USA 21 – Florida’s ‘Forgotten Coast’ …… of Florida’s best-kept secrets!

26th March – 15th April  –  Never having visited Florida before, when I hear or see the word –  sunshine, The Keys, Orlando and Cape Canaveral spring to mind but  there is so much more to explore that is remote, laid-back and less developed.  If you like miles of white, deserted beaches and clear, aquamarine seas plus plenty of wildlife amongst the coastal marshlands, dunes, forests and barrier islands, then you will love this area of the Florida panhandle around the Gulf of Mexico, commonly known as ‘The Forgotten Coast.’

Although it is raining hard when we leave Alabama there is plenty of sunshine once in Florida.  Two bridges, the Pensacola Bay Bridge and then a toll bridge over the Santa Rosa Sound bring us to Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

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This fragile island has weathered numerous hurricanes, acting as a barrier during violent storms by helping to block the ocean’s waves that might otherwise strike the mainland with greater force.  Located along Florida’s famous Emerald Coast, the beach stretches into the distance, its white sand made up of tiny quartz crystals, held together by plants that have adapted to this harsh environment where the wind and waves are constantly reshaping the island.  It is a habitat for many shore birds, small animals and nesting sea turtles but the latter not until a bit later in the year.

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The U.S. government began fortifying Pensacola in the 1800s and Fort Pickens was completed in 1834 on Santa Rosa Island.  The largest of 4 forts that were built to protect the bay, Pickens played a critical role in preserving peace and as an obstacle to invaders.

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A walk to this fort is a must, following one of the many walking trails on the island.  We stop on a small bridge over a bayou to admire a heron standing motionless on a log with two turtles, watch other herons nesting and wait patiently on the bridge for more turtles to arrive.

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Fort Pickens Campground is located on Santa Rosa Island, with all amenities and only short walking distances to either the Gulf of Mexico with its miles of white sand beaches, or calmer Pensacola Bay.   More trails can be followed inland through the centre of the island, where ospreys are guarding their nests in high trees.  We never tire of watching these beautiful birds that seem to be surprisingly used to people.

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Back at our campground we meet Dolly and Steve who bring us over some delicious cookies from Louisiana and Lois and her husband from Madison in Wisconsin who are intrigued by our number plate.  She gives us their home address in case we are passing that way.  More kind gestures from strangers but who share the same interest of travelling and camping.

The evening before we leave, an osprey lands in a nearby tree clutching a large fish that it has caught.  We seem to have arrived at a great time for watching wildlife!

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And so we decide to move on from this beautiful, wild and natural campground a little further along to Destin, where we have been told by the Visitor  Centre that there is only one camping space left at the Topsail Hill State Park….first come, first served so they won’t reserve.  As it happens, when we arrive we have 4 places to choose from.  We have come to the conclusion that  there is more chance of getting a space if we appear in person, rather than making a phone call.  Perhaps I will eat my words later on, as all campsites are very full at the moment due to schools closed for the Easter break.

This campground resembles a huge parkland that would have belonged to an estate.  In fact it once belonged to two ladies who donated it to the government with the provision that it would be kept in its natural state and not  built on. Its habitat is unique in that it has many large lakes, some amongst the campground and others nearer the beach.  It’s interesting to see how the vegetation changes out on the hiking trails that eventually lead down to the sea, often sheltered by large dunes and pine trees.

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Fighter planes are coming in to land as we pass the Tyndall Air Force Base continuing on our way around the coast for Mexico Beach.  The sugar-like white sand that makes up this long stretch of beach, is quite rare in that it contains only evenly sized quartz crystals that originated millions of years ago in the Appalachian Mountains. Because the area lacks the influence of silt-bearing rivers, the sand here has remained pure and white.  Mexico Beach is also said to average 320 days of sunshine a year and today is no exception!

A short distance from here is Port St. Joe and we head out along the narrow peninsula with fingers crossed that we will find a camping place at St. Joseph Peninsular State Park. Not so lucky this time however, but we are allowed to camp overnight in the overflow parking area and hopefully we can get a site tomorrow.  The ‘no-see-ums’ arrive at dusk, biting relentlessly and finding their way through our mosquito netting.  It’s a quiet night as we are the only people here.

We are surprised to see deer amongst the dunes as we arrive at the park gate office at 8.a.m. the next morning and finally manage to get a camping place for one night.  The dunes in this state park are said to be the tallest east of Mississippi.

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Opened in 1967 and located across the bay from Port St. Joe on a long strip of land, St Joseph Peninsular State Park  has some 9 miles of white sand beaches and aqua-blue waters.  Hiking can be next to the open ocean, where a fisherman tells us that a little while ago, a large shark swam past him close to the shore …………

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………or through the interior to the sheltered bay with calmer waters, where pelicans and other sea birds rest and watch the world go by.

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Continuing our way around the Gulf to St. George Island, we pass through the small town of Apalachicola.  Once the 3rd largest port on the Gulf of Mexico,its waters were once filled with steamboats and schooners, with railroads and lumber mills close by.  Today this town has lots of charm with its tree lined streets, a good choice of cafes and restaurants  serving fresh sea food, art galleries and many individual specialist shops, plus a working waterfront, the river and bay providing great salt and fresh water fishing.

St. George Island State Park is another of Florida’s barrier islands occupying nearly 2000 acres.  The excellent Dr. Julian G. Bruce Campground is at the far eastern end of the island, where we have a quiet and secluded site and hope to be able to stay here for a few days and explore some of the 9 miles of undeveloped sandy coves, beaches and dunes, salt marshes, pine and oak forests and scrub, all of which provide homes for a variety of wildlife.  Our camping place has already provided us with an interesting combination including a little Beach Mouse, listed as a state endangered species due to loss of habitat and a cute green frog hiding in our electricity supply box.  We also have owls hooting close by at night.

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We have a trail close by that leads to the bay, we seem to be the only people who use it so have this stretch of beach to ourselves each day.  Tall trees line the edge providing nesting sites for ospreys. The water is clear and warm as the tide drifts out, little fish darting about and crabs shuffling through the sand.  Many interesting shells but always something having made its home inside.  A heron treads slowly through the water at the edge of the beach, on the look out for a meal.

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Walking in the opposite direction along the bay towards the end of George Island, it’s more remote and without shade.  Bald Eagles have made two enormous nests in trees further inland.

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And then there is the open ocean, sand dunes and forest, mists that roll in from the sea in the early morning and beautiful sunsets ………

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………we would certainly recommend this island and its excellent campsite if you enjoy natural surroundings, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking and fishing.

