Big Bend Chat
Big Bend or Bust! => Your Trip Reports => Topic started by: Peter O on November 09, 2019, 12:27:06 AM
In December 2018, I completed my third hike beyond Big Bend’s Outer Mountain Loop. Starting from the Mule Ears overlook, I had intended to climb up one side of the Punta de la Sierra and down the other, cross the desert, and enter Cow Heaven: Beyond the Outer Loop III: Over the End of the Mountain (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/beyond-the-outer-loop-iii-over-the-end-of-the-mountain/). As described in my report, I did not make it to Cow Heaven, due mainly to an equipment failure. I resolved to come back as soon as possible and try again to explore the Cow Heaven area. It took longer than I had hoped, but I was able to return to Big Bend in March. For this hike, I planned a revised route that would take me to Cow Heaven from a different direction and allow me to explore some other amazing places. Surely, I had exhausted my bad luck on my last trip? Well, no. But my fourth walk beyond the Outer Loop was ultimately successful. And yes, I finally made it to Cow Heaven, which I entered through the “Gates of Mordor.”
Here is my campsite on top of Cow Heaven Mountain (Mount Doom?):
(For any of you who read my last report and hoped that I had given up on the Lord of the Rings references, sorry about that, not quite yet.)
The Plan – Revised
Frodo: Go back, Sam! I’m going to Mordor alone.
Sam: Of course you are, and I’m coming with you!
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Alas, I would be heading into Mordor/Cow Heaven alone on this trip. But, with the help of folks here, I came up with a different route that would allow me to explore some other areas new to me. My original plan (described in my last report) was to approach Cow Heaven from the west after descending the Punta de la Sierra. Since I had seen the Punta de la Sierra on my last (shortened) hike, and since I had walked the return loop back to Mule Ears overlook on two different hikes, I decided to look at options to enter Cow Heaven from the east.
Here is an image from CalTopo of the plan that I ultimately came up with (with my route in red):
And here is a link to my CalTopo planning map for my March hike (https://caltopo.com/m/LJK0/), which includes some additional markers.
(As with my last report, I will share some of the great information and resources I found here in planning my hike. Please skip ahead if you are not interested in this stuff.)
Fresno Creek Drainage
After considering several options, I decided to do a loop hike starting at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson trailhead and heading west on the Dodson trail until I could leave the trail and drop down into the Fresno Creek drainage. On my first hike beyond the Outer Loop (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/beyond-the-outer-loopa-tale-of-two-hikes/) in February 2017, I had taken a detour east from the Elephant Tusk trail to explore Fresno Creek as far as the start of the Skip and Jump Tinajas, which is often called “Waterworks” here. Having read reports by Mule Ears, Robert, and others who had hiked farther down the Fresno Creek drainage, it seemed like a great way to make my way down to the open desert, where I could then cross to Cow Heaven.
I had no interest in following the Dodson trail to the Elephant Tusk trail and then down to the trail’s intersection with Fresno Creek. On my February 2017 hike, I walked the length of the Elephant Tusk trail starting at the southern trailhead off Black Gap Road. I did not enjoy the northern end of the trail, mainly because I had a hard time finding the trail (unlike the southern half, which is well marked and easy to follow).
So, I looked for possible routes south from the Dodson trail that would allow me to drop into the Fresno Creek drainage. Looking at the topo map, one interesting possibility was the drainage east of Tortuga Mountain and point 4461 where Silky Spring is located. In searching to see if others had used that drainage to drop down to Fresno Creek, I discovered that Robert had followed a similar route to the one I had in mind: From the Basin to Lower Tornillo (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/from-the-basin-to-lower-tornillo/). Robert had intended to go down the Silky Spring drainage but saw that it seemed overgrown; instead, he climbed point 4461 and made his way down from there. Robert generously shared his GPS tracks for that hike and another one he had taken through the area. Ultimately, I decided to leave the Dodson trail at around the same spot Robert did, but I would head for the saddle between Tortuga Mountain and point 4461 and descend to Fresno Creek from there.
Mule Ears’ trip report about his 2017 visit to Cow Heaven was a big help here as well: Mule Ears to Mariscal and Back (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/mule-ears-to-mariscal-(and-back)-15494/). He and Scott had hiked down Fresno Creek from the ET trail intersection to below Frog Spring. They then crossed the Elephant Tusk trail and headed south toward Talley and Mariscal Canyon. I planned to follow their route until hitting the ET trail, where I would head southwest across the desert to enter Cow Heaven through the “Gates of Mordor,” as ME called it.
The Cow Heaven Anticline – Don’t Know Much about Geology
Some years ago a BBC member (who undoubtedly knows a lot more about the park than I do) described Cow Heaven Mountain as “just a lump out there in the low desert” and suggested that it’s “probably not a main feature or anything special.” Viewed from a distance, this is a perfectly understandable description of the area. But I found Cow Heaven to be beautiful and fascinating. I think this illustrates one of the amazing things about Big Bend: There are gems like this hidden away throughout the park, just waiting to be explored.
In planning my hike through Cow Heaven, I discovered that it is a very interesting place, particularly for geologists. Knowing next to nothing about geology, I was delighted to find discussions about Cow Heaven’s geological originals from experts.
In researching the Cow Heaven area, one of the first things I learned is that Cow Heaven Mountain is part of an “anticline”: an up-fold of rock caused by compressive forces. Not being a geologist, I won’t try to describe how the area was formed, but I highly recommend Francis Redfern’s Big Bend “virtual field trip” about Cow Heaven:
All Cows Go To Heaven (https://prism-redfern.org/bbvirtualtrip/cowheaven/cowheaven.html/). As many of you are aware, Dr. Redfern has generously shared his considerable expertise here on BBC: Big Bend Virtual Geology Field Trips (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/big-bend-on-the-web/big-bend-virtual-geology-field-trips/45/). His website is a treasure! It features numerous Big Bend “virtual field trips” highlighting various geological features in the park: Big Bend Virtual Field Trips-Table of Contents (https://prism-redfern.org/bbvirtualtrip/bbvft.html).
