cross the border via rowboat at Boquillas to visit a small Mexican town, but since we have been to Mexico numerous times we passed.

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Mexican artists illegally cross the river to set up trinkets for sale. We saw several of these little collections along the trail. They don’t stick around to get caught, but leave a jar for your money. The park warns visitors it is illegal to buy anything from them.

We hadn’t seen many Airstreams in the midwest but here in Texas we’re seeing more. We met two other Airstream couples in the campground and it was fun to chat with them. One couple from San Antonio are about two years away from following in our path. They had lots of questions about going full-time and how we had outfitted our Airstream. There is an instant connection with other Airstreamers and it’s nice having that community. In fact we’re already planning a trip to the Airstream factory in May for their big rally.

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If we walked across from our campsite we had this view of the evening light on the cliffs. 

A big draw of this area of Big Bend is the natural hot spring on the shores of the river. A business man built a small store and motor court here in the 1930s and a few of the buildings still remain.

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The mineral rich water was thought to be healing and it still bubbles up in the foundations of the spa at a constant 105 degrees.

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Yes, that muddy water is the Rio Grande.

Many hikers come to soak in it, but we found the nearby petroglyphs, pictographs and rock formations more interesting.

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The red markings are pictographs, painted images left by early inhabitants.
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The thick and thin layers of rock along the trail were full of color.

Overall, Big Bend left us excited for more of the grandeur our National Parks protect for everyone to enjoy. We’ve only visited six parks so far and already we can’t believe the amazing things we’ve seen.