Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Historic Bok Sanctuary

We arrived in Lake Wales on Monday with the purpose of touring Bok. I remembered our friends, Steve and Sandy, had visited years ago and told us how nice it was, so when we were trying to decide on a route home and I saw it on the map it made our decision for us. But first, we had to wash and wax the RV. We want her to be clean when we put her in storage. So, Monday was a workday. We were pretty fortunate that we were able to wash and then wax 75% of the RV before the rains came. Have we told you that every time we wash the RV it rains? Well, it does.

Tuesday was pretty crappy, too. We ran some errands, then drove around downtown Lake Wales, ate lunch out, and just kept waiting for the rain to stop so we could go to the Tower and Gardens. The trick worked, too! The rain slowed to a drizzle and there was some openings in the blanket of clouds. The Bok Tower is a 60-bell carillon bell tower. Edward Bok built it on Iron Mountain which is the highest point in Florida. At a whopping 320’ above sea level, it actually does provide a panoramic view in this otherwise flat state. The 205’ tall Bell Tower itself is architecturally beautiful. It is made from coquina, marble and colored tiles with some wrought iron accents. The bells are hidden behind the tile murals. Statues and Florida-scenes are carved into the marble. Then it is surrounded by a moat and the gardens. The smallest bell weighs about 12 pounds, where the largest one is over 11 tons. In the visitor center they have a cut-out of the largest bell so you can see its size. If I stood next to it with my arms stretched high, I could barely touch the top of the “bell”. We were fortunate to have waited til the afternoon since the bell recitals are only at 1pm and 3pm. So we were serenaded by the bells as we walked around the gardens. The Sanctuary is on 50 acres. The gardens are filled with native Florida plants, such as a variety of palms, ferns, oak trees, philodendrons, trumpet trees, fire bushes, camellias, and more. Benches are scattered about encouraging you to sit and relax.
For an extra fee you can tour Pinewood Estates, which is a large Mediterranean estate built in the 1930’s. This was the Buck family’s winter home. After seeing this, we would’ve liked to have seen this Bethlehem Steel executive’s home in PA. The home was decorated for Christmas which just added to its charm and appeal. Andy and I decided we could live in this house. Mr. Buck wanted each room to be unique. Nothing could be duplicated. So, although there were dark-wood cypress doors in every room, each were inlaid or carved with a different pattern. Although there were wrought iron sconces or chandeliers in every room, each were a different design. Although there was colorful tile highlighting staircases, fireplaces, and accents, each room displayed a different color scheme or pattern. Although most rooms had original Cuban terracotta floor tiles, each room were laid in a different pattern. You get my point, right? For its size, this mansion felt downright homey with its 3 fireplaces. The house was also built for the Florida heat with lots of windows and multiple screened porches. There were lots of creative and interesting architectural points of this home that the volunteers were eager to point out. Well worth the tour. And well worth staying in Lake Wales just to visit Bok.

O’Leno State Park and Ichetucknee Springs

When we started our trip in the summer we had plans to stop at these parks while heading north, but we found the bugs were too difficult to deal with at that time so we skipped this area and bugged out of North Florida, pun intended. This time around was perfect. There were a handful of mosquitoes at night, but not bad at all. O’Leno is a gorgeous park with towering pines and oaks. It encompasses a section of the Santa Fe River that “sinks” underground and then “rises” again above ground 3 ½ miles away. At the River Sink you would never guess that the vent is 150’ below the surface. That would be quite a dive to check out that passageway. We took a bike ride here in this park to see the River Rise. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, though, since the trail was supposedly closed. Ha! The sign said it was closed due to High Water. But we figured that was old. A Park Ranger told us the night before that after last year’s Hurricane Frances, the water level rose so high it flooded most of the park and the river bumped up against the bottom of the suspension bridge spanning the river. This was a pretty scary thought since the bridge is about 20’ or more above the river when we saw it. So, knowing the water level is actually low, we figured we would take the trail anyway. The bike ride was through a pretty forest and passed by sinkholes and the occasional spring-fed lake. The trail was a bit of a pain, though, since you had to slog through a lot of sand pits. We biked about 9 long miles. The trail might’ve been “closed” since they haven’t finished maintenance and repairs since the last storm. A part of the trail had a couple of large trees blocking the way so we had to carry our bikes either under or over the fallen trees to continue on. And other areas looked like there were fresh cuttings. But we did make it to the River Rise. We expected to see the water swirling to the surface or some movement. But it was still, almost stagnant, just like at River Sink.
Here is the pavilion the CCC built in 1932 and the suspension bridge the CCC built spanning the Santa Fe River.

