Across the Plains… Again!

Caminente, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminente, no hoy camino
se hace camino el andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminent, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.

~Antonio Machado, translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney

It’s that time of year, where, in my job working with teachers, there’s a bit of a gap in the schedule. It’s getting close to the end of the school year, final exams, and grades; so professional development workshops aren’t the highest priority for teachers. That means it’s time for me to use some of the many hours of comp time I’ve banked. So, on May 9, after 22 days of work with only 1 day off, we hit the road in the good ole pickup truck to head west. That was the only plan. Head west. Since we’ve done this before, we felt confident that we could figure things out on the fly. Perhaps not the best idea, but that meant we could change plans at the drop of the hat. If it was going to rain or blow, we’d just head in another direction, right? Right…

Since I hadn’t had a day off in 8 days (and only one at that point), we were definitely not ready to leave early in the morning to make some progress out west. The morning of May 9 came, and we still had a lot of packing to do. But my truck camping and dehydrated food lists from previous trips camp in handy, and we were able to get everything together and hit the road by early afternoon. That meant our first stop would be in the North Carolina mountains (because, not sure if Mike’s mentioned this before, but we pretty much despise Tennessee – the only place we’ve found to camp is state parks, and… let’s just say that we much prefer North Carolina state parks).

Folks, if you want to camp without people around, the Forest Service is your friend. Their website is terrible… but once you figure out the maze, it’s pretty consistent from forest to forest; and Motor Vehicle Use Maps are your best friend (especially in the west… in the east, it’s much trickier to figure out where dispersed camping is allowed and where it’s not… I sometimes think they’re opaque on purpose to try to limit the amount of use some of these areas get… I might be ok with that!). I mean, they don’t show topography, and they hardly show roads outside of the national forest (like, roads that show up on other maps and might help you figure out where the heck you are), but hey, at least they show you the forest service roads!

So, after much consultation with the USFS website for Pisgah National Forest, we hit up a dispersed camping area off I-40 before the Tennessee border (on a whim, at the last minute, of course). It didn’t disappoint. We found a spot next to a stream, slightly off the road, with lots of wild geranium in bloom and spring peepers and American toads calling in a few ditches created by previous campers in a much muddier season (the ruts were so deep I was a bit surprised not to find a rusting vehicle at the end of the track). Not a bad way to start the trip.

Our first campsite in Pisgah NF
Cold Springs Creek just above our campsite – a perfect mountain stream

The next day was another story, however. We hit the road early trying to cover some middle-of-the-country miles. Or really, trying to get across Tennessee. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful state with more brown signs along the interstate than almost anywhere else. But every campground we’ve been to has been… mediocre… generously (which is only 3, so someone please tell me where the good ones are, if you know!). We’d thought to head towards the Ozarks in Arkansas or southern Missouri, home to our favorite river, the Current. But rain was forecast for that area (thank you, National Weather Service, for the nationwide graphical forecast tool), so we decided to steer a bit further north.

We knew that in Missouri we could camp at one of their many state-run Conservation Areas, which are often quite remote and lovely, so as Mike drove the interstate, I perused the Missouri Department of Conservation website and landed on a conservation area along the Mississippi River called Magnolia Hollow. Camping? Check. Scenery? Perhaps. Close to the highway? Relatively. So we headed down some single lane roads, past a bunch of farm fields, then up onto the bluffs above the river. A visit to the trailhead at the end of the road and a stroll out to the viewpoint showed the might Mississippi in the distance (after huge floodplain fields in cultivation). And the birds were great – we saw Kentucky warblers close-up! That’s not one we often see in North Carolina! (Sorry, no picture, but google them – they’re beautiful birds!). Plus, it was singing consistently, so we got to know the call a bit – it sounds like a tired ovenbird, a species we hear regularly in our woods at home.)

Mississippi River in the distance with a wide cultivated floodplain in the foreground

The camping area was fine – a few concrete picnic tables and fire rings in the trees. But a peaceful night’s sleep was not to be… because well after dark, a man drove into the camping area quickly, stopped his car, and got out with a large dog. They went for a walk down the road, and there was much yelling. Then, he came back to the campground, messed in his vehicle very briefly, and proceeded to lie down on the concrete picnic table next to our site and curse at his dog to be quiet and lay with him, perhaps to keep him warm. I couldn’t hear all of his words… but I heard enough to know that he wasn’t entirely in his right mind for one reason or another. To be quite honest, it was scary. He wasn’t threatening, but I worried that if he woke up and needed something and approached our truck with his dog… well, I didn’t know what that might look like. I woke Mike up and we remained awake for most of the night. At dawn, we quickly packed up and got out of there, thankfully with no interaction with the man, other than him yelling at his dog to stop barking at us. We were glad to get away safe and sound (and to find a wonderful local coffee shop for some caffeine and breakfast treats)!

After that fun evening, we were happy to cross and then depart from Missouri. Next stop: Kansas. We had decided to head towards Colorado by this point in the hopes that, it being slightly farther south than our favorite places in Wyoming (yes, Yellowstone, you knew that, didn’t you?), there might be a bit less snowpack after this incredibly snowy western winter. Given that Colorado is known for its very tall peaks, you may be questioning this rationale a bit. You would be right. More on that later. But head that way, we did. Kansas was not our favorite state when we had crossed it previously; though it has the Flint Hills, we’re bigger fans of the Loess Bluffs of western Iowa and northwestern Missouri and the Sandhills of Nebraska. But, we knew it has some nice National Wildlife Refuges, and Mike loves nothing better than to stop at a National Wildlife Refuge. Previously, we crossed Kansas in the fall, so we figured we might see some different species this time of year.

Plus, Kansas has some lovely State Fishing Lakes, many of which allow camping at somewhat dispersed sites. With the goal of visiting Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in the morning, we headed to Chase State Fishing Lake just south of the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve. We’d camped here on a previous trip, and the open landscape and slightly more developed camping area were just the respite we needed after our Missouri fiasco. The area had been recently burned and the wild indigo (Baptisia sp.) was in beautiful bloom. A short walk along the road also introduced us to green antelopehorn milkweed, which is a new favorite plant name for me.

Wild indigo in bloom by Chase State Fishing Lake
Green antelopehorn milkweed flowers

After dinner, we took a short walk below the dam for the lake, as I’d seen something that made me think there might be a waterfall there. Yup, a Kansas waterfall. It was surprisingly impressive! There wasn’t much water as this part of the world has been in a drought. The main part of the falls was dry, but a bit downstream was a smaller falls with some water flowing over it. It’s all thinly bedded sedimentary rock, which makes for a picturesque waterfall; it would be quite impressive with more water. Flipping a couple rocks, I spotted numerous mayflies, which indicated to me that the water quality was at least pretty decent and, it being a warm night with no shower in the near future, I took the opportunity for a favorite activity, a head dunk!

