Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Chihuahuan Desert: Some Photos, Part 1

Some preliminary photos from the last ten days in west Texas. 

 Pinnacles Trail, the premiere backpacking excursion in Big Bend National Park. We hiked the Outer Mountain Loop, a 32 mile loop that circumnavigates the Chisos Mountains. 

 Stunning "fall" colors in December in the Chisos Mountains.

More Chisos leaves and rock. 

Gretchen after summiting Emery Peak (7825 feet). The highest point in Big Bend Nat'l Park. 

Looking south west from Emery Peak.

 The Outer Mountain Loop leaves the upper elevations of the Chisos Mountains 
and meanders across its foothills through scrubby desert 
and up dry creek beds called washes or arroyos.

Nearing the end of the Outer Mountain Loop, Gretchen ascends one of 
many switchbacks on the upper slopes of the Chisos on the Blue Creek Canyon Trail 
before descending into "the basin" where our car is parked. 
A 32-mile loop that took three days.

 Gretchen looks at the Rio Grande and sees Mexico just beyond. 
This sandy shore was part of the Marufa Vega Trail.

Desert Marigolds 

Marufa Vega Trail

Marufa Vega Trail

Looking out on the lower desert from a sandstone "hoodoo" in the Grapevine Hills 
in the northern portions of Big Bend Nat'l Park.

The only skies that can compare to Big Bend were those I saw during my 15 months in Iraq. About half our nights have been completely cloudless and looked a little like this, 
the milky way running diagonal across the frame. 

Desert Poppy 

Mesa de Anguilo Trail 

Sunset from our campsite on "the mesa." 

Gretchen took this photo of ocotillo and sunrise up on "the mesa."

Gretchen took this photo of a very fuzzy barrel cactus (I guess she took the photos of me too, but I didn't give her photo credits on those, figured it was self explanatory.)

The rock wall on the left is Mexico. I'm taking this photo from the shore of the Rio Grande in the USA. 
The gap in the two rock walls is the exit of the Santa Elana Canyon. 

Sunrise from our final backcountry car camping site, Ocotillo Grove. We spent three nights in these drive up sites, what they call backcountry car camping. Our other nights were backpacking. 

 The Chinati Hot Springs. This was not in the Terlingua, Big Bend area. This was thirty some miles up the highway from Presidio, Texas, and then seven miles up a gravel road into the Chinati Mountains. The caretaker told us the water was coming out of the spring at 109F 
and the water in the soaking pool was 101F. I would argue it was less than 101F. 
We weren't left with that internally warm, radiating heat feeling.

Hot springs in the national park near Rio Grande Village. 
The springs filled what looked like an old stone foundation of a house, right on the banks of the river. 
These springs were reported to be about 105F. 
We've been here twice already and plan to visit a few more times. 
While soaking several wild horses appeared out of the brush and drank from the river on the far shore. Feral livestock are common and frequently swim the river and 
can be found grazing the open range around the national park.  

Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Marufa Vega

As I laced my shoes--with on foot propped on the tire of our rental car, a silver sedan with Texas tags--a park ranger passed then turned around and pulled into the trailhead parking lot. It wasn't even 8am. We'd woken before sunset and packed up camp by the light of our headlamps and now a sliver of dawn grew in the east and the desert was still cold. I wore pants and a fleece sweater. The warmest clothes I brought on our winter vacation to Big Bend. The car's thermometer read 37F as we drove away from the campground.

The ranger was the real deal--the law enforcement kind, not a naturalist. He wore green and tan fatigues, cargo pants, a bullet proof vest beneath his blouse made him look swollen, like he worked out a lot. 

"You hiking Marufa Vega?" he asked. "People have died on this trail."

"Good morning, sir," I said.

"Morning." He stuck his thumbs into the waist of his pants, his fingers dangling over the rim of a thick black tactical belt adorned with pepper spray, handcuffs, collapsible baton and a pistol. "I just wanted to warn you about this trail."

