If you visit the Rio Grande Valley (also referred to as the RGV) with the idea of enjoying beautiful scenic vistas, then you probably picked the wrong place. There’s really no “oohing” or “aahing” when you look around as you explore and drive. Instead, you’ll see a valley plotted into RV parks and shopping malls, and grapefruit and onion fields – all protected by the ubiquitous U.S. Border Patrol. Continue reading
With our urban meanderings out of the way for a while, we set our eyes on what Reader’s Digest called “One of America’s scenic drives,” the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway. It’s 93 miles long and spans three states as it stretches from Gadsden, Alabama, through the northwest corner of Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lucky for us the the parkway begins right where we’re currently located, at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden.
Because rain was forecast for later in the day, we set out early with map in hand, planning to drive as far as Desoto State Park in Mentone, Alabama. After having lunch there we would wind through small towns, climbing several grades to see the lush and green scenery. On the Parkway we expected to see waterfalls, canyons, unique towns and villages, state and national parks and preserves. Although it was an overcast day, we were hoping to avoid the rain long enough to see and capture some beautiful waterfall pictures.
Our first stop was at DeSoto State Park, where the water of DeSoto Falls plunges 120 feet into the river below. The highest falls in the area, it was named for the spaniard Hernando DeSoto, who searched unsuccessfully for gold nearby. Upon arriving and parking there, the first thing we saw was a lovely reservoir situated above the falls.
The state park featured miles of hiking trails, so we had to take some time to pick our favorite candidates. The first one had several intersecting trails with the sound of water rushing through streams along much of its length. It was also very fragrant with the smell of many wildflowers – the best-smelling trail we can remember! Although not very strenuous, we felt like this was the first real hiking environment we’ve been in for many months, and we were glad we had brought lunch along so we could spend as much time as possible in its beauty.
By the time we got to Little River Canyon Preserve, the sky had already darkened and we felt some raindrops. We forged on and discovered that Little River is a mountaintop river that plunges into a nature sanctuary. It’s one of the nations’s longest rivers that forms and flows for most of its length on top of a mountain. There is a boardwalk that leads to the Little River Falls lookout.
It began raining lightly, so after quickly taking some pictures we decided to take another trail to nearby Martha’s Falls. Bad idea, since we were wearing only light, non-waterproof jackets. The trail was mostly flat until it got close to the river where it was very steep, and since it was pouring rain at this point we were trying to walk down a muddy path. At the Falls, which were a bit of a disappointment anyway, Steve declared, “This is officially not fun anymore.”
We had intended to follow the 11-mile scenic drive along Canyon Rim Drive to view more of the river and canyon scenery. Alas, it did not work out, as we somehow missed a turn and didn’t realize our error until it was getting too late to backtrack. Seeing the “Welcome to Georgia” sign was the first hint that we were lost. But there was a silver lining after all – Steve saw a roadside jerky stand and we stopped there to get directions. While talking, we tasted several of Tony’s excellent jerkies and ended up buying two bags. I discovered that Steve just can’t be upset about being lost when he’s chewing on a good piece of jerky!
“Tony the jerky guy” confirmed we were several miles off course, and that going back to complete the Canyon Rim Drive would have gotten us home pretty late. So, we started back on the more direct route and after a while Steve spotted a pickle store. Well, the only thing he likes as much as a good piece of jerky is a good dill pickle, and we had never before seen a store dedicated to pickles. We stopped to taste the array of spiced pickles and other products. The owner/pickle maker told us the story of how the business began, and how she discovered that her products are very popular among southerners. Forty dollars later (pickles, olives, tomato/mozzarella salad and roasted peanuts) we walked out with big smiles. And that’s how our trip to the Lookout Mountain Parkway ended – we missed part of the scenic drive, but got enough yummy munchies to last a while in return. Life is funny!
There were other hiking and biking trails to explore beyond our campground at Noccalula Falls. One was the James D. Martin Wildlife Park and Walking Trail. We found it located behind a large shopping mall and thought that was rather strange. Then we learned that the land bordering the H. Neely Henry Lake is too swampy for commercial use and was set aside as a flood plain and wildlife recreational area. It turned out that we were pleasantly surprised by the two-mile long green trail that also provided a raised network of boardwalks. It allowed us to walk out into a 300-acre lake which provided me with great bird-watching opportunities amongst the wildflowers, were in full bloom.
We didn’t think we’d spend much time on this short trek, and since it was overcast when we started, we failed to bring our sunglasses and hats along. We were sorry about that when the sun came blazing out halfway through our enjoyable walk.
