Epic Road Trip: Southwest

Let’s take a journey back to August of 2009. It’s an epic adventure that starts in southeastern Wisconsin, flirts with Route 66, questions alien encounters, visits natural wonders, observes a cliché preservation of the Wild West, and much more.

Day 1:  Afton, OK and Lake Texoma State Park

Tent?  Check.  Music?  Check.  Gas?  Check.

We had everything we needed in the Dodge Durango and were ready for the road trip of the summer.  We hit the interstate at dawn and didn’t look back for two weeks.

I’m a sucker for abandoned things. Mines, towns, factories, cars, hotels… you name it.  If it is vacant and even semi-old, I’m going to need a few minutes alone with it to explore the historical context, touch the things I can’t break, imagine the sounds and smells that once were, examine what’s left today, and photograph what might be gone soon.

…Like this motel in Afton, Oklahoma.

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Rest Haven is near the edge of Afton, a town that began in 1886, but really grew up with Route 66. Now it is fading slowly back into history.

If you find yourself here and in need of more information about the Mother Road, there is a old gas station across the street from Rest Haven that is now a Route 66 visitor center.

After 10 hours or so of driving, Lake Texoma State Park was the first camping stop.  The lake was peaceful, and some geese came right up to the picnic table to investigate what was for dinner.

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As the name suggests, it’s located on the state line of Texas and Oklahoma.   It was sold to a private investment group in 2005, and appeared to be falling into a state of abandonment in 2009.  There were several cabins and buildings in various early stages of decay.  I don’t know the status of these dwellings today, but perhaps finding out is a reason to return soon.

Day 2-3:  Decatur, TX and Big Bend National Park

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In the morning, Decatur, Texas brought some interesting historical knowledge to the trip.   It’s simply not possible to drive past a building like this without finding out something about it.  Wise County Courthouse stands on the corner of the downtown square.  It was built in 1896, after two previous county courthouses burned down. Designed by J. Riely Gordon, many people said this pink granite marvel was architecturally perfect, even if donkeys did help build it…  They were used to pull the ropes that raised some of the bricks.

Wise County Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

I don’t remember what road this is, but it’s one that just begs you to see how fast your vehicle can go.

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We absolutely, most definitely, without a doubt kept it below 80. There are a lot of miles of highway in Texas between Decatur and Big Bend National Park.

After the appropriate amount of time of doing the speed limit and a night spent in a hotel in Odessa, we arrived at Big Bend National Park.  Not many people choose to visit in August, so it felt like we had the entire park to ourselves.

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…aside from the brightly colored horse lubber grasshoppers, which were everywhere!

Hiking trails abound in Big Bend. We chose Boquillas Canyon and the trail to the Hot Springs District.

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Boquillas Canyon is a short hike (1.4 miles round trip) over a hill to the Rio Grande.

The trailhead is at the end of Boquillas Canyon Spur Road.  The lonely Durango was the only vehicle in the parking lot the entire time we were there.

“Boquillas” means “little mouths” in Spanish.  It is named in reference to the small streams that meet the Rio Grande in the area, not the small mouth-shaped caves in the side of the cliffs, as I had incorrectly assumed.

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People who live on the other side of the river often come across to leave crafts/rocks/etc for tourists to buy.  As we browsed their wares (it is illegal to actually purchase any of these things), they strummed their guitars and serenaded us from across the river.

A few miles up the river from Boquillas Canyon is the trail to Hot Springs Historic District.  There is a 2-mile dirt road to get to this trailhead.

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When you reach the trailhead, it is  a  0.5 mile hike to the ruins of the J.O. Langford bathhouse.

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When he was a child, Langford got malaria in Mississippi. Trying to find a cure, he bought the land in Texas in 1909.  He believed believed the hot springs might be his ticket to a healthy life. There was already a family of 12 living there when he arrived, but he decided to work with the people instead of making them leave.  After soaking in and drinking the water for a few weeks, he regained his health.

To share the miracle water with others for a profit, he built an adobe house, a stone bathhouse, and bathing shelters. Bandits arrived in the area, and Langford and his family left in 1912. They returned in 1927 to rebuild the bathhouse, as well as a store and 7 cabins. There was even a post office at the hot springs.

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Now all that is left are the ruins of his structures.  Spring water bubbles up at 105 degrees F. When the river is just right, it is possible to put one foot in the hot spring tub and the other in the cool river.  Considering the ambient air temperature was also about 105 degrees F, soaking in the hot springs did not sound appealing, but I dipped my feet and hands in anyway out of curiosity.

