Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Bend Parks & Recreation

Our fourth and final national park visit of 2016 took place over the Thanksgiving break.  As we do most Thanksgivings, David and I found ourselves organizing a non-traditional holiday.  This year, we decided on a road trip to West Texas to spend time in Big Bend National Park and Marfa.

We left early Saturday morning and drove nearly eight hours to Lajitas, a small resort town along the Rio Grande nestled between Big Bend State Park and Big Bend National Park.  The trip was beautiful – we don’t get a lot of colorful fall leaves in Texas, but the tall grass along the highway was starting to turn a dark shade of purple, and we were careful to watch out for the herds of deer on the side of the road.

When we arrived, we had dinner at the resort’s Tex-Mex cantina, and then checked into our room at the Cavalry Post.  The post was established in the early 1900s for Texas rangers stationed in Lajitas protecting US citizens from raiders like Pancho Villa’s gang.  Today, it consists of hotel rooms filled with rustic furniture surrounding a cozy fireplace.  I kicked off my cowgirl boots and we turned in for the night.

On Sunday morning, we grabbed cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast at Licha’s Bakery at the hotel, and then headed to the General Store down the road to pick up a couple of boxed lunches, since we planned to eat in the park while hiking. 

The General Store is also home to Lajita’s mayor, Clay Henry.  Clay Henry is no ordinary mayor … in fact, he’s a beer-drinking goat!  Clay and his friends were hanging out, having their breakfast, when we pulled up to say hello and pick up our food.

We dodged countless roadrunners as we drove through Big Bend to Santa Elena Canyon.  This area of the park is one of the most visited, and the hike was an easy two miles roundtrip.  It offered spectacular views of the canyon and mountains in the background. 

From there, we made the mistake of taking the Old Maverick Road along the Terlingua Creek badlands.  The dirt road is only fourteen miles long, but it was a rough ride my poor Altima was not prepared for.  We were very relieved to finally see pavement after driving for an hour on the Old Maverick! 

Big Bend is divided into two geographic areas … the dry desert and the lush mountains further north.  There are great hiking options in both, so we decided to try out a bit of each on Sunday and again on Monday. 

After fuelling up on sandwiches from our boxed lunches, David and I started our mountain trek to ‘The Window,’ a pour-off that offers panoramic views of the desert below.  The trailhead starts at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, and is six miles roundtrip.  We planned on using all afternoon for the hike, and then having dinner at the lodge once finished. 

We descended into the Oak Creek Canyon, leaving behind cacti for tall trees and steps carved out of rocky creek beds.  At one point along our walk, David suddenly stopped and pointed ahead.  There was a doe in the woods just in front of us.  She came closer, and crossed the path directly ahead of us.  We stayed still, and were rewarded for our patience when her fawn followed a few moments later. 

David and I had read about the wildlife in the park before our trip, and knew that there were deer, roadrunners, mountain lions, and bears.  Because of the mild climate, Big Bend’s black bears do not hibernate, so they can be spotted year-round.  We were crossing our fingers that we’d see at least one, whose story is remarkable …

In the early 1900s, Big Bend was full of black bears.  But by the time the park was established in 1944, they had been nearly wiped out by hunters and ranchers, or moved out of the area due to loss of habitat.  Then sometime in the 1980s, a female bear and her cubs made the journey from Northern Mexico into Big Bend.  They probably encountered a lone male, and now there are approximately 20 black bears living in the Chisos Mountains.  The black bear’s re-emergence into the park is incredibly rare, as once a large animal has been eliminated, it is almost unheard of for them to return on their own without human intervention.

After our dinner at the lodge, David and I were driving down the mountain when I saw a tiny black spec ahead on the road.  I slowed down the car and cautiously approached, hoping that I saw what I thought I saw.  And it was!  A small bear cub was crossing the road in front of us!  We watched him scurry across the street and into the woods.  David had heard that there was a mother with three cubs recently spotted in the mountains, so we waited for the rest of the family to make an appearance.  Luckily, we were the only ones on the road at that time of night, so I just pulled over slightly and dimmed my lights.

