Got That Vacation Feeling!

Padre Island National Seashore – Malaquite Campground
Nights: 14
Hikes and Bikes: 0
Walks on the beach: countless
Bug Bites: 5—but for once Chuck had at least twice as many as I did! Of course he was the one standing outside in the evenings grilling our dinner 🙂

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Before we left everyone asked us when or if we thought we would lose the feeling that we were on vacation. We didn’t really know what to expect, and I’m not sure there was an exact moment, but somewhere along the way it happened. Maybe it was the stretch of so-so parks in the midwest, or our month long stay in Wichita that was more like regular living, but we got to feeling kinda like this is our normal life. So it was nice when we pulled into Padre Island to get back that feeling that we’re on vacation.

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We’ve always found the beach relaxing and walking along this beach reminds us of our favorite vacation destination, Zihuatanejo Mexico. Now if only there was a little palapa with drinks and snacks we’d be set. But you really can’t complain with these views.

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When we’re at the national parks we’re trying to make sure we see everything, but here there is nothing more to do than walk on the beach and stare at the waves and we spent a full two weeks (the maximum time you’re allowed to stay) doing just that.

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Portuguese Man-o-War

Chuck’s brother and our nephew flew down to spend a few days with us at Thanksgiving. We cooked a full turkey day dinner on the BBQ with all the usual foods we have at home. Thank goodness for aluminum foil pans. We put a bone-in turkey breast in one on the grill surrounded by little ones for the green bean casserole, marshmallow yams, and stuffing. Mashed potatoes on the stove and biscuits in the oven rounded out the meal. I cheated with a store bought pumpkin pie, but everyone seemed happy.

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Our nephew wasted no time getting in the water. And he even tried his hand at paddle boarding in the Laguna Madre on the other side of the island.

Even with the high humidity (most days 80-90%—it was actually dripping down the screens), goat heads (nasty stickers), a big storm, and evening bugs, we enjoyed it so much we debated coming back after going to San Antonio. That didn’t happen but I’m sure we will be back someday.

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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.

Lake Meredith & Alibates Flint

Nights: 6
Hikes: 1
Bug Bites: 2
Cool sunsets: 6
Full moon: 1

We had a little trouble getting the trailer hooked up with the new hitch and new truck. At one point my frustration came out as I exclaimed “We’re never getting out of Wichita!” My brother-in-law laughed. He came for the summer 30 years ago and he’s still there. But we did finally get everything hitched up correctly and made it out of town.

Our eventual goal is Big Bend National Park in south Texas but Texas is huge and there’s lots to see so we’re taking our time as we move in that general direction. First stop, the most awesome free camping yet at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area.

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Chuck found this one and I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was just north of Amarillo. He told me it was dispersed camping, so I was expecting a big open undeveloped area. I think we were both happily surprised when we pulled in to find an amazing free campground with lots of amenities. The sites are pull offs along the road, but there are clean restrooms with showers, picnic tables with shade shelters, fire pits and BBQs, a dump and water, a boat ramp, an amphitheater, and stunning views! All this for free. We couldn’t believe it.

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There are several small campgrounds around the lake. We stayed at Fritch Fortress. It sits on a bluff overlooking the water. It’s run by the National Park Service and all we could figure is that oil must fund it (some of the land is leased for oil drilling). I was also surprised that we were right next to Alibates Flint National Monument. Turns out this is another cool NPS site I had never heard about before and, like Pompey’s Pillar, it was a great stop on our journey.

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Alibates Flint is a rock that started as dolomite, a porous rock formed by layers of silt. It is speculated that it was later covered by ash. Then, like petrified wood, over time rainwater carried silica and minerals from the ash through the rock which replaced the organic matter. Depending on the minerals various colors are left in the rock—reds, baby blues, whites, greys, yellows. The crystals are so small that they form a very hard rock, harder than steel, that can be knapped into sharp points. Humans have been using it for thousands of year to make tools and weapons. In fact they found Alibates Flint spearpoints in the remains of mammoths from 12,000 years ago. This special agatized dolomite is only found naturally in about a 10 square mile area, but archeologists have found pieces much further away as ancient nomadic people carried it with them and later local tribes traded it for pottery and shells.

