Getting Closer

Getting Closer
Getting Closer

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

1-11-2014 Big Bend Part 2

Now: at NAS Corpus Christi  6:30 AM the temp is down to 51F and the wind is still blowing, now 26 mph

morning drive northOK Ya’ll…I’m in Texas now, I get to say “ya’ll”, right?  I left you in Rio Grande Village RV Campground on our first night in Big Bend National Park.  With just a short 3 night stay, we hoped to see the highlights at least, knowing that the park had so much to offer.  Interesting, talking with a volunteer at Seminole State Park a couple of days ago, he said, “I just didn’t get it.  We visited Big Bend and I wasn’t impressed”.  I asked what he did there, and he said they went up the mountain to Chisos Basin. 

Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena CanyonWell, of course he didn’t get it!  He never saw the canyons, the back roads, the wild hikes.  For flatlanders (pardon me if you are one) sometimes the mountains are a huge draw, even if the roads are scary.  We LIVE in the mountains, however, and the deserts are a huge draw for us.  So while the Chisos Mountains were beautiful, and a dominant visible feature from almost every part, they are not the only thing to see if you visit Big Bend.

We started our day early, knowing that we wanted to see the paved Scenic Route recommended to us by the volunteer at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.  Rio Grande Village is 20 miles from the visitor center, and the Scenic Route begins about ten miles west of the center.  Staying at the river campground requires a daily back and forth jaunt on the main road to see get to the entrance of the park’s paved roads and many of the back roads as well.

map scenic routeWe decided to do a loop rather than going over the Scenic Route to Santa Elena Canyon twice.  Also called the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the road is paved all the way.  We decided instead to follow the Old Maverick dirt road 14 miles through the lower desert to the canyon, stopping along the way to explore some of the old historical sites.

these people were short! Luna's JacalAt Luna’s jacal (ya-CAL) another word for a small house, we tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in that remote place for a lifetime.  He raised many children in this low-roofed hut and lived to be more than 100 years old.  Just couldn’t imagine it.  We then wandered off to the Terlingua Abajo, the ruins of a small Mexican village along the Ternlingua River where families lived up until the 30’s.  Not much left now, but we loved having the entire road and trails to ourselves.

Yes, we took Abby on the trail across Terlingua Creek and she even got a chance to swim.  We know there are javelinas in the park so of course kept her close.  Although with Abby that isn’t too much of an issue.  She sticks as close to Mo’s leg as possible, only getting concerned if I get too far away from the two of them.  The dog does have some serious separation issues, a pain when we have to leave her in the car, but a blessing when we are out and about and she never even thinks of running off somewhere.swimming in Terlingua Creek at the abajo ruins

The skies were clear and the sun was warm and we even got a glimpse of what I am pretty sure was a peregrine falcon.  We weren’t far from the cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon, and know that there are a few rare nesting pairs in that area, but this guy flew off too quickly for me to capture him in the camera, so I am left with a fuzzy shot of something with a white breast among the branches of a mesquite tree.

I missed the photo, some sort of falcon with a very white breast peregrine-falcon_659_600x450
My photo of a peregrine falcon Internet photo of a peregrine

Surprisingly, on this trip we saw very little wildlife, and not a single javelina.  Our sightings consisted of a few little birds, the falcon, three tarantulas, and a couple of deer up in the Chisos Basin.  Not even a snake crossed our path, although Mo said she did see a lizard or two.

first close up view of Santa Elena CanyonAt the end of 14 miles of sometimes washboard gravel and graded dirt, we came to the paved road at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.  This place is mysterious and majestic, with the entrance visible for many miles before you arrive.  The walls are 1,500 feet high and rise vertically from the Rio Grande River that flows through it. 

Once again, Mo waited with Abby in the parking lot while I took the short trail to a viewpoint over the canyon.  It would have been so easy to put the kayaks in the water and paddle upstream against the current as far as Fern Grotto.  There is only one rapid to worry about in the canyon, called the Rock Slide, more a maze of huge rocks than an actual rapid, but definitely a place where an experienced river guide is a must.Santa Elena Canyon

Still, the next time we come, we will make sure we have the free day permit to put our boats on the river.  Again, the rules are strict.  No dogs on the river, even in your own boat.  Sigh.

Santa Elena CanyonThe hike was also “easy”, except of course for the very steep switchbacks and drop-offs with no railing.  My hiking poles were in the Tracker, but my boots were left by mistake on the floor of the MoHo where I had readied them for the day.  Instead I hiked this trail in my trusty Oofos, but they were sadly deficient for any kind of balance on this particular path.  I went as far as I could manage, but decided that since I was hiking alone and the trail above the river looked precarious, I shouldn’t try it without better shoes.

