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)
Dicksissel

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…

Dry, Dusty, Beautiful

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.

~Edward Abbey

Hard to believe it has taken me this long to finish posting about our second road trip way back last Fall, but it has been a busy several months since our return with a lot happening. It sort of slipped my mind after a month or so, but I figured I better write this up before things start to get too busy as the weather warms. So, here is a continuation of our last truck camping adventure (some of you may have thought we were still in Colorado!). I’m going to share this post and the next one (the last from our journey last Fall) without much commentary and will let the images speak for themselves.

From where we left off on our last western truck camping post, we drove from the mountain scenery to a very different landscape – the dry and starkly beautiful deserts of southwest Colorado and adjoining Utah. It was a sharp transition and the scenery seemed to grow more grandiose as we drove. We debated our options and then decided on a slight meander to visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Evidence of fires over the past few decades were evident throughout our drive into the park. Due to Covid, most of the facilities were closed and there were no tours into the amazing structures. Mesa Verde was established in 1906 to preserve the truly remarkable cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological site at Mesa Verde National Park (click photos to enlarge)
A large buck Mule Deer casually strolling alongside the park road.

Our next destination was the vast stretch of BLM lands outside Canyonlands National Park. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore! The land stretches on forever, the rocks now become the dominant feature of the landscape, with patches of green scattered to the horizon.

The Needles overlook on BLM land
Campsite on BLM land outside Canyonlands NP
Spectacular sunset at our campsite
There are lots of pokey things in the desert
One of the so-called Six-shooters just east of Canyonlands National Park
The Needles section of Canyonlands NP
Sandstone weathered into columns
Our second campsite at Mineral Canyon on BLM land outside the park

The public lands were being well-used while we were in the Canyonlands area. We tried to get into Arches National Park, but the extremely long wait line at the entrance, and the large numbers of unmasked people we encountered in Moab, caused me to turn around and head back to the BLM lands. We drove around to some more of the incredible sites in Canyonlands and did some short hikes, but then headed back to our campsite.

Vastness, another word for this landscape
Islands in the Sky in Canyonlands NP

And this is when we had our only mishap of the trip – a flat tire on a Saturday evening. Luckily, we noticed it as we were turning around on a large flat rock slab on the otherwise sandy back country road. After changing the tire, we knew we had to head out the next day to try to find a place where we could repair it or buy a new spare. Sunday is not the best day for such things, but in looking online (glad we had cell service) we found a place in Grand Junction, Colorado, and off we went. That meant staying in an Airbnb, and we were lucky to find one with good Covid protocols (and no recent guests) close to the tire place. We ended buying a totally new set of tires since these were the original tires on this 2003 truck (you my remember it was my dad’s truck and he had used it sparingly as a farm vehicle).

While the beauty and expansiveness of the desert landscape is appealing, I must confess I found myself wanting to head back into the forests and mountains. Our last leg of the journey took us through some familiar territory and some encounters with one of my favorite animals. More next time…

Reaching the Mountains

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.

~John Muir

After driving across the high plains for several days, we finally saw the sharp peaks of southern Colorado reaching for the hazy skies (fires in Wyoming brought smoky skies for our first few days in CO). The mountains at last…for many reasons, much more aligned with our spirits than the flat lands. Our main concern was that was a weekend, and, like us, people were flocking to these spiritual landscapes for relief during these trying times. Would we find a campsite? Melissa had picked a couple of areas in the Spanish Peaks, Bear Lake and Blue Lake, that had Forest Service campgrounds and some limited dispersed camping. The campgrounds were full, but a campground host recommended driving up a nearby rocky road and finding a spot. We passed one camper as we climbed until we reached the end of the road. As it was getting late, we settled for this less than ideal, but still beautiful, spot. The next morning as we headed out, the other camper had his truck hood up and, as we slowed, asked if we had jumper cables. Indeed, we did, and he was happy to have his engine running again (it would have been a long bike ride down to the campground fro assistance).

Blue Lake in the Spanish Peaks of CO (click photos to enlarge)

Our next stop was a beautiful area in the Rio Grande National Forest. We drove some back country roads looking for an isolated site but there were a lot of large RVs with 4-wheelers scattered throughout the valley along the creek. So, we took one of the high roads and found a pullout with a view through the trees of a nice peak with golden aspens illuminating its lower slope.

