A Plethora of Parks

Goodwater Loop Trail

Luke wants to get into through-hiking and backcountry wilderness backpacking. My enthusiasm for living in tents has waned with my advancing years, but I’m all for helping Luke acquire whatever knowledge and skills he needs to survive his future treks into the wild.

Now that the parks are reopening, this weekend seemed like a good time to try out a nice safe through-hike with training wheels and safety nets. The Goodwater Loop Trail around Lake Georgetown is a good starter hike, because there are campgrounds all along it and help is never too far away.

The trail is 28 miles long and looks like this:

The plan was to leave the car at Overlook Park Saturday morning, hike 14 miles around the lake clockwise to Tejas Camp, spend the night there, and then continue around the lake back to the car.

We got a late start, and by the time we got to Overlook Park it was full and they were turning cars away. We saw what looked like overflow parking at the foot of the dam, but we didn’t know how to get to it. So we drove to Cedar Breaks Park. That was full too, but we were able to grab a spot in their overflow parking. That put us only 11 miles from Tejas Camp, with a longer journey back to the car on Sunday. No problem.

We set off, feeling cheerful and adventurous. Other hikers wished us a good morning, and we returned their greetings. The trail is very pretty.

There is a gorgeous waterfall about a mile and a half from Cedar Breaks Park. Photos don’t do it justice, it’s magical.

Saw some photogenic livestock in a pasture adjacent to the falls.

A donkey came up for pets.

The most important thing we learned from this test run is that our current gear is too heavy for long-distance backpacking. Almost all of our equipment, from our 10lb tent to our insulated steel thermoflasks, is designed for car camping rather than backcountry jaunts. The first four or five miles were fine, the next four or five miles were a slog, and after that it was just kind of an ordeal. I was carrying about 40lbs of gear in a pack that was only rated for 30, so it didn’t provide enough support. Pretty soon my shoulders and hips were bruised at the points of contact. Elizabeth and I got blisters on our feet! Blisters, in our comfy old Ariat Terrains! I can’t even remember the last time I got blisters from walking. Turns out pack weight makes a huge difference as the miles add up.

But on we went. Really a beautiful trail.

Texas is in full summer now, with highs in the 90s every day. We passed a couple of primitive campgrounds and detoured into them in hopes of refilling our water flasks, but all of their spigots had been capped off. We ran out of water somewhere around mile 10. In the future we will supplement our water supply with portable purifiers/filters so we can drink out of lakes and streams if need be.

We were so tired when we arrived at Tejas Camp, I didn’t think to get any scenic shots of our tent. There was still plenty of daylight, but we just filled our flasks at the community spigot, set up the tent and collapsed. We really need better-quality sleeping pads. We do have a nice comfy self-inflating queen size pad, but it’s so bulky and heavy we didn’t attempt to bring it on this trip. Our cheap starter pads are…yeah. We got what we paid for.

When the sun did set, the forest filled with a raucous symphony of sound, much louder than daytime birdsong. Crickets, frogs, the full orchestra. We enjoyed the concert.

We didn’t bother with the rainfly, so in the morning I got a nice shot of the tree above our tent.

Before we broke camp, we tested out our shiny new ferro rods. It took a little practice, but eventually we each struck up a small fire in the fire pit.

Confident in our fire-making abilities, we doused our little flames, packed up and headed down the trail.

We started out stiff and sore and bruised and blistered, and the packs just got heavier with every mile. The next time the trail came near the lakeshore, we took the opportunity to cool off.

Elizabeth soaked her feet. I waded in up to my knees. Luke just walked straight out into the lake.

Thus refreshed, we continued on.

Just before the mile 17 mark we came to Russell Park, a full-service park and campground. Luke said, “Welp, I think we’ve learned everything useful here. Wanna call a Lyft?”

“What? Admit defeat? Accept failure?” I rubbed my bruised hips.

“I mean, we came to learn. We learned.”

