OTR 8.0: Virginia (but first, Maryland)

Headwaters Presbyterian Church, 1890, Headwaters, VA (pop. 113)

Cumberland, Maryland

Savage Mountain, GAP

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 drive

Skyline Drive sits 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.

Driving South – Skyline Drive

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.

Highland County

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.

Hankey Mountain Highway -Route 250

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.

Eastern Continental Divide, Allegheny Mountains

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.

Beulah Presbyterian Church

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.

Maple Dounts

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!

The Curly Maple, Monterey, Virginia (pop. 130)
Blue Grass Mercantile, Blue Grass Virginia (pop. 144)
Episcopal Church of The Good Shepard, Blue Grass, Virginia

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)

Hiking

GSMNP is 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.

GSMNP Trail Map

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.

Spruce Flats Falls

Auto touring

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.

Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
New Found Gap

Park history

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, 1827

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).

Henry Whitehead Cabin, Parsons Branch Road, c. 1895

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.

Little Greenbrier School, 1892-1935
Little Greenbrier School

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, churches and a grist mill.

Cantilever Barn, Tipton Homestead

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.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church, 1842

Thoughts

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!

Be seeing you.

Ctsprinterlife: Mammoth cave national park

The cave

Mammoth Cave, located in southwestern Kentucky, was officially designated as a national park in 1941. The park is approximately 53,000 acres (small by national park standards); its main focus is the cave system which lies under the surface.

Mam Cave, as it is called locally, is the longest cave known to exist in the world at just under 400 miles. The 400 miles of cavern are not linear, but exist on six levels which crisscross and extend out in multiple directions, fitting inside a seven square mile area under the park.

We took a ranger led tour during our visit, venturing down 250 feet below the surface and then through a series of rooms as we gradually climbed back towards the surface to exit the mine.

The park offers a wide range of tours differing in time and the level of physical activity required to complete the tour. We took the Domes and Drips Tour where you are brought through some of the largest domes in the cave system and also to a wetter area where stalactites and stalagmites are still forming.

The lower two levels of the cave are underground rivers – with water draining down from the Green River and the numerous sinkholes in and around the park. In the past visitors could tour the lower cavern by boat but the practice was stopped to protect the environment.

Auto tour

Green River Ferry

A brief History of mam cave

As we mentioned above, Mam Cave became a national park in 1941. What we did not realize until we visited the park and spent time touring the scenic backways of the park was how the park came into being.

Road to Good Spring

The caves were originally mined for saltpeter which was used in the making of ammunition.The caves in the area were privately held and operated by the owners as tourist attractions from the early 1800s until the park became a national park.

Good Spring Baptist Church

There were many people in government, science and business who, for various reasons, wanted to see Mam Cave designated as a national park and thus be protected. The federal government would not buy land for the creation of a national park but would accept donated land for that purpose. As a result, a private organization was formed for the purpose of buying the privately owned land and donating the land to the federal government.

Over a period of several years the required amount of land was purchased (in some cases through eminent domain). There was also a land donation of 8,000 acres made by a single family.

The photographs above and below show the only remaining structures from three of the communities (Good Springs, Flint Ridge, Joppa Ridge) that ceased to exist as the residents moved to other towns outside of the park boundary. Some of the families and their descendants lived in theses communities for 200 years before they were displaced.

The park service has preserved these churches and the adjacent graveyards, providing a peak into life in early rural America. All other structures from these communities were razed when the National Park was established.

The families of the descendants are still able to use the churches for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. The cemetaries bear witness to this use as we observed newer monuments in each of the graveyards.

Conclusion

We enjoyed our two days at Mam Cave. The cave tour was well organized and interesting. We would have to say that from a persective of the cave only that Carlsbad (New Mexico) and Wind Cave (South Dakota) are more dramatic from a visual perspective.