Our campsite along Fox Mountain Road
Aspens were in peak color in much of southern Colorado
Aspen cathedral

After passing through Durango, our route entered the San Juan Mountains and the glorious golds of fall aspens were a constant. Melissa steered us to what turned out to be one of the rockiest roads I have ever been on, Old Lime Creek Road, in San Juan National Forest. At about 3 miles we passed a small trailhead to Spud (actually Potato, but the locals call it Spud) Lake. We passed by hoping to find a secluded campsite and paused to ask a vehicle coming the other way about road conditions farther along as I was beginning to squeeze the steering wheel a bit too tightly. The driver, a local, said the road got worse and was mainly one lane with few good places to turn around. That convinced us to look for something back behind us. We both wanted something special since it was Melissa’s pre-birthday night campsite. We passed a small side road with huge ruts from when the area had been muddy. Melissa walked down it as I walked ahead on the main “road”, looking for a site. When we got back together, she thought we could make it past the giant ruts and camp in a grove of aspens on the side road. We carefully pulled in and set up camp and climbed a short hill above our site to a rock outcrop with a fabulous view of the surrounding peaks. This would do, indeed it would. The sunset and sunrise were fabulous and everything was perfect except for the mice that invaded our truck cab during the night. For some reason, this was the trip of the mouse, with several mice coming into the cab at night over the first several campsites…as much as I hated doing it, we ended up catching 5 mice total over several nights in a single trap I had brought along (the truck has had issues with mice ever since I accidentally left a bag of bird seed in it for a few nights in our driveway a few months ago).

Sunset on the rock outcrop above our campsite
Some aspens show distinct orange colors instead of the usual golden yellow

The same local that told us about the roadway also mentioned that the trail we passed was an easy 1-mile hike to a beautiful lake, so we headed up there the next morning. It turns out it is a very popular trail for locals and by the time we got out a few hours later (we walked all the way around the lake) several cars were parked at the trailhead and along the road (many people gave up driving the extremely rocky road all the way to the trailhead and parked a half mile or more down the road).

The beautiful reflections in Potato Lake
Beaver pond along trail to Potato Lake

Next on our itinerary was a forest service road described as one of the most beautiful in the region – Last Dollar Road. Ironically, it runs through many vast private holdings where the ranches and homes look like their last dollar (if they even have one) is a couple of orders of magnitude greater than ours would be. Melissa spotted a young coyote hunting in the open near the road so we stopped and watched it catch a couple of rodents.

Young coyote hunting near road
The only Elk we saw in Colorado (elk season started while we were there)

She also spotted the only Elk we saw on the entire trip emerging from the brush on a private ranch along the road.

Vertical pano of aspen grove

All along the road were groves of beautiful aspens in their prime fall colors. And there were lots of people out enjoying it and camping in the best spots. We kept going, hoping for a place with a view. We came through a pass and then headed down what was the steepest dirt road I have traveled and eventually popped out to an opening in the trees with a wonderful vista of distant mountains. People had obviously camped here before even though it was basically just a flat spot on an expansive talus slope. There was a small area at the edge that had solid ground and some trees where we set up our table and chairs. Like most of our campsites thus far, the talus slope was above 9000 feet in elevation, so temperatures dropped quickly as the sun slid beneath the peaks.

Sunset at our talus slope campsite on Last Dollar Road

With so many crevices and hiding places among the field of rocks, it was a perfect habitat for small mammals (uh-oh, more mice), especially the ubiquitous chipmunks. There are 5 species of chipmunks in Colorado and everywhere we had camped, we had chipmunks that apparently had no fear of humans. While taking in the view at this site, one came up and touched my shoe, not in an aggressive way, but just curious. They can be tough to tell apart, but I think the ones we saw here were Colorado Chipmunks, Neotamias quadrivittatus. We commented on how this was also perfect habitat for one of our favorite western mammals, the Pika, but we had not heard their distinctive alarm call as we set up camp.

Extremely bold Colorado Chipmunk

At breakfast the next morning, Melissa spotted one of the little rock lovers scurrying nearby. It sounded its shrill alarm and was answered by several others scattered down the slope. The place was full of Pika!