As we leave St. George Island we stop by the lighthouse in town to check emails, an unlikely place but internet can be obtained here!   We head for Horseshoe Beach after Bill helps a guy who is having a problem starting his car in a supermarket car park at Cross City.  He turns out to be the owner of the Marina there and suggests we make a visit to experience a way of life similar to how it was 30 years ago in Florida.

Horseshoe Beach does turn out to be a hidden gem, not a beach but a haven for boaters and fishing.  After being hit hard not long ago by a hurricane and flooding, houses are built high on concrete stilts with covered areas for their boats and/or RV.  Most are built overlooking the waterways that have been designed to have easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a very laid back and sleepy place, the main activities centred around maintaining boats and getting fishing gear ready.  Camping is next to a waterway and pelicans seem to be everywhere, sitting on posts and buildings, bobbing on the water or gliding silently overhead.

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A guy with his son set up their tent next to us having arrived in their truck pulling a boat, so we expect to be woken early by these enthusiastic fishermen as we are also parked not far from the boat ramp.  As anticipated, at 5.30 a.m. we are woken as our neighbours prepare for their fishing trip.  If you can’t beat ’em then join ’em, so we are up early too!

Manatee State Park is home to one of Florida’s largest freshwater springs that joins the nearby Suwannee River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.  These large springs are called ‘first magnitude’ because they discharge at least 65 million gallons of crystal clear water every day.   In this State Park, the protected rivers and springs provide an important refuge for West Indian Manatees from November to April.  These round, seal-like mammals can be seen resting here, enjoying the warm 72 degree F spring water.  Unfortunately they are not around during our stay here camping but the trails through the turquoise pools, forests and swamps are still worth exploring.

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Cedar Key, approximately half an hour from Manatee State Park following Highway 24 through salt marshes crossed by a series of bridges, is definitely worth a visit.  Nestled amongst many small islands, 4 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, this small, quiet town named after the large number of cedar trees that once covered the islands, today caters for the many tourists and an interesting blend of artists, who display their work in local galleries and shops.  The Big Dock on Dock Street is considered to be the heartbeat of Cedar Key, a collection of wooden buildings suspended over the waters of the Gulf.

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From here we visit the nearby Lower Suwannnee National Wildlife Refuge, established to protect and maintain a beautiful and rare ecosystem of nearly 53,000 acres.  We had the tree lined dirt roads to ourselves. but wished we had kayaks to explore the quiet creeks that led into the Suwannee…..maybe next time!

And so we head a little further south to Crystal River and Homosassa where I want to visit the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a rehabilitation centre for injured and orphaned West Indian Manatees which reside in their fresh water spring before being released back into the wild.  Being the weekend however, everywhere is so busy that we decide to give it a miss and return north to Rainbow Springs State Park near Ocala.

How lucky are we to get the one and only free camping space here in this beautifully kept State Park.  The Rainbow River is  another first-magnitude, spring-fed river, designated by the State of Florida as an Outstanding Florida Waterway and Aquatic Preserve, supporting abundant wildlife, including otters, alligators and many species of fish, turtles and bird life.   We visit the nearby Headsprings and follow the Rainbow River away from the weekend crowds, where trails take us past numerous small waterfalls and we can quietly spot a little of the wildlife!

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Every afternoon now storm clouds begin to build,  bringing a welcome drop in temperature following the thunderstorms and heavy rain.  We keep an eye out for the two resident black snakes in our camping area but am sure there are many more in this dense undergrowth and surrounding forest.

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This campground with its many private and spacious sites, is certainly one to be recommended.  The restrooms are modern and clean and rarely occupied, as the majority of campers here are in big RV’s or large trailers with all facilities….good for us without such luxuries!  Must admit though, that air conditioning would sometimes be nice in this very hot and humid weather but our little fan is working overtime!

After getting the underneath of our Land Rover jet washed in town to remove all the coastal salt and mud, we leave via Ocala/Marion County.  With over 700 thoroughbred horse farms throughout the area, it has come to be known as “The Horse Capital of the World.”  We didn’t see many horses however, only huge ranches with sweeping, emerald fields and long, tree-lined driveways.

Florida’s ‘Forgotten Coast’ has been great.  The sky is once again looking stormy and as we cross the state line into Georgia, the heavens open.

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USA 20 – America’s deep south…….Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama

10th – 26th March  –  Louisiana……a land of lakes and big rivers such as the Mississippi, Red River and the Atchafalaya, the huge basin of this latter river, making up the largest wetland and wildlife refuge in the United States before meeting the Gulf of Mexico.  As we leave Texas behind, huge swamp areas line the road, mist rising from the murky waters and wrapping itself around submerged and soaking, black trees.   We will soon discover that there are many bridges to cross Louisiana’s huge rivers and wet, swampy landscape, such as the enormous Huey P. Long Bridge that crosses the Mississippi, resembling a giant meccano structure.  We learn later, that the waterlogged fields are growing rice and after the summer harvest, a fungus grows on the remaining stubble, providing rich pickings for Lousiana’s famous crawfish.

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Louisiana is well known for its rain and it’s pouring as we cross a steep bridge over Calcasieu Lake but in down town Lafayette, we have a dry spell and visit the imposing Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist.  The remains of a number of prominent people have been buried in its huge cemetery, many of them from the famous Mouton family.  Because of the high water table, above ground burial is necessary and many of the tombs are very ornate.

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The Cathedral also has one of the largest live oaks in the United States growing in its grounds, estimated to be almost 500 years old…….an impressive sight.

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The area known as Lafayette was originally called Vermilionville after the Vermilion River and it is here that we stop next between the showers to visit an historic village, created and designed to preserve the folklife and different cultures of the Attakapas area between 1765 and 1890, when it was home to many Acadian (Cajun), Native American and Creole settlers.  The village has been created with a few original houses that were donated  but most of the buildings have been recreated as close as possible to their original design, using the same authentic materials. IMG 5497 IMG 5520 IMG 5485 IMG 5490

The wet weather is making driving conditions hazardous as we continue on Interstate 10 towards Baton Rouge, capital of Louisiana.

A hello to Aurelio and his little boy (also Aurelio) who came over to chat with us in Albertson’s car park.  He had also noticed us on the road leaving Texas as he had been back to see family in Houston. A keen Land Rover enthusiast with a much loved Discovery 2.  We have met so many great people through our vehicle!

Whilst visiting the West Baton Rouge Museum we join up with Shirley and Allan, both from Louisiana. Thank you both so much for your kind hospitality and the lunch at The Cheesecake Bistro, we really enjoyed your company.

We call in at Henry Neubig’s Art Gallery and Studio to see his famous Louisiana mud paintings.  He is a very active and interesting 82 year old, who begins by showing me his pots of coloured clay, pigments collected from the alluvial soils of the tributaries of the Mississippi.  With these, he has created his own unique and personal palette.  Neubig paints what he knows and loves best and that is his homeland, rural Louisiana.   Nearly all of his original work has been sold but I buy a simple print of Ibis standing in water.

