Wildflowers

It’s still only mid-February here in the Big Bend, but you would never know it by the weather. So far, this is the second consecutive mild winter in a row, and I was fearing a lack of wildflowers again this year, after a total bust last spring. However, my wife and I took a backroads trip through Big Bend National Park on Valentine’s Day, and the profusion of early wildflowers was astonishing. Here is a sample of our day out:

We’re also looking forward to a spectacular blooming of the cactus as we get later into spring, but for now the “hills are alive” with the perfume that is the signature of wildflowers in the Big Bend.

BikePacking 101

Yes, you’re reading correctly…that’s BIKEpacking, not BACKpacking. A fairly recent phenomenon is emerging, and it’s called bikepacking…hitting the trails for overnight camping using a mountain bike. More and more trails systems are allowing mountain bikes on the trails, along with animals such as llamas and horses. One such system is found in my back yard, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Here is a look at the trail system originating at the East Contraband Trailhead, and marked in yellow is the 8.5 mile long route I followed on my first bikepacking shakedown trip:

After checking in at the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, TX, and obtaining the necessary permits for entry and overnight camping, I parked in the park maintenance area (for a better degree of protection for my Jeep than on the road at the trailhead) and hit the trail.

Here is a look at my basic bike setup…full-suspension mountain bike with a front handlebar pack and an under-seat pack for my tent:

The trail I followed is a the least technical route from this trailhead, not wanting to test my riding skills too quickly with an extra 10 pounds of gear on my bike, and a small backpack weighing in at about 15 pounds, due to the quantity of water needed for backpacking in the desert. In this case, I’m carrying 4 liters of water, which amounts to about 12 pounds of weight:

The trail is a combination of mining road and some sections of single-track which wind through the hills, climbing from about 2400′ elevation up to 2750′ where I made camp.

There is a lot of history in this area, some dating back to early paleo-indians of some 10,000 years ago, and more recent history, such as this candelilla, or wax, factory along a dry arroyo:

Buena Suerte trail climbs for some 7.5 miles up to an old mining area, which dates from the early 1900’s up until mid-20th. century. This is a private in-holding owned by the Lajitas Resort, so camping is not permitted on this property, but it’s an interesting site to explore if you’re very careful, as there is still a lot of derelict machinery here:

The trail splits to the left, or northeast, and becomes single-track before dropping into Fresno Creek at a major trail junction:

It was in Fresno Creek that I came upon the scourge of the desert: wild burros. These animals are remnants of early attempts at settling, mining, prospecting, wax making, plus invasives coming from Mexico. They are a menace to native plants and animals, and if I had a gun, I’d shoot every one:

Back to the task at hand, my campsite for the evening, with a warm glow of the setting sun off the nearby hills:

After a warm (50 degree) night, the morning sun was a welcome sight, along with views down the Fresno Creek drainage:

Shell fossils in the rocks are a reminder that this once was the bottom of a shallow inland sea:

The ride back to the trailhead was a “hoot” as it is mostly downhill. I made a detour down a more technical side loop to test my riding skills with the added weight and a backpack, and all went smoothly:

And so, if you’re new to bikepacking like myself, or a veteran of many technical trails, you can find a challenge to fit your taste here in Big Bend Ranch State Park. But keep in mind that this is very remote, rugged country which requires a level of expertise in self-rescue in the event of mechanical failure or an accident requiring medical attention. Also, plan to come here in late fall, winter, or early spring due to extreme, deadly heat other times of the year.

Late Summer on the South Rim

As fall approaches, so have the rains arrived in the Big Bend. And so, it’s time again to backpack up into the High Chisos trails and camp on the South Rim.  

