Tuesday Quiz: National Park Minefield

This week’s Tuesday Quiz gives you three minutes to click on every state that has at least one national park. It can get tricky – some U.S. National Parks are located in more than one state. Can you correctly identify all the states in this week’s quiz?

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A Sailing Adventure: Biscayne National Park

Twenty-one miles east of the Everglades and just north of the island of Key Largo lies Biscayne National Park. It is the largest protected marine national park in the United States. With 95% of the park on the water, we booked a full-day sailing trip to travel across Biscayne Bay and set foot on one of its keys. 

National park sign in Biscayne Bay

Spaniard Juan Ponce de León sailed across Biscayne Bay during his discovery of Florida in 1513. Later, pirates and treasure fleets roamed the area, some meeting disasterous results. There are 44 documented shipwrecks within the park boundaries. As Florida grew, development plans were created to build a new city and port in the location of today’s national park. Calls for protection ensued, and Biscayne became a national monument in 1968. It was elevated to national park status in 1980. Visitation in 2016 was 514,709 people, ranking it 38th among parks. 

We booked a full-day guided sailing tour that included a trip across Biscayne Bay, time on one of the keys, and our choice of snorkeling or kayaking activities around the island. When we arrived at Biscayne, we headed to the visitor center to view their museum and watch a short video highlighting the mainland, bay, key, and reef sections of the park. Biscayne is situated on the northernmost portion of the Florida Keys and the Florida Reef, the third largest coral barrier reef in the world. We learned that Biscayne is home to 200 species of fish and marine mammals. 

Before boarding the boat, we walked on the half-mile Jetty Trail and peered into the water to see colorful fish, coral, and seaweed. It was windy, and we could see that any snorkeling or kayaking activities might be impacted. 

View of Biscayne Bay from the Jetty Trail

Our boat, the 44 foot long Adventure, was captained by Perry. The maximum number of charter guests was six, so we had four other people on board with us. The boat motored into the channel to prepare for our sail across Biscayne Bay. Then the engine died. 

The Adventure at the dock

We were towed back to the dock and, once back on shore, we waited to hear the diagnosis of the boat’s condition. It became apparent that it couldn’t easily be fixed, and we were offered the opportunity to join four different people on a small power boat to continue with our tour. But we had our heart set on the sailboat. 

After conversation between us and some schedule checking, we realized that we could reschedule later in the week, when the sailboat motor would be operational. We confirmed the date with the charter staff, while also hoping for calmer weather in a few days time. 

When we drove back to Biscayne several days later it was not only windier than before, but there were ominous black clouds in the sky. We were told that it might rain, but since there was no lightening in the forecast, we were safe to proceed. The motor was fixed and Perry was again our captain. No one else had booked the day, so we had a private tour. 

Ominous clouds over Biscayne Bay

We motored off to the bay and raised the sails to begin sailing to Boca Chita Key, about eight miles away. It is the most popular island in the park, as it contains a 65 foot tall ornamental lighthouse built in the late 1930s by a businessman who once owned the island. It rained a little on the trip over, but we made good time with the wind at our back. 

Sailing towards Boca Chita Key on the horizon

Sailing past the lighthouse as we approach Boca Chita Key

Just as we docked at Boca Chita, another rain cell moved through, bringing even darker clouds and gusty winds. We stood behind the bathroom on shore to shield us from the strong gusts. After about 30 minutes the storm abated, and we walked over to the lighthouse to climb its winding staircase to the top. 

Dark clouds and rain moving in at the Boca Chita Key Lighthouse

View from the top of the lighthouse after the rain

We so wanted to snorkel or kayak but one look at the white cap waves hitting the shore told us that it was not going to happen. We discovered a short half-mile path looping to the end of the key and back, so we set off to explore. When we arrived at the end of the key, the wind stopped, and we were immediately attacked by mosquitoes. Breaking into a jog, we quickly completed the hike, emerging on the other side of the island and back into the wind. The mosquitoes quickly dissipated. 

Walking down the half-mile loop on Boca Chita Key

View of Sands Key from the end of Boca Chita Key during the hike

Since we were going to be sailing back to the mainland against the wind, we asked Perry if we could leave a little early. Moving our charter to a new day meant that we still had to keep to our schedule for that night, and it was a three hour drive to our reserved campsite.The sun finally came out as we sailed back, turning the bay water to a brilliant turquoise color. 

