Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

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.

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

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.

Keweenaw Rocket Range

Area map of the NASA rocket range

An area map showing the Keweenaw (keé-wa-naw) Peninsula, Canadian border and the NASA site.

The greatest thing about geocaching and other similar actvities is that they take you places you would otherwise never know about or go to. Our recent trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan took us to some wild and wooley territory.  It’s not the kind of place where you would expect to find an abandoned NASA rocket launch facility, but there is one – and of course, somebody put a geocache there.  We went to check it out.

In 1962 the University of Michigan proposed a launch site near the center of the North American continent. This would fill in a gap in the US Army’s Meteorological Rocket Network. Following a survey of available sites a location on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior was selected. The site was in use from 1964-1971.

The site was to be mainly used in the winter, in order not to endanger shipping on the lake. The first launches were made from a portable telescoping tower of ARCAS sounding rockets in August of 1964. In 1970-1971 NASA launched two Nike-Apache sounding rockets from the site and was preparing to launch surplus Redstone rockets (the same ones that launched the Mercury astronauts).  The Canadian government protested these much larger rockets being fired so close to their border.  The site was abandoned and never used again.  It definitely qualifies as off the beaten path.

I started wondering about the who what when where of the site.  When did they do this?  Who was it?  What did they launch? What happened to it?  Nobody seemed to know much about the place, so I went looking.  I found a bunch of stuff and learned a few things in the process, not all of them rocket related.

This is a photo post with background info in the captions.  Most of the rocket talk came from the Encyclopedia Astronautica.  Enjoy.

NASA launch site

This grainy newspaper photo gives a good overhead view of the site. There was nothing permanent here except concrete slabs. The telemetry vans near the top of the photo were dragged in by bulldozer for each launch. The missile storage building is down near the water’s edge. At the bottom of the photo is the shoreline of Lake Superior/Keweenaw Point.

Rockets

This schematic shows the types of rockets that were fired from the site. All were sounding rockets used for research. A sounding rocket is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight. The rockets are used to carry instruments from 10 to 130 miles above the surface of the Earth, the altitude generally between weather balloons and satellites. The Nike missiles were a version of the same ones that provided air defense against Russian bombers coming over the polar ice cap during the Cold War from 1953 to 1978.

ARCAS launch

A photo of an ARCAS launch, date unknown. ARCAS stands for All-Purpose Rocket for Collecting Atmospheric Soundings. The ARCAS was a pop gun compared to the Nike but was used extensively from 1960 to 1990. It could also be launched from buoys in the water. The single-stage rocket could lift a 12 pound payload 10 miles up.

Nike Apache Launch

A Nike-Apache launch in 1970. The Nike Apache was a two-stage sounding rocket used to carry a variety of payloads for a wide variety of subjects including radio astronomy, meteorology, aeronomy, atmospheric conditions, plasma physics, and solar physics. The maximum payload weight was 80 lbs and the maximum altitude about 125 miles. A total of 636 of them were launched worldwide between 1961 and 1978. Two of those were launched at Keweenaw Point in 1970 and 1971. Those were the site’s last launches.

Ground Zero for the Keweenaw geocache

This pad is where the launch in the previous picture occurred and is Ground Zero for the cache. This particular cache is a virtual geocache, meaning you have to get somewhere and find out about something that is already there. There’s no box to find. The lake shore is just beyond the trees.

Mission accomplished. We had to get a picture of the marker with our GPS in sight. The drive out here was long and treacherous. The last two miles is an ATV trail which we deftly negotiated with our Saturn Vue. The metal band behind the marker was part of the Nike launch assembly.

Keweenaw Point

Keweenaw Point. This is as far as you can go on the Upper Peninsula. Off in the distance is Manitou Island. It has a lighthouse on the far right hand side. This is one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the Great Lakes. When a ship transits Lake Superior, it has to make five major course corrections. Keweenaw Point is one of them. The rocks and shoals here have claimed many ships over the years. In fact, the rocks in the lower left hand corner of this photo are a wreck site. The steamship “Scotia” met its doom at this very spot on October 24, 1884, driven into the rocks by a storm. The crew survived. The waves broke the ship apart. The bow section hung here for two years. The stern sank in ten feet of water. A salvage company cut her up for scrap, leaving only a skeleton. Parts of it lie 150 feet offshore. It is a popular dive site since you can do a shore dive. There are two other steamship wrecks that can be dove on from here – the City of Bangor and the Altadoc.

Propeller from the Scotia

Here’s one last bit of maritime trivia. This is one of two propellers from the aforementioned “Scotia”. Salvaged off the lake bottom in the 1960’s, it now sits on display on the grounds of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse. The ship had two props. Presumably, one of them is still out there.

That’s it until next time. Hope you liked it and/or learned something.  We sure did.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Lewis and Clark Caverns

View inside the caverns

A view deep inside the caverns. As part of the tour, shortly after this picture was taken, the guide got us in a small group and turned out the lights. The blackness was unbelievable. The eyes don’t adjust because there is zero light. In the days of Morrison and the Civilian Conservation Corps, men sometimes found themselves stranded in the caves with no light. Under those circumstances, there was no way out. They simply had to wait until someone found them.

Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, near the town of Whitehall, the Lewis and Clark Caverns are some of the largest, most spectacular and well developed 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 and ladders 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.

Steps inside the cavern

Steps built by the CCC showing you’re one mile high inside a mountain.

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 or two. (Remember-Two is one and one is none.) 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.

A view of the park

Natasha in the Visitor Center parking lot. Check out the scenery. The caverns are inside the barren mountain on the right. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are N45.838624, W111.866831. The hyperlinked numbers will take you to a Google map.

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 you can’t get there in person, here’s a link to a great virtual tour inside the caves.

Rock on … Boris and Natasha

Devils Tower National Monument

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.

Close up view of Devils Tower

Classic view of Devils Tower taken from the parking lot in front of the visitors center. The actual formation of the tower is a source of mystery and argument among geologists. While it is clearly volcanic in nature, there is no evidence of any volcanic activity anywhere in the area. The best guess is that it is cooled lava that was a mile or more underground at one time.  It all eroded away and left this.  It will be gone in about a million years because the rock keeps eroding, sometimes sloughing off in big slabs, creating the grooves on the tower and the talus rock around the base.

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.

Distant view of Devils Tower

Distant view of Devils Tower from a roadside pullout about five miles south. The rolling hills of this 1,347 acre park are covered with pine forests, deciduous woodlands, and prairie grasslands. Deer, prairie dogs, and other wildlife are abundant.  There is a huge prairie dog village along the road near the entrance which is a great source of amusement for visitors.

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.

Top of Devils Tower

OK. I knew you wanted to see the top. This is the best I could do until I climb it. Climbing is big business with a number of climbing schools, clinics and guides available. There are many different routes to the top of varying difficulty. In keeping with the sanctity and solemness of the site, they have sacred names like Rock Suckers and Spank the Monkey.

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 are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.

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.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #7

After a brief hiatus to get acquainted with our new granddaughter, the countdown continues.  This is a Pennsylvania cache from July 2005 called The Spooky Tunnel.

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 200 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see.

Through the middle of all this, the state built a four lane highway that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed highway in the U.S.  Construction started in October 1938.  The first 160 mile section from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg 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 and minimize curves and hills.  To do this, they built a series of tunnels through the mountains instead of going over them.  One of these was the Laurel Hill Tunnel.  Its story is told in the pictures that follow.

Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940's
A view of the Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940’s. It was originally designed and excavated as a railroad tunnel at the turn of the century but the railroad never got here. It was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1940 as the nation’s First Superhighway.

This rugged woodland is a geocachers dream.  It has everything from one star drive ups to five star expeditions.  Overlooking the long abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel is the three star Spooky Tunnel geocache.  My son and I tackled it in July of 2005.  It was our first summer of geocaching.

The abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel
The problem with the Laurel Hill Tunnel is that it only had two lanes and the turnpike had four. It became a two-ended bottleneck. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s, traffic jammed up at both ends. As cars and trucks became bigger and faster, the traffic got worse and the tunnel got more dangerous. There were horrific crashes in and around the tunnel during its years of use. By the early 1960’s, something had to be done. That something was to forget about 100 mph straightaways and build a six lane road over the steep mountain, bypassing the tunnel completely. The Laurel Hill Bypass opened in 1964. The now abandoned tunnel lay dormant for years. This a view from the early 1980’s.

The hardest part of the cache is figuring out which back country road goes to the parking pullout.  Once parked, it’s about 1/2 mile of bushwhacking to get to the cache.  There’s no trail and the summertime brush, the bugs and old barbed wire fences can be challenging. The cache itself is well hidden (at least it was) and the heavy overhead canopy can make the GPS go crazy.

Laurel Hill Tunnel
The abandoned tunnel served a variety of ad hoc purposes for 30 years after it was abandoned. It was used as a garage for maintenance vehicles, storage for road sand and salt and a police firing range. Up until the early 80’s, you could walk or bike through it. Around 2000, the tunnel became the scene of intense activity. No Trespassing signs were posted and the State Police patrolled it heavily. Structures resembling airlocks or decon stations went up along with barriers and satellite antennae. The whole thing was sealed off with no outward evidence of activity or occupation. People began to speculate about all the things that might be going on there. Department of Defense? Homeland Security? Nuclear waste?  Archaeological dig? Alien spacecraft?

You can’t miss the tunnel.  Just keep walking downhill and you’ll run right into it. The view of the tunnel from the cache site is awesome.  It’s completely out of place in this remote area but there it is, satellite antennae and all.

Spooky Tunnel
After years of speculation, the answer finally got out, thanks to the Internet. An engineering company that develops NASCAR racing technology bought the tunnel and turned it into a giant wind tunnel. They wanted to keep it quiet but you know how that goes. Now, they have a website that tells all. It’s pretty interesting. The place is strictly off limits but a geocache was placed above it in 2003. It’s still there. This is a geocacher’s view of the (Not So) Spooky Tunnel.

Anyway, we had a good time getting it and bagged several more in the same area that day.  As I’ve said before, some of my best days as a Dad were out geocaching with the kids and this was one of them.

BTW, if you’re interested in who is using the tunnel and what they’re doing, here’s the tell all website.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils

National Park Service Passport Stamps

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. The Cachemanian Devils