Sure enough, a few minutes later another bear cub scrambled over the retaining wall on the right side of the road and then walked over to his brother waiting in the woods.  And a second after that, the third and final cub showed up! 

The next day, we saw a group of cars parked along the side of the road right where we’d seen the cubs the night before.  When we pulled over, we realized everyone was stopped to watch an adult black bear climb the ridge above us.  That was our fourth bear spotting!  We ended up seeing more bears in West Texas than we had in Yellowstone a month earlier!

On Sunday, after our final bear encounter, we did two more hikes.  The first was a two-mile loop along the Grapevine Hills Trail to the balanced rocks.  The beginning part of the trail was an easy stroll along flat ground, but the last quarter-mile was a more difficult scramble on the boulders.  But it was nothing we couldn’t handle, and we had fun climbing around the rocks and taking pictures.

Our last excursion before heading to Marfa that evening was the trek along Chimneys Trail.  The chimneys are a series of volcanic rock formations.  The desert trail is five miles roundtrip, and even though it was late in the afternoon, we figured we’d make it back before sunset. 

We hurried along the path with the chimneys looming ahead of us.  After an hour, we’d made it to the arch!  We began to look for the petroglyphs we’d read Native Americans carved into the rock.  We had no idea where they were, so we left no stone unturned (literally) in our search. 

Just as we were about to give up, David spotted them!  They had been in plain view along a huge rock face next to the trail the whole time.  We snapped some pictures, and then got the heck out of there, as it was beginning to get dark.  We made it back to the car just as the sun set. 

That night, we drove to Marfa, a sleepy, one-stoplight desert town.  Imagine the setting for No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, and that is Marfa.  (No, really, it is … both movies were filmed there.)

Recently, Marfa has become ‘the’ destination for American and international artists, designers, and restaurateurs.  It has exploded in popularity, and every weekend, people flock to the town to eat, shop, and view.

David and I stayed at the historic Hotel Paisano.  In 1955, Warner Brothers made the hotel its headquarters for the filming of Giant.  James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Paisano for a number of weeks, before moving to private residences for the duration of the filming. 

Because we were in Marfa on a Tuesday, and not over the weekend, many of the galleries were closed.  We made the most of our day-trip, though.  After having breakfast at Squeeze across from the courthouse, we drove past the Chinati Foundation, a former army barracks converted into a world-class museum by contemporary artist Donald Judd.  The museum was closed, but we were able to see the cube sculptures in the fields.

We continued to drive, and drive and drive.  About thirty miles outside Marfa, along Highway 90, is the famous Prada Marfa sculpture.

Once back in town, we stopped by the Marfa Book Company and picked up lunch across the street at The Get Go.  For dinner that evening, we ate at Cochineal, known for its simple, elegant food.  The menu changes weekly, if not daily.  That night, we had steak frites.  

It was a clear night, so after dinner, we bundled up and headed to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center to see the unexplained phenomena.  The lights were very active on Tuesday night, and we spent a good hour watching them appear, and disappear.  They sometimes changed colors and moved erratically.  Whether they were really UFOs or just headlights of distant cars, we’ll never know. ;)    

On Wednesday morning, before our long drive back to Austin, we stopped at Marfa Burrito for some breakfast burritos.  These were not the average breakfast tacos we were used to in Austin.  These were huge burritos meant to sustain us throughout the day! 

Apparently celebrities visiting Marfa can’t get enough, because there were multiple pictures of Matthew McConaughey and the owner, Ramona, all over the small dining room.  Marfa Burrito is a family-run establishment, and everyone inside welcomed us like family.  They offered us free coffee, and explained which salsas were spicy vs very spicy.  Most of the patrons seemed to know each other, and when we were getting back into our car to leave, we noticed all of the cars around us were still running (with no one inside them).

