Wild Animals and Wilderness

Wow! What a week. If you don’t want to plow through all the yadayadayada, just skip around and take a look at some of the photos…we’ve had some interesting times. One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep a record – for us – of our adventures. In a few years, when we’re in The Home, drooling on ourselves, we’ll be able to re-live these times. These are some of the things I hope we’ll remember.

We decided to leave Valley of Fires a day ahead of our plan, and shorten the lengthy drive to our next scheduled stop. Oasis State Park (NM) seemed like a good choice for an intermediate stop. Well, maybe….we drove through miles of flat territory, studded with cattle feedlots. Oasis SP is an odd spot – a small campground stuck out in a huge flatland. There is absolutely nothing nearby. I’m not sure why anybody would actually plan to camp here. It’s barren. 20180410_171905944341651.jpg20180403_1832351700276330.jpgThe wind was roaring – we sat outside for a few minutes, and congratulated ourselves with having a shorter drive for the next day, then dove inside to seek shelter from the wind and cold. It wasn’t pleasant.

Several years ago, we stayed at Caprock Canyons State Park (TX), and my most best memory of it was the prairie dog village.20180404_171509487528699.jpg With my cellphone camera, it’s impossible to get a decent photo of this experience – prairie dogs and their environment are nearly the same color, and I couldn’t get close enough for a clear shot. But this video gives you a great idea of  what the experience is. Enjoy. It’s crazy. When I walked past the village with Jezzy, the activity and chatter between prairie dog ‘condos’ increases. Jezzy is entranced. Prairie dog is the new squirrel.

But, this trip to Caprock was all about the bison. Their stately presence is something we’ve enjoyed at Custer State Park and Teddy Roosevelt National Park, but this was contact on a whole new level. (This guy is nuts for turning his back as he did.)C9C05651-69C9-45BB-B219-E9CDB2C50C69 They wander everywhere – disrupting traffic and foot-flow whever they pass. Our campground was a prime target. I awoke one night at 4am to a strange noise directly outside the window that I couldn’t identify. When I opened the shade, all I could see was the huge body of a bison, standing three feet from my reach – right at the edge of the trailer hitch! Apparently, the Campsh@ck was perched on some tender shoots he wanted to have. Although he never bumped the camper, it took a long time to get back to sleep that night. In the morning, we discovered a delightful ‘hostess gift’ which he left for us. 20180410_1734141033266775.jpgOur new neighbor the next day had a similar experience. She rolled in with her small camper to the sight of the bison hanging out in her campsite. 20180410_1742562001968800.jpgHe was nearly as big as her camper.IMG_20180407_173257.jpg There was a bit of cat-and-mouse as she tried to wait him out before leaving on her bicycle. Nerve-wracking, to be sure.

It’s impossible to explore the Canyons without a bison encounter. 20180410_173218708221960.jpgWe hiked the 6.5 mile Rim Canyon loop, and met up with a few surly-looking beasts. For sure, we gave them a wide berth, and moved on. But, I believe it was this same group who caught up with us as soon as we entered the enclosed campground for people camping with horses. Although it looks like I’m right next to them, we were (thankfully) separated by a thin strand of barbed wire.

 

Bison may look stupid and docile, but they are quick and agile. From the protection of our truck, we viewed one lone bison racing across the prairie – apparently waking up from a nap to find the herd had left him behind. Believe me, he was hauling ass! It was amazing to see. I was even attacked by a bison statue. Nobody was injured.20180406_1151231800038015.jpgOn one particularly cold morning, we left in the truck to explore nearby Turkey TX. Upon returning, we met our neighbors who told us that we had a big bull bison using our electric post as his scratching post. He inadvertently turned on our water spigot (we had turned it off and disconnected the hose due to 20 degree temps the night before). Water was spraying everywhere! They waited for him to wander off, then turned off the water.

