This post strays from my usual Big Bend haunts to the spectacular state of Utah, one of my favorite places outside of Texas. This trip features one of my favorite pastimes, off-road Jeep camping, and the location is Canyonlands National Park. The planning and permits for this trip were executed by a great friend and ex-neighbor, now living in San Diego, David. We met in Monticello, Utah, and it is there our adventure begins.
Canyonlands National Park is divided into several “districts,” The Maze, Island in the Sky, Needles, and White Rim. Having visited The Maze together several years ago, we planned this trip for the Needles district, and a 4-day trip around the White Rim Road, an old uranium mining road built nearly a hundred years ago, which is a 100-mile long 4-wheel drive road that circles Island in the Sky near the rim that overlooks the Colorado and Green Rivers:As we enter the back country, we pass a famous landmark, “Newspaper Rock,” a large panel of pictographs left as testament to the presence of native peoples here over the past 2,000 years:The road we have selected to penetrate the Needles district is the Elephant Hill Road. The term “road” is really an oxymoron, as it is little more than a marked route up and over the slickrock formations that are so iconic to this part of Utah. It is designated by the National Park Service as the “most technically difficult 4-wheel drive road in all of Utah.” That is an understatement! David and I needed every bit of the customization (lift, skid plates, oversize tires, etc.) that we’ve added to our Rubicons to get through with no damage:
Camp for the next two nights was in the “Devil’s Kitchen” area, and we spent the first afternoon on a day hike along a trail near camp:First night out, we were treated to clear skies and beauiful starsa:Next morning after breakfast, we headed north into the heart of the Needles:Along the way, an unexpected surprise…a panel of pictographs under an overhang:Many hand prints, and a few older “shaman” figures that are familiar to this region:From here, a really technical obstacle confronts us, but we make it through with little difficulty:We reach the trailhead for the “Joint Trail,” a somewhat misleading name, that winds its way through a labyrinth of joints between huge rock slabs, to a fantastic overlook:Next morning, we wake to gray and overcast. The light rain begins as we are heading through the washes and down the “silver stairs” enroute back up and over Elephant Hill and back down:
After a night in Moab, we meet up with Jeff, a friend of David from San Diego, and he joins us for the 4-day trip around the White Rim Road. It begins with an exposed drop through the switchbacks of Shafer Trail Road, down 1500 feet to the plateau of the White Rim:Along this road, totally unmaintained through primitive backcountry for over 100 miles with no facilities, no gasoline, and no cellular service, we are treated to spectacular scenery:A stop at Musselman Arch, where we take a walk on the wild side:Campsite the first night on the White Rim, and a walk for a view of “Washerwoman Arch”:Fresh snow caps the La Sal Mountains, visible in the distance:A beautiful clear night with a crystalline moon:The “White Rim” describes the hard layer of white sandstone which caps the softer underlying layers of red sandstone. In places the White Rim Road ventures perilously close to the edge which falls off to the plateau a thousand feet below:The occasional mountain biker cruising this flat part of the White Rim Road:We reach an area of Canyonlands know as “Monument Valley,” with the Needles seen in the background:An unnamed arch we dub “Keyhole Arch”:At White Crack trail, we do some capstone hopping out to a high point for a 360 degree panoramic overlook at the spectacular land below:After a climb up “Murphy’s Hogback” we set up camp 2 on a high point for the night:Pancakes hit the spot on a cool morning:With rain in the distance, we break camp and get out on the road. Along the way we stop for several magnificent vistas where the Green River bends its way through the canyons below:The peninsula formed by this bend in the Green River has been inhabited for thousands of years by native peoples who hunted and farmed this rich bottom land. The remains of a cliff dwelling still stands on the side of the “Turk’s Head” formation at its center:Canoeists make their way through spots where the river widens and slows:The last big climb up and over a granite intrusion that prevents following the river, we drop down the back side to our final of three campsites for the evening, located at river level just above the river bank:Mountain bikers start the descent down:Camp along the Green River:The next morning we slog our way through mud, water, and more mud as the road snakes its way through “Potato Bottoms” to meet up with the gravel road that climbs back up to the Island in the Sky, and ultimately back to Moab:It’s no wonder why we’re continually drawn back to the canyonlands country of south central Utah. If you go, be sure you are properly equipped for desert survival and self-rescue. That said, the scenery and solitude makes it well worth the effort.