Biking the Chief Ladiga Trail was also on our must-do list here. This trail is Alabama’s first extended rails-to-trails project. It covers 33 miles through the countryside of Calhoun and Cleburne counties in northeastern Alabama, and ends at the Georgia state border. Although we were off to an early start, it quickly got hot and humid so we clocked only 16 miles on this ride. The rails-to-trails paths are usually paved and offer a maximum of 2-3 degrees of slope at any point, because that’s all the train locomotives could handle at the time. Although not physically challenging, these trails have proven to be a very enjoyable way to leisurely bike on tree-covered paths with lots of bridges and birds singing to us along the way. They often go through several small towns so you can get a real feel for the area, and sometimes even stop for lunch along the way. Not a bad way to spend a half day!
Our one-week stay at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden, Alabama was active and outdoorsy, as we enjoyed mostly sunny weather.
And that’s how we spent our last few days in Alabama, now onward to Tennessee!
Up Next: Chattanooga, TN
Like last year, when we moved from Dauphin Island to Gulf Shores AL, I took the car on the ferry while poor Steve had to drive Betsy 85 miles around on the highways (Betsy is too big for this ferry). Arriving at the Fort Morgan ferry landing, I drove straight to Fort Morgan State Historical Park to meet up with Eric and Laurel of Raven and Chickadee, while Steve set up camp at our new site in Gulf State Park across town. As you may recall, we initially met Eric and Laurel a few weeks ago in Apalachicola, Florida. We had no idea our paths would cross again so soon!
In addition to blogging about our travels, birding and biking are other interests we have in common with them. Since the spring migration of neotropical birds was at its peak here at Gulf Shores, Alabama birding was pretty much the focus of our activities together. OK by me!
Our first get-together was to observe bird banding at Fort Morgan State Historical Park. The bird banding sessions are operated by the Hummer/Bird Study Group, which was created by Bob Sargent and his wife Martha. Along with a group of dedicated volunteer bird lovers, they’ve been doing this for the past 20 years. They gather here to band hummingbirds and other neotropical migrating songbirds in order to study and preserve them.
Once a bird is captured in one of the dozens of nets strung through the Gulf woods, it is weighed, measured, fitted with a tiny metal identification band, recorded, given a quick physical, and then released to continue its northward journey.
Observing the bird banding was a fun and educational experience. Being able to actually hold and release these beautiful little creatures back to the wild was very exciting for me.
Upon our arrival at Gulf State Park in the afternoon, we were delighted to discover that we were practically next door neighbors. Steve had checked us into site #37, not realizing that Eric and Laurel were at #32. That made our happy hour celebration very convenient!
On our second outing early the following morning, I loaded my bike into Eric and Laurel’s truck and we drove back to the Fort Morgan ferry landing to take our bikes over to Dauphin Island. Since I had just come from several days of bird watching there, it was my turn to play tour guide for the day. And bikes are the perfect mode of transportation for visiting the birding areas, which are all within a radius of only a couple of miles.
As our time on the island was somewhat limited, we went straight to the birding hotspots; Shell Mound Park, Goat Tree, Cadillac Square and finally to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Fortunately, we were also able to catch the Great Horned Owl and her owlets, still at their nesting roost by the beach.
While birding with Eric and Laurel I was able to pick up a few tips, like how to identify the many types of Warblers present on the island that day. We enjoyed our time together and have planned to meet up again in Texas next winter for more birding adventures.
In addition to my initial bird sightings a few days ago, our two days of birding together resulted in enjoying even more of the colorful, cute little jittery creatures. The three of us had a great time traipsing through the woods in search of these elusive migrants. Going with real birders made it all the more fun!
Steve stayed home to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and our nice paved parking spot to complete some overdue maintenance under Betsy. We met up with him at the end of the day and went out for a great dinner at the Tin Top Restaurant.
I learned during our two days of adventures that Laurel is far more than just a blogger. She is an author of several books including Herbal Healing, which you can check out at Amazon. As an herbalist she is also a columnist and contributing editor for Natural Health magazine.
It was indeed a birding bonanza for the bloggers!
Next up: Just ‘chillin at Gulf Shores, AL
Continuing with our 2nd anniversary celebration posts, this time we share our top seven biking experiences during the period March 1, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2014. Steve is always happy when he can unload our bikes so we can actually ride them, rather than just haul them around the country. Our qualifications for these rides is the most points for: (1) the trail was nice to ride and well-maintained, and (2) the experience during the ride was memorable. The list below continues the tradition I started with last year’s top seven. Continue reading
Our January stay at Bonita Springs went by too quickly. The next thing we knew the slides were coming in and the jacks were coming up, and off we went. On the move again, we headed even further south to “The Glades”, the Everglades that is. Shark Valley lies in the heart of the “True Everglades”, or river of grass, that stretches 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. We were told that bicycling is a wonderful way to view the Everglades at our own pace. And there is no better place to bike than at Shark Valley, which is part of Everglades National Park.