The silence of the canyon is impressive, with the river flowing very quietly and almost glassy smooth.  I read that the river may be as little as 2 feet deep at the entrance to the canyon, and you can even walk it sometimes.  Big on the bucket list is getting my kayak in this water and paddling upstream in Santa Elena Canyon.

Cottonwood CampgroundWe returned along the paved road, stopping in at the Cottonwood campground not far from the canyon.  The campground here is somewhat primitive, with no hookups, but there is potable water available at the entrance.  There are also no generators allowed at any time.  Would be a perfect place for folks with plenty of sun panels, however, since I think the sun shines here all the time.  We would like to camp here for a couple of days at least.  It is much more remote and quiet and we love the cottonwoods.

Continuing up the road, we came to the remote visitor center and store at Castolon. The store is small, but had “ice cream”. Somehow we were imagining a nice cone of something yummy, but had to settle for a packaged ice cream bar for our afternoon snack.  There is an historic district nearby, and this part of the park seems to have been fairly well populated with folks trying to eke out a living in the desert.

Sotol Vista PointThe route up the hill toward the Soton Overlook is nothing short of spectacular.  One of the most delightful aspects to our visit was the lack of company on the roads.  We saw very few cars and got into a game of guessing how many cars would be at the “sites”.  Sometimes it was one, and sometimes there wasn’t a soul around.  We had most every turnout to ourselves, even on a Saturday afternoon. 

Burro Mesa Pouroff TrailThat is one of the big differences between Big Bend and another desert park that we love, Death Valley.  In Death Valley, no matter when you visit, there will almost always be a LOT of people at the viewpoints and on the roads.  Big Bend is immense in the the same way, but much more remote.  Hard to imagine, I know, but it is definitely more remote and less visited.

Ambling along, we came to a turn off for the Burro Mesa Pour-Off.  My only concept of a pour-off is from hiking Utah’s canyon country and reaching the pour-off where there was no way to get any father into the canyon.  Sure enough, that is what this was, exactly, but much bigger than any pour-off I have encountered.

The sky was so dark we could almost see stars at the Burro Mesa pouroffAfter six miles or so on a dirt road to the trail head, where we saw no cars going in or out and no one in the parking lot, we decided to take the chance again with Abby.  Since she is so incredibly good about staying close and not being a problem, we felt that we weren’t taking chances with her disturbing wildlife, and of course Mo cleans up after her religiously.  I have no idea why our National Parks are such zealots against any and all dog trails, since it seems that some of the state parks are setting aside a few places where a dog can hike with you.  What the ranger said is that the bad eggs ruin it for all of us.  And yes, I don’t particularly like running into a big, scary unleashed dogs on a trail.

I had to run a long way in ten seconds to get this shotThe hike was perfect, just short of being hot, and only a little over a mile each way to the huge and rather amazing pour-off from the mesa above us.  And yes, the skies really WERE this blue.  I didn’t enhance this photo a bit. The area surrounding our hike was rich with fascinating sedimentary and volcanic features, making me really appreciate the geologic map of the park that I purchased for just $9.95 at the visitor center.  The western portion of the park is dominated by volcanic landscapes and rock and the eastern portion is dominantly sedimentary limestones.  The Chisos Mountains in the central part of the park are volcanic as well.

After our hike we continued traveling the scenic route stopping at more viewpoints along the way until we reached the main highway back toward Panther Junction.  It was late afternoon by then, but early enough that there would be plenty of light up in the Chisos Basin, and late enough that we decided an early dinner at the Chisos Mountain Lodge was in order.

through the window from the Chiso Mountain LodgeThe road up to the basin specifically states that rigs more than 24 feet are not recommended due to the steep grade and sharp curves.  Once at Chisos Basin Campground, however, we did see a few big rigs that had somehow made it up and down that road.  We figured we could do it in the MoHo, but the campground is a bit tight, and a lot more crowded than any other part of the park.

Dinner at the restaurant was actually very good, with a hamburger on a whole wheat bun that wasn’t the least bit greasy, and great french fries and a cold Sierra Nevada Ale for me and a glass of cabernet for Mo. I was so glad to know that when we returned to the campground I wouldn’t have to cook.

through the windowOf course the biggest draw at the lodge is the magnificent view of sunsets through “The Window” a famous scene from Big Bend National Park.  We discovered that there is a short trail from the lodge to an overlook of the window, but don’t get it confused with the 5 mile round trip hike with an 800 foot elevation drop that actually goes to the window.  I don’t particularly want to do that one ever, since I heard rumors of poison oak and scree scrambles.  Instead, we might actually opt for the Lost Mine Trail…a hard one…and the South Rim Trail…another hard one, on our next visit.

Even with a somewhat dull sunset to the west, the shaded colors reflected in the eastern sky as we drove down from the high elevation Chisos Basin toward the Rio Grande were charming.sunset from the Chisos Mountain Road

Tomorrow: a crazy hike to Balanced Rock and a sunset from heaven