With all of the changes lately, Marfa is still the kind of small town where people leave their doors unlocked, and make time to catch up with their neighbors over their morning coffee and breakfast burritos.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Mile High City

A week after we visited Wyoming, David and I were back in the air and headed to Denver.

David traveled non-stop last fall for work, and I tagged along as much as possible. Because my birthday fell on the same dates as his Denver trip, we decided to celebrate together in Colorado.

David arrived in the Mile High City earlier in the week, but I had to be in the office for meetings, so I flew in on Thursday evening after work.  David picked me up from the airport in the rental car and we headed to dinner.

I’d read up on Denver’s best eats beforehand, and was craving a burrito from El Taco de Mexico when I landed.  El Taco is a hole-in-the-wall in downtown Denver known for its cheap burritos.  The green chile smothered pork burrito is its best seller, so for only $6, I stuffed myself full of marinated pork, cheese, and green chile sauce.  The taqueria definitely lived up to all the hype. 

On Friday, David and I worked remotely from our hotel next to the Denver Convention Center.  It was such a beautiful day outside that we decided to have brunch on the patio of the nearby Denver Biscuit Company.  The DBC was started after the success of Denver’s first gourmet food truck, the Biscuit Bus.  The owners decided to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant off Colfax Avenue, once dubbed ‘the longest, wickedest street in America’ by Hugh Hefner.

The weather was perfect.  I had packed mostly sweaters, thinking it would be chilly in the mountains in October, but Colorado was experiencing an Indian Summer.  As we sat outside, sipping sweet tea, and waiting for our meal, the family next to us exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe we’re eating outside in shorts in October!’  They were so happy.  We had to laugh because back in Texas, everyone is in shorts, enjoying the great outdoors through December

Meanwhile, our biscuits arrived!

I ordered the crowd favorite, the Franklin, with buttermilk fried chicken, bacon, and cheddar smothered in sausage gravy.  David opted for the DBC Club, which was a lot like mine but stacked with lettuce, tomato, and chipotle ranch instead of gravy.

Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel and worked for the rest of the afternoon.  And I managed to make a quick trip downstairs to the gym before my birthday dinner at Acorn.

This contemporary American restaurant is located inside the Source in Denver’s River North District.  The Source is a reclaimed foundry from the 1880’s, converted into a gourmet market full of restaurants and epicurean retailers.  Acorn was named one of America’s Top 50 New Restaurants by Bon Appetit magazine in 2014. 

The menu changes weekly, and features sharing plates.  Of course, we ordered way too much.  Our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs, especially after eating those giant biscuits earlier in the day.  But we wanted to try a lot of different options, so we went with the fried pickles with green goddess aioli, the kale and apple salad with candied almonds (which was one of my favourite dishes of the night!), the tomato braised meatballs, and Mediterranean mezze platter.  And then I had to order a cocktail and dessert.  It was my birthday, after all.

On Saturday, David and I visited Estes Park for Elk Fest.

Before leaving town, we stopped at Habit Doughnut Dispensary for some delicious, creatively-flavoured doughnuts and coffee.  After satisfying my sweet tooth, we started our two-hour scenic drive along Colorado’s Fall Foliage route from Denver to Estes Park.

We drove from Denver to Golden, then north to the quaint mountain village of Nederland. 

There, we stopped for lunch at an Italian deli.  We took our sandwiches to-go and parked at an overlook to eat, taking in the breath-taking scenery of snow-capped mountains and lush, green valleys dotted with bright yellow Aspen trees.

When we arrived in Estes Park, we were greeted by dozens of elk.  It’s funny that we’d never seen an elk before visiting Wyoming, and within two weeks, we saw hundreds across Wyoming and Colorado.

It was still rutting season, so the males were loudly calling out to the females.  And just like in Yellowstone, they preferred the manicured lawns and perfect turf of the local golf course.

On the drive across Colorado, we listened to the UT/OU football game on the radio.  I warned David that we were going to turn it off if it was going to put him in a bad mood, so imagine my surprise when we turned on the game during the second quarter to discover that we were winning!  We arrived in Estes Park just as the Longhorns clenched their victory over the Sooners!

