Travel is still the most intense mode of learning.
After leaving Arkansas, we headed toward Palo Duro State Park in the panhandle of Texas. We had learned of this canyon from a couple camped near us at Natchez Trace State Park in TN (they were moving from TX to KY and had brought their pet dogs and birds with them and had a separate outdoor enclosure at the campsite for their birds, so, naturally, i had to ask some questions). They said Palo Duro was a beautiful canyon worthy of a visit. It’s a long drive from AR so we spent a night at a forgettable state park in Oklahoma (our first couple of state park visits really made me appreciate even more the beautiful and well-maintained state parks back in North Carolina). Melissa steered us toward a couple more wildlife refuges and we once again, had some great birds (including more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers) at Sequoyah NWR in OK.
I’m beginning to think I understand Texans a bit more now after visiting the exhibits at Palo Duro (they are really proud of Texas, and everything is better there). This canyon is deemed the second largest canyon in the United States (only Grand Canyon is bigger they say). After visiting and googling a bit, I think it is the second longest canyon at about 120 miles (you don’t sense that when you visit for as short a time as we did). It certainly is beautiful, and you can actually drive from the rim down to the floor of the canyon in the park. With threatening weather, we snagged an Airbnb on the rim of the canyon just outside the park entrance (a tiny house in an RV Park, this seems to be a trend). The next morning, you could barely see into the canyon due to clouds, wind, and rain, so we headed out with the general thought of heading to some national parks we have never seen – Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef.
We took in two more wildlife refuges without much detour – Buffalo Lake and Las Vegas NWRs. And though the weather was iffy (a mix of sun and clouds and very gusty winds), we managed a few interesting species, including two new ones for us, Lark Buntings and Bullock’s Orioles.
I should mention that we really had no specific itinerary as we went along, other than looking for national forests with what looked like decent dispersed camping, and then hitting some sights along the way, especially areas that had interesting hikes. We usually planned each day no more than one day ahead and often made decisions on the fly, based on what Melissa was finding as she worked her navigation mojo. That is how we ended up heading toward Bandelier National Monument. She saw it was in the general direction we were headed and the images online looked interesting. Plus, the online information mentioned there were Abert’s Squirrels there, and we both really wanted to see one of those tufted-eared rodents (unfortunately, we never saw one).
We visited the main archeological sites along the Pueblo Loop Trail and then did a side trip to the Alcove House. The village site is down on the valley floor but there are hand dug cavates (cave dwellings) on the face of the cliffs above with stone steps leading to several for easy viewing. The creek is one of the few permanent sources of water in the region, so I can see why the Ancestral Pueblo chose this site – a strip of green in an otherwise parched landscape.
Nearby is Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the online images reminded us of another caldera we love – Yellowstone. So, naturally, we had to head in that direction. We arrived late in the day and saw that this NPS unit has some different rules from the usual park – hunting of elk and turkey is allowed (elk were reintroduced into New Mexico here in the mid-1900’s and this area now has the second largest elk herd in the state), the hours are shorter than most parks, and, as it turned out, they were opening the back country roads to 35 vehicles (first come-first serve) the next morning for the season. So, we went in to the office to get some information, and while were talking to a volunteer, a park vehicle drove up, and out gets a ranger we knew from Yellowstone (she had given our museum groups programs at Old Faithful for several years). She had just started here at Valles Caldera, so it was great catching up and getting a few insider tips.
Melissa always feels the stress of trying to find just the right campsite – ideally on or near water, high elevation, scenic views, and maybe a combination of meadows and forest. But, even though she researches the maps and satellite images, and looks for online reviews of various areas, you often can’t tell what it is really like until you drive down a potentially bumpy road and see for yourself. We had picked one site that looked good and was on the edge of a steep gorge, but as we stood along what looked like a hiking trail at the edge of the rim, two dirt bikes blasted through the site. Turns out the path was a designated dirt bike trail, so we decided to look elsewhere for a campsite. We finally came upon a forested site surrounded by huge boulders. There were several fire rings, indicating this was a popular spot, so we settled in for the evening.
Without going into too much detail, I’ll share what I saw that afternoon as I was out on “bucket patrol”. As I returned to the truck, walking between two of the boulders, something moved on the ground. It was a very impressive (and totally harmless) Bull Snake about 6 feet in length. I admired its beautiful color and pattern and took a quick video clip as it went on its way.
On our way to this location, we had passed a trailhead along the main road that looked promising, so we headed back down for a look. Being a weekday, it was not very crowded, so we hiked in and we were so glad we did. Las Conchas Trail is an absolutely gorgeous hike along the East Fork of the Jemez River with fantastic rock outcrops and a mix of meadows and conifers all along its length. Elevation here is about 8400 ft but the hike is an easy 4 mile (out and back) stroll with plenty of natural beauty to observe.
The water is crystal clear and allowed us some great fish watching. At a few points along the trail we saw groups of these fish (I believe they are Rio Grande Suckers) in what is probably spawning behavior. Groups of smaller ones (presumably males) in an area, sometimes moving gravel in the stream bottom, and then converging on a larger individual when it would come into the picture (I guess that is a female). We sat at one spot and watched them for about 20 minutes as they glided back and forth in the creek.
The next morning we were in line at the gate of Valles Caldera to secure one of the back country road passes. Most of the people in line were fishermen, although I was later amazed at how tiny the creeks were that these folks were trying to catch trout in. This is one of the newest NPS units, having been officially turned over to the Federal Government in 2014. The terrain reminded us of parts of Yellowstone with vast mountain meadows and conifers. The landscape was shaped by a massive volcanic eruption about 1.25 million years ago followed by a collapse of the volcano (the caldera). Like Yellowstone, early people were drawn to this area for the abundant wildlife and obsidian which was used and widely traded for projectile points and other tools. The land was granted to private ranchers in the late 1800’s and for decades was an active cattle and sheep ranch and used for logging, hunting, geothermal energy exploration, and more. Preserve managers are now working to restore the natural processes n this unique ecosystem.
After spending a couple of days in the high mountains, we packed up and headed into the dry desert environments of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast and amazing land that offer such a different take on the West. The beauty and strange (to us) landscapes of Arizona and Utah await…