Up the Grand Staircase

An area that has intrigued me since I first learned of it from a lady in Taos, NM, who had once been a guide there, is a large tract in southern Utah called the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. It sits at an elevation largely between 5500 and 10,000 feet, so early May is just becoming spring there at most elevations. That means cold nights and cool/warm days, with some lingering snow at higher elevations. It also means fewer tourists, so what better time to join our long-time friends David and Marcia, now residents of southern California, for a couple of weeks of Jeepin’ and ‘splorin’.

For this trip we decided to go with vacation rental homes rather than camping, and use them as “base camp” to explore a variety of geological and scenic wonders found withing a couple of hours’ drive. We chose Hatch, Utah, and Boulder, Utah, for our base camps, and lined up 4 days in each location to give us time to explore unhurried.

First, we had to get there, so Jodie and I gave ourselves three days and two nights to poke our noses into adventures along the way. Our first stop was in Silver City, NM, where we lived for 6 years from 1994 to 2000. We had to stop by our old house, then took a drive up to the little mining community of Pinos Altos. 

Our home, which had also been our photography studio for 6 years:4

Leaving Silver City, we headed into northern Arizona. As a kid of perhaps 5, my mom and I hopped in our new 1950 Buick Special and headed off down Route 66 to California. Along the way we did the usual touristy things that you did in the 50’s, which included stops at all those “Indian Trading Posts” for Indian spears made of cane shafts and cardboard spear heads, adorned with red-and-blue feathers, and marked “authentic.” The stop at Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park was just for Mom. I had to relive my childhood, so we made it a point to stop there on the way. It was amazing, with fossilized logs from the Triassic Period lying everywhere:132027

This area was home to many early pre-history Americans, starting about 8000 BC. They left behind many puzzling inscriptions on the rocks:5454a

Just across the old roadway which was once Route 66 is the sister park, Painted Desert NP, with its colorful banded layers of Triassic sediments, originally named by the Spanish explorer Coronado:5564

Leaving Painted Desert and Petrified Forest NP, it’s only a short drive down I-40 to Winslow, AZ, location immortalized in the Eagles song “Take it Easy,” written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. You’ll remember the lyrics,
“Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me”

On a corner in downtown Winslow, AZ, is a statue of Jackson Browne, standin’ on the corner, with the girl in the flatbed Ford reflected in the window:74

We next found ourselves in the small southern Utah town of Hatch, where we met David & Marcia, long-time friends and companions on many past adventures. After checking into the vacation home we were sharing, we headed off to Zion National Park:98Zion National Park – upon exiting a long tunnel and rounding one of the switchbacks that drop visitors down to the valley floor. where we came upon a young bighorn sheep at home on the rocks in the valley.98aZion NP – a wild turkey struts his stuff while parading after a pair of hens. David and I left the tram, which takes visitors into the heart of the park, and hiked along the road for a mile or so.144106111154BW129From Zion, we headed across Hwy 12 on our way back to Hatch, and found plenty of leftover winter snow at the higher elevations:184Near Hatch, UT, is the Grand Staircase – Excalante National Monument. Found within the huge area of hoodoos and cliffs is the Kodachrome Basin State Park, with its colorful formations and unusual sculptures:192A 3-mile hike along easy terrain takes you back to Shakespeare Arch, well worth the hike. David stands at the base of the formation for perspective:222227

Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument – a drive of about 8 miles from Kodachrome Basin SP brings you to Grosvenor Arch. This is ADA accessible via a paved walk from the parking lot. Jodie & I were here in 1993, and it’s a spectacular arch.232234Reagle – on the way back we spotted this rare “Reagle” – with rabbit legs and an eagle body, these hybrids are rarely seen. (Actually, this young golden eagle had just pounced on a rabbit and was flying off with it in his talons, making this optical illusion).241Willis Creek Slots – another side road in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument takes you to a trailhead for the Willis Creek slots, a series (5-6-7 depending on how you count) of slot canyons along a small creek.252256c265Red Canyon Hoodoos – on Hwy 12 after leaving Hatch, UT, going east, the road climbs through a canyon of the same formations as Bryce Canyon, a park we visited in this area in 1993 but chose to pass on this trip.272Burr Trail Road – a road from Boulder, UT, called the Burr Trail, winds through 30 miles of high desert, then drops down a series of switchbacks to the lower end of Capitol Reef National Park, where it joins with the Notom-Bullfrog Road (impassable in wet weather) and heads north another 44 miles to join the main road through Capitol Reef NP. Notice the arch in the excarpment, visible as we descend the road.301303306South of Boulder, on the road to Escalante, is another hike in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Here, the 6.3-mile trail follows Calf Creek through a beautiful canyon.325Up on one cliff face are painted these pictographs, seen here from the other side of the valley, standing perhaps 6 feet tall.326329The trail ends at Lower Calf Creek Falls. These falls drop 126′ into a clear pool. The temperature in this dead-end box canyon dropped at least 10 degrees as we approached the pool/falls from the cold water.340346

Capitol Reef National Park lies 60 miles north of Boulder, UT, via scenic Hwy 12. It is not a large park, but has some features that make it worth the trip, such as Capitol Dome:348Capitol Reef NP – petroglyphs carved into the rock walls along the Fremont River:351356Capitol Reef NP – a 1-mile hike starting along the Fremont River leads to Hickman Bridge. Definition: an arch spans dirt, a bridge spans water…saw no water here, but they still call it a bridge.388390Capitol Reef NP – David leads out down the road through Grand Wash:423The Devil’s Backbone Bridge – there is a backcountry road that connects Boulder with Escalante, which climbs over the mountains along a 38-mile drive. near the northern end is a bridge built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1934, “just because they could.”439“Top of the World” view from the Devil’s Backbone:440

On the way back to Big Bend through southern Utah, through Grand Staircase – Escalante, through Glen Canyon Rec. Area…sights like this one are reminiscent of an Indiana Jones temple, but seem commonplace in this region of red and gray mesas:444445

And so, after 12 days in this incredible land we realize that we didn’t even scratch the surface. You need a lifetime of exploration to get to know this land. A lady we knew some 20 years ago back in Taos, NM, had been a guide in the Excalante her entire life, and said she had not seen it all. Guess I’ll just have to save that for another lifetime.

 

The Chiricahuas

In the desert of southeastern Arizona lies one of the best-kept secrets of all our national parks and monuments: Chiricahua National Monument. Jodie & I discovered this gem about 20 years ago, but did not have the time to explore it, or even scratch the surface. This past week we returned with two of our best friends to explore, photograph, and discover…and we were blown away by the awesome and unusual features that are abundant on this desert island.

Not far from Mexico, this 12,000 acre park is well-known among the birding community, because of its reputation for having birds found nowhere else in the U.S., birds that are usually found in Mexico and southward, and find their way here, the northernmost tip of their range. But, if you are not a “birder,” there is much more to discover here. The geology of the Chiricahua Mountains is one of “hoodoos” and fossils, and the flora is mixed, ranging through 4 different ecosystems, from Sonoran desert to sub-alpine, from 5124′ up to 9763′ in altitude. Perhaps the most spectacular sights are found in the hoodoos, or as the Chiricahua Apaches called them, the land of “standing up rocks.” The ryolite formations, made up of volcanic ash, have eroded to form thousands of pinnacles, spires, and balanced rocks…a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon” as my friend David referred to it. Come along and share some of the highlights of our recent trip.

