NAS Corpus Christi: 67 F with a nice 10mph breeze and bright sunshine at 5:30PM
Sometimes the most difficult part about not writing blog stories right away is getting back into the “mode”. Sitting here by Corpus Christi Bay, watching the brilliant sun turn orange on the horizon and listening to shore birds makes it a bit difficult to slip back in time to our rocky world at Big Bend.
This has been a lovely day, and there are more to come, and of course by the time I get to write about them, we will be off somewhere else, doing more lovely things and trying to remember the last lovely thing that we did. It isn’t so much that I feel obligated to keep up with the blog, it is more that I really want to remember, for myself, what I felt when I was doing whatever.
So, I open up Picasa again, and look at the photos for awhile, think about where we were and what it felt like, and sooner or later, the feelings reemerge. I am back in Big Bend, the cool morning is opening up as the sun rises, the smell of the leafless cottonwoods and desert grasses filling my nose as we get ready for our last day in the Big Bend.
When we first started looking at ideas for this day, we thought it would be nice to do the dirt back roads that are between the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande. The River Road traverses the southern portion of Big Bend and midway passes the ruins of the Marsical Mine. Mercury was once mined here and structures are still standing. In addition, the route has several rough dirt tracks that lead to backcountry campsites along the river that might be interesting to see.
But it is a 51 mile trip, with at least 8 hours of rough bumping around. We do that a lot, but on this day we thought, no…maybe something easier. I thought it might be nice to get back to camp by 3 or so and have time to cook a decent supper, get some laundry done, and be ready for Monday morning and an early departure. You know, that life stuff.
Instead of an all day backcountry trip, we took a 6 mile dirt road to one of the hidden gems of the park, the Grapevine Hills. Photos of the Balanced Rock are everywhere, and yet it seems that fewer people make it out to the hills to take the short easy hike. We thought, hmmm…maybe no one will be there and we can take Abby. (If you haven’t seen my last post and my comment about dogs on the trails here is another thought about that. Our dogs can carry diseases that wild animals are not immune to. I hadn’t really thought about that aspect when I was grumbling away about the no dog rule and trying to get around it.)
The road was again, graded dirt, but with more washboards and a few ditches, but nothing that would require actual 4 wheel drive. We drove past a couple of primitive camps, and at 6 miles arrived at the trailhead for Balanced Rock. Lo and behold, there were six cars already there and 4 more had just arrived with big bunches of people piling out and loading up water and packs and leaving on the trail. Way too many people for me much less an illegal dog!
We thought we would amble on down to the end of the road and check out the Grapevine Springs primitive campground, just another mile or so north. The road got a bit rougher here, with high clearance needed for sure, but all wheel drive would have been ok as well. The campground was surrounded by brush, and didn’t have much of a view. We wandered around a bit, and finally made it through some of the thick, spiny brush to find what may have once been a spring. There was a hint of an old cottonwood, but I am pretty sure it was no longer alive, and a hint of a view of the desert to the east, but it was hidden mostly by the brush. Our trusty little guidebook author said it was one of his favorite primitive campgrounds in the park. All a matter of opinion, I guess. We wouldn’t camp there, even if we did camp in a tent.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, there were still a lot of cars but no one was in sight. We talked about letting Abby wait in the car, since it was still very cool, but Mo wasn’t at all comfortable with that, so instead she encouraged me to take the hike alone to the rock and she would wait with Abby in the parking lot.
I took off on the easy rated hike, only 1.25 miles each way and well marked. The skies were perfectly blue, the air was just the right temperature and the path was wide and easy. About 3/4 of a mile in, I passed some hikers returning and they said there were javelinas on the trail, an excellent reason for not having Abby along. I looked and waited, but never saw a sign of them. I see some beautiful and healthy mountain mahogany trees, indications of a bit of a different climate back in the small valley surrounded by hills. Stopping every so often I heard interesting bird calls, but not being a true ‘birder’, I had no idea what I was hearing.
