The New “Normal”

For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.

But that is changing.

For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.

After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:

A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.

He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.

I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.

Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.

A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.

A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.

On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.

The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.

The Big Bend 100

The April, 2020, issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine’s cover story spotlights The Big Bend 100, a new 100-mile-long through-hike across the largest national park and the largest state park in Texas…Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The route description is available at www.bigbend100.com.

This month my good friend and longtime hiking buddy Joe joined me to hike several sections of the 50-mile route through the state park. Since both these parks cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Chihuahua Desert, our main concerns were finding water where very little exists, and route-finding through an area of desert where no established trails exist…two factors that have the potential for disaster for the unprepared. In fact, just the day before we started out on the first leg of the route, there had been a search-and-rescue event to save lost hikers on the same trail we were attempting.

P1110142 Bob Joe

From the trailhead, the route crests a ridge and descends 200′ down into a drainage of Leyva Creek, a dry creek bed that drains this section of the mountains:

P1110144 trail

At about two miles, we find our first water, at a bedrock wall and pouroff across the creek:

P1110151 pouroff tinaja

A short distance down the creek e come upon another water feature, beautiful deep pools cut into the bedrock by years of flow:

P1110164 creek pool

P1110166 creek pool

Further along this “dry wash” we spot an igneous “dike,” formed by lava forced up into cracks and fissures in the earth which cools, then is exposed by eons of erosion, with more water pushed to the surface by the bedrock. The many prints in the sand are from longhorn cattle, deer, elk, javelina, desert bighorn sheep, aodad sheep, and the occasional bear or mountain lion:

P1110172 creek pool

Our campsite the first night was at the base of a beautiful granite wall, complete with a stream of running water just out our front door:

P1110181 tent camp

P1110182 canyon water

A short hike down canyon yields more water, not to mention fantastic views of the strata that makes up the interesting geology of this area:

P1110190 canyon pool

P1110195 canyon layers

After a beautiful, clear, cool night filled with stars, satellites, constellations, a few meteors and the Milky Way, we awake to the clamoring of the hooves of a group (herd or flock, whichever you prefer) of aodad (barbary) sheep. These are non-domestics imported from Africa years ago for hunting by area ranches, and are now running wild across west Texas, competing for scant resources with native species, such as desert bighorn sheep:

P1110309 milky way

P1110222 aodad

We headed north from camp for a day hike to find the trail that follows Terneros Creek to its intersection with Leyva Creek. Along the way we came upon a small cave that had obvious prehistorical use by native people, near a livestock pen that probably dates to the middle of the last century. We found rock art at the entrance, and the ceiling of the cave was blackened by years of fires burning for warmth and cooking:

P1110246

P1110250 rock art cave

Instead of following the designated trail that follows an old ranch road due north, we diverted through a side canyon, an extension of Lava Canyon, that shows on our topo maps to contain water. In fact, it contained LOTS of water:

P1110262

P1110269 lava canyon

 

P1110272 lava canyon

 

P1110274 lava canyon

At the end of the canyon, it turns into a form of “slot canyon” before opening out into Terneros Creek:

P1110276 lava canyon

After returning to camp, the day hike ended with a cool night under the stars, and a 5.5 mile hike back to the trailhead on the third day. We passed many signs of spring in full bloom, such as these Big Bend Bluebonnets:

P1110322 flowers bluebonnets

From the trailhead at Cinco Tinajas, the route passes the Sauceda Ranch House, now the location of the park interior headquarters, then follows the Leyva Loop ranch road to the Puerta Chilicote trailhead, and the start of the Mexicano Falls Trail which begins the second half of the route, and the remaining 25 miles of the Big Bend 100 through the state park. This section uses slightly more established trails, complete with cairns to aid in navigation:

P1100882 trail cairn

Some of the flowering cactus along the trail includes rainbow cactus as well as claret cup cactus in bloom:

P1100888 cactus

P1110077 flowers cactus

The trail follows cairns across solid rock until it drops down through a drainage to a spring indicated by telltale cottonwood trees:

P1100907 desert spring

At the bottom, a pouroff holds water in small tinajas, which can be filtered to replenish water supplies. This series of tinajas (spanish for “earthen jar”) features a large panel of rock art above a pool:

P1100916 desert spring

P1100921 rock art

From here the trail climbs 200′ over a saddle and follows the trail of cairns to a spectacular overlook above Mexicano Falls. This is the second highest accessible waterfall in Texas, and unlike Madrid Falls (which I covered in the previous blog post), it is more intermittent in flow:

P1100948 waterfall

My campsite was on a high mesa just past Mexicano Falls, and I was treated to the warm glow of late light:

P1100953 tent camp

P1100963 desert sunset

P1100968 sunset

As if that wasn’t enough, the sunrise next morning was breathtaking:

P1110027 sunrise

The views down Arroyo Mexicano, with the “Flatirons” of the Solitario (a round “lacolith” left from the volcanic activity of ancient times) in the distance:

P1110062 desert canyon mountains

P1110081 canyon mountains

Moonrise over another adventure on the trail:

P1100996 moon full

From Mexicano Falls, you can continue on southeast to the Mexicano Falls Trailhead, then down another half mile to Chorro Vista Camp, where you pick up Chorro Vista Trail which drops down to Madrid Falls. From Madrid Falls follow the Arroyo Primero Trail through Chorro Canyon, past the Madrid Ranch another mile and a half to Fresno Cascades, where you pick up the East Contrabando Trail which follows Fresno Creek for 11 miles to the end of the Big Bend 100 in Lajitas, at the East Contrabando Trailhead, all covered in previous posts.

Madrid Falls

Little known to most, we have an aquatic wonder right here in the Big Bend, in the Chihuahuan Desert, the driest region in the state. At 100′, it is the highest waterfall in Texas accessible to the public (although not easily accessible). It lies deep in the heart of Big Bend Ranch State Park. I spent a full day riding my mountain bike the 11 miles up East Contrabando Trail to Fresno Cascades, then hiking with day pack the remaining 2.5 miles, with the last mile up Chorro Canyon off-trail up the dry creekbed, then bushwhacking through rock and trees and reeds to one of the most beautiful grottos I’ve ever seen:

P1100857 madrid falls

After an 11-mile ride on mountain bike up the East Contrabando Trail, accessed from the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, TX, it’s time to hit the trail through Arroyo Primero for 2 1/2 miles, past the Madrid Ranch Homestead (covered in a previous post), then up Chorro Canyon mostly off-trail to the box canyon that features Madrid Falls and its accompanying pools and grotto:

Map

Along the way, I pass the first Big Bend Bluebonnets of the season, growing in the dry creek bed of Fresno Creek. Officially lupinus havardii, this is the tallest of the lupines:

P1100819 bluebonnets flowers

After passing the Madrid Homestead, you will cross a wide dry creek and continue up a well-defined trail to the sign “Primero Trailhead” that marks a hard southerly left turn. Continue on due west up Chorro Canyon:

P1100823 Chorro Canyon

The trail is faint, then when it disappears, just follow the path of least resistance up the dry creek bed, until you see the first signs of water, flowing from the falls and its pools:

P1100825 chorro spring

The canyon makes a hard left, up into a box canyon where you get the first glimpse of the top of the falls:

P1100826 madrid falls

From this point, stay out of the deep drainage and follow a fairly well-defined trail around the right side of the canyon until you begin to hit the lower pools:

P1100833 madrid falls spring

From here it’s a matter of bushwhacking your way through reeds, rocks, and the growth that accompanies water until you finally reach the pool at the base of the falls. There is a small upper falls (not visible in this photo, that drops into a small upper pool, then continues over the main falls:

P1100851 madrid falls

It’s hard to describe how this lush grotto feels when you encounter it in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert after a long, warm, dry 13-mile hike/bike. It’s a true slice of heaven:

P1100852 madrid falls

After spending lunch here, and re-hydrating from the hike (don’t drink this water unfiltered…animals use this as a water source and it contains bacteria such as giardia), it’s time to enjoy the lower pools on the way back out of the canyon:

P1100846 madrid falls spring

P1100839 madrid falls spring

Marufo Vega Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

It’s been several years since I backpacked one of my most favorite trails in all of the Big Bend region, the Marufo Vega Trail, located at the far eastern end of Big Bend National Park on the southern border of Texas with Mexico.

This is a strenuous 14+ mile long trail that crosses the southern end of the Dead Horse Mountains, then drops down nearly a thousand feet to the Rio Grande River and traverses the slopes that drop down another hundred feet or more to the river, southward some two miles, then climbs the thousand feet back up to the Dead Horse Plateau.

The Marufo Vega Trail probably is the scene of more “search and rescue” events than any other in the national park, mostly due to its remoteness, the total lack of water, and the extreme heat in these canyons during late spring, summer and early fall. This is definitely a winter hike, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to carry at least a gallon of water per person for this hike.

