The Uinta Mountains are the highest east-west oriented mountain range in the U.S. They are located in the extreme northeast corner of Utah, and extend into Wyoming, and are a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. They contain the highest peak in Utah, Kings Peak, at 13,528 feet. I last backpacked in these mountains in 2004, and once previously in 1993, so I was anxious to visit them again. Thus, the setting for my latest adventure to the high country, the second week of August, this year.
I was joined by long-time backpacking partners and friends Joe and Mike, along with Joe’s fiance Sarah, and friend Ken and his grandson Alec. We appear fresh at the trailhead:Just one of the creek crossings we navigate along the trail:On Day 1 we hiked 7 miles, with an altitude gain of 1200 feet, and made camp just below Squaw Pass:We have missed the peak bloom season, even at this altitude, but here we find a few lone columbine blooming in the shade of a fir tree:Squaw Pass was a formidable climb, but we topped out around lunch time and descended into a wide basin and set up camp 2:Afternoon thunderstorms rolled in from the west and created a wonderful play of light on the mountains against the dark, foreboding clouds of the storms:These mountains are sedimentary, remnants of an ancient sea floor, so the banding in the rock layers is colorful with many contrasting variations:Storms cleared, and the night sky was spectacular, with the Milky Way rising above the mountaintops:Next morning, we faced the daunting task of going up and over Porcupine Pass, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle as we make our approach:A look down at the basin from atop Porcupine Pass, an altitude of 12,200 feet:Heading down the other side of the pass into another basin, we head off-trail and surprise a huge muley buck, airborne as graceful as if weightless:Our campsite was spectacular, surrounded by mountains, with a gurgling stream to lull you to sleep:Third night out, the Milky Way made another grand appearance:Next morning it was up and over Tungsten Pass, with a look back at Tungsten Lake from atop the pass:As we enter yet another basin, we see Kings Peak, highest point in Utah, rising before us:Our camp for the next two nights will sit in the shadow of these, the highest peaks in this mountain range:As we make dinner, several local residents approach our camp, apparently disturbed by our presence in their favorite shelter trees where they bed down:Not far from camp, a beautiful waterfall (which we first admired on our 1993 trip to this basin) flows from the remaining snow fields, clear and cold:After the ascent of Kings Peak, next morning we break camp and head over Smyth Fork Pass, in the direction of Red Castle Peak and Lower Red Castle Lake, seen here through an unexpected snow storm that hit us coming down the north side of the pass:Trying to pump water in the snow is chilly business:We reach lower Red Castle Lake and set up camp with snow clouds still swirling overhead:And almost as quickly as the snow appeared, it is gone to reveal a spectacular view of Red Castle and Smyth Fork Creek:That night is the peak of the Perseoid Meteor Shower, and we spot a couple of spectacular meteors, some with long, bright ion trails visible even in twilight. Here, a smaller meteor is captured by my camera after midnight:Next morning we set off on a day hike up to Red Castle Lake, a 7-mile hike with an altitude gain of about 1000 feet, but well worth the effort:Next day, we make the 1400-feet climb up and over Bald Mountain. Below, Bald Mountain Lake sits awaiting the remaining snow melt for its icy waters:From atop Bald Mountain you can see 360 degrees in all directions, and the views of the peaks is spectacular. In 1993 Joe and I were chased across this high plateau by storms and lightening, and couldn’t enjoy its beauty. This day is much different:Some of the blooming beauty that we spot on the way down, on our last day:A trail-weary crew: 8 days, 55 miles, 8900-feet elevation gain, and wonderful friendship…the right combination for another fantastic voyage through God’s creation.
It’s hot…really HOT. So far this month the little weather station on my desk has topped 100 degrees every day. Last month was the hottest June we’ve had in the 10 years we’ve lived in Marathon, TX. But, it’s always cool up on the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, in Big Bend National Park. And, with our annual backpack trip to America’s high mountains coming up in just 4 weeks, time to step up the training. So, it was time to hit the trail, heat or no heat.
