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.