Category Archives: US South West

Frolicking with friends in Texas

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We are lucky that we have great friends in Texas as Texas is HUGE and takes a good day and a half to drive across, so it’s nice to have some places to stop and play.  Going both east and west we made stops in San Marcos to kayak and Houston to play and regroup.

Our Houston stop is at Kelly & Phil’s house and it’s a fabulous pit stop. Everyone gets to decompress a bit and stretch their legs in a low key way. Hunter has non stop fun with Phil, making wacky things on the 3-D printer, playing with remote control toys, doing bizarre science experiments and making original music productions on garage band. We always manage to get in a leisurely walk and bike ride to explore. Funny that we’ve now been there three times but yet never really hit the highlights of Houston – it just feels like too much effort and would take us away from the joy of connecting with friends in a low key way.

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Our stop in San Marcos is all about kayaking with our friend Ben, who got a new addition this year! San Marcos is spring fed so the water is in the 70’s year round. It’s a small play section on the river with three waves or drops and makes for a fun afternoon.

We got really lucky on both our visits this year  (November & January) with sunny afternoons, which made for a great pit stop to get back on the water (or in the water) and just play.

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Sledding in the sand at White Sands National Monument

DSCN1141We were missing snow so much that we rushed home for a quick trip to the Fraser Summit – NOT!!! We did however have a fun 18 hours at the White Sands National Monument, where those of us that are very familiar with snow would swear that you are surrounded by snow piles not sand dunes.

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At one point driving down the sand road we had to hit the breaks due to some other cars slowing down and both Tim and I cringed while waiting for the skid of the truck and the swing of the trailer until we remembered that this is a sand road not a snow road – what tricks our brains can play on us!

We got to the park an hour before dark and were able to experience the sunset there – it seemed to go on forever. With very little surrounding light and an almost full moon it was a fabulous place to spend the night. The only downside was the temperature – it got down to freezing and I fell asleep still wearing my winter hat and mitts. Tim got mild frost-bite in his toes from running around in the dunes in bare feet that night!

We were up bright and early the next morning and drove around the park checking out all the various parking lots and picnic sites. You can definitely envision how busy it is in the summer time. Their picnic covers are really quite cool and futuristic looking – the shade cover and the table are all one piece and made of metal.

By 10:00 am the day had warmed up enough to get out and play on the sand dunes with the 2 sleds we bought at the gift shop. Sand definitely has a higher friction factor than snow so you need to pick tall dunes to get some speed going. It was a morning full of giggles and smiles with many versions of head to head racing, and the workout of climbing back up to the top.

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We finished off our junior ranger book by lunch time and were then back on the road headed eastbound to Balmorhea State Park in Texas. White Sands National Monument is barely out of the way for anyone heading east or west along I-10 and definitely worth a stop to play for the day.

An oasis in west Texas – San Solomon Springs/ Balmorhea State Park

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San Solomon Springs has provided water for humans and animals for thousands of years. Native Americans also used the springs before explorers and settlers came to the area. In 1849, the springs were known as Mescalero Springs, for the Mescalero Apache who watered their horses here.

Mexican farmers called the springs “San Solomon Springs.” They dug the first canals by hand, and then used the water to irrigate crops. They sold those crops to residents of Fort Davis. With plentiful water and the arrival of the railroad, a cattle ranching industry emerged in the 1880s. In 1927, the Bureau of Reclamation dredged the springs and constructed a canal to better harness their flow.

Today, after the spring water flows through the pool and cienegas, it enters irrigation canals and travels about 3.5 miles east to Balmorhea Lake. Farmers today use that water to irrigate thousands of acres of crops such as alfalfa and cotton.

The State Parks Board acquired nearly 46 acres around San Solomon Springs in 1934. Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1856 built the park between 1935 and 1940.