Sunday morning we paddled Ichetucknee Springs State Park. We had a hard time trying to get complete information before going there. One ranger encouraged us to do Ichetucknee versus Santa Fe if we only had time for one paddle. She mentioned it was about a 3-mile paddle, but we didn’t get specifics from her on put-ins, etc. When we went looking for information, the other rangers at O’Leno didn’t know specifics, and actually gave us inaccurate information. This surprised me considering the parks are only 12 miles apart from one another. You’d think they’d know everything about both parks, wouldn’t you? Well, there are two entrances to the park, with no connecting interior road. We chose the South with the thought that we’d paddle against the current to the head of the spring and then coast home. At the South Entrance there were three put-ins all requiring a hike in. There’s a shuttle system, but we couldn’t get any info on it being off-season and we couldn’t find a warm body to talk to. So we chose Dampier’s Landing which had the shortest hike, maybe about 1/3 mile. We were glad we had our kayak wheels. Once we were on the river, all of the confusion and frustration disappeared. The river was beautiful and completely surrounded by nature. We saw egrets, herons, kingfishers and an osprey. Below in the crystal clear water we saw tons of fish fighting the current. And turtles were sprawled out on almost every log. At the north end we thought we’d be able to paddle to the blue hole, but they had it fenced off to protect the area. Sadly it was only 2 miles each way from our put-in/take-out. It was so pretty, we wished it was longer. This river is popular with tubers. I could just imagine how crowded it must get during the season considering the shuttle system and the size of the parking lot. I guess this was our big advantage for being here off-season, we only saw a handful of other kayaks and canoes.

Okefenokee Swamp

Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day! It might sound weird, but we had a very nice time in the swamp for the holiday. Sure, we missed the zaniness of being with Andy’s brother, Joe, and family. But the swamp was peaceful and very beautiful. And we still had a full Thanksgiving Day feast…turkey (couldn’t find any Tofurkey), stuffing, mashies, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, and peas. Yum!

We spent 3 nights here, giving us two full days to kayak. This is the first time our kayaks have gotten wet since leaving the southeast. Believe me, we had many heated discussions about whether to bring them on this trip or not. We used them a lot at the start of the trip, but then we should’ve thrown them in storage somewhere before heading west where there’s either no water or white water.

There are several kayaking trails in Okefenokee. Some would require overnight camping permits to use. We kayaked for eight miles on both Thursday and Friday, taking slightly different routes on the day-use blueways. The first day we paddled east on Billy’s Lake and north in a channel to Minnie’s Lake Shelter before turning around. That day we saw 30 different alligators, not including any duplicates when we doubled back to home. There was a decent west wind blowing in our face on the way home that also caused a little chop. We had to hug the shady, southern shore to keep out of the brunt of it so we know we missed a lot of gator-sightings since they were basking on the sunny side of the lake. Although there are several “lakes” in the Okefenokee, they are actually more like rivers. This is wider than your normal swamp channels. The next day we paddled the full length of Billy’s Lake, first going west and up a dead-end channel, then south a little into the Florida Sill. We had to turn around at an alligator sunning on a rock in the middle of the Sill, which is about as wide as your kayak paddle. There was no room to pass. Then we went east to Billy’s Island and hiked a trail around the historic lumber mill. On this trip we counted 77 alligators on our way out and in any section that we paddled through a second time we kept a separate count, for an additional 59. That was impressive. We kept a separate count since we couldn’t tell one gator apart from another…well, outside of ‘small’, ‘medium’, and ‘humongous’. We saw them basking in complete stillness, swimming within 10 feet of us, submerging without a ripple, and even lumbering down the bank only to slink back into the water. I think they’re amazing creatures. They’re beautiful in their own way with those perpetual smiles. Later I read that generally it is just the 8 foot, plus-sized gators that would attack humans. But it is rare for that to happen or for them to bite more than once.

