West Texas & Big Bend: The Mysterious Lands With Majestic Vistas

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is Texas’ best-kept secret. The 800,000-acre park is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Marathon

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Built in 1927 by acclaimed architect, Henry Trost, the legendary Gage Hotel offers authentic laid-back luxury and a first class dining experience. 12 Gage Restaurant is a sophisticated restaurant to satisfy even the most ardent foodies. The hotel’s famous White Buffalo Bar was selected by Texas Monthly Magazine as “Best Hotel Bar” in Texas.

Established in 1991 by Shirley Rooney, Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery is a Marathon institution  providing fresh baked goods daily. Dine in, carry-out, or have any of the freshly baked goods, specialty fried pies, donuts, pastries, cookies, or cinnamon rolls shipped anywhere in the world.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alpine

Alpine is a gem. A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas at an elevation of 4,475 feet. It is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley with surrounding mountain peaks over a mile high. You’ll immediately take note of the natural beauty surrounding the city.

For more than 70 years the Museum of the Big Bend has been collecting and exhibiting artifacts of the vast Big Bend region. Located on the campus of Sul Ross State University, this is a great starting off point for visitors to the region.

Don’t Miss the Alpine Mural Project, a salute to the town’s ranch heritage.

Fort Davis

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town.

The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. This 19th-century frontier fort has one of the best preserved “Buffalo Soldier” outposts.

Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another internationally known attraction is McDonald Observatory, a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of Fort Davis.

The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens is located on 507 acres, four miles south of Fort Davis on Highway 118. The Center is in a marvelous setting, with views of Mt. Livermore to the north and Blue Mountain to the southwest. The Center is an interesting blend of informative exhibits and programs, a greenhouse and botanical center, and picturesque hikes featuring spectacular views of the Davis Mountains.

Marfa

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre.

The 1956 filming of “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson first put Marfa on the cultural map. Then Donald Judd, the late minimalist artist, moved to this tiny town to escape New York’s art scene in the ’70s; instead he transported a little piece of it to West Texas. Today Marfa is home to the Judd and Chinati Foundations and Ballroom Marfa, a cultural arts center, as well as several galleries.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Cosmico, hippie-chic hotel and campground offers accommodations in vintage trailers, teepees, tents, and an authentic Mongolian yurt. The 18-acre property also includes a communal bathhouse with showers and a tub, hammocks, and an outdoor kitchen area.

Accounts of strange and unexplained mystery lights just outside of Marfa began during the 19th century and continue to this day. The Marfa Ghost Lights are sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes white, and appear randomly throughout the night. The official Marfa Lights Viewing Area is located 9 miles east of town on Highway 90, towards Alpine. Bring an open mind. The Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Balmorhea

Balmorhea State Park is an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees. The size (1.75 acres, 25 feet deep), temperature, and chlorine-free water make this a great scuba-diving spot.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

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Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude

Big Bend National Park is well off the beaten path…and well worth exploring.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Welcome to a national park where you can actually revel in its silence and solitude. Remote, huge, and austere, this national park along the Rio Grande River is an uncrowded gem. One of the largest parks in the country, with more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is also one of the least visited—thanks to, you guessed it, its remote location.

Big Bend National Park is a land of paradox, beauty, and above all, vastness. Even today, only three paved roads run south into Big Bend, but from those roads the view can astound.

The Rio Grande River squiggles its course across the harsh desert landscape, carving through limestone and shale. The river separates much of the state of Texas from the country of Mexico, and within the big bend formed by the river, sits a region that will appeal to RVers and other travelers who believe the best things in life require a little effort.

The nearest interstate highway access is 1-10 to the north; from Fort Stockton southbound on US 385 it is 125 miles to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Nearest town to the park is Marathon, 70 miles from Panther Junction.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In other words, Big Bend visitors must plan their trips. You can see and enjoy plenty on a day visit, but you won’t see nearly enough, and you will have burned a lot of fuel along the way. Big Bend rangers recommend three days, and depending on what you want to do, a week or more may be a better choice.

Prior to visiting the park, we spent several enjoyable days in Big Bend country at Marathon in a charming little place, Marathon Motel & RV Park.

