Tuff Canyon to Tule Mountain and explorations of upper Alamo Creek
Dec. 31st, 2019-Jan. 5th, 2020
42 miles with pack, maybe 4 more without
My sixteenth trip to Big Bend and the first of the decade of the Roaring 20’s was different in many ways to my previous walks and unfolded itself in interesting ways.
December has become my sweet spot for both finding time to get to the park and for fairly consistently good weather. I contacted Robert to see if he was interested in doing a trip together and he said he was but it worked best for him if we did it after Christmas. I could make that work even though it put us in the park during the busy holiday period between Christmas and New Years.
I had several potential areas to explore but we both had Sue Peaks on our bucket lists so that became the primary objective if the weather was going to be good. If that didn’t work out I had been working on a large loop that started at Tuff Canyon and went north, east of Tule Mountain, over Burro Mesa and then back south down Alamo Creek. We would play it by ear and make the call as we got to the park.
A 3 a.m. alarm had me headed to the airport for a flight to San Antonio which went flawlessly. We landed early and I walked out of the baggage claim door at 10:00 a.m. as Robert pulled up. It was a totally clear day as we sailed on to Study Butte, via Alpine, by 4:30, couldn’t have gone any smoother other than that sleep deprivation thing.
There were a lot of Big Bend Chat folks in the park over the holidays but we would not be able to meet up with most of them. We did have plans to have dinner with Mitch and his new bride and a few others. We checked into the Chisos Mining Co. Motel and then headed over to the Starlight to sit on the front porch and the place was totally jammed. Butch Hancock was playing that night and the parking lot was overflowing and a line of at least 50 people were already waiting to get in at 5:00!
We had a few beers while waiting and when we got to the door the wait was 2.5 hours! We decided to bail and go to La Kiva, which had its own long wait of 1.5 hours. Mitch and Emily joined us there and we had a good visit and dinner (finally!). This is what happens during the busy times. Mitch told us it had been so busy in the park that they had stationed a ranger at the bottom of the Basin road and would only let one car in as one would come out!
Robert and I stumbled back to the room, did some packing for the trip and then passed out, it had been a long day for me!
Trail Day 1, New Years Eve
Up early and to the Big Bend Motor Inn at 7:00 for breakfast because we were trying to get to the backcountry permit office before it opened at 8:30. Good thing we moved quickly because as we got to Panther Junction visitor center at 8:20 there were already 4 groups in line in front of us with many more coming in!
There were two rangers writing permits and it took a long time as most folks don’t have a clue what they want to do or know anything about the park or the rules. In nearly 47 years of coming to the park this was the first time I had ever experienced the backcountry permit office which is only open during Spring Break, Thanksgiving and the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, I hope it is the last time.
Robert and I of course knew exactly what we were doing and were out in 15 minutes. It was the last day of the old permit fees and with my Geezer pass it only cost $6 for which I had exact change. If we had been there one day later it would have cost $30 ($60 for non Senior pass holders) a 500% increase. Now I support an increase in fees as the old price was ridiculously cheap but I think both the new partial backpacking reservations system (only the Chisos campsites) and the $10 per night increase are cumbersome and overkill.
While we had our sights on Sue Peaks the forecast was not good for that plan with a strong front coming through tomorrow and the next day so we opted for the Tule Mountain/Alamo creek route. I had only walked through that area once on my across the western half of the park walk and Robert had a couple of crossings but this would be a totally different approach.
So here is the map. The individual days are each in a different color, the original route plan and campsites, that we didn’t do are in black. The orange sections are alternatives we considered.
We filled up our water containers, including cached water and headed back west to near mile post 17 and the head of Alamo creek where we left both a food and water cache to be picked up in four days. We then drove around and down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Tuff Canyon. A few last minute bits of packing and we were finally off at 11:00.
I have wanted to walk through Tuff canyon on a trip for a long time and now was doing it. Many people do part of it as a short loop from the overlook but I wanted to walk further up Blue Creek and it was totally worth it. It starts out easy enough as seen from the overlook
but you quickly come to multiple pouroffs, all with pools of water at their bases.
Several posed difficulties, one I was able to climb up but Robert decided to climb out of the wash around on the east side, you can see him on the far ridge
and finally a big pouroff that we had to climb out and around on the west side until we were finally past the top of the canyon. In all the canyon runs for over a mile.