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Bonita Campground, small and by reservation only, is nestled between canyon walls, among oaks, cypress, pine and fir trees. No frills, but there is a public restroom and water at intervals around the campground. Our site was clean and provided a picnic table and a grill for a wood fire:

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David, Marcia and Jodie enjoying a campfire to break the chill in a mile-high campground:

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The first settlers, the Swedish family Neil and Emma Erickson, built a home here in 1888, just two years after the Chiricahua Apache bands led by Cochise and Geronimo had surrendered. Their children developed the home and surrounding land into a guest ranch that operated here from 1917 until 1973. The house and ranch buildings are open to the public within the park:

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The tack room, with saddle horses and the horses’ names painted on tin cans along the wall:

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At the end of the eight-mile-long Bonita Canyon Drive lies Massai Point, at 6870 feet, where the visitor can get a 360 degree view of the “standing up rocks” of the canyons, designated official wilderness areas. This shows why it is referred to as a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon”:

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David and I caught the free shuttle at the visitor center and rode it to the trailhead on Massai Point, then started the 7.25 mile trail down Ryolite Canyon, through the park’s most spectacular pinnacles and balanced rocks. The trail descends 1700′ through the canyon, but along the way we climbed a total ascent of nearly 1000′ while descending 2400′ before reaching the Visitor Center where we left a vehicle. Here are some of the pinnacles, hoodoos, and balanced rocks encountered along the trail:

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A panorama of the “standing up rocks” along the opposite canyon wall, with the Chiricahua Mountains looming behind:

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Balanced rocks and hoodoos abound on a 1-mile loop known as Heart of Rocks:

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Estimated at over 40 tons, this rock stands “balanced” on a small, seemingly impossible remaining area:

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David winding his way with camera in hand through the maze of “Heart of Rocks” area:

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From the reserve, we made the 26-mile drive across the Chiricahuas to the settlement of Paradise, then on to the little town of Portal:

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Nearby, the Fort Bowie historical monument bears witness to the soldiers who, under Cooke, tracked and ultimately forced the surrender of the fierce Chiricahua Apache warriors Cochise and Geronimo, who established a stronghold in these Chiricahua Mountains to make their last stand against the encroachment of the westward expansion. Ruins of walls and buildings remain as testimony of the difficulty of life in this harsh land 130 years ago. Jodie and Marcia used their time to explore the site while David and I were out hiking the trails:

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Finally, we made a detour over to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge to see if we could catch the sandhill cranes before their return to Canada. We found some cranes, and a few other critters, including a gray Hawk:

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The cranes in the marsh, some flying in, and a few ducks still hanging on with the coming of spring:

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So much more to see in this part of the state…historic towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, many other wildlife refuges and birding sites, wineries…all sprinkled throughout with quaint B&B’s of all types, many specializing in birding with bird sanctuaries…enough to keep us coming back for many years to come. 

Homeward Bound

After three wonderful days visiting friends in Tampa, FL, we’re back on the road again, this time heading up the Florida coast to the gulf town of Crystal River, Florida, famous for their manatee tours.  A manatee (also known as a sea cow), is a gentle mammal found in the warm clear waters along the gulf coast of Florida.  They move up into the warmer waters of the natural springs during cool weather, so this is the perfect time of year to see these gentle giants.

A few images taken from our kayaks while paddling in Three Sisters Spring:

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Also in Crystal River, FL, is the Manatee Education Center.  This is a “must see” if you’re in the area.  It includes a boat ride through a protected watershed, to an area where endangered and rescued animals from the Florida habitat are on display.  A few (and I do mean only a few) of the animals we observed and enjoyed on our visit:

River ecosystem:

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Swans and egrets:

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Alligator:

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Bobcat:

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Birds of prey:

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Endangered Red Wolf:

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After our day of encounter with wildlife, we watched a wonderful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico:

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Moon over Miami (almost):

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Our campsite at Crystal River, AdventureDavid’s truck camper and our pop-up at Crystal Isle RV Resort:

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And so, it’s time we split up and head our separate ways home.  Our route takes us up the gulf coast of Florida to the town of Port St. Joe, Florida.  This is one of the best-kept secrets of the gulf coast.  The beaches are spectacular, as are the sunsets:

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Too bad it was 47 degrees…we wanted to go for a swim!

