A Blooming Desert

While winter rages out of control in the northeast, we must take time out to bask in the 80 degree temps of the Big Bend in February. We hooked up the camper and set up camp for 3 days in the Cottonwood campground on the banks of the Rio Grande River, just a stone’s throw from Mexico. We had a great spot just a short distance from a pair of great horned owls who were setting up housekeeping in a tall cottonwood tree.

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We decided to drive the 52 mile primitive 4 wheel drive road that runs along the Rio Grande River across the width of Big Bend National Park, a road that gets you into the interior of the park and into some of the wildest, most scenic and least visited areas, full of history. The dirt trail leads us to the southern boundary of the United States, the other side of the river being Mexico:

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Remnants of early vehicles that didn’t survive the rigors of many miles of back-country labor lie abandoned these 75 years or more along the route:

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We soon come upon the remains of the Johnson Ranch, which was actually built by the U.S. government during World War I as an airfield and retreat for pilots, all officers, who would fly here in their early bi-planes and land, anticipating several days of relaxation, which really meant drinking, partying, and enjoying the pleasures of the local ladies, mostly from across the border:

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The bones of the rusting automobiles are not the only ones left forgotten in this harsh, remote and forgotten end of the country:

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We soon arrive at the site of the Mariscal Mine, a smelter for mercury, or “quicksilver,” which was the source of several large mines in the area, none so remote as this one:

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The view of the distant 8000′ high ridge of the Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico, seen through the eyes of a miner’s home, built from the flat limestone slabs so prevalent in this area. Did this laborer even have time to notice the beauty of the desert, or was it merely something to be cursed, laying down a bone-weary body on a tiny bed in a one-room rock hut:

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The real purpose of our journey is realized soon enough, as we begin to encounter many fields of endless blooms, the fragrant bicolor mustard, which carpets the desert floor as far as the eye can see in some places. We can’t recall a winter that has been as wet as this, with monthly rainfall between 1-2 inches, during a time of the year when we rarely see rain. With the windows down, the fragrance of the blossoms is almost overwhelming, like driving through a perfume factory:

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Back at camp, the night settles in as we watch a setting sun, then the waning moon, then the stars of the outer bands of the milky way, a sight rarely visible during the winter months when you can only see the distant bands in the darkest of skies:

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A piercing quiet, found nowhere else, then sleep.

Hiking the Marufo Vega Trail of Big Bend National Park

When a friend popped the question on Sunday, “Let’s go hike the Marufo Vega Trail tomorrow,” it did not take long to say yes. I never tire of the grand vistas that this hike provides, and with a warm and dry weather window, I knew we had an opportunity for a wonderful trip. After picking up our backcountry zone camping permit at the park headquarters at Panther Junction, we headed southeast toward Rio Grande Village and the trailhead along the road to Boquillas Canyon. 

Blessed with a prediction of 70-80 degree weather, Ken and I pause at the trailhead sign in spring hiking attire before heading off down the trail:

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Along the first mile of the trail we pass the remains of a tower, built to suspend a cable that moved buckets of cinnabar ore from Mexico to a terminal several miles upcanyon, where the ore was loaded onto wagons and hauled to the railhead at Marathon, TX:

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At 1.5 miles the trail forks and heads up a couple hundred feet of switchbacks, up and over a ridge to another drainage:

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At the top of the ridge, a look upcanyon reveals the vastness and remoteness of the Chihuahua desert:

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 Along the trail we pass the remains of a silted-up rock dam, remnants of the ranching days prior to the creation of Big Bend National Park:

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After 4.5 miles of hiking up desert drainages, we round a point and before us lies an epic vista, the “Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande,” the beginning of the lower canyons of the park and beyond, cut by the Rio Grande River, seen here as a ribbon of life in a waterless environment, dividing the countries of Mexico (on the right), and the U.S.:

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As we approach our site where we will make camp for the night, the formidable Sierra Madiera del Carmen Mountains rise on the Mexican side of the river to a height of nearly 8,000 feet:

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 After dinner the moon, in its first quarter, makes a grand appearance, as the drapery of clouds draws back to drop shadows all around our camp. Our tents are well-lighted as the stars of the Big Dipper appear to the north, and we settle in for a comfortable night’s sleep:

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Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen mountains is never disappointing, and this morning was no exception:

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A look down to the river 1,100′ below as we prepare to drop down the trail toward the river:

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The sun peaks over a precipice as we descend, burning down through a cloudless sky:

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The trail follows the river for over a mile, holding some 100′ above river level, then drops down to the river just before we hit the trail junction that takes us back up to the rim, 1,100′ above:

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A look back upriver at the Sierra Madiera del Carmen mountains as they disappear from view. These mountains rise to an altitude that supports a very large conifer forest on the south-facing slopes, a true island ecosystem in a hostile, arid, desert region:

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Near-vertical limestone walls rise above the river on the Mexican side as we prepare to make our way up-canyon to the rim above:

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A look up at the rim level 1,100′ above, and the trail winding through the steep drainage as we work our way up. Fortunately, shade is abundant here in this narrow canyon:

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 Once on top, the trail returns to more hospitable hiking down familiar drainages, and the 3.5 more miles back to the trailhead.

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This trail covers a total of 13.36 miles, with a total climbing ascent of 2,684 feet. There is no water along the trail, even though you do eventually drop down to the river, because even with a good water filter, I would not trust the river water due to the level of chemical pesticides and herbicides that wash into the river from the unregulated Mexican side of the river upstream as it flows through farm country. A minimum of 4 litres of water is a must. This trail claims the lives of people regularly who are not prepared. Lack of water, lack of desert hiking experience, lack of fitness, panic, or a combination of these contribute to recsues and deaths each year on this trail, so if you come, come with a humble respect for its potential dangers. Properly prepared, you will have a hiking experience you will remember always.

Backpacking the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

December is a great time to backpack in the Big Bend. Very little rain, warm days, and crisp, clear nights (for great star-gazing) make for a special time on the trail. This past week I packed up for a short overnight trip to the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, an “island in the sky” in the heart of Big Bend National Park. These mountains rise from a high plateau in the central part of the park at 3500′ to a height of 7300′ at my campsite on the south rim, overlooking the sprawling desert toward the Rio Grande River, and Mexico beyond. The desert can produce some interesting weather, and this morning was no exception…the cool air flowing down into the lower desert produced a layer of fog/clouds that carpeted the elevations below me as I drove to the trailhead in the Chisos Mountains:

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Hitting the trail, the ecosystems change as I gain in altitude, from desert to prairie to sub-alpine, here the view through “The Window” looking west toward the distant settlements of Study Butte and Terlingua:

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Along the trail, it is not unusual to encounter a small deer, the Carmen Mountains whitetail, a sub-species found only in the United States in these Chisos Mountains:

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There is a mixture of hardwoods and juniper covering the slopes of the basin, with towering pinnacles dwarfing the vegetation, still sporting fall color:

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From my viewpoint along the south rim of the Chisos, the cliffs fall away 2000′ straight down to the floor of the Chihuahua Desert below. This part of the trail is closed from February to June to avoid contact with the perigrine falcons which nest along these cliffs in the spring:

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From the southeasternmost edge of the south rim, the desert floor spreads out to Mexico and beyond. From here, trails drop down to the desert forming the “Outer Mountain Loop” trail that crosses the desert floor below, a trip requiring veteran desert hiking experience, knowledge of intermittent springs, and good route-finding experience:

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As I sat near the edge of the rim, preparing to eat my wife’s meatloaf sandwiches prepared for me for dinner, I was visited by a tiny rock wren, somewhat disappointed that I would not throw some crumbs his way:

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A look off to the southeast, the 8000′ high cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen mountains loom up from Mexico, across the Rio Grande River, about 30 miles distant:

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The colors spread across the sky and frame the highest point in Big Bend National Park, Emory Peak:

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As the sun sets to the southwest, the desert floor below fades into darkness and the colors fade to purple and blue as the silence intensifies:

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I sit on the edge of the south rim as a full moon rises over the Sierra del Carmen escarpment:

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With this moon above, no headlights needed to find my way around camp after dark:

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The next morning, the fog has settled into the lower desert floor, creating “islands in the sky” that are ruled by Elephant Tusk Peak, silhouetted in the foreground:

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More vistas from the rim, with the vertical cliffs:

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A visitor to my camp, this Carmen whitetail buck frequents the campsites on the south rim. He was sporting a beautiful rack, and a thick, healthy neck in full rut:

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Some of the beautiful grasses lighted by early sun along the trail:

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 Along the trail heading back to the trailhead, these Carmen deer are puzzled by my appearance on the trail at this early hour. These are small deer, and have evolved right here in this tiny ecosystem:

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More color from the oaks and maples along the trail at the higher elevations, leaves still hanging on very late up here:

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After 16 miles of hiking, and elevation gains of nearly 3000′, I was glad to be back in the mountains. I met a veteran hiker on the trail, one of only 5 people I saw in two days, and hopefully we will be able to put together a future trip. The desert is such a special place, not only for the environment, but for the people you meet here. Come visit, and you’ll see what I mean.

Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains by Backpack

Usually my posts are related to the Big Bend region of west Texas, but in this post I will share some images of a recent 12-day backpack trip into the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming.

The Wind Rivers, and specifically the Bridger-Teton Wilderness, are located about 100 miles east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They feature rugged peaks, including the highest mountain peak in Wyoming, Gannett Peak. I spent 12 wonderful days there in early August with my two favorite backpacking buddies, Joe and Mike from Dallas, and it was another classic backpack adventure.

Our first look at the northern Wind River Range from Photographer’s Point, about 5 miles in and 1000′ elevation gain from the trailhead at Elkhart Park, north of Pinedale, WY.

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After gaining access to the high country, up in slickrock country (areas of granite left slick by the grinding action of glaciers many eons ago), above timberline, we began to hit the snow.

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After crossing over Shannon Pass, we found ourselves above a gorgeous alpine lake, Peak Lake, where we ran into John and his daughter Liz, who exchanged photos with us.

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Two days later, we made our way past Island Lake and into upper Titcomb Basin, where we set up base camp for two days of exploration. This is a high basin used by many as a base camp for their assault on Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming. 

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A look up into the upper Titcomb Basin, toward Twin Peaks, at what remains of the Twin Peak Glacier. The ice field of the glacier is prominent on the leading edge:

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The sun rising above the tip of Tower Peak, with a “glory,” or circular rainbow,isible as light is bent by the ice crystals in the atmosphere, much like the bending of light by water droplets into the colors of a rainbow after a thunderstorm:

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The upper Titcomb Basin to the east, with Bonneville Pass visible in the upper left of the image. The route to Gannett Peak takes the climber up Bonneville Pass, down the other side, across Gannett Glacier, and up again to the top of Gannett Peak…then the climber retraces his/her route back down the peak, across the glacier, back up and over Bonneville Pass, and back down into Titcomb Basin. We watched climbers struggling back into camp as late as 11:30 p.m., after almost 24 hours of effort to complete the route.

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Another look back into upper Titcomb Basin with water cascading over the slickrock left by glacier scouring:

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Upper Titcomb Lake with the peaks of the Northern Winds in the background, and some of the fabulous wildflowers blooming along the lakeside:

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A view of the Milky Way as seen from our campsite above Island Lake. There are three meteors visible in this image, a 25-second time exposure taken after the full moon had run its course and finally granted us a dark, clear night sky:

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The prominent, snow-covered dome of Gannett Peak is visible behind the peaks of Titcomb Basin from this vantage point:

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This image captures a 30-second exposure of the ISS, or International Space Station, streaking through the northern band of the Milky Way, as it completes each orbit of the earth every 90 minutes. When the ISS tracks overhead, it is the brightest object in the sky, as the light from the sun reflects off its solar panels:

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A final look at the Milky Way on our last night in the Winds:

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Marathon’s Elk

When I tell folks that we have some of the largest elk in the west just a few miles outside of town, people look at me sideways, with that look of, “Oh, sure.” This evening driving back into town, Jodie and I were greeted by three majestic bulls, sporting full velvet, and probably not yet fully grown racks. We have been getting rain almost daily for over a week, as the “monsoon” season has begun, and a normally dry desert is being transformed into a lush garden of tall grasses by the flash flooding caused by these thunderstorms. Wherever there is water, there is grass, and as a result, there are the large grazing animals. This bull really had a mouthful:

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As you can see, the new grasses are growing up to 3 feet in height, to the bottom of his belly.

