Sunday, February 10, 2019

We Finally Slow Down for a Long Stay - Elephant Butte Lake State Park

February 1-10, 2019

Driving down out of the mountains from Davis Mountains State Park we gradually left the juniper covered hills and reached the desert east Texas that epitomizes most people's idea of what that part of Texas encompasses. We rejoined I-10 at the ghost town of Kent and began the westward trek towards El Paso and out of Texas. It always interesting to see the immense sprawling city of Juarez on the Mexican side of the concrete-channeled Rio Grande and the fences running along the river north and west of the city. Quickly you leave the sprawl behind as the road turns north and you cross into New Mexico under the big welcome sign spanning the interstate noting that New Mexico is “The Land of Enchantment”.
Mistletoe in a dormant oak

Feral boar crossing the road
At Las Cruces, I-10 proceeds west crossing the rest of New Mexico, Arizona and on into California. We headed north on I-25 until we reached the exit for Caballo Lake State Park on the New Mexico part of the Rio Grande. Not wanting to try to luck into a spot at Elephant Butte Lake State Park farther north, on a weekend, we opted for two nights at Caballo Lake.

Caballo Lake
Cholla fruit
Surprisingly, there was only one water/electric site left, so we took it. We were below the Percha Dam and down in the river valley, but not along the river which was barely flowing here. Saturday we drove north to Truth or Consequences to do laundry, get a good Mexican food lunch, and visit Walmart for groceries. After two nights I was ready to move on. I love the large expanses and huge skies of the southwest and I was getting little of either here. We hitched up and moved up the river to Elephant Butte Lake State Park outside of Truth or Consequences. We've spent more time in this park than an other in New Mexico during our travels. We knew we could get electric/water sites with nearby showers and a dump station, and campground wifi, or good connection for our hotspot and good phone connection. There was the long-range view across the lake, and beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

New Mexico highway

Beware of rattlesnakes at rest areas!
We arrived early enough in the morning to not get skunked on finding a site, but were disappointed to discover that the park had increased the number of reserved sites and had fewer first come-first serve sites. Our favorite campground , Quail Run had only one sloped site left. We drove over to Lion's Beach, (which used to be on the beach, but no longer), and found a few sites in the only non-reservable row. Luckily the end site was available, so we took it.

The receding Elephant Butte Lake
With 500,000 RV's being sold every year and Baby Boomers retiring and taking up RV travel, we are finding that it is getting more difficult to travel without reservations, our preferred form of travel. We are missing the spontaneity we have been able to enjoy since we started full-timing 6 ½ years ago!

Besides being a good place for a longer stop, we wanted to visit the two wildlife refuges further north of Elephant Butte Lake on I-25 up the Rio Grande to check on for possible volunteering next winter. On Sunday, as soon as we unhitched and got settled, we drove north to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Their ponds and marshes are a wintering-over area for many ducks and geese, but most notably sandhill cranes and snow geese. We were able to see thousands of them as we drove and stopped along the nature drive, among the ponds and fields where they plant grain crops to attract and feed the birds. We had a couple good conversations with volunteers about working there, but didn't get to talk to a ranger. With the shutdown over they are swamped with activities to catch up on refuge business.
Bosque del Apache
Ravens ignoring the snow geese

Snow Geese

Wednesday, after enduring two straight days of ever increasing winds, that limited our outdoor activity, we decided to drive to another wildlife refuge instead of sitting in the trailer all day. That day the winds were 30-40 mph with gusts over 50 mph. We knew we wouldn't be hiking the trails, but drove up and went to the visitor center. Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge is the largest in New Mexico and the eighth largest in the country. Four distinct ecosystems come together there. They have a program to reintroduce Mexican wolves onto the refuge. We had a good talk with a few volunteers. Again, rangers were scarce. This refuge has many fewer volunteers than the other we visited and fewer visitors. It has a more remote feel and is farther north with a colder winter climate. Lots to think about! Both refuges have their advantages for volunteers.

After five nights we packed up and drove to the Monticello campground at the north end of the lake. Or what used to be the north end. The lake has receded so drastically since we started coming here six years ago that the big island in the middle is now a peninsula, there are lots of sand spits, new islands, and the water color is lighter due to the shallow sand bottom. It is impossible to boat some areas of the lake, and the lake view is now gone from this campground. If you look hard, there is a small trickle that is what is left of the river flowing through the dry lake bed.

Monticello campsite
Our view to the south
The Monticello campground is remote and quiet with good separation between the sites. We haven't come here for six years since we assumed that there was still no connection of any sort. Now we have discovered that we have good cellphone and wifi hotspot signals here. If we had known, we would have relocated here sooner. Today is Saturday the 9th, so we'll finish out our three nights and leave very early on Monday morning. We want to make the drive down to Rockhound State Park outside of Deming. It is one of our favorite parks anywhere, and more difficult to get into every year we have come to New Mexico. There are a few sites to reserve, but they are filled. We are hoping to luck into a first come-first serve site by arriving early.

Today Greg left for a bike ride. He'll ride down the closed boat ramp and head north along the old lake shore and go as far as he can. The wind just kicked up again. His last ride at Lion's Beach brought him back early. He rode along the beach and got sandblasted on his bare legs from the strong wind! As he opened the tailgate of the truck today, which had been left open for a while yesterday evening, something came blasting out. It turned out to be a large roadrunner who had accidentally been closed in and spent the very cold night in the bed of the truck! Just when we get a bit jaded and think we've seen it all out here, something new surprises us!