Perry, who is a sailboat instructor, used the return trip to give a willing Darren a sailing lesson of sorts, and they practiced tacking the boat several times to change course into the headwind hitting us. It did take quite a bit longer to get back, and we arrived almost an hour later than scheduled. So we quickly said our goodbyes and thanks and headed to the car as soon as we docked. 

Sailing back to the mainland

The turquoise water of Biscayne Bay

Darren steering the Adventure on our return trip

Even though our boat tour did not go as exactly as we had hoped, we so enjoyed the feeling of sailing through Biscayne National Park, as so many ships had for hundreds of years before us. Having the opportunity to explore three of the four park environments, on the mainland, bay, and keys, allowed us to better appreciate the 173,000 acre park, even if the weather did not fully cooperate. 

We hope to have better luck in the water as we travel to one of the United States’ most remote national parks: Dry Tortugas. 

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Where Alligators and Crocodiles Roam: Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park protects the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. It is a mosaic of marshes, creeks, prairies, and forests, with a abundance of wildlife. And it is the only place in the world where the alligator and crocodiles both roam. We spent four days exploring the park, the third largest in the lower 48 states and covering the entire southwest tip of Florida.

American alligator

American crocodile

For hundreds of years a shallow sheet of water in Florida used to flow freely from Lake Okeechobee through the wetlands and out to Florida Bay. The subsequent growth of Florida caused the land to be drained, destroying much of this ecosystem. Everglades National Park was created in 1947 to protect the remaining wetland area (now totaling only about 20% of its original size). In 2016 Everglades was visited by 930,907 people, ranking it 24th out of 59 national parks.

We drove down the western Gulf Coast of Florida to enter the park near Everglades City. Stopping at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, our hope was to rent a canoe and paddle through the mangroves. Unfortunately it was too windy, but we were able to have an extended conversation with the ranger on duty to verify the best park hiking and activities for us to pursue in the coming days.

After leaving the Gulf Coast, we turned inland to drive on the Tamiami Trail (US 41). This highway links Florida’s west coast with its east coast and took us into Big Cypress National Preserve. The first preserve in the U.S., Big Cypress was created in 1974 to further protect the fresh water’s natural flow into the neighboring Everglades. This preserve differs from a national park in that it allows activities such as oil and gas exploration, hunting, off road vehicle travel, and traditional use by the neighboring Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. 

We used Big Cypress’s Midway Campground as our base for exploring the preserve and the northern portion of Everglades National Park. While at Big Cypress we took a couple of short hikes and drove on two unpaved roads into the backcountry, where we saw alligators and a variety of birds, including an owl.

Driving on an unpaved road in Big Cypress National Preserve

Cypress trees

Owl spotted in Big Cypress

It was an easy drive to the Shark Valley section of Everglades from Big Cypress. Shark Valley is a freshwater sawgrass prairie that floods yearly to become a shallow river up to 30 miles wide. The shallow river is known as a slough ( pronounced “slew”). It is also one of the best places in the park to view animals. A paved loop leads to a 65 foot observation tower providing a 360 degree view of the area. The 15 mile loop travels seven miles along a canal to the tower, with the final eight miles traversing through the prairie dotted with cypress, willow, and hardwood trees. A two hour tram tour is offered several times a day, but we opted to rent bikes and ride the 15 miles instead. 

Riding along the canal at Shark Valley

We were immediately treated to the sight of American alligators sunning themselves along the banks of the canal. We probably saw close to 20 gators as we rode. They seemed docile, and we had to keep reminding ourselves not to get too close, because alligators can move quickly over short distances. In addition to alligators, we saw many birds, including herons, flamingo pink colored roseate spoonbills, and turtles. 

Alligator sunning along the canal

Heron spied on our bike ride


Roseate spoonbill

When we reached the observation tower, we walked up to the top and marveled at the view of the Shark Valley Slough. There was a small pond just below us, and we could see nothing on the horizon but sawgrass prairie in every direction.

