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Welcome to our blog

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NOTE TO READERS: Here’s a few items to guide you on our blog.

This page is our permanent first page, called a sticky page. It was updated on October 1 and will remain on top permanently. Our most recent post is directly under this one and then they roll in date sequence from most recent to earliest.

Be sure to check out our new tag word cloud search functions in the sidebar.  We’ve also added a Geocaching Storefront to the sidebar with links to our favorite geocaching products.

Also in the page bar at the top of the blog are five pages of background and instruction on geocaching.  The titles are self-explanatory. These short pages are more than enough to get you started.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website, we use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site.

We affectionately refer to each other as Boris and Natasha (usually with “dahlink” at the end) – retirees, snowbirds, explorers, geocachers, munzee and benchmark hunters, history lovers, sometime photographers, freelance writers and lifelong learners who can show up almost anywhere.

KidsRN in action

Natasha is relentless in her quest for geocaches. Here, she gives it her all in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is in the upper left hand corner.

Our vision for Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. Our vehicle for that is geocaching and related activities, plus all that goes with them.

You would be hard-pressed to find another activity which is more fun, positive, educational and family friendly than geocaching and its siblings. My 88 year old mother has been out with us. Our grandkids (now 6 and 4) went out with us in their strollers. They really love hunting munzees and can both handle a smart phone like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the best times I ever had as a Dad were with my youngest son hunting down geocaches in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. When I was teaching school, I used it in my math classes to teach all kinds of things.

One thing you can be sure of – the pages of this blog and our other related sites will develop skills and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  The only adverse effect we’ve encountered is G.A.S. – Geocaching Addiction Syndrome.  Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to walk away.

Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall.  It’s been a hoot.  We’ve geocached in 38 states and have a plan in place to finish all 50 by the end of 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns, one of a kind diners, cheeseburgers, skin-on French fries, anything to do with National Parks and anything else that’s off the beaten path. The tougher, longer, higher, creepier or more calorie-laden it is, the better we like it. Of course, we do normal stuff, too. We’ll mix things up to keep it interesting.

KidsRN at Mt. Rushmore cache site.

Mission accomplished safe and sound. No humans were injured in the production of this blog.

This is an open blog for families, adventurers, explorers, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here.  We’ve been to all the places we blog about and most of the pictures are ours.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above. You can also E-mail us.

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

To Our Loyal Readers – We’re Back

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

I’m back from my self-imposed 92 day exile.  We spent the winter in Tucson, Arizona, which is going to be Snowbird Central from now on. We saw and did a lot of great stuff and I’ve got a lot in the writing queue. To be honest, I just ran out of gas and put the writing aside.  It was time for a break.

The San Francisco Peaks 

Arizona has many faces, which is one of the reasons we go there. Mountains, desert, alpine forests, even the ocean if you’re willing to go 50 miles into Mexico from Yuma. These are the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The highest peak has an elevation of 12,600 feet and you can walk right up to it weather permitting. There’s also a big ski resort up there – Snow Bowl. All the peaks used to be one giant peak that reached up to 16,000 feet. It was blown apart in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. This area north of Flagstaff in the NE corner of Arizona is an active volcanic region called the San Francisco Volcano Field. Although quiet now, it is still active. The last major eruption was about 800 years ago. It formed the huge cinder cone which is now Sunset Crater National Monument. This photo was taken at the park entrance.

But I think the writing mojo is back, especially with the all the Civil War stuff going on this year. I like to write about smaller and/or lesser known battles on their anniversaries or present some new background on others. I wrote about the Alamo and the Doolittle Raid earlier this year. I missed the Little Bighorn and Gettysburg. Missed one yesterday too – the Union Civil War attack on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first black regiment in the Union Army. The attack was the climactic scene in the movie “Glory”. 

Desert Winter

Yes, it snows in the desert and when it does, it’s beautiful – although Arizona drivers can be hazardous. This photo was taken in Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ after an overnight snowstorm of wet, heavy snow. The snowline got down to under 2,500 feet, which is the altitude here. The snow on the low ground was gone shortly after sunup but in the mountains, it lasted for several days. The peaks in the back are the Santa Catalinas. They reach up to about 6,000 feet here and eventually climb to over 9,000 feet at Mt. Lemmon, which has a ski resort overlooking Tucson. Catalina Park has one of the largest concentrations of saguaro (swor’oh) cactus in the world. The 50 square mile park has over 5,000 of them.

So welcome back and enjoy what’s coming down the pipeline.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

The Bat Cave – Ruby, AZ

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click this link.

