Walking to the Bottom of the Bend. Explorations of the eastern Sierra Quemada, down to Mariscal Mountain and back
Dec. 8th-13th, 2011
67 miles walked, 63 with pack, 4+ without
Gear List My lightest load ever!
There are a few areas of the park that I have never been to and on top of the list was Mariscal Mountain, the southern most extent of the Rocky mountains in the U.S. and the very bottom of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. The problem is how to get there? Because we always fly in and have to rent a vehicle, that will just sit for a week while we walk, I never want to pay an extra $200 for an SUV just to get into someplace. I kept looking at where we could park a passenger car and still walk to Mariscal Mountain. Several options were possible but the best was if we could get down to the junction of the Glenn Springs and Juniper canyon roads. It would allow for the best combination of mileage, water and pack carry weights. The second choice would be to park at the Mule Ears overlook but that would add at least 10 miles to the loop and make for some uncomfortable pack weights on some days.
I was going to do this trip next winter but with the drought and it’s forecast for possibly continuing for several years I decided I had best get it done while there was at least some water in the Sierra Quemada (2011 was the driest year ever recorded with just 2.53″ of rain). While this trip was more than three years in the planning I did have some very recent water and road condition reports from BigBendChat that gave me the confidence we could pull it off.
On short notice my two cohorts from the across the park hikes were not available so I brought yet another person to the park who had never been there before. Even crazier, I had never hiked with Mark but knew him from other common pursuits. This was to be a hard trip but he has hiked extensively in the Grand Canyon and climbed many of the highest peaks in North and South America and was interested in Big Bend. He said he wasn’t a complainer, I can now say, true dat.
We flew from North Carolina to San Antonio arriving about 1:00. Rental car and off to Good Sports for fuel canisters, some road food and we were on I-10 to Marathon by 2:30. The 80 mph speed limit makes it much faster than it used to be and we got to Marathon by 7:30. We stopped to order a pizza at Guzzi Pizza and went to check into the Marathon Motel while it cooked. We sorted and packed equipment over pizza and beers and then passed out. I still recommend the Marathon Motel even with the trains, but I slept through them with no trouble.
Trail Day One
Up early and at Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit at 6:30. Good coffee and sausage gravy biscuits and we are down the road to the park as a great sunrise greeted us.
We get to the visitor center at Panther Junction (PJ) at 9:00 and the young ranger gave us no trouble when we said we wanted to take a passenger car down the Glenn springs road, “just go slow” he said. Neither did he blink when filling out the permit but I did just give him the zones we wanted and didn’t elaborate on the route.
Fill up some water bottles and we are off. It is 7 miles down the Glenn Springs road to the Juniper Canyon road turn off and we did go slow, with only the deep gravelly sections near Chilicotal Mountain being a bit disconcerting. We arrive with no damage and there is a good place to pull off right at the junction.
We are on the trail by 10:30 with 27 pound packs including a week’s food and 3 quarts of water each, enough to get to water in Fresno canyon tonight. Temps in the 50’s and sunny, typical Big Bend weather.
Here is the full route map with each days route in a different color and the camps and springs marked. If you click on it, and then again and you will get the full size 7.5 minute topo.
The route took us south down the wash that becomes, what I refer to as, Holly spring canyon. Not bad walking until we come to a 40’ pour off but we can get down the slope on the right hand side.
We can begin to see the vast badlands to the west and the ramparts of the eastern Sierra Quemada.
We reach the bottom and begin to see bear tracks in the sand that is between very cool rock formations.
11:30 and 2.25 miles later we reach Holly spring which has several small clear pools, at least one you could dip water out of.
A break in the shade and we head out into the flats below the badlands and west of the Black Gap road. As we are cutting through some low hills we find about a dozen of these odd little rock structures all on one low bench above the wash. We later find out they are called chiquiteros and were used to shade newborn goats from the sun.
The next stop is Screwbean spring which is in a broad wash (part of Juniper Draw) and all we find is some damp, salt crusted sand.
On westerly towards a wash that will take us up through the badlands and past several springs on the way to Fresno canyon. This wash runs in a northwesterly direction past three springs and is NE of points 2929 and 3049.
We see the location of Shelf spring which is up on a shelf above the main wash with lots of vegetation but don’t climb up to look for water and see none below the shelf.
Soon we come to a pour off and decide it is a good time to stop for lunch before climbing around it. 6.2 miles so far and 1:00.
