1-12-2014 Last Day in Big Bend

NAS Corpus Christi: 67 F with a nice 10mph breeze and bright sunshine at 5:30PM

through the window at Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsSometimes the most difficult part about not writing blog stories right away is getting back into the “mode”. Sitting here by Corpus Christi Bay, watching the brilliant sun turn orange on the horizon and listening to shore birds makes it a bit difficult to slip back in time to our rocky world at Big Bend. 

This has been a lovely day, and there are more to come, and of course by the time I get to write about them, we will be off somewhere else, doing more lovely things and trying to remember the last lovely thing that we did.  It isn’t so much that I feel obligated to keep up with the blog, it is more that I really want to remember, for myself, what I felt when I was doing whatever.

red rocks in the Grapevine HillsSo, I open up Picasa again, and look at the photos for awhile, think about where we were and what it felt like, and sooner or later, the feelings reemerge. I am back in Big Bend, the cool morning is opening up as the sun rises, the smell of the leafless cottonwoods and desert grasses filling my nose as we get ready for our last day in the Big Bend.

When we first started looking at ideas for this day, we thought it would be nice to do the dirt back roads that are between the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.  The River Road traverses the southern portion of Big Bend and midway passes the ruins of the Marsical Mine.  Mercury was once mined here and structures are still standing.  In addition, the route has several rough dirt tracks that lead to backcountry campsites along the river that might be interesting to see.

Nice easy trail little over a mileBut it is a 51 mile trip, with at least 8 hours of rough bumping around.  We do that a lot, but on this day we thought, no…maybe something easier.  I thought it might be nice to get back to camp by 3 or so and have time to cook a decent supper, get some laundry done, and be ready for Monday morning and an early departure.  You know, that life stuff. 

Instead of an all day backcountry trip, we took a 6 mile dirt road to one of the hidden gems of the park, the Grapevine Hills.  Photos of the Balanced Rock are everywhere, and yet it seems that fewer people make it out to the hills to take the short easy hike.  We thought, hmmm…maybe no one will be there and we can take Abby.  (If you haven’t seen my last post and my comment about dogs on the trails here is another thought about that.  Our dogs can carry diseases that wild animals are not immune to.  I hadn’t really thought about that aspect when I was grumbling away about the no dog rule and trying to get around it.)

trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThe road was again, graded dirt, but with more washboards and a few ditches, but nothing that would require actual 4 wheel drive.  We drove past a couple of primitive camps, and at 6 miles arrived at the trailhead for Balanced Rock.  Lo and behold, there were six cars already there and 4 more had just arrived with big bunches of people piling out and loading up water and packs and leaving on the trail.  Way too many people for me much less an illegal dog!

We thought we would amble on down to the end of the road and check out the Grapevine Springs primitive campground, just another mile or so north.  The road got a bit rougher here, with high clearance needed for sure, but all wheel drive would have been ok as well. The campground was surrounded by brush, and didn’t have much of a view. We wandered around a bit, and finally made it through some of the thick, spiny brush to find what may have once been a spring.  There was a hint of an old cottonwood, but I am pretty sure it was no longer alive, and a hint of a view of the desert to the east, but it was hidden mostly by the brush.  Our trusty little guidebook author said it was one of his favorite primitive campgrounds in the park.  All a matter of opinion, I guess.  We wouldn’t camp there, even if we did camp in a tent.

mountain mahogany in the Grapevine HillsBy the time we got back to the trailhead, there were still a lot of cars but no one was in sight.  We talked about letting Abby wait in the car, since it was still very cool, but Mo wasn’t at all comfortable with that, so instead she encouraged me to take the hike alone to the rock and she would wait with Abby in the parking lot.

I took off on the easy rated hike, only 1.25 miles each way and well marked.  The skies were perfectly blue, the air was just the right temperature and the path was wide and easy. About 3/4 of a mile in,  I passed some hikers returning and they said there were javelinas on the trail, an excellent reason for not having Abby along.  I looked and waited, but never saw a sign of them.  I see some beautiful and healthy mountain mahogany trees, indications of a bit of a different climate back in the small valley surrounded by hills.  Stopping every so often I heard interesting bird calls, but not being a true ‘birder’, I had no idea what I was hearing.

easy trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBig Bend Day 3_008Another couple came down the trail, and said, “It is just up the hill there, and there are still a lot of people up there”.  Hmmm.  At least I wouldn’t be surprised by the crowd.  What did surprise me, however, was the trail.  This was an ‘easy’ trail, remember?  As I saw the marker for the last 1/4 mile, I also saw the trail begin to ascend, and not gradually.  The trail looked dang near vertical, a scramble up the rocks, with switchbacks, and no end in sight.