The next day we headed for the heart of Big Bend down US Highway 385 making a stop at the visitor center at Panther Junction for orientation, maps, brochures, and hiking information. Before setting out on greater quests we, strolled Panther Path and checked out the vegetation found in the Chihuahuan Desert—yucas, lechuguillas, creosote brushes, and bunch grasses.

We then continued to the Rio Grande Village on the Rio Grande River to secure a full hookup site for the duration of our stay.

Big Bend is vast deserts, mountains, canyons and THE river—the Rio Grande—and along the river are several hot springs.

But the park touts more than a famous river: In the middle of Big Bend there’s a grand series of peaks known as the Chisos, accessible by dinghy and small RVs along a narrow and curved access road. Ponderosa and pinyon pine carpet the cool flanks of these hills, providing a haven for black bears and cougars.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park was officially created in 1944, but evidence of human habitation of the Big Bend area dates back roughly 12,000 years. The Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes were on the long list of those who came to the area.

Each season is unique. Summer temperatures can soar to 120 degrees while mild winters allow RVers to explore fascinating geology. The spring months of March, April, and May bring especially good birdwatching with more than 450 species having been counted within the park—more than in any other national park.

There’s not a lot of water here. An average of just 18 inches falls annually in the heights of the Chisos Mountains that tower nearly 8,000 feet into the sky. And if you think that’s not a lot, these mountains get a deluge when compared to the rest of the park. It is a land that is lucky to see 10 inches of rain in a year. This is an arid landscape.

While touring the park in our dinghy we stopped in the Chisos Basin, a valley within a mountainous ring, and one of the park’s most popular areas, with a visitor center, RV park (not suitable for big rigs), and a lodge.

We take a short hike for a clear view of the Window Overlook, or V-Window, as it’s called since its mountainsides form a “V” shape with views of distant mountain ranges.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend has four campgrounds: Rio Grande Village RV Campground (25 full hookup sites), Rio Grande Village Campground (100 non-hookup sites), Chisos Basin Campground (60 non-hookup sites), and Cottonwood Campground (24 non-hookup sites).

Big Bend is filled with surprises, scenic beauty, native plants, wild­life, fantastic outdoor recreation, and the opportunity to enjoy them all in a rugged, majestic setting. A visit to this incredible place will provide wonderful memories for years to come.

If you’ve never been to Big Bend, take your RV, take your time, and go. Go. Just go!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

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Beat The Heat At Balmorhea

Come August, Texas is a scorcher.

A 3-acre reconstructed ciénega or desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 3-acre reconstructed ciénega or desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But how to deal with the summer’s skyrocking temperatures?

Monstrous glasses of iced tea, squeezed with lemon. Frequent dips in the nearest swimming pool or swimming hole. Screened porches with ceiling fans which keep the mosquitoes and other buzzing nasties at bay while you listen to country music and search for fireflies.

Oh, yes—and a trip to West Texas, where you can escape the sun’s blaze in the most unlikely of places.

No, the mercury has not gone to my head, and, no I’m not confused brought on by excessive rays; nor am I crazy in the throes of a heat stroke. Just bear with me…

Balmorhea State Park, with the crystalline waters of San Solomon Springs hover between 72 and 76 degrees year round, is a most pleasant place to hang out in the anguish of a summer heat wave—or any other season, for that matter. Artesian springs like this gem in the Chihuahuan Desert are rare in the extreme. As an added bonus, the stars emerge big and bright and in the nearby Davis Mountains the temperatures dip into the 60s each night.

Kick back in Mother Nature’s cool West Texas backyard as you dip in these clear, blue-green waters, with tiny fish nipping harmlessly at you as you float.

No Chihuahuan Desert mirage, Balmorhea State Park’s aquamarine, spring-fed pool is nature’s answer to Texas’ summer sun. Set against the deep blue West Texas sky in the yucca-dotted foothills of the Davis Mountains, it feels a whole lot like paradise.

Dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Swim, scuba dive, or just relax under the trees at this historic park in arid West Texas.

San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To call Balmorhea State Park a popular dive site is an understatement. From Labor Day through Memorial Day, which is the park’s low season, each weekend as many as 10 different dive operations find the friendly waters of San Solomon Springs ideal for certifying divers from entry level (Open Water) to specialties such as Rescue, Photography, Videography, Naturalist, or Night. Each of them brings groups of 10 to 15 dive students.

