After completing the Virginia Capital Bike Trail and with a week of excellent weather ahead we decided to head south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to enjoy some time at the shore. CHNS has almost 70 miles of pristine beach open for many recreational opportunities. We were able to camp south of Nags Head at Oregon Inlet Campground which was just a five minute walk through the dunes to the beach.
One of the many fun things do to at CHNS is driving on the beach. You do, of course, need a 4WD vehicle and you must also purchase an Off Road Vehicle (ORV) Permit. Once you air down your tires you are good to go. At certain times of the year some portions of the beach may be closed to vehicles due to turtle and water fowl migration.
In addition to driving on the beach we were able to bike on the beach when the tide was out far enough to ride on the wet packed sand. When the tide is out you can bike from Corolla all the way to the Virginia border! We did not have the tide timing in our favor but we were able to ride several miles before the beach became impassable on our bikes.
Biking on Roanoke Island
We really enjoyed our four days at CHNS. In addition to the beautiful beach, starry night sky and recreational activities there is also a significant amount of early American history here to be explored if you are so inclined (Roanoke Island was the first English settlement in North America -1585).
From here we are heading to Virginia (again) to bicycle the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
The New River Bridge is quite a sight to see and truely an engineering marvel. It is the fourth longest single arch bridge in the United States and sits at a jaw dropping 876 feet above the floor of the gorge.
But for our money, the real attractions of the NRGNR are the history and artifacts of a way of life that existed down in the gorge for more than eighty years. The gorge was scarcely inhabited until surveyors discovered coal, and not just any coal. The coal in the gorge was high quality “smoke less” coal – highly prized for its high carbon content with minimal waste.
Within the gorge the remains of the Nuttallburg Mine provide insight into the workings of a coal mine and the life of the miners and their families. It is considered one of the best preserved mining complexes in West Virginia.
Visiting the site is a commitment in and of itself. The mining complex sits deep in the gorge at river level and requires driving down a windy, narrow and sometimes steep one lane road.
The Nuttallburg Mine began operations in 1873 after the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio railine through the gorge was completed. The rail line enabled the shipping of large quantities of coal as the river was not navigable and getting coal up out of the gorge by road was not feasible.
Because mining in the early days was very labor intensive and the local population was small, the mine operators needed to import workers. Workers came from all over Europe and Canada to work at the mine in a variety of capacities. As a result, the mining workforce and their families were a very diverse population.
The mine also employed African American workers who worked side by side with the other employees. However, outside of work the black employees and their families lived in a segregated town on the opposite end of the mining complex with their own church and school.
The mining town here appears to be typical of mining towns in this era as it was self-contained with its own schools, doctors, blacksmiths, social clubs, athletic teams and company store.
The coal conveyor pictured above is 1385 feet in length and brought coal down from the mine 600 feet above the gorge floor. This conveyor was built in 1926 and could move 125 tons of coal per hour.
The company store was a necessity because the employees had no means to travel from the mine complex. Therefore, the company paid the employees in a company issued scrip and most likely significantly overcharged their employees.
Henry Ford leased this mine and others during the early 1920s in order to control the coal supply that Ford needed for automobile production in the Dearborn, Michigan plant. Ford made substantial investments in the mine including the state of the art coal conveyor.
Ford ultimately sold his lease back to the Nuttall family when he found that he could not control the the railroad companies and often could not get his coal to Michigan when he needed it.
The mine continued operations under three different owners until the mid 1950s when it became abundantly clear that the mine was “played out”.
Today the National Park Service manages the mine complex and is doing a good job protecting the area and providing research and education relating to the history of the mine and the town of Nuttallburg.
Thurmond, West Virginia
After our exploration of the remains at the Nuttallburg Mine site we ventured south and then east along the Dunloup Creek on County Road 25 to the town of Thurmond. The only way to get to Thurmond was by rail until 1921 when CR 25 was built. Crossing the New River today to Thurmond entails driving across a single lane bridge shared with the railroad.