Pika

The end of Last Dollar Road takes you through Telluride, a beautiful small town that we both decided we could live in (if we came into large sums of money). Melissa’s research had found another location a short drive away that looked promising, one with open meadows and views of high mountains. The narrow road started off a bit hairy with steep drop-offs, but it wasn’t nearly as rough as some we had been on, until we finally took a rocky side road. We passed a public-access corral that had an unoccupied RV parked next to it and then we drove up a rutted path to the top of a knoll with an incredible vista. This would be our home for a couple of nights (one of the peaks in the picture below is even called Dunn Mountain!).

Camp robbers in action

After setting up camp, we were visited by one, then two more, Gray Jays (aka camp robbers). Formerly called Canada Jays, these birds are known for their boldness in approaching humans and carrying off food or other items from your camp. They hung out with us for a while, hopping around on the ground, then on our table and chairs, and the top of the truck. One even was temporarily confused when it got inside the back of our truck through the open tent screen. They checked in on us several times during our stay, no doubt hoping we would be a bit careless with our food.

Hiking above our campsite (set just off the gray-topped ridge on right side of image)

In addition to the jays, we had a ton of Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple of Coyotes, several raptors, and a small group of Mule Deer sharing our space (or vice versa I suppose). But no Elk, and this place just looked like great Elk habitat. After deciding to stay another night, we hiked up behind our campsite where we found plenty of sign. Elk season would start in a couple of days, so maybe they were all hiding back away from the roads due to the increase in human activity as hunters starting scouting the area. This spot had an incredible feel to it – wildness, openness, beauty, exactly what we had hoped to find on this journey.

Another mountain sunset at camp

Next stop, the dry, dusty canyon lands of the Utah desert.

Heading West

The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.

~Chris Humphrey

Two days before departing on our journey, we finally made plans to head toward Colorado. Why not, right? We had been there last year about the same time and it was beautiful, but this time we would try southern Colorado, a new area for us. But, from my mom’s place in the Virginia mountains, roads to Colorado cross the vast plains. Crossing the Midwest means long days of driving and searching for isolated campsites in areas other than national forests (for the most part). Once again, Melissa did some excellent online searching and came up with a couple of destinations for us for the first leg of the trip.

Sunrise looking across the Ohio River onto Kentucky farmland at Buzzard Roost Recreation Area (click photos to enlarge)

Our first day ended in Hoosier National Forest in Indiana at Buzzard Roost Recreation Area. Our first free camping site was an actual Forest Service campground with five campsites on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. The site was named for the large numbers of buzzards (Turkey Vultures) that once roosted here when there was an operating meat smokehouse nearby in the late 1800’s. It was a quiet little campground and a short walk to the overlook provided us with a beautiful scene to start the first full day of our journey.

As we had learned on our last trip, Kansas offers free camping at most of its State Fishing Lakes (SFL), so Melissa charted a course to Chase SFL in eastern Kansas.

Our campsite at Chase State Fishing Lake, KS

We pulled in late in the day and found a secluded site at the far end of this small lake. Rolling grasslands surround the lake for miles, reminding us a little of the Sandhills of Nebraska from our last trip.

Sunset on the grasslands at Chase Lake
Dingy Cutworm Moths were abundant on plants near the lake

Great Blue Herons, some ducks, a Great Horned Owl, and Coyotes accompanied an incredible moonrise that evening. A Bald Eagle flew across the lake the next morning at sunrise before we loaded up and headed across the flat lands of Kansas once again.

Full moon rising over Chase Lake

On our last trip, we fell in love with the patches of remnant prairie we visited in Nebraska, so this time we wanted to include more of that unique habitat. We made a side trip to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It is a joint project of The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. We hiked one of the trails out to see their herd of Bison. The views are expansive, with rolling hills of grasses (though not as “tall” as I had expected) and abundant evidence of wildflowers that had bloomed earlier in the season, plus the greatest number of meadowlarks in one place I have ever seen. It is no wonder the Western Meadowlark is their state bird.

