Marufo Vega Revisited

It has been awhile since I threw on the backpack and headed out the Marufo Vega Trail, one of my most favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park, and one of the best kept secrets in the entire park. With two consecutive days of 80+ degree sunny weather, the timing was perfect, as were the night skies, free of a bright moon, so off I went.

The Marufo Vega Trail is a 12-mile loop trail on the extreme east end of Big Bend National Park, and covers some of the most beautiful terrain you can imagine. However, it is one of the least populated hikes in the park, and one that receives perhaps more search & rescue episodes than any other, due to extreme desert conditions, lack of shade and water, and visitors who underestimate the physical demands of this trail. My favorite hike is an 11-mile out-and-back with an overnight on a bench a thousand feet above the Rio Grande River, and 5000 feet below the peak of the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, which rise to nearly 8000′ altitude on the Mexican side of the river.

The hike starts at the Marufo Vega Trailhead and follows a dry creekbed that drains Telephone Canyon, near the Mexican town of Boquillas:P1020273P1020275At 1.5 miles a trail junction splits and the Telephone Canyon trail continues on, while Marufo Vega turns and climbs sharply up 400′ over a ridge into another drainage:P1020284P1020291A look back up Telephone Canyon from the saddle:P1020292From the high bench, you get your first look at the top of the del Carmen mountains, still nearly 4 miles away:P1020293The trail wind across the desert into secondary drainages with interesting dikes and rock formations:P1020301P1020303P1020304At 3.5 miles the trail splits, forming a 5-mile loop that eventually drops 1000 feet down to the Rio Grande River, then follows the river for 1.5 miles before climbing back up the 1000 feet and re-joining at this point:P1020308Following the drainage marked “South Fork,” the trail winds through the hills and out onto a wide, flat park before disappearing over another low saddle to begin the traverse around an escarpment and the final push to the bench above the Rio Grande River:P1020309P1020311P1020315The first look eastward at the “Lower Canyons” of the Rio Grande, dropping over 1000 feet below the trail down to the Rio Grande River, carving its way southeast, the border between Mexico and Texas:P1020316P1020317This photo taken on another trip showing the river from a closer proximity to its channel:IMG_0802_3_4_5_6_fusedAround one more corner, the first look at the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains, looming to a height of nearly 8000 feet just across the river in Mexico, the highest point being the small, thin spire called “El Pico” just to the right of the pointed direction of the trail:P1020318P1020330Another half mile and the panorama of the Del Carmens rises along the southern skyline, beginning their stunning color change as the sun begins its long, slow journey into sunset:P1020346P1020349P1020374P1020366The Milky Way is generally not visible at this time of the year, because we are not looking at the most dense spiral that is so familiar during the spring, summer and fall months, but out here the skies are so dark that the less dense spirals of the Milky Way are visible, occasionally streaked with a passing meteor:P1020381P1020383P1020392P1020408Next morning, the sun breaks upon the mountain peaks lowering over the lower canyons of the Rio Grande:P1020411P1020413sP1020420P1020436And so begins the 5.2 mile journey back to the trailhead, with an overview of the last 1.5 miles of trail, following the old path of the Ore Trams, cabled buckets much like ski lifts, that hauled fluorspar ore, used in steelmaking, from Mexico to the railhead in Marathon for processing:P1020457P1020459P1020462BWAnd so ends the tour of the southern loop of the Marufo Vega Trail. This is not a hike for the summer, so if you plan to go, the cooler days of late fall, winter, or very early spring should be your goal. Hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy visit to my backyard.

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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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. 