Oh, bad news. My digital camera broke at the start of the second day of paddling, so I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have otherwise. And I had to resort to my back-up film camera for the rest of the trip so it’ll be a little while before I get them developed and posted. At first I thought it was just my memory card gone bad, but I bought a new one and am still having the same problem.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Travel Challenge

Since our trip for 2005 is starting to wind down, I was curious as to how our two years compared on our "list-making". As you may already know, we like to 'collect' things. For example, we make note of new states (we put state stickers on the RV), how many National Park sites we visit (we checklist the NPS Owner's Manual we have), and state capitols (we put stars on our RV Sticker Map). And, of course, since we love to make everything a competition I decided to make a game of it and open it up to all of you (friends, family, and fellow RVers)...so go to our website and Take the Travel Challenge! Ha! You can click on Comments below and tell us how your numbers compare...or if there's a different category we should be "collecting".

And may the best traveler win!

Actually, I'm worried that my sister, Karen, is going to enter with "Number of Far East Countries Visited"...which, to my knowledge she'll win since she's been to Vietnam and everywhere (any you haven't been to?). I'll have to think of how I'll get the RV over there...hhhmmmmm....

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Troy, AL

Saturday was another long driving day - about 330 miles. These back-to-back long drives are mind-numbing killers. It starts to feel like you never got out of the cab because your mind and body just lapses back into this dull routine. We would've stopped sooner on the drive but couldn't find a town we felt was worth stopping in, so we just kept going. It's funny how in some places you only want to drive a few miles at a time since there's so much to see and do (like the Oregon Coast or the state of Colorado); and then there's other places where nothing seems to appeal to you at all. Part of this is ignorance (not knowing enough about the places you're driving through), and part of this is mind-set since we know we have to be home by a certain time we have to make some distance. Either way, our bodies are absolutely cramped and achy and I don't know how truckers can do this for a living.

So why did we stop in Troy, AL you might ask? Well, they allow RV washing, they accepted our mail packages, and they have free WIFI. It's a decent little RV park that is a way-station for us to get things done that need to be done. That's it. We'll leave Monday or Tuesday depending on what time our FedEx package arrives. Our plan is to be at Okefenokee Swamp (GA) for Thanksgiving. This will be our first T-Giving without family in many years. It's kinda sad...but how many people can say they spent their Thanksgiving in a swamp? Plans may change if we actually get there early, but being Thanksgiving many campgrounds do fill up for the long weekend so reservations are required whereever we go.

Vicksburg, MS

We drove about 300 miles from Tyler, TX to Vicksburg, MS. Straight through the state of Louisiana. We're staying north (via I-20) and avoiding the lower half of these Katrina-battered states. We had also hoped that the Louisiana roads might be better in the north. Well, we got half-lucky. Half were still the bone-jarring, large seamed, concrete squares. But luckily, the other half of the roads were new asphalt. For awhile we had thought about trying to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in MS, but since Wilma we figured we'll just head home and help clean-up and rebuild in our own communities.

We stopped in Vicksburg to tour the Civil War Battlefield. We were kind of surprised that you had to purchase the audio tapes for the auto-tours, instead of renting them. Since we didn't know what we'd do with the cd after our tour we handed it back into the Visitor Center anyway (they said they would provide it to the school tours - so we were happy it would go to a good cause). But the National Military Park was very interesting and took us about 1 1/2 hours to tour three-quarters of it. We were very disappointed that would couldn't tour the USS Cairo (the old Ironclad ship that was sunk in the Yazoo River) or the National Cemetary due to road construction in those areas.

It was hard to imagine how horrific this battle must've been. For 46 days the Union Army, under Grant, put the city of Vicksburg under seige with cannon bombings and gunfire. At times opposing soldiers were dug into trenches just 15 feet away from one another...for 46 days...within earshot of conversations or verbal assaults...fellow Americans...neighbors, sometimes family members...shooting at eachother. The Confederate Army was trying to protect Vicksburg which controlled the Mississippi River. The roads were blocked, reinforcements or supplies couldn't get into them, the soldiers and citizens slowly ran out of food and ammo. Eventually Lt Gen Pemberton had to surrender. The Mississippi River was now navigable to the Union Army and marked a major turning point of the war.