Another couple came down the trail, and said, “It is just up the hill there, and there are still a lot of people up there”. Hmmm. At least I wouldn’t be surprised by the crowd. What did surprise me, however, was the trail. This was an ‘easy’ trail, remember? As I saw the marker for the last 1/4 mile, I also saw the trail begin to ascend, and not gradually. The trail looked dang near vertical, a scramble up the rocks, with switchbacks, and no end in sight.
This time I was armed with both hiking poles and my good boots, so I was ready. Or almost ready. I started up, and kept on going and going and going. Yeah it was only a quarter mile, but it was definitely challenging to me. Very near the end of the hike I looked at the rock as tall as I was and thought, “I can’t do this. How in the world will I ever get back down”. But I could hear voices at the top out of my line of vision, and thought, “Well, if I fall someone will at least hear me”, and up I went. It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but it still was an adrenaline rush.
Then when I finally made it to the top, it turned out it wasn’t the top at all. But there were definitely a lot of people there who were all busy scribbling in tablets and talking quietly among themselves. They seemed to think I shouldn’t be there, but when I asked where the Balanced Rock was, one guy decided to talk to me and said, “Up there, on that trail. It isn’t far.” Oh great. More up and in front of all these people, whomever they were with their little tablets. I did ask someone if they were botanists or geologists, and a guy piped up and said, “We are artists”. Oh. They were all actually drawing desert images with colored chalk on little thin pieces of slate, obviously they brought their own slate since the rocks surrounding us were all granite of some sort.
With just a bit more effort, and a bit more adrenaline, I made it to the top of the landing below Balanced Rock, managed to take some photos without tipping over from vertigo, and climbed back down and beyond all the artists busily working on their projects. When I had climbed the very tall, very vertical wall, I decided I needed both hands and had left my hiking poles behind. I was happy to get down that rock and back to my poles, believe me.
When I returned to the trailhead, Mo and Abby were comfortable in the warm sun, hanging around and getting in a few walks along the road. We drove back to the main highway and then turned north again to go find another dirt road to what was called Painted Gap. Now I have to say, this road was the roughest we encountered. There were lots of rocks and high clearance was a definite requirement. The view from the crest of the hill near the gap was nice, with the Chisos Mountains to the south, but the road was rough enough and I was a bit tired of bouncing around so who knows what we would have found if we had continued to the end in another 1/2 mile or so. We didn’t see any paint anywhere, though, so have no idea where the name came from.
By this time is was mid-afternoon, and it was a fine time to drive the 30 miles or so back to camp with plenty of time to have a nice supper and actually relax a bit. Our grilled chicken breasts were great in a parmesan penne pasta with a little caesar salad on the side. Small kitchen cooking is simple but can be really good.
After dinner we decided to go exploring around the campground, something we hadn’t done in the three days camped here. At the store, I was shown on the map where Abby could go, and the boat ramp was on the list. We just couldn’t take the paths and had to walk on the pavement that led to the park campground and around to the ramp. It was a nice walk, and long enough that we all got a bit more exercise.
The river looked wide and slow, and not at all scary. Well, maybe just a little bit. The ramp has a drop off into thick, silty mud and the river depth drops suddenly within a foot or two. I couldn’t quite picture trying to hold my boat against the current, keep from sinking into the mud, while trying to climb into my kayak without dumping. Friend Jeanne just pushes her kayak off the rocks into waterfalls. Jeanne I am not!
We thought about trying to launch on the river in the morning before our planned departure and leave Abby in the MoHo, but common sense won out, and the lack of a permit and the country of Mexico within a few feet kept us from taking the chance. I think this decision was made around 4 in the morning when I woke up, and could hear Mo breathing, and said, “I really don’t want to try to kayak in that river tomorrow morning”. Her “OK” was quick and emphatic. That trip will wait till next time as well.
Walking back from the ramp that evening we were treated to one of the best sunsets we have seen in all our time on the road. The skies in all directions just kept getting brighter and brighter and the colors kept shifting and changing. What a beautiful way to end our last day in Big Bend National Park.