The Chisos Mountains South Rim Trail

If you are a hiker, a trip up to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is a must.  This is a great hike any time of the year, but it is one of the few that are comfortable for hikers and backpackers during the summer months, due to the altitude (7300′ on the south rim) and the extreme heat at lower elevations near the Rio Grande River (2000′).  The Chisos Mountains contain several ecosystems found in this part of the park only in these mountains:

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The trail to the South Rim is a strenuous, 14 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin at 5,400′ to the rim at 7,400′.  The only way to get there is to go UP:

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Along the way, I encounter a pair of Chisos Whitetail Deer, so named because this sub-species of the whitetail deer is found only here in the Chisos Mountains, having evolved on this eco-island:

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As I climb through the high desert to sub-alpine terrain, a few more of my favorite friends come to visit:

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Some of the more elusive critters, a tarantula, and a desert toad brought out of hibernation by the recent rains:

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Finally, after 3 hours of climbing the 2,000′ and 5 miles to my campsite, I am alone at 7,300′ overlooking the Chihuahua Desert nearly a mile below, and Mexico 30 miles to the distant south:

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The views from the South Rim Trail are spectacular, looking southeast past the annual nesting cliffs of the peregrine falcon toward the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico:

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Due south lies a landmark peak, Elephant Tusk, framing a century plant agave in bloom, hanging on precipitously to the cliff face:

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Back at camp, sunset is often spectacular, and this evening did not disappoint.  Sunset is late up here, coming at 9:00 p.m. this close to the summer solstice:

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The moon is late to rise, and late to set, as the morning light dawns soft and warm over the desert floor:

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On the way back to the Basin, I pass one of the few blooming plants still showing its splendor so late in the season, and a critter I have yet to identify, but probably a skink of some type:

 

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One last look to the southwest, down the Blue Creek escarpment, scene of a massive fire in March, 1989, with a lone burn remnant of that blaze:

 

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While temperatures in most of Big Bend National Park reached 104 at headquarters and 112 along the river during the past few days, the temps I encountered on the South Rim Trail ranged from a high of 79 degrees during the day to a low of 63 degrees at night, hard to believe, but a fact of hiking the High Chisos Trail Complex.  No excuse to stay away.

Tarantula Hawk

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I knew nothing about the tarantula hawk.  I have seen them around the yard for years, and even though they make a fearsome showing with their blue-black body and bright red wings, they never seem aggressive, and we leave each other alone.  Until yesterday.  I was hiking with my pack along a county trail near my home, and noticed a tarantula hawk dragging a tarantula across the trail.  I’ve seen video of this behavior a time or two before, but never in person.  With no camera, I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get close enough for a pic.  When I get within about 6-8 feet of the subject, the wasp left the tarantula prize and flew directly at me, very menacingly.  It turned out to be a warning, or a bluff, and when I jumped back to the proper distance (according to the wasp), she returned to her quarry and continued on across the trail:

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Back home, I did some quick research.  Seems these are critters you don’t want to mess with.  First, it’s the female that does the hunting, so that’s reason enough to leave it alone.  Second, they don’t actually kill the tarantula, but merely paralyze it and drag it back live to their nest, where they lay an egg into the abdomen of the tarantula.  When the egg hatches, the larvae has a ready and fresh food source.  Very macabre.

Now, here’s the interesting note that concerns us all:  the sting of the Tarantula Hawk is the most painful of any sting in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Bullet Ant anywhere in the world, according to the Schmidt Pain Index.  It is not fatal, nor particularly dangerous, but it is excruciatingly painful for many minutes, described as “…simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”

Seems like a good reason to give them plenty of space and simply observe from a distance.