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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A nice place for a dip to cool off:

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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:

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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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

Up on the Great Divide

August always brings me to the annual backpack trip, and this year we headed off to southern Colorado to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, one of the three border-to-border through-hiking trails in the U.S. We planned to hike from near Silverton, CO, to a trailhead near Pagosa Springs, CO…a distance of some 45 miles along the CDT.P1000907

The trailhead begins at Cunningham Gulch and crosses the Cunningham Creek on its way up 1200′ to an altitude of 12,000′ at the junction with the CDT:

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Flowers along the CDT in the high meadows were spectacular, especially the columbine:

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Once we gain the Divide at 12,000′, it’s time to make camp, just before the rains move in. The weather forcast before we hit the trailhead was for rain Saturday and Sunday, with a 100% chance of “monsoons” on Sunday, with flash flood warnings out…oh, well:

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The next day, we head off on the CDT, with storm clouds looming, but an early start would mean we chould be able to get across the high country before the storms arrive:

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As we approach Elk Creek the wildflowers become spectacular. We find ourselves walking through meadows where the flowers reach to our knees:

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At the head of the Elk Creek drainage, I revisit memories of descending the switchbacks from the CDT down into the lower elevations to meet the narrow gauge train in 1993, some 22 years ago when we spent a week here, coming through Chicago Basin and across the Divide, to exit at Elk Park where we flagged down the train for a ride back to Durango:

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Standing on the Continental Divide, we turn to look down the drainage to the west. Standing here, the waters to our right flow into the Atlantic, and the waters to our left flow into the Pacific:

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From here, we begin the 300′ climb over the pass, which in 1993 we named “Citrus Chicken Pass” after an awful freeze-dried food that we grew to hate on that trip, nearly as much as the climb over this pass at the end of a long, tiring day of climbing:

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Once over the pass, we descend the 300′ to a bench above Elk Creek to Eldorado Lake, to make camp just before the storm rolls over the mountains:

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After 16 hours of rain, being trapped in our tents from mid-afternoon until morning the next day, we emerge to find ourselves inside a cloud and zero visibility:

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Within a short time, the clouds part and the skies turn blue, we break camp and ascend the 300′ climb back to the CDT, with a beautiful view of Eldorado Lake sitting on the bench above the Elk Creek drainage:

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A couple of our friends that kept us company around camp:

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Upon return to civilization, we decided to spend a day riding the Durango and Silverton narrow gauge steam railroad:

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Little did we know that we were going to witness one of the most awful toxic spills to impact this country in many years. A team from the EPA, trying to open an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, unleashed millions of gallons of toxic waste water trapped in the mine into the pristine Animas River. These photos, taken from the train at the time of the spill, show the “before” and “after” condition of the Animas River flowing down from Silverton to Durango and beyond:

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The list of heavy metals released into the environment includes tin, arsenic, copper, cadmium, calcium, iron, and sediment, among others. Statement from the EPA estimated 1-3 million gallons of waste…hardly the amount it would take to do this to a river. My estimates, based on CFS records of the USGS sites just below Silverton indicate a release in just the first 8 hours alone of 15-20 million gallons, with the release continuing for over a week at over a half million gallons a day.

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And so, it’s difficult to tie this trip up with a neat ribbon, but in the end, it was good to be back in Durango, Colorado.

Back on the Mountain

It’s July again, and that means time to train for this year’s backpacking trip to the high mountains. That means spending some time on the High Chisos trails in Big Bend National Park. And so, with a break in the weather (afternoon thunderstorms that usually don’t arrive until July and August) I packed up and hit the trail. This spring and early summer has been one of the wettest I’ve seen, so a dry, warm day was a welcome sight.

The trail climbs from the Basin trailhead rather smartly from 5400′ up through a series of swithbacks for 3.1 miles, up to 6700′, and provides great views of “The Window,” which is the main drainage of the entire basin. Beyond lies the lower desert and views to the west:

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Once on top, the trail levels out through Laguna Meadow for a half mile, before reaching the Blue Creek drainage:

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Looking to the southwest down the Blue Creek Canyon, a side trail runs 5.5 miles down to the historic Homer Wilson Ranch, and the Dodson Trail:

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The wildflowers bloomed in February and March, the cactus bloomed in April, May and June, and now the summer wildflowers are showing up in the high country. This year’s bloom continues to be spectacular, and now the yucca and agave are taking center stage:

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Along the trail a few of the unusual flowers that catch my attention, namely the Heartleaf Goldeneye:

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Perhaps the only remaining blooming pricklypear cactus stands guard along the trail in Laguna Meadows, 3 miles from the trailhead, and 1300 feet higher, at an altitude of 6700 feet.