The very top of the canyon
After another mile and a half we split off from Blue Creek up a wash that goes over a low divide on the east side of Bee Mountain. There is a narrow little entrance canyon where we stopped for lunch in the shade.
Once on the other side it opens into a really cool badlands area on the way to the divide. Bee mountain on the left
On down the other side past some beautifully colored hills to the big wash that runs around the north side of Bee Mountain before turning due south and back to Blue Creek. This would make a great long day hike or an overnighter.
Just about where you hit the big wash, the side wash that Bee spring is in joins it. We dropped packs and walked up to check it out. It was running in 2008 but now it is dry and even the two cottonwoods have died, here you can see the trunk of one of them.
On down the big wash a ways and we jump out to try and find Tres and Dos springs. Tres was dry and we walked above Dos which had a lot of vegetation and no visible sign of water but we didn’t try and wade into the brush.
We climbed up onto the big flats on our way to Pena spring and there we got our first good view of the Chimneys and the Chisos behind them.
We are quickly down to the ravine with many cottonwoods that Pena spring is in and go to look for water. We drop packs as the first looks were dry. Robert headed down wash and I went up. We both return with reports of no water. This is not good as we were counting on it for both water tonight and on our 4th night out. We had both seen it running and it was reported to be running well last year.
It is now 5:00 with not much daylight left. We have enough water to spend the night but will have to head for the road tomorrow if we can’t find more. Linda spring is about 2 miles away and we move quickly down the trail towards it in hope of finding some water. Just as it is getting dark we get to the rock rimmed pouroff and there is water! There are three or four pools stretched out below the pouroff but no water running between them but the water is good and plenty of it.
We fill up the water bottles and climb around to the top and find an okay campsite to enjoy New Year’s eve at. It had a limited view south to the mouth of Santa Elena canyon and we did have an outstanding sunset as the clouds from the approaching front rolled in. A little over 10 miles today and now we know we can continue on with the planned route but will have to detour back here to Linda spring on our 5th day.
Trail Day 2- Happy New Decade!
Sure enough we woke to a gray sky as the front had fully arrived. Didn’t really look like rain but if it was going to precipitate this was supposed to be the day. 42 degrees the low.
I walked back down to get the full view of the Linda spring pouroff in better light
On up the twisty wash we went, through various cool rock areas and mini canyons
There were several pools of water along the way
Before we got to the Wright Pool, which is quite big and really deep when completely full, probably 8 feet or more. This was our back up plan for water if Linda spring had not had water last night.
The terrain opened up a bit above here and we could begin to see where Red Ass spring was in the distance with its multiple cottonwoods up on the edge of the bench
This is the lowest down seep where the former national champion cottonwood use to be, you can see the remains of its massive trunk in between the small trees.
This ledge and pool is just below those trees and you can see it slowly running off the ledge, maybe a liter a minute.
There are several other seeps as you go up wash, all coming from the north side of the bench. It is easy to walk by the stone corral if you stay down in the bottom of the wash
Just above the corral is the last big cottonwood and the last seep where we found this research marker, I assume for the spring survey?
If you look close you can see the marker in the bottom right corner of this picture, it was cabled to a bush.
We climbed up to the top of the bench above the springs area so we could avoid fighting our way through the considerable thorny brush around the top of the springs.
We headed across the benches to South spring which was an obvious heavily vegetated area but we saw no water and with our observations of the previous springs assumed it was not running as well.
On over to North spring where you can see its small stand of cottonwoods at some distance, it was dry too, we could easily see down into the wash. 1:00 and we stop here for lunch.
We make the last jump over the benches, with a few shallow washes to cross, to Tule spring by 3:30. Only about 7 miles today. The pond had water in it but it is nearly impossible to get to it. This is looking from the dam up towards one of the two rock houses and the grassy area where the water seeps out of the ground.
There is no single source for the spring, instead it seeps out of the clayey gravels across a wide area below the old corral. We searched for some time to find a place deep enough to be able to dip water out of and finally found one just large enough after a little bit of cleaning it out. Not bad water, just a bit green.
We set up camp on a small bench below the dam that might give us a bit of protection in case the wind comes up as was forecast. We also set up the tarp just in case it decides to rain overnight. The high today was in the 50’s but mostly still.