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The winding Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is also known as Plantation Country and provides an unforgettable journey back in time amongst magnificent homes, where fortunes were tied to the fertile delta soil of the great Mississippi River.  Although many of the plantations have been lost over the years, along this route nine lavish and historic plantation homes have been restored to their former glory, their architecture influenced by the many different colonists and settlers who made this land their home.

We visit three, the most memorable probably being Oak Alley Plantation with its avenue of 300 year-old live oak trees and known as the ‘Grande Dame of the Great River Road.’   With its slave and Civil War history and stories of romance, wealth, greed and tragedy, the home is thought by many, to be haunted by a ‘Lady in Black.”

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The St. Joseph Plantation is a working Creole sugar plantation and this house has been family owned since 1877.  Sugar still plays a vital role in the economy of Louisiana to the present day.

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Laura is another Creole Plantation and one of the oldest and largest on River Road, with documented stories covering 200 years of Creole plantation life by the the women, children and servants who lived there.

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In late August 2005, one of the United States most deadliest hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina pummelled parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama but New Orleans was severely affected.  Battering waves and huge surges of water caused many of the city’s levees to  collapse and be swept away, causing extensive flooding which remained for weeks.  Sadly a great number of people died in the hurricane and the following floods.  There are still scars to be seen, but after years of rebuilding and gradual recovery, people along this stretch of the Gulf Coast, have made great strides in returning to a normal life.

And so we arrive in New Orleans, built at the mouth of the Mississippi, largest city in Louisiana and famous for its annual Mardi Gras celebrations.  Whilst here, we stay at the KOA campground as we need an address for Bill’s new driving licence to be sent to from the UK.  Great to meet some more overlanders from the UK.  Diane and Val each riding a Triumph Tiger and slowly making their way down into South America.  What a wonderful journey ahead of you….safe travelling and enjoy all the many spectacular places that you will see!  Also Brian and Carolyn who lead a very interesting life travelling around the USA and Canada for 4 months, 2 months back in the UK and the rest of the time at their home in Cyprus!  Safe travelling also!

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One of Louisiana’s biggest highlights when visiting New Orleans is its Historic French Quarter, where there is something for everyone, no matter what your interests, budget or age.  It could begin with a daytime jazz cruise on the elegant Natchez, a steam-powered paddleboat, that will allow you to experience the ever-changing skyline of New Orleans as it travels down the mighty Mississippi.

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Back on land, there are so many more attractions such as the fascinating architecture…….

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………art galleries, museums, markets and local crafts.  World renowned restaurants line the streets, along with numerous bars and cafes, such as the very popular Cafe du Monde famous for its Beignets……a New Orleans speciality of deep fried dough covered with powdered sugar or other iced or fruit-filled variations.  Which ever way you like them, they are hard to resist!

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Welcome to the birthplace of jazz!  The random bands that we encountered brought the streets alive and were great attractions, getting everyone toe tapping and many people dancing!

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Love New Orleans!!

Experiencing something quite different after New Orleans………back amongst nature in Louisiana’s Barataria Preserve, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.  20,000 acres of marsh, swamp and natural levee forest, just a portion of the huge Mississippi River delta with its great wetlands that once covered south Louisiana but which now are sadly disappearing under the Gulf of Mexico.  Spanish moss drapes many of the trees and beneath the canopy, it’s a world of many  plant species, mosses, vines, fungi, lichens, algae, ferns…… a natural world, but where flooding and hurricanes can create dramatic and violent changes.

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It is also home to many amphibians, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals that have adapted to living amongst these wetlands.

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Leaving behind Louisiana, we cross the state border into Mississippi.  Sandy beaches stretch for miles as we follow the coast and we can smell the purple wisteria that’s growing wild amongst the trees.

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We camp at Bay St. Louis amongst very friendly people.  For many of them here, their rigs are their permanent homes.  A neighbour comes over to tell us about the best grocery stores to shop at for the best deals, whilst John shows us his big bike and truck parked outside his trailer, both needing parts before he can become mobile again.  Being a real motorbike enthusiast, he’s planning on getting his bike fixed first.  Money is tight for many people, Mississippi has the lowest disposable income we are told…….but not for everyone.  As we drive along the Gulf coast road, palatial houses are built on large plots facing the ocean, beautifully designed weatherboard properties built in a modern style but reflecting old, colonial type architecture.

Out on the fishing pier, we chat to a group of volunteers  who are counting the Laughing gulls, so called because their cries resemble somebody laughing.   Our lunch stop is at the Hard Rock Cafe in Biloxi, love this rock’n roll era and all the memorabilia displayed from many of the big rock’n roll artists,  we are always drawn to these but our best one so far was in Medellin, Colombia.

Shephard State Park provides us with camping for a few days and their very reasonable price of $18 a night includes not only electricity and water on site but hot water in the restroom and a shower……real luxury!  We have always found State Parks to be great camping places providing spacious and well spread out sites and this park is no exception.   Nestled in the heart of  Pascagoula River country, legend has it that members of the Pascagoula Indian Nation linked hands and walked into this river, rather than be taken captive by hostile Indian tribes.  The mournful death chant they sang as they walked, gave this river another name….SingingRiver.  More than 8 miles of hiking trails wind through the park with some beautiful, old Live Oaks, wild flowers, marsh areas and bayous.

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A nearby Walmart provides shopping and Bill does an oil change.  On our way to the old, historic town of Ocean Springs, we drop the old oil off into an auto shop which will then dispose of it….very convenient.

Ocean Springs (just east of Biloxi) is full of interesting weatherboard houses, quirky shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants, streets lined with trees and gardens full of brilliant colours.

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The main reason for coming here however, is to visit the Walter Anderson Museum of Art which has a permanent collection of this American Master’s watercolours, drawings, oils, block prints, ceramics and carvings, as well as exhibiting the work of other significant artists from the Memphis College of Art.

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Anderson loved to escape in his rowing boat to deserted Horn Island on the Gulf Coast to become one with nature.  Regarded as ‘strange’ as he shunned society and became a recluse, Anderson immersed himself amongst the wildlife and natural surroundings and it was there living a primitive life, that he found the inspiration for much of his work.

At one stage of his life, Anderson lived in a tiny cottage at Shearwater, his refuge on the Mainland.  He covered the entire walls of one of the rooms with paintings of creatures of the earth and sky, his vision of the natural world in the life cycle of a day.  These Shearwater Cottage Murals were not discovered until after his death.

