In March of 2020 OTR made our first visit toBBNP. Unfortunately, our timing was bad — the Covid Pandemic had finally made its way to Texas and the park closed the gates. We needed to leave the park after just two days.
BBNP was created in 1944 by Congressional Act and signed by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The deed for the park covered 700,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert along the Rio Grande. Today, the park encompasses a little over 800,000 acres.
The park is one of the least visited National Parks, although it had its highest visitation in 2021. We can only surmise why this would be when this park offers so much stunning beauty – the Chiso Massive, desert, canyons and dark sky. There are probably several reasons – its remote location in Far West Texas abutting the Mexican border, the heat for much of the year and a lot of terrain accessible only by very rough roads.
Because we were entering the park from the north we decided to immediately drive the backcountry loop out to see the Dagger Yuca Forest. Fortunately, our timing was perfect— the Yucca were blooming.
From Dagger Flats we needed to secure our permits for camping in the backcountry. Backcountry camping in BBNP requires traversing rough 4WD drive roads and means that you will be on your own and in some cases in a very remote area of the park.
For our first night of camping we selected an area deep in the southeastern area of the park which is the desert floor (1700 feet above sea level). We followed the River Road East to its terminus a few miles north of the Rio Grande; the 25 mile journey took about 2.5 hours (slow going but exciting).
Our journey took us past an abandoned (but still toxic) mercury mine and provided phenomenal views of the Chisos Mouontains. Additionally, we encountered a herd of horses that we thought were feral but later learned are horses from Mexico that wandered across the border.
Our camping perch was a short distance from the Mariscal Mountains so we were able to get an early start hiking in the Mariscal Canyon and avoid the afternoon heat where the temperatures reach 95F this time of year.
We also learned that in addition to horses plenty of cattle from Mexico have found there way across the Rio Grande. When we later asked a ranger about the cattle he indicated that there are over 1000 head of cattle from Mexico in the park.
After our hike we retraced our route back east on the River Road until were back on asphalt and then motored north to drive up through the Chisos and into the Chisos Basin.
After taking in the views of the Chisos from the basin we headed back south to our camping spot for night two. We had another great camping spot in the shadow of the Chillicotal Mountain. From our camping area we had a 360 degree view – the views to the south were of mountains across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
Our campsite at Chilicotal was only about four miles from the Pine Canyon trailhead so we again got an early start to be off the trail before the worst of the heat.
After finishing our hike up into the spectacular Spring Canyon we circled up across the northern section of the park to connect with the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The scenic drive connected us to southwestern area of the parkalong the Rio Grande.
The four photos directly above are the of the Rio Grande. The far shore is Mexico. The canyon in the final photo bottom right is Saint Elena. The left canyon wall is Mexico while the right canyon wall is the United States.
After cooling off in the Rio Grande we connected with the MaverickRoad to head north for our final night of camping at a site nearTerlingua Abaya. Terlingua Abayo is an abandoned town on the banks of Terlingua Creek. The town was at one time a thriving agricultural community supplying produce for local ranchers and miners employed by the Quicksilver mines in the area.The town existed from 1900 until around 1930 when the mines ceased operations.
On day four we traveled north on the Maverick Road to exit the park and make our way north for a two day stay in Alpine. Before heading to Alpine we spent part of the day in Terlingua Ghost Town — home to Espresso Y Poco Mas — our coffee hangout from our previous visit to BBNP.
After completing the final portion of the Trans America Trail we traveled to Clarksdale to begin our exploration of the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale is generally considered to be the home of the Delta Blues with an impressive roster of musicians calling Clarksdale their home in their early years (see previous post: Street Art from the Road: OTR 8.0: Part Two: Clarksdale Music and Artat http://www.ontheroadwithmariastephen.net.
Clarksdale boasts live Blues music every day of the year at one or more of the local blues clubs, bars or juke joints. The town itself is a bit hardscrabble but please don’t let that keep you away. Even if you are not a fan of the blues we think you will enjoy the live performances that take place at the various venues in town, all of which are very intimate and, you will hear the real Blues. Typically, you will pay $10 – $15 for a show that will run from two to four hours!