The trailhead lies on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon. There is a dirt parking area across the road from the trailhead. The trail follows a dry creekbed up Telephone Canyon, passing some of the remains of old ore tram towers that carried ore buckets on large 1″ cables from the Rio Grande River to an ore terminal up-canyon, where the ore was loaded on wagons and hauled by mule to a processing plant in Marathon, TX, some 40 miles north of the current national park.

P1100456 Ore tram

Day 1

At 1.5 miles there is a trail junction where the Marufo Vega Trail turns right and climbs a steep gully of rocky scree, up to the Dead Horse Plateau. You can also continue on .7 mile up the Strawhouse Trail to the point where another trail junction marked “Marufo Vega” splits to the right and climbs out of the Strawhouse drainage up onto the plateau for another .7 mile to join the Marufo Vega Trail.

P1100466 Strawhouse Trail

The trail flattens out and follows dry creek drainages, winding through the ravines and cliffs of the Dead Horse Mountains for another three miles.

P1100477

Suddenly, as you round the corner of a bluff, the lower canyons of the Rio Grande River open out before you with startling grandeur.

P1100490 Mtns & River 2

At this point you are also struck by the fact that the trail has to descend down to that river so far below and traverse the slopes just above the river for 2 miles before you can climb out and up again.

P1100493 Moon S del C 2

The southeastern end of the Dead Horse Mountains collides head-on into the uplifting fault which is the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico. The Rio Grande River cuts a dividing swath between these two ranges. Here, a nearly full moon rises over the 8000′ high peaks of the Sierra del Carmens. It is here that the trail begins its descent of over 800 feet down to the Rio Grande, seen below as a green oasis at the bottom of the canyon:

P1100504 M Vega Trail

Another mile later, following the descent from the plateau, the trail skirts along the cliffs that drop another 150 feet or so down to the river:

P1100520 Mtns River

At this point I set up camp at one of the most scenic, and secluded, spots I’ve ever found in Big Bend National Park:

P1100525 Tent

Down on a sandbar along the river a wild mustang, probably from Mexico, grazes on the lush vegetation that water provides:

P1100521 Horse

The cliffs that mark the end of the Dead Horse Mountains, and the plateau from which the trail descends:

P1100523 Tent

Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains:

P1100570 S del C sunset

P1100575 S del C Tent sunset

Exploring the side canyons requires a lot more time and days, which I will save for another trip:

P1100603

The trail continues downriver with astonishing vistas everywhere you look. The extreme tilting of the fault line can be seen in the massive cliff face on the Mexican side of the river (the tan cliffs on the right):

P1100615

Soon it’s time to begin the 1000′ climb back up through a side canyon, following the Marufo Vega Trail markers back to the top of the plateau:

P1100631

A beautiful redtail hawk kept watch on me as I neared the top of the trail, then effortlessly sailed off his perch and was two canyons over before I had a chance to get a drink of water.

P1100643 hawk

Overview of the 14.5 mile long Marufo Vega Trail. The light area of the map without map gradients is Mexico:

Map

If you are fit, and in the national park in the winter when temps allow, this is not a trail to be missed. If you continue on up Strawhouse Canyon with a little more time, there is some beautiful native American rock art (pictographs) at the entrance to a box canyon at the end of that trail…but that’s for another trip.

Bikepacking Big Bend’s Fresno Canyon

Time to hit the trail…and what better trail than the Contrabando Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park. This is a hike/bike trail, so I opted to “Bikepack” so I could cover the miles more quickly. You pick up this trail from the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, Texas, and follow it northward until it intersects with Fresno Creek and follows the creek northward through Fresno Canyon.

For this trip I’ll be camping overnight in the area of Fresno Cascades, a dependable water source in the heart of Fresno Canyon, and doing a day hike up a side canyon to the Madrid House, and possibly up to Madrid Falls, a seasonal waterfall in a remote area of the park.

Round trip is about 26 miles, which can easily be done as a day ride/hike, but I want to not be rushed and explore, since I’ve not been on parts of this route before.