A nice long break and we make the easy climb around and start looking for Shrub and Yum springs but see no sign of either. At the intersection of the side wash that Yum spring was to be at we hung a left up that wash in a slight southwesterly direction. Soon the wash is choked with vegetation so we climb the south side up onto the ridge and into a recently burned area. Makes for much easier walking that is for sure.
We are now looking down into Fresno canyon and we make our way down into the wash right above the upper of the two pour off/amphitheaters in this section of the canyon. 8.6 miles to this point.
Now we start the fun walk up, the mostly rock bottomed, Fresno wash. After about a half an hour the palm tree shows itself, growing in a crack at a narrow turn of the canyon.
Not too far up canyon is Fresno spring and it’s lone cottonwood, all we find is two medium sized green pools with no flow. A bit worrying as this might be the best spring in the drainage.
After some more rock scrambling and a few dank pools
We begin to see several clear pools with water running between them. For at least a quarter mile there is running water from Estrecho spring. Parts of the canyon here are really a dark black shiny rock like that at Banta Shut-In. We fill up with water for tonight and the morning and begin to look for a campsite.
We find the first of two garter snakes we will see this trip, both dead.
Arriving at the junction of a large wash that comes in from the south, Elephant Tusk side, the canyon opens up and there is a nice soft gravel bar to sleep on. It is 5:30 and we have come 11.7 miles today, a good solid start to the trip. 66 degrees was the high for the day. We will be going up over the far saddle tomorrow.
The moon is nearly full and is up early so it feels like we are sleeping out on Main Street with all the street lights on. Clouds move through all night but not enough to dampen the moon. 36 degrees this morning but the sun hits the camp early.
This day was planned to be an exploration/easy day after the initial adrenaline filled days of travel and getting on the trail. We were a few miles ahead of schedule because I originally thought we might camp nearer to Fresno spring instead of further up canyon. It is apparent that in most years there is running water from above the Waterworks all the way down past Fresno spring but not so in this extreme drought year.
We leave camp and walk the quarter mile or so up to the bottom of what is known as the Waterworks but officially named by the NPS spring survey folks as Skip and Jump tinajas.
This slot, cut by the forces of water from the entire Fresno creek drainage, goes through what is probably a fault line. Going up canyon it first twists, in a slight S curve, left then right with about eight pools in succession.
I climbed up this section mostly on the right hand side without any trouble, finding good foot holds but the rock is slick so Mark stayed behind as his shoes were not gripping as well as mine. The lack of flowing water also made it much easier as well. None of the pools appear to be more than knee deep except the last one at the bottom.
After the right curve it then straightens out for a 100’ or so with a cottonwood tree and chock stone forming a flat section. This would be hard to get around without getting wet if there was water in the pool at the base.
It then takes a hard left up over a sloping drop with a pool at its lip. This was the trickiest to get around and I was able to find enough foot and hand holds on the left to get up and slid down it on the way back, landing in the gravel at the base of the slope.
Several more pools above this and you are at the top and the wash widens out again.
I walked on up nearly a half mile to the big walnut(?) tree and past where Hop spring should have been, no sign of recent water flow. The top of Tortuga Mountain is prominent.
Turning around I considered going over the top on a ridge to the right hand side, going down canyon, but could not effectively communicate that to Mark so descended back through the waterworks and we strolled back to camp. We thought about what it would look like with a flood blasting out of the slot and into the canyon below, it has certainly scoured out everything.
We decide to move camp a few miles over to at least the ET drainage instead of hanging around in the same place all day. So we fill up with 6 quarts of water each, enough to get us to Dominguez spring tomorrow afternoon, from a clear tinaja just up canyon from camp. This would be the heaviest packs of the trip at 32-33#.
On the trail by 10:30 we climb up the drainage to the south, to the divide between points 4233 and 4206. This is looking back towards Fresno canyon. The entrance to the waterworks is just up stream from the steep sided section just above Mark.
And this is looking down towards the ET drainage with the two peaks of Dominguez Mountain on the horizon.
A little over a mile to make the climb over the top and down to the ET drainage and the ET “trail”. We drop packs and walk up to check on Elephant spring where we find some damp sand and a very tiny bit of visible water next to the canyon wall.
On down to Elf spring and just above it, the wash cuts through a narrow slot. No sign of water at the spring.