Having said that, Mam Cave offers a number of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as a paved bike path. Additionally, the Green River which flows through the park provides the opportunity for kayaking and canoeing.

If you are a national park fan and have not yet visited, we recommend that you include Mam Cave in an upcoming park itinerary.

Be seeing you.

Taos

E. Martin Hennings,Thinning Aspens, Undated, Oil on Canvas

Taos: a brief history

The Taos Pueblo has been in existence for 1000 years. The first Europeans to arrive in Taos were the Spanish – who initially maintained friendly relations with the Tiwa Indians who inhabited the pueblo.

Afer a relatively short period of peaceful co-existence the Spanish exerted their might and will over the Tiwa, and as they would do many more times in the west, instituted rule over the indians and imposed Catholicism.

While the Town of Taos was incorporated in 1934, the Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited by the Tiwa Indians since its founding. The pueblo has about150 residents with another 1750 Tiwa living on pueblo lands.

The Town of Taos is a major tourist destination with a myriad of outdoor recreational activities including alpine skiing at the world class Taos Ski Valley. Taos is also a noted art colony dating back to the migration of eastern artists to Taos Valley and the formation of The Taos Society of Artists in the early 20th century.

Rio grande gorge

The Rio Grande Gorge is atypical of canyons this size in that it is a massive rift in the earth with the river filling the bottom after the formation of the rift. The gorge is 50 miles long and 800 feet deep at its deepest – quite impressive!

The river itself is impressive as well. The Rio Grande is the fourth longest river in North America. The river runs from Colorado through New Mexico (470 miles) and then forms the border between Texas and Mexico until it empties into the Gulf Of Mexico. The total length of the river is between 1800 and 1900 miles.

Big Horn Sheep

We hiked along the west rim of the gorge, enjoying the views of the river below, the mountains to the east and west and the Big Horn Sheep dotting the edge of the rim.

El Santero by George Chacon, Wall Mural
Elevation Coffee, Taos

We had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Taos Museum of Art at Fechin House. We will share photographs of some of the wonderful paintings and the architecture of the Fechin House in an upcoming post.

Be seeing you.

Southwest Montana

Pioneer mountains scenic byway

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
Wise River

The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.

We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.

About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.

Photo Courtesy of Western Mining History

The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.

Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.

Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.

The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.

Bannack….Gold rush

Bannack School House and Masonic Lodge

After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.

Bannack Methodist Church, 1877

In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.

Saloon and Barbershop

As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.

The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!

As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.

As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.

The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.

Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings

The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.

If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.

Darby rodeo

Bull Riding

Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.

The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!

Cole Trexler, Covering on his Bronc

The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.

The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.

Bitteroot valley

Bitteroot Mountains

The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!

Biking and hiking Bitteroot

Kootenai Creek

The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.

The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!

Soothing Sound of Rushing Water, Kootenai Creek, Bitteroot Mountains

Clark fork of the columbia river

The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.

We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.

I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.

Fika and art: Missoula style

After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.

We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).

Southwestern montana…hidden gem

Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.

We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.

Be seeing you!

Rails to Trails: West Virginia

We spent several weeks in West Virginia hiking and biking as well as driving a number of backways. In this post we are primarily focusing on our Rails to Trails rides. In an upcoming post we will share our experience of spending several days deep in coal country – which is not the West Virginia that you see in the tourism marketing materials.

Also, just a clarification for the record – chronologically we visited West Virginia before Virginia so the trail rides we are highlighting in this post occured prior to the Virginia rides.

Mon river trail

The Mon (Monongahela River) River Trail was our first Rails to Trails ride of this journey. As you may recall from an earlier post OTR 5.2 got off to an inauspicious start ultimately requiring a 1200 mile round trip detour to Indiana for repairs to the Beast.

As a result our first round of planned rides in Pennsylvania and Maryland were postponed. If the weather co-operates we may have an opportunity to ride some of the trails as we return to Connecticut.