We hiked another day from the far end of the Canyon into a completely different landscape. A3B3AAB4-4125-4BDD-9B94-A65E55098D0F5C7F3612-5944-4650-BDD1-12D26625CF14 20180410_1743511652084639.jpgAlthough we were plagued by fierce winds and plunging temps, I’d go back there in a minute. It’s so beautiful.20180406_1043551261039530.jpg20180406_1043121373068015.jpg20180405_1239331453774573.jpgWe were sad to leave Caprock, but hopeful to find some warmer temps. The dry 30mph winds and below freezing temps at night were wearing us down. We couldn’t have a fire, it was too windy to keep our awning up to sit outside, and we were a bit tired of the close contact of being stuck inside a small space (small campers are even smaller after a few days of inclement weather)

One more curiosity about this area – on the road into the Park, there’s a fence stretching about 3/4 mile on which folks have decorated boots and hung them on the fenceposts. Here are a few of my favorites.

We didn’t have high expectations for our next stop – Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. But, what an interesting spot! More bison, Oklahoma Longhorns, coyotes, turkeys, geese, a primo lakeside campsite for $10, and more.20180410_1803002120749914.jpg20180409_195102713387479.jpgOne big downside.20180410_1747531235530549.jpg This is the third time we have encountered a water-warning in a western State or Federal campground on this trip, and it’s worrisome. Twice, the warning was for high nitrates, but the e-coli warning to avoid all contact and boil water was scary. There were several pit toilets around the campgroud which had been de-commissioned, and I’m pretty sure that was related to the e-coli contamination. Creepy. Once our clean water is gone, what’s next? We had five gallons of drinking water with us (way more than enough), and we used water from our tank for dish washing. But, I did take showers there – yuck!

The Visitor Center in the NWR is amazing – videos and displays about rejuvenation of the prairie, saving the bison, and restoration of the prairie. Between 1830 and 1860, the American bison herd was reduced from 50 million head to a few hundred. For me, those numbers are incomprehensible. Old photos show settlers sitting in stacks of bison hides or amidst piled of bison-head skeletons. President McKinley signed the Wichita Mountains NWR into existence, and thus began the long, slow process of saving the bison from extinction. Hooray for that effort. Longhorn cattle are also prominent in the NWR landscape.20180408_1403421539330140.jpg20180409_12474982827992.jpgIn the middle of this National Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma is a curious area called Holy City. 20180410_175538681212606.jpgAlthough I can’t speak to the religious aspect of this site, it certainly was a fantastic photo op.20180410_175659957570438.jpg20180409_140056961592622.jpg20180409_140604206578278.jpg20180409_140644805783642.jpg Since is was just a week after Easter, I can only imagine what it must have been like the previous week. Holy City was built in 1926, and is the site of the longest running annual Passion Play in the US.

One other event affected our visit to the NWR. While we were there, there was a full-scale controlled burn of the prairie inside the NWR being conducted by the Forest Service. We planned to cycle to the Visitor Center, then on down to a trail around Scott Mountain. Once we passed the VC, we noticed an unusual amount of smoke. Soon, signs appeared about the burn.20180410_175436416705792.jpg In this area, the Eastern Red Cedar is an invasive tree, which (left uncontrolled) would totally dominate the landscape. Burning is a method used to eliminate the cedar, since they perish, the native oaks survive, and the prairie grasses re-establish themselves within a matter of days. It’s easy to see the effectiveness of this tactic. Areas which have been burned are easily distinguished from those that have not, based on the scrub, and the trees. The area to the right of the sign in the above had been previously burned.The smoke from the burn was horrible though, and we were prohibited from cycling through the area we planned. 20180410_175354836702364.jpg Here’s what it looks like – I would love to go back in a month or two and take a photo from the same corner to see the difference.20180409_1422391573388771.jpg20180409_142127435293032.jpgThe hazy smoke affected all my photos from the day, although we enjoyed our ride and the sights.