You certainly don’t hear “fall” and “flowers” spoken in the same sentence, but then again, it’s a different place, the Big Bend. It was not long before the bloom brought on by a couple of weeks of soaking, and sometimes flooding, rains on the mountain put on a show:

IMG_0310 Flowers

P1080156 Flowers

P1080167 Flower

P1080224 Flowers

P1080172 Flower

P1080228 Flowers

P1080355 Flowers South Rim

P1080243 Elephant Tusk South Rim

P1080365 Flowers South Rim

P1080369 Flowers South Rim

In addition to a wonderful array of flowers, the critters were all on the move, enjoying the explosive availability of water throughout the high country. The del Carmen whitetail deer, found only on this mountain and across the Rio Grande River in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains, display a real lack of fear born from evolving on this protected mountain alongside human contact:

P1080189 Deer Chisos

A young buck in full velvet in preparation for the fall rut:

P1080200 Deer Chisos

A couple of smaller visitors:

P1080155 Butterfly

P1080160 Lizard

P1080256 Grasshopper

The desert 2000′ below the rim has turned green, nourished by the monsoon rains:

P1080248 Trail South Rim

Even mushrooms grow in the dry, cool protection of shady plants:

P1080223 Mushroom

Campsite on the South Rim is cozy, with all the desert running away to Mexico:

P1080233 Tent South Rim

Sunset is a beautiful time of the day up here, giving way to the moon and Venus, the first lights of the night:

P1080268 Sunset South Rim

P1080280 Sunset South Rim

P1080314 Sunset South Rim

Add Jupiter and Saturn, the bring on the Milky Way and Mars as its escort:

P1080324 Sunset South Rim

P1080331 Milky Way South Rim

Next morning, it’s time to head home, but one last visit from a setting of flowers, and an escort by another whitetail doe down the trail.

P1080354 Flowers South Rim

P1080377 Deer Laguna Trail

Rain is the lifeblood of the desert, and proves that there’s something to see year-round if you slow down and look. As I have often quoted from Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, “…crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”

 

Backpacking the Continental Divide

The Continental Divide. The backbone of our continent, where the waters running off the eastern slopes drain into the Atlantic and those going west drain into the Pacific Oceans. The location of our latest backpacking adventure.

My longtime climbing and backpacking partner Joe and his wife Sara met me in southern Colorado over the Fourth of July for a week in the “high country.” 

P1070813The Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, begins in southern New Mexico and runs across the top of the continental divide all the way to Canada. A small number of “through hikers” successfully backpack the entire length of the trail in one summer, while a much larger number of “section hikers” complete smaller sections of the CDT in small bites. We fall into the latter group. Our plan was to spend the better part of a week doing a loop in the vicinity of Pagosa Springs, CO. Our starting point was the famous Wolf Creek Pass, where we posed for a trailhead photo.

P1070816Wolf Creek Pass is at an elevation of 11,400 feet, so we picked up the CDT from the overlook parking area near the top of the continental divide. The ridge just above the trail is the actual continental divide.P1070826

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P1070844Whenever the trail dropped away from the high ridge above timberline, the proliferation of wildflowers did not disappoint. Here bluebells are mixed with several other species that I will not attempt to identify, other than recognize them for their beauty, and the familiar blue and white columbine was to be found in volume.

P1070847-48-49-50 Pan

P1070857Here the CDT winds west and then northward just below the high ridge towards our camp for the second night out on Archuleta Lake, just below the divide.

P1070864aP1070868Sunset below the divide gives way to the glow from fires burning north of Durango, which dropped ash on us like light snow after dark.

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Next morning an 800+ foot climb from Archuleta Lake to the top of the divide got the blood flowing. Amazing how flowers hang on at these altitudes above 12,000 feet.

P1070904P1070929The CDT is really exposed up on top…a place not to be caught by afternoon thunderstorms with their deadly lightning. We made camp after 6 miles on top at a small “pond,” our last chance for water for another 6 miles. This has been the driest year in memory for long-time hikers in this part of the Rockies, and we were thankful to find water at the actual source of all streams and rivers.

P1070913Evening showers treated us to a brief rainbow rising out of the top of the divide.

