I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process! It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on! Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles. The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth! Enjoy!
On a recent visit to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I saw very little in the way of real-live wildlife, but a lot of signs in the soft sands.
Do you know whose tracks these are?
It has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog. This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.” Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock. Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more. To kick it off, on this rainy day, I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road). I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!
1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan. Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior! I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!
2. The Everglades, Florida. I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure. The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps. I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!
3. Central America. At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit. Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter? I doubt it, but we’ll see!
4. Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho. I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!). I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since. I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.
5. The Carolinas. North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States. Plus I have heard they are beautiful. Suggestions very welcome for this one!
6. Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula. Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior. Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite. I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike, swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.
7. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee? Yes! Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new. I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town. It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago! Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!. I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates! Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!
8. Louisiana. I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town. It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more. I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture. I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast! If not this year, then next!
9. Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose? Or, more specifically, what not to choose? Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category? Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules! So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one! Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off. I’m looking forward to it, though!
10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out. Technically, I have never been to most continents. But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy. Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either! It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…
How about you ? Where to next? Or must-see places that I left off my list?
…continued from previous post:
One of my motivations for this extended roadtrip had been hot springs… I suddenly felt an urge to take a dip in some hot springs, but, finding myself in Wisconsin, it seemed impossible. I did some research and determined that my two closest hot springs were in western South Dakota and central Arkansas. I did a little bit of research before hopping in the car for 20 hours, though, and found out that both of those sites were very developed and not likely to fulfill my yearning. So, I made sure to stop by a couple hot springs when I was out west in October.
Still, I thought I might as well swing through Hot Springs, since it was on my way, and Clinton had gone to high school there, and anyway it had been on my mind for well over six months and it deserved a look. It was nothing like I’d expected.
The town was fairly large, but didn’t seem to offer much of interest, except on the main tourist strip. In fact, one side of the street along that strip has been pretty much the same for over a hundred years; the other side was full of kitschy stores selling t-shirts and fudge. The National Park Service has taken over most of the bathhouses lining that street, though the facilities are operated by private concessions. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these bathhouses were the main attraction for wealthier visitors who wanted to experience the curative powers of the springs. However, even those without the means to pay for fancy treatments could bathe in the springs that bubbled up all over Hot Springs Mountain, or in the creek that carried the water through town. While that practice was ultimately stopped due to concerns about hygiene, and the creek was channeled under the road in the late 19th century, free drinking water from the hot springs is still available at several “jug fountains” around the area.
Drinking water? From hot springs? Well that’s the thing of it… these aren’t “hot springs” like we find in volcanic regions, so much as springs that are hot. The water comes out of the ground at 142°F on average, but it lacks sulfur and most iron, and is therefore clear and nearly tasteless. It is safe for drinking as it comes out of the ground, and I can personally attest that it’s pretty good.
Hot Springs National Park has a long history – the area was first set aside by the federal government in 1832, less than 30 years after the Louisiana Purchase added the territory to the United States. Due to conflicting land claims, the government didn’t take active control of the springs until 1877, and it became a National Park in 1921. It was around this time that the park had become a popular location for those seeking cures to medical ailments, and the large bathhouses were built. The only one still operating in the traditional way today is the Buckstaff (since 1912), but the Park Service has renovated the Fordyce to its original (1915) condition, including museum displays and captions describing the various remedies offered at the time.
I didn’t have a long time to spend there, and I didn’t do any “bathing,” but I definitely learned something in Hot Springs! I was a little overwhelmed by the very commercial atmosphere of it at the time, and quickly escaped to the driving loop and overlook trail on Hot Springs Mountains. In retrospect, though, it is a rather interesting place and I would like to go back sometime and experience it for what it is… now that I know.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
October 18-19, 2010
Since returning from my trip last fall, I’ve been asked several times about my favorite places along the way. This is one of them. It was beautiful, there were great views, and it stuck out (both literally and figuratively) as unique in both Texas and the Southwest. The real reason, though, that I was blown away by the Guadalupe Mountains was a pretty nerdy one: botany.
I had just spent nearly a week crossing the desert, from San Francisco to west Texas. New (to me) flowers, grasses, shrubs, and of course cacti sprouted from the sparse sands of the rolling hills and expansive plains as I traversed that territory. As I was nearing Texas, I asked a fellow traveler what I should see while passing through. Without hesitating, he named the Guadalupe Mountains, and added, “You might be in time for the peak colors.” I spent the intervening days pondering what he might have meant by that statement. I knew that my timing had been off for the spectacular fall bloom of the Arizona desert, but thought that maybe I would be able to hit it 500 miles to the east.
I arrived at the National Park campground at dusk on a Monday in mid-October, and was surprised to find it nearly full. I scrambled to secure the last available tent site and get my tent set up before darkness fell. There was a thunderstorm off in the distance, and the winds shooting across the plains were upwards of 30 mph. The ground was too hard for stakes, and my site was totally unsheltered, so I wound up putting logs around the inside of my tent to try to hold it down – it was too windy for a fire that night, anyway! In the morning, commiserating with fellow campers about the night before, I commented on the unusually crowded park. “Well,” he said, “it turns out we’re a little early for the fall colors, but I’d already taken this week off of work.” “Yeah,” I said, “What are these ‘colors’ everyone keeps talking about?” “Oh, well the maples are really pretty when they change color – everything’s all bright red and orange.”