Walking up to the observation tower

View from the observation tower

There are many hiking trails in the Everglades, with the majority of them covering distances of less than a mile round trip. After completing the remaining eight miles of biking, we hiked the Bobcat Boardwalk and Otter Cave Hammock Trails. 

Otter Cave Hammock Trail

Everglades National Park is comprised of six habitats: marine and estuary, mangroves, freshwater marsh, cypress, pine rockland, and tropical hardwood hammocks. We ventured to the Flamingo portion of the park on Florida Bay the next day. While driving south on the 38 mile park road, we stopped to complete several hikes, each exposing us to a different environment in the park.

The Pa-hay-okee (meaning “grassy waters” in Seminole)  Overlook Trail took us to a raised viewpoint over the sawgrass prairie. At the overlook, we looked towards Shark Valley where we had ridden bikes the day before.

The view from the Pa-hay-okee Overlook Trail

On the Pinelands Trail we walked through a dense hardwood hammock forest of cypress, palms, ferns, and epiphytes (air plants growing on tree limbs).

The Pinelands Trail

We felt like we were in the tropics of Central America instead of southern Florida while walking on the Mahogany Hammock Trail. On the edge of the Shark Valley Slough, the trail took us onto an island of lush trees. 

Darren hiking on the Mahogany Hammock Trail

The Everglades contain the largest protected mangrove forest in the Northern Hemisphere. The West Lake Trail exposed us to some of these mangroves and the flooded forest floor as we hiked along a boardwalk to a bay viewpoint.

Flooded mangrove forest

Mangroves seen from the West Lake Trail

We had been extremely fortunate with our wildlife sightings, but at Flamingo we encountered high concentrations of mosquitoes. We already had dealt with mosquitoes while camping in the South, but there were only out at dawn and dusk, making it easy to plan around them. At the Flamingo Campground they were constant and numerous, making it almost impossible to be outside for any length of time. We used our head nets and DEET, but they got into our car and it was difficult to kill them all in there. It was also hot and humid with the heat index well into the 90s F.

We had more camping planned, but after one night at Flamingo, we decided to forgo any further nights outdoors and book a hotel instead. Our plan was to also take a kayak trip in the Florida Bay from the Flamingo Marina, but again the windy conditions were not conducive to us paddling. We instead booked a seven mile motor boat tour though the mangrove estuary along Buttonwood Canal, taking us to Coot Bay and Whitewater Bay during our two-hour trip.

View from Flamingo Marina into Florida Bay

Tour boat

It was during the tour that we had our first close look at a crocodile nesting along the canal bank. Our guide listed the major differences between alligators and crocodiles: crocs are found in salt water, as opposed to fresh water for gators; crocs have a narrower mouth than gators, crocs have teeth that show when their mouth is closed; and crocs have more of an olive hue, whereas gators tend to be more black in color. We also saw three kinds of mangroves during our tour: white, black, and red.

Canal mangroves from the tour boat

Nesting crocodile on the canal bank

Our final stop in the Everglades was in the Royal Palm area. We hiked the Gumbo Limbo Trail to see the namesake tree, along with royal palms, mahogany, live oaks, ferns, and strangler figs. We learned that there are 700 native plant species in Everglades National Park. 

Strangler fig on the Gumbo Limbo Trail

Almost everyone we spoke to told us we had to hike the Anhinga Trail. We were not disappointed as we walked along an elevated boardwalk over the sawgrass marsh of Taylor Slough. It was one of the most beautiful trails we had hiked in a national park and we saw a variety of birds, more alligators, a fish called a Florida gar, and stunning lily pads in the water. It was a fitting way to end our time in the park.

Water and lilies on the Anhinga Trail

Gar swimming in the water on the Anhinga Trail

Anhinga bird

The tropical environment and variety of ecosystems found in the Everglades National Park was unlike anything we have seen in the previous 11 parks we visited on this journey. While in the Everglades, we were able to hike 6.7 miles, ride 15 miles, and take a guided boat tour. The number of animals we saw throughout the park and in the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve was by far the most we had seen on our trip, and we took hundreds of pictures. Included in our photos were a number of large insects that we saw on the trails.



We continue our travels with a visit to Biscayne National Park, located on the east coast of Florida. 

