Category Archives: Big Bend Trip

Big Bend National Park Day 3 – 03/24/2015

Big Bend National Park Day 3 03/24/2015 Photo Album

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?

Jane Inspects a Sotol 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.

Mule Ears

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?

Mule Ears Spring

An Ocatillo in Bloom!

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.

Our Lunch Spot-the Store Near Santa Elena Canyon

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.

The Wellers at the Canyon Entrance

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.

Jane Climbs in the Afternoon Sun

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.

Cooling Off in the Mucky Rio Grande

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.

Topo Chico Mineral Water Was Welcome Refreshment

Big Bend National Park Day 2 – 03/23/2015

Big Bend National Park Day 2 03/23/2015 Photo Album

Chisos Basin was our destination on Monday March 23. This area is characterized by jagged mountains, and it rises to 7,832 feet at Emory Peak. Because of the higher elevation, temperatures in Chisos Basin can be twenty degrees different than the lower desert areas of the park. For this reason the vegetation shifts to more shrubs and small evergreens.

Once again we enjoyed a fine outdoor breakfast prepared by Jane and then departed for Chisos Basin. It was nearly a 30 mile drive until we pulled into a parking lot at the Emory Peak trailhead. On Sunday we surveyed the hiking trail options in the area and chose the Window hike, as it was a moderate distance of 4.4 miles round trip. The trail began near campsite 51 within the Chisos Basin Campground, but we were uncertain about the parking availability, so we snagged an open spot at the Emory Peak lot across from the campground.

The Window in the Distance

The Window hike turned out to be one of our favorites in Big Bend. It was unusual as we began at a higher elevation than our turnaround point, thus our return hike was a gradual uphill. Normally in Colorado we climb on the outbound segment, and descend on the return. Monday was the second day since the Saturday storm, and temperatures continued on an upward trajectory. We covered ourselves with a liberal dose of sunscreen and carried plenty of water. Roughly half way through our outbound segment, the canyon narrowed, and this created more shade. In addition a spring brought some water to the surface in the gully along the trail, and we noticed more taller trees and shrubs which supplemented the shade.

Camera Shy Lizard Ready to Hide

Agave Plants

One plant that was very prevalent in this area was the agave. I recognized them since they are succulents that display a large cluster of thick fleshy leaves that typically bend and taper to a point. All the leaves originate near the center of the plant and just above the ground. The most striking aspect of these plants was the periodic appearance of dead agave plants with a huge flower stalk arising from the center. The stalk was typically eight to ten feet tall, and the flower heads branched in a ninety degree direction from the main stem near the tip. When I first saw them, I thought they were small trees similar to a sumac. Later we visited the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, and the helpful ranger there told us that the agave plants bloom after fifteen years of growth and then die. Apparently they are the botanic equivalent to salmon, and reproduction causes death.

A Dead Agave Bloom

As we approached the Window, the canyon narrowed and a small volume of water trickled through the rocky gully. Trail construction experts built a series of steps that allowed us to safely climb up and down the large rocks that angled steeply to the narrow canyon floor. Finally we reached the Window which was a 20′ X 30′ opening at the end of the canyon where one could look westward at a vast panorama of west Texas desert. The Big Bend newspaper guide referred to this geologic phenomenon as a pour-off, and a park ranger explained this to be a dry waterfall.

Steps on the Return

The Window is Open

On our return hike we paused by a large log in a shaded spot to eat our lunches. As we enjoyed our snacks and the momentary rest, Cheri and Howard approached. They told us they were planning to hike the Lost Mine trail, but apparently the parking lot was full, so they elected to do the Window. We chatted for a bit, and Howard pointed out some small birds with a black crest and allowed us to use his binoculars to observe. Unlike the brightly colored birds we observed on Sunday, this species sported a black crest and deep gray body feathers. Clearly these feathered creatures favored the more classy formal wear of the bird kingdom.

We stopped at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and asked the ranger some questions, and then we departed for Rio Grande Village. On the morning drive, Jane spotted folks just outside Panther Junction holding their mobile phones to their ears, so we stopped there to check email and retrieve messages. Jane caught up on March Madness results and as we were driving away, her phone rang, and it was Amy checking in from Portland. I executed a U-turn, and we returned to the parking lot where we knew we could sustain a strong signal.

The remainder of Monday was spent relaxing at the campsite and avoiding the strong rays of the sun. Monday was a fun day as we experienced a different part of the park that exhibited different plants and a distinct micro climate.

