Saturday, November 28, 2015

Wolf Mountain Trail at Pedernales Falls State Park

To most people, yesterday was Black Friday, a consumerist holiday that it seems like nearly every American store in existence participates in. Even pet stores have Black Friday sales. I remember all of our efforts at Petsmart while I worked there, getting hyped up about how great our sales would be. We would spend hours merchandising and getting things ready only to be sorely disappointed by sales by the end of the day. My attitude toward this tradition and toward consumerism in general has changed a lot since then.

I had been quite happy to see so many nationwide retail outlets not open on Thanksgiving. I was even more appreciative when other retailers announced that they would be closed on the day after. One of our favorites, REI, was one such store. Last year, Chris and I spent our day after Thanksgiving hiking in Bastrop. This year, REI encouraged their employees and members to do the same thing with a campaign called #OptOutside. We were already planning on visiting a state park anyway, so we were happy to participate as well.

The last time the two of us visited Pedernales Falls State Park was before I started this blog! Just a few months before our wedding. The weather had been quite different; it had been warm and fairly dry. In fact, the falls weren't much in the way of falls at all. Most recently, our trek was accompanied by a lot of rain!

The Wolf Mountain Trail is approximately 7 miles, winding around both Wolf and Tobacco mountains. It is considered "challenging" but after completing it I would consider it challenging in a few areas only. Two or three switchbacks are considerably rocky. There are a number of creeks to cross and wet feet to be had, but if that's challenging to you then yes, the trail is challenging.

The weather brought rain the day before. Before leaving the house, I checked with the park via Facebook to see if any of the trails were closed due to weather. They responded very quickly and with certainty that they were safe, but closed to horses.

Other travelers recommended this trail for its vistas. We found only a few spots where the horizon was clear enough to see anything. As far as the foliage during this time of year, Balcones Canyonlands has this trail beat. The colors here were still pleasing to the eye, but not great for leaf-peeping.

At one portion of the trail you will encounter a historic structure and artifacts. The bent nails are especially cool! And look, purple glass!

It was at this meadow filled with tall grass and yellow flowers that we felt the frigid breeze of a cold front moving in. So chilly it surprised me enough to gasp. I had never felt anything like it; walking along at 70 degrees only to have a chill wind whip around you face and arms.

Expecting rain shortly, we donned our waterproof jackets. Also, expecting our canine companion (poodle child) to disapprove of inclement weather, I fashioned a sling with which to carry him. He spent the rest of the trip like this, even when the rain ceased. I offered to let him walk again and he refused.

By the time we got back to the car the temperature had dropped to 53 degrees. On the way home it dropped even further into the 40s. Also, the dog was the warmest and driest of all three of us. In fact, aside from his head and face he was 100% dry. You're welcome, Rusty.

I just love the color of fallen leaves.

I like them enough to get my feet wet for a good shot.

And having a family of wary deer wandering around us was pretty cool, too.

To access the trail visitors pay an entrance fee of $6 each. Primitive campsites can be found along Wolf Mountain Trail, too, and reservations can be made online through the park website. Maps are provided at the ranger station, but if you want to print or download your own you can do so with this PDF or KMZ file for GIS devices. For data on our personal experience, visit my AllTrails record. It provides details like distance, speed, and elevation, though it is not 100% accurate.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Chris and I had a wonderful time today hiking a loop of trails at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The area we ventured to is called Doeskin Ranch. While the refuge has a number of trails that are smaller in size, we opted to take portions of each trail and essentially travel a large loop around the area.

Doeskin Ranch Trailhead
Approximately 45 minutes from Austin, it is easy to get to. We didn't even use the GPS, just maps. Signs direct you to where you need to go. Very user friendly. Though the parking lot is a little small! Be sure to pick up a Doeskin Ranch Creek Trail self-guided tour brochure. There are nine numbered spots along the trail that you can view with corresponding educational information.

Stop #1: Who's Home?

We began at the Creek Trail, heading left and then south along the creek. The video at the start of this post features footage from that trail. Pictured above, this was once the home of settlers. Nature has since retaken it!