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Tuesday Quiz: How well do you know the United States?

Our Tuesday Quiz this week is from National Geographic. Ten questions test your knowledge of the United States. The questions include history, culture and geography. How well do you know the U.S.?

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National Park Panoramic Photos – Series 2

Here are some panoramic photos that we took of the national parks and national monuments that we visited. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view. Enjoy! 

View from Alcove House – Bandelier National Monument

Dunes – White Sands National Monument

The Big Room – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

McKittrick Canyon view from the Notch Trail – Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Balanced Rock – Big Bend National Park

Quapaw Bathhouse – Hot Springs National Park

River Styx Spring Trail – Mammoth Cave National Park

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Tuesday Quiz: U.S. City Skylines

We are visiting Charleston, South Carolina this week, and the Tuesday Quiz is all about U.S. cities. Can you correctly identify the city by a picture of its skyline? Good luck on this week’s quiz!

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Exploring Below and Above: Mammoth Cave National Park

With over 400 miles of surveyed passages, Mammoth Cave National Park is famous as the longest known cave system in the world. We not only ventured into the cave on two occasions while visiting, but also had the opportunity to explore some of Mammoth’s 52,830 acres above the ground by completing hikes on both sides of the Green River, the park’s major waterway. 

The karst terrain throughout the park is comprised of limestone, topped with a layer of sandstone. The cave has been carved over millions of years as rainwater infiltrated the soil, becoming a weak carbonic acid. This acid dissolved the porous limestone to create a network of underground streams and miles of cave tunnels. The passages are layered on top of one another, with at least five levels, and a maximum depth of about 400 feet. 

The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941 and a World Heritage Site in 1981, but tourists have been visiting for over 200 years. In 2016 the park celebrated its bicentennial of guided tours. Early guides were slaves, including Stephen Bishop and Mat and Nick Bransford. They also discovered many of the cave’s famous passages.

Today, about 13 miles of the cave can be seen by purchasing guided tours. We reserved spots on the two hour Domes and Dripstones tour to take us 3/4 of a mile through the most decorated part of the cave. We had the fortune of having Ranger Jerry Bransford leading our tour. Jerry, directly related to Mat and Nick Bransford, is a fifth generation cave guide. His knowledge of the cave and its history were fascinating to us. He even had a New York Times story written about him three years ago.

Ranger Jerry Bransford briefing the group before entering the cave

Our tour entered the cave from the New Entrance, created at the time the most decorative feature, the Frozen Niagara, was discovered in 1923. Upon entering the cave, we walked down 280 steep stairs through several narrow passages. We got up to the front of the group and followed right behind Ranger Jerry. 

Following Ranger Jerry down the stairs from the New Entrance into the cave

At the bottom of the stairs we entered a large room called Grand Central Station. It was the deepest part of our tour, at about 250 feet below the surface. 

The group assembled at Grand Central Station

From there, we continued along several passages to the Frozen Niagara area. Here, we could walk down and back up 50 steps to see it more closely. The Frozen Niagara is about 130 feet below the surface.

Coming to Frozen Niagara

Cave formations near Frozen Niagara

We also passed through the Drapery Room and saw Crystal Lake below us. 

The Drapery Room

Looking down to Crystal Lake

There were groups of crickets on the cave walls. We stopped to look at them as we walked. 

Crickets in the cave

Our second venture into the cave took place through the Historic Entrance. We happened to be there on a day that we could go in a short distance on our own, rather than on a guided tour. This portion of the cave, being an older and upper passage, is dry, with little stalactites, stalagmites, or other formations dependent on flowing water.

We walked down the stairs into the cave and past the large Rotunda Room (at 140 feet below the surface) to Audubon Avenue. The large scale of the passages were a real contrast with the narrower sections we had seen on our Domes and Dripstones tour. 

While speaking with a ranger in the Rotunda Room, we learned that about 80% of Mammoth Cave’s bats have died of white-nose syndrome. However, she knew of a nearby location of a baby bat and showed it to us. 

Walking down into the Historic Entrance

The Rotunda Room

Our cave explorations complete, we turned our attention to the above ground trails in the park. There are over 80 miles of paths, with the Green River delinating between the front and back country sections of the park. We completed a hike in each area. 

