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!

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.

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!


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.

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.

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.

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.

One of the arches on the loop drive.
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.

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.


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 🙂


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


Big Bend Part 1


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.


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.


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.

The approach
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.

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.

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



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. 🙂


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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!

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!