Bison in the distance at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

After a morning on the prairie, we headed to a couple of other public lands, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. We were sort of in between peak times for migrating shorebirds and Sandhill Cranes for these two areas but we saw a lot of gulls, waders, and shorebirds nonetheless (especial American Avocets, one of my favorite shorebirds). We first stopped at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, a great starting point for a birding exploration of the region. I definitely would like a return visit in the future (Whooping Cranes are also regular visitors during migration).

American Avocet feeding in one of the ponds at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Roadkill Massasauga (a small species of rattlesnake) on a refuge road

Driving through parts of Kansas involves incredibly straight stretches of highway through some of the flattest landscapes you will ever encounter, so it was quite a surprise to suddenly come upon a series of deep canyons as we approached our next campsite at Clark SFL.

The sudden appearance of canyons at Clark State Fishing Lake

Once again, the campsites were beautiful and there was only one other camper on the lake. We settled on an isolated site that ironically had a vulture roost adjacent to our site (is that a bad sign?).

The real buzzard’s roost at this campsite (a large group of vultures roosted in the trees near us)

The next morning we drove the rough road up out of the canyon and headed out across the flat plains dotted with wind turbines and hay rolls. We eventually hit a landscape more suitable to raising crops, and drove for miles seeing almost no wildlife other than meadowlarks.

Making a living on the high plains

Then we hit a stretch of recently harvested cornfield with a large group of raptors soaring overhead. We pulled over and started glassing the birds to try to identify them. It turned out to be a huge group of migrating Swainson’s Hawks. This species tends to migrate in groups (called kettles) and are particularly common in October over the plains where they often can be seen doing just what this group was doing – feasting on insects and small rodents found in crop fields. The strong northerly winds blowing across the open landscape of this region undoubtedly help these birds in their long migration to their wintering sites in the vast grasslands of Argentina.

We pulled over to watch about a hundred hawks moving over and on the fields
Hawks (the dark spots) dotted the corn stubble, presumably feeding on grasshoppers and other insects
A Swainson’s Hawk in migration

We detoured a bit to visit Cimarron National Grasslands in southwestern Kansas, the largest tract of public lands in the state, and the only one in Kansas administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Let’s just say it was an interesting side trip. The bulk of the grasslands seemed to be dry and overgrazed, but did have some nice camping spots along the Cimarron River. One particularly interesting spot was what we decided was the Kansas equivalent of NC’s Pilot Mountain, a high point in the seemingly endless landscape of sage and grasslands. It had the unimaginative name of Point of Rocks, and, though it appeared as only a slight rise on the horizon as we approached, is the third highest point in the state at 3,540 feet.

Point of Rocks, KS

It was an important landmark along the famed Santa Fe Trail, an 800-mile wagon route that was an important trade link between Mexico and the eastern U.S. from 1821-1880. This “high point”, along the Cimarron River (note the greenery along the river corridor compared to the distant dry grasslands) was a critical stopping point due to the nearby water source for thousands of wagons that made this six to ten week journey across this seemingly endless and dry terrain. The wagon ruts from those trading caravans can still be seen in many places along the trail.

Look closely and you can see the wagon ruts cutting across the landscape on this portion of the Santa Fe Trail

This leg of driving in southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado was the most barren of our trip. At one point, we took a county road (dirt and gravel) where the speed limit was 55 mph and we drove that straight as an arrow for over an hour (passing only one other vehicle) across dry, flat fields and the occasional farmstead every 10 or so miles. I can’t imagine eking a living in such a place, but there are some hardy souls that seem to manage it. Our next campsite would be in the mountains of Colorado!

Wait, What, Again?

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

~John Steinbeck

Yeah, we did it again. A mere two weeks after we returned from our first major truck camping trip, we hit the road again. This time to celebrate our birthdays (which fall one week apart, oh, and a few years difference). After celebrating with my Mom (her birthday is the same as mine, or vice versa, I suppose), we drove west, not really knowing where we would end up, although Colorado was a strong contender. Melissa created a map of our route and this link has more details of the particulars if you are interested.

