Big Bend National Park

Chisos and cactus.jpg

National Park #42 was checked off our bucket list with a visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas. February seemed like a good time to visit and it was. The temperatures were great for hiking, spring break visitors had not yet arrived, and all the facilities in the park were open.

A visit to this vast and little visited park means there is plenty of room to roam by yourself. High season for this park is from November 15 to April 15. The two visitor centers close to the river are closed in the summer. We talked to several people who had been there in July and, with temperatures around 110°, that sounded pretty miserable.

Desert landscape2

Big Bend became a national park in June 12, 1944 after a lengthy process. In 1933, Texas established the Texas Canyons State Park using 15 school sections owned by the state. Lands forfeited for non-payment of taxes were added and the name was changed to Big Bend State Park, and by October 1933 it included about 160,000 acres. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that authorized the establishment of Big Bend National Park but it took another nine years before a deed for about 700,000 acres was formally presented to President Roosevelt and on June 12, 1944 Big Bend was established as a national park by Congressional Act. It was designated an international Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

Big Bend now encompasses 801,163 acres (1,252 square miles) making it the 14th largest national park and the 8th largest in the Lower 48. However, the 2015 visitation was just 381,747, with total visitation since inception in 1944 of only15,431,497.

Morning fog over the Chisos

In 2015, of the 59 national parks, Big Bend ranked 41st in visitation. This tells you something about the location of the park and also why you can drive for miles and miles without ever meeting another car. Hundreds of miles from a major airport and with medical facilities at least a hundred miles away, Big Bend is very remote by Lower 48 standards. You have to be going there specifically to get there. It is not a place you would accidentally stumble upon.

The park is a vast part of the northern Chihuahuan desert with the Chisos Mountains rising like a fortress basically in the center.

Desert landscape

We stayed at the Chisos Mountains Lodge in the Chisos Basin (elevation 5400 ft.), which because of its central location, was the ideal place for ranging out to visit the other areas of the park.

Chisos Mountains Lodge2

The Lodge is the only place in the park with a restaurant. Fortunately, the food was very good. The lodge restaurant also offered a magnificent view of the basin and through the “Window” overlooking the desert plain below.

Window.jpg

The Window is a v-shaped opening, or pour off, in the mountains through which all rain and meltwater from the basin drains. The view through the window is particularly nice at sunset.

Sunset

Our room faced the opposite direction but we had the magnificent Casa Grande as a view from our patio. No phone, no tv, no cell service and really sketchy wi-fi – really low-key and a relief to leave the constant primary election coverage behind.

Sunset on Caasa Grande

Our first morning in the park, as we drove down out of the Chisos, we spotted four bears not far off the road. After taking numerous pictures, we headed straight to the ranger station at Panther Junction to report our wildlife sighting. The ranger there said it was a sow and three yearling cubs. I kept hoping we would see a javelin or a mountain lion to round out our visit, but that was not to be.

Bears in Big Bend.jpg

Big Bends’ topographic variety supports a diversity of life including 1200 plant species. Many migratory birds winter in Big Bend and 450 bird species have been counted here. We met a number of “birders” in the park and visitor centers have checklists available to record sightings.

Almost immediately we began learning a lot about cacti and yuccas, which actually was more interesting than it initially sounds.

Yucca Flats         Sotol   Cholla

Chihuanan desert vegetation covers the majority of the park. With over 1200 plant species, including numerous cacti and yucca, as well as other succulents masquerading as cacti or yucca, there is a great deal of variety.

On a nature trail, we came across a sign showing three kinds of prickly pear cactus:

Engelmann – spiny     Prickly Pear - Spiny

Blind – no spines          Prickly Pear - Blind

Purple-tinged                  Prickly Pear - Purple-tinged

We asked questions about whether the purple were distinct species or simply variations of the others and actually got several different answers so we’re really not sure.

A winding, narrow dirt road leads off the highway to the historic Hot Springs which was probably the first tourist destination in the area. J.O. Langford built a bathhouse over hot springs on the edge of the Rio Grande and offered “the cure” to visitors until the early 1960’s. Ruins of a motel and post office remain, as well as the foundation of the bathhouse where visitors can still bathe in the hot springs.

