Big Bend Part 1

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Cottonwood Campground: 5 nights
Hikes: 3
Bug Bites: 2
Wildlife: 6 javelinas (they came through the campground each evening), 5 tarantulas (2 on the path, 3 on the road), vermillion flycatcher (beautiful bird with bright green wings and a fiery red/orange head and breast), a great horned owl, our first snake (luckily not a rattler), roadrunners, walking sticks, butterflies (at least 6 different kinds), lizards, orange and white spotted grasshopper, and lots of other birds.

We were so excited to be in another National Park (this is #6). While the state parks we’ve been in have been interesting, we were struck again by the grandness of our national parks. Big Bend wowed us with its sweeping and varied views, sheer size, stark dessert beauty, geology, and even a bit of history. The campground was near the end of the Ross Maxell Scenic Drive, about 26 miles from the western entrance, so we were treated to spectacular views for our first impression of the park.

 

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This US Boundary marker was right in our campsite, but I think it had been moved.

The campground itself wasn’t that impressive, but it did put us in a good locale to explore this side of the park. Interestingly they flood the campground each evening to irrigate the grass and trees, and although the parking pads are elevated, it does make for muggy and buggy conditions. Still in the afternoon we enjoyed sitting in the shade of the trailer enjoying the view. Most of the time it was warm, up to 90 degrees. We had an awesome storm one night with the thunder actually shaking the trailer.

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On our first day we took the scenic drive, this time stopping at all the pullouts and signage, much easier without a 30’ trailer in tow. They have very small visitor centers at this park, but make up for it with informative roadside displays, which is almost better because you are seeing the actual things they talk about instead of seeing a picture of it at the visitor’s center. We learned about the geology of the park, as well as, the history of ranching, farming and cross border trade in the region. Below is Tuff Canyon, an area formed from volcanic ash.

We took a short hike to the Burro Mesa Pouroff. A pouroff is a dry waterfall, only filled with water during rains. You had to get all the way inside to see all of it’s coolness. We also walked a short path through the remains of the old Sam Hill Ranch. The windmill still operates to provide water to the fig and pecan trees planted years ago.

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The approach
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Inside the pouroff

We continued all the way to the Chisos Basin, climbing from our campground’s 2100’ elevation to 4500. Here you are guaranteed about 10 degree cooler weather. The change in vegetation was quite apparent too as trees became a part of the landscape. There is a campground here, but the tight turns in the mountain road and small sites prohibit larger RVs. This is also where you can find bears in the park. On a map in the visitor’s center people marked where they had seen them and it was obvious they were quite active feeding up for the winter. The most popular hike was closed due to bear activity so we didn’t end up taking any hikes up here.

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The Window in Chisos Basin

Big Bend is the only national park to contain an entire mountain range, and while it is a big park, the “Big” in the name refers to the giant bend the Rio Grande takes here. On our second day we hiked to Saint Elena Canyon to see the canyon formed by this famous river. It seemed amazing that we were staring right at Mexico. In fact there were signs warning you not to cross the center of the river or you could get in trouble for an illegal border crossing. The muddy water did not look inviting to us so no worries there.

Our final hike on this side of the park took us 7 miles down a dirt road, seemingly into the middle of nothing. But a short easy walk led us through a valley of rocky hills. Then a scramble up the rocky hillside and we made it to Balanced Rock. All around were boulders to climb on. It was nature’s version of a jungle gym and it brought out the kid in me.

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Yep, that’s the trail, a scramble up the rocks.
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That’s me climbing boulders on the far right.

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A nice view of the canyon on the way back.

Back at the campsite a great view to enjoy while relaxing with a giant glass of refreshing lime water! By the way that cliff in the distance is Mexico. 🙂

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Lime Water
Squeeze 1/4 lime in a large glass with ice.
Fill half way with club soda.
Add filtered water to the top.

Palo Duro Canyon

Nights: 4
Hikes: 2
Bug Bites: 0
Flies: millions!

