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.


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


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.


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


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


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 Kelly 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.

Day one, Dec. 9th Last bit of packing and off to the Chili Pepper for one last real meal and visit with Kelly who was going to spend the day picking up his various caches before sadly heading home.  We turned and drove to the Mule Ears trailhead.  It was a super clear day after the cold front had passed and we hit the trail at 10:00 in 40 degree temps.


We looked over the edge at Trap spring and it looked like it was running.  Quickly out to Mule Ears spring and it was of course running but not as strong as I had expected.  We collected a quart of water each.  For the first two and a half days we never carried more than 2 quarts because there was so much water flowing in all the washes and we were testing/using the new BeFree bottle filter which turned out to be terrific with instant, clean water, without waiting for chemicals to do their job we could just carry what we needed.


I was excited about how clear the weather was as the last few trips have been either overcast a lot or hazy but it was incredibly brilliant today.


Over to the Smoky Creek wash/trail by noon, 4 miles and we headed north.


We got to the black rock canyon section and Willow spring was running beautifully for some distance.  We stopped there for lunch at 1:00, 6.2 miles.


Further up canyon the unknown/unnamed spring was also running and we began to peel our eyes for the right hand turn we needed to make to stay on the trail and in Smoky Creek wash itself.  This was the first ghost I had to exorcise.  Back in 1998 Stewart and I were going from Mule Ears spring to Dominguez spring and were sailing up the Smoky Creek trail and blew right by the turn.  We stayed in what seemed to be the main wash, following foot prints and the occasional small cairn.  After a while we began to hit more pouroffs than I thought we should and in climbing around one of them up on a ridge I realized we were too far west.  I knew where we needed to be and so we started what seemed like an interminable amount of time climbing, side hilling and crossing washes until we were once again overlooking the Smoky Creek wash itself and we could see the trail climbing out of it at the cut over north of Sugarloaf Mtn.  Two hours later we were back on the right route and had expended a lot of energy with heavy packs.  It was my first hard lesson in how much harder it is to follow a wash up stream than down.  I was not about to let that happen again.

We found a small 3 or 4 rock cairn at the wash intersection and from Google Earth I knew we were on the right path when we quickly came to a pouroff with a cairned side trail around it, first ghost gone.  I was so intent on finding the correct way that I forgot to go check out Rhyolite spring.  On up wash we passed Lizard spring with three short sections running.


We came to where the cut over trail climbs to the right out of the wash and Scott found another small cairn.  I wanted to go up and check on the Nunca/Unknown/Red Peak spring complex so he headed on over the divide to look for a campsite and I quickly walked up to Nunca and a bit past.  Great water flowing intermittently and really clear, no algae.  A 1.6 mile round trip but soon I was climbing the divide and trying to follow the scarce trail.


Scott was waiting for me at the bottom of the cross over.  He had gone on down and checked out Hermosa spring B and said it was running but we headed on up wash/trail passing Hermosa A which was nothing but a short green flow.  We dropped packs for camp at the Fisk canyon cutover wash, not the greatest campsite but at least on fairly soft gravels.

I grabbed water bottles and walked on up to get water at Witch spring which was flowing well and long with some algae.

The high temperature for the day probably didn’t hit 60.  As the sun dropped behind Sugarloaf Mtn. the temp proceeded to plunge and was already 41 degrees at 6:00.  We settled into the bags for a cold and clear night.  10 miles today with packs.

Day two, Dec. 10thGoing in we knew that this would probably be our coldest night and sure enough it dropped to 29 degrees overnight.  It took a bit of extra work to stay warm in my 35 degree bag but it wasn’t too bad.  In the middle of the night it began to cloud over some so the temperature did rise a little before dawn.  We woke to heavy frost on the bags partly due to the extra moisture in the air and ground from the recent storm.  We hoped for the sun to hit and warm us up and dry things out some but it was weak through a milky sky.

On the trail by 9:30 we first had to find where the Smoky Creek trail exited the wash to climb around Witch Spring.  I had looked for it yesterday as I went up to get water and back but no sign.  I knew from the map that it went right up the nose between the two washes so we just headed up that way and finally found a cairn at the tip of the hill.  Looking down on our campsite from last night and this is the intersection we would come back through in six days.

This section of trail was essentially nonexistent and impossible to follow other than a few short sections where it dropped back into the wash but it does afford a great view of Witch spring

and the surrounding area.