Call it oasis or paradise; scuba divers call it fun!

Balmorhea State Park, a 49-acre oasis of shimmering water, cottonwood trees, and adobe cottages was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks. All of the CCC buildings are constructed in a Spanish Colonial style with stucco exteriors and tile roofs.

San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks by the CCC. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks by the CCC. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park actually lies in Toyahvale, four miles south west of Balmorea proper.

Balhormea State Park’s enormous 1.75-acre pool, billed as the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, has a huge, underground aquifer system to thank for its clear and cool water. Rain falling on the nearby Davis Mountains seeps underground then flows through porous layers of limestone and emerges through at least nine springs in the middle of the pool at the rate of some 22 to 28 million gallons a day.

San Solomon Springs has provided water for travelers for thousands of years. Artifacts indicate Indians used the spring extensively before white men came to the area. In 1849, the springs were called Mescalero Springs for the Mescalero Apache Indians who watered their horses along its banks. The first settlers were Mexican farmers who used the water for their crops and hand-dug the first irrigation canals.

The park’s name comes from four men’s surnames:  E.D. Balcom, H.R. Morrow, Joe Rhea, and John Rhea: Bal-mor-hea. These men formed an irrigation company in the area in the early 20th century.

The springs and surrounding wetlands are considered a ciénega, or desert wetland. Much of the original desert ecosystem was altered years ago. Today, though, a three-acre, re-created wetlands at the park demonstrates the variety of plant and animal life that once flourished here. Rustling cattails and bulrushes harbor birds, butterflies, tiny pupfish, and other aquatic life.

Camping facilities include restrooms with showers and campsites with a shade shelter, water, electricity, and even cable TV hookups. 34 camp sites are available; six with water, 16 with water and electricity, and 12 with water, electricity, and cable TVs. Daily camping fees range from $11 to $17 plus park entrance fee of $7 per adult.

Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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4 Best National Parks For RVers

The US National Park Service administers a network of nearly 400 natural, cultural, historic, and recreational sites. In an earlier post, Vogel Talks RVing selected four national parks that are great for RVers. Following are the four best national parks for RVers.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

801,000-acre Big Bend National Park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
801,000-acre Big Bend National Park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Far West Texas, along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, there’s a magical place with a great deal of silence, beauty, and space—creating an ideal habitat for the turkeys, javelinas, roadrunners, and coyotes.

The 801,000-acre park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and two Mexican states. But the park touts more than a famous river: In the middle of Big Bend there’s a grand series of peaks known as the Chisos, accessible by dinghy and small RVs along a narrow and curved access road. Ponderosa and pinyon pine carpet the cool flanks of these hills, providing a haven for black bears and cougars. The park bisects one of North America’s most significant deserts, the Chihuahuan, creating an abundance of variety.

Big Bend has four campgrounds: Rio Grande Village RV Campground (25 full hookup sites), Rio Grande Village Campground (100 non-hookup sites), Chisos Basin Campground (60 non-hookup sites), and Cottonwood Campground (24 non-hookup sites).

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the 15-minute hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House. If you would like to explore Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House guided by a ranger, stop by the Far View Visitor Center for information and tour tickets.

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Zion National Park, Utah

A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow the paths where ancient native people and Mormon pioneers walked. Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Experience wilderness in a narrow slot canyon.

Catch a shuttle for Zion Canyon, the only vehicular means by which you can access this gorgeous area in the summer. And as you progress, soak up the splendor offered by the Court of the Patriarchs and the Temple of Sinawava with their secluded hiking trails.

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. South Campground (127 non-hookup sites) and Watchman Campground (176 sites, 95 with electric hookups; reservations recommended) are near the south entrance at Springdale.

Situated at 7,890 feet above sea level, the Lava Point Campground (6 primitive sites) is off the Kolob Terrace Road, 25 miles (45 minutes) north of the town of Virgin. It takes approximately one hour and 20 minutes to drive to the campground from the South Entrance of Zion Canyon.

There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Private RV parks are also available near the park’s entrances.

Death Valley National Park, California

Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.