Waterfall below Chase Lake

We ended the evening watching a lovely sunset over Chase Lake before retiring quite early to the truck for a well-deserved hard night’s sleep.

As this blog is getting a bit lengthy, I’ll leave you here. Mike will pick up the tale in future posts.

PS – Many thanks to my Mom for a beautiful little journal she picked up in Patagonia for me. It’s bound in leather (guanaco, perhaps) and features a line from the Antonio Machado poem quoted at the beginning of this post on its cover. It was a lovely companion to record details and sketches as we traveled. Thanks, Mom!

On The Road Again, Halloween Style

Shadows mutter, mist replies; darkness purrs as midnight sighs.

~ Rusty Fischer

The pause in posts was necessitated by another truck road trip and much less cell phone service than usual. This time, carrying our ancient (and heavy) black canoe (who has a black canoe anyway?) atop the truck to paddle some rivers in far-away lands (Missouri and Arkansas). But more on that part of the adventure in future posts. Today, due to the nature of the holiday upon us, I thought I’d focus of the things we saw at the start of the trip when we wee exploring our mountains and stalling for time so a storm system in the Midwest could move on. I hadn’t really realized how spooky it all was until I started looking at the photos this morning with so many thoughts of Halloween now surrounding us.

So, here are a few of the mysterious things encountered as we made our way across our mountains at the start of our latest adventure. It started innocently enough, a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, headed toward a campsite at the Pisgah campground near the Pisgah Inn. Leaf color was just beginning to change, so the crowds were not yet suffocating and the views were fantastic.

Scene along Blue Ridge Parkway (click photos to enlarge)

But, now, with Halloween upon us, I began to view these images in a different, darker light. Am I just imagining things, or were those first few days pretty creepy? Look at the photos, and tell me what you think…

A morning mist creeps through the valley below. We drove down into one such bank of clouds and the bright, sunny day suddenly turned dark…

On a hike to a fire tower near the Pisgah campground, we encountered a number of interesting (and looking back now,) potentially eerie plants. Here are just a few…

The oddly-shaped flowers and last year’s seed pods of American Witch-hazel, one of our latest blooming plants.

This late-blooming small tree is an odd plant indeed. Extracts from the leaves, bark, and twigs provide the aromatic salve called witch hazel, used as an astringent and an anti-inflammatory to soothe cuts and burns. In addition to its unusual name, another spooky trait is that forked branches of this tree have been favored for use as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settles observed Native Americans using American Witch-hazel to find underground sources of water (or other objects if interest such as minerals, buried treasure, graves, etc.). According to folklore, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward. The bottom or butt end of the “Y” is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. The dowser then walks back and forth over the area to be tested. When she/he passes over a source of water, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward. I have tried this and actually felt the rod move in my hands…creepy!

The globular fruiting cluster of Carrion Flower, an herbaceous greenbrier. Flowers give off an odor similar to carrion (the decaying flesh of dead animals) and attract a ghoulish group of pollinators such as beetles and flies that usually show up at corpses for their meals.
The starburst shape of this seed group attracted my attention. It belongs to Filmy Angelica, a poisonous herb found at high elevations. Even the pollinators run the risk of becoming intoxicated by some unknown compound in the flowers’ nectar. Bees beware!

We headed to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on our next day for a hike in the majestic forest of giant trees. It is one of my favorite tracts of woodland, but on this trip, there were a few strange encounters with otherworldly beings. See if you agree.

We hiked the loop trail through the famous Poplar Grove at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This tract is home to a virgin stand of trees, most notably the tremendous Tulip Poplars, some of which are estimated at over 400 years in age and diameters between 5 and 6 feet. As grand as they are, in looking back, I now see an unsettling resemblance to the Ents in Lord of the Rings. You see it too, don’t you?
At first glance, these tiny fungi look like diminutive fingers poking up from a decaying log. They may actually be a type of fungus associated with green algal mats on logs named Muticlavula mucida.

The most bizarre “creature” we encountered on our hike was a large fungus on a dead tree trunk. I glanced off the trail and saw it staring back at me with a strange misshapen face – mushroom man!

Mushroom man’s face measured roughly 12 inches tall and 8 inches wide.
Side view highlighting the sweaty nature of mushroom man’s skin.

I have tried to find out what species this is, but so far without any luck. If anyone knows the identity of this creepy creature, please let me know. It certainly was one of the most Halloween-like encounters we had on our trip…well, other than the full moon night of Sasquatch sounds (more on that in a future post). Have a safe, sweets-filled, and suitably scary Halloween!

Homeward Bound

We should come home from adventures, and perils and discoveries every day with new experience and character.

~Henry David Thoreau

NOTE – This is the final post from our 7200 mile truck camping trip in May.

Leaving Yellowstone was the start of our long journey home. Time on the road passes so quickly and we tend to not think of home much until we turn the truck toward the East. Then, we realize the adventure must soon come to an end and we (or at least I) start to wonder how things have fared while we were away or what tasks lie ahead. My thoughts are soon bought back to the immediate as we drive through the beautiful and varied landscapes of Wyoming. You go from snow-capped mountains one minute to desert or vast areas of sagebrush and grasslands the next. Along much of our drive we saw the brilliant red “flowers” of Indian Paintbrush. The tips of the plant look like they have been dipped in red paint. The bright red is not really the flower parts, but rather flower-like bracts (a modified leaf or scale on a plant). It is a semi-parasitic plant, its roots penetrating other nearby plants to rob some of their nutrients and water.

Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie-fire, is Wyoming’s state flower (photo by Melissa Dowland) (click photos to enlarge)

I steered toward one of our favorite national forests in the Bighorn Mountains. We camped there on our last two trips and have been very pleased with the number and variety of camping options. We hoped to camp in a site from our first extended truck camping trip last year, one along a small stream on a rocky outcrop in a high meadow. As we drove through, we soon realized things were a bit different now as snow still covered much of the slopes at this elevation. Indeed, the road to that campsite was closed due to deep snow, so we proceeded down in elevation looking for drier ground.

Another outstanding campsite in the Bighorns…what a view

After driving a couple of roads that didn’t quite satisfy us, Melissa found a route with open meadows, streams, some ponds, and potential views of high mountains in the distance. When we pulled into the area, we knew this was it. We passed only a few RVs on a long stretch of dirt road with patches of conifers, open grasslands, and plenty of beaver ponds and creeks. With a strong wind blowing, we pulled into the lee side of a forest grove to set up camp. The meadow was covered in wildflowers and we soon found ourselves on the ground taking a closer look.