The states which had soldiers present at this battlefield, had posted numerous statues and plaques throughout the park. Cannons and plaques showed the battle lines and explained positions of either the Confederate or Union soldiers. The monument built by Illinois was one of the most elaborate. Inside this domed marble building were all of the names of the soldiers who fought at this battle engraved on bronze plaques encircling the wall. You can still see the zig-zagging trenches and protective earthen mounds that were built as one side gained ground. And the fact that this area is so hilly and forested makes the fighting here even more unimaginable.

Downtown Vicksburg is also worth a driving tour. The city has organized two different scenic drives that take you past a number of refurbished, historic antebellum houses and museums. The Vicksburg Magazine provides a brief highlight on the different homes such as age, brief history, and what you might find inside. Tours are $5-6 a pop, so it could add up if you went inside all of them. We just did the driving tour to see the exteriors, the neighborhoods, and the city. Along the way, we also found a number of other historic homes in a varying array of conditions...you know, peeling paint, rotting boards, etc...but they must've been beautiful in their day. "Main Street" Vicksburg was a couple of blocks long, with several buildings that are reminiscent of New Orleans with the ornate wrought iron balconies. Very cute. Several unoccupied buildings leave room for potential for growth. The main shopping street lies on the top of a bluff and from the side streets you can look out over the Mississippi River and the casino boats. We were a little surprised to find that any town in Mississippi could have streets hilly enough to make you think of San Francisco.
We did go to the Isle of Capri Casino one night. But after losing about $70 in half-an-hour, we called it quits and went home. We're not much for gambling, but usually Andy can hold his own at the Roulette table for a couple of hours - get some free drinks, conversation, and some reasonably cheap entertainment. Perhaps my life-long losing streak is rubbing off on him?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Tyler State Park - TX

We only spent one night here, but this is another TX State Park that would be worth a revisit. This park is popular for mountain biking and since we came this far, we were determined to ride...even if it was only 49 degrees. So we layered on the leggings and multiple shirts and ear warmers just to get out onto the trails. The loop trails are labeled quite simply...EZ, A, B, C and D. With the difficulty levels increasing in that order, too. After talking with the ranger and seeing the number of medical evacuation zones, we decided not to attempt Loop D. The trails were fun and we really enjoyed riding them, and the park road. The park road had warning signs posted for cyclists due to the grade and length of one of the hills. Boy, are we going to miss these eye-watering bike rides when we get back to Florida! Since we were only spending one night, we got a pull-thru site and never detached Ele. So the only way to tour the park was on our bikes. What a pretty place, with lots of trees and this little lake as the centerpiece...

Eisenhower State Park - TX

Dwight D. Eisenhower was born here in Denison, TX. We toured his birthplace which was a nice wooden-slat home, but it was just feet away from the train tracks. Don't think I could ever live there more than one night. This was also the first guided tour, in our recollection, that we would have to say was "bad". The nice volunteer guide focused so much on the workings of the antique kitchen gadgets that we forgot where we were. I don't think she mentioned Ike's name but once. I would like to believe it was her first day as tour guide.

Eisenhower State Park rested on top of the bluffs of Lake Texoma, a large lake with a surface area of 89,000 acres. Prior to arriving we had thought we would kayak on the lake when we got here because it has lots of fingers and coves and the shores are lined with limestone bluffs. But on our second day the winds came roaring in at 30mph and created white caps and sent the surf crashing into the bluffs. Not very inviting. So we walked some of the trails and just relaxed...all bundled up inside the RV to stay warm.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Valley View, TX

We came to this area with the hopes of seeing Andy's old friend, Fred Hammond. Andy and Fred worked together at Glidden and The Carr Co. We hadn't seen Hammie in seven years. That point was drilled home when we saw his oldest daughter - who is now 16 yrs old and a young woman, not a kid anymore! But Fred hadn't changed. It's so nice to relax with old friends and just pick up where you left off last. Casual and comfortable conversation. Pizza and beer. A nice night. But we didn't get to see his wife or other daughter, unfortunately. That's what happens when we call at the last minute to make plans. But we met the latest addition to his family, his 5-yr old son who reminded me of our little nephew, Christopher - quiet and cuddly and funny.