We dropped packs when we hit the wash again (note the cairns marking the trail exit, this was the best marked place on the entire Smoky Creek trail) and headed off to check out both Cuatro spring and upper Witch spring.  Cuatro was flowing slowly for about 50’.

Upper Witch had lots of water, in some years you apparently cannot easily get to water from the top of Witch but not this year.

On up the “trail” we looked for Walled spring but saw no sign but I may not have gone far enough up the side wash.  Scott went up the other wash and saw no sign of water at the unknown/unnamed spring either.  Again we looked for where the trail heads out of the wash and up a ridge but absolutely no sign.  We knew we were on the right track when we would run across small cairns hidden in the grass but there was no worn trail tread.

Great but cloudy views to the south with some snow still clinging to the north slopes

And of Picacho peak. which we will skirt to the left.

Again we find a bit of trail as it drops back down into the Smoky Creek wash but it would be easy to miss this exit too if you were heading south.

Just up wash is Taza spring and a small pouroff that is easy to climb or climb around.

It had a slow flow but it did run for some distance.

On up the wash/trail we went and it was rockier/less gravelly than I had remembered but then it was 25 years since I last walked down this way.  No water at Slickrock spring.  We stopped for a break just a few hundred yards from the Dodson intersection and first we saw 3 or 4 Mule deer run across the slope but then Scott spotted a bear working its way across the hills above the Dodson.  Sorry for the poor picture quality from my point and shoot telephoto lens.

To the trail junction by noon

And we push on up towards the high point of the Dodson and the watershed divide by 1:00, 5.2 miles so far, there is still snow in the shade on the north slopes.

While we were having lunch a young couple from New York City comes up the trail headed west doing the traditional Outer Mountain Loop, they had flown into Midland and were doing a 3 day trip and then flying right back out!  We were sitting at the very head of the western most branch of Fresno Creek and while it is a bit shorter than the central wash labeled Fresno Creek, it has far more water with thirteen named springs between here and the junction below Zapato Tuerto spring, nearly every quarter mile and we were going to try and check as many as possible out.

The first one up is Cooper and it was flowing great out from under a set of trees and is less than 1000’ from the Dodson trail.  From Cooper on down it is nice open walking without any bushwacking to be done.

I had only been in this drainage once before 25 years ago and it was the second of the ghosts I needed to vanquish.  In my first real off trail test Ron and I had come in the Dodson, down the Smoky Creek trail to the cut over wash to Fisk canyon.  The next day we went up the wash NW of Dominguez Mtn. and then cut across below Double spring to intercept the Elephant Tusk (ET) trail just as it climbed up and over the ridge towards the Fresno drainages.  We hit the ET trail exactly right and were feeling pretty satisfied as we headed north on it.  When we dropped down into the wash at Zapato Tuerto spring I didn’t study the map close enough and we just turned up wash instead of heading down for a short distance and then turning up the main drainage.

Again there were foot prints and it seemed like we were on the trail.  When we came to a pouroff that we had to climb around with no marked trail I thought this isn’t right and when it seemed like we had been walking longer than expected and had not yet climbed out to the Dodson then I knew we were not in the right place.  I was not too concerned because I knew we would run across the Dodson sooner or later.  When we got up to the fork in the wash at Claro spring 2 I told Ron to take a break and I climbed out of the wash and in a few minutes found the Dodson.  It was getting late and we were tired from a long and confused afternoon but we now knew where we were located.  I was looking forward to walking down this section knowing exactly where I was!  Claro spring 2 at the fork.  I did not walk up to see if Claro 1 was running up the right hand fork.

Lots of water flowing down from Claro 2.

We worked our way down wash and almost every marked spring was running.  We did not go to see Paloma, a bit thorny at the mouth of the wash.  Here is the pouroff just above the Unknown spring, which we also did not walk up to find.  I actually down climbed it but Scott easily climbed around it on the left going down wash.

Soon things began to open up with views of the South Rim.  The only spring in this stretch that was not running was Madiera 2.

Some really beautiful pools

Zapato Tuerto spring and the cairns marking the ET trail heading south, this is where I screwed up in 1992.

Quickly we were down to Hop Spring which was flowing musically over the rocks and found a great campsite in the soft gravels under Tortuga Mtn.  This is where we were to have shared a campsite and meal with Kelly but that unfortunately was not going to happen.