“That’s a good point. Let’s call a Lyft.”

So we took a Lyft back to our car. Luke was right, to keep hiking would have been pointless masochism.

There was a yellow slip on our windshield warning us that we weren’t supposed to leave cars overnight in overflow parking areas, and further offenses would result in citations. Duly noted.

I’m SO sore today. But I’ve already started a list of future gear upgrades, and I’m looking forward to our next trial run.

 

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, kids, Life, maps, Travel, Wildlife | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Adventures in Nepal, Part V: Disneyland!

Wednesday the 18th dawned sunny and clear. Elizabeth had heard about a local theme park in Lakeside, and was excited to go see it.

And here we have the completely legit and totally not fake Pokhara Disneyland:

A magical entryway to the Sketchiest Place on Earth.

Pluto’s face kills me.

Behold, the Magic Kingdom!

Can you feel the excitement?


It has the castle and everything!

So I got two different versions of the visit to “Pokhara Disneyland.”

Elizabeth has never met a theme park she didn’t like, and she thoroughly enjoyed her experience at this one.

Emma was like, “There is rust on everything and you can literally see and hear the unshielded belt turning the ferris wheel and it is not outside the realm of possibility that we may die on one of these rides.”

Nice views from the ferris wheel, though.

Elizabeth was undaunted by rust and squealing engine belts, and embraced the whimsy.

I absolutely adore that rainbow sweater. She had just bought it the day before, and it brightens up almost every photo for the rest of the Nepal trip.

Lunch break at a cafe in Lakeside…

…And then back for more squeaky, rust-covered fun. They say the whole theme park experience set them back about five bucks.

When Emma had had enough of Disneyland, they explored more of Lakeside.

I really like this panoramic shot Emma took of Phewa Tal.

Love, peace and property destruction.

Walking back to Sabita’s house. Look at the tangles of power lines everywhere.

Panoramic view from Sabita’s rooftop.

To be continued!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, Friends, Holidays, Humor, kids, Life, Nepal, Travel, Weather | Tags: | 1 Comment

Adventures in Nepal, Part IV: Basundhara Park

The next day was gray and rainy. (January 17th, if we’re keeping track.) Emma, Elizabeth and Bee Striit met the two Tibetan students at the hotel again for another photography class.

I like the grass-carpeted balcony!

When the lesson was done, our trio braved the weather and visited Basundhara Park in Lakeside.

This park entrance sign is another example of either ubiquitous ad placement or random tributes to popular brands.

Basundhara Park lies along the shores of Phewa Tal. On a clear day, the Himalayas loom majestically in the background. But even on a rainy day, the lake is beautiful.

Colorful boats!

Elizabeth and Bee Striit.

These boats all had Kit Kat ads on their canopies:

And back to the narrow streets of Nepal.

More to come!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, Friends, Holidays, Life, Love, Nepal, Travel, Weather | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Above, Below and Just Beyond Texas, Part II

Read Part I here!

We climbed Guadalupe Peak mostly in sunshine, and descended in deepening shadows.

Here is a better view of the bridge.

The shadows crept up the flanks of Hunter Peak across the canyon…

…and we knew that when the last rays of direct sunlight had left its summit, we would have about half an hour of twilight left before we were hiking in the dark.

But the scenery was even prettier in the “golden hour” light, so we couldn’t rush past it too quickly.

The splashes of crimson in the canyons are maple trees showing off their fall colors.

Coming down was a lot easier and faster than going up, at least until we hit that last 1.5 miles of steep switchbacks at the base. That is equally brutal in both directions.

We made it back to the trailhead before dark, but lost the last of the light on that extra mile back to the car. Not bad though, all things considered.

We drove the 27 miles back to the “primitive campground.” There were no new campers there, and one of the two other tents was gone now, leaving only our tent next to the probably-homeless-camp.