Since wildlife abounds here, I thought it would be a great way to spend my birthday. So we loaded up the bikes and headed out to Shark Valley bright and early, knowing it would be a hot day. The 15-mile paved road was completely level and gave us a perfect opportunity to enjoy the wildlife. I was excited to find out which animals or birds would turn out to greet me and wish me a happy birthday!
Ok, you won’t see any sharks here and I was not expecting to. Shark Valley is in a very wide, very gradual, low-lying valley. The shark reference comes from the Shark River. The mouth of this river is at the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shark River Slough is the main source of fresh water for this part of the Everglades. If you were to venture along the river far enough toward the gulf, you would indeed encounter sharks – they just never make it up to the Everglades. Instead, the alligators bask in the sun along the river, or at the bicycle parking, or near photographers.
An observation tower at the halfway point provided panoramic views and we enjoyed the tranquil vistas of the Everglades, extending outward 20 miles in all directions.
Along the route we met several trams – another way to enjoy the area. The tram tour offers a two-hour open air guided commentary, and sightings from experts which gives folks the Everglades experience.
Several wood storks can be seen along the route. These birds are listed as an endangered species, as its decline is the result of vast environmental threats that exist in the area. The human disruption of the water cycles affects the crucial feeding and nesting conditions for wildlife. When human water management upsets the natural wetlands cycles, wood storks fail to nest successfully. There were 5000 nesting wood storks in the ’60’s, now only 500 remain.
Some flowers thrive in these watery environments:
Besides the many alligators lining up along the trail to greet me, other wildlife also came out to say hello.
It took us about three hours to complete the loop as we made many stops to look around, and of course I took dozens of pictures of, you guessed it….birds! And nature’s best birthday gift was the presence of the various species of Herons. I could not have asked for more!
For those of you planning to come this way, be sure to stop by Shark Valley. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy the Everglades and view wildlife in their natural habitat – this is not a zoo!
And to cap a wonderful day with nature, my niece Lea E. took us out for a fabulous dinner at Red Fish Grill Seafood Restaurant. It was located inside Matheson Hammock Park, right on the coast. With a unique setting amongst the coconut trees, it was a perfect ending to a perfect birthday.
Next up: More fun in the Everglades!
We all know the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Florida – lots of white sand beaches! Fortunately for us, our home base at Bonita Springs was just minutes from several beautiful beaches, natural preserves, shopping and restaurants and other fun things to do. The unseasonably wet and cool Florida winter did not deter us from taking long walks while exploring those beaches. And you may say a beach is just a beach, but on our walks we encountered beach scenes that brought smiles to our faces and made our walks seem less for exercise and more for relaxation.
Barefoot Beach Preserve
Barefoot Beach is on the same land mass – Little Hickory Island – as Bonita Beach. The south end of the island is home to 342 acres of natural land, one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on Florida’s southwest coast. Following the nature trail, a tropical coastal hammock of sabal palm, gumbo-limbo and sea grape trees, among many others, were visible along the trail. What we particularly liked on this trail was that the plants are not only tagged, but also shown in photographs as they look during each season. The trail then lead us to a shell-filled, sugar sand beach that could be painful when walking barefoot (no pun intended).
The beach offers some of the best shelling opportunities along the Gulf Coast, and walking here can be a “crunchy” experience.
Bonita Beach has been named a top 10 destination beach of southwest Florida. The sun worshippers here were mostly snowbirds, so much so that a sign protecting the real snowbirds was posted and it made us smile. We took several long walks here, and each day brought surprises and a new backdrop of scenery.
When the sun did peek out, the worshippers came in full force:
Lovers Key State Park
Lovers Key is a 2.5-mile stretch of beautiful beach along the Gulf of Mexico. There was a guided bike tour on Wednesdays, and we attended one to learn about the history of the island. According to our guide, the island was accessible only by boat in the early 1900’s. It was said that only lovers would make the effort to get to this romantic island – thus the name Lovers Key. Today it is one of four barrier islands that make up this state park. After a brief talk she led us through a maritime hammock along the canal banks of Black Island, pointing out how this area is a haven for wildlife.
