Camping in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat’l Monument for no reason

I feel very fortunate to be able to travel via Airstream as much as I do. But some of the travel isn’t that great, because we are running from one place to another on a schedule. Being on a schedule means skipping interesting roadside sights and enticing state parks because they aren’t convenient for a stop. It means pressure to cover miles, and overnight stays in places that don’t exactly qualify as vacation spots.

The past few years have been filled with too much of that sort of travel, and not enough of the type where we lay back and let the days come to us. So to try to balance things out, I decided to take a trip by myself to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona.

Actually the trip was intended to include my friend Nick, but he got a virus the day before the trip so it became a solo voyage. This was a mental block for a little while because I had anticipated everything for a party of two, and now I would be alone in the Airstream with no real goals or plans. I stopped for a moment to re-evaluate why I was going.

This was an opportunity. I have not taken the Airstream out by myself for “no reason” in many years. Every solo trip I’ve had recently (and there haven’t been many) had some sort of quest as the central point of the trip. This time I’d be hitching have up the Airstream, towing 200 miles, and spending a couple of nights far out in the desert near the Mexico border for no reason other than to relax.

Eleanor loaded the Airstream up with food enough for several days, and we got it all straightened out for travel, and off I went. As I towed down Rt 86 through the Tohono O’odham Reservation and wide open Sonoran Desert, I got a little more cheerful. I was alone in my favorite place in the world (the Airstream) and heading off to adventures that I couldn’t predict.

 

Camped at Organ Pipe’s Twin Peaks campground, $16/nt

 

Fate always seems to hand us a little surprise when we step out of our personal boundaries. In this case I found a story about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that I didn’t see coming.  My friends Bert and Janie Gildart were here and Bert and I decided to go for a drive around the park on some of the backcountry dirt roads, to do some hiking and sightseeing.

You have probably heard about the reputation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Virtually closed for many years because of drug smuggling and illegal immigration, it was considered to be a “dangerous” place. In the years leading up to 2012 most of the park was barred to tourists (except in a few cases where they could go only with armed escorts). Even today people think it’s a war zone down here.

 

The border fence isn’t what keeps people out.

But it’s not.  Not even close. I met the Superintendant, a confident guy with law enforcement background. He talked to a bunch of us campers at the park amphitheater and gave the story from his perspective. The park, he said, was suffering from “lore” but not facts. It also had a dysfunctional relationship with the Border Patrol, who were trying to do their job to protect the border without much cooperation.

Without getting into the long story of how the park was turned around, let’s just fast-forward to today. The park is safe. There are 550 Border Patrol people living just up the road in Ajo, and at any given time there might be about 40 Border Patrol officers traveling around the park in F-150 trucks. There are huge communication and surveillance capabilities, so everyone on the ground can be spotted. (I suggest avoiding romantic encounters out in the desert where “nobody can see us”.)

The Superintendant said we’d be hard-pressed to spot any illegals while we were in the park, and that was true while Bert and I were exploring.  The smugglers don’t want to be seen, and the Border Patrol scoops up most of them anyway. We actually wanted to find some hints of activity, like some of the black plastic water bottles they leave behind, just because we were curious how successful the park has been at suppressing it. We didn’t find much during our 32 mile backcountry drive, until we were right at the border itself–and most of that trash probably just blew over the border.

Instead, we found magnificent cactus forests, delicate desert flowers, hidden springs, abandoned mines and ranches, and blissful solitude. Didn’t see a single other human being for most of the day, until we finally crossed paths with a Border Patrol officer in his truck, who gave us a friendly wave.

A saguaro cactus “forest” in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat’l Monument

 

Bert photographing the senita, a species that only exists north of the border in this place

 

A steel grate is the only thing between you and a 40-foot fall down this mine shaft

 

Desert flowers were just beginning to bloom in late February

The rebirth of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been spectacular. The park is better than we’ve ever known it, and all the campers here have been commenting on it. They’re wondering why more people aren’t here, enjoying the fantastic weather and stunning scenery all winter. So I’m passing it along: Organ Pipe is open and thriving, and you should get here before everyone else figures it out.

For me, I’m reminded that no effort is pointless. I had no preconceptions about coming here, but the National Park supplied me with a purpose and an education anyway. I guess I was wrong when I thought I was coming here for no reason. I just didn’t know what the reason was.