This time I was armed with both hiking poles and my good boots, so I was ready.  Or almost ready.  I started up, and kept on going and going and going.  Yeah it was only a quarter mile, but it was definitely challenging to me.  Very near the end of the hike I looked at the rock as tall as I was and thought, “I can’t do this.  How in the world will I ever get back down”.  But I could hear voices at the top out of my line of vision, and thought, “Well, if I fall someone will at least hear me”, and up I went.  It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but it still was an adrenaline rush.

all that hiking and this is what I found at the top of the trail to Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsThen when I finally made it to the top, it turned out it wasn’t the top at all.  But there were definitely a lot of people there who were all busy scribbling in tablets and talking quietly among themselves.  They seemed to think I shouldn’t be there, but when I asked where the Balanced Rock was, one guy decided to talk to me and said, “Up there, on that trail.  It isn’t far.”  Oh great.  More up and in front of all these people, whomever they were with their little tablets.  I did ask someone if they were botanists or geologists, and a guy piped up and said, “We are artists”.  Oh.  They were all actually drawing desert images with colored chalk on little thin pieces of slate, obviously they brought their own slate since the rocks surrounding us were all granite of some sort.

Balanced Rock in the Grapevine HillsBalance Rock in the Grapevine HillsWith just a bit more effort, and a bit more adrenaline, I made it to the top of the landing below Balanced Rock, managed to take some photos without tipping over from vertigo, and climbed back down and beyond all the artists busily working on their projects.  When I had climbed the very tall, very vertical wall, I decided I needed both hands and had left my hiking poles behind.  I was happy to get down that rock and back to my poles, believe me.

love my Keens.  They stuck to the rock perfectlyIt was worth it, of course, and I am sure the next time I won’t be so jittery about it, and Mo will be with me, too.  Yes, we will come back and do this hike again.

When I returned to the trailhead, Mo and Abby were comfortable in the warm sun, hanging around and getting in a few walks along the road.  We drove back to the main highway and then turned north again to go find another dirt road to what was called Painted Gap.  Now I have to say, this road was the roughest we encountered.  There were lots of rocks and high clearance was a definite requirement.  The view from the crest of the hill near the gap was nice, with the Chisos Mountains to the south, but the road was rough enough and I was a bit tired of bouncing around so who knows what we would have found if we had continued to the end in another 1/2 mile or so.  We didn’t see any paint anywhere, though, so have no idea where the name came from.high clearance road to Painted Gap

By this time is was mid-afternoon, and it was a fine time to drive the 30 miles or so back to camp with plenty of time to have a nice supper and actually relax a bit.  Our grilled chicken breasts were great in a parmesan penne pasta with a little caesar salad on the side.  Small kitchen cooking is simple but can be really good.

Caesar Salad, grilled chicken, and a good bottle of white wine in Big BendAfter dinner we decided to go exploring around the campground, something we hadn’t done in the three days camped here.  At the store, I was shown on the map where Abby could go, and the boat ramp was on the list.  We just couldn’t take the paths and had to walk on the pavement that led to the park campground and around to the ramp.  It was a nice walk, and long enough that we all got a bit more exercise.

The river looked wide and slow, and not at all scary.  Well, maybe just a little bit.  The ramp has a drop off into thick, silty mud and the river depth drops suddenly within a foot or two.  I couldn’t quite picture trying to hold my boat against the current, keep from sinking into the mud, while trying to climb into my kayak without dumping.  Friend Jeanne just pushes her kayak off the rocks into waterfalls.  Jeanne I am not!

evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NPWe thought about trying to launch on the river in the morning before our planned departure and leave Abby in the MoHo, but common sense won out, and the lack of a permit and the country of Mexico within a few feet kept us from taking the chance.  I think this decision was made around 4 in the morning when I woke up, and could hear Mo breathing, and said, “I really don’t want to try to kayak in that river tomorrow morning”.  Her “OK” was quick and emphatic.  That trip will wait till next time as well.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

Walking back from the ramp that evening we were treated to one of the best sunsets we have seen in all our time on the road.  The skies in all directions just kept getting brighter and brighter and the colors kept shifting and changing.  What a beautiful way to end our last day in Big Bend National Park.evening at Rio Grande Village Big Bend NP

1-11-2014 Big Bend Part 2

Now: at NAS Corpus Christi  6:30 AM the temp is down to 51F and the wind is still blowing, now 26 mph

morning drive northOK Ya’ll…I’m in Texas now, I get to say “ya’ll”, right?  I left you in Rio Grande Village RV Campground on our first night in Big Bend National Park.  With just a short 3 night stay, we hoped to see the highlights at least, knowing that the park had so much to offer.  Interesting, talking with a volunteer at Seminole State Park a couple of days ago, he said, “I just didn’t get it.  We visited Big Bend and I wasn’t impressed”.  I asked what he did there, and he said they went up the mountain to Chisos Basin. 

Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena CanyonWell, of course he didn’t get it!  He never saw the canyons, the back roads, the wild hikes.  For flatlanders (pardon me if you are one) sometimes the mountains are a huge draw, even if the roads are scary.  We LIVE in the mountains, however, and the deserts are a huge draw for us.  So while the Chisos Mountains were beautiful, and a dominant visible feature from almost every part, they are not the only thing to see if you visit Big Bend.

