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.
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.