Dr. Redfern gives a helpful explanation of an anticline: “An anticline is an upward folding of rock, usually in response to compressive forces, such as when you put your hands down on a bed blanket and move them toward each other.” He goes on to explain that the Cow Heaven “anticline has been breached by erosion such that the middle is largely missing,” leaving the rock walls on the east and west “separated by the drainage that has formed in the center.”
In other words, the middle of the anticline has eroded away, leaving ridges running north and south on both sides, with Cow Heaven Mountain still protruding in the middle. Here is an image of the Cow Heaven area created on CalTopo using the USSG topo map data with elevation shading added.
Here is another image, this one from Google Earth (with Lance’s Big Bend map overlays):
These images illustrate the strange and interesting geological features of the anticline as described by Dr. Redfern. Cow Heaven Mountain itself is in the middle, almost like a castle with protective fortress walls extending to the north and south of the mountain. Those walls are apparently also good at entrapping cows that wander in—but find it hard to wander back out.
Another interesting description of the “Cow Heaven anticline” is found in the 1968 guide to Big Bend authored by Ross A. Maxwell: The Big Bend of the Rio Grande: A Guide to the Rocks, Geologic History, and Settlers of the Area of Big Bend National Park (https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/geology/publications/state/tx/1968-7/). Mr. Maxwell describes Cow Heaven as “one of the most picturesque folds in the Park.” I’m not sure how it ranks in the “folds” category, but I was to see for myself (eventually) that it is indeed “picturesque.” Although I thought of Cow Heaven as a relatively minor feature compared to Elephant Tusk, Backbone Ridge, and Dominguez Mountain, Ross Maxwell described those more prominent landmarks as “plugs that deformed the flanks of the Cow Heaven fold.”
In planning my December 2018 hike, I initially intended to approach Cow Heaven from the south, after first detouring down to the River Road. Like my February 2017 and December 2017 hikes, I planned to leave a water/food cache near the road. Dr. Redfern’s Cow Heaven virtual tour mentioned that he found faint traces of an old road, running from the River Road up along the west side of the anticline. This intrigued me—both because it would be fun to try to find the old road and because it would likely make for easier walking.
I decided to see if I could find the road on an old map. I stumbled on an amazing treasure trove of old maps posted years ago by Al, with a big assist from Trtlrock: Old Maps (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/big-bend-questions-and-answers/re-photos-from-february-mesa-de-anguila-trip/). Lance added a link to a cool site that displays Big Bend USGS historical topo maps from various time periods (https://historical.northavenue.net/main.html#lonlat/-103.21881541260834/29.070616474176013/13|1901-1930|1971-1990/), with tabs allowing you to toggle between different maps. Many of the old Big Bend topo maps are available on a site maintained by the University of Texas, including a 1903 map covering the Chisos Mountains (https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/topo/texas/txu-pclmaps-topo-tx-chisos_mountains-1903.jpg). Here is an image of that 1903 map (with some labels added):
Although I could not find the road Dr. Redfern described (heading up the west side of the anticline), I noticed some other interesting things. For one, the River Road used to have an extra parallel northern segment below the Cow Heaven area (marked on the map above as “different road”). The west end of this segment is just about where Dr. Redfern noticed signs of an old road. Also, the 1903 map shows that Elephant Tusk was once called “Indianola Peak.”
In addition to checking out the old maps, I also wrote to Dr. Redfern, and he graciously responded with additional information on the location of the road and his experience hiking through this area. Thanks again Dr. R.!
Of course, if you saw the report on my December 2018 hike (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/beyond-the-outer-loop-iii-over-the-end-of-the-mountain/), you know I did not make it to Cow Heaven. Now, for my second try, I would be approaching it from the east. Although I would not be able to look for the old road Dr. Francis discovered, it gives me yet another reason to walk through this area again in the future.
As described in my last report, once I got to Cow Heaven, I planned to climb up to the high point and camp up there. The next day, I would walk diagonally across the northern half of the Cow Heaven anticline, curve around the southern end of Backbone Ridge, and hike up the wash/canyon west of Backbone.
Backbone Ridge to Dodson
My next planning step was to decide how to make my way from the northern end of Backbone Ridge to the Dodson trail, which I would follow back to my car at the Juniper/Dodson trailhead. One option was to head northeast above Elephant Tusk and link up with the ET trail (which I had done on a prior hike, going in the opposite direction). Again, though, hiking up the ET trail was not an enticing prospect. I began looking for another route to take north toward the Dodson trail.
I remembered from my second hike in the Sierra Quemada (Dec. 2017) that just east of Double Spring there is a prominent wash heading north. In fact, I had mistakenly started to walk up that wash on my way to Double Spring. From the topo map, it looked like I could continue roughly due north along a series of washes west of points 4285, 4457, and 4512. A report by Cookie had also drawn my attention to this area: Snow Capped Quemadas & an ET Summit! (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/snow-capped-quemadas-and-an-et-summit!/). In addition to an awesome climb of Elephant Tusk, Cookie, El Hombre, Hiker, and Cookie’s niece had camped near and climbed point 5476, which is west of the wash I was considering. Cookie’s pictures from the top of 5476 are fantastic! Although I did not find others who reported hiking up through that area, I decided to give it a try.