We opted to stay in an apartment above the Ground Zero Blues Club which is convenient-unless you plan on sleeping before midnight. We were in town to hear the Blues, so we figured it was all part of the experience.https://www.groundzerobluesclub.com/
Clarksdale is also home to the Delta Blues Museum. We spent a morning at the museum and learned a lot about the history of the Blues, the musicians and the Blues recording industry. There is a treasure trove of artifacts at the museum including musical instruments and performers’ stage costumes. We highly recommend a visit to the museum when you visit Clarksdale. We don’t have photographs to share with you as they are not allowed in the musuem.
There are several excellent restaurants in town in addition to the customary BBQ. We highly recommend Hooker Grocery & Eatery which is a two minute walk from the museum.https://www.hookergrocer.comP.S. If you like pancakes make sure to try Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes.
Last, but certainly not least, we recommend a visit to Hambone Art & Music. We popped into this gallery for a quick look around and then spent several hours with the owner Stan Street. He is a transplant to Mississippi and was a touring musician before settling here and focusing on his painting.
Stan bought a vacant building and converted it into his gallery in the front, his studio in the rear and his apartment above. He also operates a small bar in the studio and has a stage for musical performances. We really like his artwork and we were amazed to find out that he is largely a self-taught artist.
Greenville – do not, we repeat, do not get your car washed!
We visited Greenville after reading that there is a state park there with a hiking trail along the Mississippi and a 60 foot tall observation tower that provides fantastic views along the Mississippi River. WRONG! The park was turned over to Greenville and the town has not maintained the park other than the small boardwalk when you first enter the park. This was our first disappointment with Greenville.
As we were leaving town we spotted a self service car wash and pulled in to hose the van off – you may have noticed in our photographs the Beast is in perpetual need of a wash. Immediately, a man told me he was an employee and would wash the vehicle – a minute later another man showed up and informed me he was going to help wash the car and then a third man showed up to help wash the car.
At his point we knew we had a problem – none of these guys worked at the car wash and that this was a shake down. We were able to persuade the third manthat he was not going to get paid (although he hung around circling us). At that point, we told the two guys (taking turn hosing off the van) that we were good. The first of the gentlemen demanded $60.00 for the wash. We settled on a more reasonable amount and left town quickly.
Cleveland, or “fear the okra”
We stopped in Cleveland for coffee at Zoe Coffee. We met some nice folks at the coffee shop and learned that the coffee shop is affliated with Zoe Ministries, which focuses on providing clean water, orphan care, widow care, and education to communities in Kenya. https://zoeempowers.org/
Cleveland is also home to Delta State University. The mascot for the athletic teams is the Okra and the school chant is ”Fear the Okra!”. This is the best mascot and chant we have ever encountered! Look for DSU merchandise by the pool this summer. P.S. The men’s baseball team went 32-15 this year and is currently in Florida for the NCAA Division II regional tournament.
Vicksburg, or, it’s all about the war , no wait, it’s really all about the river
Vicksburg, MS is undoubtedly best known as the site of a major Civil War Battle which was a turning point in the war in favor of the Union.We were keen on visiting the Vicksburg National Military Park (VNMP) to gain a better understanding of this historic battle and see the battlefield.
The Mississippi River was a critical supply route for the Confederacy.Vicksburg sits on a bluff high above the eastern side of the riverand was heavily fortified with artillery to stop Union forces from cutting off this essential supply route. The Union forces knew that taking control of the river would seal the defeat of the South.
After several failed Union attempts to take Vicksburg, General U.S. Grant laid seige to Vicksburg. Grant surrounded the city with over 77,000 troops. The 29.000 Confederate troops dug in to defend the city. Confederate attempts to break through the encircled cityand resupply the soldiers and citizens failed. After 47 days, with all food and water supplies exhausted, the troops and citizens surrendered; the mighty Mississippi was under Union control. For additional information: https://www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm
In addition to the battlefield, there is a museum in the park which includes the remains of the Union ironclad gunboat USS Cairo. The Cairo was sunk by Confederate torpedos seven miles north of Vicksburg. It slipped back into the river after being beached and abandoned. Over 100 years later the ironclad was raised, restored and given to the National Park Service. For additional information: https://www.nps.gov/vick/u-s-s-cairo-gunboat.htm
Historic downtown Vicksburg is perched above the river south of the main artillery emplacementsand battlefield. A number of excellent restaurants, rooftop bars and art galleries can be found there. The Jesse Bent Lower Mississippi River Museum, managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is on the waterfront and worth a visit.