We had done what we came to do. Guadalupe Peak was vanquished. None of us felt that sticking around to hike Devil’s Hall was worth the hassle of finding a safe place to spend the night, especially since Luke had to be at work Monday morning. We decided to find the nearest gas station, fuel up and head home. We googled up a couple of places for gas in White’s City, but they looked super sketchy. The nearest legit-and-open station was in Carlsbad. We burned most of the last of our fuel getting to a gas station, filled the tank and turned the car for home.

Less than an hour into that drive, I realized that I had overestimated my stamina. I had put in a full work shift and climbed a mountain since my last real sleep, and now the road hypnosis was kicking in. I needed to stop and rest. We located a motel in the next town, Pecos. It was as good a place as any to spend the night.

Except that when we rolled up to the motel, it was permanently closed. We found another one not too far away, but no one answered the “Ring for Service” bell. All of the other motels in town cost at least $200 more than I wanted to spend on a few hours’ sleep. But by then I was dangerously drowsy, like, not at all safe to drive. So we found a truck stop just outside of town, parked out of the way and slept in the car. That was simultaneously the most uncomfortable and the most restorative night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.

We woke up with sore muscles but otherwise refreshed, and resumed our journey home.

A couple hours later we saw a sign for the Caverns of Sonora. That looked like a good time, and it wasn’t out of the way, so we stopped to check it out.

We were greeted on the porch by this pretty fellow:

The Caverns of Sonora are pretty cool.

But the mountains were still singing in our souls, and on that day we had no particular passion for stalactites. I feel kind of bad for the tour guide and the guide-in-training. They were obviously very enthusiastic about their caverns and we totally lacked the proper sense of wonder and awe. Sorry guys, you were great tour guides anyway, and your caverns are lovely.

We left Sonora and continued homeward. After a while we decided we were tired of camp provisions and stopped in Fredericksburg for some really good German food at Der Lindenbaum.

So that was our weekend. Very much an exercise in the Rubber Ball Philosophy, but we enjoyed it a lot.

Addendum

I used up all of my free image storage space on Wordpress and had to decide between letting the blog die or upgrading to Premium. I went ahead and upgraded, because I like the blog. If you like it too, consider donating to help keep it going. Thanks!

$5.00

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Travel, trees, Weather | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Above, Below and Just Beyond Texas, Part I

The plan was simple: Get off work the Friday afternoon of Veterans Day weekend, load up the car, take a nap, then drive eight hours northeast to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Arrive around sunrise. Spend Saturday adjusting to the 5,700+ ft elevation and enjoy a brilliant show of fall color on the Devil’s Hall trail. On Sunday, climb to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet above sea level. Drive home on Monday.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is intentionally designed to be remote and relatively untrammeled, to protect the ancient, tiny (and shrinking) pockets of forest sheltered within its canyons. There are no paved roads through the park; the only way to explore it is on foot, or on horseback in some areas. There is no camp store other than the Visitor Center gift shop, so if you run out of food or ice or other necessary supplies, the nearest stores are in White’s City or Carlsbad, both in New Mexico and a minimum of 30 minutes away. There is no electricity or showers at the two frontcountry campgrounds, and no amenities at all in any of the backcountry campsites. You cannot make a reservation to camp in the park, all sites are first-come-first-served. If the frontcountry campsites were all full when we arrived, we would hang out till the 11-am checkout time, grab the first site that was vacated and set up camp before heading out to Devil’s Hall.

Since buying ice or food is not an option at GMNP, we replaced our ancient, cracked cooler with a larger and better-insulated model. The park is surrounded by oil rigs and fracking wells, which in our experience usually means that the tapwater will taste terrible. We are kind of water snobs and did not want to risk it, so we also picked up a 5-gallon insulated water dispenser. I upgraded my regular waist pack to a daypack, and Luke bought a multi-day pack in case we could not secure a frontcountry spot at all and had to pack into a backcountry site. Our tent is too big to be ideal for backpacking, but dividing its components into three separate bundles, one for each of us, makes it very manageable. Water was our biggest concern, especially since at this point in the planning phase we were sweating through the relentless inferno of a Texas heatwave with no end in sight. Running out of water in the mountains is no joke. We also bought light, packable rain jacket/windbreakers, since mountaintops can be chilly and windy even in summer. If all went according to plan, we would spend our Veterans Day weekend taking in some of the finest Autumn scenery and mountain vistas that Texas has to offer.