This is the long abandoned Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona, a ghost town about 75 miles south of Tucson and five miles from the Mexican border. Starting in 1877, a succession of owners spent 40 years carving out a meager existence mining gold and hoping to strike it rich. None of them did and by the early 1920’s, Ruby and its mine were on the verge of becoming a footnote in Arizona history. Then in 1926, a mining corporation from Joplin, MO came in and converted it into a successful lead mine. During the Great Depression, Ruby was a full fledged boomtown. At its peak in the 1930’s, it covered 400 acres and had 1,200 people, 300 of whom were miners. Mining went on 24×7 with an average wage of $3 a day. When the mine closed in 1940, the town died.

The mine was dug into a ridgeline called Eggshell Hill overlooking Ruby. There was a single shaft that went down almost 1,000 feet and nine levels of subterranean tunnels, along with secondary shafts in many directions. There were so many that the entire hill became unstable to the point where several decades ago, a portion of the southeast end of it collapsed. This exposed a cross-section of the mine – just like someone sliced off the end of the hill so you could see inside.

I call it The Bat Cave. From May to September, it’s the home of an estimated 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. They swarm at dusk and dawn, blackening the sky above Ruby for almost five minutes. Biologists estimate they eat several tons of bugs every night.

Collapsed Mine

You can clearly see the honeycomb of shafts and levels of the Montana Mine. They keep going down into the darkness but the edge was too unstable to risk a closer look. I was already past the warning sign. With binoculars and proper light, you can see timbers, hopper cars, wooden ladders and railroad track. This is where the Mexican freetail bats swarm in and out of from May to September.

I was never much of a photographer but have become increasingly interested in it as we continue our adventures in retirement. As such, I’ve always got a camera with me primed and ready. You never know when you’ll run into the mythical “Place That Nobody Knows About and Few Have Seen.” This one definitely qualifies.

Collapsed Mine

Here’s a closeup of the top of the cave in. You get a much better view of the remnants in the shafts. With binoculars and some favorable light, you can see even more.

Almost all of my pictures are done on the move and on the fly, with little planning and setup time. You come upon some great shots but grabbing them can be challenging. Neither of these pictures really do the area justice. It’s a massive cave in and it goes down into the blackness almost 1,000 feet. There’s a single strand of rusty barbed wire fence around the top and a warning sign – both of which I ignored. Anything for the shot.

I took both pictures with a Nikon D3100 on automatic settings, an 18-270mm lens and a circular polarizer. It was about 4:00 PM in January and the light/shadows were not helpful. In the original photos, the mine area is pitch black and the sunny slopes are almost whiteouts. I edited them in Picasa to bring out as much detail as I could. By altering the light and saturating the color, they came out pretty well. If we go back, I’ll try a series of shots for an HDR photo.

Ruby is a fascinating place. If you like ghost towns, you’ll love Ruby. You can read all about it on our website.

Here’s another recent blog posting about Ruby that you might like.

To the batcave … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #4

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NOTE TO READERS: We are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. There’s a Twitter button over on the sidebar.

Hi again,

I started this series last year and got about halfway through it before getting side tracked. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #4 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected – and essentially unknown – events that happened here. From July 2012, the Civil War Entrenchments geocache.

June, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is on the move, heading north into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Union Army is in Virginia, licking its wounds after the beating it took at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee’s army is riding high, full of confidence and taking the fight to the North, who seem unable to stop him. The coming Battle of Gettysburg isn’t on anybody’s radar yet. Lee wants to plunder the countryside, maybe capture a major city and force the Union into peace negotiations. At least, that’s the plan.

There was plenty to plunder in Pennsylvania including crops, horses, livestock, textiles, shoe factories, iron forges, warehouses and railroads. It was all undefended. There was no Union Army presence in the state, which was wide open to invasion.

Map of the battle area

A map of the battle area in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg. Most of the labels are self-explanatory. Letter B is the Snake Spring Gap and the location of the geocache. Letter C is Everett, where a cavalry skirmish occurred the week before Gettysburg. Letter D is McConnellsburg which was looted by Lee’s invasion force, along with Chambersburg. Total road distance from A-G is 155 miles.

A particularly lucrative target sat in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania – the railroad yards at Altoona, home of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the world famous Horseshoe Curve. The railroad was a major transportation link for the Union war effort and a target rich environment if there ever was one. Everything needed to fight a war could be found in the warehouses and marshalling yards of Altoona. Lee wanted to send a large raiding party to sack the town and wreck the train system, but first, he had to find a way over the steep, heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains. Initial reports had them undefended. In early June, he sent cavalry units under General John Imboden to recon a route.

