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Monday, September 21, 2015 : Big Bend National Park

 

This morning, after close to four weeks on the road, Marie is beginning to feel the strain and stays in bed for a while. While she's having some more rest, I walk down to the lodge lobby with the tablet, just in case wi-fi would be more stable than at the cottage. But to no avail.

 

We have a quiet breakfast and we prepare our bags for the day with, as always, our water bags and some snacks. I know I'm repeating myself, but this is really important. We then pay a visit to the visitor center, where a couple, who seem to know their park like the back of their hand, extends us a very friendly welcome. The lady recommends us a few trails, including a very close one, that should not mandatorily be walked in its entirety. In fact, the mild interest of the upper part, an abandoned mine, is not justified by especially dramatic viewpoints.

 

Our program today is straightforward : we are visiting Big Bend National Park all day long, alternating hiking, picture-worthy viewpoints, local history and, considering the sheer size of the park, some driving anyway.

 

Compared to yesterday, which did not end too well, weather seems to be holding. Sounds great !!

 

Panther Pass, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Panther Pass

 

Lost Mine Trail starts quite close to the lodge, less than five minutes' drive back up to Panther Pass. From up there, we get a view on The Window, the other opening of Chisos Basin, higher than at the lodge, and really gorgeous. It is already quite warm but, 5,740 ft high and late September, that remains perfectly acceptable.

 

There, our ranger's advice takes its full meaning. Lost Mine Trail is lined with 24 markers. She suggested that we hike up to #10, to enjoy the view of Chisos Basin and a large part of the park. Beyond that, the trail is enclosed within a narrow canyon, and does not offer such a great view, if she is to be believed. We are going to scrupulously follow her recommendation.

 

The trail climbs up the mountainside, while remaining easily within the reach of average hikers like us. Between Big Bend's remoteness and the end of the holiday season, we can't say it's really crowded. By the way, though quite small, the parking lot is far from full.

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Female deer, Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Female deer, Lost Mine Trail

 

Inside a turn of the trail, we cross a group of deer looking for food. This picture was not zoomed, they were really that close.

 

This is the kind of random encounter with wildlife that can be expected to occasionally occur in National Parks, where animals are aware that man is not a threat for them. Let's face it, it's also pure luck. My advice is then for humans to be as discrete, stealthy and silent as possible and to have a camera ready, just in case.

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View of Big Bend National Park, Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

View of Big Bend National Park, Lost Mine Trail

 

We have now reached marker #10, almost half-way up Lost Mine Trail. We are at a viewpoint that overlooks the whole park. The ranger's advice was particularly appropriate.

 

The clouds that can be seen on the picture are the remains of yesterday's moisture, now long evaporated. They are not going to bother us too much, and this day will be dominated by a perception of fine weather, with hardly more that a thin veil of mist.

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Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Lost Mine Trail

 

I walked up to marker #11, close by, then back down to a saddle off Lost Mine Trail that gives access to a viewpoint on Panther Pass, the primary access to Chisos Basin. The view is just as dramatic.

 

We have gained some elevation. We are roughly 6,000 ft high. Vegetation is mostly made of brush, with small trees able to withstand water shortage, prevalent in this park in the middle of the desert. But it is not typical desert vegetation, which we will find again back in the lower plains, later in the day.

 

After a break to enjoy the landscape, we hike our way down.

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Bear-proof food container, Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Bear-proof food container

 

We are back at Lost Mine trailhead. Although we have yet to see one, we know for sure we are in a bear area. Those voracious animals would do anything to get food. Though actual risks of bears attacking humans are pretty low, it is nonetheless highly recommended to lock your food in the sturdy metal container of the picture. The bear ends up smelling the food inside anyway, but its large paws do not allow it to open the box.

 

Today, nobody is using the container. This is why the door is still open.

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Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

 

After Lost Mine Trail, we hit the road again for some driving. We leave Chisos Basin and are back in the plain that makes up the southern tip of Chihuahuan Desert, slowly bent down towards Rio Grande, which we will see later in the afternoon.

 

At some point, we stop for a break on the roadside. We have lost more than 2,500 ft since Lost Mine Trail, and we can see on the picture that vegetation has already changed a lot. Here, no more shrub with the beautiful yellow flowers, no more deer, and almost no grass. Mediterranean vegetation has disappeared in favor of the desert's, much sparser and shorter.

 

Sight extends quite far, from here. And that bright weather perception still prevails.