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Around the next hill, a couple of more bull elk, The first one gracefully cleared the fence without breaking a sweat:

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The elk are not the only ones down from the mountains to gorge on the lush new tender grasses…a small group of mule deer up to their haunches in dinner:

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Spring Backpacking in New Mexico

When the spring temperatures in the Big Bend region start to hit the 90’s by mid-May, it’s time to start thinking about the mountains of New Mexico and southern Colorado. It’s almost spring weather up there, and well within a day’s drive of home. This year, I’m joining my good friend and backpacking partner, Joe, and his daughter and her fiance, for a 6-day backpack trip into the Pecos Wilderness of northern New Mexico. The Pecos Wilderness is within the boundaries of the Carson National Forest, and we access it through Las Vegas, NM. It’s about an 8 hour drive from my home in Marathon, TX. The trailhead has a campground and restroom facilities for last minute attention to detail, then we’re off:

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There’s still a lot of snow in the high country, and the runoff from the snow melt is at it’s peak, so stream crossings are not to be taken lightly:

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We make about 6 miles our first day, since we got a late start, around noon, and set up camp about 4:00 p.m. Immediately, Joe discovers we’re not alone:

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We always travel in bear country with bear-proof containers, and I’m trying out a new lighter, soft bear-proof container called an Ursack, so tonight could be its first test. Our bear has barely had time to move off into the woods, when a small band of elk makes its way out into the evening sun for a snack on the tender, young grass that is ushering forth into the spring sunshine:

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The going really gets tougher the second day out. We get above 11,000 feet in altitude, and hit the snow big time! We’re trying to move through a high basin to gain the pass at 12,000 feet, and the conifers up here are holding a late, heavy snowpack that we’ve got to push through. “Post-holing” through snow 4-5 feet deep is the order of the day, and Joe and Eric drop packs and break trail to make the way safer. Even with the trailbreaking, we find ourselves crashing through the snow under the burden of our packs. Fortunately, the only injuries are scrapes and bruises caused by the snow and ice on bare skin. 

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We finally break out of the snow onto the switchbacks that lead to the top of the Santa Barbara Pass, only to be stymied by more snow on the trail. So, it’s straight up through the rocks and scree and loose gravel left behind by this winter’s debris from the snow slides. The snow fields of North Truches Peak looms in the background:

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South Truches Peak on the left, and North Truches Peak on the right:

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At the end of a very long, wet, tiring day, our socks and boots adorn a spruce tree drying in the sun, like a Christmas tree surrounded with gifts. All that was needed was a star on top:

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The next day we planned as a rest day, a day of exploration and discovery, and we were not disappointed. Joe and I took a walk up on the pass, and almost immediately we were greeted by a herd of bighorn sheep, 7 altogether, which came out of the trees above us and followed a game trail right down the Santa Barbara Divide and around the flank of Chimayosos Peak. They came within 50 feet of us, very curious, but not threatened by our presence:

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More exploration revealed a small lake, partially frozen yet, at the base of North Truches Peak:

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The next morning we break camp and follow the trail across the Divide, staying above 12,000 feet altitude along the wind-swept divide that separates the northern Pecos Wilderness from the southern wilderness. Seen here, the Truches Peaks and Chimayosos Peak:

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We finally reach the high point of our route along the Divide, at 12,650 feet, and take shelter behind a rock windbreak, built for protection from the prevailing 60+ mph winds that rake this knob:

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After a hike of 6 miles along the rolling Divide, we drop down into the basin of the headwaters of the East Fork of the Santa Barbara River to make camp, and we are treated to a fantastic sunset:

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The sunset is followed by a wonderful star show. At first, the eerie glow of a setting moon gives way to a light show of first magnitude featuring the Milky Way. An unexpected visit by the International Space Station (ISS) was the icing on the cake. 

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The Divide is a windy and barren place, but the views are spectacular. We were visited once again by a small herd of bighorn sheep:

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They were curious, but not afraid. They came withing 40-50 feet of us as they made their way along well-established game trails, unaffected by the 50-mph winds:

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One of the most disturbing encounters of my backpacking timeline occurred as we trekked across the top of the Divide. We came upon a collection of backpacking items that appeared to have been the remnants of a backpacker’s belongings: a small backpack, jeans, shirts, a makeup case, deodorant, sneakers, a multi-tool, and some other hardware. The scene appeared to have been in place since last fall, as the material appeared to have been under the snow all winter. A search of the area convinced me that this had been a pack dragged here by an animal and chewed on, then left, I felt like this was an unfortunate loss of items to wildlife and not a scene of tragedy. We took photos and left the items intact as we had found them:

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A final look across the top of the Santa Barbara Divide, back toward the Truches Peaks and Chimayosas Peak:

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This is our camp among the aspen trees, our last night, surrounded by dandelions and wild iris:

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The 7 mile hike to the trailhead ends where it all started:

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