Lost in Maples Paradise

About halfway from San Angelo to Vanderpool, right about Eden, we lost cell signal. After a while it became apparent that we would not be getting that signal back anytime soon. We hadn’t expected it and had failed to let our children or anyone know we would be out of range. Not much to be done about that now. It may have been the lack of contact with the outside world or just the park itself, but our two days at Lost Maples State Natural Area were way too short.

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Entering Lost Maples is like discovering a verdant, hidden valley. It is hard to do the tremendous beauty justice. Turning off the highway one is immediately surrounded by tree-covered ridges. It feels safe, secure and delightfully isolated. After a few weeks in the very arid desert in both Texas and New Mexico, the effect of all this green and tree covered hillsides was all the more welcome.

This park has a small campground with 24 sites. The park was about half empty, but we later heard that it is an incredibly popular park especially when the leaves turn in the fall and people book sites a year in advance.

We did a full camp set up with mat, chairs, Jim’s site toys and awnings. Our site wasn’t completely even. In fact we ended up with a very long last step out of the trailer and we were unable to deploy the back stabilizer, but otherwise this was a very charming and congenial camp site. The afternoon was quite warm, but there was a nice breeze to keep us cool. We crossed our fingers that this park experience would not devolve into some terrible storm event.

We sat out in the afternoon and evening and enjoyed the stillness and bird song. Our site was sheltered by some lovely tall oaks. With no television and no cell service, we relished the quiet. No news from the outside world could disturb our peace. As the sun slipped behind the valley walls, a gentle darkness fell and we crawled into bed with the windows wide open to catch the sounds of the night.

One reason it felt so tranquil here is we had finally escaped the west Texas wind. For the last two weeks we had been continually swept by unrelenting winds. From the beginning of our transit across Texas to the interlude in Ruidoso to Monahans Sandhills and San Angelo, whether we were in a storm or just normal weather, there was the unceasing wind. I don’t know if I could take that on a permanent basis. It was a relief to feel the stillness in the air.

Lost Maples is known for and named after the bigtooth maples which are found on the rocky slopes of the Sabinal River. Cypress and sycamore trees and several varieties of oak trees are also found in the park. The park offers quite a few miles of trails and it was tough to make a choice. We only had one day to hike.

We decided to hike the East Trail. We chose this trail because it promised the most exposure to the bigtooth maples. These are the maples for which the park is named. This trail follows the Sabinal River and even cuts back and forth across it quite a few times. Dakota was really enjoying crossing the river. This dog who once disliked getting his feet wet was now wading with abandon through the rippling water.

From its beginning on the valley floor, the trail winds through wooded areas overhung by rocky slopes and outcroppings. The rock formations are remarkable. One highlight is Monkey Rock–named so for obvious reasons.

The trail gradually gains altitude until, after some steep stone stairs, it hugs the top of several ridges and eventually descends another steep and rocky grade back to the valley floor.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch up on top of one of the ridges with a dramatic vista across the valley. The sun was warm on our faces and looking out across the ridges covered with trees was dramatic. We sat on two large rocks eating our lunch and meditating on the view.

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The last stretch of the trail was a steep downward grade. It was very rocky and easy to slip or twist an ankle. We had to walk carefully. It was also incredibly tough on poor Dakota’s paws. He was a game fellow but finally we ended up carrying him over a good portion of it. We needed two pairs of doggy hiking boots. Those rocks are tough on little paws.

The park map warned the trail would be strenuous and challenging and they weren’t kidding. By the time we descended and joined the East-West Trail for the last mile of our hike we were walking mighty slow. Despite our fatigue, it was a really wonderful hiking experience and we were very sorry that we would have no more time for the other trails in the park.

IMG_1067We were a weary crew after our hike, but not too tired for a campfire and s’mores. The ranger’s station offered all the makings for s’mores and, unbelievably, Jim had never had one. We enjoyed our dinner sitting outside at our picnic table. We had been hauling some firewood with us since Ocklochonee (a big no-no we discovered, you’re supposed to only burn local wood) waiting for the right moment. It had seemed that there was always an impediment to make a fire undesirable—too much wind, rain, too much heat. But on this evening all systems were go.

We sat and watched the fire for a long time. Its warmth was welcome in the cool night air. We were pleasantly tired and very peaceful. It was truly a delightful evening and stay and we wished it could be longer.

