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Around Slickrock Mtn, Croton Peak, Paint Gap Hills and Grapevine Hills Dec. 2018

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Offline mule ears

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Slickrock Mountain, Croton Peak, Paint Gap Hills and Grapevine Hills- a Circumambulation

Dec. 8th-14th, 2018

74 miles with pack, a few more without


In 45 years of visiting the park I had only stepped north or west of the park road (US 385/TX 118) twice.  On the first day of my very first visit in 1973 we had just turned onto the Grapevine Hills road heading towards a campsite for the night before starting the Outer Mountain Loop the next day.  The muffler dropped off the car so we turned around and limped up to the Basin, which still had a gas station/garage at the time, to do some makeshift repairs and spent the night in the Basin instead.

My second time was 43 years later when Robert and I stayed at the Croton Springs campsite before heading back to San Antonio after completing our Southwest Sierra Quemada Ramble.  Thatís it but it has always held some mystery to me as a little explored section of the park.  There are really two parts of this large northwest swath of the park, an elongated area south of the Rosillos Mountains and ranch which I would walk around on this trip and the northern area of somewhat newly added land (acquired in 1987, opened to the public about 1995) of the Harte Ranch and northern Rosillos Mountains which I am saving for a future trip.

As usual there was great inspiration from trip reports from Robert, trtlrock, Desert Rat Shorty and others that gave me ideas and info.  The idea of walking north of the mountains and hills and then returning via a southern route that would take in most of the springs, major washes and sites was appealing. The views would be totally different on both sides as well.  Here is the Caltopo map for reference.

For the first time ever I would go solo.  All of my possible hiking partners were unable to join me due to many, many conflicts and I could have postponed for a year but didnít really want to.  Betsy does not want me to go solo but with the fairly easy wash walking and terrain and the many near road bailout points I convinced her to let me go.  To further insure her confidence I rented a satellite phone from Roadpost (thanks elhombre) which worked perfectly even though it added some weight (9 oz.) to the pack and extra cost.

Of course water availability is always the hard planning detail especially for areas of the park where few people go.  Fortunately it has been an above average year for rainfall in the park which made me feel more confident in critical water sources, especially those north of the hills.  I planned on picking up some along Tornillo creek the first day, then hopefully at either Dripping spring or Painted Hills spring the second day that would carry me all the way to Dike Tinaja spring the end of the third day.  From there a fairly easy walk to water at Slickrock canyon on the fourth day.  From there I would carry enough water to get to a water cache on Paint Gap road early on the sixth day.  Water from the cache would get me all the way back to the car.  I would also leave enough water in the cache just in case Dripping or Paint Hills springs were dry, I could make a detour to pick it up if needed.  It turned out that the day before I started the park had 1.2-1.7 inches of rain and there was water everywhere.

To help with reducing pack weight early in the trip with fairly large water carries I would split the food load in half and leave it in another cache I would pick up the fourth morning.  With this approach my total pack weight never exceeded 28 pounds, even with a base weight of 13.5# including the satellite phone, tarp and raincoat, most of which I usually donít have to carry.

I flew into San Antonio late morning just as the big winter storm "Diego" moved into the area (I still hate this naming of winter storms).  I first stopped for lunch at De Weseís Tip Top Cafť for maybe the best chicken fried steak I have ever had.



Quick stops at REI for a gas canister and HEB for a few road snacks and then I drove west on I-10.  Constant rain until Fort Stockton then heavy fog on the way to Marathon but by the time I got to the Marathon Motel at 6:00 it seemed to be lifting.  Good BBQ at the Brick Vault BBQ and Brewery then back to the room to finish packing.



Trail Day 1

Up early and at the Oasis Cafť for a great migas breakfast, the last real food for seven days.  I made it to Panther Junction just after they opened and had to wait just a bit while a group was in front of me getting a river permit.  The ranger was very slow and methodical.  I had filled in the Backcountry worksheet so it was a bit easier.  He said he needed to check the capacity of NO1 and NO2, I said ďno one goes there, I am sure it is not a problemĒ he looked up and concurred.  By the way I got my geezer Senior Lifetime Pass which covered the now $30 entrance fee and made the backcountry permit only $6.   :celebrate:

Filled water bottles and at 10:00 I was off to set my caches.  It was still actually spitting a bit of rain and the fog between PJ and Paint Gap was really thick.  I went to set the food cache near mile post 16 first to give the weather some time to lift.  This was a bit harder than I had anticipated as I had to drop down into the wash and everything was wet and sticky in the clay soils.