We started our day early, knowing that we wanted to see the paved Scenic Route recommended to us by the volunteer at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.  Rio Grande Village is 20 miles from the visitor center, and the Scenic Route begins about ten miles west of the center.  Staying at the river campground requires a daily back and forth jaunt on the main road to see get to the entrance of the park’s paved roads and many of the back roads as well.

map scenic routeWe decided to do a loop rather than going over the Scenic Route to Santa Elena Canyon twice.  Also called the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the road is paved all the way.  We decided instead to follow the Old Maverick dirt road 14 miles through the lower desert to the canyon, stopping along the way to explore some of the old historical sites.

these people were short! Luna's JacalAt Luna’s jacal (ya-CAL) another word for a small house, we tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in that remote place for a lifetime.  He raised many children in this low-roofed hut and lived to be more than 100 years old.  Just couldn’t imagine it.  We then wandered off to the Terlingua Abajo, the ruins of a small Mexican village along the Ternlingua River where families lived up until the 30’s.  Not much left now, but we loved having the entire road and trails to ourselves.

Yes, we took Abby on the trail across Terlingua Creek and she even got a chance to swim.  We know there are javelinas in the park so of course kept her close.  Although with Abby that isn’t too much of an issue.  She sticks as close to Mo’s leg as possible, only getting concerned if I get too far away from the two of them.  The dog does have some serious separation issues, a pain when we have to leave her in the car, but a blessing when we are out and about and she never even thinks of running off somewhere.swimming in Terlingua Creek at the abajo ruins

The skies were clear and the sun was warm and we even got a glimpse of what I am pretty sure was a peregrine falcon.  We weren’t far from the cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon, and know that there are a few rare nesting pairs in that area, but this guy flew off too quickly for me to capture him in the camera, so I am left with a fuzzy shot of something with a white breast among the branches of a mesquite tree.

I missed the photo, some sort of falcon with a very white breast peregrine-falcon_659_600x450
My photo of a peregrine falcon Internet photo of a peregrine

Surprisingly, on this trip we saw very little wildlife, and not a single javelina.  Our sightings consisted of a few little birds, the falcon, three tarantulas, and a couple of deer up in the Chisos Basin.  Not even a snake crossed our path, although Mo said she did see a lizard or two.

first close up view of Santa Elena CanyonAt the end of 14 miles of sometimes washboard gravel and graded dirt, we came to the paved road at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.  This place is mysterious and majestic, with the entrance visible for many miles before you arrive.  The walls are 1,500 feet high and rise vertically from the Rio Grande River that flows through it. 

Once again, Mo waited with Abby in the parking lot while I took the short trail to a viewpoint over the canyon.  It would have been so easy to put the kayaks in the water and paddle upstream against the current as far as Fern Grotto.  There is only one rapid to worry about in the canyon, called the Rock Slide, more a maze of huge rocks than an actual rapid, but definitely a place where an experienced river guide is a must.Santa Elena Canyon

Still, the next time we come, we will make sure we have the free day permit to put our boats on the river.  Again, the rules are strict.  No dogs on the river, even in your own boat.  Sigh.

Santa Elena CanyonThe hike was also “easy”, except of course for the very steep switchbacks and drop-offs with no railing.  My hiking poles were in the Tracker, but my boots were left by mistake on the floor of the MoHo where I had readied them for the day.  Instead I hiked this trail in my trusty Oofos, but they were sadly deficient for any kind of balance on this particular path.  I went as far as I could manage, but decided that since I was hiking alone and the trail above the river looked precarious, I shouldn’t try it without better shoes.

The silence of the canyon is impressive, with the river flowing very quietly and almost glassy smooth.  I read that the river may be as little as 2 feet deep at the entrance to the canyon, and you can even walk it sometimes.  Big on the bucket list is getting my kayak in this water and paddling upstream in Santa Elena Canyon.

Cottonwood CampgroundWe returned along the paved road, stopping in at the Cottonwood campground not far from the canyon.  The campground here is somewhat primitive, with no hookups, but there is potable water available at the entrance.  There are also no generators allowed at any time.  Would be a perfect place for folks with plenty of sun panels, however, since I think the sun shines here all the time.  We would like to camp here for a couple of days at least.  It is much more remote and quiet and we love the cottonwoods.

Continuing up the road, we came to the remote visitor center and store at Castolon. The store is small, but had “ice cream”. Somehow we were imagining a nice cone of something yummy, but had to settle for a packaged ice cream bar for our afternoon snack.  There is an historic district nearby, and this part of the park seems to have been fairly well populated with folks trying to eke out a living in the desert.

Sotol Vista PointThe route up the hill toward the Soton Overlook is nothing short of spectacular.  One of the most delightful aspects to our visit was the lack of company on the roads.  We saw very few cars and got into a game of guessing how many cars would be at the “sites”.  Sometimes it was one, and sometimes there wasn’t a soul around.  We had most every turnout to ourselves, even on a Saturday afternoon. 

Burro Mesa Pouroff TrailThat is one of the big differences between Big Bend and another desert park that we love, Death Valley.  In Death Valley, no matter when you visit, there will almost always be a LOT of people at the viewpoints and on the roads.  Big Bend is immense in the the same way, but much more remote.  Hard to imagine, I know, but it is definitely more remote and less visited.

Ambling along, we came to a turn off for the Burro Mesa Pour-Off.  My only concept of a pour-off is from hiking Utah’s canyon country and reaching the pour-off where there was no way to get any father into the canyon.  Sure enough, that is what this was, exactly, but much bigger than any pour-off I have encountered.

