Wordless Wednesday – Found in a Geocache

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Wordless Wednesday – Vacation Pictures

Astro Photography

Balmorhea State Park

Campfire Cooking

Davis Mountains State Park

Fort Davis National Site

Fort Davis Texas

Geocaching Travel Bug

Hiking

Hotel Limpia Restaurant

Hotel Limpia

Indian Lodge

Joyriding

Marfa Texas Courthouse

McDonald Observatory Frank Bash Visitors Center

Mexican Food

Monahans Sandhills St Park

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A Tale of Two Parks in One

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Sunset at San Angelo State Park, North Concho campground

I mentioned toward the end of my previous post that we went on a quick weekend camping trip last weekend, since the weather was beautiful, and we wanted to just get away for a “happy distraction” after losing our beautiful fifteen year-old standard poodle almost two weeks earlier.  San Angelo State Park still had some open spots for RV campers, so I made an online reservation for two nights, and off we went.

This really is a “Tale of Two Parks” in one.  This huge park has separate north and south entrances with no internal park road connecting the two areas.  There is a PDF park map to view at their website, and this map may help to understand their “two-park” setup a little better.  Campers with reservations coming to the park after office hours also need to call ahead and get the gate code to get in.  It is almost ten miles from one entrance to the other along FM 2288, which feels like a two-lane freeway that connects the south entrance and the western side of San Angelo to US Highway 87, a major north/south highway.  Due to the unusually large amount of traffic both day and night, I would caution against riding this road on a bicycle.  And if you happen to miss the entrance to the north side at night, be aware that you will have to drive all the way to the south entrance to find a place to turn your 31-foot RV around.  Don’t ask me how I know that either.

First, I’m going to share our first impression of the south side, then move on to the things we loved about the area where we camped on the north side.  We did not expect to come away liking this area of the park as much as we did, and I’m sure we will be returning again in the future, as long as we can park the RV in one of the north campgrounds.

South Side

San Angelo State Park borders O. C. Fisher lake on the north, west and south sides, but unfortunately, the lake is mostly dry after the devastating drought in this area.  This is stated at the top of the park’s website, so it should be no surprise to anyone doing their homework before visiting the park.  I would love to have visited this place back in the 1980s when the lake was full, as I’m sure this was a great place for both boating and fishing.  Neither of those activities are possible now, as there is really not a lake there anymore.  Just prior to our visit, some beneficial rains hit the area and caused the lake to rise seven feet, but this is only a small fraction of the rain that is going to be needed to ever get this lake back to a useable state again.

Anyone visiting this park in hopes of taking advantage of any kind of lake activity will be very disappointed.  I took the picture below at the Lakeside camping area boat dock after the seven-foot rise in the lake, and as you can see, it will most likely be a very, very long time before lake fun will happen here again.  According to park personnel, there is presently no way to get to the water that is there.

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In keeping with this sad fact about the lake, we found the south side of the park, which is actually the main part of the park closest to the lake area, to be pretty disappointing.  There are few, if any, trees in the camping area for the most part, and it also seemed that while there were quite a few RV campers in this area, many of them appeared to be longer-term residents with portable exterior septic systems in place, which looked terrible to be honest.  It certainly seems that the park now allows some longer term campers to help pay the bills, since I’m sure that camping in this area has probably suffered tremendously from the lack of a viable lake.  While I know of at least one more big state park that allows longer term residents in the off-season, mostly for snow birds coming from the northern states, we did not see any snow birds here in any of the RV areas.  The feel in the Lakeside campground is one of a residential trailer park, not a family vacation destination.  While we understand the need to pay the bills, we personally would not like to camp in this particular campground for this reason.  The Red Arroyo campground seemed to have mostly vacation campers, though, as we saw several families camping there.  Again, it is not much to look at as far as beauty, but the view across the valley is very nice, and there is a restroom and shower facility nearby.

We rode all around the south side of the park, which was actually a nice ride on the motorcycle since the south side of the park covers a huge land area.  After the recent rains, it was a very pretty drive, even though we did not see much wildlife during our ride.  We also had the opportunity to be on the south side at night, and the lights from nearby San Angelo are visible to the southeast.  Depending on your camping preference, this could be a good or a bad thing.  We prefer darker skies when camping to see the stars as much as possible.