Spoiler: All did not go according to plan.

When Elizabeth was a wee bairn, she used to get stressed out when events did not unfold as expected. I used to tell her, “Be the rubber ball, not the glass ball.” The idea is simple enough for a small child to understand. If a glass ball is dropped or thrown, it shatters. But a rubber ball just bounces back and keeps rolling along, undaunted and undamaged. The glass ball is fragile, the rubber ball is nearly indestructible. “Be the rubber ball,” I would urge little Elizabeth when life got too unpredictable for her comfort.

The entire Guadalupe Peak expedition was very much a rubber ball sort of undertaking.

The first twist came about two weeks before the big weekend, when an unseasonal cold front loomed unexpectedly into the forecast. Suddenly we were planning for frosty conditions instead of worrying about keeping our food cold. No problem. I picked up a couple of merino base-layer tops, one midweight and one heavyweight, and a small camp stove for making hot drinks and heating meals. We decided to leave the insulated water dispenser at home, since icewater probably wouldn’t be high on our list of necessities. We brought all our hydration in packable jugs and insulated flasks. Packing up to a backcountry campground was no longer an option, since we didn’t want to spend another several hundred dollars on packable winter bedding. But at this point we were 100% committed to climbing that mountain, so I figured if all else failed we would find a nearby motel. Luckily all of the forecasts said that Sunday would be the clearest day of the weekend, so our basic plan was unchanged.

The Monday before we were due to leave, my supervisor said that he was mistaken about Veterans Day being a paid holiday at our company. But he was sympathetic to my situation, and approved my request for an unpaid personal day off. No problem.

The next day, Luke’s boss announced that there was a big task coming in, and everyone would be required to work on Veterans Day. No getting out of it.

I chewed over all of our options, and finally decided that I would drive home Sunday night instead of Monday. Luke could sleep on the way home and still make it to work on Monday morning, and I could spend Monday recovering at home. Nooo problem.

It was either Thursday night or Friday morning when the forecast suddenly changed. Still cold, but now Saturday would be the only clear day of the weekend. Sunday would be completely overcast.

For us, climbing mountains is mostly about the views. There is little point in summiting a peak if you cannot see anything from the top. We would just have to go up on Saturday, and deal with the altitude change and sleep deprivation as best we could. Noooo problem.

Friday in Austin was miserably cold and drizzly. After work we packed up, dressed in our warmest layers and tried rather unsuccessfully to nap. I think I dozed off for maybe an hour. It would have to be good enough. I brewed a pot of yerba maté so strong it tasted like coffee, grabbed a jar of dark-chocolate-covered espresso beans, and off we went.

Eight hours later, the sun was just rising as the Guadalupe Mountains came into view.

The day was gloriously sunny and mild. We could not have gotten better weather for this hike.

The white rocky outcropping in the picture below is El Capitan, and the rounded summit just behind it is Guadalupe Peak.

The park was already teeming with guests, mostly hikers who had come to see the fall colors in McKittrick Canyon and Devil’s Hall. The frontcountry campground was full, and we could not wait around to see if a spot would open up. Guadalupe Peak Trail is a 6-to-8-hour round-trip journey, and we’re not fans of hiking unfamiliar trails after dark. We found a restroom, exchanged our now-too-warm clothing for lighter layers, and then I asked a park ranger at the Visitor Center if there were any other frontcountry camping options in the area.