After hiking up the washes west of points 4285 and 4457, my plan was to stop and camp on the low saddle west of point 4512. From there, the next day I would drop down and swing west and then north along a series of springs that would eventually bring me to the Dodson trail: Premonition, Red Bird, Picasso, and the Claro springs (four of them). This planned segment was again inspired by ME’s big loop hike with Scott: Mule Ears to Mariscal and Back (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/mule-ears-to-mariscal-(and-back)-15494/). Heading east on the Dodson trail, they turned south off the trail to explore the springs that I would be passing (going in the opposite direction). ME referred to this series of springs as “the western most branch of Fresno Creek.” Walking along this branch of Fresno Creek proved to be a wonderful experience. Thanks ME!
After reaching the Dodson trail, I would follow it east to the Dodson/Juniper trailhead where my car would hopefully be waiting. Thanks to a lot of folks here, I was able to plan an interesting route. As it turned out, this time I was able to complete my planned route, although not without a big bump along the way.
Let the Hike Begin—Again
Legolas: Well, I am going back into the open air, to see what the wind and sky are doing!
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
I had hoped to have some time in early February to do my hike. Unfortunately, that did not work out. One thing I thought I knew: I did not want to try it in March due to spring break crowds. So, of course, it turned out that my first window of opportunity to travel to Big Bend was March 13—right in the middle of prime spring break season.
I decided to go anyway and drove to Ft. Stockton on March 13. To avoid some of the crowds, I planned to arrive at Panther Junction right when it opened the next morning. This worked well, and there were only a few groups ahead of me in the queue to get permits. Because it was spring break time, they were using a separate room for permits, rather than the desk in the visitor’s center. It took me a little longer than expected, given the few people in line ahead of me. I was surprised at how many people showed up with little or no idea about what they wanted to do. To the credit of the NPS folks, they had several rangers issuing with permits. The ranger who helped me was a supervisor, and he did a pretty good job, especially considering that he probably did not usually spend much time issuing permits. I had jotted down the wilderness zones I planned to camp in each night, and getting my permit was quick and painless. Leaving Panther Junction with my permit at around 9:30 a.m., I marveled at my good luck. That was soon to change.
Day One, March 14, 2019, 0 (!) miles—Not Again!
Sam: That’s the only place in all the lands we’ve ever heard of that we don’t want to see
any closer; and that’s the one place we’re trying to get to! And that’s just where we can’t
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
My plan was to leave my car at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson trailhead, where there are several parking spaces. To get there I would need to drive about 12 miles on dirt roads: about 7 miles along the Glenn Spring Road and about 5 on the Juniper Canyon “Road.” From reports I had read, the first 7 miles along the Glenn Spring Road is not too bad, while the Juniper Canyon Road is rougher. This assessment was consistent with my experience driving those roads.
I was not too worried about driving to the trailhead in my Subaru Crosstrek. During my first two Sierra Quemada hikes, I had left food/water caches near the River Road and had made several trips along the River Road, including one drive across the length of the road (from west to east). From what I had read, I expected the roads to the Juniper/Dodson trailhead to be similar to the River Road. While at Panther Junction, I had checked on road conditions and learned that the roads should be in relatively good shape.
And they were. In driving along the first section of the Glenn Spring Road, the dirt road was (if anything) better than I had expected. It did become a bit rougher after the Pine Canyon Road turn off (at about 2.5 miles), but it still did not seem too bad at all. I continued along the next section of the Glenn Spring Road for over 4 miles with no apparent problem.
Just before the turn off for the Juniper Canyon Road, I noticed that my car suddenly seemed to be banging down on the bumps. I was trying to figure out why when the tire pressure caution light came on. Surely not a flat tire? I stopped, got out, and saw that my front passenger-side tire was almost flat. Noooooo! After my inReach device failed to work at the start of my previous hike, I was sure I had exhausted my share of backpacking bad luck. Evidently not.
I thought that I was well-prepared for dirt-road car problems. My tires were in good condition with plenty of tread (although they were standard all-season touring tires). I had a full tank of gas and carried various emergency items, including a shovel, extra water, electric air pump, portable battery jump starter, cans of tire inflator/sealant, and, of course, a spare tire. The first thing I tried was to use the pump to re-inflate the tire. I hoped (but did not expect) that a rock had just caused the tire to lose its seal and that it might be fine if I re-inflated it. No luck. After re-inflating the tire and disconnecting the pump, I watched as the tire steadily deflated. I was able to locate the leak, which was right in the middle of the tire tread. I am pretty certain the tire was punctured by a sharp rock.
Next, I tried using a can of tire inflator/sealant. At first, this seemed to work. I turned the car around and drove back along Glenn Spring Road. But when I stopped after a short distance to check the tire, I could see the green sealant coming out of the hole in the tire. So, I decided to put on the spare tire. It then (belatedly) occurred to me that my spare was only a temporary doughnut, which would surely not work well at all in driving back almost 7 miles along a rocky dirt road. (I’m sure that at this point, some of you are shaking your head and saying “duh”!) Instead of putting on the spare, I used the pump to air up the tire and continued driving. I stopped every quarter-mile or so to check the tire and add air if needed. Doing this, I eventually made it to the paved road.
There was one nice thing about my flat tire ordeal. While I was trying to fix the flat, several vehicles drove by. Every one of them stopped, and the people offered to help. There was not much they could do, but I was grateful for the concern and the offer of help. It was nice to know that these people visiting the park were ready and willing to help someone, despite the disruption to their own planned activities.
