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:


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.


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:


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):


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:


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:


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.

Glenn Springs, Big Bend National Park

This past weekend, Jodie & I hooked the camper to the Jeep and headed down to our favorite backyard location, Big Bend National Park. Our goal for this trip was to drive the Glenn Springs Road/Black Gap Road/River Road backcountry roads in our Jeep Rubicon, which we have not yet done in this vehicle (after trading in our 2003 Jeep over a year ago, the last vehicle to travel these roads). The main purpose of this post is not to document the entire trip, but to share some interesting photos and history of one portion of the route, primarily around Glenn Springs.

Glenn Springs Road leaves the pavement about 6 miles southeast of Panther Junction Visitor Center. We camped in Pine Canyon, a side road which heads north about 3 miles down GSR. Our campsite is nice, overlooking the Sierra del Carmen Mountains which lie across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, and rise to a height of 8,000 feet:002pThe Chisos Mountains, seen from the north, are greener than I can ever remember them before. Near-record rainfall in August and September has done wonders for the wildlife and the vegetation, and a normally brown desert at the end of summer is now really looking healthy and green:017cImmediately, we are aware of the proliferation of butterflies everywhere. Everywhere there is a blooming desert plant, there are butterflies enjoying the richness of the pollen and nectar of the blooms:049c050c051cAs evening falls, in the afterglow of twilight, we watch as Venus begins to set along a silhouetted skyline which features Elephant Tusk Peak in the distance, a landmark for early inhabitants and settlers in this part of the Big Bend region of Texas:063cAfter dark, the skies are ablaze with the Milky Way, here featuring a setting Venus just above the horizon around 9:00 p.m.069pNext morning, we load the Rubicon and head south on Glenn Sprints Road, toward the namesake spring and the remains of the little settlement called Glenn Spring. The large cottonwood tree marks the location of the spring, source of dependable water, or “liquid gold,” a necessity for Native Americans, and later white settlers, along  a trail heavily used by many in past centuries:042cThe little settlement of Glenn Springs contained a wax factory, producing  candelilla wax from the plant Candelilla, which grows naturally in the desert across Big Bend. The settlement also consisted of a store, and homes for the plant owner and the store and post office operator, and their families. Remaining are some corrals and other artifacts:025cThis is the remaining walkway and foundation of the Ellis home, the plant owner:018cThere were 9 soldiers of the 14th. Cavalry stationed here, and left are the remains of the “rifle pit,” as it’s described on archaeological maps of the settlement:026cAcross the draw created by the drainage of the spring was a segregated village of Mexican workers and their families, populated by about 60 Mexicans. Remains of several foundations of their houses can be found, as well as the Mexican cemetery which contains approximately 14 graves:032c040c038cGlenn Springs existed from 1914 until about 1920. On May 5, 1916, a group of Mexican banditos, claiming allegiance to Pancho Villa, staged a deadly raid on Glenn Springs. Estimates vary from 50-several hundred men, but a sizable force attacked the village around 11:00 p.m. The 9 soldiers guarding the camp were sleeping in tents and fled to an adobe building, where they held off attackers for 3 hours, but finally fled and three were killed. The store owner, O.G. Compton, fled with his young daughter across the draw to place her in the care of one of the Mexican families. He returned to get his 9 year old son, but the boy had been shot and killed. A total of 4 people were killed and 4 others severely injured, the store looted and several buildings plus the wax factory were burned and destroyed. Glenn Springs was finally abandoned around 1920:029c028cbwFrom Glenn Springs, we turn south on the Black Gap Road. Don’t let the term “road” confuse you…it’s a 4-wheel-drive trail, the most remote and difficult road in the park. After some fun and sometimes technical off-road driving for about 8 miles, we intersect the River Road, another 4-wheel-drive road that follows the course of the Rio Grande River. We stop for lunch at the Mariscal Mine, an abandoned cinnabar mine (quicksilver) that operated along the border from about 1900 until 1941:img_1108Lunch alongside one of the abandoned mine buildings near the road:048cBack at camp, we ready for our last night in Pine Canyon:079cOne final light show, starring Venus and the Milky Way:p1050017_bob-stars-contrastSunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains greets us as we get set to head home:078c

On the Border

January/February in the Big Bend is a great time to explore. Because of the lower elevation and southern latitude, winters here are very mild, and this year is no exception. A week in the border country was an opportunity to catch up with several friends, both old and new(er), and so Jodie & I hooked up the camper and headed the 90 miles south for the week. We made base camp in Lajitas, just 17 miles to the west of the famous ghost town of Terlingua. 