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Before leaving Mississippi we visit the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Wildlife Refuge.  Sandhill cranes can be seen in different parts of the United States but the Mississippi Sandhill cranes are a separate sub-species and unlike the other cranes, they do not migrate.

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Loss of habitat has threatened the cranes existence and as a result, this rare bird is yet another that has become listed as an endangered species.  The nesting season begins in March but the cranes are well protected and so we are not lucky in seeing them.  However, the refuge is worth a visit for their excellent information centre, hiking trails and to support their work in restoring semi-open, wet savanna, the Mississippi crane’s natural habitat.  As a result of their protection and management, these birds have slowly increased in number since the refuge was established in 1975.

We enter into Alabama in torrential rain, thunder and lightning.  There is no horizon, everything just melting together into a dense, pewter grey.  The sides of the road are quickly flooded and visibility is very poor.  As we skirt the top of Mobile Bay where the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers flow out toward the Gulf of Mexico, the weather is so unsettled that we decide to drive through this narrow part of Alabama and head into Florida, where we hopefully will find some sunshine!

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USA 19 – Almost back into Mexico as we visit Big Bend National Park in Texas.

3rd – 10th March – We know we only have a very few days of  good weather ahead and hope we can manage to explore as much as possible of Big Bend National Park before another cold front comes blasting in again.  The winter here this year has been unusually long and severe but so far we have been able to keep clear of the recent snow and ice storms, although we know they are on our tails!

Big Bend refers to the great U-turn that the Rio Grande makes in southwest Texas, as it suddenly curves northwards on its winding journey along the Texas – Mexico border.  At the most southerly tip of the curve lies the Big Bend National Park covering over 800,000 acres.  Early explorers found the Big Bend region to be so remote and wild, that they called this area ‘El Despoblado’……the uninhabited land.  Weather can be volatile, lightning dangerous as shelter is scarce and flash floods can change the landscape.  Summer temperatures are well over 100 degrees F and ground temperatures of 180 degrees F have been recorded.  Amazing how plants and animals can adapt to such extreme conditions!

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From Marathon, the US 385 south takes us another 67 remote and beautiful miles, leading to the northern entrance of Big Bend.  We collect information and maps at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Centre and a ranger tells us that the park has had plenty of snow this winter and earlier heavy rains are already transforming the desert.

Hills and mountains of various elevations, line each side of the valley, yellow flowers are beginning to carpet the desert and many of the giant yuccas are in bloom.  Blue lupins (known as ‘blue bonnets’ to the Texans), edge the sides of the road and we can smell the heady scent of multi-coloured mustard flowers through our open windows.   A Jack Rabbit bounds across the road in front of us, the sun making his long, pink ears almost transparent.  He makes it safely to the other side but we have passed others that have not been so lucky.

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The road climbs through the Chisos Mountains where it is said the ghost of an important Apache chief lives on and whose campfire can occasionally be seen at night!

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We hit the highest point at Panther Pass, named for the mountain lions that still roam the hills here….only a lucky few however will ever see one!  Our descent into the Chisos Basin ends abruptly   at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, full of backpackers ready to take to the trails.  Its suddenness is disappointing however, a busy place in this remote wilderness with all the cars and people and unsmiling and poor service in the Lodge Restaurant, where all we wanted to do was to help ourselves to a cup of soup and small salad from the buffet table.

We decide that the trails from here will be far too crowded and that to really appreciate this park we need to find a remote, back-country road that will provide the wilderness experiences that we have always enjoyed in other parks.    So we back-track some distance and then turn west for Santa Elena Junction.   The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive goes south from here, ending at the Rio Grande and Santa Elena Canyon. Beginning at Burro Mesa, named after the burros that once grazed here, nearby Homer Wilson Ranch is just a speck at the foot of the Blue Creek Ranch Overlook.

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Abandoned in 1945, this frontier ranch would once have had huge herds of sheep and goats that would have escaped the summer heat by finding abundant grassland on the higher slopes of Blue Creek Canyon.  A century ago, most of Big Bend was covered in grasses, but over the years, drought together with ranchers grazing cattle, sheep and goats, have destroyed the grass, exposing the topsoil.  Today, other plants have taken over but the grasses are also slowly recovering.

At Sotol Vista we have a panoramic mountain view looking towards Mexico, the Rio Grande and Santa Elena Canyon, the giant scale of this gorge, not yet apparent to us.  Named for the sotol that grows here, a bright green plant with sawlike teeth edging its leaves.  Indians would have roasted and eaten the heart of sotol and also fermented it to produce an alcoholic drink.

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We now have an excellent view of the peaks known as Mule Ears.  In the 1930s Army Air Corps pilots would practise flying between these twin peaks!

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Another few miles brings us to Tuff Canyon, carved by Blue Creek through layers of lava flows, boulders and compressed volcanic ash called tuff.

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Here once again, many more giant yucca are in flower, their huge, creamy white blossoms towering above us.

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We approach another important landmark……..Cerro Castellan rising 1,000 feet above the desert as we arrive at Castolon.  Here we find a grocery store and an interesting visitor centre in what was once an old Army post, built after the 1914 – 18 border troubles with Mexico.

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Tomorrow we can take the remote, backcountry River Road West from near here, a dirt road that traverses the southern part of Big Bend, following the Rio Grande and mountainous cliffs for much of the way, that form the boundary with Mexico.

We find ourselves a camping place for the night first however, at the nearby Cottonwood Campground and still have time to visit the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.   Here we have our first view of the Rio Grande, a green, meandering ribbon and the distant gap in the cliffs showing where the canyon has been gouged.

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Looking in the opposite direction it is also a land of distances…….through Big Bend’s clear skies and help from the information board, we can pick out Emory Peak, South Rim and Elephant Tusk on the horizon.

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One of the park’s best known features, Santa Elena Canyon is only half a canyon on the United States side.  It’s south canyon walls tower above Mexico.  A short 1.5 mile trail takes us into the beginning of the canyon.  Today, the quiet waters below us do not seem powerful enough to have carved this 1,500 feet deep canyon but during flood season, laden with abrasive silt and gravel, the swift current continues to sculpture Santa Elena’s sheer, limestone walls.

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Back to the campground at Castolon for the night and we have an owl hooting close by.  In the morning a fellow camper shows us where he is well camaflouged in a nearby tree….a Great Horned  Owl…….so beautiful.

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A new day but with a 50% chance of rain and possibly with some severe and much colder weather rolling in but we keep our fingers crossed as we begin the backcountry RIver Road West, a dirt 4×4 road that is actually taking us east for some 50 miles with numerous spur tracks that lead down to the Rio Grande.