Back over to Paint Gap road and I dropped my large bear canister filled with 11 liters of water just before the Paint Gap 2 and 3 campsites and a huge puddle in the road, the weather was trying to clear.  I will be walking in from that direction in 6 days.


 
On up to the Fossil Bone exhibit where I was leaving the car.  Last bit of packing and I was off at 12:30.  As I dropped into Tornillo creek this is what I was faced with.  A small enough stream that I could easily find places to cross without getting wet, looking at the Dead Horse mountains.



The look up stream under the bridge



It was still pretty good wash walking but I was slowed by trying to cross the stream at times and trying to avoid the sticky and slick muds.  This would be an issue for much of the trip but particularly the first two days.  I stopped for lunch about 2:00 after 4 miles with great views of the Rosillos mountains



and of Grapevine Hills that I would be coming back through in six days.



I walked beside water the entire time I was in Tornillo creek.  I crossed under this power line at 6 miles and I would end up crossing under a power line 5 times on this trip.



As I got near the rockier sections I came across this boulder with what looks like mortar holes and metates but could be just where inclusions washed out too.



I stopped at where the creek falls over ledges and trtlrock had described good water and picked up a few more liters of cloudy water to get me to my next water tomorrow morning.



There was quite a bit of petrified wood on this stretch



There is a short stretch where the creek moves out of the park and then back in, this is the park fence as it heads back in.



At 5:00 just short of 9 miles for the day I stopped at the junction with the wash that runs down the east side of Paint Gap Hills.



I was desperately trying to find a bench above the wash that would be a bit drier and maybe warmer.  I settled for a narrow shelf but with great views east towards Sue Peaks



South to the Chisos and west to the setting sun in the now mostly clear skies.  I fell asleep to the sound of trickling water, never figured that would happen on this trip.



More to come...
« Last Edit: August 07, 2019, 03:13:47 PM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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Offline alan in shreveport

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Waiting for more !        I think walking the creekbeds and canyon floors is becoming my favorite BB pasttime. Those mountains are wearing me out. I agree with your take on the Brick Vault, and the Oasis too. We always stop at the Oasis, last trip was the first time for the brewery but won't be the last.

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Offline DesertRatShorty

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Cool route and I'm looking forward to seeing/hearing about Onion Flat (and that massive dike) and upper Rough Run, a couple places I wanted to get to but didn't.

Sounds like you never had more than 3 or 4 liters in your pack, that's the way to go for sure. Did your water plan change once you hit the "trail"?
I roamed and rambled, and I foller'ed my footsteps
   To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
   And all around me a voice was a'sounding
   This land was made for you and me

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Offline dprather

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Very cool route.
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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9 miles on your first day, AFTER driving in from Marathon, getting your permit, and placing all your caches. That's superhuman stuff, ME. And how DID you manage to store all that water in a Bear Vault?  Inquiring minds might want to know.  :icon_wink:
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline congahead

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Iíve been jonesing for a Mule Ears trail report for some time now! Iíve got my popcorn ready. Your reports are obviously a labor of love.

Iíll be interested to read your thoughts about solo trekking vs going with others.
"The animals here will generally try to avoid you, but the plants will hurt you every chance they get."

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Offline mule ears

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And how DID you manage to store all that water in a Bear Vault?  Inquiring minds might want to know.  :icon_wink:

That will be revealed in due time.   :eusa_think:


Sounds like you never had more than 3 or 4 liters in your pack, that's the way to go for sure. Did your water plan change once you hit the "trail"?


I carried 5 liters twice but it was so cool most days that it could have easily been 4.
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
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Offline mule ears

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Iíll be interested to read your thoughts about solo trekking vs going with others.

This was the longest I had ever gone solo, I usually do a long weekend each year here in NC but to a place I know well and that makes it palatable for Betsy.   Being happily married for nearly 38 years I don't usually go against long held mutual agreements.  I have also been really lucky with a number of seasoned hiking partners, either seasoned by me or lots of similar hiking experiences so I have never really chaffed at having to watch out for or break in rookies.  I also usually only go with one other person, sometimes 2 so it makes the logistics and decision making easier too.  I asked 5 different people to go with me who I have hiked with including in Big Bend and none could swing it.

I enjoy having someone on the trail with me to both share the experiences, the route decision making and sharing some equipment but like most know, going alone means there are no discussions about when to go, when to stop, which wash to take, did they bring the right equipment, etc.  On this trip I had a number of big projects coming up that it gave me time to mull them over too.  I did bring a book thinking I might get bored, I read about 20 pages so that was not a thing.  As a farmer I do spend a fair amount of time outdoors by myself so it's not a stretch for me to go 7 days alone either.
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
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Offline Demon Deacon

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Love this itinerary.