The Rio Grande River forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and Hwy 170, the River Road, rolls through this country like the river itself, surrounded on all sides by the grandeur of the mountains and canyons that define this land:



One of the most exciting discoveries on this trip was finding the first BLUEBONNETS, or lupinus havardii, of the year in bloom along the roadway:




This land is filled with geologic wonders, including these hoodoos carved from tuff, or volcanic ash, along the way:


The old mining district around Terlingua is a reminder of tougher people during a tougher time, in a tough land. Here, laborers from both sides of the border toiled for pennies a day to produce “quicksilver” between 1903 and the second world war:




Beyond the communities of Terlingua and Lajitas, we enter the desert mountains now protected by the Big Bend Ranch State Park, where we meet up with park veterans for a day of hiking along a creek drainage, important for centuries to pre-history Americans, the Spanish explorers, the settlers and homesteaders from both border cultures, and the more modern cowboy culture. This is a country of critters both large and small, all dependent upon the liquid gold resource: water.

The Fresno Creek drainage flows both above ground and below for miles, down from the high country whose waters ultimately drain into the Rio Grande River. 


Old skeletons of former mining efforts remain silent testimony to the workers mining cinebar for the WWI war effort:


The “Rock House” ruin stands along Fresno Creek as a reminder of those who established homes and families in this hot, dry land, wringing out an existence against all odds:


Further upstream, we stand on a high bluff, looking down on the creek drainage, bending around the flat-topped peak of an extinct underwater magma flow, or laccolith:


From the bluff, we look down on the remains of a primitive factory that produced wax from the candelilla plant. The wax was used in everything from varnish to chewing gum:


These boilers were used to separate the wax from the stems and leaves in a dilute solution of sulfuric acid:



As we turn back and head downstream, the water is forced to the surface by the bedrock, so that it flows along the rocks in wonderful patterns and pools:





A nice place for a dip to cool off:



Along the banks of the creek are found other remnants of homes, and lives, that were dependent upon the sparse water of this desert land:


The layers of sediment exposed by water and wind form a rainbow of color that tell a geologist the story of eons of changing landscape and climate:


And so, January is a time of exploration in the Big Bend, visiting old friends and welcoming the coming of spring with the return of the iconic bluebonnets to Texas along the Border.





Beneath the Sierra Maderas del Carmen

This weekend I revisited one of my most favorite places on earth, the Marufo Vega Trail, in the far eastern drainages of the Big Bend National Park. This is a favorite for many reasons, among them the solitude, the scenery, and, oh yes, did I mention the solitude? This is a land not to be taken lightly. People die out on this trail every year, mostly from dehydration and exposure from lack of water, lack or preparedness, being lost, or any combination thereof. I have made this trip many times, sometimes with friends, mostly solo. This weekend was just such a solo trip, nearing the end of the season when the temperatures are mild enough to allow comfortable backpacking on this trail.

The trailhead begins near the end of the road that leads down to Boquillas Canyon, at the extreme eastern end of BBNP. There is a small parking lot, and no other comfort features, such as toilets, shade or picnic tables. Just a dirt parking area. I reached the trailhead with great anticipation, as this is my first backpack trip of the new year, and I am a victim of “cabin fever” of the first magnitude. The trailhead:

Marufo Vega Sign

If you are camping on this trail, it is considered “zone camping,” which means that you have no designated campsites. You go until you decide to set up camp, and try to find a flat spot devoid of cactus and rocks, no mean feat. I have a couple of camping spots that are never occupied (again, due to the solitude), so even though you cannot reserve any camping spots in the zone camping areas, you never have to worry about being the first one there. You are always the first one there. Along the way, you pass the remnants of cable towers, much like ski-lift towers, that were used to haul cinnabar ore north from Mexico to ore terminals in the northern part of the present Big Bend National Park, in the early part of the last century:

Ore terminal

In three hours I had hiked the 5.1 miles back to a bench that sits at about 2000′ altitude, just before the trail drops down to the river nearly a thousand feet below. Here, there is a wonderful campsite, just large enough for a 2 person tent, that looks downriver into the lower canyons upstream from the Black Gap Wildlife Refuge, and is dwarfed to the south by the Sierra Maderas del Carmen Mountains just beyond the Rio Grande River in Mexico (usually referred to as the Sierra del Carmen). These mountains rise to an altitude of 8900′, with the front escarpment rising up from the river immediately to 7000′. The face of the Sierra del Carmen can be seen from just about anywhere on the eastern side of the park. This was my campsite with the mountains rising in the background:

Tent w SdelC


One of the wonderful vistas on this trail is looking back downriver at the lower canyons. In this view, Mexico is in the right and Texas is on the left, the Rio Grande River shows in the center of the image, 1000′ below:

Downriver canyons


The Sierra del Carmen at sunset is one of the most spectacular sights anywhere. The solitary pointed spire in the rt. center of the range is El Pico, which stands at 7000′, nearly a mile above the location of my tent:


Sunset SdelC 1


The panorama of this imposing wall of granite and limestone is amazing at sunset. In this Chihuahua Desert, this island sustains large conifer forests at its highest altitudes:

Sunset SdelC 2


Sunset across the mountains back to the west was nearly as spectacular:




Which gave way to the stars. I have been experimenting with some “startrails” photography, so what better to do but experiment on this 70-degree night:

Startrails 2 Startrails 1


The sunrise was its usual magnificent display, with the sun rising directly above the Sierra del Carmen:

Sunrise SdelC 1

Sunrise downriver canyons


After breakfast, it was time to break camp and head back to the trailhead, but not before a few minutes of solitude (there’s that word again) with my flute



A glimpse of the flora and geology along the trail:


Trail in drainages


From a ridge just before you drop into the drainage that leads the last mile out to the trailhead, you overlook the little town of Boquillas, Mexico. This was once a favorite destination of park visitors until the liquid crossing tradition was eliminated by 9-11. Just recently, a port of entry has been build on the U.S. side of the river, and a Mexican POE on the opposite bank, so you can pay your $5 for the rowboat ride across to the Mexican town for lunch, a beer at the Park Bar, or just to explore this little piece of history. Be sure to bring your passport, or you will not be allowed back onto U.S. soil:



With the rest of the country gripped by the Arctic Vector, you can understand why a backpack trip on a 91 degree day made me glad to be in this little patch of Paradise. If you’re planning a trip here, be sure to contact me for details. We now have a “Starpark” in Marathon. It’s the Marathon Motel, with accommodations for stargazers and astrophotographers, in the most accessible Class 1 Dark Skies in the lower 48. Come see what the excitement is all about. Thanks for visiting.

The Great Sand Dunes of Texas

Didn’t know that Texas had sand dunes?  Well, yes, there are a few dunes on the Gulf coast, but we’re not talking about the beach. At least not a beach as we know it now. But a few hundred million years ago, a shallow sea covered what is now west Texas, the the sands created from the limestone left behind are now shifting and blowing across an area of the Permian Basin near the town of Monahans, Texas. There is a small and lesser known state park there, the Monahans Sandhills State Park, which is one of those places you need to put on your bucket list if you’ve not been there

This week Jodie and I decided to go shopping at the nearest cities with the usual name brand box stores, and a great place to set up base camp seemed to be this little gem of a state park. So, we spent two nights there and captured a few of the magical evening light shows as the setting sun dances across the dunes, creating textures not seen in the flat light of day.

A few of those images:













While I was out running around the dunes, Jodie took her camera and captured a few spectacular shots of the west Texas sunset:






Monahans, and the state park, is located right on I-20 between Midland/Odessa and Van Horn. The town itself is worth a stop, if only to pick up some of the best barbecue in west Texas at Pappy’s, right on Hwy 18 a block off the interstate. The original downtown Monahans died in the 50’s when the interstate bypassed the old highway, but the ruins of a few of the old “Route 66-style” motels remain in testimony to a once busy railroad/highway stop in this oil-driven part of the state. The state park is seldom crowded, and all or our neighbors on this trip were from Canada…every one of them. Not a bad place to go to avoid the snowy winters north of the border. And by the way, the days we were there, it was 91 degrees. So, Y’all come on down and enjoy our west Texas beaches.