As we were leaving the park, a summer storm was rolling in.

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Desert monsoons are magical things.

If you have never experienced one, drop what you are doing, now, and drive to the desert!  Well, only if it’s summer. Otherwise, put it on your bucket list and I’ll try to bring you as close as I can to one right now…

The first thing you have to do is park your vehicle.  Driving through a monsoon is amazing too, but some things are just better when you get out of the car and put your feet on the ground.

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As you stand there, the wind starts to pick up, sending dirt and sand dancing around in chaotic swirls.  Feel the rain as it begins to drip slowly, leaving cool spots on your skin.  The breezes are still hot.  Take a deep breath.  Let the clean fragrance of creosote fill your lungs.

There is nothing else in the world that smells like the desert when it rains.

Listen to the low growl of the thunder rumbling as you watch the lightning flash miles away in the mountains across the valley… As the storm gets closer, the rain intensifies. Wind gets stronger. Thunder gets louder.  Suddenly, lightning strikes the rock outcrop next to where you are standing.

…Just checking if you were paying attention.

The power and energy of the storm contrasted with the peaceful stillness of the landscape somehow pulls you in and makes you feel like a part of the desert.

Summer monsoons are usually gone as quickly as they arrive.

As the rain lets up, you climb back into your vehicle, soaking wet and a little chilled. It’s necessary to roll all of the windows down, because the sun is coming back out and it’s still 107 degrees. Soon the only evidence of the storm will be the reflective puddles on the road showcasing a few lingering clouds in the bright blue sky.

My words did not do justice to this storm.  Go experience one for yourself.

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Day 4:  Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Roswell, NM, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park

I’m not entirely sure where we spent that night, but the next morning we drove through Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

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A quick visit to Roswell, NM turned into a few hours when a UFO museum appeared on the street.

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Once the building lured us in with colorful posters promising a plethora of exciting new knowledge; we found some fact, some conspiracy theory, and some cool artwork.

After spending more time than anticipated in Roswell, it was beginning to get dark.

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We consulted the permanent resident of the Durango less affectionately known as the Rand McNally Road Atlas, and found a trusty tree icon named Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The little tent on the paper assured us there was camping there. That night we watched a fantastic desert sunset and met this little guy.

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Day 5: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, White Sands National Monument, and Rockhound State Park

A quick morning hike on Dog Canyon Trail into the Lincoln National Forest offered spectacular views of the campground and park.

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Dog Canyon Trail is 5.5 miles long.  These pictures are taken from only about a mile up or so, since I was anxious for breakfast at the campsite and ready to head to White Sands.

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White Sands National Monument never loses its charm, no matter how many times you visit… There’s just  something about the stillness… the quiet…  the way the fine grains of sand between your toes are both hot and cold at the same time… and the way they plow it off the road like you’ve just weathered the biggest blizzard of the season, but it’s the middle of summer.

We explored White Sands for several hours, and made it to Rockhound State Park just after dark.

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The campground at Rockhound State Park is perched on the edge of the Little Florida Mountains, which made the view of the early evening storm absolutely perfect.  Repeatedly getting out of the Durango was a must to capture the best possible pictures of the lightning in the valley below.  Once the rain let up and we set up camp, several creatures came out to explore:  toads, black widows, and even a walking stick ventured into the campsite.

Day 6:  Rockhound State Park and Separ, NM

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Maybe it wasn’t the rain that brought the interesting creatures out.  Wandered around the trails in the morning, we found this bright orange caterpillar clinging to a branch.
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Rockhound is a unique park, because visitors are allowed to collect up to 15 pounds of rocks.  Jasper (a microcrystalline variety of Quartz; usually red, yellow, pink, or white) and grey Perlite (a type of volcanic glass) are the main minerals found in the area.  Geodes and thunder eggs (solid geodes) can also be found, but don’t expect to extract high quality specimens without putting in several hours work to find them.  If you go to Rockhound with the intention of finding rocks and minerals, please be respectful.  Follow the park rules and fix anything you disturb.

The clouds were rolling through, and so was this train.

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Separ sits in the southwest corner of New Mexico along I-10.  In the 1800’s, it was a stop along the Janos Trail copper trade route, which ran from Janos, Chihuahua to New Mexico.  Then it became a loading station for livestock when the Union Pacific railroad was built in the 1880’s.

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Although a few people still live here, now it is home mostly to abandoned buildings, lizards, rampant tumbleweeds, and an overabundance of wind.  Personal observation:  Everywhere in New Mexico is windy.