The temperature had already hit 98 degrees at the trailhead in the Chisos Basin, an altitude of 5400 feet, so this was extreme to say the least. The first mile of the trail is dusty and hot as it winds through the juniper trees, which block any hint of breeze:A Mexican jay seems to laugh at my folly, starting at mid-day with a backpack beginning the 2000 foot ascent up to my campsite on the south rim.There’s always something blooming in the mountains, even this late in the season. Chrysactinia Mexicana in full bloom:As I make the turn to head up Boot Canyon, at 7000 feet, the desert floor shimmers in the desert sun 4000 feet below, with the boot-shaped spire that gives the canyon its name visible at right, at the head of the canyon, and an agave, a century plant, nears full bloom in the foreground:The usually dry Boot Spring is flowing with cool, clear water after recent rains up on the mountain:The water is abundant in upper Boot Canyon, and a Black-necked Garter snake pauses to ambush an unsuspecting entree:
A spotted squirrel stops to satisfy his curiosity:
By late afternoon I have reached the south rim, and the view off to the south, toward Mexico, is spectacular, with the landmark “Elephant Tusk” looming up from the desert below:I step from the main trail down a side trail to my campsite, and just before I reach my spot where I’ll set my tent for the night, I am startled by a hiss that sounds like the air going out of a tire. It can only be one thing, and my eyes quickly find its source…a Black Tailed Rattlesnake, just off the path about 5 feet from me:
At between 4-5 feet long and with a body the diameter of a baseball bat, his large number of rattles tell me that he’s a mature, large specimen with lots of poison in those big glands in the back of his head, so I carefully usher him off into a nearby pile of dead tree limbs, using a dead century plant stalk…a very long one. He is an absolutely gorgeous animal. I’ve never seen a rattlesnake at this altitude, and was not aware that they were found up here on the south rim, so my “age of innocence” has been crushed, and now I’m wary of every large clump of grass I pass (and will be from now on). It seems these snakes love altitude and are found mainly between 4500 and 10,000 feet altitude. Another visitor to camp, this Chisos Whitetail deer stayed with me all evening and into the night:
Sunset from the south rim:This being a short trip, I broke camp early and headed down to beat the heat. Along the way, more summer blooms, beginning with this blue flax and its guests:Even at stifling hot summer temps, the desert is full of surprises. As Ed Abbey said, “get out of your —- car, get on your knees and crawl until they’re bloody…then maybe you’ll see something.” So much to see.
An area that has intrigued me since I first learned of it from a lady in Taos, NM, who had once been a guide there, is a large tract in southern Utah called the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. It sits at an elevation largely between 5500 and 10,000 feet, so early May is just becoming spring there at most elevations. That means cold nights and cool/warm days, with some lingering snow at higher elevations. It also means fewer tourists, so what better time to join our long-time friends David and Marcia, now residents of southern California, for a couple of weeks of Jeepin’ and ‘splorin’.
For this trip we decided to go with vacation rental homes rather than camping, and use them as “base camp” to explore a variety of geological and scenic wonders found withing a couple of hours’ drive. We chose Hatch, Utah, and Boulder, Utah, for our base camps, and lined up 4 days in each location to give us time to explore unhurried.
First, we had to get there, so Jodie and I gave ourselves three days and two nights to poke our noses into adventures along the way. Our first stop was in Silver City, NM, where we lived for 6 years from 1994 to 2000. We had to stop by our old house, then took a drive up to the little mining community of Pinos Altos.