In the front country, we hiked the River Styx Spring Trail (1.0 mile round trip). It was drizzling while we walked, but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the green forest all around us. Upon arriving at the spring, we could see a stream emerging from the cave to eventually join the Green River.

Walking along the River Styx Spring Trail

The River Styx emerging from the cave

The Green River is one of the most biologically diverse streams in the United States, with about 150 species of fish that have been identified. There are 65 miles of trails north of the Green River, and to get there we needed to cross the river on a small ferry. When we pulled up to the river’s edge, the ferry lowered its door, and we drove onto it. On the other side the door lowered again, and we were on our way. 

Waiting to board the Green River ferry

We parked at the Maple Springs trailhead and planned to complete a loop of several paths. After hiking about a mile on the Buffalo Trail, we turned off to the Turnhole Bend Trail.

Trail sign at the beginning of our hike

It had rained quite a bit overnight, and we began to encounter significant stretches of mud. After hiking about a 1/2 mile and making slow progress, we decided to turn around and try a different trail. The conditions were better there. In all, we managed to complete 5.8 miles of hiking while seeing only one other person on the trails. 

Darren navigating his way through the mud on the trail

We enjoyed our time exploring two underground sections of Mammoth Cave, known as “The Monarch of Caves.” While not having the extent of decorative features we saw at Carlsbad Caverns just a few weeks ago, we were awed by the enormous scale of the passages and rooms. Our above ground hikes gave us the opportunity to explore the Kentucky countryside and find solitude in the green forest. In 2016, Mammoth Cave National Park ranked 33rd in visitation, with about 586,000 people. 

Next, we will move on to Florida and visit the first of three parks in that state: Everglades National Park. 

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Small but Historic: Hot Springs National Park 

Hot Springs National Park, in the Ouachita (pronounced “wosh-i-taw”) Mountains of Arkansas, has the distinction of being America’s smallest national park at just 5,500 acres. Its protected status predates Yellowstone, commonly considered to be the world’s first national park created in 1872. In 1832, Congress, under President Andrew Jackson, designated a Hot Springs Reservation to protect the thermal springs, which were growing in popularity by those seeking its supposed therapeutic properties.

We spent a day at Hot Springs learning more about its history and natural features. After visiting nine parks rich in natural beauty, we weren’t sure what our impressions would be of Hot Springs, slanted more towards history. But we were pleasantly surprised by what we found during our visit. 

History recorded Native Americans using the springs for hundreds of years. Hunters and traders became familiar with the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1804 President Jefferson sent an expedition to research the springs, part of the recent Louisiana Purchase. The area became more popular, with its peak years between the 1880s and 1940s. Treatments declined in the 1950s, causing most spas to close. 

Hot Springs was elevated to national park status in 1921 and had 2016 visitation of about 1.5 million people, ranking it 16th among the parks. The centerpiece of the park is Bathhouse Row, which contains eight spa buildings built between 1892 and 1923. One building, Fordyce, was built in 1915 and is now the national park’s visitor center. 

Looking down Bathhouse Row

Inside Fordyce we took a self-guided tour of 23 rooms restored to their appearance during the height of “taking the waters.”  We saw rooms with individual bath stalls and massage tables, and an old gymnasium, part of treatment regimes for patients attracted to the area to cure all types of ailments. 

Restored bath room with stalls in the Fordyce Bathhouse (now the visitor center)

Restored gymnasium in the Fordyce Bathhouse

There are over 40 springs located around the base of Hot Springs Mountain, and their combined flow is about half a million gallons a day. The thermal water is created from rainwater conducted into the earth via fractures in the rock. The water moves downward very slowly and warmer rocks heat it at a rate of 4 degrees F every 300 feet to an ultimate temperature of 143 degrees F. How slowly does it move? By the time the water comes back up through one of the springs it is over 4,000 years old! 

Behind the visitor center was an open spring. We put our hands above the water and could feel its heat below us. 

Open spring adjacent to the visitor center

There are nine springs close by where the water can be sampled. We tasted some water from the hot Shell Fountain with small paper cups supplied by the visitor center. We waited a few minutes to allow the water to cool down before trying it. Hard to believe we were drinking water from rain that fell four thousand years ago.