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Wind pump, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park

Wind pump, Sam Nail Ranch

 

After a few miles on the main road of the park, we turn left onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 31 mile-road that will take us to the rim of Rio Grande. We chose this road because it links a number of various points of interest : historic remains, viewpoints, some hiking, and Rio Grande itself, which marks the border between the United States and Mexico.

 

Before the park was established in 1944, the region was sparsely populated, but not entirely deserted. Nowadays, traces of former settlers can still be seen. Sam Nail Ranch belongs to the list. He had settled here with his family to raise cattle on open land available in the region. Needless to say, there was no shortage of land !

 

Of the ranch itself, only a few wall stubs remain, the highest being barely chest-high. However, the two wind pumps, which used wind energy to pump water from the ground, are still standing. The first one is all twisted, in quite bad condition. The second one, shown on the picture, looks in pretty decent condition.

 

A rather short trail, about 1/2 mi., with no difficulty, makes a loop around the site. There must be water nearby. Short of being a full-blown oasis, vegetation is much thicker than in the surroundings, which are really bare.

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Homer Wilson Ranch, Big Bend National Park

Homer Wilson Ranch

 

A few miles after Sam Nail Ranch, our next stop is at Homer Wilson Ranch, another trace of the region's past before the park was established. From the parking lot on the roadside, the ranch can be reached with a trail slightly longer than the previous one. We hike down to the the bed of a dry creek, and the ranch can be found immediately on the other side.

 

Homer Wilson Ranch is in much better condition than Sam Nail's. The main building is still standing. It no longer has any doors or windows, but the floor, walls and roof look pretty sturdy, to the point that the visit is not supervised. Of course, not a single object or piece of furniture is left inside.

 

This used to be a quite important ranch. A sign tells that Homer Wilson used to raise 2,500 goats and 4,000 sheep here. We can assume that, to tend to such large herds, significant manpower was required. We therefore better understand why the main building is quite large.

 

However, what has not been cleaned up is the small side building, a few feet from the ranch. Long before we make it to the door, a strong, foul odor reaches us. Pushed forward by curiosity, I walk in and can see a big heap of what is, with absolute certainty, bear droppings, prompting a few foregone conclusions :

 

  • Yes, there are bears in Big Bend National Park. This is not a legend for tourists eager for an adrenaline shot.
  • A bear is a relatively clean animal, decent enough to leave its droppings always at the same place. We did not notice any other bear droppings around the ranch.
  • And one more time it did not wait for us, because, needless to say, even after watching very carefully, we can't see a single bear around the place.

 

All in all, that's not a bad situation. I was not especially eager to find myself facing a bear made angry by a man disturbing its moment of rest in the bathroom.

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Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park

Sotol Vista

 

Close by Homer Wilson Ranch, we make a stop at Sotol Vista. As shown on the picture, this viewpoint overlooks the plain at our feet from a higher position.

 

From here, the view extends up to Rio Grande, still more than 16 miles from us as the crow flies. Nothing stands in the way. The notch in the cliff, in the background, is Santa Elena Canyon, which we are going to see a little later.

 

We are at the warmest hours of the day. And it is very, very warm, at Sotol Vista. Oh, and I was forgetting ... since we are spending two nights at the same place, we do not have our luggage with us, and we can drive with the hood open. We enjoy it, we only have three days left.

 

We have brought along some food for a quick snack during this break. We then take Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive again. Our plan is to drive the road to its end, at Santa Elena Canyon, and then drive back and stop at the few places that will attract our attention.

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Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon

 

After Castolon, the last 8 miles of the road wind along Rio Grande. We pass close to the river take-out, where people paddling up Rio Grande or just kayaking on the river start from.

 

We have made it to Santa Elena. We can't go any further with the car, the road stops here. So we take our backpacks and set out for some hiking.

 

The picture shows the downstream mouth of the canyon, long considered impassable, due to many rocks on its course, along with a few class 4 rapids, according to water level. The first official crossing of the canyon was only made in 1881, by John T. Gano's expedition.

 

We are at the border between the United States and Mexico. On the right of the picture is the American bank, where we are standing. On the left is Mexico.

 

For a minute, I am surprised that a border which is the frequent subject of sometimes raucous debates about immigration is absolutely unguarded. Crossing Rio Grande on foot is in fact no big feat at all. In the end of summer, water is about knee-deep, at most. Yes, but people first have to reach the river, which means climbing down one way or another the 1,500 ft high cliff on the Mexican side. Eventually, this border is best protected neither by the Border Patrol, conspicuously absent, nor by Rio Grande itself, but by this sheer vertical cliff.

