Lost Mine Trail = Paradise Found

 

 

Hike-of-the-day was the Lost Mine Canyon Trail, 5 miles round-trip, and easily the best trail we’ve hiked yet. Traversing desert, mountain woodlands and high canyon rim, it offered breathtaking views around every bend. We saw vegetation that exists nowhere else in the park (mountain juniper, Spanish madrone, Mexican piñon and a rare prickly pear variant) plus lots of warblers, a pyrrhuloxia (relative to the northern Cardinal) western bluebirds, a blue grosbeak, three javelinas and enough grey fox scat to fill a good-sized bowl. The views were just the best, and breathtaking in every direction. We saw all the way to the south rim of the Chisos Basin, clear to our next camping ground in the west, Terlingua, and into Pine Canyon and Juniper Canyon, both heavily treed and sporting impressive geology.

We crossed paths for a second time with the Dallas Episcopal schoolkids who are field-tripping here on a curriculum called Classroom of the Earth. They were at the trail summit, camped out on the rocks having lunch and lecture. They are so much fun to meet on the trail, we hope our grandkids can have a similar experience, as well (when they are 7th-graders, that is!)

To relax our weary, blistered feet and sore legs, we took a dip in the Hot Springs on the drive home. Lots of people also had that idea, as the spot was full, and 105-degree water felt divine to all of us.

We’ve met wonderful people in this park. So very many from Michigan, but also Quebec, Oregon, New York, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Texas. National Park people are our people!

 

 

Crossings and Canyons

A relatively easy (4.5 mile) hiking day today, as we walked along the Rio Grande into the Sierra del Carmen mountains, down Boquillas Canyon. More stark beauty, as well as abundant roadrunners, and a Mexican tenor singing for tips from the other side of the border. The sheer limestone walls of the canyon were 1,000+ feet high, with many hollowed-out spots that probably resulted from water vertically seeping through the limestone and then pouring out through a fracture, eroding a cave-like opening high up on the walls. The masses of swallows feeding on insects above the river must love those openings for attaching their nests.

Six canoeists were relaxing at river’s edge, so we chatted them up for a bit. They were enjoying a four-day paddle down into several of the Rio Grande’s canyons, finding it magnificent. The current varies from quite sluggish to very lively, depending on the river’s width. It is now twice as high (average four feet) as in summer, carrying a heavy load of silt, and can be treacherous to swim in.

After the hike, we headed to the border crossing to the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas, where everyone makes their living from the tourists who visit. We hired a guide, Raoul, because we had many questions about how people live (and survive) in such a place. He was honest in answering our questions – the village only got electricity one year ago, via solar panels, because after 9/11 the board crossing was closed for 11 years and many people moved away. The border crossing has only been reopened now for three years, many who moved away have returned and the Mexican government saw fit to fund their electricity (and Wi-Fi!). Schooling is only available half-days, and only until 9th grade. The lower part of town floods out frequently due to the Rio Grande overflowing its banks. Gasoline is twice as expensive as in the US. No one has indoor plumbing, but they do get their water from a communal well, once weekly. As the pictures convey, life is pretty bleak here. We bought a delicious cantina meal and several souvenirs just to leave some money behind.

Interestingly, the US border patrol is involved in helping the Mexican citizens on the Rio Grande develop more opportunities so that they can afford to stay in Boquillas. US-Mexican relations are very good in this community, and it also helps provide a stable outpost in the Mexican side of the Big Bend Parque Internationale.

Our final event of the day was a two-hour drive down and back through Pine Canyon Road, a 4-wheel drive-mandatory two-track dirt road. We didn’t have time to take the 4-mile hike at the end of the road, but we hope to come back someday for that. It’s part of the National Park System’s research at Big Bend, into pristine microclimates and how they are sustained in this landscape. The trail promises to be gorgeous.

 

Big Bend National Park: “What God did with the Leftovers”

 

My word, this is beautiful country! Indian legend says this is where the Great Spirit dumped all the leftover pieces after creating the world.. It’s got a little bit of a whole lot of goodness. So much dry, parched landscape, so much geology and such a stark landscape…but truly breathtaking.

Stopped at the new fossil exhibit along the main road through the park, and saw a number of amazing dinosaur skeletons (90 in total discovered here), some of which are found nowhere else in North America. The beasts of Big Bend must have had a lovely time with the lush tropical climate and ample food supply that existed here 75 – 100 million years ago.