Hitching up the Airstream to go see something always seems to pay off.  This was a trip with no deadlines, no expectations, and no goals, and yet it has been as fulfilling as any other.

Eleanor says I’m not missing much at home right now, so I may as well stay for another quiet and cool desert night. That’s a nice bonus. While I’m here I’ll research a few things to do as a family so we can come back together before the season ends. Organ Pipe may become our winter vacation spot in the future, now that we know it has come back better than ever.

Why you go to Death Valley

Death Valley Stovepipe Wells AirstreamsYou don’t come to Death Valley for the fast Internet.  Or for good cell phone coverage.  This is part of what makes it a rare and peaceful place, because once you arrive there is a moratorium on ringing phones, text messages, social media, and other such distractions.

I’m a big believer in vacations. It’s hard to vacation when email is beckoning and the obligations of work can follow you every step of the way, so I think big western parks like Death Valley should stay “quiet zones” forever—but I’m sure that’s not going to be the case.  Already in most of the remote places of the west there’s some spots of cellular service and so the responsibility is on me to put the phone and laptop away to disconnect for a few days. That takes self-discipline.

To a self-employed person, it feels like shirking.  Being cut off from the Internet is like going without water; you can only do it for a limited time, and gradually things begin to stink. The longer you ignore email and let the voicemails pile up, the more you know you’ll have to deal with later.

I have many friends who work and live full-time in Airstreams, and those people plan ahead carefully to ensure they can get online as they travel. My friend Kyle is one of those people, so for him to tow his Airstream Classic 34 out to the “quiet zone” of Death Valley required getting ahead on work the week before in Pahrump NV, and then formally taking vacation time for the four days we would be camped at Stovepipe Wells in the vast desert.

Death Valley mapYou also don’t come to Death Valley for the high-concept entertainment.  There is little shopping, and no commercial attractions except the lowest elevation golf course in the world. It is a huge, mostly empty place with subtle pleasures: eerie landscapes, tiny animal tracks in the sand dunes, a fragment of human history, abandoned mines and ghost towns, strange salt formations, superlative altitudes (282 feet below sea level and 11,000 feet above), and of course legendary heat in the summer.

Perhaps this is why there was hardly anyone there in January.  You’d think the place would be flooded with visitors from northern states, escaping the gloom and snow for a patch of inexpensive desert sun, but the Stovepipe Wells campground was 90% empty, and we encountered few people during our explorations (except near Furnace Creek, by the Visitor Center and “ranch”).

We have visited Death Valley I think four times over the past decade, and each time we find something different. It’s too big to see in a single visit, even if you stay a week.  Driving from Scotty’s Castle or Ubehebe Crater south to the Devil’s Golf Course (for example) is about 70 miles one way.  It’s easy to do 150 miles a day roaming from one interesting spot to another, and then back to your campsite.

Death Valley Ubehebe CraterNormally we pick Furnace Creek as our campsite because it’s fairly central.  This time we chose Stovepipe Wells just because it seemed like we might do more stuff in the northern part of the park. Scotty’s Castle (a popular historic house) was closed due to flooding, but that still left Ubehebe Crater (pictured at left), the Sand Dunes, Rhyolite ghost town, Leadfield ghost town, and the epic one-way Titus Canyon drive.

Titus Canyon was the big goal for me this time.  Eleanor and I first visited Death Valley in the early 1990s, camping in a tiny “2 man” tent and driving a rental car, and when I spotted Titus Canyon I was desperate to drive it.  There are only two ways to experience Titus Canyon: by driving the entire road from Rhyolite (about 3-4 hours) or by walking uphill from the parking lot.

Alas, we didn’t have time to drive it, so we walked a bit of the lower canyon and put it on the “someday” list, where it remained for over twenty years.  This visit I was determined to make the trip.

Since it’s a one-way road, you have to first exit the national park by driving to Nevada.  This adds a “might as well” stop to the trip: Rhyolite ghost town in Nevada.  There are a few buildings still there, and the most notable are the former train station (which no longer has tracks to it) and the Tom Kelly House (composed mostly of glass bottles).

