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.  An east to west line could be drawn that runs from the Mule Ears to the Elephant Tusk trailhead 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


And even more as we climbed up into the Basin.


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.


The Lost Mine trail was icy and the unofficial side trail towards Casa Grande snowy.  Shortly into the side trail Richard slipped in the slick conditions and separated his shoulder.  He had been through this before but couldn’t get it to pop back in so we helped him slowly back down to the main trail and then on down to the cars with the help from a park volunteer and a ranger.

We then went down and helped him pack up his camping gear and drove with him down to the bottom of the Basin road.  He said he was fine to go on by himself to Terlingua EMS to check in with the medics there to see if they could pop it back in.  In the end he drove all the way to the Alpine hospital where they had to sedate him to get it pulled back into the socket.

After we made sure Richard was OK and on his way, we drove down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (RMSD) to the west end of the River Road and in a few miles to drop a cache of food and water (in bear canisters of course) that we would pick up our last night out.  Originally we thought we would go counter clockwise from the Mule Ears overlook ending with the high point of the Punta de la Sierra and pt. 5168 to the north.  As the start got closer we could see the weather was going to deteriorate as the walk went on so we reversed the loop to take in the high points and views while we still might have them.


Back to the Basin where many folks were randomly coming into the BBC group site.  We had a few beers while doing some packing for the trip and visiting and then went up to the Lodge for dinner.  After dinner we hung around the group site shooting the shit until it was getting both late and cold, we said our goodbyes to all assembled, it was great to finally meet all these folks I have known only online for years.


Trail Day 1

Robert and I got up quietly in the dark and finished packing.  We slipped up to the Lodge for breakfast at 7:00 when they opened and made it down to the Mule Ears overlook before 9:00.  Last bit of packing and then on the trail under increasingly cloudy skies.


Packs heavier than we would have liked but the reverse route meant almost full food and 8 quarts of water for two days.  Mine was at about 34#.

We peered over the edge of the bench at Trap spring and it looked like there might be some water.  Mule Ears spring was running but alarmingly slowly, maybe a few gallons per minute, not its usual robust rate.  Just past the spring we ran into a father and son who had come down Smoky Creek and said they did see not any water other than snow melt.  The usual great view of the South Rim, Picacho Peak and Sugarloaf Mtn.


Out to the edge of the escarpment overlooking Smoky Creek and we could see the work ahead of us the next two days.  If you click on the picture you can see where we are headed and other land marks.


On our way down we run into two more young guys who also had come down Smoky Creek from the Basin and similarly reported no water seen (but hadn’t really looked).  Out across the plain towards Smoky Spring, this would be all off trail now for days.  Easy going and we make it to the ruins overlooking the spring by noon.


Great view from the house.


We drop down to the top of the spring and have lunch.  This pool is the deepest spot we saw that one could get water from even though there was flow for a 100 yards or so.


Going up the canyon behind the spring was mostly easy going, not much vegetation avoidance and just one small pouroff to work around.


Steady climbing up the wash with some bouldery areas.  Many small pools left from the snow melt and tiny patches of snow left here and there.  There was about 3” of snow down in this area three days ago.



We get to the Jack’s Pass cut off by 3:30 (the pass to the left and point 5168 to the right).


After studying the map we decide that instead of going on up the wash towards pt. 5168 and then climbing what looked like a steep headwall we would go up the fairly gentle looking ridge opposite the Jack’s Pass cutoff.  The initial climb was steep but short.


Then we had to work around a few rocky sections but with expansive views.



Finally we cruised across the ridge looking for a spot big enough to roll the sleeping bags out on.


As we crested the top we had this tremendous view of the Punta de la Sierra


Finally just before 6:00 we found a spot just big enough but with a 360 degree view.  South Rim and point 5168, our goal first thing in the morning.  9.8 miles today with some substantial elevation gain with full packs up to 4700 feet.


As the sun was going down we got a good look at the long ridge of Mariscal mountain with San Vicente mountain in the shadows behind.


I wandered out the ridge a bit to get a better view of tomorrows route over to the Punta, didn’t look too bad.


A broader view back towards the north.  You can barely spot our camp, center left, and Roberts red coat.


We settled in for a great meal from Robert and an amazing sunset.


After dark we could see the lights of every vehicle driving down River Road East and few on the RMSD, lights of the residence housing at Castolon and Study Butte and we think the lights of a small town in Mexico.

Trail Day 2

We woke to a gray and high overcast sky, 32 degrees, fortunately no wind.  We pack up and walk a short way towards the base of pt. 5168 and drop the packs.  The climb up was not too bad with solid footing.  Great views from this highest point this far south.  The view north up the Dominguez/Fisk drainages.


To the east Elephant Tusk just barely poking up behind Dominguez mountain with Backbone’s jagged ridge.  You can spot the Dominguez spring area in the bottom center.