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The flowers that are early due to the rains that fell for most of February, are wonderful to see.  It’s a landscape coloured by native plants, not by human hands.  Cactus plants are smothered in buds and the yucca blossoms are attracting butterflies and bees, humming birds will be arriving soon.  Hillsides are carpeted with blue bonnets and yellow, daisy-like flowers.  We suddenly see a brilliant splash of pink and discover our first cactus in flower.

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We reach an area favoured by the Ocotilla plant, its straggly and very prickly stems reaching skyward and ending in bright crimson flowers.

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A Roadrunner dashes past us.  These birds are able to run at speeds of up to 20 mph enabling them to pursue lizards and small rattlesnakes, which they then peck to death with blows from their beak.

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The dirt road remains empty and the views spectacular……..we meet no one.

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We take a detour to visit the ruins of Mariscal Mine, a former mercury mine but finally abandoned in 1943………

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………and another to Solis on the edge of the Rio Grande.  It is here that the huge wall of cliffs that divides the United States from Mexico, finally gives up and merges with the rest of the desert landscape.

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The dirt road now continues as the River Road East and late afternoon sun and stormy skies provide an amazing light show, as we finally meet tarmac shortly before Rio Grande Village, where we will camp for the night.  This backcountry road has taken us between 5-7hours and we would definitely recommend it to anyone with a high clearance vehicle and a good set of tyres.

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The Rio Grande Village Campground has plenty of trees and many birds.  Small, bright red Vermillion Flycatchers flash between the trees and we have a woodpecker close by.  We are also supplied with bear proof boxes if needed, as black bears have made a successful return to the park.  There’s a grocery store a short distance away with a laundry room and shower block…$1.50 for 5 minutes of wonderful hot water!

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The sky has been looking very stormy and suddenly a strong wind springs up.  By the time we return to our campsite. it must be almost gale force and getting colder by the minute…..the cold front with icy storms that was predicted, has arrived with a vengeance!  Our Land Rover is rocking as the wind slams against it, so there is no way we can safely put our roof up to sleep.  The birds have disappeared, bird song has gone and lightning streaks the sky followed by claps of thunder.  We unfortunately don’t have electricity, so can’t have heating.  We spend a cold night trying to get comfortable on the seats but that’s preferable to having our tent ripped apart.

At 7a.m. it’s freezing cold, with the strong wind still with us adding a bitter chill to the temperature.  “Grandma’s Cookies’ from the grocery store are all we have left, but go great with a hot cup of tea before we decide to be off and out of the park.  A sifting of snow has fallen over the Grapevine Hills and the sun is struggling to give a glow to the Rosillos Mountains.  We’ve had two very enjoyable days but this freezing wind is going to make things really unpleasant today.  We are going to head on to our next state of Louisiana, America’s deep south.

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So it’s on to Marathon and a little cafe for lunch, where we learn that there have been snow storms in Alpine, Marfa and Stockton.

Del Rio next, where the Armstad Dam has created a huge reservoir on the Rio Grande and boats are as common as cars.  We have not judged our distances well today as it’s already dark and we still have 50 miles to Kerrville where we take a Super 6 motel for the night which are always good value. The sky however, is completely clear with an enormous, perfectly round, golden moon just hanging in the sky,

We spend three days camping in torrential rain in San Antonio.  Fields are under water as we leave, ditches have turned into rivers and spray and visibility are bad on the fast, 4-lane highways into Houston……we pass a number of accidents.

Soon after Beaumont, we leave Texas behind and cross the state border into Louisiana and not long after here, Moby’s speedometer changes to 200,000 miles!

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USA 18 – Into Texas the ‘Lone Star State’

 25th February – 2nd March – Our Anniversary today and we will celebrate in El Paso, just over the state line from New Mexico and into Texas, known as The ‘Lone Star State’.  The Rio Grande that flows along its southern boundary, not only separates Texas from Mexico but provides a lush, green valley ideal for farming and ranching.  The sun is said to shine here over 300 days a year with very hot summers , although in winter temperatures can drop low enough to produce snow.

El Paso…..situated in the Chihuahuan desert at just over 3,700 feet, its west and eastern sides divided by the Franklin Mountains.  It’s a huge, sprawling city with Interstate 10 being the focal point and everything leading off from it.  Its highways are fast, 4,5 and sometimes even 6 lanes, bordered by an assortment of signs for fast food and lodgings.

We find a campground far enough out of town to be quiet and peaceful at the foot of the Franklin Mountains.  Our host is Vladimir with his tiny Yorkie dog called Big Lily.  I ask him about nearby places to eat that have a choice of food as it’s our anniversary.  Trying hard to think of something other than fast food he says, “I tell you what, you can have that space over there to camp in that’s kept for any workmen that arrive.  There’s water and electricity and it’s right next door to the rest rooms……..and you can have it for free as it’s your anniversary!”  The rest rooms are impeccably clean and only used by us, as the other huge rigs parked here all have their own facilities.

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A big thank you to Vladamir and who still refused to take any money for the rest of our stay as he said we were using a ‘miniscule’ amount of electricity…..mainly for our electric fan heater to keep warm in the evenings and early mornings when it’s recently been minus 2 degrees.  We buy him a bottle of whisky and dog treats for Big Lilly when we leave….we really appreciated our spell of free camping.

Another thank you to the guys at AAA in El Paso who kindly give us 3 maps for our journey ahead even though we are not members.  They offer us a very good discount to join but it’s another $87 so we decline and hope we don’t regret it….we’ve been lucky so far!

The guys at the Land Rover and Jaguar Dealer on Airways Boulevard help us out with filters and all come out to look at Moby, take photos and ask about our journey.

As we are close to the El Paso International Airport, we go to see ‘The Equestrian’, a magnificent, detailed, bronze sculpture by John Sherrill Houser that took 9 years to complete.  Said to be the tallest statue of its kind and weighing 17 tons, it took 6 flatbed trucks to transport all the sections for the final assembly.  The statue depicts Don Juan de Onate, the first Spanish coloniser to cross the Rio Grande in 1598 into what is now El Paso, establishing the first settlement and introducing the horse.

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Despite its fast pace, we enjoy our time in this city and it’s also a great base for heading out over the mountain pass and exploring The Mission Trail, a rural, historic area in the far eastern corner of El Paso.

The oldest mission in Texas is at Ysleta, constructed by the Tigua Indians escaping the Pueblo Revolt.  A few miles away is the Socorro Mission, its name coming from Socorro, New Mexico from which the Piro Indians once again fled in 1680 to escape the massacre during the Revolt.  The Rio Grande’s flood waters destroyed this mission twice but many of the beams were rescued from the receding flood waters and today the carved ceiling provides an important, architectural feature.