Yep, we did it again…a map of our route on our latest truck camping adventure (click photos to enlarge)

This trip covered 8 states and about 4800 miles in 18 days. Once again, we were treated to some of the amazing scenery of our country and had several fantastic moments of wildlife watching. The pics below are a teaser for the next few blog posts that will give some of the highlights of this birthday bonanza…

Sunrise at our campsite on Chase State Fishing Lake in Kansas
Sunset in the Colorado mountains
Canyonlands National Park
Cow moose wading in a beaver pond in Colorado

Heading Home

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected…

~Ann Patchett

We were up early on our last morning, hoping to get to nearby Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. The refuge was originally called Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, but was changed in 2017 in order to remove the derogatory word squaw from the name. This is a place we had intended to visit on our way to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane trip last March because it is a critical stopover for many waterfowl. At times, this refuge can have as many as 300,000 to 1,000,000 Snow Geese during the spring migration. Along with that are many other species and a high concentration of predators such as Bald Eagles.

Sunrise at Loess Bluffs NWR (click photos to enlarge)
American White Pelicans

This time of year is much quieter, but it is just off the interstate, so it was an easy stop. We were pleasantly surprised. First, it is a wildlife watchers/photographers refuge with well maintained roads (and a long auto tour covering over 10 miles) that passes along prime habitats such as meadows, forest edges and lots of open water and wetlands.

Bald Eagles wishing the Snow Geese were back

We were greeted with eagles, pelicans, and a variety of songbirds in that beautiful early morning light. A few other folks drove slowly along, telephoto lenses out the window, capturing natural moments. We spent a few minutes following a hummingbird (could not tell which species in that light) as it hovered at a variety of wildflowers along a canal edge. The back-lighting with shimmering dew drops in the distance made for a very artistic scene.

Hummingbird at sunrise (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Curious fawn and wary mamma (photo by Melissa Dowland)

But our most magical moment came when we came up behind a stopped car in a tunnel of overhanging tree limbs. We slowed to see what the driver was photographing and then looked up to see some butterflies fluttering slowly across the road. Then we saw them — hundreds, actually thousands of Monarchs clustered on tree branches, with some starting to fly as they warmed in the morning sun. We got out and gaped in awe. It reminded me of my incredible trip to Mexico years ago to see the overwintering sites of millions of Monarchs. Though, obviously, not as numerous, this was still quite a display with more butterflies than I have seen anywhere else. We walked the road for awhile just taking it all in as the sun encouraged more and more butterflies to leave the roost and head for flowers in the wetlands and meadows through the trees. We both agreed that this spectacle rivaled our moonlit night with the elk herd in terms of memories that will last a lifetime.

Monarchs draped on tree limbs
Monarch cluster as sun starts to warm them up (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Monarchs opening their wings to catch the morning sun

We finally had to say goodbye to this wonderful spot and hit the road one last time. Our final night was spent back in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We did a quick walk at the Garden of the Gods, a spectacular geologic formation that is obviously a very popular destination for people in the region as it was quite crowded late on a Sunday evening.

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee NF – my last rock picture

The next day we drove back and stopped to see my mother. Our last drive was home, back to our house in the woods. I miss being there even though we have probably spent more time at home since March than at any time we can remember. It is comfortable, it is serene and beautiful, and it is what we know and love. We tried to do this trip in a responsible way, staying out of crowds, social distancing, wearing masks whenever others were near. It made it surreal in many ways, not being able to eat at funky little restaurants along the way, not sharing a scope with wolf watchers, and so much more, but it was worth it. Traveling by road across much of the country highlights what a diverse place we call home, the many landscapes we are fortunate to share (especially all the public lands), and the amazing variety of ways people work so hard to make a living for themselves and their families. It was refreshing to see that, to know we are part of a grand country. But, it was also disheartening to feel some of the tension whenever we were in a populated place – the political signs (a thousand to one in favor of one particular candidate) and the obvious lack of understanding or concern among some about a simple thing like wearing a mask in public. I only hope that we all learn something from these trying times and that we can make decisions that will be in the best interests of protecting our public lands, addressing the imminent threat of climate change, and bringing back a sense of decency to our government. I usually don’t mix politics into my blog, but this is too important for everything I love about this country. I know which way I plan to vote. I encourage you to do the same.

The Detour

Sometimes, the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.

~Angela N. Blount

Driving away from the grandeur of the Tetons, we passed through some impressive landscapes along the Hoback River valley. Once we broke out of the mountains, the landscape shifted dramatically to an almost flat, endless expanse of sagebrush.