Big Bend Ranch State Park

January 26-30, 2019

Six years ago we drove the River Road from Presidio to Lajitas along the Rio Grande. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. Our goal was Big Bend National Park and we passed the remote Beg Bend Ranch State Park on the route. It is a huge park barely accessible with a normal vehicle, and it's scattered remote campsites require 4-wheel drive and most need a high clearance vehicle. Not a place we could take the motorhome or the trailer. The national park was closed for this visit, so we did some research and discovered first come-first serve campsites off the River Road, so we thought we would try our luck. Most were designed for tenting or very small rv's or small trailers, but a few were designed for motorhomes or larger trailers.

We traveled south from Alpine and after reaching the town of Study Butte near the entrance to the national park, we turned west to connect with the River Road. In Lajitas we stopped at the state park visitor center. We signed up for one of four sites at the Upper Medera campground just off the River Road and on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande River. Campsites were not assigned, so you chose from whatever was empty. We already knew the two at the end of the road had the best view, so off we went on a twenty minute drive to reach the campground. One of the end ones was empty and we snagged what we thought was probably one of the best campsites in the whole park! It was easily accessible and had an amazing view of the river and the cliffs of Mexico on the other side.

Upper Madera campsite
Bedroom view
The Rio Grande with Mexico's 1,000-foot wall in the background.
The Rio Grande is mostly deep enough to float a canoe

"No Greg, don't even think about it!"

It was dry camping at it's best. We had no hookups, but a quiet site with an amazing view. We did our boondocking best to conserve water, our solar panels were working, and we had enough power to run the heat on occasion if we needed it. We extended our stay to 4 days to enjoy our spot before we felt the urge to dump our tanks and move on.

Purple prickly pear cactus

Looking up the Rio Grande canyon.
One day we decided to explore the rest of the state park and Greg wanted to check out a trail for biking. We met a couple who was volunteering in the park and later talked to a ranger about the possibility of volunteering there next winter. She liked that Greg is a geologist, but it appeared that there wasn't any interpretive work available, just maintenance, which seemed to mean emptying trash cans and painting them and signs. On top of that, the nearest grocery was in Alpine, so figure a close to 200-mile round trip.

We moved on and drove the gravel road into the interior of the huge park. It wasn't too bad, until we drove back a rapidly deteriorating rocky road to try to reach the closest remote campsite near the entrance. Greg wanted to see how bad it was and whether we might be able to get the trailer in. Partway to the site we could see that it was occupied, so we stopped at a small turnoff and tailgated for lunch. It was quiet with a beautiful long range view over to Mexico. After eating, we realized that it was still going to be a long way to the interior visitor center and we hadn't started the trip early enough. Greg was tired of shaking up everything stored in our truck bed, so we turned back.

A cattle guard on the county road to the park interior
This trail to the closest interior campsite was not trailer-friendly!
Stopping for a picnic.

The main park road
A side road to the Arenosa group campsite along the Rio Grande
Looking up the Rio Grande from the top of the "Big Hill"
Our campsite from upriver. Tiny dot on the upper bluff!
The following day we drove the opposite direction on River Road and took a quick drive through the ghost town of Terlingua. After the quicksilver (mercury) mine closed down the town was abandoned and the few buildings were left to become ruins. Gradually adventuresome people returned when they realized they could boondock for free in the warm desert in the winter months. A few funky bars and stores sprung up. When we were there six years ago, it was just a small settlement with people boondocking here and there in the area. Apparently, National Geographic did a telecast on the area and now it has been discovered. There didn't appear to be anywhere to boondock, and lots of new buildings were springing up including vacation rentals and AirBnB listings. We drove on to nearby Study Butte and found a small Mexican restaurant for lunch.

Preparing for a long mountain bike ride up to an abandoned mercury mine.

Back at Upper Madera we spent an evening talking about full-timing with our neighbors on the next campsite. Jodi and Hallie had just started full-timing two months before, and had lots of questions. We enjoyed a fun happy hour sharing our experiences. We'll never be newbies again, but enjoyed being able to share a bit of what we have learned from our 6 ½ years on the road.

Our neighborhood javelina family.

We had one more stop to make before we left Texas, so on January 30th we hitched up and drove east on the River Road back to dump tanks at the visitor center. We took the road north out of Study Butte to Alpine. Arriving at lunchtime we were excited to find CowDog open, so we stopped for a quick dog before driving the 20+ miles north out of Alpine to Ft. Davis.

Reaching Ft. Davis we drove down the short main street, out of town and up the mountain to Davis Mountains State Park. This was a park we stayed in six years ago and we settled in for a short two-night visit. We had hoped to go to a Star Party at the nearby McDonald Observatory, but arrived on the wrong day. We would be leaving too soon. Instead we got up early (for me!) and went back into town for a great breakfast at the old Ft Davis Drugstore where we dined on our last visit. Greg fit in a tough bike ride and by February 1st we were finally back on the road, leaving Texas and heading for New Mexico!
Heading for Fort Davis

 Davis Mountains State Park Campsite