The Mississippi River is still a vital supply route for the US economy. The Corps, one of the largest employers in the area, is responsible for commercial navigation, flood risk management and environmental stewardship.
A visit to the museum also includes the opportunity to tour the retiredM/V Mississippi IV. The Mississippi IV was a tow boat used by the Army Corp from 1961 until 1993 when it was retired.
Our endless search for good coffee and tea took us to Highway 61 Coffee House in downtown Vicksburg. Highway 61 is a local coffee house with a cast of characters. We immediately ingratiated ourselves with the owner Daniel Boone – yes! – and his cohorts by making a donation to their poporn machine fund.
When Daniel Boone and his friends are not serving or drinking coffee they are the leaders of a local art movie house and amateur theater company. The popcorn machine that they have been utilizing for the last 14 years (on loan) for movie nights is going to be taken back by the owner.
Our donation to the fund earned us a private guided tour of the Strand Theaterwith Jack Burns – a board member and coffee shop regular. The Strand was a movie theater until it closed in 1963. The building remained vacant for a number of years until the theater group struck a deal with the owner to lease the facility for both live theater performances and screening movies. The interior was renovated by volunteers from the community who were very interested in having an opportunity to see art house movies and community theater. An excellent history of the building can be found at Urban Decay: https://worldofdecay.blogspot.com/2011/04/strand-theatre-vicksburg-mississippi.html Strand Theater: http://www.strandvicksburg.com/
While we might attempt to live on coffee, tea, and wine, we are reasonably certain that as pleasant as that scenario sounds it would not work in the long run. So, we went in search of victuals during our Vicksburg visit and found a gem just outside of downtown. The Tomato Place started as a roadside produce stand and evolved into a restaurant and mercantile in addition to a produce stand- all still sitting roadside in a collection of colorful shacks. The Tomato Place is a must when you visit Vicksburg. For more information: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/mississippi/you-havent-lived-until-youve-tried-the-blt-from-the-tomato-place-in-ms/
Jackson, or hello, art minton
While in Vicksburg we decided to pop over to Jackson to see some minor league baseball. Jackson is home to the Mississippi Braves – the Double A affliliate of the Atlanta Braves. It also gave us the excuse to listen to the Johnny Cash – June Carter Cash version of the song Jackson for the entire ride from Vicksburg to Jackson. “We got married in a fever. Hotter than a peppered sprout. We’ve been talking bout Jackson ever since the fire went out. Oh, we’re going to Jackson.” Dang, that’s goodmusic!!
The Natchez Trace runs just north of Jackson. We have driven the majority of the Traceduring the course of several trips through Mississippi but had never done any biking as part of our travels along the Trace. Jackson provided a great opportunity to do so as the Chischa Fokka Greenway runs parallel to the Trace for a number of miles. It’s a great trail that cuts through Pine stands and farmland as you head north from Jackson.
We enjoyed our brief stay in Jackson with the added bonus of meeting @art.minton. Art is a fellow van adventurer who lives in Jackson and we follow each other on Instagram. He spotted our van while we were leaving Pig and Pint after having just finished dinner—Serendipity—Very cool!
The road to Rodney
We decided to visit Rodney after reading an interesting article in Mississippi Folk Life about efforts by a local organization to preserve the remains of Rodney. The town was once a thriving Mississippi River port city. Migration from Rodney started in earnest after 1870 – Rodney had been bombarded during the Civil War by Union gun boats, enslaved individuals were emancipated and left the cotton plantations and finally, the course of the river shifted two miles west and Rodney was no longer a port city. For an excellent history of Rodney: http://www.mississippifolklife.org/articles/haunted-by-a-ghost-town-the-lure-of-rodney-mississippi
Getting to Rodney takes a bit of work. The only road to Rodney is a bumpy and muddy dirt road affair but you know we never say no to the chance for a bit of mud on the fenders.
We also happened on the Windsor Ruins after departing Rodney. The Ruins was an antebellum Greek Revival Mansion built (by enslaved African-Americans) for a wealthy cotton planter and his wife. Today, 23 of the Corinthian coloumns are still standing. The mansion survived the Civil War (the owner did not) but burned in 1890. It was the largest Greek Revival home in Mississippi. Today it is an historic site and there are plans to complete some restoration of the columns and the grounds. For more information: https://www.mdah.ms.gov/explore-mississippi/windsor-ruins
Natchez —— Steampunk anyone?