Map of the route, with numbers for reference to points of interest I describe along the way:

My bike, ready to roll. It’s a Motobecane full-suspension 27.5+ with 2.8 tires, outfitted with RockBros handlebar bag and seat bag to hold a sleeping bag, tent, air mattress, clothing and other miscellaneous gear. Location #1: A plant called candelilla grows in the area. It was used to make candles and other paraffin substitutes in the early part of the last century. The remnants of a candelilla processing operation are still found along the banks of a dry arroyo:

Location #2: At about 7 miles the trail passes an abandoned mercury mining operation, the Fresno Mine, which operated off-and-on from 1935 – 1956. From here the trail turns westward toward Fresno Creek:

Location #3: The trail crosses Fresno Creek and climbs gradually through Fresno Canyon. Along the way you can find remnants of the Old Government Road, a roadway constructed in the 1910’s by the Army to move troops to protect the border during the Mexican Revolution. An old line cabin used by early ranchers near Fresno Creek, and cottonwoods line the banks of Fresno Creek, near Fresno Cascades, where the water is forced to the surface by limestone deposits:

Location #4: Fresno Cascades…a dependable water source in the Chihuahuan Desert, historically used by paleo-indians and cowboys. Water is forced to the surface and flows into tinajas (water holes in the rocks), then goes underground to resurface downstream. The remains of what might have been a grain storage cache, or perhaps a temporary sheep corral…park authorities are not sure. From there the trail climbs up an old ranch road over a low pass and continues on to the old Madrid Ranch:

After dropping my bike, I set out on foot, up and over the saddle separating the Fresno Creek and Ojo Blanco Creek drainages. Along the way I am scolded disapprovingly by a red tail hawk. Below, the Ojo Blanco drainage is an oasis in the desert, the telltale cottonwood trees appearing everywhere a spring reaches the surface. An old beverage can, circa 1950’s-60’s vintage, carries an ignored message, “Dispose of Properly…Please don’t Litter.”

Location #5: Madrid Ranch – following the old ranch road trail for about 1.5 miles beyond Fresno Cascades you approach a very large grove of very tall cottonwood trees. This marks the location of Trough Spring, and the Madrid House, where the Madrid family homesteaded in the early part of the 20th. century. Nearby, a tall waterfall (Madrid Falls) derives its name from this family. A date palm grows around the spring. A friend familiar with this area speculates that the date palm, not indigenous to the Chihuahuan Desert, grew from discarded dates carried by cowboys as trail snacks. These occur in several places around springs in BBRSP. The Madrid House was actually a very well built, large adobe house, where you see remains of beautifully plastered interior walls, plus an obvious addition…a bedroom added as the family grew, showing occupation for a number of years. Madrid Falls lies out of view up a side canyon:

Location #4: Fresno Cascades Camp…the day was getting late, so I passed on trying to hike back to Madrid Falls. I’ll save that for another trip. My campsite was just above the cascades, near enough to water that I was serenaded all night by the water dropping over the cascade into a pool that never filled, but went underground as fast as the water flowed into it. Sunset was wonderful, and the nearly full moon shone all night:

Location #2: Fresno Creek to the Fresno Mine, and home…a lot of the creek crossings have been washed out by summer rains. Dropping down off the bank into the creek bed and back up the other side can be hazardous, and sometimes require dismounting. The trail, normally a dry creek bed, requires a little extra peddling effort due to the soft, water-soaked surface. I stopped at the Fresno Mine and hitched my trusty steed to an old hitching post for a rest. I’d like to know the story about the dual outhouses:

I rode/hiked for two days and saw no one. The trail is both beautiful and historic, with grand vistas. Take PLENTY OF WATER. Yes, there is usually water along this route (be sure to filter), but it cannot be guaranteed year round. Be sure to put this one on your “Bucket List.”

Fall Color in the Desert

It is generally assumed that the desert of the southwest has two colors: green and brown. The green would be the desert during the rainy season and brown would be the rest of the year. However, there are “islands” that rise above the desert floor that reach up into other climate zones by the nature of their altitude. One such island is the Chisos Mountains, located centrally within Big Bend National Park. This past weekend I went on a quest to photograph the magnificent fall foliage of the bigtooth maple trees, found mostly in upper Boot Canyon above Boot Spring at an elevation of just under 7000′. My timing was perfect, the maple leaves having just turned to their magnificent technicolor shades of red, orange and yellow.

The spires rising above the Pinnacles Trail, access to the high canyons of the Chisos Mountains.
Brilliant red berries of the Texas Madrone tree, along the Pinnacles Trail.
A small grove of bigtooth maples along the Pinnacles Trail at an elevation of about 6700′.
Just after crossing Boot Creek, entering upper Boot Canyon with its stand of bigtooth maples.
The trail follows the creek upwards through the maples.
One of the taller examples along the trail.
The trail is carpeted with a mosaic of reds, oranges and yellows, having been just recently blown down by an overnight wind.

So, if you thought you had to go to Maine, or the Smokey Mountains for fall color, look closer to home. You just might find what you seek out in the desert.