The view south to the back of the Punta de la Sierra


West toward Mule Ears.  The flat top ridge in the foreground is the one we came up yesterday.


You get a good look at the back side of Jack’s Pass and its steep drop to the east.


Robert and I were both excited to be up here, his first time and it had been since 1989 for me.


After taking copious pictures we decided it was time to descend and start our way across to the high points of the Punta. The route finding was easy with a few steep ups and downs.  It was at one high point along this section that Robert unfortunately dropped his camera rendering it useless.


We get to the base of the high point by noon and break for lunch.  Not having the time or the will to actually climb the high point 4885, we settled for the next one west to get a view down off the end.


And to scout the route down off the Punta to the west.  It plunges down the slope and over the saddle center left.


We start down the double black diamond chute slowly.  Robert says that Jack’s Pass has nothing on this.


We get to the saddle and the route down doesn’t look too bad, at least not as steep as what we just came down.


Way out we can see the Mule Ears and our goal for the night, the green Casitas Springs complex in the upper center, left of the lighter colored area.


Thus began the tedious, rocky, slow crawl down the drainage.  Many times we barely made the leg busting steps down the fairly loose slopes.  Finally after three hours we made it to the mouth and flatish ground.


Our original goal for the day was to cut north and swing by Eleanor and San Jacinto springs on the way to Casitas but with daylight getting short we headed directly down to the Casitas wash for the fast walking it would afford.


We made good time to the little canyon just before Casitas, filled with boulders but easy to negotiate and we soon started seeing water in the upper parts from Unknown spring.


We stopped and filled up water for tomorrow and then as soon as we popped out the top into the flat area we stopped for the night on some beautiful soft gravels just before dark.  8.6 hard miles today, we were ready to sit down and have some bourbon.


As we stretched out for the night there were a few stars but it would be the last we would see of the sky for the rest of the trip.

Trail Day 3, Jan. 1st 2016

We wake to lowering clouds and 42 degrees, Happy New Year!  Casitas spring is just a few minutes away with good flow for a long way.  This is the multi-roomed Casita, you can see the green of the spring in the background.


Well built with a great view of the Punta de la Sierra behind.


Lots of good water, easy to dip a bottle into.


We find an easy climb out of this wash and over a divide and heading down into the next big wash to the west.  We come to a fairly large pour off that makes us look for a way down.


We find kind of a break to the right (down canyon) but it is down and around some really crappy, pumice like volcanic rock that is so rotten it breaks off in your hands.  Carefully we work our way down the marble covered slope.


Once down it is fast and firm walking down the wash


We get glimpses of the Punta to our left (east) and the clouds are getting even lower


By the time we get to the confluence of the wash we are in and the Casitas/San Jacinto springs wash the peaks are in the clouds.


Maybe a mile below the confluence are several dikes that apparently radiate out from Dominguez mountain.  Here there is a large wash that comes in from the west that goes up into small peaks north of the Sierra del Chino.  These same dikes probably help push water to the surface which is why Mirage spring is on the map here.  We drop packs and go to look for water but find none.  Some places that looked like they might be wet sometimes but not now, must have been a mirage.  We slip up behind one of the dikes for lunch which we cut a bit short as it starts to spit some rain on us.


We head up the large wash into the hills, NW towards point 2872, easy walking to a divide and another wash that will take us all the way down to the river and the Black Dike.  Looking SE back towards Mirage spring


The wash down through the Sierra del Chino is also a great walk with lots of cool narrows and geology, we can start to see the Sierra Ponce on the Mexican side of the river.


This is the back side of the Sierra del Chino proper and the distinctive knife edge ridge that is on the map just NW of point 2420 and the river road.   I thought the reference to “Chino” had something to do with China but I read somewhere that it is because it used to be covered in Chino grass, which might be the grass in the picture above.


We make it to the river road and the Black Dike campsite by 3:30.


We pull some water from the Rio at the dike itself, a bit green and murky looking but OK if cooked with or well treated and with some drink mix to mask the flavor.


We hit the river road for maybe a half a mile and of course run into at least one vehicle.  We jump into a wash that cuts the corner over to Smoky Creek and find another great campsite on smooth gravels and a great view of the Sierra Ponce.  We set up the tarp in case it rains but start the night outside.  13.6 miles today of fairly easy walking and done early at 4:30.  If you look closely at the water bottles you can see the lovely river water.


About 11:30 sure enough it starts to lightly rain so we move under the tarp and finish the night in the dry.

Trail Day 4

It only rained for about a half an hour overnight but everything was wet out from under the tarp, 41 degrees.  We moved back out for breakfast which we finished in a hurry as it started to spit rain again.  Robert packing up the tarp.


Walking shortly after 8:00 with the wind-shirts on.  Easy cross over some low hills to the Smoky Creek wash.  Triangulation Station mountain on the horizon.


The River Road just runs up the wash here and is one of the places folks can bog down in the sand.