Hot Springs store   Hot Springs motel

Hot Springs

Several places we read that this desolate desert landscape had once been grassland which was a little hard to believe. Then reading about the large numbers of sheep and goats that were run on the range and the overgrazing, it became clear why it is nearly uninhabitable now.

Croton Peak

It’s easy to imagine the Rio Grande as this majestic and grand river but in actuality it’s a shallow, meandering, slightly lazy stream. Part of that is the time of year and a bigger part, the fact that it is depleted along its 1,896-mile length by agriculture and industry. The river forms the border between Mexico and the U.S. state of Texas. Where we were you could easily walk across the river, but everyone is warned that there is a large fine for doing so and if you are in Mexico without your passport you’re in an especially tight spot.

Rio Grande2.jpg

We took numerous hikes. The hike to the balanced rock involved some bouldering and was rather steep near the end but certainly worth the effort.

 

Hike to Balanced Rock2 Through balanced rock

Nearly all the hikes offered absolutely no shade, so the steep high walls of the Santa Elena Canyon provided a nice cool change.

Santa Elena Canyon5    Santa Elena Canyon mouth.jpg

We enjoyed our visit to Big Bend and then set out toward home across the unrelenting miles and miles of west Texas.

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Fort McPherson National Cemetery

It may sound a bit morbid but old cemeteries have always fascinated me. It’s interesting what you can figure out from wandering around – or at least, what you think you figure out. It is very different wandering an old cemetery in Nebraska or Colorado or any number of other states and imagining the Old West pioneers, ranchers, and homesteaders, however, than it is wandering through any of the national cemeteries.

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Recently we visited Fort McPherson National Cemetery near Maxwell, Nebraska. My father, mother and stepfather, and maternal grandparents are buried there and Fort McPherson is where Tom and I plan to also be buried.

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Fort McPherson is located in the Platte River Valley which played a very important role in the history of western movement in the U.S. The “Great Platte River Road” was the major pathway for traders and trappers in search of furs, settlers seeking land, miners headed for the riches of the Rocky Mountains and the first transcontinental railroad linking the east and west coasts.

Fort McPherson was established on September 27, 1863, to provide protection for the building of the railroad and the pioneers trekking west on the Oregon and California trails and to keep peace with the local Native Americans. The fort, initially named Cantonment McKean, was located on the banks of the Platte River, at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, a strategic location near the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers. Cottonwood Springs, a natural seep in an abandoned bed of the river, was the only spring for many miles along the river. For a time the fort was known as Post of the Cottonwood Springs. The fort was built by troops of the 7th Regiment Iowa Volunteer Cavalry using cedar logs cut in Cottonwood Canyon and was completed in October 1873.

The name was changed to Fort McPherson February 20, 1866, in honor of Major General James B. McPherson who was killed in action in 1864 during the Battle of Atlanta. Numerous expeditions were launched from Fort McPherson during the Indian Wars.

Edited

Fort McPherson National Cemetery was established on March 3, 1873, on the Fort McPherson Military Reservation. As the Army closed frontier posts in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota and Nebraska, soldier and civilian burials from 23army post cemeteries throughout the west were relocated to Fort McPherson. The fort itself was abandoned in 1880 but the national cemetery was maintained.

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Fort McPherson is the final resting place of four Medal of Honor recipients:

  • Private Daniel Miller, Medal of Honor recipient for action in Arizona Territory during the Indian Wars.
  • Sergeant Emanuel Stance, Medal of Honor recipient for action in Texas during the Indian Wars.
  • Sergeant George Jordan, Medal of Honor recipient for action in New Mexico Territory during the Indian Wars.
  • Private First Class James W. Fous, Medal of Honor recipient for action in the Vietnam War.

There are 84 group burials which represent 398 decedents. One of these contains the remains of 28 enlisted soldiers killed in what came to be known among whites as the Grattan Massacre. Another contains the remains of 6 members of Company F, 3rd U.S. Cavalry who drowned in a flash flood.