The Mon River trail is a 48 mile trail that sits on the right of way of the former Fairmont, Morgantown and Pittsburgh Railway. This railway began operations in 1886 and was a bulk carrier of coal, limestone, coke and sand which were and still are major sources of trade in West Virginia. The rail line was abandoned by CSX in the 1990s after a rock slide caused significant damage and CSX opted to shift coal traffic to a different route.

The trail provides a beautiful setting for biking and walking. The trail hugs the river for its full length providing great views and vistas as you follow the many curves of this meandering river.

The Mon River runs 130 miles northeasterly towards Pittsburgh where it meets the Allegheny River. The entire length of the Mon River is navigable due to a series of nine locks and dams. This engineering feat has made the river commercially viable for transporting coal by barge.

While riding we saw many coal barges being pushed up and down the river and being loaded and unloaded. The coal fired electric plant pictured above is the Fort Martin Station which is located on the west side of the river north of Morgantown. This power plant burns 2.8 million tons per year – hence the steady traffic of coal barges.

Interestingly, this plant is not a major source of air or water pollution. The scrubber systems at this plant remove over 98% of the sulpher-dioxide emissions. The river itself is very polluted – the culprits being steel and iron mills located in Pennsylvania

We stayed in Morgantown while riding the trail. Morgantown is home to West Virginia University with the campus being just up the hill from the downtown area. While the students were back on campus we did not see many college age folks in town which was surprising (perhaps Covid-19 related).

So, while Morgantown was not very lively, the trail itself warrants a couple of days in the area. Also, absent Covid-19 restrictions, WVU provides a number of attractions including a recognized art museum and a first rate arboretum.

The Beautiful, Loyal and Fierce Cardinal, West Virginia’s State Bird

North Bend trail

Tunnel #2, Brandy Gap Tunnel

After completing the Mon Trail we traveled south to Clarksburg to ride the North Bend Trail. The trail is a 72 miler running west from Clarksburg to the Ohio River at Parkersburg. This trail is one of the segments of the American Discovery Trail. The ADT runs from Delaware to California creating a 6000 mile non-motorized trail.

We began our ride at the eastern trail head in Clarksburg to bike west to Parkersburg. What we did not know at the time was that the eastern end of the trail has not been completed (not mentioned in any of the literature). In fact it took us a while to realize we were at the trail head because there was just a sign and a grass path. Nonetheless, we pushed off to the west assuming the trail would become a more developed trail as we went along. We were wrong!

As we realized the eastern portion of the trail was still a work in progress we made a decision to ride to Tunnel #2 at Brandy Gap. This tunnel is 1086 feet long! The tunnel is dark, wet and cold. At a certain point in the tunnel you can’t actually see light at the other end which was disorienting.

Having said all that – riding through the tunnel was a hoot! So we went through the tunnel pedaled on for a while (until we had another crash) and then turned around and rode back through the tunnel for a second time.

At some point we will return to this trail and having learned our lesson will start at the west end. The full trail ride takes you over 36 trestles and 10 tunnels including a tunnel twice the length of Tunnel #2.

While we have been heavily focused on bicycling the Rails to Trails bike paths we have been making sure to take some days off from cycling – and hiking instead. The views above are from Raven Rock in the Coopers Rock State Forest looking to the northwest at the Cheat River Canyon.

Greenbrier river Trail (GRT)

Greenbrier River

The Greenbrier River Trail was our final rail trail ride in West Virginia. This trail runs 77 miles along the 173 mile long river. The GRT is the longest trail in West Virginia and is one of fifty Millennium Legacy Trails ( http://www.millenniumtrails.org ) in the United States. The Greenbrier River Valley is a beautiful valley tucked in the shadow of the western approaches to the Allegheny Mountains. The river is the longest untamed river (no dams or locks) in the eastern United States and is only utilized for recreational purposes (fishing, boating, rafting).