Big Bend National Park Day 1 – 03/22/2015

Big Bend National Park 03/22/2015 Photo Album

Jane and I woke up on Sunday morning to a damp and cool campsite after the late heavy rain on Saturday, although we were confident that things would dry out rapidly once the sun peeked over the hills on the eastern horizon. For some reason breakfasts cooked outside on a camp stove always taste better than a comparable meal prepared in the home kitchen. This was the case on Sunday as Jane produced delicious fried eggs and bacon.

Bacon and Eggs Outdoors Taste Better

We were both extremely excited to begin our Big Bend adventure, so we decided to pay a visit to the small Rio Grande Village visitor center first. A park service ranger manned the counter, and we began assaulting him with questions. The Persimmon Gap entrance station was closed when we passed through on Saturday, so we discovered that we needed a park pass. Fortunately I possess a Senior Pass, so we avoided a fee and received a sticker to display on the windshield. Next we peppered the ranger with numerous questions about Big Bend. There are three main areas to explore; Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Santa Elena Canyon, and we were attempting to plan what days to visit each.

Quickly the ranger explained that the Santa Elena Canyon area was closed as a result of the heavy rain on Saturday. Terlingua Creek enters the Rio Grande at the mouth of the canyon, and normally this is a dry creek bed, but it was now a muddy torrent, and flooding turned sections of the paved road into small ponds. With this information we decided to defer Santa Elena until our last day in the park, Tuesday. By process of elimination we elected to explore the sites near Rio Grande Village on Sunday, travel west to Chisos Basin on Monday, and then hopefully visit Santa Elena on Tuesday after the environment had an opportunity to dry out.

We now queried the helpful gentleman on what activities were available to us in the vicinity of Rio Grande Village. He began by suggesting a Rio Grande crossing as apparently a small ferry transported visitors across the Rio Grande to Mexico. Once upon the opposite shore a mule ride or taxi service could be purchased for a small fee, and these modes of transportation allowed one to visit the small Mexican village of Boquillas. He suggested we could purchase lunch or drinks in the village before returning to the U.S. Since I have never set foot in Mexico, I was quite excited about this prospect until we realized that we did not have our passports with us. Naturally this was a deal breaker so we moved on to the other options.

Scorpion Art at the Boquillas River Crossing

Other possibilities included hiking the trail to Boquillas Canyon, a nature trail that began at our campground, a visit to the hot springs along the Rio Grande, a bike ride on Old Ore Road, and a visit to the Daniels Ranch. This sounded like a day’s worth of activities so we thanked the ranger and departed for the Boquillas Canyon trailhead. On the way we drove a short distance down a side road and checked out the federal port of entry for the ferry crossing. It looked rather secure, so we were convinced that a crossing was impossible without a passport. Next we reached the parking lot at the Boquillas Canyon trail.

The Trailhead

An Illegal Alien I Suspect

We lathered up with sun screen and changed to hiking boots and began a short .7 mile hike that led to the Rio Grande River. As we crested a short hill, we encountered a young Mexican man standing next to his horse. He greeted us, and we guessed that for a small donation he was available for photo poses with the river and Mexico in the background. Also there were several places along the path where residents of Boquillas placed crafts such as decorated walking sticks and wire sculpture on rocks with signs suggesting dollar donations. We guessed that the gentleman with the horse may have crossed the river illegally to display these wares that tourists might purchase.

The End of the Trail

Near the end of the path we descended to a sandy area, and as we made our way down the wet trail, another Mexican serenaded us in Spanish from a rock cliff on the other side of the river. We were not sure how this gentleman expected to make money from his performance, but it gave our venture a Latin aura. The trail ended at the sand dune slide, but no signs informed us of this, so we attempted to penetrate the canyon via a narrow path that cut through some willows and brush, but we only managed a short distance before the trail faded, and we were blocked from farther progress by a high vertical rock wall.

The return hike was uneventful, and when we reached the car we reversed our direction and returned to the campground where we found the beginning of the Rio Grande Village nature trail a short distance from our campsite. The Boquillas Canyon hike was relatively short, so we decided to explore the nature trail before lunch. Initially the trail crossed some metal floating bridges that spanned a wetland area. I spotted pods of fish in the murky water, and these fish rose occasionally for some sort of aquatic insect. We later asked a ranger what sort of fish they were, and he informed us that they were non-native tilapia.