Maples? In the Chihuahuan Desert? Sure enough! Somehow, just before dark, I had crossed the invisible line to a place where maples and oaks, prairie grasses and blazing stars grew – alongside of the yucca, prickly pear, madrones, and ocotillo. As I headed out on the trail, I saw some mustache grass
(Bouteloua hirsuta) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium/Andropogon scoparius) next to my boots, and when I reached the higher reaches I was able to immediately identify gray oak (Quercus grisea)and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which I’d never seen before, based
on my frequent browsing through The Golden Guide to Trees. Through this environment, so similar to our own prairies or oak-pine barrens, there was strewn a huge variety of desert succulents and western shrubs. The juxtaposition made my hike as exciting intellectually as it was visually!
I walked on through the heat of the day, under cover of the high desert trees, startled a few white-tailed deer, and took a break on the peak overlooking, well, the rest of Texas. As I explained briefly in a previous post, the Guadalupe Mountains are the remnants of the reef of an ancient sea that spread away to the south and east. While their sheer elevation might make them mountains otherwise, the vertical rise of around 3,000 ft. makes Guadalupe Peak an impressive edifice! Perched atop the escarpment that runs around the edge of the plains below, I could almost envision the long-dry waves lapping in the haze below.
Finally, I began my descent along steep switchbacks, through a canyon on the back side of the hills. As I picked my way downhill, the cooler, moister conditions brought about a change in the vegetation – at last, the long-sought maples! While not yet at their peak, the Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) were dotted with scarlet, and after the desolation of the desert I could understand why this splash of cool color would be worth driving hundreds of miles to view.
My biggest (and nerdiest) find of the day was yet to come, though. Edging along a rocky trail, I spotted an oak tree out of the corner
of my eye, with different bark from any others I’d seen in the park. Pretty familiar bark, actually – browner than gray, with flaking furrows. I looked around for a shed leaf, and picked it up. Could that be a chinquapin? Quercus muehlenbergii is at the tip of its northern range in the southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, existing primarily on the dry, rocky bluffs above the Mississippi River, but I didn’t know it extended that far south and west. Upon examining my Golden Guide, it turned out that its primary range extends to eastern Texas… but there was a small outlier dot placed over the border between Texas and New Mexico… right at the Guadalupes. In fact, many of the plants there, including the maples, were outliers, with their nearest counterparts a hundred or more miles away. In all, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1000 species of plants, making it even an amateur botanist’s paradise!
That night in my tent, I mused over my finds here at the end of the desert. The next day would take me through the desert grassland and low hills of West Texas, en route to Austin. Details to follow soon!
October 18, 2010
Twenty-four hours after strolling in shorts and a tank top in the hills of Tucson, I woke to a chilly morning in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, the crisp, near-freezing air and pine trees around me a welcome break from the hot deserts. [Thanks Gordons!] Within hours, however, I was back down in the dusty towns east of the mountains, on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
In the far southeastern corner of the state, on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains, lies Carlsbad Caverns National Park. First explored by Native American Indians over millennia ago, white settlers discovered a portion of the cavern in the 1800s, and investigated it in the early 20th century. It became a National Monument in 1924 and a National Park in 1930. I don’t have specific statistics on it, but I would bet that it is one of the most-visited parks, over time. This is particularly impressive, given that the cave is largely in pretty good condition. Visitors used to enter on a long, long staircase, but there are now elevators to the cave level, and hand-held tour narratives for the “Big Room.” The alternative is to walk down a concrete ramp from the gaping “natural entrance” to the cave, which closes a few hours before sunset so as not to interfere with the bats that use it to enter and exit the cave. I got lucky and arrived just in time to go through the Natural Entrance. Since I was the last one in for the day, and mid-week October is a low season for tourism, I had the cave to myself for most of my descent from daylight to the dimly-lit formations of the caverns below. As far as what I saw there, I’ll let the photos do the talking, even though my point-and-shoot camera can’t do justice to the sights!
The National Park isn’t only about the below-ground attractions, and I was able to see some pretty interesting things even with my limited time on-site. I was able to note where a flash flood had flattened vegetation and torn up brush, and beyond that was an overhang used as a rockshelter by Native Americans. I wish I’d had more time to spend in the park, as the late fall flowers were in bloom and it would have been nice to explore the longer hiking trails and wilderness areas.
