Michelle and I headed to the Refuge this morning at 7 am with no idea where we were hiking. As Michelle drove, I started to throw out a few ideas and we decided on Charon’s Garden Wilderness Trail. We last hiked this trail in August 2016, so we were due to hike it again.
We entered the Refuge through the Cache entrance and headed toward Sunset picnic area. This would quickly prove to be a day of random and unexpected occurrences. First, we encountered several turkeys near Camp Doris. As we were watching them, a cyclist pedaled past us and proceeded to make the sound of a turkey! I have to say that it was pretty impressive. Of course, that set us off into trying to sound like a turkey, which was pathetic!
As we neared Prairie Dog Town, we noticed a large herd of buffalo heading toward Highway 115. Photo op!
It seems like everyone who has come to the visitor center lately has wanted to know where the buffalo are. With the exception of July 4th, this was the first time we had seen a good-sized herd in a while. Of course, this picture was taken with a telephoto lens and we kept a watchful eye on all of them.
Moving on, we parked at Sunset picnic area, sprayed down with that lovely chemical known as deet, and donned our snake gaiters. We crossed the second bridge and quickly reached the trailhead for Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area and Crab Eyes. As we hiked through the forest, I discovered several wildflowers that I had never seen before. Happy me! Besides this, the hike out was uneventful. Frank and Claudia posed for several pictures, Michelle and I sweated buckets, and bugs swarmed all around. Ah, Summer in the Refuge.
When we reached the top of Valley of the Boulders, we took a few minutes to plan a better route the next time we decide to conquer it. I honestly thought we would never hike it again, but apparently Michelle thinks that we are more seasoned hikers now and we can find a better way to the bottom. Sunset to Post Oak Lake was actually our second hike ever and was overly ambitious for two people with very little hiking experience (Sunset to Charons Garden, February 8, 2015). Hopefully, the next time we hike it will be less traumatic!
We descended back onto flat trail and out into the open with the sun baking us and sweat pouring. I was dreaming of air conditioning and the snack that smiles back. Shortly, Michelle made a noise and I looked back. She was stopped dead in the trail, but told me to keep moving. I knew what that meant and you don’t need to tell me twice! She had heard (but gratefully not seen) a rattlesnake. Thank goodness I didn’t hear or see it. Now I was feeling a little on edge, so what happened next made me gasp. Okay, it was really more like a little squeal. I was in front, getting ready to pass some trees and I almost ran in the back end of a deer. Michelle and I both stopped and waited to see if she would flee up the mountain. Much to our delight, she noticed us and then proceeded to eat breakfast. We stayed there for quite a while, baking in the sun, taking tons of pictures, and following her back down the trail. She was always aware of us but never afraid. Absolutely amazing, especially since deer are usually pretty skittish in the Refuge. I was using a telephoto lens, but we were very close to her!
The excitement of this stayed with us for quite a while as we continued back to the car. Another photo op with Claudia and Frank, and then we came back into the open. This time, we turned to the left, crossed the trickle that is Headquarters Creek right now, and headed up the sidewalk toward the parking lot. I found one more wildflower that I hadn’t seen before, so now I was really elated.
As we neared the steps that go down to the second bridge, two young men appeared and asked for directions to Elk Mountain. We told them they needed to take the first bridge and then spent the walk back to the parking lot telling them a bit about the Refuge and great places to hike. I love meeting people on the trail and sharing our love of the Refuge.
We stowed our gear, cranked up the A/C, grabbed the snack that smiles back, and headed to the visitor center. Upon arrival, I remembered that Donna was out of town, which left Randy unsupervised. Oh boy! As we entered the visitor center, I noticed a crew from KFDX pulling into the parking lot. They are the NBC affiliate out of Wichita Falls, Texas. I commented to Michelle that they were probably here to interview Randy for something or other he had done. When we walked in, Randy was on the phone and told the other party that the Happy Hikers had arrived. No idea who he was talking to, but I’m sure they were either amused or confused. Very shortly, the KFDX reporter and cameraman arrived in the lobby. Randy asked what he could help them with and they said they were looking for the Medicine Park Aquarium. About 15 minutes of good-natured ribbing ensued and we sent them on their way with directions. Interestingly, they knew the hours of operation, but didn’t know the location. What kind of reporter was this guy?? Has he never used Google?
Next, we visited Sierra in the Nature Store and she took our picture with Claudia and Frank. I love when Sierra is working because she is funny and has an awesome smile. Plus she can fold t-shirts like nobody’s business!
Then the three of us spent some time harassing Randy about some cool hats he has. He is so much fun to mess with! It started to get pretty busy, so the A-Team (as Randy dubbed us) kicked into gear. Next up were two young men who had hiked Elk Mountain with directions from Randy on finding Natural Arch. They said they weren’t able to find it, but after showing them pictures, we determined they had been on it but didn’t know it. As they ventured to the rest rooms, four young ladies arrived. One of them knew Randy and they were going to hike Elk Mountain, so Randy asked them about the amount of water they had and loaned them some bug spray. The aforementioned young men emerged back into the lobby and joined the conversation. They asked the young ladies if they had already hiked Elk Mountain and were told “no”. For a minute, I thought they were going to volunteer to show them Natural Arch, but then I think they realized that they didn’t have it within themselves to make that hike again. Plus I think they were a little concerned that they wouldn’t be able to find Natural Arch the second time and that would be too embarrassing. Too funny!
After that, we spent about an hour answering the phone and directing people to a variety of places throughout the Refuge. Randy dealt with one phone call where the woman could not understand that you can drive through the Refuge at night, but some of the roads are closed. She also asked him four times how much it costs. He was on the phone with her for at least 5 minutes. I then took a call where the lady asked me how many buffalo are in the Refuge. Seriously?? I didn’t know the answer but told her that if she was looking for a large herd, there was one across from Prairie Dog Town. After I hung up, I found a post-it behind the desk with the approximate number of the main four wildlife species in the Refuge. In case you’re wondering, there are 650 buffalo, 1,000-1,500 of both elk and whitetail deer, and 250 longhorn. Good to know. We also directed hikers to trails, campers to Camp Doris and picnickers to designated picnic areas. It was so much fun!
It was a fun-filled morning for us, Frank, and Claudia. You never know what will happen when you go to the Refuge, and this morning was certainly an example of that. We had a great hike, which was made completely awesome by our encounter with the deer. More importantly, we spent time sharing our love of this amazing place with other people and spending time with people who mean a lot to us. We hiked, we sweated, we took pictures, we smiled, we laughed our silly heads off, and we once again appreciated this amazing place that we call home.
Remember to follow your own path and be oh so grateful when your path crosses the path of another beautiful creature, be it four-legged or two-legged. See you on the trail!