I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled program of me trying to get through all my trips from last summer before the next summer travel season starts because over the long weekend we took Stella on her first camping trip!
This is one of the moments that I am so glad I live in Texas, because we can actually go camping in mid-February. When I made the campsite reservations, the nighttime low was around around 50 on the forecast, but as we got closer and closer to the day, the temperature kept dropping. By the time we started thinking about what to pack, the low in Palo Duro Canyon State Park was predicted to be 17. I started to feel more like I was going to be kidnapping Stella and Matt and holding them hostage on a forced winter camping trip than taking my dog and boyfriend on a fun weekend to the canyon. As the person who was pushing this park that I’d visited before, talked up, and then made the plans, I certainly felt responsible for the success or failure of the trip. I think anyone who’s taken people (and dogs) on any camping trip they’ve planned and sold feels that kind of anxiety.
Palo Duro Canyon is a 9 hour and change drive from Houston, and I don’t get home from work until 4:30 if I leave early. We developed a long weekend system to handle this Texas parks situation last October when we went to Big Bend. On Friday night we do 5 hours of the drive, stop at Buc-ees, and then spend the night at a waypoint so in the morning we get up early, drive 3 hours and have a full day in the park Saturday, a full day Sunday, and then do the drive back on Monday with a reward stop at Whataburger. (For those of you unfamiliar, Whataburger is like a better version of In-n-Out.) Our stop on the way West was at Lake Arrowhead State Park, which we rolled into about 11:00, when it was 27 degrees. Matt walked Stella while I set up the tent while jumping up and down, and then we bundled in. We did not sleep particularly well; Stella kept circling and sniffing, trying to figure out this weird nylon crate and why her humans were in it with her, a pack of coyotes erupted into howling, yipping and laughing at least 3 times, and we did not wear enough layers for sleeping in that cold. In the morning we discovered that we were surrounded by a lake and prairie dog town, so while we spent about 5 minutes in the park in the daylight, I recommend it.
As we drove further towards Palo Duro, the sun did not bring the temperature up as fast as I hoped, but I kept telling Matt (and Stella) that it would be maybe 20 degrees warmer in the bottom of the canyon. I am so glad I was right. We got to the park around noon, two hours before we could check in for our campsite, so we explored part of the CCC trail by the visitor’s center and then the Triassic Trail a little further down the canyon. After checking in we set up our tent, observed that it was quite windy, and headed off to the Lower Comanche Trail. Stella’s first hike was a windy one but it was a mellow hike, 1.9 miles each way, that followed part of the draw that Quanah Parker’s tribe had tried to use to escape when the US army discovered the Comanche winter camp in the bottom of the canyon.
When we got back to camp we saw what was, unfortunately, a familiar sight to me. A few years ago on a mesa outside of Moab the gusty desert winds had blown my tent into a barbed wire fence. Now the gusty West Texas winds had blown my tent into a tree. Same tent. Somehow the tree did more damage, and it looks like wolverine slashed the vestibule, but everything is still functioning. At least we had a rain fly to keep as warm as the temperature dropped with the sun. The folks camping next to us just had their bug netting. I would have felt bad for them if we hadn’t just passed them on the trail where they were playing music from their portable speakers, walking their dog off leash and wearing enough make-up that they could had gone clubbing afterwards.
Sure enough, as we lay comfortable in our 32 degree sleeping sleeping bags, in my 3 season tent, with our always leashed and LED collared pup sleeping happily in between us, we heard them get into their car to sleep. And at 7 in the morning, after playing music on full blast for 10 minutes, they headed out, I suspect abandoning a two night reservation at the campsite. I’m sure they had a great learning experience, and I know they got some great pics on their hike.s
Meanwhile we headed off on our big hike, to the Lighthouse. Instead of the Lighthouse trail, we took a longer, I think more interesting trail. Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine recommended the Givens Spicer & Lowry trail to see some hoodoos, and it was a really fun, interesting trail. The landscape was incredible, and the trail itself wove through hoodoos, cottonwood forests, grasslands, and rock formations. It is a running trail and mountain biking trail, but everyone was polite and gave us a heads up that they were coming with enough time to get out of the way.
The GSL meets up with the Lighthouse trail, which was a flat wide path that we took out to the end of the official trail according to the map, and then goes straight up to the Lighthouse. This was Stella’s true test, scrambling up rocks and then climbing up a ledge to get to the Lighthouse. Turns out she’s definitely part mountain goat.
After what ended up being an almost 10 mile day (a little more for Matt than me because Stella went #2 .15 miles from the trail head and after bagging it I volunteered Matt to run it back to the trash can at the parking lot) we retired to our camp to chill in our hammocks with some IPAs, books, and our dog that had just had lotion put on her paws, like the millennials we are.
Overall, Stella’s first camping trip was a great success, although she definitely has unreasonably high expectations for her walks now.