The trail was originally a freight and passenger branch line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The primary freight hauled in this part of West Virginia was timber. This line was abandoned during the Great Depression and never used as a railway again. The trail is currently operated and maintained by the state as a linear state park.

We started our ride at the southern trail head in Lewisburg. Lewisburg is a great town to utilize as a base for riding this trail. It is a picturesque, small town with a number of fine dining restaurants as well as art and historic homes.

We had a great day riding north under the colorful autumnal canopy before retracing our ride back to Lewisburg. This trail also provides many opportunities to camp along the trail in the adjacent Jefferson and Washington National Forest as well as several state forests.

We would be remiss if we did not mention our three favorite coffee cafes in West Virginia: Mea Cuppa Coffee Lounge in Charleston, Range Finder Coffee in Fayetteville and Koin Coffee in Bridgeport.

Next stop: Virginia as we cross over the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge Trail to begin our next set of adventures.

Be seeing you!

Big Bend Ranch State Park or The Other Side of Nowhere!

We spent four days camping and hiking in the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park. This park encompasses 300,000 acres of rugged and beautiful mountains, canyons and high desert. The park land was formerly a cattle ranching operation but when repeated droughts brought about the demise of the ranching operation the state of Texas acquired the land for recreational purposes and created BBRSP.

This park is very primitive. There are no paved roads – many of the roads are single track roads that require 4WD and high clearance. There are no water, elctricity or toilet facilities within the park except at the Sauceda Ranger Station.

We were able to camp on a vista at an elevation of 3600 feet above sea level with a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains including Mexico to the southeast. The night sky is a Class 1 Dark Sky – the darkest rating – spectacular.

The hiking opportunities are numerous with a range of hikes from desert floor hikes to canyon rim views. We had complete solitude on most of our hikes as the many of the trail heads require a 4WD vehicle for access.

This park is probably not for everyone because of the primnitive and rugged conditions. Having said that this park is a treasure – a place where you can get off the grid and enjoy beauty, silence, incredible sunrises, sunsets and night sky.

Big Bend National Park is our next stop.

Be seeing you!

P.S. We have included two photos of the Green Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. This a variety of cactus that we had never seen before. The flowering leaves are edible and are supposed to taste like strawberries. This cactus is found predominately in this part of Texas and a small area of southern New Mexico. We think it will be a beautiful specimen when it fully blooms.

Camping on Vista Del Bofecillos, BBRSP

Bofecillos Mountains

Bofecillos Mountains

Bofecillos Mountain

Fresno Canyon and Flat Iron Mountains

Green Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

Sunrise from Vista Del Bofecillos

Returning Home Part 1: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi

After deciding to shorten our trip due to the Covid-19 pandemic we are still keeping to more scenic routes, backways and small towns whenever possible as we return to Connecticut.

From Texas we passed into Louisiana and toured the low country along the Gulf before heading north and making stops in Lafayette and Baton Rouge.After Baton Rouge we continued north into Mississippi and spent a night in the beautiful town of Natchez which sits high above the Mississippi River on a bluff. From Natchez we traveled north on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The NTP is a 440 mile road that follows the path that Native Americans and later Euro-Americans used to travel by foot back to Tennessee and Kentucky after floating down the Mississippi on rafts to trading posts. The entire route from Natchez to Nashville is a national park. There are many historic sites as well as hikes and walks that can be accessed on this beautiful trip. We followed the road as far as the Tennessee/Alabama border before departing to travel east across Northern Alabama.

We will pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, North Carolina and plan on driving the full route which terminates in Front Royal, VA.

We have included a collection of some of our favorites sights as we drove through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Be seeing you!

