AT (Spivey’s Gap to Big Butt)/Sampson Mtn. Wilderness/Lower Higgins Creek, NC/TN

May 6-8, 2018

39 miles in 49 hours

Bob’s Last Expedition

I had heard from solid sources that Bob was thinking about selling all his gear and quitting backpacking so I suggested a death march for his last outing.  For probably 10 years we have been talking about trying to get into the Sampson Mountain Wilderness just SW of Erwin, TN but there is no easy way to do it and there are only a few trails mostly around the boundary.  Bob wanted to do a semi-loop starting at Big Bald on the AT, head south and jump off the AT at Big Butt and make our way towards the wilderness.

I called the shuttle folks and they said they were not allowed to drive to Big Bald because the road was private through the Wolf Laurel ski area, that meant we would have to start at Spivey’s Gap and it would add an additional 7 miles and 2300 foot climb to the route.  Hey it was a death march right?

Bob was punctual at 5:30 and we made record time to Erwin by a bit after 9:00 and we had to wait for our shuttle.  They had no idea what we wanted to do but we dropped the truck at the Lower Higgins Creek trail head and they drove us up to Spivey’s Gap by 11:00.  It was overcast but the forecast was for rain and then clearing in the afternoon.  As we trudged up the side of Big Bald we began passing one after another northbound thru hiker.  It began to rain seriously so we put on the rain gear, waiting as long as we could.  With temps in the 50’s we would get soaked either way.

We pulled into the Big Bald shelter for a late lunch at 2:00 hoping for some dry space but it was packed with at least 10 thru hikers doing the same thing and they were not being hospitable.  We carved out some butt space on the front edge of the shelter as more folks rolled in including a couple of pretty elderly section hikers, the thru hikers did not budge.  We finished fast and headed on up to the top of the Bald as we were getting a bit chilly too.

There would be no awesome view from 5500 feet on Big Bald for us, 30 mph winds and thick clouds, at least the rain had stopped!

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South Mountains State Park, 2/18

February 8 and 9, 2018

~20 miles

Bob and I have been trying to get to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Tennessee near Erwin but this was the only window in February that I had and the cold and rainy weather was not going to allow enough time to do it justice so we decided to just do an overnight somewhere closer.

For years we had driven by the South Mountains on the way to somewhere else and dismissed them as trivial hills but I looked closer at the park and realized that there were a lot of trails and quite a bit of steep country.  We decided to give it a try and Bob brilliantly invited David Swanson who had done the master plan for the park to come along, he jumped at the trip and gave us full insight into the park.

Barely a 3 hour drive we arrived at the visitor center at 8:30 and visited with the Park Superintendent that David had worked with before starting at the horse trailer parking lot and heading out on the Saddleback trail with temps in the 40’s.  Almost immediately we had to wade across Jacob Fork creek, it was cold and fast moving but we were able to use the big rocks, just barely submerged, to make our way across.

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Just across the creek we intersected with a side trail that David said came from the horse camping area and there was a bridge across the creek there, wished he had told us that earlier.

Our general plan was to gain the ridge and walk around the top of the watershed for Jacob Creek.  Most of the trails are on old forest roads with a few single track sections.  Our route is in red in the map below.  Here is the map at the State Park site. Continue reading

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Big Bend N.P. XIV (Mule Ears to Mariscal and back), 12/17

Dec. 9th-16th, 2017

82 miles with packs, 3 or 4 more exploring

All of my walks need to have a raison d’etre and this one was no different but this time we had several objectives.  First and foremost was for Scott to have a long walk to decompress after just stepping down from his stressful position as Executive Director for one of the most important sustainable ag non-profits in the country.  We had planned to go to Utah in November but neither of our schedules was going to allow that so I suggested a return to Big Bend and this time I promised him that I would take him to the most watered section of the park.  He had both walked across the Eastern Half of the park from Boquillas to the Basin and all the way down the Eastern side from Dog Canyon to Marufo Vega, neither trip had more than a handful of water sources (like less than the fingers on one hand) so he had no idea that there were actually places in the park with more water.

I also wanted to do an informal spring survey for most of the Sierra Quemadas, at least those water sources that would be along or close to our route which would turn out to be nearly 50.  After five years of near normal rainfall totals at the park headquarters at Panther Junction (PJ) and 5 out of 6 years near normal in the Chisos (2016 was considerably above normal) this would be a good snap shot of which springs really exist and flow with regularity.  My last trip into the heart of the Sierra Quemada was in the historic drought year of 2011 so this should be quite different.

I was also interested in exorcising some old ghosts from past trips, mistakes I had made from as long as 25 years ago and things I didn’t get to do because we had to change the plan mid trip due to unforeseen circumstances.  They will become apparent as the report goes along.

The exact timing of the walk was set to be able to help out a friend, Kelly, from Big Bend Chat who was doing an epic 24 day pack raft down the Rio Grande and then walk back across the park trip.  He was having trouble with how and where to leave his pack raft after he was back on land.  The NPS would let him cache food and water indefinitely but not leave his “personal property unattended” for more than 24 hours.  Our plan was to arrive at his cache a few hours after he made his drop, pick it up and take it to the Rio Grande Village (RGV) Store and leave it with some of the rest of his gear that they were holding for him.  The next day we would head into the backcountry and hopefully cross paths with him on our second night out.

Of course with a journey as long as his, things could go awry and we would have fixed dates to fly in and out so we added an extra day onto our total trip plan so we could have some flexibility in case he got behind.  He had been planning this trip for a year and was scheduled to drop his raft and gear around noon on Dec. 8th.  On Nov. 29th I got a short cryptic email message that only said “Safe at RGV, all good” so we knew that he was indeed not only there but a day ahead of schedule.

We flew into San Antonio on the 7th just as the Blizzard of 2017 was blowing in.  We were able to meet some friends for lunch and then stop and get gas canisters and a few more supplies before we headed west on US90 to Del Rio for the night.  Going through Uvalde the snow was really coming down but by the time we got to Del Rio it was all done.  San Antonio ended up having their biggest snowfall in 32 years with about 3 inches!

One of the non-backpacking objectives was to sample as much barbecue as we could along with the mandatory chicken fried steak and as many Mexican breakfasts as possible, as a former Texan (I did graduate high school in Houston after all) I have to refill the stores when I come back.  After a late lunch at The Barbecue Station in SA we stopped 3 hours later and loaded up with excellent ‘cue from Heavy’s in Hondo and took it with us to eat in the room in Del Rio.  It turned out to be the best all around ‘cue the whole trip and definitely deserved a spot in the Texas Monthly’s Top 50.

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The morning of the 8th dawned crystal clear and cool.  Great breakfast at Dona Elivra’s and we headed west.  I had not driven US90 since 1974 and thoroughly enjoyed it.  We made the compulsory stop at the Judge Roy Bean museum in Langtry

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and then for gas in Marathon.  The snow was quickly disappearing but it was evident that there had been at least 3 inches or more across most of the area.

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We rolled into the park about noon and stopped by the Fossil Bone exhibit and all the snow that had been in the lower desert areas was gone but the Chisos where still pretty white

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And the Dead Horse mountains too, I hoped that Kelly had gotten over the top before the weather hit.

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We made it to PJ at 1:00 and no one was in line when we went to get our permit.  We actually got one of the real, experienced, rangers not just a volunteer.  He said that they had gotten almost 5 inches of snow at PJ and a bit more in the Chisos and that the road to the Basin had just reopened.  As we progressed through the permit process I laid out the zones and nights and he quickly realized we were headed towards Mariscal Mtn. and asked what we were going to do about water and I said the Rio Grande at Talley.  He made a face and I said “I know I know but I have used the Rio many times now.”  He also commented that he had had to help some folks down there just recently who had gotten into trouble.  The last day showed we were going to go from Dominguez spring to Mule Ears trailhead in one day and he questioned that but I assured him I had done it several times before.  This was a much more informed ranger than the one we got in February before heading into the no man’s land of Arroyo Venado and far eastern Telephone canyon who acted like we were going to Mule Ears spring for the night.

Permit in hand we proceeded down the road towards Rio Grande Village looking for mile post 13.  Kelly had sent not only GPS coordinates but very detailed instructions as to where his cache would be.  About 2:00 we pulled off the road at the designated location and started to follow his directions.  I was hoping that his pack raft would be there because if not we would have to initiate a search and rescue for him, a process I did not want to have to do. Several hundred feet off the road we turn towards his hidden spot and he pops up from behind a bush surprising us.

He seemed happy and in good humor but says that his trip is over.  Two days ago in the snow in Ernst basin, he slipped with full pack on and re-aggravated an old knee injury and no amount of ibuprofen could dull the pain.  What a sad moment and end to what had been an amazing trip.  Fortunately for him we could take him to his car in Lajitas.

We manage to stuff his pack and bear canister into our small car and him in the back seat and head off to the Chisos Mining Co. motel so we can check in and he can get a room too.  On the way Kelly was treated to the remaining excellent barbecue from Heavy’s in Hondo, what a first meal after 17 days eating dried food.  While I ferry him over to Lajitas to get his car, Scott stays at the room to finish writing and file one more work report before he could really let go.  When he drove in from Lajitas, I met him in the driveway with a cold beer on his way to a hot shower.  We finished packing and then the three of us went to dinner at the Starlight where we became even better friends and Kelly regaled us with stories from his trip.

Here is the route in Caltopo for those following along. Continue reading

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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, nearly 7 miles as the crow flies from the nearest road.  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 from Marufo Vega (at least that is what it seemed like from the permits) 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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