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To the left of the altar is a hand carved, wooden statue of San Miguel which in 1845 was being transported by oxcart to New Mexico.  However, when passing through Socorro, the cart became stuck in mud and the oxen refused to move.  This was seen as a sign from heaven, San Miguel desired to remain in Socorro and was given a home in the Mission Church.

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Our next stop in El Paso’s Mission Valley is San Elizario.

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In 1598 Don Juan de Onate rode through here and took possession of the area, gradually building a small community and introducing the first horses.  Its famous Main Street is lined with old, adobe buildings, many of which today, house some very interesting and talented artists and their galleries.

The El Paso County Jail in Main Street  is said to be where Billy the Kid helped his good friend Melquiades Segura escape in 1876, the only man ever to escape this jail.  Today, it also houses a very interesting museum and the guy inside, really knows his history!

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Main street leads round to the San Elceario Presidio Chapel facing an attractive square that was the site of the wedding scene in the 1985 movie Fandango with Kevin Costner.

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We continue heading southeast toward Van Horn.  It seems to be taking us hours but Texas is a big state and most locals tell us that if their journey is more than 300 miles, they fly.  Scrubby desert lined with hills and mountains follow us all the way and by the time we arrive, there is a remarkable drop in temperature and a bitterly cold wind that blasts across the campsite here….thank goodness for our electric heater!

We check the weather to the north of here for the Guadalupe Mountains National Park that has 7 of Texas’ highest peaks and then south for Big Bend National Park but temperatures are plummeting in both directions and so we sadly decide to give them a miss.

Bitter wind chill and thick fog are not pleasant as we leave Van Horn on Interstate 10.  At a little store in Saragosa, the local lady tells us of the severe ice storms here last week, turning the roads into a sheet of ice, a similar story that happened last year but with many fatalities.  She complains that they have not sen the sun for weeks but in the summer, it is well over 100 degrees across this flat and never ending, scrubby landscape.  She welcomes a very cold couple off a motor bike inside and they quickly wrap their hands around beakers of coffee.  She kindly tells them to stay inside the shop as long as they like to get warm.  She asks where we are from and about our travels.  She hasn’t been anywhere she tells us but has a dream, that one day someone will come along and take her off to see the world.  I tell her that I hope her dream comes true and it makes us realise once again how lucky we are.

Arriving at Stockton and having a pizza for lunch, we suddenly decide to change our plans.  The sky is clearing to the south and tomorrow is meant to be 74 degrees before the cold front moves in with a chance of snow…….Big Bend here we come after all!

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USA 17 – New Mexico’s spectacular White Sands National Monument.

24th February – At the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, lies a mountain-ringed valley called the Tularosa Basin.  Rising from this are the glistening white sand dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, considered one of the world’s great natural wonders.  Relentlessly advancing in strong winds and covering everything in their path, these great, wave-like dunes have created the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

Approximately 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo, the White Sands Visitor Centre is a beautiful, carefully designed Pueblo style building, constructed from adobe made bricks and plaster and definitely worth a visit.  After our recent very cold and grey weather, we are lucky to begin our day here with a perfect blue sky streaked with ribbons of cloud……although it is not to last!

As we enter the desert, the dunes are just a few feet high and plant life manages to survive here.  Further into the dune field however, there is little or no vegetation, only a few plants are able to grow rapidly enough to prevent being buried by the rapidly moving dunes.

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We see amazing examples of where plants have anchored parts of a dune with their roots and continue growing on a sand pedestal, even after the dune has moved on.

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We are too early to see flowers in bloom, as this happens later due to the cold air from the surrounding mountains that settles in the basin at night.

High temperatures during the day mean that most wildlife stays underground, only emerging as it gets cooler.  Many species of birds have been recorded including the Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird and a year-round resident of White Sands.  Incredibly, there are several types of small creatures inhabiting the dunes that have gradually evolved a lighter coloration for survival here amongst the white landscape, such as a Pocket Mouse, lizards and several insects.

Walking amongst these dunes of gypsum crystals is an unforgettable experience…..everything is white and dazzlingly bright.  The 5 mile Alkali Flat Trail is the highlight of our visit here at White Sands, taking us into the heart of the sands where unbroken dunes of various sizes and shapes, stretch for miles into an amazing white vista.  The trail is not visible in the sand but is marked by white posts set at varying distances apart, eventually leading to the edge of the Alkali Flat, a lakebed that dried up thousands of years ago.

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And the weather does change, with herds of puffy cumulus racing in building quickly to threatening storm clouds, hiding the sun and creating a dramatic and changing landscape of shifting shadows amongst the dazzling white.  The changes in light create a spectacular sight and have given us a chance to experience the desert’s changing faces and to acknowledge just how insignificant we can become in this vast and unforgiving wilderness.

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When lightning flashes and thunder rumbles in the distance we decide to turn back from the trail, not quite reaching the Flats.  The distant posts have already become difficult to make out and it is easy to see in these sudden changes of weather how people can become disorientated, sometimes with fatal results, especially in the summer months when temperatures are over 100 degrees and without shade.

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We were hoping to explore a lot more of New Mexico but an extended winter and ice storms further north have closed roads.  If we return one day, it will definitely be a state that we will come back  to.  And so tomorrow we will move on into the ‘Lone Star State’ of Texas.

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USA 16 – Leaving California and heading east through Arizona and into New Mexico.


13th – 23rd February – Leaving behind California’s Joshua Tree National Park, we head east on Interstate 10, crossing the Colorado River  and returning once again into Arizona’s vast Sonoran desert landscape amongst the Saguaro cactus, symbol of the American Southwest.

Once through Phoenix, we camp at Apache Junction and meet Dave from Chicago, taking a break and heading south on his big Harley. A great guy who loves a challenge, achieving the IRON BUTT title after having ridden from Ysidro in California to Jacksonville in Florida in 45 hours.  He has also done ‘The 4 Corners’  ride beginning at Maine down to Key West in Florida, across to San Diego in California and finishing in Blaine in Washington.  He managed to complete this amazing journey in 15 days!

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Arizona’s wild and spectacular landscapes have made it one of our favourite states and so it’s a ‘must’ to explore one of its oldest and most ancient highways, the historic Apache Trail.  Named after the Apache Indians who once used this route, the trail links Apache Junction with Theodore Roosevelt Lake winding steeply through the rugged scenery of the Superstition Mountains, with its twisting ravines and deep reservoir lakes.  Along the Apache Trail, we make stops at the once booming gold mine town of Goldfield, the old-west style settlement of Tortilla Flat with its story of the Lost Dutchman Mine and Canyon and Apache Lakes formed by the damming of the Salt River.

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The Apache Trail, snaking its way through the Superstition Mountains.

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Canyon Lake

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Stopping for a chat at a viewing point.