After a long long day of driving we arrived at Balmorhea State Park in the early evening – an hour before the pool closed. We quickly got set up and headed out for a swim in the springs, which are around 72f year round. The park facilities were built in the 1930’s so are starting to age a bit BUT it is really neat to swim in what looks like a swimming pool but is actually a living and breathing ecosystem. The sides are concrete and a portion of the bottom is as well until it gives way to a natural bottom that is covered with greenery and lots of fish. It was a nice end to a long day…

DSCN1307It was a bit chilly the next day but we were hopeful that this would make the springs water feel even warmer! We headed off with warm layers, towels and all our snorkel stuff in search of turtles and cool fish! The campground is a 5 minute walk from the pool which is nice and convenient. It’s also a bargain at only $17 per night (in addition to your park entrance fee of $15 for the family).

Hunter had fun being the go-pro operator and swam around chasing fish and turtles for quite a while.

The springs exit the pool into a canal system and you can walk around these canals between the campground and the pool. We had fun watching the turtles and ducks play and they seemed equally curious about us!

Balmorhea State Park is a great stop and breaks up the long drive on I-10 through west Texas. We definitely recommend this to everyone!

Historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona

DSCN1081The historic mining town of Bisbee is located in the SE corner of Arizona, just south of Tombstone and barely north of the Mexican border. It was founded in 1880 and has a long history of underground mining for various minerals.  In almost 100 years of continuous production before the Bisbee mines closed in 1975, the local mines produced metals valued at $6.1 billion (at 1975 price) one of the largest production valuations of all the mining districts in the world. This staggering amount of wealth came from the estimated production of 8,032,352,000 lbs of copper, 2,871,786 ounces of gold, 77,162,986 ounces of silver, 304,627,600 lbs of lead and 371,945,900 lbs of zinc!

After a brief stop in Tombstone we landed in Bisbee in the early afternoon and found a quiet camp spot at the Queen Mine RV Park, which is located on the edge of town just next to the Queen Mine. It also backs right on to the local open pit mine, which is HUGE and really enables you to see the various strands and layers of the sediment.

open pit mine bisbeeThe mine tour is run by former Phelps Dodge mine employees and they do a great job of getting you geared up and organized to go under ground – complete with rain coat, helmet, belt and light. We were then loaded onto a series of trolley cars that are pulled by an actual mine cart. Lots of safety conversations about not reaching out to touch the walls or leaning over to pick up your helmet if it falls off (so you don’t whack your head on the mine beams as they go by).

The mine tour takes you down over 1500 feet into the mine and you learn a lot about former mining techniques, life as a miner and the tools and technologies that were used over the last 100 years.

The tour is only an hour in length and goes by fairly quickly however there is a small museum that you can visit before or after and it is very informative.

It is also an easy walk into Old Bisbee to wander through the shops, check out the various artists and grab some food – of which there are a surprising number of choices (and variety). Well worth the stop if you are in the area!

Kitt’s Peak Observatory – bringing the sky to life!

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Kitt Peak National Observatory is the home of the largest array of optical and radio telescopes in the world, located at the south west of Tuscon, and sits just shy of 7,000 feet (2,133 meters). Needless to say, the views from the top are stunning and feel like they go forever!

We arrived a few hours before sunset and were able to check out 2 of the publicly accessible telescopes before starting our night observation program.

It was pretty amazing to learn about the internal complexity of how various telescopes work and how they are designed differently for different purposes. For example the Solar Telescope goes well below ground to help cool off the solar rays that it collects, which is completely different from a celestial telescope.

The night observation program is a 4 hour introduction to astronomy and provides a well rounded awareness of star-gazing and how observatories work. We got to watch sunset from the mountain top and learn about what makes the various colours that you see. We then learned how to work with star charts to get an orientation to the sky. We had a partial moon so it wasn’t perfect darkness but it was definitely interesting to look for star clusters from the top of the peak. The guides were fabulous and used laser pointers to help you find them if you couldn’t work it out on your own. We then experienced searching for more complex stars using binoculars and could definitely see the difference it made. Topping the evening off was getting to use the research class telescope to see distant galaxies and planets. We all thought the best part was an up close view of the craters of the moon!

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We had been learning about early astronomers and the big bang in homeschool the month before so it was a great opportunity to connect all the dots. Definitely worth the visit!