Natchez was our final stop before crossing the Mississippi into Louisiana. First stop, as always, was for espresso and tea and our research pointed to Steampunk. There we met Dub Rogers, the owner of this unique establishment. Dub Rogers was born in Mississippi but spent 30 years living and working in NYC in a variety of businesses.
Steampunk represents an amalgamation of Dub’s many interests. The shop and haberdashery sells fine cigars, coffee, tea, chocolate, conservas, mixology gear and hats (see Maria’s newest addition above) of which Dub has endless knowledge. Dub is a great host – and we almost forgot to mention that he personally renovated the handsome space that houses his boutique department store, apartment and patio.
Natchez dates back to 1716 when French traders built a Fort on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi. The French settlement came to an abrupt end when the Natchez Indiansattacked the fort, killing several hundred people and enslaving a number of women and children The surviving French left the territory toute suite.
Future President Andrew Jackson built a trading postnear Natchez in 1789. The trading post traded in African-American slaves. This set the course for Natchez to become a hub for slave trading – one of the most active in the South.
With the wealth accumulated from the slave and cotton trade Natchez became one of the wealthiest cities in America prior to the Civil War. Today many of the lavish antebellum homes are still standing and open for touring. Because Natchez was prized by both sides due to its location, the Union forces did not destroy it when they occupied the city.
You now know where to go for all your caffeine needs in Natchez. Here are a couple of suggestions for dining: Magnolia Grill, located in the Under-the-Hill section of town down on the river (formerly the vice district of town); and Fat Mama’s Tamalesis the spot for excellent tamales.
Our final foray in Natchez was visiting one of the decidely less glamorous antebellum homes in Natchez. The house is named Longwood but also derisively as Nutt’s Folly. Haller Nutt was a wealthy plantation owner who had an octagonal house designed for him and his family. The house, if completed, would have had 32 rooms.
The outbreak of the Civil War ended the construction of the home as Nutt’s financial position tumbled. Even if he had the funds to continue, work would have stopped because the majority of the craftsman completing the finish work were from Philadephia – they returned to the North as soon as the war began.
The family moved into the basement (originally designed for the house slaves). Nutt died in 1864 and his wife and children hung on to the house for many years with the help of friends and several wealthy relatives. The Nutt family sold the home to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1968.
The photograph below shows the fingerprints of one of the enslaved individuals who worked on the construction of the home. The Nutt family owned 800 slaves prior to the demise of the family fortune.
We hope you enjoyed our final installment regarding our Mississippi exploration, thanks for reading.
With a cool but dry forecast in front of us we decided to delay our arrival in Virginia and head to Cumberland for a couple of days to take advantage of the forecast and do some cycling. Cumberland is the terminus for two exceptional bike trails. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland providing 150 miles of cycling. The trail roughly follows the course of three rivers from west to east:the Monongahela River, the Youghiogheny River and the Casselman River.
The C&O trail begins in Washington DC and follows the C&O Canal for 185 miles to its terminus in Cumberland. Based on a recommendation from some local bicyclists we rode west on the GAP. While the GAP has a better surface than the C&O, riding west is all uphill out of Cumberland. Of course the ride back takes about half as much time.
The scenery along the trail is spectacular as the trail ascends into the Laurel Highlands of Virginia. We definitely plan on going back in the future to ride additional sections of the trail.
Skyline Drivesits within Shenandoah National Park (SNP). The road winds its way (north/south) along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. Skyline is the only through road in the entire park. Additionally, you can only enter or exit Skyline Drive in four places. We accessed the road at the Northern entrance in Front Royal.
While the highest elevation on the road is 3680 FASL the views are none the less spectacular. You are witness to broad green valleys reaching across to more ridgeline, and are able to view the Shenandoah River meandering through the valley to the west.
We had hoped to camp overnight at Great Meadows, which sits approximately 51 miles south of the northern entrance at Front Royal. We would then complete the remainder of the drive the following day. We also planned on hiking from the Great Meadows that afternoon. Alas, the campground was gated and we were unable to camp on the ridge.