About 9:00 we leave the road and head north in the Smoky Creek wash and the lower end of the Smoky Creek “trail”.  We look for a sign along the road for the trail, nothing and in fact we never even see a single cairn all the way along it.  It is raining seriously enough now that we actually stop to put on rain jackets.  Triangulation Station mountain on the left.


There are several nice narrows and small canyons as Smoky Creek cuts past Triangulation Station.


Our original plan was to climb up Triangulation and then walk the ridge to its north, dropping down to the un-named spring, with ruins, southeast of Cerro Castellan.  This is where we had left the cache.  Then the next day we were going to work our way back to the truck up through some small canyons.

As we came around the corner north of Triangulation Station and our exit from Smoky Creek the entire mountain was in the clouds and the rain light but steady.  It didn’t take much discussion to decide to head straight on up the wash and back to the Mule Ears trail and the truck.


This allowed us to check out Santa spring, which showed no water.


As we climbed the Mule Ears trail back up the escarpment it was a totally different view from 4 days ago.


Temperature in the low 40’s and enough rain to now begin to puddle on the trail in places.  We had the hammer down now, horses headed for the barn.  Amazingly we passed something like 6 groups of people hiking in to check out the spring, crazy!  11.1 miles by 1:30 and about .2” of rain for the day.

We ended up with a room at the Chisos Mining Co. motel, a good warm shower and meal at the Starlight.  We stopped for several beers at La Kiva (still no kitchen yet) where we got the full tour of the improvements by the new owner John.  It was a special Saturday after New Years music night and the place was packed as we left.

The Last Day

Because we had to retrieve our cache off the River Road west that we didn’t get due to the change of plans and we hadn’t been able to explore the ridge that runs north from Triangulation Station Mountain (TSM) we decide we could combine picking up the cache and do a loop over the northern end of the ridge.

If you study the map closely and follow the wash down from Mule Ears spring it eventually cuts through the northern end of the TSM ridge, then southerly, along which the western end of the River Road runs, until it cuts southwest through Smugglers Canyon to the Rio Grande near the Buenos Aires campsite.

We parked down the River Road west a few miles near where there are some ruins and a spring marked on the map and loaded up the daypacks.  We walked back up wash paralleling the River Road until the wash cut into the ridge.  There is a huge pool of water here just below the remains of an old dam from the ranching days which you can see on the right hand side.


Looking down wash Robert is standing in front of the other end of the dam.


Above the dam the wash cuts through some dark volcanic rocks with many pools of water


We finally break out into a more open section with some sections of tuffa


And guarded by this guy


An easy walking open wash for maybe a mile


Soon we see another canyon mouth ahead where we decide to stop for lunch.


After the break we went into the cut with high walls and more pools of water


Shortly we came to a pool too big to get around.  I climbed high up on the walls to see if we could get around that way but it was too sketchy, you can see Robert on the left.  While it doesn’t look too bad from this angle it was very deep.  We considered taking our shoes and pants off and wading through it but with the temperatures in the 40’s we passed on that idea quickly.


We headed back out the mouth of the canyon and climbed up the fairly gentle slope on the south side with good views of Cerr0 Castellan and Santa Elena canyon in the distance.


Near the top we could see back down into the canyon and the pool that stopped us.  Burro Mesa in the distance.


Near the top of pt. 2930 we had a tremendous view north.  The top of Trap Mountain touching the clouds.


We turned south towards the massive face of pt. 3166 hoping to find a way down through the cliff bands to the wash below.



Not too hard but a very rocky descent.


Now in the wash that the ruins and the marked spring are in, we wind our way down through two upper “valleys”, passing one tinaja that maybe is a spring too due west of pt. 3166.


After a mile and half or so we round the corner and past a pretty big drop and we can see the spring area and Roberts white truck in the far distance.


Behind the red rocks is a huge rock corral and the pillars of what must have been a house.  We found out later that this was the ranch ruins of Roman De La O.



We beat our way through the thorny brush around the spring area but see no water.  20 minutes later we are back to the truck, picking up our cache on the way.  A bit over 8 miles today.  We spend the night at Croton Spring campsite #1 with a pleasant group of young folks next door.

Next morning we wake to yet another gray day but as we head out of the park there is light at the end of the tunnel.


We stop for a good breakfast at the Marathon Café then head back to San Antonio with a stop for BBQ at Coopers in Junction.  Robert had me to the motel by 4:00 and I flew home the next day.

Another great trip to the park albeit a bit unusual with the weather and the BBC 10th anniversary thrown in.  Robert turned out to be a well matched hiking partner as he has walked a lot of the park, is interested in exploring new areas and we have similar camping and trip planning styles.  He is also one tough walker.

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

  1. Richard says:

    Alex, I believe that I came into the same canyon from the other direction that you describe on your Last Day. I too was not able to pass that same pool….

  2. Richard says:

    Do you have the gps coordinates?

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