Key West No Bust

If you are following our journey through the south, specifically Florida and all the way to Key West, you will know that we are picking up this entry on Day 8, with day dawning on Key West, Florida.  We are camped at Boyd’s Key West RV Resort, about 5 miles from the heart of downtown Key West and the historic district.

Sunrises have not been nearly as spectacular as sunsets, and this one is pretty typical, as viewed from the end of the little peninsula where we are camped:

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One negative to camping on this side of Key West is the proximity to the Naval Air Base.  From dawn to dusk, with a few unpredictable breaks in the action, fighter jets from the base do “touch-and-go” practice maneuvers, the blast from the afterburners making it impossible to talk to one another until after they pass by.  A couple of the fighters running sorties over the bay:

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Day 9 is our day to explore the old historic downtown area, hopefully before the cruise ships unload and clog the shops.  Breakfast is the first order of business, and if you find yourself in Key West, be sure to check out “Two Friends” patio restaurant.  Clean, well-run, good wait staff, and good food, served on an al fresco patio…what more could you want on an island:

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After breakfast, I recommend a walk to the nearby port where the cruise ships are moored.  We found a Disney ship docked and disembarking, with another ship due to arrive later in the day:

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Ernest Heminway’s drinking and partying is legendary, and his most favorite watering hole was “Sloppy Joe’s.”  The original Sloppy Joe’s was located a block from the current Sloppy Joe’s, but they both remain true to the flavor of a beach bar, originally intended for locals.

The 1933-1937 Sloppy Joe’s:

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The current Sloppy Joe’s, about a block away:

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Having brought our Point65 tandem kayak all the way from Texas, it was imperative that we get out in the bay for a paddle.  We put in at the boat ramp in the RV park and paddled out to the furthest boats at anchor, just shy of the ship channel.  We found many abandoned wrecks, perhaps a remnant of Katrina 8 years earlier, perhaps some just lost as a result of being abandoned.  Jodie and I found that most of the boats at anchor in the shallow (2-5′ depth at most) were mostly old, delapidated garbage scowls with people living on them, sort of the migrant farm workers of the high seas.  A few scenes from our kayak with Jodie at the helm:

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Next day our friend David takes the kayak for a spin around the bay.  It’s a nice workout:

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Our last evening on Key West, we return to Salute on the Beach Italian Restaurant for dinner and sunset, complete with beach volleyball and reggae music:

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The perfect way to wrap up 5 wonderful days in Hemingway Country:

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And so, the next morning we get a fantastic send-off with this sunrise, and we’re off to Tampa:

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Florida or Bust

It’s 25 degrees in Marathon, Texas.  It’s 81 degrees in Marathon, Florida.  Solution:  ROAD TRIP!

Having never been to the Florida Keys, it’s only logical that our next destination, especially in February, be Hemmingwayville (not to be confused with Margaritaville).  So, the next couple of weeks we will chronicle our trip from west Texas to Key West, FL, some 1950 miles away.  We will be joined during the journey by good friends, David and Marcia (see their blog on our Blogroll “AdventureDavid”.

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First two days were fairly short days.  First night was spent near Amistad National Recreation Area, at a private campground with clean bathrooms, a very friendly counter person, and very few amenities.  Exactly what we needed.  Second night just outside of Houston, TX, at an RV park similar to the first night…easy to get into and easy to leave, with a friendly staff.  No amenities here, either…close to the highway, but far from restaurants or grocery stores.  No problem.

First night at American RV Park, Del Rio, Texas:

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Day 2, Houston West RV Park, 35 miles west of Houston, Texas:

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Day 3 dawns cool and clear, and it’s time to hit the road for real, this day.  540 miles to go, so we’re off by 9:00 a.m.  Met up with our friends, David and Marcia, on Dauphin Island, Alabama.  and checked into Dauphin Island RV Park.  We highly recommend the ribs at Dauphin Island Barbecue.  When something exceeds your expectations, it makes you smile…these ribs had us grinning from ear-to-ear.

