December 15-21, 2008
74 miles walked, 65 with pack, 9 without pack
Well the connection has been made. After obsessing over finishing the across the park hike, begun in 2004, I finally made it back to do the western half, the Lajitas to the Basin segment. Scott, who made the eastern half walk, could not make it this time so I brought yet another person to Big Bend who had never been there before, Lee.
This was to be a harder trip than the eastern half due to the terrain, the lack of water or information about water and the amount of off trail work to be done. I am still old school and don’t use a GPS so my estimate is 74 miles walked, 65 with pack, 9 without pack. With all the zigzagging around in washes and around creosote bush and lechuguilla it certainly was more (or felt like it). Only about 18 miles of that on marked/established trails. All in seven of the shortest days of the year.
This is the full route:
We also called it the springs tour as we were going to try and hit every spring west of RMSD (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive) plus some east of it. In the end out of 22 tinajas and springs we planned to check out we actually saw 15 and a tinaja we didn’t expect. We headed in without any water reports for the part west of the RMSD and ended up carrying more water than we needed just to be safe.
It is a long way from North Carolina and I left the farm at 5:00 am and flew into San Antonio, via Memphis, by 11:00. My checked bag with most of the equipment and food arrived too, sigh of relief. Lee arrived an hour late but with all his stuff as well. Pick up the rental car and off to get fuel canisters, water for the caches and a few last minute food items, eat some very late lunch and finally on I-10 west to Marathon by 3:00. It is 8:30 by the time we make it to the Marathon Motel (highly recommended) where we sort and pack equipment and pass out.
Day one, Dec. 15th:
Was very busy just to get on the trail. On the road to the park by 6:15 and we arrive at Panther Junction (PJ) fifteen minutes before the visitor center opens to a magnificent sunrise.
First at the desk for a permit we had a very new ranger who took forever to get it all written down without ever really registering what it was we were planning to do. 8:20 we head the 54 miles down the RMSD to Terlingua Abajo (TA) to drop a food and water cache, then back up to drop water near Trap Mtn. and at the Homer Wilson box. 11:05 we arrive in the Basin where Far Flung Adventures is to meet us to shuttle us to the Mesa de Anguila (MDA) at 11:30. Cutting it close! Just enough time to fill our water bottles, 11 qts. each, call the girls and finish packing. John from Far Flung arrives at 11:20 and we are off at 11:30. He/they are concerned we aren’t fully aware we can’t get down off the MDA, I assure them we know people who have and if we can’t do it then we will just turn around and head out.
12:30 and we are at the trail head, staring at the Saddle and our shuttle drives off. The great adventure begins. We are carrying 40 pound packs with nearly 23# of water and enough food to get us to our cache the third day at Terlingua Abajo.
The climb up the Saddle is steep but not too long or horrible and by 1:30 we are resting at the top taking in the views of Mexico. It will be the last time we see the Rio Grande until we are standing at the point over looking Santa Elena canyon.
Out over the mesa, through washes and up the ridges between them towards Mariposa. It is in the 70’s but with almost no breeze and mostly clear. The gap in the ridge behind Lee is the Saddle.
We arrive at the tinaja Rana drainage and take a long break checking, from the top, for water all the way out to the edge overlooking the lower mesa. There are a number of holes with water. We head on over to tinaja Blanca and find the same situation. We look at each other, thinking about dumping out 10-12 pounds of water, pretty sure that there will be water in Bruja canyon tomorrow. Sure would make the up coming cross country section easier. In the end we decide not to, having never been up on the MDA, the other side could be totally different.
5:00 we head off trail past the edge of Canyon Flag towards the point over Santa Elena.
We actually find a pretty good trail with a few cairns but mostly horse and burro hoof prints. We make much better time and get all the way out past the last hills and find a great campsite on the shale/clay flats east of pt. 3473 and near the first A in Anguila on the map. Just at dark with great views of the Chisos in the far distance. About 8 miles today.
Tired from the hectic day but glad the trip was finally underway. A good sunset, the first of many.
Day 1-3 route:
Day Two, Dec. 16th:
The moon had been full two days earlier and it was a clear and bright night out on the flats.
The tail of one of the many arctic fronts that had lashed the nation in the last few weeks brushed the Bend and we woke up to 24 degrees, no wind and a mostly clear sky. Little did we know that this would be the coolest and most comfortable day of the trip. What we did know was that with of our full days, and a shortage of daylight, we would have to get with it early each morning so we were up cooking almost before light and on the trail by 8:30 which would be our pattern for the entire trip.
Trip planning note: Big Bend is so far west in the time zone the sunrise and sunset times are much later than most people are used to. For this trip it was barely light enough to see at 6:45 and sunrise was not until 7:45. Sunset was just after 6:00 p.m., dark by about 6:30.
The moon over point 3719
The sun clearing the horizon right over the mouth of Santa Elena canyon, the Chisos Mtns. on the horizon (that’s where we are walking to).
The main trick to walking out to the mesa rim, efficiently, is to thread the sometimes confusing ridgeline that separates the washes that run SW towards the Rio Grand and the ones running NE towards Bruja canyon. The trail we were following petered out about half way to the rim but we managed to do a good job picking the right line and made good time despite the “baby head” rocks covering the ground.
We ended up hitting the rim just NW of pt. 3645 shortly after 10:00. You can see Canyon Flag, Mariposa and pt. 3719 far back on the right, where we started this morning.
We left our packs here and walked on out to the point overlooking the mouth of Santa Elena canyon. We had to work our way down and through a small side canyon on the way but it was basically walking the rim most of the way. We came across a huge cairn on the highest point at 3664 just before the tip itself.
To describe the views and the sheer air from the point is hard to do. It is a 360 degree view and spectacular. This pano hardly does it justice but the huge scale of it all is apparent (click on it to see the full size). Terlingua creek coming in on the left, the Chisos Mtns. in the center and the Rio Grande flowing along the base of the Sierra Ponce.
Here is a more death defying view from the point
It was clouding up and getting cool (in the 50’s) so we only stayed for a while after shooting copious pictures. Back to the packs shortly before noon and we decided to head on down towards Bruja canyon a ways before stopping for lunch, scaring up a mule deer on the way. Bruja begins to appear to the right
and soon we can see the saddle where we need to get to by dark (tinaja Grande is in the shadows on the left).
By 2:00 we are at the head of “the notch” of Bruja canyon where the washes flowing in from the NW and SE converge to start the tumultuous drop down to the desert. We dropped our packs and proceeded to climb, slip and wriggle our way down about a half a mile to the final big drops and pools which stopped us eventually. These narrow slot type canyons are always like Christmas, you never know what present is around the next corner.
This was a tricky move
The final pools and drops down to the desert below
There was some very cool water carving of the limestone
At 3:30 we are heading NW up the big wash that really feeds Bruja. Tinaja Grande is to our left, its location is obvious on the big wall but we must make time up to the top by the end of the day so we don’t go explore. We take the right fork climbing up the circuitous and ledgy wash NE of the tinaja Lujan drainage. Here we find another tinaja with water and some old candelilla wax processing equipment.
We finally top the saddle, around 5:30 and pop out onto the trail between Canyon Flag and Dam tinaja. We find a nice campsite and settle in for another good sunset and a well deserved rest. Only about 7 miles today with packs and another 4 or so without but the walking has been rough and challenging at times.
Day Three, Dec. 17th:
Much warmer this morning at 35 degrees and I hear owls calling in the very early morning hours. Up and cooking by 6:45 as we could have a long day getting down the face of the mesa and back around to Terlingua Abajo. The first rays of light come up over Bruja canyon and the tip of the MDA.
We quickly make it down to Dam tinaja which sits in a very narrow cleft and must be 40-50 high. Built of concrete, the ranchers really had to work to make this thing. Water was trickling into the silt behind the dam and disappearing. We take a break to check out the one of the 3 rock shelters that we can see.
The trail begins to curve back to the SE down the face of the mesa and it is very well cairned and easy to follow. At one point it moves back NW and we soon realize it is heading down to the park fence, a gate and the end of a dirt road that comes in from Lajitas way. Not what the map indicated. Oh well, we just curve around and head SE along the front of the mesa.
The goal is to work our way, SE along the base of the mesa, avoiding as much as possible, the tiring in and out of wash crossings that are inevitable as they run in the exact opposite direction, NE down from the mesa. We make it around to where the map indicated the trail came down and we do see some cairns on large boulders but no real sign of a trail. Just before noon we make it to the gap between the mesa and pt. 2662 (and Sierra Aguja).
From here on in it is easy wash walking, the hard part is past. It is getting hot, in the 80’s, I thought this was December. We find shade for lunch under a bush and relax knowing we are in for an easy afternoon.
We consider going up to check out the mouth of Bruja Canyon, below where we were yesterday, but opt for heading for Terlingua creek and our cache.
We round the set of hills that are between TA and Bruja canyon and the ruins of the old farming community begin to appear. Some of the graves have been recently decorated, probably during the recent Day of the Dead. As a farmer I think what a hard place to try and coax a crop from the ground.
We finally see Terlingua creek, 15-20 feet wide, six inches deep and shimmering cool in the hot sun. A view the farmers I am sure enjoyed too.
3:30 and we cross the creek, drop our packs and go to find our cache. A five gallon bucket with four days food, spare maps and some extra clothing. Along side it were 4 gallons of water and a fuel canister. It is right were we hid it under the shade of a mesquite tree. We carry it further out into the flats east of the creek and find some shade under some bushes to avoid the unseasonably hot sun until it dropped behind the MDA. Some one slipped a couple of Shiner Bock’s into the bucket too!
Separately each of us headed down to the creek to wash up a little, it is amazing how just washing your face makes it all better. It was so warm there were some pesky gnats flying around and a few mosquitoes. It was still in the 60’s after the sun went down and this was the only night we didn’t get an incredible sunset. We did sit and watch a mysterious light that would appear from time to time for an hour or two right at the point of the MDA at Santa Elena canyon where we had been just yesterday. Hmmm?
Day Four, Dec. 18th:
We awoke to another fine sunrise and the temperature had finally decided to drop to 37 degrees.
The packs were heavy once again but only around 34 pounds now with just 6 qts. of water and 3 ½ days food. Lee sherpa’d the now light cache bucket the short distance to where we crossed the Old Maverick Rd. where we hid it to reduce the amount of driving we would have to do to retrieve it after the trip.
We cut through the low hills that separate Terlingua creek from the Old Maverick Rd. and bee lined for another wash cutting through the hills NW of Willow Mtn. For the next four days every time we would turn around we would almost always see the familiar sight of the Y of the mouth of Santa Elena, reminding us off where we had come from.
The low divide over into the Alamo creek drainage gave us the first real view of the days work, getting to Bee Mtn., then the Chimneys at the base of Kit Mtn. As had been the case from the end of the first day, there stood the Chisos, with Emory standing high. I had a similar thought during the eastern half trip, that it was like the Wizard of Oz and we were headed towards the Emerald City.
To actually get to the wide gravely wash of Alamo Creek we had to find our way through the thick grass and deep cuts in the silt alluvium that had built up at the mouth of the side washes. At one point the main channel here was over my head and I worried that snakes were surely in the grass.
Finally we popped out into the super highway of the wash and were startled to find a power line, running to Castolon I assume. Shortly downstream where the hills constrict at the end of Willow Mtn. (Willow is one of the two tent shaped peaks) is where Gomez spring used to be, we searched around some and found no evidence of it.
Instead of going up the big wash that comes in just below where the spring is marked on the map we decided to go up the next one down which runs east of pts. 2511 and 2534. This would put us on a direct line with our next spring to check out, Pena and the Chimneys trail. It was getting hot again and the gnats returned in places. Once we popped out onto the big flats a small breeze would appear from time to time and chase them away. We could finally see the Chimneys in the distance.
We hit the Chimneys trail but east of the Pena spring so we walked back down to it so we could see if it was running, it was but slowly. It is in a small ravine and there was no evidence it was there until you are right on top of it. A break in the shade and then back on up towards the Chimneys.
Before we would get to the Chimneys and the end of the day we had to make a detour. We jumped off the Chimneys trail and dropped south into the big wash that runs around the north side of Bee Mtn. we then took a left up the wash that runs NE directly towards the Chimneys. Here was Bee spring and it was running nicely for some distance. As happens just above these springs the vegetation gets so thick you can’t stay in the wash. We climbed back up onto the flats and walked the wash rim all the way to the Chimneys looking for signs of Chimneys spring. Finally we see an old dam and signs that there used to be a spring, but no water now.
We are tired and climb up to a nice campsite just south of the lone south Chimney. Just enough daylight left to explore it, look at the rock shelters and petroglyphs and think about the people who used to frequent this place.
Back to camp and a well deserved rest and dinner. At least 12 miles today. It is really warm and a warm breeze blows down off the Chisos. The best sunset of the trip unfolded over 45 minutes, I took many pictures thinking this has to be the last great light. Finally we call it a night, still 69 degrees at 9:00!
Here’s the day 4 route map:
Day Five, Dec. 19th:
With nearly 13 hours of total darkness every night, lying in the sleeping bag gets old after a while. It makes getting up and getting on the trail easier especially when the low is only 44 degrees.
The original grand plan for today was to make a huge swing and try and catch all of the springs south of Burro Mesa on the way to Mule Ears. After days of cross country work and with a huge day looming tomorrow we decided to amend that plan and just day hike out to Red Ass spring and back and then head over to Mule Ears. That would eliminate the two springs NE of Red Ass, Tule, Burro and Wasp springs. The later three I can easily catch at another time and this route would require a huge amount of across wash walking which gets really old, really fast. The first rays of sun hit Bee Mtn. and the mouth of Santa Elena as we head out.
The roughly mile and a half to the springs was straight forward as you can see the giant cottonwood from the side of the Chimneys. In and out of 3 washes brings you to a huge spring area. It runs from a fairly large cottonwood on the eastern (up wash) end,
past the stone corral
to the old giant tree on the western end. With three to five actual seeps from the northern side of the wash there is a lot of vegetation stretched out along the rim of the wash and by the time the seeps all combine quite a bit of water in places. It is an unusual spring to me in that it really comes from the side of the wash nearer the rim than surfacing in the bottom over some harder rock layer.
The old cottonwood tree is listed as the National Champion Populus fremontii subspecies mesetae in 2005 it was remeasured and determined that it was actually 49 feet high, 84 feet crown spread, and 211 inch circumference (17.6 feet). It is in bad shape as you can see with a lot of its top broken out and shelf fungi growing on the trunk but it does grow right on top of the spring as water was visible underneath its roots just a few feet down wash.
Glad we made the side trip, we headed back to the packs and headed on east. Now if one was really doing an across the park hike you would hike out the Chimneys trail and up the Blue Creek wash and then either east across the Dodson or up Blue Creek canyon and over the mountains. I decided to add another day and throw a small detour in to Mule Ears spring.
We follow the washes up along the edge of Kit Mtn. to a divide where the RMSD drops down to the Blue Creek wash at the base of Goat Mtn.
We turn the corner and see the tips of the Mule Ears, the saddle we have to cross between Goat and Trap mountains and the road.
Into our fifth day and we still have not seen anyone else, would we make the road crossing without seeing a car? Down the steep embankment and the Blue Creek wash and we cross the road right where we had dropped some water and then quickly over the low hills and down into the wash leading up to the saddle. As we were headed up over the hills a truck drives by with tinted windows, our backs to him, we didn’t see anyone.
It is beginning to heat up again and we find some shade for lunch along the wash under some wildly eroded clays.
The wash walk to the saddle is one of the few that I have done where you are able to walk right to the top and never be forced out by vegetation, easy. On down the other side and into the wash for Trap spring. I know we are getting close to the Mule Ears spring trail and assume Trap spring is dry when we come to a double drop down/pour off at the head of the spring. A beautiful spring in this shallow (maybe 40 feet deep) and narrow canyon that runs for over a quarter mile. We look very carefully at the tracks in the wet sands and only see sign of javelina and some deer, no mountain lions, too bad.
We soon come to the Mule Ears spring trail and take a rest in the shade. Along comes two day hikers and our no-people streak is certainly over now. We head on up the trail towards the spring and pass two more day hikers coming out. The familiar view of the spring site at the mouth of the little canyon comes into sight.
We stop to fill up with water for tonight and tomorrow morning and yet another day hiker comes in. Five humans in 30 minutes after nearly 100 hours of no one but us. Oh well, the spring is running so well you can hear it from a distance! Several large pools with frogs and fish, it is soothing.
Our goal for the day is the grand overlook of the Smoky Creek plain and we make fast time over to it, pausing at the route we would take out the next morning. Looking up at the Chisos and the SW Rim, it will be a long day to get up there by tomorrow evening.
We get to where the trail drops down the escarpment and head west up the rim towards the Mule Ears and find a great campsite where 3200 is marked on the topo. An amazing view as always and the Mule Ears are casting their long shadows over the plain. This has to be one of the top ten campsites I have ever enjoyed!
Another great day, 7-8 miles today with packs, 3 more without. We sit and soak in the great views, again a fine sunset and another warm night. We know tomorrow is the big day, 13-14 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain. We sleep like babys.
Here is the route map for days 5 and 6:
Day Six, Dec. 20th:
Only 53 degrees as a low! Unbelievable in late December. This does not bode well for the highs for the day as we will be working hard on the climb to the SW rim.
We try to get out of camp early but only manage 8:20. This grand campsite is just too enjoyable to sprint away from with nearly 360 degree views.
Back west down the Mule Ears trail a short distance to the wash that heads north towards Goat Mtn. and shows on the topo map as the old connector trail from Smoky Creek to Mule Ears.
We topped the low divide and there crisply in front of us were our immediate and final goals for the day. On the left in the shadows was the wash/canyon that we would follow east of Goat Mtn. almost all the way to the Homer Wilson ranch house. In those shadows would be two more springs to examine. High in the middle right was the SW Rim where we had reserved SW3 for the night. Better keep moving.
Fairly quickly we are in the main wash, of the three to choose from, and as the canyon narrows there is evidence that water had been flowing not to long ago but it was still some distance to the double pour off where Mesa Bonita spring is. The lower level is a band of conglomerate that the spring drips off of, the upper level appears to be volcanic and much harder.
Cool in the shade, we rest for a bit before making the scramble/climb around it on the left side. We walk back down to the lip of the upper pour off where you can see the tips of the Mule Ears in the distance.
Not too far above the pour offs is Goat Mtn. spring marked by a short dam from the ranching days. It flows across the hard rock for maybe 100 yds. before disappearing.
The narrow canyon here has great rock layers some with many crystals and others a very dark purple. We come out into the upper parts of the drainage and the hills begin to get lower and the shade goes away. One more break in the last shade and we make the push towards Homer Wilson and our water cache.
The wash finally gets choked with vegetation and we climb up the ridge on the left, very near the top and there is Carousel Mtn. and the ranch house but still a mile away. We head out on a direct line over the undulating hills and washes but the grasses here are different with very sharp spiny seeds that go right through the socks. We stop in the wash that eventually goes east of Carousel Mtn., clean the socks and decide to take this wash up to the Dodson trail and avoid this vicious grass.
We hit the Dodson trail and know that our cross country work is all done for this trip. From here on in, the trails will seem like super highways compared to what we have walked that last six days. It is getting hot now and we make it to the shade of the ranch house porch at 12:30 for lunch. 77 degrees in the shade.
Amazingly we are there for an hour including going over to the cache box to retrieve our water (5 qts. each) and see no one. We force ourselves to pack up and march out into the heat for the long slog up Blue Creek. This is the third time over the years that I have walked up Blue Creek and it quickly comes to me what a pain in the @#$ it is. We reach the first shade behind the red rocks and the weather station on the side of my pack reads 93 degrees! I think that in reality the high for the day is more in the upper 80’s.
Slowly we climb until we make the cool of the live oaks in the canyon bottom. By 4:00 we are at the base of the big climb to Laguna Meadows and a miracle occurs as it clouds over a bit and the breeze picks up, making the last push more bearable.
It is still a long climb, switched back nicely at first and then more steep at the end. A 1000’ in a little over a mile, we reach the trail jct. about 5:30. A short rest but we want to get to SW3 for the sunset if possible. Quickly on around the head of Blue Creek canyon and past the Colima cutover trail. As we turn the corner and go east of pt. 7395 and away from the Rim, we see the last rays of the sun on Emory Peak.
We hurry now down the darkening trail towards the metal sign marking the entrance to SW3. At 6:10 we round the corner and climb the short trail and the sunset is at peak! We made it! 13-14 miles today and 4000’ of climbing.