Pasqueflower, also known as Prairie Crocus (and you can see why)
Shooting Stars, one of my favorite western wildflowers. The flowers on these 4-inch tall plants are bell-shaped when they first open, but the petals then reflex backwards, giving them the appearance of a shooting star

Before starting the campfire, we hiked down to a pond about a half mile across the meadows. With our faces close to the water, we could see numerous water beetles and fairy shrimp, those upside-down one-inch long lobster relatives that are often found in ephemeral pools.

Large, shallow pool at the far end of the meadow
Our sunrise view from the truck with temperatures hovering around 32 degrees F
Pasqueflowers close at night and in inclement weather

Our next days’ drive went from long stretches on Interstate 90 to some scenic country roads that took us through part of Badlands National Park and the adjacent Pine Ridge Reservation and eventually into the Sandhills of northern Nebraska. On the back roads, we saw some familiar wildlife like Pronghorn and vast prairie dog towns, along with two new species, both of which I had on my radar as something I really wanted to see.

Pronghorn buck running across grasslands near the road

There were so many prairie dog towns along this route and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of mounds. We had discussed looking for Burrowing Owls when we saw prairie dog habitat as these diminutive birds frequently use abandoned prairie dog burrows as roost and nest sites. Burrowing Owls range from Canada to Mexico and parts of Central and South America. There are populations in Florida and some islands in the Caribbean as well. Throughout much of their range, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and decline in the populations of burrowing mammals. We kept scanning as we drove, but I finally pulled over at a large roadside prairie dog town and told Melissa to find me an owl. Lo and behold, after only a couple of minutes, she spotted one. It was way back away from the road sitting on a mound.

Suddenly, another one flew toward the road and landed on a fence post a few hundred yards from us. We jumped in the truck and slowly approached. It was on my side so I stopped and took a few pictures from across two lanes and then had to drive on as a car was coming up behind us. We turned and drove back and pulled as best we could off the side of the road.

A long sought after species for me – the curious Burrowing Owl

Now the owl was much closer and on Melissa’s side. She started taking pics as the bird looked our way. I was trying to hold my telephoto and shoot past her head, but it was tough. Luckily, she caught an amazing sequence of what the owl did next. It leaned forward and looked like it was gagging and then up came a pellet!

The owl leans forward and looks like it wants to do something… (this photo sequence by Melissa Dowland)
The beak opens wide…
It looks like a lot of effort…
Out comes the pellet!
Whew, that was tough

Owls and other raptors must regularly cough up pellets consisting of indigestible parts of their diet such as feathers, fur, bones, and insect exoskeletons. It is rare to witness this behavior, yet alone photograph it! I was very happy she got this sequence (and a little jealous, I must admit:) Finally, the bird flew off and landed on the ground quite some distance from us.

Melissa then suggested we should go look for the pellet (this is how truly nerdy we are, in case you didn’t know). We found a couple of pellets at this post indicating it is an often used perch. Their diet is mainly made up of insects (it looked like a lot of beetles), and small vertebrates like lizards and mice.

Two owl pellets beneath a fence post

Driving through this habitat for the next hour or so, we saw many Burrowing Owls associated with various prairie dog towns with several sitting on fence posts (the only high points in the landscape). I would love to go back and just hang out for a few days watching these comical and endearing birds.

We stopped and helped this gorgeous Ornate Box Turtle (another new species for us) across the road

Melissa guided us to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest in the north-central Sandhills region of Nebraska. There really aren’t that many “forests” here (except for a Ponderosa Pine forest planted many years ago) but plenty of expansive rolling grasslands and an amazing abundance of ponds and lakes. In fact, there were temporary signs all along the route indicating high water may be on the road. That had us a little worried about mosquitoes, but we found the non-biting midges to be the dominant insect as we looked for a non-flooded refuge road to take for a campsite. We finally found one late in the day and set up camp in a small gap between high grass-covered dunes. Once again, we found the Sandhills are apparently maintained by grazing cattle and our site had plenty of evidence that cows had frequented the area (luckily, there were none anywhere nearby at that time). But there were plenty of wildflowers and a surprising amount of poison ivy scattered about, so we took our time walking up the hill above camp. Once on top, a fantastic vista unfolded of seemingly endless rolling grasslands bathed in the golden fading daylight.

Late afternoon sunlight highlights some distant ridges in the Sandhills
A beautiful beardtongue in flower
Hairy Puccoon (one of the puccoon species at least) – hairy because of the “hairs” present on the leaves and stem; puccoon is an American Indian word for plants that produce a dye. Various parts of the puccoons produce a red, yellow, or purple dye
The prairie grasses take on a golden hue in the late day sun
Melissa enjoys a spectacular sunset over the Sandhills

Our next stop was originally going to be a familiar one, Brickyard Hills Conservation Area in Missouri. But I really wanted to revisit Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (where we saw all the Monarch butterflies last Fall) and that was a full 30 minutes or so past Brickyard Hills. We didn’t want to backtrack so we settled on another conservation area near the refuge in order to drive the auto tour late in the day before heading to our last campsite. The iffy weather (cloudy and windy) made for less than ideal conditions, but we did see a few straggler Snow Geese, some American White Pelicans, a Coyote, some Muskrats, and lots of Dicksissels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

One of many male Red-winged Blackbirds belting out their konk-a-ree call along the refuge roads
A huge Snapping Turtle was out on a short bridge across a canal. I got out and took one photo, then turned to get back in the truck when I heard a huge splash. Though it remained motionless when I approached for the photo, Melissa said it pushed itself off the bridge and fell the 10+ feet to the water when I turned around

Leaving the refuge and looking at the weather forecast, we decided to make this conservation area our last camping spot to avoid predicted heavy rains the next night. That meant a marathon last day drive of about 18 hours from Missouri to home. A beautiful sunset and some deer, Coyote calls, and the distant hoots of a Barred Owl were a good way to spend our last night on this epic road trip. The next day we crossed portion of four more states and finally rolled into our home woods at about 2:30 a.m., a bit tired, but glad to be home. Now, where to next?

Our last sunset

Bear River

For me, it always come back to the land, respecting the land, the wildlife, the plants, the rivers, mountains, and deserts, the absolute essential bedrock of our lives. This is the source of where my power lies, the source of where all our power lies.

~Terry Tempest Williams

It was hard to leave Boulder Mountain, but the road beckoned. Weather patterns were holding us back from heading to Jackson, WY, to see friends as a large rain and snow system seemed to be sitting on the Teton-Yellowstone area. We considered a trip farther west to a very under-utilized national park, Great Basin, in Nevada. But the lack of very many camping options deterred us, so we opted instead for a complete turn-around and got an Airbnb in Springville, UT (we agreed we finally needed a night in a place with a nice shower). We were very impressed by the mountainous areas of Utah as we drove through and we will certainly be back.