Sagebrush flats cover huge swaths of Wyoming (click photos to enlarge)

All throughout this type of habitat, we saw oil and natural gas extraction and the occasional wind farm. Wildlife visible from the highway included numerous Pronghorn, various raptors, Ravens, and Black-billed Magpies.

A wind farm lends an a majestic, and yet alien, look to the barren landscape (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Melissa set our course for Medicine Bow National Forest in a high elevation mountain range just west of Laramie. The forecast was for more snow, so we reluctantly decided to drive across the pass and find a campsite at a lower elevation. The highest points along the road reminded us of the Beartooths, with scattered conifers, rock outcrops, and lakes set below towering peaks.

A high elevation lake in Medicine Bow NF

We found a small campground with a few campers and decided to pull into a spot next to a beautiful creek. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground and light flurries soon started to fall. By now, we were getting used to the chilly nights in the back of an open truck but decent sleeping bags are essential gear.

Our campsite in Medicine Bow
The creek behind our campsite

The next morning we hit the road again, headed out into the flat plains once more. Melissa took a turn driving and I was searching for an interesting side trip/stop for our time in Nebraska. I searched online for natural areas in Nebraska and came across their Visit Nebraska web site which I had already contacted when we were planning our pandemic-postponed trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration last March. I decided to try to call a human and ask for their input rather than searching endlessly online. I stumbled across someone with the interesting title of Adventure Travel Specialist, and gave her a call. Jenna was very helpful (and sounds like she has a great job). One of her favorite areas are the Sandhills region up around the town of Valentine. That would mean a couple of hours of detour from our eastward trend, but, after hanging up and discussing it some more, we decided to just do it. We turned north toward Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the detour did not disappoint.

Gently rolling hills of grasses seemingly went on forever (photo by Melissa Dowland)
The Sandhills of Nebraska captured our hearts

There is something about the Sandhills that captures your imagination and heart. The Sandhills cover almost 20,000 square miles in northern and central Nebraska and parts of South Dakota. They range in height up to 400 feet and are the largest sand dune system in the United States. The soil is not suitable for growing crops, so most of this vast area still support grasslands and wetlands critical to wildlife. In the past, herds of bison grazed here, now over 500,000 head of cattle call the area home on large ranches. Melissa was particularly taken by the desolate beauty of this place and waxed poetic about somehow acquiring 500+ acres, having a tiny house (or maybe two, one for food storage since it looks like it is a long, long way to a grocery store), and a few head of bison to maintain the prairie grasses. We’ll send you the address if that happens.

Prairie grasses bowing in the wind
The soil is really sandy
One of our favorite birds – flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (with a couple of Yellow-headed ones in the mix)
We saw several Sharp-tailed Grouse on our sunrise drive through the refuge
A wind mill pumping water into a cistern for cattle

There are over a million acres of wetlands in the Sandhills and many lakes. This is due to the presence of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water sources in the world.

Some cows didn’t seem to want to let us pass

We camped at a wildlife management area (allowed throughout Nebraska) with thousands of swallows (barn swallows?) settling at sunset into the extensive marsh grasses across the adjacent lake.

The next morning we had to hit the road as it was a long drive to our next camp in Missouri. But, we also wanted to check out some prairie preserves, so we made slight detours to visit some remnant prairies, including one that apparently has never been plowed. At the Gjerloff Prairie, we hiked a short distance, once again admiring the great diversity of native wildflowers and grasses that define these habitats.

Future headquarters of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute at the Gjerloff Prairie in Nebraska

Our final stop had us once again pulling into the small campground at Brickyard Hill Conservation Area in the loess hills along the Missouri River (we camped here on our way out). Once again, we had the place almost to ourselves (only one other camper). The small prairie hill was swarming with over a hundred dragonflies ( mostly Green Darners, I think). After this, only one more night on the road…

