Thursday, June 21, 2018

Extremely Steep and Rugged

As much as I like to inflate my own ego, truth is that title refers to the trail and not my craggy and rugged looks. . .

I was greeted this morning by a rare-ish vertical rainbow.

Several days ago, based on wind forecasts, I thought today was going to be about riding the Quad-B on the Quitaque Canyon section of the Caprock Trailway, but last night’s NOAA forecast, the only thing I could get down here in the South Prong Canyon, said otherwise.

Around here, (North Texas) especially this time of year, it’s not so much rain or shine that dictates outdoor activities as it is the wind, and the forecast for today had changed, calling for 20 to 30 MPH winds out of the south and southwest, which would put them right in my teeth on the outbound leg of my planned bike-ride. Having done that once before, I wasn’t too keen for a repeat performance.

For now it looks like Wednesday will be blessed with bike-ride-conducive 6 to 10 MPH winds, but this is Monday, so what do I do with it?

No problem, one of the Upper Canyon Trail trailheads is only a few hundred feet from site 49 where I’m parked, but first I drive up to the other trailhead of this non-loop trail and stash the Quad-B in the weeds so I don’t have to hike that last mile, even if it is a short mile, back to The Van on foot. (though there was a significant amount of hoofin' the Quad–B up the couple of hills in between anyway because by then my legs didn’t have a whole lot of pedaling oomph left in them. . .)

Part of the reason for the lack of leg-oomph at the end of the hike is that there are three sections of trail in the park marked as extremely steep and rugged, and I will manage to hit all three on this one hike. (What is Wrong with me?!)

It might appear that I numbered these three sections of trail randomly rather than progressively, but I actually numbered them in ascending order of how difficult I perceived each section to be. If I were the one marking up this map I would call section 1 'steep and a bit rugged', section 2 'extremely steep and rugged', and section 3 'oh-you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me'.

But the first part of the hike is up the South Prong Canyon which only climbs a couple hundred feet over the next two miles as it tracks along, across, and up the South Prong Little Red River, which is mostly dry-wash but still travels through some interesting, and clearly water-warn, terrain.

OK, which is the actual trail?

There are a few spots where you just might wander off the trail and start hiking the wash instead, but no big deal since the canyon walls will keep you confined to the general area anyway.

It was early enough when I set out that this guy didn’t want to relinquish his last few minutes of morning-feed to some two-legged interloper.

I was happy enough to wait, but apparently he is a shy feeder because he soon slipped off into the scrub.

As I got further up the canyon there were a few places where the wash wasn’t quite so dry because the underlying rock forced the water to the surface, but only temporarily.

About a mile and a half up the canyon there’s a short spur trail that leads up to a bench that sits safely above any flash floods. This is where the South Prong Primitive Camping Area sits.

I suppose as primitive camping areas go it’s OK,


but it’s really nothing more than a large patch of bare ground with a pit-toilet off to one side. At least at Pedernales Falls, South Llano, and Colorado Bend, the primitive sites are somewhat more vegetated and separated a bit from each other.

But no big deal since I’m not planning on staying here anyway. (The vast majority of Primitive Site campers only stay one night. I don’t know, after going to the trouble of packing all my gear in I think I’d want at least two nights to make it worthwhile.)


Now that I’ve checked out the primitive camping area, you know, in case some day I feel an overwhelming urge to revisit my younger backpacking days, it’s back to the canyon floor and up the trail, which has gotten downright bucolic now that there are no wheeled vehicles driving on it in order to get in and maintain the primitive camping area, which is supposed to be a pack-it-out place but you know people. . . at least half of us seem to be genetically incapable of carrying our own trash.

The thing about bucolic places around here is that the Bison think so too, and for such large creatures they sure can be ghost-like in the brush, popping into sight at just the right moment to make one pee his pants.

Just over two miles up the canyon from the trailhead it, and the South Prong Little Red River, slips through the western park boundary onto private property.

At this point the trail makes a hard right, even though there’s nothing but looming canyon walls to both the right and left.

The good news is that Bison will probably not be climbing this trail, which consists of a network of loose and flaky rock all hell-bent on getting down to the canyon floor the fastest way possible without caring what, or who, it takes with it.