Death Valley offers six campgrounds suitable for most RVs: Furnace Creek (136 sites, a few full hookups), Stovepipe Wells Village (190 sites; 19 full hookups), Sunset (270 non-hookup sites), Texas Spring (92 non-hookup sites), Mesquite Spring (30 non-hookup sites), and Widrose (23 non-hookup sites). A high-clearance vehicle is required to access Thorndike (6 non-hookup sites; 7,400-foot elevation) and Mahogany Flat (10 non-hookup sites; 8,200-foot elevation).

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known…either the mountain or the desert is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

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Nothing Behind Me, Everything Ahead Of Me On The Great American Road Trip

One of the most quintessentially American experiences is the road trip.

Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park.
Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is it about road trips? The adventure? The unknown?

Maybe Jack Kerouac nailed it in his highway-focused tome On the Road when he wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”.

Undecided about your RV vacation? Here are four tips to make your road trip a fantastic experience.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that bisects the length of Shenandoah National Park winding along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provides stunning views of the park’s mountains, valleys, and forests.

Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park and offers 75 overlooks with breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont area to the east. The long, narrow park flows outward, upward, and downward from the highway that splits it.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Native Indians named the valley Shenandoah, mean­ing Daughter of the Stars, for the expansive firmament that roofed their world. Daylight vistas of gently slop­ing mountains, forests, and tumbling rivers, and mountain streams are equally sparkling.

West Texas & Big Bend

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Check out the historic and beautiful Gage Hotel and Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery, a Marathon institution providing fresh baked goods daily.

A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas, Alpine is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley that feels like nowhere else in the state.

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre; the Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town. The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. An internationally known attraction, the McDonald Observatory is a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of town.

Don’t miss Balmorhea an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees.

Red Rock Scenic Byway, Arizona

Red Rock Scenic Byway winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.”

This highly acclaimed National Scenic Byway, begins shortly after you exit #298 off I-17 and has earned the distinction of being Arizona’s First All-American Road. Although the Scenic Byway is only 7.5 miles, it is long on spectacular sights.

Sedona’s Red Rocks are comprised of sediment layers deposited over many millions of years. The shale foundation is the remainder of ancient swamp lands. Other layers are the remainder of an ancient beachfront that deposited iron about 275 million years ago. This iron is what gives Sedona’s rocks their rich red color.

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina and Tennessee

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina, the Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

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Balmorhea State Park: An Oasis in the Desert

Plopped in the middle of the prickly, dry Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park is an oasis in the desert.

San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And any time you have water in the desert it’s going to be a special place.

It’s a hot haul across I-10 from El Paso to San Antonio. Most RVers speed along in an air-conditioned hurry to the next big name destination. Little do they realize as they whiz past Exit 206 what they’re missing less than fifteen minutes off the freeway: 46 grassy acres with wetlands and towering cottonwoods that shade canals, an RV campground and motel-style retro lodging, and an immense enclosed spring-fed pool.

The pool is open daily. It is fed by San Solomon Springs; 22 to 28 million gallons of water flow through it each day. At 25 feet deep, and with a capacity of more than 3.5 million gallons, the pool has plenty of room for swimmers and offers a unique setting for scuba and skin diving.

The site has long attracted people: American Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican farmers, and U.S. soldiers watered up here long before the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) turned a desert wetland into a spring-fed pool in the 1930s.

The CCC established a camp at the 1.75-acre swimming pool and built concession buildings and a park residence. They enclosed and sculpted the pool into a 200-foot circle over the spring and two long tangents (389 feet and 180 feet long) that form a “V.” At the end of one tangent, the depth is only three feet, making it an ideal area for swimmers and children. The entire area is lined with limestone and bordered with flagstone paving.

A 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Private concessionaires operated the park until the 1960s, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took it over. Today visitors flock from around the state and far beyond to dip a toe or two or scuba dive into crystal-clear waters of the enormous V-shaped pool with a natural bottom. On hot summer weekends, the park fills to capacity by noon and vehicles are turned away.

Native reeds and bulrushes sway in the San Solomon Cienega, a 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 to provide habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life.

Set amongst canals, San Solomon Springs Courts offer motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC in the 1930s with a Southwestern adobe look. There are 18 rooms and all are designated as non-smoking.

Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others.