The high meadows, aspens, and conifers of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa found some good-looking areas in the nearby Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, so we headed there the next morning, exploring some high elevation meadows with somewhat muddy roads and scattered pockets of snow, before settling on a lower elevation campsite.

Glacier Lilies and Spring Beauties in a high meadow
Fields of Glacier Lilies at an elevation of about 9000 ft in the Uinta Mountains
Our beautiful campsite at about 7800 ft off the Mirror Lake Highway

We checked a couple of spots off the Mirror Lake Hwy before picking a relatively open site at the edge of a small drop-off with distant views of mountains. The rocky ledge was home to a few ground squirrels and I managed to convince them I was harmless by sitting still for many minutes.

A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel having a morning snack

A less cooperative resident was a new species for me, a Green-tailed Towhee, that was singing from s small shrub snag until I would try to approach for a photo. We noticed a pattern in its behavior – shortly after I would retreat, the bird would return to the same snag and start singing again. So, I finally just sat down at a distance and heavily cropped the image you see below.

I looked at the field guide description online and was impressed that the author must have known this particular bird as they said “one of the best ways to find them is to visit a shrubby mountainside or sage flat during spring or early summer. Males will spend long periods perched at the tops of shrubs and singing.”

A Green-tailed Towhee laying claim to the mountain

The next day we headed to a destination I was eager to visit – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Salt Lake City. This is a large wetlands complex that is home to huge numbers of waterfowl during migration as well as a variety of other birds throughout the year.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is a sea of wetlands with a beautiful snow-capped mountain backdrop

Two species I particularly hoped to see were American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, both of which nest on the refuge. At the refuge entrance, an American Avocet obliged and was feeding right next to the road at a boat ramp. Birds of the World Online discusses the meanings of the names for this beauty – the generic name, Recurvirostra, comes from the Avocet’s long recurved, or up-turned bill. The name Avocet is from the Italian avosetta, which means ‘graceful bird’.

The American Avocets are in their breeding plumage now, with a nice cinnamon hue to their head and neck.

We spent the next couple of hours slowly driving the 10-mile auto tour and taking in the thousands of birds scattered throughout the varied wetlands that comprise this impressive refuge. Here are some of the highlights…

The refuge web site states that it is home to the largest White-faced Ibis colony in North America (and I can believe it as we saw so many of these birds feeding in the shallows).
This time of year, the waterfowl are not the stars of the refuge, but we did see a few species such as this Gadwall, plus Blue-winged Teal (probably the most numerous duck we saw), Mallards, and…
Always a delight to see Cinnamon Teal. Northern Utah’s wetlands provide habitat for over 50% of the breeding population of this beautiful bird
We were thrilled to see our first Long-billed Curlew in the short grasslands on the refuge. The generic name, Numenius, is from the Greek noumenios meaning “of the new moon”, since their 8-inch long curved bill is reminiscent of the crescent new moon.
We watched avocets at every stop, sometimes not living up to their “graceful bird” moniker
Avocet yoga
An American Avocet with a trio of White-faced Ibis
Another stunning long-legged wader, the Black-necked Stilt. The refuge hosts about 3% of the breeding population of these beautiful birds, but an estimated 80% of their migratory population passes through the refuge and surrounding wetlands each year
We see these birds on our Outer Banks, but seeing so many and being able to spend so much time observing them was a real treat
They look like a child was given a black and white sock and some pink pipe cleaners and black wire and told to assemble a bird
Western Grebes were feeding along many of the roadside ponds and canals. They can be recognized by their red eye being surrounded by dark feathers, a thicker dark line down their neck, and a somewhat dark yellow bill
Similar in appearance to the Western Grebe, but the red eye of this Clark’s Grebe is surrounded by white feathers, the dark line down the neck is quite thin, and the bill is bright yellow
Black-crowned Night Herons were quite common on the refuge and were out feeding along the marsh edges
Small flocks of American White Pelicans were seen all along the auto tour road
A male Yellow-headed Blackbird belting out his “song” among a picturesque (but hugely problematic) stand of Phragmites grass
Our last bird on the refuge was a surprise, a male Ring-necked Pheasant. This species, originally from Asia, has been successfully introduced to many parts of the word as a game bird, including the U.S., where it is common in the Midwest

As is usual, we spent more time than we planned on the refuge, enjoying the continuous display of bird behaviors. It was a windy, gray day, which gave me reason to want to come back on a sunny day and spend an early morning and late afternoon photographing the amazing variety of birds in this special place. Plus, I would love to be here when many of these species have their young. And then there are the thousands of waterfowl in migration…so many birds, so little time.

New Parks and More

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.

~President Lyndon B. Johnson

Just a reminder, these latest posts (and the next few) are about our truck camping adventure this past May, a month-long wandering across some of the beautiful public lands of our country, taking in what we could as we traveled. The last post highlighted one of our best hikes of our entire trip, Buckskin Gulch in Utah. It was a bonus hike in that it was high on Melissa’s bucket list and it happened on our anniversary (due, in part, to a one day delay for minor truck repairs). We ended our anniversary day on another high note with a perfect campsite on the north rim of Grand Canyon!

Our phenomenal campsite along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Kaibab National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

This iconic national park was not on our original itinerary, but when we found ourselves only an hour and a half from the north rim, we decided to go since I had never been to the park and Melissa had only been to the “Disneyland-esque” south rim. So, once we got cell service, she started googling national forest roads in Kaibab National Forest. She found what looked liked dispersed camping opportunities right on the north rim if you were wiling to drive 20+ miles of dirt roads off the main entrance road to the park. We always take a deep breath when heading out on unknown roads, especially long stretches, but they turned out to be fine. There were a few choices for turns that looked like they got close to the rim, so she picked one, and we found ourselves parked about 50 feet from the edge of an incredible view point. Not a bad way to end an already spectacular day. Once again, we were relatively isolated with only one tent camper within hearing distance (we could not see him, but we heard him occasionally close his car door). Farther down the road was the main view point with a few other campers, but we basically had this incredible vista of the Grand Canyon to ourselves! We admired a wonderful sunset and sunrise from our camp chairs on the rim, marveling at the vast story laid bare in the rocky landscape that stretched before us to the far horizon.

Sunset over the Grand Canyon from our campsite
Sunrise the next morning
Mountain Phlox on the rim

The north rim receives only about 10% of the approximately 6 million visitors the park receives each year (last year was about half that due to the pandemic) so we were pleased to have relatively small crowds at the lookouts we visited the next morning.