Scott took the opportunity to clean up a bit with the ample water.  The sky was clearing and we were in for a much more pleasant evening.  10.6 miles today by 5:00.

Day 3, Dec. 11thThe clouds were in and out all night but we woke up to a spectacular sunrise and 39 degrees.

Walking by 9:30 and we were quickly down to the Waterworks (Skip and Jump tinajas), the entrance guarded by the big round boulder.

We dropped packs and scampered down into the defile as far as we could go.  You can see why they call them Skip and Jump, this top section drops over a lip and then the cut turns abruptly right along a flat gravely stretch to a small cottonwood tree and big boulder.

Below that is the real tortuous section with many pools but the top one was too deep to get past without getting wet.  We turned around here but in 2011 I was able to make it all the way through with almost no water.

Back to the packs and we climbed out of the wash to the right going down canyon and worked our way down the sharp ridge with the Fresno drainage to the left and the right hand drainage had water too, have never heard anyone speak of water in that wash.

You get a great view of the entire Waterworks from top to bottom

Like green pearls on a string

Moving on down canyon there was intermittent water with good flow at Estrecho spring

And a slow flowing Fresno spring from pool to pool where we stopped to fill up with 7 liters of water each, enough to get us to the Rio Grande at Talley tomorrow afternoon.

The final pool was at the base of the palm tree.  Noon and 3 miles so far.

About a mile below Fresno spring is the White amphitheater which is easy to get around on the right side going down canyon.

The Resurrection ferns were really opening after the moisture from the storm.

Just around the corner is the Red amphitheater which is also by passed on the right.

Just below the Red amphitheater was the location of Frivol spring and you could tell where it was but there was no water.

Half a mile or so further on is Frosty spring which also had no water

But another 15 minutes or so brought us to Frog spring at the base of a small pouroff

And it did have a slow flow from the wall on the side of the pouroff and a short run of maybe 50’, it would not be easy to get water from without digging a hole.

A few hundred feet down stream we climbed out of the wash to the south and up onto the flats SE of Elephant Tusk and were greeted by huge views and now our trip would move into another phase of wide open walking and sights as opposed to the first few days down in the hills and washes.  We stopped for a long lunch at 1:30, 6.5 miles so far today.

After lunch we head almost due south, hoping to find the mysterious Ombligo del Elephante spring.  Fast walking down the alluvial fans and the vegetation got thinner and thinner.  We walked right down the wash the spring is supposed to be in and there was no sign of water, I think it is a mirage.  Like Y and Mirage springs further west there might be water in really wet seasons but I would never count on it, that makes Dominguez spring and the Casitas spring complex the farthest south reliable water sources in the entire park.  It is a long way down to water at Talley in the far center of this picture, 14-15 miles.

Slowly the clouds thin and we get more and more giant views all around, Cow Heaven Mtn. to the South Rim

We stop at 4:30 after 11.6 miles, up on a small rise just west of the River Road and Black Gap road intersection but at the one half mile required distance.  What a great campsite with 360 degree views.  We carefully study the long ridge of Mariscal Mtn. that we will be walking down in 2 more days.

As sunset approached we enjoyed El Pico and the del Carmens lighting up on the other side of the Mariscal Mines.

A beautiful sunset, great dinner under a giant sky.

Day 4, Dec. 12th– It was a clear, cold and damp night with a low of 33 degrees and the coyotes really talking to each other from either side of the ridge.  We woke up to heavy dew on everything and some frost of the bags.  Scott was not getting out of his warm bag until the sun was a little closer.

The first rays of sun turned the Chisos a warm red without a cloud in the sky.

All of the residual moisture from the storm had settled in the low lands and was slowly rising with the warming of the day as the first rays of sun hit us at 7:50 over the shoulder of Mariscal Mountain.

We wanted to dry out the damp bags and gear before walking but the rising clouds actually blocked the sun for some time but finally we got things mostly dry and started walking by 10:00.

Today was all about a run to the river for water, still 9 miles away and we had to make a decision.  We were quickly to the River road and past, unfortunately just as a vehicle passed by but we made really fast time down the fingers of the alluvial fans and the major wash that is west of Mariscal.  Wide open wash walking.