The Start of the Rio Grande Nature Trail from the Campground

After crossing the pond we ascended a bit and then were faced with a split in the trail. Left took us on a short loop around the hill, and right led to the edge of the Rio Grande. We had already been to the shores of the muddy river, but we elected to repeat the experience and chose the right branch. Sure enough after a short hike we were next to the river, and it was still muddy and no more impressive than it was at the canyon mouth. We attempted to find the official trail to loop back to the hill, but we ended up confused by numerous unofficial spurs that eventually led to dead ends. Eventually we found a better defined trail and circled behind the hill and ascended the northeast slope until we were perched on a nice overlook. From this vantage point we could see the wetland area, the river and the Rio Grande campground.

Rio Grande, Wetlands, and Campground

After lunch we jumped in the car and drove to the parking area for the hot spring pool. The dirt road was a bit precarious, as we crossed two large puddles, and we were not certain how deep they were. After .5 mile however we reached a small parking lot and began another short hike to the hot springs. Apparently a family settled at this spot and built the concrete pool and also constructed a motel of sorts that was now abandoned. The owner marketed the area as a health spa and touted the recuperative powers of the hot springs. Jane and I peered into the rooms in the abandoned motel and noticed the remaining murals on the side walls of each room.

The Hot Springs Next to the Chocolate Rio Grande

The trail to the pool was less than half a mile, and we arrived there rather quickly and discovered a group of ten to fifteen tourists wading and floating in the natural pool. The Rio Grande River was a thick chocolate color, and it churned by within five feet of the pool. The pool itself was a bit murky, but much clearer and inviting than its source of cool water – the river. Jane and I had our Chacos on, so we waded into the edge of the pool, and the water was indeed quite warm and probably registered 105 degrees as mentioned in the park guide.

More Blue Bonnets

After our soak we returned to the campsite, but we were not yet ready to rest, so we jumped on our mountain bikes and set out to explore the area on two wheels. We left the campground and pedaled out the access road until we reached the main two lane road that linked Panther Junction with Boquillas Canyon. We turned left and climbed a fairly steep hill toward the tunnel, and then turned into the Rio Grande Overlook parking lot and hiked a short distance to the viewing area. After a few minutes we enjoyed a downhill cruise back to the campground area, but his time we turned right at the T intersection across from the store and cycled past the RV parking lot to a small grassy picnic area. The trees and green grass in this location indicated that the irrigation system built by early settlers was still in use.

We found a nice grassy spot and rested when we spotted a pretty red bird perched on a dead branch, and as we marveled at the bird’s bright colors, a couple strolled along from the path that led to Daniels Ranch. We pointed out the “cardinal” on the branch, and they informed us that it was a vermillion fly catcher. We chatted a bit and discovered that their names were Cheri and Howard Ferguson, and they lived in Spokane, WA until nine months ago when they sold everything and bought a Mercedes camper van and embarked on a journey across North America. Howard was a wildlife biologist who worked for the state of Washington with a focus on….birds. As luck would have it, they reserved the campsite next to us back at Rio Grande Village.

It was a busy day, and we were happy to return to our campsite to enjoy a beer and another delicious meal. We enjoyed quite a few adventures on our first day in the park, but we both felt that the warm March weather and the desert plants were the true attractions. Tomorrow we would be off to the high country of Chisos Basin where the highest point in the park towered at 7,832 feet.

Carlsbad Caverns – 03/21/2015

Carlsbad Caverns 03/21/2015 Photo Album

Jane and I woke up on Saturday morning in Roswell, NM to slate gray skies. We planned to spend the morning exploring Carlsbad Caverns, so rain would not impact our agenda. We reserved a campsite at Rio Grande Village in the southeast corner of Big Bend National Park for Saturday night, so we could only afford to spend three or four hours at Carlsbad Caverns.

A Closer Look at the Totem Pole

By the time we pulled into the visitor center a steady rain was falling from the overcast sky, and we welcomed the shelter of the visitor center and the cave. Since we had limited time, we elected to take the elevator 750 feet below the surface to the level of the Big Room, and there we followed the well marked path that circled the floor of the the cavern with stops at all the well known formations. We rented an audio tour guide and stopped at each numbered station to listen to the narration. In our opinion the lighting was well done as the best formations were spotlighted in a subtle way, but we never felt like the lighting overwhelmed the pervading sense of being in a dark underground environment. I snapped quite a few photos of stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns and subterranean ponds. Visiting a large cave was certainly very different from our many other experiences with national parks.