The layers of rock represent millions of years of change from tropical seas to sand dunes to mud flats, all recorded in the stories told by their structure and the fossils and minerals they contain.
A quote on an exhibit panel from John Strong Newberry – a physician, geologist and paleontologist that explored this region in the 1800’s – Nowhere on the Earth’s surface…are the secrets of its structure so revealed as here.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and gazing out upon its vastness, and realizing the millions of years of Earth’s history that it represents, is a humbling experience. And to do it in a place that was relatively uncrowded and to spend the night on its rim is something that will stick with us for a long time and that will no doubt beckon us to explore this grand landscape further in the future.

That afternoon, we debated returning to our rim campsite, but, with no guarantee it would still be available, and wanting to get an early start the next day (which meant not driving the entire 22 miles of dirt road) back to the paved highway we settled for a closer campsite in the national forest in a large meadow surrounded by conifers and aspens.

Aspen trunks distorted by snow in Kaibab NF

In talking with a woman in an outdoor store in Kanab, AZ, Melissa was torn between her desire to visit Zion National Park (it was so close) and this woman’s suggestion to skip it because it was so crowded. In the end, we opted to bypass the crowds and go directly to Bryce Canyon, another park that would be new for both of us. The drive there is incredible with beautiful vistas all along the way, including a stop at the wonderful Red Canyon Visitor Center in Dixie National Forest, not far from the entrance too Bryce Canyon. This area looks like another place we will need to explore more in future visits.

Red Canyon spires

As we entered Bryce Canyon we felt the pressure of crowds at every turn, long lines at the shuttle tops, and road access to two of the major view points closed due to lack of parking (we were glad we skipped the more popular Zion, if these were the crowds here). We drove through the park on the 18-mile primary road route, stopping to take in the strange geology that has made this park so famous.

In the 1870’s, a geologist (Clarence Dutton) first came up with the idea that the geology of this vast region resembled a staircase, going from the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and proceeding through Zion and into Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bryce Canyon with a series of cliff formations (the steps) of younger and younger rocks. Bryce Canyon is the top step of that sedimentary staircase and its famed hoodoos have been created by a variety of erosional forces from the edges of the high plateau in a series of processes that proceeds from plateau edge to wall to window (or arch) to hoodoo.

Bryce Canyon is actually a series of amphitheaters (not a canyon) eroded from the edge of a high plateau

A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock formed by natural weathering forces (in Bryce Canyon it is mainly ice and rain). The area experiences over 200 days a year where temperatures average above freezing in the day and below freezing at night, leading to a large potential for so-called ice wedging, where water seeps into cracks in the rock and then freezes (and expands), putting tremendous pressure on the rocks and causing them to split apart. As a result of this weathering and the geology of the rocks here, Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon NP
Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon NP
Ponderosa Canyon, Bryce Canyon NP
Near Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon NP

Parking areas for the popular view points were still closed when we came back down the main road but we drove up to the lodge and parked which gave us access to some of the more scenic vistas (they always put lodges close to the most iconic areas in the park). It was another very windy day, but we managed a short hike down into some of the hoodoos for a different perspective of this unusual landscape.

That night, we went to a place recommended by that same woman in the outdoor store for a take-out dinner – Hell’s Backbone Grill, a James Beard-recognized restaurant in Boulder, Utah, a town of 236 people. It was delicious and we highly recommend it, as well as the quirky, artistic Burr Trail Grill and Outpost next door. We dined in our truck (due to the wind) and camped on a desert road off the incredibly scenic nearby Burr Trail Road. The next morning, we headed for Capitol Reef National Park (another new one for us) and spent the day stopping at various view points and hiking the 2-mile round trip down the Capitol Gorge Trail to a unique geologic formation called The Tanks.

The Fluted Wall, Capitol Reef NP
Tree man along the trail, Capitol Reef NP

The Tanks are potholes formed by scouring action of rocks and water (they contain water most of the year I have read) in a narrow drainage down into Capitol Gorge, When they contain water they house a unique ecosystem of tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and algae.

The Tanks, Capitol Reef NP
Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef NP

That night we drove up onto a rocky forest service road on Boulder Mountain and found a great campsite in the aspens with a creek and meadow in view. The next morning we headed for another spot recommended by that chance acquaintance in the outdoor store, the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. This is a well-known easy to moderate hike (6-miles round trip) to a beautiful waterfall. You are walking along a somewhat rare perennial water source, Calf Creek, along the way. The trail starts at the far end of a beautiful (but full when we were there) campground along the creek.

The dark streaks on the canyon walls are so-called desert varnish, formed when wind blown dust and rain leave behind trace amounts of iron and manganese. The resulting oxides created by rainwater and bacterial action harden to form thick layers of dark color.

The water leads to a diverse riparian habitat in the desert with beaver ponds, sizeable trout, and a host of wildflowers and bird life along the trail. We saw another new species for us, Black-headed Grosbeaks, flitting in and out of the shrub thickets as well as Yellow warblers and Spotted Towhees.

Beaver ponds and lush greenery along Calf Creek

Finally, you hear the waterfall and squeals of delight as the braver hikers venture into the cold pool at its base. This stunning waterfall is 126 high and drops down through a slit in a semi-circular canyon wall, forming a true desert oasis.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

After soaking in the cool spray, we headed back along the same trail, taking in the diversity of life along the creek. I need to brush up on my desert/riparian plants before our next trip as there was quite a variety in bloom as we headed back to the car. By the way, the parking lot here (and at many of the popular spots we stopped) is quite small, so we ended up parking a 1/2 mile or so above the trailhead on the main road. Best advice is to plan ahead and get there as early as you can.

Cactus flowers along the trail
A Globemallow of some sort (perhaps Smallflower Globemallow?)
A delicate wildflower along the trail (perhaps an aster or fleabane)

We returned to our campsite in the aspens (we had left a chair and table there to claim it) and relaxed the rest of the afternoon and thought about where our destination might be as we head out the next morning…

Note – Now that we are back and hearing the news of the extreme heat, drought conditions, and huge crowds of tourists descending on our Western parks and public lands, we feel extremely fortunate to have had the wonderful experiences we did back in May. It looks like another tough summer in many Western states for abnormally high temperatures (though this may become the new norm due to climate change) and wild fires. I just saw a news release stating that the entirety of Kaibab National Forest is closed to the public effective today due to drought conditions and fire danger. The Forest Service is evacuating campers and closing all roads for the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping for better conditions soon.

Desert Seclusion

I will fill myself with the desert and the sky. I will be stone and stars, unchanging and strong and safe. The desert is complete; it is spare and alone, but perfect in its solitude. I will be the desert.

~Kiersten White

Much of our time in the Southwest was spent under red flag warnings of high winds, and our first afternoon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was no exception. Luckily, the wind tends to ease up as sundown approaches.

