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:
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.
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.