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.

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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!

April in Big Bend

April in Big Bend means summer, plain and simple. It’s hot, with temps down near the border already reaching 100 degrees; it means blooming season for many cactus, so it’s time to get out and explore. The South Rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is always a good place to start, and other areas just outside the park yield some exciting plant and animal viewing opportunities.

A hike up 2000 feet from the Basin to the South Rim takes me past some colorful spring blooms:

And so an evening on the South Rim, some 4000 feet above the desert floor, means great views. Here the full moon rises over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains across the river in Mexico:P1050650Another couple is camping in the high Chisos, quietly soaking in the setting sun:P1050661The sun makes a magnificent exit, framed by a wind-blown juniper at 7300 feet:P1050671A rising full moon in the quiet of the evening breeze:P1050647Next morning a panorama of desert badlands stretches to Mexico 25 miles away:P1050638-40 PanOn the way down, I catch a couple of familiar residents, the Arizona Sister butterfly, and a desert lizard:P1050721 Arizona SisterP1050621Back off the mountain, Jodie & I are on the hunt for the spring bloom of cactus, beginning in April and continuing into June. Outside the park, we’re astounded to find a Scimitar Oryx (Oryx dammah), an African antelope now listed as “extinct in the wild” roaming near Santiago Peak:P1050751P1050744P1050748The cactus bloom is not nearly as spectacular as in 2014, but we find a few species showing off their colors, such as Engelmann’s Prickly Pear, Claret Cup (Scarlet Hedgehog), and Rainbow Cactus:

We make a stop near the Rio Grande, in Big Bend National Park, and find a Red Racer making for the shade. He’s about 7 feet long, and has beautiful color:P1050800Nearby, a Vermillion Flycatcher treats us to his color and song:P1050793It’s hard to ignore a flock of Yellow-headed blackbirds when they gather en masse:P1050812And so, our swing through the April desert of Big Bend comes to a close with the sun setting behind the Glass Mountains in the Marathon Basin:P1050739

Rios Homestead, Big Bend Ranch State Park

It’s February, the weather is in the 80’s (above normal, even for the Big Bend), so let’s go take a hike!

My high school buddy, Walt, is in town and we’re heading out for a day hike through a small region in Big Bend Ranch State Park, a remote state park in the Texas Parks system. Accompanying us are friends and family that have hiked with us before. 

Let me go on record here that our destination is actually a private landholding within the boundaries of the state park. The trail we’re following is not a designated trail, but a game trail through the state park, to an old historic homestead that is still in private ownership, and we have permission from the landowner to visit the old homestead. Even though the land is within state park boundaries, to be here without permission is trespass.

Following an old ranch road, we divert onto game/horse trails until we intersect a well-defined drainage with flowing water, something rare in the Chihuahua Desert, but more common in Big Bend Ranch State Park due to many springs which flow intermittently in the desert. Along the way to the creek we pass a section of volcanic ash, or tuff, strewn with igneous rocks, which offer a bizarre contrast:p1050575As we round the hill we drop into the creek, flowing with crystal clear water:p1050499The early bloom has begun:p1050496Stands of the Big Bend Bluebonnet, or lupinus havardii, are reaching heights of 3 feet or more in some places:p1050498At one point the creek goes beneath the surface, then reappears near the rock intrusion of a “dike” which appears like a vertical wall amid the layers of limestone deposited by an ancient sea which covered Texas at one time:p1050501-2-panA short way up the drainage we encounter the face of the dike, and a wonderful waterfall cascades some 20 feet down the stone slabs:p1050509Time for a short pause for a Kodak moment with my high school friend:p1050507 Atop a stone pillar near the waterfall are found mortar holes, made by early peoples who were dependent on the water for survival. These holes, made by years of grinding food materials for cooking, are some 12 inches deep:p1050514 The view of the dike from atop the waterfall is spectacular. These dikes are formed by volcanic lava flows which cool and are left standing as the surrounding tuff and limestone is worn away by eons of erosion:p1050511 The area is alive with bluebonnets. These are native to Big Bend, not planted along the roadways by Lady Bird Johnson as you find in the hill country. These are miles back into the desert landscape, here growing in the creek bed:p1050500 Moss grows in places along the watercourse, forming artistic patterns in the water:p1050519 Not far ahead the creek flows over another dike, another 20+ foot drop with a small waterfall at the top:p1050522p1050527 More bluebonnets along the meandering creek, as we near a large spring, the source of the water:p1050529 At the spring we find a surprise in the desert…non-native palms, perhaps growing from dates dropped by early settlers:p1050534 Above the spring is found a circular foundation, perhaps the remains of a native American shelter, or perhaps ceremonial, where there are many flint shards littering the ground, the remains of much flint napping, the making of arrow and spear points:p1050535p1050536 A short distance below the spring lies the remains of the Rios Homestead, probably dating the the early part of the 20th century, where a family clawed out an existence from ranching sheep or goats. Signs of life on a hostile frontier are everywhere:p1050546p1050550p1050553p1050549 Near the living structures is found a magnificent stone corral. Imagine the time and labor necessary to carry, stack and construct walls, over 3 feet thick in places, with no mortar to hold them in place:p1050542-5-pan A peek inside the main house, a much later type of construction from the first dwellings. Two prism skylights provide light in the rooms during the day. (Keep in mind that this is private property, and we are inside with the permission of the owner):p1050563 Quite a place to sit and watch the sun set across the mountains:p1050568p1050565 Flowers abound in the early springlike sunshine near the homestead:p1050538p1050539p1050577 And so, as we make our way back along the trail to our vehicle, it’s easy to let your mind wander back to the two different times represented by artifacts found on our hike…the early native hunters and growers, and the later homesteaders who lived out daily lives here in the desert. More questions than answers, but certainly an appreciation for the hardy and fearless nature required to persevere here:p1050572 A final reminder that many such remnants of early habitation remain in our state and national parks. In this case, on unmarked private property. Leave it exactly as you find it. 