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Sixty-three Buffalo soldiers from the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, originally interred at Fort Robinson, were transferred to Fort McPherson in 1947 when Fort Robinson was deactivated.

Spotted Horse, a Pawnee Indian scout; Baptiste Garnier who served as chief of scouts at Fort Robinson; and Moses “California Joe” Milner, who served as a scout for both Gen. George A. Custer in the Black Hills and Gen. George Crook, are all interred at Fort McPherson.

There are 541 unknowns at Fort McPherson. Many of these were relocated from other post cemeteries and at the time the markers were too weathered to allow identification.

Edited6

Fort McPherson is a small cemetery in a quiet valley in western Nebraska, but tells an important story. A visit to a national cemetery impresses with the sense of peace and reverence and the rows upon rows of gravestones seeming to stand at attention remind one of the many who were willing to serve our country and for whom we need to be very thankful.

Edited5

 

 

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Photo Collection

I’ve been somewhat remiss in posting to my blog lately. Seems we have been really busy and the time gets away. Tom has always done a Christmas letter and I have always had good intentions. This year he wrote the letter and we made our Christmas cards using photos that I had taken on some of our travels.  We decided to share those photos here as a “Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year” message to all.

 

 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Longs Peak

We can’t make a checkmark on our Bucket List with our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in late July since we have visited this park before. As it had been ten years since our last visit, we decided to take a bit longer route on our way to a reunion in Nebraska and spend a couple of days in the park.

RMNP1

Rocky Mountain National Park is celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2015. Rocky Mountain National Park was the tenth national park to be established, and prior to having a unified park service, it was administered by the Department of the Interior.

On this trip we came into the park from the west so our first stop was in the Kawuneeche Valley where we took several short hikes near the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River. Here it’s hard to imagine that this nice little meandering stream further down its course becomes the river carving the Grand Canyon.

Kawuneeche Valley Kawuneeche Valley2                                       Colorado River

Trail Ridge Road climbs, twists and turns its way eastward to cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (10758 ft.), continuing to snake its way to the Alpine Visitor Center (11796 ft.) at Fall River Pass, then to the highest point on the road (12,183 ft.) and beyond and downward to the east entrance of the park – Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at a “mere” 7840 ft. The views on the road are amazing and at many points it seems like you can see forever. The Never Summer Mountain Range to the west, the Mummy Range to the north, and Long’s Peak (14259 ft.) to the south provide 360° mountain viewing and great opportunities for beautiful landscape photos. “Purple mountain majesties” very well could apply here even though Katherine Lee Bates wrote those words inspired by Pikes Peak further to the south.

Alpine visitor center view2              IMG_0340

This park is nearly all fairly high so hiking can be quite strenuous if one is not used to altitude. By watching the elevation gains given on the trail guides, it’s possible to choose hikes of varying activity levels – elevation gain often being more important than total distance.

trail           calypso cascade

We hiked to the Pool and then went back to the visitor’s center to ask a couple of questions. We were curious about the fenced areas erected along the stream in Moraine Park. We were told they were elk exclusion fences. These were areas where the vegetation had basically been decimated by overgrazing of elk and they were trying to revive the plant life there by keeping the elk out. Gates for people were provided so they could continue to fish the stream. We also talked to rangers about the Russian thistles we had seen along the roadsides – coming from Nebraska we know how invasive those plants are!

falls  sign

We decided to explore the Old Fall River Road which was the original road to cross the park by way of Fall River Valley and Milner Pass. Following construction of Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road was designated as a one-way route to the Alpine Visitors Center. The day we drove it, even though it is unpaved, there was a steady stream of traffic. It reminded us of why we like to visit national parks in the off-season. Of course, the fact that Trail Ridge Road is closed from mid-October to Memorial Day because of weather, does limit the season.

Marmot           Bluebird2

After having scoured the mountainsides with binoculars in search of bighorn sheep to no avail, we came across a sheep perfectly posed not far off the road near Rock Cut. We also managed to spot pika, and marmots among the rocks.

