Saguaro, Saguaros, and More!

Saguaro National Park. Just saying it brings to mind that majestic cactus, standing tall and proud, branches reaching to the sky! And rightly so, everywhere you look, even places where you’d think nothing could grow, there they are. Such a ubiquitous symbol of the west, you see their profile everywhere, even here in Texas. Unfortunately, you won’t see any real Saguaros in Texas! They’re strictly in the Sonoran Desert: Arizona, California, and down into Mexico.

Rather on the spur of the moment, we decided to go hiking in Saguaro! With just a few days planning, we flew into Tucson, picked up the rental car (it was supposed to be an SUV, but you know those rentacar companies), and checked into our AirBNB. After a little grocery shopping, we settled in to make the important decision for tomorrow – West or East!

Saguaro has two sections (and two Visitor Centers), one on each side of Tucson, with slightly different personalities. The West side has lower mountains, scrub and grasslands, and more and younger Saguaros. The East is higher, the Saguaros are older, and the altitude allows some woodland along with the desert scrub. We decided to go west, in part to be closer to Gates Pass – a good place to be for sunset.

We got up bright and early for our first day of hiking… well, early enough for a cup of tea and a protein bar for breakfast! We had decided to go to Wasson Peak via King Canyon and Hugh Norris trail (again, from our friends at Alltrails!). Wasson peak is the highest point in the West section of the park, at 4687 feet. The trail has a mere 1863 feet of elevation change so we figured we could handle it even though we hadn’t trained.

The trail head is actually in the next park over, Tucson Mountain State Park, but you cross into the national park almost immediately. We began our hike on a parallel path, walking though a dry streambed while the trail was on the ridge above us. This had the advantage of taking us directly to some of the petroglyphs!

Cool petroglyphs, indeed, about 800 years old by the Hohokam, they say. Though one of them does look like an early Texas A&M! We climbed around on the rocks for a while and then went on our way. From there all the way up to the peak it was a delightful hike among a variety of cacti and other desert flora. Not so much of the fauna – I think we caught a glimpse of a lizard, the occasional bird. Lots of Saguaros, lots of (very happy looking) Ocotillos. A fair amount of Prickly Pear of different varieties.

The above cacti include Saguaro (naturally), a staghorn cholla, a silken pincushion. And some others… 🙂 I haven’t even learned my Chihuahuan Desert cacti yet, I should add the Sonoran Desert? I think the purplish one may be a young Saguaro.

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?

You have to cross a little saddle to get to the peak, you can see the trail running around the side on the picture below. Lovely view of the Santa Clarita Mountains and Mt. Lemmon with its snow. We went to visit that later in our visit!

We took a different route down. The scenery was beautiful, and there were a multitude of cacti and other desert plants around.

On the way back down, Leigh stopped to cuddle with some Teddy Bear Cholla!

When we got back to the bottom it wasn’t long before sunset, so we headed over Gates Pass (back in the state park).

And thus ended our first day hiking in Saguaro.

The next day, we decided to head east! We had chosen the “Douglas Spring, Bridal Wreath Falls, Three Tank, Garwood Loop.” It sounds like a lot of trails, but it’s only a 7.1 mile loop. Less elevation than the previous day as well.

The trailhead is right at the end of Speedway Boulevard. There’s a small parking lot and some parking on the road. We got there just as someone was pulling out of the parking lot, which probably indicates that we didn’t get there very early! The weather was cool, though, as we started out.

The trail begins fairly flat, winding through the Saguaro Forest with a lot of ocotillo and other cacti mixed in, not to mention creosote and other scrub plants.

After a little while, you begin climbing uphill – generally at a moderate rate but it occasionally gets steep. We saw some delightful flowers, including some of the tiniest I’ve seen (earbud included for scale…). And while we heard some birds, the only flying thing I got close to was that butterfly!

At the top of the loop, you take a turn up to Bridal Wreath Falls. You cross (at this time of year, anyway!) a dry streambed a couple of times, then you head up a rock-strewn path into a small canyon where the full majesty of the waterfall awaits you:

If you look closely, you can see several drops of water falling off of the rocks! And you can see that the water flows a full three or four feet after it lands on the rock below! Okay, I suspect it’s more impressive during one of those summer storms that would wash you away if you stood where I was.

From there, we went back to the loop and continued (counter-clockwise) toward the trailhead. As we went up and down the trail, we did notice some changes in the frequency of the different plants. At one point there were very few Saguaro in view, and on one stretch of trail there were a bunch of agave.

I like this picture because it seems like most of the non-saguaro desert plants all growing on top of one another! We have an Ocotillo, a sotol, a prickly pear, a staghorn cholla, and the bones of at least two bushes that will no doubt come back with the next rain:

It was a really nice hike that I quite enjoyed, and would be tempted to do again at a different time of year just to see the seasonal changes.

After we finished the loop, we went over to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center for a passport stamp and to look around. That’s also where the Cactus Forest Loop Drive starts and ends, a scenic loop through the terrain where we’d been hiking. Well, the flat part – you don’t go up in the mountains! We did the scenic drive and stopped a few times to check things out. This was where we found my personal favorite Saguaro:

As you can see, it’s about 5 or 6 times taller than Leigh. It’s probably not the tallest Saguaro we saw, but I think it was the coolest… 🙂

Here are a few more shots from along the drive:

The bird appears to be a Phainopepla nitens. I’m told… 🙂 A member of the silky flycatchers family, we saw a couple of them around Saguaro.

Towards the end of the drive you come to the Javelina Rocks and the Javelina Picnic Area. This was a spot recommended to me for a sunset, so we stopped and scrambled around on the rocks and strolled into the desert until the sun went down. Also I took a photo or two:

And home to a big salad and a good night’s sleep!

Saturday we had decided to check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, West of Tucson in the state park. This turned out to be a fine idea! They have an aquarium, a “zoo,” a natural history museum, and more. The part we liked best (and spent the most time wandering) was the Botanical Garden. They have an endlessly amazing, frequently amusing collection of desert plants that I just loved. I had never seen a “woolly jacket” prickly pear or a “cowboy whiskers” prickly pear before, and so many other things.

They also have hummingbirds, some in an aviary and some just wandering free. Have you ever tried to take a picture of a hummingbird? They are most uncooperative models! And my reflexes were a little slow…

After the museum, we were looking around and we saw Mount Lemmon! It’s the tallest peak in the Santa Clarita Mountains north of Tucson and there’s a lovely scenic drive up to (almost) the top. With many scenic pullouts! And Hoodoos! And a fun precipice for Leigh to approach…

We stopped a few times on the way to the top, then we got up to the village with the ski lifts and the hotel and restaurants and such. And we got there…right after everything closed down! Fortunately, we were (as usual) carrying protein bars and sparkling water so we were okay with that. And worse than that, the road to the very top was blocked! We saw this sign:

It was March 27th. So I was bitter and resentful. And we decided to walk the rest of the way! It’s about a mile and a half up the road to the observatory and other stuff on the top. The sun was getting a bit low on the horizon and the temperature up at 9000 feet was around 40 degrees. But we had our jackets and walking shoes on, so up we went. Past several areas that were burned in the fire last year 😦 .

At the top we found snow, an observatory behind a locked gate (and barbed wire!), a heavily locked gate standing wide open, and more snow! The snow was of a texture I had not seen before. And I loved the way the evening sun glistened on the radome… 🙂

And then on the way back down, we watched the sun set and the moon rise…

And back to the old homestead.

Sunday was the most difficult hike we had planned: Blackett’s Ridge up in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. AllTrails rates it “hard,” though it’s a mere 6 miles. It’s about 1765 feet of elevation in a relatively short hike. We parked at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center and headed out on the trail!

It starts flat, as most of the trails going into the mountains do. About a mile in you start uphill, than at about 1.5 it gets pretty steep. In the next 1.2 miles or so, you go up 1200-1300 feet! Much of it is up rocky trails or just a slope made of rock, as you can see here:

It was a bit challenging, but we’re in pretty good shape so it wasn’t too bad. We probably stopped to catch a breath more often than we had on other hikes! Since we hadn’t started until well past noon, we didn’t get to the top until after 6pm and the light was becoming wonderfully warm and reddish-gold…

We relaxed at the top for a while, helping out the people around us by taking their pictures with their phones. Then we headed back down the hill, so we’d at least be part way down before the it was completely dark! We passed some of our furry friends on the way down.

So you can see once more that I’m not a wildlife photographer! But I have fun…

There was a full moon that night, with the moonrise a few minutes after sunset. Once it got up, the moonlight was almost bright enough to walk down the trail without a flashlight. Almost. Not on this trail! I tried to get a good moonrise shot as we were heading down the mountain, but it didn’t work out. I blame the equipment! 🙂

But here’s what I did get:

For our last hike, we went back to a place we’d been a couple of times before: Seven Falls, also in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. We parked over off Bear Canyon Road so we wouldn’t start out over the same trail as yesterday. Of course, the scenery was pretty much the same:

Let’s see, we’ve got Saguaro, we’ve got cholla, we’ve got prickly pear…

You go back and forth across the stream a few times, slowly going upstream and uphill. Until you finally come to Seven Falls:

As we climbed up to the top, we tried to count the falls and there seemed to be more than seven. We kept passing more. It’s a fun and occasionally challenging climb, certain sections were not for the faint of heart. There’s probably an easier way up, sometimes we take the most direct route rather than scouting around!

On the way up, you pass through layers of geology and it’s fascinating to see. Not to mention the tiniest little cactus I’ve ever seen! That’s my little pinkie finger in the picture with that little sphere of thorns. It may be a silken pincushion cactus, but don’t quote me on that…

On the way back to the car, we passed the second of two of our reptilian friends, the only non-avian creatures we saw that day. Unless you count people, I guess we saw a few of those. Here are the two:

I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to varieties! Okay, maybe I will. The lighter one seems like a greater earless lizard and the dark one appears to be a desert spiny lizard. Again, don’t quote me!

So, that was our last day hiking in the Tucson area. The next morning we stopped at the Pima Air and Space Museum on the way to the airport. It’s a great place if you like airplanes, but I won’t overload you with pictures since it doesn’t relate to hiking! I will put one picture here:

That’s a B-36J “Peacemaker.” Early models only had the 6 turboprop engines, then they added on the 4 jet engines!

After that visit we went on to the airport, and, with a special assist from American Airlines, we got home a mere 28 hours later! Life is good.

Big Bend Country, Part 2

Just to remind you where we left off after the Emory Peak Trail! In Part 1, that is…

For our last hike in the National Park, we decided to do the Lost Mine Trail. Many people say that this is the one to do if you only have time for one hike in Big Bend. I might agree that it’s the best short (just over 4 miles) hike we did, and the view from the top is almost as spectacular as you get from Emory Peak. But make sure you get there early, there are only 11 parking spaces at the trailhead!

Again, a lot of snow and ice at the beginning of the trail. After the first mile or so the snow faded away and the trail was mostly dirt with occasional icy stretches. This continued until the last little rise up to the top, where there was some pretty deep snow, as some people found out. I loved the morning sun on Casa Grande.

Sadly, my family suffered a loss on this hike:

If you look really closely at the bottom of this cliff, you may be able to see my wife’s cell phone. I’ve circled it for your convenience. It didn’t look good, but there was really not a convenient way to actually get down and retrieve it. So make sure you zip (or velcro) your pockets! Around cliffs, anyway…

That was our last hike in Big Bend National Park. We had left our hotel in Terlingua and were moving over to a place in Lajitas. But we did stop by the Inn & RV park so I could get one picture of the landmark we used to find it:

We left Terlingua heading west, and drove all the way to…Lajitas! Okay, it’s not far, less than 15 miles. We were staying at the Lajitas Golf Resort for a couple of nights in order to be a little closer to Big Bend Ranch State Park. I didn’t bring my golf clubs, so we just had to go hiking! I had never been to the state park before and I was looking forward to checking it out. Here are a few shots from that journey:

You really don’t expect to see a submarine conning tower in the middle of the desert. Or a two-masted sailing ship, even with the sails furled!

The next morning we went over to the Barton Warnock Visitors Center for the state park, got our day pass, and drove up to our first stop – Closed Canyon. As you pull up to the parking area, you see one of those delightful long cliffs they keep around there. That little gap you can see in picture is the canyon. If the skies look a little odd, there was a little operator error involved, so I’ve played a little bit…

It was an easy walk, mostly (again!) down a dry streambed. A short walk to the gap in the cliff, then into the canyon! The walls are about 150 feet high, and in some places the canyon narrows down to 15 or 20 feet. Some of the walls looked pretty climbable, but we decided against on this trip. And before we got to the Rio Grande, we passed…I mean ran across a sign that said “End of Trail – Do not proceed past this point.” So we didn’t get to the river.

I had also never heard of the Far West Texas Wildlife Trial. It turns out, there are wildlife trails all over Texas! They are subdivided into “loops,” which are groups of loosely connected sites in a particular region. It turns out that I live close to the Prairies and Pineywoods West Wildlife Trail, and I regularly stroll in one of the sites! Who knew?

From there we went up the road to The Hoodoos. We like hoodoos, having spent a lot of time with them in Bryce Canyon. These weren’t quite the same, but it was a nice little spot. It appeared at least one of the local felines agreed, there were a lot of tracks down by the river! On the other side of the river was another of those cliffs. Of course, Leigh got busy climbing on top of one of the hoodoos.

In spite of a route marked on Alltrails, it’s not exactly a trail across the rock. We wandered and climbed and scrambled around for a while. The Rio Grande splits in two just northwest of the site, surrounds an island, then rejoins itself to run along the base of the cliff.

Our last stop of the day was Rancherias Canyon. Instead of going to the Rio Grande, this trail goes north into the park. Most of the trail seemed to be along (surprise!) a dry streambed. The rainy season is May-September, I may have to come back and check out these trails! It was mostly flat, though we crossed a low ridge or two.

The canyon wound through some low rocky terrain, with higher peaks farther in the distance. Lots of ocotillo and cacti around along with the grasses and brush we sometimes had to wade through. It was getting late, so we didn’t plan to do the full 11-mile out & back. Then we ran into Bob from Montana and had a nice chat standing around in the canyon. We got back to the trailhead as the sun was setting. This was from a somewhat higher point on the way back to the hotel:

Alas, that was our last hike for this trip. Here are a few shots from the journey home. We had some lovely clouds and sunshine when we started out, but as we got farther north the clouds got serious. It was grey and rainy by the time we got to Fort Stockton to pay a visit to my old buddy Pecos Pete (that’s the big roadrunner, for those who don’t know). Last time I saw Pete he was wearing a mask! Then as we got farther east, the rain turned into snow. The roads were wet but clear and we got home with no trouble at all. Except a little fatigue…

Now that I’ve reached the end of the trip, I’m sure many of you are asking, “Hey, where’s the night sky?” Okay, maybe a few of you. Or maybe just my wife, who knows? Anyway, we did go out several times to do night sky photography. Results are somewhat limited by experimentation I was doing and a rented camera I was trying out – along with a little operator error! But here are some shots I thought were worth sharing:

Orion shows up nicely in the January sky, doesn’t he?

All-in-all, it was a fabulous trip. I can’t wait to go back, there’s so much more to do. We didn’t even get over to Rio Grande Village and the hot springs! And the South Rim still awaits. And thousands of acres of the State Park to be explored as well!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to growing my skill with an educational outing out to a little place in California you may have heard of – Death Valley!

If you haven’t seen the episode of the PBS series Nature about Big Bend, you should check it out. I don’t think they were there in January… 🙂

– ESS

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Big Bend Country – Part 1

A trip to West Texas is always a joy for me and I was really looking forward to hiking in Big Bend National Park. We hadn’t been there for over a decade and that trip had included a recalcitrant youngster so we didn’t do as much hiking as we might have liked. We were excited!

On the way down (it’s a long way from Dallas!) we spent the night in Sanderson at my favorite classic motel -the Desert Air Motel! We got up early the next day and drove down U.S. highway 385 to the park. It’s a fairly large park (800,000 acres), so when we passed the sign, we could only see the mountains off in the distance. But as we got closer, we saw this:

A snow-covered mountain range in the middle of the desert! Cool, eh?

We took a quick swing by the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center. They weren’t letting people inside, but they had brought a selection of souvenirs & such outside, including the all-important stamp for our passport! Well, pre-stamped pieces of paper without a date on them. You take what you can get in these hard times…

Then we drove on up to the Chisos Basin, where the main lodge is, along with another visitor’s center and a general store. It’s also the starting point for a dozen or more trails that are listed on Alltrails. We strolled around a little bit, chatted with the Park Rangers about trail conditions (answer: icy). But the Window Trail was in pretty good shape, ice & snow on the early part, then clear. So we went thataway!

The Window Trail is unusual for a mountain trail – you go downhill on the way out and uphill on the way back! Most trails it’s the other way around.

The beginning of the trail is a long staircase, covered with snow and ice but the individual steps were flat enough that it wasn’t too difficult. There was a lot of snow still on the trail early on, then we got to a stretch where it looked like we were walking between winter and spring, with snow only on one side! After a while we found ourselves walking along what seemed to be a dry streambed (not for the last time). It was a fairly easy trail most of the way, but toward the end we found ourselves scrambling around boulders. There were also Mexican Jays here and there in the trees. Rather noisy creatures. When you get to the end, there’s a…well, a window. Surprise! In the gallery above, you see a shot of my wife sitting on the slippery rock right at the end of the chute where the water runs out in the rainy season. The panorama in the gallery is the view out the window from slightly higher up.

Instead of hiking straight back to the trailhead, we took a turn up the trail toward Cattail Falls. We went far enough to look down on the Window, see the great view that was behind us, and find a nice precipice for Leigh…

So we retraced our steps back (up!) to the Chisos Basin. Going back up the steps did remind us that we were more than a mile high in the Basin, but we stay in pretty good shape…mostly.

We did have a little visitor outside the Visitor’s Center (of course!). I’m not sure what he was looking for and he would have needed a mask to get into the General Store…

From there we went in the general direction of Terlingua. On the way, we took a left turn onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This is a beautiful drive through the (western) desert part of the park. There are great views of the mountains, like this:

The drive takes you past Burro Mesa (more on that later) and a number of other interesting peaks and sights as you slowly descend down to the Rio Grande. We stopped at Castolon, but both the Visitor’s Center and the store were closed by then. It was getting a bit late, but we went on up to Santa Elena Canyon.

At this point along the river, there’s about a 1000 -1500 foot cliff that runs southeast from around Lajitas in the U.S., across the river, and down into Mexico. Right in the middle of this, the Rio Grande has carved a narrow canyon with walls as high as 1500 feet. The trail starts out at a parking area and is flat until you cross Terlingua Creek (sometimes a muddy crossing, I’m told – not this time). A series of switchbacks take you up maybe a hundred feet, giving you a nice view downriver (as you can see in the gallery). They also give you a glimpse of the geologic history of the region (note the seashells embedded in the cliff face!).

After that, the trail and the river come together and you pass by a variety of cacti and river plants, including what looked to me like bamboo. There’s also a plant that shows up around Big Bend called a “resurrection plant” or “flower of stone” (see the photo above). In hot, dry weather it curls up tightly into a ball, looking brown, leathery, and dead. Then when it gets exposed to moisture, it opens back up! There were many along this trail, and we saw them elsewhere in the park as well.

After we got back from this trail, we drove on to the Paisano Village RV Park & Inn in Terlingua. Or is it Study Butte? And why is Study pronounced “stoody?” I am uncertain of the geography down there. The route we took was the Old Maverick Road, unpaved but in pretty good shape. Alas, it was dark so we really couldn’t enjoy much scenery!

So, the next morning we were planning to hike Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains. We drove in to the park, and turned up the road to the Basin… and stopped! Due to road construction, the road is closed from 8-11 (and 1-3pm). It was about 8:10. Oops! Check that before you go in the next few months!

So we went back down to the Scenic Drive. Checking Alltrails (of course!) for the best trails off the Scenic Drive, we decided to start with The Chimneys Trail. It’s only (only!) rated 4 stars on Alltrails, but it has petroglyphs!

The walk out to the Chimneys is not all that exciting, unless you trip on the rocky trail. Watch your step! You walk past a lot of desert plants, like my favorite Ocotillo (see the one in the gallery that towers over Leigh) and the Purple Prickly Pear. We heard occasional birds, but only saw a few. And there’s no shade, which is less of a problem in January than at other times of the year.

The Chimneys themselves were pretty cool. We clambered around the base of the lonely one, where the petroglyphs are, and then climbed up on top of some others (see the picture of Leigh taking a picture of me!). It wasn’t crowded (on a weekday in January) but we did pass a few hikers on the way back to the road.

A little farther down the road is (are?) The Mule’s Ears. We only stopped at the overlook, though there is a trail going out to a spring near the base of the formation.

Leaving the Mule’s Ears, we went back north a ways, up to the Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff trail. Burro Mesa is a large formation west of the Scenic Drive and this trail leads from the road down a dry (when we did it) streambed and finally…well, as the guy we passed who was coming back said, “When you get to the 100-foot dropoff, stop!”

As we were walking down the streambed from the road, the walls got higher and higher. Then we started hearing rocks fall down, so we looked up! And there were a bunch of Bighorn Sheep roaming around the sides of the canyon. And knocking down rocks. I asked them to be more careful but they just kind of looked at me, then went back to eating the grasses or the prickly pear cactus they had been chomping. We watched for a while and saw that there were a couple of dozen wandering around up there.

Eventually we started moving again, finally coming to a narrow crack through the mesa with a slick rock ramp going down into a chamber (you can see Leigh at the top or me at the bottom of it in the gallery). It was a bit slippery, but not too hard to get down safely. A little more difficult to get back up, but everybody we saw made it pretty well. At the other end of the chamber was the aforementioned 100-foot (or more!) drop. If you look closely at the picture that looks down over a rock ledge, you can see two people standing at the bottom.

And on the walk back, I finally got one of the Bighorns to pose where I wanted them – profiled against the beautiful blue sky!

The next day we got up a little bit earlier. This time we made it to the road in time to get up into the mountains! As we parked in Chisos Basin the sun was making a silhouette of Casa Grande on a nearby mountain. You can see them both here – Casa Grande and its shadow:

As the day before, our plan was to hike Emory Peak. It’s about 5 miles from the trailhead up to the peak – and 2500 feet of uphill! You start above a mile in elevation and climb up to 7825 feet, according to the US Geological Survey. Our friends at Alltrails rate the trail as “Hard,” and they’re not entirely wrong! It’s pretty much 5 miles of uphill and if you’re not in good shape you might find it tough going – especially in all the ice and snow!

The trail started pretty icy and snowy (and it was pretty chilly that morning!), and it continued that way off & on all the way up. Much of the time we were either walking on ice or on frozen mud. Fortunately we had our trusty trekking poles. If we hadn’t I’d have ended up on my backside a lot more than I did! Periodically we’d break out into an area that got a little more sun and the trail would be mud or packed dirt. Sometimes we got a nice view out toward the next mountains over, as you can see.