After a visit to Rhyolite (a quick one since it was rather cold due to higher elevation), we embarked on the Titus Canyon drive.  This drive is best with a high clearance vehicle and you’d better be OK with bumps because the first few miles are a tedious flat slog through the desert on a rocky road.  After that it gets scenic—really scenic.

Death Valley Red Pass Mercedes

It was worth the wait.  Every twist of the road (and there are many of them) revealed a new vista.  We lunched at Red Pass, a spectacular spot high in the mountains, and then slowly worked down to the abandoned mining outpost of Leadfield.

Death Valley Titus Canyon Mercedes

Eventually the road enters narrow Titus Canyon for a couple of miles, which is very cool, and finally pops out into the wide open Death Valley to a small dirt parking lot. There we found a few envious visitors who were staring at the sign that says “one way traffic only”.

So that’s the sort of thing you go to Death Valley for.  Oh, and one other thing … the sunsets.

Death Valley Airstreams at sunset

 

Remembering Big Bend National Park

It wasn’t until we’d arrived and I started flipping through my photo archive on the computer that I realized we haven’t been to Big Bend since 2008. How did seven years go by since our last visit?

This park can’t be “done” in a single visit.  It can’t be described in a single page.  You have to make the trip again and again to really dig into Big Bend.  We’ve been here four times and there’s still so much left to see and do.

This visit we started with a classic: Santa Elena Canyon.  Sheer walls rising 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande, a river ecosystem, and if you go early in the morning you get some spectacular light.  (We didn’t go early … but I remember from a prior trip.) Emma had never been here so it was fun for us to show it to her.

Big Bend Santa Elena canyon Eleanor

After that we hunted up some spots we hadn’t explored before (or didn’t remember), like ruins and views.  You really can’t go wrong in Big Bend. There are no bad spots.

Big Bend Burro Mesa pouroff Rich climbingBig Bend has a special meaning to us.  It’s the place that really kicked it all off for us.  Back in the 1990s a friend in Austin told me about it, and then another friend in Vermont told me more.  Inspired, I planned a trip in March 1997 where Eleanor and I flew out to Midland/Odessa, rented a car, drove for hours and then spent a few nights tent camping at the primitive Paint Gap Hills sites.

That was the year of Comet Hale-Bopp.  We watched it through binoculars and spotted both tails, thanks to the dark skies of Big Bend.  One night a bolide occurred, so bright that we could actually see it through the walls of our tent.  We crossed the Rio Grande to visit the Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen (you could freely cross back then) and eat tacos and drink Mexican Cokes. We soaked in the hot springs and watched the sunsets light up the limestone cliffs each evening.  Everything was unfamiliar, exotic, fascinating.

And this was the experience that hooked us on camping in National Parks.  We have been doing it ever since.  The first half dozen or so we visited with a tent, one or two per year, and after we got the Airstream we picked up the pace.  I don’t have an accurate count but probably we’ve visited over 120 National Parks since, not counting those we’ve visited more than once.  So, thank you Big Bend, for being so magnificent.

Big Bend house ruin view

We spent only three days on this visit, which is hardly anything for a park so large but enough to chill and enjoy a few hikes and special places.  After all the technical challenges and bad weather of the past two weeks it was a great way to spend the last few days of our trip west.  Only a few days remain before we land at home base.  I’m glad we are able to end our trip with a pleasant reminder of how it all began.

Driving to Big Bend National Park

For most of its distance, Texas Route 90 from Del Rio to Marathon is not a drive you would rave about, unless you are into vast empty spaces.  The towns along this route were all former watering stops for the railroad and without steam trains passing through they haven’t had much reason to exist.

Many don’t, and now only the fly-speck of Dryden and the slightly-larger towns of Sanderson and Marathon offer any services at all.  They’re spaced about 50 miles apart, so it’s important to pay attention to your fuel level. Remember, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Big Bend towing AirstreamAt Marathon the signs indicate that it’s not that far to Big Bend National Park, but “not that far” in west Texas terms is 39 miles—and that’s just to the Persimmon Gap Entrance Station.  From there it’s another 26 miles to the center of the park, Panther Junction, and the speed limit drops from the “west Texas sensible speed” of 75 MPH to 45 MPH, so this trip seems endless.  Fortunately the scenery gradually gets more interesting with the craggy Chisos Mountains in the distance and colorful outcrops of rock that are beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.