Day 7:  Saguaro National Park, Biosphere 2, and Peppersauce Cave

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A night spent in a motel in Tucson, AZ meant an early start in the morning.  Saguaro National Park is split into two parts, one on each side of Tucson.  These pictures are from the west part.  Hiking through the sandy washes and getting up close and personal with the local flora made for a great morning.

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A few words of caution:  seriously… don’t touch a cholla.  The barbed spines make them really difficult to remove from your hands, shoes, and any other various places they get stuck to.  Maybe it’s because I’m a klutz, but my Skeletool is always a trusty friend to hike with for the times I need to remove cactus needles from myself.

Remember that movie from the mid 90’s… Bio Dome?  With Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin…?

Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ is the real life version.  From 1991-1993 eight people lived here in a closed environment. In 1994, a second attempt lasted 6 months.  The experiments were supposed to show that humans could live in sealed self-sufficient ecosystems, which could hypothetically be built and maintained in space.

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Now it is owned by the University of Arizona and used for research and education.  They offer tours daily of the five systems (rainforest, ocean, desert, grassland, and wetland), the underground Technosphere (includes heating, cooling, and humidity-regulating components), and one of the two huge expansion chamber “lungs” which regulate air pressure inside.

To learn more about this fantastic science experiment in the desert, visit their website.

We spent most of the afternoon at Biosphere 2.  A few brief moments at Oracle State Park revealed access to the Arizona Trail, where this horned lizard came out to visit.

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Long summer days offered plenty of daylight to explore and still set up camp while it was light.  To get to Peppersauce Campground from Oracle, take highway 77 to FR38, then drive south for about 6 miles.  It sits along a creek at an elevation of 4700′ on the way up Mt. Lemmon.  There are no hookups and RVs are limited to 22′.  It’s the perfect place for tent camping.

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About a mile from the campground is Peppersauce Cave.  Since it is a well-known cave, unfortunately graffiti and litter abound.

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Not too far inside the cave is a lake with a ladder.  My pictures of the lake itself are, sadly, too blurry to share.

 

 

This map is also posted near the cave entrance.

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Day 8:  Globe, AZ, Roosevelt Lake (Tonto National Forest), and Homolovi Ruins State Park

Mines, dirt roads, old cars, gigantic rocks, trains… and ghost stories to match them all.  Welcome to Globe, AZ.

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Globe was founded in 1875 after silver was discovered in the area.  Legend says the city was named after a globe-shaped piece of silver. Soon copper mining took over, and continues today. Many of the houses and downtown buildings that were built in the late 1800s are still alive and well today, giving the town a historic feel. Driving up from Phoenix on highway 60 brings you first to neighboring city, Miami, which blends into Globe, past several abandoned old downtown buildings, which are for sale.

Recreation in the Tonto National Forest is just a few miles from downtown Globe.  Tonto is the fifth largest national forest in the United States and stretches from Globe to Phoenix to Payson.  Forest roads into the Pinal Mountains offer excellent opportunities for off-roading, hiking, and camping. A Tonto Forest Pass is required, and for $8 can be purchased at most local Circle K gas stations, Big 5 Sporting Goods stores, and grocers.

Then there is Roosevelt Lake.

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A tropical oasis in the desert!  Paradise!  That’s how it looked when I caught my first glimpse of it.  The bright blues and greens contrasted against the reds and browns… the landscape screamed out through the vastness.

Roosevelt Lake was created when Roosevelt Dam was built in 1911 on the Salt River.  For a fun drive to Phoenix from Roosevelt Lake, take highway 88 (also known as the Apache Trail), a mostly unpaved winding road.  It wanders past Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake, and Apache Lake, and also offers access to several local hiking trails.
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With a marina, beaches, and several campgrounds, anyone is sure to find the perfect spot to spend a day, a weekend, or even longer here. Campsites cost just $6, and some are right on the lake.

Read more about the interesting history of Roosevelt and the construction of the Roosevelt dam here.

We didn’t go to Phoenix via the Apache Trail this trip.  To the northeast of Tonto National Forest is another fine place to get lost in the woods, Sitgreaves National Forest.

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Holbrook is located along I-40 (about 30 miles east of Winslow), and is home to some unique shops and motels.

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Right outside of Winslow, a convenient place to camp with some interesting historical insight is  Homolovi Ruins State Park.

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There was a wildfire burning nearby, which made for an excellent sunset that evening.

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Day 9:  Petrified Forest National Park and Grand Canyon National Park

Petrified Forest became a National Monument in 1906 when visitors wanted to preserve the Agate Bridge, a 110 ft tree suspended above a wash.  Since the tree was harder than the surrounding dirt and rock, it stayed in place while the gully grew deeper beneath it.