After touring the cave, though, I only had about 45 minutes to kill before the evening Bat Flight program began. We visitors gathered in the outdoor amphitheater just above the Natural Entrance, and an interpretive ranger discussed bat facts and answered questions until the spectacle started: Mexican (sometimes known as Brazilian) Free-Tailed Bats began to pour from the cave and fly toward the valley and plains to the south. I stuck around and watched for just under an hour – we were told that it might take hours for the million-plus bats to empty from the cave for their evening meal of flying insects from the fields below. It was impressive to watch: at first glance, it seemed like a disorderly exodus, but, as I watched, order took shape in the flight patterns. The bats flew out of the cave and turned to the right, circling counter-clockwise around the “roundabout” in front of the Entrance until there was a “lane” free to head up and over the lip of the mountain that separated the cave entrance from the vast plains of southeast New Mexico (and Texas beyond). I was thoroughly impressed by the capabilities of bat sonar, as the Mexican Free-Tails consistently avoided even the thinnest grass and agave stems despite being crowded into a narrow area. Photography isn’t allowed in the amphitheater, but if you check out the links above, they have some photo and video of the Carlsbad bat flight.
Bats are truly amazing and unique creatures! That is why the recent spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among hibernating bats is such a devastating issue. Check a future post for more information on this disease!
Arizona and the Sonoran Desert
Joshua Tree, CA – Tucson, AZ
Mile 5949 – 6493
October 15 – October 17, 2010
Immediately upon leaving Joshua Tree National Park, the desert around me took on a starker appearance. I saw almost none of the “megaflora” characteristic of the Mojave Desert in the park – no Joshua Trees, no mesquite, none of the larger cacti. In fact, the desert that had seemed so full of life in the park now looked like the vast wasteland I had always imagined it to be. For the most part, this continued to be the case as I headed straight east into Arizona, soon crossing back into the Sonoran Desert.
The towns I passed through on my way, few and far between, looked equally bleak. I think that it was the lack of water, combined with generally mild temperatures, that made the buildings and their landscaping somehow less “civilized”-looking than what I am used to. There was, of course, dust everywhere, buildings didn’t need to have the sturdy roofs and walls that northern snow and cold require, and there wasn’t the water to spare for elaborate gardens, let alone lawns (though some homes, apparently to show off their good wells, had palm trees planted in the yard). That said, there isn’t much of an economy in the area, aside from ranching and whatever is needed to serve the immediate needs of those ranchers, fifty miles or more from the nearest town of 1,000. I’m not sure what keeps people out there – though, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure why people tried to settle there in the first place, unless it was the strangely beautiful, otherworldly appearance of the desert.
The charismatic cactus of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro, which can grow up to 50 feet tall. Sometimes called the giant saguaro, they are the largest cactus species in the United States. Like the Joshua Trees, large populations of saguaros look like forests, with the other cacti, shrubs, and even small trees serving as the “underbrush.” I, however, saw only a few saguaros scattered here and there along the hundreds of miles I traveled through eastern California and western Arizona. This was particularly true in central Arizona, south and west of Phoenix, where ranching and (what passed for) cropland were clearly widespread. Just outside of Tucson, though, lies Saguaro National Park, set aside to preserve some of the great “saguaro forests” and the rest of the ecological community of the Sonoran Desert.
Why are these giants of the desert – the saguaro and the Joshua tree – nearly invisible outside of the preserves named for them? I’m not completely sure, but it seems pretty clear that humans are responsible, at some level. The saguaros in Saguaro N.P. are actually at the edge of their range – in a terrain too steep and cold to support agriculture as reliably as the flats (and in Arizona, that’s really saying something). Joshua Tree N.P. is in one little corner of the Mojave Desert, yet even in the adjacent town named for that giant agave, there were few Joshua trees around. Both plants, but especially the saguaro, have had human uses for as long as people have inhabited the desert. The Tohono O’odham, and the ancient Hohokam before them, ate and preserved the juicy fruits and used the woody stems for building. It seems likely that early Europeans in the area would have done the same, as a substitute for non-existent trees. In addition, grazing animals compact the soil and trample young seedlings.
While some use of these plants is part of the balance of life and death in the desert, they are a very delicate species and cannot withstand the heavier impacts resulting from white settlement. According to the national park brochure, a saguaro may grow only ¼ inch tall in its first year, reaching a foot after 15 years, and up to seven feet in 50 years. It does not begin to flower and produce fruit until around 30 years old. When one of these cacti it cut down, then, it may take well over a hundred years to replace it, and damaging the surrounding soil and vegetation ecology, or
removing all of the remaining fruits and seeds, will clearly have a devastating effect on the population.
Enough depressing talk, though – there are places where the desert ecology is well-preserved and maintained, and they are awesome. I didn’t have enough time to really explore Saguaro National Park, nor did I get to the Sonoran Desert Museum in its west unit, which I have heard from several sources is wonderful. I did get to drive the loop road in the east unit, though, and get out for a couple short walks. It would be great to get back and see more sometime – two thirds of the park is designated wilderness, and in the Rincon Mountains on
the eastern side, one can hike up to scrub oak and even Ponderosa pine forests. Tucson itself, which lies between the two parks, is a beautiful desert city, with towering cacti in front yards and mountains surrounding the town. My own (great-) aunt’s garden, in the foothills north of downtown, was as beautiful as the National Parks, if slightly less wild.