Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wild(flower) Campouts

This article of mine appears in the spring issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.
Spring’s arrival means hillsides transformed by multicolored riots of wildflowers. To truly appreciate the blooms, hike, bike, or—best yet—bed down among them. The show varies depending on rain, temperature and elevation, but March, April, and May bring peak spring color across the nation’s lower half and upper latitudes bloom well into June and July. For a dependable show, try these three camping havens in the thick of the color.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Native Tonkawas thought the creaking, 640-acre rock at the center of this Texas park was haunted—hence it’s name. As it turns out, the noises come from the heat-fueled expansion of the enormous granite batholiths. A handful of other revealed-by-erosion rock formations dot the open woodland and grassland that are most vibrant in April. Look for the state flower, bluebonnets, along with Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, bladderpod, and basin bellflower. Arrive early on weekends: The park often hits capacity and closes to late arrivals.

Things to do:

* Set up at one of 46 walk-in campsites or three primitive camping areas complete with fire rings and picnic tables.
* Climb the 0.6-mile trail to the top of the rock for long views of the surrounding countryside.
* Circumnavigate Enchanted Rock on the wide, easy 4.5-mile loop trail.
* Take a picnic lunch for an early-spring splash in Sandy Creek.
* Rope up for a climb on the rock’s north side. Technical routes range from 5.4 to 5.11.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

With sufficient rain and March’s peak-season mild temps, wildflowers sweep north through Joshua Tree’s 800,000 acres in waves of blue, red, yellow, and white. The Dr. Seuss–like signature Joshua trees, actually giant yuccas, bloom showy cream-colored flowers, while displays of yellow desert dandelions, delicate Spanish needles, blue chia, Mojave lupines, gold poppies, red chuparosa, and tiny forget-me-nots color the surrounding desert habitat.

Things to do:

* Pitch a tent under a crystal-clear desert sky. There are 500+ established campground sites and 585,000 acres of open-camping backcountry.
* Hike barely a mile to the palm-fan-lined oasis at Cottonwood Spring.
* Grab a pair of binocs and scout for golden eagles, roadrunners, and 76 other avian residents at the Oasis of Mara.
* Pedal fat tires into Pleasant Valley. Traffic is light on the 17-mile lollipop loop.

Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Missouri

This central-Missouri park is home to a fern-lined spring pumping more than 48 million gallons of water a day. The 30-year-old park is peppered with sinkholes, caves, cave shelters, and even a natural bridge, providing diverse habitats for wildflowers of all kinds. May is peak season for native prairie and woodland species, including catchfly, exotic ladies’ tresses, prairie roses, and multiple varieties of asters, coneflowers, blazing stars, violets, buttercups, and goldenrods.

Things to do:

* Hike the hilly 6.5-mile Turkey Pen Hollow Trail. Camping here is the park’s only overnight option.
* Look for mink, beaver, and otter from the stair-stepped boardwalk on Ha Ha Tonka Spring’s edge.
* Explore the ruins of a fire-burned castle (built in 1905) atop the 250-foot bluff.
* Pack your caving gear and call ahead to access Island Cave, the park’s only wild cave.
* Hike the 1.25-mile Devil’s Kitchen Cave trail and peek up at the sky through its chimney.
See the article with photos here.

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