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Apache Lake

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A much cherished Harley at Tortilla Flat.

At the little town of Superior we stop at the Visitor Centre located in an old railway carriage.  The lady here is very dedicated and well informed and tells us the haunting story of nearby Apache Leap Mountain and the legend of the Apache Tears.  She has a basket of ‘Apache Tear Drops ‘ and lets me pick out a couple….small black obsidian stones that appear opaque but when held up to the light, reveal the translucent tears of grief-stricken Apache Women, mourning many of their men who chose to leap to their death rom a high bluff, rather than to die at the hands of white men, who had taken them by surprise and attacked them for raiding cattle from Arizona settlements.  The story continues that the Apache Women gathered at the base of the cliff and as their teardrops fell and hit the ground, they froze forming small black stones.  It is said, that whoever owns an Apache Tear Drop will never cry again, for the Apache Women have shed their tears in place of yours.  The stones are also said to bring good luck to those possessing them.

Continuing through Globe which owes its existence to the Wild West mining camps that sprang up out of the desert following the discovery of silver and copper.  The Gila County Courthouse is worth a visit here.  Built from locally quarried stone, this building houses the Cobre Valley Centre for the Arts.  The paintings, sculptures and pottery displayed here is certainly impressive, as is the current exhibition of beautifully hung quilting, their colours and shapes that very often tell a story, portraying great skill and patience.

From Globe we head southeast on Highway 70 to Thatcher, passing through cactus strewn landscapes, rolling yellow grasslands and cattle ranches, clearing mountain passes and plunging canyons with snow still on Mount Graham at just over 3000 metres, long been considered sacred by all of the region’s Native peoples.

And so we continue to the State line with New Mexico and camping at Silver City will provide a good base for exploring the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument located deep in the rugged, mountainous terrain of the Gila National Forest and the Gila River Wilderness area of southwest New Mexico.  These cave dwellings offer a glimpse of the homes and lives of the Mogollon people who inhabited the area in the late 1200’s, a remote wilderness where only the sound of the river and birds would have been heard.   By 1300 however, they had suddenly abandoned their homes and moved on.  Today, the caves can be reached by a 1 mile loop trail through a narrow canyon, followed by an easy climb.

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Gila National Forest and River Wilderness Area.

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!5 miles east of Silver City is the vast Santa Rita Copper  Mine, one of the oldest and largest open pit mines in North America.   Named after the small community of Santa Rita, once located here, the mine is often referred to as the ‘Chino Mine.’  Today, this mine is well over a mile across and over 1000 feet deep and mining occurs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.   The viewing point provides an awesome sight but there is also a tour that takes place on the second Tuesday of every month.

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Leaving Silver City, Highway 152 takes us on the scenic route towards Las Cruces, passing once again through the mountains, canyons and forests of the Gila Wilderness Area.  The mountains fade to the horizon in every direction as we reach the Emory Pass at 8228 feet, named after Army Officer William Hemsby Emory, who made a crossing with the army in 1846.    We meet an elderly cyclist who we overtook on the winding, uphill road as he now tucks into his energy bar before the easier descent.  It’s an almost 3 hour round trip he tells us, from his home in Silver City….what a great guy, his legs must be made of iron and his lungs enormous!   A biker arrives on his Royal Enfield originally bought from India.  Loving the great outdoors, he tells us that it is the perfect bike for climbing slowly up through this fantastic scenery.

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Views from the Emory Pass

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We descend into Kingston where rolling, yellow grasslands take over, a few homesteads and cattle down amongst the ribbon of water winding its way through the cottonwood trees.  Hillsboro is only a little bigger but there’s a small, wooden homestead advertising coffee, candy and rocks.  We open the door to an Aladdin’s Cave of gemstones, rocks and polished stones, a little grocery store tucked at the back with the welcome coffee machine.  A very interesting couple own this place, the guy telling us fascinating stories of locating old mines and entering the shafts, often going down about 600 feet.

The Caballo Mountains rise up in front of us as we continue south toward Las Cruces.  A number of crosses in this sprawling town at the foot of the Organ Mountains, mark the graves of members of a caravan ambushed by Apaches, giving the town its name.

We cross the Rio Grande and it’s a shock to see an almost dry river bed.  The Caballo Dam and many irrigation channels supplying water to the farming in the Mesilla Valley, are apparently responsible  for draining the river.  The traditional Farmers and Craft Market held in Las Cruces, brings fresh produce grown in the surrounding valley to its stalls.  Pecans are a speciality, plus alfalfa, chilli peppers, onions, corn and cotton.

About 20 miles east of Las Cruces is the White Sands Missile Range with its museum and outdoor Missile Park.  It is open to the public following a short registration and security check and makes an interesting visit.  Since 1945 the missile range has conducted more than 42,000 missile and rocket firings, examining new weapon systems for the army, navy and air force, as well as conducting purely scientific research.  In March 1982 Columbia landed here.

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It has now turned bitterly cold camping at Las Cruces, our blue skies have disappeared under stormy grey clouds and we have a freezing wind.  We check the weather and discover that ‘Quantum’, a winter storm is heading east toward the middle and north of Texas, our next state.  The north of New Mexico is also having ice storms with some roads closed which is disappointing as we would liked to have visited Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  Even the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico where we are heading next, is having snow flurries.  But fingers crossed that the weather will hold out, as we have really been looking forward to visiting The White Sands National Monument, where waves of white gypsum sand create an ever changing vista.

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USA 15 – Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park

9th – 12th February 2015  –  Joshua Tree National Park protects 794,000 acres , nearly 3/4 of which is designated vast wilderness.  It’s a land shaped by extremes of climate, sparse and unpredictable rainfall but also sudden torrents and strong winds.   Two great deserts meet together in this park, the Mojave and Colorado deserts dividing the park into two very different ecosystems.  For these two contrasting ways of desert life, survival is an art and the genius of plants and animals for locating and conserving water, adapting to the extremes of temperature and escaping predators, is always amazing!

The western half of Joshua Tree is Mojave Desert habitat, considered ‘high desert’ with elevations above 3,000 feet, wetter and slightly cooler and with more vegetation in comparison to the park’s eastern side.   There, the hotter and drier ‘low desert’ of the Colorado, slopes away across the huge, arid plain of the Pinto Basin edged by the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains.

We enter Joshua Tree at its western entrance and choose a camping site at the Black Rock Campground.  Here, in this Mojave Desert habitat, giant Joshua trees thrive amongst huge boulder stacks and massive granite formations……a living symbol of the desert.