The experience of discovering artifacts is exciting and special. Do not deprive others of the same experience by removing them. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

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

High Uintas Wilderness

The Uinta Mountains are the highest east-west oriented mountain range in the U.S.  They are located in the extreme northeast corner of Utah, and extend into Wyoming, and are a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains.  They contain the highest peak in Utah, Kings Peak, at 13,528 feet.  I last backpacked in these mountains in 2004, and once previously in 1993, so I was anxious to visit them again.  Thus, the setting for my latest adventure to the high country, the second week of August, this year.

I was joined by long-time backpacking partners and friends Joe and Mike, along with Joe’s fiance Sarah, and friend Ken and his grandson Alec.  We appear fresh at the trailhead:P1040064Just one of the creek crossings we navigate along the trail:P1040098On Day 1 we hiked 7 miles, with an altitude gain of 1200 feet, and made camp just below Squaw Pass:P1040126We have missed the peak bloom season, even at this altitude, but here we find a few lone columbine blooming in the shade of a fir tree:P1040108Squaw Pass was a formidable climb, but we topped out around lunch time and descended into a wide basin and set up camp 2:P1040149P1040182Afternoon thunderstorms rolled in from the west and created a wonderful play of light on the mountains against the dark, foreboding clouds of the storms:P1040208These mountains are sedimentary, remnants of an ancient sea floor, so the banding in the rock layers is colorful with many contrasting variations:P1040213Storms cleared, and the night sky was spectacular, with the Milky Way rising above the mountaintops:P1040225Next morning, we faced the daunting task of going up and over Porcupine Pass, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle as we make our approach:P1040231A look down at the basin from atop Porcupine Pass, an altitude of 12,200 feet:P1040256Heading down the other side of the pass into another basin, we head off-trail and surprise a huge muley buck, airborne as graceful as if weightless:P1040277Our campsite was spectacular, surrounded by mountains, with a gurgling stream to lull you to sleep:P1040286Third night out, the Milky Way made another grand appearance:P1040328Next morning it was up and over Tungsten Pass, with a look back at Tungsten Lake from atop the pass:P1040357As we enter yet another basin, we see Kings Peak, highest point in Utah, rising before us:P1040372Our camp for the next two nights will sit in the shadow of these, the highest peaks in this mountain range:P1040395As we make dinner, several local residents approach our camp, apparently disturbed by our presence in their favorite shelter trees where they bed down:P1040459P1040461Not far from camp, a beautiful waterfall (which we first admired on our 1993 trip to this basin) flows from the remaining snow fields, clear and cold:P1040434After the ascent of Kings Peak, next morning we break camp and head over Smyth Fork Pass, in the direction of Red Castle Peak and Lower Red Castle Lake, seen here through an unexpected snow storm that hit us coming down the north side of the pass:P1040488Trying to pump water in the snow is chilly business:P1040490We reach lower Red Castle Lake and set up camp with snow clouds still swirling overhead:P1040504And almost as quickly as the snow appeared, it is gone to reveal a spectacular view of Red Castle and Smyth Fork Creek:P1040533That night is the peak of the Perseoid Meteor Shower, and we spot a couple of spectacular meteors, some with long, bright ion trails visible even in twilight. Here, a smaller meteor is captured by my camera after midnight:P1040551Next morning we set off on a day hike up to Red Castle Lake, a 7-mile hike with an altitude gain of about 1000 feet, but well worth the effort:P1040591P1040604Next day, we make the 1400-feet climb up and over Bald Mountain.  Below, Bald Mountain Lake sits awaiting the remaining snow melt for its icy waters:P1040720From atop Bald Mountain you can see 360 degrees in all directions, and the views of the peaks is spectacular.  In 1993 Joe and I were chased across this high plateau by storms and lightening, and couldn’t enjoy its beauty.  This day is much different:P1040704Some of the blooming beauty that we spot on the way down, on our last day:P1040724P1040731P1040732A trail-weary crew: 8 days, 55 miles, 8900-feet elevation gain, and wonderful friendship…the right combination for another fantastic voyage through God’s creation.P1040734