Saint Mary Catholic Mission Church, Marathon, Texas

Gage Hotel, 1927, Marathon, Texas

Gage Hotel Lobby

Marathon, Texas

Langtry, Texas – Home of Judge Roy Bean

Uvalde, Texas

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Hackberry, Louisiana

Holly Beach, Louisiana

Cathedral of Saint John The Evangelist, 1916, Lafayette, Louisiana

The Cathedral Oak, Estimated to be 500 Years Old, Lafayette, Louisiana

Street Murals, Lafayette, Louisiana

Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Swamp Blues Legends from baton Rouge aka Red Stick

Martin Luther King, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Bontura House, 1851, Natchez, Owned by Free Black Businessman Robert Smith

Rosalie Mansion, 1823, Owned by Peter Little, Cotton Broker

Line Boat Pushing Barges North on the Mississippi Under the Natchez Bluff

Natchez Trace, Mississippi

The King

Honoring the Soldiers of the C.S.A.

Tornado Damage in Tishomingo, Mississippi

Big Bend National Park

Hola!

After our terrific stay in BBRSP we journeyed east on FM 170 (farm to market) alternatively known as Farm Road 170. The local folks just call it the River Road. It is also a segment of the Texas Mountain Trail. Regardless of what name you reference it by it is an absolutely stunning drive. The road is an undulating strip of asphalt winding its way between the mountains of BBRSP on one side and the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the other.

Big Bend National Park is an expansive park with remarkable diversity in regard to the terrain and species of wildlife and flora. While it is wild and rugged it is far more accessible than Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are visitor centers, a gas station, drinking water, paved scenic drives and more people. The one thing that both parks have in common is the spectacular scenery.

We would rate this park as a “must visit” national park. A couple things to keep in mind – this is not a summer park due to the South Texas location and it is a spring break destination for many Texas families (making mid-March the busiest time).

Re-assessing our itinerary based on developments with Covid-19.

Be seeing you!

Video Clip: FM 170

Rio Grande, Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, Mexico

St Elena Canyon

St Elena Canyon

Side Canyon Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off

Lower Buro Mesa Pour-off

Box Canyon, Lower Burro Mesa

Tuff Canyon

Scrambling in Tuff Canyon

Burro Spring Trail

Chisos Mountains

Early Morning Fog Lifting Off Chisos Mountains

Video: Chisos Basin Road, BBNP

Rio Grande

Boquillos Canyon, Wild Burro

Boquillos Canyon, Rio Grande, Mexico on the Right

Rio Grande, Sierra del Carmen Mountains, Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

We spent a day at CCNP exploring the Big Room which is one of the 119 caverns that have been discovered so far. The Big Room is the 5th largest limestone cavern in North America. It is 4000 feet long, 255 feet high and over 600 feet wide! The Big Room presents a fantastical display of columns, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, soda straws and popcorn. You can actually see the formations happening as water draining downward leaves deposits of calcium carbonate – quite fascinating to see this happening real time.

You can reach the Big Room by elevator or hike in via the natural entrance to the cavern. We hiked down the series of switchbacks which eventually take you down 800 feet to the cavern floor. We thought the most breathtaking views we experienced were on the hike down – so we were glad we hiked down. We did however opt to take the elevator back up to the surface.

While this national park is largely about the massive cavern system below the surface there are a number of good hikes in the canyons within the park and a terrific 9.5 mile loop drive (unpaved) through Walnut Canyon.

We recommend a visit to this park in conjunction with other attractions in the area but not as a single destination. Carlsbad is adjacent to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and can easily be combined into a single destination trip.

One thing to remember is there is no lodging or camping within CCNP. It really is a day use facility. We camped on public lands in the Chihuahuan Desert about five miles south of the park – primitive camping.

Be seeing you!

P.S. If you travel from the north avoid Texas Route 652 if at all possible. Route 652 begins at the New Mexico – Texas border and connects to Route 285. Route 652 runs right through the heart of the Mid-Continent Oil Field which is in the middle of a major boom. The roads are a mess and the two lane road is congested with heavy trucks driven by crazed people!

Video Clip – Camp Site Chihuahuan Desert, Mile Marker 10