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A couple of miles, and another 800 feet higher, I reach my campsite, on the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, overlooking Mule Ears Peak and Mexico beyond to the south:

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Another half mile down the south rim, the views are spectacular, with a sheer drop of 1500′ down to the desert floor below:

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The cliffs along the southeast rim support several nesting pairs of Peregrine Falcons. Just as I turned back toward camp, I was treated to one of the falcons making a hunting run along the edge of the cliffs, flying at a high rate of speed. In a hunting dive, these birds have been clocked at over 200 mph! Yes, I said 200:

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Along the trail back to my tent, I crossed paths with a Del Carmen Whitetail deer, a subspecies of whitetail found only in the Chisos Mountains, and a small pocket in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico:

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Back at camp, I was treated to the soft chatter of a Blackheaded Grosbeak:

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Even before the sun had set, the full moon was rising above the mountaintop trees:

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The setting sun set the clouds behind my camp afire with a soft glow:

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The full moon was spectacular, and provided me with an unrelenting night light that cast deep shadows all around camp:

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For the past two weeks, we’ve been watching Jupiter and Venus grow closer and closer, until they are within just a few degrees of each other, made spectacular by this view from an altitude of 7200 feet:

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The next morning after breaking camp, I encountered a set of Black Bear prints in the trail, less than a tenth of a mile from my camp. The trekking poles are over 4 feet long, as a matter of reference as to the size of these paws:

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The tall, very large blooms of an agave known as a Century Plant, once believed to bloom at the age of one hundred years, but in fact blooms in at a much shorter age, but only blooms once and then dies:

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More beauty along the trail back down:

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And so, as these two days in the mountains reveal, the magnificent Bloom of ’15 continues into the summer with no less thrilling candy for the eyes. 

Go Take a Walk in the Desert

Sometimes you go for a walk for exercise, and sometimes you go for a walk just to discover. This weekend we had a clear sky and a full moon, so I decided to get out into the desert for an evening of discovery, and I was rewarded with beauty. The afternoon was clear, sunny and cool (as deserts go), so I decided to visit a site where I have been before, but never spent much time there…a paleo-indian shelter cave that is within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park, but not marked for the public, and has no trails to follow. I was tipped off to its existence by a park ranger a few years ago, and the first time I visited the caves I found a shell bead from a necklace which was both beautiful and extraordinary in detail. After photographing it, I replaced it for others to discover as I had. Now I was looking for new discoveries. 

From a distance the site looks like nothing more than another fault in the rocks, but it’s a shelter that was used by many peoples for many years:

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Along the way, the magnificent bloom of this spring continues in the cactus, showing off all their glory:

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Once up at shelter level, it’s easy to spot the soot on the ceiling of the shelter, left by many, many fires that were used for cooking and warmth:

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Among the nearby rocks are found holes used to grind grain and seeds in providing food, meaning these shelter caves were inhabited and not just used for hunting outposts. In earlier times, the dry creekbed nearby probably ran with dependable water.

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Many scars in the rocks in the cave show what is possible sharpening of metal tools or weapons:

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I have found artifacts here before, and this time was no exception…a piece of flint (a color and material that does not occur in this area), that indicates trade with groups from other regions. This one shows signs of knapping, or shaping and sharpening by antler bone, and discarded for some reason. This piece measures about 2 inches in length. It remains in the cave for others to find:

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One of my friends who shared this afternoon with me:

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I can’t help but wonder what the men and women were like who called this place home so many centuries ago:

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Next, I shouldered my pack and headed out to the hoodoos nearby. The hoodoo called the “Taj Mahal” by some is my goal for the evening:

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My campsite for the evening in a beautiful, secluded area among the hoodoos:

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As night falls, the moon makes a spectacular showing:

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This morning, a warm and soft sunrise was a spectacular opening for the climax to a simple, yet magnificent, walk across the desert.