 

The South Rim

It’s hot…really HOT.  So far this month the little weather station on my desk has topped 100 degrees every day.  Last month was the hottest June we’ve had in the 10 years we’ve lived in Marathon, TX.  But, it’s always cool up on the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, in Big Bend National Park.  And, with our annual backpack trip to America’s high mountains coming up in just 4 weeks, time to step up the training.  So, it was time to hit the trail, heat or no heat.

The temperature had already hit 98 degrees at the trailhead in the Chisos Basin, an altitude of 5400 feet, so this was extreme to say the least.  The first mile of the trail is dusty and hot as it winds through the juniper trees, which block any hint of breeze:P1030759A Mexican jay seems to laugh at my folly, starting at mid-day with a backpack beginning the 2000 foot ascent up to my campsite on the south rim.P1030764There’s always something blooming in the mountains, even this late in the season.  Chrysactinia Mexicana in full bloom:P1030775 Chrysactinia mexicanaAs I make the turn to head up Boot Canyon, at 7000 feet, the desert floor shimmers in the desert sun 4000 feet below, with the boot-shaped spire that gives the canyon its name visible at right, at the head of the canyon, and an agave, a century plant, nears full bloom in the foreground:P1030770The usually dry Boot Spring is flowing with cool, clear water after recent rains up on the mountain:P1030777P1030784P1030795The water is abundant in upper Boot Canyon, and a Black-necked Garter snake pauses to ambush an unsuspecting entree:P1030789

A spotted squirrel stops to satisfy his curiosity:P1030850

By late afternoon I have reached the south rim, and the view off to the south, toward Mexico, is spectacular, with the landmark “Elephant Tusk” looming up from the desert below:P1030800I step from the main trail down a side trail to my campsite, and just before I reach my spot where I’ll set my tent for the night, I am startled by a hiss that sounds like the air going out of a tire.  It can only be one thing, and my eyes quickly find its source…a Black Tailed Rattlesnake, just off the path about 5 feet from me:P1030802

At between 4-5 feet long and with a body the diameter of a baseball bat, his large number of rattles tell me that he’s a mature, large specimen with lots of poison in those big glands in the back of his head, so I carefully usher him off into a nearby pile of dead tree limbs, using a dead century plant stalk…a very long one.  He is an absolutely gorgeous animal.  I’ve never seen a rattlesnake at this altitude, and was not aware that they were found up here on the south rim, so my “age of innocence” has been crushed, and now I’m wary of every large clump of grass I pass (and will be from now on).  It seems these snakes love altitude and are found mainly between 4500 and 10,000 feet altitude.  P1030803Another visitor to camp, this Chisos Whitetail deer stayed with me all evening and into the night:

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Sunset from the south rim:P1030825This being a short trip, I broke camp early and headed down to beat the heat.  Along the way, more summer blooms, beginning with this blue flax and its guests:P1030831 Blue FlaxP1030842P1030847P1030845P1030841 Chrysactinia mexicanaEven at stifling hot summer temps, the desert is full of surprises.  As Ed Abbey said, “get out of your —- car, get on your knees and crawl until they’re bloody…then maybe you’ll see something.”  So much to see.

Up the Grand Staircase

An area that has intrigued me since I first learned of it from a lady in Taos, NM, who had once been a guide there, is a large tract in southern Utah called the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. It sits at an elevation largely between 5500 and 10,000 feet, so early May is just becoming spring there at most elevations. That means cold nights and cool/warm days, with some lingering snow at higher elevations. It also means fewer tourists, so what better time to join our long-time friends David and Marcia, now residents of southern California, for a couple of weeks of Jeepin’ and ‘splorin’.