Yep, that’s the trail! And to make it even more interesting the ledge is only wide enough for one foot and you have to be less than 5' tall to fit  upright under the overhang

The bad news is that if the Bison didn’t empty you of pee down in the canyon, this trail just might do it for you now.

Basically if you don’t have at least 6 articulated limbs, all equipped with a combination of claws and suction-devices, this trail will soon have you whimpering and making all sorts of impossible promises to any deity you can think of, and if you have any leftover time in between all that you will use it to seriously question the thought process that got you up here in the first place. (At least if you are anything like me. . .)

About two-thirds of the way up I paused to look longingly back down the canyon towards where The Van was sitting, all safe and comfy, and discovered that the climb is so steep I could still see where the canyon-floor trail turned into the cliff-trail.

And way down there below my feet I could see a couple standing at that transitional point. They were looking up, probably at me, and having a discussion. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I suspect I was not coming out looking too good in that conversation in which terms like crazy and damn fool probably played a big part.  Eventually the couple turned around and started back down the canyon the other way. 

Who’s the smart one now?!  (hint – I’m pretty sure it’s not me. . .)

By the way, these were the only people I saw all day.

The Van is there at the bottom-most point of my track, Fern Cave is at the end of the spur in the top-left

After leaving the canyon floor I climbed a little over 500 feet in the next half-mile. This section is more of a scramble than a trail and it was often difficult to discern the tumbled rocks of the trail from the tumbled rocks of – well, crumbling cliff-side.

Apparently I’m not the only one having difficulty picking out one perilous route from another because there were plenty of trail-markers along this section, though I often had to look way up over my head to see the next one, which made me feel like my pack was dragging me backwards off the cliff, which would trigger yet another rest-break as I recovered, during which I would forget where the next trail marker is so would have to look again. . .

But eventually I did make it to the top, to the high-point of the hike. This put me at the west end of the Haynes Ridge Trail which I tried to hike in November of 2016 but the wind blew me off and I stuck to the canyon floor instead, making an out and back hike through North Prong Canyon.

With only about half as much wind today as the first time I thought about hiking the Haynes Ridge Trail I decided to abandon the Upper Canyon Trail, which drops down the other side of the ridge into the North Prong Canyon, just barely showing at the top of the map, and hike Haynes Ridge instead.

But first, since I was so close and it’s not like it’s easy to get here so I shouldn’t waste the opportunity, I temporarily dropped down the side (the steep part labeled ‘1’) to visit Fern Cave,

which isn’t a cave at all, but rather a perpetually wet grotto

tucked up under the edge of the escarpment where ferns have taken advantage of the moisture and protection. (Only morning sun in here)

Track profile. Always best seen after the fact and not before. . .

Of course now that I’ve hiked down to Fern Cave I have to hike back up again, but frankly, despite being marked as extreemly steep and rugged, I didn’t think this part of the trail was too bad. Or did it just seem that way because I had so recently climbed section 3, which I have personally named Haynes' Booger?

Once back up on top again I started hiking east down Haynes Ridge, trying to enjoy myself but haunted by the knowledge that the only way off this thing was one of those ‘extremely steep and rugged’ trail sections.

The last thing I expected as I trudged along was fencing.

Fencing is expensive stuff, so it means livestock, probably goats given the type of fencing, and the only way to get livestock up here is on a far gentler trail than I just climbed. Maybe there’s a better way down from here!! If nothing else it was a good excuse to take another break while I sat down with both paper and downloaded PDF maps of the area to figure out where that holy-grail of a gentler trail might be.

Turns out there is an easier way, or at least used to be an easier way, to get onto Haynes Ridge, via a track coming off the high ground of the South Plains to the west and onto the very western end of Haynes ridge, but that didn’t do me a damn bit of good because that’s private property over there.

These reminded me of old-fashioned street-lamps

So now my choice was either climb back down the cliff I just came up, or go to the east end of Haynes Ridge where it abruptly ends, and climb down the cliff there. Frankly they both scared the crap out of me a little, but I knew what was behind me so chose that which I didn’t know up there ahead of me.

In reality hiking Haynes Ridge was not too bad, as long as I didn’t dwell on the fact that I had to get back down from here at some point. The trail, about as gentle as it was down in the bottom of the canyon only now I'm going downhill so even better, is not overly used but not hard to follow either.