The sky was so dark we could almost see stars at the Burro Mesa pouroffAfter six miles or so on a dirt road to the trail head, where we saw no cars going in or out and no one in the parking lot, we decided to take the chance again with Abby.  Since she is so incredibly good about staying close and not being a problem, we felt that we weren’t taking chances with her disturbing wildlife, and of course Mo cleans up after her religiously.  I have no idea why our National Parks are such zealots against any and all dog trails, since it seems that some of the state parks are setting aside a few places where a dog can hike with you.  What the ranger said is that the bad eggs ruin it for all of us.  And yes, I don’t particularly like running into a big, scary unleashed dogs on a trail.

I had to run a long way in ten seconds to get this shotThe hike was perfect, just short of being hot, and only a little over a mile each way to the huge and rather amazing pour-off from the mesa above us.  And yes, the skies really WERE this blue.  I didn’t enhance this photo a bit. The area surrounding our hike was rich with fascinating sedimentary and volcanic features, making me really appreciate the geologic map of the park that I purchased for just $9.95 at the visitor center.  The western portion of the park is dominated by volcanic landscapes and rock and the eastern portion is dominantly sedimentary limestones.  The Chisos Mountains in the central part of the park are volcanic as well.

After our hike we continued traveling the scenic route stopping at more viewpoints along the way until we reached the main highway back toward Panther Junction.  It was late afternoon by then, but early enough that there would be plenty of light up in the Chisos Basin, and late enough that we decided an early dinner at the Chisos Mountain Lodge was in order.

through the window from the Chiso Mountain LodgeThe road up to the basin specifically states that rigs more than 24 feet are not recommended due to the steep grade and sharp curves.  Once at Chisos Basin Campground, however, we did see a few big rigs that had somehow made it up and down that road.  We figured we could do it in the MoHo, but the campground is a bit tight, and a lot more crowded than any other part of the park.

Dinner at the restaurant was actually very good, with a hamburger on a whole wheat bun that wasn’t the least bit greasy, and great french fries and a cold Sierra Nevada Ale for me and a glass of cabernet for Mo. I was so glad to know that when we returned to the campground I wouldn’t have to cook.

through the windowOf course the biggest draw at the lodge is the magnificent view of sunsets through “The Window” a famous scene from Big Bend National Park.  We discovered that there is a short trail from the lodge to an overlook of the window, but don’t get it confused with the 5 mile round trip hike with an 800 foot elevation drop that actually goes to the window.  I don’t particularly want to do that one ever, since I heard rumors of poison oak and scree scrambles.  Instead, we might actually opt for the Lost Mine Trail…a hard one…and the South Rim Trail…another hard one, on our next visit.

Even with a somewhat dull sunset to the west, the shaded colors reflected in the eastern sky as we drove down from the high elevation Chisos Basin toward the Rio Grande were charming.sunset from the Chisos Mountain Road

Tomorrow: a crazy hike to Balanced Rock and a sunset from heaven

1-10-2014 Big Bend part 1

Current location: Corpus Christi NAS with 53 degrees F and 18 mph winds at 4am

back to camp after a long day in Big BendI am sitting here this morning, listening to the winds buffeting the MoHo.  At 3, we were wakened by the gas alarm going off indicating our power was down.  I stepped outside to check, and everything seemed fine, with dim park lights here and there.  I discovered that the wind had blown the power cord right out of the receptacle.  Fixed it with a bungie and came back to bed after turning the power back to “store”. 

Of course, the moon is almost full and reflecting off the water of Corpus Christi Bay, a rather amazing sight.  There are also 8 to 10 foot fountains of sea spray that are illuminated by the moonlight.  I felt the spray blowing this way when I went outside. We were warned about the sea spray and winds when we took this site on the edge of the park near the water.  It is worth it for the view and the open spaciousness of the site.

map to big bend 197 milesMo and I looked at each other in amazement as we ate our supper last night.  It is rather incredible to go from the wild hot dry angular desert to the flat water filled landscape around us here west of Corpus Christi.  Just one day of driving, and here we are. 

But that isn’t supposed to be the subject of this post.  I need to write about Big Bend, and let myself slip back from this moonlit sea spray filled morning to the warmth of the desert we left behind.  I couldn’t sleep after the wind woke me up, and it was as much from the weight of the Big Bend writing waiting in my head as it was from the sound of the wind. So let’s slip back a bit to a few days ago when we first entered the amazing world of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande.

The sun was brilliant and the temperatures perfect when we left Davis Mountains State Park.  In the cool of the morning, I wanted to get a few more photos of “downtown” Fort Davis, and in the process ran into a delightful gentleman, Jim, who was working for the county at the lovely courthouse, pruning some trees.  We engaged in some conversation, and he told me more about the horrible fire that blew through here in 2011.  He also told me that I shouldn’t go to Big Bend through Alpine as we had planned, but should go south on highway 67 to Presidio and travel the River Road east through Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Highway 170 the River RoadMBZ had warned us that Presidio was a bit dicey, and I asked Jim about this, and he said, just don’t go into Mexico and don’t stop anywhere.  Ok then.  Trouble is, once we got to Presidio, the phone thought I was in Mexico and decided to stop sending me data for the maps.  I had a paper map, but it was a bit worthless for actually seeing the proper turns, and suddenly the big entry into Mexico loomed up ahead, and I hollered, “Turn around NOW!” For some reason, I had completely forgotten the Garmin tucked under the seat.  Duh.  When the phones don’t work and the paper maps are too small in scale, the Garmin is quite helpful.  Trucker Deanna always says, “Mom, we use all three all the time, phones, paper maps and GPS”. Of course. We managed to avoid getting in the entry line and turned around to find our proper turn east on Texas Farm Road 170.

