Thursday, 25 February 2016


From Big Bend National Park, we took the train to Houston for three days.

The annual, and always amazing, Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit was on at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and they also have a butterfly garden. Andrew took photos of the butterflies while I identified them from the card provided and then took photos of butterflies on the card so we can again identify them when Andrew goes through his photos. I also got a couple reasonable shots of flowers and "Chaco" the Iguana.

What makes a great zoo? Andrew and I asked ourselves this after visiting the Houston Zoo. It has lots of animals (more elephants and giraffes than we've seen at any other zoo) and lots of room for the animals to move around in but the layout seemed strange. It just didn't flow. And there were so many kids and school groups that we barely got a quiet moment without a crowd around! But we still enjoyed seeing quite a few animals and there was a special exhibit highlighting the plastic and other waste that is found in the ocean by making art out of it and encouraging conservation and cleanup. See the website for
Sea Jellies made of garbage collected from oceans.
A fish made of garbage from oceans. 

Texas style! Longhorns in the zoo.
These guys and their "blankies" were quite humorous! 
A beautiful park near the zoo.
In the park near the zoo. 
On our final day in Houston we headed our to NASA and the Johnson Space Center. On the recommendation of my sister and brother-in-law who had been there last year, we took the "Level 9" tour. It was definitely worth the extra money as it got us closer to the exhibits and in a smaller tour group (maximum 12). It was also a very long tour (5 hours) and included lunch.
The real thing!
A replica of the International Space Station at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
Being underwater closely mimics being in space. Who knew!?!
New space suit design -- kinda looks like Buzz Lightyear. :-)
My new friend, Robonaut. 
Today's Mission Control Center
One of the desktops from Mission Control during the Apollo years. 
The red phone . . . "Hello, Pentagon? This is Mission Control." (From the Apollo years.)
More from the Apollo years.
At the entrance of the Johnson Space Center. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Santa Elena Canyon and Other Hikes in Big Bend

Castalon and Cottonwood Campground

With the weekend coming on, we decided to camp at what one of the Rangers suggested was the quietest and nicest campgrounds in the Park. The Cottonwood Campground (with the only cottonwood trees in sight) is just a couple miles further along the Rio Grande from Castalon, an abandoned army base (built in 1920) and now home to a store, visitor centre, ranger station and employee housing.

We did several short hikes in this area during the cooler morning hours and enjoyed beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the grass-munching Javelinas, the hoo-hoo-ing of the resident Great Horned Owls and the chirping of the bright red Vermillion Flycatchers. We also saw a few red cardinals near Santa Elena Canyon. 

Javelinas in the campground

Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande

From miles away, you can see the gap in the cliff created by the Santa Elena Canyon. It's a beautiful area and well worth the short hike! It would have been nice to rent kayaks and get on the water for a while. 

Andrew standing on riverbank gives some perspective of size of canyon.

Kayaks on the water give some perspective of canyon size.

Tuff Canyon and Tough Beauty

As with the Santa Elena hike, we chose to do the Tuff Canyon hike so that we were assured of a little bit of shade along the way.

It’s amazing that such delicate-looking beauty can survive in such tough conditions.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Outer Loop - Big Bend National Park

“People die on that trail,” said the Park Ranger.

Andrew and I tried desperately not to sigh out loud and roll our eyes in unison.

This is the part we hate about mandatory backcountry permits. Don’t ask any questions, just assume the people who are excited to get into the outdoors are out of shape and have no clue what they’re doing.

We politely listened to the Ranger’s advice and, for the most part, stuck to our original plan.

The Outer Loop Trail in Big Bend National Park covers over 30 miles and a variety of terrain. Starting and finishing at Chisos Basin, the Outer Loop is a combination of the Laguna Meadow, Blue Creek, Dodson, Juniper Canyon, Boot Spring and Pinnacles Trails. (Or in the reverse order if we’d gone the direction that “everyone normally goes,” according to the Ranger.)
On the Laguna Meadow Trail, looking back to Chisos Basin.
On the Blue Creek Trail.
When we were in Big Bend three years ago, at the same time of year, the weather had been colder and windier than we expected and we shivered in our light sleeping bags at night and wore every piece of clothing we had during evenings and early mornings. This year, we hit a weeklong heat wave and left the zippers on our mid-weight sleeping bags undone and, even then, I sweated through most of the nights.

On the first day, after driving to the Park from Alpine (2 hours), getting our permit, caching water and having lunch at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, we hiked a couple hours uphill to Laguna Meadows. A roadrunner saw us off at the trailhead and a skunk and two deer met us at our campsite.

The following morning we hiked down to Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch where we’d cached three full days of water. It was already +35C (94F) so we had lunch and waited out the worst heat of the day in the relative coolness of the covered porch of the abandoned ranch house.

On the Dodson Trail.
Dodson Trail
Sunset camp on the Dodson Trail.
The rest of the afternoon and the next day we followed the Dodson Trail and part of the Juniper Trail. While not significant altitude variations, there was still a lot of up and down and the beautiful but sparse terrain provided minimal shade. A 4-wheel-drive track comes into the junction of the two trails and we took our lunch break in the shade provided by someone’s truck.
Along the Juniper Canyon Trail.
A room with a view
Day four was the biggest elevation gain up to the junction of Juniper and Boot Canyon Trails. With occasional shade provided by the namesake Junipers and lots of switchbacks it was relatively easy going and the fabulous views and the sounds and sights of the Mexican Jays kept us entertained. 
Shade along one of the switchbacks going up the steep Juniper Canyon Trail.

A couple more hours downhill got us back to Chisos Basin, ice cream and cold beer.