Deja Vu All Over Again
So, I found myself again driving back to Panther Junction after being unable to begin my hike. My new plan was to fix or replace my tire that afternoon and then return to start my hike the next morning. I went back to the permit room and—for the second time that day—took a number. Luckily, again there were not too many folks ahead of me. When my number was called, I was delighted to see that the ranger who initially issued my permit in December would be helping me again. I greeted him and started to explain that he had helped me in December, but he surprised me by welcoming me back to Big Bend and saying that he remembered me from the last time I was there. He remembered that my satellite communicator had failed, which I guess does not happen all that often. He said he also remembered me because I had planned a challenging hike in the Sierra Quemada and then threw down my geezer card.
I explained that I was back to finish the hike that I had started in December. When I showed him the permit I got that morning and explained my flat tire, he just shook his head. He modified the dates on the permit so that I would be able to start (again) the next day. We talked a little about the Sierra Quemada area, and he mentioned that he had never been to Fisk Canyon but hoped to see someday. Having seen Fisk Canyon for the first time in December, I was pleased to be able to share my experience walking through that beautiful place.
When I got back to my car in the Panther Junction parking lot, my tire was flat as a pancake. I replaced it with the doughnut spare. My wife had kindly checked the various tire repair options in the area and found that the only shop that had the right size replacement tire was in Ft. Stockton (and they had only one tire in that size). Fearing that the tire might not be repairable, I headed for Ft. Stockton (again). I made it to the shop just before it closed. They said the tire could not be repaired, but they were able to replace the tire. To my relief, the price they charged was not unreasonable, given the circumstances.
(One lesson I learned from my flat tire was that I should not be driving on rough dirt roads without a full-size spare. It is hard to imagine driving out the Glenn Spring Road on a doughnut spare, let alone the rougher Juniper Canyon Road. Of course, that should have occurred to me before. I may have been lulled into complacency because I have driven on many park and wilderness dirt roads with no problems. Given Subaru’s advertising featuring outdoorsy activities, I was surprised that they do not even sell a full-size spare for my Crosstrek, nor is there room for one in the spare tire compartment. Nevertheless, I am now more prepared for my next dirt road adventure. I have a full-size spare and a roof basket to carry it in.)
Day One, March 15, 2019, 7.78 miles
Not all those who wander are lost . . ..
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The next morning, I again drove from Ft. Stockton to Big Bend. Fortunately, I was able to avoid going back to Panther Junction (and waiting in line) since the ranger had modified my permit. Although I turned on to the Glenn Spring dirt road with some trepidation, my worries proved to be unfounded. It was relatively smooth sailing for the first 7 miles on the Glenn Spring Road. The last 5 miles along the Juniper Canyon Road was much rougher, but I made it to the trailhead with no problems—and no flat tire. There were some deep ruts along the Juniper Canyon Road, but my Subaru made it just fine. Although I would have preferred to be in a vehicle with even higher ground clearance, I think a regular passenger vehicle could have made it (with some careful driving).
When I arrived at the trailhead, no one else was there. As it turned out, I did not see anyone during my hike until the last day when I was returning to my car via the Dodson trail. I brought some extra gallon jugs of water to leave in the metal box at the trailhead, along with a note inviting anyone who wanted it to help themselves. There was already lots of water in the box, but I left my jugs anyway. (They were still there when I finished my hike, so I removed them.)
Next, I went through my pre-hike checklist and sent an “I’m okay” message from my inReach Mini. Within a few minutes, the message went through. Whew! (And yes, this time I had sent a test message from home before driving to Big Bend.)
For this hike, my actual route closely tracked what I had planned. Here is an image from the Garmin map site showing the tracking points sent by my inReach.
And here is an image from CalTopo showing my GPS track, as recorded using the Gaia app on my phone.
This is a link to a CalTopo map with my actual GPS tracks for my March hike (https://caltopo.com/m/0NN8/), which includes some markers reflecting things I saw along the way.
I set off on the well-traveled Dodson trail, which I would follow until my planned exit point where I would head off trail toward Tortuga Mountain. Here is the spot where I stopped for a break and then turned off the Dodson trail:
This is the view from the Dodson trail looking toward my route south, up and over those low hills.
From the top of one of the low hills, Tortuga Mountain is on the right and point 4461 is on the left, with Elephant Tusk looming above it; the saddle I would use to descend into the Fresno Creek drainage is straight ahead:
Climbing up to the saddle required a little bushwhacking, but not too bad.
There was a nice view from the saddle, looking down into the Fresno Creek drainage, but I did not capture it very well in my pictures.
Descending diagonally from the saddle, I made it down to Fresno Creek with little difficulty. Looking up towards where I came down:
Here is the view from the creek looking back toward Tortuga Mountain to the northwest:
And here is the view ahead:
This was the start of a wonderful walk along Fresno Creek. As you will see from my pictures, water was running along almost the entire length of the drainage that I hiked through.
(A word of caution: I was lucky to walk the Fresno Creek drainage during an unusually wet year. From what I have read, many of the places where I saw water are often dry. If you plan to hike through this area (or anywhere along my route), please do not expect water to be present to the same degree—or possibly at all—as reflected by my descriptions and pictures. Fortunately, there is lots of helpful information on BBC about reliable water sources. Do your research, make contingency plans, and you will no doubt have a great experience.)
I soon arrived at the beginning of the Waterworks section of the creek:
Following the lead of Robert, ME, and others, I climbed up the hill to gain the ridge above the Waterworks section of the drainage. The view from the top of the hill and all along the ridge was spectacular. Here is the view looking back up Fresno Creek toward Tortuga Mountain, with the South Rim behind it in the distance:
And looking in the other direction down Fresno Creek along the Waterworks, with the ridge I would follow to the right:
I passed the spot where Mule Ears took what is perhaps my favorite Big Bend picture. It is a photo looking down at the Waterworks from above, showing beautiful green pools of water, which he compared to “green pearls on a string.” If you have not seen ME’s picture—and his entire report (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/mule-ears-to-mariscal-(and-back)-15494/)—do yourself a favor and check it out (or re-check it out if it’s been a while). My pictures are not nearly so good. But I was just grateful to be there and to experience the amazing beauty that surrounded me as I walked along the ridge above the Waterworks.