Shell Fountain

Even with all its history, there are 26 miles of trails in the park in the mountains behind Bathhouse Row. We combined several short trails together to complete a four mile loop along the Hot Springs and North Mountains. The trails took us through pine, oak, and hickory tree forests, with occasional views of the city of Hot Springs and the surrounding countryside. We even saw a turtle on the trail. 

Darren hiking the trail on Hot Springs Mountain

Trail view

Trail view

Turtle on the trail

Our hike ended next to the cold Happy Hallow Spring, and we enjoyed some of its refreshing water. We both agreed that it was some of the best water we had ever tasted. Locals were there as well, filling up multiple gallon jugs. All the spring water is free and cannot be resold.

Darren sampling Happy Hallow Spring water

We were also hungry after our hike, so we stopped by the Superior Bathhouse, built in 1916, which was recently repurposed as a restaurant and brewery using the local spring water. 

Superior Bathhouse

Two other bathhouses, Buckstaff and Quapaw, still offer thermal water soaks. After lunch we scheduled a bath at the Quapaw Bathhouse, built in 1922. We received a 20 minute private two person bath in thermal water heated to 100 degrees F. A faucet allowed us to add 143 degree F water to heat it further if desired. Following the bath, we received a cooling session with cold fruit infused drinking water and cool face cloths.

Quapaw Bathhouse

Quapaw Bathhouse thermal bath

Sandy cooling down after the thermal bath

It had been a full day of learning more about the history of Hot Springs, hiking a loop of mountain trails, tasting the spring water, eating in a restored bathhouse, and taking a thermal bath. We left for our campground in the late afternoon having enjoyed our time in this small but historic place.

Our next stop will take us back to a unique area of natural beauty – the World Heritage Site of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. 

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Tuesday Quiz: Fact Monster National Parks

This week’s Tuesday Quiz comes from Fact Monster. The ten questions will test your national parks knowledge from Hawaii to Maine. Take this week’s quiz here.

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Of Desert, Mountain and River: Big Bend National Park

We were in the state of Texas for 17 days, and most of our time was spent in one place: Big Bend National Park. Big Bend, established in 1944, is the 15th largest national park by area (801,000 acres). We spent six days exploring its desert, mountain, and river ecosystems. There was plenty to do in a park of this size, so in addition to hiking in each area, we opted for several other activities. 

There are an abundance of backcountry roads leading to campsites in the park, with most requiring a 4×4 vehicle. Upon our arrival, we obtained a permit to drive to the Black Dike primitive campsite, located just a short distance from the Rio Grande River. It took us about an hour to drive 10 miles on the occasionally challenging sand and rock road. When we arrived at the campsite, we were able to park under the shade of a cottonwood tree, as the temperatures were in the low 90s F. After setting up camp, we walked down a short path to the river. 

The Rio Grande was narrower than we thought it would be, and just a stone’s throw across from us was Mexico. We could see paths on the other side and wondered if people might come across the river in the middle of the night. However, we heard nothing as we slept. The next morning we left early to drive back to the main road and secure a campsite at the nearby Cottonwood Campground. 

Road to Black Dike campsite

Rio Grande River a short distance from our campsite

Big Bend’s largest ecosystem is in the Chihuahuan Desert, the easternmost of the United States’ four deserts. Most of the Chihuahuan is in Mexico, with its northern portion covering southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and West Texas. The Chihuahuan elevation is higher than the other U.S. deserts, resulting in milder summer temperatures, cooler winters, and greater precipitation.

We set off to hike to Mule Ears Spring, overlooking a mountain resembling donkey ears. As we walked, we saw hundreds of blooming ocotillo plants, as well as many flowering catcus. It was in the high 80s F and there wasn’t much shade, but the four mile hike was a great introduction to Big Bend’s desert terrain.

View of Mule Ears with blooming ocotillo and catcus

Blooming catcus along the trail

Our next desert hike was to the Chimneys, a series of rocky hills containing Native American petroglyphs. It was another hot day, but after our hike we got some relief from the heat by heading up to the mountainous Chisos region and camping at Chisos Basin ( 5,400 feet) that night. 

