OCTOBER 24, 2010
Back to our trip today as we move on to Toyahvale, Texas where we’ll stay at Balmorhea State Park. Our route takes us through Midland, Odessa and Pecos. I’d read that this was a particularly ugly part of Texas and sorry to say, it lived up to the publicity. After we passed Midland, Steve asked me what I thought about George Bush’s home town. My reply was “About as much as I think of him.”
Balmorhea State Park lies at the foot of the Davis Mountains. It was built by the CCC in the 1930s. The main feature is a large spring that has been made into a 1.75 acre swimming pool. The claim is that it is the World’s Largest Spring Fed Pool. Oh my, we’d better call the woman in Lucas, KS who does the world’s smallest version of the world’s largest things! The water is crystal clear. Besides a campground there is a motel. We didn’t see inside the units but it looks very private and clean. There are some units that have secluded sitting areas backing to the spring. In 1995 a wetlands restoration was done and they now have what is called a cienga in Spanish which means desert oasis.
After we had our site set up, we took Opal for a run. We drove into the Davis Mountains and then walked along a stream and dirt road for a bit. I found an agave plant and played with my close-up photography. On the way back we passed some open range cattle. One was standing right in the middle of the road nursing her calf. They obviously don’t get much traffic on this road. The mother watched us very carefully as we slowly drove on by. This road had several small uplifts in it. The kind that make your stomach flip if you hit them fast. I’d told Steve about how my Dad would go fast over bumps on the Bronx River Parkway and I called them The Whees. So Steve reeved up the engine and over we went with me calling “Whee!” on each one. For a second I had a flashback to being in the back seat of my Dad’s 1952 Pontiac doing the same thing.
We’d planned on going to Guadalupe National Park from here. That turned out to be much further than we planned and through more desolate areas. We’ve shelved that to another trip. It’s really closer to Carlsbad.
OCTOBER 25, 2010
As we ate breakfast we discussed options for today’s activities. I’d found some information online before we left about an observatory in the area that did tours. Neither Steve or I had ever been to an observatory. Its called the McDonald Observatory which is part of the University of Texas in Austin. The Observatory is located on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains and is the highest publicly accessible point in Texas. It also claims to have the darkest skies in the continental USA. (I ASKED ABOUT THAT, AND THE REPLY WAS THAT IT HAS THE DARKEST SKIES OF ANYPLACE SUITABLE FOR AN OBSERVATORY IN THE CONTINENTAL US. THAT MEANS: MOUNTAINTOP, AVERAGE WEATHER CONDITIONS… CLEAR SKY… ETC…. SM)
The tour started with a film and a talk about sunspots. Then we went to see two of the telescopes. The first was a 107 inch reflecting telescope. The barrel is 32 feet long. He operated it so we could see how they turn and track objects. This telescope was a cooperative effort between NASA and University of Texas in the mid 60s. The mirror it uses is coated with a very thin layer of aluminum. Here’s your trivia for today: an aluminum soda can has enough metal in it to coat this mirror ten times. (ONCE EACH YEAR, THEY HAVE TO RECOAT THE ALUMINUM REFLECTIVE SURFACE ON THE MIRRORS. WE ASKED ABOUT HOW THAT IS DONE. IT’S QUITE A PROCESS. FIRST, THE OLD COATING IS REMOVED. NEXT THE MIRROR IS PLACED IN A VACUUM, AND THE ALUMINUM, WHICH IS MADE INTO FILAMENTS LIKE INSIDE A LIGHTBULB, IS HEATED UP ELECTRICALLY UNTIL IT VAPORIZES. THE MIRRORS ARE KEPT AT A CONSTANT TEMPERATURE, AND THE ALUMINUM THEN CONDENSES ONTO THEM IN AN EXTREMELY THIN COAT… SM) We had to walk up 5 flights of steps to get to the telescope. There is an elevator as well. The wind had begun to blow about an hour before with gusts reaching 66mph. When it blows this hard, sometimes the dome will free spin making you feel as if you’re the one moving. When this telescope was installed it was the second largest reflecting telescope in the world. Now it is the 39th.
The second telescope was a fixed angle telescope with an open cage so you could see the mirror or should I say mirrors. The mirror is made by placing 91 identical mirrors together to form a concave mirror 10 by 11 meters. It is the 5th largest mirror in the world. There were five universities that collaborated to fund the project. We viewed this telescope from behind glass. He showed us how the whole apparatus is lifted about an inch on air filled donut shaped bladders to move it. He also explained how they align each mirror to be in the exact position.
McDonald Observatory is now a partner working on a telescope to be built in Chile that will be 80 feet in diameter. They expect it to see things ten times better than the Hubble telescope.