We get to the intersection of the wash that leads SW up to the divide on the NW shoulder of Elephant Tusk and drop packs in the shade. On down canyon to Elegant spring and it’s big cottonwood. There is evidence of a recent camper and a tiny flow of water with one hole dug out enough to dip water out of.
We go on down canyon, on and on, past multiple walk down drops until we finally reach the chockstone suspended above a drop into what is frequently a pool of water.
Having gone far enough we return the mile or so back up to our packs and settle in for a long lunch.
While the gravel here would make a nice camp we decide to move on up to the divide and see if we can find a nice campsite. Pretty easy walk to the top without too much dangerous vegetation. From the top looking back down toward ET drainage.
No campsite right on top but we find a nice one not too far down the other side on the low saddle in the center right.
4:30 and the end of what would be our warmest day at 69 degrees. Only 3 miles with packs but another 4 plus without.
I walk up to the top of the small rise in front of camp in hopes of some good afternoon sun pictures of Backbone Ridge and surroundings. Not great but good views all the same.
A weak sunset over the shoulder of Dominguez Mountain.
Again the clouds moved in and out all night over the full moon
Bright enough at times to see ET like it was daytime
When we wake up it is totally clouded over and 36 degrees. It doesn’t seem like it will rain but it sure is a downer.
On the trail by 9:00 and we quickly are down into the main wash that runs between Backbone Ridge and Dominguez Mountain. We considered dropping packs and walking up to see if Double spring was running but the day is so gray we decide to keep moving down canyon.
Tusk spring is not too far down wash and just has some damp sand. Several walk down drops later we come to Steps spring which is running for several hundred feet and has lots of bear and mountain lion sign including deer parts lying around under some bushes where the lions have been noshing on them.
We come to the side drainage that climbs up towards Dominguez peak and its pass. I was last here with Stewart in 1998 when base camping at Dominguez spring and we day hiked up from the other side, over the pass between the two Dominguez peaks, down this wash and returned by going back around the south side of the mountain. These next few miles will be the only “old” territory we will walk on this trip.
This wash is steeper and filled with larger boulders than the west side, some the size of pickup trucks which required quite a bit of climbing to work around.
There was also an amazing amount of bear scat in the flats between the big boulders too!
We scramble up the last part topping out at 11:30, just north of point 4226, which on the map shows some green wooded area, maybe back in the day but no trees or even big bushes there now. It is cool, around 50 degrees and still very overcast. We take a break before we head over the divide in the middle of the picture.
The views back towards ET are as good as I remembered except the South Rim was now in the clouds.
The drainage down the other side is much more gradual and the boulders much smaller and easier to walk down. We have a good view of the back of the Punta de la Sierra and the basin that Dominguez spring is in.
About half way down to the bottom my foot slips off of a boulder as I am stepping down and I drop straight down about three feet. My butt bounces off of the boulder, throwing me forward into some brush (fortunately non-thorny). The wind kind of knocked out of me, I struggle to get up. Mark says don’t move you are bleeding and indeed I am from above my ear.
I finally get myself upright, pack off and sit down for a few minutes to regain my senses. The cut must have been from a stick and the bleeding stops with some light pressure. We head on down towards Dominguez spring and everything is fine except my backside is really sore!
We get to the old ranch house ruins at the spring about 1:30
I put my hat on and my head starts to bleed again so we sit down to diagnose the situation. Mark trims the hair away from around the cut and determines that it is just a gouge and doesn’t need stitches. We put a square of gauze on it and hold it down with a clean bandana, bleeding stopped. This is definitely the worst accident I have ever had in the backcountry.
The patient taken care of we go and look for water. Dominguez spring is flowing nicely over some rocks and into clear pools not too far above the old dam. We filter the floaters and other detritus out, of 5 quarts each, through a bandana and then treat it with chemicals.
We had planned to camp here but as we are ahead of schedule, the weather is so crappy and we have a really long day tomorrow we decide to have lunch instead and then drop down out of the mountains and knock some miles off before dark.
3:00 we start down the Dominguez wash/trail to just below the last hill that separates it from the Backbone wash and we begin to cut over towards it and continue across the alluvial fans in a southeasterly direction. By 5:30 we have covered 5 more miles and are looking for a campsite out of the wind that is blowing up wash.
We find a good place behind a small hill and settle in for the night. 11 miles today, the temperature barely got into the 50’s and we hope it won’t rain because all we have is our ground sheets to hide under if it does.
Click on 2 below for the next 3 days