Ray Roberts State Park
On Sunday we went into Ray Roberts State Park for some mountain biking. We loved it! Those are the kind of trails I like. Through forests, tight and fast, hearing the crunching of leaves under my wheels, and the biggest danger is misjudging the width of trees you have to squeeze through periodically. Of course, if you judge wrong you'll break your fingers and probably do an endo. But there were no cliffs where a misjudgement would mean a thirty foot (plus) fall and, most likely, death. After riding several of the trails, I let Andy go back in by himself for awhile. My hands were tired and I wanted him to enjoy some of the trails at his own break-neck speed. Also, more riders were coming out onto the trail and I prefer believing I'm the only one out there, ha! That's because my comfortable speed is not nearly as fast as someone who's done the trail several times. The trails are all one-way with clearly marked signs to connect different loops so you can pick the length of trail you want to ride and the difficulty. That makes it nice so there's no fear of crashing head first into another rider and reduces the number of times someone has to pass. I feel a lot of pressure on a single-track when someone comes up fast behind me and there's no safe place to pull over. I don't like slowing someone else down.

Now I wish we were staying longer so I could ride these trails more. But we're still about 1,500 miles away from home so we need to keep moving eastward to get home by early Dec.

PS: Some things we just can't explain, such as this skeleton that someone took the time to arrange. The skull was hung on a nearby tree...an odd sense of humor, I guess.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Copper Breaks State Park - TX

We really like Texas State Parks. We've found the ones we've visited to be beautiful, well-maintained, and with Texas-sized campsites. So we were saddened to find that budget-cuts are causing several to severly cut back hours or even close for the winter. We're just making it under the wire with Copper Breaks, which is scheduled to close on the 15th for several months. We only spent one night here...alone. No other campers in the entire state park. So that explains why Ranger Rick (yes, really his name) was so excited to see us and that we had mountain bikes with us. He has proudly maintained the trails and trail signs and wanted to see them put to use. Copper Breaks is small at 1900 acres, compared to Caprock and Palo Duro which run about 15,000 acres. But the hiking/biking trails were nice and so-well marked - Ranger Rick even posted warning signs with triple-arrows pointing down to forewarn you of ledges or drops requiring you to get off your bike, pick it up, and carry it. Those 4' drops weren't something you wanted to accidentally ride off of. This state park also manages a herd of Texas Long Horns. If we stayed an extra day we could've seen them as the park was offering a program on the herd. But we wanted to get close to Dallas for the weekend - Andy has an old friend from Glidden we were trying to contact for a visit.

Caprock Canyons State Park - TX

The State Park
What a beautiful place. Reminds us a lot of Palo Duro Canyon, which is not very far from here. The park basically consists of several red rock canyons with a multitude of multi-use trails. Our first night there we hopped on our bikes to get a feel for the park. What we didn't take into account was the size of the park - the scale of miles was a little larger than we first anticipated. And there were two hills with a 16% grade! That's tough for anyone, but especially Floridians. We also got caught up in the beauty of the canyons and went off-road with our bikes on a couple of trails. One trail took us along the Little Red River on a trail so narrow our legs were poked and scratched by thorny desert plants encroaching on the trail. When we tired of that, we followed along the river bed instead. It was easier dealing with sand, mud, river rocks, and a tiny stream of water than those prickly plants. We missed the last trail crossing and ended up at the base of a bridge, so we picked up our bikes and carried them up the slope to get back onto the road. We did eventually tour the whole park road - checking out trailheads and campgrounds and planning for tomorrow.

The next day we took a 7-mile hike by combining the Upper Canyon Trail and the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail. There was a warning on the map that says "Extremely Steep and Rugged" for a portion of the trail - well, they weren't kidding. Due to a high rainfall this year (40" vs a normal of 18"), a number of their trails, and trail signs, have washed away. This just added a complication to their already steep and rugged terrain that takes you from the bottom of a canyon to the ridge. But the views were worth it and we enjoyed the fact that one trail was low, inside the canyon, with upclose views of rocks and formations; while the other trail was high on the ridge looking down into two canyons lying on either side of the ridgeline.