We loved the historic stone buildings there. The photo below shows John near an early gas station. 20180410_1752381222561205.jpgThere are several dams in the area, and we found a terrific spot for lunch. 20180409_143549378829547.jpgThe Wichita Mountains NWR turned out to be a terrific spot to explore, and we were sad to leave. There’s much to see here, and we will definitely be back.

Heading toward an old favorite site – Galveston Island State Park. On the way there, we’re staying at two new (to us) campgrounds. Stay tuned….20180409_1523241213192847.jpg

 

Pushing Eastward

The Campsh@ck is now firmly pointed eastward, and our slow trek to Michigan has begun. Some portions of this journey I dread, but we’ve tried to spice it up with some variations in our route that enable us to stay in some new campgrounds while visiting some old favorites (I say old favorites like we’ve been doing this for 20 years.) Hard to imagine that this is only our sixth winter of wandering away from Michigan winters.

Maricopa County AZ (Phoenix area) has several regional parks with great facilities. We’ve stayed at two so far, and decided to swing by White Tank Regional Park to check it out this time. While I don’t think this is my favorite, we enjoyed a few nights camping. It was a big change from the cool California mountains – this campground is hot and sunny. With a bit of blind luck, we stumbled into reserving one of only two sites (#24) that had a bit of shade to offer. What luck – it was really hot! I’ll admit that we were pretty smug watching our neighbors sit outsite in the broiling sun, while we were chillin’ in the shade.

White Tanks gets it name from the watering holes (or tanks) that collect the scarce rainwater here in Ford Canyon for all the wildlife here. So, we naturally decided to hike over there to see them, since they aren’t visible from the campground. The first few miles  of trail were flat and rather boring, as we wound our way to the back of the Canyon. Then, we came upon this odd warning sign – something about hazardous Indians and rumnoel runs – whatever that is. 20180328_1221111478470471.jpgPerhaps we should have been warned, but we forged ahead. The hike became difficult after these point – a sharp increase in elevation had us snaking around obstacles, and wedging toes into tiny footholds. We finally wound our way up then down to the tank area, which was worthy of the effort to get there. There was just a bit of brackish water in some of the deeper holes.20180328_134343799132786.jpg20180402_220211110194482.jpgAfter another mile or so, we decided to turn back, as we had drunk half our water, and the trip ahead was twice as far as the trip back. In hot/dry conditions, we don’t second-guess our water supply. All in all, it was a great hike.

Our next destination was to Fool Hollow State Park (AZ),where we had stayed for a single night several years ago. It’s a beautifully maintained, cool area at about 6300′ in Show Low AZ. We were eager to escape the Phoenix heat (projected to be 95 on the day we left). I can’t say enough good things about this wonderful park. Hard-working camp hosts and attentive staff treat this gem as if it were their own. 20180330_1700181071804728.jpg20180331_1708372085522344.jpg20180402_220447299212989.jpgThe drive up from the Phoenix area was filled with some spectacular rugged territory. This roadside project caught our eye as we passed – it’s hard to see, but that big shovel is very precariously perched as it moves dirt around. 20180402_220317178514275.jpg Not a job for the faint of heart!

We didn’t do anything particulary noteworthy at Fool Hollow, but we did meet Paula and Molly – two single women who are both full-time campers. After sharing dinner and camping tales for two nights, we have two new friends – Paula in her Oliver trailer, and Molly in her Casita. Why are most of the full-time campers we meet women? I can only think of one or two men we have met over the years who live full-time in their small trailers or campers. Interesting….it takes a lot of moxie to sell your home and hit the road fulltime. These ladies have it all together.