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The 40-Year Bloom

At the risk of boring you to the point of not revisiting our site again, I’m going to chance it and present an update to the magnificent flowering desert that many old-timers (older than me) are calling a “40-year bloom.” The bluebonnets have been blooming since February, and are still marvelous, reaching heights of over 4 feet…just imagine.

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In the past couple of weeks, the addition of many cactus blooms has only added to the already fabulous weave of colors across the desert. One of the most impressive is the yellow bloom of the Texas Rainbow cactus. The “rainbow” comes from the bands of color caused by annual growth rings:

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The yellow and red blooms of the purple pricklypear are appearing everywhere:

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The brilliant fuchsia color of the strawberry pitaya is more rare, but easily spotted blooming among the yellows and greens of the desert:

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The orange/red brilliance of the claret cup cactus is found mostly above 4000′ in rocky areas:

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One of the most dramatic plants in the desert is the ocotillo, not a cactus, but sporting sharp spines and brilliant reddish/orange blossoms, sometimes growing to heights of over 15 feet:

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When it comes to flowers, the desert marigolds are still in full bloom, forming a carpet across the usually dry desert floor:

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Earlier in the spring, the indian paintbrush was conspicuously missing from the landscape, now making an appearance in secluded places:

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Out in the more open plains, the prairie verbena waves in the wind:

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Hiding in the endless sea of desert marigolds are the wonderful clumps of blackfoot daisies:

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These rainbow cactus blooms are safely tucked in among the lethal spines of the lechuguilla:

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A last look at the beautiful blooms of the strawberry pitaya and purple pricklypear, to be enjoyed for weeks to come:

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And so, the “40-year bloom” reaches its peak, but is by no means done. More cactus are putting on bloom pods in preparation for an encore of magnificence in May and June, so stay tuned for more of God’s glory.

It’s Spring in Big Bend

Word on the street is that the desert is in full bloom, so yesterday Jodie & I had to get out and see for ourselves. Truth is, the reports were far understated!  We have been spending springtime in the Big Bend of Texas for 44 years, and never have we seen the desert so green, so lush, and so spectacular!

On the way to Big Bend National Park we stopped along the highway to enjoy the carpet of flowers that laid out before us like a sea of yellow, blending into green grasses growing high onto the slopes of the low hills…punctuated by the cotton-white blooms of the yucca. The pole in the photo is a remnant of early power lines that reached from Marathon to outlying ranches, running along the fence lines that followed the early unpaved roadways:

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With Santiago Peak looming in the low clouds, the marigolds seem to glow in the soft light:

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More colors mix in with the splendor:

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As we head south along the main park road, the bluebonnets form a gauntlet of blues and greens for miles, unlike anything we’ve ever seen here:

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Along the road to Dagger Flats, the bluebonnets mix with other splashes of color along the dry creek drainages, far from the roadway:

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Officially lupinus havardii, these bluebonnets grow 3-4 feet high, much larger than their smaller cousins familiar to the hill country and north Texas. Here, a variation I call “albino,” are solid white bluebonnets that appear sporadically in with the more common blue colors:

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Shadowed by the ocotillo, with its green leaves, thorns and orange-red seed pods:

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Unknown purple blossoms share the ground cover with yellows, pinks and whites:

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Common prickly pear are exploding with yellow blossoms, attracting indespensible bees to do their pollenation dance:

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More prickly pear, shadowed by the creosote bush, so named for the creosote odor released by crushing its green leaves, with its small yellow blossoms:

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The deep crimson blossoms of the strawberry hedgehog are just magnificent:

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The delicate reddish maroon bell-shaped flowers of Potts Mammillaria only grow to a diameter of about 1/2″, but are a treasure to find:

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More prickly pear and strawberry cactus blossoms:

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Conspicuously missing this year is the indian paintbrush, these the only two blooms we found on our outing:

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The undulating dry drainages snaking through the hills are literally flowing with motion in the wind, here far from their normal habitat along the roadways:

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More lilac along the way home:

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All that is left to say, on this Easter Sunday, is how great is God’s Arboretum!