We also had planned to hike to Lewis Fall from the campground. We still wanted to hike so we pushed on to a trailhead about five miles further south based on a recommendation from a park rangers.
The Rose River Trail is a loop trail that descends from a trailhead at Fishers Gap. The Rose River is just 8.8 miles in length but flows down from one of the highest points on the Blue Ridge until it converges with the Robinson River.
After descending to the valley floor,the climb back up to the trailhead was steep and a bit arduous as you regain the 1000 feet of elevation lost on the way down. The sights and sounds of the multiple waterfalls and cascades that are your constant companions on this hike more than compensate for the effort.
After finishing the hike we made our way south completing the drive and heading west to stay in Staunton (pronounced Stanton). We had stopped in Staunton in March, 2020 on our way back to Connecticut after the pandemic cut short that trip – looking for coffee and food. We found an excellent coffee shop and roaster (Crucible Coffee) and an excellent restaurant (Table 44) that were both still operating.We have fond memories of our stop in Staunton as we had limited option in March 2020 – the excellent news is that our memories had not failed us and we again had a great dinner and excellent coffee and tea before heading west to Highland County.
The trip west to Highland is a spectacular ride on Route 250. The road is a twisting up and down affair as you climb up and over the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.
Highland County is the least populated county in Virginia. While the county is 416 square miles the population is a mere 2200 people. The economy is dominated by agriculture – mostly in the form of beef cattle as the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys are not conducive to growing crops at scale.
The Western border of the county is formed by the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains (see photo above of Allegheny Mountains as viewed of Shenandoah Mountain). The Allegenies at the western edge of the county also form the border with West Virginia.There are just three communites in the county; McDowell, Montery and Blue Grass. You may find other places designated on maps but they are just remnants of towns.
We are drawn, as you know, to more remote locations to enjoy nature and solitude but must confess that part of our motive for this segment of OTR 8.0 was the Annual Highland County Maple Festival. The Maple Festival has been taking place for two weekends in March for the last 52 years.
What can we say – donuts, pancakes, pretzels, etc. – all made fresh by local residents with pure maple syrup from Highland County. The money supports local churches, civic organizations and businesses. More importantly it is all gosh darn delicious and the people are happy you made the trip up to ”Little Switzerland” from down in the Eastern lowlands!
We enjoyed touring the valleys of Highland County and chatting with some of the local folks we met in the towns (even if one of them called us Yankees!) but we knew it was time to move on when we awoke to snow and howling winds.
Be seeing you!
P.S. As you may have noticed if you follow our blog on a regular basis our posts are not published on a strictly chronological basis.
GSMNPis a fantastic destination for hiking.There are 150 official trails within the park that provide over 800 miles of hiking opportunities. The Appalachian Trail also traverses the park.
We spent four days at the park. The mornings tended to be cloudy and foggy in the hollows and valleys so we auto toured in the mornings(after finding coffee)and hiked in the afternoon.
Hikes at GSMNP range from short and easy to full on backcountry. There are many connector trails allowing hikers to elongate or shorten hikes, or to create loop hikes.
Because of the park’s topography, there are a multitude of creeks, streams, and rivers which make for many water crossings and provide the sound of rushing water as an accompaniment to the beautiful scenery. Additionally, waterfalls abound (especially in spring) providing hikers with plenty of ooh and ahh moments.
GSMNP provides plentiful opportunities to take in vistas and view wildlife while touring the park by auto. There are a number of designated tour loops and routes throughout the park. There are almost 400 miles of paved and gravel roads suitable for ordinary passenger vehicles. There are also a number of primitive roads for those equipped with 4wd vehicles with high clearance.
GSMNP opened in 1940 about six years after being chartered by Congress. Much of the land within the park was previously privately owned. Many of the advocates for the park were attempting to stop the massive clear cutting by timber companies that was destroying the forest, and believed a national park was the best way to acquire and protect such a large tract of land (523,000 acres).
Of course, in addition to the land owned by the timber companies, there were a number of small communities located within the proposed boundaries. Most of the residents were farmers.
Over a period of years the residents were forced off of their properties and the communities ceased to exist. Amazingly, many of the homes and other structures were not destroyed when the famlies relocated outside of the park.