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Offline mule ears

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Trail Day 2

36 degrees the low and biblical dew which I knew would be a problem after the big rain, everything was soaked.  You can see the water dripping off the creosote bush and hanging on the grass.





Fortunately the sun hits camp at 7:45 so I enjoyed soaking up the warmth and the view while having breakfast.



I didnít get walking until 10:00 while I took the time to dry out the sleeping bag and other stuff.



One of the great things about being the first up washes after a rain is looking for all the new tracks in the soft ground.  Lots of bobcat tracks along with deer, javelina and coyote, no human tracks but mine.



I made my way over to Dripping spring a little before 1:00 after nearly 6 miles.  I came in east of it so had to work my way over to it but I could see the corral for some distance.  A grand view of the Christmas mountains with Little Christmas on the left.



I dropped into the narrow wash and there were a couple of medium sized pools of clear water that slowly dripped over the conglomerate lip down into the tree lined mini canyon.



I gathered 5 liters and climbed out the other side to look around the rock house and other ranch infrastructure.  They built the house right on the edge of the drop.



I took a compass reading and headed cross country toward Painted Hills spring.  After a while I could see the cottonwoods in the distance which made route finding easy.  I got to the edge of the wash and could see water for some distance downstream but did not take the time to go down and see how far it went.  The Corazones and Sombrero Peaks and Terlingua Ranch in the distance.



I skirted around the top of the spring area and headed on west towards Onion spring, stopping for lunch along the way at a high point with shade and good views.  This ended up being the warmest day of the trip with the high near 70.  The cut where Paint Gap seep is, I would walk across the ridge above it in four days.



For the whole trip Croton Peak would pretty much command the skyline.



Quick over to Onion spring and there were some small pools in the rock ledges above the spring area but I did not fight my way into the brush to see if the spring was running.  Again the house is built right next to the spring area.



I head out on a line to hit the eastern end of the big dike that cuts across Onion Flat.  The area is dissected by lots of little washes and hills and I do my best not to get entangled and expend too much energy crossing them, I was marginally successful but with the warmer temps I struggled a little.  This picture really doesnít show the relief well but it is looking back towards Onion spring with the Paint Gap Hills in the back.



As I crest a small gap on the very eastern end of the dike I can see my work cut out for me and the whole dike running across the flats towards the Christmas mountains.



Normally I would say it looks like easy walking but with the rain and these pure clay flats I was not looking forward to slogging across it.



Each step was a shoe sucking experience.



I went north of the dike because I wanted to walk through the gap that is the southern branch of Tornillo creek.  Slow going but I made it by about 4:00 after 10 miles for the day.



This is above the gap looking east.

 

Onion Flat is not as flat as one would think.  I hugged the south side of the dike for a while to avoid the washes that run that way.  I am getting tired but continue to work my way up the ridges toward the pass over to Rough Run, fighting lechuguilla forests and ravines along the way.  I finally stop on a nice flat with great views of Croton Peak and the Chisos in the background.



And all of Onion Flat with Painted Gap Hills and Sue Peaks in the far distance.


 
12.2 miles for the day and in for a nice dinner.  I try and call Betsy on the satellite phone but get no answer.  Turns out the little bit of snow we were supposed to get turned into 11 inches and the power was out for a day and a half.  I owe her for this one for sure!

Tomorrow all the way down Rough Run to Dike tinaja...
« Last Edit: December 24, 2018, 03:46:29 PM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
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Offline Robert

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I can't imagine what a slog it was to get through those clay soils. While getting to see all the water is a treat, it probably got old after having to deal with mud and crossing back and forth across the creek. Also, the water looked pretty muddy, did you have any problem finding clear water?

Nice sunrise shot!

Great report, looking forward to the rest, especially since I am home bound with a cold or allergies.

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Offline Flash

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Enjoying the trip report so far. I was also in Park, but from the 10th to the 14th. The weather was tough to predict for sure, with sun, clouds, wind, and rain all mixed up together.  Curious what happened to the track log from Seco Spring to Dripping Spring? Didn't get off plan did you? Oh, wait, I think I know what Flash might have done there. :eusa_think:

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Curious what happened to the track log from Seco Spring to Dripping Spring? Didn't get off plan did you? Oh, wait, I think I know what Flash might have done there. :eusa_think:

I think Sgt. Schultz has custody of that one.


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Offline mule ears

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I can't imagine what a slog it was to get through those clay soils. While getting to see all the water is a treat, it probably got old after having to deal with mud and crossing back and forth across the creek. Also, the water looked pretty muddy, did you have any problem finding clear water?

Nice sunrise shot!