The Chiricahuas

In the desert of southeastern Arizona lies one of the best-kept secrets of all our national parks and monuments: Chiricahua National Monument. Jodie & I discovered this gem about 20 years ago, but did not have the time to explore it, or even scratch the surface. This past week we returned with two of our best friends to explore, photograph, and discover…and we were blown away by the awesome and unusual features that are abundant on this desert island.

Not far from Mexico, this 12,000 acre park is well-known among the birding community, because of its reputation for having birds found nowhere else in the U.S., birds that are usually found in Mexico and southward, and find their way here, the northernmost tip of their range. But, if you are not a “birder,” there is much more to discover here. The geology of the Chiricahua Mountains is one of “hoodoos” and fossils, and the flora is mixed, ranging through 4 different ecosystems, from Sonoran desert to sub-alpine, from 5124′ up to 9763′ in altitude. Perhaps the most spectacular sights are found in the hoodoos, or as the Chiricahua Apaches called them, the land of “standing up rocks.” The ryolite formations, made up of volcanic ash, have eroded to form thousands of pinnacles, spires, and balanced rocks…a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon” as my friend David referred to it. Come along and share some of the highlights of our recent trip.

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Bonita Campground, small and by reservation only, is nestled between canyon walls, among oaks, cypress, pine and fir trees. No frills, but there is a public restroom and water at intervals around the campground. Our site was clean and provided a picnic table and a grill for a wood fire:

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David, Marcia and Jodie enjoying a campfire to break the chill in a mile-high campground:

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The first settlers, the Swedish family Neil and Emma Erickson, built a home here in 1888, just two years after the Chiricahua Apache bands led by Cochise and Geronimo had surrendered. Their children developed the home and surrounding land into a guest ranch that operated here from 1917 until 1973. The house and ranch buildings are open to the public within the park:

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The tack room, with saddle horses and the horses’ names painted on tin cans along the wall:

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At the end of the eight-mile-long Bonita Canyon Drive lies Massai Point, at 6870 feet, where the visitor can get a 360 degree view of the “standing up rocks” of the canyons, designated official wilderness areas. This shows why it is referred to as a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon”:

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David and I caught the free shuttle at the visitor center and rode it to the trailhead on Massai Point, then started the 7.25 mile trail down Ryolite Canyon, through the park’s most spectacular pinnacles and balanced rocks. The trail descends 1700′ through the canyon, but along the way we climbed a total ascent of nearly 1000′ while descending 2400′ before reaching the Visitor Center where we left a vehicle. Here are some of the pinnacles, hoodoos, and balanced rocks encountered along the trail:

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A panorama of the “standing up rocks” along the opposite canyon wall, with the Chiricahua Mountains looming behind:

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Balanced rocks and hoodoos abound on a 1-mile loop known as Heart of Rocks:

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Estimated at over 40 tons, this rock stands “balanced” on a small, seemingly impossible remaining area:

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David winding his way with camera in hand through the maze of “Heart of Rocks” area:

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From the reserve, we made the 26-mile drive across the Chiricahuas to the settlement of Paradise, then on to the little town of Portal:

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Nearby, the Fort Bowie historical monument bears witness to the soldiers who, under Cooke, tracked and ultimately forced the surrender of the fierce Chiricahua Apache warriors Cochise and Geronimo, who established a stronghold in these Chiricahua Mountains to make their last stand against the encroachment of the westward expansion. Ruins of walls and buildings remain as testimony of the difficulty of life in this harsh land 130 years ago. Jodie and Marcia used their time to explore the site while David and I were out hiking the trails:

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Finally, we made a detour over to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge to see if we could catch the sandhill cranes before their return to Canada. We found some cranes, and a few other critters, including a gray Hawk:

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The cranes in the marsh, some flying in, and a few ducks still hanging on with the coming of spring:

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So much more to see in this part of the state…historic towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, many other wildlife refuges and birding sites, wineries…all sprinkled throughout with quaint B&B’s of all types, many specializing in birding with bird sanctuaries…enough to keep us coming back for many years to come. 