We also bought our obligatory state park magnet for me and hiking stick medallion for my husband at the small park store on the south side.  We make it a point to collect these items from every place that we camp now when they are available, since they are small souvenirs that are easy to carry in the compartment of the motorcycle and are available at most state and national parks.  I have also collected magnets for many years from places we have visited, even prior to our RV camping days that started two years ago this fall.

To sum up the positive aspects of the south side from our perspective, it is very large with many RV camping spaces, has some nice views of the valley where the lake is and used to be, has some decent camping in the Red Arroyo campground and has a little park store with a vending machine for sodas outside.  It is also very close to the town of San Angelo, for those that would like to be closer to town.  While we did not visit San Angelo on this particular trip, we have been there before.  It is a nice town with good restaurants and some shopping, and it is well worth a trip or two into town to see the sights it has to offer.

North Side

The north side of the park feels like a completely different park from the south side, and we really enjoyed our weekend of camping here.  It is in a more remote location away from the town and out of view of the lake area completely.  We camped in the Bald Eagle Creek campground, which sits on the east side of the North Concho river and just across the river from the North Concho equestrian campground.

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Group area in North Concho campground

Both campgrounds (Bald Eagle Creek and North Concho) have some sites with both water and electric for RV’s as well as some tent camping sites, and both campgrounds have large trees, which was quite a nice surprise for us.  After the recent rains, everything was pretty and green, and we also saw many deer near our campsite in the mornings and evenings.  Due to the drought, there are areas where trees have died nearby, and this is the case all over this part of the state.  This area is no different, but overall, it is still a beautiful area, especially after the recent rains.

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North Concho River between Bald Eagle Creek campground and North Concho campground

We were able to walk between the Bald Eagle Creek and North Concho campgrounds via a dirt road through the creek area that is accessible unless the river is up.  With this accessibility to move between the campgrounds so easily, we were able to walk through both areas and see what each one had to offer.

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Dirt road connecting North Concho and Bald Eagle Creek campgrounds is only accessible on foot, by bicycle or by horse when the creek is not high

Each campsite has a restroom building, but showers were only available in Bald Eagle Creek, not at North Concho.  While the facilities are small, older, and in need of some cosmetic repair and updating, we found them satisfactory for our needs for the weekend.  Bald Eagle Creek campground also has a dump station just east of the shower/restroom building.  North Concho has individual horse pens at each campsite, and we saw many beautiful horses there, a real treat for us.

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Campsites in North Concho Campground have individual pens for horses

The main surprise for us in this area was how beautiful and green it was all along the river, including the huge trees.  It reminded us of a little oasis in the desert, so to speak.

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Huge prickly pear cactus along the Shady trail
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Hiking the Shady trail on the North Concho River

We spent most of Sunday morning exploring the campgrounds and the Shady trail, which can be accessed at the Bell Trail Head at the south end of the North Concho campground.  Since we did not find this trail until late in our trip, we will have to return again sometime to explore it further and maybe even bring our bicycles along, as I think there are about 60 miles of trail to explore in the park.

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Bell Trail Head in the North Concho Campground
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Bell Trail Head in the North Concho Campground

We found a couple of quick geocaches in North Concho, and we also discovered a neat night cache there, too.  Again, we will have to return another time to give that one a try at night.  Our favorite geocache to date is a night cache on a trail at Abilene State Park, so I’m sure we would enjoy another night cache on a pretty trail here.  I will most definitely set some waypoints on my GPS unit the next time we look for a geocache at night, too.  Getting lost in the woods at night is not my idea of fun.  Again, don’t ask me how I know that.

The camp host on the north side was really very nice and helpful, and I just wanted to mention that fact.  We have met so many wonderful camp hosts in the state parks over the past two years, and I love to hear their stories.

The only issue we had with our campsite was with our 50 amp connection at the pole.  Thankfully, we were able to just use our 30 amp plug, instead of the 50 amp, and we only needed one A/C unit instead of two for this trip.  Had we visited during the heat of the summer, though, I’m afraid we would not have been able to stay in this particular site, since summer heat in this area can be brutal.  We advised park personnel of the issue by phone, so hopefully they will get it fixed quickly.

Overall

While we will likely only come back here for some quick weekend trips to do some hiking, bicycle riding and geocaching, we will certainly enjoy our time there when we go, especially in the spring or fall months when the summer heat is not a factor.  With so many miles of trails, I think this is also a great park for more serious bicycle riders, too.