Quick tangent! I just recently learned about the National Park “passport” stamps. If I had known about them sooner, we could have started our collection at Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. There are six Guadalupe Mountains stamps to choose from, one for each of the park’s most popular destinations. I bought a pretty postcard at the Visitor Center, found the Guadalupe Peak stamp and officially started our collection.

Anyway, the park ranger said there was a free, very primitive campground just up the road. We could set up our tent there and then park in the day-use parking lot next to the Visitor Center. “But it will fill up today,” she warned me. I thought she was talking about the campground, but in retrospect she must have been talking about the parking lot. If I had that moment to do over again, I would have snagged a spot in the parking lot, headed straight up the mountain and let the camping situation sort itself out later. But at the time that seemed like a bad idea, so off we went to secure a spot in the primitive campground.

“Just up the road” turned out to be 27 miles up the road and across the border into New Mexico. And the “primitive campground” turned out to be a rocky parking lot next to a field. There were a handful of RVs parked around the edges of the lot, and two tents already set up at the edge of the field. I’m like 85% sure that one of the tents was a homeless camp. There was an unleashed pit bull wandering around that one. We were already having second thoughts about camping there. But the nearest motel was in Carlsbad, and we just wanted to get on the trail. We set up the tent to hold our spot and drove back to the park.

I had been careful on the drive out to keep our fuel levels above half a tank, but in the final approach to the park there had been no places to fill up. Now, thanks to our 60-mile detour to the “primitive campground,” we no longer had enough fuel to get us to the closest gas station on the route home. At some point we would have to drive to White’s City after all, to fuel up for the drive home. No problem.

Of course, just as we got back to the park entrance, they were closing the gate. All parking lots full. Closest place to park was the Pinery Trailhead turnout off the highway. It meant walking a mile just to get from the car to the Guadalupe Peak trailhead, but you know, no problem. Be the rubber ball.

So we parked at the turnout, walked to the trailhead and started up the mountain.

The first section of trail is a series of steep switchbacks up the East slope. You gain a lot of altitude very quickly.

We discovered right away that our climbing muscles have gotten soft in Texas. That initial ascent was brutal.

But after about a mile and half, the trail curves around to the North slope and gets less steep and way more scenic.

It’s the prettiest hike I’ve been on since we moved to Texas.

It’s not an easy hike. I don’t recommend attempting the summit unless you’re in reasonably good shape. But any part of the trail above that first 1.5 miles of switchbacks is worth the effort it takes to get there, just for the scenery.

So up we went.

About three miles up, we came to a false summit and the backcountry campground for this trail. I am glad we did not attempt to haul our tent and bedding and a night’s worth of supplies up this mountain. That would have been a serious ordeal.

Beyond the false summit, we could now see the Final Boss:

But to get there, we first had to cross a damaged section of trail over a ravine…

…on the highest bridge in Texas.

I have a better view of the bridge from the return descent, but I like to keep things in chronological order.

Once we crossed the bridge the trail started to get steep again, but the views kept getting better.

We took a lot of rest breaks. The woodsy peak in the shot below is the backside of El Capitan.

Looking back down at the false summit, from near the top of the real summit. Those tall pines on top mark the backcountry campground. Brrr!

Up…

And up…

And up. We needed our jackets now; there was a chilly wind up there.

The trail gets difficult again near the top. Steep, narrow, rocky. There are places where you have to climb with your fingers and toes. Just below the summit, I ran out of energy. We stopped in the shelter of some boulders, out of the wind and off the trail, and ate the sandwiches that we had packed to eat at the top. Some hikers on their way back down said that they should have done that themselves, because the wind made eating more difficult on the summit.

Thus refueled, we made the final ascent.

There is a Butterfield Stage monument at the top that predates the peak’s National Park status, and a logbook in a metal ammunition box.

We signed the book, and relaxed for a while to enjoy the view. El Capitan looks like a mitten from above.

A plane flew past, below the level of the summit. Just a spectacular view.

Victory was ours!

Read Part II here!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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