P1070944That night the Milky Way put on a show, with the bright Saturn shining through the band of stars rising in the southeast, here the brightest “star” just to the left of center.

P1070965P1070969

P1080001Next morning we climb over 1000 feet to a pass which is the high point of our trip at 12,800 feet. From here we follow the top of the divide along knife-edge ridges for another 6 miles before we make camp for the night. 

An even greater variety of wildflowers appear as we click off the miles.

P1080011Small ponds, our first substantial water in 3 days, reflect the ridgeline of the divide as the CDT drops through a pass between mountains.

P1080029P1080027P1080036“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” becomes our trail song next morning as we wind our way through a waists-high sea of flowers along the “Rainbow Trail” which follows the West Fork of the San Juan River from its source down the West Fork drainage.

P1080055The pine and spruce forests of the Rockies have been devastated by spruce beetles. Here the dead stands of trees proved to be excellent fuel for a fire that swept through this drainage in 2013. The deadfall from downed trees made for a nearly impassable trail through the steeper sections.

P1080070P1080074P1080060Campsite the last night along the West Fork of the San Juan. We were visited by several deer, here a couple of bucks with nubbin antlers in velvet just beginning to grow out make a leap over some deadfall trees with much more grace than we.

P1080093Last day on the trail, we pass hot springs, a favorite destination for day hikers.P1080101Fireweed, the first plant to thrive after a forest fire, lights up the trail in burn areas.

Butterflies and moths are everywhere, taking advantage of the bloom nectar.

P1080120P1080129And so, 6 days on the CDT comes to an end with majestic views of lofty escarpments that form the canyon of the West Fork. This is a short (30-mile) loop with easy access to trailheads. With so many of our western national forests closed due to fire danger, this is a gem waiting to be enjoyed. BEWARE…the Rainbow Trail through the West Fork drainage has some extremely difficult sections due to tree downfall on steep slopes. Be prepared for a lot of difficult scrambling to get over and around these blockages, especially through one 2-mile stretch. A challenge well worth the effort.

Canyonlands

This post strays from my usual Big Bend haunts to the spectacular state of Utah, one of my favorite places outside of Texas. This trip features one of my favorite pastimes, off-road Jeep camping, and the location is Canyonlands National Park. The planning and permits for this trip were executed by a great friend and ex-neighbor, now living in San Diego, David. We met in Monticello, Utah, and it is there our adventure begins. 

Canyonlands National Park is divided into several “districts,” The Maze, Island in the Sky, Needles, and White Rim. Having visited The Maze together several years ago, we planned this trip for the Needles district, and a 4-day trip around the White Rim Road, an old uranium mining road built nearly a hundred years ago, which is a 100-mile long 4-wheel drive road that circles Island in the Sky near the rim that overlooks the Colorado and Green Rivers:067IMG_5151As we enter the back country, we pass a famous landmark, “Newspaper Rock,” a large panel of pictographs left as testament to the presence of native peoples here over the past 2,000 years:001IMG_5055The road we have selected to penetrate the Needles district is the Elephant Hill Road. The term “road” is really an oxymoron, as it is little more than a marked route up and over the slickrock formations that are so iconic to this part of Utah. It is designated by the National Park Service as the “most technically difficult 4-wheel drive road in all of Utah.” That is an understatement! David and I needed every bit of the customization (lift, skid plates, oversize tires, etc.) that we’ve added to our Rubicons to get through with no damage:

Camp for the next two nights was in the “Devil’s Kitchen” area, and we spent the first afternoon on a day hike along a trail near camp:016P1030842010IMG_5075010P1030823013IMG_5081015IMG_5085First night out, we were treated to clear skies and beauiful starsa:018IMG_5091Next morning after breakfast, we headed north into the heart of the Needles:019IMG_5102021P1030811Along the way, an unexpected surprise…a panel of pictographs under an overhang:022IMG_5122Many hand prints, and a few older “shaman” figures that are familiar to this region:022IMG_5128From here, a really technical obstacle confronts us, but we make it through with little difficulty:024P1030849We reach the trailhead for the “Joint Trail,” a somewhat misleading name, that winds its way through a labyrinth of joints between huge rock slabs, to a fantastic overlook:032P1070022033P1070026037P1030887035P1070032037P1070043044P1070053-54 PanNext morning, we wake to gray and overcast. The light rain begins as we are heading through the washes and down the “silver stairs” enroute back up and over Elephant Hill and back down:

After a night in Moab, we meet up with Jeff, a friend of David from San Diego, and he joins us for the 4-day trip around the White Rim Road. It begins with an exposed drop through the switchbacks of Shafer Trail Road, down 1500 feet to the plateau of the White Rim:063P1030950064IMG_5143Along this road, totally unmaintained through primitive backcountry for over 100 miles with no facilities, no gasoline, and no cellular service, we are treated to spectacular scenery:067IMG_5148-49-50 Pan065IMG_5147A stop at Musselman Arch, where we take a walk on the wild side:069IMG_5157071IMG_5167Campsite the first night on the White Rim, and a walk for a view of “Washerwoman Arch”:076IMG_5178080IMG_5203Fresh snow caps the La Sal Mountains, visible in the distance:078IMG_5193A beautiful clear night with a crystalline moon:078IMG_5195The “White Rim” describes the hard layer of white sandstone which caps the softer underlying layers of red sandstone. In places the White Rim Road ventures perilously close to the edge which falls off to the plateau a thousand feet below:086IMG_5222The occasional mountain biker cruising this flat part of the White Rim Road:084IMG_1835We reach an area of Canyonlands know as “Monument Valley,” with the Needles seen in the background:087IMG_5228089IMG_5234-35 PanAn unnamed arch we dub “Keyhole Arch”:090IMG_5248At White Crack trail, we do some capstone hopping out to a high point for a 360 degree panoramic overlook at the spectacular land below:095P1040086095IMG_1878c094IMG_5259-65 PanAfter a climb up “Murphy’s Hogback” we set up camp 2 on a high point for the night:104IMG_5293111IMG_5302Pancakes hit the spot on a cool morning:114P1040110With rain in the distance, we break camp and get out on the road. Along the way we stop for several magnificent vistas where the Green River bends its way through the canyons below:116P1040114The peninsula formed by this bend in the Green River has been inhabited for thousands of years by native peoples who hunted and farmed this rich bottom land. The remains of a cliff dwelling still stands on the side of the “Turk’s Head” formation at its center:120IMG_5330-31 Pan124IMG_5354-5-6 Pan125IMG_5361Canoeists make their way through spots where the river widens and slows:126P1040169The last big climb up and over a granite intrusion that prevents following the river, we drop down the back side to our final of three campsites for the evening, located at river level just above the river bank:128IMG_1889Mountain bikers start the descent down:131P1040193Camp along the Green River:132IMG_5373133IMG_5379134IMG_5378135IMG_5382The next morning we slog our way through mud, water, and more mud as the road snakes its way through “Potato Bottoms” to meet up with the gravel road that climbs back up to the Island in the Sky, and ultimately back to Moab:136P1070121137IMG_5384It’s no wonder why we’re continually drawn back to the canyonlands country of south central Utah. If you go, be sure you are properly equipped for desert survival and self-rescue. That said, the scenery and solitude makes it well worth the effort.