Highway 170 the River RoadFarm Road 170 meanders along the Rio Grande through another wild and untamed gem of this part of Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park.  We had no time to hang around here, but definitely enjoyed the dramatic views along the route, especially the deep canyons of the Rio Grande near the one rather serious “Big Hill”.  The hill isn’t marked except for a sign about 15 miles west of it that says, “warning 15 percent grade 15 miles ahead”.

ready for the 15 percent downhill on Highway 170 the River RoadFollowing the river for miles and miles, it is easy to see that the international boundary is often just a mental concept.  Here there are no fences and we didn’t see much evidence of Border Patrol in this area.  The road winds and meanders, but wasn’t difficult for our rig, although the big hill was just a little bit hair raising, and thankfully quite short.  The rock formations at the Hoodoos were beautiful, and the geology was fascinating.

We drove east into the town of Terlingua, later wishing that we had taken more time to explore it a bit, but we were intent on getting to our campsite on the far side of the park. We missed a four star attraction listed in our guidebook, the historic Starlight Theater at Terlingua, restored as a restaurant.  We won’t make the same mistake again. MBZ had warned us about this, suggesting that we spend time on BOTH sides of the park, and next time we will definitely do that.  And yes, there WILL be a next time.

the Chisos MountainsOnce we entered the park, the beautiful range of the Chisos Mountains dominated the landscape, but the route is mainly through the desert.  Unlike the Sonoran deserts around Arizona, the Chihuahuan desert seems to have a lot more vegetation, with thick grasses between the prickly pear and creosote.  The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in the Americas, extending almost to Mexico City.  Creosote and agave are the main indicator plants and there are several species of prickly pear and yucca.  I saw not a sign of a saguaro, so common in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson.  Most of the moisture comes as summer rains, with a bit more precipitation than in the Sonoran as well.Chihuahuan-Desert-map

Panther Junction (at the intersection of the main park road 118 and road 395 east to Marathon) is about 20 miles west of Rio Grande Village, and is the location of an excellent visitor center.  As always, we stopped at the visitor center for maps, orientation, and information about the park.  There are some excellent displays, a good selection of natural history books and park guides to help us begin to understand this beautiful, remote area.  My favorite, the 3D landscape map, was big and very helpful with orientation.  I find that these maps are a bit less needed in the days of google earth, however, since I now can cruise an area in 3D on the internet and the imagery is a bit more detailed.  Still, I love that the parks have these big map models.

Rio Grande Village RV Park with full hookupsWe arrived at our campground early enough in the afternoon that we had time to do a bit of exploring around this far eastern edge of the park.  As we knew, there are no dogs allowed anywhere except on pavement or dirt roads that can accommodate a car.  Still, it was hard to realize that we couldn’t leave Abby behind in the rig, or leave her in the car while we hiked.  Just wouldn’t do.  Instead, we planned our explorations around unpaved road trips and a few short hikes.

There are two campgrounds at Rio Grand Village, with the national park campground with campsites without hookups, potable water at the entrance and a dump station.  There is a large no generator zone, and a nice area with sites big enough for large rigs and where generators are allowed at certain hours. 

Rio Grande Village in Big Bend NPBecause we had no idea of the weather conditions for this trip, we opted instead for the Rio Grande Village RV park, basically a pavement parking lot with full hookups and WiFi from the small store and laundry.  Gasoline and diesel are also available, and we were surprised at the reasonable cost for regular at only 3.65 per gallon. We have been in national parks where the prices are two bucks or more higher than the going local rate, so this was nice. We had no need to fill the rig since we had fueled up enough to take us through the park and back out, but we definitely needed gas for the baby car to fuel our off highway adventures.

Our first little trip took us just a few miles from the campground to Boquillas Canyon where there was a rest room at the parking lot and a sign marking the trailhead.  It is just a little over a mile to the canyon, but the trail is “easy” if you ignore the rather steep and rocky ups and downs on the first part of the trail.  I was glad for boots instead of Oofos, and those Keen Targha waterproof hiking shoes are a godsend. Boquillas Canyon trail

Mo generously  decided to wait in the parking lot with Abby while I did the hike, a decision she made a few more times while we were in Big Bend.  Next time we come to this place, if our animals are still with us, we will board them in Alpine, the closest center where there is a pet boarding facility.

leave your dollars and support the schools of Boquillas?

The Boquillas Crossing used to be a port of entry from Mexico, but after 9/11 the DHS closed it, along with all other small ports of entry in the park.  You can see the little town across the river, and at the river overlook we found displays of beaded trinkets with cans requesting $6. per item for little scorpions and for painted walking sticks.  Wherever we found the signs, the request was for money to support Boquillas schools.  We chose not to buy, and yet I did think about it, even though the park insists this is completely illegal and they will arrest you if you buy and confiscate your contraband. 

