Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tour of the Natchez Trace

Tour of the Natchez Trace - October 15-21, 2011

The last trip of the year was a quick loop east with the primary goal of traveling the 440 mile length of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The original trace was a series of Native American trails which were later used by the European explorers. Thomas Jefferson wanted to have a better connection between the new Mississippi frontier and the settled part of the U.S., so he commissioned a road from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi that followed the old route. In the 1930's construction began on the Parkway along the same route. It is a part of the National Park system.

I took the northern route to Nashville along I-40 most of the way. I paused in Oklahoma City for a few hours to visit the Oklahoma City Zoo which was quite nice. They have several large, natural looking enclosures with a lot of trees. They also have a new, very large elephant exhibit which was nice. It took a couple of hours to walk around the whole thing which was a good break from driving.

Some assorted pictures of the Oklahoma City Zoo.

After camping that night in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I detoured from I-40 and went southeast a bit to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas. This was a nice drive with some heavily forested mountains to go through. At Hot Springs, the goal was to see the Hot Springs National Park.

This Park has two distinctions: it is the smallest National Park at 5,550 acres plus it is the only National Park in the middle of a city. It is located on Central Avenue which is much like the street of the same name in Albuquerque. It wasn't easy to find a spot to park but I eventually got one.

The park itself is mainly a row of old bath houses that operated over the last two hundred years or so. The houses have some examples of "Gilded Age" architecture and the the whole row of them are listed as a National Historic Landmark. One of them is still operating but I didn't make use of it. Another one is the headquarters of the park and allows a tour of the inside.

A few of the bath houses at the park.

A view down Central Avenue from the porch of one of the bath houses in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

 Inside the bath house used as the park headquarters.

Back on the road, I headed up I-30 a ways until it intersected with I-40 at Little Rock and then I took I-40 east. The road leads through Memphis and I camped about an hour west of Nashville. The weather was pretty warm with highs in the upper 80's most of the way so I had to run the air conditioner in the camper to stay cool.

The following morning's goal was to find the northern end of the Natchez Trace. I wandered around a bit in southwest Nashville where there was a lot of really nice homes and estates. Finally, I found the road I needed and got onto the trace itself. There are historical markers and scenic overlooks along the way and I stopped at a few of them. The trace heads southwest and crosses into the northwest corner of Alabama and then traverses most of Mississippi.

Following are several pictures of the Trace, itself - not necessarily in order that I saw them.

On the Natchez Trace at last. Just outside of Nashville.

A view from an overlook which shows a family farm in southern Tennessee.

A view overlooking the land in Southern Tennessee.

The Trace where is crosses the Tennessee River.

This view is in Mississippi in the morning - south of Tupelo. There are a lot of leaves that have already fallen from the trees.

This is in Mississippi - tornado damage from April, 2011. It wiped out several miles of forest right along the road.

Before leaving Tennessee, I paused at the site where Meriwether Lewis died (of Lewis and Clark fame). He apparently committed suicide but a few people thought he had been murdered. He is buried there and has a monument as well.

The house that he died in.

I made a detour in Alabama and headed east from the Trace for about 15 miles. There, I found Tuscumbia, Alabama which is the birthplace of Helen Keller and I stopped off at the house where she was born. Her life was made famous by several books and films, most notably, The Miracle Worker. Her image was chosen for the back of Alabama's state quarter.

I wasn't sure if I would like this sort of thing but it turned out to be one of my favorite stops on the trip. The house itself was interesting since it was preserved as it had been in the 1880's when she was born. There was a guided tour of the place and hearing her story was extremely inspirational. It's hard to imagine what life would be like if you were blind and deaf and had no way to communicate.

One interesting thing I learned there came from a piece of furniture in the living room. Standing in front of the fireplace was what looked like a shield on a stand - something a knight might carry into battle. It was used to keep the heat from the fireplace from blasting out into the room which would cause problems. Lady's makeup of the day used a lot beeswax and the gentlemen also used beeswax to curl their mustaches. If the fire's heat was too strong it would melt the beeswax and makeup would get streaks in it. It was considered impolite to comment on someone's streaky face so they had an expression - 'Mind your own beeswax'. I never knew where that saying came from, before.