Late day sun turns the cliffs a golden yellow in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (click photos to enlarge)

We had a good night in the high desert and headed out very early the next morning for one of Melissa’s main goals for the trip – to hike in a slot canyon. A slot canyon is a long, narrow, deep, and meandering drainage carved through sedimentary rock (usually). The epicenter of slot canyons is southern Utah and northern Arizona where there are many famous ones visited by hordes of tourists each year. We had picked Buckskin Gulch as our destination based on a friend’s recommendation, but fate had other plans for us that morning. As we were driving the 8 miles of dirt road out to the highway, our trusty truck started making some loud noises from the rear. Melissa got out and listened and the problem was in the right rear tire, a metallic clanging when the tire rotated. It wasn’t impacting the brakes or anything else, so we initially thought it might be a rock caught in the brake cylinder area. We continued to drive and the sound varied. Once we reached the highway, it didn’t sound as bad, so we thought, let’s try it. But, as we turned off to head down the dirt road to the Wire Pass Trailhead, the sound became worse, causing us to turn around and head for the only place with any hope of auto repair, Page, AZ, a distance of more than 30 miles. Melissa called and talked her way into an early check-in at a hotel in Page and we found an auto repair place that would open at 8 a.m. near the hotel. We checked into our room (having no idea how long a repair might take) and I took the truck over to the auto shop. They took me in right away and gave me the news that the parking brake on this 18-year old truck had just come apart, and it was pieces of metal causing that terrible noise. He also said it would be 2 or 3 days to get a part, but he could just take it out and we would be good to go (just don’t park on a steep hill). So, an hour later, we decided to take in the local sights and head to Buckskin Gulch early the next morning.

The famous Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam

Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend, a famous meander in the Colorado River not far below Glen Canyon Dam. It was a circus of tourists, but certainly is a beautiful sight. Not being used to crowds of any type, we didn’t stay long. Melissa had called the Bureau of Land Management office and got some tips from a ranger the day before who had shared a location of another slot canyon in the area that she said we would likely have to ourselves. So, we headed out and hiked in a “private” slot canyon for a couple of hours.

Our private slot canyon near Page, AZ
When we found this carcass in the bottom of the canyon, I had to wonder, what type of critter is bad enough to kill a Great Horned Owl? (I don’t want to meet it!)

The same person that told Melissa about Buckskin Gulch had also shared her enthusiasm at seeing California Condors near Page at a place called the Navajo Bridge. This is an area where several condors had been released into the wild during restoration efforts and is known as a place where these huge birds return to the bridge and surrounding canyon walls to roost in the evening (especially in the spring).

View of Marble Canyon from the Navajo Bridge. There are two bridges here, one for people, one for cars.

The California Condor is North America’s largest land bird, weighing up to 25 lbs and having a wingspan of almost 10 ft. It is critically endangered and became extinct in the wild in 1987 when the known remaining 22 (or 27, depending on which reference you use) birds were captured for a captive breeding program aimed to help recover the species. Captive reared birds started being released back into the wild in 1991, and today, the condor population numbers over 500 birds, with around 300 flying free in California, northern Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. One of the release sites is the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness adjacent to the Navajo Bridge. Condors prefer steep cliffs for roosting and nesting so they can launch their huge bodies into the air, and online reports mentioned they also roost on the bridge structures in this location. So, we arrived close to 5:30 p.m. and started watching and waiting. Melissa walked across the bridge and saw a woman with binoculars and a camera and struck up a conversation. She was there for the condors as well, and assured us they would be there at some point this evening. We kept scanning the canyon, expecting to see them fly in from one direction or another, but only swifts and an occasional hawk flew by. After about 30 minutes on the bridge I looked over and saw the woman with binoculars walking toward us pointing up into the sky. I turned and looked straight up, and there it was, a condor! It dropped rapidly as if descending from heaven (Melissa commented that she understood how many Native Americans incorporated this giant bird into their mythology with this type of grand appearance) and soared underneath and landed on our bridge. Over the next few minutes, three more condors came in, one landing on the bridge and two more on the cliffs.

The first California Condor descended rapidly from a great height and landed beneath the bridge

Each California Condor has a numbered or lettered tag and some carry radio transmitters on their wings for tracking so biologists can learn more about their habits and potential threats to the population (lead poisoning from feeding on carcasses shot with lead ammunition is one of the biggest threats to birds in the wild). The bird above is V7. The Peregrine Fund is one of the participating organizations in the condor recovery program and has an online database that gives you more information on each bird. According to that database, V7 is a juvenile bird (condors reach maturity at around 6 years) as indicated by the dark gray head and lack of bright white patches under the wings. It is a male, hatched in May of 2017 in the wild in Utah.

A second condor swept in and landed on the cliffs of the canyon. The huge wing span gives this bird amazing control as it twists and turns to come in for a landing.

This bird soared beneath me with a clear view of its tag, #12. This bird is a female, hatched in 2016. She is attaining the pink skin on the head and has started to develop the white under-wing patches.

We can see the numbered wing tag clearly as she passes beneath us.
This bird landed quite a distance downstream, but a heavy crop of the image shows the number is 54.

The only fully adult bird we saw landed a long way from us on the cliffs. It is a male reared in captivity that hatched in 2004, making it 17 years old. California Condors are one of the world’s longest-living birds and can live up to 60 years. This was, indeed, a magical evening in a stunning landscape.

Early the next morning, we headed to Buckskin Gulch. There is a fee that you must pay and obtain a permit online before going. We drove to the Wire Pass trailhead, which is also the trailhead for another popular hike to a geologic feature called The Wave, but permits are hard to get for that hike with a maximum of only 64 people allowed each day.

You reach the entrance to the narrows of Wire Pass slot canyon a little over a mile from the trailhead.
The canyon walls are shaped by thousands of flash floods over the millennia that carve the Navajo Sandstone into beautiful shapes and patterns

After entering the narrow slot, you are immersed in a fantastical world of swirls, lines, and light. We soon realized that by arriving early, we had avoided many of the people that do this popular day hike, so we had long stretches of the slot canyon to ourselves. After a mile or so, you reach a more open area that is the juncture with the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon. You want to take the trail to the right to continue down the more narrow slot canyon.

At the juncture of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, look for petroglyphs of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls

We hiked at least a couple more miles from the juncture, taking in the magic of this place and marveling at how such a feature can form. There are an average of 7 or 8 flash floods through the canyon each year, typically in July and August, that can send walls of water as high as 100 feet through the narrow canyons, so hikers are advised to check the weather before going and to not hike if rain is predicted anywhere in the region. At times, you may have to walk through water or mud, but conditions were very dry when we hiked through.