An Intricate Column

Park rangers roamed the Big Room and made themselves available for questions. At one stop we approached a young lady wearing the national park uniform and asked her if the natural air was supplemented with oxygen. She replied that it was all natural and then mentioned that it takes 18 hours for air to move from the entrance to the Big Room. I was curious how she knew that, so she went on to explain that she has a very acute sense of smell, and the park service recently executed a controlled burn just outside the entrance. Her super sensitive olfactory gland enabled her to smell traces of smoke in the Big Room 18 hours after the smoke from the burn was created. I suggested that she could get a job working for a perfume company, but she stressed to us her love for Carlsbad Caverns, and her desire to remain an employee of the national park service.

Haunted House Like

There are two ways to enter the Big Room, and we chose the quickest and easiest route by taking the elevator. With some time remaining before our scheduled departure, we decided to try the walk-in approach. As we left the visitor center, we realized that the rain continued and in fact was heavier than when we arrived. The hike from the visitor center to the gate to the walking entrance was longer than we expected, and the rain was beginning to soak into our coats. A park ranger was standing under a canopy with a group of visitors, and he hooked a chain across the trail just before we arrived. We were left standing in the rain while he delivered the safety speech to the group under the small shelter, so Jane exercised some initiative and unhooked the chain. This prompted an instant reprimand from the young ranger, Ross, but Jane replied that we were simply trying to stay dry, and he relented and allowed us to join the gathering.

A Steep Descent

After the safety speech was completed, Ross opened the next chain gate, and we along with the herd of visitors began the switchback descent to the cave entrance. The steep path to the dark entrance was interesting, but we quickly discovered that the .8 mile walk to the Big Room was largely devoid of interest since we had already seen the more spectacular attractions and formations. We essentially power walked the narrow path until we once again reached the base of the elevator, and then we ascended to the visitor center and left Carlsbad Caverns.

The rain continued as we returned to the town of Carlsbad and then turned on to route 285 and continued south through southern New Mexico and then into west Texas. The stretch of highway from the New Mexico border to the northern entrance to Big Bend National Park was two lanes, and it would be an understatement to call the terrain desolate. The land was relatively flat with sparse vegetation, and oil pumps, piping and gas reservoirs dotted the landscape. Every mile or so a dirt side road branched to the east and west, and we were constantly behind large slow moving oil field services vehicles. The frequent traffic that moved from the side roads to the paved two lane highway tracked dirt on the asphalt, and the steady rain of Saturday converted this coating to mud. The oil industry vehicles splashed spray from their over-sized tires and generated a steady wall of muddy water on to our windshield. I counted at least three occasions when a pebble or small piece of gravel catapulted from one of the muddy trailers and struck our windshield creating yet more chips that eventually grow into cracks.

It was a miserable drive, and the rain intensified as we moved south. We attempted to stop for lunch in Pecos, but the establishments were rather basic so we moved on until we found a Subway sandwich outlet at a truck stop. Pecos and Fort Stockton were clearly oil and gas outposts, and the truck stop was populated with numerous oil field workers attired in one piece uniforms. Apparently the trucking hub also served as a locker room for the workers, and a voice periodically announced that shower number 60 was available for John or Rex or Javier.

A Rainbow Greets Us as We Enter Big Bend

Finally after some tense driving through heavy rain, we reached the northern Persimmon Gap entrance to Big Bend National Park. By now the sky was clearing, and we were dazzled by a huge rainbow in the eastern sky. The northern segment of Big Bend was clearly a desert as a variety of cactus plants covered the barren earth. I’m sure we were rare visitors that saw the landscape after heavy rain, and we crossed many gullies that were normally dry washes, but on this day a muddy torrent of water rushed downhill to join the Rio Grande River.

Sierra del Carmen in Mexico

As we traveled closer to Rio Grande Village the dark clouds that shrouded the mountains to the east disappeared, and we were treated to spectacular views of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. These tall rock mountains were distinguished by alternating layers of blue-gray and white rock. At last we entered the Rio Grande Campground and skirted the perimeter until we found campsite number 25 which was situated along the outside road near the trailhead for the nature trail. Huge muddy puddles of water swamped many of the campsites along with mounds of small hail balls, but much to our amazement, we selected a campsite that was devoid of accumulated water.

Hail Remains at the Campsite

We quickly read the javalina warning that was affixed to our picnic table and then unpacked the Santa Fe and set up our tent. Saturday evening was quite cool and wet, but we prepared a quick meal and then kicked back and rested after a long eventful journey.We both anticipated warm dry weather for Sunday, and anxiously awaited the opportunity to explore this vast remote national park on the southern border of the United States.