I would also recommend this state park for campers needing an overnight stop while traveling on US Highway 87, and we would even consider an overnight stop on the south side as a good option in that situation, especially since it is closer to town for gasoline and other supplies, if needed.  We like the fact that all park entrances are locked after office hours and have no qualms with calling ahead to get the gate code for after hours access.

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Our New Hobby – Geocaching

Not long after we purchased our RV in 2011, I began looking into activities that are part of a fun camping experience these days, including creative camping recipes, interesting hikes, bicycle trails and camp games.  When looking at the Texas Parks and Wildlife site one day, I read about a geocache challenge that they sponsor and read up on it for a bit.  It sounded like something fun to do, but I mostly put that idea off to the side at the time in favor of those more traditional camping activities.

A fun (but hard to find) cache
A fun (but hard to find) cache

A few weeks ago, I checked out all things geocaching again and decided to explore it on a broader scale, and I’m so glad I did!  My husband and I have most definitely discovered the fun of geocaching now.  I purchased the $10 app from Geocaching.com for my phone (very much worth that small amount of money for the convenience it offers), and I also registered as a premium member for a year at a cost of $30, just to give it a try to fully check everything out.  I have been amazed at how accurate the GPS is on my Samsung Galaxy S3, too.  It basically points right to the spot where the hidden treasure is hidden via Google Maps, although we’ve found that we still have to look a bit to actually find where it is hidden.  And to our great surprise, we actually found a “travel bug” in the third cache we found, too.

We recently returned from a nine-day/night camping trip, visiting four different state parks, and we had a great time looking for geocaches during a part of our time in two of those parks.  Five other family members accompanied us on this trip in their own RV, and the teenagers immediately took to geocaching with a passion and wanted to look for them even more than we did much of the time.  So, my plan to find a new activity that we could all enjoy on our trip together was a huge success.  In fact, I do believe they are now hooked on geocaching themselves, even after we all got a bit lost at night in the woods after locating a fun night cache.  We eventually made our way to a road and just followed it back to our campsites, but we most definitely learned that we need to be better prepared when making such a trek in the future.  We also dropped the “travel bug” that I had found back at home at a big cache in one of the parks.  As of the time of this post, it is still sitting in that same cache, too.

Dropping a Travel Bug
Dropping a Travel Bug

At this point, we’ve found 24 geocaches, including some in our own area and those we found while on vacation.  I now find myself pulling up the geocaching app on my phone when out running errands to see if there is a geocache in that area, too.  For me, it’s not really about the treasure inside the cache but rather just the fun of the hunt and the stealth to keep from being noticed by the “muggles.”  I ordered some nice swag from Amazon to leave in a cache if I take something out, and so far, I’ve only traded items in six caches.  Some of the caches (especially the micro caches) only have a log in them, and sometimes in other larger caches, I opt to just leave the existing swag for someone else to claim and trade.  My husband and I also found our first official Texas State Park cache while on our trip, too.  Unfortunately, that find was after the rest of our family members had left to go home.  That was a very interesting find, as it was a pretty large cache with a collectible card to take, and there was also a special hole punch to punch a separate card to verify that we had found the cache.  I had not printed out those particular cards ahead of time from the website, but before we go geocaching again in the state parks, I will definitely do that, as they can be sent in to earn a special prize, with the lowest prize level starting at ten official cache finds.

Our next step is likely going to be the purchase of a decent handheld GPS unit.  Right now, we are looking at a Garmin Etrex20 for less than $200.  That little episode of getting lost in the woods at night pretty much made believers out of us to have better equipment along, if we are going to do this in areas where my phone’s GPS will not work.  We had no trouble finding the cache at night with the luminescent trail to follow, but we definitely had some issues getting back to camp from there.  What a fun experience that was, though.  The teenagers are still talking about it, too.  We will just be smarter about all this in the future.

To find out more about geocaching, just go to Geocaching.com to get started by registering for a free account.  That is how we got started before we upgraded to a premium membership that opens up even more caches to find and offers some specialized search options.  You can read their Geocaching 101 page to learn the basics, and we also purchased an inexpensive book to read a little more about it, too.  That book is already a little dated, though, so I would recommend buying one that has been published in the last year or two, if possible.

We had a fabulous time on our nice, long camping trip, and our geocaching adventures just added to the fun and great memories!

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