His skin was dark olive, tanned over many seasons. I imagined spanish rolling off his tongue easier than the English we spoke.

"Okay," I said.

"Don't know your stamina or hiking ability. . . "

I'd walked from the car to meet him in the center of the parking lot, the sun rising over my right shoulder. I still wore my prescription sunglasses, but the ranger pushed his Oakleys up above his brow and squinted into the sunrise at me. I glanced over at Gretchen; she waited by our car.

"It's true, people have died out here on THIS trail," he said, again. "Even people from Colorado couldn't make it on this trail."

"Okay," I said, again.

"Well, I just like warning people when I see cars in this lot." He went on to describe how hot it gets on Marufa Vega and how there's no water--like everywhere else in the desert--and how people don't realize how far into the canyon the trail goes and how long it could take and that the trail isn't marked very well and people don't pay attention to the markers or cairns and the climb back out of the canyon is steep.

"Thanks," I said, assuring nothing else. 

"Okay, well, just want to make sure you're prepared for the roughness." He returned to his truck and left faster than he came heading towards the tourist border crossing at Boquillas, near Rio Grande Village. 

I've never thought of myself as badass; I would never want someone to assume just by looking at me that I could do all the things I've done. The ranger was doing his job but this trail had been recommended to us by a naturalist at the visitor center four days before. She assured us it would be a better day hike than overnight trip. We started early and the fifteen miles felt totally doable in a day. 

After hiking a little way, following an arroyo for at least the first mile, the temperature warmed into the mid-40's. The trail climbed out of the dry creek bed and over a cut bank, a series of Z-shaped switchbacks visible zagging towards a saddle on the ridge above. 

We stopped after the first couple switchbacks and striped away our thicker layers, stuffing mittens, beanie caps, and fleeces into our packs with the day's lunch and water supply. 

Atop the saddle what looked to be a ridge was actually a mesa and we crossed the plateau of open country. The trail meandered into shallow canyons until eventually opening up at a vista that overlooks several miles of Boquillas Canyon. We saw Mexico there, though from this point the Rio Grande was tucked into the folds of earth and rock and we only saw water at a bend in the river. 

When the trail drops quickly down into a finger of the canyon I see why the ranger was concerned. This trail could be called treacherous, strenuous, and probably ranks as one of the hardest in the national park. Some sections were steep and nearly all of the footing was loose. Cactus grew close to the trail. In a few places we used our hands for balance, slowly stepping down. 

By noon, nearly to the river, the sun appeared directly overhead and I guesstimated the temperature into the mid-70's. The canyon turned and cast a section of the trail in shadow. We stopped here for food and water, each pulling out a pack of savory snacks saved from our airline flight the week before. 

Eventually the trail reached the Rio Grande, but not before we found a collection of bones scattered in the final reaches of a side canyon. "Way too big to be human," Gretchen said. 

This was the closest we'd been to the river. Surprised at the closeness of Mexico, I collected several rocks and hurled them over the border. My arm was weak but they easily reached the foreign land.

We ate our sandwiches in the shade of the biggest tree then looked for signs marking the return trail. The north fork of the canyon was steeper. It was dry but I imagine dozens of cascading waterfalls dropping through the ravine in a wetter season of a different climate. 

The trail could be described as a lollipop, meaning, one section of out-and-back that leads to a loop. On the return the sun hung low ahead and we walked across the open plateau with it shining in our faces. A breeze cooled the heat that radiated off the desert floor. The gravely soil was like kitty litter and crunched under our trail shoes. 

Nearing the end of the hike I wondered how many other people the ranger warned that day. We didn't see anyone else out there until about a 1/2 mile from the parking lot. 

Open vista before dropping into a side canyon 

Gretchen finds a tarantula 
Tarantula missing most of its body

Where the stick of the lollipop becomes the candy

"Dry bones way too big to be human."

Down by the river

The Rio Grande