Here we are now, camped in the middle of of a fairly young lava field that’s 45 miles long, a mile wide, and 50-150 feet deep.20180402_104106-1435890512.jpg20180402_2206521560201472.jpg And the fact that we’re perched on an island over the top of it – amazing. Valley of Fires ranks among one of the more unique spots we’ve camped.20180401_1935221270226480.jpg Lava has spewed from vents in the earth (as opposed to flowing down a mountain) on at least two separate occasions in the last 1500-5000 years, creating a mysterious, crusty spot to explore. A well-signed scenic walkway winds around a mile or so of the area, with many spots to walk off the path and onto the lava beds.20180402_1152331452944319.jpg20180402_2209001309537280.jpgOur campsite is right in the middle of the above photo. You can barely see the curve of the Campsh@ck to the right of the ramada which covers the picnic table.20180402_1213261767284489.jpg It’s fascinating. I can’t briefly explain the geology to you in a coherent way, but would encourage you to check out the above link if you’re interested. The pristine campground is small (about 25 sites), but inexpensive. We have a big site with water/electric for $9/night with our senior pass. Of course, there are superclean bathrooms and showers.

Our time here is marred only by the strong New Mexico spring winds which we have come to dread every year. It really is no joy to be outside in 30-40mph winds, and there isn’t anyplace to hide from them. Although we have the windows open a bit, we have them tied down with bungies and ropes to keep them from blowing open and tearing off the trailer. Having that happen to us once in Death Valley, we’re not chancing it again.

The next two weeks are taking us to several new campgrounds as we move across the vast state of Texas. Hope our nasty winds subside, and I hope spring is finally going to move into the Midwest and Northeast. You have paid your winter dues in spades, my friends. Enough!

 

 

 

Hikeathon

It was with relief that we moved to the cool, clear air of Payson AZ from the yellowish smog of the Picacho Peak area. Being at a much higher elevation (about 6000′), it seemed obvious that we should spend our time exploring the many hikes in the area. So, we did.

Our base for four nights was the Houston Mesa Campground in the Tonto National Forest. Other than the Camp Host, we were the only campers in this 100 site campground. What a change from the packed Picacho Peak State Park! This campground is a gem.

Day One: The first hike we selected was a bust. Called the Monument View hike, we hoped for something with sweeping vistas of the Mogollon (Muggy On) Plateau. Nope. What we got was a walk through a hard-packed ravine where trail motorbikes must often race around. 20180305_1221191162682630.jpgIt was quite a disappointment. The best thing was this huge boulder alongside the road. It was impressive, just sitting there all by itself.20180305_133210117398971.jpgThe rest of the hike? Meh…

Day Two: It seemed like a good idea to take a hike with a bit of elevation involved, since our legs had finally recovered from hiking at Picacho. So, the Military Sinkhole Trail seemed like an obvious choice.20180306_1248171357081767.jpg We started at the bottom, and hiked a rocky trail up and up. 20180306_1206231361577040.jpgThe number of downed trees in the forest was amazing – I understand now how all this brush can fuel a forest fire – some of these trees had obviously been down for years, if not decades.20180307_124845119157993.jpg Thick carpets of pine needles and leaves made the path soft underfoot. When we finally arrived at the top, we were puzzled as to where the sinkhole actually was. John consulted Google, and we located it across the street from our scenic lunch spot. 20180306_121912369153406.jpg20180306_1218501013557682.jpgSadly, the sinkhole itself wasn’t photogenic in the least – there really was nothing there to see. But, what a gorgeous hike.

Day Three: The most popular hike in the Payson area is the Horton Spring Trail, according to Alltrails.com. Why not? This was totally different than the other two, as it followed Horton Creek up to its source. For four miles we followed along the rushing, cool creek – past small waterfalls and rocky outcroppings in the creek. 20180307_1148421088939701.jpg20180307_122622357031273.jpgAt one point, we passed two large wooden teepees. This photo doesn’t do them justice – somebody had to work hard to erect them – the logs in the big one were huge! I’m hoping it was a Scout project of some type – I really wanted to wade across the creek to examine them more closely, but there just wasn’t a spot where I felt I could cross without likely falling and filling up my boots!20180312_121604922202610.jpg Horton Spring is at the end of the hike – the water pours out of a rock from an artisan spring. Amazing. Most of my photos were a bust, so just take my word for it that it’s a gorgeous area, and a cool walk in the woods was the perfect activity for the day.