Yesterday’s 5.8 mile walk to the Hot Springs along the Rio Grande River was a splendid hike on the ridges about the river, at 1800 feet above sea level, with a gradual descent to the water. Today we hiked 6 miles at 5,500 feet, to the Window Pour-off west of Chisos Basin. Hiking air temps range from 55 degrees to 85 degrees – tough to dress appropriately for the lows and the highs, but the most important factor is hydration. We can make this length mountain hike without a problem, so long as we sip water pretty much continuously. They tell hikers here to take a gallon of water with them, and they’re not kidding.

The canyons are magnificent, made up of limestone and shale from early geologic past and igneous rocks from the later periods. Their sheer walls are mostly a soft orange or grey streaked with brown and black from millions of years of springs spilling water out of them. On today’s path, we saw roadrunners, mule deer, Mexican jays, and four wild goats up on the steep walls! Seems no one has ever seen these goats, in the recent memory of the rangers – but we know our small ruminants, and these were neither the barbary sheep nor the Aurochs that can infrequently be spotted here. No pictures of the goats, as I would have needed a telephoto and didn’t bring that lens along. Also, no pix of the vermillion flycatcher we saw – they’re just too fast for us. But we did see a group of Episcopal School children out for a field trip from Dallas, ready to storm into the hot springs just as we were leaving!

Tomorrow we venture to Boquillas, Mexico, a little border town across the Rio Grande that subsists on visitor dollars from Big Bend, and we’ll take in a hike to Boquillas Canyon (overlooking the Rio Grande) as well as a drive across the landscape. Time for a good night’s sleep to prepare for that!

Western Art of a Different Era: Pictographs and Petroglyphs

For months, we’ve looked forward to seeing the 4,500-year-old rock art in Amistad National Recreation Area just north of Del Rio, TX. Turns out you can’t see it there unless you have a private boat! We were advised to go instead to the Seminole Canyon State Park, and there we joined an afternoon tour with an area volunteer archaeologist to see a variety of paintings and carvings on the limestone cave walls along the lower Prena River bed.

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We learned a lot about how the lower Pecos River people survived in the west Texas Canyonlands, which are nearly as arid as a desert. The images they painted represent figures from their belief system and spirit world: shamans, powerful cultural leaders and anthropomorphic figures. They lived in clans of 25 – 35 people, subsisting on cactus and agave plants and roots, small rodents, insects, prickly pear, sotol and lechiguilla plants, herbs, birds, snakes, the occasional deer and the like. No buffalo or other major mammals at that time, as the climate was too dry to sustain them.

Although lean, these people were not malnourished. Both men and women created the pictograph images, using ground minerals, deer tallow and the sticky resin from the yucca plant as a durable paint. They also made their tools and weapons from flint, chert and cactus wood, and wove their clothing and shoes from plants in the area. They were amazingly resourceful. The park and guided tour are well worth the 1 hour 45-minute investment.

San Antonio Past and Present, in 1.5 Days

Starting with the Mission Trail, we investigated all five of the original farming and evangelizing missions of the area: Espada, San Juan, San Jose, Concepcion, and San Antonio de Bexar (which came to be far better known as the Alamo). It was highly informative, even if sad to learn of the losses in culture and lives of the indigenous people as the missions came to the area, and it helps to explain many things about San Antonio (its staunch Catholicism even today; the extensive system of aqueducts that was created, which today is the foundation for some of the city’s Riverwalk; the source of many place-names in the city, and perhaps why these missions are the most intact of any missions originally located in Texas).

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we are not Texan or southern, but we were less impressed by the Alamo in downtown San Antonio than most other visitors. To know the history of how many peoples fought over this territory, and to realize that all European invaders/colonists commandeered it from the native peoples, we can’t credit those who tried to defend the US Fort from the attacking Mexican/Spanish forces as entirely heroic. It is true that they were massively outnumbered by Santa Anna’s forces, and that they were basically slaughtered almost to the last US soldier. But we debate whether we should have been there in the first place. Millions dispute our opinion, but we will side with the indigenous peoples.

The city has a facility called the Museo Alameda, started in 2007 to honor the Hispanic-American culture in the area. It fell on hard times within five years of opening, was taken over by the Smithsonian and then the University of Texas. The Museo is now run by the city of San Antonio and is a mere shadow of its former self. We visited the only exhibit they have running at present, “Our Comida (food), our Culture.” It is a very well curated series of photographs and sculptures from multiple latin@ artists, and we wished more people would visit to help keep it alive.