The next morning, a short walk over to the beach just after sunrise, then it’s time to pack up and head to Florida.  An osprey was underwhelmed at our presence, an intrusion upon his hunt for breakfast.

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Happy to see the last of I-10 for awhile, we turn south at Tallahassee on Alt 27 and drive the Georgia-Florida Parkway, a reminder of slower cars and times, much like the travels I remember as a kid on Route 66.  The glory days of Florida vacation travel.  Logged another 450 miles today, putting us at a 4-day total of 1,500 miles

Finally in Florida, at Cedar Key, I check my weather app for home and at 10:00 p.m. it’s 63 degrees in Marathon…while my indoor/outdoor thermometer here at the RV park in Cedar Key, Florida, is reading 27 degrees.  Let’s see, what was the motivation to drive 2000 miles to Florida?

And how I love technology.  It’s 6:15 a.m., and I wake with a cold head.  Dark.  Really dark.  It dawns on me that nothing in the camper that uses electricity is working, especially the heaters…and it’s 22 degrees outside!  No lights…no heat.  Troubleshoot.  An inspection of the converter box reveals that the one 20 amp fuse is blown.  No backup fuses (lesson learned).  I steal a 15 amp fuse from another socket in the panel and pop it into the 20 amp socket.  Voila…heater and lights come on.  However, still no 110v heater, or any other 110v outlet, for that matter.  Battery power shown on my volt minder is 12.44 volts.  If the 110v ac power was going through the converter, that should be about 13.85 volts, so nothing is going through the converter.  Walking outside I find a dark campground.  Totally alien, given the fact that half of all RV’ers burn some sort of decorative lights all night long as some sort of RV park ritual or something.  I pull my volt meter from my truck tool box (it’s still dark and 22 degrees), and there is no power at the 30 amp plug.  Relief, because I thought I had blown a converter.  Alas, it’s them and not me.  Hooray!

Cedar Key is quaint…a word totally overused, but in this case, quite appropriate.  A small, historic, old downtown is the Florida of Hemmingway novels.  The restaurant selection is small, but Tony’s is simply the best.  So good, in fact, that we ate there two consecutive nights.  Have the internationally recognized clam chowder.  Do not get the “Super Bowl”  unless you are either starving, or simply want everyone in the restaurant to run over with their cell phones and photograph you eating it.

The operative phrase for Cedar Key is “laid back.”  Some of the flavor:

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Up early, it’s a long day’s drive from Cedar Key to Key West, Florida (about 550 miles), and speed limits once you reach the Keys drop to 45-55 mph.  We arrive at Boyd’s Key West RV Park just in time to set up in the dark, a somewhat daunting task with short, tight camping spots necessary to maximize valuable real estate on this island.  Success at last, and we settle in for a good night’s rest.

Next morning we check off a required visit to Ernest Hemingway’s House in old historic Key West.  The 6-toed cats are as advertised, and the house is well worth the $13 entry fee.  Second floor veranda and lighthouse in background:

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Jodie with one of the sweet 6-toed cats:

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The study, desk and typewriter, where Hemingway wrote his most famous novels:

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The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is perhaps the most unexpected treat of our trip so far.  It is a must if you ever get to Key West.  A couple of the more exotic bird-sized moths at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory were these:

Attacus Atlas Moth (the largest moth in the world).  This one had a wingspan of about 10 inches:

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And the Actius Luna Moth, with a wingspan of 5-6 inches:

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Some other notable butterflies whose color, shape and delicate grace made this a memorable experience:

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A hitchhiker on top of David’s hat:

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From the pier at the end of Atlantic Blvd., we are at the southernmost point in the continental United States.  To say the sunset was spectacular would be a lie…it was one of the finest sunsets we have ever seen, anywhere.  On the horizon you can barely define 3-masted sailing ships, probably out for an evening sunset cruise:

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If you enjoy beautiful sunsets, 80-degree weather in February, and clam chowder, hang with us the next few days as we explore this tropical extreme right here at home.