Hiking to the Chimneys in front of us

Some of the Chimneys petroglyphs

The Chisos are the United States’ southernmost mountains, and we completed several hikes in the cooler weather there. During one hike we descended to the Window, an opening in the Chisos Mountains looking down to the desert below.

View of the Window before our hike

Looking through the Window to the desert below

The next day we climbed to Lost Mine Peak (7,550 feet). It was a beautiful hike through the forest overlooking Juniper Canyon. Unfortunately it was hazy at the top, limiting our view. We did see a mule deer just off the trail on our way back. 

Forest trail to Lost Mine Peak

View of Juniper Canyon near the top

Mule deer spied on the trail

Our last hike in the area was to Balanced Rock in the nearby Grapevine Hills. A short walk up a wash ended at a rocky canyon where we had to scramble on our hands and knees for the final quarter mile to the top. It was well worth it to see the rocks perched precariously on top of one another.

Scrambling up to Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock

Big Bend’s name refers to the U turn that the Rio Grande makes, defining the park’s boundary (and the border of the U.S. and Mexico) for 118 miles. We spent time observing the river on both the park’s west and east sides. On the west side we hiked to Santa Elena Canyon. The trail climbed to an overlook before descending to the canyon’s river bank. The view of the sheer 1,800 foot walls in the afternoon sun was stunning.

Santa Elena Canyon

The east side of the park is popular with birders at this time of year, as it is migration season between South and North America for many birds. We learned that over 450 bird species have been recorded in the park. A hike took us to Boquillas Canyon, and while not as spectacular as Santa Elena Canyon, we found more solitude there while sitting by the river for a time watching the water and listening to the birds around us.

Boquillas Canyon

Sitting by the Rio Grande River

Our longest hike at Big Bend (six miles) was from Daniels Ranch to the Langford Hot Springs adjacent to the Rio Grande. It was our final desert hike, and upon arriving at the springs, we changed into our bathing suits and enjoyed the natural 105 F temperature of the water, which flowed into the Rio Grande just below us.

View from desert trail to the Rio Grande and hot springs

Enjoying the hot springs with the Rio Grande below

Our Big Bend hiking complete, we took part in one more activity before leaving – a trip across the border to Boquillas, Mexico. A border crossing within the park is open to Boquillas five days a week. Locals row you across the Rio Grande in a boat for $5.00 per person roundtrip. Once in Mexico, we could pay to ride a donkey into town, but opted instead to walk the one mile each way along a dirt road. There were several craft shops and restaurants in Boquillas, and we enjoyed a tasty lunch of guacamole and chips, chile rellenos, and tamales on an outside patio looking back across the Rio Grande to the United States. Upon our return to the U.S. we went through immigration at a kiosk with a phone connection to El Paso, Texas to answer the agent’s questions.

Rowing across the Rio Grande to Mexico

Boquillas, Mexico

Eating lunch in Boquillas

Our time at Big Bend allowed us to become better acquainted with the desert, mountain, and river ecosystems of the park. Not only did we hike a total of 29 miles, but we were able to venture off the paved roads to a primitive campground, soak in a hot spring next to the Rio Grande, and cross the border into Mexico. Though the Chisos area was more crowded, we found solitude in other sections of the park, ranked 42nd in 2016 visitors. In addition to the mule deer we observed while hiking, we also saw numerous javelinas and roadrunners.

Roadrunner behind our car

We will be visiting a historic hot spring at our next stop in the National Park system, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

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Tuesday Quiz: U.S. Geograpahy Bunker

This week’s quiz is a tough one – you must answer a series of 15 questions about the United States in four minutes. One wrong answer ends the quiz. How will you score on this week’s Tuesday Quiz?

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The Top of Texas: Guadalupe Mountains National Park 

Over 200 million years ago, the Guadalupe Mountains were a marine reef under a tropical sea. When the sea evaporated, the Capitan Reef was buried in sediments and mineral salts. Later, an uplift created the mountains that today tower above the Chihuahuan Desert. These mountains include Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8,751 feet tall, is the “top” or highest point in Texas. We spent five days exploring this remote place.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is only about 45 miles from our last stop, Carlsbad Caverns, but it felt like an isolated world away. We counted a only handful of cars passing us as we drove to the Texas border. It was no surprise to us given that Guadalupe’s 2016 visitation of 181,839 people ranked it 48th out of 59 national parks. The park has an unusual amount of diversity, encompassing several different ecosystems and providing habitats for 60 mammal, 55 reptile, 300 bird and 1,000 plant species.