By the time we hit the road to Talley at 1:00 after 6.7 miles I had formulated a change to the trip plan.  Today we were supposed to camp a half a mile or so up the Marsical Rim trail and then tomorrow climb over the mountain and then back down to the river on the Cross Canyon trail deep into the canyon and camp on the beach there.  The following day was the hard day, we would start with 2 gallons of water, climb 2000’, in about 3 miles, to the top of Mariscal Mountain and then walk the 7 miles down to the Mines.  It would be a long, exhausting day.  I really wanted to go down to the heart of Mariscal canyon, partly because no one had ever reported doing it, but my heart and legs were not loving the idea.  Plus we were ahead of schedule and didn’t need to sit around camp for several hours this afternoon.

So instead we would fill up all of our water containers (9 liters each) and make the initial 1100’ climb up to the Mariscal rim and camp at the great campsite that Mark and I stayed at in 2011.  It would make for a longer day and a tough afternoon with heavy packs but it would position us to more easily make the run down the spine of Mariscal tomorrow and someone else would have to make the climb down and back into Mariscal canyon and report on it.

The problem is we really needed another liter or two each to make the now 2 dry camps in a row we would have before getting all the way to Dominguez spring at the end of the day after tomorrow.  Normally I plan on 5 liters a day and so if we tanked up at the river we would still need at least 10 each to make it to the next water and we only had 9 liters capacity.  My bet was that after the storm there would be a few pot holes in the limestone up on the ridge that we could augment with.  I discussed the plan with Scott and he agreed so we threw the hammer down on the Talley road and made the river by 2:00 after 9.2 miles.  As we passed the parking area for the Mariscal rim trail there was one car parked but when we came back it was gone, day hikers.

It was actually getting a bit warm and we had lunch in the shade at the campsite on the river before going to fill up with water from the Rio.  I was surprised to see they had re-established the Talley 3 campsite including bear box after it was washed away in the 2008 floods.  I would have to say that the river water looked clearer than any other time I have used it (look at my water bottles on the gravel bar) and had less of an after taste but with the local residents “donating” to the area it was a good thing we had adequate purification.

We grunted as we hefted the packs for the 4 miles up to the top.  Mine was around 38#, certainly the heaviest for the trip.  Half a mile back to the parking area and we are off.

It is amazing that this remote trail may be the easiest trail in the park to follow both with excellent tread and copious cairns.  It was a hot climb with heavy packs.  I was moving slow in the now 70 degree temps but Scott was cruising along way ahead of me.

I finally dragged my ass to the top by 5:00 after a 13.2 mile day.  Just enough light left for a few pictures down into the canyon.

I was tired but we settled in for a warmer night will a killer view.  Scott says “When are you going to take me to some place with a view?”  I just had another sip of bourbon while dinner cooked and didn’t reply.

Day 5, Dec. 13thWe woke up to high thin clouds at 41 degrees.  The sky was clear enough last night that we saw a lot of meteors even though tonight is supposed to be the peak of the Geminid Meteor shower, if it was that good last night let’s hope it clears back up for tonight!

Walking by 9:00 we cruise along the rim for a bit with increasing views south into the corresponding cross canyon in Mexico.  I pointed out to Scott that this was the farthest south point of the Rocky Mtns. in the US but clearly they don’t stop at the river.

The trail heads north along the ridge heading towards Mariscal Mtn. and is well marked with big cairns.  Along here there had been a fire during the last season.  We were on the lookout for water in potholes and finally found two side by side pools about 24 inches across and 2 inches deep that we gathered another couple of liters from, we were good to go now.

This was a completely different experience from six years ago when Mark and I were barely below the clouds and Mariscal Mtn. was completely obscured.  This was the last of the ghosts I needed to check off.  On that trip we got to the Cross canyon trail junction and it was still in the clouds and we decided to bail on the attempt to walk down the mountain to the mines if we wouldn’t be able to see anything, why expend the energy if we couldn’t take in the grand views?

I was really disappointed as I was not sure if I would get another chance.  I had been researching the possibility for several years before that 2011 trip and the only people I knew that had walked the ridge were a couple of people from BBC who are some of the most experienced Big Bend hikers around and they said it was one of their most memorable experiences.  These were from private messages and no one else had ever posted or published anywhere else about doing it.  Certainly some of the old ranchers, miners and surveyors had walked it but I had never seen any other reports of modern hiking humans attempting it.

