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Hit the Dusty Trail (Big Bend NP)

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

I left Eco-Ranch for good in the morning. (I have to admit, Robert has a sense of humor with the bus stop display!) It sprinkled lightly last night - emphasis on the lightly. As Robert noted, "If we get a quarter-inch of rain or more, we're stranded here until it dries out." The risks of off-grid living...

One sector of Big Bend remained on the to-do list: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive down to Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande cuts through this canyon as it marks the border, with canyon walls 1500' high squeezing the river. The canyon defied attempts of men to explore it on foot for centuries. In 1852, a Border Commission sent an empty wooden boat into the canyon to see what they could glean of the terrain. Out the other end came planks and splinters.

Now people can travel through the canyon with outfitters and raft or kayaks - a memorable transit through a secluded land. I mentioned to Sue that would be something I wouldn't mind returning to do. She quickly replied, "No!!" before adding, "Unless you want me to collect that life insurance."

I'd have to settle for a mere nibble of the canyon this trip. First, I had to navigate the scenic drive, making the obligatory stops along the way. First I wandered to the Sam Naill ranch remains. That early settler had found a spring to anchor his home. Traces of the adobe walls, windmills, and the pecan and fig trees he planted still survive.

I passed a couple of trailheads, hoping to find time on my return to try them out. (This road is an out-and-back affair, unless you have a high-clearance vehicle and the time to take the Old Maverick Rd back.) The Sotol Vista pullout gave a good, wide angle view of the area terrain.

Though miles still separated me from the canyon, I could still make out the cleft in the cliffs that marked the gorge's exit.

I did hike out to the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff.

This short hike takes one into a box canyon. After a rain, the far end of the canyon sports a hundred-foot waterfall, from the stream emptying the mesa - at times like this, you can see the water-smoothed rock it flows over.

As I strode toward the feature, I noticed a woman with her binoculars focused on the top of the cliff. "Something of interest up there?" I asked.

"There's a bird up there I'm trying to get a look at."

"Oh? What kind of bird?"

"Actually, I'm not sure." She paused, then added, "I'm a biologist, and I run bird-watching tours out of Houston. I've come out here to see what new birds I can find. When I see one, I shoot its picture, and use that to identify it later." You meet the most interesting people in the parks!

Miles away, I could still see the cleft in the cliffs.

Anxious to get to the main event, I now set my focus on the canyon, ignoring other stops. The short hike into the canyon - before the squeezing walls halted foot traffic - had enticed me since I read about it. When I arrived, I discovered the 'normal' path in - crossing a mostly-dry steambed that fed the Rio Grande - lay under a wide body of water.

"If you want to get across," one man helpfully offered, "head just up the creek. This water's just backflow from the Rio Grande." Sure enough, a hundred yards up, the water ended, providing access to the other shore. However, getting back to the canyon put me at the mercy of an unofficial 'social trail', cut by people working their way across steep slopes and through bottomland growth.

The footing on the slopes - loose rocks and granite - was more suited to mountain goats than humans. Once I returned to the flats, the trail shrunk to 2-3' wide as it passed through thick growth, with a 15-20' drop-off into the water on the left.

But the challenge didn't seem to faze anyone, so I followed suit.

Once I got back to the canyon, the NPS-maintained trail took over. It first climbed (with paved ramp and steps) over a ledge and dropped into the canyon.

For a half-mile or more, I walked through a verdant (and shady!) shelf under the canyon walls.

Across the Rio, the water lapped against the canyon walls.

Looking at the canyon wall on the far side brought on a small touch of vertigo: the rock layers in the canyon wall sat at a slight angle to the horizontal, which contrasted to the water line.

A nice hike, but now I had to return. Given the nature of seat-of-the-pants trail cutting, I ended off of the path I'd entered on. As I found myself boxed in on the gravelly slope, people crossing the streambed called out directions to me. "That's not the path!" "You need to be higher up!" Finally I worked myself up and over, back to the other side. Whew!

Enough time remained for me to squeeze in one last hike. I chose Mule Ears Spring, in an area known for a unique rock formation.

This hike stayed level, no big climbs or drops, through a high-desert landscape. Unlike the Lost Mine trail yesterday, this hike presented no spectacular scenic payoff - and the spring at the end was overgrown with plants, leaving no photo op. A large variety of plants flourished along the trail, making the walk seem like a stroll through the Desert Botanic Gardens (without interpretive signs).

Given my recent history with losing trails, I made a point of looking for signposts along my way. To recall them, I gave them names like Aloe Troll, Shrugging Ocotillo, Starburst Twins, and Cactus Garden. Luckily the trail stayed distinct on the return, because I did not notice a single signpost as I returned on the trail. I guess they looked different going the other direction.

And so much for my three days at Big Bend NP! I now tackled the two-hour drive north to Alpine, my once and former home for the night. This time, I'd found an AirBNB room in an old, converted hospital. Compared to Eco-Ranch, I relaxed in the lap of luxury.

I'm sure you've heard about the dangers of drowsy driving. However, the dangers of drowsy directions get overlooked. My plans for tomorrow included a stop at the little-visited west side of Guadalupe Mountains NP, where gypsum sand dunes collect leeward of the peaks. I figured that my Garmin would not have 'Salt Basin trailhead' in its database, so I pulled up Google Maps and had it figure out the route. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I wrote down the directions in my journal, not noticing when I omitted a step...


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