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On a typical road trip out West, usually to New Mexico or Colorado, we usually end up driving a lesser traveled road through Oklahoma's panhandle. From that road we usually dip down to spend the night on the Rita Blanca National Grassland in Northwest Texas (also stretches into Oklahoma).
While most of the roads to the picnic area are paved, the last stretch is a dirt road, which can get quite muddy when it rains. Both times we've stayed, we've arrived late at night. And man, is it ever dark out there.
A Beautiful Sky on the Rita Blanca National Grassland
With miles and miles of grassland stretching as far as the eye can see, there are not a lot of lights in this area, which means the stars on a cloudless night are absolutely amazing. I'll never forget the stunning view of the stars we enjoyed our first night on the grassland. I've never seen stars like that in my life… Millions and millions of them in the black of night, just twinkling away from their perch in the heavens.
Of course, if you have a sunny day this also means the sky is just about the bluest blue you can ever imagine. Our last trip was a bit stormy and cloudy but no less beautiful.
What to Expect When You Pull into the Thompson Grove Picnic Ground
Both times we've camped in the picnic area, we've been alone. It's definitely a quiet place to park a rooftop tent.
The parking lot is the only place to park and set up a tent. The actual picnic area is separated by a metal rail all around. There are restrooms, but we've never used them, so I'm not sure if they're locked or not. There are also trash cans available.
I will tell you, this last time we stayed we found out the next morning there are warnings for Plague in the area. Not the most comforting thing to see, but basically, you want to be cautious by following a few rules. Don't camp or rest near animal burrows. Wear insect repellent, and make sure pets are treated for fleas. Avoid contact with the animals they mention on the warning, like prairie dogs, rabbits, mice, squirrels, etc. Steer clear of any dead critters you may happen upon. You get the drill. People live out here, so I wasn't too worried, but we were cautious nonetheless.
Weather can be balmy and chilly at night but quickly heat up when you wake in the morning. Storms are also common on the grassland. While we felt completely safe in our tent, we did ride out a thunderstorm this last trip. Rain makes for great sleeping weather in a tent, once the thunder and lightning calm.
Explore the Rita Blanca National Grassland
I know most people probably wouldn't want to go to a Plague infested area. And most probably wouldn't make it a point to camp in an area like this. I get that.
But we fell in love with the grassland the first time we visited, and it's become kind of a thing when we travel out West. The land may be flat prairie, but none of us could quite get over the beauty of this vast and endless prairie with its waving grasses.
Gnarly trees with thick trunks and fragile branches… The occasional farm or ranch dotted here and there… A light in the distance in the pitch black of night… Wondrous stars and galaxies overhead at night (bring your telescope)… Night time sounds of wildlife… Waking to a literal symphony of birds and wildlife the next morning… The bluest sky you ever did see… An old corral and broken down windmill nearby… Only the occasional car which may be a sheriff's deputy checking on you to make sure everything's ok…
Something about the Texas prairie beckons to us and calls us back each time. It's like a gateway to the mountains, and a beautiful gateway at that, something for which pictures really don't do justice.
It's these off the beaten path places that fill our travels with never to be forgotten memories.
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