My 6th. trip to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming will probably be my last one into these mountains. During the past 25 years I and a few very close friends have made an annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Montana, and all points in between, for extended (8-12 days) backpack excursions into the high country. The Wind Rivers are probably my favorite mountain range, primarily due to the high, craggy peaks, the many gorgeous, sweeping basins carved by the glacial movements of the last ice age, the many high, alpine lakes, and the vast expanses of off-trail trekking available above timberline. After 6 backpack trips into the Winds I think after this trip we’ll set our sights on other trails where we have not been before. This August our trip returned to a section of the southern Winds that we all love, and an area that we had not visited since 2010. This, a short photo-safari through Wyoming’s backbone, the Continental Divide, and the grizzly bear country of the Wind River Mountains:
Myself, Jason, Sara and Joe at the Scab Creek Trailhead ready to go:We have a climb of 1700′ in the first two miles up the trail to the Wilderness boundary:Some of the lower elevation lakes sport beautiful yellow lillies along the shoreline:The delicate columbine flowers begin to appear as we reach higher elevations:Campsite the first evening after a 9.5 mile hike, with the majestic peaks of Bonneville Basin, still some 8 miles away, looming in the background:First night out we marvel at clear skies as a meteor from the Perseoid Meteor Shower crosses the Milky Way, and the ISS glides by low on the horizon:Next morning we hit the trail, only to find a couple of log cabins, circa 1900, that were probably used by shepherds using the summer pastures along these drainages for grazing sheep:After a couple of miles of “off-trail” hiking across high meadows with spectacular views and multiple crystal blue lakes, we intersect the Freemont Trail, a section of the Continental Divide Trail that runs the backbone of the Rockies from Canada to near Mexico:Today’s hike of about 7 miles brings us to Bonneville Lake, at an elevation of about 9300′, which sits in the shadow of Bonneville Peak. The last time we were here we had just crossed Raid Pass in a rain/snow storm and descended a steep waterfall some 500′ to set up camp on this very spot in driving snow (in August), about 7 years ago:Bonneville Lake:Wildflowers and waterfall that connects Upper Bonneville Lake with Lower Bonneville Lake:The view from atop the waterfall, looking back down to Lower Bonneville Lake:Multi-colored lilac and white columbine near the upper waterfall:A calm lake reflects the new snow that fell overnight, leaving an inch or more on our tents at camp, and much more at higher elevations:Next morning, we break camp and head 8 miles up and across a pass and drop into another basin, Middle Fork Basin, and set up camp between Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake:Lee Lake is gorgeous, and is still holding lots of snow in its basin from heavier than normal winter snows:The wildflowers around Lee Lake are spectacular, and the view across the lake reveals the waterfall that drops over 500′ from Bewmark Lake. We’ll be climbing this near-vertical route with our packs later in the day:After our climb, the view from atop the waterfall, back across Middle Fork Lake, to Lee Lake and the vast Middle Fork Basin is just spectacular:The view from our “camp kitchen” as Jason and I enjoy the lengthening shadows before cooking dinner:We take a day hike across the snow fields to a smaller, upper unnamed lake still icy cold and clear from the remaining blanket of snow that won’t melt off this year:Next morning we pack up, head over another high pass and drop down the Middle Fork Boulder Creek drainage, displaying beautiful cascades along the way, carrying snowmelt waters from two wonderful basins:Our final night we return to the meadow on the approach to the high basins where we spent our first night a week ago, and watch the mountains turn from gray to red as the sun gives way to twilight:As the skies darken, the Milky Way explodes across the southern sky and the occasional meteor gives us pause to applaud the splendor of the heavens:And so, eight days flew by as if only hours, and we were left to again be grateful for our time here. This is truly one of the best kept secrets in the Rockies, and are still full of places where solitude is king. One caveat…this is grizzly bear country, so you must be experienced in back country habits where these deadly critters are present. Bear spray (deterrent) is a must, as is a clean camp and spartan tents free of human food odors. But the rewards are worth it.
We were also in Wyoming during the total solar eclipse. This was no accident, as we have been planning this for over a year:
A pretty spectacular way to finish another marvelous trip to the high country!
April in Big Bend means summer, plain and simple. It’s hot, with temps down near the border already reaching 100 degrees; it means blooming season for many cactus, so it’s time to get out and explore. The South Rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is always a good place to start, and other areas just outside the park yield some exciting plant and animal viewing opportunities.