We go to check out the two rock houses, one above the corral and spring area had two rooms and you can see the tules around the pond down below
There was one mortar hole in a rock right near the corner of the structure and two more in rocks not far away.
Across the slope some distance, on a rise, is the second better built rock house with the remnants of a woodstove, lots of other artifacts, cans, etc.
This bottle bottom was there, it came a long way to get to Tule springs!
We returned to camp for a relaxing dinner and a tremendous sunset. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. It is supposed to clear off tomorrow. This would have been the night we were supposed to be up on Sue Peaks, good idea we didn’t attempt that this trip!
Trail Day 3
It cleared off most of the way overnight and without the wind that had been predicted. 36 degrees the low but my new inflatable pad developed an slow leak and I was up every 2 hours blowing it back up, good thing I use a double pad system so I still had the .66 inch closed cell foam pad underneath. I also felt like I was coming down with some kind of head cold, not the best way to enjoy the trip. Note the tarp in the background, which we did not need last night after all.
We filled up with all the water we could carry, 9.5 liters each, because we were going to have to make it through possibly 2 dry camps before hitting our cache the 5th morning unless we found some water up on Burro Mesa.
Today’s goal was to move camp 3 miles west up to the saddle between Tule Mountain and Burro Mesa and then climb Tule Mountain itself. Fairly easy walk up wash and ridge to a nice flat area for a camp by 11:30. Great views back to the east with a sideways look at the Mule Ears between Goat Mountain and Kit and Trap Mountains.
We empty out my pack and use it as a day pack to carry our lunches, water and necessities for the climb up Tule. The mountain is essentially flat topped but steep to get up, we took the ridge approach on the center left, it is an 800 foot elevation gain from camp.
Did I say it was steep? Robert was charging up the slopes while I was sucking wind behind him, not helped by feeling pretty crappy from the building head cold.
I finally drag my ass up to the top and the views are amazing. Burro Mesa with the Chisos behind that.
We spent a good amount of time up top taking pictures. The Auodad appeared to be regular visitors up here too.
It is a sheer drop off on the west side
Burro Tank and Wild Duck/Latte Tinaja are down there in the white areas
I was way happy to have made it up but when it started to spit some rain we decided we best head down.
Back to camp by 3:30 after another 3 miles and fortunately it doesn’t rain. We had been reconsidering our route for tomorrow after looking closer at the climb up the side of Burro Mesa, neither one of us was looking forward to it, especially me as I was not at top speed.
We had an enjoyable late afternoon and we began to get some good light near sunset as the clouds appeared to be moving out more.
Camp had great views all around but especially towards Burro Mesa.
This is a close up of my planned route up the side of Burro Mesa, up the ridge in the center right, going over the shoulder just to the right of the long flat topped section. We had decided after a few hours of studying it that we would pass on it this trip and instead would head more north, maybe check out Sammy spring and then go directly for our cache up near the park road.
After another good dinner we were enjoying the quiet darkness when we heard a huge wind coming at us from the west. In seconds a blast of at least 30 mph hit us, sending things flying. We were quickly grabbing everything when it started raining hard with hail! We had not set up the tarp because the forecast was for it to clear up. Rookie mistake.
I stuffed my sleeping bag into my pack as fast as I could but it got damp as did most of the rest of my clothing. Robert and I had talked about if it did start to rain we would just pull the tarp over us. He had it at the ready and we dragged it over us and our stuff and we huddled under it for a short while until the rain slowed down enough for us to quickly jump out and set it set up proper under headlamps. Fortunately the wind had died down too.
Finally at 8:00 we crawl under the tarp for the night and assess the situation and prepare for a damp night. My clothes are mostly damp so I take them all off except a synthetic top, my wind shirt and dry sleep socks. I crawl into my damp sleeping bag on top of my thin CCF pad, foregoing trying to fight with my wet, leaking inflatable. Looked like a long cold night for me.
Robert was in slightly better shape as his bag had been inside of his bivy sack and he had all of his clothes on under his rain jacket.
I actually slept better than I had thought possible as it rained lightly off and on all night. With body heat I managed to dry out my body, the clothes I had on and the sleeping bag by morning but as I lay there I kept rolling possible plans around in my head. I had decided that if it was clear in the morning then we could dry things out and keep on with the new route plan. If we woke to cloudy skies then we should probably turn back east and head for the road near Burro spring about 6 miles away, hitch back to the car and spend the night in Study Butte to dry out and warm up. Mostly I just mentally kicked myself over and over for the rookie mistake of not setting the tarp up under cloudy skies.