Our home, which had also been our photography studio for 6 years:
Leaving Silver City, we headed into northern Arizona. As a kid of perhaps 5, my mom and I hopped in our new 1950 Buick Special and headed off down Route 66 to California. Along the way we did the usual touristy things that you did in the 50’s, which included stops at all those “Indian Trading Posts” for Indian spears made of cane shafts and cardboard spear heads, adorned with red-and-blue feathers, and marked “authentic.” The stop at Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park was just for Mom. I had to relive my childhood, so we made it a point to stop there on the way. It was amazing, with fossilized logs from the Triassic Period lying everywhere:
This area was home to many early pre-history Americans, starting about 8000 BC. They left behind many puzzling inscriptions on the rocks:
Just across the old roadway which was once Route 66 is the sister park, Painted Desert NP, with its colorful banded layers of Triassic sediments, originally named by the Spanish explorer Coronado:
Leaving Painted Desert and Petrified Forest NP, it’s only a short drive down I-40 to Winslow, AZ, location immortalized in the Eagles song “Take it Easy,” written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. You’ll remember the lyrics,
“Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me”
On a corner in downtown Winslow, AZ, is a statue of Jackson Browne, standin’ on the corner, with the girl in the flatbed Ford reflected in the window:
We next found ourselves in the small southern Utah town of Hatch, where we met David & Marcia, long-time friends and companions on many past adventures. After checking into the vacation home we were sharing, we headed off to Zion National Park:Zion National Park – upon exiting a long tunnel and rounding one of the switchbacks that drop visitors down to the valley floor. where we came upon a young bighorn sheep at home on the rocks in the valley.Zion NP – a wild turkey struts his stuff while parading after a pair of hens. David and I left the tram, which takes visitors into the heart of the park, and hiked along the road for a mile or so.From Zion, we headed across Hwy 12 on our way back to Hatch, and found plenty of leftover winter snow at the higher elevations:Near Hatch, UT, is the Grand Staircase – Excalante National Monument. Found within the huge area of hoodoos and cliffs is the Kodachrome Basin State Park, with its colorful formations and unusual sculptures:A 3-mile hike along easy terrain takes you back to Shakespeare Arch, well worth the hike. David stands at the base of the formation for perspective:
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument – a drive of about 8 miles from Kodachrome Basin SP brings you to Grosvenor Arch. This is ADA accessible via a paved walk from the parking lot. Jodie & I were here in 1993, and it’s a spectacular arch.Reagle – on the way back we spotted this rare “Reagle” – with rabbit legs and an eagle body, these hybrids are rarely seen. (Actually, this young golden eagle had just pounced on a rabbit and was flying off with it in his talons, making this optical illusion).Willis Creek Slots – another side road in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument takes you to a trailhead for the Willis Creek slots, a series (5-6-7 depending on how you count) of slot canyons along a small creek.Red Canyon Hoodoos – on Hwy 12 after leaving Hatch, UT, going east, the road climbs through a canyon of the same formations as Bryce Canyon, a park we visited in this area in 1993 but chose to pass on this trip.Burr Trail Road – a road from Boulder, UT, called the Burr Trail, winds through 30 miles of high desert, then drops down a series of switchbacks to the lower end of Capitol Reef National Park, where it joins with the Notom-Bullfrog Road (impassable in wet weather) and heads north another 44 miles to join the main road through Capitol Reef NP. Notice the arch in the excarpment, visible as we descend the road.South of Boulder, on the road to Escalante, is another hike in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Here, the 6.3-mile trail follows Calf Creek through a beautiful canyon.Up on one cliff face are painted these pictographs, seen here from the other side of the valley, standing perhaps 6 feet tall.The trail ends at Lower Calf Creek Falls. These falls drop 126′ into a clear pool. The temperature in this dead-end box canyon dropped at least 10 degrees as we approached the pool/falls from the cold water.
Capitol Reef National Park lies 60 miles north of Boulder, UT, via scenic Hwy 12. It is not a large park, but has some features that make it worth the trip, such as Capitol Dome:Capitol Reef NP – petroglyphs carved into the rock walls along the Fremont River:Capitol Reef NP – a 1-mile hike starting along the Fremont River leads to Hickman Bridge. Definition: an arch spans dirt, a bridge spans water…saw no water here, but they still call it a bridge.Capitol Reef NP – David leads out down the road through Grand Wash:The Devil’s Backbone Bridge – there is a backcountry road that connects Boulder with Escalante, which climbs over the mountains along a 38-mile drive. near the northern end is a bridge built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1934, “just because they could.”“Top of the World” view from the Devil’s Backbone:
On the way back to Big Bend through southern Utah, through Grand Staircase – Escalante, through Glen Canyon Rec. Area…sights like this one are reminiscent of an Indiana Jones temple, but seem commonplace in this region of red and gray mesas:
And so, after 12 days in this incredible land we realize that we didn’t even scratch the surface. You need a lifetime of exploration to get to know this land. A lady we knew some 20 years ago back in Taos, NM, had been a guide in the Excalante her entire life, and said she had not seen it all. Guess I’ll just have to save that for another lifetime.