Below us, across the river, there were boats tied up and some horses resting under the trees, and someone called up to me as we stood there but I couldn’t understand him.  His voice sounded friendly, though, and I am sure he was entreating me to buy something.waiting for cover of night to come and get their money?:

As I hiked up the trail, I found a few more of these little stashes, and at the entrance to the canyon, I saw a canoe hidden in the rocks on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande.  Higher on the trail, looking down below to the river, I saw a man on a horse, and the trail, steep and rocky as it was, actually had horse prints and horse poop on it.  Why do horses get to poop on trails and dogs are not even allowed to go there on a leash with a loyal pooper scooper in tow? I’ll bet anything that guy was from Mexico and had managed to cross the river somewhere to check his little can stashes.

The entrance to Boquillas Canyon was dim, hard to photograph in the late afternoon light, but it was silent and beautiful, with walls rising more than 1,200 feet above me.  I love tall, tight canyons, love how they feel, and found out later that this canyon is one on a list of possible river runs that I would love to do someday.  Probably not in my own kayak, however, since there are some rocky rapids that need a good river guide to navigate.  Still, it is on the bucket list along with Santa Elena Canyon.  That is tomorrow’s story, however. Boquillas Canyon trail

When I got back to the car, Mo and Abby were contented enough, and we did figure out that we should have a book or two in the car for Mo while I wandered about.  Mo and Abby go their exercise by doing six laps around the parking lot. One of the greatest little treasures that we found at the visitor center was a small book called “The Big Bend Guide” by Allan Kimball.  We loved this little book, a great find for first time visitors, with down to earth explanations of the local routes, and what to do if you have only one day or three days or a week in the park.  I highly recommend this book if you have never visited Big Bend.

vWe drove back to the main road, and then again turned off on a dirt high clearance road to find the Hot Springs.  The road is only about a mile and a half to the parking area, and we had hoped that maybe there wasn’t anyone around so we could possibly explore with Abby.  Instead, this was a very popular spot and there were several cars parked and lots of folks heading to and from the springs.

The area was once a large hot springs resort, with a bath house, motel rooms, and even a store and post office.  The abandoned buildings and old palms only hinted at what a delightful place this might have been at one time.  The sun was down, and the evening was cool in the twilight, so Mo decided to leave Abby for a short time while we walked the short distance to the springs.

hot springs at Big BendThe springs are 105 degrees F, in a small rock pool built along the Rio Grande, and look quite nice.  However, when we arrived, they were filled with a couple of families, kids all happily playing and moms floating au naturel in the hot water.  I really didn’t want to jump in with them, so I decided to wait for another time for a dip in the springs. 

We ran into this multiple family again a couple of times, with Alaska plates on their RV.  There were a LOT of people in that rig, but when we talked to them we found out that they were from Austin and had rented the RV.  They were having great fun together, although a motorhome with 4 adults and 4 little kids might be a bit much.  Whew!

rock art at the hot springsWe were happy to get back to our rig and eat the good supper of leftovers from our previous dinner.  So nice not to have to cook when it is dark and we have had a very long day! With no telephone, but at least enough Wi-Fi to get some mail, we settled in and read all the literature we had about what we might want to do on our next full day in the park. 

Big Bend is an International Night Sky park, with a commitment to keeping things dark and unpolluted with light.  There are lots of references to seeing the Milky Way here, but our moon was already too bright and while the stars were wonderful, that gorgeous view of the Milky Way eluded me.  I even got up in the middle of the night to check out the sky.  Maybe it was because the elevation at the Rio Grande is about 1,800 feet and perhaps those great Milky Way views are at the much higher Chisos Basin.hot springs at Big Bend

Still, even in our small parking lot camp, the skies were dark and the night was silent except for some low voiced owls here and there.  Loved it.

Tomorrow we travel the Scenic Route and find the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon


1-8-2014 Diving into Texas

Current Location Balmorhea State Park, Texas Currently 40F  Predicted High today 65F

009Old Town Mesilla at the square

Yes, I did mean to say “diving” not driving, although the last couple of days we have been driving along at a nice pace. I’ll explain the diving part later. We took two days to travel about 510 miles from Tucson to Balmorhea, Texas.  Nice to have the luxury of our own home with us and the time to go at a reasonable pace.  When daughter Deb moved to Texas  I helped her drive the rental truck and we drove from LaQuinta, CA, to Van Horn, Texas in one day, almost 900 miles!  Ack!!

The I-10 route from Tucson to Las Cruces is fairly straightforward and not all that exciting.  I am sure there would be great things to find in the mountains north of the highway, but we are on a mission to get to Texas and Florida, so those little side trips are not tempting us.  We arrived in Las Cruces around 3 with a reserved spot at the Coachlight RV Park, advertised to be within walking distance to old Mesilla and a Passport America Park with a good rate at $18.65 for our overnight stop with hookups and sewer, good WiFi, but no cable. It wasn’t the finest of RV parks, but decent enough for an overnight.  If you want something fancy and aren’t worried about the expense, try the Hacienda RV Resort, where Mo and I stayed on our first trip through when the MoHo was just a few days old and we didn’t have Passport America.