Coming down from the ridge and heading back into Fresno Creek:
Here is the beautiful shaded pool of water I found at Estrecho Spring. ME and others have noted that this is usually a dependable water source, even in dry years.
I stopped and filled up with water at Fresno Spring, which had a nice flow of water. I left the spring with over 8 liters of water. I did not expect to find any water the next day in Cow Heaven. The day after that I would be hiking up the wash/canyon west of Backbone Ridge. While I thought there would be water along the Backbone Ridge wash, the next reliable water source would be Double Spring, which I did not expect to reach until sometime after noon that day. As it turned out, there was plenty of water still ahead of me in Fresno Creek, and I saw lots of water in the Backbone Ridge wash. (Again, I would not assume there would be water at those locations in other years.) Here is another example of the water flowing in Fresno Creek (taken below Fresno Spring and before reaching the palm tree).
I passed by what I thought was the famous palm tree, which others have taken note of while walking through the Fresno Creek drainage (and which is marked on my CalTopo map). It looked healthier than it seemed from other pictures I have seen. And little wonder, lots of water there also. (ME recently re-posted a picture of the palm tree (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/hiking-the-desert-of-big-bend/fresno-creek-drainage/); in looking at his picture, I may have photographed the wrong palm, but, if so, it is good to know that there is more than one in Fresno Creek and that the one I saw seemed to be thriving.)
I continued down Fresno Creek for about another mile and found a nice flat campsite just west of and above the “White Amphitheater” (which is off to the left in this picture):
It was starting to get dark and I was hungry, so my pictures of the White Amphitheater and my camp were taken the next morning. All in all, it had been a great day, and I had a nice night near one of Fresno Creek’s two “amphitheaters.” Nothing was playing at the theater that evening, so I enjoyed a night of typical Big Bend “splendid solitude.” But who knew what would happen the next day as I journeyed to the Gates of Mordor?
Day Two, March 16, 2019, 6.68 miles
In the morning, I looked around the White Amphitheater a bit. I am not sure who gave it that name (Lance?), but it fits well.
Starting out that day, I continued above the White Amphitheater for a short distance before dropping back down into Fresno Creek. Some helpful hiker had left a cairn at a good spot to go down. Very soon, there was again water flowing in the creek.
After about a quarter mile, I came to the “Red Amphitheater,” which can be bypassed by going above it to the right. The Red Amphitheater was even more impressive than the White.
Once I dropped back down into Fresno Creek (below Frivol Spring), there was again water along the creek.
There was also water in the creek below Frosty Spring:
Below Frog Spring, there is a pour off, but it was easy to climb down. There was also some water at Frog Spring:
I felt fortunate to walk along the Fresno Creek drainage during a time when there was so much water!
In fact, I was enjoying the walk along Fresno Creek so much that I cruised right past the spot where I had intended to leave the creek bed and head southwest across the Elephant Tusk trail and toward Cow Heaven. When I realized my mistake, I dropped my pack and climbed a rise above the creek to get my bearings. I also turned off my Gaia GPS recording, so that the track would stay cleaner (not going around in circles) as I was looking for the best route. After seeing that I could head southwest from where I was, I went back, picked up my pack, and set off again—this time toward the desert.
Unfortunately, I forgot to turn my Gaia recording back on. (Note to self: you are getting old and forgetful; just let the recording keep running next time.)
Soon I crossed the Elephant Tusk trail.
You can see one of the prominent trail markers that make it so easy to follow the southern half of the ET trail.
From here, I set a course for the Gates of Mordor and headed southwest across the open desert. The walking was easy and enjoyable.
The only challenge was to pick a path that would minimize climbing up and down the many dry washes that run through this area. Ahead in this picture is the eastern ridge of the Cow Heaven anticline.
Soon, the Gates of Mordor came into view.
Through the Gates of Mordor
Entering Cow Heaven through the Gates of Mordor, I was apprehensive. After all, who could forget what happened to Gil-galad?
Gil-galad was an Elven-king. Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free between the Mountains and the Sea.
His sword was long, his lance was keen, his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven’s field were mirrored in his silver shield.
But long ago he rode away, and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star in Mordor where the shadows are.[/b]
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Kidding aside, I was a bit nervous being alone in Cow Heaven. This was about where ME saw (and photographed) what he called the biggest and freshest mount lion tracks he had ever seen. Later, on one of Cow Heaven’s western ridges, he and Scott saw a bear. Given that the geography of the anticline creates an effective pen (or trap) for cattle, it occurred to me that Cow Heaven might be an attractive spot for a lion. My concerns were somewhat heightened on seeing some indistinct large tracks in the sandy opening through the Gates of Mordor. But during the time I spent in Cow Heaven, I saw no other tracks, nor any other indication that lions or bears were hanging out there. (Of course, if a lion was in the area, I probably would not have seen him—unless he decided I was a menu item.)
My plan was to climb up Cow Heaven Mountain. On the topo map, I had spotted what seemed like a relatively easy route up. But in heading toward my planned route, I was dismayed to see that the way up was much steeper than I had imagined and that there were deep, jagged cuts in the side of the mountain that did not seem climbable (at least by me). Here is a picture showing one approach (although it does not do justice to how difficult it seemed in person).