Finally we got to the place where you turn off of the main loop trail to head up to the peak. The relatively dense woods we’d been traversing gave way to rocky ground, more succulents, and fewer trees. Then we came around a corner and finally saw our destination – with the moon guiding our way!

The last bit of climb to get atop Emory Peak is described in many reviews as “scary” or “vertigo-inducing” so I was a little nervous. Until we got there – this picture makes it look steeper than it really is, and the rocks were quite solid so I never felt at risk. Of course, some people might not like to turn around and see a long drop from the 3-foot-wide ledge they’re standing on…

So we scrambled up to the top, and there was only one other person there when we arrived – a young lady who was taking lots of selfies! I took a picture of her (with her phone) after she had walked out to a particularly scary-looking spot. Then Leigh went out there! Of course she did… 🙂 It’s not the one where you can see the solar panels, it’s the other one – the one showing how windy it was. And she forced me (against my will!) to pose for her…

Getting back down off the peak was a little bit more of an adventure than going up, but we made it. On the way back down to the main trail we ran across some white-tailed deer. Alas, they were less cooperative than the bighorns & wouldn’t come out to pose!

When we got back to the main trail we decided not to take the short route retracing our steps to the trailhead. We knew how much ice was waiting there for us! Instead, we turned south toward the South Rim. We took a shortcut across the loop, though, instead of doing the full South Rim trail. It had taken a surprisingly long time to get up top and I did not relish the thought of finishing an icy trail in the dark.

It turned out there was a fair amount of ice on the southern route as well! But once we got to the south side of the mountain we had a long stretch that was actually on a packed dirt trail! It made for a nice change. The views south & southwest, down into Mexico, were fabulous! Then we went around to the north side of the mountain again and found ourselves back in snow and ice.

When we got back to the car, the sun was almost gone!

I thought this post was getting a bit long, so I’ll pick it up in Part 2 in a few days.

Catch you later

– ESS

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The Great Smoky Mountains – And More

It’s January now (and we’re back from our January trip), so here’s the November trip! We drove out to Atlanta to see the folks, and we went on from there to some of the nearby parks.

On the way to Georgia we stopped in Tuscaloosa so Leigh could show me around the places she used to go when she spent a summer semester at Alabama (the university, that is). This is a spot on Lake Nicol where they used to go. We got lost in the dark on the way back to the car…

After spending some time with the parents, we went north. Our first stop was a Georgia state park called Tallulah Gorge. There’s a loop trail that follows the North and South rims – and the suspension bridge betwixt them. It’s a beautiful area, though we were too late for the good north Georgia color.

Tallulah Falls used to be a fashionable resort and honeymoon destination, and sometimes people would name their daughters after it. Those of us who favor old movies will remember the actress Tallulah Bankhead, whose grandparents are said to have honeymooned there! If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, check it out!

We did a loop that included both rims and a trip down into the gorge. You start near the Visitors Center on the North Rim and head along a well-trodden trail to the top of the stairs. And then you go down the stairs! And there are a lot of stairs. To get down to the bridge there are (I’m told) 310 steps. I didn’t count. It’s a nice suspension bridge across the gorge (as you can see from the pix below).

After you cross the bridge you have two options – up the other (south) side or down to the river. Naturally, we went down 200+ more stairs! The actual bottom of the gorge is closed, so we stopped at the platform at the bottom of the stairs and enjoyed “Hurricane Falls” (see the pic above – the one that’s not coming from the dam).

Then we climbed up the 500 steps to the top. We turned left instead of right at the top and went to see one of the towers used by Karl Wallenda when he tightrope walked across the gorge (I’ve put a couple of old newspaper photos in the gallery above). That’s the metal structure with Leigh perched on top. The tower on the other side is the one lying on its side amidst the trees, also in the pix.

After that we strolled back along the rim, stopping at several overlooks along the way. A couple of the pix are in the gallery above. The trail takes you up to the road and across the dam (see the pic) back to the North Rim. Then you go through the woods and back to the Visitor’s Center. We kept going along the rim up to Inspiration Point and the Wallenda tower. And then we left.

We drove from there up to Cherokee, North Carolina, where we would be staying while visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We stayed in the Great Smokies Inn about a mile outside the park entrance. It was comfortable, clean and quiet, I’d stay there again! Quiet because there were few other guests. It seems a lot more people were over in Gatlinburg…

Our first trail was…the Appalachian Trail! Okay, a little over 4 miles of it out to Charlie’s Bunion. The AT runs right through the middle of the park and a number of the featured hikes run along various bits. This bit takes you out past Mount Ambler, Mount Kephart, and Masa Knob on the way to the Bunion. Charlie’s, that is. A lot of the trail is through the woods but there are also a number of overlooks just off the trail.

We actually got a bit confused on the trail. We passed a rock outcropping right on the trail that had a beautiful view and we thought, “is that the Bunion?” We knew we weren’t that close to the end of the trail, so we decided it wasn’t. Then we got to the place where the AT goes one way and the Dry Sluice Trail goes another, and we knew we were past it! We turned back and bumped (not literally, mind you!) into a guy who said “I think there’s a side trail up the side of the mountain a little ways back.” So we went back and found what looked like a drainage path up the mountain.

We tried it, following up a not-heavily trafficked trail through re-growing brush and under low branches. It was a bit of a scramble, but at the top we found a large rock outcropping with a great view. We took a rest there, and I did get a shot of Leigh hanging off of a precipice! So we went back the way we came.

Then we drove up to Clingman’s Dome to watch the sunset with 100 or 150 close friends…

After that we took a quick run over to Gatlingburg to see where all the action was. Also to find a Wal-Mart, we were running out of vital supplies (a.k.a. protein bars)! Definitely a lot more people, lights, and traffic on that side of the park.

The next morning, well-stocked, we went for a more difficult trail. “Myrtle Point and Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail.” This trail is 13 miles (out & back) and rated “hard” on Alltrails. It’s also pretty popular, we were lucky to get a space in the parking lot! Many were parked along the street.

The trail seems flat at the beginning, following and repeatedly crossing a stream, but you’re really going steadily uphill the whole way! There’s about 3000 feet of climb along six miles of trail out to Myrtle Point. It runs mostly through woods, which is great if you like trees. It was a fun hike and the view from Myrtle Point is fantastic! This gallery has a few shots from along the way:

After we got back to the trailhead, we went back toward Cherokee. As we passed the Visitor’s Center, we noticed a considerable number of elk hanging around in the large field next door. Two of them got into a slow-motion antler-wrestling match – the one with the bigger… rack won. The other walked away.

Then we met up with another 150 or 200 close friends for sunset! Back up to Clingman’s Dome. This time there were a few clouds so we got some nice color – as you can see:

We were a little tired, it didn’t look like a good night for the sky, so we went back to the hotel to prepare for the long trip home.

We had gone east through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, so we decided to go home through Tennessee and Arkansas. That gave us a chance to visit one historical location and to stop and see Leigh’s brother.

After one last drive through the park we got on the interstate and went to Nashville. 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. We had been listening to Elaine Weiss’s “The Woman’s Hour,” about the events surrounding Tennessee’s ratification of that amendment (quite entertaining, I might add), so we thought we’d stop by where the action was: The Hermitage Hotel, not far from the state capitol. Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify, making the amendment official.

Many of the events described occurred in the lobby, which probably looked much like it does now. A couple of miles away, there is a newly opened monument to women’s suffrage in Centennial Park. The monument features five women who were involved in the final ratification battle in Nashville in 1920: Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville; J. Frankie Pierce of Nashville; Sue Shelton White of Jackson; Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga; and national suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt who came to Tennessee to direct the pro-suffrage forces from The Hermitage Hotel. It’ll probably look nicer when they’re done with the construction around it.

And then we came home. And almost immediately began planning our trip down to Big Bend! Pictures and stories coming soon…

Elsewhere in Utah

Since it’s December I thought it might be time to finish telling you about our September trip. Perhaps in January I’ll get to our (very careful) November travels! November was a busy month, I have to say, with a gallery show, a little travel, and I heard there was a holiday mixed in there.

Anyway, back to Utah! You may have already read about our visits to Zion and Bryce, so now I’ll be telling you about the other places we went on that trip. We stopped a few places around and between the National Parks we visited. For example, as we were driving from the airport in Vegas to Tropic (Utah) we stopped by a little place called the Dixie National Forest and did a little hiking!

This was back during the smoky days with wildfires across the west, so the sun was a bit dim. But the rocks were very cool.

After we spent a couple of days in Bryce Canyon, we decided to take a day down toward (and in!) Kodachrome Basin State Park. We were in southern Utah, so there’s a lot to see and we went looking around a bit.

As you drive to Kodachrome Basin, when you come to the entrance you can just keep going straight instead of turning in to the park. After about 10 miles of dirt road (4wd and high clearance are advisable!) you reach the Grosvenor Arch Day Use Site. This is a pretty cool formation in the middle of some beautiful scenery. Not exactly a hiking area, we just strolled over to and around the formation.

And then we left!

We did stop more than once along that dirt road to enjoy the view!

We drove back to Kodachrome Basin and this time we turned in to the park. And this is what we saw:

The first trail we hiked was called the Panorama Trail and Long Loop (on Alltrails, anyway). It takes you past many of the highlights of the park, like the Ballerina Spire and the Indian Cave. It was a fairly pleasant hike, though there was not a lot of shade. The (literally) coolest place on the hike was the Cool Cave – you can see a couple of photos in this gallery.

After that loop we headed a little farther into the park to find the Angel’s Palace trail. This was a fun little loop around the top of a rock formation. As it’s mostly on rock, the trail isn’t exactly clear, but there are signs that point the way. And, of course, Alltrails…

There weren’t any good precipices for Leigh to hang off of this time, but there were some very narrow ridgelines that we crossed on the way to the overlooks. At any rate, it was a good hike and a good day in the park. On the way back to Tropic, we stopped along the side of the road for this view:

After a couple more days in Bryce, we took the scenic route over to Springdale, our bedroom for Zion. We made a couple of stops along the way.

We met a well-protected couple on the side of the highway. 🙂

Then, just south of Mt. Carmel Junction, we stopped to see The Belly of the Dragon. This (man-made) tunnel runs under the highway and enters a wash on the other side. It’s a fun tunnel to clamber/walk through and if you keep going up the wash, there’s a waterfall – if there’s water. No water this September so we stopped at the end of the tunnel.

We then went a little farther down 89 toward Kanab and found the Sand Cave. This is a neat little feature that sits up in the side of a rock face just off the highway. It’s a fun (and somewhat adventurous) climb up the rock face before you get to a relatively flat path to the cave – wear good shoes! And the cave, as you can see, is full of sand.

Next time I’m in the area I may try to get there for sunset, I’ll bet that golden light really gives it a glow! Of course, then you get to climb down in the dark…

Just about 1/4 mile up the highway is a little tourist trap called Moqui Cave that looked like it might be fun, but we had places to go and things to do!

Our last official stop on the way to Zion was at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. This is a state park a few miles off the highway that consists primarily of – get this – coral pink sand dunes! Well, it’s not really what I would’ve called “coral pink,” but it’s not exactly White Sands either.

The primary activities in the park appear to be ATVs (of which I only saw one, in the distance) and sledding/skiing (which we saw from a little closer). We arrived late in the afternoon, and many of the people we saw were leaving. We walked to the top of the dune you see here, which was a lot of work, the sand being quite soft and powdery. I looked around for a ski or a sled but there were none left behind. We had to walk back down too! Our feet didn’t dig in like that on every step, but it was enough.

So we left and aimed our chariot at Zion! When we got there, a welcoming committee was waiting for us…


Thanks for joining us in Utah one more time, I hope you enjoyed it. Next time you hear from me I’ll be in Georgia or Tennessee or North Carolina. Or all three, if the mood strikes me! Have a great one!

-Eric

Zion National Park

After three glorious days hiking in Bryce Canyon, we took a long day and drove down to Zion (with a few stops along the way – next blog post!). Southern Utah is a beautiful place, in some places reminiscent of West Texas and in some places reminiscent of my planet of origin… 🙂

Planning ahead, we had cleverly acquired tickets on the Zion shuttle for a reasonable time, so we walked from our hotel up to the Visitor’s Center (less than a mile) and got in line for the shuttle bus (running at half-capacity, they actually pulled every other seat out of the buses!). The line moved pretty quickly though, and we got on the bus to ride up into the valley.

Zion is a different kind of animal from Bryce Canyon. Bryce was all about the hoodoos. Zion is more about the cliffs! I don’t think a day went by that my wife didn’t dangle her feet over some thousand-foot sheer cliff – just because it was there! Now, if I started to get close to the edge, that was a different story! She seemed that I’d be looking through the camera and not where my feet were…

We rode the shuttle up to the Grotto stop and crossed the Virgin river to the Angel’s Landing Trail. It starts out as a well-maintained paved trail, not unlike walking a nature trail in the suburbs. Well, except for the stunning beauty of the sheer cliffs all around you! 🙂

After a flat stretch, you start a little uphill until you come a series of switchbacks, as you can see in the gallery above. Farther on you come to Walter’s Wiggles (named for Walter Ruesch, Zion National Park’s first superintendent)- a series of 21 very tight switchbacks going up a steep incline. It’s a fun climb, and it gets steeper and steeper! Unfortunately, as we knew before we got there, the chains were closed – and there was a park ranger standing (well, sitting!) guard at the “Trail Closed” sign. Not that we would have gone past it…

Since Angel’s Landing was closed to us (we’ll be back!), we decided to go on along the West Rim Trail. The views are great and there are plenty of places that need climbing, as you see below!

Since we didn’t want to go 28 miles to Lava Point, we turned around after a while and went back the way we came. The walk down Walter’s Wiggles was almost as much fun as the walk up, and a fitting way to close the day.

The next morning we thought we’d do the Emerald Pools Trail. This is a relatively short trail (only 3 miles) with a bit of up and down, our friends at Alltrails rate it as “moderate.” The trail starts at the Zion Lodge, crossing the river on a footbridge not unlike the one to Angel’s Landing the day before. Hmmm…I didn’t put that picture up, I’ll put one in this gallery.

The Lower Emerald Pool has a nice waterfall (which you can almost see in one of these pictures). As often happens, when we travel at the end of summer the flow is fairly low! The trail to the Lower Pool is fairly flat, but you start going uphill as you head to the trail over to the Middle Emerald Pool, which was so low as to be barely a pool!

From there, we retraced our steps a bit to the trail that leads to the Upper Emerald Pool. This is a rocky trail up the slope so you have to watch your step, and it climbs about 400 feet in a quarter-mile. But the effort is worth it! The Upper Pool is a nice oasis-like area, surrounded by trees and large rocks that make for good seats.

I do have to say that the pools were not, in fact, emerald green. As you can see above, the water was extremely clear! They tell me that the name comes from algae growing in the pools during the warmer months, but it was pretty warm while we were there and I didn’t see any! Maybe it was because the water was so low.

We left the pool after a brief respite and went back down toward the Lower Pool, but before we got there we took a left turn and headed down the Kayenta Trail. That trail takes us down to the West Rim Trail that we took toward (alas, not to!) Angel’s Landing. We crossed the river there and walked back to the Lodge on the Grotto Trail.

It was early when we got back to the Lodge, so we looked around the Lodge a bit, stuck our heads into the store, grabbed a drink, then caught the bus. We went up to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava. This is where you go toward the Narrows. For various reasons I wasn’t prepared to go wading in the river on that particular day, so we just did the Riverside Walk.

This was one of my reasons

This was other people’s reaction to the warning.

But it’s a pleasant walk along the river. We walked to the end of the (wide, paved, accessible) trail and back. At the beginning of the trail there’s a lot of green space between the trail and the river, some of which is occupied by the local fauna.

When we reached the end of the trail, we turned around and walked back. When we reached the trailhead, we kept going! We walked along the river all the way down to the Grotto, as the sun sank slowly below the canyon walls.

On Tuesday we had decided to go to a different part of the park, so we didn’t get shuttle tickets. Instead, we drove through the park, past the entrance to Zion Canyon (where private vehicles dare not tread) and out east on Highway 9. There are a lot of trails out that way, we’ll have to do more of them when we come back! This time we were going to take the Petroglyph Trail to Slot Canyon.

On the Petroglyph Trail, you start walking along a dry (at least when we were there!) creekbed that goes under the highway. A little way in, there’s a break in the brush to your left and you follow that up to the base of the cliff. And there you find…petroglyphs! Pretty cool…probably over a thousand years old.

After you pass the petroglyphs you come to a place where you climb out of the creek up onto the rock. Alltrails shows the way to the slot canyon. But…

My wife said, “We can climb that!”

So we did. If you see that pointy little hoodoo up there, that was our goal. At first. Turned out, that wasn’t the top!

This was the view when we got there, that little hoodoo standing behind us. So, being us, we kept going.

In the gallery below are some other pix from the climb and the view we got from the top! The cell phone has an altimeter that’s showing 6075 feet (based on the GPS), only about 700 feet above where we started, but a fun climb! Then, of course, we had to go back down…

That was just a small side trip, we still hadn’t made it to the slot canyon that was our goal. So we followed Alltrails across the rock and down another dry streambed until we found the canyon. It wasn’t as tall as “Wall Street” back in Bryce Canyon, but the light was good and there were some neat formations, as you can see!

Then back down the road. Heading west on highway 9, just before you get to the long tunnel, you come to the trailhead for the Zion Canyon Overlook trail. This was a fun little trail, only about half a mile out (and the same back, surprisingly) but it takes you through some interesting terrain. If you’re going to sidle across a narrow ledge, I recommend doing it over the 5-foot dropoff here rather than the things those other crazy people do! And there’s a beautiful view at the end, along with a precipice for my wife to dangle on. You’re actually looking down one of the side canyons (Pine Creek? I can’t recall) into Zion Canyon.

That was the end of our hiking day, but it wasn’t the end of our day! Back to the hotel for a snack and a rest, then off into the night…

As you see in the photo above, there is a road going through the canyon over which we are looking, That’s Highway 9, a road on which we did many miles, several of which covered a bunch of switchbacks leading from the entrance to Zion Canyon up to the tunnel. Around those hairpin turns there are several parking areas where you can stop and check out the views. One of them looks rather like this at night:

Have I mentioned the sheer rock walls in Zion? 🙂 That’s the northern part of the Milky Way, not quite so dramatic as the view toward the core, but lovely nevertheless. And as an added bonus, you get the Andromeda Galaxy there on the right edge!

Our last day in the park we again skipped the main canyon, starting our day on the Watchman Trail which starts near the Visitor’s Center. It’s about 3 miles, out and back, and not too difficult. The photo below is from the trail, about as high above the canyon floor as we got. Our destination is there in the foreground.

After that pleasant hike, we did a road trip, this time heading up to the northwest part of the park. The Kolob Canyons are a series of “finger canyons” entering the valley along the western edge of the park. This is yet another area we need to revisit, because I really want to hike out to Kolob Arch! But not this time. Instead, we just drove out to the end of Kolob Canyon road (where there is, again, a fantastic view) and did the short hike out on the Timber Creek Overlook Trail.

When I edited this, the view of the Kolob Canyons was on top. On the bottom is the view looking south from the end of the trail. In the distance on the right is the plateau containing the Grand Canyon. If you can see that far! After a stroll back to the trailhead, we returned to the hotel – with a couple of interesting stops along the way (next blog post, I promise!).

And once more into the darkness! We had rather a busy night that last night. First we stopped at the bridge over the river by the entrance to Zion Canyon. We moved on the the area around the Petroglyph trailhead, then we went up to the Overlook again. That trail is a completely different experience in the dark!

Zion was an amazing place and we’re definitely going to have to go back there, even if everything had been open we’d have missed so much! I’d recommend everyone go there. Just not on the days we go back… 🙂

Bryce Canyon National Park

When we started planning this trip, we looked at the average conditions for Bryce Canyon in September. Average high around 70 (about 21 for you metric types) sounds great! Lows around 40-42? (yes, 5-ish in metric) Not a problem, layer up a little and take it off as the temperature climbs. Easy, yes? Then, as the time approached, we could look at the 10-day forecast. And that showed a cold front moving in. So we packed a little bit differently than we originally thought. And it was a good thing!

When we flew into Vegas and drove up to Tropic (Utah), it was a lovely day. We stopped along the way and did a bit of hiking (in the Dixie National Forest) as the sun was going down. The sky was showing some haze, perhaps from the California fires. But it was starting to cool down.

We checked in at the Bryce Country Cabins, at the north end of Tropic (cute little cabins, clean & comfy!). Next morning off on our first adventure. We had (as usual) scouted out the area on Alltrails and picked out a few. Our first morning hike was Mossy Cave, conveniently located between the Cabins and the main entrance to the park. It’s a short hike with only a bit of elevation gain so it seemed like a good warmup!

The hike is pretty flat going along the stream in the “Tropic Ditch,” essentially a canal dug over 100 years ago. They tell me it’s only run dry once since then. Well, it has a lovely waterfall, behind which my wife can hide! If you look closely, you can see her. There are a lot of cool rock formations, one of which framed the moon at just the right time! You can see the wind whipping at my jacket, making it hard to hold still. Oh, there’s also a cave with moss growing…

After our visit to the cave and waterfall, we headed for the park. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to get our park passport stamps and then headed for the Fairyland Loop trail. We started where it goes down into the canyon close to Sunrise Point and this is where we got our first view of the strange beauty of Bryce Canyon!

Did I mention a cold front? As we were going to the trail, the temperature was dropping and the wind was rising! Here we see what the well-equipped hiker was wearing. We saw a lot of people who hadn’t read the forecast apparently – many Bryce Canyon sweatshirts were being sold to many cold-looking people!

But the trail was marvelous. Once we got down in the canyon we were (slightly) shielded from the wind, which was good, since it was about 40 degrees! As we went along the trail, at first we saw more large formations, walls and proto-hoodoos. We went on a bit of a side trip to see the Tower Bridge (as you see in the adjacent gallery). We got a great view of the Sinking Ship (also in the gallery), though we saw it several other times from different trails while we were there.

At some point you come around a curve (or over a ridge, I really can’t remember!) and you begin to see more and more hoodoos. We stopped and took a “boot” picture with some of them. And then more in the next picture. It’s just amazing and unearthly! Finally, you get to Fairyland Point, back up on the rim. You look down on what looks like a grand gathering of hoodoos and you can see why they called it “Fairyland!”

As we strolled along the Rim Trail back to our starting point, we got snowed on! See we have evidence – not one, but TWO snowflakes on my wife’s glove! 🙂 We strolled back to the car and went to check out a few of the overlooks in the park, the Natural Bridge for example. Beautiful views as the sun went down!