The average width of the channel is 10 feet, but it is barely shoulder width in a few spots with walls towering a hundred feet or more above
Sunlight bouncing off the canyon walls reveals the detailed layering and smooth curves
This log jam above Melissa is some of the evidence of the power of flash floods that periodically surge through the canyon
The colors change dramatically as the angle and intensity of light changes
In places, you cannot see the sky when looking straight up due to the convoluted shapes of the canyon walls
Much of the trail we hiked consisted of cobbles and small boulders with occasional deep sand or dried and cracked mud beds
A rare wide spot in the canyon with huge walls vaulting skyward
This beautiful Firecracker Penstemon was one of several plant species found in the wider, more open areas
An unforgettable hike

Buckskin Gulch is one of the most popular hikes in the Southwest and rightfully so. It is the longest and deepest slot canyon in North America (and perhaps the longest in the world) at almost 14 miles in length with walls soaring 500 feet above you in parts of the canyon. As we hiked out, we started passing the wave of visitors coming in we had heard we might expect. This is a very special trail and well worth a visit if you are anywhere near. And it was a special way to spend our anniversary and check off one of the few big items we had planned from our to-do list for this trip.

Looking at the maps, we decided to go ahead and make this day extra special with a couple of hour drive to the a park I had surprisingly never visited – Grand Canyon National Park. And we lucked into a very special campsite…more on that next time.

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Onward to New Mexico

Travel is still the most intense mode of learning.

~Kevin Kelly

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.

A Dicksissel singing by the roadside (click photos to enlarge)
A male Indigo Bunting with some lingering molt splotchiness
This refuge provided us with another round of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers near the road. This is a male (note the bright side colors and very long tail).
Another quick shot of one in flight (he dove to the ground for an insect).

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.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

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.

Though we were some distance away in our truck, this Great Horned Owl wasn’t thrilled at our presence
A new species for us, a male Bullock’s Oriole. They were abundant in the scattered groves of Cottonwoods.
Another new species, the Lark Bunting, was seen in small flocks along the fence line

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).

Looking out at the remaining structures of the village of Tyuonyi of the Ancestral Pueblo people at Bandelier National Monument

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.

View from below of the Alcove House, an ancient dwelling for an estimated 25 Ancient Pueblo people, high above the floor of Frijoles Canyon
Melissa on one of the four ladders and numerous stone steps used to climb the 140 feet up to the Alcove House

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.

Our campsite among the boulders in Santa Fe National Forest

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.

Las Conchas Trail, a truly beautiful hike
Small waterfall at the end of the Las Conchas Trail
Rocky Mountain Iris along the trail

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.

The view from the entrance of Valles Caldera National Preserve
This is part of the historic cabin district at the preserve. One of the cabins was used in the filming of Longmire, one of our favorite TV shows. This was the sheriff’s cabin in the show.
One of hundreds of Gunnison Prairie Dogs we saw at Valles Caldera
I stopped the truck to ID and take a quick photo of this Swainson’s Hawk
Suddenly, another hawk flew into the scene…
…and mated with the first one! The time stamp on my images showed that the mating only took 20 seconds before the male flew away.
A small herd of Elk leaving the meadow at Valles Caldera
We had to remove all our gear and wipe down the back of the truck after spending all day on the dusty back country roads of Valles Caldera

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…

Sunset at our campsite in Cottonwood Canyon at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Beginnings – the Southern Route

My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.

~Claude Monet

On our previous two truck camping road trips, we headed due west across the plains through Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, until we hit the mountains. This trip, we had no real plans, just head west. We played with the idea of going to Big Bend National Park in Texas, but by the time we would have arrived, temperatures were already heading into the high 80’s and low 90’s (not my favorite temperature range for camping), but we did decide to take a more southerly route than before. Our first night was in Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee, a pretty typical campground, with sites too close together for our liking (we’ve been spoiled by Forest Service dispersed camping) but with a beautiful lake and lots of bird life (tanagers, woodpeckers, thrushes, various warblers).

We had heard some good things about the natural beauty of Arkansas, so we pointed the truck in that general direction the next day and Melissa worked her navigation magic from the passenger seat by downloading Vehicle Use Maps from likely national forest units we would pass and reviewing satellite images to ground truth what the terrain might be like. She is also very kind to me in our on-the-fly planning and looked for side trips to wildlife refuges along the way (we both love viewing wildlife, but I probably need a wildlife pic fix more often than she does), so we hit Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge in TN and Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas the next day. Hatchie is a beautiful cypress swamp and had lots of warblers (especially Blackpolls and Prothonotaries).

Bald Knob was great with a variety of habitats and we soon found ourselves following waves of Bobolinks and Dicksissels as they flew up from the vegetation along refuge roads (although it was challenging to get close enough for photos). These are two species that I have seen occasionally in NC. They are both grassland species so I have observed them in migration near the coast and at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. And on the Museum’s Spring Mountain Birding trips, I have seen Bobolinks in some fields in the mountains where they are known to nest. But this was amazing, as they seemed to be everywhere along these roadsides.

Pair of Bobolinks at Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas (click photos to enlarge)

At Bald Knob NWR, we came across what is now one of my favorite birds – the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen one in the NC Sandhills years ago but they are considered a rare migrant and even rarer breeder in my home state. We spotted two sitting on a barbed wire fence next to a road so I pulled the truck up alongside for a closer look. They were very cooperative and let us hang with them quite awhile as they scanned the skies for an insect treat.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on barbed wire

Just look at that tail! The tail usually makes up over half the overall length in this species, with males generally having longer tails and more color on their sides. After taking way too may photos of them sitting on the wire (a very common pose we were to learn), we hoped to get a shot of one in flight highlighting that forked tail (the long tail is useful for making quick turns in flight as they pursue flying insects). I waited, and waited, and finally one took off and I just squeezed the shutter in burst mode and tried to follow it. Though not as sharp as I wanted, I was pleased with the sequence showing a successful snag of a fly.

Launching from the wire and showing that awesome tail
In hot pursuit of a flying insect
Eating the fly you just caught

After spending a lot of time with flycatchers, we moved on to Ozark National Forest and camped along beautiful Richland Creek for the night. I’m not sure why, but the waters in this area are some of the bluest freshwater I have ever seen.

Our campsite next to Richland Creek

Melissa had scoped out some trails very close to our campsite, so the next morning we walked up the road a short distance and hiked along a well-marked trail leading to Keefe Falls. The forest had been burned, probably last year, and the resulting wildflower display was amazing all along the trail.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) in our campsite
Phlox and Fire Pink along the trail
A white Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) was scattered in the woods and on the upper rim of the waterfall

The state motto for Arkansas is The Natural State. And after our day in the Ozarks, we know why. As we hiked, the trail split and we decided to take what looked like the lesser traveled route which climbed a slope and soon came to a cliff of loose sandstone. The trail started to disappear as we headed down-slope toward the creek and the sound of a waterfall. The last 50 yards or so were a bit dicey, with slippery soil on a steep slope, and then we rounded a corner…

We were both stunned when this tropical-looking waterfall came into view

I can truly say this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. The greenery-covered walls and the aqua blue color of the water with rays of sunshine piercing the still developing forest canopy…and we had it all to ourselves!