A hike up 2000 feet from the Basin to the South Rim takes me past some colorful spring blooms:
And so an evening on the South Rim, some 4000 feet above the desert floor, means great views. Here the full moon rises over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains across the river in Mexico:Another couple is camping in the high Chisos, quietly soaking in the setting sun:The sun makes a magnificent exit, framed by a wind-blown juniper at 7300 feet:A rising full moon in the quiet of the evening breeze:Next morning a panorama of desert badlands stretches to Mexico 25 miles away:On the way down, I catch a couple of familiar residents, the Arizona Sister butterfly, and a desert lizard:Back off the mountain, Jodie & I are on the hunt for the spring bloom of cactus, beginning in April and continuing into June. Outside the park, we’re astounded to find a Scimitar Oryx (Oryx dammah), an African antelope now listed as “extinct in the wild” roaming near Santiago Peak:The cactus bloom is not nearly as spectacular as in 2014, but we find a few species showing off their colors, such as Engelmann’s Prickly Pear, Claret Cup (Scarlet Hedgehog), and Rainbow Cactus:
We make a stop near the Rio Grande, in Big Bend National Park, and find a Red Racer making for the shade. He’s about 7 feet long, and has beautiful color:Nearby, a Vermillion Flycatcher treats us to his color and song:It’s hard to ignore a flock of Yellow-headed blackbirds when they gather en masse:And so, our swing through the April desert of Big Bend comes to a close with the sun setting behind the Glass Mountains in the Marathon Basin:
It’s February, the weather is in the 80’s (above normal, even for the Big Bend), so let’s go take a hike!
My high school buddy, Walt, is in town and we’re heading out for a day hike through a small region in Big Bend Ranch State Park, a remote state park in the Texas Parks system. Accompanying us are friends and family that have hiked with us before.
Let me go on record here that our destination is actually a private landholding within the boundaries of the state park. The trail we’re following is not a designated trail, but a game trail through the state park, to an old historic homestead that is still in private ownership, and we have permission from the landowner to visit the old homestead. Even though the land is within state park boundaries, to be here without permission is trespass.
Following an old ranch road, we divert onto game/horse trails until we intersect a well-defined drainage with flowing water, something rare in the Chihuahua Desert, but more common in Big Bend Ranch State Park due to many springs which flow intermittently in the desert. Along the way to the creek we pass a section of volcanic ash, or tuff, strewn with igneous rocks, which offer a bizarre contrast:As we round the hill we drop into the creek, flowing with crystal clear water:The early bloom has begun:Stands of the Big Bend Bluebonnet, or lupinus havardii, are reaching heights of 3 feet or more in some places:At one point the creek goes beneath the surface, then reappears near the rock intrusion of a “dike” which appears like a vertical wall amid the layers of limestone deposited by an ancient sea which covered Texas at one time:A short way up the drainage we encounter the face of the dike, and a wonderful waterfall cascades some 20 feet down the stone slabs:Time for a short pause for a Kodak moment with my high school friend:Atop a stone pillar near the waterfall are found mortar holes, made by early peoples who were dependent on the water for survival. These holes, made by years of grinding food materials for cooking, are some 12 inches deep: The view of the dike from atop the waterfall is spectacular. These dikes are formed by volcanic lava flows which cool and are left standing as the surrounding tuff and limestone is worn away by eons of erosion: The area is alive with bluebonnets. These are native to Big Bend, not planted along the roadways by Lady Bird Johnson as you find in the hill country. These are miles back into the desert landscape, here growing in the creek bed:Moss grows in places along the watercourse, forming artistic patterns in the water: Not far ahead the creek flows over another dike, another 20+ foot drop with a small waterfall at the top: More bluebonnets along the meandering creek, as we near a large spring, the source of the water: At the spring we find a surprise in the desert…non-native palms, perhaps growing from dates dropped by early settlers: Above the spring is found a circular foundation, perhaps the remains of a native American shelter, or perhaps ceremonial, where there are many flint shards littering the ground, the remains of much flint napping, the making of arrow and spear points: A short distance below the spring lies the remains of the Rios Homestead, probably dating the the early part of the 20th century, where a family clawed out an existence from ranching sheep or goats. Signs of life on a hostile frontier are everywhere: Near the living structures is found a magnificent stone corral. Imagine the time and labor necessary to carry, stack and construct walls, over 3 feet thick in places, with no mortar to hold them in place: A peek inside the main house, a much later type of construction from the first dwellings. Two prism skylights provide light in the rooms during the day. (Keep in mind that this is private property, and we are inside with the permission of the owner): Quite a place to sit and watch the sun set across the mountains: Flowers abound in the early springlike sunshine near the homestead: And so, as we make our way back along the trail to our vehicle, it’s easy to let your mind wander back to the two different times represented by artifacts found on our hike…the early native hunters and growers, and the later homesteaders who lived out daily lives here in the desert. More questions than answers, but certainly an appreciation for the hardy and fearless nature required to persevere here: A final reminder that many such remnants of early habitation remain in our state and national parks. In this case, on unmarked private property. Leave it exactly as you find it.