006Walking distance is relative, however, with over a mile each way not something we particularly wanted to do after a day of driving to go get supper!  Instead we unhooked the baby car and drove down the road to Old Mesilla to walk around the square a bit.  I remembered a little place on the square that had all sorts of salsa and chili stuff, so added a bit of green chili to my goodie stash.  The square was fairly quiet, with the Christmas holiday behind us and not many folks out and about on a weekday afternoon.

007I won’t rewrite what has been written so well about the history of Old Mesilla, but if you are interested in reading about one of the oldest settlements in New Mexico, explore this link.

When we were here in 2007, we did eat dinner at La Posta, a very historic restaurant with very good Mexican food.  This time, however, we opted for a less pretentious little restaurant recommended by several locals we spoke with, Andele’s, just on the edge of Old Mesilla.  The atmosphere was generic at best, but the food was great and the salsa bar was fun too.  We ate early, but by the time we left there was a good sized waiting line at the door, so the popularity of the place was evident. I had what they called traditional Mexican tacos, and the fixings arrived on a plate with some warm fresh corn tortillas to go with.  With six different kinds of salsa at the salsa bar and some grilled onions, my meal was incredibly tasty, and was enough to feed us a second night with more left over for snacks.

original Mexican tacos at Alvardo'sWith a location along the interstate between El Paso and Tucson, the city of Las Cruces might be easy to bypass.  It is a nice medium sized city with a great University and a dry climate.  I guess that is what has caused the population to increase so dramatically in the last decade or so.  The shopkeepers all said it was retirees from the north and from California who were buying up the land, building new housing developments and still not adding much to the economy. 

I was lucky to see Las Cruces from a completely different perspective back in 2002 when I had the opportunity to spend six weeks here for some advanced soils training.  My work with soils was about the landscape, how different kinds of soils are distributed and what makes those differences.  One of the major factors that affect soil development is the geomorphology, the shape and age of the landscape where the soil is located. 

As head of the National Cooperative Soil Survey, NRCS is committed to keeping its scientists well trained, and the Soil Science Institute is held every few years at different locations in the country.  If you are lucky, you get to go and if you are especially lucky you get to go to Institute here in Las Cruces where one of the most incredible geomorphic studies of the landscape exists.  The Desert Project is a sort of bible of western geomorphology, and that man you see in the photo with the white hat and gloves is one of the authors.

01-07-2014 Old MesillaI spent several weeks in the company of soil scientists from all over the country learning from the best.  It was a highlight of my career and I count several friends among some of those I met at Institute.  I also saw Las Cruces and the surrounding area in much more depth than would happen any other way.  Las Cruces is about so much, but most of all it is about the Rio Grand River.  We studied the ancestral terraces of this once mighty river, visited the farms and orchards, wandered the wild spaces of the Jornada del Muerto, where some of the best rangeland studies are conducted, and spent a day studying the geomorphology of the White Sands not far away.

1Las Cruces is about the River, about cotton and peppers and some of the most extensive pecan orchards in the US.  It is about hot sun and no shade, about wind and dust much of the time.  It is about good restaurants and the smell of chilis roasting in September.  It is about the Organ Mountains and Dripping Springs, the place to go if you need to get out of all that gravelly dusty alluvium and find some real rocks.P1010086

We saw none of this soul of Las Cruces as we passed by on I-10, but I remembered it well.  I enjoyed having an excuse to go back and look at the several hundred photos I took during Institute where I celebrated a birthday in Old Mesilla and planned for my new life in Klamath Falls.  When I came to Institute, I had just been promoted to project leader for the Klamath Falls soil survey, had moved there and bought a house but didn’t take possession of the house until I returned six weeks later from Institute.  It was one of the biggest turning points in my entire life.  Daughter Melody and her husband and kids now live in that little house that I bought before I drove down to Las Cruces. 

to Texas_006Yesterday, Mo and I left early in the morning with another reasonable driving day to Texas.  Much of the route from El Paso is quite near the Mexican border, and as we passed through the city, we could see the dilapidated houses of Juarez across the river.  Once east of El Paso, however, the landscape opened up again and the distant mountain ranges of West Texas beckoned.

Juarez from the interstate through El Paso notice where the fence just stopsWe were still undecided where to spend our next two nights when we stopped in Van Horn for gas.  With the cold weather recently, we had decided that Fort Davis State park was too high and cold and thought that staying at Balmorhea State Park, just 4 miles south of the interstate, would be a better idea.  Lower elevation, a bit warmer, and hookups. 