The river walk was just magical. So well landscaped and provided with solid pathways, it is obviously beloved by visitors and residents alike. The San Antonio river flows through town, and as mentioned above, the river walk takes advantage of a former aqueduct from the mission to divert the river and create more linear feet for the Walk. And everywhere one sees the airmen/women from the nearby Lackland Air Force Base, walking with their visiting families and decked out in their crisp blue uniforms. I asked one of them if I could take his picture in honor of my father (an AF veteran). The airman very politely obliged, and I’d like to think Dad was smiling.

We skipped lunch to make time for a trip through the Briscoe Western Art Museum on the river Walk. Another peak experience. The building alone is eye-poppingly gorgeous, originally built in 1929 Art Deco design to house the Carnegie Library. But the art is even more wonderful, and includes oil and pastel landscapes and portraits, bronze sculptures, historical uniforms and costumes, and a fantastic collection of historical saddles. Not a single Frederick Remington sculpture, which was refreshing.

Three distinct cultures were well-represented: the indigenous peoples who first inhabited the great western territories, the Spanish colonists and military who followed, and the American colonists who largely dominate the land today. I suppose you could identify a fourth: the admixture of all of them. The images chosen for the galleries were such noble renderings, reflecting both women and men who made contributions in their times. Because we so rarely see ornately tooled and silver/jewel encrusted saddlery, we were mesmerized by their beauty. The museum only has three floors, easily seen in two hours, and we left hungry for more.

Two final events capped off San Antonio for us: a meal at La Fonda, a well-regarded Tex-Mex fine dining restaurant – delicious; and a night with the San Antonio Symphony, at Tobin Center.

The meal offered duck tacos, stuffed poblano pepper, cheese enchiladas, pork tamales and a bifstek taco (for George), crowned by flan and tres leches cake. The symphony offered Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Howard Hansen (the theme from Interlochen!). The guest conductor (Gerard Schwartz) had recruited his son (Julian Schwartz) to play a series of cello variations on the Mozart aria, “La ci darem la mano,” from Don Giovanni. One of my favorites. Another peak experience. Go see the symphony when you are in town. They are wonderful.

…. Atop the Belly of the Earth

Enchanted Rock is billed as one of the best geological formations in Texas, and this is no exaggeration. It’s mammoth, superbly accessible to hikers of all skill levels, and so very unusual.

The technical description would probably be that it is a large phaneritic granite batholith, with multiple elongated plutons emergent from the southeast corner. The layperson’s version: a gigantic large-grained belly of granite sticking out of the earth – 425 feet higher than the ground surrounding it. The belly is part of a larger granite “hunk” that is as big as the island of Manhattan!

We hiked the summit trail to the top, and even though it was steep and there were no steps or paths, our traction was great because the surface is rough enough to grab the treads of any hiker’s shoes. Very good footing and a consistently rounded curvature to the rock body made it easy to reach the summit in 25 minutes. And except for the gale force winds at the top of the earth’s belly (what it feels like you are standing on), it was magnificent to observe the surrounding landscape and the vernal pools that have formed from erosion at the summit.

Nature is endlessly fascinating. There is a species of fairy shrimp that only exists in these vernal pools. Their ecology is very fragile, which is why no dogs are allowed at the summit. Low lying shrubs, prickly pear cactus and the sparkling pools make it a magical place at the top. The indigenous peoples who first lived around Enchanted Rock said they heard singing from the rock (likely the groaning and cracking of the rock as it cooled in the night from the day’s high heat), and saw flashing lights (the moon’s reflection off the vernal pools). Thus, the name Enchanted Rock.

We were captivated by the experience – the closest thing we may ever see that resembles Ayers Rock in Australia, and able to be easily scaled (although the brochures and signs tell you it’s a strenuous hike) in a half hour. What a treat!

Texas Hill Country in the 1800’s

 

Heading inland, what a lovely surprise to come upon a well-preserved frontier settlement town of the 1800’s in Comfort, Texas. This is a small burg, founded as so many were in the Hill Country by German immigrant farmers (the deutsche Freidenker brand of Cowboy Philosophers).