If you love the outdoors, and especially the desert outdoors, then you have probably read Edward Abbey, and in particular, Desert Solitaire. The line in that book that has forever branded itself into my psyche reads, “In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”
This past week, I parked my Jeep beside a dry wash, a desert artery that carries only lizards and dust during most of the year. However, at unpredictable times, this dry wash runs with water…sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent of mud, rocks, and small trees. It has been my desire to trek along this dry wash and enjoy its quiet, and its history, left behind in the wonderful palate of textures and colors, seen only when “traces of blood begin to mark your trail…”
I shouldered my backpack, knowing I would stay out overnight, not wanting to rush, and headed west, upstream toward the wonderful desert evening of the Big Bend. Here it is easy to see the flow of the water over small rocks, and the ripples mirrored in the sand as they rolled across the surface of a temporary rain runoff. Also visible is the higher waterline left behind by a stronger flow of deeper water:
Further upstream, the flow has cut away the bank to a depth of 6-8 feet or more:
The spiderweb of roots and branches left airborne by the flowing water create art unequaled with brush and canvas:Several stories told here…as a very large mammal, probably an elk or mule deer, followed the path of least resistance, walking slowly along the wash. Then, an undetermined digger moved across the wash, digging as he went, perhaps following the burrow of an underground dweller in search of dinner:More tracks, this time a fox perhaps, and multiple well-defined water courses, dredged by a silent carver of the sand:Away from the wash, as I prepare to make camp for the evening, the limestone layers of this slab, turned on end to form a chair for Paul Bunyan, and shade for me in a shadeless land:The sun begins to set against the limestone cliffs of the Madiera Sierra del Carmen, rising to a height of 8000 feet across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, with the distinct landmark of the Taj Mahal Hoodoo beginning to silhouette in foreground right:The layers of evening, a rising moon, the golden glow of the warmer layers of light filtering through the low levels of atmosphere, the shadow of the earth itself just above the tops of the Dead Horse Mountains:Next morning, as I begin the 4 miles back downstream, the colors of the sand warm to the morning light:More tracks from a mule deer, heading upstream:A tributary enters from the north, perhaps a drainage from nearby Grapevine Hills, showing evidence of water flowing at levels ranging from flood to a trickle:One of the earliest flowers to bloom this year, growing in the soft sand of the creek, attended by an opportunistic flying critter:Among the myriad of smooth, round river stones, and set apart among the millions of remnants of limestone deposits, this multi-layered rock of sandstone, three feet across, created elsewhere at another time and washed here from some far-away mountainous perch:And finally, as if still flowing, this river of sand creates eddies behind rocks that have seen the water come and go, and come again:God really does surround us with masterpieces, if we will only crawl.
It has been awhile since I threw on the backpack and headed out the Marufo Vega Trail, one of my most favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park, and one of the best kept secrets in the entire park. With two consecutive days of 80+ degree sunny weather, the timing was perfect, as were the night skies, free of a bright moon, so off I went.
The Marufo Vega Trail is a 12-mile loop trail on the extreme east end of Big Bend National Park, and covers some of the most beautiful terrain you can imagine. However, it is one of the least populated hikes in the park, and one that receives perhaps more search & rescue episodes than any other, due to extreme desert conditions, lack of shade and water, and visitors who underestimate the physical demands of this trail. My favorite hike is an 11-mile out-and-back with an overnight on a bench a thousand feet above the Rio Grande River, and 5000 feet below the peak of the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, which rise to nearly 8000′ altitude on the Mexican side of the river.