Stopping at a rest area just a short way from Van Horn, Mo discovered to her dismay, that the electrical connection to the Tracker had come loose and the cord was dragging on the highway, destroying the connection tips.  Lucky for us, we were only a few miles from town, and we backtracked to an auto parts store in Van Horn where Mo got the parts.  With a bunch of fiddling, she still couldn’t get the turn signals to work, so with only 72 miles to Balmorhea, and the evening approaching, we made the decision to just drive with running lights and settle into the Balmorhea.

the rest of the campground is emptyOnce there, I walked up to the office which was closing, so we were told to just find a place and pay in the morning.  I walked back to the rig, carefully avoiding the large curb, and caught my foot right on a big chunk of asphalt that was this side of the curb.  Bam.  Hence the diving into Texas.  I dove into the ground, missing the curb I think, and didn’t break anything.  My hip hurt like heck, but not enough to be broken and I am sitting and walking around so I am pretty sure I am fine.  I do get tired of these dives, however.  I used to leap boulders when I was doing soil survey, so being such a giant klutz is pretty embarrassing.

settled in for the evening at Balmorhea State ParkSettled in, Mo  figured out that a fuse was blown when the “hot” terminal of the connector was dragging on the ground when it came loose. She replaced the fuses,  and everything worked just fine. We ate our yummy leftovers from Andele’s. Looking at the maps, we decided that it would be very easy to just stay here one night and tomorrow drive the 34 miles south to Fort Davis and then 3 miles out of town to Davis Mountains State Park.  We really don’t mind overnighter’s at all, since setting up is fairly quick and very easy.  Especially since the alternative would mean staying here two nights and driving into the Davis Mountains tomorrow and then having to backtrack again.  I dislike backtracking more than I dislike setting up!

Hip stuff woke me up at 3 and I couldn’t sleep, so it has been a good time to write, to read blogs, and to look at old photos of my days in Las Cruces so many years ago.  Tomorrow the Davis Mountains!diving into Texas

To Texas, no Mo, and no MoHo either.

if I am going to Texas, I guess I need the hatWhy in the world would an RV loving traveler drive to Texas without her motorhome?  Kids!  Always blame it on the kids.  My daughter decided it was time to move to Texas and we decided together that it might be nice for me to help her drive the UHaul.  Gives us lots of mother-daughter time, right? 

002Quality time in a loud bumpy truck pulling a car on a trailer, covering up to 800 miles per day.  Blog stories about our regular RV travels are leisurely rambles from place to place with all the wonderful delights of carrying along your food and kitchen, your bedroom, not the least of all, your bathroom.

I kept thinking I didn’t need to really blog about this at all, since it isn’t really part of the MoHo Travels, but it is a record of what in the heck has been happening in my life, so here it is.  Not leisurely, not filled with campground reviews and hikes and beautiful sights.  Just the road, the unfurling yellow lines, the sunrise as we keep moving east, the glare of headlights as we continue driving into the night.

sunrise traveling east on I-10 from IndioWe drove down I-5, so familiar from the many trips Mo and I have taken on that route, with many sections repaired and much better than they have been in the past.  We crossed the pass over 58, surrounded by snow but without any falling on us.  We passed Desert Hot Springs buffeted by the desert winds, spending a night in a motel in Indio.  Crossing Arizona and New Mexico, Deb got her first view of Mexico across the “mighty” Rio Grande overlooking El Paso toward Juarez, at 60 mph. I told her long stories of the history of the Rio Grande River and how it has been used and reused and dammed and diverted until the trickle that makes it to the gulf no longer feeds that sea with richness and the shrimp are dying.

East on I 10 through TexasWe drove many miles within sight of the border, going through some border checks, and after 800 miles that day we slept again at a motel in Van Horn, Texas and rose before sunrise for the last leg into San Antonio. Deb was enthralled by the Texas Big Bend Country, the mesas and long vistas, her first view of this kind of landscape. I called Mo after many hours of no cell service and her first words were, “Have you been hit by a tornado?”  I guess two tornados touched down in Dallas as we were approaching San Antonio, but that was north of here and they are now moving northeast so we are fine.

East on I 10 through TexasWe covered 2030 miles together in 3 days of driving, with gasoline running 4.15 in most of California and 3.79 here in Texas.  The UHaul got less miles per gallon than the MoHo and we spent just over $1000. bucks on gasoline, didn’t eat a lot, and paid 63 to 99 for the hotel rooms for the 5 or 6 hours of sleep we allowed ourselves. I had my cell phone, but I can’t believe how many hundreds of miles on a large interstate don’t support any bars at all, much less any kind of internet.  I read a few facebook posts from bloggers here and there, but don’t have a clue what is going in the blog world except for a few really important things.

East on I 10 through TexasNan is hanging in there while her husband fights to breathe.  Pray for her. Al and Kelly are almost home, and my heart broke along with everyone else when I read that little Cora Motormouse was gone. I know Rick and Paulette are home in Canada, Erin and Mui went camping among the bluebells, Laurie and Odel are making tracks to central California, Karen and Al got their kayaks in some really gorgeous water, and Donna and Russ are having some doggie troubles.  I’ll catch up eventually with the rest.  For now, my daughter and her Texas honey are unpacking a big truck into a small home and I am sitting in another motel with air conditioning to adjust to the high temperatures and humidity.  I plan to sleep a lot between now and the time I fly back home to Oregon and my simple life. 

the destination, Lytle, TexasTrips like this one really make me see how lucky I am to have the chance to travel in a motorhome.  Although the hard push of a fast road trip actually has it’s pleasures as well.  White line fever he called it, wasn’t that Merle Haggard? There is something extremely satisfying about covering a lot of miles in a short time with a hard push.  It was fun.  I am beat to death and tired as heck, but it was a blast. I am really going to miss having my daughter as close as Portland, but I guess this will just be all the more reason for Mo and I to go spend some winter times in Texas with the MoHo.