Besides the daily tours, there are Star Parties three times a week and a special viewing program on the Wednesday evening closest to the full moon. Our guide was very knowledgeable and entertaining. I’m in awe of what can be built.
The road to the Observatory is Texas 118 which is called the Davis Mountain Loop and is a scenic highway.
By the time we were back to the trailer the wind was gusting over 40mph. This lasted until after 10PM. I hoped it would die down by morning. You don’t want to be towing a trailer in wind like that.
OCTOBER 26, 2010
Thankfully the wind had died down and today was clear and cooler from the front that had moved in. We’re off for Big Bend NP today. We will drive south on Texas 118 all the way through the Davis and Santiago Mountains. We plan to stop at Fort Davis which is a National Historic Site about 30 miles from Balmorrhea State Park.
Fort Davis is one of 10 forts that were built along the San Antonio-El Paso Road in the mid 1850s to guard people moving west and commerce along the route. The site is much larger than Fort Scott that we visited in Kansas but there are fewer original buildings. The ranger told us they will restore a building if they have 70% of the original building. Other buildings are left as is and shown as ruins. Fort Davis operated from 1854 to 1861 then was abandoned during the Civil War. (It was briefly used during the war by the Confederate Texas militia…sm) It was reactivated in 1867. The famous Buffalo soldiers of the 9th and 10th cavalry were stationed here. It was deactivated in 1891 after the cessation of the Indian Wars with the Apaches and Comanches.
As we began looking at the distance from Marathon, Texas where we had reserved a RV spot to Big Bend (35 miles one way) and the size of the park we decided to call and see if we could get a spot in the park itself. There is only one campground with full services and it only has 25 spaces. Being off season it was no problem. So we switched to staying in the park. This is the first time we’ve camped in a national park. Most do not have any services available.
There are two entrances to Big Bend. One on Texas 118 and one on US 385. We weren’t sure where the campground was located. We came in on Texas 118 as that was closest. The campground was 40 miles away at the southern end. This is a huge park. There aren’t many towns close by for fuel or food either. There are some gas stations in the park and basic grocery stores too. Some are still closed as their high season doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving. Summer temperatures here reach 110 degrees. The average temperature for October is supposed to be 79 in the daytime but it was 92 when we arrived. We drove the main road and had construction delays due to road work. The RV park is a parking lot with utility hookups and a mowed area with the picnic table 20 feet away. Steve says it’s in the Super 8 category. The first site we were assigned we couldn’t use as the road crew had a large pile of gravel blocking it. So we chose another one and just notified the office. We also found out that the park is subject to frequent power failures of varying lengths. We’d planned on leaving Opal in the trailer if we wanted to hike as dogs aren’t allowed on the trails or in the backcountry. We were afraid that if the power went out and she had no AC that the trailer would get too hot. So we altered our plans to do drives instead and take her with us. Like with most of the parks we’ve seen, one visit isn’t enough to do everything. So we’ll plan on returning here in cooler weather.
Steve took Opal for a walk and saw four Javelinas. They are common in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Although they resemble a small pig their ancestry split many millions of years ago. Apparently Opal wasn’t impressed and almost pulled Steve’s arm out of the socket to get back to the trailer. Then we saw a coyote about 20 feet behind the trailer. Later we heard a pack yipping and howling.
OCTOBER 27, 2010
A quick breakfast and off we went to explore. The park has three areas: the Chihuahuan desert, (or, as we like to say, the Cha-Hooa-Hooan desert…sm) the Chrisos Mountains and the Rio Grande River. The RV park is in the desert area. We retraced our steps from yesterday and went to the main Visitors Center at Panther Junction. We obtained the Passport book stamp and lapel pin plus a bit of holiday shopping. Then we drove until we came to a dirt road that looked passable called Glenn Spring Road. We drove about 2 miles in and didn’t have any difficulty even though it said it was a four wheel drive road. Since we wanted to explore other parts of the park, we turned back and headed for the Chisos Mountain Basin Road. (The basin itself is a high bowl, surrounded by the mountains…sm) This is a paved road to another Visitors Center and the small motel like Lodge. It was a was a good spot to eat our sandwiches and give Opal some time out of the car. The road is about 10 miles long and dead ends at the Visitors Center. There are several hiking trails in the area. We were hopping in and out of the car to take photos. The combination of mountains and desert was beautiful. Then we decided to drive on to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which was 10 miles west. Along the way we saw another dirt road called the Grapevine Hills Road and couldn’t resist taking this for 7 miles until it ended. The Ross Maxwell Road is 38 miles and paved. You can either retrace your route or continue a loop on a dirt road called the Old Maverick Road for 13 miles. Need you ask what we did? There are several scenic spots on both roads but one of my favorites was the Solon Vista. Solons (also called Century Plants) are members of the agave family that have flower stalks 10 or more feet high. Now all we see are the dried seed heads. We’ve already decided a spring visit is needed to see the desert in bloom. The Rio Grande flows through Santa Elena Canyon and the road goes along the river for several miles. Across the river is a vertical canyon wall which is Mexico. A ranger had seen our kayaks and told us with the river level down we should be able to put in at the Santa Elena picnic area and paddle upstream into the canyon. We went down to the river to check it out. It looked doable but our concerns for Opal ruled out doing this now. Time was getting late as we returned to the paved main road. It looked like there would be a pretty sunset. So we pulled off and waited. The sky turned yellow, orange and pink. Hopefully a few shots will come out well. (Shortly after the sun went down, we passed by Panther Junction, and gassed up the car. A little after that, while driving the remaining 20 miles back to camp, I suddenly saw a flutter of wings in front of me, and BANG… a bird hit the windshield. From the quick glimpse I had of it before it hit, I’m pretty sure it was an owl. Actually, I believe it was the rare… only one left in existence… Cha-Hooa-Hooa Desert Owl. Oh well… sm)
Tomorrow we’ll try another dirt road and the hot springs here.
