Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.
This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.
The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.
Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.
This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.
Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.
Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.
Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.
Big Bend National Park is just amazing. This enormous crevice is Santa Elena Canyon. The orange dot in the foreground is the lovely Natasha getting us credit for the virtual geocache located here. The canyon is contained in an escarpment that rises 1500 feet and was once the bottom of a primordial inland sea. The Rio Grande River carved out this channel millions of years later. Texas is on the right; Mexico on the left. Santa Elena Canyon runs to the northwest about eight miles. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but this section of the Rio Grande, which is flowing towards you, wasn’t navigated successfully until 1885, when the Texas Rangers pulled it off. All that showed up from previous attempts were planks and splinters. You can hike about 3/4 of a mile into the canyon. At the end of that, the walls go completely vertical right out of the water and the canyon is only 30 feet wide. We made the hike and were not disappointed. And much to our surprise, we had the place to ourselves.
Forty five miles west of Bozeman, Montana and 60 miles northwest of Yellowstone Park is one of the largest and most spectacular limestone cavern complexes in the western hemisphere. Now part of the Montana State Park system, it was named for the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed nearby twice but never saw the caves.
In winter, the 50 degree cave air mixing with the cold air outside creates an effect that looks like smoke coming out of the ground. The local Native Americans knew of the caves for centuries but there’s no indication that they ever went there. It was considered a holy and forbidden place. If they ever explored it, they left absolutely no trace. It was completely unknown to whites until its discovery by hunters in 1895, who were drawn to explore the mysterious ground smoke.
Subsequent to that, a miner and entrepreneur named Dan Morrison staked a claim to the land and began to explore the inside of the cavern. Working by the faint light of carbide headlamps and candle lanterns, he rigged 2,000 wooden steps and began leading eight hour tours through the caverns around the turn of the century. Some of the remnants of those steps can be seen in today’s tours.
The Northern Pacific Railroad sued over his stake, claiming the land belonged to them. They won, but Morrison kept fighting them and leading tours up to his death in 1932 at age 80.
The railroad gave the land to the federal government and in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work. Working under many of the same conditions as Morrison had, they turned the caverns into what they are today. They widened passages and blasted the tunnel through which tours now exit. They also built steps or chiseled them into limestone to replace Morrison’s rickety wooden ones. For safety, they laid an electrical grid to power lights and communications. They also explored all chambers and hauled away tons of bat guano.
Today the caverns are part of a 3000 acre park of the same name. There are campsites, hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a store and a cafe (summer only). Cavern tours are available from May 1 to September 30.
The tours are two hours long and can be strenuous. The altitude here is 5300 feet. There is a long uphill walk to the entrance of the cavern, where you meet your guide. During the tour, you will ascend or descend 600 steps, slide through narrow tunnels between chambers and work your way around close passageways. It covers about two linear miles and ends 200 feet below where you started. The temperature is 50 degrees year round. Wear a sweater and good rubber soled shoes. Also bring some water. If you are out of shape, extremely overweight or claustrophobic, you might want to skip this tour. We’ve been on many cave/cavern tours and this one was probably the toughest one we’ve seen that’s open to the general public.
I would also take a flashlight. The cave is wired with lights and communications systems. The guide has radio contact with the Visitor Center at all times and checks in with them regularly. But after being in that darkness for two minutes, I’d have my own backup with me.
The rest of the park is breath taking (sometimes literally) and is an outdoorsman’s paradise. There are no geocaches in the park, but there are a half dozen within a short drive and they are on the upper end of the difficulty scale. If you’re looking for adventure caching, Montana is the place to be. More information and details about this cool place can be found on Montana’s state park website.
If Devils Tower National Monument looks familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was used as a location for the movie. A massive tapered stone column towering over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, Devils Tower can be seen for miles and would be a perfect beacon for alien spaceships. More likely, you’ve seen some of the beautiful scenic photographs taken over the years. Either way it is a sight you will not soon forget.
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as our first National Monument on September 24, 1906. It is located not far from Sundance, Wyoming in the northeast corner of Wyoming in the Black Hills overlooking the Belle Fourche River Valley. It stands 1267 feet tall with a diameter at the bottom of 1,000 feet and 275 feet at the top. The top is roughly the size and shape of a football field, covered with scrub grass and actually has small resident rodents that call it home. The elevation at the summit is 5,212 feet.
The first documented white visitors to the tower were members of Captain William Raynold’s 1859 Yellowstone Expedition, although it was probably explored years before by mountain men.
The first formal survey of Devils Tower was led by Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1875 and it was this expedition that gave it its Anglo name. Dodge’s Indian interpreter translated the Native American name to Bad God’s Tower which led to Devils Tower. The name has a historical hiccup which exists to this day. The word Devils is the correct name as opposed to Devil’s, which is grammatically proper. According to the National Park Service, the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently dropped the apostrophe in Devil’s. That made the official name Devils and it was never changed.
It has long been considered a sacred site by many of the northern plains Indian tribes. Some of those tribes referred to it as the Bear’s Lodge. One of the legends that surround Devils Tower is that the vertical grooves in the rock were placed there by a giant bear that was chasing some Indian maidens, who climbed the column to safety. There are six major tribes that have both cultural and geographic ties to the area: Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. The National Park Service says that there are over 20 tribes that have treated Devils Tower as Holy Ground.
Today the monument attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. They peacefully co-exist with the Native American traditions and rites still observed at Devils Tower. Visitors will see various prayer objects hanging in trees or on the ground and are asked not to disturb them.
In addition to camping, hiking and sightseeing, a major recreational activity at Devils Tower is mountain climbing. Colonel Dodge’s survey report concluded that the summit was “inaccessible to anything without wings.” It was almost another 20 years before two local ranchers – William Rogers and Willard Ripley – became the first to climb it.
They spent weeks pounding wooden pegs into a continuous crack on the southeast face and attaching wooden steps to them. On July 4, 1893 in front of 1,000 spectators, they ascended their makeshift ladder to the top and ran an American flag up a flagpole they had pre-staged there. Mountain climbing at Devils Tower was born. Parts of the ladder used by Rogers and Ripley are still visible today.
The first technical ascent was on June 28, 1937 by Fritz Weissner and Lawrence Coveney. Roughly 5, 000 people climb it each year with only five deaths reported since 1893.
In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted on to the summit. He then had to wait six days to be rescued and was half-dead from exposure and dehydration when they got to him.
For those who are less adventuresome, there are two trails around the base of the tower. The Red Beds Trail is a three mile hike and there is a shorter 1.25 mile Base Trail. These hikes are worth taking as they bring you close to the tower and give you a different perspective of its majesty. They can be a bit strenuous with altitude and some short but steep grades. Be sure to allow sufficient time and take water with you. There’s none on the trails.
There are camp sites available and a visitor’s center but other than that, accommodations and creature comforts are pretty sparse. Parking can be a challenge during the peak season. Be prepared to park along the road or down below and walk a ways.
As with most National Parks and Monuments there are no traditional container geocaches on monument grounds. There is however a virtual geocache called “Devils Tower National Monument II”. There are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.
There are also three letterboxes in the area, part of a series placed there by a former resident. Letterboxes provide a list of clues and directions to follow to a cache instead of GPS coordinates and are a nice alternative to regular geocaching.
So if you are ever in the Wyoming Black Hills, turn north at Sundance and follow the signs to Devils Tower. You can’t miss it.