At one time Thurmond was a rail center where short coal trains were assembled into longer trains that hauled coal out of the gorge. It was also the only place in the gorge where steam engines could load coal and water.
While the town “thrived” (population 462 in 1930) during the early portion of the 20th century the advent of the diesel locomotive rapidly diminished the need for the fueling and servicing of steam powered locomotives. From 1930 on the population diminished steadily although passenger trains continued to bring visitors who stayed at the two hotels that had been built during the prosperous days. Unfortunately, both of the hotels burned to the ground and those events put the finishing touches on the demise of the town.
While the town essentially vanished by the 1950s, the rail lines continue to be operated by the CSX Railway- still hauling coal out of the gorge from the many active mines that remain operational today (more on that topic in a future post about coal country).
Today the population of Thurmond is four and most of the property in the town is owned and managed by the National Park Service. The former depot pictured below is now a visitor center during the summer months.
Additionally, the Amtrak Cardinal train which runs three times a week from New York City to Chicago still stops at the Thurmond Depot. Not surprisingly, there is only one other stop in Amtrak’s entire system where fewer passengers board the train.
An interesting feature of the town is that it never had a main street. All of the commercial buildings in town sat directly along the railroad tracks because there was no room for a street in addition to the rail line in the narrow river gorge.
The Coaling Station pictured below was built in 1922 and could hold more than 500 tons of coal for re-fueling steam locomotives.
We enjoyed exploring the New River Gorge National River and highly recommend this area for its beauty and history.
We will spend the next several days touring “coal country” in the southern part of the state before turning east and heading for Lewisburg, West Virginia for several days of bicycling the Greenbrier River Rail Trail.
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.
We accelerated the pace of our return home to the Fort as more towns, counties and states issued tighter restrictions on a daily basis. Ever in need of espresso and tea to sustain the journey we did venture into a number of towns for take out beverages and food. While passing through we usually managed to take a quick tour of the historic or downtown areas before departing for our next fika.
Below are some photos from the final days of OTR 4.0.
Thanks for following.
Be seeing you!
Video Clip, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
C.S.A. cannons on Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg Battlefield
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.
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.
After departing Carlsbad Caverns NP we traveled through oil country (see Carlsbad Caverns blog) and on through a number of small Texas towns on our way south. Our first stop was in Pecos. We stayed just a short while as the traffic from the Mid-Continent Oil Field has just overwhelmed the town with heavy trucks crossing through the main intersection from all four points on the compass.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in the tiny town (pop.479) of Balmorhea (bal-mor-ray). Balmorhea has a small water canal that runs through town surrounded by Cottonwood trees offering a shady, tranquil spot for our meal and a break.
From Balmorhea we continued south on Texas Route 17 to Fort Davis. Historic Fort Davis, managed by the National Park Service sits just outside of town. This fort operated from 1854 to 1891. Throughout much of its tenure the cavalry and infantry troops stationed here were tasked with protecting emigrants heading west to California from Native American attacks. During the Civil War the Union troops were withdrawn from the fort and it was occupied by Confederate troops from Texas.
Afte the war the fort was reoccupied by U.S. Cavalry troops including several companies of Buffalo Soldiers. From that point forward the troops were again focused on providing safe passage for emigrants and commercial freight operators. With the surrender and deportation of the majority of the Native Americans towards the end of the century the fort was abandoned.
Fort Davis is a great stop if you are interested in the history of the American West. The fort is in excellent condition and you can visit recreated barracks and living quarters.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Limpia (constructed 1912) in the town of Fort Davis (pop.1210). The Limpia is a charming western hotel with an excellent restaurant – Blue Mountain Grill.
Our next stop on this leg was Marfa, Texas. Marfa (pop. 1,981) is another town in Far West Texas that started out as a water stop for the railroad. Today the rail still exists and is operated by the Union Pacific Railroad with six to ten freight trains crossing through the middle of town each day.
During WW2 Marfa was home to a Army Air Corps training base which was abandoned after the war. Marfa became famous as an artists colony after NYC artist Donald Judd moved there in 1971 and purchased some of the empty hangers to permanently house collections of his work and those of other minimalist artists.