… which is good, since the sun was setting fast on us at this point.  From Panther Junction to the Cottonwood Campground is about 40 miles and I was somewhat concerned about getting in before it was too dark. We finally dragged in at about 6 pm and there was still enough light in the sky for us to find a nice campsite that wasn’t shaded by cottonwood trees so we could gather solar energy during our stay.

The next morning, we awoke to this:

Big Bend Cottonwood Airstream campsite

Picking a campground at Big Bend is a strategic choice because of the size of the park.  Normally we stay at the Rio Grande Village end of Big Bend because we have a lot of favorite hikes and activities in that area.  This year we wanted to re-visit and show Emma some hikes and spots near Castollon that we haven’t seen since our first visit in 1997.  The driving distance between Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village is about 60 miles.

No matter where you stay in Big Bend there’s a sort of “end of the road” feel.  Unless you are in the Chisos Mountains (and most Airstreamers aren’t because trailers over 20 feet aren’t allowed on the entrance road), you’re probably just a couple hundred feet from the Rio Grande River and Mexico.  There’s no further south that you can drive from here. This is a wonderfully remote park.

We particularly like Cottonwood because it’s a no-hookup campground that doesn’t allow generators or campfires. So it’s blissfully quiet and we can open all the windows at night to let in fresh desert air without being choked by someone’s smoldering mess of an amateur “fire” (usually just a plume of smoke). Instead, we smell sage, creosote bush and desert flowers, and we hear chirping birds and the faint breeze passing through the cottonwood leaves.

No hookups, no dump station, and only a limited amount of potable water means that most campers don’t stay long.  But we love it here, the weather is perfect, and our Airstream is boondock-ready so we opted for three nights.  That’s plenty of time to hike nearby Santa Elena Canyon, the Burro Mesa Pour-Off trail, Tuff Canyon, and visit a few of the historic house ruins.

Keet Seel

We left off yesterday with Brett and me hiking down a dusty road in Navajo National Monument with packs on our back, headed down into the canyons below.

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Our goal was the remote Keet Seel cliff dwelling, reputed to be the most complete and original site of its type in the southwest. The only way to get to it (unless you are a Park Ranger) is to hike nine miles, down 1,000 feet of elevation to the canyon floor and then crossing a meandering stream dozens of times. There is no road other than a rough jeep trail that the Rangers use, and even they have to dismount at a waterfall and hike in the final two miles.

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There are no services available in the canyon, no cellular coverage, not even potable water. You have to bring in everything you need, and pack everything back out again. There are two basic approaches: either bring a tent to spend the night in the primitive campground (basically a few open spots in a forest of oak trees), or do the entire hike as a single-day trip which means you have to complete the entire 18-mile round-trip between sunrise and sundown.

Hiking down into the canyon is of course fairly easy. The trail descends sharply, losing about 700 feet of elevation in just over half a mile. But every step is a reminder that you’ll have to go back up again, and in moderately thin air compared to what most of us are accustomed to: 6,300 to 7,300 feet elevation.

Once at the bottom, there’s a stream. The trail crosses this stream constantly, and for some of the hike it’s easiest just to walk in the water.  We counted on the way back and found that we crossed it 82 times. So we switched from hiking boots to water shoes at this point, and did the remaining 6 miles or so that way.

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The silty river bottom sometimes gets a bit sticky and soft, and there’s even the possibility of quicksand. DSC_4538 It’s not the “Gilligan’s Island” sort of quicksand that looks like cooked oatmeal and sucks in people whole; it’s more like very unstable sand that can take your shoes off if you linger. We ran into a little bit here and there.

The water in the stream is pretty lively with small creatures, insects, and microscopic organisms from upstream pollution (from cattle and horses). So it’s not safe to drink without treatment, and the NPS just tells everyone to bring a gallon of water per person, per day. For us, that meant 32 pounds of water to carry in.

We weren’t psyched by that, and decided to use a Katadyn Vario Pro water filter, followed by a Steripen UV water purifier. This combination cleans the water and sterilizes any microscopic baddies that might have slipped through.  We ended up drinking about 2.5 gallons each of treated river water and it was fine. (Even tasted good, after the charcoal filtration!) The Vario clogged up by the end of the trip, due to a fair amount of sediment in the river.