Back at the small prairie at Brickyard Hill in Missouri

All Roads Lead To…

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

~Lewis Carroll

When they heard we were planning this trip, a few friends automatically said they knew where we were going. We insisted we had made no definite plans and would let the road lead us wherever we needed to go. Well, it turns out, all roads do, indeed, lead to Yellowstone (at least for us). We realized we were going to end up there about day 4 of our trip as we drifted away from the route to Michigan and turned more to the west. The magic of Yellowstone calls to us, especially this year when both Melissa’s and my scheduled trips with groups had been canceled due to the pandemic. Now, we were a bit worried about the timing of this visit as it looked like we would be arriving on Labor Day weekend and figured it might be hard to find a campsite. We came in through Sunlight Basin and tried a forest service road a few miles from Cooke City. At first, RVs were as expected – densely packed into the available sites. Then the road started getting worse and it was mainly truck or SUV campers with the occasional hardy RVer. We finally managed a spot near a marshy lake with a few free range Black Angus cows.

The sunset view from across the road at our campsite outside the NE entrance (click photos to enlarge)

This is grizzly country, and as we settled in, I pondered what I would think or do if, when I got up in the night to go to the bathroom, I encountered a large dark object nearby – cow, or bear? Oh well, I spotted neither during the night, and we were off at sunrise the next morning.

Back at our special place

We headed into the park and saw our first wildlife within ten minutes – a pair of moose! A couple of other cars had stopped, but it was quiet and the moose were not paying attention to us as they browsed.

This is one reason we love Yellowstone – the wildlife like this moose calf
Moose cow and calf as we drove in the first morning

We still didn’t know where we would stay, though we now hoped for one or two nights near the park. As we drove past Pebble Creek campground, we saw a couple of cars in line at the entrance. Pebble Creek is a place we both have always loved (beautiful creek surrounded by towering mountains and close to the heart of prime wildlife watching) but every time we have been by it in the past, the campground sign said FULL. But, Melissa knew that this is a first come, first served campground. People line up in the morning and, if sites become available, you can get in. We turned around and decided to give it a shot. Unbelievably, there were vacant sites because people had already left early that morning. We were second in line, so we had our choice of 6 campsites after the first car picked theirs. The campground host said the area had only been open a couple of weeks due to Covid closures and that might explain the lack of a larger line – people just didn’t realize it was open. On the spur of the moment, we decided to reserve it for 3 nights, realizing that on the second night things might change dramatically – the forecast called for snow!

Our lucky campsite at Pebble Creek

Our first couple of days in the park were spent driving through Lamar Valley and Little America, watching wildlife (bison herds, sandhill cranes, pronghorn, and wolves). We visited (socially distancing) our friends in Gardiner and Silver Gate and did a couple of short hikes. The park was as crowded as we have ever seen it, with huge groups of wolf watchers out in Lamar and Slough Creek (and the wolves were very cooperative).

Our favorite place – Lamar Valley
We saw wolves every day – here is a black wolf in the distance behind a few bison out in Lamar
King of Lamar
Cooperative Cooper’s Hawk
The Yellowstone River from the Junction Butte trail

We opted for what we hoped would be a less crowded route on the 6-mile one way dirt road, the Blacktail Plateau Drive. Even that was crowded, but we got lucky, and at one point saw a badger run across the road in front of us. There wasn’t a car behind us so we pulled over and got out to see where it had gone. It had a hole right next to the road and had been digging, probably searching for aestivating ground squirrels, on both sides of the dirt road. While we were standing there, the badger poked its head out and stared at us, then retreated back into the burrow. We parked the truck, grabbed our cameras, and sat down a safe distance from the hole. We spent 30 minutes or so with this guy and watched as it would come out, check us out, then run across the road (out of our sight) to dig and then run back whenever it heard another car approaching. The fact that we sat still and didn’t stare at it the whole time seemed to put the badger at ease (maybe those two are just scrawny bison) and it soon paid us little mind.

Our Badger buddy
Badgers have grizzled fur that is longest along the sides, giving it an edge of fur that looks like a hairy skirt

We didn’t want to cause a badger jam (attract others to stop and disturb the badger) so, when we heard a car approaching, we would put our cameras down and pretend to be taking selfies or landscape shots with our phones. As soon as the car passed, we would get ready, as the badger would soon pop back up, glance at us, then scurry out to hunt. We finally had to move on, leaving our furry friend alone in his beautiful back yard.