To call Balmorhea State Park a popular dive site is an understatement. From Labor Day through Memorial Day, which is the park’s low season, each weekend as many as 10 different dive operations find the friendly waters of San Solomon Springs ideal for certifying divers from entry level (Open Water) to specialties such as Rescue, Photography, Videography, Naturalist, or Night. Each of them brings groups of 10 to 15 dive students.

Call it oasis or paradise; scuba divers call it fun!

One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Solomon Springs may be the only dive site that provides entertainment for the whole family.  One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it.

Details

Balmorhea State Park

Entrance Fee: $7/adult; children 12 years and under, free

Camping: 6 campsites with water, $11; 16 campsites with water and electric, $14; 12 campsites with water, electric, and cable TV, $17; all campsites + daily entrance fee

Elevation: 3,205 feet

Directions: From I-10 westbound, take Balmorhea Exit 206, FM 2903 south to Balmorhea, then Texas 17 east 4 miles to the Park; from I-10 eastbound, take Toyahvale/Ft. Davis Exit 192, Ranch Road 3078 east 12 miles to the park.

Address: P.O. Box 15, Toyahvale, TX 79786

Phone: (432) 375-2370

Website: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/balmorhea

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

Read More

Dragonflies Habitat: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

With its wide variety of habitats ranging from the Pecos River and saline sinkholes, to ponds, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an ideal place to find dragonflies.

Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its location in eastern New Mexico puts the Refuge within the range of many eastern, western, and southern dragonfly species.

There are close to 100 species at the Refuge, but most are uncommon or only found in areas that are not open to the public.

The visitor center has a guide available to assist in identifying the dragonflies that are found along the Refuge tour route. The species included are those that are common and easy to find.

Many dragonflies can be approached at close range. Since dragonflies are small, you may wish to use binoculars to see some field marks.

If a dragonfly flies off before you can identify it, don’t worry. Generally, if there is one individual of a species, there will be more in the area. Also, since most dragonflies have small territories and it probably will show up again nearby.

Plan to attend the Dragonfly Festival, September 7-9, 2012. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to observe dragonflies at Bitter Lake is on sunny and hot days. They do not like cool temperatures or rain, and even clouds will make some species take cover in bushes. During the summer the best time of day is usually mid-to-late morning before the typical afternoon winds pick up. Since the temperature can be over 100 degrees, be sure to wear a hat, sun screen and LOTS of water—and remember to drink it!

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

The Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge sponsor an annual Dragonfly Festival the first weekend following Labor Day (September 7-9, in 2012). This year’s festival marks New Mexico’s centennial and the 75th anniversary of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo Tips

The refuge offers excellent nature photography and wildlife viewing opportunities. The eight-mile wildlife drive is one of the best ways to observe wildlife. If you enjoy dragonfly watching, try taking the short Dragonfly Trail within the first one mile on the auto drive.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round; visitors center open 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; tour loop open 1 hour before sunrise-1 hour after sunset

Location: From Roswell, east on Highway 380 about three miles, north on Red Bridge Road, and east on Pine Ridge Road to refuge, following directional signs; OR north on Highway 285, and east on Pine Lodge Road to Refuge, following directional signs
Please be aware that using a GPS to locate the entrance to Bitter Lake NWR will take you to a dead end road

Admission: Non-fee area

Primary Wildlife: Migratory waterfowl and sandhill cranes—primarily a winter resting and feeding area, great variety of wildlife

Habitat: 24,520 acres on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert changing to grass and shrub community and includes playa lakes, marshes, man-made lakes, and 700 acres of cultivated crop land

Straddling the Pecos River, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is truly a jewel, a wetland oasis inhabitated by a diverse abundance of wildlife species. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 4067 Bitter Lake Road, Roswell, NM 88201

Contact: (575) 622-6755

Website: fws.gov/southwest

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Website: friendsofbitterlake.com

Dragonfly Festival: September 7-9, 2012

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Part 1: Birding Hotspot: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

Worth Pondering…
A happy life is not built up of tours abroad and pleasant holidays, but of little clumps of violets noticed by the roadside, hidden away almost so that only those can see them who have God’s peace and love in their hearts; in one long continuous chain of little joys, little whispers from the spiritual world, and little gleams of sunshine on our daily work.

—Edward Wilson

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Birding Hotspot: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

UFO sightings may have put Roswell, New Mexico, on the map, but at nearby Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, strange creatures are more than visitors.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge offers a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. Visitor Center can be seen in the distance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They inhabit odd sinkholes, playa lakes, seeps, and gypsum springs fed by an underground river.