The front of Helen Keller's birthplace - quite a front yard.

Her bedroom - she had the small bed as a child and her teacher, Anne Sullivan had the larger bed.

This is the famous water pump where she first made the connection between the finger spelling into her palm and the word 'water'.

While I was in the area, I wanted to stop at an oddball site that I had heard of. It is the National Coon Dog Cemetary. It wasn't very large but it was an interesting place to visit. Afterward, I got back on the trace and headed south to Tupelo, Mississipi to spend the night. I couldn't locate a campground, though, so I ended up using my fallback plan of overnighting in a Walmart parking lot (which they let people do). The weather turned cold that evening and the temperature outside got down to near freezing.

The National Coon Dog Cemetery.

Some grave markers were fancy and some were just hand-carved. Quite a few had nothing more than a rock marking the grave.

The next detour came at Jackson. Mississippi where I headed west for about thirty miles to the town of Vicksburg. This is the home of the Vicksburg National Military Park where they commemorate the battle and siege of Vicksburg. This battle was considered one of the major turning points of the Civil war since it was the last part of the Mississippi river that had been controlled by the South. General Grant figured he had to take the town or else he would lose his job so he tried everything from direct assault to tunneling but he couldn't break through. Finally, it was the lack of food and water that led the Southern Lt. General John Pemberton to surrender.

The park itself has a long driving tour along the hills outside of town that shows where all the Union forces were located. It also has a big display of the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat that was sunk there. It has been recovered and is on display. It is the first boat in history to be sunk by an electrically contolled mine. Confederate soldiers waited in the bushes for a boat to come by and then detonated the mine manually.

There are markers like this for every military group at the location where they were stationed - I don't know if those are regiments or what. There are also numerous monuments built by the individual states - such as the obelisk below. There are 1,325 monuments and markers like this in the park.

There are 144 canons in their original places.

An example of a state monument - in this case, put up by Illinois.

Statue of Ulysses S Grant - this hill was his command headquarters.

 Some of the twenty miles of trenches and earthworks that can still be seen.

The ironclad gunboat USS Cairo


This view shows the place where the mine exploded and broke open the hull.

This is a view from inside looking straight back. The pipes are the steam pipes which drive the paddle wheel that can be seen behind them.

 Part of the Vicksburg National Cemetary - 18,244 soldiers buried there from both sides.

While in Vicksburg I stopped at the Biedenham Coca-Cola Museum which is where Coca-Cola was first bottled. (Vicksburg is also the place where the Mint Julep was invented, according to some people.) The museum was mostly a collection of memorabillia but had a few pieces of old time equipment. Overall it wasn't very exciting.

The Coca-Cola Museum.

The next day I headed back to Jackson to pick up the trace and follow it the rest of the way to Natchez. Natchez, itself, was a pretty place, a typical small town atmosphere with a neat, clean appearance. From there, I headed home, first up to Shreveport, Louisianna, and then on I-20 across Texas. I camped in Arlington, Texas and then made it home by the next evening. Overall, it was a nice trip, but I did a lot of driving.

Total miles driven - 3008
Average gas mileage - 9.6

Friday, September 30, 2011

Colorado / Utah / Arizona - August 18-24, 2011

This year's annual trip to the cabin in Colorado with a bunch of friends has come around again and we figured it was the 20th anniversary this time. I used the occaision to do a bit of sightseeing afterwards, just as I did last year.

The weather was good with only a little rain in the evenings. We were treated to an impressive lightning show as we sat on the porch one night. There was the usual hiking, fishing, tubing on the Platte river, and a big steak dinner. This year we had two sub groups of guys but the schedules let us overlap for a couple of days - we had eight of us at one time which is the record.

All eight of us - we're getting a bit long in the tooth.

After leaving the cabin (which is west of Woodland Park and East of Buena Vista), I headed toward US 285 and then south to Poncha Springs. There I picked up US 50 West over Monarch pass (11,312 feet) and then on to Gunnison. Since this was a Sunday, I saw numerous small caravans of vintage cars, corvettes, motorcycles, etc. who were out on a Sunday scenic drive.