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We didn’t see a lot of wildlife on the hike. Plenty of birds, one harmless snake, two wild horses, and a few field mice that checked out our tent after sunset.

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You might be getting the idea that the actual cliff dwellings weren’t the entire point of this hike, and you’d be right.  This trip proves once again that it’s more about the journey than the destination. With beautiful blue skies, surrounded by sheer walls of red Navajo sandstone painted with ancient natural varnish, and a stream babbling beneath our feet, the miles of walking passed surprisingly quickly.

When we arrived at the camping area we decided to pitch the tent but leave off the rain fly since the weather was hot and sunny. This turned out to be a minor error, since the ruins of Keet Seel were about a quarter-mile away. We hiked over (now feeling very light with our packs ditched back at camp), knocked on the door of the resident Ranger, and arranged to meet him for our tour. Shortly after, we heard thunder and saw clouds building to the south.

Max the Ranger was very patient. I guess you’d have to be when you are stationed at a lonely outpost for 5 to 8 days at a time, waiting for visitors to drop in. He agreed to delay our tour until I ran down the hill, across the stream (again), up another hill, and into the campsite to put up the rain fly, and then back again. That took about 20 minutes.

Finally we got our tour of Keet Seel. The site has been abandoned since about 1250 AD, but was in use as a “city” for a long time. I don’t want to give away the full story (you could write a book, and I’m sure somebody has), so I’ll just say that of all the cliff dwellings I’ve seen, this is the most complete, original, and artifact-rich one ever.

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You approach the site by climbing a 70-foot ladder. The ladder is modern of course, since the ancient dwellers “closed” this dwelling when they left, leaving a large white fir log symbolically across the entrance. The nearby Hopi, who regard themselves as descendents of the people who lived here, say that someday the people will return to this place.

After climbing the ladder, the dwelling is revealed, complete with homes, courtyards, granaries, pottery, corn cobs, turkey bones, petroglyphs, pictographs, and much more.

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We spent over an hour with Max discussing the site, and it was fascinating. We were the only people to hike the canyon that day, so he wasn’t expecting any other visitors and he wasn’t in a hurry. We explored about half of the ruin (the other half is off-limits due to fragility).

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Since we started early, the hike, camp set up, and tour were all completed by about 3:00 pm. We had the rest of the afternoon to do basically nothing, which was (for both of us) a rare privilege. We were lying in the tent reading paperback books, admiring the view of the nearby cliffs, and listening to the insects buzzing by, when Brett finally said, “Do you know how long it has been since I just read a book outdoors with nothing else to do?”

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The interpretive guides suggest that we should leave behind as much of the modern world as we can when we visit this site, and I agree. Our cell phones would not work, so no one could reach us with problems and questions from the “outside” world. We had nothing to call us away, nowhere to go. It was only an afternoon of enforced relaxation, but it was great and memorable.

The next morning we rose with the dawn and began the long hike back out. The river had declined slightly, since there was no rain overnight, and the temperatures were cool in the shadows of the canyon until late in the morning.

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DSC_4494Like all good trips in my experience, we of course had a minor mishap. Talking as we hiked, we completely missed the turn-off from the river and hiked an additional mile or so down the canyon. Only when we encountered an unexpected waterfall did we realize the mistake. So our return trip ended up being about 10 or 11 miles.

That wasn’t too awful in the big picture, but I have to say that the combination of altitude, heat, and a heavy pack made the 1,000 foot ascent seem much steeper. I ran out of air several times above 6,500 feet and so we stopped frequently to rest, eat energy snacks and drink water.

It’s not an easy hike. It’s not a short one. You’ll spend most of the day wading through water and dodging quicksand. But it was one of the most rewarding hikes I can recall. Instead of the usual mountaintop view, we had a private encounter with a sacred cultural site that is nearly as it was left 800 years ago. You can’t visit a place like that and not have your perspective changed, at least a little bit.

After the hike we collapsed into the Airstream Interstate Grand Tour and fired up the hot water for showers. It took a couple of hours to clean up and re-pack before we were ready to head onward. Our next destination was Farmington, NM, about 150 miles to the east, for the WBCCI International Rally.  I’ll talk about that in the next blog.

(If you want to see more photos from this trip, check out my Flickr album entitled Navajo National Monument.)