Good thing too

because I’m not sure how much longer these old wooden trail markers are going to hold up to the harsh environment up here.

At the east end of Haynes ridge there’s an official Scenic Overlook consisting of a single rustic log bench tucked under the branches of a scrawny Mesquite where it takes advantage of a scrap of shade but not the views. For the views you have to go stand on the edge.

Now normally scenic overlooks are the site of ohh’s and ahh’s, maybe the occasional ‘oh wow!’ along with the frequent shutter-click of cameras, but as I looked out across the lower canyon area with its distance tracery of the two prongs of the Little Red River, all I could think was

 ‘oh shit! I’ve got to get down there from here!’

Hard to tell in the harsh mid-day lighting, but there’s a 4’ drop from my toes to the next part of the trail here, which was about as bad as this trail ever got. Piece of cake! (OK, so it was a hard-ass fruit cake, but still cake.)

Looking back at my track profile, it looks like the descent down this end of the ridge, though slightly shorter with only a 450 foot drop but doing it in 4 tenths of a mile, is actually steeper than where I climbed up at the other end, and I can believe it since this end of the ridge just seems to stop rather than taper off, but though there are some rough spots,

My personal name for this piece of trail at the east end of Haynes Ridge is Haynes' Ass

the trail down, probably because it’s much newer than the trail up at the other end, therefore built to different standards (Yes, there are rules on how to build a trail and they have become more nanny-fied over the years) with proper switchbacks and rock-work in the bad spots, wasn’t near as terrifying as the trail up.

Even so, this was the end of my photo-taking on this hike. All I was interested in now was getting my ass down to ground-level, fishing the Quad-B out of the weeds and rolling on back to sanctuary of The Van.

I knew when I planned this trip for early May that I was pushing the weather envelope in terms of temperatures, (This part of Texas, though further north and a couple thousand feet higher, tends to run warmer than home-base in Central Texas) but it turns out that the temps ran 10 to 15 degrees above normal all week, pushing afternoons up into the high 90’s-low 100’s. By the time I got back to The Van I only had a couple swallows left of the three liters of water I carry (though I hadn’t touched the liter of emergency water I also carry) and I sure was glad that I remembered to salt my store-bought, low-sodium trail mix before setting out this morning!

Unlike humid Central Texas, sweating in this dry air up here goes pretty much unnoticed, but it still drains away the electrolytes pretty fast.

Anyway, my two cents for anyone wanting to do the Haynes Ridge from end to end is to climb up the Booger and down the Ass because there were places on the Booger where I had to let the hiking-sticks dangle while I used both hands and feet to negotiation the terrain, and it's easier to do that going up than down. Also, once you top out on the Booger it's all downhill from there. If you start out at the Ass end, even after topping out it's still a climb all the way along the ridge just to get to the Booger so your legs will hardly be fresh for the difficult descent.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Camping Caprocks Canyon

Sunrise at the Childress Walmart.

Time to go fuel up, scrape the 10 hours’ worth of yesterday’s bugs off the windshield, (Yep, 10 hours of driving and still well within Texas) and head on across the last 60 miles to Caprock Canyons State Park

Childress is about halfway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls and the 24 hr. Childress Walmart is very popular with truck-drivers, so much so that it appears Walmart, maybe in conjunction with the small Pilot truck-stop just to the east which has limited parking, built a truck parking addition to the parking lot.

If you are a large RV I wouldn’t recommend trying to park in that area though. There’s not quite enough truck parking around here as it is and most of the rest of the Walmart lot is signed as no truck parking, but it doesn’t say anything about RV parking. Otherwise there’s a fairly decent set of rest areas about 35 miles southeast on US-287 between Quanah and Chillicothe

Me, I just pull in next to one of the outlying cart-corrals where I’m not interfering with the available ‘swinging space’ required to turn long trucks. The disadvantage of this is that it puts me right next to a cart-corral but because it's far from the doors not many people use it, especially during the overnight-hours when I'm there.

There’s a few camping choices available at Caprock, though I can’t personally recommend the walk-in tent sites there on Lake Theo. Each site does have a sheltered table but it all looks more like a picnic area turned into a campground as an afterthought, so the sites are small and crammed right on top of each other with no privacy.