Mountain Dog Meets Sitting Bull

Once again we retraced our route along Route 70 through Roswell and then south to Carlsbad. We again left the green Rio Hondo valley and descended to the flat dry desert. Despite our earlier negative experience with a KOA, we were booked to stay three days at the KOA in Carlsbad. This resort boasted of tremendous reviews and they were accurate. This was an extremely well-maintained park with very nice bath facilities and a spotless laundry. They even offered trailer delivery of their own tasty barbecue!

 

IMG_0744The back of the menu for their barbecue offered ideas of things to do in the area. Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area was one idea which drew our attention. It said they had great facilities and were dog-friendly. We’re up for any place receptive to our four-legged roommate. The next morning we packed a picnic and headed out.

We turned off the main highway to Carlsbad and drove for miles through the desert. Along each side of the road, hills of jagged rock erupted from the desert floor. The rock was variously colored shades of tan and brown with streaks of red or white rock breaking the monotone. There was almost no traffic, just an occasional passing truck. Periodically we passed oil derricks and other signs of energy harvesting. There were no houses except for one clump of three at about the halfway point.

Our highway terminated at the park. High mountains surrounded the parking lot and picnic area. The park was created in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps--another tremendous gift to posterity grown from the roots of the Depression. The picnic shelters were constructed of local rock and looked like they could withstand the winds forever. The wind was blowing with some strength so it was a good bet they had been tested. Signage on the wall of the comfort station warned against the usual perils of rattlesnakes and added warnings and combat strategies against mountain lion attacks. That was sure to keep me looking over my shoulder even as I scanned the trail ahead.

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The falls of Sitting Bull are reached by a short trail. They stand 130’ tall and the water cascades into a swimming hole. Despite the March date the day was hot and there were quite a few children frolicking in the water.  Rather than swim, we opted to head out on the more challenging system of trails which run through the park.

We climbed a trail which wound up a mountain next to the falls and, as we progressed, we encountered fewer and fewer people. The terrain was beautiful. Tan and sand colored rocks were punctuated with scrub, bushes and twisted trees. Life was hard in this country, but abundant. We passed wild flowers and cactus in bloom.

Our trail headed across the valley floor and then snaked up the side of one of the big hills or tiny mountains depending upon your perspective. It was warm and the sun was strong, but the wind whisked away any drop of sweat. It was work climbing and stepping on the rocky trail, but it was very beautiful. We stopped periodically to just look around and marvel at the contours of the land and the play of the sun and clouds across the hills.

Dakota was proving yet again he is Mountain Dog. He was smiling and leaping over rocks like a young dog. He was number two in line and I was the caboose. Following Jim inspired him and I could keep an eye on him. We stopped frequently for water breaks. He insists on wearing that fur coat every day and it had to be pretty warm on a day like this. We forded several streams and Dakota got thoroughly muddy. He could be counted on to wade through the deepest muddiest mud.

We ate our sandwiches sitting on big rocks looking out across the valleys. The warm wind was whipping past us and the clouds flew overhead. It was an amazing scene and we could see the trail threading across the top of yet another ridge which would have an equally breathtaking view.

We wanted to go on forever. There was a big network of trails to be discovered and it was calling to us, but we also knew we had to make it back. No one was going to come carry us home. Hiking over rough terrain is much more demanding than a nice level walk. Reluctantly, we turned and headed back.

The return drive was equally striking. We reached the KOA in late afternoon and it was good to take advantage of their facilities and enjoy a nice long hot shower. We had ordered their barbecue for dinner. It was delivered to our trailer promptly at 7. It was pretty darn good barbeque and a treat not to have to cook. Pulled pork for me, ribs for Jim and coleslaw, potato salad with Texas toast on the side. It was good.

The KOA is situated next to Brantley Lake State Park.  Brantley Lake was yet another manmade lake created in the 1980’s when a dam was erected across our old friend, the Pecos River. This area is where the Pecos River gets its start. The lake’s size and shape shifts constantly depending upon the flow of the river and the current climate conditions. We had opted not to stay at the state park and were curious to see what we might be missing.

Surrounded by desert, the lake seems an incongruous mirage. It is popular for boating and fishing, but while the lake is stocked with many kinds of fish and is considered a destination fishing spot, high levels of DDT prevent the fish from being eaten.

The campground is fairly small and sits on a bluff overlooking the lake. As always in this part of the world, the wind blew ferociously and the sun was merciless and hot. We walked on a rocky nature trail which encircled the camp ground. It was not a tremendously inviting setting. The bathhouse fan was really noisy and could be heard through much of the campground.

 

 

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.