Now it has almost become de rigueur, a must do, especially for long distance hikers coming from out of state.  Starting with Eric’s Dec. 2013 massive Basin to Mariscal to Basin loop on his first time to the park, based partly on my 2011 trip report, then his report went national in 2014 in Trailgroove magazine.  In 2015 John attempted it after reading Eric’s report but had to abort after having knee problems.  Then a guy from Michigan included it in his 2016 giant walk from Homer Wilson to Mariscal and up to the Basin.  Just last month two people came down from Wyoming to do a similar loop partly based on Eric’s Trailgroove article and ended up having to bail early but after walking the ridge.  Apparently just a day or so ahead of us Peter went across the mountain coming from Mule Ears and a few days after we finished a fellow from Indiana also did a loop from Mule Ears too!  WTF, it was finally time for me to get it done!

At 10:30, after 2 miles, when we reached the turn in the Cross canyon trail where it begins to drop and loop around the Mariscal ridge we headed up the steep slope to the ridge line then on up to the first high point by 11:00.  Really not too bad, super steep but solid footing.  The black line is the Cross canyon trail and the red line was our route to the ridge line.

The first section of the ridge over to Mariscal Mtn. itself is pretty narrow with precipitous drops off to the west.  Fairly easy walking with a few rocky sections to climb around

At the narrowest spot you have to step across a boulder hung in a crack about 3 feet wide.  Scott has one main rule when I plan trips- nothing death defying.  He threw down the penalty flag on me for a 15 yard penalty after that move!  It would not be the last time on this trip that I was penalized.

There are two USGS markers on the ridge, this one on a high spot before the actual top of Mariscal Mtn.

Then a long easy bridge to the peak itself

The other marker is in this ring of rocks on the top of the mountain.  Ahead to the north you can see the first part of the ridge walking, which was really easy and the 360 degree views are out of this world!  11:30 and 3.5 miles so far.

This is back along the ridge, looking south into Mexico.

Near the ring of rocks around the USGS marker were a number of these things.  Batteries?

We walked on north until the first of the drops that the ridge takes and we stop for lunch at 12:30 after 5 miles.

After lunch the route finding got trickier as more and more small canyons cut into the ridge from both sides so finding the right line was crucial.  We managed to hit all of them just right where we would descend a ridgeline to the usually narrow divide between the two drainages and then follow another ridgeline down.  In one really steep and rocky section I stepped over this old bottle of Waterfill and Frazier Whiskey.

I did a little research and found that they started making bourbon in Kentucky in the 1800’s, maybe as early as 1810.  The interesting part of their story is that during prohibition they moved or built a new distillery in Juarez, Mexico to continue to make “medicinal” bourbon whiskey.  I chose to believe that this was certainly someone’s medicine bottle and I would soon be sharing in that self-medication ritual as soon as we finished walking down this ridge!

The last mile or so becomes a series broken small hills but I had spotted a potential campsite on Google Earth that should afford great views both east and west off the ridge.  The difficulty of this run is you have to camp at least a half a mile from the mine and a half a mile from the River road so I had marked on the map where a half mile up the ridge from the mine was if we needed to camp before the mine or if we were moving fast it would be another 2 miles to get past the mine and a half a mile on the north side of the road.

It had been a great day but with the constant downhill and rough, rocky walking we were ready to call it a day so after 10.3 miles we stopped short of the mine at 4:30.  A great campsite with the views I had hoped for but it was pretty cloudy and our meteor viewing was going to be limited.  We had a balmy night and could see lights at campsites on the River Road east, probably Gravel Pit and La Clocha.

Day 6, Dec. 14th– The clouds did indeed move in and out last night but mostly in so we did not see a lot of meteors but we did see a few great ones.  Up to our warmest morning yet at 46 degrees and we were walking before 9:00.  There is one last big hill to climb before the mine, kind of a rude way to start the day.  We camped just on the other side of the highest red hill in the center of the picture.  You can kind of see how the last few miles of the ridge walk are pretty cut up after the big drop off.

From the top of the hill we could clearly see our morning’s route over to the Black Gates of Mordor on the north side of Cow Heaven Mtn., just above the yellow mark, where there is a dip in the black ridgeline.  About 5 miles away.

In minutes we were at the top of the mine and we took some time to really look it over down to the bottom and back and had it all to ourselves.  Fascinating engineering for sure and a lot of terracotta pipe that has been busted up.

From what I assume is the ore crusher

Down to the furnaces and evaporator

I said to Scott that most folks will visit the mine on their first or second trips to the park but it took me 44 years.  He replied “That’s because you insisted on walking here instead of driving”.  True that.  About 9:30 we dropped off the back of the ridge heading west to the River road which we walk for about a mile to the Black Gap junction by 10:00, 2.3 miles.

From here we dropped down into a wide wash that runs NW directly towards the Gates of Mordor and right under our camp from the third night, down where the coyotes were yipping on the 4th morning.  The wildlife we saw the most of were many big and healthy jack rabbits.

We were able to beeline it up the open flats and not actually wind around in the wash and quickly made the 3.5 miles to the Gates by noon.  This is the southern cut in the eastern ridge of the anticline.  I really started looking at the route or routes of least resistance through the anticline/ridges north of Cow Heaven Mtn. after a discussion on Big Bend Chat about possible routes from Dominguez spring to the east and around the front of Elephant Tusk.  I also remembered how hard it was in another report for them to go directly over the high ridges.  This southern sneak route looked perfect for us to use.

This is the heart of the anticline (uplift) where the middle has been eroded away leaving the ridges on either side which you can see it well on the topo map in shaded relief.  According to Hallie Stillwell if cows got stranded in there they would go to Heaven, we did follow cow hoof prints right up into it.

After we made it through the Gates we took a wash in a southwesterly direction to a low divide.  There was some water in pools left from the storm

And the best and freshest set of mountain lion tracks I think I have ever seen!

We stopped for lunch at the divide with a great view over the area.  12:30, 6.8 miles.  After lunch we dropped down another wash in the same southwesterly direction until we came to a low gap in the outer western ridges of the anticline and snuck over them into the broad Backbone ridge wash/alluvial fan.  A couple of climbs down and out of some deep washes and then we were clear for fast walking towards the last of the hills that separate the Dominguez wash and the Backbone wash.

Just as we climbed out of the last wash I looked back at where we had come from and the second bear of the trip climbed up the ridge we just came over!  Again sorry for the crappy picture.  People think the bears are only in the Chisos but they do range all over the park!  This is probably the bear that has deposited all the piles up Fisk canyon and the other lower Quemada washes.

We are over to point 2890 by 2:30 after 9.4 miles and take a break looking back at Cow Heaven and our route across the gap in the western ridge, same one the bear climbed up.

It was then the endless 3 mile slog up the washes towards Dominguez spring, second time I have done this and it just goes on forever.  By 4:00 we make the ranch house, 12.5 miles today.  The water is running over the old dam base, good pools.

It is in the 60’s and really overcast.  Just before dark we have everything spread out and are relaxing when it actually starts spitting rain.  Damn!  We whip the tarp up and prepare to cook dinner under cover.  It never rains hard but it is steady for a while.  It is at this point my cameras battery dies and I realize that I left the spare in the car!  This and the rain were trying to ruin by mood, harshing my buzz as it were.  I will have to rely on Scott for the rest of the pictures.

Scott’s night to cook and he whips up a huge pot of tortellini with homemade tomato sauce which takes the edge off the evening situation.

Day 7, Dec. 15th–  I woke up about 9:00 pm and the sky was clear so we slid out bags and ground cloths out from under the tarp and fell back to sleep.  About 2:00 I felt rain drops again, ugh.  We moved back under the tarp, the rain didn’t seem to last long and when it began to get light around 7:00 the sky was overcast but didn’t look too threatening.  42 degrees.

I lay there for hours during the night rolling the possibilities for the coming day around in my head.  This could turn into another frozen precipitation event which would mean a long cold slog back to the car, over a not easy 14 miles away.  The original forecast was totally clear until tomorrow evening so whatever this front was it came in early.  We brought the tarp just in case and it was a good thing but we gambled and did not bring any raingear.  We were a day ahead of schedule and could just hunker down for a day if it got bad, Scott was not interested in that idea.

While it did look like it might be clearing I told him just in case to keep his ground cloth on the top of his pack and if it really started precipitating we would cut head holes in them, tie a string around our waists and wear them serape style, better than nothing.  We ate a hearty breakfast and started walking by 8:00.

Not too far up Fisk canyon Dog spring was running with a stronger flow than Dominguez had.