On the Indiangrass Trail
Though Texas isn't necessarily known for hikes with varying elevation, the two of us were pleasantly surprised by the rocky hills. There were a few moments when we needed to catch our breath after an ascent. 

Texas Foliage

While we encountered a few families and couples on the trail it seems like the refuge is not widely known. But the individuals we did encounter seemed just as thrilled with their experiences as we were.

Another Fossil

The highlight of the experience was, by far, discovering fossils on the Indiangrass Trail. Neither of us expected it. To be fair, they are literally everywhere along the southern most region of the trail. They are a lot different looking than the fossils I got to dig up while living in West Virginia, but still incredibly cool nonetheless. These fossils in particular appear to belong to clam- or mussel-like creatures. Be sure to check them out if you find them, but you are not allowed to remove them according to the rules and regulations of the park.

Tangled Up Wood (Indiangrass Trail)
Indiangrass Trail Panorama
Rimrock Trail Panorama

Overall, the two of us absolutely adored this park. The November weather was an added bonus. We also prepared by layering our clothing. I began with a windproof jacket but as we climbed and the temps warmed, I no longer needed it.

Creek Trail View

Creek Trail Foliage
Creek Trail Rolling Water
Yet More Creek Trail Water!

If you're able to, I highly recommend walking the loop that we did. Essentially, begin by taking the left side of the Creek Trail. Then, continue to take to the left of each junction until on the Rimrock Trail you see a sign to return to the parking lot. For a map to the exact trail we took, click here to go to Chris's Alltrails record. You can also print a map provided by the park by clicking here.

Eleven AM Sunlight With Foliage
Entering the Creek Trail

I should mention that while parking is limited there is no charge for admission. The trails are open from sunrise to sunset and seven days a week. During weekdays, the Refuge Headquarters is open from 8:00AM to 4:30PM. It provides additional resources like brochures and checklists.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hiking the Violet Crown Trail

Austin recently opened a new portion of the Violet Crown, a trail which winds along through the Austin Greenbelt. A couple of weeks ago, Chris and I visited for the first time. 

Visitors should note that the new trailhead does not have its own parking lot. You're advised to park at a nearby shopping plaza. Get directions to 4970 W Hwy 290 and park in the Spec's lot close to the frontage road. The trailhead is just slightly east from there on foot.

This is what the entrance looks like. You can just barely see it from the frontage road.

You're welcomed by a switchback just past the entrance. The trail is well shaded and quite woodsy.

Near the 4.5 mile marker you'll find an intriguing cave to look at.

The terrain is on the rocky side but the beautiful bluffs give you something to look at as you slowly make your way over the sometimes jagged rocks.

Even though the trail winds through an area of the city that is quite populated, you will still encounter flora and fauna. I particularly enjoyed this plant, whatever it is.

According to Foraging Texas (one of my favorite blogs) these little purple gems are called American Beautyberry. They are technically edible but can cause stomach upset to some. The author recommends only having a few at a time... I think I'll pass. Oh, they also repel mosquitos.

If you hike this portion of the trail to the Loop 360 trailhead and back you will have gone approximately 3 miles. Our mileage trackers estimated just over 4. You can continue onward and follow the trail all the way to Zilker Park.

One week after our first hike on the trail, Chris and I returned where we left off. We parked at the Loop 360 Greenbelt trailhead and hiked until halfway between the Campbell's Hole access point and the end at Zilker Park. I didn't take photos this time, but I did shoot video. So, if you'd like a tour of that portion you can watch that below, or open it in a new window by clicking here.

First time visitors should note that the trail is not well marked. You can and probably will get turned around on your first trip. There are usually so many people there, though, someone more experienced can give you directions back to your destination.

Unfortunately, Google has not been updated with the newest portion of the trail. I created a map to give an approximation of the route the trail consists of, for those who are curious!

The two of us have been increasing our miles each week to work up toward a trip to Big Bend in the spring. We haven't decided where to go to next weekend but we may have to venture outside of Austin to find an area that meets our distance requirements. Until then, 'ta!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

White Sands National Monument

Chris walked in the footsteps of an earlier traveler until we reached quite the scenic view!