Even though I wasn’t in Texas, I still had to show my school spirit with my Longhorn shirt and horns up!

After we walked through town, admiring the elk, we visited the Stanley Hotel.  This historic hotel hosted a very special guest back in 1974 … Stephen King!  King and his wife were the only people at the hotel that night.  After being served dinner in the empty dining room, they went to bed in Room 217.  Stephen had a dream that night that inspired his famous book, ‘The Shining.’

Because it was October and the Stanley is known for its eerie association with ‘The Shining,’ the hotel was preparing for its annual Halloween Masquerade Ball.  It would be so fun one day to stay there and attend the ball.  Guests lucky enough to stay in Room 217 are gifted with a copy of the book, and can watch ‘The Shining’ on a continuous loop via the hotel’s creepiest movie channel.

We escaped from the Stanley and drove just a short distance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  This was the year of National Parks for David and me.  After visiting two in Wyoming, we came away with an annual park pass that allowed free access to all national parks across the US for a year.  (We felt very special as we skipped ahead to the ‘VIP line’ and presented our passes.)

We discovered this grove of Aspens just inside the entrance to the park

We parked at the trailhead to Bear Lake.  The looped trail is only about a mile, so it’s accessible to everyone, making it one of the park’s most popular attractions.  We arrived late in the afternoon, but found plenty of available parking as people were beginning to leave.

Although the lake is named Bear Lake, a black bear siting in the Rockies is very rare, as there are only about 30 bears known to inhabit the park.  Grizzlies were wiped out by hunters and no longer reside anywhere in Colorado.  We didn’t know this at the time, so as we decided to hike deeper into the woods, I felt very unprepared without our trusty bear spray.  I proceeded to talk David’s ear off to make as much noise as possible, so we wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon a bear and spook it.

Starting our walk in the woods...

We wanted to extend our time in the park, so we decided to hike from Bear Lake to Bierstadt Lake, three miles away.  Then we got a little lost and ended up hiking another two miles to the shuttle parking lot instead of back to the trailhead parking lot.  Altogether, I think we hiked over six miles that afternoon! 

I began to panic a little, hoping we would make it back in time before it got too dark.  I didn’t want to be alone in the woods at night, but then we met a nice couple that showed us the way, and offered to give us a ride in their car if the shuttle was no longer running.  When we arrived, there were other groups waiting at the bus stop, so we thanked them for their offer and waved goodbye. 

The shuttle dropped us at our car just as the sun was beginning to set  

We drove back through Estes Park and then opted for the faster route to Denver on the freeway.  We didn’t want to be driving through winding mountain roads in the dark after a long day.

On the way back to the hotel, we grabbed a quick dinner at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs. 

The owner, Jim, was a repo man who ditched his job to make hot dogs for a living.  I ordered the elk jalapeno cheddar dog with the ‘classic’ cream cheese / caramelized onion topping.  It was really good, but I felt a little sadistic eating elk after observing them up-close-and-personal earlier in the day.  After a few bites, I gave up and finished our vegetarian sides of biker baked beans and fried mac and cheese instead.

By Sunday morning, I was hungry.  After checking out of the hotel, we had breakfast at Rosenberg’s Bagels.  While we waited for our food, we watched the employees make bagels.  It was crazy how fast they could spin them into shape.  The bagels were delicious and satisfying.  We were fuelled up and ready for another hike.

We drove to Littleton, about 30 miles outside Denver, to visit Roxborough State Park.  This park reminded me of the red rocks I’d visited on a trip to Colorado when I was younger.  But unlike Garden of the Gods or Red Rock Amphitheatre, visitors are not allowed to climb on the rocks at Roxborough.

Instead, David and I did a quick two mile hike through the park, admiring the rock formations that interrupted the landscape.  From there, we drove to the airport and flew home.

I had a great birthday weekend!  I love that I was able to celebrate the start of my early thirties in beautiful Colorado with my adventurous husband.

Happy birthday to me!