Billed as the second largest canyon in the US, Palo Duro Canyon sounded like a must see kind of place, but for us it just didn’t impress. Maybe it was the skylight snafu or maybe it was the continued fight with the flies (apparently it’s fly season here in Texas), or maybe it’s just that we’ve seen so many spectacular places that this place paled in comparison.

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It was our first Texas State Park and from what we could tell, they’re not too keen on people driving up without a reservation. Luckily we made one online because when we pulled up and said we had a reservation the ranger replied “Those are the magic words.” We also had to buy our $70 Texas State Park Pass, otherwise you pay $4 per person per day in addition to your camping fees. Since we know we’ll be in a few more Texas State Parks, we bit the bullet and bought the pass.

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Wild turkeys in the campground.

Unlike other states we’ve visited, in Texas you make a reservation for a park but not a particular campground or campsite. They assign you a spot when you arrive. At Palo Duro we were put in Sagebrush which seemed like the lesser campground. While there were some pretty views in other parts of the park, you couldn’t see them here and because of the swarms of flies you couldn’t sit outside. We may have liked Palo Duro more if we had been in the campground at the end of the 8 mile park road. It was a little further into the canyon so had better views and the bugs didn’t seem as bad when we hiked the shaded Sunflower and Rojo trails near there.

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Cool sedimentary rocks along the Rojo Trail.

This is another park developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This time they gave their stone buildings a bit of southwest flair with v shaped rooflines. In the small visitor’s center near the rim of the canyon they have a small display about CCC life. Through the big windows you can see into the canyon, but because you are at the far north end you don’t see much of it’s 120 mile length. The park road only goes about 8 miles into the canyon. I left feeling like we hadn’t really seen the whole deal.

If it wasn’t for the hike we did on the last day, I would have totally written this place off the list. Our hike, the most popular in the park, took us to a formation call The Lighthouse (6 miles). Because it was going to be a hot day we set out in the morning and I was glad we did as there was very little shade on the trail. We also spotted barbary sheep, out for a morning jaunt (they’re in the top left pic below). They look similar to big horn sheep, but are related more closely to goats. They are from Northern Africa, but were introduced into the area in the early 1940s. We spent a while watching the herd of about 15 chase each other about on the rocky hillside putting our new binoculars to good use.

One night we noticed an older Airstream in the campground and chatted with the owners. It was a 1960s model that they had fixed up. Turns out the owner is an artist who paints their Airstream in the places they visit and we had seen some of her work on the cover of Airstream Life Magazine. She was on her way to an Airstream rally to market her work and we were able to score one of her calendars. They let us peek inside their little gem and we returned the favor when they stopped by after dinner. After they left we realized that we needed to add a new lesson to our list.

Lesson #6 Turn out the lights before opening the door at night.

Yes, our handy Dyson stick vac was again put into heavy use sucking up a multitude of bugs.

Leaving Bobcat

Nights: 5
Hikes: 1
Bikes: 1
Bug Bites: 6

We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent near Winthrop. Our spot at Upper Bobcat turned out to be a perfect jumping off point for exploring the area. We made a visit to Winthrop (about 12 miles away) where I learned I’m not much for shopping anymore. With limited space in the trailer every purchase has to be weighed carefully and there really isn’t much we need.

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Twist 4th of July Parade

We also made it into Twisp to enjoy their small 4th of July parade followed by the firefighters demonstrating how they cut apart a car to extract the injured. And of course we took advantage of being close to a grocery store and laundromat to stock up and clean up.

 

Besides our bike ride (see earlier post) we found a short hike across the street to Falls Creek Falls. The first 1/4 mile is paved and ends at a viewpoint of the lower falls. We wore our Keen Sandals thinking this was an easy jaunt, but alas a dirt trail continued on and we couldn’t resist so we learned another lesson.

Lesson #3: Always wear your hiking boots.

The trail climbed steeply and at points became a bit of a scramble as the loose sandy soil threatened to send us sliding back down. We persevered and made it all the way up to see a total of 4 beautiful waterfalls. Well worth the effort!

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Chuck at Falls Creek Falls

Afterwards we enjoyed some yummy fish tacos. I didn’t really measure anything (why dirty an extra spoon that will need washed) but here’s an approximation of the recipe.