We're quickly coming up on our first wedding anniversary! October 12th! Eek! When I first started this blog I had a feeling I wouldn't be updating it as much as I'd like. I never expected, however, for it to take a year to finally finish writing about our honeymoon. I should have known better, but it is what it is.

While Chris and I are adventurous types we are also the kind of folks who depend on steady jobs in order to pay our bills. Traveling isn't something we can afford to do as often as the two of us would actually prefer. Especially considering the heat of Texas summers. But we're coming to the end of the 100 degree months soon enough. Labor Day weekend will be our first excursion since the spring.

Actually, we just returned from REI where we purchased a couple of self-inflating mats to use under our sleeping bags. They're on the heavy side compared to higher priced items but man, did they feel comfortable in the store! I'm really excited about using them for our mini camping trip.

But I digress.

New Mexico! White Sands! Nowhere else have I stood foot and felt like I were on another planet. The White Sands National Monument is home to over 275 square miles of gypsum dunes. It is also home to many flora and fauna including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, which seems surprising considering how desolate the place seems to be.

In similar fashion to our visit to Bandelier, we searched along the trails and dunes for lizards and spiders but did not find any ourselves.

White and blue for as far as the eye can see.

Just lots of humans!

The park has designated camping areas and plenty of space to roam. You can even sand board with the right equipment.

Photographing the dunes can be challenging. My advice is to focus on texture rather than expanse. Take pictures of tracks, waves, and people. You can also try your hand at some sunset shots. The park offers a sunset stroll for those interested!

Accommodations can be found in Alamogordo! Other area attractions include the Museum of Space History (a post on it is upcoming). The area is also known for producing pistachios. Gift shops with large bags of the little green nuts are readily available!

You should also note that if you visit during colder months you should still expect it to be warmer at White Sands than in surrounding areas. It is a desert and the white color of the gypsum reflects light extremely well. So if you plan on spending more than a few minutes at a time on the sand, be sure to use sunscreen all over!

Gypsum dunes, traversed and otherwise.
My favorite part was definitely listening to the crunchy sound of the "sand" beneath our feet. It's actually crystals, and when the wind blows they scrape against each other. That is why it appears white in the light.

White Sands National Monument is open year-round except on Christmas and during unexpected park closures. Hours vary depending on the time of year, so it's best to consult their website prior to your visit for details specific to your trip!

There are only three more stops along our honeymoon trail! Stay tuned for our write-ups for the Museum of Space History, Carlsbad Caverns, and McDonald Observatory. Hopefully online before October 12th! Hahaha.

Take care!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Very Large Array (Or Visiting the VLA)

Even though many months have passed since our final day in New Mexico, I still recall the events of our visit to the Very Large Array. When we last left you, Chris and I had spent the evening staring into space (literally) at an Earthship rental in Taos, New Mexico. When we awoke the next morning we packed the car and headed south. Our schedule did not permit us to see any sights while in Taos (very unfortunate) but we drove through the town on the way out of dodge. It seems like a neat place. Maybe on our next visit we'll squeeze in some sightseeing there.

We left mid to late morning in order to stop in Albuquerque to have lunch at the Loving Vegan restaurant. Traveling throughout the Land of Enchantment ended up being a little challenging for we two vegans but the Loving Vegan was simply amazing. I had never had such excellent Asian food even prior to going vegan. I'll be sharing a more depth analysis in another post, however, devoted to food and not to the VLA.

As soon as our bellies were filled with yummy Asian food, our journey continued. We spent approximately 5 hours on the road between Toas, Albuquerque, and Socorro. There does stand a gift shop and visitor center at the Very Large Array. I believe our arrival occurred between 3 and 4, and the center admits its last visitor at 4 o'clock. I recall a minor panic as we drove down the isolated road toward the VLA. Chris adores everything related to space and astronomy. She had been determined to purchase a souvenier and if we had pulled up with the doors closed I can imagine how horrible a day that would have been. But we were in luck! In fact, there were so many visitors that the lovely ladies running the registers kept the shop open for nearly the whole time we were there.