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Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Rio Grande

 

The picture above was taken at the same place as the previous one, close to Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, at the confluence of Rio Grande and Terlingua Creek, but facing downstream. Here, Mexico is on the right, and we can pretty well see that the cliff goes on after the end of the canyon. However, on the American side, we are on a beach of pebbles and mud.

 

We can also pretty well see that Rio Grande is neither very wide nor very deep.

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Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon

 

After a short first section that leads to the beach of previous picture, the trail crosses the confluence of Terlingua Creek and Rio Grande, and continues on the other side of Terlingua Creek. Marie, unwilling to soak her feet, would rather wait for me on the beach with her camera, while I cross the river to follow the trail.

 

The trail proceeds by climbing an almost vertical cliff, partly on flights of steps, partly on a steep path. No regrets for Marie. With the searing heat, the climb quickly turns exhausting.

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Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park

Rio Grande

 

Once I make it to the top, the view is really gorgeous. On this picture, which I took with my phone, Mexico is on the right and the United States are on the left and in the background. Sight extends up to Chisos Mountains, more than a dozen miles away.

 

With the help of perspective, we realize that Rio Grande is not very wide, 100 ft. at most.

 

I take advantage of a short break to start a conversation with a Canadian resettled in Texas, out to visit all Southwestern USA parks. I have already visited more than a few, but this gentleman clearly leads the score.

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Animal footprint in the mud, Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Animal footprint in the mud

 

While I go for a hike along part of Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Marie has a rest and takes a few pictures, including the one above, which shows a relatively large footprint, about 4 inches long, in the mud on the bank of Rio Grande. Our knowledge in animal life does not allow us to tell which animal it belongs to, and neither does my in-depth research while I am writing this article. Most likely some kind of deer ? If a visitor of the site can shed some light on this, I am highly grateful in anticipation.

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Between Santa Elena and Castolon, Big Bend National Park

Between Santa Elena and Castolon

 

After some more chat with the Canadian I met on Santa Elena Canyon Trail, we finally leave Santa Elena and its dramatic canyon. We have time before driving back to Chisos Mountains Lodge, so we can afford a few more stops.

 

The picture above was taken very close to Rio Grande, flowing right behind us. We can pretty well see we are in a desert area.

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Old gas pump, Castolon, Big Bend National Park

Old gas pump, Castolon

 

We stop for a moment at Castolon, an old hamlet that has been deserted when the park was created in 1944. The only remaining trace of its former activity is this old vintage gasoline pump. In one of the renovated buildings, there is a visitor center that also serves as a general store, closed at the time of our visit.

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Tuff Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Tuff Canyon

 

Soon after Castolon, we stop at Tuff Canyon, which has the advantage of being close to the road. The walk to go and see the canyon is therefore very short. Tuff Canyon is not too deep, but very narrow. It really shows the work of erosion by water in the soft limestone.

 

Here, we are in the middle of a desert, we know that for sure, as we know that it very rarely rains. But when it rains, it's not half-heartedly, as this small canyon shows.

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Mule Ears Peak, Big Bend National Park

Mule Ears Peak

 

Driving back up Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, on our right, we notice this unusual double summit shaped like mule ears. It is the very appropriately named Mule Ears Peaks. A branch off the main road takes us to a nearer parking lot, and Marie can take a picture.

 

We drive by all the places we have seen since this morning, without stopping again.

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Back to Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Back to Chisos Basin

 

Along the road, for a few hundred yards, we can see those unusual aligned rocks, very regularly shaped, almost like a wall, but made by nature, not by man. I have no explanation about their origin, most likely some rock formation caused by erosion, but by which phenomemon ? Freeze-and-thaw ? I can't rule it out, but it very seldom freezes, in Big Bend. Here again, if a visitor of the site has an explanation, I'm taking it.

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The Window, Big Bend National Park

The Window

 

I slow down for a minute, to allow Marie to take a picture of The Window, the same as in Chisos Basin where our lodge is, but seen from the other side. In the background, the massive summit is Lost Mine Peak, where we were this morning. Behind the right flank of the mountain, the buildings inside Chisos Basin, including our lodge, are hidden on this picture.

 

We are now back at Chisos Mountains Lodge. We have a moment's rest under the canopy in front of our cottage.

 

When we walk out again for dinner, it has begun to rain, a very thin, persistent rain that reminds us of home. After dinner, when we walk back up to the cottage, rain has stopped. We very briefly cross a fox.

 

Wi-fi being as unstable as yesterday, there is no way I can update the blog or upload pictures. That will have to wait till tomorrow.

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