Most RV-ers choose the Honey Flat Camping Area which is a nice easy, flatish drive from the visitor center, with the exception of the dip over the Lake Theo spillway, and has both 30 amp as well as 50 amp sites with water.

But been there, done that, and wasn’t impressed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the sites,

My Honey Flats campsite in 2016

but the last half-dozen or so times I’ve been on water-electric sites I never bothered to break out my power cord, which seems like a waste of my camp-site dollars when there’s less expensive alternatives; although expensive is relative with a 30 amp water-electric site running $17 and the tent sites I'll get to in a moment costing $12. 

One thing to watch out for if driving past Honey Flats is the prairie dog town inside that red circled area back there on the map. Most of the inhabitants are pretty laid back but there are some that will panic and run in unpredictable directions so you don’t want to be going too fast through here.

And in one case there’s a burrow right in the middle of the road! Which I might not have noticed at all except I saw a prairie dog dive into it.

In addition to full-featured Honey flats campsites there's also a couple of primitive backpack camps in the park, or, for those with horses, the Wild Horse Equestrian camp, but my choice of campsite this stay was to drive down into the canyon (Honey Flats is up on the rim) to one of the two tent camping areas. The parking area at Little Red Tent Camping Area is – well parking-lot like, which is no big deal if you are actually staying in a tent, which I’m not.

The thing Little Red Tent Camping Area has going for it that South Prong does not is shelters at each site.

One thing to note about driving back this far into the park is not just one, but two steep dips in the road resulting in four 16% grades. This is steep enough that first-gear is not going to hold so you will have to use the brakes.

No trailers over 15 feet are allowed on this section of the road, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anything with a long wheelbase and overhangs because of the sharp turns and abrupt grade changes, but I have seen a 27 ft Class C down here, (Just cruising by, it never stopped.)

Another thing to watch for pretty much anywhere in the park are the bison, such as this pair of bulls I encountered on my way into my campsite.  (It was probably these same two bulls that played a part in a minor drama several days later, but I’ll get to that in another post.)

South Prong Tent Camping area, right at the end of the park road, is less parking-lot-ish and some of the sites seem to be more private, but there are no shelters here,


which is not that big a deal if you carry your own shelter.  I was also able to take advantage of a screen of Mesquite to shelter my shelter from the afternoon sun.

And I’m soon all “set up” at site 49 where all my cooking and sleeping will be done in The Van.

Sunday afternoon generated an intermittent stream of looky-loos that drove to the end of the road, around the loop and back out again, most without stopping, but that died off as the sun set and for the next 5 nights I was pretty much alone except for the occasional vehicle parked at the trail-head (Upper Canyon Trail) and one tent-camper that set up on the other side of the loop and stayed one night.

My kind of place! (When a ranger shopping for a small RV of his own stopped by on my last evening there to ask some questions about The Van I found that my unused voice didn't want to work properly at all)

Something to pay attention to, though there is a pit toilet at both Little Red and South Prong tent areas, there's no water beyond Honey Flats, which is also the nearest trash disposal, so bring what aqua you need and pack the trash out!

This place is nestled down at the mouth of a canyon that wanders another two miles towards the escarpment that seperates the rolling plains to the east and the south plains to the west. In a later post I’ll give you a sample of the abrupt and startling demarcation between these two geological features.

But for now I can’t help staring at the cliff behind me which, to varying degrees of clarity depending on the angle of the sun, appears to have a frieze carved into it,

including someone wearing a coned ceremonial hat.

A couple of final notes about coming to Caprock.

Though Quitique, 4 miles away, was the first US town to go to a completely wireless phone system (Installed by GTE in 1991, but they switched back to the old wired system two years later) don't expect data-grade cell signal around here.

In fact you will probably not have enough signal for even a low-tech voice-call from most of the park.

For that reason it's best to download the available PDF trail-maps well before you get here, like back at Estilline out there on a main highway. This could be especially important because the visitor center may have run out of paper maps, as was the case when I arrived this time. (Fortunately part of my pre-trip-prep is to download maps.)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Need For Speed!

Proof positive that us Texans are bat-shit crazy about our right to kill ourselves with excess speed!