As I got closer to Montrose, I hit the road to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The canyon was carved by the Gunnison River and is up to 2.772 feet deep and is quite narrow, down to only 1300 feet across at one place. The river drops down very rapidly at an average of 34 feet per mile (The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon only drops at 7.5 feet per mile). The river itself is rated at Class V to unnavigable for kayakers, so only the most expert ones have a chance (and they have to portage around some spots).

It is hard to get a good concept of the scale of things - I need a wide angle lens for my camera, I guess.

The following morning I headed north a bit toward Grand Junction. Near the town is the Colorado National Monument which is an area of spectactular canyons with sandstone and granite cliffs. It became a National Monument in 1911 and has a nice loop road through the area.

As I was arriving at the entrance gate I saw a sign that read 'Tunnels ahead - low clearance - 10'6"' which was pretty worrisome. My camper is just under 12' tall. I asked the ranger if the sign was correct and she showed me a picture of the tunnels and said I should be OK. The tunnels are carved in an arch profile and the low clearance is on the very edge of the roadway. If I stuck to the middle of the road the clearance was more like 14 feet. Fortunately the tunnels were short and there wasn't much traffic so I made it through with no issues.

Colorado National Monument

Afterwards, I took I-70 west for a ways into Utah and then headed south toward the Capital Reefs National Park. This park sits on the Waterpocket Fold, which is a 100 mile long wrinkle in the earth's crust. There are lots of canyons, ridges, buttes, and monliths. There is one area with a line of Navajo Sandstone domes which are white in color and remind people of the U.S. Capial dome which is where the park gets its name. I ran into a nice thunderstorm while I was there but managed to get a few pictures anyway. After stopping at the visitor's center, I headed on to Richfield, Utah where I camped for the night.

Capital Reefs National Park. Rain clouds made the pictures a bit dark.

The main visitor's center at the park.

The next stop was Zion National Park which is close to the southern border of Utah off of I-15. The main area is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. There is a road through the park but to use it I had to pay an extra $15 access fee because of the tunnel that cuts through the mountains. This is another arch shaped tunnel where the clearance on the sides is quite low. In this case, though, there is lots of traffic and the tunnel itself (built in 1931) is 1.1 miles long. They have to use flagmen at each side to stop traffic for RVs to go through while driving right down the center stripe. There were a lot of RVs so I wasn't the only one they had to handle specially. This park was by far the busiest one I visited on this trip.

Heading into Zion National Park.

Near the visitor's center at Zion.

Also near the visitor's center.

This is the line of cars waiting for our turn to go through the tunnel that leads straight through that rock wall ahead of us.

Emerging from the east side of Zion, I headed north again and a little east to arrive at Bryce Canyon National Park. Guess what? More spectacular scenery. This park is higher in elevation than the others - between 8000 and 9000 feet. It is basically a huge amphitheatre formed by erosion of the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. There are lots of formations known as Hoodoos. The road through the park has numerous stops for panoramic views of the valley. I camped that night in a remote KOA that sits between Zion and Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park. Examples of hoodoos.

Heading home the next day, I took a road south through Kanab, Utah and into northern Arizona. I saw the turnoff for the north rim of the Grand Canyon but I didn't go there this trip. The road headed toward Page, Arizona but I turned south before I got that far. Along the way the road traveled along the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. There isn't a visitor center for this place so I just took a few pictures along the way. It is a long stretch of cliffs, really an escarpment of the Colorado Plateau.

Part of the escarpment of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

Just a bit north of Flagstaff are two more National Monuments - Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki. Sunset Crater is a relatively young cinder cone from about 1000 years ago. There are quite a few lava flows and areas of cinders that look like they are brand new. The same loop road through Sunset Crater leads through Wupatki which is the home of several ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo from about 800 years ago. This used to be the largest pueblo in the area.

Some of the lava flows from the volcano.

The cinder cone of Sunset Volcano.

One of the ruins from Wupatki pueblo.

Following lunch in Flagstaff I made it home that evening. The only excitement was a big thunderstorm just east of Grants which caused a lot of water to flow over I-40. The west bound lanes where actually closed but the eastbound ones weren't as bad so I drove through the runoff without problems.

Total miles driven - 1887
Average MPG - 10.4

States Visited - New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona.