Big Bend N.P. XIII (Arroyo Venado loop), 2/17

The Arroyo Venado Loop to Gregorio Marufo’s Vega and Beyond, the Final Frontier

Feb. 6th-10th, 2017

60 miles walked, 48.5 with pack, 11.5 without

Like most of these trips this one has been rumbling around in my head for some years now.  I guess the seed germinated in 2006 with a Big Bend Chat member’s inquiry and subsequent trip into the upper reaches of Arroyo Venado (AV).  It sat for a few years and then was encouraged to grow a bit with a 2011 discovery of an extension of the Marufo Vega (MV) trail down river from the North fork to what seemed to be the site of Gregorio Marufo’s vega.  In 2013 the seedling had another growth spurt when another member proposed a route along the river from Marufo Vega trail and on up to Telephone canyon via Cow Canyon, which he never attempted.

After our 2014 Down the Eastern Side trip, that was rearranged due to unusually cold weather and forced us to miss Ernst Basin and Tinaja it burst into full bloom as the “Arroyo Venado loop”.  Plan A was to start at the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead take the MV trail down the North fork to the river.  Bushwhack down river to Arroyo Venado, if we could get past the cliff bands along the river.  Explore AV up and back then take the cross country route north to mid Cow Canyon then all the way to Telephone canyon.  Follow Telephone canyon back west to the upper Ernst Basin trail, following it south all the way to and past the Ore Terminal back to the car, descending Ernst Tinaja canyon along the way to get water.  See the map link below.

Of course the added level of difficulty is that the only known water in that part of the park are the Rio Grande and Ernst Tinaja and it is about 27 miles of hard walking between the two, via Cow Canyon, unless you are there right after a rain and can find some pothole water.

This would be the final frontier, no one had ever reported going down river from MV trail to Arroyo Venado much less up it or over to Cow Canyon.  The Arroyo Venado zone is the least visited in the park and holds the most remote place.  For the three and a half years preceding Dec. 2016 there had been one permit written for 1 person for one night!  For some crazy reason two different groups went into the AV zone and back from Marufo Vega during the week around Christmas and New Year’s adding 5 more people and 12 people nights (5 nights total).

My compatriots from the 2014 trip were on board for a February 2017 attempt but during the Holidays they both had to bail due to unforeseen work complications.  I understood but now at age 60, I don’t know how many more years I will be able to do this kind of arduous trip.  On the off chance that he could get away I contacted Robert (from BBC who I had a great trip with last year) to see if he was interested and he was for even the same week we had originally planned!  He wanted to see if his long time hiking partner Mitch wanted to go and I said sure.

With Robert’s truck we could now consider my more elegant Plan B that would start the counter-clockwise loop at the western end of the Telephone canyon trail at the TC2 campsite, 14 miles down the rough Old Ore road (OOR).  This would allow for slightly lighter packs because it would split the waterless stretches up, along with a food cache to be picked up on the second day.  Here is a Caltopo map of the route with mileages and other important points.

Plans were made, plane tickets bought and motel rooms booked and then two weeks before we were to go Robert let me know that he might have a stress fracture in his lower leg.  We waited for a doctor’s appointment and X-rays that fortunately showed nothing, he started light training again and seemed to be fine.  The trip that had tried to die a thousand deaths was back on again!

I flew into San Antonio late on Saturday the 4th and Robert picked me up the next morning at the motel at 6:00 am for the drive to the park.  We picked Mitch up in Junction and made Panther Junction visitor center by 1:00.  Quick through the permit process and the young seasonal ranger/volunteer didn’t blink when we told her the zones we would be camping in, clearly she had no understanding about that part of the park.

We headed down to the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead to drop a food cache at the Ore Terminal trail split.  Quickly back to the truck by 2:30 and there was a NPS ranger there.  They had received a report of three men on horseback with rifles where the MV trail forks and of three men (us) carrying water in.  We told him we had seen no one and had only carried bear canisters in for a food cache.  He asked to see our permit, which verified that we were indeed doing the loop we said.  He said OK and we headed to Terlingua.

We checked into the Chisos Mining Co. motel to pack and then off to the front porch for a beer and dinner at the Starlight.  Big crowd with the warm weather.  We made it over to La Kiva for the second half of the Superbowl which ended in disappointment as the yankee team won.

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Trail Day 1, Feb. 6.

We were not sure how long it would take to get to the trailhead and knew that the forecast was for warm weather and we wanted to get walking as early as possible.  6:00 we were driving towards the OOR which took an hour and then the slow, rugged 14 mile drive to TC2 took another hour and a half.  The best sunrise of the trip happened on the way.

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We also got to check out Carlota Tinaja which was holding lots of good water which we took as a good sign.

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Big Bend N.P. XII (Southwest Sierra Quemada Ramble), 1/16

Dec. 30th-Jan.3rd, 2016

51 miles walked, 43 with pack, 8 as a day hike

A southwestern Sierra Quemada ramble, what does that mean?  How much area do the “burned mountains” actually cover?  Most of us just refer to everything below the South Rim as such.  Geologically it technically is maybe only the center peaks, north of Dominguez Mtn. and south of the Dodson trail, that are the ancient volcano.  On the east and south it is clear as Elephant Tusk, Backbone ridge and the Punta de la Sierra plunge to the flat desert.  On the west and south where do they end?  Goat Mountain and Mule Ears?  Triangulation Station Mountain and its long ridge?  Sierra de Chino?  They are all part of the larger Chisos Mountains and in many cases, related geologically there is an interesting discussion here.

In any case there is definitely an east side and a west side split nearly north/south by a watershed divide.  East the Juniper, Fresno, Backbone and Dominguez/Fisk drainages drop east and then south to the Rio Grande.  On the west side San Jacinto/Casitas Springs, Smoky Creek, Mule Ears and Blue Creek drainages move west and then south to the river.  The divide runs from the high point of the South Rim, over the high point of the Dodson, down the ridge west of Dominguez Spring to the high point of the Punta de la Sierra and hits the river near the top of the great loop close to Reed Camp.  A west to east line could be drawn that runs from the Mule Ears overlook to north of Elephant Tusk that breaks the area into northern and southern halves.  Most people only hike the northern half trails (Dodson, upper Smoky Creek and ET), few venture south of that line.

Here is a map, in CalTopo, that illustrates the divides it also shows our approximate route and important springs.

Having never really explored the area south and west including the Punta de la Sierra, Lower Smoky Creek below Mule Ears and Triangulation Station mountain and not having been up the canyon behind Smoky spring since 1989, I figured that a good loop could be made with a number of springs and ruins to check out too.

The Big Bend Chat (BBC) 10th anniversary gathering was being held the week between Christmas and New Years so I thought I could catch part of it and get a long walk in.  Due to the difficult holiday timing none of my usual cohorts could make those dates so I contacted Robert from BBC and not only was he planning to attend the gathering but was also interested in a similar exploration of the Quemada.  Plans were made.

The Monday after Christmas I flew into San Antonio super early (read brutally early departure from the farm) where Robert picked me up and by 10:00 a.m. we were on I-10 headed west.  Several stops on the way but into the Basin by 5:30.  There had been a major snow storm that hit the park on Saturday and Sunday leaving 3-5 inches of powdery snow even down low.  By the time we got there late on Monday most of it had melted down low but still several inches up high.  We could see the Rosillos covered with snow as we hit Persimmon Gap

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And even more as we climbed up into the Basin.

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We stopped by the BBC group campsite to check in and then went up to the Lodge to check into the room we got for the night to avoid camping in the snow and really cold temps.  We gathered at another BBC member’s room for chili and beers and to catch up.

Tuesday dawned beautifully clear and warming up.  Breakfast with the BBC folks and then the group split, headed to different day hikes.  Robert and I decided to go with RichardM to climb Casa Grande.

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Grand Gulch III, Kane to Collins 11/15

Nov. 9th-15th, 2015

42 miles with pack, lots of scrambling without

Grand Gulch, the place has held a special place in my memory bank since the last time I walked through it 38 years ago.  In the late 70’s relatively few people even knew about Cedar Mesa, its canyons and its myriad of Native American sites.  I did two trips back then, one at Thanksgiving 1976 and then quickly again the next spring.  We were of course amazed at the beauty of the canyons but also the number of ruins we found around every bend.

Cedar Mesa in the SE corner of Utah has many canyons with Grand Gulch the longest, cutting down the heart of the mesa on its way to the San Juan River. This area was occupied by Ancestral Puebloan Native Americans (more commonly known as the Anasazi) between 800 and 2,000 years ago. They grew primarily corn, beans, and squash, and made use of some wild foods as well. They made and used stone tools, pottery, and baskets. They pecked or painted rock art images on some cliff faces.

Those first two trips where just in the upper sections of Grand Gulch from Kane Gulch trailhead around to the head of Bullet Canyon, about 23 trail miles with a ~8 mile road walk/hitchhike to connect the loop, it is now the most popular area on Cedar Mesa.  I knew that we had walked by tons of archeaological sites that we never saw those first two trips and that there were many more further down canyon, so this time I again wanted to start at Kane Gulch but walk all the way down to below Collins canyon then back track and come out at the Collins Spring trailhead.  There are at least ten more miles of canyon below where we stopped but with very few sites between there and the river.  In total it is 51 miles from Kane Gulch trailhead to the San Juan River, here is a mileage chart.

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Thanks to the internet and some friends I was able to identify nearly 80 sites, both cliff dwellings and rock art panels in those 40 odd miles.  It is truly an outdoor museum.  I will follow the commonly accepted protocol of not revealing the exact locations of these sites (but many are known on maps already) as part of the adventure is to find them for yourself.  This was a perfect trip for Scott as he loves to walk in a canyon with some water and loves to find Native American sites.  I thought that only planning for 7 miles a day, with pack, would allow us plenty of time to look for and scramble up to sites, in the end, not so.  Logistical information to follow at the end of the report.

To me the perfect time to be in Southern Utah is late October but the earliest we could get away was the second week of November, sometimes sketchy weatherwise.  It did put us after the “high use season” when they limit the number of people who are allowed in overnight, a permit is still required but not a problem.  The other limiting factor can be water but that corner of Utah has had abundant rain this year and is, at least for now, out of the drought that has gripped the area for years so we had no worries about finding enough good water.

We flew into Albuquerque early, stopped at REI for gas canisters and some last minute items and then headed northwest stopping for a great New Mexican lunch at El Brunos in Cuba, Farmington for some groceries and then making it to Blanding for the night at 6:30.  Packing and a few beers before crashing.

Trail Day 1

Our shuttle, Dallin from Four Corners Adventures, arrived at the motel on time at 8:00 and we followed him out to the Collins Spring trailhead by 9:30 to leave our vehicle.  With all the rain this summer the 6.5 mile dirt road into the trailhead was in bad shape and it was good that we had rented a small, high clearance SUV.  As we were getting ready to leave a van load of young women from the Rocky Mountain Institute rolled in to start a 10 day trip (not going our way), they all were wearing tutus!  I told them because I was going ultralight I had left my tutu at home.  Certainly a first.

The 20 mile shuttle over to the Kane Gulch ranger station and trailhead took about an hour and we were on the trail by 11:00.  The ranger station closes for the season Oct. 31st so we didn’t have to watch the required video about how to behave around the archeological sites but we also couldn’t get up to date water reports.

Kane Gulch starts in a nondescript sage brush flat

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but fairly quickly begins to cut down into the Cedar Mesa sandstone.

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There are a few bigger drops mostly around pouroffs and there was water flowing all the way down to the junction with Grand Gulch itself.

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Black Mountains XVII (the Great loop), 5/15

May 24-26, 2015

~30 miles

I have never gone backpacking in May, ever.  But Bob was turning a significant number on the birthday odometer and I suggested we should go walking to mark the event.  He said OK but he wanted high elevation for views, waterfalls and no people.  It was Memorial Day weekend, no people is a tall order along with waterfalls at high elevation.  Only one place that could qualify, the Black Mountain range, once we get past Deep Gap we should see almost no one.

The weather forecast was perfect with cool temperatures and clear skies.  Even though I have walked all or parts of the Crest trail on eight different occasions it has never been totally clear and usually we were walking in the clouds.  This would be the ideal time to walk the “Great Loop” which starts with the 7 rugged miles of the Crest trail out to Celo Knob, 12 miles back along the west side and then 6 more miles along the east side.

Here a link to a map, if you right click on the route line and then “terrain statistics” you will get the elevation profile.  Each day is a different color but day one is in two parts.  In total we gained and lost about 13,500’!

We left on Sunday so that I could go to Saturday market but Stan and Bob were here at the farm right on schedule at 5:30.  Parking at the top of Mt. Mitchell we headed north on the Crest trail about 9:30, temps in the 50’s.  This would be the hardest day with lots of elevation gain and loss but it would afford us the best chance for views.

This trip was also a good lead into Stan’s trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to do the Presidential Range traverse.  We primed him all weekend so he could tell those Yankees that he had just walked the highest ridge in the east and that Mt. Washington only ranks #14.

Not quite as clear as we would have hoped for with the distant views fairly hazy but the close ridges very clear.  Bob and me on Mt. Craig looking south, Mt. Mitchell behind us and Clingman’s peak with the radio towers on it.

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AT/Torry Ridge loop, (Maupin Field to Humpback Rocks) 1/15

Jan. 1-3, 2015

32 miles

To break in 2015 Bob and I wanted to try a new area.  We had both, separately, tried to figure out a loop that included the AT with the famous Humpback Rocks and Torry Ridge and the area north of the St. Mary’s Wilderness.  Part of the problem was that the section of the AT past Humpback Rocks runs right along the Blue Ridge Parkway so the chance of lots of people was high.  A few days before the trip I checked the parkway website and they said it was closed through there so we decided to go for it and I found what looked to be some old forest roads that could connect a loop up.

This trip had all the features Bob loves- cold weather, hiking in snow, bushwacking, stream wading, frozen precipitation, rock fields, staying at a shelter, crowds of tourists, the chance to be shot by hunters, meth labs and pit bulls.

We parked at Reeds Gap at the Blue Ridge Parkway just as they re-opened the gates on New Years day, perfect!  No one will be out driving on a holiday, much.  Headed north on the AT with temperatures in the teens, a thin layer of snow on the ground and ice on the rock faces.

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Moving fast to stay warm the trail actually runs below the parkway with great views from several cliffs along the way.  You can see long Torry ridge in the middle, which we will walk tomorrow, and the far ridges are the north end of the St. Mary’s Wilderness.

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Down the Heart of Death Valley

Hottest (not this time of year), Driest (not this trip), Lowest (check that)

Dec. 3rd-9th, 2014

88 miles walked, 79 with pack, 9 without

“Death Valley!  Why?” was the standard reply when I told people that was where my next desert trip was going to be.  Fair question and, almost to a person, from folks who had never been there but had just heard or read about it.  Me too, I have walked a lot in the desert and traversed much more by car but had never been to this huge spread of the Basin and Range province and Mojave Desert.

Always in the back of my brain but sparked by this trip report that Bob found nearly ten years ago I slowly started doing research on possible trips in this massive park, the largest national park in the lower 48 states (3.4 million acres).  More thoughts and information on trip planning at the end of this report but two general logistical issues 1) there are very few water sources and essentially no natural water sources on the valley floors 2) much of the park is not accessible without a high clearance vehicle which makes dropping water in advance not very practical.

I decided that a walk down the valley, something like the trip report above, would give us a good introduction and maybe the quintessential DV experience but what does “walking down the valley” really mean?  Within the park, the valley stretches something like 175 miles from the head of Death Valley wash in the Last Chance range in the north to the Saddle Peak Hills in the south.  Only 108 off those miles are accessible from paved roads and the lower 33 of that are along a gravel road which I was not interested in walking down.  That left around 75 miles down most of the heart of the valley.

To make it more of a total picture of the park I wanted to include some time in one of the many canyons that drop out of the mountains on either side of the valley and Bighorn Gorge appeared to be the obvious choice for location and spectacular features.

The call went out and because of schedule conflicts only Mark was available for an early December trip.  He too had never been to DV but was very interested in its possibilities.  We had not walked together since the arduous 2011 Big Bend trip and this one loomed equally difficult, he was game.

One of the convenient parts of DV is that it is only two hours from Las Vegas so one should have an easy time getting there.  Dec. 2nd we left the farm at 4:00 a.m. for a 6:00 flight that would put us into LV at 8:30 Pacific time but after mechanical problems and exceedingly slow baggage claim we walked out of the airport 3 hours behind schedule.  The days are short this time of year and we had to hustle to get our caches dropped.

We knew that a storm system was moving in today and as we arrived at Furnace Creek at 2:00 the bulk of the precipitation had just moved through dropping almost a half an inch, more than one third the yearly total and the first rain since summer, and water was running across the roads everywhere.  We still had to drive 40 more miles up valley to drop a water and food cache and the flash flooding across the roads made travel very slow.  3:30 we pull over at milepost 23 on the Scotty’s Castle road, in a light rain we walk a mile down the alluvial fan to DV wash and drop 5 gallons of water and two days food.  As we climb back up to the car it is getting dark and too late to drop our 2nd food cache at the Visitor center at Stovepipe Wells.  We retreat to the Furnace Creek Ranch and get a room so we can sort and pack equipment in a dry and lit place instead of the campground.  Little did we know how much this moisture would tint the whole trip.

Dec. 3rd Trail Day One

Still on East coast time we were at breakfast at 6:00, finished packing and checked out by 7:30 for the 50 mile round trip to Stovepipe Wells (SPW) to drop more food.  Turns out the visitor center is irregularly manned so we went to the General Store where we were warmly greeted and they gladly took our bag and put it in the cooler.

Back to Furnace Creek visitor center for a permit and to continue the process of trying to find a ride up to the start at Ubehebe Crater.  The volunteers were somewhat skeptical of our plan but accepted it.  We tried at the restaurants, general store, gas station and reservation desk to find someone who wanted to make some extra money to shuttle us but no takers.  Not much traffic at the visitor center so we just went out on the highway and stuck out our thumbs.  Minutes later a wonderful couple picked us up who were headed to the Racetrack and could drop us at Ubehebe as they drove past.

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The Search for the Perfect Pack

For me, especially for the desert and the occasional heavier loads

This piece is as much about the decision making process, what I wanted in a pack, as to which pack I ended up with.  It took nearly a year to finally arrive at a decision.

The more than decade long descent from traditional loads to the edge of ultralight with lighter equipment and smaller volumes has been a good learning curve, particularly when it comes to the pack to carry it all in.  The only other piece of equipment that is as personal to the user in fit and use is shoes.  The three packs I have used during this time (#3-5)

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all have some good features that I really like but no one design or kinds of materials meets all my needs.  My main requirements in looking for a new pack were comfort/load carrying capability, durability (particularly for harsh desert conditions) and a few features that I find essential, all in a unit under 2 pounds.

My design needs: Continue reading

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