For this trip we decided to go with vacation rental homes rather than camping, and use them as “base camp” to explore a variety of geological and scenic wonders found withing a couple of hours’ drive. We chose Hatch, Utah, and Boulder, Utah, for our base camps, and lined up 4 days in each location to give us time to explore unhurried.

First, we had to get there, so Jodie and I gave ourselves three days and two nights to poke our noses into adventures along the way. Our first stop was in Silver City, NM, where we lived for 6 years from 1994 to 2000. We had to stop by our old house, then took a drive up to the little mining community of Pinos Altos. 

Our home, which had also been our photography studio for 6 years:4

Leaving Silver City, we headed into northern Arizona. As a kid of perhaps 5, my mom and I hopped in our new 1950 Buick Special and headed off down Route 66 to California. Along the way we did the usual touristy things that you did in the 50’s, which included stops at all those “Indian Trading Posts” for Indian spears made of cane shafts and cardboard spear heads, adorned with red-and-blue feathers, and marked “authentic.” The stop at Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park was just for Mom. I had to relive my childhood, so we made it a point to stop there on the way. It was amazing, with fossilized logs from the Triassic Period lying everywhere:132027

This area was home to many early pre-history Americans, starting about 8000 BC. They left behind many puzzling inscriptions on the rocks:5454a

Just across the old roadway which was once Route 66 is the sister park, Painted Desert NP, with its colorful banded layers of Triassic sediments, originally named by the Spanish explorer Coronado:5564

Leaving Painted Desert and Petrified Forest NP, it’s only a short drive down I-40 to Winslow, AZ, location immortalized in the Eagles song “Take it Easy,” written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. You’ll remember the lyrics,
“Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me”

On a corner in downtown Winslow, AZ, is a statue of Jackson Browne, standin’ on the corner, with the girl in the flatbed Ford reflected in the window:74

We next found ourselves in the small southern Utah town of Hatch, where we met David & Marcia, long-time friends and companions on many past adventures. After checking into the vacation home we were sharing, we headed off to Zion National Park:98Zion National Park – upon exiting a long tunnel and rounding one of the switchbacks that drop visitors down to the valley floor. where we came upon a young bighorn sheep at home on the rocks in the valley.98aZion NP – a wild turkey struts his stuff while parading after a pair of hens. David and I left the tram, which takes visitors into the heart of the park, and hiked along the road for a mile or so.144106111154BW129From Zion, we headed across Hwy 12 on our way back to Hatch, and found plenty of leftover winter snow at the higher elevations:184Near Hatch, UT, is the Grand Staircase – Excalante National Monument. Found within the huge area of hoodoos and cliffs is the Kodachrome Basin State Park, with its colorful formations and unusual sculptures:192A 3-mile hike along easy terrain takes you back to Shakespeare Arch, well worth the hike. David stands at the base of the formation for perspective:222227

Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument – a drive of about 8 miles from Kodachrome Basin SP brings you to Grosvenor Arch. This is ADA accessible via a paved walk from the parking lot. Jodie & I were here in 1993, and it’s a spectacular arch.232234Reagle – on the way back we spotted this rare “Reagle” – with rabbit legs and an eagle body, these hybrids are rarely seen. (Actually, this young golden eagle had just pounced on a rabbit and was flying off with it in his talons, making this optical illusion).241Willis Creek Slots – another side road in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument takes you to a trailhead for the Willis Creek slots, a series (5-6-7 depending on how you count) of slot canyons along a small creek.252256c265Red Canyon Hoodoos – on Hwy 12 after leaving Hatch, UT, going east, the road climbs through a canyon of the same formations as Bryce Canyon, a park we visited in this area in 1993 but chose to pass on this trip.272Burr Trail Road – a road from Boulder, UT, called the Burr Trail, winds through 30 miles of high desert, then drops down a series of switchbacks to the lower end of Capitol Reef National Park, where it joins with the Notom-Bullfrog Road (impassable in wet weather) and heads north another 44 miles to join the main road through Capitol Reef NP. Notice the arch in the excarpment, visible as we descend the road.301303306South of Boulder, on the road to Escalante, is another hike in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Here, the 6.3-mile trail follows Calf Creek through a beautiful canyon.325Up on one cliff face are painted these pictographs, seen here from the other side of the valley, standing perhaps 6 feet tall.326329The trail ends at Lower Calf Creek Falls. These falls drop 126′ into a clear pool. The temperature in this dead-end box canyon dropped at least 10 degrees as we approached the pool/falls from the cold water.340346