I decided to swing around the east side and see if I could climb up to a ridge that ran along the face of the mountain. I was not sure what I was going to do from there, but I hoped that another way up would become apparent when I got up there. My plan was to turn around if I reached a point where the climb seemed too risky. I was not interested in testing the SOS button on my inReach.
After reaching the initial ridge and walking up that, I found another low-risk way to continue higher up. I repeated this process a couple times. This is the view north toward Elephant Tusk, from about half way up Cow Heaven Mountain:
Concerned that I might not be able to find my way back down, I left a few cairns along my route to aid me in case I could go no farther and had to turn around. I was also thinking that if I had to turn around, I could use the recorded GPS track on my phone to follow the same route I had taken up. But that’s when I remembered that I had turned off the Gaia recording back at Fresno Creek and forgot to turn it back on. Bummer. I was glad that I had left some cairns along my route.
(Note: In later creating a map in CalTopo showing my actual GPS track, I had to re-construct my route beginning at my exit from Fresno Creek to partway up Cow Heaven Mountain. During that process, I discovered that the GPS track created from my inReach tracking points can be downloaded from the Garmin map site. I was able to use that to accurately fill in the missing section of my Gaia track, although the inReach track is rougher since it is sending the location points on 10-minute intervals. I did remember to turn on my Gaia tracking before heading back down the mountain the next day, and I was able to follow the same route that I had taken up, so my CalTopo GPS track accurately reflects the route I followed to get up the mountain.)
As it turned out, I was able to reach the top without engaging in any risky moves or scrambling (other than using my hands to help haul myself up the last couple feet). If anyone wants to go to the top of Cow Heaven Mountain, the route I took is a good option to get up there. I wish I could suggest that finding this route reflects well on my navigation and pathfinding skills, but in truth it was pure luck. Still, I think it’s a nice route to the top, and I hope to be able to go up there that way again someday.
Once I reached the top, I was awed by the views I enjoyed in every direction. And there was a perfect spot for my tent, tucked into the top of the mountain.
You may notice that I used some big rocks to secure the tent guy lines. Although the tent was in a little nook that provided good wind protection, it started to get blustery up there. I used the big rocks as a precaution in case it got worse during the night.
(Note about rocks: The rocks on Cow Heaven Mountain were very crumbly. Several of the large rocks I picked up broke in half as I lifted them. I’m sure there is some geological explanation for this. I mention it in case anyone may consider doing any climbing in this area. Although I know very little about rock climbing, rocks that fall apart so easily can’t be a good thing for climbers.)
I set up my tent at what seemed to be very close to the high point of Cow Heaven Mountain. I looked around a bit for an official marker, but I did not see one. The top of the mountain is a ridge that runs about .5 miles from the west end (near where I camped) to the northeast end. There is almost a walkway that makes it easy to go from one end to the other and enjoy the amazing views all along the way. Here is an image from CalTopo of the path I walked along the top of the mountain:
(My GPS track along the mountain top can be found by zooming in on the CalTopo map showing my GPS tracks for my March hike (https://caltopo.com/m/0NN8/).)
The following are pictures I took as I walked from west to east along the pathway at the top of Cow Heaven Mountain. Looking both north and south, you can clearly see the ridges of the “anticline.” Here are some of the views looking north:
Looking northwest toward the Punta de la Sierra and Dominguez Mountain (from along the eastern side of the ridge), the white speck in the middle of this shot is my tent:
Some views to the south:
There is another high point at the northeast end of the ridge. Earlier, as I was climbing up to the top of the mountain, I had seen some type of large bird swooping high above this area. I discovered one of its favorite places to hang out—or maybe just to do its business—making good use of a cairn someone had built.
It was a joy to take in the views along the top of Cow Heaven Mountain. Too bad I still don’t know how to take a proper “selfie.”
Although I had secured my tent with big rocks in the expectation of high winds, the wind died down later in the evening. It was a wonderful night on the top of Cow Heaven Mountain—deep in the heart of Mordor. I felt lucky to be there.
Day Three, March 17, 2019, 9.82 miles
The next morning, I enjoyed the great views some more before heading back down the mountain along the same path that I had come up. Here is the view up to the top of the mountain as I began my descent.
You can see the cairn I placed to mark the spot where I headed up the hill to the top. It’s hard to see in the picture, but there is another cairn right near the top, marking where I went up (and where I left the top to come back down). There are other cairns placed along my route up Cow Heaven Mountain.
I had originally planned to take down the cairns as I descended along the same route. But I decided to leave them. Although there may be better ways to reach the top, my route turned out to be relatively easy and safe. So, I decided to leave the cairns in the hope that someone else might benefit from them in reaching the top of Cow Heaven Mountain and enjoying the views as I did. But if anyone feels this was a violation of LNT principles or park regulations—or just bad form—please let me know. I would love to have an excuse to go back to Cow Heaven Mountain soon and correct my mistake. (I am already working on the pitch to my wife: “Honey, I have no choice, if I do not go back to Big Bend right away, I could be arrested. What would the grandkids think if I end up in jail?”)
On reaching the bottom of the anticline, I headed north, passing by the Gates of Mordor (which is to the right in the picture below). The flowers were beginning to bloom.
I then walked northwest across the northern basin of the anticline, aiming for the southern end of Backbone Ridge. The only challenge was trying to minimize climbing in and out of the sometimes-deep dry washes that also run through this area.
This is a view of the western ridge of the anticline.
Now closer to the northern end of the western ridge:
Dropping down to the wash that leads around the southern end of Backbone Ridge:
In the wash skirting the end of BB ridge, looking north (with the top of Elephant Tusk just visible in the distance).