Tired but happy with the day, we settle in for a big meal, enjoyed with the company of the small herd of Sierra del Carmen whitetails that must be permanent residents at SW3. As I fall asleep, I think the mountain lions must have it easy here as we hear the deer walking around the campsite all night.
Day seven, Dec. 21st, the Victory lap:
Welcome to winter as today is the winter solstice, 44 degrees at 7200’. The deer are still walking all around us as we eat breakfast.
Everyone had said that it could be really windy at this campsite but this night and morning it was very still. We chose the SW3 site as it is the only one that actually has a view from the rim. As we had our second hot drink out on the “front porch” of slab rocks, a few feet from our sleeping bags, we indeed could see our entire trip laid out below us. It was a high overcast and the first rays of the sun nearly perfectly illuminated where we had been the last six days.
There was the MDA with the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, Canyon Flag and pt. 3719, Bruja canyon and in the shadows the end near Dam tinaja where we had descended. Sierra Aguja stood out clearly and there were the hills around Terlingua Abajo. Willow Mtn. and further up, the Chimneys coming out of the shadow of Kit Mtn. standing clear on the broad alluvial flats.
We turn our heads just a bit east and you can see the Mule Ears and part of the route up past Goat Mtn., hard to imagine we were down there yesterday morning.
We lingered a bit later in camp as we had a short day today but it would be a good one. The packs now only weighed about 16 pounds so it would be a leisurely stroll around the Rims and down to the Basin. My pack and T-shirt were encrusted with salt from the previous hot days but today would be pleasant.
We finally headed off and got to the top of the south rim about 10:00 and ran into our first people since Mule Ears spring two days ago. Amazing that, with the exception of the 30 minutes near the spring, we had gone nearly six full days and not seen a soul. They took our picture standing on the edge.
On around the SE Rim and all the way down to the NE4 campsite (empty) and out to the very point. I had hoped to be able to see the route of my eastern half trip from Boquillas to the Basin but Crown Mtn. blocked most of that view. Great view all the same.
Along the NE rim and down into Boot canyon, good water in all the pools but none from the pipe at the spring itself. The classic view of the Boot as we cruise around the shoulder of Emory Peak.
We reach the side trail to Emory peak and there is a large group eating lunch, just having come down. Up to this point we had only seen two other groups. We stash the packs and head up the trail and the clouds begin to move off. Up to the top and there are quite a few people up there. We climb up and quietly eat our lunch while taking in the views of the park, especially where we had been all week.
It was time to finish up and we wasted no time rolling down to the packs and on down the Pinnacles trail to the Basin, taking one break along the way. Back to the car by 3:00, the trip was done. 9.3 miles with packs and 2 more without today. We procured a few celebratory beers and headed down to PJ to turn in our permit and get gas ($2.00/gal.). A very pleasant rangeress took our permit and wrote down our spring reports on a scrap of cash register tape.
We had heard that a major weather change was coming in today and by the time we got down to PJ the wind was kicking and the temps dropping fast. We still had to drive all the way down to TA to retrieve our cache bucket and empty water container at Homer Wilson. The incoming front had blown the air clean and the late afternoon light was beautiful. We got one last good look at point over Santa Elena as the sun was setting behind it.
When we stopped at Homer Wilson to get our empty water container it was already gone, thank you park staff! Off to Study Butte and the Chisos Mining Co. motel and a much needed hot shower! Much refreshed (and less gamey) we headed on over to La Kiva for a great chicken fried steak and maybe too many beers.
The next morning when we walked outside we were greeted with this view of the Chisos. Wow, glad we got off the mountain yesterday, maybe all the hot clear weather wasn’t so bad after all.
Great breakfast at Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe, in the new heated bus/room as it was cold and windy outside. Back to the room to pack up and begin the long trek to San Antonio. We made a stop at PJ to pick up a few books and some maps for the next adventure. On the way the light got wilder and wilder over the Chisos.
Lunch in Fort Stockton and on into SA by 5:00 (forgot about how bad the traffic is in SA). A quiet night in the motel, up early to return the rental car at 5:30 to make 6:30 flights. Home to the farm by 3:00. Wow had this past week just happened? What a great trip, hiking partner, trip planning and logistics. It couldn’t have gone better (maybe 15 degrees cooler) and now there must be another trip.