Great report, looking forward to the rest, especially since I am home bound with a cold or allergies.

Sorry you are feeling crappy and sorry we couldn't meet up with each other this trip.

Yes the first few days it was hard to find clear water in the washes, the springs where not so bad, like the picture at Dripping spring.  I did use some cloudy water from Terlingua creek that was not so bad and I have a lovely picture of the water I used from Dike Tinaja coming up.
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Offline mule ears

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Might be my last entry until after Christmas, we will see how the next two days go otherwise Merry Christmas y'all!
 :a035:

Trail Day 3

Just after dinner and before I laid down for the night the wind started to blow, not bad at first but eventually steady at 10 mph or so all night.  I was fairly exposed on the flat and with temps in the low 40ís I was having a little trouble staying warm in my 35 degree bag.  I always cut it close with the sleeping bag to save weight but with one night with soaking dew and now one with wind I was beginning to curse myself.  The wind finally died at 4:00 and even though the temperature dropped to 35 degrees I was actually warmer but still waiting for the sun to come up.



The sun once again hit early at 7:45, at least I was picking good campsites for early sun.



Walking by 9:00 and with fresh legs I was quickly over the top and into Rough Run.  Not real wide but very good walking with no mud.



I was amazed with the number of yuccas blooming all over the park in December but they were especially good along this stretch.



Big Christmas mountain loomed over my shoulder as I was making great time down wash.



There were two small pouroffs to work around but it was easy on the left going down wash.



Soon Little Christmas mountain began to control the western skyline.  There was only one little stretch of water in the wash this whole section.



I was looking for the wash coming in from the east from Serendipity springs but I was rolling along so well that all of a sudden I was at the junction with Oak Creek.  12:00, 6.3 miles so far today.  Slickrock mountain had been peaking above the wash banks all the way down but now would be more evident.  I will get there tomorrow.



Just below the junction there was a new bank collapse that formed a partial blockage of Rough Run.



Past this the water started running for about a quarter of a mile dropping over rock ledges, pretty clear but still not the best.



It finally went under the gravels as it culminated in a tight narrow hardrock canyon.



Which ended in a big mud pit that I climbed around to avoid, I was not getting into that mess!



There was clearly water running down the wash a few days ago, this guy did not make the swim.



Rough Run here really starts to widen and in places becomes a bit diffuse as to which channel is the main one.  Slickrock mountain standing large with Croton just visible.



I would still occasionally take the wrong channel and end up having to avoid the slick spots.



I am looking for where Cottonwood creek comes in from the east and finally reach it by 1:00.  Looking for a spot for lunch and it is harder than one would think to find a dry spot with a little shade as all the usual places had thin slicks of mud.  Finally after 9.5 miles I find one just before 2:00.



After lunch I climb up onto the bench on the left/south side looking for the Cartledge ranch ruins.  The wash here also takes a big swing to the north so I am able to cut the corner as well.  First I am surprised by another power line running down here parallel to the wash, it looks out of commission as some of the lines are on the ground.  I do soon see the ruins to my right, just on the edge of the Rough Run cut bank.  They had a great view of Dogie Mountain and vicinity.



This was a really nice house with at least three rooms, a front porch and more.  Clearly adobe with the door frames still standing.



It is a bit hard to see but the stone foundation is literally on the edge of the precipice, thirty feet or more straight down to the wash.  There is a large wooden corral here too.



From the edge of the bench I can see the dike that cuts across Rough Run not too far downstream and I am pretty quickly down to it.



Instead of going all the way down to where the Dike Tinaja wash comes into Rough Run I cut the corner a bit and arrive at the big pool at 3:45.



 It is pretty milky but I collect a couple of liters and then I climb around the left side to get to the top to look for a campsite.  I was impressed by the wildlife trail cut into the banks on the right side, lots of animals coming to drink here.



I crest over the ridge with a great view and a lovely ocotillo flat to camp on.  4:00 and 11.8 miles for the day.  It's early and I consider jumping the park road and heading to Swirl Tinaja to see it full of water as I had two hours of daylight left but decided to rest in the shade and catch up on notes and rest my feet instead.



There is a nice view from the top of the pouroff into the pool and you can see that the water runs all the way down to Rough Run.  This is the furthest western point of my trip and now I will start to work my way back to the car at Fossil Bone.



I canít see the road and I am three quarters of a mile from it but I can hear the traffic, fortunately I cannot see any headlights.  A good evening but it is clouding up again so not much star viewing tonight.  Sunset over the dike.



Next up: can I find my food cache in the maze of clay hills?
« Last Edit: December 24, 2018, 07:09:21 AM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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