Mountain sheep4

pica     marmot2 (2)

The trail past Copeland Falls to Calypso Cascade was a pleasant hike and not quite as crowded as some others. Not so, the trailhead for Long’s Peak when we went there. We were totally amazed at the size of the parking lot and the fact that it was packed with vehicles. Long’s is not an easy mountain but, as the season is short, and many climbers want to add it to the list of fourteeners they have climbed, a ranger told us it is always very crowded there.

calypso    hiking

Rocky Mountain National Park is certainly a jewel in the national park system and well worth the return visit.

waterfall2

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Channel Islands National Park

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  • Bucket List National Park #41- only 18 parks remaining.

Channel Islands National Park lies off the coast of southern California and encompasses eight islands. In our national park book, it said if you have very limited time, the Visitor’s Center in Ventura will give you a good overview of the park. I beg to differ. I’m not sure how you could actually get a feel for the park without visiting at least one island which is what we did.

Cormorants - Copy     Channel Islands seals - Copy

We booked passage with Island Packers to Santa Cruz Island for an all-day excursion. There are no concessions on the island, with only limited primitive camping for those so inclined, so we packed water, lunches, camera, batteries, etc. and set out for our day trip.

Santa Cruz is the largest island in the national park, 61,972 acres, and is 22 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide. In its variety of flora and fauna, Santa Cruz resembles a miniature southern California of a hundred plus years ago. Rich in cultural history with over 10,000 years of native habitation and over 150 years of European exploration and ranching, remnants of these eras can be seen throughout the landscape of the island.

Santa Cruz Island

We landed at Scorpion Anchorage and set out to do some exploring. Since Santa Cruz contains two mountain ranges with the highest peaks rising above 2000 feet, most trails led upward. These mountains, a large central valley/fault system as well as coastline cliffs, and beaches combine to support more than 600 plant species in 10 different plant communities, from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests.

Santa Cruz4    Santa Cruz flora - Copy

Owing to millions of years of isolation, many distinctive plant and animal species have adapted to the islands’ unique environments. As a result, there are 150 plant and animal species on Channel Islands that are found nowhere else in the world. We’re not good enough botanists to be able to identify any of the plants or even know which ones are rare in the world or just rare to us.

Santa Cruz flora5 - Copy    Santa Cruz flora6 - Copy

Three Island Fox species are specific to Channel Islands only and, after declining populations, were placed on the endangered species list in 2004. A captive breeding program succeeded in bringing the island fox back from the brink of extinction and the last of the captive foxes were released back into the wild in 2008.

Channel Island Fox - Copy

We chose to set out on the Cavern Point trail which promised “magnificent coastal vistas and whale viewing.” We didn’t see any whales but we did have some pretty terrific views. We were glad we had worn jackets, however, as it was quite windy and chilly.

Santa Cruz flora4 - Copy    Santa Cruz flora3 - Copy

At the far point of the trail, rather than continuing the loop back, we decided to take the North Bluffs trail and proceed to Potato Harbor for “spectacular coastal views. No beach access.” In other words, a nice walk along the cliffs above the coast.

Santa Cruz flora2 - Copy

The trails were well maintained and easy to follow. We were surprised that much of the island is basically hilly grassland. While it was chilly up on top in the wind, back at Smuggler’s Cove it was very warm.

Santa Cruz - Copy

We found ourselves back at Smuggler’s Cove with time to spare before the boat trip back to the mainland. It was a pleasant day but I think more knowledge and involvement with the marine environment would make it much more interesting.

Santa Cruz

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Pinnacles National Park

This spring we continued to work on our national park bucket list.

Pinnacles sign

Pinnacles National Park became the 40th national park we have visited. It is the newest park unit to attain National Park status, making it the 59th. Pinnacles was established as a 2500-acre national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 primarily because of the work of Schuyler Hain, an 1891 homesteader, who was fascinated with the area. He led tours up through Bear Valley and into the caves. He spoke to groups and wrote articles urging preservation. Since that time, Pinnacles has grown to about 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, was re-designated as a National Park.