Caprock Canyons Trailway
Our last day there we biked along the CCT. This 64-mile rail-to-trail is still under construction and was part of the old Burlington North-Santa Fe (BNSF) line. If you like to collect old railway memorabilia, there was lots of "stuff" along the old tracks here - big nails, metal plates, old timbers, etc could be found along the way. It will be a great ride when it's finished. That is if they're still planning on working on the old bridges, which were either missing floorboards or had holes in the concrete sections. I'm also assuming they're going to do something about the bat guano that is filling up the Clarity Tunnel. We only did a six-mile section before turning around because we knew we'd have the wind in our face on the return trip. We crossed several bridges and rode through the Clarity Tunnel. Several signs mention that the Brazilian Free-Tail Bats live in the tunnel from April-Oct, that you shouldn't touch them, and that you should minimize kicking up dust. Apparently the bat guano is reduced to dust by beetles and bugs. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are susceptible to toxoplasmosis which can kill an unborn child. What the signs didn't mention is that the dust is about a foot thick, or more in drifted areas, and is fine as powder, and impossible not to kick up. We regretted riding through it as soon as we reached the other side. Neither of us wanted to ride through that stinky, powdery bat poop again. But there is no alternative route. So we rode on for a little while to clear our noses and lungs and let more of the dust blow off of us before turning around. The tunnel used to be 790' long, but due to a train derailment, part of it was blown off to reach the train, reducing it to 528' long. That's still a long ride through the bat guano. On the way back through we prepared ourselves with shirts or bandanas over our noses and mouths.

We love rail-to-trails. The history, the old trestle bridges, the narrow train tunnels, and the scenery as they slice through narrow valleys or canyons keeping close to rivers, all usually make these bike rides such a treat. It'll be a great trail. But I don't think either of us would recommend going thru the Clarity Tunnel unless its cleaned up some.

Capulin Volcanoe Nat'l Monument

We did it again! We stopped for a “detour” along a drive. We’ve definitely changed our behavior on this trip. On the road to Amarillo, TX we stopped to tour Capulin Volcano, which is in the north-east corner of New Mexico (near Raton). It’s the only volcano where you can walk down into the cone. There’s also a one-mile trail that takes you along the rim for a slow 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Around Capulin are several other smaller cones and mud holes. You can also see the old lava flows – where it rippled, and where the edge of the flow stopped. Oddly, this old volcano is covered in plant life – gamble oaks, pines, and wildflowers (although none were blooming during our visit), where most remain bare. It was a worthy stop, and another checkmark on our list of National 'Parks'.
A view inside the crater; the black stones in the middle are large volcanic rocks:

Trinidad, CO

Sorry it's been awhile...didn't have many services (no internet or phone) in the past week...

We spent a few nights at Trinidad Lake State Park. We were one of three occupied campsites, so there was plenty of space and it was very quiet. There were several hiking trails that ran through junipers and pines with views of Fisher’s Peak and the lake. It felt good to be back in a natural state park. Our first day there was so warm we were actually able to sit out that night and have a fire. Ok, so maybe it wasn’t “warm” at night, but perfect for a fire. It had been so cold out at night that we haven’t been taking advantage of these wonderful, dark western skies. So, we sat outside next to our campfire and stared at the stars.

One morning we took a scenic drive along Highway 12 up towards Cuchara Pass. If you take this drive, I’d recommend picking up one of the informational brochures. The history in this area is very interesting. You look at the old buildings a little differently when you understand more about the people and the time. Coal mining was huge in this area, too, so the brochure explained some of the structures we passed. Such as these coking ovens.

We walked around town a little bit. Main Street was all dug up and the road was under construction. We were expecting more shops from the brochures we had read. A little disappointed in the town, but there is so much potential. The buildings are wonderfully old with detailed fronts and several of the streets were pavered, adding to the charm. Just wished it had more shops and galleries to stroll through…and a microbrewery.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Alamosa, CO - Great "Windy" Sand Dunes

After hiking to Zapata Falls, we went back into the Sand Dunes. Our intent was to try to reach a different area of the Dunes, where the "Star Dunes" are located. But hiking in the dunes is more up and down then any lateral distance. And, once we got into the dunes the wind kicked up something fierce. We were sandblasted by sand particles til every orifice was filled - our ears, noses, mouths. I was crunching on sand everytime I spoke for hours after leaving the dunes. Thank goodness we had sunglasses on - because sand particles were thick on our cheeks rimming our glasses. But what a magnificent site to see (especially compared to the calm of yesterday). Sand flies straight off the ridgelines. It fills in your footsteps as you watch. The wind picks up the sand and makes swirling patterns as it cascades over, around, and up the dunes. When you're there on a windy day, you can almost see how these dunes were created. They are kept in the same area because the winds come from two different directions - southwest and northeast.
(I tried to post a short video so you could see the winds blow and hear the howl, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet!)