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Standing in the middle of an area where they shaped the flint. The rocks all around are pieces that were chipped off larger stones quarried from an adjacent pit.

The small visitor’s center has a nice display explaining how the stone was formed and how it was shaped and used. Around 1200 AD local tribes quarried the stones for their use and for trade. Because rock exposed to weather was poor quality, pits were dug using shovels made out of bones like bison shoulder blades. Large river rocks were used to break off 8 – 10 pound pieces of flint which were then broken into many smaller pieces. Finer work shaping the blades was done with antelope antlers. There are hundreds of these quarry pits in the area where Alibates Flint is found. The monument protects an area of quarries as well as the ruins of a village.

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The only way to see the monument is on a ranger led hike. Because the flint is so rare and beautiful they’re worried it will be carried off by visitors unless they keep a watchful eye on the place. Lucky for us, our hike was led by a ranger who is a geologist (and oddly from Tacoma WA!). He was informative about both the geology of the area and the lives of the ancient people who used the flint. Although only one mile long, it took us almost two hours as the ranger stopped to share his knowledge, but was well worth it!

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My first time seeing a stick bug in real life!

There were lots of bugs at the campground, but we were happy to be camped out in nature again after the gravel parking lot in Wichita. Luckily the constant wind helped keep the bugs at bay. Mostly we enjoyed the fabulous sunsets here at Lake Meredith!

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Happy Birthday NPS!

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The National Park Service was celebrating its 100th anniversary on August 25th and we were looking for a place to celebrate with them. At Teddy Roosevelt South they were having a celebration to release the TRNP quarter, but since we didn’t feel like sticking around there for another 5 days we had to make a different plan. Looking at my trusty map of National Parks we had just a few options within a reasonable distance and not too far off our route. And so we ended up at Wind Cave National Park. Yes, I know we already learned that I don’t do caves, but it’s right near Mt. Rushmore National Monument which is run by the park service and they were supposed to be having cake and ice cream for the anniversary. So from the badlands of North Dakota we dipped down into South Dakota.

Getting another early start we saw deer, pronghorn and coyotes in the fields on the drive south. We drove through Sturgis (thankfully the big motorcycle gathering was a couple of weeks ago) and on to Rapid City. Heading south we entered the Black Hills and the views changed as huge chunks of granite appeared.

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In Elk Mountain campground in the park we found lots of open sites. Most of them were small tent sites or narrow pull offs on the side of the camp road, but we picked one in the back of a loop with some afternoon shade and a little privacy and set out to make camp. Well, 45 minutes later we were still trying to get the trailer level. We tried putting the trailer more to the left, more to the right, further back, further front. Seemed like no matter what we did we couldn’t get it to work. The site was just too far off level and we couldn’t back up onto the huge stack of blocks required. (Seeing the other trailers who came while we were there and talking with the hosts, it seems this is a common problem for this hilly campground.) Well, it was hot and we were getting cranky so it was time to find a new spot.

We ended up in a site on the side of the entrance road. To it’s advantage it had a nicely mown, green grassy area right outside the door and some afternoon shade. It was just a bit disconcerting when a car or trailer zoomed by just a couple of feet from the window. Luckily this was a pretty quiet campground so it didn’t happen too often. As a bonus we had bunny friends nibbling away at the grass every day as well as deer in the campground one evening.

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While we didn’t take a cave tour, we did view the exhibits and check out the buildings made by the CCC. We hiked to an old fire lookout with great views.

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We drove into the nearby town of Hot Springs for lunch and groceries and spent lots of time relaxing at the campground. One day we watched the rain come down, continuing our streak of bringing rain with us wherever we go.

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Mural in Hot Springs

This place brought back memories of a trip to Mt. Rushmore with our daughters in our very first travel trailer and we enjoyed reminiscing as we looked at the old photos. I was in awe of the monument then, and still am now. There’s something about it, perhaps it’s the way the eyes stare out so seriously, or the grand scale of it, or the amazing detail carved out of the rock, but it is awesome.