Fish Tacos – makes about 6 tacos

Mix in a ziplock bag:

juice of 1/2 lime
1-2 T. olive oil
salt – 1/8 tsp
dash of pepper
dried cilantro 1/4 tsp
cumin – 1/8 tsp

Marinate about 3/4 pound white fish (cod, rockfish, mahi, halibut) 20-30 minutes. Grill until fish flakes easily.

Salsa:

1/2 kiwi
1/2 nectarine
1/8 red pepper
juice of 1/4 lime
salt and pepper
1/4 tsp dried cilantro or fresh
chili flakes (if you like a kick)

Dice fruit and pepper. Mix everything in a bowl. Let sit while fish marinates and cooks.

For tacos:

In warm corn tortilla put some fish, top with salsa, sour cream and sliced cabbage or coleslaw mix. Squeeze a lime over the top and enjoy!

It’s hard to leave this beautiful spot. I’m not sure we’ll be able to find another one that is as good. For our first time boondocking I think we hit a home run!

National Park #1

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North Cascades National Park – Newhalem Campground
Number of Nights: 5
Hikes: 3
Bikes: 2
Bug Bites: 6

This was an easy first stop for us as it’s one of our favorite places to camp in the summer. Since a wildfire burned parts of the park last summer, one loop of the campground is closed and the remaining sites are all reservable. Now the chances of snagging a spot without a reservation are unlikely on a weekend. Luckily we made our reservation in advance, but could only get 5 nights before the park filled for the 4th of July weekend. Still we packed our time with activities.

On our first full day we took the short walk from the campground through the woods to the visitors center. It’s a worthwhile stop with a kid-friendly display on wildlife in the area, a movie, and a small gift shop. Since we’ve seen all this before our main purpose was to check out nearby hikes and find out about the yearly National Park pass. Before heading back, we walked out the back door and down the short boardwalk to the viewpoint. There we found a ranger with a viewing scope focused on the ice peeking out from the snow on the distant ridge. We took a quick photo before following the the trail back past the campground to a nice view of the rushing Skagit River. If it hadn’t been closed due to the fire damage we probably would have continued on to the Rock Creek Shelter trail.

IMG_1166There are plenty of hikes in the area if you’re willing to take a drive. We have enjoyed Sauk Mountain, Thunder Creek, Diablo Lake, Ladder Creek Falls and others in the past. This time we hiked up Thunder Knob (3.6 miles, 425’ elevation gain). The hike starts out cross a rushing river and then switchbacks through the woods, past a small pond, and up to a rocky outcropping. At the top we found stunning views of snowy peaks in every direction, as well a a view down to Diablo Lake. Another day we took the trail to Lake Ann (3.4 miles, 700’ elevation gain). About half way up we crossed a boulder field with incredible views of peaks all around and wildflowers trailside. We encountered a few areas where the trail was covered in snow or mud or water, but we found our way to this beautiful alpine lake and were rewarded with views of four different waterfalls from the snow melt making it’s was down to the lake. A fellow hiker carried some kind of fishing float on his back and was soon out on the lake paddling with flippers underwater as he fly fished his way across the lake. We could only imagine how cold the water must have felt!

We also got a chance to test out our new bikes with several rides around the campground. After cycling through the loops we followed the dirt road from the campground to the Pump House (interesting signage explains it’s function) and on through the gravel lined “Trail of the Cedars” to cross the bridge into Newhalem. There we rode over for a view of the dam before heading back. Feeling ambitious we biked on to Goodell Campground across the river. We had to follow a faint footpath through the brush and navigate some deep, loose gravel that made the pedaling tough but we made it to this shady “no frills” campground. On this sunny day it didn’t look as dreary as we remembered and we even found a few spots that would have fit our trailer. Given the varied terrain we covered I think our choice of bikes is going to be perfect for our adventures!

This was a nice first stop—comfortable for us and a way to ease into this adventure, but I’m looking forward to getting over the hurdle of finding our first boondocking spot. There is a bit of anxiety that comes with heading into the unknown, but as we conquer each new challenge I’m sure it will quickly fade. Already we feel our stress melting away.