The other thing we hadn't anticipated on this trek through the dunes was the steep-sided dunes we came across - they all seemed to be this steep. Two had to be climbed on hands and knees, digging our fingers deep into the cold underlying sand to get a grip on something. We had to take a couple breaks along the way just to catch our breath.

But we felt that we had the best of both worlds. We played on a calm, sunny day and we played in the winds that have created these dunes. The Visitor Center had a wind gauge that showed the winds at 23mph, but they are down low in the valley and protected by the trees. The Rangers said that the winds are much stronger in the dunes, but didn't have a wind gauge to say how much so.

Alamosa, CO - A Unique Waterfall

Zapata Falls is within the Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park. GSD actually just became a Nat'l Park this year. When they became an N.P. they practically tripled their size in acres. Now, they aren't just Sand Dunes, but encompass part of the desert valley, foothills and mountains. This is the only hike we did outside of the dunes. It was only a half-mile hike in from the trailhead, which was up a 3 1/2 mile washboard dirt road. It was a very unique waterfall because it was hidden inside a a small box canyon. When you reach the creek, you need to rock hop the rest of the way to reach the falls (or wade through the freezing cold water). They have warnings posted for 3 seasons. Spring and Summer bring dangerous currents and deep water in the creek, while Winter brings ice. The temperature dropped dramatically once we entered the small slot canyon and the spray from the waterfall was icy. Icicles hung on the wall close to the downpour.

Looking straight up through the ceiling of the canyon, it reminded us of the slot canyons we've been in.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Alamosa, CO - Wetlands and Sand Dunes

We arrived in Alamosa this morning around 10:30am. I think this is one of our earliest arrival times ever.

So we went across the street from our campground to the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge. It's odd to see wetlands with mountains in the background. If it wasn't for the mountains and the snow, we would've sworn we were home in Florida. The Refuge has a 3 1/2 mile auto tour providing information on the region, irrigation ditches, and the wildlife. We saw a herd of elk, a number of unidentifiable raptors swooping and diving, and ducks who took to flight anytime our car got too close. There are a couple of trails we might check out another time.

In the afternoon we went to the Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park. The dunes here vary in color from pinks, buffs, to charcoal grey. The tallest is 750', which of course we had to climb to. Not the easiest thing to do, but fun. If you look closely at this picture, you'll see two people ahead of us on the "trail". Since the winds wipe away footprints on a daily basis, you're allowed to hike wherever you want in the dunes.
Hiking the ridges seemed most expedient. Unless you careened off one side or the other into a deep bowl.
Here's Andy resting...again. Ha! We're only about half way up, and look at the great view!
After we sat at the summit of the tallest dune for awhile, Andy grabbed my hand and headed for every vertical drop off he could find. I was screaming til I laughed as we ran at full gallop off each drop. Our boots were filled with sand by the time we reached the car.
Something tells me we'll be back here tomorrow to explore the other side of the dunes.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Salida, CO

It was 30 degrees when we woke up Monday morning. Too cold for mountain biking, again. We had read that mountain biking was good in this area and had hoped to do some during our visit. Between the cold weather and it being hunting season, it wasn't the best plan. So we drove to the top of "S" Mountain for an overlook of the town of Salida (pop. 5,500). It's a cool town with a structured downtown with restaurants, art galleries, etc. Unfortunately, it's "off-season" and about half the shops were closed. We'll just have to come back!

Then we drove north to Brown's Canyon Wilderness Area. We struggled to stay on the trail, so sometimes Andy made up his own route. Unfortunately, he likes to pick the straightest way - even if it's straight up! But the view of the Arkansas River, the valley and the Sawatch Mountain Range were worth it.

Later that afternoon we took advantage of Salida's Hot Springs. Nothing feels better when you've been chilled for days than submerging yourself in 94 degree water. But we also jumped into the lap pool (they say it was 84 degrees) and did a few laps for some exercise.

Salida, CO - St Elmo Ghost Town

On Sunday we decided to drive to Colorado's Original Ghost Town - St Elmo. Its one of several in the area, but the others require 4-wheel drive. The valley was sunny, but you could see the snow falling over the mountains. We headed up anyway. Along the way we passed by the Chalk Cliffs. They're not really made up of chalk, but of kaolinite, a soft rock that percolates from hot springs. Yes, there are hot springs in the area. We stopped by the Princton Hot Springs on the way in - like many they have a soaking pool (90's) and a lap pool (80's), but this place also had hot water piped into the adjoining creek. There were little rock pools built to contain the hot water. So eventhough you were in a natural, cold creek you were sitting in hot water. A very neat setting. Thought we would hit the place on the way back down from St Elmo.

When we stopped to take a short hike to a waterfall, we realized that the weather is schizophrenic. On the way up the trail the wind and snow were blowing. On the way down it had stopped. But the waterfall was pretty and the hike was worth it.

We continued the rest of the 16 miles up the road to St Elmo. Half of which was dirt. Its a neat ghost town with about 20 or so buildings from the 1880's. We believe the lace curtains and the peeling wallpaper may be original. It is now privately owned and the Historical Society is trying to make repairs so we weren't able to go inside any buildings. But the buildings are all in quite good shape and it was neat to walk around. A mini-blizzard kicked in, we slipped around on the ice, and the only current resident had a fire going in their wood-stove - all adding to the ambiance of walking the streets of an old-west ghost town.

We couldn't stay too long since the snow was lying quickly. Good thing our car is an all-wheel drive!

As we went down in elevation the snow turned to rain. We decided to skip the Hot Springs and head into town for a late lunch and a microbrew instead. Just a different way of warming up, right? And, as we got into the dry, desert valley - nothing - no rain, no snow. But not a whole lot warmer, either. Now, why is this called the Banana Belt?

Salida, CO - The Banana Belt

For the first two days of our stay in Salida, we weren't quite sure why they called this area the "Banana Belt" of Colorado. Considering it was in the 20's when we awoke and we could literally see snowstorms on the mountains, you can't blame us for our doubt, right? Well, considering the town is in a desert valley sandwiched between two mountain ranges (the Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo), I guess they figure that since the weather is always warmer on the valley floor its almost tropical - well, in comparison to the fourteeners peering down on them.

Royal Gorge Bridge

On Saturday we left Colorado Springs and did something we rarely do. We stopped along the way and did something touristy. The Royal Gorge Bridge (& Theme Park) was on the way to Salida, CO so it only made sense. At first we thought the $30 (for 2) was a little steep to look into a gorge, but in the end we felt we got our monies worth. All attractions were included with the entrance fee. So, poor Andy had to suffer through all of these "high-flying" attractions.
The Royal Gorge Bridge is the "world's highest suspension bridge". It hangs 1,053' above the Arkansas River, and it is 1,260' long. This was the first challenge. The cracks on the wooden-slat bridge were big enough to see through. And, the bridge (being a suspension bridge) did sway and bounce, especially if a car crossed it. Thankfully, it was mainly people on the bridge.
On the other side of the bridge there was a theatre, petting zoo, and several attractions. Their "wildlife park" consisted of 3 different natural settings for elk, bighorn sheep, and bison. The herd of bison consisted of rare white bison.
The one attraction we didn't do was the SpaceCoaster. This flys you over the rim of the gorge as you are strapped into some kind of bodysuit on a swinging rope. Not so sure we would've done it if it was open (closed during off-season).
So Andy had a choice for the return trip: go back over the bouncy suspension bridge or come with me via the "world's longest single-span aerial tram" at 2,200' long. We (he chose the tram) were surprised that it didn't swing, eventhough it was gusty.

Then we hopped on the "world's steepest incline railway" to get to the river 1,550' below at 100% grade and a 45 degree angle. The canyon here reminded me a lot of the Black Canyon of Gunnison, which might make sense considering it is almost due west of the Royal Gorge - same formation, perhaps? The scenic railway runs through the Gorge along the river. That might be interesting to do on a future visit - if it has windows in the ceiling or is open air in order to see the gorge in its entirety. If not the railway, then maybe a raft trip? Anyway, there's lots to do here, but many of the shops, cafes, and several attractions were closed for the "shoulder-season". But at least we didn't have any lines to contend with!