While we enjoyed Marfa we came away somewhat disappointed after reading and hearing all of the hype about the town. The minimalist large “art” installations are just not our cup of tea. The town itself is still charming with many examples of well preserved western architecture. There are a number of interesting shops and excellent restaurants albeit the prices are inflated for the tourist trade.
If you do go to Marfa we highly recommend the Hotel Paisano as a base for your stay. The hotel was orignially constructed in 1929 and served as a hub for cattle ranchers and tourists for several decades. The hotel fell into disrepair in the early 2000’s but was purchased and entirely renovated. Today it is a charming hotel with a good restaurant and bar along with great courtyard for relaxing with a cocktail or two.
A political/cultural item we would mention regards a phenomenon we have seen in several places. As Marfa became know as an artists colony a number of “outsiders” have come to town and purchased and renovated properties effectively pricing locals out of the market. The county enacted an adobe tax on adobe structures to capitalize on the rising market which raised property taxes 60% for all owners of adobe structures. Local folks who have made no improvements to their modest adobe homes are caught up in this and are hurting.
Lastly, and very importantly there is an excellent third wave coffee shop in Marfa trading as Do Your Thing Coffee and a very good roaster in town – Big Bend Roasters.
We are off to the rugged backcountry of Big Bend Ranch State Park.
We made the short hop east while staying in Marfa to spend a pleasant afternoon in Alpine, Texas. A brief history of Alpine can be read below on a photo of the town placque. Alpine’s origins lie with the railroad but today it is anchored by a state university.
The good news for us is that Alpine has a vibrant street mural scene, a terrific book store and a solid coffee shop to complement the classic early 1900s western architecture. There are 45 street murals in downtown. As those of you who follow us know that is a winning combination for us.
You can see more street art and coffee experiences on our Instagram accounts: #streetartfromtheroad/#fikawithfiona
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
After our stay in ABQ we began our journey to southern New Mexico to visit White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We travel the backways as much as we can in order to take in as much natural beauty as possible. Fortunately, New Mexico offers many opportunities to travel overland on dirt roads and trails through public lands managed by the BLM and NFS.
From ABQ we journeyed overland via the Quebradas Backway which took us through rolling hills and canyons. Beautifully striated ridgelines are in view to the west throughout the length of the backway.
After completing the backway we continued further south stopping in Truth or Consequences before camping north of Las Cruces. Truth or Consequences was originally named named Hot Springs for the 40 different hot springs located in the town. The town changed its name to Truth or Consequences in 1950 to in order to have the radio show of the same name aired in town for the shows tenth anniversary. Our only recommendation if you find yourself in T or C is to stop into Ingo’s Art Cafe, have a cup of coffee and meet Ingo.
White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. It is truely unique with its ever changing landscape of wind sculpted dunes that cover 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin. The other unique feature is that the national park sits inside the White Sands Missile Range. When missiles are being fired the park closes for obvious safety reasons – check before you go so you are not disappointed.
We think the park can be experienced in one day by driving the loop road and taking a couple of hikes into the dunes. You will also see kids sledding on the dunes.
After leaving White Sands we traveled up into the Sacramento Mountains of the Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento Mountains rise right up out of the basin floor to an elevation of over 8000 feet above sea level. There are a number of vista points that provide surreal views of the White Sands dunefield below.
Lincoln NF has hundreds of hiking trails through out the forest. The town of Cloudcroft sits at the top of the range, a cute mountain town that is a good base camp for hiking in the forest and offers several good restaurants and coffee shops. High Altitude outfitters is an excellent shop for anything you need for your outdoor activities and Black Bear Coffee will get you caffeinated. A number of the trails utilize the railbed from the former Almagordo & Sacramento Mountain Railroad which hauled timber down through the Fresnel Canyon. The railroad shutdown in 1947 but a number of the impressive trestles are still standing and can be seen while hiking. We also came upon several abandoned homesteads while hiking in the forest.