Governor Andrew Curtin realized the gravity of the problem and also realized they would have to deal with it themselves. On June 13, 1863, telegrams went out to state and county leaders advising them of the situation and asking them to undertake emergency actions to deal with it. Colonel Jacob Higgins, a Union officer home on medical leave, was asked to lead the defenses in the mountains. He agreed and quickly went to work. The call went out for volunteers to build and man defensive positions against an impending Confederate invasion. Almost overnight, 1,500 men answered the call. They came from towns like Saxton, Roaring Spring and Morrison’s Cove. No records were kept. We have no idea who they were, what they did or where they went afterward. But we do know that for a few days in June 1863, they were on the front lines of the Civil War.

Trenchline

The trenchline at Snake Spring Gap. It is remarkably well preserved and can be followed for several hundred yards. At the end, it curves down slope to engage an enemy attack from the flank and prevent an end run. The terrain is very much like what it was in 1863. Steep, broken up and heavily wooded, it would have been almost impossible to mount an effective large-scale ground attack through it. The same thing can be found on the other side of the road, although it is much more overgrown and harder to follow.

The defenders’ biggest problem was time, which was as great an enemy as Lee’s Army. Higgins’ plan was to fortify four gaps where roads crossed over the mountains. These defiles were narrow, steep and heavily wooded. A few men could hold off many. One of those gaps was the Snake Spring Gap. Here, 500 men toiled non-stop for days to dig a formidable trenchline that extended for several hundred yards on both sides of the gap. Cannon were mounted in strong points next to the road. Attacking these positions would have been a daunting challenge. While the volunteers worked furiously on the defenses, militia cavalry went down the mountain to scout and delay the approaching rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry was pushing out in all directions for almost 100 miles. To the east, they were on the banks of the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital at Harrisburg. To the west, they looted Chambersburg and McConnellsburg, then started towards Bedford and Altoona. In Everett (then called Bloody Run), they skirmished with militia cavalry, which showed up quite unexpectedly. When the rebel horse soldiers returned to McConnellsburg for more loot, they were run out of town by another militia cavalry unit. Confederate scouts got close enough to the barricades to report back that the gaps were heavily defended. These unforeseen developments were trouble for Lee’s plans. He wanted what was in Altoona, but the soft vulnerable target of several days ago was gone. Defenses had appeared seemingly overnight and Union cavalry was suddenly active in his area. Now headquartered in Chambersburg, Lee mulled his options.

View of the gap

An attackers view of the Snake Spring Gap. A strongpoint is visible ahead, effectively covering the entire narrow avenue of approach. From here, attackers would have probably been looking down the barrel of a six pounder loaded with double canister. The trenchline continues on both sides of the road for several hundred yards. At the top of the rise on the right, there are the remnants of another strongpoint anchoring that side and bracketing the road. The geocache is along that overgrown trenchline. The state historical marker is visible at the strongpoint.

The Union finalized his plans for him. On June 29 Lee’s scouts reported that the Union Army was in Frederick, MD moving north. He dropped the Altoona plan and turned southeast to meet the new threat. The rest, as they say, is history. On July 1, 1863, the two armies ran into each other at Gettysburg.

When the Battle of Gettysburg started, the mountain defenses were abandoned and everybody went home. There are many places in these Pennsylvania hills where you can find remnants of them, but the trenchline at Snake Spring Gap is the best preserved and most easily accessible.

Historical marker

One hundred years later on June 29, 1963, a state historical marker was placed here as a small bit of recognition for the unknown militia men who performed a brave and arduous task at a critical time.

As I have noted before, Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and grew up less than 50 miles away in Somerset County. I had never heard of any of this until I found this geocache online and decided to check it out. It is certainly off the beaten path. This important episode affected the course of the war but has been lost to history. The only reminders are some fading trenches, a state marker and a geocache, which comes in at #4.

If you ever want to check out the place, here is the geolocation:
N 40° 06.052 W 078° 23.345 . You can click on the coordinates to bring up a map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – Coolest Courthouse Ever?

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Coolest Courthouse Ever?

As we travel around the country, we often find ornate buildings in the middle of nowhere. This picture postcard scene is the county courthouse for Shackleford county Texas. It is located in Albany, about 30 miles north of Abilene. Built in 1884 by Scottish stone masons, it cost $49,000 – almost twice the original price estimate – and is still in full operation. It sits on a large town square that is right down the street from the Vintage Vanilla soda fountain. The carillion in the bell tower chines on the half hour and hour. The clock keeps excellent time. West Texas is full of ugly, hard scrabble towns but Albany isn’t one of them. Built at the height of the wild west, it has seen cattle drives, buffalo hunters, railroads, oil booms/busts and Commanche Wars. It has many century-old buildings that are still in use. There are parks and a bike trail on the old Texas Central railroad bed. They’ve also got a half dozen geocaches within walking distance of the courthouse. And check out that blue sky!

Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

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Hot Springs - Big Bend National Park

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.

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