When we toured Mammoth Cave NP during OTR 7.0 we found the more typical situation – all the building and structures had been razed (except several churches and cemetaries) in order to erase the evidence of the communities and restore the land to its state prior to the creation of the park. We thought that practice was disrespectful and, fortunately, that was not the case at GSMNP.
We will skip the discussion of the displacement of the Cherokee Indians as we all know that story. Today, the Eastern Cherokees reside in a reservation just south of the park’s border in Cherokee, North Carolina.
There are over 80 structures still standing and maintained by the park service. The structures include, cabins, schoolhouses, barns, churchesand a grist mill.
Pictured above and below is a replica of the original cantilever barn that was part of the homestead of William ”Fighting Billy” Tipton. The homestead still boasts the original two story cabin, blacksmith shop and corn cribs.
The origins of the cantilever barn are unknown but they are prevalent in this part of Tennessee. Historians generally agree that this type of barn was favored because it provided cover for the livestock from Tennessee’s abundant rainfall.
We enjoyed our first visit to GSMNP and definitely recommend the park if you are hikers. Our caveats would be to avoid peak season – from talking with local folks, we understand that the roads into and within the park are jammed in high season. GSMNP recorded over 14 million visitors last year.
Also, we did drive through Gaitlinberg to find coffee – as a result we highly recommend entering the park through Townsend as we did. Gaitlinberg is crowded and uber touristy; it is the antithesis of the park. In our opinion there is no reason to visit Gaitlinberg unless you just cannot get enough of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museums!
After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.
The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.
Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.
Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.
Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.
EL RITO (pop. 808)
After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!
Abiqui and south
We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.
After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.
The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.
After a brief but exhilarating visit to Moab (see post Moab = Fun and Adventure) we set out for Durango across Utah 46 which becomes Colorado 90 at the border. Colorado 90 is a gem – a beautiful ride up into the Southern Rocky Mountains within the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The pass at the top of route opens up to the panorama of the Paradox Valley. The majority of this route is very remote and we would not advise traveling this road in winter weather.
The Paradox Valley is a remote, thinly settled and beautiful place. The valley is approxiamtely 25 miles long running in a north – south direction. The width of the valley is between three and five miles. The paradox that led to the naming of the valley is the unusual east to west flow of the Dolores River which cuts across the valley, as opposed to running the length of the valley.
A Canadian company proposed building a uranium mill in the valley in 2009. Fortunately, the project was abandoned in 2020. As much as we recognize the need for extractive industries it would have been a shame to alter the beauty and character of this place with a uranium mill and everything that comes with the extraction of radioactive materials.
We were looking forward to taking a break at the Bedrock Store (serving outlaws since 1881). The Bedrock Store was used in the filming of the movie Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, the store was not open.
We made a brief stop in Durango, CO enroute to New Mexico. Durango is a mountain town which sits just below 8000 feet above sea level and is a base for the alpine ski mountains in the areas. The town sits along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas which provides wonderful scenery for the bike path nestled on the bank of the river.
As you might surmise from the photos we were quite taken with Taste Coffee as well as barista and co-owner Mike Clarke. P.S. There is a narrow gauge railroad that runs from Durango to Silverton – which we did not ride because we left town to avoid a predicted snowstorm – but it looks like a lot of fun.
With heavy snow predicted in the Western Rockies we re-routed due south into New Mexico – stopping to visit the puebloan ruins located in the town of Aztec, Colorado.
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico. The ruins are 900 years old. We utilized the excellent self-guided audio tour to explore the ruins. This is an impressive site with over 400 rooms and an a restored Pueblo Great House. It is well worth the visit if your travels will be taking you to northern New Mexico. ( https://www.nps.gov/azru/index.htm )
Change of plans
After our overnight in Chama we traveled north and east across Colorado Route 17 to access the Carson National Forest for our planned overland trip from the border to Jemez Springs, NM. When we arrived we found the forest roads still covered in snow with mud underneath. This is a bad recipe for safe travel on narrow mountain roads so we decided to hold off on overlanding (no paved roads) until conditions improved.
We decided to visit Taos while waiting for better conditions on our overland routes. We will report on our stay in Taos in our next post.
Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.
A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.
Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.
Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands
While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.
Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.
Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.
Camping with a view…
Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.
One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.
Our favorite new Moab mural.
Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.
We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.