Straddling the Pecos River the Refuge consists of an assortment of water habitats. Numerous seeps and free-flowing springs, oxbow lakes, marshes and shallow water impoundments, water-filled sinkholes, and the refuge namesake, Bitter Lake, make up these unique environments.

Scattered across the land are over 70 natural sinkholes of different shapes and sizes. Created by groundwater erosion these water habitats form isolated communities of fish, invertebrate, amphibians, and other wildlife.

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system. Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the Refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert southwest.

The Refuge falls into three distinct areas along the Pecos River:

  • The 9,620-acre Salt Creek Wilderness to the north protects native grasses, sand dunes, and brush bottomlands.
  • The middle unit features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands.
  • The southern part of the refuge belongs exclusively to wildlife and is closed to all public access. Here refuge croplands support tremendous flocks of wintering birds.
Solitude and contentment that is Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 10 miles northeast of Roswell, Bitter Lake is truly a jewel, a wetland oasis providing habitat for thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, Ross’s and snow geese, and about twenty duck species such as pintails, mallards, canvasback, gadwall, shovelers, and teal.

Arriving in November, most sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other waterfowl depart in late February for their long flight to breeding grounds in the north.

An 8-mile, self-guided auto tour around the lakes starts at the visitor center near refuge headquarters.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

At first glance, you might see only the 10,000 or so wintering sandhill cranes and 20,000 snow geese. But take a deeper look.

The Refuge also protects and provides habitat for some of New Mexico’s rarest and unusual creatures such as the least shrew, Noel’s amphipod, least tern, and Roswell spring snail.

Barking frogs nestle in limestone crevices or burrow in gypsum soils. Their yapping chorus can be heard in June and July. These odd frogs, found in New Mexico only in Chaves, Eddy, and Otero counties, join other wildlife, some of which are relics from millions of years ago when the refuge was once a Permian shallow sea.

Within the sinkholes and springs, tiny native fish thrive, like the Pecos pupfish, green-throat darter, and the endangered Pecos gambusia.

Pecos pupfish males change from dull brown to iridescent blue in breeding season.

Courting greenthroat darter males rival them in brilliance, transforming from olive to emerald green with reddish fins.

The White-faced Ibis is one of more than 350 species of birds that inhabit Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the Refuge’s 24 fish species are native to the Pecos River drainage waters.

In summer, the interior least tern nests on refuge salt flats, the only place this endangered species breeds in New Mexico. Snowy plovers, killdeer, avocets, and black-necked stilts raise their chicks as well.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Part 2: Dragonflies Habitat: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

Worth Pondering…
I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather heave birds than airplanes.

—Charles Lindbergh

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Drought Affects Migrating Birds

From nesting grounds in Alaska and Northern Canada, thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migratory birds are winging their way south to their traditional winter watering holes in the American Southwest.

Sandhill cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The problem is a year of drought has ravaged wetlands and crops throughout Texas and New Mexico, forcing the birds to fly off course in search of water and food, reports The Associated Press.

In the Texas Panhandle, there’s no standing water in any of the playas and officials at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge haven’t seen many birds. It’s just as dry at Texas’ oldest national refuge in Muleshoe, where 27,000 birds have moved through so far this fall.

“I don’t know where our birds are going,” said refuge manager Jude Smith. “It’s not just the cranes, but the geese and the ducks.”

That’s why managers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico are bracing for record numbers this fall and winter. With nearly 13,000 acres of wetlands, the refuge is one of the country’s best known spots for observing migrating waterfowl.

The shallow ponds at Bosque del Apache and the adjacent Rio Grande are havens for the weary birds as they search for a resting place following their long journey.

“The birds will go where the water is first and where the food is second. They’ll follow those two all the way south,” said Jose Viramontes, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache is managed specifically to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds and other endangered species. When farmers upstream finish irrigating for the season, water from the Rio Grande fills the refuge’s impoundments, providing a place where birds can roost overnight without having to worry about coyotes or other predators.

But Bosque del Apache wasn’t completely immune from the effects of the drought. This year’s corn crop that managers depend on to feed the birds throughout the winter was decimated by a lack of rain, according to The Associated Press.