OCTOBER 28, 2010
A clear, sunny and windy day. We took our time getting ready and headed out for a backcountry drive on the River Road East. First we wanted to see an overlook called Boquillas Canyon. It’s close to our campground and has a good view of the Rio Grande where it flows through Sierra del Carmen Canyon. The river is narrow here and rather shallow.
While we were taking pictures, we saw four people on horseback come down the Mexican side and start into the water. Then they worked their way across the river to the US side. Now I know that I’m naive about such things but I thought running the border would be done in a furtive way and at night. I didn’t expect to see someone meander over in broad daylight right into a national park. Just then, a park ranger appeared with a group of new volunteers he was orienting. Steve asked him if this happens often. He admitted that it does here. He then called in a report. We wondered if he’d have done it if we weren’t there. (I’m sure he would have ignored it if we weren’t there questioning it, and I’m sure that whoever he reported it to just filed the information and forgot about it. One of the Mexicans on horseback saw me pointing a camera at him, and waved. He couldn’t have cared less that he was being watched… sm) I started a conversation with a senior volunteer who has been to Big Bend before. She gave me the name of an alternative RV park that’s only 6 miles outside of the park called Stillwell RV park. She also told me that March is the busiest month as that’s when the schools have Easter break and the families come here. We were going to walk the short trail to the river. That meant leaving the car running with AC on for Opal and some windows open. Given the events, I wasn’t comfortable with that idea so we left.
The River Road East is a high clearance vehicle road that is 51 miles long. We’d purchased a book about backcountry drives and it stated that the western part was very rough and only should be undertaken if you have high confidence in your vehicle. As an alternative they suggested returning on Glenn Springs Road. That’s what we did and the route was 40 miles. It took us six hours as we could go between 8-10mph and of course had to stop often for pictures. I’m fascinated by the desert plants. We found three types of cactus that were new to us, some late blooming wildflowers and other plants we couldn’t identify. The landscape is vast. It gives you a sensation of solitude you just don’t feel in the East. We only saw one car all day. There were a few ruins and relics from old ranches and a factory that made wax from the candelilla cactus. If you want to be alone this is the park for you. I’ve heard there were 800,000 acres here and only 300,000 visitors a year. This is only one of the backcountry roads available. The Highlander handled the road just fine with Steve at the wheel. There was one area we had to cross that was exposed slickrock and very rough. Fortunately that lasted less than a half of a mile. Opal was a bit anxious and tired of having to balance in the back cargo area.
We finished the drive and headed back to the trailer where we left Opal. A quick change into our swim suits and off to the Hot Spring. Who’d have guessed that in the middle of a desert you’d find a natural hot spring right on the bank of the Rio Grande. From 1942-1952 there was a store and what appears to be a small motel or hotel. You park and walk in .4 miles to the spring. The bottom is very muddy and it’s only 2-3 feet deep. The spring stays a constant 105 degrees. There was a family from Fredricksburg, Texas there when we arrived. We stayed another 20 minutes after they left. Very relaxing. What a treat to be sitting along the riverbank in a spa. The sun was getting low and we felt too isolated there so we left to do our laundry. I have to admit that if I were still a single lady and traveling by myself, I wouldn’t go there alone. With what is occuring in Mexico and along the border I don’t feel it would be safe.
Laundry is done. Dinner is done. Muffins for the road tomorrow are baked and cooling. Again we’ll be taking a few days break from the blog while we visit with relatives in the Dallas area. Texas is one BIG state. The drive from Big Bend to Ray Roberts State Park will take us 12 hours and over 500 miles. We’ll pass 9,000 miles for the trip during that drive. We have two weeks left before heading home. Steve and I both feel this has been the best two months of our lives.