Capitol Reef National Park lies 60 miles north of Boulder, UT, via scenic Hwy 12. It is not a large park, but has some features that make it worth the trip, such as Capitol Dome:348Capitol Reef NP – petroglyphs carved into the rock walls along the Fremont River:351356Capitol Reef NP – a 1-mile hike starting along the Fremont River leads to Hickman Bridge. Definition: an arch spans dirt, a bridge spans water…saw no water here, but they still call it a bridge.388390Capitol Reef NP – David leads out down the road through Grand Wash:423The Devil’s Backbone Bridge – there is a backcountry road that connects Boulder with Escalante, which climbs over the mountains along a 38-mile drive. near the northern end is a bridge built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1934, “just because they could.”439“Top of the World” view from the Devil’s Backbone:440

On the way back to Big Bend through southern Utah, through Grand Staircase – Escalante, through Glen Canyon Rec. Area…sights like this one are reminiscent of an Indiana Jones temple, but seem commonplace in this region of red and gray mesas:444445

And so, after 12 days in this incredible land we realize that we didn’t even scratch the surface. You need a lifetime of exploration to get to know this land. A lady we knew some 20 years ago back in Taos, NM, had been a guide in the Excalante her entire life, and said she had not seen it all. Guess I’ll just have to save that for another lifetime.

 

Blood Marks the Trail

If you love the outdoors, and especially the desert outdoors, then you have probably read Edward Abbey, and in particular, Desert Solitaire.  The line in that book that has forever branded itself into my psyche reads, “In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet 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 begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

This past week, I parked my Jeep beside a dry wash, a desert artery that carries only lizards and dust during most of the year. However, at unpredictable times, this dry wash runs with water…sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent of mud, rocks, and small trees. It has been my desire to trek along this dry wash and enjoy its quiet, and its history, left behind in the wonderful palate of textures and colors, seen only when “traces of blood begin to mark your trail…”

I shouldered my backpack, knowing I would stay out overnight, not wanting to rush, and headed west, upstream toward the wonderful desert evening of the Big Bend. Here it is easy to see the flow of the water over small rocks, and the ripples mirrored in the sand as they rolled across the surface of a temporary rain runoff. Also visible is the higher waterline left behind by a stronger flow of deeper water:P1020499

Further upstream, the flow has cut away the bank to a depth of 6-8 feet or more:P1020504

The spiderweb of roots and branches left airborne by the flowing water create art unequaled with brush and canvas:P1020505BWSeveral stories told here…as a very large mammal, probably an elk or mule deer, followed the path of least resistance, walking slowly along the wash. Then, an undetermined digger moved across the wash, digging as he went, perhaps following the burrow of an underground dweller in search of dinner:P1020509More tracks, this time a fox perhaps, and multiple well-defined water courses, dredged by a silent carver of the sand:P1020511BWAway from the wash, as I prepare to make camp for the evening, the limestone layers of this slab, turned on end to form a chair for Paul Bunyan, and shade for me in a shadeless land:P1020520BWThe sun begins to set against the limestone cliffs of the Madiera Sierra del Carmen, rising to a height of 8000 feet across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, with the distinct landmark of the Taj Mahal Hoodoo beginning to silhouette in foreground right:P1020541The layers of evening, a rising moon, the golden glow of the warmer layers of light filtering through the low levels of atmosphere, the shadow of the earth itself just above the tops of the Dead Horse Mountains:P1020548P1020538Next morning, as I begin the 4 miles back downstream, the colors of the sand warm to the morning light:P1020566More tracks from a mule deer, heading upstream:P1020569A tributary enters from the north, perhaps a drainage from nearby Grapevine Hills, showing evidence of water flowing at levels ranging from flood to a trickle:P1020575BWOne of the earliest flowers to bloom this year, growing in the soft sand of the creek, attended by an opportunistic flying critter:P1020578Among the myriad of smooth, round river stones, and set apart among the millions of remnants of limestone deposits, this multi-layered rock of sandstone, three feet across, created elsewhere at another time and washed here from some far-away mountainous perch:P1020579And finally, as if still flowing, this river of sand creates eddies behind rocks that have seen the water come and go, and come again:P1020580BWGod really does surround us with masterpieces, if we will only crawl.