December 26, 2013

12/13/13 - Coronado NM

We didn't start out this morning to go to Coronado National Memorial; it was just a little serendipity (sans singers*).

We'd gone to Bisbee, AZ, to check out the old mining town.  After lunch, we drove over to the Lavender open-pit copper mine and took a few pictures.  (That shadow in the bottom that vaguely looks like South America is water, proving that you can't always keep the rain from coming down** in the desert.  Oh, no!**)
I checked the map and saw that Coronado NM wasn't too far away from Bisbee.  When I told George it had a Visitor Center, he was up for it. One more park stamp in his passport book.  Neither of us had a clue what was there or what to expect.  Usually I research where we're going, but definitely fell down on the job this time.
This park is a memorial to Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador who explored the Americas in the 1500s.  We'd visited DeSoto NM in Florida a few years ago.  Both Spaniards were exploring around 1540, although the ranger had to look it up when I asked.  They're pretty sure that Coronado came through the San Pedro River Valley on his way north.

Because we got there late, we barely had time to check out the Visitor Center, watch the 9 minute movie, and dress up in costume before they closed.  (They had mail too, but do you have any idea how heavy those linked chains are????  I could barely lift it; no way was I going to wear it!  George couldn't even get the helmet on.)  
We decided to postpone the drive up Montezuma Canyon to the Montezuma Pass overlook and the hikes for another visit when we had more daylight.  It's worth coming back next time we're in the neighborhood.  Sometimes having something to look forward to is a good thing--although I really wanted to see that coatimundi the Ranger told us about.
*If you didn't get this, you're much younger than I am.  On the other hand, I probably wouldn't get oblique references to music you listened to as a teenager.
**Double reference to the same song:  see * just above. 

Link to a few more pics:  Coronado NM

December 24, 2013

12/1 - 4/13 - Big Bend NP

I'm not sure what I expected at Big Bend National Park, but the reality was way better than whatever my unrealized expectations were.  Before we arrived, people had told me how beautiful it is--but one lady told me, "It's a whole lot of nothing!" is in the Chihuahuan Desert, but there's a lot more than boring desert to see there.  That lady missed a lot of good stuff.

Big Bend is the only park in the US that has a whole mountain range inside its borders.  The Chisos Mountains are cleverly situated in the center, so wherever you are, you can see their craggy silhouettes.  I like the purple-mountain-majesty layers with shadows rather like the Blue Ridge Mountains, only without the obnoxious overgrown trees that block the view.  (There aren't a lot of trees in the desert.)

There are three different ecosystems in Big Bend:  river, desert, mountains.  One segues into another, transitioning with each mile traveled.   Views are different as the clock ticks, terrain changes if you blink, plants vary from cactus in the desert to oaks and pines in higher elevations.  On the other hand, it’s a big park and everything is a long way from everything else.  We were in the park five days and drove almost 400 miles inside the park!  Good thing it was worth it--diesel's pretty expensive around there.
Day 1:  The river, of course, is the Rio Grande, the border between the US and Mexico.  It wanders 118 miles along the southern and eastern border of the park—including the 90-degree big bend that the park’s named for--through narrow canyons and meandering across the desert.  I think I've seen too many westerns, because it wasn't quite what I expected.  Well, maybe parts of it were:
We walked the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail from a campground to a wildlife viewing platform on a pond, with big tall marsh grass, then up a hill with a view of the river.  Never saw that in a John Wayne movie!
There were little piles of walking sticks and beaded souvenirs all over, with jars for your money.  There are also signs from the park service saying that they’re contraband and will be confiscated.  The rangers are pretty sympathetic to the people in the little town across the river.  The Border Patrol isn't.  The border’s been closed until very recently, and the poor (both definitions of the word) people are just trying to make a living.
We drove a little further to hike to Boquillas Canyon, climbed a little hill, then down to the river again to see where the water flows into the canyon.  On the way down the hill, we met a Mexican guy on a horse on his way to collect the money tourists left.  He seemed pretty nice, but we didn’t buy any of his arrowheads.  George did talk to his horse.
I dipped my hands in the water.  I think you’re supposed to wade it, but I didn’t want to take off my boots... 

The range called Sierra del Carmen is in Mexico.  I like the stripes, especially when the sun shines just on the mountains.
Day 2:
Mountains were on the agenda the second day.  I went out before George got up and took pictures of the changing clouds and colors over the Chisos as the sun came up.  (It’s December and not much of an effort to see a sunrise at 7:30.)