Looking ahead down the wash around BB’s southern end:
I was worried that this wash would be overgrown and difficult to get through, but it was not bad at all. There were a couple small pour offs, but they were easy to climb up or around. Here is one of the climbable pour offs (marked on my CalTopo map):
Along the way, several side washes angled off, but I just tried to stay with the main wash. I marked on my CalTopo map a spot where I had to leave the wash because it had become too overgrown.
Rounding the southern end of BB:
All and all, it was a relatively easy walk around the southern end of Backbone Ridge. Starting up the wash/canyon along the western side of BB:
Walking up the wash west of Backbone Ridge was indeed “awesome,” as Steelfrog had said (noted in my last report). I loved walking up Fisk Canyon during my last hike, but I think I enjoyed this even more. As with Fresno Creek and other areas I passed, there was lots of water (probably much more than during normal or drought years). There are several relatively small pour offs along the wash, but I had no trouble climbing them without the need to leave the wash.
About half-way up, the wash splits, with the right branch going toward Paseo Spring and the left going toward Steps Spring:
I took the left branch toward Steps. There was a slick (wet) pour off where the wash splits, but again it was climbable. Before reaching Steps Spring, I saw this seemingly fresh-looking footprint.
That was the first footprint I had noticed since leaving the Dodson trail. Once I saw it, I started looking for other prints along my path. Although my tracking skills leave something to be desired, it seemed strange to me that I did not see any other footprints, even though there was often water in the wash and footprints should have been easy to spot. Just above Step Springs, there is a climbable pour off.
Another small climb above Tusk Spring.
Once I reached about due west of Elephant Tusk peak, I picked up the path to Double Spring that I had taken back on my second Sierra Quemada hike (in December 2017) (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/beyond-the-outer-loopa-tale-of-two-hikes/). I filled up with water from one of the pools along the way. Just before Double Spring, I turned north up the wash that is west of point 4285. This picture was taken from the wash just above 4285:
I was not sure what to expect as I headed up this wash. Other than Cookie’s description of climbing point 5476 with El Hombre and family, I had not seen an account by anyone else going up this way (although I’m sure others had gone up there before). It proved to be a nice route, with one caveat. For most of the way, the wash heading north was relatively open and the walking was easy (as reflected by the picture above). Occasionally, though, the wash got overgrown, requiring some bushwhacking.
A couple of spots made me wonder if there is such a thing as an ultralight machete. Farther up the wash, there is a pour off that is probably climbable, but I went up and around it.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
As I was approaching the hill leading up to the saddle where I planned to camp that night, I saw an animal slinking through the brush ahead of me. I could not see him very well, but he seemed cat-like in his movements and bigger than a domestic cat, with fur that had some color variation. (Later, I was able to see him much better from my pictures than I could at the time.) He spotted me as well and stopped, remaining motionless in the brush for a long time. He seemed to be checking me out, probably wondering what an aging city slicker was doing way out here. Can you spot him in the middle of this picture?
Being perhaps the world’s worst wildlife expert, and not being able to clearly see the animal, I thought maybe he was a raccoon or ringtail or maybe even an ocelot. I took some pictures and tried to zoom in on him, although I was not sure he was even in the pictures due to glare on my phone’s screen. Eventually, he lost interest in me and gracefully slipped away through the brush.
Later, when I stopped by Panther Junction on my way out of the park, I remembered that I had taken the pictures and decided to show them to a ranger to see what it was. My mistake was to mention my speculation about the animal before looking at the pictures. Handing my phone to the ranger, she immediately said that it was a gray fox, which could be clearly seen in a couple shots where I had fortuitously zoomed in on him. She pointed out (in a very kind way, I should add) that spotting an ocelot would have been quite a find since one has never been seen in the park (although they are supposed to be found in south Texas where I live). Based on this experience, I need to face the reality that my prospects for a post-retirement career as a wildlife biologist are looking slim. Here is my friend, the fantastic Mr. Fox:
My fox encounter was not a complete bust. My grandson Nolan liked my fox pictures and used one of them as the home screen on his iPad. High praise indeed!
I camped on the low saddle above the drainage that I would hike up the next morning.
On a nearby hill, I had a beautiful view of the South Rim to the north:
And, looking in the other direction, there was Elephant Tusk:
Another great night. I was fortunate on this trip to have beautiful, mild weather to go with the amazing places I experienced.
Day Four, March 18, 2019, 8.64 miles
In the morning, I descended from the saddle into what ME called the western-most branch of Fresno Creek. Immediately there was water in the wash, which continued almost uninterrupted until I hit the Dodson trail. I followed the wash west and then north.
During a hike filled with beautiful places, my walk along this drainage was yet another highlight.
There was one significant pour off in the bend between Premonition Spring and Red Bird Spring (marked on my CalTopo map). It seemed a little risky to climb, especially since the rocks were wet and covered with slick green stuff.
I went up and around the pour off to the right. Nice views from above the wash:
There was so much water along this section that it seemed almost tropical at times.
All too soon (it seemed) I came to the Dodson trail, which I would follow east to my car at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson trailhead.
After having not seen anyone since I started my hike, I crossed paths with a bunch of folks while walking along the Dodson back to my car. The interesting and friendly people I met included: a young man who had left a job with the Washington Nationals baseball team and who was hiking the OML as training before starting the AT; a group of female college students from Dallas; a group of male college students from Minnesota; and gentleman from Maryland, who had a super dialed-in backpacking kit (with a base pack weight of something like 9 pounds).
When I made it to the Juniper/Dodson trailhead, I was relieved to see that my car was still there and that all four tires were still inflated.
The somewhat-less-dusty front passenger tire is the one that I replaced in Fort Stockton. Notice the BIBE window sticker? Seeing it often makes me smile.