The sea grape trees are abundant along the beaches.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
We had planned to go to the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva to check out the great shelling for which they are famous. Low tide is considered prime shelling, however, at low tide the wildlife viewing is at its best at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This is when the birds are feeding on the exposed mud flats. Choosing between wildlife viewing and stooping for shells was no-brainer for me – I’ll go for the birds in a heartbeat. The shells, well they don’t move around so much!
Thanks to a political cartoonist with an eye toward conservation, Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was instrumental in the effort to block the sale of a parcel of environmentally valuable land to developers on Sanibel Island. At Darling’s urging, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order creating the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. It was renamed in 1967 in honor of the pioneer conservationist.
The “Ding” Darling Refuge is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations. And boy were there lots of birds! This is a birder’s and photographer’s paradise. It was a delight to see the number and quantity of birds during our drive around the 4-mile loop. Without a super-zoom camera I could get only a few decent shots, below and my header.
But if you want to get an up close image of the pink birds (Roseate Spoonbills) check out Ingrid’s great photography and write up about them beauties.
We spent so much time at the refuge that shelling at one of the beaches in Captiva or Sanibel will just have to be postponed for another visit. Steve was so disappointed – not!
We thought our one-month stay at Bonita Springs could get boring, but it turned out to be full of socializing, encounters with wildlife and long walks on the beaches of southwest Florida. Not to mention productive, as several repairs and upgrades on Betsy were completed by Steve. Great stop!
Next up: Celebrating my birthday with nature at Sharks Valley in the Everglades!
We had heard about the “biggest RV gathering on the planet” in Quartzsite since way before we even hit the road. Most RVers we’ve met either love or hate Quartzsite, some even tried to discourage us from going. So what and where is Quartzsite? If you are a rock hound, gem collector, snowbirder, hobbyist or somewhere in between you may have heard about Quartzsite.
Quartzsite is a small town in southwestern Arizona, at the junction of I-10 and US95. It is known as “the mecca” of boondocking, attracting hundreds of thousands of RV’ers every winter. AND it is also a rock hound’s paradise. They say that millions of visitors attend the town’s annual two-month long show and swap meet during January and February. But the biggest gathering happens between Jan 19-27, 2013 for the RV portion, and we will go back for it. Click here for more info about the shows.
Since Quartzsite was pretty much along our route of travel, we decided to go there for a few days to “scope it out” before the big show. It was fairly quiet when we were there, but even in early December there were 100’s of RV’s boondocking out in the desert and some vendors selling their goods in town. Whether you love or hate this place probably depends on how you feel about camping with wall-to-wall people all around you. We suspect we won’t like it very much, but we will go for a few days to experience it, and besides Steve says he is not going to miss the massive vendor displays for anything.
Since we are doing the “Quartzsite BLM thing” for the first time, a bit of an orientation to the area was very helpful. With the help of Wheeling It’s GPS coordinates we found a spot in the Dome Rock Mountain area, one of the five BLM areas offering free camping. We spent 3 nights there and we enjoyed the peace and quiet in the desert, just look at the pic where we were parked. There were no ATVs driving around during our stay. We know its not gonna be like this when we come back.
Dome Rock mountain is located approximately 3.5 miles west of Quartzsite and we think it’s a good area far enough from the major madness that will happen in January. After registering with the camp host near Exit 17, we set up camp and started exploring the surroundings.
While riding our bikes in the desert, we discovered endless trails winding through the landscape. We were reminded how vast the open lands are in the southwestern U.S. The hiking and biking opportunities are virtually unlimited! However, we did find an unusual golf course that is completely natural with no landscaping at all. Just a bunch of flags, benches and thick bushes throughout. We’d like to see Tiger Woods play this course!
We also took a long walk from our site to the vendors near where the huge show will be next month. We bought some great jerky and other products from a South Dakota-based company – hey, our new home state! We purchased some other goodies and then trudged back home. One thing that amazed us is that there are only a couple of small grocery stores and other businesses in this town. How the heck do they support over 750,000 RV’ers during the big show? I guess we’ll find out next month – stay tuned!
If you plan to come for the show and did not make reservations to one of the 60 private RV parks or just to stay here for a while, here are a few useful references :
Dome Rock Mountain Camping >>>http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/camping/dev_camps/dome-rock.html
Free RV Camping .org >>>http://www.rv-camping.org/QuartzsiteAZ.html
Free Quartzsite BLM Camping >>>http://www.your-rv-lifestyle.com/quartzsite-blm.html
We continue to enjoy incredible sunsets in the desert.