We delayed our trip to the Santa Elena Canyon section of Big Bend in order to allow the area to dry out after the heavy rainfall on Saturday, but the last day of our visit arrived on Tuesday, so it was time to make the trip. Santa Elena Canyon is in the southwest corner of Big Bend National Park, and it required a 65 mile drive from Rio Grande Village. The weather continued to heat up, and we barely needed to wear a layer in the early morning on Tuesday. In anticipation of summer-like temperatures Jane and I assembled our canopy, and this provided some relief during the afternoon.
As we planned our long trip for Tuesday, we decided to do the hike to Mule Ears Spring as It was along the way. The distance was long enough to raise our heart beats but short enough to preserve energy for the remainder of the day. As we traveled south toward Castolon, we stopped at Sotol Vista and read about the unique sotol plant that thrived in this portion the desert. The sotol looks like a yucca plant with an extremely long flower stalk. Apparently the native Americans ate the heart of the sotol plant, and when I read this sort of thing, I always wonder who the first person was that conceived the idea of consuming such a plant?
We next detoured on a short side road to the Burro Mesa Pour-off trailhead. This was a short 1 mile hike, but we elected to simply snap a photo or two and moved on to the Mule Ears Spring parking lot. Here we applied sun screen and hitched our hydration packs to our backs and began the 3.8 mile round trip hike across the southwestern desert. This was the hottest hike of our trip to Big Bend, and as we rolled from hill to dry wash repeatedly, I conjured images from the many westerns I watched when I was a kid. Among these were injured cowboy heroes desperately crawling to a water hole only to discover that it was a mirage. Or how about the abandoned horseback rider lying in the desert while a scorpion creeps ever closer? I gazed at the rocky ridges and expected to see an Indian war party appear.
In order to take my mind off these fictitious scenes, I began to count the lizards that scurried off the path as we approached. By the end of our round trip trek, I registered twenty small slithering reptiles. They seemed to be most prevalent in the low dry wash areas, and I could only attribute this to the slight increase in vegetation, and perhaps that engendered more insect life as a food source. At roughly the half way point of our outbound leg we crested a short uphill, and a ridge appeared to our right, and perched at the high point were two rock formations that looked like mule ears. To the right was a small slope in the ridge, and my imagination interpreted this to be the saddle on the back of the mule. Was I also experiencing mirages?
Finally after an hour of absorbing the intense rays of the sun we reached Mule Ears Spring. I expected a tiny trickle, but we were surprised to see a flow equivalent to the output of a garden hose. We hoped to find a shaded spot to eat our lunches, but the trees and shrubs were quite small, so we reversed our direction and hiked back to the parking lot. We were now only three miles from Castolon and the store and visitor center there, so we covered the short distance and parked by the store. The national park service conveniently placed picnic tables outside the store, and there was a primitive overhead canopy to provide some sought after shade. The overhead roof consisted of a frame with dead stalks stacked in parallel to fill in the open spaces between the man-made structure.
We downed our lunch and then proceeded on to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. I snapped a photo from this high point, and then we drove a short distance to the parking lot at the entrance to the canyon. There were quite a few tourists at this location, and Jane and I did a short hike to the edge of the Rio Grande River to survey the situation. Terlingua Creek entered the Rio Grande just east of the entrance to the canyon, and it was clear that crossing the creek was necessary to embark on the 1.6 mile round trip into the gap formed by the Rio Grande River. It was also clear that Terlinqua Creek had some residual water, and where the water was not present, the stream bed consisted of red muck.
Jane and I put on our Chacos and found a path to the creek bed. Just as we were about to pick a crossing point, our new friends Cheri and Howard appeared, and they described a crossing strategy that involved the junction of Terlingua Creek and the Rio Grande River. Because the water was quite muddy, it was impossible to see how deep this route was, so we decided to cross farther up the creek where there was less water. Unfortunately we traded off murky deeper water for sticky squishy mud. Despite these hazards we managed to make it to the west bank of the creek and then covered the .8 mile distance to the end of the trail. This was probably our favorite hike of the trip, and we enjoyed progressing beyond the canyon entrance.
The steep canyon walls created some welcome relief from the intense afternoon sun that was nearly directly overhead, although we faced several steep climbs in the direct sun over man-made steps against steep rock canyon walls. Once we descended back to edge of the river, we were surrounded by huge boulders and the trail converted into dark wet sand. Jane was intent on wading in the river, and she found a place where the wet sand sloped somewhat gently into the dark brown opaque flow. She carefully took a step or two while I watched, and then she began to wobble and made a motion with her arms like she was trying to roll down the windows on the car. Not good. I envisioned her falling forward or backward in the muddy water and soft muck, but she somehow recovered and gained her balance. I extended my trekking pole to her, and she snatched it and immediately used the support to balance herself and climbed up the slippery bank.
On the return trip we chose to ford the creek at the confluence with the Rio Grande just as our friends had suggested, and this proved to be far superior, as we avoided most of the mucky soft mud. Santa Elena Canyon was our favorite hike as it combined beauty with several moments of wilderness adventure. Once we reached the Santa Fe, we drove back to Castolon where we stopped at the store for liquid refreshment. I purchased a bottle of Topo Chico, and it was the most refreshing sparkling water I ever had. The ninety degree heat probably had something to do with this assessment.