The experience of discovering artifacts is exciting and special. Do not deprive others of the same experience by removing them. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
This past weekend, Jodie & I hooked the camper to the Jeep and headed down to our favorite backyard location, Big Bend National Park. Our goal for this trip was to drive the Glenn Springs Road/Black Gap Road/River Road backcountry roads in our Jeep Rubicon, which we have not yet done in this vehicle (after trading in our 2003 Jeep over a year ago, the last vehicle to travel these roads). The main purpose of this post is not to document the entire trip, but to share some interesting photos and history of one portion of the route, primarily around Glenn Springs.
Glenn Springs Road leaves the pavement about 6 miles southeast of Panther Junction Visitor Center. We camped in Pine Canyon, a side road which heads north about 3 miles down GSR. Our campsite is nice, overlooking the Sierra del Carmen Mountains which lie across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, and rise to a height of 8,000 feet:The Chisos Mountains, seen from the north, are greener than I can ever remember them before. Near-record rainfall in August and September has done wonders for the wildlife and the vegetation, and a normally brown desert at the end of summer is now really looking healthy and green:Immediately, we are aware of the proliferation of butterflies everywhere. Everywhere there is a blooming desert plant, there are butterflies enjoying the richness of the pollen and nectar of the blooms:As evening falls, in the afterglow of twilight, we watch as Venus begins to set along a silhouetted skyline which features Elephant Tusk Peak in the distance, a landmark for early inhabitants and settlers in this part of the Big Bend region of Texas:After dark, the skies are ablaze with the Milky Way, here featuring a setting Venus just above the horizon around 9:00 p.m.Next morning, we load the Rubicon and head south on Glenn Sprints Road, toward the namesake spring and the remains of the little settlement called Glenn Spring. The large cottonwood tree marks the location of the spring, source of dependable water, or “liquid gold,” a necessity for Native Americans, and later white settlers, along a trail heavily used by many in past centuries:The little settlement of Glenn Springs contained a wax factory, producing candelilla wax from the plant Candelilla, which grows naturally in the desert across Big Bend. The settlement also consisted of a store, and homes for the plant owner and the store and post office operator, and their families. Remaining are some corrals and other artifacts:This is the remaining walkway and foundation of the Ellis home, the plant owner:There were 9 soldiers of the 14th. Cavalry stationed here, and left are the remains of the “rifle pit,” as it’s described on archaeological maps of the settlement:Across the draw created by the drainage of the spring was a segregated village of Mexican workers and their families, populated by about 60 Mexicans. Remains of several foundations of their houses can be found, as well as the Mexican cemetery which contains approximately 14 graves:Glenn Springs existed from 1914 until about 1920. On May 5, 1916, a group of Mexican banditos, claiming allegiance to Pancho Villa, staged a deadly raid on Glenn Springs. Estimates vary from 50-several hundred men, but a sizable force attacked the village around 11:00 p.m. The 9 soldiers guarding the camp were sleeping in tents and fled to an adobe building, where they held off attackers for 3 hours, but finally fled and three were killed. The store owner, O.G. Compton, fled with his young daughter across the draw to place her in the care of one of the Mexican families. He returned to get his 9 year old son, but the boy had been shot and killed. A total of 4 people were killed and 4 others severely injured, the store looted and several buildings plus the wax factory were burned and destroyed. Glenn Springs was finally abandoned around 1920:From Glenn Springs, we turn south on the Black Gap Road. Don’t let the term “road” confuse you…it’s a 4-wheel-drive trail, the most remote and difficult road in the park. After some fun and sometimes technical off-road driving for about 8 miles, we intersect the River Road, another 4-wheel-drive road that follows the course of the Rio Grande River. We stop for lunch at the Mariscal Mine, an abandoned cinnabar mine (quicksilver) that operated along the border from about 1900 until 1941:Lunch alongside one of the abandoned mine buildings near the road:Back at camp, we ready for our last night in Pine Canyon:One final light show, starring Venus and the Milky Way:Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains greets us as we get set to head home:
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.