A side view of what we think is Splashdown Falls
It is a magical place and we had it all to ourselves

We lounged by this pool for quite some time (someone I know took a swim), and, once again, we took way too many pictures trying to capture the beauty of this tropical-looking scene. On the hike back we encountered another couple hiking toward Keefe Falls. We told them about our find (which we now think is called Splashdown Falls) but warned them about the steepness of the last section. They shared an encounter with a rattlesnake on their hike to another nearby waterfall and told us about the abundance of beautiful falls and cascades in this forest.

One of the spectacular roadside waterfalls, Six Fingers Falls

On our way out the next morning, we stopped at two of the more popular roadside waterfalls – Falling Water Falls and Six Fingers Falls, and they did not disappoint. Arkansas maybe should change their motto to The Waterfall State if this one section of Ozark National Forest is any indication of what can be found elsewhere. Needless to say, we will return to Arkansas on future trips. But for now, we headed west (more in the next post).

On the Road Again

Oh, the places you’ll go.

~Dr. Seuss

Yep, we did it again, another awesome truck camping road trip. We just returned home Wednesday morning at 3:30 a.m. after an epic 18-hour drive from Missouri. We had planned at least one more night on the road, but the weather wasn’t cooperating and we were following a large rain-making system across the middle part of the country. After camping in fairly dry weather for almost a month, we decided to just head home rather than deal with the wet conditions. We traveled almost 7,400 miles over 29 days (see map below). We visited three state parks, a state conservation area, six national parks (including three new ones for me), a national monument, a national preserve, a national recreation area, seven national forests, and nine national wildlife refuges. I think we can safely say, we love our public lands! We did stay with friends a couple of nights in Jackson, and hotels or an Airbnb for a total of 5 other nights. The rest of the time, we camped in our truck, mostly dispersed camping in national forests. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some more details of the trip (and probably some highlights of things going on here in our woods).

Our road map for the last month (click photos to enlarge)

For more details on the locations highlighted on the map, see this link.

One of the many great U.S. Forest Service dispersed campsites on our journey
Wild Geraniums, one of the countless wildflowers we photographed on our trip (this one in Ozark NF in Arkansas)
Falling Water Falls in Ozark NF
Maybe my new favorite bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – so many in Arkansas and Oklahoma
Melissa in an awesome slot canyon – Buckskin Gulch
North rim of the Grand Canyon
Spires in Bryce Canyon National Park
American Avocet in Bear River National Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
The majestic Tetons
Back in our happy place, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP
One of our wildlife highlights was having this Red Fox trot past us in Yellowstone
We had to switch our campsite plans in the Bighorn Mountains due to snow (this was near the site we eventually selected)
Melissa in one of her favorite places, the Sandhills of Nebraska

Of Moose and Men (and Women)

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

~Henry David Thoreau

This is a post about the final leg of our journey last fall on our truck camping adventure. From the deserts of Utah, we herded into familiar territory of Kebler Pass in the Colorado Rockies. We had camped there the year before in peak color of the aspens and it had been glorious. This year, we were just past peak and a wind storm two days before our arrival had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. But, the scenery is still magical and the wildlife put on quite a show.

We wanted to camp at the same site as before, with a view into a beaver dam filled creek surrounded by high mountain peaks. As we were driving to our site, we saw some folks gathered down by the stream and Melissa soon spotted a large dark shape in the tall willows. We pulled in and got the scoop from the others that a bull was following a cow as she was browsing in the dense vegetation.

A bull keeping an eye on a cow as she feeds in the willows (click photos to enlarge)

She finally headed to the edge of the creek and broke out in the open in front of a beaver dam.

The cow walked out in the open in front of a beaver dam

We waited, and, sure enough, he followed.

Bull Moose following his female

The next morning we drove back down to the site and found her again, out in the willows. She bedded down and we waited, but did not see the bull anywhere.

She is almost impossible to see, but is bedded down along the shore in thick brush

We waked around to the other side of the creek for better light and sat for quite awhile as she lay in the sun, but almost invisible to our eyes. She finally got up, and, then, nearby, so did the bull, who had been there the whole time but hidden from our view.

She finally got up, started feeding, and then waded across the creek
The bull follows again

After crossing the creek, she began running in tight circles in the willows and snorting, and finally went into thicker vegetation and disappeared (maybe she had had enough of this young male?). The bull ended up crossing back across the creek and vanishing in the huge willow thicket upstream.

Having spent a couple of hours with these moose, we felt privileged and couldn’t imagine having that kind of luck again. But, when we found ourselves in a beautiful valley of the Taylor Park region, we picked a campsite along a meandering stream valley full of beaver dams with lots of moose and elk sign in the surrounding forest.

Sitting near our campsite looking out over the beaver marshes

That afternoon, we went out looking for wildlife and Melissa soon saw something and whispered, “I see a moose, no, two moose, wait, three, no four moose!”. Indeed, there was a group of four moose feeding in a beaver pond downstream of our campsite – a cow, two young ones, and a bull. The late day light flooded the area and we spent a long time basking in the sight of these magnificent animals doing what they do, wading in a beaver pond, feeding on vegetation, and looking regal.

Melissa spotted the Moose in a nearby beaver pond
The cow was ever alert as she dipped her huge snout into the water for vegetation
As soon as the cow and young ones moved off, the bull followed
After the moose departed, we sat next to a beaver dam and soaked in the scenery (what a vista these critters have)

After the phenomenal moose encounter, we relaxed by a large beaver pond just upstream. Soon, we were rewarded with an eye level view of one of the inhabitants.

A beaver swan out of the lodge and eyed us before deciding we weren’t bushes that sprang up during the day
The resounding slap of a beaver tail as it sounds the alarm

We decided to leave the beavers to their kingdom and retreated back to our chairs with a view of the incredible surroundings.

Sunset from our campsite in beaver and moose country

The next day, we headed out, bound for home, with three stops along the way at familiar types of campsites – a state fishing lake, a state conservation area, and the gorgeous Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

Another restful Kansas State Fishing Lake campsite
A Missouri campsite next to a vernal pool
A view of the unusual landscape of Red River Gorge
Our final two nights on the road in crowded Red River Gorge, but we managed to backpack in a short distance and find a secluded ridge-line

It’s always good to get back home after an adventure, but it definitely whet the appetite for more, especially in isolated-truck-camping-loving Melissa. So, stay tuned for more…