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On the 25th we were surprised to find free parking at the monument (there is no entrance fee, but parking costs $11) and light crowds. We spent a couple of hours walking the Trail of the Presidents, enjoying the views from different angles, reading about the Presidents, watching the movie and walking through the museum. It was all really cool, but we never did see that cake! Still it seemed like a fitting place to be for the 100th anniversary.

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An amazing display of “paintings” of National Parks done all in duct tape!

Back at the campground I noticed a sign for a special evening program. The Friends of Wind Cave was sponsoring an actor who portrays Seth Bullock, US Marshall of the Dakotas, friend of Teddy Roosevelt and the first supervisor of Wind Cave National Park in 1902. His show was part story and part song, with a good dose of humor thrown in. It  turned out to be informative and enjoyable and they had cake! A nice way to cap off the 100th anniversary and our last night here.

Good and Bad in the Lands of North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
Nights: 4
Hikes: 1
Bug Bites: 0
Meals with family: 1

After loving the north unit we were a little disappointed by the south unit. I kept trying to put my finger on what was different and I’m not sure I ever figured it out entirely, but I think the north unit just felt more personal.

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In the north, you got to get up close to the rocks and the valley was narrower so you felt like you were right in the badlands. The South unit was more vast. It gave you better far reaching views of badlands cliff after cliff, the best of those from the Painted Canyon visitor center on I-90, a worthwhile stop for anyone in the area. In the north the eroded cliffs appeared pyramid-like and more dramatic, while in the south they were more rounded mounds.

Then there were the campgrounds. We loved the quiet, peacefulness of Juniper Campground in the north. The sites were laid out around a grassy oval. Although many sites on the outer edge were in the trees and dark, we had lots to pick from and ours came with grass and views. Our site at Cottonwood in the south was more the dusty, dirt in the trees type. Although to be fair there were a few sites in the campground with great views, especially some of those in the tent area, but since half the sites are reservable and it was busy here you had to take what you could get. It probably didn’t help that it was really hot when we arrived, and there was a huge storm that night with thunder, lightning and hail that kept me awake, but we just didn’t like the south unit as much as we liked the north.

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Still we did manage to find some interesting things. We drove the 24 mile scenic loop and climbed to the high point for a great view. We hiked to the original entrance station (more cool Civilian Conservation Corps handiwork) and to a spot where a coal vein burned continuously for over 20 years.

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Again we saw lots of bison here. In fact one day I looked out the trailer window to see the tail end of a bison running through a nearby campsite. But by now bison are so old hat that when a family told us there were bison near the campground entrance we sarcastically replied “Oh, great.” I later felt bad that perhaps we rained on the kids’ excitement.

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The south definitely is the place to go if you want to see prairie dogs. On the scenic drive you go right through 4 different prairie dog towns. They didn’t do much for me, but it was cool to see a badger popping his head out of a burrow in one of the towns.

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At the visitor center we enjoyed seeing the Maltese Cross Cabin which was originally built for Teddy Roosevelt at the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch. This was the first cattle venture Roosevelt was part of and the log cabin is where he stayed while he split his time between the Dakotas and New York before he built his own ranch at Elkhorn. Inside they have his original writing desk and trunk. In the visitor center they had more of his belongings, including his riding gear.

The visitor’s center and park entrance are in Medora. My niece has worked the last 4 summers in Medora, but I never really knew where it was or what it was all about. The town was started in the 1880s by a French Marquis who named it after his bride. In the 1960s an entrepreneur  turned it into the thriving old west tourist town it is today. It is famous for it’s nightly musical show and pitchfork fondue which, along with most of the town, is run by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

While we aren’t much for tourist attractions, we did walk around town a little and enjoy a nice dinner while catching up with our niece. We have the distinction of being the only family to ever visit her here!

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You can just barely see the yellow “weather” rope on the right. My niece knows nothing about its occasional disappearance 🙂

And so, that winds up our time in the badlands. Some good, some not as good, but I can’t really say any of it was bad.