The hike starts at the Marufo Vega Trailhead and follows a dry creekbed that drains Telephone Canyon, near the Mexican town of Boquillas:At 1.5 miles a trail junction splits and the Telephone Canyon trail continues on, while Marufo Vega turns and climbs sharply up 400′ over a ridge into another drainage:A look back up Telephone Canyon from the saddle:From the high bench, you get your first look at the top of the del Carmen mountains, still nearly 4 miles away:The trail wind across the desert into secondary drainages with interesting dikes and rock formations:At 3.5 miles the trail splits, forming a 5-mile loop that eventually drops 1000 feet down to the Rio Grande River, then follows the river for 1.5 miles before climbing back up the 1000 feet and re-joining at this point:Following the drainage marked “South Fork,” the trail winds through the hills and out onto a wide, flat park before disappearing over another low saddle to begin the traverse around an escarpment and the final push to the bench above the Rio Grande River:The first look eastward at the “Lower Canyons” of the Rio Grande, dropping over 1000 feet below the trail down to the Rio Grande River, carving its way southeast, the border between Mexico and Texas:This photo taken on another trip showing the river from a closer proximity to its channel:Around one more corner, the first look at the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, looming to a height of nearly 8000 feet just across the river in Mexico, the highest point being the small, thin spire called “El Pico” just to the right of the pointed direction of the trail:Another half mile and the panorama of the Del Carmens rises along the southern skyline, beginning their stunning color change as the sun begins its long, slow journey into sunset:The Milky Way is generally not visible at this time of the year, because we are not looking at the most dense spiral that is so familiar during the spring, summer and fall months, but out here the skies are so dark that the less dense spirals of the Milky Way are visible, occasionally streaked with a passing meteor:Next morning, the sun breaks upon the mountain peaks lowering over the lower canyons of the Rio Grande:And so begins the 5.2 mile journey back to the trailhead, with an overview of the last 1.5 miles of trail, following the old path of the Ore Trams, cabled buckets much like ski lifts, that hauled fluorspar ore, used in steelmaking, from Mexico to the railhead in Marathon for processing:And so ends the tour of the southern loop of the Marufo Vega Trail. This is not a hike for the summer, so if you plan to go, the cooler days of late fall, winter, or very early spring should be your goal. Hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy visit to my backyard.
January/February in the Big Bend is a great time to explore. Because of the lower elevation and southern latitude, winters here are very mild, and this year is no exception. A week in the border country was an opportunity to catch up with several friends, both old and new(er), and so Jodie & I hooked up the camper and headed the 90 miles south for the week. We made base camp in Lajitas, just 17 miles to the west of the famous ghost town of Terlingua.
The Rio Grande River forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and Hwy 170, the River Road, rolls through this country like the river itself, surrounded on all sides by the grandeur of the mountains and canyons that define this land:
One of the most exciting discoveries on this trip was finding the first BLUEBONNETS, or lupinus havardii, of the year in bloom along the roadway:
This land is filled with geologic wonders, including these hoodoos carved from tuff, or volcanic ash, along the way:
The old mining district around Terlingua is a reminder of tougher people during a tougher time, in a tough land. Here, laborers from both sides of the border toiled for pennies a day to produce “quicksilver” between 1903 and the second world war:
Beyond the communities of Terlingua and Lajitas, we enter the desert mountains now protected by the Big Bend Ranch State Park, where we meet up with park veterans for a day of hiking along a creek drainage, important for centuries to pre-history Americans, the Spanish explorers, the settlers and homesteaders from both border cultures, and the more modern cowboy culture. This is a country of critters both large and small, all dependent upon the liquid gold resource: water.
The Fresno Creek drainage flows both above ground and below for miles, down from the high country whose waters ultimately drain into the Rio Grande River.
Old skeletons of former mining efforts remain silent testimony to the workers mining cinebar for the WWI war effort:
The “Rock House” ruin stands along Fresno Creek as a reminder of those who established homes and families in this hot, dry land, wringing out an existence against all odds:
Further upstream, we stand on a high bluff, looking down on the creek drainage, bending around the flat-topped peak of an extinct underwater magma flow, or laccolith:
From the bluff, we look down on the remains of a primitive factory that produced wax from the candelilla plant. The wax was used in everything from varnish to chewing gum:
These boilers were used to separate the wax from the stems and leaves in a dilute solution of sulfuric acid:
As we turn back and head downstream, the water is forced to the surface by the bedrock, so that it flows along the rocks in wonderful patterns and pools:
A nice place for a dip to cool off:
Along the banks of the creek are found other remnants of homes, and lives, that were dependent upon the sparse water of this desert land:
The layers of sediment exposed by water and wind form a rainbow of color that tell a geologist the story of eons of changing landscape and climate:
And so, January is a time of exploration in the Big Bend, visiting old friends and welcoming the coming of spring with the return of the iconic bluebonnets to Texas along the Border.