Many of the trees at Petrified Forest date back to around 225 million years ago, from the Late Triassic Period. Buried in volcanic ash, the trees were well preserved.  The wood has slowly been replaced by minerals in the groundwater.

Petrified Forest was made a National Park in 1962.  There are several archaeological sites in the park, including Newspaper Rock, where an array of petroglyphs can be seen etched into the patina on a boulder.

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Our next stop was the famous Grand Canyon National Park.  It was difficult to take pictures without other people in them, since the park was so busy. We set up camp at Kaibab Lake in the Kaibab National Forest and were excited for the drive into the Grand Canyon that was planned for the next day.  This campground offers fire rings, picnic tables, and pit toilets.  There is no swimming allowed in the lake, since it is used as a water source.

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Day 10:  Seligman and Peach Springs

Route 66 came to Seligman in the late 1920s. To the east of the town, at a stop off I-40, here is what is left of it now.

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Seligman’s origins lie in the railroad industry, and its name was even changed from Prescott Junction to honor one of the men who financed the railroad.

Up until 1978 when I-40 was constructed a few miles south, Seligman was a normal town along Route 66 with its local restaurants, auto repair shops, and other small businesses. In 1987 Arizona deemed Route 66 a Historic Highway, and Seligman was called the Birthplace of Historic Route 66.  The colorful buildings were preserved as the Seligman Commercial Historic District.  Today the tourist shops make it a bit cheesy, but it is still fun to wander the streets pretending it’s the 1950s.

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Seligman was an inspiration for the town of Radiator Springs in the movie Cars.

From Seligman, it is possible to drive about 160 miles west on the original Route 66.

Off of Route 66 is Diamond Creek Road.  It is a 20 mile trip down a dirt road into the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River.  The road had some pretty major washboards when we went, but wasn’t technical at all.  To drive here, you have to get a pass at Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs, since it is on tribal land.

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Day 11:  Kingman and  Route 66 to Oatman

There is not a shortage of cheap motels in Kingman.

It is also a great city to watch trains in.  I have no proof the two are related, but it is said that train horns blow more than 700 times per day in Kingman city limits as more than 100 trains pass through.  At Locomotive Park, steam engine #3759 sits proudly, having traveled 2,585,600 miles between 1927 and 1959. Pictures don’t convey just how massive this engine is.

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Route 66

The best part of Route 66 is the stretch from Peach Springs to Oatman.  Steep grades and hairpin turns await as the road makes its way up to Sitgreaves Pass, elevation 3550.  Along the way rest abandoned mines as well as an active mine, and if you stop to look over the edge, be sure to notice the few unlucky old cars at the bottom of the cliff.

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Oatman is an old west town where you can find staged gun fights as well as real cowboys, historic buildings that house classic souvenir shops, and when the burros fall asleep in the road, it seems the residents put up orange safety cones to protect them from the tourists.

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We headed north to Valley of Fire State Park.  The beehives were the first icon of geologic interest we saw.

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A short hike (0.8 miles) to Mouse’s Tank revealed the spot where the Paiute Indian Little Mouse allegedly hid out in the 1890s to escape conviction for his crimes of drunken theft and murder. If only time travel existed, I would go back to each decade and investigate the validity of stories like this.

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Day 12:  Zion National Park

Zion let me down.  I’ll say it again…  Yes. Zion let me down.  Maybe I did it wrong.  Maybe there was something I didn’t know; something I overlooked.  Everything I had read and everyone I had talked to built this park up like it was supposed to be the best place on Earth I would ever step foot in… the holy grail of National Parks.

Instead what I found was a narrated tour on a shuttle bus so crowded with screaming children that I feared I may have accidentally gotten on the local school bus.  This bus of doom made several stops where it allowed people to escape towards hiking trails and points of interest.  Don’t get me completely wrong…  The walk to Weeping Rock  allowed me to meander behind water dripping off a rock, and I was completely in awe.  However, I had to keep moving, because the line of people ahead and behind me were also caught up in the same moment. My best advice to myself is to research the backcountry areas and go back here again and give it another chance, because it’s not that the park isn’t beautiful (it is).  I just couldn’t see it though the people.

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Day 13:  Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon was the complete opposite of Zion.  None of it was crowded, pretentious, or overrated.  In fact, there weren’t many people there at all.  We set up camp and hiked down into the canyon in the morning.

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After visiting Bryce, it was time for us to reluctantly head back to Wisconsin and start planning the next adventure.

 

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