American Locations 7 – Big Bend National Park

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Big Bend National Park, Texas


We drove west on Interstate 10 from Sonora to Fort Stockton. This Texas city has two claims to fame. One is it owns the largest roadrunner statue in the world.

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The other is its position as the northern gateway to Big Bend National Park. We spent the night at a private campground just off I-10. It was one of the few campgrounds we stayed at which had a good sit-down restaurant. Early the next morning we drove south on Hwy 385, passing through the small town of Marathon, and continued south into Big Bend.

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Soon after entering the park we were advised by a ranger to bypass the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center because it was swamped with visitors. So we drove on south into the park. Big Bend gets its name from how the Rio Grande River makes some sharp turns through deep narrow canyons in this area. The park is mostly desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, except for the Chisos Mountains in the middle of it.

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Which means there are a lot of cactus.

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And more cactus.

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And then there is cactus.

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You get the idea.

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We stopped at the next visitor center, as advised, and it wasn’t nearly as busy. Panther Junction Visitor Center is at the intersection of Park Rte. 12, which continues south, and Gano Springs Road, which connects to the central and western reaches of Big Bend. We continued south on Park Rte. 12.

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These are the Chisos Mountains in the background

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There is only one paved road heading south, but there are numerous gravel roads off of it taking you deep into the desert.

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And also hiking trails.

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Which lead to interesting rock formations.

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After stopping several times to hike trails and admire scenic vistas, we continued driving south on Park Rte. 12.

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After a very pleasurable day, we arrived at the Rio Grande River, the southern border of our country.

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American Locations 6 – Caverns of Sonora

This trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Caverns of Sonora, Texas

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Leaving San Angelo, Texas, we drove south on Hwy 277 to Sonora. We then drove a short distance west on I-10 and stopped to see the Caverns of Sonora. I first learned about this cave while watching the Planet Earth program. There is a brief mention of the Caverns of Sonora near the end of the segment on caves. There were some images of incredibly intricate crystal-like formations I had not seen in any other caves.

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Here is the Wikipedia entry about it:  The Caverns of Sonora, a National Natural Landmark, is a unique cave located 8 miles (13 km) west of the small city of Sonora, the seat of Sutton CountyTexas. It is a world-class cave because of its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, especially helictites. These helictites are found in extreme abundance, often with a rare purity and complexity. One formation is so densely packed with them, it has been dubbed the “snake pit”. The founder of the National Speleological Society, Bill Stephenson, said of the cave after his first visit: “This is the most indescribably beautiful cave in the world, its beauty cannot be exaggerated, not even by a Texan.”

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About ten miles or so west of Sonora on I-10 we took the Caverns Road exit and followed some narrow winding roads through remote ranchland. Don’t worry, the route is well-marked.

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It is less than ten miles south of the interstate. Above ground, there is not much to recommend it. A gift shop, of course, and a snack bar, and a small campground. The treasures are below ground.

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For some reason, because of the kind of cave it is, these caverns are not cool. They are warm and humid. Which a young man in our tour group who had recently dyed his hair orange learned to his dismay, as the orange color ran down all over his face and neck. But he redeemed himself at the end of the tour. Before exiting the cave he sang a beautiful song, which echoed majestically off the cavern walls. The reason he had dyed his hair was that he was the lead singer in a rock band, and he really had a nice voice.

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You should make an effort to see this cave soon. These formations are extremely fragile. And unlike better known caves, such as Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, the Caverns of Sonora are not part of the national park system. It is a private enterprise. Although our tour guide stressed we weren’t to touch any of the formations, since the oils on our skin would damage them, people weren’t heeding his warning. I suppose the reason being a private tour guide does not have the authority of a park ranger, so is easily disregarded. Also, some of the passageways were extremely tight, making it difficult not to graze against some of these incredible pieces of nature art. So try to see these amazing caverns before they are too badly damaged.

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You know how formations in caves get tagged with corny names. Here is a photo of my favorite titled formation: the strip of bacon.

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American Locations 5 – San Angelo

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.


San Angelo State Park, Texas

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From Lake Mineral Wells State Park we drove south on Hwy 281 to Interstate 20. We continued west on I-20 to Abilene, where we turned south on Hwy 277 to San Angelo. At San Angelo State Park, about midway between I-20 and I-10, Texas begins looking like what you expect Texas to look like. Cactus.

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And bison.

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And not much water.

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I was confused first time I looked at a map of the park. There were hiking trails passing right through the lake. I thought they must have built some bridges or boardwalks across parts of the lake for some reason. Then a ranger explained to me the water level had dropped drastically, in fact they were in a draught that had been going on for decades. The trails on the map were drawn on an old image of the lake which showed the water level at its previous height. So it only seemed on the map that the hiking trails went through the lake.

Another strange thing at the park was the boat ramp to nowhere.

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Originally, when the boat ramp was first built, it reached the water. But the level of the lake has dropped so drastically it ends a good football field length away. The dirt road in the picture going off to the right is what people use to haul their boats down to the lake today.

Something I wasn’t expecting to see was mistletoe. I’m a northerner and am used to associating mistletoe with Christmas. Right along with sleigh rides and snowmen. Not something that grows on trees in the desert. But it does.

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That’s mistletoe in the treetops. How it ever got associated with icy cold Christmas I have no idea.

I hope their draught ends soon. In the meantime, they have some incredible sunsets, the kind that seems to only happen in the wide open skies of the American Southwest.

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American Locations 4 – Lake Mineral Wells

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Lake Mineral Wells State Park, Texas

After spending all day at the Fort Worth Stockyards, we didn’t want to drive far. So we headed west out of Ft. Worth on I-30 and stopped overnight at Lake Mineral Wells State Park.


Most dams have roads across the tops of them. The dam at Lake Mineral Wells State Park in Texas has a road across the spillway. So you are driving below the water level when you cross the dam. It’s kind of strange, driving by the lake with the water at eye level. Must be what people in New Orleans feel like all the time, living below sea level.

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Yet another area of the park is set aside for rock climbing. From below the lake to the rocky heights.

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The lake is located in north central Texas just west of Dallas. It is an unusual area. It is the only region in Texas with such high hills and a hardwood forest. This was such a rugged terrain that it was difficult to root out the Native Americans who lived here. Also, this area was a good place for outlaws to hide out. Most of Texas is wide open, but this little part of it is verdant and rocky.

The lake itself is the biggest attraction now. You can sit by the lakeside in the evening and listen to the birds call to one another in the high weeds as they settle down for the night, to be joined by a chorus of frogs. A very relaxing way to spend a quiet evening. Soothing, actually, after driving through Dallas.

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My wife and I hiked around the lake the next morning.

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We vacated the campsite early the next morning. When we arrived the night before we’d found the picnic table festooned with a festive tablecloth and balloons. We double-checked to make sure we had the correct site. We did. Someone was having a party here the next day and had decorated early. So we left early and went on our hike, so we wouldn’t interfere with their party.