Big Bend: Big Walls?

Magical sunsets at the top of the Chiso Basin

Big Bend is massive. While not as large as Death Valley in acres, something about the variety of terrain (they claim it’s three parks in one), the 100+ miles of Rio Grande it borders, and the fact that the park contains one whole mountain range within it all make it a grand statement on nature and the beauties of West Texas.

View of the Rio Grande, and Mexico on the other side.

But one human-scale question looms all of the nature that is on display here. Big Bend, on the South border of Texas, is a national park that shares a 110-mile border along the Rio Grande River with Mexico. The political overtones of this border are hard to avoid. There are signs everywhere noting that it is illegal to cross the Rio Grande anywhere except the official border crossings.  In my mind, the Rio Grande was, well, Grand with a capital G, but in reality, much of the river here in the park is shallow and not more than 20-30 feet wide. Thus college boys on Spring Break seemed to take great pride violating the stated law by wading across the narrow strait to do a little dance on the Mexican shore. Continue reading “Big Bend: Big Walls?”

Saguaro: Everything’s coming up Tucson

I knew nothing about Saguaro National Park before arriving in Tucson. Relatively small in size, with the city splitting the East and West sides of the park, I didn’t know what to expect other than to see some enormous cacti. Who knew everything would be so utterly delightful?

East Saguaro National Park

Saguaro itself only has backcountry tent sites on the East park, so we took the Whale to the Tucson Mountain State Park campground (Gilbert Ray) near the West entrance, and feeling lucky enough after snagging the last spot I wasn’t expecting much besides a square of concrete to call home. But it was great. Not only was it cheap and 5 minutes from the Saguaro visitor center, it is tucked away up in the Tucson mountainside, with saguaro and all kinds of prickly friends scattered around nicely spaced campsites. It even had electricity! (I am learning to savor the days we are plugged in and I can turn on lights and charge computers without a care.)

Gilbert Ray campground

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Desert Blooms

It’s springtime in the desert. After two months on the road, we finally hit Spring and began seeing the desert bloom. Edward Abbey writes of cactus as having the most beautiful buds of all: “The true distinction of these flowers, I feel, is found in the contrast between the blossom and the plant which produces it. The cactus of the desert is a small, grubby, obscure and humble vegetable associated with cattle dung and overgrazing, interesting only when you tangle with it in the wrong way. Yet from this nest of thorns, this snare of hooks and fiery spines, is born once each year a splendid flower. It is unpluckable and except to an insect almost unapproachable, yet soft, lovely, sweet, desirable, exemplifying better than the rose among thorns the unity of opposites.” Continue reading “Desert Blooms”

Petrified Forest Rocks

Being only 2ish hours from the Grand Canyon must be pretty intimidating as another National Park. How can one compete with that grandeur? That vastness? The fame of being one of the world’s 7 natural wonders?

A long log of petrified wood

The Petrified Forest, though only a few hours east of the Grand Canyon, need not fear being overshadowed – it delighted me because it offered up a whole other type of experience. It’s a smallish NP (the road through it only runs about 20ish miles), and while 229 square miles is not tiny, it feels quite intimate upon exploration as the points of interest are scattered and unique. I liken it to a huge outdoor museum with varied exhibits to stimulate you, rather than one singular Focal Point of Wonder (for example, a certain enormous hole to the West designed to make you stand, mouth agape, with wonder). Here, there is a slice of the Painted Desert up north, petrified quartz trees scattered in the south, a blue Smurf village in between… Continue reading “Petrified Forest Rocks”

Death Valley: Hottest, Driest, Lowest?

Not in our case. Death Valley is famous as the hottest place in the world with a record temperature of 134F, and driest and lowest in North America with an average of less than 2 inches of rain a year and Badwater being 282ft below sea level. In our week there, temperatures were chilly and we got an inch of rain. So instead of the hottest, driest place in America, we saw storms and clouds and the power of water. (Don’t worry, it’s still the lowest point in America.)

Water in the desert is a powerful thing.  A day of rain in a mountain valley devoid of trees and roots to hold down earth, and without soil to absorb the excess water means that all that water is washed down the hillside in a river of gravel and mud.  It creates rivers where roads had been and shut down almost all of the side roads in Death Valley with the gravel and debris. 
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Joshua Tree: You say Mojave, I say Sonoran

The most iconic part of Joshua Tree National Park are, of course, the Joshua Trees.  These distinctive trees are the lifeblood of the Mojave desert, providing food and shelter for many animals and early native Americans. These trees thrive in the Mojave desert – and Joshua Tree lays half in the Mojave… but the remote, southern half climbs over a mountain ridge, drops suddenly in elevation, and we have the Sonoran desert.  Who knew?

Teddy bear cholla. So fuzzy you want to hug them.

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Joshua Tree: Unexpected Stories of Desert Living and Dying

One thing I found interesting about Joshua Tree National Park was its proximity to cities, its associations with people. Driving up to the gates, there are communities and houses right up to the National Park boundary.  I started this year thinking of the NPs as wilderness sanctuaries where humans play fourth fiddle as visitors who are not to disturb the wilderness… but the parks also have their own stories of how they came to be protected, and that story inevitably involves people who fell in love with the land and fought for its designation as a NP.In the case of Joshua Tree, its first champion was a wealthy socialite who lost her husband and son, and found solace and peace in the desert – creating in her a strong advocate for the preservation of this place as a sanctuary for us all.  But part of Joshua Tree’s human story – and a longer part of its history – are the people who lived and worked in this desert, at a time when this land was farmed and mined, a source for human livelihood not a temple. Continue reading “Joshua Tree: Unexpected Stories of Desert Living and Dying”