Wind Rivers Finale

My 6th. trip to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming will probably be my last one into these mountains. During the past 25 years I and a few very close friends have made an annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Montana, and all points in between, for extended (8-12 days) backpack excursions into the high country. The Wind Rivers are probably my favorite mountain range, primarily due to the high, craggy peaks, the many gorgeous, sweeping basins carved by the glacial movements of the last ice age, the many high, alpine lakes, and the vast expanses of off-trail trekking available above timberline. After 6 backpack trips into the Winds I think after this trip we’ll set our sights on other trails where we have not been before. This August our trip returned to a section of the southern Winds that we all love, and an area that we had not visited since 2010. This, a short photo-safari through Wyoming’s backbone, the Continental Divide, and the grizzly bear country of the Wind River Mountains:

Myself, Jason, Sara and Joe at the Scab Creek Trailhead ready to go:11We have a climb of 1700′ in the first two miles up the trail to the Wilderness boundary:14Some of the lower elevation lakes sport beautiful yellow lillies along the shoreline:22The delicate columbine flowers begin to appear as we reach higher elevations:32Campsite the first evening after a 9.5 mile hike, with the majestic peaks of Bonneville Basin, still some 8 miles away, looming in the background:44First night out we marvel at clear skies as a meteor from the Perseoid Meteor Shower crosses the Milky Way, and the ISS glides by low on the horizon:57Next morning we hit the trail, only to find a couple of log cabins, circa 1900, that were probably used by shepherds using the summer pastures along these drainages for grazing sheep:70After a couple of miles of “off-trail” hiking across high meadows with spectacular views and multiple crystal blue lakes, we intersect the Freemont Trail, a section of the Continental Divide Trail that runs the backbone of the Rockies from Canada to near Mexico:71Today’s hike of about 7 miles brings us to Bonneville Lake, at an elevation of about 9300′, which sits in the shadow of Bonneville Peak. The last time we were here we had just crossed Raid Pass in a rain/snow storm and descended a steep waterfall some 500′ to set up camp on this very spot in driving snow (in August), about 7 years ago:87Bonneville Lake:79Wildflowers and waterfall that connects Upper Bonneville Lake with Lower Bonneville Lake:107The view from atop the waterfall, looking back down to Lower Bonneville Lake:120Multi-colored lilac and white columbine near the upper waterfall:128A calm lake reflects the new snow that fell overnight, leaving an inch or more on our tents at camp, and much more at higher elevations:134Next morning, we break camp and head 8 miles up and across a pass and drop into another basin, Middle Fork Basin, and set up camp between Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake:190Lee Lake is gorgeous, and is still holding lots of snow in its basin from heavier than normal winter snows:193The wildflowers around Lee Lake are spectacular, and the view across the lake reveals the waterfall that drops over 500′ from Bewmark Lake. We’ll be climbing this near-vertical route with our packs later in the day:220After our climb, the view from atop the waterfall, back across Middle Fork Lake, to Lee Lake and the vast Middle Fork Basin is just spectacular:236The view from our “camp kitchen” as Jason and I enjoy the lengthening shadows before cooking dinner:231We take a day hike across the snow fields to a smaller, upper unnamed lake still icy cold and clear from the remaining blanket of snow that won’t melt off this year:258Next morning we pack up, head over another high pass and drop down the Middle Fork Boulder Creek drainage, displaying beautiful cascades along the way, carrying snowmelt waters from two wonderful basins:287Our final night we return to the meadow on the approach to the high basins where we spent our first night a week ago, and watch the mountains turn from gray to red as the sun gives way to twilight:308As the skies darken, the Milky Way explodes across the southern sky and the occasional meteor gives us pause to applaud the splendor of the heavens:313RAnd so, eight days flew by as if only hours, and we were left to again be grateful for our time here. This is truly one of the best kept secrets in the Rockies, and are still full of places where solitude is king. One caveat…this is grizzly bear country, so you must be experienced in back country habits where these deadly critters are present. Bear spray (deterrent) is a must, as is a clean camp and spartan tents free of human food odors. But the rewards are worth it. 

We were also in Wyoming during the total solar eclipse. This was no accident, as we have been planning this for over a year:Eclipse ProgressionIMG_4746R

A pretty spectacular way to finish another marvelous trip to the high country!