We were really sad to leave the Payson area after four nights. There’s a lot to explore here, and the cool air was much to our liking. But, we had a return date at Lost Dutchman State Park for a few nights. We took in a Cubs spring-training baseball game (Cubs beat the LA Angels 6-1). In case I don’t get to see the Detroit Tigers this year, this may have to satisfy my baseball game watching urge. We had pretty mediocre seats, but it was still fun.

Lost Dutchman has a trail that has intrigued us since the first time we saw it. It reaches from the campground up to the Flatiron – a peak at about nearly 3000′ above. 20180308_14364265722636.jpgIn a distance of about 3 miles, that’s a lot of elevation! It truly was the hardest hike I’ve ever done – the Trail was crowded with adventurers on a Saturday morning. There were even some paragliders out early on that Saturday morning. You can barely see one of them in this photo.20180310_084531-1144373445.jpg The crowds made things easier and harder at the same time. It was beneficial to have others around to point out the best handhold or route up an uncertain path, but it also led to a few logjams where we had to wait for our turn to haul ourselves up a particularly rough area. It took us exactly three hours to get to the top, and my legs were like jelly! Wow – what views! But, I never want to hike that one again. Once and done!20180310_0957441415430516.jpg20180310_1231401012063050.jpg20180310_112648-1939817177.jpg20180310_1133121389221668.jpgNow we’re holed up at Indian Cove Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. It would be tough to find a more beautiful campsite.20180311_155250-12087199245.jpg20180312_094446-11588087552.jpg We’ve got five days to explore the area – revisit a few of our favorite spots, and find a few hidden gems.

 

 

Moving On

After several years of being in one spot in Green Valley for the month of February, you’d think we would have at least some kind of rhythm for our time there. At the very least, we should have some kind of sense of fleeting time, so that when the last few days roll around, there’s not some insane scrambling to see all the folks we intended to visit, hike all the unhiked trails (I’m talking about YOU, Butterfly Trail…), and cycle to our favorite destinations. Ah, no….apparently we haven’t learned that lesson yet.

The drastic weather change of the last two weeks threw us for a loop.We went from 10 degrees above average, to five days of rain, to two weeks of at least ten degrees below average temps. Plus, just to top everything off, there was a big snowfall the night before our departure from Madera Canyon, so we awoke to this…20180228_0854401701013167.jpg20180228_073805120414573.jpgWhile it was undeniably gorgeous, our immediate concern was getting down the 18-20% grade on our driveway safely. Whew….no problem. I can almost unclench my fists now, three days later.

We appreciated and enjoyed all aspects of our Madera Canyon stay – hiking, cycling, and the chance to do some serious hanging out with family and friends. It’s great to drop in once a year, and pick up where we left off the year before. Green Valley is a great second home for us, and we hope never to lose our enthusiasm for our month-long visit.20180301_165958-1376875323.jpg20180301_1659101142238964.jpgBut, as you know, our passion is camping, and the Campsh@ck calls seductively near the end of the month. Time to roll….

So, here we are at Picacho Peak State Park, about 50 miles north of Tucson. We’ve hiked here several times, but this is our first time in the campground. Although the sites are very large, there is little vegetation, so it feels pretty open.20180228_17064418441007.jpgBut, always looming in the background is Picacho Peak (just above the vent in the camper roof). There’s a challenge issued here, and I am powerless to resist. Although I’ve hiked here three or four times (John several times more), it’s very tough. If you fear sheer dropoffs and steep ascents, this is not the hike for you.

We decided to take a new (for us) trail to the top. The Sunset Trail takes a longer path (than the Hunter Trail) along the backside of the mountain. We cycled to the Trailhead, noting with pleasure that the ride back to camp would be mostly downhill. Thank goodness for that! We were whipped.