Once our purchases were made, Chris and I headed out on our self-guided tour. We made it just a few paces when I felt something in my pants leg. Then I had a sharp pain in my buttocks! I trotted back to the restroom as discreetly as possible. In my stall I discovered a squished bee in my jeans. I guess I smacked it pretty good when it bit me... Right in the bum.

Now that that crisis was taken care of, we continued on our self-guided tour.

Playing with parabolas
A sort of greeting and educational area is set up at the beginning of the tour. Visitors will encounter a sundial in the shape of a telescope and a set of parabolas to communicate with, which are very fun. Essentially, you can whisper into one and hear it loud and clear in another. We nerded out a considerable amount over them! Even to the point of discussing whether or not to construct some in our backyard if we ever have a house.

As you wind your way along the gravel paths, it is difficult not to be impressed with the immensity of the dishes towering over you. See the image below for some perspective!

Those are some big dishes!

I tested my steadiness and managed to compose three great panoramas without my tripod. Here's my favorite.

The Very Large Array (VLA)
It was an educational trip. To summarize, the purpose of the VLA is as follows:

"Astronomers using the VLA have made key observations of black holes and protoplanetary disks around young stars, discovered magnetic filaments and traced complex gas motions at the Milky Way's center, probed the Universe's cosmological parameters, and provided new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emission."

This is according to Wikipedia

You may also recognize the site from any number of films including Contact and Independence Day.

I have read that some visitors are lucky enough to witness the dishes moving during their time there. Alas, for us, this did not occur.

Oh, be sure to explore the whole site. You can get a great view from one of the buildings on the second story landing.

If you're a prospective visitor please realize that cameras are allowed but cell phones are not. As mentioned before, the center is open daily until 4pm for self-guided tours but is closed on some holidays. Guided tours also take place on weekends. Presently, tickets for adults are $6. For more information, visit the website here. Also, if you're unable to visit in person or simply want to know more before going, you can partake of a virtual tour by clicking here!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Our Night In An Earthship

When Chris and I first started planning our wedding one of the first things we did regarding the honeymoon was book one night in an Earthship in Taos, New Mexico. Chris's coworker mentioned it to her. We took a look at the Earthship Biotecture website and made our reservation about two months into planning our trip. Yes, we were THAT excited about it.

I have been a huge nerd for Earthships since I was a teenager. Truth be told, I spent my summer vacation at age 16 researching eco-friendly things at the library (we did not have access to the internet at home that year). I learned all about electric cars, sustainable building methods, and conservation practices that you can use in day-to-day life. I fell in love with Earthships at a young age and you bet your sweet bippy I was going to spend the night in one if I could.

The Earthship village we stayed in

Getting to Taos from Puye had been difficult. Our GPS and phones gave us two completely different sets of instructions. We opted to follow those provided by Google, which ended up being a huge mistake. The maps app directed our 2003 Volkswagen Jetta through the Rio Grande Gorge until we began climbing a dirt road up a mountain. That's when Chris said, "No way, Jose." We turned around and added an hour to our drive in the process. Note to travelers, don't do what we did.

Check-in time for the Earthship should have been before 4pm. Due to poor satellite reception, we weren't able to get in touch with anyone at the facility until after the check-in time had passed. The two of us were having panic attacks in the process. Thankfully, the girl responsible for taking the reservations assured us that we could still stay the night when we finally got someone on the phone. We managed to get to the visitors center before 5pm and were escorted to our Earthship shortly thereafter.

The Lemuria Earthship, where we stayed the night
Our original plan had us visiting a natural grocery store in Taos for dinner-making supplies. After the nerve-wracking trek to the Earthship, though, we opted to eat what we had leftover from the wedding and to just spend the night relaxing.

We took so many pictures of the Earthship.

The greenhouse ran alongside the living quarters
Never had I been inside a more beautiful yet small abode.

The bedroom. Small but so cozy!
And it was SO QUIET inside.

All of the homes in the neighborhood were Earthships, too. Residences. With hopping rabbits between them and vast expanses of blue sky above them.