On the Trail of the Bluebonnet

It’s that time of year again…when the bluebonnets begin to bloom…at least, in this part of the Big Bend of Texas. We headed south and west of Big Bend National Park to the small gathering of buildings on the banks of the Rio Grande River called Lajitas, Texas. History has revealed that the first of the huge Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) appear along the river road that runs from Lajitas to Presidio, Texas. These are not the same as the famous Lady Bird Johnson bluebonnets that are famed to bloom in central and north Texas in April, but a much taller strain of lupinus that grow to heights of 3-4 feet and bloom much earlier down here in the Big Bend. 

Jodie & I set up camp at the Maverick RV Resort in Lajitas. This is a wild place right down on the border with Mexico that has seen its share of history, including a raid on the trading post by Pancho Villa in 1916 that brought General Patton and his cavalry here to rout the Mexican rebels and restore order. The first time we visited here 30 years ago the trading post still exibited bullet holes from that raid. W. McGuirk, the leading citizen of Lajitas from 1902 to 1917, operated the store-saloon, farmed, and helped manage the Terlingua Mining Company. He also funded the construction of a church and a school, the church still standing and restored to its original condition:

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Just 10 miles up the River Road from Lajitas is the abandoned Contrabando Movie Set. This is a fantasy town built on the banks of the Rio Grande River specifically as a set for the movie Uphill All the Way, a 1985 movie starring Roy Clark. Eight other movies have been filmed here, including a 1996 movie Lone Star, starring Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey:

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 Inside the saloon, site of a major shoot-out in Lone Star:

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A few miles further up the River Road we reach Colorado Canyon, a beautiful slot where the Rio Grande cuts through sheer granite walls. This was the unfortunate spot where a couple and their guide paddling the river were shot in 1988 by Mexican teenagers, who were subsequently caught and prosecuted. One of the victims died of gunshots. There have been no other similar incidents on the river since:

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 Finally, our goal, the early blooming bluebonnets:

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Even though the river is only 120 miles south of our home, sometimes it seems like another country. The ecology, the people, and the history are steeped in the tradition of a borderless region, where families and culture flowed seamlessly across the Rio Grande River for generations. It’s truly one of the few remaining wild places left in our country. Come visit…the flowers ain’t bad either.

Just a Cakewalk

Last year, Ken, a good friend and former resident of Marathon, TX, suggested that we do a backpack trip…something known as the “Desert Mountain Loop.” This is the most difficult trail in Big Bend National Park, actually a combination of 6 different trails covering 32 miles over 4 days and 3 nights, ranging from an elevation of 4000 feet to over 7000 feet, and passing through several micro-zones of plant and animal environment, from desert to alpine meadow. The main reason this is such a difficult hike is the nearly total lack of water along the route. There are only two dependable springs along the 32 miles, so you must carry a lot of water, 10-15 pounds, plus all your camping and hiking gear. Plus, it is not unusual for temps to hit 90 degrees in February out on the desert, combined with a relentless desert sun. In short, it is deadly. People literally die on this hike each year. It is not for the uninitiated or unprepared, that’s for sure. And so, it only made sense that at age 68, it should be a “Cakewalk.”