I’m just on the outskirts of Estilline where the eastern end of Texas-86 dead-ends at US-287. Forty miles west of here is Quitaque. In between is two lanes of twisting state road threading between ranches and cotton fields as it tracks along an un-named ridge. (on the south side of the road water drains to the North Pease River and on the north to the Little Red River)

Bob Wills’ tour bus at sunrise

Thirty miles in, offering a temporary respite from the blistering speed, is the town of Turkey, population 421, home town of Bob Wills – king of country swing.

From here it’s another 10 miles to Quitaque, (kit-a-kway) population 411, home town of Jimmy Ross – President of Lions Club International 2006-2007. No, I’m serous! As you come into town from the west there’s a big sign saying so.

Halfway in between Turkey and Quitaque is an unmapped place called Valley View, home of Valley School, which is shared by the two towns plus an unincorporated area, (Flomot, population 181) all spread out across three different counties.  Next to Valley School is the Valley View Drive-in movie theater. The sign says ‘closed for winter’, but I’m not sure how many years ago now that was. . .

So what?

Well Quitaque is 4 miles south of Caprock Canyons State Park and more on that in future posts,

Estimating off the white line, which by Federal mandate is 10' long, (Who says the government never did anything for us?) the driver taking this photo is, if I'm being generous, about 90 feet behind the truck. At 55.5 mph the proper following distance of 2 seconds is 162.8 feet. Now who's the bad driver?

but as long as we’re on the subject of speed, (or at least I am.) there’s been some grumbling on forums and blogs lately about slow trucks passing slower trucks and inconveniencing other drivers who want to go even faster, and this image has been bandied about to illustrate the point

I actually question that the numbers pasted into the image are realistic since many of the big trucking companies, including Schneider there on the right,  govern their fleet trucks at 62 MPH while owner-operators, which carry their own liability insurance, contracted to the carrier are often governed at 65 MPH. (These are not arbitrary speeds but rather are derived from hundreds of millions of miles worth of data that’s been crunched down to optimum delivery times verses operating cost, safety, and equipment wear-and-tear. Maybe the rest of us should sit up and take notice?)

Being one of those laid-back drivers that doesn’t mind slowing down (On Texas-86 I ended up behind an old travel-trailer recently pulled out of the weeds and doing no more than 55 lest it fall apart on one of the turns. Rather than go through the stress and risk of passing on a twisting 2-lane so I could get back up to my usual 60 to 65, I just sat back and relaxed for the next 20 miles.) I got to wondering what the real, rather than the perceived, effects of road-speed are. 

For a typical scenario on a Texas freeway I took truck A doing 62 and truck B coming up behind doing 65. The speed difference amounts to truck B covering 264 feet per minute more than truck A. If truck B pulls out to pass when a truck and a half length behind truck A, about 113 feet between front bumper and back of trailer, and moves back over when the rear of the trailer is a truck and a half length ahead of truck A, that’s a total difference of 375 feet truck B has to make up out there in the passing lane, which, given the difference in the speed of the two trucks will take 1.42 minutes. If during that 1.42 minutes, speedy-car, running at 75 MPH and coming up behind truck B at the exact moment truck B pulls out to pass, will lose a whole 1250 feet of forward progress compared to spending the same 1.42 minutes doing 75 MPH. Barring any other such incidents, at the end of one hour speedy-car, assuming speedy-car sticks to the 75 MPH speed limit the rest of the time, will have covered 74.76326 miles instead of the 75 the driver was hoping for. That difference of 0.236742 miles cost the driver a whole 11.55303 seconds.

Oh boo-hoo!! It takes most of us longer than that to fish our credit-card out after the checker has rung us up. (I swear, a lot of us act as if having to actually pay at the check-out comes as a surprise every time!)

11.5 seconds is also the time it takes to do a pretty decent 100 yard dash, but of course, being American, speedy-car’s driver is 20 to 30 pounds overweight and hasn’t done anything more strenuous in the past 5 years than a quick shuffle from couch to fridge and back during a commercial break so couldn’t run for 100 yards all in one shot at any speed.  . .

But let’s make the whole thing worse and say truck B was doing 63 to truck A’s 62. Then it takes a whopping 4.261364 minutes to make the pass and at the end of the hour speedy-car is 41.59091 seconds behind. My question is just what the hell is so important that 42 seconds, less than the time it takes to watch just one more commercial on TV, is worth getting riled up about???

Unthinking shit like that riles me up!