Outer Mountain Loop – Big Bend NP

My friend Ken, his son Derek, and his grandson Alec made a trip to Big Bend to hike the classic “Outer Mountain Loop,” a 4-day, 3-night epic backpack journey across the high trails of the Chisos Mountains, down into the high desert south of the Chisos, and finishing at the trail up Juniper Canyon and back into the high Chisos. At least, that was the plan…until a 1300+ acre fire in the high Chisos complex shut down all hiking and camping on the central and eastern sections of the mountains. With the trail closures, we opted to cut the trip a day short and do the hike without the return across the mountains.

Ken, Alec and Derek at the trailhead in the Basin area of the Chisos Mountains. The Laguna Meadow Trail, and connecting Blue Creek Trail, were not affected by the fire, so the first day (and second day) were as originally planned.

Ken, Alec and Derek at the Trailhead
Trail through the red igneous “dikes” from the high Chisos, down Blue Creek Canyon to Homer Wilson Ranch.
Line cabin of the Homer Wilson Ranch at the location of camp #1.
Greater Earless Lizard watches as we pass by.
Turks Head Cactus in full double bloom along the trail.
After a dry spring, a recent rain rewarded us with a plethora of blooming cactus, such as this Strawberry Pitaya (Hedgehog).
Campsite a quarter mile east of the historic Homer Wilson Ranch line cabin.
Beautiful setting of blooming Cane Cholla and Strawberry Pitaya on the trail between Homer Wilson and the spring at Fresno Creek, about 7 miles east of camp.
A look back down the switchbacks of the Dodson Trail at the first saddle, at about 5,000′ altitude (a climb of about 900′ above our campsite).
Engelmann Pricklypear cactus in bloom along the trail.
The landmark “Elephant Tusk” as seen from the Dodson Trail just before we drop down into the Fresno Creek drainage.
The water flowing through the Fresno Creek bedrock is welcome to hot and tired backpackers Ken and Derek, as well as another very rare pleasure…SHADE.
Ken admires a not-so-shy Garter Snake enjoying the cool water in the spring.
Campsite the second night out, at the foot of the Chisos Mountains, which rise to a height of 7400′ above our campsite at 4600′ altitude.
A beautiful night for stars, the Milky Way rises in the southeast after midnight above our camp.
The ruins of the Dodson Ranch, a homestead in this very rough and remote area where a family ranched sheep and goats before the creation of Big Bend NP in the late 1940’s.
Ken, Derek and Alec next to an Agave, or Century Plant, in full bloom below the southeast rim of the Chisos Mountains.
After our hike out to the Jeep at the Juniper Canyon trailhead on day 3, we made a short drive down to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande River cuts through a fault that resulted in a 1500′ uplift, creating the canyon (Mexico on the left, the US on the right, as you look upcanyon).
Our third night on the trail was a short hike into the “Taj Mahal Hoodoo,” where we spent a loud, wet and windy night with thunderstorms dancing all around. No stars this night.
A really large Ocotillo, in full leaf and bloom, near our campsite.
Typical sunset as seen through storm clouds in the Chihuahua Desert.

We had a great time wandering around together through the desert, an unusually cool trip for this time of the year. This Outer Mountain Loop is not for novice hikers, as it requires a lot of planning to insure adequate water for multiple people. Be sure to use the expertise of the Big Bend National Park staff in making plans for this trip.

Gemenids

This year’s Gemenid Meteor Shower did not disappoint. Featuring a projected 103 meteors per hour, there were a few really spectacularly long, bright streaks across the Milky Way. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture those because of timing or camera orientation, but here are a few that did come across my lens on a chilly but clear midnight vigil:

Look carefully to find 6 meteors

As Neil deGrasse Tyson used to say on his nightly PBS show, “Keep looking up.”

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 Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early-morning hours. This is the finest meteor shower of the year for northern stargazers, with 40-60 meteors per hour visible at the peak in the hours before dawn on August 13. Once called the Tears of St. Lawrence, this meteor shower occurs as the Earth moves through a stream of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This first image, captured about 2:00 a.m. on the morning of August 12, features the Milky Way and Jupiter setting just to the south of Santiago Peak, with three visible meteors, captured on a Canon 5D MkII with a 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

This year, the Moon is at third-quarter, not ideal for seeing the faintest meteors, but get started watching before midnight, away from city lights, and you will be rewarded with a bright meteor every few minutes or so.

Three metors above Santiago Peak, looking southwest about 2:30 a.m. Camera Canon 5D MkII, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8, 14mm lens.

The Perseids are also a long-lasting show, running from July 17 through August 25. So if you miss the peak, you still have a good chance to see some meteors.

Moon beginning to rise in the east, causing the Milky Way to face slightly and illuminate Santiago Peak and the Santiago Mountains with three meteors visible.
The light on the horizon, as well as on the mountains is not from sunrise, nor from sunset, but from moonrise, even though the moon is in its third quarter. Imagine the brightness if it had been a full moon. These images were from a Canon 6D, 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

So far this month, August 2020, we’ve been treated to Comet Neowise, Perseid meteor shower, and a bright planetary show of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. In these times, there are still lots of reasons to be thankful for the world, and universe, around us.

August in the Desert

At summer’s midpoint, it seems appropriate to post a couple of images representative of the environment of the Big Bend region of Texas at this time of year.

First, an iconic critter with a badly maligned nickname of “horny toad.” Another name for his animal, taken from the 1887 yearbook of Texas Christian University and later adopted as the athletic mascot, “Hornfrogs” has stuck as another piece of misinformation. This wonderful little critter is neither a toad nor a frog, but is in fact a lizard, known officially as the Texas Horned Lizard, or (Phrynosoma cornutum).

The Texas Horned Lizard is listed as a threatened species in Texas, and its numbers were declining so fast in Oklahoma that the legislature tried unsuccessfully to have it listed as an endangered species. When threatened, it freezes perfectly still and does an amazing job of blending into its surroundings. Like all lizards, it’s a welcome addition to our yard, due to its ability to gobble up insects at an amazing rate. The biggest problem is that it tends to freeze motionless and blend into its surroundings, and is therefore difficult to see and avoid when walking around its territory.

Another summer icon of the desert is the rising full moon over Tabletop Mountain east of Marathon.

In addition to the full moon, late July and early August is a fantastic period of summer for stargazing. We were visited by the comet Neowise for several weeks, and one of the best meteor showers of the year is beginning now and increasing to its peak in the early morning hours of August 12-13. Also, Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show in the southeast, and the Milky Way is reaching its peak show for the summer during August and September. So, get outside after dark and KEEP LOOKING UP!