After a ridiculously long hike up and down through the desert, (Peak is in the left background)20180301_1128131077881370.jpg20180301_110930447357576.jpg we finally began ascending at a relentless degree up the back side of Picacho. In several places, cables have been drilled into the rock, assisting your climb. There are thin footholds (according to the standards of my size 10 feet, anyway). It’s a matter of trying to prop yourself up with your feet, and haul yourself up with your arms and shoulders. Don’t believe me? Those ‘little’ cactus on the desert floor are probably 25 feet tall. It’s a long drop.20180301_1240441378067337.jpgPerhaps the descent is even worse – John prefers to back down, while I nearly always go forward (it’s the Know Your Enemy theory…).This is much steeper than it looks here.20180301_13583921054951.jpgIn between these cabled spots are some amazing scenic views. You can see John’s white shirt on the far right as he heads down the trail.20180301_1343051549391073.jpg And the lunch spot at the peak is stunning.20180301_130844750705295.jpg20180301_1307041546239957.jpgOddly enough, the hike was yesterday. Today, we are both having trouble putting one foot ahead of the other to walk to the bathroom. Getting old? Nah.

It’s good to be back on the road.

 

Arizona Rains

It’s hard to believe that just a week ago, I posted about the extreme dryness this area of Southeast Arizona has experienced. We had unseasonably warm weather without any significant rain/snowfall in months. One hiker told me that the creeks in Madera Canyon have not had any water running since October.

Well, that has changed! Wednesday morning, the rain began, and it continued until Friday evening. We went from a wide-open view of the Canyon to this one.

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But, the most amazing part of this transformation is one that I can’t share with you. It’s the incredible aroma of Madera Canyon opening up to the rain. It’s as though every tree, grass, and shrub has opened every cell in order to absorb the maximum moisture. In doing so, the most incredible scents have been released – heavy doses of juniper and pine mixed with mesquite and a trace of woodsmoke from our neighbor’s stove. Not just your average “walk in the woods in a rainstorm” scent. (Hey Google! I need an app to capture this – an aromaphoto that I can share. Apple, of course, will call their app iSmell). After the first day of rain, the scent faded away. But it was a fantastic experience while it lasted. In the meantime, green has exploded everywhere. Hillsides full of tough brown grasses are now a pale, hazy green, and the invasive mesquite trees that plague the Arizona landscape have gone from bare skeletons to leafy trees. Does this rapid transformation only happen in extremely dry climates? I don’t know.

When the sun poked out Saturday, we booted up and headed into the Canyon for a hike. It was delightfully cool and fresh. The rushing creek, which we crossed several times was a delight to hear.

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We trekked up the Carrie Nation Mine Trail, where rusted equipment from the copper-mining days of the Canyon, about a hundred years ago, still remains.

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Madera Canyon is full of old mines – we often hike past the Vault Mine, and our rental cabin is on the site of the old Suzi Lode Mine.

Full of energy after being cooped up for three days of rain, we traversed over to the Agua Caliente Trail

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I’m not sure how legal this campfire spot would be, but it had a magnificent view of Green Valley.

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It was just a great day to be out on the Trail.

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That’s Mt. Wrightson in the distance – the highest peak in the area, at about 9700′.

Our half-way point of the hike was Josephine Saddle, where the Boy Scout Monument always makes me pause. Three Boy Scouts lost their lives there in a freak snowstorm in 1958 while on a weekend camping trip.

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The last four miles of our hike were down the Supertrail, where more great Canyon views unfolded. There was much more foot traffic on this portion of our hike – we had the trails all to ourselves on the first part.

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What a great day for a hike!

I’m writing this very late Sunday night (about 3am), and the rain is once again pounding the cabin. We’ve got high wind warnings for Monday, so it’s going to be an interesting day. Desert? Here?