We encountered the Devil Spur grass and stopped at the side wash that goes NW past Dominguez Mtn. to both pick all the burrs off and for me to make a quick side trip up it to see what springs were running.

Mano Abajo was running very slowly at the mouth but Unknown/unnamed and Mano were not running and I didn’t fight my way through the vegetation to check on Cricket.

On up the canyon and Carney spring was running with pretty good water but Cansasdo only had a small amount of water.  By the time we got to the pouroff above Cansado the skies had totally cleared and it was going to be a great day.

Just a bit further were more pouroffs and a narrow rocky section at the location for Poor Man’s Loco Tinaja with lots of pools with great water.

We finally broke out at the top of the divide by 10:30, 4.2 miles.  We started to work our way down the other side, back towards the Smoky Creek trail where we camped 6 days ago.  Again there were several big pouroffs here that we had to bypass for long distances as the wash walls were too steep.  I did not remember it being this much but the last time I came up this way was 19 years ago.

We finally made it back to the Smoky Creek trail by 11:30, 6.1 miles, and headed down stream, retracing our tracks for about a third of a mile before heading on down wash while the trail leaves the wash to the west.  We stopped at Hermosa spring B which was flowing beautifully for a long way with on nice drop that made it easy to fill water bottles.

The canyon started to open up more and the day was really beautiful.

There is a big pouroff that you have to skirt to the left, going down canyon, but it is the location of Carolyn’s Tinaja, there were actually many good pools of water.

At 12:30 after 8 miles, we dropped packs above the big pouroffs down in the canyon to go check it out and to see if we can skirt around it to the left as I remember doing nearly 29 years ago.  I had spent a lot of time checking it and the alternatives out on Google Earth and it was just not clear but I knew that Ron and I had bypassed it on the left and did not climb back up onto the higher slopes to the SE, that would be a 200’ elevation gain.  Other folks had worked their way around on the opposite side, on a longer route dropping down a really steep gully between pts. 3904 and 3605, it too had a 200 foot climb to start.

A half a mile later and we come to the first drop and decide that we can in fact make it around on the left on the steep side slope just above the pouroffs.  Unfortunately you cannot see it from this picture.

We head back to the packs for lunch before attempting the route.  There is water flowing intermittently all the way down through the canyon from Canyon spring.

1:30 we shove off with packs and when we get to just above the pouroffs we carefully work our way across the 40 degree slope, midway between the upper cliff and the drop into the canyon.  Very solid footing and after bit we find a game trail to follow.

There is a major gulley that drops down to the bottom and we take that down to the wash.  After a half an hour we are at the bottom.  Really not too bad but Scott threw his second penalty flag of the trip on me.  This is the gulley we climbed down.

We walk back up a short way to the last drop

You cannot see the top from here but there is a nice small fern garden.

Looking out the canyon to can just see the tops of the Mule Ears.

The rest of the way out is filled with big boulders

And big pools of water, in fact water surfaced all the way out to the mouth.

Finally to the mouth we begin to look for the best exit up onto the alluvial deposits so we can beeline towards the Mule Ears trail.

Up top it is fast walking across to the base of the climb.

3:30 we are at the top and I give Scott the option, I can have him in a hot shower with a beer by 5:00 or we can camp at the awesome site just up the hill overlooking the Smoky Creek plain and the Punta de la Sierra.  He says it is such a beautiful day we should camp one more night so we do.  11.1 miles today and we are camped at one of my favorite sites of all time.

There is a slight breeze but it is in the 60’s and we spend the rest of the afternoon soaking in the view

Eating left over lunch food and drinking the last of the bourbon!

Finally dinner with a great sunset the perfect way to finish a great walk!

Trail Day 8, Dec. 16th– We wake up and it is totally overcast, 43 degrees.  We have a cup of coffee while packing up as the plan is to try and make the Lodge in the Basin for breakfast before they close.

On the trail at 8:00 and we blaze the 3 miles to the car in 55 minutes.  The sky is looking more ominous and as we get to the parking lot it starts to rain!  This great walk was over but there was no time to celebrate.

As we roll into the Basin there are even a few flurries.  We miss breakfast by minutes as they close at 10:00.  Oh well.  Off to PJ to turn in a massive springs report which I have to finish while sitting on one of the couches in the visitor center as opposed to at the breakfast table in the Lodge.  The ranger was wondering what I was doing until I handed it to her, not sure she knew what to do with a report on 48 water sources.