Trail Day 4
As daylight approached not only was it still cloudy but it was still raining lightly and 40 degrees, just about the worst kind of conditions. We had a leisurely breakfast while waiting for the rain to stop and it finally did.
A couple of warm and dryish guys
We had decided that we would indeed head for the road, we would return to the backcountry tomorrow but after we had dried out. We packed up the wet gear and started walking at 10:00
back down the ridge and wash towards Tule spring and past.
It was a wild sky
And as we turned the corner near Burro spring we got a glimpse of the Chisos through a break in the clouds and there was snow up there!
It didn’t appear as if it would rain again so we took the scenic route up past Heading Out spring (dry) and Burro spring which was running well but with light flow.
The climb up around the pouroff to the NPS trail was a steep social trail but easy to follow
As we walked the trail out to the parking area we passed two groups going in, one said they would give us a ride if we were still there when they came out. We waited around for a while, flagging down all the cars that came by from the Lower Burro pouroff and all of them where not going south on the RMSD but we did find out that it had been snowing hard in the Basin.
We finally gave up and walked the additional mile out to the RMSD (still a 6.5 mile day) and the second car stopped and took Robert the seven miles back down to Tuff canyon and his car. Robert returns at 2:30 and we are off to the Chisos Mining Co. motel. It continued to precipitate lightly, occasionally, as we drove.
We warmed up with hot showers, hung up all the wet gear to dry
And headed over to the Starlight for a great dinner and some good local entertainment.
We reformulated the plan, again, for the last two days of the trip. We would park at our cache on the park road near milepost 17 and head east and then south down the Apache canyon wash past Burro Tank and onto the Alamo Creek wash, the last day we would walk back north, up the Alamo Creek wash and past Swirl tinaja. It wouldn’t get us the whole south end of Alamo Creek but there were a lot of cool things to check out on the northern section.
So here is the map as it will make more sense now after all the plan changes. The individual days are each in a different color, the original route plan and campsites, that we didn’t do are in black. The orange sections are alternatives we considered.
Trail Day 5
With some cold medicine from the Cottonwood store I slept hard and hopefully didn’t keep Robert up with what had developed into a righteous and obnoxious cough. We woke to a brilliant clear morning, had breakfast at the Chili Pepper before heading to our cache on the park road. As we pulled over to park there was a dove waiting for us, kind of a sign.
Walking by 9:30, carrying all the water we would need for two days, we headed south towards the north end of the set of hills that separates the Alamo Creek and Apache canyon washes. As we rounded the corner flat topped Tule Mountain was prominent.
We walked down the Apache canyon wash for a while before jumping out and over the bench to the next big wash south which is the huge wash that comes from Sammy spring and the pouroff above it which drains the entire middle section of Burro Mesa.
Down and across that wash and we climb out again towards Burro Tank, in all we would cross three different benches today.
The flat topped benches make for fast walking. We usually will follow them down a long finger until we drop down into the next wash,
this one ended in a drop off we couldn’t get down and had to back track a bit to find a way down.
At the end of that ridge was Burro Tank with quite a large pool of water which would be very hard to get to like the Tule spring pond. Note the weather station (or at least a rain gauge) on the top of the dam next to Robert. Also note that there is a PVC stand pipe which indicates to me that it has been rebuilt at some point.
Just below Burro Tank was the remnants of a wide road that ran for some distance and which you can see in satellite imagery, I wonder if it was built when they rebuilt the dam?
We are now down into the area we could see from the top of Tule Mountain with all of the white rock and clay areas. There were many cool walls, carvings and other rock features.
Including this old ladder, much like the one up near Dagger Flat at Leopold tinaja that was supposedly used to collect honey from wild beehives.
We jumped over one last bench to the wash that runs by Wild Duck/Latte tinaja. The USGS map shows the tinaja incorrectly, it is not in the main wash but up a short side wash with its own little canyon. It is quite a large pool and was not as silty as I had imagined, about the same as the water I used from Dike tinaja last year.