The road up to Chinos Basin climbed 2,000 feet from the desert below.  We walked the short Window View trail from the Basin Store for a view of The Window.  Then we hiked the Basin Loop Trail that sort of linked sections of high country trails.  There were definitely trees, sorta scrubby, but real trees.  Oh,yeah, and bears and mountain lions they say.
Day 3:  We opted to drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive by driving the loop backwards from the western entrance of the park on the gravel Old Maverick Road.  *Not sure if it was named after Bret's and Bart's Pappy or some old cow.)  The less-than-wonderful road winds across the desert to the Rio Grande where the river comes out of the Santa Elena Canyon.
We walked up the steps to the canyon overlook, then walked a short way into the canyon until we ran out of path. The cliffs rise 1,500 feet above the water.
We drove on to Castolon and checked out the little Visitor Center there, then headed north on the east side of the loop.  This nearby butte is called Cerro Castellan, which might mean something like Governor's Castle--but it's been a while and I forgot.  Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool.
I really liked the drive through Tuff Canyon.  I’d like to hike down into it some time.
This is the view from Mule Ears View Point.  I’m not sure that’s the best name for those peaks, but I doubt if the park service would accept other suggestions since this is on all the maps.
Day 4:  I have no idea how many times we drove past the turnoff to Grapevine Hills this week, but this time we drove the 8 miles on the gravel road to hike out to Balanced Rock.   We saw a tarantula.  Okay, I really, really, really don't like spiders.  I didn't have a problem with this guy.  I think it's because he doesn't look like a real spider--I think he looks like a kindergarten project made of pipe cleaners.
The trail heads out across the desert towards the ridge.
Then there's a bit of a scramble to the balanced rock.
We were staying at a campground in Terlingua just outside the park—just hookups in the desert, but the sunsets were magnificent!
Took lots of pictures here; click on the link to see more:  Big Bend NP 

November 30, 2013

11/27/13 - Amistad NRA

Amistad National Recreation Area looks like it's a really interesting place, but we didn't get to see the good parts.  They're only accessible by water.  (We brought bikes, not a boat.)  If we can’t drive or walk, we need more than a paddle.

Amistad means friendship in Spanish.  The lake just outside Del Rio, Texas, was created by Amistad Dam and is operated by both the US and Mexico. On the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the lake flooded canyons on the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils Rivers.  As expected in Texas border country, there’s a big Border Patrol presence.  And since Texas has been in a drought for 3 years, the water level is waaaaay down.
This is why it's called Panther Cave
Since we didn't have a boat, we checked out the Visitor Center to see what we were missing--lots of archaeological sites and some of the coolest rock art in the country.  The one at Panther Cave has a big panel 100’ long with 18’ high panels.  We've seen big panels other places, but haven’t seen any others that big—and we didn't see this one either...

One of the rangers suggested we hike a nearby trail.  He said we’d see deer (and we did—high-tailing it away from us when they heard us clomping through the rocky trail) and listed a bunch of water birds we might see.  Since the trail doesn't go anywhere near the lake anymore, we didn't see the birds.  Well, a few ravens, and something little and brown...
It was a nice little stroll, winding through the prickly pear, blackbrush and mesquite.  This scary looking barrel cactus called “Horse Crippler” was the most interesting part of the hike.
Just so I could get some pictures of the lake, we drove west on US-90 to Governor’s Landing. The railroad bridge is right next to the highway bridge.

Here's a link to a few more pictures:  Amistad NRA

11/18/13 - Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

George noticed Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge on the map, near where we were staying near Columbus, TX.  I didn't know what an Attwater Prairie Chicken was, but I liked the name and wanted to go see one.   It wasn't our most successful outing.

More things I didn't know:
I never found out who Attwater is  The Attwater's Prairie Chicken is about the size of, well, a chicken.  As part of their mating ritual, the males inflate their bright orange air sac and emit a booming sound across the prairie grasses to impress the hens.  These poor things are stuck forever in a display case at the Visitor Center, never to boom or be impressed again.
There used to be about a million Attwater Prairie Chickens, but now there are millions of people in this part of Texas, so the birds lost 99% of their habitat for cropland and pastures and other signs of "civilization", like buildings and asphalt.   I'm sure a lot of them were ingested by humans.  After all, what looks like a chicken, is called a chicken, probably tastes like a chicken.  
Prairie Chickens are on the Endangered Species List.  They're so endangered there were only 42 remaining in the whole world by 1996.  Captive Breeding Programs at Texas zoos have helped increase the prairie chicken population to about 250.  Zoos don't always lock 'em up.  Sometimes they hatch and release.

George and I walked the Sycamore Trail, starting behind the Visitor Center.  It's a trail through the prairie and wetlands.  What can I say?  It's a prairie.  We didn't see prairie chickens.  We didn't see anything  interesting except a caterpillar, a trail of leaf-cutter ants and a whole bunch of huge black mosquitoes who left a trail of blood (mine!) on my legs.  

After that we went went on the 5-mile Auto Tour Loop through the refuge.  The brochure says to "use your vehicle as a slow moving blind to see many wildlife species".  We're in Texas--there are deer blinds in every other field, so it's a way to relate to the locals.  George put the truck in gear and just let it idle along the dirt road.  Every time we went across another cattle guard, the road got worse.  We didn't see ANY wildlife species.  (sigh)  No Prairie Chickens, no buffalo, no wildlife species.  
We stopped at the Observation Blind--there we saw an egret, a heron and half a dozen crows fly past.  Whoopie.
Here are more pictures of the wildlife refuge.  Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR