2018  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

Starr's Mill and Lake, Peachtree City, GA

 

   
 
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   ON THE ROAD AGAIN:  CAMPING & HIKING 
  AT BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK IN TEXAS

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 13

 
"On the road again,  
I just can't wait to get on the road again . . .
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again . . ."
 
~ Famous song by Willie Nelson
 
 
Oh great. Now I'll be humming that song the rest of the day!

Well, it took 20 months but Jim and I are back "on the road again" in our RV to play snowbird for a couple of months in one of our favorite winter hangouts, the desert Southwest. We'll see a few new places but mostly return to old favorites that we haven't visited for several years.


View of Arizona's iconic "Four Peaks" from McDowell Mtn. Regional Park east of Phoenix  (Jan., 2008)

A little history . . .

We traveled around North America in a 32-foot HitchHiker II 5th-wheel rig and then our current 36-foot Carriage Cameo 5th-wheel coach (purchased new in early 2010) for thirteen years, from 2004 to 2017.

The first ten years we had a house in Virginia but traveled eight to nine months of the year. When the housing market finally recovered enough, we sold our house.

From 2014 to 2017, we were house-free, full-time RV travelers, still exploring the continent in our rolling residence but spending an increasing amount of time in each place instead of moving frequently.


One of my favorite destinations was Denali National Park in Alaska.
We spent two summers up there.  (August, 2012)

Because of the increasing popularity of RVing as the economy improved, we had increasing difficulty making RV park and campground reservations.

By 2016 it became very difficult to have any kind of spontaneity about when and where we stayed, both overnight in transit from one side of the country to another and at our preferred destinations.

Public, private, and military campgrounds became very crowded and we had to reserve sites many months in advance, which required tedious planning, disappointments when we couldn't find a suitable place to stay when/where we wanted to go (especially in or near national parks), and some lost $$ when we cancelled or modified reservations we had to make so far ahead.


If we aren't able to get a site inside a national park, we hunt for one as close possible
outside the park. This nice site is in a private RV park just outside Zion NP.  (April, 2016)

It also became more difficult but still possible to find some good boon-docking (dry camping) sites on public lands. However, in our late 60s we had morphed to preferring sites with partial or full hook-ups (electricity, water, sewer) because it was easier on us.

Decent TV and internet connections were nice, too!

We were also starting to repeat our destinations too much. We liked a mix of favorite places we'd previously enjoyed because of the scenery and hiking/cycling opportunities and also some new ones to keep things interesting but we eventually found ourselves spending longer and longer periods of time in the same places over and over again.


The longest we ever stayed in one spot was this large site next to Lake D
at Kings Bay Sub Base in St. Marys, GA just before we bought our
current house in early 2017.  We were there almost five months.

The fun for us was mostly gone from RV traveling by 2016 so we made the decision, after tons of research re: where to "settle down," to purchase another house.

We're very happy with the community, neighborhood, and house we chose. It's a great place to "age in place." We have spent the last 20 months getting settled in and enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle without the hassles of traveling.

HITCH ITCH

So what has changed? The same problems exist with more RVs than sites to hold them. Why are we back on the road again now?

Mostly because of Jim's desire to compete in one of our previous favorite foot races, the Across the Years (ATY) multi-day events in metro Phoenix, Arizona. The event is held in a relatively warm place in late December and RVs can park free onsite at its current location for the duration of the race.


Jim at his last ATY 24-hour run on 12-29-10

After being unable to run for six years Jim had a partial knee replacement at the end of 2016. By the end of 2017 our new orthopedist gave him the go-ahead to walk as much as he wants, as long as he doesn't run -- "no pounding."

Jim was eager to resume training for ultra distances again. In the previous entry I chronicled his comeback throughout 2018 as he completed five events leading up to ATY, his goal race, reaching 100+ miles in two of them.

He is registered for one of the 48-hour events in Phoenix at the end of December.


The one-mile ATY loop skirts this pretty lake at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, AZ,
spring training grounds for the Dodgers and White Sox.  (December, 2011)

As soon as we could reserve sites -- most were six months in advance -- we made campground reservations at several regional and state parks and one military base for this winter trip.

Some are places where we've stayed before, but not for several years -- Brazos Bend SP in Texas, McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Phoenix, Nellis AFB in N. Las Vegas. One is new to us -- Lost Dutchman SP in Arizona.

As usual, we may make some modifications as we travel. We have learned to be very flexible over the years with this mobile lifestyle! You never know what can happen to change your plans, even if it's just information that prompts us to go somewhere new.


We had a spacious site (red dot) on our first visit to the RV park at Nellis AFB in Vegas in April, 2016.

We decided to do a short "shakedown" trip in the Cameo in mid-October to attend one of Jim's foot races in Alabama.

We spent two nights with full hookups before the race at Uchee Creek Campground at Fort Benning, GA, three nights dry camping AKA boon-docking at the race site in Alabaster, AL, and one night with full hookups after the race at Fort Benning (next photo) before putting the camper back into temporary storage on base.

That trip was enlightening, after not using the camper for 19 months! We've gotten used to a larger refrigerator, bed, etc. in our stix-n-brix house and had sort of forgotten how much smaller things are in the Cameo.

We did some cleaning and maintenance on the camper before parking it in storage again, and made lists of what was already inside and what we'd need for our longer winter trip.

Two days before we left home in early December, Jim went down to Fort Benning to get the Cameo so we could pack it for the trip. Although we can't store it at our house, we can park it there temporarily before and after trips:

We broke the trip up by staying a few days outbound at Brazos Bend State Park south of Houston, TX. This entry and another page will focus on the campground at Brazos Bend, the network of hiking and cycling trails in the park, and the alligators and birds for which the park is renowned.

DEJA VU AT BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK

This was our third, and shortest, visit to Brazos Bend State Park.

Our first time there was in March of 2010 when we had a reservation for several weekdays. We loved the place! There were lots of trails to hike and bike, numerous flowers, birds, and alligators, and the campsites were very nice.

The only problems were no available sites on weekends, the two-week maximum limit for camping, and no sewers in the visitor sites, just water and electricity. That's all typical for state parks.


There are about 500 adult American alligators in the park, plus babies in the spring.
They often lie in the sun right next to the trails!  (Feb., 2010)


Pretty spring flowers along the Red Buckeye Trail  (March, 2011)

We wanted to stay longer so when I noticed on the second day that one of the two campground host sites -- with a sewer -- was empty in the loop where we were parked, we inquired about the availability of that site for visitors.

We were told the only way we could stay in it was if we were volunteer campground hosts.

The previous hosts had to leave unexpectedly a few days ago. Do you want the job?


We had the same spacious CG host site in the Burr Oak loop in 2010 and 2011.
(And we have the same truck and camper now!)

Hmm. That's something we'd never seriously considered before. We wanted to be footloose and fancy-free that winter, when we could still spontaneously find nice campsites just about anywhere we wanted to go without making reservations weeks or months in advance.

But it was mighty tempting since the only way we could stay at Brazos Bend longer than two weeks, or have a sewer connection, was to apply for the campground host position.

After determining what was required of us, we applied and were accepted. There was no pay for 20 hours of work/week (total for the two of us) but we got our campsite with full hookups for free. That saved us a good bit of money.

We promptly moved into the very nice CG host site and had fun painting signs, cleaning up litter in vacated campsites and out on the trails, and doing light maintenance work the next four weeks.


Us in our volunteer Texas State Parks shirts;
that's Cody in front. (Feb., 2010)


Jim and another CG host install one of the signs we painted.  (Feb., 2010)

We had so much fun that year we did the same thing in early spring of 2011 -- same site but different responsibilities that didn't appeal to us as much that year, so we left after about six weeks. 

This is the first time we've been back to Brazos Bend in almost eight years. We made reservations for three nights so we could pause in a relaxing, scenic location during our journey to Arizona and see what, if anything, was new in the park.

CAMPING AT BRAZOS BEND

This 5,000-acre state park is both a nature preserve and a recreation area.

The park is a convergence zone for a variety of habitats. Its wetlands, lakes, prairies, and forests are full of wildlife, including 300+ species of birds, fish, deer, fox, armadillos, other mammals, and hundreds of American alligators.

Above and below:  'gator and nearby warning sign along Elm Lake   (12-11-18)

Camping, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, picnicking, fishing, geo-caching, wildlife and nature photography, and bird-watching are the most popular recreational activities in the park.

Overnight accommodations include cabins, screened shelters, 39 "premium" campsites in the Burr Oak loop with 50-amp electric hookups and water, 32 "standard" campsites in the Red Buckeye loop with 30-amp electricity and water hookups, 15 walk-in primitive tent sites, 15 primitive equestrian sites, and two large youth group sites.


One of the very nice sites in the Burr Oak loop; it wasn't empty for long!  (12-13-18)

Current prices per night for the premium campsites are $25, and $20 for the standard sites -- plus a daily entrance fee of $7 per person age 13 and over unless you have an annual Texas state park pass.

Our 50-amp site cost $25/night. In order to avoid an additional $14/day fee we purchased an annual pass for $70 that is good until the end of December, 2019.

The pass also includes several half-price coupons for stays of two days or more. We saved another $12.50 on this visit to Brazos Bend and avoided the entrance fees for one night at South Llano River State Park after we left Brazos Bend. We may stay at one or more parks in Texas on our way back home and on next year's trip to the Southwest.


View to Elm Lake past one of the sprawling live oak trees draped in Spanish moss  (12-11-18)

We got to Brazos Bend before lunch on a weekday and had our choice of about 60% of the sites in the Burr Oak camping loop with the 50-amp sites.

We chose a long, double-wide site that had no standing water -- the area received at least six inches of rain right before we arrived, and some of the sites were very soggy.

Despite all the trees surrounding us we had good TV reception for a lot of stations with just our RV antenna and decent internet with the unlimited Verizon mobile hotspot service we got for this trip.


Our current site  (12-11-18)


Casey (L) and Holly outside the camper; this is Holly's first long RV trip.


Scene outside our desk windows

NOT THE BEST TIME TO VISIT BRAZOS BEND

Our timing to visit the park wasn't as good in December as the other times we were here in early spring, which comes in February this far south. Temperatures were colder, very few flowers were in bloom, and the deciduous trees and shrubs had lost their leaves.

The park is at its finest in the spring, not winter, but it was more green than most places around the country in mid-December so the days we spent here were still a pleasant respite from "winter."


Lots of green grass and live oak trees surround the nature center.  (12-13-18)


Green grasses and other water plants in Lake Elm  (12-11-18)

Above and below:  Algae in the wetlands and on lakes is green year-round.
Above: near Old Horseshoe Lake; below, Creekfield Lake  (12-13-18)

In addition, this week several trails were either a mess or closed because of mud and standing water.

I mentioned earlier all the rain this area has gotten in recent days, weeks, and months. Texas seems to really get slammed with excess rain. We've never seen the park this wet and muddy or the river so high, especially in the winter (we were here previously in early spring, when you'd expect it to be more wet).


The White Oak Trail was "open" but had more water than some trails that were "closed."

We saw serious erosion on the lower Red Buckeye Trail loop back in 2011. The trail has been re-routed since then because of other floods on the Brazos River:


Very high Brazos River (12-12-18)

This week the flooding was so significant that the re-routed trail at the bottom of the lower loop was totally under water at the convergence of Big Creek and the Brazos River:


The river is on the left, the creek on the right; the trail just disappears into the water.  (12-12-18)

That was one of my favorite trails when we were here before, partly because the red buckeye trees had brilliant red blooms in early spring and partly because there were nice views of the creek and river. It's too early now for the flowers to be in bloom.

Although it was marked closed, I hiked the upper Red Buckeye loop anyway and went down to the flooded part just to see it. The rest of the trail was more dry than others that were officially open.

Other trails that were closed included Hale Lake, Live Oak, Bayou Trail, Sawmill Trail, Yellowstone Landing, and the whole equestrian campground.


The trail to the pier at Hale Lake was open but the pier itself was closed
because the bridging to the right was under water.

This flooding is nothing, however, compared to what the park must have looked like last year after Hurricane Michael.

I kept seeing what appeared to be water lines four to six feet above the ground in trees in various parts of the park, including the south side of Elm Lake (first picture below) and along the road to the large picnic area on the north side of that lake (second picture):

 

Jim noticed them, too. Neither of us saw these light and dark lines when we were here in 2010 and 2011.

So I asked a ranger and she confirmed they were, indeed, flood lines from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, one of the worst hurricanes to hit southern Texas in modern times The darker, lower areas were from standing water.

Wow. That means many of the park roads and trails were completely under water for a while!

Continued on the next page:  more photos of scenery, trails, and critters at Brazos Bend

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, Casey, and Holly-pup

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2018 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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