It is 5:00 and the sun is getting low. We head a short distance down wash to the confluence with the big Alamo Creek wash. We turn up stream and cross the wash to climb up onto the western bench so we can have the huge views from up high. We find a great campsite in an ocotillo grove with 360 degree views. About 9 miles today, it had been a radiant day and we had seen many amazing and interesting things. We settled in for dinner, the setting sun and a big night sky.
Trail Day 6
A super clear sky meant a cold 28 degree and less than comfortable night with my slowly deflating pad but the sun hits us with authority at 8:00
Pretty good frost on the bags so we loll around a bit to let them dry out but we are walking by 10:00 up the big Alamo Creek wash.
About an hour up stream we find a fairly large tinaja on the east side of the wash where a dike crosses the area. It holds a pretty good amount of water but because it is right at wash level it could easily fill with gravel in a big flood.
Shortly after, as we are cruising along, we hear a small plane in the distance and slowly but almost in a bee line it comes directly at us, flying low, it flies right over us, NPS. How the hell do they know we are there as I am sure we are the only people walking around in that area?
Instead of walking the creek bed all the way to Swirl Tinaja we want to climb out up onto the big bench and take a more direct route. The first slope we climb up leads us to a false, isolated summit that we have to climb back down. We need to be over there! Alamo Creek wash on the left and the Apache canyon wash on the right.
Once up to the real bench we move along easily. We know we are getting close to Swirl and when a rock outcropping appears in the middle of what is otherwise featureless terrain dominated by alluvial, gravelly, deposits it has to be the place.
1:00 and it is getting warm so we slip into the shade of the entrance to the swirl itself and have lunch.
Of course we take our time to explore and study the place with its intricate carvings, no water just a lot of gravel.
Clearly it was the community center back in the day with at least 50 mortar holes in the upper layers.
Several worn right through the ledge.
We head out at 2:00 and in a mile we are back to the car after about 7 miles for the day.
We have time so we drive down to Castolon to see the burned out store and check out the new displays in the visitor center buildings, very well done. Of course an ice cream bar was consumed at the new temporary store.
We had one other thing we wanted to check out that we would have seen on the last day of our original planned route. A little side canyon near Cerro Castolon with some amazing features.
Including a side hole with a narrow opening.
Happy we took the time we went set off for Study Butte. We had originally planned to eat dinner in Study Butte and then camp our last night at the Rattlesnake Mountain roadside site but as I was still feeling pretty crappy and with a deflating pad, the prospect of another cold night out was not too appealing so Robert agreed to another night at the Chisos Mining Co. motel before driving back to San Antonio the next day. Dinner at the Chili Pepper and some repacking for road travel finished the day.
Back home and final thoughts
We woke to a beautiful morning and not as cold as we expected so we would have been fine camping at Rattlesnake Mountain, oh well. One more breakfast at the Chili Pepper and we are off towards San Antonio.
Into SA by 3:00 and I talk Robert into a chicken fried steak at DeWese’s Tip Top Café before he dropped me off at the hotel, it would hold me until the morning. I was looking forward to a quiet night and a good night’s sleep, still trying to kick the cold.
Up early for a 7:30 flight back to North Carolina, back home to the farm by 2:00.
As with all trips to Big Bend this one was full of new sights and territory. Unlike most of my trips it also had more changes than just about any trip I have ever had. Because I am flying in from such a distance, I usually have the plan dialed in and they almost always go accordingly. This time the weather, lack of spring flow and an unexpected head cold had us rethinking things almost constantly. If Sue Peaks was plan A we ended up at least at D or E, maybe even F but not a failing grade.
In hindsight, we could have certainly continued on with the trip instead of hiking out on the 4th day after the rain, things were drying out and it didn’t really precipitate much after we started walking but who knows and with the building head cold it probably wasn’t a bad idea. Similarly we could have easily spent another night out at Rattlesnake Mountain but again with the bum pad and head I was glad we didn’t. Maybe at age 63 I am getting softer or wiser?
This was the third trip Robert and I have done together and he continues to be the most agreeable hiking partner. The consummate Texas host and I can’t thank him enough- he drives his vehicle, has a cooler full of beer, always has a smile, is ready to go just about any place and is constantly thinking ahead. He was very flexible on this trip and I hope to hell he didn’t get the damned head cold.
Another great trip, now thinking about the next one.