Pinnacles, located in central California in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains, is in proximity to millions of people but has quite low visitation.

pinnacles pinnacles4

Highway 146 is the access road to both the Westside and the Eastside of the Pinnacles. However, highway 146 is not a through road and does not connect the two sides of the park together, Lodging, food and gas are not available in the park. The road to west Pinnacles is steep and narrow ( at times one lane and at best about one and a half lanes) and RVs, trailers and large vehicles should avoid this entrance. The only campground is located on the east side of the park.

trail2 trail

The main draws for Pinnacles are over thirty miles of hiking trails, numerous rock-climbing routes and the caves, which are not really caves in the common sense. They are talus caves created by fault action and earthquakes. Deep, narrow gorges or shear fractures were transformed into caves when huge boulders toppled from above and wedged in the fractures before reaching the ground. These boulders became the ceilings of the talus caves that now entice not only people but also several kinds of bats. The caves are sometimes closed because of bat roosting or because of storms or high water.

cave entrance cave hike3

The first day we visited the park, we arrived in early afternoon and entered the west side. We parked at the Chaparral parking lot and hiked the 2.4 mile Balconies Cave Trail.

cave hike cave hike3

A hike through these talus caves is more of a rock scramble or bouldering experience than a cave hike.

Pinnacles National Park, located near the San Andreas Fault along the boundary of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, is a prime example of tectonic plate movement. The Pinnacles Rocks are believed to have been part of the Neenach Volcano which was split by the giant San Andreas Fault. As the Pacific Plate crept north, the Pinnacles were carried along. The work of water and wind on these erodible volcanic rocks has formed the unusual rock structures seen today.

pinnacles2 stream

Pinnacles has a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool winters with moderate rainfall. As warm as it was hiking when we were there in late April, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t enjoy hiking there in summer. California has been suffering a prolonged drought so everything was already pretty dry.

Our second day, in order to visit the east part of the park, we had to drive around the southern end and then back north to the east entrance. We hiked the 5.4 mile Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave, explored a bit more and decided it was time to head on. Pinnacles is a rather interesting place but lacks the “wow” factor of many of our national parks.

pinnacles3

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Lybrook Badlands

Lybrook Badlands2    Tom read an article about the Lybrook Badlands and it piqued our interest. One of the San Juan Basin badlands areas, the presence of hoodoos and distinct stratification in the rock sounded like a great place to hike and take photos. The biggest obstacle seemed to be finding a way into the area close enough to hike in fairly readily. The only roads leading into the area are dirt gas and oil roads which are not marked nor on any maps. You simply choose a road and see where you end up. These roads require a high clearance vehicle and you also need to be aware of the weather as a rain can cause the roads to become impassable very quickly.

Lybrook Badlands from Overlook14           Hoodoos in Lybrook Badlands4

We did some research online and found some directions but they left quite a lot to be desired. It appeared that the closest to good directions came from some German tourists which also meant that they had to be translated since neither of us speaks German. The computer did a pretty good job of translating but at times it was a bit funky.

Hoodoo in Lybrook Badlands   Hoodoos from Overlook

So with some of the translated pages and trusty GPS in hand, we set out. The short version of our adventure is that it took us three tries each comprised of about a fifty mile loop which basically skirted the whole area and ended up back on the highway. I guess the positive of that was that we did not end up lost out there.

Lybrook Badlands from Overlook10    Lybrook Badlands from Overlook11

Each time we tried a different route I wrote down GPS coordinates whenever we turned onto another little road so hopefully, if it turned out to be a good choice, we could possibly find it again another time. Between the second and third tries, we followed directions to an overlook which provided a spectacular view of the badlands, and of course, just made us more determined to find a way to hike there.  It’s truly an amazing landscape.

Hoodoos from Overlook4    Hoodoo from overlook

Hoodoos

Stone Teepees from overlook2    Hoodoos in Lybrook Badlands9

Our third try was successful in that we found a road that got us close enough to hike in and view some of the hoodoos and other formations. So we had a good hike, took lots of photos, and generally enjoyed ourselves. However, we are determined to go back another time as we know from what we saw at the overlook, that we barely scratched the surface. We may have to do some rather strenuous hiking but there has to be a way to get to more of those formations!

Odin at Lybrook Over;look     Horses in Lybrook Badlands

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