Comfort’s clapboard homes and limestone business buildings on the old main street reminds me of the town my mom grew up in (Clarkston, MI) with its stone buildings and old settlers’ homes next to the millpond. Well worth a visit, and they have an honest-to-goodness pie and gift shop (Miss Giddy’s) that should be your first stop if you love chocolate crème, apple-cranberry or sawdust (YUM!) pies.  Included here are also some shots of old downtown Alpine, which is northwest of Big Bend.

We ventured on to Fredericksburg, also full of pride for its German heritage, with similar lovely turn-of-the-century preserved building stock. This was following a peak experience hiking….

Salt Flats Recovery

 

We’ve now made it through Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and some of eastern Texas, and are stopping at the north end of Padre Island for a few days of communing with the Gulf of Mexico waters. If you are headed this way and need an RV park, go out to the Malaquite Visitor Center just inside the gates of the North Padre Island National Seashore. There are numerous opportunities on the coastline for camping with access to restrooms, water and showers. Awesome spots to spend a few days getting to know life on the barrier islands. We wish we could have stayed there, as our research on the park did not reveal that this was possible at this point in the season. It’s first come, first served.

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Instead, we stayed at the first RV park outside the park, and enjoyed a couple of mainland hikes and attractions, including the Oso Bay Wetlands Trails, and the SW Texas (Corpus Christi) Botanical Gardens.

The botanical gardens had just been frosted by a rare cold spell, but were still very interesting as we saw a mass butterfly mating on a mimosa tree in bloom. Queen, Admiral and Blue Swallowtail butterflies mating in prolific numbers – apparently, the temperature and wind speed were perfect that day, as well as the maturity of the bright red blooms. Quite rare, explained an entomologist who just happened to be visiting that day. What a thrill!

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The Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve was reclaimed from a sorry state by a private family, and what a great spot it is now for hiking and learning the purposes and difference between the grassy uplands, mud flats, estuary and intracoastal waterways. What looks dry and lifeless is now a raingarden waiting to be activated by high tides, storm surges or flooding from rainfall. This area is critical habitat and acts as an important filter between inhabited areas and the coastal marshes/ocean. It’s beautiful, once you come to understand what you are seeing.

We took a Birding Tour several days later. Birding as a hobby has always seemed a little too arcane to us, but now that we’ve seen it up close, we think differently. It’s a great way to learn how to differentiate among different landscapes, looking for birds in the habitats where they’re most likely to be. It is a rush to find something “hiding” in plain daylight, especially if you can avoid disturbing it long enough to study its behavior. We saw Northern Harrier hawks, Crested Caracara (huge!), Long Beak Curlews, Piping Plovers, a rare Aplomado Falcon, snow geese (once again!), Peregrine Falcons, a Red Egret and a Royal Tern (along with 30 other bird species). Still learning to optimize my camera and lens settings, and I was stuck shooting most photos from inside a very crowded tour bus, will do better next time!

The currents that meet along the Padre Island are those from the Mississippi River and South America. Where they come together, a powerful riptide occurs which causes the currents to drop their loads of flotsam and jetsam. Sadly, a tremendous amount of garbage is cast upon St. Padre’s shores. Visitors are encouraged to take trash bags available at the Visitors Center and pick up some of the plastic (isn’t it always plastic?!) that litters the otherwise gorgeous strand. We packed two large bags and could only clean a small strip about 3,000 ft. long. 59.5 miles to go.

So much fun to sit and observe the shore birds dancing in the shallows of the beach. Good to know where our Lake Michigan Plovers go in the wintertime! The waves here are not great for board surfing, but just inland in Laguna Madre (accessible in the park) is the second-best wind-surfing spot in North America, second only to the Columbia River in Washington state. And the windsurfers were out in numbers. Laguna Madre is considerably more saline than the ocean, so a swimmer’s buoyancy is greatly enhanced there.

The greatest claim to fame of North Padre Island is none of these things, though. It’s the NPS-aided recovery of the Kemp’s Ridley Turtle population. The most visible sign of this activity occurs in June and July, when the artificially incubated and hatched baby turtles are released back into the ocean. This is done to protect all the eggs laid by the mothers coming out of the sea from predators, so that their numbers can rise. Releases are done before sunrise, and the babies are shielded from seeing any humans so that they do not attach and can grow up as naturally as possible. The recovery is a stunning success so far. Fingers crossed that the effort’s funding is not cut! The ranger at the Visitor’s Center brought out a recovered adult turtle shell so that we could see the size of the Kemp’s Ridley. At least 36” long. And at that, they are the SMALLEST ocean turtle species!