Conclusion—Leaving the Park
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
(Okay, I’m done. That’s the last Lord of the Rings quote. If I do another Big Bend trip report in the future, I promise to try to refrain from any more Tolkien quotes—although I had fun with it this time.)
As with my prior Big Bend hikes, I left the trail with a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity I had to immerse myself in the park’s raw natural beauty. My feelings called to mind a poem that I had learned in college and that for some reason has stuck with me all these years. (As my wife and coworkers will attest, not so many things from my college days—or even yesterday—are still sticking with me.) It’s called “Jenny Kiss’d Me” by Leigh Hunt. It was published around 1838 and recounts the poet’s experience during a flu epidemic when, after recovering from the flu and leaving quarantine, he paid a surprise visit to a good friend and his friend’s wife, Jenny:
Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.
I have been blessed to have had some cherished experiences to put in my list of sweets—almost all of which involve my family. As I drove my Subaru from the trailhead back along the rough dirt road—hoping I did not get another flat tire(!)—I realized that I could add another item to my list of sweet things in life: a long walk in Big Bend beyond the Outer Loop and through the Gates of Mordor.
Epilogue: Big Bend—The Next Generation
I made it back to the park sooner than I had expected. For some time, I had intended to introduce my two oldest grandchildren, Nolan and Kaydence, to Big Bend. I was finally able to do that in June. Unfortunately, it was shortly before my daughter’s family was moving out of Texas (rats!), and we only had a few days. Planning this trip was a different experience for me since my previous Big Bend adventures were all oriented to backpacking either with my adult kids or solo. Although we have done some car camping at a few Texas state parks, my grandkids have not yet done any backpacking or extended hiking, so my trip planning focused on short day hikes and other fun things to see and do in and around the park. Once more, I benefitted from the wealth of information on BBC. Thanks again to all!
It got blazing hot during the day, especially during an afternoon visit to Santa Elena Canyon. But we still had lots of fun!
Kaydence and Nolan at the Sotol Vista overlook:
On the Window View trail:
A good breakfast at the Chisos Basin restaurant. Yes, Nolan did eat some healthy fruit (although I'm invoking my right to remain silent on some of the other things we ate):
On the Lost Mine trail:
Santa Elena Canyon:
Too much to eat for dinner at the Starlight Theater?
Fun canoe/kayak float on the Rio Grande:
On our way out of the park, we stopped at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, which I had not seen before. It’s great, especially for dinosaur fans!
Kaydence and Nolan are wonderful, and I will treasure the few days we spent together seeing some of the sights at Big Bend—another addition to my list of sweet things. I am also hoping that my fascination with Big Bend is contagious (in a good way). Who knows, maybe they will come to love hiking and Big Bend as much as I do? Time will tell. I also have four younger grandkids (and a fifth on the way) to introduce the park. I don’t know whether any of my family’s next generation will catch the Big Bend bug. But I do know one thing: I will be back to Big Bend—so long as I am able—looking to add more sweet things to my list.
Peter this is one of the most amazing and beautifully documented trip reports ever on BBC! What an inspired loop and you are the first, I have read, that has explored Cow Heaven and the anticline thoroughly.
The amount of water was truly extraordinary and it seems like you were fortunate with the weather both clear and cool. It could have been really hot down there but apparently wasn't.
Thank you very much!
A very inspiring tale. Thanks for posting!
Looks like we go to BB for many of the same reasons! I really like the pictures with the great weather and clouds. Thanks for taking the time to write up the trip.
Awesome (literally) trip report Peter! You are definitely one of the great story tellers here on BBC. Thank you for sharing your experiences!
"Fox" could be a juvenile coyote...
Thanks, Peter. Lots of food for thought here with regard to new ideas for future trips! :great:
ME: My loop hike turned out better than I could have hoped (other than the flat tire). To the extent inspiration was involved, several of the segments I walked were "inspired" by your trip reports, so thank you again! Also, thanks so much for the additional role you have taken on here at BBC. It is greatly appreciated!
El Hombre: I have very much enjoyed and learned from Cookie's accounts of your various adventures and your frequent contributions. I think you are right that we go to BB for many of the same reasons. Thank you.
Steelfrog: I laughed out loud when I read your comment that my "Mr. Fox" could be a juvenile coyote. What you say certainly makes sense, now that I think about it. If so, I was wrong about the animal twice (at least). That would be another significant blow to my wildlife cred--except that I don't have any to start with. Thanks again for your post (some time back) endorsing the Backbone Ridge wash. I really enjoyed walking up along BB.
Flash: I'm glad my report suggested some ideas for future trips. That is one of the great things about BBC. For that very reason, I had bookmarked your report about the North Chisos Electra Loop. I hope to get up to that area for a future hike and will certainly benefit from your report. Many thanks for all your contributions here!
Rocketman and Talusman: thanks very much for your kind words!
What a great report and super photos! Isn't it amazing when you get to see so much water on one trip? The typical visitor has no idea of what they are missing. I liked the recap of the planning with the maps and writing Dr. Redfern and way cool to see the grandkids out there with their hiking poles and boots. That photo of your campsite on top of Cow Heaven is my favorite. Awesome job.
Before reaching Steps Spring, I saw this seemingly fresh-looking footprint.
That was the first footprint I had noticed since leaving the Dodson trail.
When I did an "Open image in new tab" for a larger view, I was surprised to see what appear to be several other footprints in that picture. No doubt an amazing story is there to be told, if only Prince Humperdinck were on hand! Perhaps our Homer67 and family were out wandering about the Quemada...
Another fantastic trip report Peter! Thank you for sharing!