Direct view from the front
One of Chris's goals for our honeymoon was to see the Milky Way with her naked eye. New Mexico is one of a few gateways the world has to the rest of the galaxy. That's how it feels, anyway. It's rich in space history, and it does offer views of the Milky Way. At the Earthship colony, stars began popping out to see us as soon as darkness fell. I attempted to photograph them with my camera using the longest exposure setting I had, but not much came of that.

After a couple of hours outside admiring the universe, Chris and I relocated to the indoors. I had had a wonderful time listening to her ooh and ahh over the planets and other celestial objects she was seeing with her eye, binoculars, telescope, etc. Her happiness is my happiness! But even in October the nights in New Mexico can be freezing. When it came time to go inside, we happily discovered that our rental came complete with informative books on Earthship Biotecture and DVDs about building them. I remember watching them and feeling inspired to one day build our own. I did, however, have a bottle of wine that night so all of the details are a bit sketchy.

When I say "bottle" I mean like two glasses... Maybe. Anyway!

Watching architect Michael Reynolds discuss his designs and inspiration behind Earthships had us convinced that we needed to start saving to build our own. If money were no object, we concluded that it would be the best option for us. Realistically, though, as we are neither rich nor contractors, an Earthship is not likely in our future. It was really fun to dream about it while staying in one, though.

If you'd like the chance to do the same, visit the website and take a look at the models available to rent. Many are pet-friendly. If you can't make up your mind, one of the people who takes reservations over the phone can assist you. She chose the right one for us!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Puye Cliff Dwellings

While Bandelier National Monument was relaxing and inviting, Chris and I were most definitely interested in additional exploration when it came to cliff dwellings and New Mexico's historic sites. Our schedule permitted us one destination on Tuesday. We could choose to visit the Taos Pueblo or Puye Cliff Dwellings. Although the Pueblo is supposed to be pretty spectacular, Chris and I are wary of crowds. The Taos Pueblo is a very popular place. Although it's filled with authentic Native American artisans and craftspeople, she and I felt more like we wanted a one on one experience doing something a little more exciting than shopping.

Puye is beautiful. A Pueblo guide provides an intimate tour throughout the site. What I enjoyed most about it is that her experiences were firsthand. She is a direct descendant of the individuals who used to inhabit the cliff dwellings and her knowledge about the area was not only complete but also genuine. In fact, the people who used to live at the site now live approximately 10 miles away.

This was, by far, the most adventurous tourist destination I've visited. Unlike at Bandelier, the ladders for climbing the cliffs are tall. There were several instances during which I felt like one slip of a foot and I'd fall to my death. In retrospect, I'm surprised we weren't asked to sign a waiver before we headed out...

The views are incredible here!

Our guide shared a lot of stories about local flora and fauna. She told us about how the 1,500 Pueblo People  who used to live there had kept turkeys as pets. The children were responsible for walking the turkeys everyday. Okay, so maybe they were also kept to make blankets from their feathers and for the occasional meal, but it made me really want a turkey of my own. Hahaha.

At the Mesa Top we were treated with a panoramic view.

Ruins of the pueblo are found there, as well as those of a keva. Visitors are not allowed to photograph the keva for spiritual reasons. We were, however, allowed inside. We climbed down a ladder into the cool, dark room. It felt refreshing to be out of the sun, even if it smelled dusty inside. Our guide told us about how kevas are used for ceremonies and rituals.

The majority of folks at the Mesa Top had taken the bus instead of the hike through the trails. None of them seemed very adventurous, and I think for the most part they spent about 15 minutes asking questions, taking pictures, and looking dumbfounded that anyone would be able to live at such a high elevation with such primitive resources. Let's just say they didn't seem like the type of folks that would go camping!

What's left of the pueblo is majestic and striking.

It's very difficult to describe.

We visited so many incredible places on our honeymoon I've found it impossible to pick a favorite. Suffice it to say, though, Puye is not a location to pass on!

Our long day concluded with a long drive to our next destination, where we spent a night in Taos in an Earthship...