Over to the Chisos Mining Co. motel and thankfully they let us check in at noon but first we went next door to DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ and loaded up for our first real non-trail meal to be savored while drinking the celebratory beers, taking showers and unpacking/re-packing.  It was really good and maybe the second best all around ‘cue on the trip.

Finally we headed off to the front porch in Terlingua but it was too cold for much action so we went to La Kiva for dinner, unfortunately it was not great.  This was supposed to be our celebratory/debriefing dinner with Kelly as he was to have also finished his amazing trip today but sadly that would not happen, he was now home in Dallas with family.

The next day we began our return to civilization and home.  Again an incredibly clear day and we start with driving the River Road to Presidio as Scott had never had the pleasure, I drove so he could ogle the sights.  Of course the mandatory stop at the Big Hill.

On to Marfa where we had to stop and check out the various art spaces as his wife is an art historian and he would not be allowed to come home if he didn’t stop.

We made it over to Alpine in time to check out the Museum of the Big Bend and then we hung out in the Holland Hotel bar for a few beers.

The next day we drove to Blanco to visit with some farmer friends there and they continued on to dinner with us at Gruene for the customary chicken fried steak and we made a quick stop into the Dance Hall too.

We stayed in New Braunfels so that we would be positioned well for our Barbecue tour the last day before we flew out.  The first stop at 11:00 was at Hays Co. BBQ which is also a Texas Monthly Top 50.  Our plan was to sample brisket, turkey, sausage and beans at each stop and anything else that looked interesting.  We shared a plate so as not to get too bloated.  The ‘cue here was good with the pork chop being the best and the turkey very good with good seasoning.

By noon we were in Lockhart at Black’s which was also really good with really good brisket, the sausage was very fine too.

Just before 1:00 we were eating at Smitty’s which had the most amazing overall atmosphere, how can a place with smoke stained walls not have good ‘cue?

This was probably the best brisket we had and the turkey was by far the best, it actually tasted like turkey, I would say the sausage was not so much.

Three BBQ places in 3 hours, could have gone on to Kruez’s but why guild the lily?  We slowly made our way back to San Antonio and the airport for our late flight out.  What a great way to end a really superb trip!

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

  1. stanley stutts says:

    Alex Bravo I just completed reading and studying your epic journey. What an incredible trip this must have been and it helps build intense envy. Not sure I will ever make the trip to Big Bend, but it is fantastic to enjoy a bit of it vicariously. Thanks so much for sharing the adventure. Stan

  2. Dave Sailer says:

    I don’t see your blog often, but I’m glad that I did catch this post. The photos are a real inspiration.

    I’m about to turn 69 and want to get in as much backpacking as I can while I still can, starting with a return to the U.S. from Ecuador, where I’ve been living off and on for five years, and then living in a vehicle full time, for as long as that works.

    I appreciate the maturity of your approach. I’m sad to see that backpacking is becoming a competitive sport, and that too many people are bothering to keep score.

    What you’ve written reminds me of something I read in the “Pacific Crest Trailside Reader” a while ago, namely “Breaking the PCT Speed Record” at

    There’s nothing wrong with being a grownup.

    I’ll stash away the information on your trip and keep it in mind as a possibility for the end of 2018.

    Thank you.

  3. Ric Tharpe says:

    I started hiking into the Quemadas back in the 80s. Couple of solo trips back in Quemadas having hiked all the established trails. Got married, had kids, knee problems from hiking AT (katadin to Shenandoah in 78), all which kept me out of the Quemadas. But all that passed (grown kids, knee better, better backpack) and in 2013 headed back in. I am planning another in Nov after having missed a year due to Harvey flood. Decided to do a search and found your article. It brought back a lot of memories especially as we have hiked most of the same off trail spots. Devils spur grass!! Only in that one spot in Fisk canyon. Thanks for posting. You may enjoy kicking back and watching my past exploits in the Quemadas. Do a search in youtube for “rtcentral12”. Should find my list of videos. Keep trekin, Ric.

    • Hey Ric,
      nice videos and it looks like we have walked a lot of the same territory. It looks really wet and green this fall from your Nov. video and from other reports I’ve seen. You should jump in and participate over at Big Bend Chat, I think you would find lots of like minded folks there.

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