To keep the birds fed, the refuge plans to spread 500,000 pounds of barley donated by a Colorado brewer.

“If we didn’t have that, the birds would go elsewhere, and we know that they’re safe here so we prefer to keep them here,” said Robyn Harrison, coordinator of the crane festival. “And honestly by the time they get here, they’re not interested in flying any further for a while.”

It can take up to three days for a crane to recover from its migration, she said.

At Bosque, the early mornings are spectacular. That’s when the birds wake up and begin to stretch their wings and legs. A big racket ensues as they all take off in search of food.

The yodeling call of the crane is distinctive and their long wings are captivating, Harrison added.

“Just a slow easy flap and they take off in large Vs. It’s just an incredible sight,” she said.

Harrison has been organizing the festival for the past four years and it never gets old.

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell, manager Floyd Truetken said twice as many cranes have passed through the Pecos Valley this year and he suspects some of those birds changed course after finding it too dry in Texas.

While late summer rains took the edge off of what has been one of the driest and warmest years on record for New Mexico, Truetken said lake levels at the refuge are still far below normal.

Biologists at refuges around the Southwest have been busy sharing anecdotal evidence of the drought’s effects on the birds’ flight patterns. However, they will have to wait to model any shifts in the flyway, given that wintering populations usually peak in December and January depending on the species.

Related

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

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Beauty & Wonder: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Above Ground

Above ground throughout the summer, you can see hundreds of cave swallows at the mouth of the cavern.

Though there are scattered woodlands in the higher elevations, the park is primarily a variety of grassland and desert shrubland habitats. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Walnut Canyon Loop Road is an interesting 9.5-mile drive that affords views of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation, wildlife, ancient reef and lagoon deposits, and the distant Guadalupe Mountains. At the time of our last visit in November the road was still closed as a result washout conditions from heavy monsoon rains.

Bat Flight

Beneath the natural entrance is a Bat Cave that is used by nearly 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats for about seven months a year. At dusk, these bats come spiraling up out of the natural entrance in breathtaking numbers. Flying to places as much as 50 miles away, they spread out over the countryside to feed on insects.

After leaving their cave, the bats descend on the nearby Pecos River Valley to feast on insects. To find their prey, they employ a unique radar system which scientists call echolocation. As they fly, the bats emit ultra-high-frequency sounds. When these signals strike an object, they are reflected back and heard by the bats. This enables them to hone in on the smallest insects as well as avoid any object in their flight path.

Caves are fragile environments that are affected by human activities and natural processes occurring both underground and on the surface. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a night of feasting, the bats return to the cavern at dawn.

The bat flight is a very impressive sight, and many park visitors gather at dusk to watch it and be amazed. A seated viewing area, the Bat Flight Amphitheater, has been constructed near the entrance. Evening bat-focused programs and interpretive services are provided. The exodus can take over two hours!

In late October, the bats leave the cavern for their wintering grounds in Mexico. In the spring, they return to renew their nightly spectacle.

Did You Know?
Nearly 400,000 Brazilian (more commonly called Mexican) free-tail bats call Carlsbad Cavern home in the summer… and all they want to do each night is eat bugs… several tons of them each night!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: $6-20 for cave tours; all federal lands passes accepted

Elevation: 3,595-6,520 feet

Park size: 46,766 acres or 73 square miles

2010 visitation: 428,524

Location: From Carlsbad, 16 miles southwest on Highways 62/180 to White’s City, 7 miles west via paved park entrance road.

Camping: No camping facilities, but there are several campgrounds in nearby Whites City and Carlsbad

The main cavern is located 754 feet below the Visitor Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220

Contact: (575) 785-2232

Web site: nps.gov/cave

Note: This is the final of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 1: Underground Wonderland

Part 2: Grand Canyon with a Roof on It

Worth Pondering…

I came to more and more stalagmites-each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I’d passed. I entered rooms filled with colossal wonders in gleaming onyx. Suspended from the ceilings were mammoth chandeliers-clusters of stalactites in every size and color. Walls that were frozen cascades of glittering flowstone, jutting rocks that held suspended long, slender formations that rang when I touched them-like a key on the xylophone. Floors were lost under formations of every variety and shape.

—Jim White’s Own Story

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