Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Zooming to Arizona...Against the wind

We left Hot Springs Arkansas for the trek west in good weather and headed through the Ouachita Mountains for Waurika Lake, south of Oklahoma City. Waurika is a Corps of Engineers Campground. Corps Campgrounds, often referred to with the acronym COE are usually exceptionally well built and designed campgrounds with water and electricity and almost always on a lake created by a COE damn. They are inexpensive too. Waurkika Lake was no exception. As is usual for this time of year we nearly had the campground to ourselves and found a nice spot right on the water. The weather called for a bit of wind so we did some laundry A' La John Steinbeck (See "Travels with Charlie") and hung it out to dry on the little Ramada provided at the campsite and went to bed. Cheryl awoke with a start an hour or so later to find a 45 MPH wind blowing our laundry straight out. It was fortunate that no one was around to see us scrambling around in our PJs taking down the laundry in the middle of the night. And it was dry. The lake was whipped up to a frenzy the following morning. Anybody care to guess how high that bluff over the lake is? I think Cheryl should have taken a picture of me while I was over there, but she didn't. (Answer at the end of the post) Knowing we would be facing that wind all day we pulled out early for Texas.

We hit the Texas border, dead into the wind with the dust blowing and Willie blasting on the CD player. I'm sure we did our Son-in-law Scott proud as he's a big Willie Nelson fan. We were headed for Caprock Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle. We didn't realize that this was cotton growing country until we started to see the plants, many of which still had some of last years crop clinging to them. Heading north to Caprock Canyon we passed through Turkey, Texas, home of the famous Bob Wills, one of the originals of Texas Swing music. We didn't have any Bob Wills, so Lyle Lovett had to suffice.
This a special picture for our friend Connor who is almost 7, likes trucks, and whose favorite color is red

Caprock Canyons is a beautiful park with lots of mule deer, lizards, soaring birds and gorgeous red rock canyons. This is a Blue Bellied lizard, very common in red rock country. (About 4" long)

We stayed 2 days and did some serious hiking. We left early one day for a hike out a trail to take us up to a high point overlooking the canyon, but as often happens to us we got distracted. We knew that the Red River, which is a dry wash this time of year, crossed the trail at several points. So, we decided to hike up the river for a while. Before intersecting the trail we found several dry washes coming in from side canyons.
The white stuff you see layered in the rock is Gypsum, sometimes the layers will be almost a foot thick. One of these washes led up to the head of a box canyon with great views we never would have seen from the trail. We ended up hiking 4.8 miles in 5 hours, and felt like we hiked 20. Caprock Canyons is the home of the Official Texas Buffalo herd but we never saw them. It's a big park.

From Caprocks Canyon we headed west, again fighting the wind (we averaged around 10MPG for these 3 days - well below our usual 12 - 13 MPG) for Manzano State park in Mountainair, New Mexico. I'll tell you what, West Texas and East New Mexico are FLAT ! I swear you can see the curvature of the earth. And there are lots of tumblin' tumbleweeds. Approaching Mountainair we once again headed up into mountains, which we like. We followed a couple of Forest Service roads to the park and found at the gate that Red Canyon, a Forest Service CG, was open so we drove up another 3 miles and found a gem.
The entrance sign was posted with Black Bear and Cougar alerts. We like places like this. Since the campground, situated in a Ponderosa Pine forest, is National Forest, we could gather wood and had a great campfire (Can you say S'Mores). In the morning we hiked up to 8200 feet to the Ox Trail dispersed camping area to get a hunger going... it worked.

Prior to leaving we chatted with a couple of NFS rangers who were passing through the campground doing a timber survey. There had been a fire in the area last year and they were finding "hazard trees" that needed to be removed. I can't say enough good about the wonderful people who serve in our National Forest and National Park services. They are dedicated professionals with a lot of hard work to do and yet they still always find time to answer the questions of people like us who travel these areas. When you pass through one of our nations great parks, or minor forests, give them a shout out whenever you can. They deserve to know we care. We left Red Canyon for the Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona after filling up with water at the NF ranger station in Mountainair.

We passed through Pietown, New Mexico, but to my vexation it was closed. I'll bet that pie would have been good. We were now seriously in the mountains, and the wind, as we lugged our way into Arizona. Due to an oversight (ours, not theirs) the Campgrounds we were headed for were closed so we found a trail head parking lot at Pole Knoll and spent a night stealth camping.
This is Arizona ?
This turned out to be an unexpected bonus as we were visited by a herd of Elk. Marvelous. We woke up to 24 degrees with blowing snow. It's time to head south, so we headed for the Phoenix area.

Oh Yeah, the bluff at Waurika lake, 30 inches high, no lie.

Next: down through the Salt River Canyon to the Salt River Recreation Area (BLM lands...Free Camping,) to meet our friends Mr & Mrs. Whazoo.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park.
Hot Springs National Park is a tiny gem in the National Park system. The park, which consists of a row of Bathhouses many of which were built in the late 18th century, and the protections areas of the natural hot springs, was first established as a reservation in 1832, making it truly our first national park. The springs, heated not by volcanic action but by the earth's central core a mile deep, rise through a fault at the base of Hot Springs Mountain. It is believed that the water flowing out of the springs today, fell as rain more than 3000 years ago. The springs are completely protected and there are no outdoor bathing areas, although there are several fountains around town with spring water flowing continuously...some cold, some hot. A marvelous promenade walk behind Bathhouse Row protects the springs and gives one a peek at them in several places.
To use the springs you must enter a bathhouse (think ancient Greek bathhouse, not the bathhouses at Old Orchard Beach) where for a small fee you can soak in the mineral rich water at 104 degrees for as long as you can stand it. You can also drink the water (It does not taste sulfurous, but is delicious spring water). Cold showers next to the pools give the brave (count me in, Cheryl out) an invigorating temperature shock.We bathed at the Quapaw bathhouse (one of two that are restored and the only one that allows coed bathing - clothed of course) for several hours on a warm rainy afternoon and left thoroughly relaxed. I can personally tell you that 2 hours in a hot mineral bath, followed by a "Fat Tire" Amber Ale, leaves one totally mellowfied.

The campground at the park is very nice but perhaps lacks a little privacy between sites. It is situated below a bluff on the banks of the Gulpha Creek. Heavy rain on the evening following our rainy afternoon at the baths had the creek roaring by the camper a few steps from the back door.

Garvan Woodland Gardens.
The following day we headed for Garvan Woodland Gardens just outside of town. The gardens are a Japanese style managed garden of exceptional beauty. We strolled stone walkways, trails and steps, past Tulips, Magnolias, Camelias, Azaleas and inumerable other trees, many in blossom. Flowers, ferns, and shrubbery surrounded the many water elements including streams, ponds and waterfalls. There's a beautiful small lake with an island you can walk to. The lake is filled with Koi the size of an Atlantic Salmon.
I believe we walked every trail in the park, including the 1.6 mile nature trail, and Cheryl took 1.6 million pictures.I don't know how we manage to keep so busy, but in three days at Hot Springs we never really got a a chance to stroll around town or eat at Bill Clinton's favorite Barbecue place, but we will next time.(I know this isn't President Clinton's favorite barbecue place, but we liked the name)

If you don't already know it, Cheryl takes all the wonderful pictures we post in this blog while I try to relax.
Next: We zoom through Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico to meet up with our friends Mr. and Ms. Whazoo( in their wonderful Outfitter Pop-up truck camper "Mr. Whazimoto") in Arizona. Actually with the weather predicting 40+ MPH winds from the southwest we will probably creep through OK,TX, & NM.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cedars of Lebanon & Natchez Trace

Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Tennessee
We left North Carolina for "Cedars of Lebanon" State Park in Tennessee.
The park has numerous beautiful red cedar groves as well interesting limestone formations around the park. The landscape is riddled with sinkholes and caves into the limestone.
It is the shallow soil over the limestone that provides the perfect growing environment for the cedars. Many hikes take you deep into the forest which is filled with (in addition to the cedars) Honey Locusts (with mean looking spikes), Loblolly Pines, Shag Bark Hickory,
and some more of the Winged Elms we saw in North Carolina.
The Trillium and Trout Lilies were in full bloom while we were there. We spent two nights in "Cedars" before heading southwest for Arkansas.

Natchez Trace National Parkway
We could have taken the highway but chose instead to try part of the Natchez Trace National Parkway to avoid some of the traffic. It's very nice. The speed limit is 50, so if you're in a hurry pass it up, but there are no trucks, little traffic and lots of pullouts with historic facts about the Natchez Trace, and nature trails. This is one of the Historic spots recreating an old Tobacco Barn
The Natchez Trace is a very old trail, used by ancient animals thousands of years ago as well as early Native Americans and travelers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many sections of the original trail are still extant and trail markers point them out. the Natchez Trace is 444 miles long and has three free NPS campgrounds plus numerous state park and private campgrounds just off the Parkway We left the Parkway after 85 miles, in Mississippi, but will return someday to do the whole parkway.
Dogwoods and Bluebells in bloom on the Natchez Trace

Chewalla Lake, Holly Springs National Forest.
We spent one night in Mississippi in the Holly Springs National Forest at Chewalla Lake. It's a very nice campground in a Loblolly Pine forest on the shores of the lake.
Being in a National Forest meant we could gather wood for an excellent campfire and a chance to brush up on our S'Mores skills.
The dogwoods were in bloom here also.
There is an ancient Indian Mound preserved on the shores of the lake. I'm not sure about the origins of these mounds, perhaps someone with information could comment.

Next time through these parts we will spend some time in Holly Springs which was one of few southern towns that was spared the ravages of the Civil War and many beautiful homes remain.

A note about the pictures. If you haven't noticed, most of the pictures in the blog are published at higher resolution than show in the blog. If you click on the picture you will get the full resolution picture. The Bluebells picture in the Natchez Trace section is a good example

Next : The Hot Mineral Spring Bathhouses (Aahhhh!) of Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.