There are two campgrounds in the park and we divided our time between them. At the northern Dog Canyon campground there was only one other person camping with us. Most trails in Guadalupe take you up into the mountains, with 1,000 feet or more of elevation gain. We explored Dog Canyon on two hikes, providing us with different perspectives on the canyon.

The Dog Canyon campground

It was very windy the afternoon we arrived, but we decided to go ahead and complete a 4.6 mile hike to Marcus Lookout for a view of West Dog Canyon. The trail took us up a grassy hillside, with some occasional trees. By the time we reached the lookout, the gusts made it almost impossible to take pictures of the desert floor below. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the hike.

Darren pausing on the hike to Marcus Lookout

View from Marcus Lookout

The wind subsided the next day, making it possible for us to hike to the top of Lost Peak (7,834 feet). We only saw one other person during our 6.8 mile trek. This hike took us through more trees than the previous day, and we walked through beautiful Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. 

The hike to Lost Peak

Sign to the peak and rock scrambling to the top

Back at the campground, we enjoyed watching a Javelina that walked through the tall grass. These animals are covered with black bristly hair and weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. Although it looks like a pig, it is not related and is actually part of its own family.

Javelina in the tall grass

We left Dog Canyon the next day and drove 120 miles to the park headquarters at Pine Springs. The wind had come up again, with forecasted gusts up to 80 miles per hour. Hiking was not possible, so after we found a spot at the campground, we decided to explore one of the park’s four wheel drive roads. We got a key from the Visitor Center and unlocked two gates that led us onto a road partially paralleling the historic Butterfield Stage route used for passenger travel and mail service from 1857 – 1861. To our right we could see the mountains’ western escarpment, dominated by El Capitan (8,085 feet). Unfortunately, the condition of the road only enabled us to drive about one third of the way to the old Williams Ranch site. Back at the Visitor Center we found out that the park offered a Senior Ranger program, so I worked on those requirements during the rest of the afternoon. 

Driving on the 4×4 road

View of El Capitan while driving

McKittrick Canyon, located north of Pine Springs, contains a diversity of plants and one of the few permanent water sources in the park. We hiked the next day into the canyon, crossing a river wash several times before arriving at Pratt Cabin. This was the home of Wallace Pratt, a geologist who fell in love with the area and built a ranch home in 1931. When Guadalupe Mountains National Park was established in 1972 it was partially due to donations of land from several individuals including Mr. Pratt. 

Pratt Cabin

We continued another mile to the Grotto, located beside a stream. Up to now the trail had been relatively flat, so we decided to climb up to the top of the canyon to view the other side. The hike took us on one of the rockiest trails of our entire journey towards the canyon’s notch at 6,045 feet. It was worth the effort, as the view to the other side was pristine. 

The Grotto

Steep rocky hike (note stone stairs) to the Notch

View from McKittrick Canyon’s Notch

On our last day in the park, we trekked to Guadalupe Peak. The hike was a classic case of traversing through the desert, canyon, and alpine ecosystems of the park in just 4.2 miles each way. With 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit, we found the first and last miles especially steep. After about three hours of walking we could see the monument just above us marking the peak. True to the remoteness of the park, there were just two other people at the top with us. At the summit it felt like being on an island, as there were sheer dropoffs all around us to the desert floor far below. 

At the top of Guadalupe Peak

Looking at the backside of El Capitan and down to the Chihuahuan Desert

During our five days in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we hiked a total of 28.7 miles. We not only saw a variety of trees and plants, but came face to face with a Javelina and learned about the ranch and stagecoach history of the area. And we did all of this with just a handful of other people around us. We found the “top of Texas” to be a real undiscovered gem, and we enjoyed our time in this park. And I was awarded my Senior Ranger certificate and patch by the park ranger. 

Senior Ranger presentation by Ranger Michael

We continue our time in West Texas at our next stop, Big Bend National Park.

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