Watching the Badger along Blacktail Plateau Drive

Sunday afternoon was hot, as hot as it gets in Yellowstone. At 6 pm it was 88 degrees. The next day, with the prediction calling for falling temperatures and snow, we headed to camp early to set up and wait out the storm. By 6 pm Monday, the temperature was 38 degrees and snow and sleet was falling.

Pebble Creek Campground in snow

There was about 2 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was 18 degrees as we drove into Lamar the next morning. What a change from the heat and humidity of home. Lamar was beautiful with fresh snow and the wildlife didn’t seem bothered. Th biggest change we saw was a group of Sandhill Cranes strolling in the flats of the valley flipping buffalo chips (poo piles). There is a large community of invertebrates associated with buffalo scat and several species (I have seen Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Ravens) will flip over the drying chips looking for an insect snack. The cranes methodically made their way through the garden of chips, flipping them over, and occasionally pecking at something underneath.

Pronghorn buck in Lamar

We had visited our friends, Dan and Cindy, the day before and Dan had asked if we wanted to go with him to check on some camera traps he has set up outside the park. Dan is a wildlife photographer and his stunning photographs appear in a new book called Pika Country, about how climate change is impacting one of the most fascinating small mammals of the high mountains.

Dan’s photography appears in this new book about Pikas and climate change

He is also a filmmaker and guide and is working on a new project about the Beartooths, the incredible mountains outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. We have had many adventures with Dan over the years, so we said sure. It turns out he had set camera traps on a squirrel midden, an area where Red Squirrels bury cones for their winter food supply. Other critters, most notably Black and Grizzly Bears, search out these middens and steal the pine nuts (especially Whitebark Pine Nuts) hidden below ground by the industrious squirrels.

Beartooth Butte

Dan had seen bears in this area and was hoping to capture some on camera. But he is wary of going into that area alone. He casually mentioned this is a little like visiting a carcass (a no-no in grizzly country), in that it is a food supply for hungry bears, so having several people (all with bear spray) is a better idea. We drove out to the site, parked, and headed into the trees, making a lot of noise as we walked so any bears in the area would hear us.

Bear excavation of a squirrel midden

The area around the midden was dug up in several places and one camera had been jostled by something, knocking it loose from its strap. When we got back to the car, we played the cards on the laptop and got footage (you’ll have to wait for his film) of both Black Bears and Grizzlies digging up the cones. And there were fresh Grizzly tracks in the snow!

The next morning was cold (15 degrees) and clear as we drove south through Yellowstone headed for Grand Teton National Park. I love Yellowstone, but the Tetons are certainly one of the more majestic landscapes I have ever seen. The Tetons seem to jump out of the flat sagebrush plains that surround it and reach for the heavens. There are 8 peaks over 12,000 feet in this range which stretches about 40 miles. One of the most iconic views is from Oxbow Bend, an old meander cut off from the nearby Snake River. We passed through mid-afternoon (it is best viewed at sunrise and sunset) and crowds were lining the pull outs enjoying the scenery and perhaps hoping for a view of the park’s iconic Grizzly mama, #399, and her four cubs. There were large flashing road signs warning drivers to use caution as this zone is a bear crossing area (never seen that one before). By the way, 399 is probably the most famous bear in the world and has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts!

The Tetons from Oxbow Bend

Now i know how most tourists feel that have only a short time in a park – so much you want to see and do, but you must keep moving. Our incentive was finding another camping spot for the night and there were a few forest service roads we needed to check out. The snowfall was heavier here and left lots of broken trees and mud on the formerly dusty roads. Luckily, we passed a forest service ranger driving in the opposite direction who kindly stopped to chat when I waved him down. He advised us to not head any further up this road as it was very muddy and some trees were down. He suggested we follow him to a nearby road he was going to check that had some marked dispersed campsites. That was a very lucky encounter as it no doubt saved us a lot of time and hassle, and the campsite we found proved to be not too shabby, especially the view!

The Tetons at sunrise from our campsite

One of my other highlights from the trip that lacks a photographic record (like the elk that night in the Bighorns) was the sky that night. Even with a little haze from wildfire smoke, the night sky was as brilliant and filled with stars as I can ever remember. At daybreak, we broke camp and turned the truck toward the East.