According to legend, these large, branching yuccas were named by early Mormon settlers who considered their limbs to resemble the up-stretched arms of Joshua, leading them to the promised land.  It is possible for Joshua trees to reach a height of 50 feet during a lifespan that could exceed 200 years.  We are too early to see their large clusters of white blossoms that bloom in early spring but their short, spiky leaves however, are useful for providing protected nesting places for many species of birds.

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Still on the western side, the Hidden Valley is worth a visit.  Piles of granite rocks ringing the valley help to create a special microclimate to support many plants and animals by blocking strong winds and collecting moisture, as rainfall runs through their cracks.  Amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders, there is enough moisture to support oaks, junipers, cacti, yuccas and pinyon pines, these latter trees having been one of the most important plants used by early Indian settlers.   It is also said that long ago, a hidden ‘corral’ amongst the rocks became the perfect place for rustlers to hide their stolen cattle.

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The thick leaved Mojave yucca was also valued by desert Indians for its strong leaf fibres that could be woven to make mats and sandals.

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Camping allows us to appreciate the stars that fill the sky at night and hear coyote howling clearly in the distance.  In the morning we have a little cactus wren singing in a nearby tree against a cloudless, blue sky.

On our second day we drive to Twentynine Palms where a short walking trail takes us to what remains of the Oasis of Mara.  Now just a small cluster of fan palms, it was once a place where early  Indian settlers found abundant water, shade, food and game.  However, as gold hunters, cattlemen and homesteaders began to arrive, they slowly displaced the Indians and with the growing population, the natural water of the oasis was also slowly depleted.   Today, due to the shrinking water table, the National Park Service has found it necessary to pipe in water so that oasis plants and animals can survive.

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We have noticed on our map of the park, that there is a back country 4×4 dirt road that would take us through a pass in the Old Dale Mining District in the mountains, before dropping down into the Pinto Basin on Old Dale Road.  After crossing this basin, it finally meets up with a tarmac road going south to the Cottonwood area of Joshua Tree.  It sounds remote and very interesting and the Rangers think it possible with our high clearance vehicle, pointing out however, that the track is not maintained and that some drivers have got into difficulties when crossing the pass, as rains can create gullies and wash down rocks and boulders.  They would rather 2 vehicles travel together but if we make it, they would like us to let them know of the condition of the route.

We decide to give it a go but first have to find the unmarked track that leads off from Highway 62.  There is no sign to indicate the beginning of this dirt road named The Gold Crown Road which leads into the Old Dale Mining District but after driving 15 miles east from the 29 Palms Visitor Centre, we notice a piece  of pink tape tied around a post by a track leading off on our right.  Within a short distance, we discover a board showing a map of the area with a maze of numbered tracks but which all appears very confusing and impossible to remember.  But we are in luck, as a vehicle suddenly appears on the dirt road and we flag him down.  A really helpful guy who has been checking out one of the old closed mines as someone wants to re-open it again.  He has local maps of the area and gives us lots of good advice on which numbered tracks to take, at least as far as the mining area.

The sand track stretches off into the distance with a conveniently painted arrow on a rock to show us the way……25 miles to the Old Dale Road and it’s an easy beginning.

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Tracks lead off in every direction and we have to be careful that we take the right one as there is no room for turning around once we begin to climb higher.  We are very glad of our new tyres as we pick our way over and between many rocks and sharp stones.

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The chase for gold here began in the 1880s and wagons and trucks would have bumped along these tracks carrying supplies and ore.  We take a short detour to explore one of the old, disused mines. It must have taken an amazing effort to get all that machinery there.

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As we near the pass, the going gets tougher and I’m holding my breath at times guiding Bill through the gullies and rocks.  With a heavily loaded vehicle we can’t afford to make a mistake and there is now always a steep drop on one side as we reach the pass.  The light is also beginning to fade but we want to complete this difficult section before we make camp.

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Suddenly around a bend, we see the Pinto Basin spreading out below us and a sign to say that we are once again back inside Joshua Tree.

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It has taken us three and a half hours to do approx. 12 miles but safely, thanks to our vehicle, Bill’s driving and also probably our new Firestone tyres.  We have not seen a single vehicle since we started and this latter part of the track over the pass is obviously rarely used.

We find a flat area free of rocks to camp for the night, as the final descent into the basin tomorrow does not look too difficult.  We can’t see the moon, but the sky is studded with stars…….not a sign of light pollution in this wonderfully remote and peaceful spot overlooking the vast Pinto Basin….not even a coyote calling.

In the morning the sun reaches us quickly.  We clamber down into a nearby, completely dry river bed and wonder how long ago it was that water flowed through there.

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We make our way slowly down the last, stony stretch into the Pinto Basin.  In more verdant times when it was once crossed by a sluggish river, it provided a home to possibly one of the Southwest’s earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants, the Pinto people.  Today, this inhospitable, flat and sandy section of California’s Colorado Desert, sweeps east toward the Coxcomb Mountains. Because much of this desert is at, or below sea level, it is one of North America’s hottest and driest places, with temperatures often reaching 120 degrees F in the summer.  Although dominated by creosote bushes, there are many other interesting desert plants and a roadrunner dashes in front of us as we continue on this last 11 mile, sandy stretch through the basin.

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We stop to look at the old pump and Mission Well.  Drilled in 1934 to a depth of 449 feet, it provided water to nearby mines.

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Eventually, we join up with the tarmac road that will take us to the Cottonwood Springs and Campsite.  This backcountry road has been a real highlight away from the organised trails and it is times like this, that we realise how lucky we are to have a vehicle that is capable of crossing this sort of terrain.

It’s first come first served at the campground but we manage to find a quiet site.  Whilst Bill has a break, I take the trail to the Cottonwood Spring. A very relaxing and interesting walk amongst ochre hills and fan palms…..just me and the trail, the rustling fan palms and perfect weather!

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Arriving at the oasis, I am standing atop a crack in the Earth’s crust.  Geological faults criss-cross the park.  When groundwater hits a fault, it rises to the surface and creates conditions for an oasis, providing welcome vegetation and a refuge from the extremes of the desert.  Cottonwood Spring with its beautiful Californian fan palms, Cottonwood and Mesquite trees, was used by the Cahuilla Indians for centuries.  Mesquite was one of their most valued food sources.  The beans from the tree’s long pods were sometimes eaten raw but more often dried, pounded into flour and then stored in large baskets or pots.  Stone mortars and broken pottery have been discovered at the site.  Later, prospectors and miners established gold mills here due to the abundance of water.

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We have Minerva Hoyt to thank for this park.  A community activist and desert lover, she recognised the threat from humans in this fragile environment, where she saw beauty in in all the flora and fauna.  In 1936 she persuaded President Roosevelt to designate more than 800,000 acres in the area as the Joshua Tree National Monument.  It was later named Joshua Tree National  Park.





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