Ken is a volunteer ranger in Big Bend National Park, and he spent his first day in uniform to fulfill his duties along the trail:

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From the trailhead in “The Basin,” the trail works its way up switchbacks to gain 1300 feet in altitude before cresting at Laguna Meadows:

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Here we encounter our first deer, a Del Carmen whitetail buck, a subspecies that only exist here in the Chisos Mountains and in one part of Chihuahua, Mexico:

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Soon we intersect the junction with the Blue Creek trail and head down the Blue Creek drainage, a descent of over 2000 feet in about 5 miles:

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As you reach the lower elevations of the drainage, you begin to encounter wonderful red “dikes,” igneous intrusions from prehistoric volcanoes that have formed imaginative “hoodoos”:

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At the lower end of the canyon is the Homer Wilson ranch, a historic ranch from the turn of the last century, still preserved in the desert:

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Our campsite was very comfortable, and we slept under a canopy of brilliant stars, including one “shooting star” captured in this image:

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Next morning, the clouds moved in right on cue. It was to make for a perfect day of hiking. Unfortunately, as we prepared for breakfast, a fellow park ranger passed our location on his way to a rescue…a backpacker had sent out a distress signal via a rescue beacon that is monitored by the Air Force, and they were on their way to locate him. Fortunately, he was dehydrated and out of water, but able to walk out and was sent to a nearby hospital for care:

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The desert is not flat, and the first obstacle is a 1000 foot climb to a saddle, skirting drainages such as this beautifully colored escarpment:

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A look from the saddle reveals “Mule Ears Peak” and the mountains of Mexico beyond, across the Rio Grande River:

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Soon, we get our first glimpse of the South Rim of the Chisos, at 7200 feet, overlooking the desert below, our final destination two days from now:

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Our source of water in the desert, Fresno Creek, a mere trickle flowing through the narrow channel in the rocks, but nevertheless, lifegiving:

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Along the creek, an unlikely resident, the mountain laurel, in all its blooming glory. Hard to explain its presence here in the desert:

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On our way to Dodson Ranch we get our first sighting of “Elephant Tusk,” a prominent landmark in the desert. Clouds are forming up and rain is falling nearby:

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A wonderful landmark for me, I passed this “gate” 25 years ago, the entrance to the historic Dodson Ranch, another ranch that eeked out an existence here in the desert in the late 1800’s:

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The remaining ruins of one of the two ranch houses, here exposing the fireplace and an old iron headboard and footboard of their bed, along with other everyday items, such as pails and cans. When I camped in the ranch house 25 years ago, a little gray fox jumped up into the window of the house, an occurence not repeated on this trip:

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After setting up our tents, the clouds began to thicken, and after dinner, a light rain began to fall. If you’ve never smelled the desert after a rain, you must add it to your “bucket list.” There is no sweeter smell in all the world:

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The morning greeted us with dense fog, like a heavy, wet blanket:

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A beautiful example of purple prickly pear cactus, guarded by the ominous lechuguilla:

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Pretty typical of the first 6 miles of today’s hike, Ken makes his way along the trail through the fog, really a blessing instead of the 90 degree heat and sun that you usually get out here:

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One of the most beautiful and unusual plants we encountered in the desert…I cannot identify it, but I can enjoy its beauty:

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The next four hours were spent “slogging” our way up the 3000 foot ascent from the desert floor to the crest of the Chisos Mountains, finally punching through the clouds into bright sunshine and warm temps:

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After 8 hours of hiking, we reached our campsite for the night, a designated site atop Juniper Canyon:

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Our last morning on the trail, we were visited in camp by two Del Carmen whitetail deer, a doe and a buck:

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Our final day on the trail was an easy one, joining the Boot Canyon Trail, which is known for its namesake, the “Boot:”

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One final look down Juniper Canyon, from whence we came some 3000 feet below:

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The view from atop the Pinnacles Trail at 7000 feet, looking north from the Chisos Mountains to the country that lies in the northern part of Big Bend National Park:

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You cannot do justice to the beauty and extreme wildness of the Chihuahua Desert in pictures. You must get down there and crawl in its dirt to appreciate its majesty. Thanks for taking time to endulge me by pouring through an unusually large number of pictures for this experience.