Joining the Birds and Geese to Migrate South on Adventure #2

We’re on the way to Big Bend and Guadelupe Mountains National Parks, striking out from northern Michigan today (mid-January). The drive has wended its way through freezing rain and long stretches of semi-truck-clogged freeways in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. On the second day, we were greeted by a flock of Canadian geese so vast and innumerable that we could not find the beginning or end of the horde. Also saw a large field entirely filled with snow geese on the way south.

For us who have never made the “snowbird trek” to the southlands in winter, the scene was a bit eerie and a whole lot wonderful. It’s heartening to see large numbers of animals of practically any species, defying the odds of a nature now less likely to be able to support them. Also very cool to be running alongside them on a major flyway. We want to time a future trip to intersect with a major migration stopover spot (North Platte River in western Nebraska, Point Pelee in northern Ohio) so that we can join actual birders observing hundreds of species in one spot.

Stopping for breakfast with cousin Janet near St. Louis. It is always fun to reconnect with family and friends J

Along the southward way we saw a single field 3.8 miles long, awaiting planting. It would take someone working the field 30 minutes to work just ONE row. That is crazy, compared to Michigan’s much-smaller farm fields. In Louisiana and Texas farmers growing corn mound their rows before planting, to preserve moisture. Corn is dry-field farmed down here, because they have enough ground moisture and precipitation to sustain the crop. They also grow rice, which is sometimes planted by crop-planes. Wheat and cotton are also grown in AR, LA and east TX. Most folks are bored out of their gourds seeing farmland in long stretches. Not us, and especially not George, who notices every nuance of difference in technique.

This trip promises to be like no other. We are driving through major metros to get to two of the most isolated, least visited National Parks in the US. Where migratory nature spends her winters. And where (SW TX) precipitation has all but ceased for a long, long while. We will try to tread with extremely light footprints all the way.

Hocking (or Hawkin’) Hills, Ohio

It’s said that no other area in Ohio is as wild, enthralling or photogenic as Hocking Hills State Park. The locals pronounce it Hawkin’ Hills.

This was our last awe-inspiring hiking stop of the trip, and it did not disappoint. The hills are also part of the Allegheny system, and feature massive sandstone outcroppings, deep cool gorges, towering hemlocks and glistening waterfalls. The gorge undergrowth shows off lush maidenhair ferns, rhododendron shrubs, wildflowers, lichens and mosses clinging to the rock faces.

The most outstanding rock formation of the park is its beautiful “Blackhand” sandstone, but shale, limestone, coal and clay are also present.

This dark sandstone exhibits a character similar to Pictured Rocks, Michigan
This dark sandstone exhibits a character similar to Pictured Rocks, Michigan

The sandstone is more than 150 feet thick in the park. Its upper and lower layers are very hard, while the middle layers are easily weathered (where have we seen that before?!). Hocking Hills’ famed rock shelters, caves and recesses were hollowed out of these middle layers. The upper layers form the roof of all overhangs and rock shelters, while the lower layers form the floors. Water has eroded all of these forms, along with freezing, thaw and wind.

Walking down this canyon makes you feel you have entered a different world.
Walking down this canyon makes you feel you have entered a different world.
Like a layer cake alternating with grey and brown frosting in between.
Like a layer cake alternating with grey and brown frosting in between.
Here, too, the water is like root beer and the rocks feel very, very old.
Here, too, the water is like root beer and the rocks feel very, very old.

Nomadic hunters roamed this area at the end of the Ice Age. The Moundbuilders who lived in Ohio from 1 A.D. to 800 A.D. and Fort Ancient Indians from the 1300s to the 1600s used Hocking’s overhangs and recesses for shelter. Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee nations also hunted and traveled through this area.

The rock overhang cave structures here remind us of the Navajo sites in AZ and NM.
The rock overhang cave structures here remind us of the Navajo sites in AZ and NM.

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This state park is so beautifully appointed -- nothing gets in the way of nature's majesty
This state park is so beautifully appointed — nothing gets in the way of nature’s majesty

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Hocking’s timber was used to make charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces of Ohio. Beds of coal were also found. Coal has remained an important mineral resource in eastern Hocking County, but since coal is falling on increasingly hard times at present, we expect that this area will likely see some economic depression. It will need to depend on its tourism draw more than ever.